Review: Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley

7863274Blurb: It’s the end of Year 12. Lucy’s looking for Shadow, the graffiti artist everyone talks about.

His work is all over the city, but he is nowhere.

Ed, the last guy she wants to see at the moment, says he knows where to find him. He takes Lucy on an all-night search to places where Shadow’s thoughts about heartbreak and escape echo around the city walls.

But the one thing Lucy can’t see is the one thing that’s right before her eyes.

Review: What did you accomplish last night? I ate too many brownies, did a bit of reading, and slept for a fulfilling eight hours. Then this morning I woke up and finished Graffiti Moon and felt like a schlub. Because guess what Ed, Leo, Dylan, Lucy, Jazz, and Daisy—the wonderfully funny and flawed characters in the book—accomplished last night? They only explored the entire city of Melbourne, learned about art and themselves, forgot and remembered birthdays, took part in many bathroom stall pep talk sessions, averted an attempted robbery, and, oh, they fell in love.

In Graffiti Moon the entire plot and heaps of character development occur in one night. One magical night. Everything about this book is so ridiculously clever. Lucy, a whipsmart glassblower whom I think most dreamer/reader types will relate to, is on a quest to find Shadow, an enigmatic and brilliant street artist. Unbeknownst to her, the group of boys she and her friends have decided to celebrate the night with includes Shadow and his partner Poet. The narration is first-person alternating POVs, a technique that works perfectly since we see things unroll from two distinct but intertwined perspectives.

This book is so funny while also promising us that people have the capacity to change, the capacity to be better than they first appear. It’s a lesson on the falsity of first impressions. A lesson on taking a chance to get to know someone. It can be rather poetic in doling out these lessons. For example, my favorite quotation:

…and then I do know the truth. Then he clicks together, and I see him. His face is kind of lopsided for a second, like he’s trying to keep himself together, keep himself in the shape that he shows to the world, but he can’t do it anymore and everything in him is sliding out.

The characters in Graffiti Moon are smart. I’ve always bemoaned the paucity of intelligent teens in the YA genre, but I think I’ve found my cure with Australian authors like Cath Crowley. They construct humorous books that remain tethered to reality; imperfect characters that still function at a high mental level; love stories smothered in beautiful truths.

4 out of 5 stars

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Review: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

89717Blurb:The classic supernatural thriller by an author who helped define the genre

First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

Review:

We do not exist if we are not noticed.

That idea is what I took away from the tortuous, shocking horror novel The Haunting of Hill House, but I have no idea if it’s a common interpretation or not. The story begins innocuously, or as innocuously as a story can begin when the opening chapters feature four characters driving to a secluded country house in hopes of monitoring supernatural activity previously observed there. After finishing the novel, I looked back upon the slow, casual beginning with awe; this novel takes so many sharp turns along the way, the ending is nearly 180° from the start and I’m still not exactly sure what I read.

One thing I do know is that the novel is ostensibly about Hill House, as suggested by the title, but what it’s really about is Eleanor, the character who lends her perspective to most of the narrative. Eleanor is one of the most interesting characters I’ve ever come across, and I still don’t quite know what to make of her. The first description of Eleanor reads:

Without ever wanting to become reserved and shy, she had spent so long alone, with no one to love, that it was difficult for her to talk, even casually, to another person without self-consciousness and an awkward inability to find words.

With this quotation, Jackson prepares the reader to sympathize with dear Eleanor while also introducing the complexities of Eleanor’s psyche, which become very important to the interpretation of the novel. Upon arriving at Hill House, Eleanor makes her first ever friends and becomes besotted with the camaraderie of Theodora, an outgoing woman who is Eleanor’s virtual opposite, the male attention of Luke, the heir to Hill House, and Dr. Montague, the scientist in charge of the investigation who tells Eleanor she was chosen for the project because she is special (she showed poltergeist tendencies in her youth). So this tableau is the set-up Jackson provides, and it appears simple enough but slowly, Hill House creeps in and things get crazy.

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Act II is where the horror elements appear, and there were some moments that truly frightened me. But since we’re reading through the eyes of an unreliable narrator, it is unclear whether this paranormal activity is affecting all the characters equally. Indeed, it is unclear whether this activity is even happening. And therein lies the magic of this novel. I have absolutely no idea what happened, but I love trying to figure it out. How is one supposed to read Hill House? Is it a true tale of supernatural horror? Or is it merely the unraveling of an unstable, lonely woman, a woman who has been denied her cup of stars for 30 years? Whichever interpretation you choose, you will be spooked, because both are equally shocking and sorrowful.

