Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Search Results for: “valyruh

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #104: Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

While reading this book, I had to keep reminding myself that this was a memoir and not outrageous fiction, which made it all the sadder. While hysterically funny at times and morbidly depressing at others, Running with Scissors is in fact a story of child abuse not all that different from “A Child called It.” And while it was evident that the author wrote the book as humor in order to try to contend with his horribly abusive childhood, I am frankly amazed at all the reviewers who gave it a thumbs up for its “bawdy wacky humor” and did not simultaneously weep tears of outrage on behalf of poor Augusten.

Augusten is the child of a couple who despise each other. The mother is a self-absorbed Southern dilettante and would-be poet who is probably bi-polar, the father a cold-blooded alcoholic who is completely disinterested in his son. Both parents have spent years physically and verbally abusing each other, until he finally walks away and never looks back. She discovers her homosexuality and signs over custody of her 13-year-old son to her psychiatrist, freeing herself to indulge her lunacy which periodically devolves into full-fledged psychotic outbreaks (sometimes directed at Augusten himself) and confinement in a mental hospital. Augusten’s next three years are spent living in Dr. Finch’s household with a variety of mental patients, which include Dr. Finch himself (he reads the future in his own turds, hands out psychiatric meds like candy, and openly keeps several wives and mistresses), his wife, children—both biological and adopted—and several of Dr. Finch’s mental patients. The house is a collapsing, roach-infested Victorian pile, and everyone lives according to their own rules, or lack thereof.

Augusten is removed from school when Finch devises a fake suicide attempt for the boy, and his rape by a resident adult pedophile is viewed more or less benevolently as a “relationship” by his new guardian. Augusten reminded me of nothing so much as the ball in a pinball machine, batted back and forth between his psychotic mother, his obsessed pedophile lover, the lunatic Dr. Finch, and the crazy episodes of the Finch “children.” All the “freedom” he is granted to choose his own lifestyle and life rules equals so much chaos, and ultimately turns into boredom as Augusten discovers by age 16 that his lack of education, lack of life skills and lack of direction makes him unsuited to survive in the outside world. His mother’s sudden “revelation” that she has been raped, overmedicated, and manipulated for years by the man she had turned her child over to, creates a moment of crisis for Augusten in which he is asked to choose sides. How he resolves this and whether he emerges into adulthood intact is the subject of a second memoir.

While laughing aloud at some moments (he is a truly funny guy and writes a great turn of phrase), I basically found myself wincing and outright cringing through much of this book. The Glass Castle is a profoundly funny, insightful, and poignant memoir about a dysfunctional family; Running With Scissors, for all its “bawdy wackiness,” made me downright sick with anger at what this child suffered–and how society failed him. I can only wonder that he survived to tell the tale.

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Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #103: Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

I saw the movie “Mystic River” quite a few years ago, and remember it being dark, painfully tragic and brilliantly acted. Now, having read quite a few of Lehane’s novels and enjoyed every one of them, I picked up Mystic River the book at my library, and got blown away all over again. Lehane takes a murder mystery and wraps it in a study of human psychology that is truly Shakespearean in scope.

It starts with an horrific childhood trauma: three 11-year-old boys are squabbling in the rough streets of Boston, when a cop car pulls up and orders the kids into the car to “teach them a lesson” about fighting in the streets. Only they are not cops, and while Jimmy and Sean recognize something isn’t quite right and refuse to get in the car, the fearful Davey does. He escapes from his abductors four days later, but none of the three escapes unscathed from the incident. The guilt-ridden Sean grows up into a cop with a broken marriage, Jimmy hones his street smarts into becoming a criminal legend, and the severely-damaged Dave carries around “the Boy Who Escaped From Wolves” in his head while trying to be a good family man.

They’ve gone their separate ways, but Sean, Jimmy and Dave cross paths tragically when Jimmy’s lovely 19-year-old daughter is beaten to death on the eve of her secret elopement. Sean must investigate a murder which brings him face-to-face with his childhood fears, Jimmy must decide whether to return to the coldblooded past he had shunned for his family’s sake, and Dave encounters his “Wolf.” But Lehane doesn’t stop there. He gives us Jimmy’s wife Annabeth, a stoic and strong-willed woman who is sister to a vicious clan of thugs and Jimmy’s “foundation,” and Dave’s wife Celeste, a cousin to Annabeth whose fear of the encroaching world and its attendant horrors undoes her.

