Saturday, July 5, 2014

[Review] I am not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells

Rating: 3-stars
Genre: Horror, Paranormal Fantasy, Detective/Thriller, YA
Synopsis: John Wayne Cleaver is dangerous, and he knows it. He’s spent his life doing his best not to live up to his potential. He’s obsessed with serial killers, but really doesn’t want to become one. So for his own sake, and the safety of those around him, he lives by rigid rules he’s written for himself, practicing normal life as if it were a private religion that could save him from damnation.

Dead bodies are normal to John. He likes them, actually. They don’t demand or expect the empathy he’s unable to offer. Perhaps that’s what gives him the objectivity to recognize that there’s something different about the body the police have just found behind the Wash-n-Dry Laundromat---and to appreciate what that difference means.

Now, for the first time, John has to confront a danger outside himself, a threat he can’t control, a menace to everything and everyone he would love, if only he could.

I don't often read thrillers, but when I do, I like them to be with serial killers. I am not a Serial Killer is very Dexter-esque for any of you who have watched Dexter before. The protagonist, John Wayne Cleaver (get it?), is basically a high functioning sociopath who really does his best not to murder people. Do people get gold stars for not being a murderer? I guess you do if you're a sociopath. John has all these rules that limits that helps curb his homicidal intent and frequents a therapist to help him sort out his... er... urges.

A part of me still loves this book. It's short, fast-paced, and fascinating. I like that he works in a morgue with his mother and aunt, I like his morbid fascination with serial killers, and I like that he tries so very hard to not become one. John is the an anti-hero that can be sympathized with.

But then... this out of nowhere the fantasy element comes in and ruins it. Seriously. Out of nowhere.

Fantastical elements tends to put a damper on a lot of books that could've been excellent but had to settle for pretty decent to good (i.e my review of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children). WHY? WHY WHY WHY DAN WELLS? WHY COULDN'T YOU HAVE KEPT THIS STORY GROUNDED IN REALITY!?

I mean, really?

If you don't want any spoilers, stop here now.

You have been warned!

So in this small town, a bunch of murders have been taking place and John thinks it's because there's a serial killer in town. But guess what? It's really a demon. Yes, a demon! What the hell is going on? Why the hell is there a demon? What the hell is the point of making this book about serial killers when THE serial killer in this book is not even human? Is this some sort of ploy? What is this? I don't get it. Someone explain to me why this happened!

I thought this book was going to be awesome. Sociopath vs. Sociopath in a fight to the death, but noooooooo, instead it's about a demon who is has to kill people to absorb their body parts in order to keep living. And the reason he's doing it is because he fell in love with a human woman.


Just argh. Can you imagine watching Dexter one day and thinking "oh this is so exciting, I can't wait to see him catch the ice truck killer" only to find out the ice truck killer was the abominable snowman? No, I didn't think so.

*takes a deep breath*

That MESS aside, the book is pretty good. I am on the fence about recommending it because of this demon curve ball, but since I actually finished it and was interested in what happened, I think it is worth taking a look at. A lot of things don't end up being explained, but I guess that's why it's a series. I might look into getting the second book in the series, but at this point, I'm still too infuriated to continue.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

[Review] Submarine by Joe Dunthorne

Rating: 3.5 Stars
Genre: Contemporary fiction, YA
Summary: At once a self-styled social scientist, a spy in the baffling adult world, and a budding, hormone-driven emotional explorer, Oliver Tate is stealthily nosing his way forward through the murky and uniquely perilous waters of adolescence. His objectives? Uncovering the secrets behind his parents’ teetering marriage, unraveling the mystery that is his alluring and equally quirky classmate Jordana Bevan, and understanding where he fits in among the mystifying beings in his orbit. Struggling to buoy his parents’ wedded bliss, deep-six his own virginity, and sound the depths of heartache, happiness, and the business of being human, what’s a lad to do? Poised precariously on the cusp of innocence and experience, Oliver Tate aims to damn the torpedoes and take the plunge.

Definitely quirky and definitely not a book I would've picked up by normal means, but I'm glad I did. So I am a big Arctic Monkeys fan, and it is no surprise then that when I heard Alex Turner, the vocalist, also did solo work, so I quickly dug up his album Submarine, which is the soundtrack for the Submarine movie, which I watched and thought was pretty fantastic. I didn't even know there was book until I happened across it on goodreads, and when I saw it, I knew I had to read it.

