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I read books, I write about books, I would probably marry a book if I could find one who liked me enough. Three words to describe me mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four...

Why having a terrible mother might be a good thing

Title:

 

The Children’s Crusade

 

Who wrote it?

 

Ann Packer, multi-prizewinning author of The Dive from Clausen’s Pier as well as acclaimed short fiction. More info at her website.

 

Plot in a Box:

 

What happens when a mother decides to dump her family in favour of a career as an artist?

 

Invent a new title for this book:

 

Not So Happy Days

 

Read this if you liked:

 

Some Luck by Jane Smiley, anything by Anne Tyler. Also read this if you didn’t much like We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver.

 

Meet the book’s lead(s):

 

Bill Blair: saintly doctor and family man.

Penny Blair: not so saintly mother and artist.

The Blair kids: Robert, Rebecca, Ryan and James. Guess which one is the black sheep.

 

Said lead(s) would be portrayed in a movie by:

 

The cast of Bloodline.

 

Setting: would you want to live there?

 

Oakland, California during the 1950s sounds like the definition of suburbia – safe, peaceful, clean, domesticated.

 

Not a chance.

 

What was your favorite sentence?

“We never get over it,” she said to me during one of our first sessions together. “What’s that?” I said and she said, “Having started out as children.”

The Verdict:

 

It isn’t much of a surprise that under that part of Packer’s website devoted to The Children’s Crusade you’ll find a Reading Group Guide, because this book is prime book group material. I’m not a big fan of book groups and especially not of book groups that might actually use a guide like this (and when I say ‘not a fan’ what I mean is that trapped in such a situation I would either gnaw off my own paw to escape or, failing that, drink myself comatose), but I am a fan of this book, which not only asks some important questions about our ideas around motherhood and families, but also has some reasonably optimistic answers to give those of us who worry that imperfect mothering is a social crime only slightly less dark than cooking up meth and selling it to pre-schoolers.

 

Mothering is a difficult business. It requires patience, self-sacrifice and a deep inability to take yourself too seriously. Mothering is not for the ambitious or the driven or the restless, which isn’t to say that if you are those things you should not have children, because motherhood changes a person, sometimes unrecognizably. The problem is that you don’t know how or if you’ll change before you have kids. Motherhood is a game of Russian Roulette. You pull the trigger and hope the chamber’s empty or at least not filled with a bullet that has ‘OMG WHY DID I DO THIS?’ etched on the side.

 

Penny Blair gets that bullet. She copes with three kids, but the fourth one breaks her. Patient husband Bill tries to accommodate her need for the freedom to create, but ultimately Penny chooses to leave. Her decision and how it affects her children forms the meat of the story, told in flashback and fast forward and from the point of view of all the family members (and I’m just going to give Packer a special nod here for being one of the rare writers skilled enough to switch point of view so seamlessly through a section, sometimes several times, that you barely notice the hop). The result is interwoven and complex, but also one in which the narrative drive remains very clear. For anyone who’s silently objecting to my use of the word ‘motherhood’ instead of ‘parenthood’, I don’t see mothering as a gendered role and neither, I suspect, does Packer. Penny’s decision causes pain, but also spurs growth and understanding. The Children’s Crusade is in no way a social manifesto, but it does quietly explore the idea that the roles society assigns to us might not always be the best fit.

 

The Children’s Crusade is also a hopeful book, a refreshing antidote to the gloomy predictions of We Need to Talk About Kevin, which homes in on the same area of disordered attachments and their effects. The message of Kevin was that mothers who get the bad bullet and discover that they’re stuck with a child they dislike are destined to produce monsters. Packer’s book provides welcome relief from this kind of judgment-heavy thinking. Far from creating psychopaths, The Children’s Crusade illustrates how having a terrible mother might be the best thing that could ever happen to us.

Sshhhhhh!
Sshhhhhh!

Did you read too much when you were young?

How To Be A Heroine - Samantha Ellis

Title

 

How to Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading too Much

 

Who wrote it: 

 

British playwright Samantha Ellis.

 

Plot in a Box: 

 

How to Be a Heroine falls somewhere between literary criticism and memoir. Ellis teases apart what makes the Lizzy Bennets and Cathy Earnshaws of the world tick, and what they’ve contributed to her own life.

 

Invent a new title for this book:

 

It's impossible to read too much, so I'd change the second half of the title to Or, What I've Learned From Reading Just the Right Amount. Rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?

 

Read this if you like:

 

Any of the books being analyzed: Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Gone with the Wind, J.D. Salinger, etc. Basically, if you like to read at all, you’ll probably recognize some of the works discussed here.

 

Meet the book's lead:

 

Aside from the dozens of heroines to pick from, Samantha Ellis herself as she navigates young adulthood in a tight-knit Iraqi Jewish community. 

 

Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by:

 

Against my better judgment, I couldn’t help but picture Ellis as Nia Vardalos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I think it had to do with all the descriptions of a dominant, interfering family.

 

Setting: Would you want to live there?

 

There are way too many potential settings to accurately answer this question.

 

What was your favorite sentence?

I know Lizzy would laugh at me, but on my first attempt at resisting convention, my hair caught fire. If the same thing had happened to her when she refused Mr. Collins, would she have been able to do it again?

