Tag Archives: cbr4

#CBR4 Review 16: Faithful Place by Tana French

28 Mar

Satisfying mysteries come in two flavors.  The first kind of engaging mystery is driven by the plot – the twists, turns and surprising character developments keep you guessing throughout the entire novel.  It’s like a brain teaser, or LSAT logic game, in reading form. The second kind of engaging mystery is plot driven, focusing heavily on the major characters, their backgrounds, their motivations and their particular circumstances.  All of Tana French’s novels, especially Faithful Place, fall into the second category.

Frank Mackey escaped his poor Irish neighborhood more than twenty years ago, abandoning his family to become an undercover cop after his high school girlfriend Rosie Daly left him a break up note the night they were supposed to run away together to a better life.  Or so he thought.  Twenty years later, Rosie’s suitcase turns up in the run down neighborhood building where Frank and Rosie were supposed to meet, and Frank sets in on figuring out what happened to Rosie, and whether or not she left him.

The Mackey family dynamic drives the book. The Mackey family consists of five kids, an alcoholic abusive father, and a mother almost entirely concerned with keeping up appearances.  Reunited for the first time in twenty years, the worst adolescent behaviors, jealousies and grudges reemerge in Frank’s siblings.

Overall, I found Faithful Place a little inconsistent.  Many of the actions the characters took stood in direct opposition to their underlying motivations, and I kept wondering why they hadn’t thought any of their actions through.

That being said, Faithful Place is a great mystery.  However, if you’re going to delve into French’s novels, start with In the Woods or The Likeness.  Her books are generally sinister; her main characters are frequently creepy – and that was missing from this particular book.


#CBR4 Review 15: The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

25 Mar

I’ve never read anything like The Family Fang, and it’s wonderful. It’s wacky and dramatic without becoming trite or overly quirky.   Wilson tells the story of Caleb and Camille Fang, performance artists who make their living causing major disruptions in public places.  From birth, Annie and Buster are roped into each and every one of their parents performances; their entire childhood is a series of exercises in orchestrating the absurd and waiting patiently for the audience reaction.  Some sample performances from their childhoods:

  • Annie & Buster perform on stage at a talent show, purposely playing their instruments as terribly as possible. Caleb and Camille heckle them from the audience; the audience becomes incensed – half the audience screams terrible insults at the incredibly young children, half the audience comes to their defense.
  • Caleb and Camille stage fake marriage proposals on airplanes, once with a happy ending and once with Camille rejecting Caleb in the small space
  • Camille steals jelly beans from a candy shop; when the shop owner tries to stop her, jelly beans explode out of her clothing and children rush the candy like a pinata
It’s hard to do the performance art chapters justice; the events are so absurd, so awkward, and so hilarious. But you can feel the subtle damage being done to Annie & Buster. Imagine growing up with parents who only played pretend; how could you know who you are, or what life is supposed to be like? Ultimately, Annie winds up a movie star and Buster winds up a mediocre author. When Annie’s career is in tatters and Buster suffers a serious injury, they return home to their parents and their absurd childhood.

And then their parents disappear.

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#CBR4 Review 14: The Outcast by Sadie Jones

25 Mar

Another LaineyGossip reccomendation, Sadie Jones’s The Outcast is an understated, beautifully dramatic novel. Lewis, the protagonist, slowly unravels after the death of his mother to the disappointment of his traditional, suburban town. As Lewis withdraws, struggling in silence, his friends, family and neighborhood simply cannot process his pain. Lewis’s behavior fails to comply with acceptable social norms; he’s not quite cheerful enough, he fails to respond to questions, his temper quickens. Everyone around him tries to force him to keep up appearances, to comply with the unstated social contracts that govern his small town, and Lewis eventually breaks, landing himself in prison.

The characters are all heartbreaking in their own way. Lewis’s father, a model of “traditional” fathering, who tries to instill strenght and distance in his son and expunge any traces of emotion from their lives. Lewis’s stepmother, who retreats into alcoholism like his biological mother before her. Kit, the young neighbor, broken by her father who is the only one who might understand Lewis’s pain. Tasmin, Kit’s older sister who uses her charms like a weapon, trying to manipulate those around her.

Everyone suffers; everyone tries to hide their pain. This is a novel about how we all hide behind acceptable behavior rather than face the realities of our lives. It’s a novel about the people who cannot quite bring themselves to hide when they’re in pain. It’s a novel about Lewis, who fully understands the darkness within him, and you know that his story can only end in some brutal way. You root for Lewis; you want him to redeem himself, and he manages to save someone, but fails to save himself. The book is haunting and dark but beautiful.

#CBR4 Review 13: Your Voice in my Head by Emma Forrest

25 Mar

This book came to my attention via LaineyGossip, where she glowingly reviewed the book and has been closely following the casting of the film adaptation. Your Voice in my Head  is Emma Forrest’s memoir, a loving tribute to her long time therapist who passed away after helping her work through her bulimia, cutting and depression for almost eight years.  The death of her therapist coincides with the dissolution of her relationship with the man she calls Gypsy Husband – a man known to the rest of us as Colin Farrell.

