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K.H. Leigh's Blogstravaganza

Reader, writer, 'rithmaticker.

Currently reading

The House of Mirth
Edith Wharton, Nina Bawden
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Portia Rosenberg, Susanna Clarke

The Absence of Evelyn

The Absence of Evelyn - Jackie Townsend I don't think there is a single character in this book who has ever made a rational decision. Anti-heroes and flawed characters can be great. Sometimes it's fun to hate the protagonist a little bit. But there was nothing fun about Rhonda. She was just a desperately needy, vapid drama queen.

The "big twist" was completely predictable. Stupid decisions were justified as being done out of love, but they were in fact just acts of cowardice and selfishness. The big lie about Olivia's parentage, for example. How was that in any way an intelligent or loving thing to do? What was the point? Not to spare Olivia heartache, but to allow Rhonda to take advantage of her sister's fragile emotional state to satisfy her own desire for a child.

Above all, I become extremely frustrated when women's fiction presents female characters who have no sense of individualism or inner strength, and exist entirely for other people. What's worse is when they don't seem to outgrow this by the end of the story, which was the case here.

Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter

Falling Leaves: The Memoir of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter - Adeline Yen Mah I liked this book a whole lot more until the last fifty-or-so pages. At that point, it devolved into a laundry list of perceived slights, petty bickering, and old grudges. The narrator, Adeline, went from being winningly naive about her family to being determinedly oblivious, to the point that it made it difficult for me to buy a lot of what she was saying. It began to feel very one-sided, as she portrayed herself as being entirely innocent while everyone else ganged up on her.

Prior to that point, it was a mildly interesting story about a woman who accomplished a lot despite a highly dysfunctional upbringing, set against the rapidly changing culture of China in the second half of the twentieth century.

Who Is Rich?: A Novel

Who Is Rich?: A Novel - Matthew Klam Who is Rich? An insufferable dolt, mostly. Lazy, judgmental, selfish beyond words. Three hundred pages of bitching and moaning because he, a forty-something man, is only just learning that sometimes life is dull and sometimes people aren't perfect. It might be easier to sympathize with him as a frustrated artist if he displayed any ambition whatsoever to be an artist, but even that prospect seems to be too much work and not enough fun for him. Mostly I spent the entire book rolling my eyes and wishing something would happen to make him grow up already. Disappointing.

The Leavers: A Novel

The Leavers: A Novel - Lisa Ko A fish out of water tale that goes beyond the typical young adult angst, The Leavers is a moving portrait of Deming and the three different worlds that shaped him. He's from China, he's from the Bronx, he's from upstate suburbia - and he wonders if he really belongs to any of them.

The descriptor "timely" is such a cliche in book reviews, but considering the current state of immigration in America it's one that certainly applies here.

Norse Mythology

Norse Mythology - Neil Gaiman I was very much looking forward to this book, but I found it rather meh. I'd expected a bit more personality in the retelling of these old myths, but it lacked a certain Gaiman-ness for me.

The Young Widower's Handbook

The Young Widower's Handbook - Tom McAllister Great book. What I loved most was how realistic the characters were. Hunter, the titular widower, does not treat his recently deceased wife Kait as if she were a monument to women everywhere. He makes no attempt to hide her faults, her insecurities. He openly rejects the idea that he should pretend she was perfect and that their lives together were perfect, but he doesn't need perfection. He loves her deeply anyway.

Their relationship had the same sense of realness about it - the stupid jokes they made over and over, the little games they played. Full of romance without sap, this was my favorite giveaway win so far.

The Beauty of the Fall

The Beauty of the Fall - Rich Marcello If I hadn't won this in a giveaway, I don't think I could have brought myself to finish it.

This is an example of a book that does several things right and one thing very, very, very wrong - and that one thing keeps happening again and again. Throughout the book, Marcello skips the interesting and compelling parts of the story, and for the life of me I cannot figure out why he chose to do this.

The book begins in medias res, with the protagonist Dan getting fired after having a terrible couple of years. Divorce, the death of his son, the downward spiral of the company he created - all of these things occur before the first page, and for the beginning of a book this is absolutely fine. It's a common and effective way to begin a story, partway through the catalytic action.

