#CBR6 Review #95: Black Star Nairobi by Mukoma wa Ngugi

Last year, I reviewed Nairobi Heat for CBR5. I remember liking it, with some caveats, and I had mentioned those. Ngugi has greatly improved with his second novel, and I really hope that he continues this series.

Detective Ishmael has decided to stay in Kenya and make a life for himself. He has fallen in love with refugee Muddy, and is a partner to the engimatic O. Together, their detective business is struggling to break even, until a man shows up dead in a nearby forest. Their investigation leads them to international corruption linked to the political unrest that is threatening to unseat the tenuous peace in Kenya. Their lives are in danger constantly, and solving the mystery will endanger everything that they hold dear. It’s a fast-paced international thriller with a lot of twists.

If you like crime fiction, I highly recommend this novel. It’s interesting and unusual, and it opens a window into a world that is highly nebulous to most of us. Further, it takes place in 2007-2008, when Barack Obama is conducting his presidential campaign, another interesting political layer into the story. I never thought too much about how Kenyans must have perceived Obama’s cultural heritage, and this novel provides some insight.

I thought that Ngugi has greatly improved his writing style and quickened the pace of his writing. He more fully embodies the voices of his characters and makes them seem more believable. I really hope he writes more in this series–I would definitely read them all!

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#CBR6 Review #94: Carrie by Stephen King

So, here’s the thing: I’ve never read anything by Stephen King. I’ve come to conclusion that you either LOVE Stephen King or you HATE Stephen King. It seems impossible to be indifferent. Yet now that I’ve read my first King novel, I honestly feel really ambivalent. I’m not sure if I’ll read anything else by him or not. Let’s dig into it:

The novel is spliced together with several narrative forms–testimony from a court case, sociological studies, an autobiography, and an omniscient third-person narrator that brings the action from several vantage points–to relate the mass-killing of a sleepy Maine town on prom night in 1979. The killer is Carrie White, a troubled, unpopular high school senior with telekinetic abilities, who has been deeply repressed by her religiously fanatical mother and becomes the butt of many practical jokes at school. The novel opens when Carrie gets her first period in the shower and becomes the victim of seriously cruel bullying by the girls in her gym class. The scene is harrowing, her anguish and ignorance even more so, and her mother’s cruelty breathtaking. Here’s where King shines: he takes an idea and expands on it, revealing the subtle horrors of a simple idea.

Carrie’s humiliation at prom leads her to snap, and she exerts her fullest telekinetic powers on her high school and the town itself, creating a jumble of chaos and confusion in the town–and in the novel, if I can be perfectly honest.

Here’s what I’ve decided from my (one) novel: I think King is a fantastic storyteller. He has great ideas, and he knows how to capture a reader’s attention–he certainly grabbed mine. I devoured Carrie in two nights. And yet I am not won over by his writing style. I felt that it was a bit chaotic and rushed in some parts, or not fully fleshed out in others. Granted, Carrie is a first novel.

Like I said, ambivalent.

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#CBR6 Review #93: Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle

I’ve been trying to go through Booker Prize winners, and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is one that I haven’t read. I’m more familiar with British writers than I am Irish, so it seemed like a logical pick.

Oh, my, that book took FOREVER to read. Or seemed like it. It picked up speed towards the end, but still. It’s a bit exhausting to read into a child’s thoughts and stream-of-consciousness. That’s pretty much what the book covers–a ten-year-old child tries to navigate the world with his wild imagination and naive perceptions. There are lots of descriptions of nose-picking, boy-pranks, and little jokes about mickeys (Irish-talk for penises) and the like. For people who complain about Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Paddy Clarke’s wanderings are even more abstract (though perhaps less precocious and posturing).

What makes this book so interesting at the end is Paddy’s perception of his family life. His parents fight, and he can sense the troublesome domestic atmosphere, so he attempts to prevent the fighting. He stays up all night, he goes into the kitchen to prevent fighting from happening, and he sits in the living room with his parents in order to act between them. Of course, his childishness prevents him from realizing the futility of his endeavors, but it’s interesting to see marriage and family from the perspective of a child.

This wasn’t a bad book, but it doesn’t pick up speed until the end. I didn’t enjoy it super much, though I (kind of) understand why it won the Booker. Kind of.

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#CBR6 Review #92: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

I’ve been reading a lot of short stories lately. Both Margaret Atwood and Hilary Mantel came out with collections this year, so I’ve found it interesting to compare their styles.

Atwood’s stories are often complex in their setups, whereas Mantel is quite stripped down (the reverse of her Cromwell novels, which I found slow-moving and very dense) in tone and style. While Atwood’s collection is about love, betrayal, and revenge, Mantel focuses on a more vague state-of-nation sensibility and covers a variety of ideas in her stories. My personal favorites are “Sorry to Disturb,” “The Heart Fails without Warning,” and “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: August 6th 1983.” The last one intrigues me, because it suggests an alternate history if Thatcher had died right at the cusp of her Falklands victory. Did she change the course of British history? Or was it inevitably headed towards privatization and conservative reforms? “The Heart Fails without Warning” is a gripping look at an eating disorder from the perspective of a younger sibling who cannot imagine the personal and psychological turmoil of an anorexic older sister and sees only the bony body, the frequent vomiting, and the glassy stares. It’s gripping and heartbreaking at once–one of the finest writing voices that Mantel employs in this collection.

