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Conner's Books & Reviews

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Currently reading

The White Tiger
Aravind Adiga
And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks
Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs
1Q84
Haruki Murakami
The Bachman Books: Four Early Novels by Stephen King
Richard Bachman, Stephen King
The Complete Stories
Franz Kafka
1Q84
Jay Rubin, Philip Gabriel, Haruki Murakami
The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso
Dante Alighieri, Robin Kirkpatrick, Eric Drooker
The Purgatorio (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)
Dante Alighieri, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Peter Bondanella, Julia Conaway Bondanella
The Interpretation of Dreams (Barnes & Noble Classics Series)
Sigmund Freud, A.A. Brill, Daniel T. O'Hara, Gina Masucci MacKenzie

Damned

Damned - Chuck Palahniuk 2.5 stars

This is the first book by Chuck Palahniuk that didn't really wow me. The book started off fairly strong but really lost focus quickly; I never got invested in any of the characters and the ending left me decidedly cold. Sure, it was funny, and Palahniuk's trademark satire was definitely there, but this novel read more like a joke that ran on too long; the plot was scant and mostly purposeless, and "Damned" as a piece of literature didn't really have any higher meaning besides being a snarky riff on Dante's Inferno. This book was disappointing because Palahniuk is such a great writer on a technical and creative level, and I expect a bit more from his books. I'm unhappy to see that his next book is a sequel, as I'm not interested in continuing Madison's journey through Hell and Purgatory.

City of Fallen Angels

City of Fallen Angels  - Cassandra Clare 1.5 stars

The cover art for this book should have been a photo of Cassandra Clare giving the middle finger to all of her fans. This book basically takes everything good about the original trilogy, throws it in the trash, and stoops down to the level of every other teen urban fantasy/paranormal romance on the market.
I really enjoyed the original Mortal Instruments trilogy. They weren't masterpieces, but they were fun. This isn't fun. This is Clare throwing together a completely unnecessary and plotless sequel to pad out her bank account, because she knows all of her devoted fans will buy it.
Employing incredibly lazy writing, Clare hardly bothers to write one sentence that isn't a cliche. There is no substance to be found here. The entire plot unravels into an endless drivel of trivial relationship drama. Her characters, who used to be interesting, have been eviscerated and are now one-sided stereotyped shadows of their original selves. When I read the original series in high school, I cared about these characters like they were personal friends. Now all I felt for them was mild irritation. After finally reaching the ending (the book culminates in a climax that goes on way too long and basically amounts to a bunch of characters being surprised to see each other) it even had me feeling like my enjoyment of the original series must have been poor judgement on my part, and I'd rather not revisit them to see what I would think of them now. City of Glass had already concluded this series satisfactorily, and I wish I had never read this continuation, which cuts every loose end that had been previously tied. I have no interest in continuing the series.

The Last Policeman

The Last Policeman - Ben H. Winters 3.5 stars

This pre-apocalyptic, noir-ish police procedural was an impulse read and therefore my expectations weren't too high, but I ended up enjoying it. The writing is solid and goes by quickly, and as reviewers before me noted the book felt like the perfect length. The protagonist is a bit annoying at points and his motivations are unclear, but since this is the first book in a proposed trilogy that's understandable, as there is still plenty of time for revelations, and I have a feeling the author is capable of keeping up his pace for the remainder of the plot. I've added the sequel to my to-read list.

Black Water

Black Water - Joyce Carol Oates I had never heard of the Chappaquiddick Incident or Joyce Carol Oates before this book, and since the subject didn't really interest me it probably wasn't the best choice for me to read out of this author's sprawling literary bibliography. But while I was never enamored with the story being told, (a fictionalization of a real-life incident in the vein of "In Cold Blood), I was floored by this author's mastery of her art form. Ms. Oates writes beautifully and her stream-of-consciousness imagery is absolutely gorgeous. I want to read something else by Oates, and now being aware of the sheer number of books this woman has written, next time I will be more selective in finding one with a subject I will enjoy more.

Let the Right One In: A Novel

Let the Right One In: A Novel - John Ajvide Lindqvist Ever since I first heard whispers from my college friends a few years ago about what was allegedly "the most fucked up book you will ever read," I envisioned this book as some sort of shadowy and sub-cultured masterpiece like something that would be created if Anne Rice and Marquis de Sade teamed up to write about vampires. As it turns out, I was expecting way too much from Let The Right One In.