The problem with The Beauty of the Fall is that it repeats this technique with every major event throughout the book. We, the reader, never get to see the initial sparks of what become the most important plotlines. Instead, we skip right over them and meet up with Dan again a few months later. We don't get to see him react to these events, or process them, because by the time they're mentioned they're already his new normal.

Probably the most important example is Willow. When she is introduced, it is six months after she and Dan have met and developed a friendship, but the same day that they begin their romantic relationship. Without seeing any of the foundation, those six months they spent getting to know each other, their whole romance is just boring. I don't care. I don't know what truly connects these two very different people, because I didn't get to witness any of their discovery of each other. Even once the romantic relationship begins, we skip ahead again pretty quickly to their decision to move in together. This means that later, when they break up, I have no emotional response. The words on the page tell me that their relationship is meaningful to Dan, but I haven't experienced any of it myself.

Another prominent example is Dan's hallucinations of Zack. When he finally mentions it, he says that they began months earlier. I want to see that. I want to see his reaction to seeing his dead son for the first time. I want to see how he processes it, how he explains it to himself. I want to see how it changes him. Instead, I see Dan already adjusted to this strange new reality - which again lessens the impact and what it's doing to him.

The drinking and cutting got the same treatment. So did the launch of Dan's new company, CW. So did Willow's death. Even smaller scenes suffered from the same malady - repeatedly, conversations with Olivia and the board of directors glossed right over the meat of the debate with a sentence of two of prose. It was entirely frustrating, throughout the book, to feel like I was only being clued in to the best parts of the story well after they happened, as though these crucial plot points were just afterthoughts. It made it impossible to connect with Dan on any meaningful level.

What made it worse was the amount of time spent on messaging that wasn't part of the actual plot. There's nothing wrong with writing a novel with an agenda - but did we need page after page of detailed statistics about climate change, instead of a scene about what was going through Dan's head the first time he hooked up with Katie? Why did Marcello choose to skip over all the most critical turning points in his protagonist's story and yet put so much detail into the process of launching a software startup?

I just couldn't make any sense of it. In the end, it got two stars instead of one just because the story itself has so much potential to be compelling - if only we got to read the actual story and not disjointed retrospective pieces of it sprinkled throughout with philosophical essays tangentially related to the story.

How to Be Human

How to Be Human - Paula Cocozza If Goodreads offered the option to do half-stars, I'd give 3.5 to this book, splitting the difference between the solid 4 it deserves for concept and the 3 it deserves for execution.

The idea behind the book is intriguing. It's a deep exploration into loneliness, into the way the walls we build to protect ourselves can all too easily turn into cages. It's a thesis on whether whether human beings have - and should - overcome our more animal instincts. It's a love song to finding inner strength in unexpected places.

At its core, How to Be Human is a comparison of one woman in two relationships - Mary and Mark, and Mary and the fox. Rather deliberately, the human relationship is so twisted and disturbing that it makes the animal relationship seem normal and healthy by comparison.

It's a passionately introspective character study, and unfortunately it succumbs to one of my biggest pet peeves for stories of this type: the character in question is far too self-aware, throughout the book, of her own shortcomings, drives, and growth. The protagonist, Mary, often opines at length upon her own story, to the point where she blatantly points out metaphors between her feelings and the events happening around her. At the book's conclusion, she simply snaps out of an extended psychosis by realizing it was, in fact, a breakdown, and ends by being suddenly ready to return to a normal life.

Where the book lost the most points for me was in the way it treated Mary and Mark. Yes, by the end she finally called him out for what he was - a dangerous stalker - but she does so in a fit of delusion, convinced that she and the fox are building some sort of life together. It was far too little, far too late. Perhaps if Mark's disturbing, predatory behavior had been more of a slow reveal, making the reader wonder at first if Mary's hostility toward him was warranted, it would have felt more satisfying to have her snap and condemn him in the end. It also would have served as a nice mirror against her dependency on the fox, which does build slowly and beautifully from mere curiosity to all-out obsession. But from his very first appearance, Mark was a terrifying and emotionally abusive figure, which made Mary's eventual breakdown seem inevitable rather than surprising.

