Roar ~ #JNGReads

You can find more photos like this one on my bookstagram, Emerald & Opal.

I have to start this review with a disclaimer. The opinions that follow are simply my opinions about the short story collection Roar by Cecelia Ahern. If you particularly liked this collection, you may not enjoy this review.

I seriously considered not posting a review of Roar because, to be honest, I don’t have much that’s nice to say about it. Roar is a short story collection that I can understand why a lot of people like, particularly at this moment in history. The collection contains thirty stories about women and each one plays on a popular turn of phrase, image or metaphor. There is the woman who thinks her mirror is broken because she looks aged in it. There is the immigrant woman who literally grows wings and flies away, finally free. There is the woman whose husband keeps her on a shelf for the world to see and admire but not interact with. These ideas are certainly relevant, and Ahern plays on societal concerns that are on everyone’s minds and makes them into fairytales full of magical realism.

However, in my opinion, Ahern doesn’t do social commentary very well. While her stories make sense, they are not creative and they are, ultimately, very silly. These common phrases or metaphors, such as wanting to fall into a hole and die when something embarrassing happens, are definitely used in common speech on a daily basis, but they don’t make for good or interesting fiction. Each of these stories is full of oversimplification and they border on the nonsensical. While magical realism is meant to be a bit outlandish, Ahern’s tales are downright ridiculous, and I found myself laughing every so often at how absurd and literal they are. Everything is just too on the nose and it gets to be very annoying and irritating very quickly.

What’s more, Ahern spends a lot of her time pandering to her reader. Her stories are simplistic enough that they hardly need explanation, but Ahern still feels the need to spell out exactly what each symbol means in detail. When a woman has bite marks spontaneously appear on her skin in one story, after returning to work from maternity leave, it seems unnecessary to be given a sentence like, “The guilt was, quite literally, eating her alive”, italics and all. And yet, Ahern constantly offers these analyses of her own stories, and it made me feel as though I was being talked down to or not being trusted to draw my own conclusions and insights from this fiction. There are such wonderful female short story writers out there like Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant who write about women being trapped in their hometowns or about women feeling displaced and exiled in ways that are subtle and nuanced. Ahern doesn’t do this at all, and I personally found that her stories came across as childish and unsophisticated because of it.

Don’t get me wrong, there was one story I sort of liked – The Woman Who Forgot Her Name – but one story out of thirty isn’t at all what I was hoping for. In the end, I got very clearly what Ahern was trying to do…but I wished she had tried harder to do it better.

❥❥ (out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

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A Little Life ~ #JNGReads

It is hard to describe how reading A Little Life made me feel.  This novel is, to sum up 800+ pages in a single word, sorrowful.  There is nothing optimistic about this novel, there is no bright, shining kernel of truth that makes the trauma and sadness easier to swallow.  It is a novel full of pain and suffering, and one that almost wallows in it, not trying to lift the reader into any more positive circumstances.

I now understand more fully a word my professors in university often used to describe literature and our reactions to it: visceral.  I always knew in theory that a visceral reaction to a text implied great emotion and feeling, and meant that the reader had temporarily put aside their more intellectual assessments to let feelings overwhelm them.  I have always been this type of reader – one who favours emotion over logic, who prefers to talk about how I feel about a novel rather than dissecting it with scientific vigour – and I was always so happy when lectures in my English classes tended toward sentimentality rather than structured analysis.

But I don’t know that I’ve ever been quite so touched by a novel as I was by A Little Life.  Don’t get me wrong, I have read my fair share of upsetting novels in the past – The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson immediately comes to mind, and it does, actually, have a similar narrative style to A Little Life – but I haven’t read one so moving and painful in quite some time.  A Little Life follows the friendship of four men, but it zeroes in pretty quickly on the relationship (romantic and otherwise) between Willem and Jude.  Jude, as many reviewers before me have noted, is the heart and soul of the novel, though, and much of the text is devoted to investigating Jude’s childhood traumas, including a whole host of disgusting circumstances that made me physically nauseous to read about.  Reading Jude’s story is not for the faint of heart, especially as it documents in graphic detail horrific stories of childhood sexual abuse, and it is downright hard to read at points.  So many times, I felt like I wanted to stop reading, to put the book down, and yet I didn’t because for whatever reason I felt compelled to keep going.  That is surely a testament to how talented Hanya Yanagihara is as a writer, and there is no doubt that the prose flows and is highly poetic and beautiful.  There is such a jarring contrast between the subject matter and the gorgeous words Yanagihara uses to describe the events…but the result is that the reader is urged to move forward and, ultimately, does, even despite every instinct not to.