The Verdict

 

Paging through some of literature’s greatest heroines is a fun way to spend an afternoon. Ellis is an excellent guide, interweaving fictional lives with her own in a way that balances the lightest tales with the darkest. Her reflections on a conservative childhood and how books offered indispensable companionship and insight will hit a soft spot for anyone who grew up reading late into the night beneath the covers. 

I was excited to see that Scarlett O’Hara (a heroine I’ve always admired for her fierceness and gumption) merited her own section despite her flaws, among other heroines who are less often praised or discussed. Ellis doesn’t just stick to the easy pickings— those heroines who are household names or align well with modern standards of morality. She tackles second-wave feminism titles and bodice-rippers like Jilly Cooper’s Riders. There are also heroines like Clara of Antonia White’s Frost in May, whom Ellis calls “difficult, isolated, introspective and sometimes terrifyingly blank and disengaged.”

 

Cultural references range from Anne Shirley to Angela Carter and Wes Anderson, yet Ellis finds ways to not only connect these stories to one another, but to her own life as well. Although the events of the author’s own past take up far less page space than the literary analysis, what she does choose to incorporate is both humorous and pensive. The conflict of familial versus romantic love is a topic that surfaces repeatedly, as well as themes of feminism (unsurprisingly), and religious devotion. 

 

I have to be honest and admit that I wasn’t familiar with all the characters that became part of the dialogue in this book, but that never bothered me much. I found myself scrolling through my library’s online catalogue for the titles, and I’m looking forward to returning to How to Be a Heroine once more to read Ellis’ commentary. It’s hard to fault a book that loves other books so much.

 

Bookshots review written for LitReactor.com by Leah Dearborn

Pure Unadulterated Irvine (Warning strong language!)

The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins by Welsh, Irvine (2014) Hardcover - Irvine Welsh

Title:

 

The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins

 

Who Wrote It?

 

You know bloody well who wrote it, ya fuckin' nonce! Irvine Welsh, filthy author of such filthy books as Filth, and a little book called Trainspotting.

 

Plot in a Box:

 

Despite the lurid title, Sex Lives is only tangentially concerned with the carnal proclivities of conjoined persons. A fitness trainer saves the day by preventing a murder, only to discover the man she has played Good Samaritan to is a child rapist. Through this she meets the client of her dreams/nightmares and goes donkey-balls crazy.

 

Invent a new title for this book:

 

Ying and Yang Chang and Eng

 

Read this if you liked:

 

Welsh in general, Pumping Iron, awful people, Chemical Pink by Katie Arnoldi, Body by Harry Crews.

 

Meet the book's lead(s):

 

Psychotic fitness freak Lucy Brennan, who is the closest Welsh has ever come to writing a female Begbie.

 

Lena Sorenson, brilliant artist slash tubby sack of woe-is-me.

 

Said lead(s) would be portrayed in a movie by:

 

Michelle Rodriguez has the appropriate combination of sexy and tough for Lucy, and Lena would be the perfect role to help Melissa McCarthy break out of her shitty-comedy rut—but she would have to commit to some reverse De Niro type weight loss for the end. I smell Oscar!

 

Setting: Would you want to live there?

 

Nope. Miami is like someone took the worst parts of LA and the Jersey Shore and mashed them together. P. Diddles (the P is for Party!) and the Latin guidos can have it*.

 

What was your favorite sentence?

It shows the actors Kristen Stewart and Megan Fox attached from the hip up, sitting on a park bench, snootily turned away from each other. Ryan Reynolds stands behind them, looking on in hapless appeal. It has the split logline:

Two Feisty Girls
One Smokin' Hot Body
Big Trouble

 

The Verdict:

 

This is Welsh's second Miami-set novel and the first to feature an entirely Scot-free cast. While reading it, you may find yourself wondering: Who the hell does this cheeky foreigner thinks he is? He may know a thing or two about dirt bag Scots, but how dare he presume to understand dirt bag Americans? Well, I've got news for you, sweetie-pie, Welsh has slowly been distancing himself from the motherland for a while—both on the page and in real life. Miami is one of the places he calls home now—and he has those fools DEAD RIGHT*. So put that in your juicer and drink it.

So if you've always wanted to read Welsh but were scared off by the accents, this is the place to start. Good news: the man has not softened with age. Sex Lives gives just as many fucks as any of Welsh's earlier works: NONE. The characters are equally reprehensible, the scenarios equally over the top (if not more so). But, if I may qualify that statement, it's also got heart. Or, at least, a shriveled arrhythmic version of it.

This is a messy novel about messy lives. It is borderline schizo, which I know is a commonly misused term, but saying "borderline borderline personality disorder" just doesn't work in reference to a book, let alone in a sentence. It is about completely different people and their similarities, as well as identical people who couldn't be more different. Along the way these personalities evolve, cross spectrum, their differences converging towards the center, before passing each other going in the opposite direction, leaving the reader wondering who is crazy and who is sane. (Hint: They're all crazy.) If that doesn't make any sense, let's just say Sex Lives is a blistering parody of fitness culture, the art world, and the hypothetical place where the two collide.


*Full disclosure: Everything I know about Miami I learned from Scarface and rap videos. I have never actually been.

 

Bookshots review written for LitReactor.com by Josh Chaplinski

Nothing Less Than Captivating

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances - Neil Gaiman

Title:

 

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances

 

Who Wrote It?

 

Neil Gaiman, author of beautifully haunting books, and holder of the key to my creative heart. (Translation: I love him. So much. I say this in the interest of full disclosure. I may not be an entirely unbiased reviewer today.)

