Book Review: The Girls by Emma Cline

 

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A photo from my Instagram: ohthisbook

A solid 4.5 stars out of 5

 

Many people were touting Emma Cline’s The Girls as the “it” book of the summer. I saw it front and center in nearly every bookshop I went into over the summer. Reviews of this book were popping up everywhere on Goodreads, Instagram, and YouTube—rather mixed reviews, actually, which was a factor in why I waited so long to pick it up.
When I saw that this book was available to request on NetGalley I decided to just go for it. I’m so glad I did. What an amazing talent this young author is. If people were starkly divided over this book, then I am definitely in the “loved it” camp. I highlighted so many passages that really struck me, so I’ll try to be selective and intersperse only my favorites throughout this review.

The novel is loosely inspired by the Manson Family, the 1960s commune in California whose members were responsible for the brutal killings of nine people, including the well-known actress Sharon Tate. The Girls is told through the voice of Evie Boyd, who at the age of fourteen as an only child in a recently-divorced family, gets swept up into a commune-like lifestyle on the ranch. The leader of the commune is Russell, a man who functions as a sort of Christ-figure for the followers at the ranch, but Suzanne is perhaps the second-most influential figure in their community.

Evie sees Suzanne for the first time in a park and, although they only lock eyes for a few seconds, Evie is magnetically drawn to her. Evie and Suzanne don’t speak to each other during that first encounter, but it seems fated that their paths will cross again. Evie is fascinated by the girls she saw in the park, but her life isn’t really impacted by them until they come across Evie on the side of the road with her broken-down bicycle and offer to give her a ride. Evie goes along with them to the ranch and from that night on, her life begins to slide further and further out of her control.

The story is fascinating in its own right, but what really made this book so exceptional for me was the writing style. Cline’s descriptions are so rich and so original that they really give a fresh feel to this book. She explains emotions in an unconventional way which shines a light on human behavior from a different angle. For me, this resulted in striking truths which seemed to just shine through Evie’s story–truths that you don’t ever have to have participated in a commune or cult to understand.

“I knew how easily it could happen, the past at hand, like the helpless cognitive slip of an optical illusion. The tone of a day linked to some particular item: my mother’s chiffon scarf, the humidity of a cut pumpkin. Certain patterns of shade. Even the flash of sunlight on the hood of a white car could cause a momentary ripple in me, allowing a slim space of return. I’d seen old Yardley slickers—the makeup now just a waxy crumble—sell for almost one hundred dollars on the Internet. So grown women could smell it again, that chemical, flowery fug. That’s how badly people wanted it—to know that their lives had happened, that the person they once had been still existed inside of them.”

It’s a novel about insecurities, particularly female insecurities. It’s about patriarchal society and how power is wielded over the impressionable, particularly impressionable young women. Cline tells Evie Boyd’s story, but Evie’s story is one that so many teenage girls will find familiar. The second-guessing of one’s actions, one’s words. The regret at saying something silly. The desire to fit in, the desire to be perceived as older than one actually is.

At the heart of this novel is the act of telling lies–lies that girls tell themselves about boys, lies that girls tell themselves to satiate a desire to belong, a desire to be wanted. Compromises and sacrifices that girls make to achieve a sense of inclusion and to be admired (or just to convince themselves of these things). It is also about manipulation and about transitioning from the manipulated to the manipulator, from victim to abuser.

“Mitch studied me with a questioning, smug smile. Men did it so easily, that immediate parceling of value. And how they seemed to want you to collude on your own judgment.”

Although most of the story focuses on the events of Evie’s life as a fourteen-year-old girl under the influence of the ranch and its residents, there are also passages in which Evie talks about the present. I think what these sections make clear about the message the book tries to convey is that the sort of manipulative behavior that happens in a cult-like environment is not merely confined to that physical place or time in the past, but also carries on in the present day and is part of human behavior on a more general level, especially the unhealthy male-female dynamic that still exists in our society. We get a sense of this when Julian, the son of one of Evie’s friends, seems to manipulate his girlfriend and even tries to intimidate Evie. Evie seems to be able to stand up to this type of behavior more as an adult, but we see how Julian’s girlfriend, Sasha, is so easily manipulated and bows to Julian’s control over her, sacrificing her own dignity in the act.