There’s not much I can really say about A Little Life without repeating myself endlessly (it is painful, sorrowful, sad, depressing, traumatic, serious, touching, heartbreaking…blah blah blah), so I’ll just leave it at, it’s brilliant.  Many reviewers have disagreed, and that is totally fine, but for me, it was a moving experience in every way and I feel like a better person for having read the story.  I am proud that I’ve read it as I feel it is a modern work of great literature, a contemporary classic, and I truly can’t find any fault with Yanagihara’s writing or characterization or pacing or any of it.  Yes, many readers have felt that the novel is too long and a bit repetitive, but I am a lover of Dickens and John Irving, and so I am used to meaningful repetition, to long novels that say much and say it so well.  So, I cannot fault Yanagihara for writing a large novel because, the bottom line is, she wrote a great one.

I would urge anyone who is okay with deep, thoughtful and heavy literature to pick this one up because it is a read you won’t soon forget.

“[H]e was worried because to be alive was to worry.  Life was scary; it was unknowable.  Even Malcolm’s money wouldn’t immunize him completely.  Life would happen to him, and he would have to try to answer it, just like the rest of them.”

❥❥❥❥❥ (out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

By Your Side ~ #JNGReads

“I knew it was the extreme amount of stress I’d been under lately. Something had to give. I needed an outlet.

Under no circumstances should it have taken me almost a week to read a 350 page young adult book. But, I had an unexpectedly rough week, which is fitting for this reading experience in so many ways.

By Your Side by Kasie West is a novel about a teenage girl, Autumn, who gets stuck in a library over a long weekend with a misunderstood guy from her school, Dax. A common criticism of this novel that I’ve come across is that the setting of the library seems totally inconsequential, as neither of the characters actually read when they’re trapped in there, and that the portion of the novel when Autumn and Dax are trapped in the library is too short. These two things are true. However, they did not affect my rating of this novel whatsoever, and I will explain why.

“Just talking about rules right now was relaxing me. Structure sometimes helped me feel safe.”

By Your Side was unlike anything I expected from reading the synopsis, and yet, in so many ways, it surpassed my expectations. This is all down to the fact that Autumn suffers from anxiety.

I had an anxiety attack this morning. There’s a long story behind it, related to the long week I had, but to make that story short, I found myself crying in bed this morning as I thought about all the obligations (mostly social) ahead of me this weekend. I eventually calmed myself down (I’ve been told that anxiety attacks are not supposed to last for more than 20-minutes, even though they often seem to go on for an eternity), and when I did, I was able to get back into reading By Your Side right at a spot in the book when Autumn is also coming to terms with her anxiety. Autumn becomes easily overwhelmed when in certain social situations with her friends, and she slowly learns, through the course of the novel and with the help of her new friend/love interest Dax, that saying No is okay and important, particularly when she is being pushed beyond her limits.

“‘Have you ever felt trapped?’

I gave a single laugh. ‘Yes. I have anxiety.’”

Saying No is something I wish I was better at…but I’m working on it. I have felt exactly what Autumn has, that urge to give into people, to always say Yes to them even if you feel yourself starting to break. What I appreciated about West’s treatment of anxiety was that she focused on the sense of responsibility some people with anxiety feel, this burden of not wanting to disappoint other people or let them down. West focuses much of her portrayal of anxiety on Autumn’s family members and Dax reminding her that she has to keep herself healthy, that it is okay for her to admit her limitations, step back, and take some time alone to focus on her mental well-being. I don’t think this sort of thing is talked about enough in society, even with the current move toward focusing on anxiety disorders and mental illness. I believe that many people who don’t suffer from anxiety would find it hard to wrap their mind around why a person may feel uncomfortable about going to a particular social engagement, or why the thought of doing a certain social thing would bring them to tears. But, I have been there, most recently this morning, and I can say with conviction that for individuals who suffer from certain types of anxiety, there is no rhyme or reason; all we know is that some things, on some days, by no logic or rule, are simply beyond our power.

“‘Thanks for letting me stay home this week.’

‘Of course. You need to take care of yourself.’

‘I know. That’s why I’m staying home from the basketball game tonight too. Just the thought of it makes me cringe.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with that.’”

Autumn eventually gets to the point where she can say No to her friends, based on how she is feeling and by gaging her own mental health, and she is lucky in the sense that her friends are supportive of her and open to learning about her anxiety disorder. Believe me, not everyone in the world is that understanding. Having said that, I personally appreciated that West emphasizes the importance of taking care of yourself, of doing what is right for you. Anxiety is just as real as any physical illness, and I agree with West that it has to be treated as such: sometimes, a person with anxiety simply isn’t feeling well enough to do something, and that feeling should be viewed as just as valid as if someone couldn’t make it out because of a stomach flu or throat infection. We all have our boundaries and barriers, and not every day is going to be an anxiety-filled one…but the ones that are need to be taken slow and easy, and Autumn is conscious of that towards the end of her story.

