Book Review: The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

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The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

Helena grew up in an isolated cabin deep in the marshes of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It wasn’t until she was a teenager that she understood the horrible truth of her unconventional childhood: her father was a kidnapper and rapist, and her mother his victim and prisoner. Now an adult, Helena has two young children of her own, and her father, known as The Marsh King, has been in prison for over a decade. Then one day, state troopers show up at her door; her father has escaped from prison. Helena knows that he will be coming for her, but her father is a consummate woodsman, able to disappear into the wilderness at will. Helena will have to use every bit of information he taught her in order to track him down and keep her family safe.

This nail-biting thriller contains shades of Room by Emma Donoghue and Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller. The story weaves between the present day, where Helena is living a more or less normal life in rural Michigan (though she still struggles with the intricacies of society), and her childhood living on the land in the isolated cabin on the marsh. We can acutely feel the subtle damage done to Helena by her father, yet she was raised to more or less worship him. Her father is a rapist, a kidnapper, and a sadist, but he was also the man who raised her, and what little girl doesn’t want the approval of her father? This dissonance between the facts and the feelings of her childhood present Helena with a horrible and complex dilemma. She knows her father is an evil man, and that he means to hurt her and her family, but how do you truly stop being daddy’s little girl?

I really liked this book. Dionne has taken a theme that occupies both newspaper headlines and our nightmares and made it into a terrifyingly realistic, gripping story. The weaving of past and present events is done well, revealing in increments the full story of Helena’s childhood. If you’ve been looking for a fast-paced, stay-up-until-one-in-the-morning read, this is the perfect book for you.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Doomed by Chuck Palahniuk


Doomed by Chuck Palahniuk

This is the sequel to Damned, which I didn’t realize when I started reading. So, caveat: There will likely be spoilers for Damned in this review. Bonus: you can read this book as a stand alone, though I’m sure it makes a lot more sense if you’ve read the previous book (though that is always hard to tell with Palahniuk).

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This book explores the further adventures of Madison Desert Flower Rosa Parks Coyote Trickster Spencer, out in the world now as an undead spirit after a Halloween ritual backfires. Madison decides to revisit her movie-star parents’ apartment, which starts a reminiscence of a hideous summer spent with her hayseed grandparents upstate. As Madison works through her (frankly insane) past, she comes to realize that she and her family have been the central cogs in a doomsday battle between the forces of heaven and hell.

I always feel a bit at a loss when trying to describe Chuck Palahniuk. The man has the ability to turn weird tastelessness into an art-form, and I feel like folks either love him or they hate him.This book feels a bit less fun (I’m not sure that’s the right word, but oh well) than his previous books, but that may be because I didn’t read the first book in the series. Palahniuk is on form with plenty of what-the-fuck moments, twisted humor, disgusting metaphors, and lots of information about things you wish you would never need to know. The ending is a bit unsatisfactory, in that it doesn’t really exist, so I can only assume that Palahniuk is planning on making the series a trilogy.

If you have never read a Chuck Palahniuk book, this is definitely not the place to start, try his most well known: Fight Club, or one of his other popular stories, like Choke, or Invisible Monsters. If you are a Palahniuk fan, I’d certainly recommend giving this book (and the previous one) a shot.

Book Review: New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

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New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

This is one of the Hogarth Shakespeare series; the Bard’s classic plays reimagined by modern-day authors. Last year I got to read Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest. Now, I’m moving on to Othello as envisioned by Tracy Chevalier.

Chevalier sets her retelling in 1970s Washington DC. The era, with its incendiary post-civil rights racial tensions, provides a brilliant backdrop for a story that orbits intimately around Othello’s otherness (both his race and, presumably, his religion).

Disconcertingly, Chevalier has set her story in an elementary school. The major players are now sixth graders; the horror and the tragedy of the plot enacted by eleven year olds. A bold choice, but one that ultimately plays out well. The petty intrigues and backstabbing of playground rivalries seem to need only a small push to spiral into terminal misunderstanding and violence.

The story, set over a single school day, begins with Osei, also called O, the son of a Ghanaian diplomat starting his first day at a new school, and the only black student enrolled. He quickly befriends Daniella (also called Dee), one of the most popular girls in school, and the two hit it off almost instantly. Unfortunately, Osei’s unlikely friendship with Dee, and his acceptance by Casper, the most popular boy at the school, inspire bully Ian to concoct a malicious plot to put the “uppity” Osei in his rightful place.