It seems that what horrified my friends and neighbors didn't really break any new ground for subversive literature as far as I'm concerned. What is here, however, is a very solid vampire novel with nearly 500 pages of pure, drab, working-class Swedish misery. This violence shocks people not because it's incredibly graphic, but because the story is based so strongly in reality, and Lindqvist writes about things that don't go on in direct sunlight and that no one wants to talk about, things such as parental neglect, rampant alcoholism, violence and substance abuse facilitated by teenagers, paedophilia, and other things in general that make lots of people very uncomfortable. It's almost like the author is using vampirism as a metaphor for all of these things, and these unlikeable yet undeniably sympathetic characters are definitely all vampiric in different ways. I'd say Lindqvist's biggest skill as a writer is weaving an atmosphere and drawing you into it, and this novel takes place unquestionably in our own world, even though it's about vampires.
This atmosphere is diminished greatly, however, by a few questionable structure decisions. There are constant perspective shifts, a la Dan Brown, that makes it impossible to stay in one character's head very long in order to really feel what they're experiencing. There is too much attention given to uninteresting characters and not enough allotted to the book's better characters, some of which had the potential to be fascinating, such as Eli.

I found the writing overall to be a bit stilted, and at no point could I really call it compelling, though I'm content to blame the translation for this and other problems, because I've found that the people that read this book in the original Swedish have nothing but good things to say about it. Something I noticed about the translation, and this could be a bit of a spoiler so I'm going to mark it as such, is that the book has an awkward time handling pronouns when it comes to Eli, who is a boy that has been castrated and dresses as a girl. It starts referring to Eli as "she", then as more information is revealed goes back and forth between calling Eli "he" and just being unsure what to call him. This was interesting to me because I understand that Swedish, along with most languages besides English, has a gender neutral pronoun that can be used to refer to someone if you aren't sure of their sex that does not translate to offensive terms such as "it." It would be interesting to be able to read Swedish so I could see how the original text dealt with Eli's pronouns as opposed to the English translation. Hopefully English will get a gender neutral pronoun eventually, as we're rather far behind in that respect, and I would say it contributes to people being a bit less tolerant of different gender identities as a result.

The Bedside Book of Beasts: A Wildlife Miscellany

The Bedside Book of Beasts: A Wildlife Miscellany - Graeme Gibson This is a collection of essays from outside sources with a bunch of really pretty full-color artwork. If I'm going to be honest, the illustrations were my favorite part; the essays were very numerous and even though none ran over the length of 3 pages, a lot of them were very boring. However there were a few excerpts by some fabulous authors such as Franz Kafka, George Orwell, Haruki Murakami, Herman Hesse, Leo Tolstoy, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Stumbling upon these were pleasant surprises, as I wasn't expecting then to be featured.

This isn't such a great book to give to children although it looks nice and friendly, most of the essays aren't fuzzy stories about animals but circle-of-life type stories about animal deaths and hunting. The best essay in here has to be the one by George Orwell about shooting an elephant and the agonizing half hour it took to die. That sort of shows you the kind of tone set in most of these excerpts. There's even an excerpt from "Bear" by Marian Engel, which is a book about a sexual relationship between a human woman and a bear. The selections in here are varied to say the least. I didn't find the book as a whole very mentally stimulating though. Still, as the name implies, it's not a bad book to keep by your bedside if you want something to read a few pages of before you go to sleep.

The Dance of the Spirits

The Dance of the Spirits - Catherine Aerie 3.5 stars

Despite there being an abundance of genre fiction that could be referred to as Great American War Novels, these are mostly set during familiar military engagements such as World War's I & II, Vietnam, and the American Civil War, and I have never come across any historical novels focusing on the Korean War. Dance of the Spirits seems to be treading some new ground here, and I found it very refreshing to read about a time period that most authors of American literature rarely touch. The author has obviously done considerable research for her novel (the fact that she was born in Shanghai, where a large bit of the book takes place, lends her extended credibility) and therefore nothing seems anachronistic. It was nice when she occasionally took a break from the plot to intersperse some concise history lessons, eloquently switching from storyteller to teacher and then back again.

Aerie mainly uses two main characters, Jasmine and Wesley, and the budding love between them in the brief moments of serendipity that bring them together, to put a human face on this conflict. She develops these characters in a deeply compassionate way, making you care as if they were real people. At times the book even felt like a war biography and I forgot I was reading historical fiction, and I mean this as high praise; I think the sections relaying Jasmine's backstory and her job as a field medic were the strongest parts of the novel. In fact, I feel that the inclusion of multiple narratives wasn't necessary to hold interest; Jasmine was a strong enough character to carry the book on her own.