Is By Your Side the best young adult novel I’ve ever read? Probably not. Don’t get me wrong, it would make an adorable, light-hearted move and I really liked Autumn and Dax and their cute banter. That, I would only give 3 stars for though…for West’s portrayal of anxiety, however, I’ll up my rating a touch.

I would encourage any teenager who suffers from anxiety to pick up this book, because not only is it enjoyable, it will also remind you that what you’re feeling is perfectly valid and should be respected.

❥❥❥❥(out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

Don’t Touch ~ #JNGReads

I got Don’t Touch at Chapters 3 days ago, on sale for $1.50. That is both a travesty and a blessing.

It is a travesty because Don’t Touch by Rachel M. Wilson is an excellent young-adult novel and it is worth much more than $1.50. So much more.

It is a blessing because if the book wasn’t on sale for $1.50, I never would’ve spotted it and decided to pick it up. And, I am lucky to have had the chance to read it.

Don’t Touch is a complex, intricate and deeply moving story about a high school student and aspiring actress, Caddie, who suffers from severe anxiety and OCD. Caddie’s anxiety is so all-consuming that she has convinced herself, after her parents’ separation, that she cannot touch anyone without dire consequences. Caddie purchases gloves, she wears long sleeves and pants even in the oppressive heat of summer, and when she develops a crush on her classmate Peter and is cast as Ophelia in her school’s production of Hamlet opposite Peter in the title role, she does everything within her power to avoid getting close to him. Caddie is the narrator of Don’t Touch, and so the reader is able to develop a very intimate relationship with her, hearing her innermost fears and turmoil at wanting to engage with Peter and her other friends, but not feeling as though she is able to.

There were moments in Don’t Touch that brought tears to my eyes. I don’t suffer from severe OCD, but I have friends who do, and I myself suffer from anxiety. I am learning recently that my struggle with anxiety (which began at the start of high school) is so much less severe and difficult than what so many of my peers have to endure on a daily basis, but I do believe that mental health is all relative, and my anxiety sometimes feels like the most horrible thing in the world, at least to me. I luckily have never been in Caddie’s position where I fear touching others, but I do understand the frustration that comes from having this one fear playing over and over in your brain, no matter how hard to try to get it to stop or how logical you try to be. Anxiety isn’t really logical at all, or at least it isn’t in my experience, and I was deeply touched by Caddie’s narration of her inability to calm herself down even when she knows her anxieties are nonsensical, silly and impossible.

Rachel M. Wilson writes about anxiety well, with heart and respect. She mentions in her Author’s Note that she herself suffers from OCD, and that is clear in her careful treatment of mental health struggles that she is familiar with them. I only wish her book got more hype because I believe it is the exact sort of text that teenagers need to read. If I had read something like this book in high school, it may have helped me comprehend my anxieties and understand that they are not as uncommon or embarrassing as I originally thought. I don’t mean to say that a book like Don’t Touch would’ve cured me, but it would’ve made me feel a bit more “normal”…whatever that even means.

Caddie is a strong character, despite her anxieties, and what is most profound is the message that ailments like anxiety or OCD do NOT make a person weak, but rather they can make them impressively strong. Caddie goes through a lot and she doesn’t always come out on top of her anxiety, but in the end, she has developed methods to cope with it and she is able to touch people and enjoy this proximity. She comes a long way, but what is most special and poignant about her progress is that she seeks help, from her mother, from her friends, and from a trained professional. She eventually realizes that power comes from talking about her anxieties, from taking the power away from them, and she becomes vocal and unselfconscious in her discussion of what is plaguing her. This was beautiful to see and an incredible message for anyone who suffers from anxiety or OCD to be left with: that speaking about it, owning up to it and in a way embracing it, is the first step toward wellness.

“Talking about fear takes its power away.”

I would highly recommend Don’t Touch to anyone and everyone because it truly blew me away. I wasn’t expecting to find it so sharp and touching, but it was, and I think it is worthy of a lot more attention. Spend $1.50 on it, spend $15.00, spend $50.00…but whatever you do, pick up this book!

❥❥❥❥(out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

The Idiot ~ #JNGReads

The Idiot by Elif Batuman is a book I can say I REALLY liked, without hesitation. Although I expected to LOVE it when I began (and probably give it a 5-star rating), the narration and plot started to drag a little for me toward the halfway point…however, I still thoroughly enjoyed this debut novel and found many moments to be laugh out loud funny and highly entertaining.