Here’s a litmus test of whether you’ll like this book: did you love or hate the top-spinning final scene in the film Inception? If you hated it, step away. If you loved it, or at the very least, if you found the post-film discussion it provoked compelling, then you might appreciate The Haunting of Hill House. There aren’t many answers here, but there are a whole lot of interpretations that will haunt you for days.

5 out of 5 stars

Review: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

16131077Blurb:

THE GIRL WHO WOULDN’T DIE HUNTS THE KILLER WHO SHOULDN’T EXIST.

Harper Curtis is a killer who stepped out of the past. Kirby Mazrachi is the girl who was never meant to have a future.

Kirby is the last shining girl, one of the bright young women, burning with potential, whose lives Harper is destined to snuff out after he stumbles on a House in Depression-era Chicago that opens on to other times.

At the urging of the House, Harper inserts himself into the lives of the shining girls, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. He’s the ultimate hunter, vanishing into another time after each murder, untraceable-until one of his victims survives.

Determined to bring her would-be killer to justice, Kirby joins the Chicago Sun-Times to work with the ex-homicide reporter, Dan Velasquez, who covered her case. Soon Kirby finds herself closing in on the impossible truth . . .

THE SHINING GIRLS is a masterful twist on the serial killer tale: a violent quantum leap featuring a memorable and appealing heroine in pursuit of a deadly criminal.

Review:

This book is weird. The climax features a one-sided snowball fight. And it’s about a time-traveling serial killer. It’s weird. It’s also not very good.

The Shining Girls is a book of parts, and some parts work, some parts don’t. Each chapter focuses on a person and a time. Harper, the time-traveling serial killer, spends most of his chapters in the Great Depression Era, plotting escapades to the future to kill “shining girls.” The other main character is Kirby, a shining girl from the early 90s who survives Harper’s homicide attempt. She partners with Dan—a loveable Chicago Sun-Times reporter who was my favorite character—to catch her killer. If a chapter title read Kirby 24 June 1992, I would read with gusto. If a chapter title read Harper 18 January 1932, I’d groan and settle in for an unenjoyable chapter. It’s problematic when you don’t want to read any of the antagonist’s boring, tedious, and repetitive chapters since they amount to more than half the book.

I picked this book up after hearing the phrase “time traveling serial killer.” But Lauren Beukes doesn’t sufficiently develop either of these ideas. The time travel seems like a gimmick. Harper finds a House with a Room full of objects and names of shining girls he will kill decades in the future. He can walk out of this House into a different time to hunt these women. I don’t really understand the House or the rules of time traveling here. Harper often loops his own narrative, hopping from a later time to an earlier time with seemingly no consequences. Structurally, the time traveling is difficult to follow. As I said, each chapter is headed with the character’s name and the date, but when I’m reading fast and the chapters are short, I lose track of “when” I am in the text. The intricacies of Harper’s sojourns back and forth through Chicago were lost on me. And since we jump from past to future, events are spoiled long before they ever happen. Beukes could have used this foreknowledge to create great dramatic irony and tension, but the way she used it only lessened my appreciation of the narrative. I knew what was going to happen, but I wasn’t pushed to fear what was going to happen. A linear narrative would not have worked for this story, but—if this makes any sense—I would have appreciated a more linear non-linear story.

As a serial killer story, it fails as well. Why do I read murder novels? To (attempt to) understand a killer’s motivations. To admire the tenacity of a victim. Or to empathize with the devastation of a victim. To figure out whodunit. Yet all of that was absent here. For the excess of Harper chapters I suffered through, I still don’t understand him as a person. Unlike many popular serial killers, Harper is neither charming nor horrifying; he merely kills. Kirby is a likeable protagonist, but her motivation to find her killer is the most striking aspect of her character. Not much else defines her. And while this story is a mystery to Kirby, it is never a mystery to the reader who knows the killer and his secrets from the first page.

One thing that impressed me about The Shining Girls was Beukes’s research. Chicago is an important part of this novel. The time and characters may change, but Chicago remains constant. The research is impeccably detailed and thus, Chicago breathes with life. But as I’ve noticed with other historical novels, especially those set in bright American metropolises during sumptuous eras, the author can become indulgent with the depth of her research. There’s too much here. It’s too referential. Often it feels like a famous Chicago landmark is alluded to merely because the author had seen it in her research. And despite all the research, I’m surprised by the way the dates are written in the chapter headings. Perhaps it’s an editorial error, but the dates are written in the date/month/year format—e.g., 1 July 1989—even though this book is the American edition and it is set entirely in America. Even in the non-American editions, it would be more authentic to use our admittedly backward month/date/year format.

