Tag Archives: 4.5 Star Books

Boy A by Jonathan Trigell

BoyA

Harrowing. Heartbreaking. Fabulously discussion-worthy. All these are apt ways to describe Jonathan Trigell’s lightning bolt to the nervous system, ‘Boy A.’ It would be pretty accurate to say I loved this book, and even when I hated it, I loved it, because I realized when it was making me edgy and mad it was actually making me think. You don’t have to agree with it’s political viewpoint, but you will have to allow your beliefs and preconceptions to be challenged for the sake of the experience.

Jack is not an orphan, but he might as well be. After years locked away for a ghastly childhood crime, Jack has been reintroduced to society under a different identity, hiding from the media and potential acts of vigilantism. Jack’s Liberal social worker, Terry, believes he is essentially good. But can Jack really start his life over? Can he fall in love? Does he deserve to be given a second chance, considering what he did to another life?

Throughout the book Jack is portrayed to be a bit childlike and naïve, without coming off a saccharine or eye-rollingly idiotic. His romance with Michelle, a more experienced young woman, is touching and real. Finally a love interest with more reason for being than simply saving a troubled young man from himself. Michelle is not a manic pixie dream girl. She reminds me of the character from “Silver Linings Playbook” (the movie.) She’s made up of parts- strength, shrewdness, vulnerability. And she likes all those bits, even the dirty ones.

‘Boy A’, above all, a meditation on growing up, the possibility and unpredictability of change, and the horrors of living under the scrutinizing eye of the media. The writing is incisive and laden with layers of meaning. The ending is bleak, but also leaves us to contemplate how such a pay-off could’ve been avoided.

The only thing I really didn’t like about this book is the snide judgment with which the author portrays Angela, the victim of Jack’s adolescent crime. Angela is ten, but the author seems to treat her as responsible beyond her years, while the blame is displaced from Jack and his unnamed, delinquent friend. Once a bitch, always a bitch, the novel seems to say, which really didn’t sit well with me. I think less time could be spent on portraying Angela as a spoiled princess that ‘bad things just didn’t happen to’ and more time showing the grief of her family at such a senseless crime should have been incorporated. While focusing almost entirely on Jack’s pain is novel, it also seems kind of inappropriate considering the subject matter.

Although I found that aspect of ‘Boy A’ somewhat reprehensible, the rest of the book was so beautifully written and psychologically complex that I cannot help writing a glowing review. The shifting perspectives (though fully grounded in third-person) give a darker, deeper look into the events that make up the book’s chapters. I also highly recommend the film adaptation with Andrew Garfield. Garfield gives a beautifully realized portrayal of Jack, and the most important aspects of the book are retained in the film version. Happy reading!

Advertisements

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Neverwhere Cover

For mild-mannered office drone Richard Mayhew, stopping to help an injured stranger has a multitude of consequences- some good, some bad, but all undeniably bizarre. The stranger in question is Door (yes, that’s actually her name,) a waif of many talents who resides in the underground wonderland of London Below, and is on the run from the duo of thugs who killed her family. Door’s special ability is that of ‘opening,’ i.e. the ability to open any door or simply conjure one into being just by concentrating.

Richard has a big heart but is a bit of a pushover and is totally out of his element while scurrying after Door, who feels obliged to protect him, through the cavernous kingdom of the Underside, a realm that exists beneath London. Together they meet a plethora of odd characters- the beautiful and icy Hunter, the smooth-talking Marquis de Carabas, and the predatory but lovely ‘Velvets,’ to name a few. On the run, from sinister antagonists. Richard must find his inner strength if he is to survive.

This is my first book by Neil Gaiman (shame!) and I found it to be a quite captivating work. With a mind-blowing fantasy world full of shady characters and a pair of uproariously weird villains such as Mr. Vandemar and Mr. Croup, how can a novel fail to be supremely entertaining? I liked Richard as a protagonist, but I often found him to be a bit of a burden to the group, such as when he blindly allows himself to be bested by a seductive female creature and falls to pieces when his fear of heights is tested.

