Book Review – The Girl on the Train

Book: The Girl on the Train

Author: Paula Hawkins

H and I decided to try something new for book club and assign everyone a month to choose a book for us to read. J picks the book and restaurant for July, H picks for August R picks September and so on. You get the picture. There were a few reasons we decided to try this method. One of which being we have a diverse group of individuals in our book club and we all have different tastes, backgrounds and preferences in life as well as books. H and I wanted to add some diversity into the reading material and broaden all of our comfort zones. Another reason we are trying out this new method is to give each of our book club members a voice. They have a stake in A Novel Bunch PGH. They invest as much time as H and I do, right? Why shouldn’t they all be allowed to choose a book?

June was the first month we tried this new method out with G‘s choice of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Gotta say…not my favorite read. I suppose I should preface this review with the fact I am not fond of mysteries in general. I am the person who, when presented with a mystery, flips to the end of the book to figure it out and then reads the middle last. To me, it is about figuring out the mystery, not necessarily about the process. Crime shows (Shout out to my favorite show ever: BONES!) are some of my favorite because the mystery/murder/case/arson/etc. is solved in an hour. I don’t have to invest much of myself into the mystery. Although, I did invest 12 years of my life to BONES and it was so worth it.

I found The Girl on the Train predictable and formulaic of mystery novels. The characters were not likable; I did not feel compelled to connect with one among the bunch. This is an odd occurrence for me as I can usually find some piece of myself to connect to a character or something to like about or commend them. Instead, I found myself apathetic and numb to the circumstances the characters found themselves in and the choices they made. Honestly, I could not even muster surprise at the reveal of the murderer and the climax of the novel. The ending did not feel complete to me. It left me unmoved and disinterested in Rachel’s next steps.

What did you think of The Girl on the Train? Let me know in the comments.

If you thought The Girl on the Train was OK, try:

I Let You Go

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review – The Handmaid’s Tale

Book: The Handmaid’s Tale

Author: Margaret Atwood

Warning: strong feminism lies ahead in this post. Get out now all who do not believe in equality of the sexes.

Second warning: spoilers abound ahead. If you haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale and do not want to have the story spoiled, please do not read this review. I was too riled after reading to attempt a spoiler-free post.

The window. The desk. The chair. Those are three sentences toward the beginning of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. When I read them I had to put my book down and ask myself what the heck I had gotten myself into with this story. Umm… those aren’t actual sentences. Those are nouns. What about the window, the desk and the chair? Why are you naming the things? Can you finish your thought? I didn’t understand the writing in this novel, but that may be because I opened it almost immediately after I could emotionally detach myself from the ending of A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas (review coming soon).  I found the way the story jumped around between the present and the past disorienting and confusing. There were times I had to re-read parts to figure out where we were in the story.

This was a strange and haunting tale. The story was left unfinished, which actually suited it, but left me with a sense of anticipation for the climax of the story. The book is set in the post-apocalyptic world of Gilead, which came to power after a terrorist attack that killed all the members of Congress and the Executive Branch, effectively removing the sitting government from power. A fundamentalist group, the Sons of Jacob, took power under the pretext of restoring order and holding fair elections, but we (the readers) later learn the group never intended to hold elections. Rather, the Sons of Jacob fully intended on taking power of the country and changing the social structure to one inspired by Old Testament social and religious fanaticism with newly created social classes.

Through the narrator’s flash backs, we learn that the elimination of women’s rights was a quickly paced double-strike of abolishing the right to work on the same day as abolishing the right to hold a bank account. The women were angry, but  pacified by the promises of the “short-term” nature of these changes and the “impending elections”. The final step in this new order took place when women were sorted into social classes  based on their ability to bear children (Handmaids being the fertile, Marthas being the lower class servants and Wives being the upper class sterile). The emphasis on reproductive ability is due to declining birth rates, which are attributed to infertility caused by nuclear fallout. There it is again: the Biblical references with the naming convention and duties of each group.