Thematically, The Shining Girls shines a little brighter. Harper’s pursuit of “shining girls” is a good metaphor for the way a patriarchal society punishes girls with promise, wanting to push them back to their “proper” place. And the idea of a House that dictates who Harper will kill years into the future well represents the idea of a true psychopath. Once Harper finds the House, he appears to have no control over himself. Once a psychopath begins to kill, perhaps he has no control over himself. Harper was meant to kill, is meant to kill, will always be meant to kill. He is a killer in every iteration of time and space.

I’ve written a lot about a book I didn’t really like. If you want Chicago and history and murders, read The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson instead. 1. it happened in real life 2. it has Ferris Wheels.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

24Blurb: Every time Bill Bryson walks out the door, memorable travel literature threatens to break out. His previous excursion along the Appalachian Trail resulted in the sublime national bestseller A Walk in the Woods. In A Sunburned Country is his report on what he found in an entirely different place: Australia, the country that doubles as a continent, and a place with the friendliest inhabitants, the hottest, driest weather, and the most peculiar and lethal wildlife to be found on the planet. The result is a deliciously funny, fact-filled, and adventurous performance by a writer who combines humor, wonder, and unflagging curiousity.

Despite the fact that Australia harbors more things that can kill you in extremely nasty ways than anywhere else, including sharks, crocodiles, snakes, even riptides and deserts, Bill Bryson adores the place, and he takes his readers on a rollicking ride far beyond that beaten tourist path. Wherever he goes he finds Australians who are cheerful, extroverted, and unfailingly obliging, and these beaming products of land with clean, safe cities, cold beer, and constant sunshine fill the pages of this wonderful book. Australia is an immense and fortunate land, and it has found in Bill Bryson its perfect guide.

Review: Bryson himself admits that he has no other goal in writing this book than to show everyone that Australia is strangely awesome. And how strangely awesome it is. A short list of wonderful things I learned:

1. the Aborigine people have the oldest culture on Earth, probably dating to at least 40,000 years. They crossed the sea to Australia using god-knows what maritime technology at a time when Neanderthals still existed. Yet no one remembers this remarkable accomplishment. Indeed, not remembering the Aborigines is an Australian pastime and a dark spot on their otherwise congenial culture.

2. the flora and fauna found there are abundant and diverse. Stromatolites, platypi, “only” fourteen species of venomous snakes, cute and cuddly wallabies, and tons of species that will likely never be recorded because…

3. Australia is HUGE. Astoundingly large. And in addition to being a hulking continent/country/island hybrid land mass, it is empty. An immense void in the Pacific.

4. many explorers have gotten lost in the Outback, and desperately thirsty, have deigned to drink their own urine and the urine of their companions. Important lesson for any potential explorers: the salt in the urine will actually exacerbate your thirst.

5. Australia is the least wooded continent aside from Antarctica yet it is the world’s largest exporter of woodchips.

Being a Bryson book, it has hilarious moments. I envy this man’s ability to collect the most ridiculous true stories and encounter the most interesting real people. I have so many highlighted bits, but here’s a funny paragraph where Bryson, obsessed with the plethora of lethal creatures out to kill him in Oz, discusses the Australians’ attitudes toward them:

Australians are very unfair in this way. They spend half of any conversation insisting that the country’s dangers are vastly overrated and that there’s nothing to worry about, and the other half telling you how six months ago their Uncle Bob was driving to Mudgee when a tiger snake slid out from under the dashboard and bit him on the groin, but that it’s okay now because he’s off the life support machine and they’ve discovered he can communicate with eye blinks.

Reading one of Bill Bryson’s travelogues is always a fantastic time. You laugh, you learn, you marvel. He stuffs your head with useless trivia and reminds you how valuable our world and our fellow people are. I need to stop reading his books because I always finish and make haste to airline sites, researching plane prices for impossible journeys, adding another place to my lengthy Must-See-Before-Dead list. But I can’t stop. He’s perfect at what he does.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson

9791Blurb:

The Appalachian Trail trail stretches from Georgia to Maine and covers some of the most breathtaking terrain in America–majestic mountains, silent forests, sparking lakes. If you’re going to take a hike, it’s probably the place to go. And Bill Bryson is surely the most entertaing guide you’ll find. He introduces us to the history and ecology of the trail and to some of the other hardy (or just foolhardy) folks he meets along the way–and a couple of bears. Already a classic, A Walk in the Woods will make you long for the great outdoors (or at least a comfortable chair to sit and read in).

Review:

This is what I learned from my trimester of British Literature in high school: Don’t go in the woods.

