Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam

#BeatTheBacklist book 10
2017 book 10

Format: Print (paperback)
Length: 275 pages
Published: 2011

All I knew about this book when I picked it up is that it is about a middle aged guy who befriends a weird young girl.  I guess I should have guessed what would happen next, but I’m a little naive.  On behalf of all of us naive readers out there, how about a trigger warning when books are about pedophiles?  huh?  maybe?

I’m not squeamish.  I will read a book with a pedophile character if it has merit.  Nabokov’s Lolita is an amazing work of literature and Tom Perrotta’s Little Children is a great book about parenthood and relationships and obsession.  I just need a little warning please.  I don’t think that is too much to ask.

Nadzam’s novel is a character study.  The main character, David Lamb is a down on his luck middle-aged man.  He is fundamentally dishonest, lying when honesty would suffice.  He has some seemingly conflicting character traits – he is impulsive yet calculating, narcissistic and self-loathing.

When the novel opens, Lamb’s wife has left him, he has just buried his father, and he is about to be fired from his job.  He is waiting for something to happen when he meets Tommie, a lonely eleven year old girl.  He immediately begins flattering her, giving her gifts, making promises, and eventually abducting her. He convinces her at every step that they are partners in crime embarking on an adventure together.

The relationship between Lamb and Tommie was probably obviously that of a predator and victim from the beginning, but I thought at first that it might be something else.  I suspected this of being one of those heartwarmingly improbably friendships that transform the lives of two sad people, or something like that.  I am glad that it wasn’t.  That would have been trite and schmaltzy and I would have slammed Nadzam’s formulaic story telling.  Instead Lamb (the character) tells himself that story while actually living a different one and that is good story telling.

Nadzam’s strengths as a story teller are obvious, but this book would have been more powerful as a short story.  The characters and their relationship are interesting and well written, but would have packed more of a punch in about 200 fewer pages.

I am working my way through my TBR list, (while steadily adding to it) as part of my 2017 Beat The Backlist challenge.  You can see my list with links to reviews here.

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

#BeatTheBacklist book9
2017 book 9

Format: Print (paperback)
Length: 321 pages
Published: 1997

I joined a women’s book club a few months ago.  I have done book clubs in the past, but those were basically wine drinking clubs where a book may or may not be discussed.  This is an actual book club.  As in, we drink coffee instead of wine and the person who suggests the book comes prepared with questions for discussion.  I have been a little surprised to find that I prefer this kind of book club to the other.

This month’s book was Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent.  It is a feminist retelling of the biblical story of Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob.  This is not a book I would have been likely to pick up on my own, which is one of the many nice things about joining a book club.  For those of you that are not very well versed in the old testament, here is a  short, irreverent biblical refresher.

Skipping past Adam and Eve… There was this guy named Abraham.  He had a son named Isaac.  God told Abraham to kill his son Isaac and Abraham said he would because you don’t want to get on God’s bad side.  Then just as he is about to kill Isaac, God shows up again and says “I was just testing you, Abe.  You passed and you don’t have to kill Isaac.”  Somehow this makes Abraham more devoted to the big guy.  Go figure.

Isaac grows up and is also a one god guy.  He marries Rebecca and they have fraternal twin sons, Jacob and Esau.  Jacob is pretty and Esau is hairy and for some reason this makes Rebecca like Jacob more. Add to this the fact that Isaac is still suffering from PTSD since he was almost sacrificed to a trickster God by his father and you have a sense of how seriously dysfunctional this family is. Jacob and Esau are competing for their parents’ love and then Jacob steals Esau’s birthright and all hell breaks loose.  Jacob is banished/runs away with the birthright in his possession.  Which begs the question, what is this mysterious birthright?  Because when we meet Jacob he is broke as a joke.  He has no land, no livestock, no money… But, you know, birthright! So, yay?