From a technical standpoint, Aerie is a very capable writer, but she does tend to overwrite her scenes. What I mean by this is that she will often use 2 or 3 adjectives in quick succession to describe one noun, which is fine when done occasionally, but too much of that will distract from the flow of the story, and this happens quite a bit. The editor could have done a better job cutting out these excess adjectives and adverbs; I also found several typos in my edition. While this regrettably detracts from the overall impact, the author has a good story to tell and I would still recommend it despite these nitpicks.

This is a debut novel, and it's apparent that this is a talented new author that fans of historical fiction should be watching. I enjoyed my time with her first effort and look forward to seeing what she writes next.


The print edition of this novel was generously provided by the author in return for an honest review.

Dry: A Memoir

Dry: A Memoir - Augusten Burroughs 4.5 stars

Dry is the best piece on addiction and alcoholism I've ever read. Augusten Burroughs is one of the best memoirists writing today; his writing is concise and compulsively readable. He sacrifices his likability for the sake of his narrative, which to me is the mark of a good memoirist; he doesn't sugarcoat himself. He also manages to be hilarious while simultaneously dredging the miserable depths of human experience.

I didn't give it the full 5 stars because it suffers from the usual pitfalls of the memoir genre. Augusten definitely embellishes his story, but that is a given in this genre, and if you don't like that then this is one of the authors you'll want to stay away from. However, there's a difference between embellishing the story and making up the facts. An example I'd give for contrast is James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, which was also focused on his substance addiction and rehabilitation, which I rated 1 star, due not only to the atrocious writing but to the complete fabrication of facts. The key difference between those two memoirs is honesty, tastefulness and skill, things in which Frey has none and Burroughs has in abundance.

I would say this is Burroughs best work. Running With Scissors will give you background on the author's childhood, but it's not a necessary prologue, and he skims over the important details in several italicized paragraphs. If I were to recommend a book to someone who has struggled with substance abuse, which I usually don't due to the fear that the graphic nature of said books will be in any way triggering to them, this is the book I would choose.

Speak

Speak - Laurie Halse Anderson 2.5 stars

I appreciate this book for what it is. At its time of publication, the "young adult" novel was still in its infancy and there weren't many books in the genre willing to explore important subjects. Anderson was one of the first young adult authors to understand her audience and come up with something with literary value they'd actually want to read.

I'm not going to write an in-depth review because there are a ton of reviews for it on this site already. The prose is on occasion surprisingly funny, and the main character is believable without being likable. I feel like my enjoyment of this novel was hampered by the fact that I had read some truly awful imitations of it before I got around to it, and couldn't quite get those out of my mind as I read. But while I didn't particularly enjoy reading this, I don't feel like I completely wasted my time either.

I will say that after working through most of the canon of Ms Anderson, I found "Wintergirls" to be the best thing that she has written.

By the Time You Read This, I'll Be Dead

By the Time You Read This, I'll Be Dead - Julie Anne Peters, C.J. Bott Sometimes after wasting my time with a truly horrible book, I enjoy reading 1 star reviews for it on goodreads. So I was going over the reviews for this book and all I saw were positive ratings. In this situation I feel like you guys are wrong and so I needed to put up a review to set the record straight. It's probably the fault of all these 4 and 5 star reviews that I suffered through reading this book in the first place.

This book is just so bad. Poor writing, abysmal character development, dialogue straight out of a John Green fan-fiction written by an 11 year old... there is nothing positive I can say about it. The main character is so flat, boring, and one-dimensional that she isn't even a character; she has no personality beyond her exaggerated suicidality. She is a caricature of a depressed person. The male character written in here since every teen book has to have a love interest, is even worse. People like this absolutely do not exist. Our protagonist hardly says a word to him and only glares at him, but that doesn't stop him fulfilling his role for the book and following her around and magically being in love with her, and ultimately being there for her when she needs it. If this book was in any way meant to help someone that was depressed, the inclusion of this character is just baffling to me, considering most people won't have anyone like this; someone that cares and is understanding of their plight, especially not someone that will stay around when they consistently push them away. This is the character I was referring to when I made the John Green fan-fiction comment and you'll see what I mean if you make the grave mistake of reading this book; the difference is John Green is a good writer, and his dialogue is clever, whereas here it is mind-bendingly stupid. One comment the character made that I keep thinking about was when the protagonist didn't eat the crust of her pizza, the male character says something along the lines of "I don't like the crusts either, that means we're perfect for each other." I'm not sure in which universe that makes sense, as this just means nobody eats the pizza crusts and they get thrown away.

