Confessions

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Trigger warning for… everything? This book is pretty dark. There’s murder, sadistic/psychopathic behavior, abuse, school violence, and probably other stuff I forgot. Just beware if any of that sounds troublesome to you! On the bright side, I could not put this book down. After the first chapter I was a little disturbed though. There was also a point where the book made me really uncomfortable, so I had to take a break, but I still couldn’t stop myself from finishing this 235 page book in one night. Despite how deeply this novel had its hooks in me, I only rated it 3/5 stars.

Confessions opens with a middle school teacher named Yuko Moriguchi telling her class that she is retiring from teaching. The past few months have been rough for Yuko because her four-year-old daughter mysteriously died at the school. The police branded her daughter’s death as an accident, but Yuko has proof it was murder. In fact, she knows exactly who killed her little girl. The culprits are in her classroom. As Yuko finishes her goodbye speech to the class, she also tells them she has begun her plan for revenge on the students who killed her daughter.

I thought this was going to be something like Battle Royale. It’s not. The revenge plot and violence isn’t fast paced, but something about the book kept me quickly turning the pages. What drives the novel are the questions surrounding Yuko’s daughter’s death, the character connections that are slowly revealed, and the act of revenge itself has some twists and turns. The chapters are narrated by several different characters. We see Yuko’s perspective, the killers’ thoughts, and other students’ views. The characters are decently written. They have motives, but some of their actions, connections, and reasoning hover between being extremely convenient to the plot and being unbelievable. The characters do what they need to do to further the plot, but I would not say I was very connected to any of them. The plot suffered a bit from the too-convenient moments, but the ending contained a twist I wasn’t expecting and found hard to believe, which left a bad taste in my mouth for the book as a whole.

Three out of five stars is not a bad rating. I was obviously pretty engrossed in the novel to finish it in one evening, but it lacked some of the plot and character depth that I prefer to have when I read. For me, this was a good palate cleanser of a book. It was quick, engrossing, and put me in the mood to keep reading more books.

House of Leaves

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After bingeing on Joe Hill’s novels, I wanted something similar. House of Leaves came up on many bizarre horror reading lists, so it eventually ended up in my Amazon cart and into my mailbox. Then it sat on my shelf for a while because I just had a feeling I would love it. I wanted to save it for when I needed a book to get me out of reading slump. I successfully avoided any spoilers for months. Then, finally, the time came. I took House of Leaves off of my shelf, and I was prepared to have my mind blown… Maybe I hyped it up too much for myself, but I thought it was a unique, smart, but ultimately underwhelming read. If you are planning on reading this book, I would say to go in as blind as possible. So, although there will be no real spoilers, you may want to skip this review to be completely in the dark (haha).

House of Leaves is supposedly written by a man named Zampanò. In the book, Zampanò analyzes a documentary film called The Navidson Report which was made by a photojournalist named Will Navidson. In the documentary Navidson records his family’s arrival into their new home. But suddenly black hallways manifest in the walls of their dream home. The house’s inner dimensions grow and change while the house’s outside measurements stay true. Navidson takes it upon himself to explore these dark hallways, and what he finds there is unsettling. Zampanò mysteriously dies very early into the novel, leaving his work on House of Leaves in disarray, unfinished, and, in some spots, completely destroyed. A man named Johnny picks up Zampanò’s pieces and tries to complete House of Leaves himself, but Johnny finds that the completion of the book takes a severe toll on his mind and body.

The next thing that I think is important to mention to someone thinking about reading the novel is that it’s pretty experimental in how the narrative is structured. OK, but what do I mean by that? What I mean is that this simply isn’t an easy read. It takes some work and thought to read between the lines and get the full story. (Although, really, you never get the full story.) First off, did you read my summary? It’s a book of an analysis a dead guy wrote about a documentary film about a man’s house that has void-like hallways/rooms in it that another guy found and tried to finished for the dead guy. OK, OK, but what does that mean? It means that the book itself is filled with academic-sounding chapters with fake quotes and footnotes. The footnotes sometimes refer back to previous footnotes or refer to the appendices in the back of the book or they may be missing completely. The footnotes also contain unhinged ramblings from Johnny as he reconstructs Zampanò’s analysis. The text itself is often arranged in odd patterns, reflecting the characters’ journeys through the house or their descent into madness. There are letters, pictures, poems, music, transcripts, and other kinds of mixed media throughout the book. It is all very unique and interesting. I am sure the author put a colossal amount of work in piecing it all together, and I respect that. But, for me, the question at the end of the day is simple: Does it work?