Where were we?  Oh yes, Jacob runs away to his uncle, Laban.  There he meets and falls in love with both of Laban’s daughters.  Don’t judge.  He marries the sisters, Leah and Rachel, and then for good measure he marries their handmaids, Zilpah and Bilhah, too.  Jacob is also a follower of God with a capital G.  Jacob begins begetting.  He begat Reuben and Simon and Levi and Judah and… a bunch of boys.  A gaggle of boys.  Twelve boys.  So. Many. Boys.   And he raises them all to believe in the same god that told his grandfather to kill his father before swooping in at the last minute saying “psych!  Gotcha Abe!  If you could see your face right now, you would laugh…”  Oh yeah, Jacob also has one daughter named Dinah.

The story goes that when Dinah became a woman, which probably means 12 or 13 in biblical times (eww), she was raped by an Egyptian prince or nobleman or something like that.  In the biblical version of the story, after raping her he falls in love with her, which is pure sociopathy.  So, even though he already got the milk by force, he now wants to buy the cow, because it is a very beautiful cow.  He offers Jacob whatever he asks for a bride price.  Because women are property.  Duh.

Jacob is angry about the theft of his property, er, I mean rape of his daughter.  So instead of a material gift he insists instead that the Egyptian and all the men in his family and all of their servants and subjects all get circumcised instead.  You know, for God.  Because if there is one thing God hates, it’s foreskin.  Inexplicably, the guy (rapist? suitor?) agrees.  He and all of the other men go under the knife and then while they are recovering Dinah’s brothers Simon and Levi come and kill them all, which is a pretty low blow.

In the bible, this is where Dinah’s story pretty much ends.  She was a daughter of an important man, she had important brothers, she was raped by another man and her brothers killed the rapist and a whole lot of other people to defend her before going on to do more important man-centered stuff like getting sold into slavery for having a pretty coat and fathering the twelve tribes of Israel.

Diamant’s interpretation of Dinah’s story fills in the holes of her early years, provides an alternate interpretation of the “rape,” and tells the reader what happened in the years following Simon and Levi’s massacre.  In other words, it tells the story of Dinah the person.  Most of the women in the story are strong and capable and they have rich inner lives.  The male characters drive much of the story, but they are rendered in outlines and broad strokes – handsome, drunk, kind, lusty… they are identified, but not able to be identified with. The relationships between the women are joyful and powerful.  Dinah’s role as a midwife earns her respect from the other women and gives her a position of some authority.  But her relationship to the men in her life is one of servitude, even to her son.

Diamant’s writing is poetic and her reinterpretation of the story is interesting. I look forward to discussing it at book club.

I am working my way through my ever growing TBR list and am keeping track of it here.  I am always looking for recommendations.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

#BeatTheBacklist Book 8
2017 Book 8

Format: Print (Paperback)
Length: 372 pages
Published: 2011

Ready Player One has become a must read for geeks of a certain age.  My demographic, that is.  Recently, I found myself in an airport with an insufficient number of books and some time to kill.  Naturally I stumbled into the airport bookstore and now I have my very own copy of Cline’s debut novel.  I was prepared to be underwhelmed by this book.  Which may be why I wasn’t.  I don’t know.

This is the 8th book I have read this year for the Beat The Backlist challenge.  My proposed list of books to read and review is found here.

What It’s About…

It is the not too distant future and much of what you probably suspect will happen has happened.  There is a global energy crisis and food shortage, crime is rampant, people live like impoverished sardines.  Reality is not a fun place to be for most people on earth.  Fortunately, there is an alternative.  The OASIS is an online universe in which people work, shop, learn, and socialize.  Thanks to sophisticated headsets and body wear, time spent in the OASIS can feel as real as real life.  Only less terrible.

The inventor of the OASIS is reclusive oddball James Halliday.  He is the king of the geeks, but he has no heir.  When he dies, he leaves a vast fortune and a puzzle.  The person who can solve the puzzle by collecting three virtual keys and passing through three gates will inherit his fortune, including ownership of the OASIS.  To collect the keys and win the game, players have to master an extensive lexicon of eighties pop culture.  Wait, what?  That’s right.  Halliday was absolutely obsessed with video games, movies, music and television from the 1980s and in order to find the keys and pass through the gates, the players will need to share his obsession with all things eighties.  In addition to needing to have an intimate acquaintance with the pop culture of a decade that ended almost 50 years before any of the players were born, they are also confronted with problems of scale.  The  OASIS is literally infinite and the keys could be located anywhere within it.  5 years after his death the first key has still not been found.  Until a nobody named Wade Watts finds it.