The Idiot is a novel that I think recent college and university graduates would find very compelling. I graduated from the University of Toronto only a short while ago, and so the experiences of attending lectures, completing long and arduous research papers, and developing friendships with a wide array of likeminded individuals are fresh in my mind. This meant that I instantly connected with the main character and narrator of The Idiot, Selin, and I found her interactions and anxieties to be relatable and realistic. Selin immediately comes across as very intelligent, if a bit socially awkward, and I enjoyed reading about her various classes, particularly her linguistics course, which reminded me of my own first-year linguistics class, and some of her stranger seminars like the Crooked Worlds “art” class she finds herself a part of. I also found it ingenious on Batuman’s part that she included samples of Selin’s required readings in the text of the novel: the references to Noam Chomsky’s theories brought me right back to Linguistics 101, and I particularly enjoyed the short “novel” Nina in Siberia that Selin is required to reading for her Introductory Russian course and which the reader is invited to study along with her. Pieces of Nina in Siberia became my favourite aspects of the novel, and I found it interesting to receive Selin’s thoughts about the text, from her academic perspective, because it felt as though Selin and I were fellow students, working through our course text together before a big exam. Batuman expertly writes about the college/university experience, and this was a topic I for one really appreciated. Obviously, this sort of text won’t be for everyone, but it definitely was one I easily became immersed in.

“It was hard to decide on a literature class. Everything the professor said seemed to be somehow beside the point. You wanted to know why Anna had to die, and instead they told you that nineteenth-century Russian landowners felt conflicted about whether they were really a part of Europe. The implication was that it was somehow naïve to want to talk about anything interesting, or to think that you would ever know anything important.”

As I mentioned previously, Selin is also a deeply self-conscious character, and this made her all the more human. Selin is confident in many academic ways, trying out classes that I never would’ve had the courage to enroll in during my own university years. She is, however, very self-conscious when it comes to her interactions with her fellow students, particularly her friend, Ivan. Selin and Ivan first begin their communications over the newly invented email, and although they have Russian class together, most of their conversations for two thirds of the novel are entirely in written form. This puts Selin in a peculiar position of being in love with Ivan, but of also being totally unable to speak to him in person. Both Selin and Ivan have difficulty navigating this “relationship” that they’ve created, and a large portion of the novel is devoted to Selin trying to figure out how Ivan feels about her and existing in this sort of limbo full of unrequited and confusing emotions. In this way, Batuman does an excellent job of portraying the uncertainties of being a first-year university student – the fact that you are treated like an adult, and yet still maintain the uncertainties of an adolescent life of the not so distant past. Selin is at once an adult with responsibilities and freedoms, but from an emotional perspective, she is still very much a child, a high school student, and so Batuman is able to explore the complexities of first love and of finding oneself in an environment of people with equally complex personalities.

“But, to me, nineteen still felt old and somehow alien to who I was. It occurred to me that it might take more than a year – maybe as many as seven years – to learn to feel nineteen.”

Selin’s friendships are also explored, and it is interesting to watch her interact with female characters like Svetlana and her roommates. Selin’s dry wit and humour make her interactions with her female friends often seem stilted and one-sided, but it also becomes clear very quickly that Selin is well-liked, especially by Svetlana, whose personality is so markedly different from Selin’s that it is very interesting to watch their friendship blossom and to witness the ways that these two young women support each other. I found the interpersonal relationships in this novel to be fascinating, and I even enjoyed the brief moments when Selin interacts with her mother and feels as though she must justify her decisions and actions, particularly those involving Ivan, to this thoroughly adult figure.

“‘I’m afraid I’ll accidentally eat it all before I get there,’ I said, following the rule that you had to pretend to have this problem where you couldn’t resist chocolate.”

My major qualm with the novel is that it began to feel a bit long towards the end. This is pretty paradoxical because the entire novel is only just over 400 pages, but I started to feel at around the 250-page mark that it was crawling by. Maybe this is because not much happens and the novel seems to be more of a character study than a plot-driven story, but I found that as Selin becomes more involved with Ivan, her narration becomes less interesting and engaging. This is somewhat fitting because Selin discusses how she is beginning to lose her language and her ability to communicate the more she becomes invested in her “relationship” with Ivan, but it also made it harder to be invested in her, as a reader. I missed the wit and sarcasm that she articulates in the first half of the novel, and I found myself laughing much less as the novel went on. (Sidenote: I literally burst out laughing while reading the scenes when Selin is teaching her ESL student…and where were the moments like this in the last half of the novel? They felt non-existent!) By the end of the novel, I felt as though I was just plugging away, trying to turn the pages as fast as I could to get to the point where something would happen. Again, I realize that this is more of a character study, and I appreciate that, but I felt as though Selin’s distinct character was what was lacking in the latter half of the novel. The last 100 pages just felt like more of the same, and I guess I was craving some spark or insight, some profound statement that I don’t feel I ever really got.