The answer is yes, no, and it depends. I enjoyed the uniqueness, but after hundreds of pages of the same thing, it became a little tedious for me. The book could have shaved off a few hundred pages and been perfectly fine. The academic sections by Zampanò were interesting to me, but again, all the fake quotes and such got old. My interest was in Will Navidson’s house and his family. When Zampanò wrote about what happened in The Navidson Report, I was hooked. I could do without as many footnotes and pseudo-academic writing, but I understand why they were included. I could even do without some of Johnny’s sections (mainly the ones about all these hot chicks he and his friend somehow have sex with), but his unreliability as a narrator does add to the unsettling tone of the book. There were parts that really worked for me, but in the end, I felt that the author tried too hard to do something different that it took away from the parts of the plot and characters that really shined. I am a huge scaredy cat, but it was hard to find the book scary when I had to flip around the book’s footnotes and appendices and turn the pages around in different angles just to read them properly. It took me out of the scary vibe.

Now, before you start typing up an angry comment about me being too stupid to “get it” or whatever, many, many, many people love this book. And that’s great! I was so excited to read this book too. It just didn’t meet my expectations, that’s all. Will it work for you? Maybe! Probably! If you got this far into my rambling and are still interested, go for it! It is certainly an experience, and I would recommend reading it at least once.

Out

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It took me almost a month to read this book, but that has nothing to do with how much I enjoyed it. In fact, it was written in such a tension-packed way that I was just too anxious to pick it up.

Out follows four Japanese women who work the night shift at a boxed lunch factory. The four women are friendly coworkers, but they do not often see each other outside of work. They all have very full home lives with their children and husbands. Their hard, but predictable lives change when one of the women kills her abusive husband and recruits her coworkers to help dispose of the body. Things don’t go as planned, and the women soon find themselves working against the police and an underground crime ring.

So, why was this book a nail-biter? The four women are just regular housewives who have never done anything murder-related. A couple of the women are particularly bad at being careful with what they do and say. It is obvious that their plan is going to be tripped up… it is just a matter of when and how. However, I am not at all saying that the character were badly written or that they made unrealistic or dumb decisions. The characters are actually great. There are some strong, independent women in here! I am sure readers will recognize the kinds of people in this novel (the quiet, serious one; the one who puts others before herself; the self-absorbed one; etc.) If your group of strictly “work-friends” decides to commit a crime, odds are that not everyone in the group is going to be able to pull off their part of the job perfectly.

Aside from the tension-filled plot and awesome characters, this book approaches sexism in modern-ish (2000’s?) Japan and it deals a bit with how Japanese people of mixed decent are viewed. There is also a fair bit of gore, assault, and rape within the book. It’s pretty dark in content, themes, and atmosphere. I did find the ending to be slightly disappointing, but I was happy that it did not turn into a “damsel in distress” trope. I gave this novel a solid 4 out 5 stars.

 

Dark Places

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The “Satan Sacrifice” at the Day’s farm in Kinnakee, Kansas makes media waves in the late 80’s, but seven year old Libby Day is caught up in the storm. Her memories of the night are fuzzy, but she testifies that her brother, Ben Day, is the killer of her mother and two sisters. Today, Libby is struggling to get by. The money from donations, media coverage, and her unsuccessful memoir is gone. Accustomed to living off her tragedy, Libby strikes a deal with a club that obsesses over mysterious murders. She agrees to start digging up the past for money, but she gets a lot more than she expects out of the deal.

