Sunday, August 31, 2014

Invisible Ellen by Shari Shattuck

I don't know how Shari Shattuck got her perspective, but she succeeded where Shriver (Big Brother) failed. After having finished Big Brother, in fact, if I had remembered why Invisible Ellen was on my list, I might have passed.

I'm glad I didn't.

This is a book about a woman who has spent the first couple decades of her life perfecting the art of being invisible to other people. Between the way she walks, her posture, the way she smooths hair over her face, stays in corners, etc., she has essentially become "invisible" in society. The reason for this is several-fold, but essentially, her life was hard enough to make her uninterested in participating it. So she's happy with her chosen invisible life. She has no friends, no family, works the graveyard shift at Costco, etc. And yeah, she takes her comfort in comfort foods.. the worst of it. Anything bad for you is high on Ellen's list of to-eats.

Then one day, on her way to work, a blind woman stumbles into her on the bus, and treats her like everyone else. Which Ellen is not used to. This blind woman is charismatic, friendly, and full of life and intrigues Ellen. So when the blind woman gets off the spot, Ellen, who is very early for work and only couple spots away, decides to follow her a little. Lucky she did because two men decide they want to mug the blind woman and as they're running away, Ellen suddenly decides to do what she never does... get involved. Ellen recovers Temerity's purse and Temerity insists on thanking her with a meal.

Thus begins the unlikely and unusual friendship of Ellen and Temerity, which is really what this book is about. As the book proceeds, the reader is let into more and more of Ellen's past and why it was so horrible and why, among her weight and her half-burned face, she hates many common environments and peoples.

It is an encouraging, hopeful, and honest book. A lot of bad things surround Ellen and Temerity brings her light. But Ellen is also able to substantially give back to the relationship in ways that Ellen cannot understand are worthwhile. Due in part to Ellen's ability to blend in with the background, she is privy to a lot of private information in the world, which she and Temerity decide to interfere in, just a little.

The book is funny, light, heavy, and moving. It's not perfect---Temerity's over-the-top laughing at herself wears a little thin and their involvement in some of the stories around them is a little-less-than convincing---but it's really very good.

And it does a really great job of providing a little insight into how someone like Ellen lives, why, and where it all leads, or can lead. I really enjoyed this and I'm thoroughly glad I read it.

And I'd definitely recommend the book. Especially to people who are seeking more understanding into the inner psyche of someone who has placed themselves on the fringes of society. Obviously everyone is different and has a different story, but here's one that makes sense and was presented in a respectful and, as I say, honest way. FOUR+ stars!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Finishing this short book was almost like having the air squeezed out of my lungs. As if I'd been holding it for ~180 pages.

For a synopsis, I think reading the publisher's blurb does just fine. For my thoughts on the book? sigh. Here are just a couple of favorites:

"Why didn't adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?" p. 53

"Nobody actually looks like what they really are on the inside. You don't. I don't. People are much more complicated than that. It's true of everybody." p. 112

"This book is the book you have just read. It's done. Now we're in the acknowledgments. This is not really part of the book. You do not have to read it. It's mostly just names." p. 179 (yes, that is really the first paragraph of the acknowledgments... you just wanted to keep reading whatever it was he had to say next...)

Everything about this is lovely. And even though it's kind of fantasy kind of dark, it's mostly just a expose on love. And that makes it sound gushy, and it's just not. In other words, it's kind of impossible to describe, but I'll highly recommend it. Yes, even to you, whomever you are...

Friday, August 22, 2014

Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix

Review based on ARC.

A fun, fast, lite-horror read.  ... A little less "lite" than some of the other "lite" horrors I've read, but it doesn't get underneath your skin and deeply disturb you.

I love the concept and I think Hendrix executed it very well.  Imagine a knock-off IKEA called Orsk -- cheaper than IKEA, but the same concept. And imagine that it has a secret, dark history that its employees will discover on a long, hard, dark, disturbing, night in the store. There will be blood, there will be guts, there will be death.  But it's so creative (I love Hendrix's names for the various pieces of "furniture" he's created, especially the little details he's employed, like the colors available) and such a quick read that, as I say, it's not deeply disturbing.