As much a novel about the flaws that challenge us and make us human as it is about the city of Boston in which Lehane grew up and sets all his novels, Mystic River is a tour de force. As one reviewer put it so succinctly, “The lines between guilt and innocence, loyalty and treachery, justice and brutality are perpetually being smudged and redrawn,” forcing one to look inward and test oneself against the moral ambiguities in today’s world. Without giving anything away, I will say that the very end of the novel was deeply disturbing—as it was meant to be—and clinched Lehane’s brilliance for me.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #102: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

A powerful book but not for the faint-hearted. Diaz’s deceptively simple, occasionally lyrical, but often brutally crude writing style is sometimes cringe-worthy, but you need to stick with it until the end, because it is only once you have read the last page, closed the book and taken it all in that you suddenly realize that you have just read a complex and profound exploration into that thing called “love.”

Having read Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” a few years ago, the character of Yunior was not too fresh in my mind, but I did remember that he had a real problem with women. And in this new series of inter-linked semi-autobiographical short stories where Yunior (Junot) is the central character in most of them, we begin to penetrate the whys and wherefors. We see him in the present time struggling simultaneously with serious physical ailments and a profound depression over the loss of his fiancé, who tired of his cheating ways and dumped him. We go back in time to look at his impoverished early years as a Dominican immigrant to the U.S., with a philandering and unloving father and a largely oblivious mother who preferred his “no-good” older brother Rafa. We get a poignant close-up of his relationship with Rafa, Yunior’s role model in the form of a good-looking, swaggering, shallow and lustful woman-abuser who eventually suffers a lingering death from cancer while turning his back—literally—on his mother and Yunior. And we watch as Yunior, suffering a combination of resentment and guilt, corrupts his own soul in imitation of Rafa, going through a series of sexual escapades and exploitative relationships where his own self-loathing increasingly rises to the surface.

And then, we begin to see glimpses of redemption and healing. For example, Yunior goes with his friend Elvis back to the Dominican Republic where the married-with-daughters Elvis hopes to scoop up the 2-year-old little boy he fathered during a brief affair there. Desperate for a son, Elvis overlooks what Junior cannot, namely that the child is not his after all, and that the mother’s paternity claim is a poverty-driven scam to wring what money she can from Elvis. Yunior forces his friend to take a paternity test which proves the scam, but is secretly brokenhearted that the child is thereby abandoned to a fatherless and impoverished fate.

While author Diaz bares his soul with in-your-face depictions of the self-hating womanizing behavior he identifies with broken men like Rafa and Yunior, he also offers us a glimpse across the gender divide with unique portraits of the many women, Dominican and otherwise, who cross Yunior’s path, ranging from the submissive women like his mother who turn to the Church as an opiate (“I had my yerba, she had hers”), to the lonely women like the aging Ms. Lora, to the grasping desperate women, to the independent women who have the strength to walk away. Diaz also inserts a lengthy chapter about a young impoverished immigrant woman trapped into the hopeless life of mistress and single motherhood, which breaks the momentum of the Yunior stories but also gives it added depth through this new perspective.

“This is How You Lose Her’ is not about happy endings, but it is about self-awareness and personal growth and, perhaps one day, real love.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #101: Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis

This is a tricky novel to review, as it had elements I both loved and hated. I know it has generated some strong reviews on both sides of the divide, and I would recommend that people read it with a measure of open-mindedness, a sense of humor, patience—and perhaps a dictionary of British slang in hand. And if you are easily offended, this book is not for you.

This is the story of the title character Lionel, an amoral thug from a low-class dystopic London (dubbed Diston in the novel) who rampages his way through the novel causing the reader to cringe at every turn. He makes his living as a “debt collector” with the help of two alcohol-and-Tabasco-fueled pit bulls, earned his anti-social behavior order (ASBO; get it?) at the tender age of 3, and views his regular stints in jail as moments of calm where “at least you know where you are.” Women are an unknowable source of angst, friends can’t be trusted, and the future doesn’t exist for the likes of Lionel. Money is all.

Our anti-hero is the youngest of 7 dysfunctional offspring from a variety of disappearing fathers, whose promiscuous mother Grace finished her baby-making by age 19, and then began a slow slide into dementia. Her daughter Cilla is dead at the start of the novel, and Cilla’s 15-year-old mixed-race son is being “raised” by Uncle Lionel, just six years his senior. The best advice “Uncle Li” can offer his nephew Desmond is to learn to use a knife and to choose porn over sex. However, Des yearns to find true love, to go to college, and is teaching himself languages and philosophy in between driving cabs to help defray costs.