“Neverwhere” is witty and fun and has a weird and wonderful mythology behind it. I found the writing to sometimes be alternately repetitive and vague (so that I had trouble picturing the characters and situations) and the author tended to use extremely strange similes that didn’t really work in the context. The last chapter went on too long as well, compared to the fast paced majority of the book.

Apparently the television series “Neverwhere” (1996) came first- Neil Gaiman wrote the book in order to add the extra substance that couldn’t be featured in the series. I’m torn about watching the series- on one hand it’s tempting to see the origins of the book, on the other hand I have read it was an extremely cheap (and some say badly-acted) production, and part of me wants to imagine the story rather than see it played out on screen.

I love how ambiguous and odd the beings who inhabit the Underside are- if they agree to help Richard and his friends it will be entirely for their own reasons, not out of loyalty or nobility or any moral-based traits. With the odd exception, the creatures of London below are not really good, nor very bad for that matter. The just are. They want to be left alone, and they’ll provide help when it’s in their best interest. But do the people of London above, our world, really support Richard and his moral center either?

When you look at mankind’s reaction to discord (Richard’s fickle girlfriend, Jessica, futilely tries to coerce him to leave the bloodied Door in the middle of the sidewalk to get to an important dinner,) the unwashed underground wackos don’t seem so otherworldly after all. “Neverwhere” might in part be a commentary on London’s less privileged classes, but it doesn’t feel like a lecture. It’s unabashedly imaginative, vibrantly alive, and just as wildly original as a modern fantasy novel should be.

neverwhere

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

theWASPFACTORY

    Hands down, the craziest book I have ever read, an unnerving combination of Lord of the Flies and The Butcher Boy that never fails to appall and shock. You will hate Frank Caldhaume, the narcissistic, murderous, deluded, misogynistic teenager at the center of this slim volume, but at the same time you’ll be slightly in awe of his gumption; his refusal to live any semblance of a normal life. Frank lives with his weak, disabled father on their own personal island in rural Scotland.

Frank is by no means an ordinary boy. By the age of ten, he disposed of his younger brother Paul and two cousins without a blink of an eyelash. He wanders the island, engaging in bizarre ritualistic activities that invariably end in the destruction of of the wildlife. He mounts animals’ heads on stakes as sick trophies, and the eponymous ‘Wasp Factory’ is a contraption of singular brutality.

Frank’s half-brother Eric is, so they think, safe and sound in a mental hospital. At the beginning of the book, Eric escapes, leaving a trail of burned and eaten dogs in his wake. Meanwhile, Frank copes with his unusual disability that has made it impossible to live a normal life, not that he’d want to, mind you. Cheeky freak, Frank is.

The only two complaints I have with this book were that it ended rather abruptly, and also (though this was a minor quibble) the circumstances between the Frank Caldhaume’s murders were highly unlikely. I may have thought Frank was a despicable human being, but he made a dynamite narrator. He was brilliant, merciless, and cuttingly articulate. Many aspects of the book were horribly disturbing, but that would not dissuade me from recommending this great book, a brilliant first novel and a penetrating psychological thriller.

One scene in one chapter particularly turned my stomach and made me put down the book in disgust. However, there are moments of black humor that leaven the murky darkness. The telephone conversations between psychopathic Frank and madman Eric, in particular, had me laughing out loud. Frank is not your everyday, mundane protagonist, and you (and he, presumably) would not have it any other way.

