Unfocused Reading: The Book Review List

During my year off from writing, I did try to keep up with my reading. One chapter or 25 pages a day, whichever felt easier at that particular moment. If writing is my passion, reading is the fuel that keeps that flame alive. I remember reading somewhere about the strong correlation between reading and one’s writing ability. And while I do strongly believe in that connection, I also believe that reading is the gateway to one’s emotional and mental expansion.

Reading, and specifically reading multiple forms and genres of literature, allows you to move between cultures, exercise your imagination, and cultivates empathy. It forces you into seeing things from another person’s, the author’s or the protagonist’s, perspective.

Now, I wasn’t always successful when it came to reading every day. I am, unfortunately, a creature of comfort—and comfortable reading means uninterrupted reading. Also, I have a tendency to read multiple books at the same time. I suppose it’s the very same lack of focus that’s hounded me from childhood and continues to affect me today. At the moment, I’m currently reading Simon Sinek’s Start with Why, Maria Arana’s and The Washington Post’s The Writing Life, Neil Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats, and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. As for my active rereads, that would be Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes and Chris Bailey’s The Productivity Project.

Suffice to say, my unfinished stack of books is prominently bigger than the ‘done’ pile. Besides, a book review requires a thorough rereading. The first time I read a book, I read for pleasure. The second time, for insight. Now, I’ve met many people, very intelligent and voracious readers, who never reread their books. But for me, rereading is an oddly and immensely comforting activity. It’s like spending time with an old and trusty friend who rarely ever disappoints.

Obviously, I’ve gone way off track here. Let me rein this post back in. The following, in no particular order, is my current Book Review and To-Reread List.

  1. Mercedes by Stephen King
  2. The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey
  3. Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley
  4. Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase
  5. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
  6. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
  7. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  8. The Devil Earl by Deborah Simmons
  9. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
  10. A Week to be Wicked by Tessa Dare

I did enjoy those books a lot, so here’s to hoping the rereads will help yield decent reviews.

Cheers!

Book Review: The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

Sirens of Titan and Bob Dylan2

Title: The Sirens of Titan

Author: Kurt Vonnegut

Genre: Science Fiction

First Published: 1959

Grade: A++++++

 

The Sirens of Titan may be Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, but it’s also one of his most sure-footed and successful works. In this book, Vonnegut attempts to answer the ultimate question–”What is the purpose of man?” And this he does with copious amounts of dark humor and much aplomb. In true Vonnegut fashion, he introduces a wholly human character caught in the maelstrom of chance. Malachi Constant, our unfortunate protagonist, is both likable and unlikable. At the very least, he is strangely relatable. Despite being a billionaire, (the richest man in America), there is an emptiness that gnaws at Malachi, an existential dilemma he can’t shake. He waits to be given purpose by God or the Cosmos, or whoever it is at the end of that endless phone line that stretches through Space.

Purpose comes in the dubious form of Winston Niles Rumfoord, the only human being to have ever been chronosynclastically infundibulated. Rumfoord had ridden out to space with his faithful dog, Kazak, when his ship ran straight into a chronosynclastic infundibulum. This space phenomenon enables Rumfoord to see all things in the past and in the future. It offers Rumfoord a type of omniscience that would be god-like, had it meant that Rumfoord was exempt of whatever it was Fate had in store for him. The trade-off to gaining almighty knowledge is that Rumfoord and Kazak were spread thinly throughout time and space. They began to exist in a wave phenomena that enabled them to materialize on Earth, Mars, and Mercury in predictable intervals while staying properly stuck in Titan.

Rumfoord and Malachi’s paths cross when Rumfoord asks his wife, Beatrice, to invite the latter to one of his materializations. There, Rumfoord reveals Malachi’s fate to him. Malachi and Beatrice were set to be sent to Mars where they would fall in love, have a child, and grow old in the beautiful Saturn moon, Titan. Rebelling against this idyllic albeit forced setup, Malachi does what he can to make Beatrice hate him–and he succeeds for a time. It almost seems as if Beatrice and Malachi would never cross paths again,  but as is one of the greatest themes in The Sirens of Titan, there is no escaping fate. And true to Vonnegut’s style, Malachi and Beatrice both suffer tremendously before something too distorted, something too similar to resignation to actually be called a ‘happy ending,’ takes place.