Personally, I found the movie more enjoyable than the book (Is it because of the soundtrack? *cough* No way...), but the book does have its own merits. It's about a teenage boy named Oliver who is oddly--creepily obsessed with his parents, particularly their relationship to the point where he checks the dimmer switch in his parents' room to make sure that they're having enough sex every week. I have never heard of a fifteen year old teenager who worried about his or her parents' sex life to this extent. I know they are way more open about sex over in Europe (the story takes place in Wales specifically), but it still comes off as a tad bit obsessive. Seriously, he goes above and beyond to make sure that their marriage doesn't fail.

Sometimes it's funny, and then other times it's just plain messed up. For example:

"There is one option that they must avoid at all costs: a baby. Couples say this: 'We're staying together for the baby,' so, logically, the reverse is also true: 'A baby will glue us back together.' The last thing any of us wants is to go through childbirth. A placenta is terrible; it looks worse than jellied eels. A third-degree tear is a rip that may occur during labor--two holes become one. I do not trust them to take the appropriate action to fix their relationship. I will count the number of tampons my mother has left each month. There are currently eight. If she is not using them, I will intervene and suggest an abortion."

Wait what? That's not funny or quirky, that's freaky! Oliver definitely comes off as egotistical, stalkerish, obsessive, and extremely manipulative. Though you can't really help but forgive him most of the time because he means well, even if he deserves to be punched in the gut for some of the things he says or does (such as writing a short guide to the fat outcast in class on the unsaid social rules of bullying and how to not be a loser anymore, and thus not be bullied anymore). If I knew someone like him, I would avoid him at all costs. Personally, I didn't even really care if anything happened to him, but I was interested in what would happen to the other characters, which is why I didn't drop this book. Parts of it are quite smart, even if Oliver is occasionally an asshole.

I did enjoy the trivia in the book. Oliver loves memorizing words and their definitions. For example "Cotard's Syndrome is a branch of autism where people believe they are dead". I liked the odd narrative style of this novel. Parts of it are written in a diary form for his girlfriend to read, though the entries are sometimes completely fabricated for his girlfriend's entertainment so it keeps things interesting. His relationships are interesting, and I enjoyed his detached observations of his life and the life of others.

As an ending note, it's still definitely worth reading if you're into offbeat things. Also recommended is Alex Tuner's Submarine soundtrack!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

[Review] Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting

Rating: 5 Stars
Genre: Short Stories, Speculative Fiction, Bizarro Fiction, Horror
Summary: In this darkly hilarious debut collection, misfit women and girls in every strata of society are investigated through various ill-fated jobs. One is the main course of dinner, another the porn star contracted to copulate in space for a reality TV show. They become futuristic ant farms, get knocked up by the star high school quarterback and have secret abortions, use parakeets to reverse amputations, make love to garden gnomes, go into air conditioning ducts to confront their mother’s ghost, and do so in settings that range from Hell to the local white-supremacist bowling alley (from Goodreads).

This is a genre I've only discovered recently: Bizarro fiction. The closest thing I can think of that is similar is Chuck Palahniuk's stories. Two words: grotesque surrealism. The only difference between this collection and some of Chuck Palahniuk's works (don't get me wrong, I do love some of his works) is that it's not bile-inducing and actually enjoyable to read. More often than not, I would rather a book left me elevated, not nauseous. Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls is just that. It's the right amount of weird, morbid, gross, and bizarre, but without the sour aftertaste. The book is all kinds of amazing. I don't think I'm going to even write a review for it. I'll let these various quotations speak for themselves.

This is the first line of the first story: "I am boiling inside a kettle with five other people."

Intriguing. Do go on.

"Our limbs are bound and our intestines and mouths are stuffed with herbs and garlic, but we can still speak. We smell great despite the pain."

Sold. If you are a rather modest and conservative person who doesn't savor in uncleanliness, this is definitely not a book for you. For anyone else who, like me, has a rather twisted sense of humor, you will love these stories.

Here are some more quotations:

"My friend Gizmo who works at the funeral home occasionally smokes the hair of the embalmed dead. The smell does not bother him: he is used to horrible smells. He claims that after a few minutes of inhaling, moments form the corpses' lives flood his head like a movie."

From a story that takes place in Hell:

"I also found an intestine that had been suffocated with rat poison and fashioned into a noose. I decided to hang the whole thing from my chandelier. 'You're becoming more comfortable with entrails,' the devil commented. I liked the way he took notice of my growth."

