Thursday, September 30, 2010

Breaking Night by Liz Murray

I would highly recommend this book to anyone. There. I said it and now that I've totally gotten rid of the anticipation of what I recommend, let me tell you about this book. Liz Murray was born in 1980 addicted to crack (because her mom used consistently throughout her pregnancy), but otherwise healthy and lived in the Bronx, New York. During her time growing up, she watched her parents struggle with drug addiction and struggling to provide for her and her older sister, Lisa.  Liz also dealt with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in a way that most of us may never, ever know about. At 15, Liz became homeless. She had no place to live and, for a long period of time, did not go to school. However, Liz did manage to get into an alternative school - the Humanities Prepatory Academy in Manhattan, where she managed to complete all of her assignments in the subway stations that she slept in. She earned enough credits to graduate in two years and was eventually accepted into Harvard University.

This young woman showed an uncanny maturity beginning at an early age - she knew how to mainline drugs at age 6 (even though she never used them) and had to care for her parents when they both hit their rock bottom moments (which seemed to happen often enough in Liz's early life). She showed that she is a fighter by being able to scramble to care for herself in the girls' home that she was placed at during her early adolescence and then during the period of time that she was homeless. I was deeply impressed by her writing style - no holds barred, but classy at the same time.  This isn't just some morality tale for the reader; she literally just tells it like it is. 

Worth the read.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

This is Paul Murray's second novel. It takes place at an all boy's Catholic school in Ireland and focuses on Daniel "Skippy" Juster. Skippy got his nickname because he bore an uncanny resemblance to a children's kangaroo character of the same name. He is a boarder at Seabrook College, a Catholic school, at a time in most young boys' life when they're undergoing certain, shal we say, changes. Skippy's best friend and roomate is Ruprecht, a portly boy that is a genius. The novel opens with Skippy and Ruprecht having a donut eating contest at a local eatery that is popular with the Seabrook boys. Ruprecht looks on in shock as Skippy collapses, falls off his chair and dies, while writing "Tell Lori" on the floor in jelly, even though he doesn't seem to be choking. So yes, Skppy dies in the first few pages.  But this satire of contemporary Irish society doesn't just end there. It proceeds for about 650 more pages, in which we meet the mysterious Lori referred to by Skippy, Howard the Coward (a history teacher at Seabrook and an alum who lives with his girlfriend Halley after a failed attempt at invest banking in the city), Ms. McIntyre (a substitute geography teacher, who tells Howard that she won't sleep with him no matter what he does), and the other boys and teachers at the school who are impacted by Skippy's untimely death.

I loved this book - it took me only a few days to read it even though it's 661 pages long and sometimes difficult to read, emotionally at least. Murray does a wonderful job in conveying all points of view - at times, he's poignant, at times cynical, at times nieve and at other times just really, really witty.  Totally worth the read, even though some parts of this novel are heavy, or dark or both at the same time.

Anthropology of an America Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann

I heard about this book on NPR. This book first came out in 2003 when Hilary Thayer Hamann self-published it.  Then, recently, it really took off and hit the mainstream press. It is 620 some odd pages and covers some years in the life of Eveline Auerbach, a girl that lives in East Hampton, NY and New York City in the late 70's and early 80's. She is raised by her divorcee, professor mother and sometimes, her father takes part in her upbringing - he lives in New York city after all. During her junior year in high school, she meets and falls in love with Jack. Jack is a rebel in every sense of the word, and is, in particular rebelling against his father, a wealthy man who seems to ruin everything that he touches. When that relationship ends, Evie meets and falls in love with Harrison Rourke during her senior year in high school. Harrison is a substitute drama teacher at her high school who also boxes professionally and has ties to the New Jersey mafia. After spending a magical summer together, Evie and Harrison split up and Evie enrolls at NYU for college.  She also ends up moving in with Mark, a rich stockbroker type who is als very, very slimey and reptilian and just rubs everyone the wrong way. Mark hates Harrison with a passion that is almost unseen in other people.  Evie lives with Mark for three long, unhappy years.

This book was pretty good - I can see why it became popular so quickly. It tells a really good story of a girl whose voice is absolutely authentic and true.  Her opinions regarding relationships - romantic and otherwise - all seem so true. She's also very charming and beguiling, particularly at the beginning of the novel.  We've all been in high school and had relationshps while we're there, so this part is interesting and easily related to. The second part moves a bit more slowly and perhaps tries the patience more so than the first part of the novel. It annoys the reader that she doesn't get herself out of what is obviously a bad situation that is continuously getting worse. 

While this isn't going to be on any prize winning lists, it is an entertaining read that is addictive and distracting. Worth the read for sure.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Passage by Justin Cronin

This was another of of those book blogger cult favorites that I just barely got around to reading. It's a 784 page monster of a book (no pun intended) about vampires, but it's not like Twilight or Bram Stoker or Anne Rice type of vampire novel. In fact, these vampires are highly trained killing machines created by the US government from people that were on death row after committing capital offenses in their home states.  The recruits are found and signed up by FBI agents after the ranks of death row inmates were culled. They have no mercy and nothing to tell them what is right or wrong, but they do often wonder who they are. 12 death row inmates (a Biblical reference I wonder?) are the original test targets and a six year old orphan is also found, to be a potential test subject. The 12 become jumpers, who eat the animals thrown into their cells until they escape and begin to prey on humans, who become vampires in their own right once attacked.