I flew through this book in the matter of a few days. I couldn’t stop reading it. It engulfed me. It haunted my thoughts and still continues to do so. I recommend this book to anyone that is interested in thinking about human behavior, how people deal with abuse, how people lie to themselves in order to retain a sense of love or belonging. I also recommend this if you’re just looking for a fresh voice in literature. Cline is a young author (only 27), and writes beautifully. My only (small) complaint is that she does seem to reuse certain expressions throughout the novel and it can start to seem a bit repetitive. I was able to overlook this without any issue though because she totally makes up for this in the originality of her descriptions.

My copy of this book was provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you, NetGalley and Vintage for helping me get a copy of this book.

Book Review: Matilda by Roald Dahl

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This was such a cute book. I am not sure how I actually made it to adulthood without ever having read Roald Dahl’s Matilda, but I somehow did. Matilda was one of my favorite films when I was a child, so it was fun to revisit the story through the original source.

I am sure almost everyone is familiar with the story—Matilda, neglected wonder-kid, learns to read at a very young age and seeks refuge in books to escape her horrid family. She reads everything her local library has to offer from Dickens, to Hemingway, to Conrad. Although Matilda’s family present substantial obstacles in the story, she doesn’t meet her real nemesis until she starts school at Crunchem Hall and first encounters Miss Trunchbull. The description of The Trunchbull was superb and made me laugh out loud:

“Her face, I’m afraid, was neither a thing of beauty nor a joy forever. She had an obstinate chin, a cruel mouth and small arrogant eyes. And as for her clothes . . . they were, to say the least, extremely odd.”

Aside from Matilda, Miss Honey was one of my favorite characters in the book. In comparison with the film, I felt that Miss Honey was a bit more assertive in the book. From what I remember of the film, she was quite a sweet and meek character, but in the book, she stands up to Matilda’s parents and is less of a shrinking violet than I thought she would be.

It’s easy to see why Dahl’s books are classic children’s literature. His descriptions have that absurd and silly quality that children really enjoy. I like the fact that Matilda seems to know no limitations. I really like the fact that Matilda is an exceptional and self-assured female character. She is unapologetic for her intelligence without being boastful. I think those are really good traits for a character to possess in a children’s book, especially when said character is the heroine.

I really enjoyed reading this. It was a nice escape in the evenings and brought many smiles to my face. If you have some little ones in your life who are in need of gifts, I think Dahl’s books are just as enjoyable today as they were 25 years ago.

Book Review: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

4 out of 5 stars

From the moment I started reading Alias Grace it was like putting on a favorite old sweater. Margaret Atwood’s writing just does it for me. Alias Grace is the fourth book by Atwood I’ve read, and it only made me want to go out and buy all the others and read nothing else for the next months. I wouldn’t say that this is my favorite novel by Atwood–I think that special place in my heart belongs to The Handmaid’s Tale orThe Blind Assassin–but it is certainly written in that characteristic Atwood style that I love so much.

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The novel is based on a true crime story that took place in the mid-nineteenth century in Canada. Grace Marks, alias Mary Whitney, was accused together with her alleged lover, James McDermott, to have violently murdered Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery. Although Grace professed during the trials to being unable to remember having committed the murders, she was still convicted of the crime. McDermott was sentenced to death, and Grace was sentenced to life in prison.

Grace appears to be a mild-mannered woman and is a trusted inmate in the prison, and is even allowed to work as a servant in the governor’s house. Although she is largely trusted, she battles with mental illness and is intermittently admitted as a mental patient throughout her time in prison. Dr. Jordan is intrigued by her story and comes to interview her in the hopes of getting to the bottom of her memory loss and discovering what truly happened at Mr. Kinnear’s residence on that fateful night.