The next time we see Malachi, we see him as Unk. A low-ranking infantry officer in Mars who has just had his memories erased for the nth time. This is an unusual case in Mars. Usually, you get your memories wiped clean once, get your antenna installed, and you’re obedient and thoughtless as sheep soon after. But in Unk’s case, he always manages to regain thoughts of Earth and past memories, sometimes with the help of his best friend, Stony Stevenson. He always seeks out his mate, Beatrice, and child, Chronos. He always imagines Earth to be a better place where he can be with his family at last. In Unk, Malachi has become the opposite of who he always thought he was. As Unk, Malachi could live without a penny to his name but with the dream of family and friendship to get him through whatever fix he was in.

Now, with such noble dreams, one would expect Unk/Malachi to get the happy ending he’s after. Maybe Malachi could escape to Earth with Bea and Chronos, grow some potatoes. Be a self-sustaining family with little contact with the outside world. But to end the book this way would equate to pussy-footing around life. Like most talented and sadistic writers, Kurt Vonnegut knows the value of a relatable hero. He knows the appeal of the long-suffering protagonist. He doesn’t waste the chance to play up the dark comedy called human existence.

At the start of the story, Malachi’s name is explained to the reader. Malachi means faithful messenger. This is the root of Malachi’s early existential drama. He awaits the message he’s meant to deliver, he waits for a higher purpose. Turns out, his purpose was to create Chronos with Bea. Chronos becomes the faithful messenger in the story. He delivers a piece of metal to Salo, a Tralfamadorian traveler marooned in Titan. Salo, himself, is a messenger–a machine designed by human-like creatures from the planet of Tralfamadore. Salo was sent into Space to travel billions of years in search of a specific alien civilization. The piece of metal (Chronos’ good luck piece) is the replacement part Salo needs to fix his ship. In the end, Malachi did find purpose, he did find his place in the great scheme of things. But did he really find purpose or was he only ‘a victim of a series of accidents.’ From the all-knowing and all-seeing perspective of God and any other chronosynclastically infundibulated being, is human life merely a straight line, or even a tiny, fixed point set against the vastness of the Cosmos? Is there no higher purpose? Or if there is, is it a purpose worth living for?

Like a seasoned pro, Vonnegut has his main character (and the reader) jumping through hoops, suffering burn after burn. And yet, on Unk goes. Against all odds, Unk goes–that you almost wish for a deus ex machina, for a red herring of sorts. You think ill of Rumfoord and shake your fist at his cruelty, only to realize that his life was the biggest joke in the book. There are a lot of emotions to be gone through in The Sirens of Titan. There are a lot of surprises too. And while the bleak nature of the book’s humor may make you want to let go of the book and seek some sunshine, you always go back to it, because quite frankly, it’s that good. It’s more than just a page-turner, it’s a thinking piece. It’s a fecking good piece of literature that thankfully sticks.

The Sirens of Titan is definitely one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years. Worth recommending to anyone interested in Science Fiction, Philosophy, and great literature, in general. If you loved Slaughterhouse Five, this would be right up your alley.

Book Review: City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare

city of ashes-cassie clare

 

Title: City of Ashes

Author: Cassandra Clare

First Published: 2008

Genre: Fiction, Young Adult

 

Plot Summary: The Mortal Instrument Series resumes with the mysterious killings of Downworlder children. The big question on everyone’s minds is whether or not Valentine is behind all these attacks. When the Shadow Sword goes missing, things get worse for Jace. Since word got out that he’s Valentine’s son, he’s found himself in the middle of a tough Nephilim investigation. As for Clary, she’s got her hands full trying to find a cure for her mother’s mysterious coma while dealing with the fact that the boy she likes is actually her brother.

Here’s a common problem for most YA sequels—they’re hardly as good as the first book. While I’d love to say that City of Ashes is an exception to this generalization, Cassandra Clare’s follow-up to City of Bones is a bit lackluster for me. It’s not the premise, it’s not the plot. As I mentioned in my last review, Clare has a really interesting story in her hands. Yes, you have the standards—the werewolves, the vamps, the faeries—but the world of the Nephilim seems pretty original to me.