All in all, though, I would highly recommend The Idiot to current or recently graduated college/university students because I believe they will relate easily to Selin’s character and be able to insert themselves into her experiences. There is no doubt that The Idiot is well-written and I look forward to reading whatever Batuman produces next, as well as delving into some of her non-fiction, which I have heard great things about.

❥❥❥❥(out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

The Perfect Nanny ~ #JNGReads

I must admit from the start that there will inevitably be SPOILERS about The Perfect Nanny in this review. It’s difficult to talk about the plot or premise at all without them, so if you’d like to go into the novel not knowing anything about it, do not read any further. It should suffice for me to say that I am in an utter fog now, having just finished it…I don’t really know what to say, but here goes nothing…

The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani is an absolutely chilling read.

I first came across this novel on Instagram, where the cover enticed me to find out more about it. Depicting a blue and white, Peter Pan collared shirt, the cover suggests that this story will have something to do with false appearances. The buttons are done up too perfectly, the shirt is too crisp, the blue too clean, the white too pristine…there is something behind this perfect façade that cannot be quite so immaculate.

I then read the tagline for the novel, which was on the cover of the book in this particular photo I was looking at on Instagram. It turns out that this tagline is in fact the first phrase of the novel, which sets the tone for what is to come…

“The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds.”

My blood ran cold when I read that line, and yet I was intrigued enough to put the novel on my To-Read List. When I saw it in Chapters a few days later, my fate was sealed – I purchased it, started reading it that very same day, and have now finished it, two days later.

As I said before, The Perfect Nanny is haunting, disturbing, disgusting, heartbreaking, terrifying… It is so many horrific things that it is almost impossible to describe. It’s not that graphic, to be perfectly honest, and yet there is this underlying sense of discomfort from start to finish, this anxiety on the part of the reader because we know how things are going to turn out, and it turns our stomach not to be able to look away from this inhumanity, the horrible tragedy of it all. Slimani is a masterful storyteller, and by choosing to begin her novel with the conclusion, the deaths of the two little children whose simple, adorable lives will then be described minutely, she draws the reader into this web of nerves and unsettled fears, she forces the reader to keep watching, to assume the status of voyeur, to accept this incapacity to change a thing coupled with this inability to look away.

Slimani also writes in such a literary style, and although the phrases are clipped and concise and not overly descriptive, she paints this blurry, hazy picture of a life that could belong to anyone. As a reader, we can put ourselves into the role of any of these characters, because Slimani leaves enough room for interpretation, of actions and events, of thoughts and desires. There is much that seems to be written between the lines of Slimani’s narration, there is mystery in the scenes she paints so vaguely and in such a simple style. It is almost as if Slimani is presenting us with an allusion to an occurrence, rather than a picture of the occurrence itself. Events are veiled just enough to keep them interesting, and yet the characters are left raw and exposed, open to criticism and hatred and contempt. Slimani’s story is heavily a character study, and so the plot points themselves fade seamlessly into the background of the text, leaving these complicated characters at the forefront, and helplessly open to the reader’s scrutiny.

It is not only the so-called “perfect nanny” who is open for examination. Slimani leaves all of her characters bare, from the parents Paul and Myriam who mean well but are tragically blind to the strangeness around them, to the “perfect nanny” Louise’s daughter and husband, to the friends and colleagues of Paul and Myriam who are just as oblivious as they are. There is so much to unravel and investigate within the very few pages of The Perfect Nanny (it is, after all, only 228 pages in total), and the reader is left at the end with this disturbing feeling that no conclusion whatsoever has been reached, that nothing has been solved, that things are more muddled and confusing and upsetting than they were even in the beginning, when that first phrase “The baby is dead” is declared.

What is abundantly clear, though, is that the children, Mila and Adam, are innocent. They are children, and so they are at once frustrating and endearing, loud and serene, hyper and soothed, but always, always lovable. The reader is left, at the end, with this overwhelming feeling of sadness that, because of a nanny’s obsession and the inability of two parents to fully comprehend the depths of her despair and illness, two totally innocent children have been made to suffer. That is an awful feeling to be left with, and yet it makes the novel truly unforgettable and so poignant and important.

I feel that there is a lesson somewhere in The Perfect Nanny, and yet I can’t quite grasp what it is. Not being a parent myself, I can’t imagine how difficult it is to raise a child, let alone more than one, and yet I can imagine that it would be very difficult to leave one’s children with a nanny or a caregiver. And yet, for so many families, there is no other option, when two incomes are required, and no relatives or friends are available for babysitting. At the same time, though, it seems that Paul and Myriam are blind to many of Louise’s abusive behaviours toward the children, both emotional and physical, and although they occasionally become wary of her actions, they fail to do anything about the situation that strikes them as odd. So who is to blame for this horrible crime? Surely Louise because she is the perpetrator, the child murderer…but could the circumstances of this travesty not have been avoided? I just don’t know. Like I mentioned, I feel as though Slimani is trying to make a statement with The Perfect Nanny, she is trying to offer a moral, and insight to the reader…but I just haven’t uncovered what it is yet. And perhaps that’s just it: maybe each reader is supposed to have a slightly different interpretation of the events and the characters? In any case, what I do know for sure is that The Perfect Nanny is well-written, deep and hard to swallow, and it is not for the faint of heart.