Seriously, what's not to love? Aside from the bizarro shock factors, I really liked that all the female characters were all equally unique and compelling. Like the title suggests, this collection of short stories is about women, and sometimes girls, having to go through very unpleasant (to put it mildly) situations. It features women in all different walks of life and in all different types of relationship (familial, romantic, platonic, stalkerish, inhuman, symbiotic) from every setting imaginable--from falling love with the devil in the underworld to trying to find closure with a cryogenically frozen mother (frozen for being a murderous felon) in space. I can't even decide which of these stories are my favorite. Five stars hands down.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

[Review] Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

Rating: 4 stars
Genre: Short stories, Japanese Lit, Horror, Contemporary
Synopsis: Sinister forces draw together a cast of desperate characters in this eerie and absorbing novel from Yoko Ogawa.

An aspiring writer moves into a new apartment and discovers that her landlady has murdered her husband. Years later, the writer’s stepson reflects upon his stepmother and the strange stories she used to tell him. Meanwhile, a surgeon’s lover vows to kill him if he does not leave his wife. Before she can follow-through on her crime of passion, though, the surgeon will cross paths with another remarkable woman, a cabaret singer whose heart beats delicately outside of her body. But when the surgeon promises to repair her condition, he sparks the jealousy of another man who would like to preserve the heart in a custom tailored bag. Murderers and mourners, mothers and children, lovers and innocent bystanders—their fates converge in a darkly beautiful web that they are each powerless to escape.

Macabre, fiendishly clever, and with a touch of the supernatural, Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge creates a haunting tapestry of death—and the afterlife of the living.

So because I saw that they recently added it to Netflix, I rewatched Kill Bill. "Revenge is a dish best served cold" indeed. However, the book isn't really about revenge. Certainly there are characters that serve it up real cold, but the theme is really about all those dark emotions that tend to manifest in humanity: despair, resentment, cynicism, obsession with the macabre, etc, etc. The title Revenge makes it seem like some sort of action thriller Kill Bill Uma Thurman style when it's not.

I know when I finished reading the first story "Afternoon at the Bakery" (doesn't Murakami have a story titled similarly, I can't recall), I was like "Oh, this is pretty dark and awesome, but what does it have to do with revenge?" Hence, don't have your heart set out on vengeance. I don't know what's wrong with the publishers who worked on this book, but the title and the cover make no sense with the actual content and it drives me nuts. It's a huge pet peeve of mine. They did the same thing to another Japanese novel (which I will get around to reviewing soon). I'm sure the publishers did it so it would sell better, but it is completely unnecessary and actually quite distasteful.

Yoko Ogawa's writing has very little flourish. It's sparse and a little deadpan. The woman gets to the point. A game I played while reading through the short stories was trying to guess, before other characters in the story clue me in, whether the speaker is a male or a female. It's seriously not easy. Kudos Yoko Ogawa for your genderless writing style.

Each story connects to the others in some sort of way, though the stories can be read out of order or stand alone, the full creepy effect isn't achieved if you don't read the whole thing. Here's a quotation that sets the tone for the rest of the stories. From the first short "Afternoon at the Bakery" about a mother grieving over her murdered son:

"The door would not open no matter how hard you pushed, no matter how long you pounded on it. The screams no one heard. Darkness, hunger, pain. Slow suffocation. One day it occurred to me that I needed to experience the same suffering he I took a deep breath, curled myself into a ball, and slowly worked my way inside. As the door closed, all lights vanished. I could no longer tell whether my eyes were open or shut, and I realized it made no difference in here. The walls of the refrigerator were still cool. Where does death come from?"

Eerie right? There's a story about a woman who grows carrots that look like hands, a torture museum, a woman whose heart comes out of her chest, etc. It's all very unusual and a little unsettling. Overall I give it four stars. I think it is a splendid book that anyone interested in the macabre should definitely take a look at.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

[Review] To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Rating: 4 stars
Genre: YA, classics, Southern Lit
Synopsis: The story takes place during three years (1933–35) of the Great Depression in the fictional "tired old town" of Maycomb, Alabama, the seat of Maycomb County. It focuses on six-year-old Scout Finch, who lives with her older brother, Jem, and their widowed father, Atticus, a middle-aged lawyer. Jem and Scout befriend a boy named Dill, who visits Maycomb to stay with his aunt each summer. The three children are terrified of, and fascinated by, their neighbor, the reclusive "Boo" Radley. The story goes on to delve deeper into the case of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman whom Atticus is appointed to defend.