The true story of Grace Marks remains elusive even today. There is much speculation about whether or not Grace was indeed guilty of murder. Atwood’s Alias Grace does not shed any light on these issues but rather raises questions by drawing on big themes and making Grace perhaps even more enigmatic than before. Atwood subtly places the hardships of women, especially working-class women, before the reader, demonstrating how little choice women had at the time. The novel’s plot revolves heavily around the pervasive occurrences of sexual abuse that seemed to be all too common in Grace’s line of work as a servant in middle- to upper-middle class households.

There is an emphasis on what could be considered traditionally “women’s work”. Grace is interested in sewing, particularly in sewing quilts. The idea of piecing together quilts that tell a sort of story and symbolize something altogether deeper than their beautiful appearance reflects in the telling of Grace’s story to Dr. Jordan. Grace is known for her expert ability to sew–she can sew with remarkably small and nearly undetectable stitches. She is equally as skilled at weaving stories in my opinion. The reader sees that Grace crafts her story deliberately, but yet, Atwood never really lets the reader discover Grace’s truth (at least not as far as I could tell).

Like in many of her other novels, Atwood uses a number of intertextual devices, many of which actually refer to the real-life trial of Grace Marks and Thomas Kinnear. These additions add to the story as a whole and ground the major themes in reality, leaving the reader to reflect not just on the story, but on society in a wider context.

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On the whole, I really enjoyed reading this novel. There is something about Margaret Atwood’s writing that just speaks to my soul. The writing is beautiful, and as is true for all of the historical fiction I’ve read by Atwood, it makes you think deeply. It spurs the reader to not only try to puzzle out what is happening within the pages and to draw links between the various events within the novel, but it also makes you reflect on big issues in society, both historical and contemporary.

I whole-heartedly recommend this book to lovers of Atwood. You won’t be disappointed by this one if you’ve enjoyed other historical fiction by Atwood. I also recommend this book for true-crime fans or lovers of gothic fiction. And finally, if you like books that make you think, then definitely go for Alias Grace or another of Atwood’s historical fiction works.

Book Review: Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs (and some thoughts on the trilogy as a whole)

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A photo from my Instagram account, ohthisbook.

4.5 stars out of 5

Library of Souls is the third and final book in Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children trilogy. It continues the story of Jacob Portman as he explores Peculiardom and attempts to wrest the power away from those that wish to harm the ymbrynes and the peculiar children under their care.

With the books having gotten a lot of buzz recently because of the release of the film adaptation of the first book, I am assuming that most of you are familiar with the basic premise of the trilogy. If this is all sounding too crazy to you, but yet you’re still intrigued, maybe reading the synopsis of the first book on Goodreads could help.

I won’t say too much about the plot of this book since it is the final book in a trilogy, and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who might be considering starting the trilogy. I will say, though, that this book was possibly my favorite book out of all three.

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The first book was great – I really enjoyed reading it (I gave it four out of five stars on Goodreads). In that book, the reader is first introduced to the world of the peculiars. The idea behind the world in the first book just seemed so fresh and new to me. I have always been captivated by looking at old photos, and I loved the addition of them to this trilogy. I think it was such a clever idea to let a real piece of history have a part in telling the story. That being said, though, there were also some points that I didn’t like as much – the love story was a bit silly, but I guess I expect that from a book that could fall into the YA genre. In the end, I could overlook that.

With the trilogy as a whole, I also thought there were some issues with the aspect of time travel and “maturity”. I’m not sure that this particular aspect of the story is very believable, but then again it’s a fantasy book and when I read a fantasy book I try not to be too critical about the magical ways it comes together. As a result, I was able to put all my qualms aside and just enjoy the book for the fun read that it was.