Every second I spent reading this was a complete waste of time, and it was honestly insulting to me, not because it was "depressing", but because of the way this book treated both its audience and mental illness. It's not going to teach you anything about understanding people who are depressed and want to take their lives. It's a cheap cash-in of popular titles about teen suicide, such as "Thirteen Reasons Why", which by the way was also a pretty bad book. If you're going to write realistic fiction about mental illness, you need to be able to write compassionately, and you need to understand your subject matter. This author takes the time to do neither.

The Maze Runner

The Maze Runner - James Dashner This book reminded me of Ender's Game. I did not like Ender's Game. I could spend a ton of review space pointing out all the parallels but I'd rather not think about it anymore. The main character is basically Ender, although his name has been changed to Thomas. He's a special little snowflake who is smarter and faster and better than everyone else without trying to be, and utterly one-dimensional. We get told often the specific emotions that he is "consumed" with on each page: how he wants to ask questions so badly he will go insane, how he has never wanted to punch someone in the face so badly than at this very moment, and we get treated to lots of images of Tom rolling his eyes at so-and-so because he's "so tired of his attitude." The other characters are just there for contrast and are given no personality, unless you count the grating slang that they speak in, with several English words thrown in for good measure. Most of the writing is just dreadful. This is far from a literary novel. Dashner uses so many extra words that don't need to be in there, just onslaughts of adverbs that pad out the length, and he repeats himself endlessly. Who was the target audience for this? Alzheimer's patients? That reminds me; one of my BIGGEST pet peeves are when people use mental disorders as adjectives. I have never seen an actual author do this so much until now. Not only is that insensitive, it's just plain shitty writing.
That out of the way, this book has a single redeeming factor, but it's not the plot; it's the premise of the plot. The idea of this book is the only thing good about it. The actual implementation of the plot is not good and it takes about 200 pages of "I can't believe I'm still reading this" before anything even happens, but I will commend the author on at least thinking up a premise that makes you want to know what happens, even if everything else is executed horribly. I found myself thoroughly pissed off after every chapter, but I kept reading because I still had hope for the ending. Which ended up being overblown and ridiculous. Really this entire book rides on the fact that you don't know what's going on until the very last pages because the author hides everything from the reader. That is not good storytelling, it's a cheap way to hold suspense. I realize this is a Young Adult book, but just because your readers are teenagers doesn't mean that you should write like one.

Broken City

Broken City - Brian Azzarello About halfway through Broken City, I realized I was reading it in a Max Payne voice. That's because Batman's running monologue is very typical noir, seemingly copy/pasted from a Max Payne game script. Testosterone-infused Batman isn't my favorite take on the character, he's mostly just getting angry at everyone and beating the crap out of them in between rambling about how God doesn't care about Gotham. Aside from appearances by Penguin, Scarface, and Joker, the story's not too exciting or groundbreaking. The art here far outshines the writing.

Boy Meets Boy

Boy Meets Boy - David Levithan If I were any more cynical, I wouldn't have been able to enjoy this book. The borderline utopia presented in the setting isn't realistic; the world we live in is a cruel, insensitive, and prejudiced place, very unlike this town where everyone is accepted and kids are free to live their lives free of any anxieties deeply ingrained in their psyches since birth by a society run by hate and condemnation. Since reality is so far removed from the setting, while I believe this book was meant to be reassuring pat on the shoulder from the author to all of the lgbt teens burying themselves under layers of self-loathing in their efforts to become somewhat accepted by society, it could on occasion have an opposite effect, making them feel worse, since reading about how good it could be really drives home the point of how bad it is. For example, it's a little jarring when characters get called "gay" and "fag" and the first few times you don't realize it's not being used as an insult. But the reason all this is done is so the author can clear away all the pre-existing expectations of what a gay teenager has to go through in high school, so he is free to write a simple story about what a high school romance would theoretically be like if our world was like this one.

So putting that aside, this is a very nice and enjoyable love story. Levithan remains my favorite author of Young Adult lgbt fiction, and really he's the only one that does it well. Frequently in this genre the author can't get past the fact that they are writing about gay teens and their book ends up being entirely about that without making itself worth anything as a novel. Levithan is consistently able to transcend these tropes and actually write a good book, and a lot of YA authors that churn out steaming piles of crap between two covers on a regular basis should really take notes from him. He also has a way of writing that, if you're able to suspend your disbelief for a while, gives you good feelings and really feels like he's telling you it's ok to feel the way you do, which is a nice change, and I've found reading him periodically to be somewhat therapeutic.