“Adam is dead. Mila will be too, soon.”

❥❥❥❥ (out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

99 Days ~ #JNGReads

Literally nothing happens in this book…nothing at all.

“‘What do you want, Molly Barlow?’ he asks, and he sounds so tired of me. ‘I mean it, what could you possibly want from me?’”

I just finished reading Katie Cotugno’s young adult romance novel 99 Days and I have to say immediately that I am disappointed. When I read Cotugno’s first novel, How To Love, last year, I was very impressed by her unique writing style and the way her character’s narrative voice instantly sucked me in and made me empathize with her. With 99 Days, I felt like the uniqueness and strength of Cotugno’s voice was missing, and the novel felt like 300-plus pages of a bunch of self-centered, bland, nothing-special teenagers doing absolutely nothing. I wasn’t thrilled by or even remotely interested in it.

99 Days follows recent high school graduate Molly Barlow during 99 days of summer when she returns to her hometown before leaving for college. She left her hometown for senior year because of a bunch of drama between her, her now ex-boyfriend and her ex’s brother. Obviously, a love triangle is established, and I understand exactly what Cotugno was trying to do with her story: she was trying to present this coming of age story in which a group of friends who grew up together and were inseparable are challenged by the complicated feelings of infatuation, love and lust that emerge as they enter into adulthood. I get it…but unfortunately, I don’t think Cotugno tackles these concepts well whatsoever in 99 Days.

As I said before, nothing happens in this novel…like seriously, there is no climax, no monumental point of clarity, no excitement or intrigue whatsoever. It literally was like reading a teenage girl’s diary, documenting a summer when she goes to work, occasionally makes out with a hot guy, then makes out with his brother, runs every morning, watches a few documentaries on Netflix, maybe hangs out with her girlfriends for a few hours…and that’s it. I get that that sounds like a lot of things happening, which in theory it is, but it’s not enough to make a novel out of. This was one of the most mundane, boring stories I’ve ever read because it felt just as repetitive as an actual summer in high school, when you’re not old or independent enough to go anywhere or have any adventures, so you basically just hang around the house, binge-watching TV shows and movies and creeping your hot classmates on Facebook or Instagram with your friends. If Cotugno was hoping to make 99 Days more of a character study than a plot-driven novel, unfortunately none of her characters are strong enough to accomplish this. Molly, Patrick and Gabe Donnelly, and all the other cast of characters, were the most average teenagers I’ve ever come across in literature, and none of them go through any real process of maturing or developing emotionally. They are very flat characters, and I was left at the end with this feeling that I had wasted a bunch of my time following an unspectacular cast doing unspectacular things.

“I’m ashamed of myself, truly. It’s inexcusable, what I did to Tess.”

I also found it impossible to like Molly at all, which was really unfortunate considering she’s the story’s narrator. Molly is positively insufferable, and even the other characters in the novel are sick of her by the end of it, with very good reason. Molly is incredibly selfish, egotistical and totally unaware of what a destructive personality she has. Even when she says she’s embarrassed about something or feels badly about it, she still does it, and honestly, she goes all the way with these terrible acts…not halfway, not kind of doing something and then stopping because she realizes what a mistake it is…ALL THE WAY, EVERY TIME. I understand that being a teenager is tough, and I’m sympathetic to that – I certainly don’t expect Molly to be this perfect angel because that wouldn’t be interesting either. But, there are certain lines that it’s pretty clear you shouldn’t cross in life and in love, and Molly crosses every single one of them, emerging on the other side as this totally awful friend and person. What’s most frustrating is that she recognizes how awful she is being to the people around her, and yet she does all these horrible things anyway, even asking herself on multiple occasions what she’s thinking or what she’s doing, but not stopping. It’s irritating at best and totally, beyond-belief frustrating and off-putting at worst. I couldn’t warm up to Molly, didn’t want to, to be honest, and I never ever would want her as a friend. So, from page one, I wasn’t off to a good start with her.

“I head over to the Donnellys’ the next evening to watch some weird Canadian import show Gabe can’t get enough of, everybody dressed in plaid and saying ‘aboot’ all the time.”