I read and loved Gone Girl earlier this year and could not find any other book to satisfy my thriller cravings until picking up Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. Hype be damned, Flynn is just good at writing thrillers. I’m no thriller connoisseur, but I have found a lot of tropes and similarities between the ones I have read. Though Flynn’s plots aren’t completely unique, she manages to take me by surprise often. There are three points of view in Dark Places. Of course we have Libby, but there are chapters with Ben and Patty (their mother) as the main characters. Ben and Patty’s chapters are rooted in the past while Libby’s focus on present day. All three characters’ chapters contain many details that overlap with the same events being seen in different perspectives. I really love this as it shows how differently people interpret the same conversations or actions. I wish the supporting characters were fleshed out a bit (I often confused the names of Libby’s sisters) and I want to know more about certain plot points, but I felt mostly satisfied with the way that the novel ended.

The novel was not perfect, but what book truly is? With thrillers and mysteries I usually find a plot hole, some event that doesn’t really make sense, or something that leans too heavily on coincidence. I did find something of that nature in Dark Places, but it was just so fun to read. I love the feeling when I read a book and simply cannot put it down. Even when I have to take a break from the book, it is stuck in my head. That is what Dark Places did to me and– I hope– will do to you.

The Blinds

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In the middle of Nowhere, Texas there’s a town full of criminals called Caesura or, as the residents call it, The Blinds. After ratting out their bosses or making plea deals, their sordid pasts were erased from their minds. They are given new names, a small home, and the rules are simple: no outside contact and if you leave you can’t come back. These ex-criminals have a chance to live out their lives peacefully and far from society. But the peace is interrupted when there are two mysterious shootings in a town without access to guns… I just didn’t buy it. I was on board with the fact that there is a facility in the middle of nowhere where mind-altered criminals live in relative peace. It was also logical that this peace would not hold, but the way nearly everything else happened just didn’t make sense. I will be flirting with spoilers, but I will do my best not to ruin anything in my rant.

We are told that the first attempts to erase memories were messier than the newer attempts. However, some of the original eight residents have varying degrees of memory loss. How were they able to target a few days or leave a specific memory in the original residents if the technology was so unrefined to begin with? If some residents remember their names or crimes then why hasn’t anything gotten out? Everyone kept their secrets for eight years when there was so little to do in the town? No one gossiped? No one said anything during a drunken night with a friend?

There’s also so many flashbacks and “telling not showing.” I got so bored listening to the dirty deeds of every character being listed off to me. There’s a lot of violence and shock value in there, but when you are hearing it second-hand and not put in the moment, it was just a dull list of crimes. I had so little investment in the characters. Since everyone also had two names it was difficult to remember who was who when nearly everyone– except a few main characters– were so forgettable.

I’m really not sure how to gripe about these next few things without slight spoilers. So, beware spoilery stuff incoming! Near the end, there are scenes where people figure out who they really are and what they have done. Everyone’s reaction to hearing their crimes is to kill themselves. Would this really be every person’s reaction? Even if you forget your crimes and traumas, there would surely be a few people who still lack empathy or remorse. Surely a few still have mental issues. This gets into a nature vs. nurture argument, but I just don’t think erasing memories would change everyone into peaceful, law-abiding citizens who gets so disturbed by their past deeds being read to them that they do not even question the truth of it and just kill themselves. And also, why did the government people with guns just not use them when they should have? Why were people spared so long or toyed with? The decisions made were just a bit silly and lacking in self preservation/common sense. Then there’s the ending… how does anyone expect that to work out well?! A lot of things felt overly dramatic in an attempt to increase tension, but it came out just feeling unrealistic. OK, spoilery stuff done!

I feel bad ripping on this novel, but I had such high hopes for it. I wanted to know more about the institute behind The Blinds, I wanted to explore the psychological issues with such a place, I wanted a real hair-raising thriller. It was just not well explained, the characters were presented in the most boring way, and there was nothing keeping me on the edge of my seat.