This collection is probably here to tide us over until the third Cromwell book hits the shelves. Is it worth it? Yes, definitely. But it takes on a different tone and style, so don’t be expecting Mantel in her “trilogy form.” This collection has inspired me to seek out her other work, though.

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#CBR6 Review #91: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

The Chancellor has been at me to read Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe so we can talk about the ending. He did not like the ending. In fact, read his amazing review first, and then let’s talk.

Back? Let’s talk. I won’t summarize it for you, since The Chancellor did such a great job of it in his review. But suffice it to say, I agree with his assessment 100%.

I wanted to fall in love with this book madly, to root and cheer and whoop for Printz winners, for Stonewall winners, you get the big picture. And up to the ending, I really, truly was. It’s a great book, it really is. But in some ways, it could have been a mindblowing book. It was thisclose. But the ending was neat, conventional, tidy. And that’s not always how life works. Maybe Saenz did it purposefully, to give some idealism and some wish-fulfillment to his characters, but it just didn’t feel true to form. It’s not a bad ending, but it sort of comes out of nowhere, and left me a little head-scratching. Like, huh? Wait, what?

It’s sort of like the letter at the end of The Fault in Our Stars (another book I really wanted to love SO HARD and just liked okay). It’s pretty, it’s cathartic, but c’mon. It’s so fiction, so wish-fulfilling that it’s a fantasy. I realize that when you are focusing a story on a gay teen coming out in the 1980s, you might want a little enjoyable fantasy, and I respect that. It’s just that I thought the book would take a totally different direction, and as a reader, I was definitely a bit puzzled. But it’s still a highly worthwhile book, no matter what.

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#CBR6 Review #90: The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

I don’t always like Martin Amis’s novels, but I almost always find them really interesting (more interesting than his father’s work, if I must confess). He knows how to create a wild, colorful story with characters to match and The Zone of Interest is one that I think will stick with me long after reading it.

If you’ve never read Amis, this is honestly one of his most approachable works. The Zone of Interest takes a look at what it would have been like to work at a concentration camp (no, really), from the German perspective. It takes three perspectives: officer Angelus (Golo) Thomsen, the nephew of a prominent Nazi official; Commandant Paul Doll whose marriage has taken a sour turn; and header of the Sonderkommando Szmul, who is tasked with sending other Jews to the gas chamber. It is a ludicrous, darkly funny, and nastily honest novel. Pure Amis–at his finest.

Martin Amis is great at deducing the follies of humanity and making fun of them (this is where Jane Austen’s influence on his writing becomes most apparent). He’s also great at illuminating the social problems of a time period and fleshing out the corruption and hypocrisy rampant in our world (this is Dickens’ influence on his writing. Also, his previous novel, Lionel Asbo, is great at sussing out this wicked world we live in). His deconstruction of human nature and the evils present in our collective psyches is also adroitly addressed, and this is a trait he gleans from Nabokov and Tolstoy. He’s not always an approachable writer, but The Zone of Interest, is entertaining, provocative, and well worth the time. I highly recommend it.

*I should also note that as a contemporary British and American scholar, this is the kind of book I enjoy reading. You may not share the enthusiasm I had for it, or for Amis in general. This is my disclaimer to you.*

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#CBR6 Review #89: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

The tagline for We Were Liars promises a huge twist and then admonishes readers, if anyone asks you how this book ends, lie.


No, really. LOL. How do you expect to drum up business for a book with such a cheap trick? It’s one thing to vaguely allude to the shocking twists that occur in a book, and it’s quite another to forecast it and then try to get readers so hyped up about that you JUST have to read it for YOURSELF so that you can LIE ABOUT IT TO OTHER PEOPLE.

Spoiler: I did not like the end of this book at all.

Cadence is a teenager from a wealthy clan, whose extended family owns an island and goes there to stay throughout the summer. She, her cousins, and her aunt’s boyfriend’s nephew form a posse called The Liars, and they do rich-people things all summer. Of course, Cady is still battling amnesia from an accident and trying to piece together why this summer is so weird. And of course, we find out.

E. Lockhart is a gorgeous writer. There is some beautiful prose, and the feelings of isolation, grief, confusion, and growing up are convincingly plotted. But the end. The hamfisted twist. That clumsy marketing. It ruined the experience for me. It cheapened what could have been an otherwise really genuine and interesting novel for me. I mean, you know what happens at the end of The Book Thief, but it only makes the end that much more compelling and devastating since you already knew it.

Basically, We Were Liars is The Book Thief in reverse.

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