The OASIS is not a utopia. There are haves and have nots and Wade falls firmly in the latter category.  He is poor in both his real and virtual lives.  This means that while the OASIS is a definite improvement over his offline existence, there are still very real limits to what he is able to do there. Finding the first key changes that and much more.  Suddenly he is a powerful player in a game with very high stakes.  He quickly learns that people are willing to kill for power and wealth on this scale.

What I Thought…

I started out thinking that this book was too clever or trying too hard.  I think I was looking for reasons to dislike it.  Cline won me over though.  His vision of the near future is plausible and well rendered.  The OASIS is very nearly a reality now, although its relatively commercial free nature feels more far fetched than the technological aspects.  The quest and the nature of the quest as a massive multiplayer game full of eighties pop culture themed riddles was clever, yes, but not so much so that I couldn’t lose myself in it. What clinched it for me though was the villains.  IOI, the evil corporation bent on world domination, is a bad guy I can enjoy rooting against.

Now that my aging nerd street cred has been shored up, I’m on to read some more books n’at.

 

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

#BeatTheBacklist book 7
2017 book 7

Format: Print (hardcover)
Length: 436 pages
Published: 2014

7 word review – Not as good as the Shining Girls.
But if you are looking for more details, read on.

Broken Monsters is set in the broken city of Detroit where detective Gabi Versado picks up a gruesome murder case.  A young boy has been made into a grotesque sculpture, his upper half fused with the hindquarters of a deer. Beukes tells the story of a serial killer controlled by a supernatural presence calling itself “the dream,” while also telling a story of people living in the information age.

Detective Versado struggles to solve the mystery while keeping a lid on the gory details, which isn’t easy in this era of instant access to information.  Meanwhile back at the farm, her 15-year old daughter Layla and her best friend are trying, and failing, to safely navigate social media and adolescence. Floundering writer Jonno Haim arrives in Detroit fleeing a failed relationship.  He is initially annoyed by having to pander to the short attention span of the internet audience, but when his hip new girlfriend guides him towards starting a youtube station, he goes from principled to opportunistic with alacrity.

The best part of this book was definitely the killer.  He was so wonderfully crazy and I liked that the crazy was able to bleed out of his head and into reality.  Both in this book and in The Shining Girls Beukes weaves the fantastic into the real fluidly and to great effect.  I also appreciated the racial diversity of the cast of characters and Beukes ability to portray non-white people as actual people and not caricatures or types. It’s ridiculous that has to be applauded, but there it is.  All of the characters are all well constructed and interesting, but many of their stories fail to intertwine in meaningful ways.  I kept waiting for some level of connectedness to be revealed or develop, but for the most part their stories are told in parallel.

The not so subtle messaging about the emptiness and potential dangers of being “connected” also fell flat for me.  Yes, there is a lot of dumb shit floating around on the interwebs (ahem… even I have a blog) and yes there are predators and opportunists and regular ol’ people exhibiting very poor judgement online.  But, the internet is more than pedophiles and selfies and Ryan Gosling memes.  It is also nearly instantaneous access to meaningful information that enables us to better able understand ourselves and the world and people in it.  The connectivity that makes it easier for people to be victimized also makes it easier for us to take online classes and collaborate on projects with people on other continents.  So let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Says the girl who still likes to read books printed on dried tree pulp.

If you haven’t read any Lauren Beukes yet, skip this one and go read The Shining Girls which is dark and wonderful and features a bad ass survivor punk girl and a time traveling serial killer.

This book and review are part of my Beat the Backlist Challenge.  You can find a list of the books I have read and reviewed in 2017 as well as my growing list of books to read here.  I am always looking for recommendations, so let me know if you’ve read anything good lately.