The twist at the end of the novel is so relentlessly unmitigatedly weird that I was tempted to do a double take of the words on the page. Iain Banks had quite an imagination, but what a twisted, pitch-black psyche it was. I DEFINITELY will be seeking out more books by this author, with a sincere  hope that they will be every bit as tweaked and creative as this one. A glowing recommendation, weak stomachs need not apply.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

The Glass Castle

Truth is truly stranger than fiction, and Jeanette Walls, the wildly talented author of The Glass Castle‘s childhood being ‘raised’ by nomadic, outrageously negligent parents, was weirder than most. The said parents (if you could call them that, since parenting or even being adults was not their perogitive), Rex and Rose Mary Walls, were an anomaly- self-taught and highly intelligent people who had no concern for their childrens’ welfare and made no effort to make those awkward adolescent and pubescent years any more tolerable. The Glass Castle reminded me of Augusten Burrough’s blackly comic account of familial insanity Running With Scissors, only less sensationalistic.

This memoir will move you, make you angry, and kick your parental instincts into overdrive. Jeanette Walls and her siblings move from place to place, on the run from the ‘FBI’ and ‘the Gestapo’ (i.e. the tax collectors and the authorities.) Jeanette’s mom is an flaky, unstable artist who wants nothing to with her children. Her dad is a big-talking B.S.-er who can weasel himself out of any tough situation, except for the disintegration of his family unit. Together- the Walls children must take care of each other, facing sexual abuse, poverty, bullying, and other hardships.

I respect Jeanette’s unconditional love for her parents, but I really had no sympathy for them, even when they ended up on the streets of New York. The author really is a born storyteller, but there were times I had my doubts that she really remembered the events she was documenting with the lucidity she claimed. Walls gave detailed descriptions of things that she recalled from childhood; sometimes I wondered if she was taking liberties with her material. This isn’t really a criticism- a lot of memoirists do add improbable details- just an observation.

Walls develops her three siblings well so that you almost feel like you knew their childhood selves. Brian was my favorite- he was a tough cookie. It doesn’t take just any seven-year-old to chase a pedophile out of their house with a hatchet. At least one kid was irreparably damaged by the events of their childhood, the rest seemed to make the best of it as well as they could.

The bizarre thing is that the author only records her father hitting her once, so calling the parents ‘abusive’ might seem like a bit of a stretch to people who haven’t read the book. But between the dad’s abuse of the mom and both parties’ total disregard for the safety of their children, in the end, it’s hard to consider the parents anything other than abusive. Some of the aspects of their childhood seem desirable- freedom, being encouraged to read great literature- but others are atrocities that stand up against the hardest childhood memoirs.

I would highly recommend this book because it is beautifully written and has a fascinating story. Some scenes might be triggering to victims of sexual abuse- I’d nearly run out of fingers if I counted how many times the Walls children are mishandled, either by neighborhood kids or family or strange adults, and their parents’ apathy is infuriating. What is best is Jeanette Walls keeps a certain distance from the material and avoids self-pity. With tenderness, wit, and deft touches of dark humor, she tells the story of a childhood that would break the hardest individuals.

 

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Image

I can’t believe it took me until late into my teens to read this wonderful classic. Mary Lennox, a sour-faced orphan who has been allowed to do anything she likes for her entire life, but has never been loved, arrives at a gloomy British estate to live with distant family. Raised in India, Mary is unused to the cold English weather and the British sensibilities, and finds her life taking a turn for the better. She quickly befriends a Yorkshire lad named Dickon who has a special way with the animals, and solves the mystery of a wailing boy whose cries she can hear from her room at night. And best of all, Mary discovers a seemingly enchanted garden that has been blocked off for years after an unthinkable tragedy.

“The Secret Garden” was published in 1911, and remains a timeless classic more than a century later. This success is no doubt based in it’s inspirational optimism and literary magic, all while being basically grounded in reality. Mary starts out as a brat but is never really a hateable character. She has never known caring or compassion, and without parental devotion, getting what you want on any given day means nothing. Dicken is delightful throughout, and there is really not much development on his part during the book.

