My final review dump and then I’ll be all caught up! Woohoo! These books are about the past, the present and the future.
The name of the rose by Umberto Eco
Eco is my dad’s favourite author. He’s read all of his books, some of them probably several times. I, on the other hand, had never read anything by Eco before. I had seen bits of the film years ago that had intrigued me enough to want to read the book but for some reason I never did. Until now.
The Name of The Rose is a medieval whodunnit with a couple of monks doing the investigating. Sounds exciting, right? That’s because it is. Murders in an isolated monastery cannot be anything but exciting. Unfortunately for me that’s not all the book was. It’s a study on theology, philosophy, literature, history of the Middle Ages. If that rocks your boat, you’ll love The Name of The Rose. If you find them tedious in a work of fiction, then you won’t. In the edition of the book I read is included an afterword by Eco himself, commenting on his choice of subject, language, focus etc. He gave me the impression that he’s his own greatest admirer. Now I don’t doubt he was a respected and knowledgeable academic, probably a genius in his field. But in fiction form, these subjects need to become part of the story. Melt into it. Instead, Eco constantly takes a break from the story to talk about them. One particular example that I found my eyes glazing over was the description of mythical creatures found depicted in a church. Eco wrote a very long paragraph listing these creatures. Just their names. In a long list. Yeah, nevermind that, WHODUNNIT??
I hope my dad won’t disown me for disliking this book by his favourite author. ** (the whodunnit was still interesting)
The searcher by Tana French
Now we’re talking. I love Tana French, even though this kind of fiction is otherwise not my favourite. Detective stories tend to get repetitive and formulaic, so I don’t usually read them. What I like about French is that she writes literature. The detective story is just the conduit.
In The Searcher, we follow Cooper, a retired American detective who has moved to Ireland, as he gets involved in solving the disappearance of a local boy. Cooper does not want to get involved. He is retired and looking forward to fixing up the old house he bought in the countryside. Of course, he can’t help it, and he ends up being at the centre of the unfolding events.
The aforementioned countryside is described beautifully and in detail. The characters are distinct and alive. French often writes about ornery, tough men and women, flawed human beings, and this book was no exception. Perhaps their personalities mirror the harsh conditions on the island. But there is a tenderness underneath it all, a warmth, a desire to belong. And, as in all of French’s books, there is a wicked sense of humour that will surprise you. ****
The push by Ashley Audrain
Women as unreliable narrators are a well-established trope. Bad mothers are nothing new either. Combine the two and you have Blythe, a woman who carries a lot of guilt and tries very hard to be a good mother, despite the heavy baggage she’s carrying. Something is wrong with her daughter, she’s sure of it, but nobody believes her when she claims that her little girl is capable of terrible things. When things inevitably go wrong, she gets gaslighted. She becomes invisible, shunned. Alone in her grief, she unravels.
This was a quick, easy read but that’s not to say it was light and breezy. The abuse the women in Blythe’s family both suffered and inflicted upon others was unsettling. Blythe’s efforts to break the mold, to be a good mother against all odds, were heartbreaking.
The book touches on a lot of themes, to the point where it became unclear to me what the message was. Believe women? Women lose their identities after they get kids? Absent fathers suck? Evil gets passed down through generations like a hereditary disease? Good role models can change a kid’s life? Jung was right about the Electra complex? The message would have been much less diluted if the story hadn’t been so broad time-wise. I found the flashbacks to Blythe’s childhood and those of her mother and grandmother particularly distracting.
I also struggled with how the book was framed as something Blythe was writing to her husband. The use of “you” to address him threw me off at times, and right until the end I sometimes got confused about who that “you” was and thought it was the daughter.
Despite the somewhat muddled writing style, I would read Audrain again. This was only her first novel and she seems promising. Read this if you have already read everything by Gillian Flynn, otherwise read Sharp Objects instead and then call your mother to tell her how much more you suddenly appreciate her. ***
The hunting party by Lucy Foley
I really enjoyed the first book I read by Foley, The Guest List. The Hunting Party showed a lot of promise in its premise as well: Friends who travel to a remote lodge in the Highlands of Scotland to celebrate New Year’s Eve together, get snowed in, and of course bad things happen. The setting is creepy in how remote and isolated it is. The fact that they get snowed in adds to the feeling of vulnerability.