 

Plot in a Box:

 

This is a collection of short stories and poetry, so the plots are far-flung. Diverse. Almost manically different. There's a foreboding hedge-maze in the British countryside, stalked by a legendary killer. There's a tale of an imaginary girlfriend who comes to life. There's a story about a couple who leaves their hearts (and minds) in Jerusalem, and another about what really happened to Sherlock Holmes post-retirement. And that barely scratches the surface of the chaos that lurks within the covers of this book. 

 

Invent a new title for this book:

 

Hodge-Podge Mish-Mash Fun Times Reading by the Fire

 

Read this if you like:

 

If you enjoy short stories, you'll enjoy this book. 

If you enjoy genre fiction, you'll enjoy this book.

If you enjoy reading just about anything, you'll enjoy this book.

Gaiman's a master at his craft. It's hard not to love the worlds he creates.

 

Meet the book's lead(s):

 

This being a collection of shorts, there are as many leads as there are plots. There's a young man who wants only to help his girlfriend's younger brother to bed. There's an aging reader, devastated by the fact that he can no longer remember his favorite author's name. There's a little girl with the best name ever (Jemima Glorfindel Petula Ramsey), responding to a police survey after her sister's other-worldly kidnapping. The characters in this collection are like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates — upon starting each new story, you never know what you're going to get.

 

Said lead(s) would be portrayed in a movie by:

 

Lots of different actors. Lots of different faces. Too many to list here.

 

Setting: Would you want to live there?

 

There are so many settings — far-flung sea coasts, the hills of rural China, worlds in far-off times and spaces. I'd love to visit them all, as long as I can always come home for dinner. 

 

What was your favorite sentence?

In November I received a ransom note telling me exactly what to do if I ever wished to see my uncle Theobald alive again. I do not have an Uncle Theobald, but I wore a pink carnation in my buttonhole and ate nothing but salads for the entire month anyway.

The Verdict:

 

Gaiman's a master. I can no more critique his writing than I could Stephen King's or Margaret Atwood's. And this review will be entirely too long, but you're just going to have to forgive me.

 

Because this? This Trigger Warning? Well, it's nothing less than captivating. A collection of diverse, witty, freaky stories, many of which will noodle around in my brain for months to come. I know they will, because they're already there, already bugging me. Already nudging me, asking over and over again:

 

"What if?"

"How about?"

"Why not?"

 

From "A Calendar of Tales," a laugh-out-loud group of twelve weirdly unrelated mini-stories, to "The Case of Death and Honey," whose disjointed beginning I briefly hated, but whose ending made me cry, there's no end to Gaiman's imagination. You want aliens? You've got them. Monsters? Sure. Of course. Poignant moments in which you fall in love with a character, only to see him dissolve at the end of someone else's flight of fancy?Absolutely.

 

My favorite story, by far, was the haunting, aching tale of "The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury." It was a love note to one of the best authors ever, and was sad and sweet and painful, so painful. For who doesn't fear, more than almost anything else, the loss of their memories? Of their life? That's a concept that keeps me up at night, and in his honorarium of Ray Bradbury, Gaiman brings this fear to life.

 

And if that's not enough to get thee to the bookstore, then know this: for each story in the collection, each poem, there's a blurb in the introduction about where the story came from. Because you know how, in interviews, people always ask authors, "Where do you get your ideas?" and the answer is always some vague, "From the ether" type thing? But we, the readers, really want to know, for realsies this time, where the story came from? Gaiman gives us the answers, providing a sneak peek into a brain that must be as beautiful, haunting, and terrifying as the stories to which it gives birth.

 

So. Gaiman, yeah? Go forth, dear readers. Go forth and read Trigger Warning. I think you'll love it.

 

Bookshots review written for LitReactor.com by Leah Rhyne

Just nudge me if I start snoring....
Just nudge me if I start snoring....

So apparently, this is a real thing

Reblogged from RedT Reads Randomly:
Joseph Is A Cheat. I Hate Joseph. I Love My Joseph.: All Of These Women Look Like Jennifers To Me Joseph. (Cocaine.1967.) (Volume 22) - King Joseph Anthony Alizio Jr., Pimp Edward Joseph Ellis, Pres Vincent Joseph Allen

Kindle Price: $25.67

Length: 885 pages (estimated)

 

I Still Write All Day Long Hoe s.
The Time Is Now 8:42 AM.
May 2 - 2014.
This Is My Social Security Payday.
the third but this is the weekend push pull.
I DO NOTHING DIFFERENT WHATSOEVER.
I JUST WATCH MY BILLS GET PAID IS ALL.

I HAVE BEEN UP ALL NIGHT WORKING ON MY ARTWORK. YES THIS COVER MOSTLY.
NO. I HAD MANY OTHER CHOICES.
THE CREATESPACE BOOK COVER
MAKER FUCKED ME OVER ONCE AGAIN.
8 TRIES...and I JUST
SHUT MY COMPUTER DOWN MID SENTENCE.
CREATESPACE WAS FROZEN ON ME.
I WAS REDUCING MY BROWSER
UP and DOWN
TO GET ANYTHING TO EVEN WORK.

YES. THEY KNOW. I GOT COVERT WORD.
and BOOM. NOT THE COVER THAT I HAD JUST UPLOADED (?) BUT THE ONE BEFORE.
THIS COVER WAS SITTING PERFECT COMPARED TO WHAT I HAD BEEN DEALING WITH.

