Author: aliensarewatching

Lightning Reviews #1

In the interest of clearing some of my review backlog, here are some lightning reviews. They are mostly light reads, and mostly bestsellers, and most of them are now TV series, or movies.

  1. The Jane Austen Book Club, by Karen Joy Fowler: This is a book about a book club, in which every chapter corresponds to one Jane Austen book that the club reads for that meeting. It sounds like it has scope for being delightfully meta, but unfortunately there are only occasional comments about Austen’s books, usually used as a crutch to emphasize a particular character’s personality and outlook on life. This is mainly a romance novel about understanding oneself, and makes insightful comments on human nature. I found the characters quite unrelatable unfortunately, mostly because they are middle aged, white, and live in small town USA. It might be more appealing to someone older, or more of a romantic. 2.5/5, skip this.
  2. Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple: This is a comedy set in Seattle, about a woman who mysteriously goes missing before a family trip to Antarctica. This one has an excellent plot and pacing, and the author keeps the big reveal right for the end of the book. It’s hard to categorize this one into a genre, but it’s definitely an entertainer. 3.5/5, read it for the annoying narrator’s on-point Seattle humour.
  3. Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty: This book has so much drama. I’m not necessarily against it, especially while on long plane journeys, but I’m not sure I’d have selected this book at any other time. This is a story about the mothers of some kids in a kindergarten class at a public school in Australia. The mothers have very different lives, and lifestyles, but are brought together every day, and strike up a friendship. Their secrets begin to be revealed, and some of them are very dark and violent. 3.5/5, I would not recommend it, but it’s interesting how an activity as commonplace as dropping off kids at school was made the setting for a thriller-ish novel.
  4. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, by Hank Green: This is another YA book by one of the Green brothers. A mysterious sculpture suddenly appears in NYC, and April seems to be the first to notice it. She vlogs about it, and becomes a celebrity overnight. It is revealed that multiple identical sculptures have appeared all over the world, they seem to be extraterrestrial, and there’s a puzzle that needs to be solved to reveal their secret. The Green brothers have always been excellent at presenting the modern world sensitively and this book is no exception. April is a queer teenager experiencing 15 minutes of fame and sudden, ridiculous political influence, and the whole story is presented in a completely believable way. Unfortunately the SciFi aspect of the book misses the mark, and the ending of the story is not convincing. 3/5, skip it.
  5. The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins: This is a bestselling thriller novel, and I could see why- despite being a very mainstream sort of story, it keeps you hooked with its flawed characters and slowly revealed plot twists. Rachel passes one beautiful house every evening on her train ride home from work, and the attractive owners catch her fancy. She imagines that they are very happy and successful, but she couldn’t be further from the truth. They, and Rachel for that matter, are hiding some dark secrets. 3.5/5, read it. It’s not often you read about a heroine with a dirty mouth and her own demons to face.

An Immigrant Story

This is my review of Shanghai Girls by Lisa See.

This is a historical novel about a pair of sisters who immigrate from China to the USA in the 1930s-1940s. First off, the author of this novel is American. I’m not sure how to feel about that, as I’d rather read an authentic narration. Having said that, this is a work of fiction and not a history book, so maybe that’s not a reasonable expectation. The author has some Chinese ancestry, and has written several works of fiction centering around China, as well as a non fiction book about her family’s history, so she’s definitely an expert. (cough cough Dan Brown cough)

The sisters, Pearl and May, move from Shanghai to LA as part of arranged marriages. Their family has lost its wealth, and there were not many options for women in those days. They soon find that their husbands and in-laws have many secrets, but so do the girls. Together, they try to make their way in Chinatown and Hollywood.

The novel is structured into three books depicting different stages of the girls’ lives. Each touches upon different themes- society girls in Shanghai, the second Sino-Japanese war, the immigrant experience at Ellis Island, Chinese “paper” sons and immigration scams, the Hollywood craze, minority culture in the USA, the experiences of first generation Americans and the antipathy towards communism under Joseph McCarthy.