My teacher legitimately held that statement as the thesis of the course. That speaks to the inadequacy of the American public school system, but that’s neither here nor there. In Brit Lit, we started with Beowulf. I barely remember anything about it aside from it beginning with the word HWAET but I think bad stuff happened in the woods. Then we read some Canterbury Tales, which featured equally forgotten evil happenings in the woods. Seven centuries and sundry poems, plays, and novels later, it was obvious that there was a marked trend correlating the woods and wickedness.

I’m not a Comparative Literature major, but I’d bet that this is a running theme throughout world literature, or at least literature from forested parts of the world. There’s something distinctly inhuman about the woods. You can get lost in them. People can hide in them. They’re unknowable in a way, both enticing and frightening, a paradox Bryson captures perfectly as he attempts to walk the 2,000 plus miles of the Appalachian Trail.

My introduction has made this book sound dreadfully serious. It’s really not. The author discusses lighter topics too. Disclaimer: I love Bill Bryson. There are few writers in the world who can captivate me when writing about a subject I have no interest in. His success derives from his relatability. He tends to approach subjects as a layman so that the reader, a fellow layman, can connect. It’s also probably because he’s hilarious.

Evidence for previous statement:

“She’s pretty ugly, isn’t she” he said with a big, incongruous beam. I sought for tact. “Well, only compared with other women.”

and

After reading this description of bear attacks in a field guide—“The typical black bear inflicted injury is minor and usually involves only a few scratches or light bites.”—Bryson responds, “Pardon me, but what exactly is a light bite? Are we talking a playful wrestle and gummy nips? I think not.”

Bryson has this delightful American-British hybrid style. He’s a genius with adverbs and adjectives—take this description of America’s most famous “outdoorsman”: “the inestimably priggish and tiresome Henry David Thoreau.” My only complaint is his humor can be a tad too biting at times. I think some Southerners might take offense to his estimations of them.

A Walk in the Woods inspired me to try hiking and to get over my ingrained fear of the woods. It’s part memoir, part humor, part trail guide, and part investigative reporting.* It plays on the innate human fear of the woods and the unknown but the equally innate human ambition to conquer that unknown. And it’s fascinating.

*As for investigative reporting, I’m thinking of Bryson’s exposé on the Forest Service Rangers. Apparently the purpose of the Forest Service isn’t to host happy family picnics but to accommodate forest destruction for private business interests. Bryson includes another story about how the Park Service “discovered and eradicated in the same instant a new species of fish.” Classic.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: Case Histories (Jackson Brodie #1) by Kate Atkinson

16243Blurb:

Case one: A little girl goes missing in the night.

Case two: A beautiful young office worker falls victim to a maniac’s apparently random attack.

Case three: A new mother finds herself trapped in a hell of her own making – with a very needy baby and a very demanding husband – until a fit of rage creates a grisly, bloody escape.

Thirty years after the first incident, as private investigator Jackson Brodie begins investigating all three cases, startling connections and discoveries emerge . . .

Review:

Disjointed. Everything about Case Histories, the first book in Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie mystery series, is disjointed. The mysteries are separate from the characters, the three mysteries are separate from each other, the characters are separate from each other. I’m intrigued by the sequels because Atkinson writes well and Jackson Brodie is a likeable detective hero, but Case Histories was too disjointed for me to appreciate, both plotwise and thematically.

The three mysteries, or the titular “case histories,” are not connected. They share common threads—picture perfect girls lost too soon, dysfunctional families who loved them too much—but they aren’t connected as actual crimes. And yet, the characters from each case interact frequently. Near car collisions on country roads, shared backyard gardens, stepping over the same homeless girl on the sidewalk—the characters randomly encounter each other, even though they have no shared connection aside from a tragic past and the same private investigator. But since their stories were completely distinct, it felt ridiculous to have them thrown together so often.

I decided to read this after hearing it was more character driven than the average mystery, but the amount of character focus was too much. I never thought I’d complain about this with a detective novel, but in Case Histories the mysteries didn’t drive the plot enough. They weren’t used as a means to examine the characters and the characters’ stories felt almost entirely removed from the resolution of the mysteries. Even worse, there wasn’t much solving of the cases by Brodie nor by me, the reader. I like to accompany the investigator, consider what happened, and try to solve the cases myself. But here the mysteries were background fodder, so I couldn’t do that. At the end of the novel, in a bizarre kind of deus ex machina, the cases are abruptly solved. The author goes, “Yo, here are the answers to these decade long crimes you’ve been waiting for the past 300 pages.” My reaction, “Anticlimax much?”