Which Was This...

I TRIED ALL NEW NUMBERS FIRST.
"HEY ALL NEW DIMENSIONES!"
FUCK NO. FUCK.
YES WITH THEIR ENTIRE SITE
ON SNAIL PACE LOCK AS WELL.
SO ANYWAYS I WENT BACK TO MY OLD SCHOOL BOOK COVER SIZES....
1172 px X 1372 px
I ADD THE TOGETHER
TO CREATE MY ONE PIECE.
FRONT and BACK COVERS OF COURSE.
"THE BINDER WAS NOT SHOWING.
>>> IN ORDER FOR ME
TO SET MY COVER UP PROPERLY.
I SHALL FLIP O U T ."

NOT ONE OF THEM WORKED.
LOL.
THIS HAPPENED TO ME
BACK LAST AUGUST I BELIEVE.

21 FUCKING PUBLISHED BOOKS. KISS MY ASS.
I AM WRITING MY 31ST BOOK RIGHT NOW.
"I NEED COVERS FOR THESE FUCKING BOOKS!"
all this is my work all of the time.

SO HEY. I JUST COOKED
MY 100 MINI RAVIOLIS
FOR MY FUN TIMES MOST BORING DAY.
LIFE IS GOOD. WELL NO.
IF THIS FRIDAY?
RE: YES MY CHECK IS ONE DAY EARLY.

BUT WELL...I AM TOO TIRED
TO WRITE ALL ABOUT IT...RIGHT NOW.

BUMBLE BEE
JALAPENO ALBACORE WHITE TUNA FISH.
I JUST ATE MYSELF ONE CAN.
"THIS IS FUCKING GOOD."
THIS IS THE
FLAVOR THAT I HAD NOT TRIED YET.

 

[judging from the sample, there're 885 pages of this

quite a bargain for 25 bucks.]

Ever wondered why Grandad looked so hairy in those photos?

The Sasquatch Hunter's Almanac: A Novel - Sharma Shields

Title

 

The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac

 

Who Wrote It?

 

Sharma Shields, a writer who has worked in independent bookstores and libraries all over Washington state. She is the author of the short story collection Favorite Monster. The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac is her first novel.

 

Plot in a Box:

 

A woman abandons her family to live in the woods with Sasquatch (“Mr. Krantz”) and her unbelievable decision greatly damages the two generations that follow.  

 

Invent a new title for this book:

 

Half a Century of Sasquatch or Stop Loving Beasts

 

Read this if you like:

 

Magical realist family sagas along the lines of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s classic: One Hundred Years of Solitude, or anything by Kevin Wilson (Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, The Family Fang).  

 

Meet the book’s lead:

 

Eli Roebuck, a podiatrist-turned-cryptozoologist who founds the Sasquatch National Research Lab in his obsessive search for a large, hairy man who stole his mother away from him. Freud would have a field day.   

 

Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by:

 

Michael Sheen. Going from his role as Bill Masters to a cryptozoologist obsessed with finding Sasquatch only seems natural.  

 

Setting: would you want to live there?

 

Out in the woods with Bigfoot? No thank you. A condo in Lilac City? Yes, please.    

 

What was your favorite sentence?

It wasn’t about hatred, like I’d always thought. It was just that we were strangers.

The Verdict:

 

It’s safe to say that many of us don’t actually believe in Bigfoot. I know I don’t. From a young age, before even Santa Claus was spoiled for most of us, we’ve been assured that stories about Sasquatch are campfire myths – or worse – part of a larger hoax. By some magic, though, Sharma Shields’ debut novel The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac suspends that disbelief. Throughout Eli Roebuck’s obsessive hunt for Mr. Krantz, I couldn’t stop thinking back to the famous line from The X-Files: “I want to believe.” For the duration of this book, I surrendered. I believed in Sasquatch.  

 

Beyond the fantastical elements of this novel – the unicorns, ghosts, hexes, and lake monsters – is a story about family, and what happens when the abandonment and heartbreak of one generation spills over to the next. Shields provides a kaleidoscopic view of the Roebuck family through each generation, shifting forward in time each chapter to a different third-person perspective. This technique, while jarring at times, evens the playing field for characters like Eli’s mom Agnes, who would otherwise be dismissed as a one-dimensional crazy and heartless old hag. Even Shields’ Sasquatch, Mr. Krantz, is a charming monster.  

 

Overall, Shield’s prose is dark, playful and imaginative. The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac is a novel that sets out to entertain, even when characters come off as flat or archetypal. Shield’s debut will make you want to believe in all those impossible myths you left behind as a child and remind the slightly older and wiser version of you to treat loved ones with a little more care

 

Bookshots review written for LitReactor.com by Freddie Moore

Science Fiction at its best

Morte - Robert Repino

Title:

 

Mort(e)

 

Who Wrote It?

 

Robert Repino, a previous Pushcart Prize nominee for his short fiction. Mort(e) is his debut novel. More info here.

 

Plot in a Box:

 

It's hard to really fit this novel's plot into a box, as it is sprawling, but basically it's about a cat named Mort(e) who gets mutated —along with all his four-legged friends—into a more human-like form by Hymenoptera Unus, an ancient queen ant hell-bent on vengeance against humanity. He joins a ragtag army of cats and fights alongside the giant Colony ants in the War Without A Name, becoming one of the most ruthless and recognizable soldiers out there, all the while hoping to find his pre-war friend Sheba, a dog who lived next door. But when he leaves service, the remaining human resistance selects Mort(e) as their messiah of sorts. And that happens only about halfway through the book...