If a woman is placed as Handmaid, she is assigned to a Commander for 2 years during which he attempts to impregnate her. After two years (or if she is successful – Yes. I used ‘she’ because it is the woman’s responsibility to become pregnant. Of course, men cannot be sterile! How ridiculous! – I don’t think I need to say this, but that was sarcasm, people. Sarcasm.), she is assigned to another Commander and becomes his property for another 2 years. It is essentially consensual rape. If she becomes pregnant, she is forced to give her child to the Commander’s wife to raise. What now? You would have to rip my child away from my cold, dead fingers after our fight to the death. And when you fight me, momma bear mode will be activated in all its glory.

Let’s talk about the characters’ names. The Handmaids are all stripped of their birth names and given names that are ‘of’ plus their “Commander’s name”. Offred is the narrator of the story. Offred. Of-Fred. Meaning belonging to Fred. Fred’s belonging. Property of Fred. Wait, what? Excuse me? Property? I think not.

The most interesting part of the book was the Historical Notes in the back of the book. I did a double-take when I turned onto that page and had to confirm with myself that the book is indeed fiction. The Historical Notes section actually told of why/how Gilead came to be and its’ place in history. It was explained to us the heroine’s place in Gilead’s history which I found helpful from a closure standpoint.

I chose this book for our book club last month for a few reasons. First, the content felt especially and aptly politically relevant (don’t worry, I will NOT go there). Secondly, in all my feminist readings, I hadn’t gotten around to reading this iconic tale that is on every “Books Every Woman Should Read” list. And lastly, because the show was coming out on Hulu and it looked particularly intriguing.

There were a few points during the story I tossed my book down in frustration and anger. There were times while reading I was so angry at the world of Gilead, the heroine and the other characters that I almost gave up. I found the heroine, Offred, stilted, unmoving and way too accepting of her lot.

Overall, I found the story interesting and worth the read, but it riled me. As a woman, I will tell you that if my government tried to take away my basic human rights (let’s not go there with the current political conditions, please), I would fight with everything I had in me against it. I would rage and rage and never give up the fight.

Phew. That might be my longest review yet. Ok. Feminist rant concluded. Please share your thoughts regarding The Handmaid’s Tale in the comments.

If you liked The Handmaid’s Tale, try:

Brave New World

1984

Blindness

Never Let Me Go

The Road

 

Book Review – An Ember in the Ashes

Book: An Ember in the Ashes

Author: Sabaa Tahir

If you haven’t read this one, read it. Now. Go download/buy/check out/rent it, I’ll wait. {Insert Jeopardy music here}.

Enough time? Got it? Ok. I will not spoil this book for you in my review, don’t worry. I HATE when I accidentally on purpose read or come across spoilers!

Ember in the Ashes was one of the best books I read in 2015 and reread in 2017 for book club (shout out to A Novel Bunch PGH!). I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of Ember before it was published and absolutely DEVOURED it in one sitting. No kidding; I was up until 4 a.m. desperately trying to finish this book before the matchsticks holding open my eyes snapped from the pressure.

The progression of the story started out similarly to all the other Teen/YA books I’ve read and then, BAM! It drops you off a cliff with surprise and plot twists and a great sequence of action scenes and is peppered by a budding romance.

The Martials (a sort of Roman-esque military civilization) conquered the Scholar lands (a learned people dedicated to knowledge) centuries ago. Since then, the Martials have oppressed the Scholar people and enslaved many. We meet 17-year-old Laia the night her house is raided by the Martials. When her brother is kidnapped by a Mask (a scary assassin that wears a terrifying mask), she takes matters into her own hands to get her brother back. The Resistance being led against the Martials will only help her get her brother back for a terrible price: be sold into slavery and spy on the Commandant of the Blackcliff School.

Quick side bar for those of you who have read this story and know the things Laia is forced to endure: Would you have done the same for your sibling? Let me tell you something. If someone took my brothers away from me, I would do anything and everything in my power to return them. I would let nothing stand in my way to get them back. Heaven and Earth and mountains and oceans would move.

This is where we meet Elias. Oh, Elias you tormented soul. Elias is a student at Blackcliff and is training to be one of those scary Masks which creates interesting repercussions when he meets Laia. Elias has depth. He is a hero who is fleshed out and well developed. He’s got dimension, a personality, hopes, dreams and fears unlike some other YA/Teen heroes. I enjoyed the way Tahir bounced the POVs back and forth between Laia and Elias. We got to know the mind and heart of the hero of the story instead of being told about them from the point of view of the heroine.