The lonely Des gets seduced into having sex with his 39-year-old “grandmum,” and the rest of the novel is overlaid with his terror over how the murderous Lionel will respond to this when it ultimately comes out. But before that can happen, Lionel hits a lotto jackpot, winning himself a vast fortune which both gives him license to  gratify his every low desire and simultaneously takes away his raison d’etre. Lionel disappears into celebrity nightmare, is captured by a gold-digger smarter than him, and is pursued and mocked at every turn by the sensationalist media. We follow Lionel’s descent into hell—hysterically funny at times and yet painfully sad and often horrific at others—along with the simultaneous evolution of Des’ relationship with his lover Dawn into marriage, and eventual fatherhood.

Amis’ novel has been described by some as a sort of Dickensian commentary on the decline of the social order in which we live, and I found that when I managed to decipher the sometimes unintelligible British slang and get past the sometimes unnecessarily grotesque scenes, there was penetrating satire here definitely worth the slog.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #100: The Racketeer by John Grisham

I had mixed feelings about this one. To be honest, I have loved the majority of Grisham’s novels, and thought this would be another in his respected series of intense political/legal thrillers. To my surprise and initial delight, The Racketeer is a fun ride. It is written mostly as a first-person narrative by black disbarred lawyer Malcolm Bannister, who is half-way through a 10-year jail term he didn’t deserve, has already lost his wife to divorce and young son to a new stepfather, and is desperate to get out. Malcolm is smart, savvy, and has a sense of humor which seasons his narrative. Before many pages into the novel, we discover that a federal judge and his lover have been robbed and murdered, and that Malcolm knows the killer and is willing to barter his knowledge to the clueless FBI in exchange for a get-out-of-jail-free card. The deal is struck, the suspect is apprehended, confesses, is indicted, and Malcolm is whisked out of jail, given a new identity and face, and allowed to go his merry way.

This is where the story gets interesting, because Malcolm is not a jailhouse snitch and all is not as it seems. Rather, he has forged a clever–and ruthless–plot to get his revenge on the system that destroyed his former life. The story rapidly fills up with characters and complicated scenarios which require a careful eye to keep track of. Grisham’s talent is in keeping the reader fooled along with Malcolm’s targets, but his weakness—in this novel at least—is in offering us plot twists and characters which are so improbable as to be almost laughable. For example, girlfriend Vanessa appears somewhere along the way, virtually from thin air, and yet becomes an integral accomplice in the plot which our “hero” hatched at least two years earlier. Malcolm takes a thousand and one risks to make his revenge a success, and yet manages to sail through each without a hiccup. In the real world, he would have been back in jail before the novel hit its half-way mark. And Malcolm himself has somehow morphed from the simple, honest, even naïve attorney who got caught in a spider’s web at the beginning of the story, to a slick operator who knows his way around drugs, guns, fake identities, gold traders, money launderers, the film industry, and more. It is almost like the world suddenly becomes Malcolm’s plaything, and everything easily bends to his will.

In fact, things are so well-oiled for Malcolm that I almost found myself hoping that he himself was the judge-killer the FBI was searching for, just to throw a well-deserved kink into the too-slick story line. Alas, that was not to be. Don’t get me wrong. I was happily entertained with this fast-paced and cleverly-conceived, or should I say fast-conceived and cleverly-paced, novel. Just the sort of thing that Hollywood loves to churn out with big-name draws to cover for lack of depth. And, to be fair, Grisham did end his novel with a reference to the sort of corporate corruption that has become his bread-and-butter of late. Still and all, for the most part a forgettable story. I can only hope that Grisham takes a little more time with his next one, and gives his readership something more solid to bite into.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #99: Nothing But the Truth by John Lescroart

Lescroart has done it again, producing a novel which is just as much about character as it is about plot, and excelling on both fronts. Nothing But the Truth centers around the efforts of San Francisco former cop-turned-defense lawyer Dismas Hardy to ferret out the truth behind the murder of chemist and environmental activist Bree Beaumont, as a means to free his wife from jail, where she is sitting out days of contempt charges for refusing to reveal to a grand jury the secret confided by her friend, Beaumont’s husband Ron.

At first, Hardy can’t fathom why Fanny Hardy would accept jail in defense of Ron—who has taken his children and fled a police investigation into his wife’s murder—while leaving their own children motherless. And the more he probes, the more he fears the worst, that his wife was having an affair with Ron. Hardy’s emotions range from anger at Fanny’s suspected betrayal to fear of losing his beloved partner in life, to confused yearning for the uncomplicated existence of his single days, to guilt over his incompetence at fathering his children. His emotions make Hardy very human, and enable the reader to stand in his shoes as he tries to discover a way of balancing work and home life.