‘Invalid’/hypochondriac Colin, Mary’s counterpart in bitterness and lonely angst, is not loved by his brooding, absent father, and he has been told he will be crippled and deformed if he does live to grow up. Colin is a tyrant who kicks and screams and makes all the servants at the manor’s lives a living hell. Mary’s combination of friendship and tough love redeems Colin, and they soon experience psychological transformations at the beckoning of the garden and themselves.

The writing in “The Secret Garden” is beautiful, and makes an ideal read-aloud. It might be a little descriptive for modern kids with short attention spans, and that’s a shame, because it really is a terrific book. Boys who aren’t too self-conscious about reading a ‘girls book’ will find a lot to enjoy here too. The portrayal of two kids pulling themselves out of despair and finding a new future together rings true.

Everyone who cares to read a brilliant piece of fiction should read this book. I am eager to read “The Little Princess” again (the first time I read it I was nine) when I get the chance. “The Secret Garden” belongs in a similar category to the “Harry Potter” books as perennial classics that can be enjoyed by adults and children alike for years to come.

Image

Parallel Play: Growing Up With Undiagnosed Asperger’s by Tim Page

Image

A few years ago, I fell in love with John Elder Robison’s enlightening and entertaining autobiography Look Me In the Eye: My Life With Asperger’s. I was deeply appreciated Robison’s ability to shed a light on his foibles and faults, both within the diagnosis of and apart from his Asperger’s Syndrome. Little did I know that I would love Tim Page’s small but effective memoir, Parallel Play, even more. A former music critic and only recently diagnosed Aspergian, Tim Page is a brilliant, funny, and insightful writer. If I didn’t know better, I would’ve thought he’d been planning this book all his life, constructing the sentences so exquisitely so that the fellow Aspie could nod in agreement and wonderment, marveling that at last someone understood them.

“Parallel Play” chronicles Page’s life from the age of about four (a tricky age where he describes himself as a ‘grim little athiest,’ struggling with daunting existential questions) to the slump of middle age. In the years in between, Tim Page experiences many struggles, from crippling social anxiety and depression to drug and alcohol use. His love for books, music, and films keeps him afloat. Page’s self-deprecating wit lightens passages that might otherwise be hard to read (his adolescent suicide letter, the drunken car crash that took the life of several of it’s passengers and left him alive.)

The chronicle of Page’s childhood is insightful and often laugh-out-loud funny. His youthful years were lonely, yes, but also shaped him as a human being. He describes his love of music culminating at an early age, his dislike of his baby sister Betsy, and his father’s paranoia-fueled Cold War anxieties (I wonder if his dad had a touch of Asperger’s himself.)

Tim Page describes Asperger’s to the outsider looking in. The condition, a collection of social awkwardness, obsessive hobbies, sensory issues, and a unique wordview, is often confused with eccentricity, insanity, or just plain entitlement to the uninformed observer. But, in fact, Asperger’s does exist, and it’s not always so easy to be Asperger’s in a neurotypical world.

The later chapters are less about Asperger’s and more about Page’s misspent youth- pot, hallucinogens, and high alcohol intake that only exacerbated his panic attacks. He isn’t afraid to portray his younger self as ignorant (albeit brilliant,) pedantic, and snide. In a world of memoirs that portray their creators as victims in an uncaring world, how refreshing it is to see a man who is not afraid to shed light on his weaknesses! Furthermore, I found his chronicles of his urges and youthful sexual experiences fascinating rather than awkward.

You really walk away with a better sense of who this man is, rather than bogging us down with Asperger’s rhetoric. Some parts of the book were boring (like the passages that went on and on about classical music and the opera- Chapter 8 was particularly dry,) but if you indulge Page during the wordy parts, the rest of the memoir is incredibly rewarding.

 Parallel Play is honest and real where other memoirs are self-pitying and meandering. Tim Page has an incredible mind, and to read this book is to cast a deep, penetrating look into it. A slim volume, the book can be read in a couple days (incidently, I took longer) but you will not regret it. Tim Page should write another book for his fans!

Image