Overall, I found this book to be a bold examination of an interesting woman's self-imposed isolation, albeit one that occasionally gets a bit lost in the woods.

House of Leaves

House of Leaves - Mark Z. Danielewski I just finished this book moments ago, and it may be one I have to separate myself from for a while before I can articulate any of my thoughts and feelings about it.

But I will say this: this definitely ranks as one of the most fascinating, creative, mind-bending and thought-provoking books I will never read again.

Dark Matter: A Novel

Dark Matter: A Novel - Blake Crouch This book could have easily gone off-track, but it manages to take you to exactly where you wanted to go.

See what I did there?

The Light of the Fireflies

The Light of the Fireflies - Paul Pen, Simon Bruni I honestly can't decide whether or not I liked this book.

On the one hand, it was certainly compelling. It kept me interested enough to polish it off in two sittings. But on the other hand, the only real emotion it brought out in me was fury over the lack of justice the characters faced.

I don't necessarily require likable characters to like a book - sometimes, people you love to hate can be extremely interesting and fun to read. But villains need to be well-rounded, and they need to have depth, and there has to be some logic behind their depravity, even twisted or psychopathic logic. The characters in "Fireflies" lacked that, because the underlying explanation for their villainy was absurdly, almost laughably, weak.

The theme for the book seemed to be that parents will do anything to protect their children, out of a deep and unwavering love, and even their most vile actions can and should be forgiven if committed in this noble purpose. And while that may or may not be true, it's not applicable to these characters. They raise their trumpets and shout to the heavens that their choices were made because they love their child so deeply, and are willing to sacrifice everything for his sake, willing to make mistakes for his sake, willing to damn themselves for his sake, but what the book never really confronts head on is the rather obvious fact that this proclamation of theirs is a bold-faced lie.

They do it for themselves.

Their flight to the basement was to save their own skins after their complicit coverup in the rape and manslaughter of a little girl, committed by their elder son. They didn't lock themselves away for his sake, but because they had conspired together to commit a horrendous crime.

And why did they commit this crime? Again, they claim that it was out of love for their son, to protect him, but again this is an obvious lie. They admit right away, as the little girl's body was rotting on their living room floor, that their son's young age and reduced mental capacity reduces his culpability for his crime. He truly didn't know what he was doing. Why, then, is it necessary to hide the evidence rather than alert the authorities? To keep him out of prison? Perhaps, but even the father admits that he didn't think about the legal consequences so much as the social consequences. He doesn't want the townsfolk to think badly of his son - from which we can glean that he's ultimately concerned about how they will think of him.

But let's examine the prison excuse. They don't want the boy to be locked up, so instead they... lock him up. They create their own prison for him in their basement, and while it they can stock it with all the movies and books and games and food he'll like, make no mistake - it's still a prison. Had they called the police, the boy would likely have lived out his days in a secure hospital, surrounded by staff equipped to care for him, peers he could form friendships with, and perhaps even the chance to go outside occasionally and get some fresh air. But no, this family decides it's better to shut him up in a dark basement, lock him in so he can never get out, with no windows, no one to talk to, and only the meager sunlight that can slip through a crack in the ceiling. How is this better? How is this an act of love?

It isn't. They lie to themselves, saying it's done out of parental love, but it's exactly the opposite. The entire plan is hatched to punish their other child, whom they openly hate. They routinely use their elder son as a tool to impose cruelty upon their daughter, while pretending that they are acting out of parental love.

She bears some responsibility for the accident that damaged him, that took his brain and so much of his future away from him. But she was fourteen years old at the time, just barely older than her brother was when he raped a child who was injured and immobile on the rocks in the sea and then left her there to die. And yet his crime is instantly forgiven and given a full mafia treatment - bury the body in cement and tell no one. But the daughter's crime of neglecting to call an ambulance after her brother fell down the stairs while in her charge was never forgiven, not even for a moment. For the next four years she suffered emotional abuse, as confirmed by the grandmother, and perpetual punishment from her parents. Then she spent a decade locked with them in the basement, punished daily by being forced to wear a mask over her face just because her father couldn't stand to look at her, and all because she didn't want to let them get away with the terrible crime they committed.