There are humans that somehow survive. In order to continue their survival, they band together and it's this group of people that form the First Colony in the World After. They begin to pair off and have children, who aren't told about the vampires until they are old enough to go into the world and fight.  The main character is Amy Bellafonte, the six year old girl that we are introduced to whose role it seems is to save the world.

I can't wait for the next installment in the series because there is no doubt that this is the first in a sequence where Amy is the cathartic character. The book was never dull - I was always looking forward to the next page, hell the next sentence.  It is definitely a page turner. It made me constantly look over my shoulder, hoping that a Jumper wouldn't be lurking behind me or above me waiting to make me a vampire.

Can't wait for the next!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I think that I'm the last blogger to have read and reviewed this book but I finally got around to it.  This is technically classified as young adult science fiction but there were some themes that were pretty mature in it and which adults could relate to, perhaps for different reasons.

The setting is the country of Panem. Panem is a fictional country that rises out of what once was the United States, Canada and Mexico.  It seems to be almost a post apocalyptic society in the same way that The Handmaid's Tale was.  The country consists of a wealthy Capitol district in the Rocky Mountains and twelve poorer districts who are known for certain types of industry.  The main character comes from the 12th district - Appalachia - known for its coal mining. There is a 13th district that was torn apart and literally wiped off the map by the Capitol due to a rebellion - it no longer has residents or industry and exists in name only, literally. The story takes place sometime in the future, although we are never told when in the future it takes place. As punishment for the 13th District's Rebellion against the Capitol District, one boy and one girl, aged 12 to 18, from each district is selected to compete in the Government sponsored Hunger Games, which are broadcast live on TV (think Survivor but where the competitors actually die). Each competitor, or tribute, must fight in an undisclosed outdoor arena to the death, until one remains.

Katniss, a fatherless girl from District 12, is the protagonist for this novel. After volunteering to be the girl tribute from her district in order to spare her sister (who is selected), we follow her as she travels through the Capitol and participates in the games.

The major themes in this novel are big government and Big Brother as well as personal independence and freedom, as the government is involved in just about every aspect of their citizens' lives. I wasn't able to put this book down for a second once I started it, to the anger and frustration of my household. Yes, it probably would have gone by quickly simply because it's a young adult book, but it seemed to fly by even faster because it was such a good book. It was entertaining and disturbing and fascinating all at the same time. Very believable and a great read.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mantel

Ms. St. John Mantel's first novel is about Lilia Albert. At seven, Lilia Albert is visted by her father, a man that she hasn't seen in about one year, and taken by him from her rural Canadian home in the middle of the night. As a result, she never sees her mother or brother, with whom she already lives, again. Instead her father, who has his own money, moves her from one American city to another, sometimes not spending more than a few hours or a night in one place. Along the way, he provides for Lilia's education - she mostly learns languages while he's driving, upon which she is quizzed later on.

At the beginning of the novel, though, we know none of this. We meet Lilia as a twenty something dishwasher who is living in New York City - Brooklyn to be exact - and she is dating a young graduated student named Eli. Eli is in love with her so when Lilia leaves him somewhat unceremoniously as only she can, his spirit is utterly ravaged and he is left devastated. As Eli begins to search for her, he learns about Lilia and we learn about her at the same time, as the story is told through the alternating viewpoints of a private investigator (hired by Lilia's mother to find her), Eli, and the private investigator's daughter, who feels and actually is utterly neglected by her father's obssession in finding Lilia.

I loved this book - it was a wonderfuly, quirky and deep novel that kept me reading. I really wanted to learn all that I could about Lilia - she was so mysterious - I wanted to know why she did what she did and where she had come from and why she had been taken by her absentee father. Nothing seemed to be revealed at once and making revelations in a manner like pulling back onion peels also made this book really, really special.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Scout, Atticus and Boo by Mary McDonagh Murphy

I remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee for the first time in ninth grade Honors English class. It was one of the few books where our English teachers also showed us the move, which is also one of my favorite movies. I liked it then and I liked it now, albeit for different reasons.  For me, Atticus was the main figure, where for others it may have been Scout or Boo Radley.

Anyways, this book by Mary Murphy is based upon a video documentary that she is working on, in book form. The first of two sections is written aby Murphy's own personal experiences with the book. She discusses her feelings, thoughts and reactions to the book version and the movie version and why she was inspired to compose her own documentary and accompanying book. The second section is composed of essays written by famous people, including Oprah Winfrey, Tom Brokaw and Mary Badham (who played Scout in the movie) and which includes their own impressions of the book.

I generally enjoyed the first section and the first few essays of the second section, but the book quickly grew repetitive. A lot of the essayists had the same reactions and many focussed on how Harper Lee didn't write a second novel, was a very private person and how Truman Capote, one of Lee's friends, didn't ghostwrite or otherwise assist Lee in writing the novel that garnered her a Pulitzer Prize. Because of the repetitiveness, the book took me a little bit longer to read than it normally would have - the writing style is such that if it had been more unique, I would have flown right through everything. I did appreciate that gossip and speculation about Harper Lee was not included in this book - smut like that has no place in a celebration of a book that is still extremely important to American society 50 years after its first printing.

Worthwhile read, but get it out from the library instead of purchasing.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

If you liked The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, you will want to read this dystopian novel, which has won a number of awards in th...