The problem lies in a number of the book’s characters. Though Clary appears marginally better (more mature) in City of Ashes, it seems that she’s mellowed only to amplify the massive communication breakdown between the adults and the teens in this book. We’re not talking about the basic misunderstandings between parents and their kids—we’re talking about life-changing and life-saving secrets being withheld, the lack of listening between both parties, and the overall daftness of 90 percent of the adults in the novel. It actually seems as if Luke is the only reasonable adult in the bunch. Even Jace comes off as a bit of a brat at the start of the story—and I actually like his character.

All in all, I found this to be a bit of a hard read. The good news is that it does have a few redeeming factors that would make someone like me want to read on further: (1) you see a lot of growth when it comes to Simon’s character, (2) you have a solid plot line with a neat twist, and (3) better action scenes. Despite its character flaws, it’s also, still, a page-turner. So, if you’ve started City of Bones, and you liked it enough, I recommend going for City of Ashes. Otherwise, if you didn’t like the Mortal Instruments’ first book, you might not want to bother with this one.

Grade: C+

Book Review: City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

Clare_City of Bones

Title: City of Bones

Author: Cassandra Clare

First Published: 2007

Genre: Fiction, YA

 

Plot Summary: When 15-year-old Clary Fray stepped into a New York nightclub, the last thing she expected was to become a witness to a murder that no one else could see. Things take a dive from there. Her mother goes missing and she ends up almost getting killed by a monster in her apartment. She wakes to find herself in the middle of the war between good and evil—a war between Shadowhunters and demons.

With the influx of Young Adult novels in the market, what makes City of Bones from Cassandra Clare a worthy pick?

Well, it really depends on when you’re coming from. I say when, because my choice to pick up this book has to do with history that I have (albeit one-sided) with the authoress. About a decade ago, I found her famous (though in some circles, infamous) fanfics: the LOTR: The Very Secret Diaries and, of course, the Draco Trilogy. Had a few quick laughs with the LOTR fic, but when it came to the Draco Trilogy, man, was I hooked. I would check for updates every week, and would stay up rereading each chapter. At that time, I was still using dial-up prepaid internet, and I thought Cassie Clare was probably the wittiest writer around. Of course, I was also 17, and was yet to meet Wifi, Nick Hornby, or Kurt Vonnegut.

**The fact that Aidan Turner is playing Luke Garroway in the Mortal Instruments film is, of course, added incentive for me.**

Suffice to say, I read the book out of curiosity. I wanted to see if City of Bones was as good as Draco Dormiens. What I found was that when it came to the characters of the book, City of Bones was, in a way, Draco Dormiens. Clary Fray, the 15-year-old protagonist of the Mortal Instruments series was painted as this impetuous, fiery, and passionate redhead—and I couldn’t help but think back to how Clare had written Ginny Weasley in her Draco Trilogy. And Jace Wayland, the sexy, damaged, platinum-haired bad boy of the story, was Clare’s Draco Malfoy. Of course, this is not to say that the novel wasn’t good; but for one who’s loved Clare’s past works, I just found the similarities a bit jarring. It also made it impossible not to compare the two.

On its own, I’ll have to say, City of Bones is actually a REALLY GOOD YA book. It’s creative, imaginative, and scandalous. It has all the elements of an enthralling ride—angels, demons, vampires, werewolves, forbidden love, mysterious bad boys, at least two love triangles, and even incest! Believe me, Clare just upped the ante for countless other YA writers with the incest plot. I mean, who else has the outgoing guts to do that in YA, other than VC Andrews? Genius! The book, judged on its own, is definitely a page-turner.

Except… It didn’t quite live up to what I had expected from Clare. Maybe it was Clary, and the fact that I didn’t exactly find her all that likeable. At times, she seemed more concerned about her relationship with Jace than the fact that her mother was missing and most probably dead. I found that unreal. It’s actually a bit of a peeve of mine, when a YA female leads get too caught up in the romance aspect that she fails to see how the world is falling apart. What can I say? I’m a strong believer in appropriate emotional reactions and investments.