It's also not particularly deep in any sense, but that's ok. It was just the thing to pass a few hours on a rainy evening.
Definitely recommend to people who are fans of lite-horror or anyone who's just been horrified by certain aspects of IKEA ;)

I will certainly read more by Hendrix!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Raven Girl by Audrey Niffenegger

I did not enjoy The Time Traveler's Wife. But I wanted to give Niffenegger another chance because I felt like she had some potential. And I admit up front that Raven Girl is not the "other chance" I intend to give... but I was open to Niffenegger's book because of my intention to give her another chance. And this is a dark modern fairy tale for adults.

It was ok. It was weird in some places, and not that good, creepy weird like Coraline or Creepy Suzie. Just weird-weird like... and I'm sorry I couldn't ignore it... how did the bird and the mailman conceive a child?

But whatever, it's a modern fairy tale so they just did... And thus is born Raven Girl. I enjoyed the story well enough. It didn't make me mad or annoyed or anything. I read it so quickly (half hour?) that I didn't really have time to ponder the holes. It wasn't until after that I started thinking about them. And why they existed. And why Niffenegger did what she did. And since that all came after, I decided that it really was just fine.

So I'd recommend to people who are looking for a quick modern dark fairy tale, who don't mind some holes in the plot or weird decisions. And I'll still give Niffenegger her other chance... I've got [Her Fearful Symmetry] on the shelves...

THREE of five stars.

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Thank goodness there are books like this! I really enjoyed Alif. Wilson daringly takes on techie-fiction (is that a real thing? I think it is now...), fantasy, religion (muslim), and love all at once. And does she pull it off? I sure think so.

So, Alif is a young (~18) but brilliant computer programmer in "The City" (in the middle east and typical of the middle east, where Arabs believe they are superior to the Indians, where light skin is better than dark, where muslim is always known if not always practiced). He "protects" (i.e., hides identities and locations of people online) anyone who is willing to and able to afford his fees. Lurking in the background is the state program and/or person known as the Hand, which is working its way through the back channels of the internet and making Alif and his friends nervous about being caught and punished as criminals.

Alif is also engaged in an illicit relationship with someone above his class, and he believes himself in love with the beautiful Intisar. But then, Intisar suddenly ends their relationship, claiming that her father is forcing her to marry some royal person worthy of her lineage. And Alif flies into a first class funk. Alif creates this crazy program that, without going into detail and boring you, basically allows a computer to think, and with it, he shuts Intisar out of his life completely.

Then the Hand finds Alif right around the time that he is graced with the secret book of the jinn (genies), and Alif is forced to both go on the run and discover the secrets of the book and its origin/power. So the book races through technology, fantasy based in religion, religion itself, and love, all while being interesting and novel and accessible and pleasurable.

It was just such a smart and engaging read with likable and unique characters and a plot that flowed with a foreign subject matter that was made readable and accessible by an author who understood the distance.  I really enjoyed this and I very much look forward to more fiction from Wilson.

Recommend to those open to fantasy, who are looking for something more.
FOUR of five stars.

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

Review based on ARC.

Anyone who was around me while I was forcing my way through this book suffered for my having to finish it.  Why did I have to finish it? Because it was an advanced readers' copy, and I felt like I needed to finish the whole book in order to fairly review it.

But oh, the pain.
So, the premise. I was interested in this book and definitely wanted to read it because of its premise! (this is no more spoiler than what appears on the back cover) Main character (Pandora) picks up her brother (Edison) from the airport after not having seen him for several years and doesn't even recognize him at first because he's gained so much weight. On top of now being a morbidly obese person, the narrator also takes issue with her brother's other developed-habits, such as breaking furniture, convincing high school kids to drop out of high school, etc. So she has to decide between her husband and her brother, which is essentially what the book is about--that choice and the repercussions thereof.

Ok, yeah, sounds interesting! Good of her to take on a less developed theme in current literature and try to tackle the psychological reactions that people have in these types of tough situations. So I was excited.

Then I got the book and started reading. And this is what it was like: Imagine if I told you that a very interesting special was going to be on tv, but it was only going to air once and you couldn't record it because you don't have a DVR or anything. So you are excited about the special and are eager to get to the story, but as soon as it starts playing, your roommate just gets up and stands in front of the tv and starts waxing poetic about anything and everything---his/her opinions, theories, views on politics, social issues, his/her childhood, etc. Just keeps talking. And then they finally wind down and sit down and you are watching the special again, and just as you start getting into the special, s/he gets back up again and does it all over again.  Over and over and over.  That's what it was like reading this book. Shriver (or, purportedly, her narrator) just could. not. shut. up. shut up. shut up. It was infuriating attempting to read the story with the narrator constantly streaming her look-how-smart-I-am consciousness. And yeah, she had a few interesting things to say and said a few things in interesting ways, but I just couldn't CARE after she just kept GOING and going and going.