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

#BeatTheBacklist book 6
2017 book 6

Format: Print (hardcover)
Length: 256 pages
Published: 2014

As long as I can remember I have entertained fantasies of running away to a new city and reinventing myself.  I wanted to run away long before I ever did anything worth running away from.  Maybe that’s why I loved Lucky Us so much.

What It’s About… Spoilerish

Iris and Eva are half sisters.  They both lose their mothers as adolescents and are thrust together to live with their shared con man father in a small town in Ohio. Iris is beautiful and talented and has dreams of fame and fortune.  Eva just wants to get away. Together they move to Hollywood to pursue Iris’s dreams.  Iris makes an impression and her career starts to take off until some sexy pictures get her blacklisted.  Did I mention this takes place in the 1940s?

The  unconventional family of their childhood sets a precedent for the family they build after Iris’s scandal breaks which includes a fatherly gay make up artist and a jazz singer with vitiligo, among others.  Their father reenters their life, putting his con man abilities to good use by forging them diplomas and letters of reference.  They move to New York and reinvent themselves again.  On this end of the country Iris does terrible things in the name of love and at some point the sisters abduct an orphan.  It is a crazy story of self discovery and love and what happens when you get to choose your family.

What I Thought…

I loved this book.  I loved poor broken Iris who started out so sure of herself.  I loved sidekick Eva who is stronger than anyone credited.  I even loved their selfish shit heel of a father who turns out to be just a flawed human being like the rest of us.  The characters are feminist and smart and strong and some of them are queer and all of them are great.  Amy Bloom’s prose is lovely and the story is wonderful and I can’t recommend this book enough.

Also, this is one of the best book covers I have ever seen even though I don’t understand how it relates to the story.

 

I am attempting to read 50 books from my backlist in 2017.  You can see the ever evolving list with links to my reviews here. I am always looking for new titles to add to the list, so recommendations are welcome.

City of Thieves by David Benioff

#BeatTheBacklist book 5
2017 book 5

Format: Print (hardcover)
Length: 258
Published: 2008

I love twisty, complicated stories with way too many characters.  My husband does not.  But he humors me by watching Game of Thrones with me and he got hooked despite himself.  I love GoT (and him) so much that I don’t even get too terribly annoyed by having to pause every 30 seconds to remind him of a character’s significance or to help him tell Rob Stark from John Snow from Theon Greyjoy (because all white boys look alike).  When I do get annoyed, though, I usually just tell him to wait until he watches the Behind the Episode feature to have it all spelled out.  This add on is a really nice feature for viewers who haven’t read the books or who just like to know about the show’s writers’ interpretations of events in the book and show.  One of the writers who often provides commentary during the Behind the Episode segments is David Benioff.  He’s the very handsome one.

A few months ago I made a new bookish friend.  We got talking about books, of course, and she recommended City of Thieves by David Benioff.  Once the Game of Thrones connection was made in my head I wanted to read this book. I didn’t even care what it was about.  In case you were wondering, though, it is not about dragons.

What It’s About…

The story is presented as a recollection of David’s grandfather’s experience during the WWII siege of Leningrad.  I don’t know if the narrator is actually David Benioff or just shares his name.  I don’t know if the events related (or some version of them) actually occurred.  I hope not.  But whether the account is real or imagined, it is riveting both in its details and in the style of its telling.

Lev Beniov is coming of age in the city of Leningrad, called Piter by locals, during the German siege.  He is frightened and starving, but also craving adventure and a chance to prove his manhood.  He is gawky and adolescent and horny.  He is seventeen.

One night Lev watches a dead German paratrooper float to the street below his apartment building and, along with three friends, goes to do what any reasonable person would do during a years long siege – loot his corpse. Unfortunately, the police arrive as they are stripping the Nazi of his belongings and Lev is captured.  The sentence for looting or any other infraction, no matter how small, is execution.  There is hardly food enough for law abiding citizens.  The city cannot afford to house and feed criminals.  So, all crimes receive the penalty of death.  Lev is a dead man.  Yet, somehow he is not killed.  Instead he is sent on an absurd and seemingly impossible mission.  Along with Kolya, another young man in a similar predicament, he is sent to obtain a dozen eggs for a colonel’s daughter’s wedding feast.