New Boy is a powerful retelling of a play that is in itself timeless. Othello continues to resonate with audiences today because the attitudes of racism, resentment, and revenge are depressingly familiar to us all. The child-like cruelty of the elementary students in New Boy is at once horrifying and familiar. The reinforcement of this cruelty by the adults in the picture (who, as one character points out, “should know better”) provides further commentary on the pervasiveness of racism and the continuous effort at education and cultural exploration needed to help combat it. By setting the story in the 1970s, Chevalier gives us some temporal space from such abominable ideas, but recent events should quickly make it obvious that we have not come nearly as far as we would like to think.

In all, this is a great modern retelling of a Shakespeare classic (is that redundant? I think it may be). Othello is an important story, and New Boy will make it more accessible for those who don’t have the time or inclination to wade through the Bard’s archaic prose.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Target Omega by Peter Kirsanow

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Target Omega by Peter Kirsanow

Michael Garin is the best of the best, a US special forces soldier so good at his job, and so mom and apple pie, that he would give Captain America an inferiority complex. Garin’s anti-WMD strike force is deployed in a successful mission to prevent a terrorist cell from acquiring a nuclear device. Within 48 hours of their return stateside, all but Garin have been killed by a deadly foreign operative. Finding himself the prime suspect in the deaths of his teammates, Garin goes rogue to uncover the motive behind their deaths and to stop a devastating attack against the United States.

Okay, first off: this book is fun. This is the literary version of The White House has Fallen, Broken Arrow, Rambo, or anything starring John Cena. There are explosions, car chases, shoot ’em ups, and thoroughly implausible hand-to-hand vs. gun fights. The main characters are pretty one-sided and fulfill their genre-defined role, but with this type of story they don’t need to be anything more. This is a popcorn-grade summer action flick bound into paper format, and I enjoyed reading this book.

On the other hand, as is common with this particular genre, there was a lot of ‘Murica flavored chest thumping, and red white and blue dick waving. highly enjoyable action scenes are interspersed with eye-roll worthy proclamations about what it means to be an American (guns, church, and apple pie), and the nature of the true enemy (pansy-ass liberals, duh). As I myself thoroughly own the title of bleeding heart liberal out to destroy all that makes America great, these darling little snippets did take away a bit from my enjoyment of the book (yes, I know, “cry me a river, snowflake”blah blah blah).

So, in sum, I do recommend this book to those who love military-oriented action thrillers, or for anyone wanting an entertaining beach read this summer. It was a genuinely good book, after all. But if you’re the type to take red state MAGA asides with more than just an eye roll (and in the current political climate, I heartily sympathize), this may not be the book for you, at least not right now (maybe 2018? Hopefully?). So read the book, it’s fun, but with just enough family-member-you-avoid-talking-to-at-get-togethers to keep me from being able to whole-heartedly recommend it.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: I am Providence by Nick Mamatas

I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas

Colleen Danzig is an aspiring writer of Lovecraftian fiction. While attending the biggest gathering for Lovecraftian literary types: The Summer Tentacular in Providence, Rhode Island, she finds the hardcore fans more than a little off-putting. When her roommate–a widely admired and equally despised writer named Panossian–is murdered and his face surgically removed, Colleen finds that she is the only one who seems to care about Panossian’s death. Deciding to start her own investigation, she delves into the underbelly of the Lovecraftian fandom, a place where racism and sexism merge with mystical thinking, and more than one convention goer seems to be searching for a book bound in human skin . . .

This is a meta-fiction, a Lovecraft book about Lovecraft folks. There are no cosmic horrors here, though, just the banal horror of truly terrible people. I do like the split narrative between the well-meaning and frustrated Colleen and the dead, decomposing, but still conscious Panossian, which did give the book a touch of Lovecraftian horror. the tone of the book is bitter and snarky, focusing on the trouble that arises when you have too many socially-backward folks in one place. Despite the occasionally sour-grapes-esque tone, Mamatas does bring forward some legitimate problems both with Lovecraft himself and with a subset of his fans (see previous: racism, sexism, etc.).

The plot of the book stumbles at times, switching viewpoints or segueing with little warning. In addition, the various secondary characters tend to be a bit one dimensional, which occasionally makes it difficult to keep these players straight.

The book is quite funny at times, but I would recommend it more for the serious Lovecraft fan, and not a casual reader.

Book Review: Skeleton God by Eliot Pattison

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Skeleton God by Eliot Pattison

This is the ninth book in Eliot Pattison’s Inspector Shan series. Therefore, there will probably be spoilers for the previous books in this review. Caveat: I haven’t read the previous book in the series, but the good news is that this book can be read as a stand-alone, without having read the previous novels.