God, this family is completely fucking horrendous - at least, the mother, father, and grandparents are. The daughter is the only sympathetic character (aside from the young children who were born after the descent to the basement). Yes, she burns them, but only out of self defense after they imprison her to cover up their own lies. Yes, she tries to kill the baby, but only because she is being forced to care for the product of a rape committed by her own brother, with whom her parents had locked her up in an enclosed space even though they knew he had raped someone before. Her grandmother's Catholicism extended far enough to forbid the abortion of the rape baby, but not so far as to prevent dumping a child's body in a septic tank and covering her with cement.

Again and again and again and again the family punishes the daughter for her original misdeed, then punishes her every time she subsequently lashes out. And in the end, she gets brutally murdered.

The most frustrating part comes at the end, in the epilogue, when the protagonist has grown up and taken over the role of providing for his mole family. Their lies continue as they claim to have "let him go" out of love, claim that they gave him every opportunity to "choose" to leave the basement, claim that they only wanted what was best for him. But again, this is obviously a lie. They needed a caregiver on the outside. They needed someone that they had manipulated and broken down enough that he would remain loyal to them, even after he watched them murder his sister in cold blood, even after he learned everything they had put her through.

And he lets them get away with it, which is just completely fucking frustrating. The father's lament at the end, his memory of his daughter as a tiny child, seals it. Her greatest crime was growing up. The action her family couldn't forgive was that she stopped being their baby. Their elder son was spared her fate, because the accident left him a perpetual child. And for daring to grow up, she was abused, imprisoned, raped, and murdered.

And none of the people who did these things to her even seemed to understand why.

So where does that leave me, the reader? This book certainly made me think, it certainly got under my skin, it certainly held my interest. But can I forgive the trespasses of the characters, and the even greater trespass of the author for failing to bestow them with any level of humanity - even evil humanity? For failing to make them aware of their own thought processes? For creating a family of automatons who seemed to carry out actions only as a means of forwarding the plot, without any concern whatsoever to whether or not their behaviors could be attributed to their character?

Can I dismiss out of hand a book with such glaring faults if it has stirred such fervent contemplation within me? Am I even capable of discerning whether or not I "liked" it, or do I just let the experience of reading it wash over me, let it be something that happened to me one day, maintain neutrality in my criticism? I honestly don't even know.


Maddaddam - Margaret Atwood This review (though not this rating) is for the trilogy as a whole.

I liked the first book best, and the third one least. A lot of this was because the third book was written from the point of view of the character I connected with the least: Toby. Compared to Jimmy/Snowman in the first book, and Ren in the second, I found Toby to be a tough nut to crack. I appreciate that this is true to her character, but I was disappointed to find that after half the second book was told from her perspective, nearly all of the third book was. If that same part of the story had been told by, say, Zeb, it would have grabbed me more.

Some of this is because Toby lacked personal insight into the events that created the crisis, the fall of mankind, that act as the catalyst for the whole series. The best part of MaddAddam was when Zeb was telling Toby stories of his earlier life, and I think the trilogy needed his voice to really anchor the ending. As it was, it felt lackluster at the end. There were still unanswered questions, ideas that seemed incomplete.

Overall, a pretty good read, but not as good as I expected from Atwood.


I posted my original review three days ago, and something has been nagging at me ever since and I feel like I have to add it.

I was highly disturbed at the end of the series with the handling of Amanda and Ren's children. Both women had been abducted, beaten, raped by the Painballers. Both were traumatized by it, Amanda to the point that she practically became catatonic. No sooner was her ordeal finally over, her salvation at hand, than both women were gang raped again, this time by the Crakers.

But then, when their respective babies were born, there was this completely bizarre sense of relief that the fathers were Crakers rather than Painballers. Amanda suddenly snapped out of her depression. Everything was okay.

What the actual fuck?

"Good news! Those guys that gang raped you didn't impregnate you - it was these guys that gang raped you! And we like these guys, so it's okay."

Atwood creates this utterly grotesque justification for their casual dismissal of the Crakers' gang rape of Amanda and Ren - and make no mistake, that's what it was - by painting them as innocents who "don't know any better".