Eileen

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It’s the week before Christmas and Eileen is near the end of her rope. Her father is a delusional drunk, she works at a depressing prison for young boys, her mind is constantly full of dark thoughts and she cannot wait to get out her hometown to start her life over.

If you recall, I read and reviewed Ottessa Moshfegh’s short story collection, Homesick for Another World, a couple of months ago and really enjoyed it. It was pretty vulgar and sometimes disgusting, but I appreciated the unflinching look at humanity that Moshfegh gave me. Eileen is quite similar, but I enjoyed it a bit less. Eileen as a character is perfectly realistic. She’s twisted and has some issues, but I could picture her as a living, breathing person so very easily. The way she presents herself, the reasons behind her actions, and her internal monologue were all spot on. I found myself relating to some of her less extreme feelings and really rooting for her to come out ahead even thought she wasn’t exactly a good person. The novel’s atmosphere was amazing too. I could picture Eileen’s home, the boy’s prison, and her neighborhood in all its Christmastime glory. The sights, sounds, and smells were all there. So, what’s not to like?

I think whether I read her short story collection or Eileen first, I would still have had the same problem– I would like whichever I read second less. The problem is that they both feel so similar. The “point” of Eileen’s story could have been condensed into one of the short stories in Homesick for Another World. Alternatively, one of the characters in Homesick could have developed into same kind of novel as Eileen. Moshfegh writes great characters and is amazing at exploring their personalities and motivations, but after reading both her books I feel like she lacks in the plot department. Eileen has its great moments, but it– like Moshfegh’s short stories– are basically character studies and many of her characters have the same kind of “dirty” feel. Is Moshfegh trying to say that we’re all dirty? We all have our secrets and desires? Or, is she just really good at writing disturbing characters? Either way, I like what she does… I just wish she would do more with the characters and branch out with the kind of characters she writes.

Everything You Want Me to Be

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Hattie Hoffman, a lively and gifted senior at Pine Valley High School is found stabbed to death in an abandoned barn. As we get to know Hattie it is clear that she has always been a people-pleaser, but who is she really? Does she even know who she is or what she wants? And who would have killed such a bright girl who went to great lengths to be everything they wanted her to be?

Sometimes I really hate reading from a teenagers perspective. Are they really that cringe-inducing at that age or are authors just awful at stereotyping them? Probably a heavy dose of both, honestly. I also cringed because this book is set in a small Midwestern town and it plays on so many small Midwestern town stereotypes. I’m from a small farming community like the one in the book and I just couldn’t stand seeing a place represented like this. It just felt like a city person’s first thought about what country life is like. While some of these stereotypes ring true, seeing so many in one novel got nauseating. Adults are clueless and often afraid of technology. The characters had names like Bud, Henrietta, and Winifred. Men are all “men’s men” and all women are hardened and strong country-folk. The town sheriff was a goody-goody Andy Griffith cardboard cut-out to boot. And, for a while, it looked like the murder mystery was going to follow a pretty big trope. I almost put the book down. Unsurprisingly, there was a slight twist, but I was never surprised about where the story went which is what I truly disliked the most.

So, stereotyping aside, this was simply an average read with a rather standard murder mystery plot. Hattie was probably the strongest part of the novel. If you haven’t read a lot from this genre, you might like it a lot more than I did. It is nothing too special, but I cared enough to finish it.

Into the Water

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I’ll start by admitting that I’ve never read Girl on the Train. I completely missed the…. hype train… for that book. (Haha?) But, I found a good deal on Paula Hawkins’ newest novel so I thought I would give it a try.

Lazy summer days are spent along a river in a sleepy little town, but the river has a very mysterious past. Women– troublesome women according to some– often find themselves at the bottom of the river. Some are said to have killed themselves while others were forced beneath the dark waters. Nel Abbot is the river’s most recent victim. While evidence seems to point to Nel’s death being a suicide, her family is unconvinced.