As I said above, my experience with the first book was great. Unfortunately, I did not really like the second book, Hollow City, as much. The plot just seemed to drag on and on for me. Library of Souls, however, was a much different reading experience, I’m happy to say. This book was exciting from the first page to the last. The ending covers more time than I thought it would, and I really had a sense that the story came together nicely in the end.

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If you had a similar experience with books one and two in the trilogy and are perhaps debating about whether or not you want to put the time in to read the final book, I really recommend that you give Library of Souls a go. It’s a really fast-paced and exciting story that continues the creative ideas of the first two books, but is much better written (more action, less aimless running around) than the second book. It’s filled with characters and creatures who will either repulse you, win your heart, or leave you questioning the difference between good and evil.

Probably needless to say, but I am really very excited to go and watch the film!

Have you read the trilogy or seen the film? I’d love to know your thoughts on either!  

Book Review: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

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I was sent this book by SocialBookCo in exchange for an honest review. If you would like to purchase this book you can compare prices from a number of different sellers on the SocialBookCo website by following this link.

4 out of 5 stars

Books like Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls are the reason why I named my blog “Oh, this book”. There’s nothing more to do when you’ve finished reading except to sit for a while and think “Oh, this book”. Sometimes I want to shout it out in an exclamation of happiness, other times I quietly voice it in sorrowful lament. In the case of A Monster Calls, it was the latter for me. Although the book is technically a children’s book and is written in simple language, it has the capability to emotionally move anyone, no matter the age.

The story is about Conor O’Malley, the son of a single mother suffering from cancer. Amidst the hospital visits and family issues, Conor receives a visitor, a monster who comes knocking at his window in the form of a yew tree. The Monster shows up after midnight and promises to tell Conor three tales, but it will not tell its tales without receiving some sort of compensation. In exchange, Conor must tell a fourth tale to the monster, and the telling will not come without its challenges.

This book turned out to be far different than I thought it would be. The cover art of the edition I have as well as the illustrated edition seems to indicate that the book would be a sort of “ghost story” about scary monsters. The yew tree monster is not really that scary of a monster, though, and I think it serves as a good symbol for one of the major themes of the book. The monster comes to teach Conor that the division between right and wrong and good and evil is not always so starkly drawn. The monster itself is at times scary and destructive and at other times gentle and compassionate. The book conveys a very strong message about the complexity of human emotion, especially as it relates to loss and dealing with change.

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In my opinion, one of the strongest points of this book is the portrayal of the characters and the family relationships. The relationship between Conor and his mother is a very special one. Ness writes a highly believable mother-son relationship which allows the reader to really empathize with both Conor and his mother as they deal with her illness and their changing family life.

The monster is also an excellent character with a great voice. I love the tales it tells – you really get the feeling that the monster is something old, something legendary. It tries to be scary or intimidating at times, but Conor, despite the fact that he is often intimidated by the bullies at school, manages snarky retorts and puts the monster in its place. I enjoyed the banter between Conor and the monster because it really showed that Conor is a multi-faceted character.

The book is terribly sad, there is no doubt about that. It is also a touching story about moving forward in the face of hardship. I would recommend this book for adult readers as well as for younger readers. If you’re wondering if this book is appropriate for a young reader in your life, you should know that it deals with heavy themes about life and death (and, of course, monsters!). I think this could be a good book for an adult to read together with a child to gauge if the topics are too heavy or if the monsters and nightmares are too scary.

A tip for anyone who is planning to read this one soon: I highly recommend paying attention to the author’s note at the beginning and the extra page at the end on The Siobhan Dowd Trust. These additions give more context to the story as a whole, and I think really give the book a moving sense of purpose.

Book Review: Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

4 out of 5 stars

13872Early in 2016, I read Katherine Dunn’s novel Geek Love. This book is certainly not for everyone, but I did enjoy my (very strange) reading experience.

In Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love The Binewski family create an alter-reality inside the boundary of their traveling circus. It is a place where abnormalities are praised, even strived for, and ‘normal people’ are outsiders. Olympia Binewski narrates the novel, describing how their ideal life slowly descends into corruption. Dunn’s novel explores many different taboos through her characters, demonstrating the depths to which love and a desire to be loved in return will drive one to go. Although the characters often go to extremes and sometimes make very unethical decisions, there is a message at the heart of the novel about embracing one’s differences and exalting the ‘other’ that exists within the self.

The following quote comes from, in my opinion, one of the most striking passages in the novel in which Olympia discusses the ‘deformities’ that exist within (or without) all of us:

“My worst is all out in the open. It makes it necessary for people to tell you about themselves. They begin out of simple courtesy. Just being visible is my biggest confession, so they try to set me at ease by revealing our equality, by dragging out their own less-apparent deformities. That’s how it starts. But I am a like a stranger on the bus and they get hooked on having a listener. They go too far because I am one listener who is in no position to judge or find fault” (154).

I would recommend this novel to anyone who is intrigued by the bizarre, grotesque, or taboo. For me, this novel was certainly off my beaten-reading-path, but I enjoyed it very much and found myself thinking about it often in the weeks after I read it. The surface story is intriguing for its oddness, but, if you are looking for it, there is more to be extracted from the depths of this novel.

Book Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

4 out of 5 stars

 The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch doesn’t really lack much praise on the social platforms in the digital reading community. There are tons of bloggers, Bookstagrammers, Goodreads users, and BookTubers who rave about this one. After my own personal reading experience, I’m able to say that I feel that praise is rightly deserved.

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“There’s no freedom quite like the freedom of being constantly underestimated.” 

 

 

“Time’s a river, Locke, and we’ve always drifted farther down it than we think.” 

 

The Lies of Locke Lamora is the first in Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards series. It is nothing short of an extraordinary swashbuckling adventure set in the island city of Camorr. Locke, the main character who lends his name to the first book in the series, was orphaned as a child and has had a hard time just trying to survive his early years. Things change for him when he comes under Chains’ care and becomes part of the brotherhood known as the Gentlemen Bastards.

The first book in the series introduces the reader to Camorr, Locke, and the Gentlemen Bastards and details their schemes to steal from the rich in true Robin Hood fashion (giving to the poor is less important, but the Gentlemen Bastards do have some good in their hearts). The Gentlemen Bastards run into some significant complications in their latest scheme and as a consequence, the lives of Locke and his ‘brothers’ are put into danger. Locke, master of deception and mummery, must try to wriggle his way out of some very precarious situations.

It took me a little while to get into the book, but once I was drawn into it I didn’t want to put it down. I will say that from the beginning you really get a sense of Locke’s personality, which, for me, is one of the best elements of the book. Locke as a boy is a precocious thief who grows to be a master of deception and manipulation. He is not your average thief. He is not only stealthy physically, but he can mold himself to fit any type of role by adjusting his appearance, adopting an accent, or even speaking another language. He thinks on the spot and his quick wits get him out of very tight situations. In some instances, I think this type of character can be seen as a sort of ‘deus ex machina’, but with Locke it is believable. He isn’t infallible, but he does learn from his mistakes which makes it interesting and fun to follow his adventures since the reader never really knows if his current scheme will work or not.

All in all, a great fantasy book! My only complaint is that I would have liked the alchemical aspect to be more of a focus of the plot. I found that idea really interesting, but I felt like more could be done with it. Perhaps it’s a bigger focus in the next books in the series? As for those, I would like to check them out eventually. It took me a while to get through this book so I’m not sure if I’m up for committing to the rest of the books in this series at the moment (I believe there are seven), but if I happen to find them in a secondhand shop in the future I will certainly pick them up.

I will put a little word of caution here: the book as a whole is very violent. Although the banter is playful and the world is fantastical, if you’re concerned about prevalent violence, you might want to be aware that there are some very graphic passages. Oh, and tons and tons of cursing, but you’d expect that in a fantasy series called The Gentleman Bastard Sequence, right?