Another thing that seems to be overlooked a lot, is that if you look at this as a utopian writing, there are really a lot of good ideas here. The setting has a bunch of cool little idiosyncrasies: the "I Scream" shop that plays horror movies while you eat ice cream, the graveyard where everyone is buried with a lockbox containing a memory book that can be accessed by visitors, and the high school itself. These kids seem like they're still enthusiastic about life, and all these small things dotted around this setting really seem to do a lot to contribute to their happiness and senses of self.

As a closing note, this book was pretty difficult to find in my town and I had to have it special ordered; even if libraries had stocked it I would have been too embarrassed to check it out because of the inevitable judgmental looks. I remember one time checking out another of this author's books, "Will Grayson, Will Grayson." My mother was horrified to find it in my room and swiftly confiscated it, making sure no one saw her with such a filthy object when she went to turn it in. It's ironic, because these books are frequently very chaste and innocent, unlike popular novels concerning straight relationships, many of which are just sex-fests that nobody's mother is embarrassed to read or talk about in public (50 shades anyone?). For contrast, this book doesn't have any sex at all, and contrary to the books I brought up before, which are designed only to titillate, it's actually worth something as a piece of literature.
It's funny, because in the town that Levithan presents no one would have a problem with this book at all. I guess that's the point.

Book of Longing

Book of Longing - Leonard Cohen As a fan of Leonard Cohen's music, I would like to be able to rate his poetry higher. I am of the opinion that he is one of the best songwriters of his generation, however (keep in mind that this is the first book of poems by him I have read) I found this to be an overall weak and bloated collection. As one reviewer before me noted, most of these poems do in fact read like song lyrics, and some of the best song lyrics of all time just wouldn't make great poems. It's a different sort of style that requires the singer's voice to complete; I can't help but feel that I would have enjoyed this collection more if Leonard was reading it aloud. There were a few standouts, especially the ones written in free-verse, but you really had to look to find them. There were quite a few couplets, of which I enjoyed none, others were just boring and half finished, and most of the poems felt like filler to me, which is something that I'm not used to seeing in books of poetry. I could have also done without the same repeated caricature drawings of nude women on nearly every page, which no matter unrelated to the poems, gave them some weird overtones, since you constantly see these drawings in your peripherals as you read. That could have been the intention though.
This is the man who brought us lyrical gems such as Hallelujah and Chelsea Hotel #2 so I was expecting a lot more out of this than I got. I would like to read another, perhaps earlier collection by him, just to see if I enjoy it any more.

Psyren, Volume 2

Psyren, Volume 2 - Toshiaki Iwashiro Not sure what happened here, there was a huge drop in quality between this and the first book in the series. I was excited to see this series doing new and innovative things but this second volume relied on tedious shounen tropes. In fact, it draws a bunch of similarities to Bleach, a much older and longer running series, but it's nowhere near as well executed and ends up feeling like it's trying to copy the success of that instead of blazing it's own trail. It also, like Bleach, subjects the reader to a long diatribe about the particular powers these protagonists have, which is only ok if the reader has any reason to have an investment in the characters or plot in the first place, which here is utterly mundane.

Crush

Crush - Richard Siken I took away a star solely because of the edition. This edition changed some of the poems, including Wishbone, which was the first Richard Siken poem I read, so i noticed right away. The changes made were for the worse, it didn't have that initial sense of desperation that made it flow so well before. Also the introduction should have been left out entirely; it's just a person making these broad statements about what they want the poems to all be about and quoting a bunch of lines from the poems we are about to read anyway. It's just wholly unnecessary, especially since there aren't a lot of poems in here in the first place, and just kind of messes up the mood.
Those nitpicks aside, there are some very volatile and excellent poems in here. There are some definite standouts and a few that aren't as strong and break the pacing a bit, but since this book is again very slim, only about 60 pages, it can be read through in one sitting. This seemed intentional, because like all poetry, it's meant to be read more than once.
As other reviewers pointed out, Siken's style isn't for everyone, but I connected with it instantly. The writing, like the cover, is gritty, claustrophobic, and monochromatic. There are lots of recurring images, of roads, teeth, blood, and the boy that is mostly at the center of the whole vision, of a love violent and fearful and desperate.
Before you buy this book you should probably read one or two of Sikens' poems on the internet, then you will know what to expect since it is mostly all written in the same style. As I said, the style seems very divisive, so either you will feel it instantly or you won't connect with it.