While the book is never overly instructive, I felt that the emphasis on mentioning all these important social issues was at the expense of character development and plot. Unfortunately, women of that era were very much limited by social conventions- Pearl’s entire world was more or less limited to her husband’s family after she moves to LA. There is some drama in the first book, but the big reveal is left for the very end of book three, with most of the consequences being after the book’s end.

I’d give it a 3/5. It was a pleasant read (or listen, in my case), but there just wasn’t enough plot for me.

Shadiness in Shaker

This is by review of Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng.

In my opinion, this book could be categorized as “contemporary timepass fiction”, a genre I just came up with 30 seconds ago. There’s a strong plot that builds up to a final reveal, but there’s no real point to the story, no mystery or even a sense of having understood human nature.

The story is set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, an affluent suburb of Cleveland. A lot of emphasis is placed on the fact that this is a bland midwestern town, with conservative beliefs and not much diversity. A mother and her teenaged daughter move to town. Despite their “alternative” lifestyle- mom is an artist, and they *gasp* have Ikea style DIY furniture- the daughter, Pearl, immediately makes friends with their landlord’s family, the Richardsons.

The artist, Mia, and Pearl have some skeletons in their closet, and stir up the white bread lives of the Richardsons irreparably. The novel touches upon some serious issues, such as racism and legal vs biological parenthood. There’s a little courtroom drama thrown into the mix. But the author seems to have shied away from making any concrete statements, preferring to state the facts without any bias. Maybe the intention was to keep things open for debate or explore morally grey areas, but the story is not subtle enough.

Overall, this is a well paced light read that misses the mark a bit. 2.5/5 from me.

For in this sleep of death what dreams may come…

This is my review of My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh.

For a long time, I believed that timelessness was a necessary characteristic of good literature. I’ve always though that “classics” are books that can stand the test of time. This means no pop culture references, no politics. IF you think about it, that would impose quite a few restrictions on a modern storyteller- what if we stop using fossil fuels in the next century? Will the EU last until the next millennium? JK Rowling and JRR Tolkien got it right- negate fashion trends by having everyone dress in robes or rags, set up your own currency to avoid inflation induced sticker shock… But what about non-fantasy genres?

Capturing the essence of the here and now is an art in itself (impressionism?). If a work of fiction evokes a place and time in the past, that sense of being somewhere else, or feeling nostalgic, is an achievement.

Anyway, my point is this: My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a book that proudly dates itself in the early 2000s. The protagonist is a woman in her early twenties who has recently experienced trauma- both her parents recently died. This puts her in the position of being very rich and very alone. Her coping mechanism is to sleep. Sleeping in closets at work. Sleeping pills on the weekend. She tells herself that a year of uninterrupted sleep will heal all her wounds. She quits her job, finds herself a quack therapist to provide an endless supply of maximum strength sleeping pills, and gets to work.

There’s not much more that I can say without spoiling the plot. It’s the kind of hare-brained scheme one would expect to see in a sitcom with a laugh track. One doesn’t really expect said scheme to be successful, but the audience is just along for the ride. The darkness of the subject matter is barely acknowledged. The fact that the unnamed protagonist is severely depressed is not addressed (because her form of self treatment does not involve self awareness, apparently), and red flags from her childhood are only mentioned in passing. It’s meant to be a black comedy, and hits the mark simply by having the most ridiculous plot delivered with none of the emotional over-expression that’s so common in literary fiction.

What really made this book for me was the ending. It ends as abruptly as it starts, and revelations are as understated as they are in real life. Sometimes it takes the most dramatic of world events to make a person realize the importance of staying awake.

3.5/5 from me. The book will leave you feeling as fuzzy headed and confused as a person waking up from a 16-hour nap, but it’s worth it.

High School Writing 101

This is my review of Push, by Sapphire.