I have been in the mood for a good thriller for a while now, but this book is a bit of a disappointment. To me a good thriller needs to be hard to put down, keep me guessing, and I like a little bit of a scare. Into the Water ticks none of those boxes to my satisfaction. None of the characters are likable. That in itself is perfectly fine. Good characters are imperfect, but somehow this made almost every character an equal suspect. Too many suspects made it a toss up and for some reason I didn’t care about who was the bad guy. Some motivations for characters’ actions also do not seem realistic. There are some characters who feel like they were not utilized enough in the plot (or were they there only as red herrings?). There are also some references to the occult which feel out of place. And how is such a small town filled with so many assholes with a myriad of motivations to murder each other?

In short, there are too many characters all vying for the spotlight– and the blame. There are just too many points of view too. Each chapter is named after whichever character’s perspective is used (both 1st and 3rd person is used in the novel) and with over half of a dozen different perspectives it can get confusing. Several times I started a new chapter thinking “who is this person?” Only a few characters’ voices are distinct enough to differentiate between without knowing them by name.

The book isn’t bad, but it isn’t great either. It does not feel polished and the plot does not feel tight. I’m pretty sure you could take out a couple characters’ chapters and the book would be no worse for it. Add to all of this that the plot twists are disappointing and predictable and you have a very average thriller.

Gone Girl

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Yes, yes, I’m late to the hype train on this one. Honestly though, I enjoy reading super-popular books much more after the hype has died down. That way, I don’t get caught up in the buzz and the popularity (hopefully) doesn’t cloud my judgement if I read it later than everyone else.

Just in case anyone doesn’t know the synopsis by now, we follow a husband and wife, Nick and Amy, as their marriage declines. They seem to have it all when they meet. They are beautiful, happy, and successful, but after losing their jobs and moving to the Midwest things quickly change. On their fifth wedding anniversary Amy goes missing and all the clues seem to point to Nick. But is anyone really telling the truth?

A few weeks ago I read The Grownup by Gillian Flynn. That was my first experience with her as a writer. I enjoyed The Grownup, but it wasn’t amazing. I particularly liked the way she wrote her characters and I can say the same for Gone Girl. Nick and Amy tell their story through an alternating first person narrative and it works very well. Their perspectives feel full of life and character. Getting into their heads is fascinating and shows real writing talent. Flynn does an amazing job of planning out the plot and building her characters. Many of the characters in the novel are absolutely awful people, but they feel so very real. Flynn does not shy away from representing how horrible humans can be and that raw honesty is refreshing.

The plot, as you may know or have heard, is full of twists and turns. I was able to guess a few of the twists (somehow I avoided spoilers all this time), but I was often kept guessing. The only real problem I have with the novel is that the amount of plot twists got tiring. Maybe that sounds odd, but I felt almost “jerked around.” It was like being on a roller coaster with many sharp turns. You enjoy the ride, but your head might hurt afterwards and maybe a few less turns would have made the ride a little better. After many of the later twists I felt like, “OK, that has to be the last curve-ball Flynn is going to throw at me…” Then I would be wrong. The novel almost felt too long because of this. It could have ended sooner and still been excellent.  This complaint is hardly a con and I  am sure many people will disagree with me on this. That being said, I still really enjoyed this read.

The Grownup

tgbygfI picked this up on a whim. I know that I will probably enjoy Gillian Flynn, but I haven’t been reading much lately and haven’t been willing to commit to reading a full novel. This novella (short story?) is only sixty pages and printed as a small book so it is extremely short and I read it in one sitting. It follows a nameless female narrator and her experience as a soft-core sex worker and psychic. Things begin to get complicated when one of her clients requests her help in “cleansing” a possibly haunted house.

I will start by saying I enjoyed this short story, but it was not spectacular. It was very open ended. The idea was interesting and the characters had potential, but I was left unsatisfied by the ending. I often enjoy open ended endings, but this felt too open. The story could have easily continued. It felt unfinished or like the author’s train of thought/interest in the plot died off. I really liked her writing style and sense of humor though. Perhaps it wasn’t the best way to introduce myself to Gillian Flynn, but it certainly won’t put me off reading more of her work.