The quote above is actually one of the most annoying sentences I have ever read in a book in my entire life – call me a die-hard Canadian or whatever, but this is just simply poor and lazy writing. I get that maybe Cotugno is trying to be satirical and ironic, but in this particular sentence, it doesn’t come across that way, and on the contrary, this tasteless joke about “Canadian culture” comes across as narrow-minded and offensive. I wouldn’t be so put-off by this sort of thing normally, but the whole novel is full of lazy jokes and sarcasm and references to pop culture that Cotugno seems to use to just make herself look smart. She mentions Bon Iver playing on iPod speakers, she brings up Paul Newman randomly, she has Molly watching documentaries about Mary Shelley, she makes Molly’s best friend Imogen an expert at reading tarot cards, Molly’s mother is a bestselling author…okay, Cotugno is trying to make her characters diverse and versatile and well-rounded and unique, but nothing in their actions, manner of speaking or actual personalities is any of these things, so the references just come across as humble brags and pats on the back rather than any sort of character development tools. And then this jab at Canadian television came and it all just felt too forced, too over-the-top sarcastic and dry and not at all witty or well done. This is probably what disappointed me the most about 99 Days because I found Cotugno’s writing to be so refreshing when I read How To Love because in that case the pop culture references worked really well and the characters were fresh and exciting to read about. I don’t know if Cotugno lost a bit of her edge or if this subject matter just wasn’t doing it for me, but I was seriously let down by this second foray into her catalogue.

Bottom line, there is one more novel by Katie Cotugno that I have lined up to read this year, and I’m going to in the hopes that 99 Days was just a misstep or that it just didn’t jive well with me. I want to give Cotugno’s writing another chance because I enjoyed How To Love…but 99 Days I would have to say was a miss.

❥❥ (out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

The Book Thief ~ #JNGReads

Here I am, reading another book that I feel utterly unqualified to review. This one I mostly read, and just now finished, on days when I’ve been battling a horrible flu, so forgive me for any incoherency in this review. That being said, I feel that it was almost fitting that I read this novel during a period of sickness, when I was on the verge of hallucination and could almost walk alongside the narrator through the scenes he described.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is a novel I wish I had read in high school. This is not to say that it is juvenile in any manner – quite the contrary – but what I mean by saying this is that The Book Thief feels to me like the sort of story that should be experienced by students very early on in their educations. It would’ve been oh so fitting for me to delve into this particular novel during my grade 10 History class, when I first properly learned what the Holocaust was and what that term meant, and I wish I had thought to pick up The Book Thief around the same time I read The Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel’s Night. The reason that I wish I had been exposed to the story contained in The Book Thief at a time when I was learning all about Hitler’s reign, genocide and World War II is that The Book Thief takes an approach to discussing the Holocaust that is unlike any I have previously encountered.

Of course, Zusak’s story details the wrongful persecution of the Jews living in Germany and many other countries in Europe during Hitler’s reign. Through the character of Max Vandenburg and many other nameless Jewish people, Zusak offers a heart-wrenching depiction of what it meant to be Jewish in Nazi-occupied Germany, of what it meant to hate Hitler, to feel unjustifiably condemned by him, and to live your life secluded in a dark basement for years on end. There are allusions to the grotesque concentration camps and to the suffering of 6 million innocent people. There are references made to the intense hatred and anguish that these innocent people felt toward a man who chose to call himself “leader”, and who was blindly followed. There are certainly moments of horror.

But, what Zusak also chooses to do in The Book Thief, and what I thoroughly appreciated from my role of reader, was emphasize the suffering and turmoil of many innocent German people, those citizens who equally despised Hitler, who were similarly condemned by him, and who met their own tragic ends. Zusak chronicles the life of a German girl, Liesel Meminger, and her relationship with her German foster parents and her German best friend, all the while highlighting the fact that these characters despise Hitler, yet feel powerless to stop or combat him. Certainly Liesel’s foster parents do their best to fight the Nazi regime, particularly by taking Jewish man Max Vandenburg into their basement and harbouring him safely there. However, when Liesel’s foster parents, and her best friend Rudy and his parents, attempt to stand up to the Nazi regime in any meaningful way, they are also persecuted, whipped, beaten, sent away from their families. Although it is made clear many times in the narration of The Book Thief (more on the particular narrative style in a moment) that Liesel and her family members and friends will never suffer in the same horrific way as the Jewish people, they also face their own tragedies and awful, painful deaths. There is no optimism in this tale, and yet the reader is made to understand that Nazi-occupied Germany was Hell not only for the Jews who lived there, but also for the quiet, unsuspecting German people who wanted nothing to do with Hitler and his bigotry and prejudice.

“[Liesel] wondered how many letters like that were sent out as punishment to Germany’s Hans Hubermanns and Alex Steiners – to those who helped the helpless, and those who refused to let go of their children.”

“‘When they come and ask you for one of your children,’ Barbara Steiner explained, to no one in particular, ‘you’re supposed to say yes.’”