Okay, I can accept that there's a strong cultural divide - hell, they're not really even the same species - which would, to some degree, absolve them of responsibility for their actions (although I find it difficult to suggest that even Crake would design a being incapable of understanding the word "no"). But why does that matter to their victims? When a violent crime is committed against someone, the motivations of the perpetrator don't automatically erase the pain they cause.

Amanda and Ren were violated. Repeatedly. Amanda suffers a completely understandable mental breakdown after the incident. But the biggest concern seems to be whether their children had been sired by the Painballers, and the women would therefore reject them, or whether they had been sired by the Crakers, and the size of their heads might complicate childbirth. When it turned out they were Craker children, Amanda magically "got better" - as if it wasn't the rapes that had been unbearable, but the idea that she might be carrying a little Painballer inside. Even more disturbing, Ren's own forcible impregnation was brushed off simply because she didn't display the same outward signs of trauma that Amanda did.

In the end it felt like Atwood was excusing everything that had happened to both Amanda and Ren because, after all, they had babies, and babies make everything okay. Yes, they experienced something horrendous, but never mind, because they fulfilled their purpose in creating children, and that cancels out their suffering.

I think I found this conclusion particularly devastating because of how much I loved The Handmaid's Tale, which was a scathing criticism of this very idea that women were only as valuable as their ability to propagate the species. It feels like a betrayal from Atwood, one that I'm struggling to let go of even days after I've put the book back on the shelf.

In the end, this doesn't change my rating of this book. My rather lengthy addendum is a criticism of only one small portion of the story, and everything I felt about the rest of the book stands.

Dead Souls

Dead Souls - Nikolai Gogol, D.J. Hogarth I wish only the complete first part of this novel had been published, because I thoroughly enjoyed it. However, I found the fragmented, crumbling second part to be agitating more than anything. Several times the narrative ends abruptly with the explanation, "Here a large section of the original is missing." While it's easy enough to pick up the basic gist of the plot skipped over by this holes, what made the first part of the book so enjoyable was the interactions of the characters and the descriptions of their lives. With so much of that missing in the second part, I quickly became disillusioned and even disappointed.

Midnight's Children

Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie If I was reviewing this book purely on the quality of the writing, it'd be a solid five stars. It's simply astounding. But it loses one simply because, even though I enjoyed it, reading felt like an absolute chore. I swear, it took me six thousand years to finish this damn book.

Part of this is due to my admittedly pathetic understanding of the period of history this book is about. I knew only the very basics about India & Pakistan and their transitions during the 20th century - enough that I didn't feel completely lost by the plot, but I certainly wasn't intimately familiar with any of the events described in the book.

More than that, however, was Rushdie's tendency to abruptly jump from one part of the story's timeline to another, no explanation, no transition, within a single page or paragraph or even sentence. It was the way he stacked metaphors on top of metaphors and laced them together with seemingly unconnected plot points. I spent the first 50 pages of the book learning how to read the book. It was almost like learning a new language - a language which, once I became conversational, was beautiful and emotional and wrought with meaning, but the growing pains were difficult, and even now that I've finished it I feel far from fluent.

I suppose I should acknowledge that sometimes the best things are those which don't come easily, and in the end I'm glad I stuck through and finished this book. It was worth the (sometimes literal) headache. I can't, however, give it the 5 stars it deserves, because I can't in good conscience ignore the experience of reading the book itself. I have to factor in the frustration I felt over it, sludging my way through it, and not just on how I feel about the book now that I've put it back on the shelf. Otherwise I'd be like a mountain climber (and, rest assured, Midnight's Children is a mountain of a book) who rated a hike only on the view from the top, and said nothing at all about the trail.

I'm recommending it, but only if you are in the mood to make yourself work for a great story.

The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro This novel is a brilliant, touching, ofttimes humorous and ultimately stirring examination of a man's life as he finds himself wondering - was it a good one? Was it important? Was it dignified? And as it draws to its conclusion, do the answers to those questions matter?

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Something Wicked This Way Comes - Ray Bradbury I hadn't read Something Wicked since I was a kid, and I was delighted to find it's just as creepy and mind-meltingy as I remember. Bradbury has such an intoxicating way with descriptions. I think my favorite from this particular tome is "His voice... it's the same color as his hair." Brilliant.