 

Invent a new title for this book:

 

Cats and Dogs Living Together: Mass Hysteria!

 

Read this if you liked:

 

Planet of the Apes (movie or book), Animal Farm (the book) and Under The Skin (haven't seen the movie yet, so the book).

 

Meet the book's lead:

 

We met him already. He's Mort(e), an orange and white neutered male house cat turned two-legged warrior from hell. He's surly, he's no-nonsense, and he has only enough love for his friend Sheba (at least that's what he tells himself). And yes, there's a reason the 'e' is parenthesized. 

 

Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by:

 

Mort(e): The Movie would no doubt be a CGI affair, and I think the team behind the latest Apes films would be up for the task. 

As for the voice, it took me a while to figure out who I heard in my head while reading the book, but I finally landed on Leonardo DiCaprio. 

 

Setting: Would you want to live there?

 

Um...No.

 

What was your favorite sentence?

The bodies had piled up at the base of the Queen's abdomen. She was submerged in them, like the hull of a ship riding a sea of the dead.

The Verdict:

There are so many contradictory elements to Mort(e) (and I mean that as a complement). Repino's writing is terse and to-the-point, much like his protagonist, which makes for a quick read. Despite this, we still feel the long timespan of the novel, as well as the devastation and pointlessness of the War Without A Name, as though we've just waded through an 800-page opus.

 

There are plenty of bleak, deadly serious moments throughout the novel, but it's also deeply funny in many places. Just look at the basic premise: we're dealing with war here, with humanity's duality as both a species of peace and of destruction, of benevolence and cruelty. And yet the catalyst that spurs these topics on is an unabashed throwback to 50s B-Movie kitsch—ants the size of SUVs decimating entire cities, lead by a Queen carrying the weight of infinite knowledge on her shoulders. She's able to spike the world's water supply with a hormone that mutates land animals, causing Rovers and Friskys to rise up against their "masters," walk around on two legs, tote guns and speak with human voices. The only thing missing here are lizard people. Is it plausible? No. But does it get the point across while also providing entertainment and escapism? Absolutely. Mort(e) feels like a light read, but it most certainly isn't one.

 

This is science fiction at its best. Repino gives us a wild, imaginative and wholly original tale without any trace of sugar-coating. He takes our current war-addled, religion-dominated, decidedly divided society to task, raising hard questions about our own species, without providing any easy answers. Definitely pick this one up.

 

Bookshots review written for LitReactor.com by Chris Shultz

Bookshots: Whipping Boy by Allen Kurzweil

Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully - Allen Kurzweil

 

Did you ever get bullied at school? Of course you did, we all did. But did you ever consider tracking down your bully, years later, and finding out how life had treated them since? Allen Kurzweil wrote a book about just that. Keith Rawson's review reveals that far from being a rich kid sob story, this is a weirder and far more complicated tale.

 

Title:

 

Whipping Boy

 

Who Wrote It?

 

Novelist, educator, journalist, and inventor, Allen Kurzweil.

 

Plot in a Box:

 

Wealthy tow-head boy of privilege goes to exclusive Swiss boarding school because of his dead father’s obsession with Switzerland only to have the shit beaten out of him daily by a sadistic bully. Said boy then spends the next forty years obsessing on the bully.

 

Invent a new title for this book:

 

Finding Cesar

 

Read this if you liked:

 

Men Who Stare At Goats by Jon Ronson, Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs

 

Meet the book's lead:

 

Allen Kurzweil, child of immense privilege who becomes a renowned public intellectual.

 

Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by:

 

I don’t know, as a kid Kurzweil would be portrayed by some adorable moppet. As an adult, Ewan McGregor.

 

Setting: Would you want to live there?

 

The book takes place all over the world, so yes to some, no to others.

 

What was your favorite sentence?

My mother warehoused me in Aiglon while she was test-driving her third husband.

The Verdict:

 

I’ll be the first to admit it, I have a built-in prejudice to the problems of the idle rich. I know, I know, they’re people just like the rest of us, but unlike the rest of us, the idle rich have the ability to buy themselves out of their problems.

 

This is also my beef with most of the creative memoirs that have flooded the literary landscape since the success of Augusten Burroughs Running with Scissors way back in 2002. Most of them have been written by formerly upper middle class suburban kids who happen to come from wacky, drug/alcohol/mentally unhealthy families with loads and loads of money that softens the blows of their parents wackiness. Yes, like most children of abnormal upbringings, they are scared and end up being just as weird and wacky as their parents, but with a self-conscious need to not reproduce the mental foibles of their elders.

 

And, of course, they somehow get book deals in recounting the “troubles” they suffered as children.

 

Unfortunately, I kind of approached Whipping Boy with the same attitude as I have with so many other "rich kids with problems" memoirs. In my reading of the early, slightly horrifying chapters of Whipping Boy, I kept thinking to myself: Man, why doesn’t this kid just call his globe-trotting mom and tell her to transfer him to another exclusive Swiss boarding school instead of taking so much shit from this asshole Cesar Augustus?