I liked the fact that there has been a murder, but we don’t know who the victim is at first. The story is told in a non-chronological order (which made it a little hard for me, who listened to it in its audiobook form, to follow). It is also told from different people’s perspectives. These people have known each other for a long time but they hardly know each other, really. There are so many secrets and as a reader I couldn’t help but wonder if they really even liked each other that much. I didn’t find any of the characters particularly likeable or sympathetic. The plot however managed to keep my attention. It just all felt a little flat for me at the end. Read it for the setting, not for the story. **
Snow crash by Neal Stephenson
Meh. I had such high hopes for this book. Taking place some time in the future, Snow Crash is about Hiro Protagonist (yes, really) and his adventures in cyberspace and real space. A computer virus is wreaking havoc and Hiro needs to find out what’s causing it and how to stop it. It’s a wacky story. Mafia bosses. Skateboarding couriers. Cyber clubs and Bond-like villains. What is going on??
Snow Crash was a mess. I had trouble following the plot. I think part of the reason was that Stephenson built a world in a way similar to ours but warped. It certainly makes for some unexpected sequences of events. If you go into this book thinking you’ll read something that plays by the rules of our society, then you’ll probably be as confused as I was. This is a world where the Mafia delivers pizza and Stephenson expects you to accept this fact without taking the time to explain it properly. The facts are revealed at the same time as the story. It’s too much work to try and disentangle all the plot elements and put them together in a coherent whole. **
Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline
I really liked Ready Player One. The clever pop culture references. The story. The nerdiness. But I am not naive. Sequels seldom manage to capture the same magic. And this book definitely didn’t.
The plot revolves around Wade Watts again, and the new quest that he has to embark upon. This time, it’s a matter of life or death. He has to solve the riddle before time runs out or we all die. Or something. It was entertaining enough to follow Wade around on his adventures, and, as with the first book, I enjoyed the game element of the story, but in general the book left me feeling indifferent. The friendships at its core were sweet enough but the story lacked an emotional aspect for me. The pop culture references are there (of course. That’s what made the first book so popular) and sure, they’re fun I suppose, but we can’t overlook the fact that this is a sequel that’s trying to do the exact same thing that its predecessor did: give us a wink and a “get it?”. Yes, I get it. I grew up in the 80s. This current wave of nostalgia was fun at first (I’m looking at you, Stranger things) but it’s been milked for all it’s worth. Let’s move on to the 90s, it was a much better decade. **
Tender is the flesh by Agustina Bazterrica
Ok so now I am going to get into trouble because apparently this is a well-liked book around these parts. A virus has rendered animal flesh inedible and dangerous to eat (think Mad Cow disease, but in all animals). Somehow, humans have managed not to catch the same virus. Since humans can’t seem to be able to survive without eating some kind of meat, the next logical step is that we start eating each other instead. Enter our protagonist, Marcos, who works in a human slaughterhouse. He has his own issues to deal with, but his job is to supervise all the slaughtering and transportation of the humans.
I was very disappointed by this book. The topic is perhaps not the most original there is but it is still presented in an original way. As a vegetarian myself, I was looking forward to the author drawing parallels between animal and human farming, and the inevitable conclusion that perhaps the two are not all that different (the descriptions of humans getting slaughtered were graphic but not at all surprising to anyone who’s ever read a book or seen a video about how animals get treated). There was so much potential for a commentary on class, ethnicity, minorities, inequality etc etc but these topics are lightly (very lightly) touched upon and then abandoned in favour of shocking the reader with yet another description of a dehumanising process.
I don’t need an author to take me by the hand and point to all those issues explicitly but I would have appreciated a more nuanced depiction in the book. The way it is written, the subjects at its core get treated in a nihilistic manner, as dehumanised garbage, and with them so do we. In a way, by not discussing these issues in more detail, the author sweeps them under the carpet, adding to their dehumanisation. **