Another one of those books I should've already read in high school but didn't. It does live up to its reputation. The characters are memorable, and despite their flaws, relatable and likable.

So why four stars instead of five? That's a matter of personal taste. I was just sort of tired of reading these kind of stories about the negro who can't defend himself so the benevolent white man steps in, with his reputation and safety at stake, to defend him. I completely support Atticus and even admire him for being so clear-headed and wise, but I just find it distasteful that this book was so "life-changing" for people. In a way, that's a good thing right? The book teaches you about respecting others, and treating them with how you want to be treated-all that good stuff, but if this story was told from the perspective of the black man, it would be nowhere near as widely read as this. Somehow, learning about racism and equality from the white man rubs me the wrong way. Now the lesson is a good one no matter where it comes from, and I'm glad that it was able to teach people a little perspective, but personally, from where I'm coming from, it didn't move me or touch my heart the way it would others.

That's really all I have to say about this book. I'm sure most people have read it, so I don't think I need to say more about it than I already have.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

[Review] Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Rating: 4 Stars
Genre: Paranormal Fantasy, YA.
Synopsis: A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. A strange collection of very curious photographs.

It all waits to be discovered in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, an unforgettable novel that mixes fiction and photography in a thrilling reading experience. As our story opens, a horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a deserted island for good reason. And somehow—impossible though it seems—they may still be alive.

A spine-tingling fantasy illustrated with haunting vintage photography, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children will delight adults, teens, and anyone who relishes an adventure in the shadows.
The main attraction of this book, or at least it's unique selling point, is the vintage photographs provided in the book. They are all real collector's photographs, which I found pretty cool. I'm not a huge photography person. I mean... I only know Man Ray and Richard Avedon so I'm not a photography expert, but the photos were a nice touch to the story. Some of them weren't altogether relevant to the actual plot (the creepier ones), but it doesn't bother me as much as it does for other reviewers.

There's a lot going on in this book, a lot, so much so that the dynamics gets pretty convoluted at times and you have to take a moment to really understand the laws of this particular universe. I can't really go too deep into it without spoiling the story, but it does get a little complicated without much explanation.

Otherwise, I kinda sorta actually adored this book. I liked the character's sarcastic self-deprecating teenager voice. Any book that makes me laugh gets an extra gold star. The protagonist says things like: "It seemed like my parents were always trying to get me to care about money, but I didn't, really. Then again, it's easy to say you don't care about money when you have plenty of it." Jacob isn't particularly compelling and a little on the daft side, but he's a likable guy.

I also really enjoyed the WW2 jewish refugee backstory with Jacob's grandfather and that sometimes monsters aren't just the variety that pops up underneath the bed at night. There's actually so much I like about this book that I don't even have time to list out all my reasons. So why four stars and not five? Here's where the "paranormal fantasy" part of the book failed me. If it was only a story about a young boy who on a quest to uncover his grandfather's past, it would be just another YA Jewish coming of age "Everything is Illuminated" type of story, and understandably, it wouldn't have been quite as unique, but the whole fantasy part of the story was a little weak. Click for more, but beware of spoilers.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

[Review] Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Rating: 5 Stars
Genre: Short-Stories, South-Asian fiction
Synopsis: Short stories about India, or being Indian living in the U.S.

I'm just going to come out and say it, I love Jhumpa Lahiri. She's such an amazing writer and has such a talent for description and nuance. Interpreter of Maladies consists of nine short stories. The book is not very long so it can be finished in a few sittings. I'll summarize and review each story separately because there's no way I can make any sweeping generalizations about the whole book.

But first off, some criticism about Jhumpa Lahiri that I want to talk about. She gets a lot of crap for only writing about Indian professors/students living in Cambridge. But so what? Leave the lady alone. Let her write what she wants to write. It's obviously working so why mess with a good thing? Whether she grows as a writer or not is nobody's business but hers. So, let's start.

"A Temporary Matter" is the first story in the collection. It's about a husband and a wife who become estranged after the death of their first child in the delivery room, but they are finally brought together by a series of blackouts in the neighborhood. They sit in the dark, and they tell each other truths they have never revealed before. Only in the dark, which is reminiscent to their life in India when electrical shortages weren't uncommon, do they open up about their feelings. The story is all about relationships and communication. Personally, it is one of my favorites in the collection.