The questions raised by the novel—including how do you recover after a loss? can family life ever be fully happy?—are more profound than those found in the typical detective thriller. But the cases themselves are lacking. I will try reading the next novels, however, hoping that Atkinson finds a better balance between mystery and character. I would like her to become a part of my Big Three, joining Tana French and Gillian Flynn as some of my favorite crime novelists writing today.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking #1) by Patrick Ness

2118745Blurb:

Prentisstown isn’t like other towns. Everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts in an overwhelming, never-ending stream of Noise. Just a month away from the birthday that will make him a man, Todd and his dog, Manchee — whose thoughts Todd can hear too, whether he wants to or not — stumble upon an area of complete silence. They find that in a town where privacy is impossible, something terrible has been hidden — a secret so awful that Todd and Manchee must run for their lives.

But how do you escape when your pursuers can hear your every thought?

Review:

The main thing I gained from reading The Knife of Never Letting Go? Knowledge of how it feels to read a single, more than 400 page chase scene.

Sure, there are additional elements to this story. There is a coming of age tale since the protagonist Todd will become a man in a month’s time at the novel’s beginning. It’s a dystopia, complete with a deranged religious man, a tyrannical mayor, a gendered society, and a way of monitoring individuals’ thoughts through Noise, a virus that publicizes the thoughts of every male in the New World. We’ve got some light sci-fi going on: humanoid aliens inhabit the planet and Viola, the secondary protagonist, has crashed her spaceship onto New World. There’s even a minor mystery as Todd seeks to discover the true circumstances behind the disappearance of all women in Prentisstown and the reason why he is being hunted so feverishly after fleeing his town.

But despite all these components, The Knife of Never Letting Go boils down to one thing: a sprawling, epic chase scene. Which gets repetitive quickly. Very quickly.

Ness writes in first person from Todd’s perspective, but he cheats with his narrative technique. When Todd finds out crucial answers to the mystery of Prentisstown, they are not shared with the reader. Nearly halfway through this novel, I still had zero answers to the questions that had been introduced in chapter one. To me, this is plainly bad storytelling. I like when authors keep certain secrets and twists guarded, but they have to give me something. Don’t trick me into reading 90% of the book before revealing everything at once and then creating tons of new questions that, most likely, won’t be answered until 90% through the sequel.

My next biggest complaint concerned the prose, which is full of improper grammar and spelling to emphasize Todd’s lack of education. This technique can be employed splendidly (Lenny’s voice in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men comes to mind), but with Todd, who is an annoying fourteen year old, it bothered me. It just sounded so juvenile. For example, Todd uses the term “effing” a lot and frequently follows it up by saying, “But I didn’t say effing, I said the actual word…” and you can almost see the freaking winky face behind it. Ha…Ha… At times, the writing reminded me more of verse than prose, since it was written with many short, fragmented sentences indented as individual lines. This style further weakened the writing by rendering it even more simplistic and immature.

A stronger point is the development of themes and motifs, especially through the eponymous “knife” and its role in killing. During this grandiose chase scene, Ness asks: does killing change you? does a person ever have the right to take another person’s life? These questions are compelling and relevant. 33 US states still offer death penalty as a sentence in cases of homicide. US soldiers go to war and daily kill individuals identified as threats. Is this okay? I love pondering over this philosophical question, but my god, in The Knife of Never Letting Go, I didn’t care that Todd was suffering from existential qualms about killing two of the main villains chasing after him. It was vexatious and repetitive. It’s one thing to read a nearly 500 page chase scene; it’s another to have the same two chasers turn up again and again to serve as some featherweight obstacle that Todd and Viola will undoubtedly overcome by maiming them nearly mortally only to have the chasers somehow appear (of course!) yet again. Instead of wondering about the rightness and nature of killing, all I could think after like the fifth reappearance of these chasers was “KILL THEM TODD, KILL THEM.” Put me out of my misery! There are also interesting parallels between the beliefs of some Prentisstown men and super hardcore evangelist Christian beliefs toward women, but this theme was mostly unexplored and lost in the muddle.

Basically, I didn’t really enjoy The Knife of Never Letting Go because the parts I found most interesting—the question of killing, the mysteries of the Noise, New World, and Prentisstown, the curious state of women in this society—were ignored in favor of action. If a fast-paced book focused on a wild pursuit of two kids by crazy men sounds like something you might enjoy, then certainly read this book. But if you like your books that feature dystopic secrets and a lot of walking to a destination to pack some emotional resonance (à la Cormac McCarthy’s The Road), you may find this novel disappointing.

2 out of 5 stars