So around page 100, I decided I couldn't do it anymore. The book was literally giving me a headache and I was doing anything to avoid reading. I took a breather.

After ~a week, I decided, no, I can finish this. And so I did. Unfortunately, not only was Shriver's writing style infuriating, but her story was a disaster. This was one of the least convincing attempts at "understanding" fat people that I've ever been confronted with. It felt like Shriver literally knew NO-ONE who had ever really struggled with a lot of weight. And I understand that her real-life brother died from morbid obesity, weighing approximately what she puts her "big brother" at in the book, but it doesn't appear as if she spent any real time with her brother or talked to anyone who's ever spent substantial time around people who struggle with this kind of weight issue.

As someone with actual perspective here, I can assure the unknowing reader that Shriver is way off the mark. And it's offensive. And, frankly, it takes a lot to offend me. Shriver's fat guy is reckless, selfish, unaware, and stupid. Of course, because he's fat, right? It was a childish viewpoint and impossible for me to read without a scowl on my face.

So what's extra unbelievable about this whole thing is that Edison supposedly exhibits his I'm-a-disgusting-slob person while in the house of not only an essential stranger (his brother-in-law), but also while being openly judged and loathed by said-stranger. Fat people don't do that, Ms. Shriver. But yeah, supposedly, this guy will eat powdered sugar straight from the bag, but in the process just gets powdered sugar everywhere because of course he's a slob; takes a first serving at a first meal that is more than half of a casserole so that others are left hungry because of course he's hungry, stupid, and selfish; insists on making the rest of the skinny family inordinate amounts of terribly unhealthy food because he's inconsiderate, pushy, and stupid; etc.

And every single thing that "Pandora" (or, perhaps, really the author?) says about her brother, who she supposedly loves, comments on his fatness. Like, WE GET IT. HE's FAT. He doesn't just have a big jacket, his jacket is so big it is like carrying a sleeping bag. He doesn't just sit on furniture, he breaks it. Oh and of course he doesn't just sh**, he poops so much that there's literally poop chunks floating down the hall. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! Not to mention the fact that his gaining just over 200 pounds in 4 years does not actually match up with what he supposedly eats in a day.

And this is all just in the first half of the book, and I haven't even touched on the celebrity childhood or her famous company, which she also insists on talking about ad nauseum. At page 176, I mistakenly believed it was going to get better. Something actually changed. It wasn't just going to be 400 pages of Shriver...  er, Pandora judging fat people but pretending to care about them. So narrator has to make a choice... choose her jerk of a husband or her fat disgusting slob of a brother.

What choice does she make? How does it turn out? What're the spoilers that everyone is so carefully avoiding? Here's the non-spoiler answer: who. cares.  Take it from someone who suffered through reading the whole thing... it didn't get better. It's not worth knowing. It's worse than pathetic. (if you really want the spoilers? go to bottom and highlight text to reveal)

In sum, I would recommend this book to literally no one.  I would not recommend this book to anyone who has struggled or is struggling with weight because it is unaware and offensive. I would not recommend this book to anyone who knows someone who has struggled or is struggling with weight because it is unhelpful, patronizing, and offensive. I would not recommend this book to someone who knows no one who has this kind of weight issue because it will simply give them the wrong idea about how fat people are in the so-called privacy of their own homes. Just say no. No.

ONE of five stars. A touch of credit can be given because she's poetic with her language.





1. she chooses her brother. and is annoying and holier-than-thou in her choice. so she moves into a separate apartment with her brother to go on a crazy crash diet with him for a year. And I mean crazy. We're talking 6 months of less than 600 calories a day. And of course no one cheats. And they lose all kinds of weight. And then they have to struggle with reintroducing food. Etc. And than jerk husband wants a divorce. And crazy fat brother is happy. But then after all the weight is lost, husband wants Pandora back and Edison loses it. and eats a chocolate cake. like the slob that he is. smearing chocolate all over his face and clothes, etc. And then gains all the weight back. All of it.

2. But wait, Shriver thought she'd try to be clever. None of that happened. She didn't go live in an apt w/ her brother, she just let him leave. And be fat. and die. 



I mean. really? People enjoy this?