Pace-wise, I found it a bit dragging at times too. The action scenes weren’t particularly exciting, except the scenes with the werewolves, which were really good. And lastly, lastly, lastly. Compared to the Draco Trilogy, I thought City of Bones was somewhat less witty. There were no laugh-out-loud moments for me. And you see, that was what I expected from Cassie Clare. That was what I remembered most about her writing. She had a way of drawing a chuckle out of you when you weren’t too busy rooting for one love team or the other.

That being said, I still think of City of Bones as being a pretty solid summer read. The plot is definitely interesting and promising. And despite Clary’s shortcomings, you do see her mature as the story progresses. The rest of the characters are also likeable enough. Jace is a flawed character, but the vulnerability that belies his cocksure attitude makes him a lovable male lead. Isabelle has her comic moments. Ah, and Simon. Poor Simon, is probably the most relatable character out of the lot. You can’t help but root for him despite the all-too-obvious rejection headed his way.

All in all, City of Souls is a good read that will make you want to pick up a copy of Clare’s second book, City of Ashes.

Grade: B

Book Review: I’m with the Band. Confessions of a Groupie – Pamela Des Barres

I'm with the Band - Pamela Des Barres

Title: I’m with the Band: Confessions of a Groupie

Author: Pamela Des Barres

Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Music

First Published: 1987

Pages: 320

Status: Read

Here’s a small confession: I have been lusting after this particular book for almost ten years. After reading about her affair with the incomparable Jimmy Page, Pamela Des Barres (aka Miss Pamela) reached Rockstar status in my book. I scoured the World Wide Web for snippets of I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie. The odd few pages I found in forums and blogs had me oooh-ooh-ooh-ing over Des Barres’ relationships with music legends like Mr. Page, Robert Plant, Mick Jagger, Chris Hillman, Keith Moon, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, and Gram Parsons.

So, when my sister handed me my own copy of I’m With the Band, I flipped through the first hundred pages in search of her love affair with Jimmy Page. Reading about her passionate encounters with the Rock God had me aching with envy. It was a sensory overload. I was seduced, and at the same time, set straight by Des Barres’ stories of the infamous 1960s-1970s rock scene.

In I’m With the Band, we follow the transformation of Pamela Ann Miller from small-town girl to the golden muse of some of Rock’s most formidable personalities. We read about how Miss Pamela, and her group—the GTOs, helped pave the way for girl groups and the new breed of baby groupies. The group, which was officially formed by Frank Zappa, went on to record an album called Permanent Damage in 1969. Though the album’s commercial success was limited, it was an admirable effort, which brought the spotlight to the fantastic women behind the rock movement. To me, these women showed the world what it means to really love music–to feel passion, awe, and reverence for those who produce stellar riffs and melodies.

In this book, we also learn more about the LA scene. We are made privy to the backstage secrets of some of the music industry’s biggest stars. Interspersing memories and personal anecdotes with journal entries, Miss Pamela takes us by the hand and guides us through the blossoming sense of awareness of the 1960s and the decadence and excess of the 1970s. Her delightfully candid and well-written memoir details the goings-on and the who’s who of one of the most important modern musical and spiritual revolutions in history.

To be honest, I don’t think I can rave enough about this book. Loved every Page—pun, v. much intended. The only bad thing about I’m With the Band is that it had to end.

Verdict: Highly recommended to ALL music lovers and closet groupies (like yours truly).

RATING: A+

Book Review: Juliet, Naked – Nick Hornby

Juliet Naked - Nick Hornby

Title: Juliet, Naked

Author: Nick Hornby

Genre: Fiction, Novel, Romance

First Published: 2009

Pages: 406

Status: Reread

 

I am no Nick Hornby expert, but I do consider myself a fan. I also believe Juliet, Naked is one of Hornby’s best works. In it, the author showcases his unique ability to create something beautiful out of a messed-up relationship and an unhealthy obsession with a washed-out musician.