That’s right. While Lev and everyone he knows are starving to death and choking down ration bread that is more sawdust than wheat, a high ranking police official is planning a wedding for his daughter that will include a cake made with real eggs, butter, and flour.  And somehow Lev and Kolya have to find and deliver 12 eggs or die trying.

What I Thought…

I loved this book.  Loved it.  And I really needed to love it because the last few books I read were good, but they didn’t give me that warm, fuzzy, this is why I love reading feeling that I had been looking for.

Lev and Kolya are amazing characters.  Lev is so vulnerable and honest and Kolya is so delightful and funny and brave.  Kolya at first seemed too self-assured and imperturbable until I realized that we were seeing him through Lev’s eyes, not his own.  Master stroke, Benioff.  The descriptions of Leningrad under siege and of occupied Russia (where their quest for eggs takes them) were exquisite.  I don’t know how accurately the settings were depicted, but they have the feel of authenticity.  For the reader of fiction, that is perhaps more important.

On their quest they encounter people made dangerous by their desperation.  Or perhaps they are dangerous people who just happen to be desperate.  They make friends.  They narrowly escape enemy capture only later to walk willingly into the hands of the enemy.  They shoot and are shot at, seeing friends and enemies die in front of them.  They are both brave and fearful, but (coming full circle to Game of Thrones) Ned Stark tells us that the only time a man can be brave is when he is afraid.  And in the end, the get those damn eggs.

Their adventure is by turns hilarious and terrifying.  Absurd is the only word to describe it, but they lived in absurd times.  So, for that matter, do we.  I will not minimize the realities of genocide or watching your friends die of starvation by comparing it to waking in the morning to another Trump tweetstorm.  I understand these things are different by many orders of magnitude.  I will simply say that this quote resonated with me on many levels.

“The days had become a confusion of catastrophes; what seemed impossible in the afternoon was blunt fact by the evening.”

 

I am working through my ever growing TBR list this year as part of a #BeattheBacklist Challenge.  You can see a list of the books I propose to read with links to those I read and review here.  I’d love to hear your recommendations or just talk about Game of Thrones.  Seriously, anytime.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

#BeatTheBacklist book 4
2017 book 4

Format: Print (hardcover) – the non-illustrated version
Length: 235 pages

Let me get all of my gushy ohmygod I love Neil Gaiman stuff out of the way right up front.  The man is brilliant and compassionate and funny and handsome and I love love love him. okay? okay. I read Stardust because as I may have mentioned, I’m kind of a fan, and I hadn’t read it before.  There was a movie made of this book that I haven’t seen.  Apparently it is 76% fresh, so I guess I’m going to have to check it out.

What It’s About…

Stardust is an old-timey tale of a young hero on a quest in the land of faerie. The town of Wall is situated on one side of, well, a wall.  On the other side of the wall lies Faerie.  Once every nine years the townspeople of Wall are permitted to pass through the sole opening in in the wall to attend a faerie market.

Tristran Thorn is a young man who thinks he was born in Wall, but in fact was not.  For love of a beautiful young girl he embarks on a wild adventure to collect a fallen star from the faerie lands.  Unbeknownst to him, he is not the only one seeking the fallen star.  Also unbeknownst to him, his destiny is entwined with other faerie folk.  Adventures and misadventures ensue and it all wraps up in a predictably happy ending.

What I Thought…

This book is not written in the style of other Gaiman books, but it is still undeniably Gaiman.  It is written in a victorian era fairytale style that lacks a bit of the edge present in his other works.  Still, it has hints of his characteristic darkness and wit that saves it from being just a floridly told love story.

Early on there is a hot and heavy sex scene that some parents may find to be a bit much for YA readers, but it is otherwise one of Gaiman’s more vanilla books.  A boy sets out on a journey to win his true love’s heart and in the end he does, just not in the way he envisioned.  It’s sweet and clever. It’s not profound, but I needed something light and lovely and this hit the spot.

This is book #4 of my #BeatTheBacklist challenge.  You can see other books on my TBR here.