But the major difference between Whipping Boy and most "rich kids with problems" memoirs is that it’s actually an engaging and at times harrowing read that is as much top-tier investigative journalism as it is memoir. Kurzweil’s journey into finding out of what happened to his adolescent tormentor is both funny, heart-breaking, and populated with characters that seem like they popped out of pulp novels as opposed to being living, breathing human beings.

 

Yes, I did unfairly prejudge Whipping Boy, but I’ll flat out recant my judgment because it is far from a "woe is me while wiping away the tears with hundred dollar bills" kind of story. It is, instead, a vastly entertaining book of one man’s obsession and how childhood cruelty can both scar and drive us.

Intricate, spellbinding, wholly original.

Dictionary of the Khazars (Male Edition) - Milorad Pavić, Christina Pribichevich-Zoric

Lets imagine that an ancient civilisation disappeared and all the evidence you had to reconstruct them and their way of life, were three fragmentary dictionaries, each written from a different religious perspective by those who had contact with that civilisation at that time. You could never understand those people directly, because they left no written record of their own. You could only understand them from the point of view of others, each coloured by their own opinions and beliefs.

If you read such a book, what would you end up understanding best? The extinct civilisation? Or the three religions which describe them?

That's the point of this dictionary, a point delivered through a series of fables. The differences between the accounts, the alterations in focus and interpretation, form a window onto the three major Western religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

But forget all that deep significant stuff. This is also a wonderful collection of myths and legends, featuring fruits that look like fish but grow on trees, heroes with mighty moustaches and doomed, prescient princesses. Take it either way, it's still a delight.

Don't make the mistake of taking this too seriously

The Conspiracy Against the Human Race - Thomas Ligotti, Ray Brassier

OK so if you look at the cover and title of this book and perhaps know something about Ligotti's reputation as a writer of weird and twisted horror fiction, and from that deduce that this is going to be the kind of read which sinks you into a morass of despair, then think again.

 

It's true that Ligotti's main premise is that consciousness, that quality of self-awareness that only humans seem to possess, is not so much a gift as a horrible affliction. Consciousness, he argues, allows us knowledge of our own death. It allows us to reflect, to wonder, to doubt. Instead of just going about our business, like other animals do, consciousness means we spend time worrying over things we cannot change, like death or whether we are as nice and pretty as we believe we are. Humans would be better off without consciousness, thinks Ligotti, but for some reason, nature has decided to burden us with it and turn our existence into one huge cosmic joke.

 

Yes, that sounds depressing, but only if you make the mistake (which I think Ligotti kind of wants you to) of taking it at all seriously. In other words, he's probably right that dogs are happier than humans, because they don't have the capacity to self-reflect or that having children is an act of selfishness, destined only to bring more unhappy adults into the world, but the fact is that if our whole existence is futile and pointless, then so is getting upset about it. Ligotti is a wind-up merchant. With an evil gleam in his eye, he's pointing out some disturbing facts with the obvious hope that he'll make his reader get all riled up about them. Combined with that is his other obvious hope that you'll see the joke and start laughing instead.

 

Which is what I did. Yes, existence is absurd. What else can you do but laugh about it?

A Fun Quirky Romp

Formerly Fingerman: A Novel - Joe Nelms

Title:

 

Formerly Fingerman

 

Who wrote it:

 

Joe Nelms, former ad-man and author of The Last Time I Died.

 

Plot in a box:

 

A ne'er-do-well advertising exec who's leveled his career and his marriage (more or less—the marriage part has more to do with his wife's infidelity than the network of lies he habitually spins) sort of, kind of, maybe witnesses a mafia hit...and lies through his teeth to create a new life via the Federal Witness Protection Program.

 

Invent a new title for this book:

 

The Sneeze That Changed Things

 

Read this if you liked:

 

You need a taste for humor, current pop culture, and, well, the mafia. So...The Godfather AND Saturday Night Live. It's the combo that counts here.

 

Meet the book's lead(s):

 

Brad Fingerman is a lazy advertising exec who coulda-shoulda-woulda been an artist...and somehow floats through a decent, mid-level career until a meteoric rise to success....and a catastrophic mistake that drops him into the professional netherworld. He has no qualms about lying to cover his ass. So, you know, a real Mad Men type, minus the sexy Jon Hamm-ness.

 

Brittany Marinakos is an anorexic FBI agent who hopes to find fame via a big mafia bust.

 

Stump is a straight-laced bodyguard who doesn't sleep, doesn't drink, and is trying to keep Brad alive long enough to testify against the head of one of the most powerful

New York Mafioso families.

 

Said lead(s) would be portrayed in a movie by:

 

Brad should be played by Chris Pratt. Because I said so. 

 

Brittany could be played by any number of too-skinny Hollywood ladies. 

 

Stump should and would HAVE to be played by Chris Hemsworth. Once again, because I said so, and I'm casting this movie. Dammit.

 

Setting (would you want to live there?):

 

New York City? Absolutely. Minus the mafia hit part.

And Arizona? I'm not sure. I've never been. You tell me—is it a nice place to live?

 

What was your favorite sentence?

Advertising tends to be the refuge of cowardly artists—the almost-were screenwriters, painters, photographers, sculptors, glassblowers, novelists and playwrights who didn't have the derring-do to try their craft without a comprehensive health plan and a company-matching 401(k). Pussies.

The Verdict:

 

I really enjoyed Formerly Fingerman. It saw me through a binge-reading sick-day, successfully making me smile while I felt terrible. The tongue-in-cheek tone, chock full of irony and sarcasm, happens to be one of my favorite tones. It's positively goofy sometimes, and I often found myself wondering: Could this really happen? The answer was almost always a resounding: Sort of? Kind of? Maybe? Who knows?