You can feel the mania and depression in the rhythm and pattern of Forrest’s words. Here writing is so intimate you feel like you’re eavesdropping on her most private conversations with her most trusted friend. The book outlines Forrest’s descent into her mental illness, and the slow progress she makes with her therapist. Her story is a heartbreaking look at mental illness and recovery.

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#CBR4 Review 12: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

24 Mar

I saw Jonathan Franzen read one of the first chapters of Freedom at the Boston Public Library last year, and it was fantastic. Franzen has what is best described by my roommate as “an awkward charm,” and when you read the book, his distinct voice and persona come through in every word. If you ever get the chance to hear him speak or read, it’s worth it.

Freedom tells the story of the Berglund’s, a middle class family struggling to to figure out who they are, how their past has shaped them, and what they want their lives to look like. Each character makes a set of choices based on what they feel they should do, and the characters spend the book working through whether the choice they should have made is the choice they wanted to make.

Patty, a former college basketball star, went to college in Minnesota to escape her Westchester family and chose to become Walter’s wife, and a full time mother to their children.  Walter, raised by an alcoholic father in a family desperately trying to keep their run down motel afloat, initially abandons his radical left wing ideas to work as a lawyer, in a steady job, providing for his family.  Joey, their son, chooses to marry his long time girlfriend at the age of twenty, and engage in a variety of unsavory business dealings.

The characters feel real. Watching Patty come to terms with her feelings for a former crush, watching Walter escape his job to attempt to run a radical conservationist group, watching Joey pursue another woman while his wife waits patiently in Minnesota…everyone knows those feelings. The resolution to the character’s story arcs is satisfying; there’s no false happy ending or uninspired tragedy that solves everyone’s problems. The characters either accept their decision as correct, or try to change their lives to lift their depression. Like people would in real life.

Despite the well worn territory, there’s nothing cliche in Franzen’s novel. The political under currents can be overwhelming at times, but not enough to detract from the book’s relevance.  His style is engrossing, his analysis of the character’s motivations is in depth, and the reader is instantly made a part of the uncomfortably familiar world of the Berglunds.

#CBR4 Review 10: Defending Jacob by William Landay

16 Mar

Full disclosure: I’m in law school. I read like crazy over winter break, and then stopped cold when I went back to school. Now that I’m on Spring Break, naturally the only book I managed to pick up to read for pleasure was about lawyers. Defending Jacob tells the story of a father, who’s also a district attorney, who is forced to come to terms with the fact that his son may have murdered his classmate.  I wouldn’t classify this as a “legal thriller” necessarily, but a majority of the book focuses on legal strategy and witness testimony.

The book is interesting for the subject manner alone.  Watching a family grappling with whether they raised a murderer has probably been covered better in other novels, but the struggle of Jacob’s parents, and Jacob himself, is compelling. The book also touches on the idea of a “murder gene,” of the questions of nature v. nurture so often debated in social sciences, and the court room. But the most interesting question is about parenting. Most parents would do anything to keep their child out of jail, but what if your child is guilty? What would the cost of letting your child be free be to your sanity?

The real reason to read the book is the fact that you simply don’t know whether Jacob did it until the end. And even in the end, you’re still left with seeds of doubt. The book has a particularly over the top, shocking ending, but it didn’t feel out of tempo with the rest of the novel. And most importantly, it came as a surprise. You spend the book flip flopping back and forth, wondering if Jacob is innocent, wondering which parent has a better read on Jacob, and even in the end, despite all that’s happened, you still wonder a little bit.

#CBR4 Review 08: Purge by Sofi Oksanen

17 Jan

Novels spanning family histories give the author an opportunity to create natural, compelling drama while highlighting certain social issues or historical events. I’ve always loved family histories, from Rich Man, Poor Man to East of Eden to anything by Wally Lamb, or Adriana Trigliani. This book was no different.

Purge focuses on Aliide, an older woman who lived through the major conflicts that have ripped Estonia apart during the twentieth century, who still lives in a small Estonian village. Aliide stumbles upon Zara in her yard, a sex trafficking victim, fluent in Estonian, who managed to escape her captors. Alternating between the two women’s perspectives, as well as flashing back to the past, the book is a heartbreaking tale of a family torn apart by the turmoil in Estonia over the past hundred years.

For me, the best part of this book was the intelligent, satisfying ending. The family’s strife is resolved at the end of the book, but the author decided against the “obvious” route of forgiveness and left many ends untied. I appreciated this for its realism, the credibility it gave the story, and because it really highlighted the motivations and emotions of the major characters.

As a note, the book was difficult for me to get through due to the fragmented writing style. Also, I was previously completely uneducated uneducated about Estonia and the plague of wars and revolutions that have dominated the country for the better part of the twentieth century. I had to keep stopping to look things up, which slowed my progress. This ended up being one of the things I loved about the book – it forced me to learn.

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