The thing is, though, Ember at the root isn’t about the romance or the girl discovering she is the key to overthrowing the oppressive regime. She isn’t the leader of the revolution out to kill the evil person who destroyed her life (YET. We are only on Book 2.). At its core, Ember is about courage. It’s about the power and powerlessness of hope and fear. It’s about having the audacity to hope for something impossible and doing everything in your power to attain it. Ember has this authenticity with which we see the protagonists struggle with coming to terms with what they stand for and it is glorious.

Yes, I am a shipper. I love my book power couples and my book boyfriends. This is so much more than that, though. Ember has so much more than the average Teen/YA novel. I loved it and can’t wait for the next one. Why oh why, dear Sabaa, do we have to wait until 2018?!

PS. I hear movie right to An Ember in the Ashes were optioned. Make sure you read it before they make the movie! Bibliophiles know the book is always better.

If you liked Ember in the Ashes, you might like:

The Throne of Glass series – Sarah J. Maas (start with The Assassin’s Blade)

The Witchlands series – Susan Dennard

The Young Elites series – Marie Liu

Falling Kingdoms series – Morgan Rhoades

The Winner’s Curse series – Maire Rutkoski

Bonus Recommendation!

A Court of Thorns and Roses series – Sarah J. Maas

Book Review – The Princess Bride

Book: The Princess Bride

Author:William Goldman

I have a friend who reads vicariously through me. English is his fourth language and he says he is not exactly comfortable reading large books. Instead, he watches movies and hilariously reviews them for his friends and coworkers. We get a new review each week and was one of my inspirations to begin blogging my book reviews. He took my recommendation to watch all the Harry Potter movies. Once he would finish one movie, he would ask me dozens of questions about the world, plot, characters, places, etc. We talked for hours about Harry Potter. So, in return, I agreed to read/review The Princess Bride (in addition to watching The Hobbit trilogy of movies). This review is dedicated to you, R.

It is inconceivable to me that anyone has not read this book or at least watched the movie at least a dozen times. The Princess Bride is a classic and a masterpiece. Westley and Buttercup are one of my favorite literary couples I’ve read. Yes, yes. I know. I KNOW. There are so many other marvelous couple to read about throughout literature. Sue me. I am a product of the 80s and love me some Westley and Buttercup.

Side bar: I am interested to know who are your favorite literary couple. Let me know in the comments!

Back to the review aka the reason you are reading this post. The story begins with a sick little boy and his grandfather’s idea to read him a story: The Princess Bride! We first meet Westley when he is a farmhand (“Farm boy” – You all said that in your head in Robin Wright’s voice. Don’t even bother denying it. I won’t believe you.) on Buttercup’s parents’ estate. When he and Buttercup fall in love (“As you wish” is still one of my favorite ways I’ve read to convey “I love you”), they must overcome incredible obstacles to be together (death, pirates, kidnap, Mawage, sword fights, torture, and the most odious of princes Prince Humperdink).

One of my all-time favorite quotes is when Vizzini says, “He didn’t fall?! Inconceivable!” And Inigo Montoya (Hello! My Name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.) says (and this is my favorite part), “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The banter between characters throughout the whole book is superb and, for me, set the bar in a lot of ways in my young and impressionable mind. It is witty and contains some of the most used and loved quotes of my generation. This story is fun and funny. A complete trip with a cast of characters that get into your head and stay there.

PS. Do you ever think “I love you” is an over-used phrase? It is rare for me to find a romance which doesn’t use “I love you” at all (like The Princess Bride). To date, I’ve read two. In a romance story, I want to read about love conquering all because in the real world it so often doesn’t. Reading stories, I am infatuated with the process which the characters get to the “I love yous”. I want to see how they conquer the world against all odds to get to the “I love yous”. How do they get there? What obstacles must be overcome? What plot twists and character flaws must they conquer? Are they good obstacles or ones only placed in front of them for the sake of drawing it out? Are there gasp-worthy moments and ones I didn’t see coming? These are the things that make a good romance story to me. I grow weary of characters using “I love you” as a blanket which is why a story like The Princess Bride is so refreshing. The use of “As you wish” in its place is adorable and still causes females I know to grow gooey in the knees.