Because it's close enough to reality to strike home, and far enough away to seem unlikely. 

 

But I like that. I do. I like to wonder if a dude who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time deserves a do-over. Especially when he's as narcissistic and moronic as Brad Fingerman.

 

And Joe Nelms can write. He really can! He's smart, funny, and snarky, and he kept me interested throughout the entire tale. If I had to criticize him, though, I'd say this: an editor I know once pointed out how tricky it is to use contemporary pop culture references in a story. You run the risk of alienating future readers who have no idea who Simon Cowell is (because let's face it - Cowell's 15 minutes of fame have to be ending soon, right?). I've pulled plenty of these types of references from my own story, but Formerly Fingerman is full of 'em. Brittany Spears references. Contemporary reality TV references. All kinds of movie star references. Formerly Fingerman has them all.

I'm not sure, then, how well this story will hold up through the generations. But for this, for our generation, it's a fun, quirky romp through the world of advertising, the mafia, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I enjoyed the read quite a bit, and I think you will too.

 

Bookshots review written for LitReactor.com by Leah Rhyne

A topnotch thriller

The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge - Michael Punke

Title:

 

The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge

 

Who wrote it:

 

Michael Punke, who also authored Fire and Brimstone: The North Butte Mining Disaster of 1917.

 

Plot in a Box:

 

An experienced trapper for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company has the misfortune of encountering a grizzly while scouting a campsite for his party. Mauled within an inch of his life and abandoned, the story that follows is one of survival and vengeance.

 

Invent a new title for this book:

 

The Plainsman

 

Read this if you liked:

 

Little Big Man by Thomas Berger, True Grit by Charles Portis

 

Meet the book's lead:

 

Hugh Glass, a quiet but competent trapper who is based on a historical counterpart.

 

Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by:

 

The Revenant is already being adapted to film, with Leonardo DiCaprio tapped to play Glass. Tom Hardy was selected for the villainous John Fitzgerald. After reading the book, I'd say I approve of those casting choices.

 

Setting: Would you want to live there?

 

It's a hard call. The Rocky Mountains are described here as a beautiful and pristine but very harsh place in the early nineteenth-century.

 

What was your favorite sentence?

The crimson glow of fire cast Campeche's last night in apocalyptic splendor.

The Verdict:

 

Imagine being attacked by a bear in the wilderness and left with a number of seemingly fatal injuries. Now consider the fact that it’s 1823 and there is no access to any kind of medical attention whatsoever. War parties of enemy tribes are patrolling nearby, your own companions have abandoned you, and the nearest civilization is hundreds of miles away. Oh, and some asshole stole your gun and all of your supplies. This is the impossible situation that Hugh Glass is immediately faced with in The Revenant.

 

The first book of the year tends to leave an impression, and The Revenant has definitely done that for me. It’s the kind of mesmerizing survival story that sticks to your fingers when you try to put it down, because the obstacles the character faces seem so insurmountable. The first page throws the reader straight into the thick of the plot, leaving no space for slow beginnings. As Glass claws his way towards revenge against those who left him for dead in the wilderness, Punke spins a colorful past for the trapper and provides motivation for those who betrayed him. Without a doubt, character is the nucleus of this story, driving the protagonist through a gauntlet of painful tests.

 

The Revenant won’t draw readers looking for complex prose, but it successfully engages the audience in some intriguing moral mind games. Yes, some of the actions of Glass’ companions were clearly reprehensible, but the situation is an extremely difficult one from almost all sides. At what point must a dying man be abandoned to preserve the lives of others? Is survival always the favorable option? It’s a topnotch thriller, made all the more fascinating by its basis in real events. Compelling historical background gives flesh and blood to a dangerous yet vibrant time when a web of soldiers, tribes, and competing fur trade companies roamed the plains around the Upper Missouri.

 

First published in 2003, The Revenant is being rereleased for the movie that is expected to reach theaters on Jan. 8, 2016. Happy New Year's everyone, and stay away from grizzly bears.

 

Bookshots review written for LitReactor.com by Leah Dearborn

BOOKSHOTS: 'The First Bad Man' by Miranda July

The First Bad Man - Miranda July

Title

 

The First Bad Man

 

Who wrote it?

 

Miranda July, scarily accomplished artist, movie maker and now novelist. In twenty years time she’ll probably be running for President or brokering world peace or something. More info at her website.

 

Plot in a Box:

 

A lonely forty-something’s world is turned upside down when her bosses’ delinquent daughter spreads her grubby sleeping bag on the couch for what appears to be an indefinite stay.

 

Invent a new title for this book:

 

I hated the title of this book until I read far enough to get the reference and decided I could not improve on it.

 

Read this if you liked:

 

Fight Club but found it lacked a female perspective.

 

Meet the book’s lead(s):

 

Cheryl: lonely and distinctly odd manager of an LA nonprofit which produces self-defense videos.

Clee: teenage daughter of Cheryl’s bosses. Blonde, buxom and barely domesticated.

 

Said lead(s) would be portrayed in a movie by:

 

Actresses will fight for these parts. I’m going to nominate Julianne Moore for Cheryl because I’d love to see her play dowdy. As for Clee, I’m going to go with Michelle Williams, who showed us the right feral qualities in her role in Blue Valentine.