The novel, in a nutshell, tells the story of how nobody is ever completely beyond redemption—how no life is beyond salvaging. In the book, we follow the lives of our three main characters—Annie, Duncan, and Tucker Crowe. Annie and Duncan are residents of Gooleness, a small, bleak, and dull town in the East Coast of England. Nothing ever happens in Gooleness, the same way nothing ever happens in Duncan and Annie’s 15-year relationship. Like the dead-end town, theirs is a relationship that’s free of burning passion. At least, free of the kind of passion that Annie wants in her life.

Duncan is passionate enough about one particular topic—the retired and reclusive 80s musician, Tucker Crowe. Duncan’s obsession makes him the ultimate Crowologist, an expert in all things Tucker Crowe. He owns thousands of bootlegged copies of Crowe’s performances. He dissects the lyrics of Crowe’s songs to find ‘hidden meaning’ that eludes even the actual songwriter. Though almost seeming like a caricature of a ‘fan’, one can’t help but recognize how there’s a bit of Duncan in all of us. That passion Duncan feels for Crowe stems from the same brook where our own unhealthy fascination for Late Greats like Jeff Buckley, Kurt Cobain, Nick Drake, and in my case, Sylvia Plath, springs from.

And though Annie doesn’t exactly share the obsession Duncan has for Tucker Crowe, she recognizes it, tolerates it. She tolerates it enough to join Duncan on a trip to the States to look at a toilet in a small bar in Minneapolis. Of course, the toilet isn’t just any toilet for Duncan. It is THE toilet where Crowe had an amazing epiphany that caused him to walk out of his own life forever—which isn’t to say he died, so much as disappeared from the face of the earth, its public face anyway. The fact that Tucker Crowe did this right after the release of his most critically acclaimed album, the break-up masterpiece Juliet, just adds to the mystery of his quitting.

Although Annie puts up with Duncan’s obsession with Tucker Crowe, cracks in their staid relationship begin to show when the pared down version of Juliet is released. The album becomes known as Juliet, Naked. Duncan, understandably, almost wets himself in excitement after hearing the album. In it, he sees genius. Annie, on the other hand, sees just potential. Both write their respective reviews on a Tucker tribute website, which Duncan owns. But when the real Tucker Crowe contacts Annie, the lives of our three protagonists begin to change drastically.

Now, Hornby has always had the gift of bringing his characters to life. For some odd reason, despite being deeply flawed, all the characters in Juliet, Naked are also quite lovable. Even the music nerd Duncan, with his arrogance and elitism has his great speech, his flaw-free moment.

When Duncan reveals the extent of his obsession with Tucker, the reader can’t help but feel embarrassed for the guy. After spending over 20 years trying to establish himself as a credible and serious Crowologist, he becomes no different from some deranged fan who breaks into someone else’s home. And yet, can one really hate Duncan for it, I wonder? If you had the chance to ransack the drawers of your favorite writer or musician and no one would ever find out, wouldn’t you do the same? That type of dedication is rare, creepy, flawed, and yet so telling of the extent of one’s love. To debase yourself for another—ah, but I digress.

Then, there’s Annie, who is the quintessential modern heroine. Dissatisfaction is her primary mover. At one point in the novel, she asks Tucker Crowe: “What do you do if you think you’ve wasted fifteen years of your life?” To which Tucker, the King of Time Wasted, tells Annie to reevaluate her life by using some complex formula that would account for the years ‘wasted.’ Though the advice was clever enough, I was more struck by the question. Isn’t it completely human to feel like we’ve wasted time? I thought, where does one waste 15 years? And then I realized the answer was in the everyday. We waste it on the sameness of the everyday. We look at the conflict between contentment and happiness without fully grasping how those two don’t need to be mutually exclusive. Yes, compromise is necessary in living, but there has to be some sort of self-imposed limit on compromising. And I digress, even more.

Lastly, there’s Tucker Crowe. The washed-up, once-was musician. At the time of the novel, he was a recovering alcoholic who has done nothing in the last 22 years that constitutes as ‘work’. For decades, he depended on his ex-wives to keep him afloat. And though he hates this dependency, he feels powerless to work through it. In a way, Tucker feels like the most hopeless of all three characters. His, seemed like the hardest character to redeem.