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We find our hero, Shan Tao Yun, reluctantly acting as the constable of tiny Yangkar village in Tibet. His appointment more a punishment than an honor, Shan does his best to toe the party line while remaining sympathetic to the native Tibetans under his jurisdiction. When a military convoy stops in town with a dozen political prisoners and an investigator from the Public Security Bureau in tow, Shan braces himself for trouble. Unfortunately, he has no idea just how bad things can get. When an elderly nun is assaulted and local herders begin talking of “the dead walking” Shan heads into the mountainous terrain to investigate and finds something that defies explanation: an ancient tomb with not one, but three bodies inside – the mummified body of a Tibetan saint, the fifty-year-old corpse of a Chinese soldier, and the days old body of an American. With the Public Security Bureau and the army both digging into the town’s affairs, the situation becomes extremely complicated. Shan must find a way to solve the crimes without getting thrown back in prison or being executed.

This was certainly an interesting mystery. Pattison, while an American author, is a world traveler, and has infused the book with his love of Tibet and his knowledge of the conquest of that country by the People’s Republic of China. The intricacies (and atrocities) of politics between Tibet and China are on full display and impact most every aspect of the plot. Inspector Shan is a wonderful protagonist, vividly realized as a man trying his best to walk the tightrope between two very different worlds. The paranoia and precariousness of his situation are palpable throughout the book.

As I said before, this book works well as a stand-alone novel, but I would imagine you get a bit more out of it if you’ve read the previous books. Fans of the series will likely enjoy this book. I would also recommend it to mystery lovers and those into international intrigue.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Skeleton God will be available for purchase on March 7th, 2017.

Book Review: Night of Fire by Colin Thubron

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Night of Fire by Colin Thubron

This poetic book is told in a series of interconnected vignettes. As an apartment building succumbs to fire, the reader visits each resident in turn, from a neurosurgeon to a priest, a young boy to a naturalist. With each chapter, we learn a little bit about each tenant, their pasts, futures, hopes, and dreams.

The interconnectedness of each vignette is not immediately obvious, but as you read further and further on, you begin to experience small niggles at the back of your brain, a sense of deja vu. Each chapter teases out a little bit more about the nature of memory and the fragility of the self.

This synopsis is a bit vague, and I apologize. But the nature of the book makes it hard to summarize succinctly without spoiling the book. Let me tell you instead that the book is extraordinarily well crafted. Layers of meaning underlie each chapter, and the nuance of words and names are well done. The writing style is on the poetic side, but not dense.

This book is not at all what I typically read, but it was a lovely trip outside of my comfort zone. I really had no idea what to expect when I opened the cover, but I’m incredibly glad that I took the time. I think most people who enjoy books that require some extra thought will enjoy this book.

An advance copy of this book was provided via a Powell’s Indiespensable book box (seriously, you need to subscribe). Night of Fire will be available for purchase on January 17th, 2017.

Book Review: Human Acts by Han Kang

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Human Acts by Han Kang

I’m going to say off the bat that I loved this book. I was a fan of The Vegetarian, another of Han Kang’s books (you can read my review of this book here), but Human Acts was simply incredible.

The plot is centered around the democratic uprising in Gwangju, South Korea (the author’s hometown) in 1980. Protesting against the authoritarian South Korean government, civilians and military clashed in the small town in May of 1980, and several hundred people were killed (official estimates on the death toll vary). In the midst if this, Han Kang focuses on one boy, Dong ho, a fifteen year old student caught up in the middle of the violence.

Through the chapters, we hear from many people, all who have lost something to this massacre. As the story moves forward in time, we see how the living and the dead are still haunted by what took place in the square at Gwangju, and how the scars of the souls involved (both the human souls and the soul of South Korea itself) never really heal completely.

The book is wrenching. The stark horror of the story is made all the more immediate by the familiarity of the author with the subject matter. Han Kang grew up in Gwangju, and while she wasn’t living there when the massacre took place, friends, family, and neighbors were drawn into the conflict. Many of the chapters in this book were drawn from survivors’ accounts written up after the fact.

This book is a difficult read, more due to the subject matter than the language (Deborah Smith did a wonderful job translating). But I would recommend this book to just about everyone. With all the unrest in the world today, sometimes we need to be reminded that such things have happened in the past, and so we must be doubly vigilant to prevent them from occurring in the future.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Human Acts will be available for purchase on January 17th, 2017.