I want to emphasize that this book is a work of fiction. In some of my other reviews, I’ve noted that I don’t like rating memoirs, because it feels like assigning a numerical value to someone’s life and experience. I have no such qualms with this book. And now that this disclaimer is done, on with the review!

This is the story of Precious, a teenaged girl who is a victim of social injustice. She is an illiterate 16-year-old, but is determined to make something of herself. As the story progresses, she makes new friends from different walks of life, and builds a happier life for herself through sheer willpower, and with the support of her teacher.

I listened to this book as an audiobook, and was very engaged throughout. The pacing is consistent, and the story and language are not too subtle to appreciate through narration. My problems with the book are mainly from a storytelling/ fiction writing perspective. There’s simply too much going on in this plot.

For instance, here are the Problems that Precious faces:

  1. Her father and mother both sexually abuse her.
  2. She is pregnant with her father’s child- the second child that  they’ve conceived
  3. Her first daughter by her father was born when Precious was twelve. With that combination of risk factors, her daughter is born with Down’s syndrome.
  4. Precious is functionally illiterate, since she does not have a good family support system, and her studies have been disrupted by pregnancy.
  5. She is kicked out of school for being pregnant (not clear why this should only be an issue with the second pregnancy)
  6. She is obese, as she tries to numb her emotions with food. Her mother is also morbidly obese and forces food on Precious often.
  7. She is a racial minority (African-American), which shapes her image of herself. She often claims that her life would be better as a white woman, and that men are more attracted to lighter skin tones.
  8. She and her family are poor, and her mother tries to manipulate their living situation to make sure that she receives benefits for both Precious and Mongo (her first daughter)

Any one of these problems would have been a challenge; all at once just seems unconvincing. Here are some more unrealistic plot points:

  1. Precious shows extraordinary enthusiasm and determination towards learning, and progresses from the alphabet to reading and writing poetry in the span of six months. However, she has been going to school her whole life (minus a couple of years of pregnancy) and never learned to read, despite being fond of some of her teachers in the public school system
  2. Said teachers in the public school system failed to notice that this 16-year-old could not read, and did not report to child services that a 12 year old (and later, 16 year old) was pregnant
  3. Noone asked Precious to see a doctor during her pregnancy, or took her to see a doctor, even though she was a minor whose previous child had a serious genetic abnormality
  4. Precious’ grandmother was willing to take in an infant with Down’s syndrome, but did not ask why her 12-year-old granddaughter had had a child, or try to look after her
  5. Precious’ homophobia was unrealistic given that she was exposed to a lot of diversity- the fact that she came round to the idea so quickly was also odd

I did enjoy this book. But if Sapphire had gone for a less over-the-top description of tragedy, I’d have appreciated it all the more. Precious could have done better. 3/5 from me.

 

Take off those rose coloured glasses

This is my review of Hillbilly Elegy, by JD Vance.

Isn’t the whole point of a book to change your worldview? I remember hearing, and reading, that books can expand your horizons, but it has been a long time since I’ve gotten that feeling from a book- until this one. I’m happy with this selection.

JD Vance is an Ivy league educated lawyer, but he didn’t come from a background of wealth and privilege. His upbringing represents an America that is often underrepresented by the news and the media. The global audience- and indeed, the rest of the USA- are often unaware of the struggles of the lower-class in the midwest.

This book does an excellent job of educating people while avoiding falling into the trap of buying sympathy. He is patriotic without being jingoistic. The analysis of how his Republican leanings were influenced by his childhood and family is almost academic, and helps to understand his perspective. As an ethnic minority, and a woman, and an immigrant, and an engineer on the west coast, it’s sometimes hard for me to relate to the experiences of red-supporters in the midwest.

I appreciated this book because it showed me that I may be a minority, but I’m definitely not underrepresented- I have money and safety and am not disadvantaged. Just having the ‘right’ skin colour does not make life easier in this country. The USA has its own social evils to overcome, but democracy can help the country take steps towards equality and prosperity and good health for everyone.