And yet, there is some form of redemption for all three characters. Maybe not the kind that’s perfect, but there are lessons learned and changes made. To quote Lao Tzu, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” And ever the optimist, I do believe that Duncan, Tucker, and Annie have all taken the first step by the end of the book.

So obviously, one of the central themes of the novel is “Time Lost”. One of the lingering questions from the book is whether or not we can still salvage our remaining years—few as they may seem.

The book’s ending is for the affirmative. Yes, it’s never too late to find happiness. And though the book’s ending is, well, open to interpretation, Annie’s conversation with her shrink, Malcolm, is enough to give the reader some hope. Hope that maybe things will work out for Annie and Tucker, at least.

 

SPOILER ALERT: How does Juliet, Naked really end?

Well, I find that its ending really depends on what you want to believe. In true Nick Hornby fashion, our dear author gives no certainties of sad or happy endings. The story doesn’t end, it merely stops. It mimics the fluidity of real life.

Now, the first time I read Juliet, Naked, I fell upon the bleakest ending. Like Annie predicted, life slid into place after Tucker. As for Tucker, his next album was a major disappointment.

But upon rereading the book, I discovered the possibility of something good. Maybe, just maybe, Annie and Tucker found their way back to each other. That would certainly explain Tucker’s newfound contentment and new album. After combing the net for like interpretations, I found that a number of readers believe that “Uptown Girl” in the forums is actually Annie. They believe that Annie married Tucker in the end. Also a likely outcome, IMO. I think if we read between the lines hard enough, ala Duncan, maybe we can come up with even more possible endings for the book!

Either way, with its endless possibilities, its endless questions, there is no doubt in my mind that Juliet, Naked is the type of book that is truly worth reading and re-exploring. Highly recommended to all book lovers.

GRADE: A+

Book Review: Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen

northanger abbey-jane austen

Title: Northanger Abbey

Author: Jane Austen

Genre: Classic, Romance

First Published: 1818 (posthumously)

Pages: 236

 

Northanger Abbey follows the story of Catherine Morland, an unexceptional young woman from the country, who finds herself suddenly a part of the elegant and complex society in Bath. Under the ‘guidance’ of the vapid, though not cruel, Mrs. Allen, Catherine finds herself acquainted with the wrong crowd.

When she is befriended by the deceitful and coquettish Isabella Thorpe, our unlikely heroine falls under the manipulations of Isabella and her brother, John. For a while, she is bullied into participating in indiscreet activities that could make an impact on her reputation. Take note, reader, these activities are by no means as racy as the sentence might suggest. It is, basically, the reputation you get when you quite literally, ‘ride in the car with boys.’

Mercifully, she is saved from further social mishaps when she joins the company of the handsome, though somewhat unromantic, Henry Tilney, and his lovely sister, Eleanor. As would be expected, she falls for Henry, and there is reason to think that he begins to feel the same for her. The only setback lies in the meddling of Henry’s father, General Tilney. Therein, is the real story, and it starts quite late in the novel.

Although the rest of the novel is pleasant enough to read, Northanger Abbey is a lot like Emma, in the sense that the story is not as rich or eventful as Jane Austen’s other works. Notably, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. What gets the reader through the piece though, is the strength of Catherine’s character.

Yes, Jane Austen does take pains to establish how Catherine is unremarkable in almost all aspects—but she also makes our heroine incredibly interesting. Austen infuses her with youth. Catherine’s curiosity and naivety makes her relatable—and that is the mark of a good character.

Northanger Abbey is often regarded as Austen’s earliest work. This shows, especially in Austen’s immense presence in the text. The author makes her thoughts known in a very direct manner throughout the book. In her latter works like Persuasion and Mansfield Park, you get less of the author in the story.  Some critics regard Northanger Abbey as one of the keys to Austen’s mindset. With little else to go by, Austen having requested that all her letters be burnt upon her death, such personal works as this one becomes crucial to historians, literary professors and majors, and Janeites alike. This novel gives as a clue as to what Austen’s mindset was during the period when she wrote this story.

As a parody of Gothic literature, this book also succeeds in being possibly the most lighthearted and easy-to-read novel from Austen. This is why I highly recommend this book to all first-time Austen/Classic readers.

Rating: A-