 

Setting: would you want to live there?

 

My one visit to LA gave me blisters and a new appreciation for cities in which it is possible to walk from one place to another in less than two days. That said, Los Feliz, the district in which Cheryl lives, houses this person, so naturally I want to move there so I can become his neighbor and mock him mercilessly over our mutual garden fence.

 

What was your favorite sentence?

 

This short passage taken from one of Cheryl’s therapy sessions illustrates July’s wry gifts.

‘Were you happy in the womb?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘After a session with us you will know. You’ll remember being a single cell and then a blastula, violently expanding and contracting.’ She grimaced, contracting her upper body with a tortured shiver and then groaning with expansion. ‘All that upheaval is inside you. It’s a heavy load for a little girl.’

I pictured lying on the floor with Ruth-Anne’s groin against the top of my head.

The Verdict:

 

It’s not everyone who gets a blurb from Lena Dunham for her debut novel, and I have no doubt at all that The First Bad Man signals the beginning of what will be a long and illustrious writing career for July. She’ll probably produce and direct the movie version too. And play all the parts. And win an Oscar or several. In fact, they’ll likely invent a special Oscar just for her. The Oscar of Awesomeness dedicated to Miranda July.

And she would deserve it. The First Bad Man isn’t just good. It’s crazy good. So good that the first draft of my review read like this:

 

It’s perfect.

 

But I decided this might not be expansive enough and revised it to:

 

It’s perfect and if you don’t love it as much as I do we can no longer be friends.

 

But that sounded a little intimidating, so how about this: if you are not a woman and want to know what being one is like, or if you are a woman and want to have someone dig into the weirdness and valour you secretly carry in your core, this is the book you should read.

 

OK, this might sound like a big claim to make about a book whose main character suffers from globus hystericus and deals with the problem of housework by only having one plate, but trust me, this eccentric female is not the tragic, broken, hyper-sensitive archetype we are familiar with from The Bell Jar or The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. This is the eccentric female as glorious triumphant, wielding the banner of being herself, no matter what.

 

But now I’m worried that I’ve said too much, so let me just return to my original formulation, because that does sum up my feelings about The First Bad Man pretty much exactly:

 

It’s perfect and if you don’t love it as much as I do we can no longer be friends.

BOOKSHOTS: A skeleton on a roof, exotic locations, war crimes

The Skeleton Road - Val McDermid

Title:

 

The Skeleton Road

 

Who wrote it?

 

Val McDermid, whose Tony Hill series has been very popular, even becoming a TV series, and won her the Crime Writer’s Association Gold Dagger for Best Crime Novel of the Year. McDermid describes her work as ‘Tartan Noir’ - the Scottish crime fiction genre

 

Plot in a Box:

 

The Balkan Wars of the late 20th Century are brought back to life when a skeleton is found on the roof of an abandoned building in Edinburgh. DCI Karen Pirie has to untangle the web of events leading to this find and discover who the bones were in the process, while someone is dishing out vigilante justice, killing men suspected of war crimes.

 

Invent a new title for this book:

 

I would call it: Revenge is a Dish Best Served Cold

 

Read this if you liked:

 

Any of P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh books or Ian Rankin’s Rebus series.

 

Meet the book’s lead:

 

Karen Pirie is head of the Cold Case unit in Edinburgh, responsible for cases that are either unsolved or come to light after some time has passed. In her early forties and living happily in Fife with her partner Phil, another police officer, her dogged determination and sharp mind make her a very good detective. This is a new character from Val McDermid and first impressions are good.

 

Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by:

 

I could see a younger Kathy Bates play this role, with a Scottish accent, of course.

 

Setting: would you want to live there?

 

Ranging between the beautiful city of Edinburgh, the colleges of Oxford and the wilds of Croatia, there is a lot to choose from in terms of ideal places to live (well, perhaps not a small village in Croatia, but the rest of it is lovely).

 

What was your favorite sentence?

We’re lawyers, not detectives.

The Verdict:

 

This is a well put-together crime novel, but then I would expect nothing else from McDermid, who has written over 30 books so far. The Skeleton Road is a reminder in so many ways of the horrible events that took place in the years following the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, ancient prejudices and grudges suppressed by the Communists brought back to brutal life in the series of wars and atrocities committed by people who lived side by side for so many years.

 

DCI Pirie is a welcome addition to McDermid’s repertoire, and the other characters involved are intriguing and fully formed. What I would call her other leading character, Maggie Blake, professor of geopolitics at St. Scholastica college in Oxford, resonates as a strong woman who lived through the wars with her Croatian lover, Mitja, a Croatian General and intelligence expert. Determined not to leave him, Blake does her best to help out when she’s forced to leave Croatia by collecting donations and medical supplies in Oxford during the conflict and taking them back to the war zone.

 

This is another well-written, thought-provoking crime story from one of the leading Scottish crime writers of the century. It reminded me of all the chaos and unbelievable events we watched (mostly in disbelief) take place in the former Iron Curtain countries after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It still horrifies me that people who lived and worked together suddenly remembered the hatreds their ancestors had ingrained in them and decided the best way to move into the 21st century was to kill their ancient enemies — or worse. McDermid makes that history an integral part of the story and it never feels like she’s just reciting historical events. I’m looking forward to more stories about DCI Pirie.

 

Bookshots review written for LitReactor.com by Dean Fetzer