5/5, recommended for anyone who is curious about the lives of others, and the lives of ‘others’.

Anti-romance

This is my review of Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates. It is riddled with spoilers, mostly because it is a slice-of-life story, with no clear plot arc when it starts out. Even revealing that it is a tragedy and not a fairytale is a spoiler; so why not go all-out and tell you that one of the main characters dies in the end.

Oscar Wilde once wrote (I think it was in The Importance of Being Earnest, but am too lazy to look it up now): “The very essence of romance is uncertainty”. So what happens when there is no uncertainty? When you’re married, and have two children and a 9-5, and a cookie cutter home in the suburbs? That’s exactly what this story is about. And as Shakespeare has taught us, the story that is not a romance must be a tragedy.

Frank and April Wheeler are the aforementioned middle-class husband and wife. They have two friends, a neighbourhood couple who help babysit once in a while. Frank has developed an unfortunate habit of repeating his stories. Overall, they are far from the adventurous young couple they had been when they first met. April had been an aspiring actress, and Frank had been an intellectual, artistic young man.

In an attempt to reclaim her lost dreams, April and Frank become involved in a local organization’s play. Neither of them know it, but it’s the beginning of a downward spiral. The play is a disaster; the subsequent disappointment and anger make them realize that their marriage is failing. Until they stumble upon a brilliant plan- they would move to Paris! Now that their children were school-aged, April could go back to work. Secretarial work in Europe would pay enough to support them, so Frank could remain unemployed for a while and discover himself.

In the face of uncertainty, their romance is rekindled. Until April discovers that she is pregnant, throwing a spanner into the works and halting their excited preparations. With an infant, April could not go back to work, and their plan would have to be shelved for another 5 years. She doesn’t want the baby, but Frank, in a burst of instinctive masculinity, refuses to consider an abortion. They are at a deadlock, with a countdown timer until the last day for a safe at-home abortion.

I’ll end the summary there, with a cliffhanger to pique your interest. The plotline is aggressively humdrum, but depressing enough that suburbia is now my worst nightmare. It’s very hard to pinpoint what exactly went wrong in Frank and April’s lives. They both had to give up their dreams, but neither had very well-defined dreams to begin with.

There’s a very insightful scene in the book, in which they tell their landlady that they wanted to see their house as they would be relocating. They invite her over for coffee, and she is surprised to find them calm and happy, having a relaxed conversation while waiting for her to arrive. Is there an implicit understanding that young parents must be eternally flustered, messy and slightly impatient? Or does it take a certain amount of intrinsic happiness to be able to find joy in waiting for a realtor? There’s a lot of food for thought in this one. 4/5 from me.

what’s your favorite period movie?

This is my review of Carrie, by Stephen King. It was on the long, long list of books to be reviewed, and I recently watched the movie.

Carrie is a slim book, but it packs a punch. It is narrated via news clippings and letters, and tells the story of the destruction of a small town in Maine. By a young girl’s menstrual rage (hence the pun-ny title to this review).

Carrie White is a teenager who has lived her whole life in the shadow of her violently religious mother. One unfortunate day, she gets her first period during gym class, AKA the most inopportune time to Become a Woman. Her mother, unfortunately, skipped the SexEd lectures on account of her belief that all women are sinners. She was already an outcast amongst her classmates, and they pounced on the opportunity to mock her.

This could be a horror novel by itself (and was probably my worst nightmare back in high school), but Carrie’s humiliation had an unexpected side effect: it revealed her telekinetic powers. For several weeks after, she experiments with her power and develops her skills.

Then comes the night of the Senior Prom. A beautiful, unforgettable night. Carrie even has a date! But as she walks onstage as Homecoming Queen, someone pours a bucket of chicken blood over her, bringing up the gym class incident again. Carrie loses her cool and destroys half the town. The End.

Both the book and the movie are genuinely frightening. The book does not skimp on the graphic details, and the movie contains nudity and gore. This is not the teen drama that one would expect, given the subject matter. King has done a masterful job of converting an almost simplistic storyline into a memorable classic.