Lescroart’s skillful exploration of the stresses, and sometimes the lies, that can fester in a marriage extends into Hardy’s private investigation into the Beaumont murder, which in turn becomes increasingly complicated as he ties in the seemingly-unrelated murder of the cop investigating Beaumont’s death, the gubernatorial candidate for whom Beaumont worked before she was killed, and the money of big oil and environmental terrorism which lies behind the murder. In fact, while a powerfully-wrought personal journey, Nothing But the Truth is also a compelling expose of how both government and big business manipulate and exploit the very public they are supposed to represent.

The novel begins quite slowly, but begins to pick up speed as Lescroart has Hardy pull the strands of the plot together. There are a lot of suspects, a lot of motives, and the good guys are stymied by the belligerance of a District Attorney’s office which values political capital over the law. And even when the identity of the killer is revealed, Lescroart still has more to say. And it is all worth the hearing.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #98: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

This is Brook’s first novel, and my first exposure to her writing, and was highly recommended by my equally-bookcrazy sister. Year of Wonders is an historical novel based on the true story of a small mining village in northern England in 1666, which gets exposed to the plague and whose inhabitants are inspired by their rector to quarantine themselves for however long it takes, as both a test of their faith and to prevent the plague from spreading further. The story is told from the viewpoint of Anna, the daughter of an abusive father, who is already a widow at the young age of 18 and who loses her two young sons to the plague early in the story. She struggles to preserve her sanity and her goodness as people start dropping like flies around her. Anna works as a maid for the passionate, driven, but moody rector and his saintly wife Elinor, who takes Anna under her tender wing and introduces her to reading, poetry, and culture.

Brooks uses this unique setting to discuss such moral issues as social inequality, gender inequality, religious fanaticism, mob dynamics, and much more. When the townspeople fall under the rector’s persuasive appeal to shut themselves off from the world, it is the local aristocratic family which heartlessly locks its household staff out and flees the town. As terror of the plague descends on the town, it is the wise old healer and her lively nonconformist niece who become the subjects of a murderous witch-hunt by a mob desperate to blame someone for their plight. As more townspeople die, some turn into the flagellants of medieval times while others exploit the fear and grief of the afflicted for their own gain. The rector slowly loses his faith, and Anna’s is repeatedly challenged.

While Brooks’ writing is very evocative, I fear she weakens her novel by imposing certain improbable modern-day precepts on her characters and plot. For example, Anna is the unlettered daughter of a brutish drunkard in a tiny 17th century village, and yet she fights for women’s rights, questions religion, and embraces science in medicine.  A less than believable characterization, for this day and age and in this context. At the same time, Brooks gives us luridly-depicted scenes of murder, death, and lunacy that smack of a Gothic horror story. Worse is Brooks’ resorting to soap-opera plot points to ramp up her story: improbable sexual interludes which smack of cheap romance novels about Lord Spencer and the governess. And perhaps worst of all is how Brooks chooses to conclude her novel, which is so unlikely as to be, frankly, a little ridiculous.

These weaknesses notwithstanding, I think Year of Wonders is a worthwhile read and recommend it for the fascinating subject, excellent historical research, and haunting—if melodramatic—writing.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #97: You’re Next by Gregg Hurwitz

One of Hurwitz’s most exciting novels, reminding me in some ways of the movie “Enemy of the State,” where the character played by Will Smith has his life shredded by forces beyond his control and for no reason he can fathom—at first.  In Hurwitz’s story, contractor Mike Wingate is suddenly being hunted, and his wife and child threatened, by a pair of cold-blooded killers. His life, once so contented, is now hell, and when his wife is stabbed in his home and he is blamed by several law enforcement agencies that appear to be part of the conspiracy against him, he goes on the run with his daughter, trying to stay one step ahead of the killers while discovering why they have targeted him.

In this novel, Hurtwitz does what he often does so well: first, he gives us a breathtaking mystery to untangle, with many layers and twists going way back to Mike’s early past. And second, he gives us a character in Mike who is both good and flawed—just like the rest of us. Mike grew up through the foster system after having been abandoned by his father at age 4, and he has nurtured a deeply-rooted hatred of the man, convinced he murdered Mike’s mother, ever since. Mike grew up with bad-boy Shep, and even did time for Shep in prison, but when his friend became a hardened criminal, Mike parted ways, eventually learning a trade and marrying the woman of his dreams. Now he must call on Shep to help save his life and the lives of his family, while on the run from cops and killers alike.