If you liked The Princess Bride, you might like:

Color of Magic

Bite Me

Good Omens

Storm Front

Hounded

Book Review – My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry

Book: My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry

Author: Fredrick Backman

This review is subtitled: An Ode to the Bat Aka My Grandmother.

My grandmother is my absolute favorite person in the world. Sorry, mom (I know you found and read my blog). She is hilarious, unintentionally for the most part. She is caring and supportive. I still receive cards in the mail on a regular basis (sometimes with money in them!) from her. She drives like a bat out of H-E-double hockey sticks. I can’t imagine what my life will look like without her in it. But I suppose that is the prerogative of the grandchild.

When I was young, she told me a dragon lived in her basement and told my brother and I if we ever went down there, the dragon would eat us. She used to cut up apples and throw them (and Cheerios – always Cheerios) down the basement stairs saying, “Eat dragon and be gone! Don’t eat my grandchildren!” My brother and I found out later our uncle was living in her basement at the time and she didn’t want us to see anything little eyes shouldn’t see.

So, that is  my rambling wind-up to saying I LOVED this story. It is about an almost 8-year-old little girl named Elsa who is extraordinarily precocious.  Elsa is smart and mature for her age. She is best friends with her Granny who is an absolute RIOT. Granny smokes, drinks, plays pranks, gets up to mischief, and protects her granddaughter. My grandmother doesn’t smoke or drink, but she does play pranks, is generally mischievous and is protective of her grandchildren.

Being too smart and mature for her age, Elsa is bullied by the kids at school. Only Granny knows the truth and constructs an imaginary world for Elsa to escape her pain and bullies. She goes to her  imaginary world and there she is bold and brave and no one hurts her. Elsa is a knight and protects others in her imaginary world.

But when Granny dies (serious sob here), Elsa starts learning things about her Granny and the imaginary world she constructed. Granny sends her on a journey in the real world delivering messages of apologies to people she hurt in her life. Along the way, Elsa learns about who her Granny was and gains some friends along the way.

This story was precious and moving in a way I didn’t expect. I didn’t expect to like this story as well as I did. I connected with Elsa and her Granny in a surprising way. Her mother as well.

Some of the parts that made me laugh out loud:

  • When Elsa was sent to the headmaster’s office because a boy gave her a black eye, the headmaster told Granny Elsa provoked the boy who has trouble “controlling himself”. Granny threw something at the headmaster and said, “I WAS PROVOKED! I COULDN’T CONTROL MYSELF!”.
  • Muggles. Actually, all of the Harry Potter references. There were so many good ones.
  • The time Granny set off fireworks inside a restaurant and set a girl on fire.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry was heartfelt, poignant and funny. If you like a good story of a hilarious, brave, protective and imaginative woman, give this one a try.

If you liked My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, you might like:

A Man Called Ove

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Guernsey Literary and Sweet Potatoe Pie Society

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

The Ocean and the End of the Lane

Book Review – The Light Between the Oceans

Book: The Light Between the Oceans

Author: M.L. Stedman

Whew! This book was a heavy hitter. Emotion. Tension. Moral dilemmas. I felt so, so much with this book. It hurt at times to read this one. Stedman certainly put me through the emotional ringer and I felt depleted, exhausted, and shaken afterwards.

The story is about a couple in 1920s Australia. The husband is a lighthouse keeper and they (and only they) live on a small island off Australia’s western coast. When a baby washes to the shore of this little island, THINGS HAPPEN. By THINGS I mean, this story is so complicated it was like reading a telenovela.

This couple faced so many trials and difficulties. I felt for each of them. I felt for the wife’s parents. I felt for the baby. I felt for the other characters with which the couple interacted. All of them were put in impossible situations with unbearably difficult consequences regardless of the choice made. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place. Or no-win situations. This book was jam-packed with them. It felt like at every turn, every decision made was no-win for the person making it.