It also made me profoundly grateful for my friendly highschool classmates, who neither poured blood on each other, nor electrocuted each other with the force of their minds. 4/5 from me.

A textbook medical thriller

This is my review of Charlatans, by Robin Cook.

Back when I was thirteen or fourteen (it seems like it was an embarrassingly long time ago), I discovered Robin Cook in my local library. I had worked my way through all the children’s books that I had deemed readable, and was venturing into the adults’ section. Classics were a safe bet, Grisham was too dull, Brown was limited and Sheldon was just too… adult. Asimov was intimidating, but Cook was just right. Despite being science fiction, Robin Cook makes sure to explain things form first principles, in a way that even the barely teenaged me could understand. I devoured quite a few of his novels.

And then abruptly stopped. When I stumbled upon this book last month, I was surprised to find that it was relatively recent- published in late 2017. For some reason I’d assumed he’d stopped writing (just because I’d stopped reading his books?). Of course I had to pick it up.

And it was disappointing. The descriptions I just praised so highly? They’re often shoehorned into ‘everyday’ dialogue, making conversation unnatural and stilted. His heroes are often romanticized workaholics whose only character traits are ‘married to his job’ and ‘looks athletic despite working 120-hour weeks’. Even the redeeming quality of having a troubled past (girlfriend walked out on him, exacerbating workaholic tendencies) seems like it was added deliberately to cross Character Backstory/Development off a checklist.

Apart from these major complaints about the narrative style, the plot itself is reasonably well structured and fast paced. You’ll want to stick around until the end, partially because of a main character who is clearly more sinister than they seem at first glance. The last few pages have a twist that is shocking only because of the complete lack of foreshadowing- it’s certainly unexpected, but in a way that feels unfair!

Here are the specifics: Noah Rothauser has just started his last year of surgical residency at the Boston Memorial Hospital. As part of his new responsibilities, he must investigate three surgical deaths that occurred in a short span of time. The only link is the anaethesiologist on duty- Ava London. Noah is hesitant to place the blame on her at first, as she seems competent and confident (and she is hot). Later, though, he becomes suspicious that she is not who (and what) she claims to be… But is he already in too deep?

(cue dramatic music)

2/5 from me. Cook also manages to convey his distrust in social media, via more stilted textbook-y dialogue of course. Stay away unless, like me, you’re a fan of his work who is looking for a dose of nostalgia (pun intended)

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

This is my review of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman.

This is one of the best books I have read in recent years. It was juuust simple enough to be appealing, juuust thrilling enough to keep my attention, and juuust deep enough to give me some food for thought at the end. I’m as picky as Goldilocks, and this book was just right.

Eleanor Oliphant is a late twenties ‘spinster’ who enjoys doing crossword puzzles, listening to radio programmes, and getting blackout drunk from Friday evening to Monday morning. She is perfectly functional, in a completely dysfunctional way.

At first glance, she merely exhibits eccentricities that would be well-suited to the stereotypically geeky girl in English language sitcoms. There’s a long painful description of Eleanor getting her first bikini wax to impress her “rockstar” crush- whom she has never met. It seems a bit off for a woman her age to be that silly about a man… but and things keep going downhill from there. Without spoiling much, the plot gets really dark really fast. By the end, you’ll be rooting for Eleanor to overcome her demons.

I really don’t want to spoil the plot, because I really DO want you to read this book! But at a deeper level, I think this book points out a major flaw in today’s society. It’s all too easy to maintain a facade of normalcy without anyone noticing that one is struggling with something serious. Relationships are superficial, and greetings are cursory. Eleanor lacks basic social skills, because she has never gotten to experience a healthy relationship of any kind.

On a lighter note, this is a quirky and amusing novel that somehow manages to be a gripping thriller as well. Please read, even though this review has definitely not done justice to the plot. 5/5