As always, a well-crafted story with knuckle-biting thrills and real depth to the characters, even the killers themselves. Go scare yourself!

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #96: The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

This nominee for the Man Booker Prize is a gorgeously-written historical novel taking place during the period immediately before, during and after World War II. The action centers on the Malaysian island of Penang, and is the story—told in flashback—of 16-year-old Phillip Hutton, the motherless half-Chinese, half-British son of a wealthy trading family who has felt alienated from the Chinese, the British and his own family for most of his young life, and is taken under the wing of a Japanese sensei who rents property from his father. Not only does Phillip become a master in the discipline of aikido, but he also acquires Japanese, philosophy, culture, and a loving substitute for his cool father.

Phillip spends happy days showing his new friend and teacher Endo-san all that is unique and beautiful about his island home, from the mansions of the wealthy but ethnically-divided neighborhoods and poor farming villages to the rough coasts, beautiful mountains and dense rainforests. He reveals to Endo-san many of the secrets of his beloved Penang…  And then everything goes wrong. First, the Japanese imperial army invades and ravages China, and then turns on Malaysia. Phillip is urged by family and friends to end his friendship with Endo-san, but ignores the warnings. Phillip’s elder half-brother is killed in a British naval battle with the invading Japanese, and those who can evacuate Penang do so on the eve of the Japanese occupation. Phillip’s father, however refuses to abandon his home and his factory, and as the Japanese occupy Penang and begin to systematically terrorize, kill or imprison anyone who won’t pay obeisance to the Japanese Emperor, Phillip realizes that his beloved Endo-san was also a Japanese spy using him to gain access to the island for the invading forces.

Making the ultimate sacrifice, the rapidly-maturing Phillip goes to work for the Japanese occupation forces directly under deputy-consul Endo-san, in exchange for his sensei‘s pledge to keep his family safe. Phillip becomes a despised “running dog” for the Japanese and his life becomes hell as he is hated by all and trusted by neither side. The novel moves very quickly at this point, as author Eng ramps up the tension, and his relationships with both Endo-san and his own father and sister change dramatically. These are scenes of horrible brutality and mass murder. There are also moments of almost mysterical reverie in the novel as Phillip goes through near-religious transformations, and the belief that Phillip and Endo-san were fated to meet, and love, and lose each other over and over again in multiple lives, becomes an anchor for the story.

The Gift of Rain  is a fascinating bit of history, as well as a beautiful and tragic tale of honor, loyalty, and betrayal. Along the way, we get fascinating glimpses into the traditions and philosophies of the East, itself undergoing transformation under colonial rule, first through the British and then the Japanese.

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #95: A Wanted Man by Lee Child

Child’s latest Jack Reacher novel is more of the same—which is to say, great! Reacher is doing his thing, hitchhiking cross-country with a toothbrush in his pocket and a vague direction in his mind, when he is picked up on a cold winter night in the middle of nowheresville, Nebraska by three individuals who are just slightly off. Two men in the front seat are dressed in identical cheap blue shirts, and a very quiet, nervous, and heavily made-up woman in the backseat is wearing the same shirt. They are supposedly all co-workers but Reacher isn’t buying it. He’s especially wondering why they were willing to pick him up late at night on a lonely highway, given the fact that he is well over six feet, heavily muscled, poorly dressed and sporting a recently broken, bloody and very swollen nose. They ask him to drive soon after picking him up, and he takes them through two major police blockades and on into the night.

True to Child’s style, the next series of chapters are an intense, almost claustrophic close-up on Reacher driving endless empty miles while trying to suss out the story behind the passengers in the car, but what he doesn’t know –yet — is that the two men have just executed someone and taken the woman as hostage. The deeper he gets, the messier it gets, and even when he manages to finally escape their clutches, he remains the target of a law enforcement manhunt along with the others. Multiple federal agencies get involved, more bodies turn up, people go missing, bad guys multiply, conspiracies surface, and once again, we get an explosive climax that has Reacher, a former military cop, saving the day against ridiculous odds.

Child somehow manages to make it work, time and again, with descriptions and dialogue as spare and no-nonsense, but also as effective and compelling, as the character of Reacher himself. We never do find out why Reacher’s nose was broken, and we get the feeling that it’s not his first time, but it doesn’t seem to interfere with his heroics. I often wonder why Child has made Reacher so anti-social, and it’s not like earlier novels haven’t filled in some of the history on this fascinating character, but I suspect that Reacher would lose his appeal if we pried too closely into his backstory. So enjoy it for what it is, and wait anxiously, like me, for Child’s next in the series.

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