Conviction is a necessary thing to find for yourself to survive in this world. You have to stand for something; believe in something. My convictions might differ from those you hold. We probably express our views and opinions in different ways as well. It is part of what makes us so great as human kind. I have certain convictions I am passionate about spreading to everyone I meet and some I have never shared with anyone. You can say convincingly (either to yourself or the world) you believe something is wrong or right, but until you, yourself, are dropped directly into a specific situation you cannot actually know what you will do.

I am not a person who is particularly good at dealing in the gray areas of life. I mostly see things as black and white. Right and wrong. With this book, Stedman challenged me to think outside my bubble of comfort. At times I didn’t know who to root for. At times, I didn’t know who was the protagonist and who was the antagonist. It is rare for me to read a book and not be able to clearly pick out the good guy and the bad guy. The nuances of the characters in this book were so cleverly ambiguous in a way that left me confused and evolved when I put down the book.

Through the beginning and middle of the book, I felt strongly that I would do a certain thing if I was the wife in The Light Between the Oceans, but after reading the events as they unfolded toward the end of the book, I was less certain in my conviction that I was correct. Then I tried it with the husband (who is the main character) and the other characters as well, and ended up with the same results at the end of the book: I had no idea what I would do faced with the impossible choices they met.

That’s the thing about a book like The Light Between the Oceans, though. It challenges what you think and why you think it and pushes you to think through those situations in personal terms. This is the type of book that has the power to change your perceptions of the people around you, the people you encounter, and your worldview in general. You see differently after reading a book like this. And that is why I will recommend it.

If you liked The Light Between the Oceans, try:

All the Light We Cannot See

Orphan Train

Defending Jacob

Me Before You

The Kite Runner

Book Review -Jaz Parks Series

Book Series: Jaz Parks

Author: Jennifer Rardin

I recently finished my re-read of the entire Jaz Parks series by Jennifer Rardin and going back to that world felt like the first time. Isn’t that the best? When you re-read a series and it is still as good as the first time. I love books like that. Those are the ones that leave an impression. The ones you remember and recommend and push on other people.

The series is 8 books in total beginning with Once Bitten, Twice Shy and ending with The Deadliest Bite (if you click the link above, it will take you to the series page on the BN website. I tried to sort the page by the book order to help). Though the ending of the 8th book was satisfying from a wrapped up plot points perspective, the author sadly passed away either shortly before or shortly after the 8th book was published, so we will never know for sure if she intended more stories to her series.

Jaz is probably one of my favorite heroines I’ve read. She is smart and tough. Sassy and snarky. She is a fighter and a rebel.  Jaz is an assassin in the paranormal world and that means smoking vampires, werewolves, demons, and creatures straight out of Rardin’s imagination that would give me nightmares if I ever saw a picture of one.

Jaz endured many things throughout the series from the death of her fiancé and crew to going to Hell and everything in between. Rardin wrote Jaz as the kind of heroine a woman can look up to. Someone who is kind and loyal and kicks butt. Someone who takes no crap. She reminded me to fight for what I believe in no matter the odds. To fight for those I love even when I might not like them or them me.

My favorite book is probably the one where she meets her dog, Jack. Jack is the best character (besides Jaz) in this series. He is loyal, protective, funny, and Jaz swears he can understand her when she speaks to him.

Speaking of other characters besides the titular Jaz, she has a smoking hot vampire partner, a hilarious side-kick, a genius tech expert who invents amazing toys and tools for her missions, a twin who is a Special Ops soldier, and a psychic whose handbag is so mysterious it draws parallels to Hermoine’s beaded bag from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Rardin created a world for her series mirroring our own (with the additions of supernatural creatures being out in the open) and characters that feel like they could jump off the page and sit right next to you. Her characters are well developed and fit in nicely to the overall story. If you haven’t read Jennifer Rardin’s Jaz Parks series, I recommend you do so. If you have read it, check out the recommendations of my favorites in the same genre below.

Quick question: Are you tired of vampire stories? I am. I think we have played that species out for now, though I am sure they will come back in fashion again in the future.

If you like the Jaz Parks series, you might like:

The Kate Daniels series – Ilona Andrews

The Mercy Thompson series – Patricia Briggs

The Chicagoland Vampires series – Chloe Neill

The Charley Davidson series – Darynda Jones

The Night Huntress series – Jeaniene Frost