Personally, I can’t say I ever gave much thought to what it would feel like to be a German citizen living during World War II. I have, on numerous occasions, read novels that made me empathize and sympathize with the Jewish people who were oppressed, but I never took the time to think about how it would feel to be an innocent German citizen, one who loves and has a kind and gentle heart and must watch as their country is made into a living Hell for so many people. There must have been so much shame and disgrace and desperation in that, and I truly appreciated that The Book Thief offered me the chance to get into the minds of some of these German citizens, to realize just how hard it was for them to witness what their “leader” was doing, how hard that must’ve been to stomach. It also made me question myself and my own convictions: would I have had the courage to open my home to some of the Jewish people, like Hans Hubermann did? If I was a child at the time, would I have been able, like Liesel, to become friends with a Jewish man and risk my life just to say Goodbye to him and hold his hand one last time? Like Rudy Steiner, would I choose to skip my Hitler Youth classes and defy the doctrines and regulations of the time, risking being whipped and beaten and persecuted? I will never ever know, and it is a serious privilege to not have to consider these questions because of the dumb luck of being born in a different time. The Book Thief challenged my perceptions and assumptions, however; it forced me to sit down and think about the people whose perspectives I hadn’t previously considered, and for that reason, it was a highly educational, life-altering and poignant read. This is why I would recommend that any and all high school students read this novel, while learning about the destruction of World War II.

Apart from being a profound and influential text, The Book Thief is also very well written. I don’t know if this is a spoiler (forgive me, but I don’t think it is since you learn about this on page 1) but Zusak chooses Death as his narrator for the story, and in my opinion, this was a perfect choice. Zusak’s Death is much less sinister and horror movie-esque than one would expect, and Death actually tells the tale of Liesel and her loved ones with such sentimentality and feeling that it is impossible not to be drawn to him as a narrator. I found myself empathizing with Death in many ways, as he described having to take away the souls of so many innocent people during World War II. Death is a sympathetic and tortured character in The Book Thief, and it is clear from the start that he hates his job, hates Hitler, hates war and wants nothing at all to do with suffering. It is really interesting to view the events of the Holocaust from this perspective, to see the endless pain and agonizing devastation from the viewpoint of an omniscient narrator who is at once complicit in the tragedy but wishes he could be removed from it. Death speaks of Liesel so lovingly that it is hard not to feel sorry for him, it is hard not to wish that he could be exempt from his job, particularly in the moments when it affects Liesel the most. I’m struggling to remember if I’ve ever read a novel narrated by Death before (I feel like I must have, but it escapes me at the moment), but regardless, I can confidently say that Zusak does an excellent job of using Death’s narration as this means to toy with his readers’ emotions and force them to look at the concept of death itself from a totally new vantage point.

I hope some aspects, at least, of this review made sense, but as I said, my reading of The Book Thief was a rather hallucinatory experience. Whether that is because I was feeling sick or because the novel is written in such a hard-hitting, unrestrained manner is hard to say. It seems that Zusak wants to hit right at the reader’s heart, and yes, mine has been weakened recently due to cold and fever…but I have a feeling that even if I was at my strongest, The Book Thief would’ve penetrated right to the depths of my human soul nevertheless.

“I have hated the words and

I have loved them,

and I hope I have made them right.”

❥❥❥❥ (out of 5)

*Although this novel does deal with very mature themes and is vulgar at times, I highly recommend that it be read by high school students everywhere!

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

The Roanoke Girls ~ #JNGReads

How does an author come up with an idea like this?

I don’t mean any disrespect to Amy Engel. This is a legitimate question I am asking. How does an author come up with a concept for a novel that is so deeply disturbing, strange and sinister? I don’t know where this sort of plot could possibly spring from – it must be from a mind much more creative, or perhaps haunted, than mine. It would really make a good basis for the next season of American Horror Story or something!

The Roanoke Girls is a controversial novel…that much is probably an understatement. As many other reviewers have mentioned, it’s virtually impossible to say anything about the plot without giving it away. I’ve also seen reviewers mention that it is best to go into The Roanoke Girls knowing as little as possible about it, and I have to agree with that. The plot is so twisted and unsettling that I feel the right kind of reader will enjoy reading it with that minor description alone, without looking up a synopsis prior. And any sort of real synopsis would have to contain major spoilers anyway.

That being said, The Roanoke Girls is absolutely not the sort of novel that every reader should dive into, and even readers of primarily mysteries or thrillers should give it serious consideration before picking it up. Although it is compulsively and addictively written, it also deals with subject matter that can be extremely upsetting at times, such as sexual abuse, sexual manipulation and child abuse, to name a few. Other reviewers have listed the exact triggers far more thoroughly and accurately than I ever could, and I would encourage any reader who is thinking of picking up The Roanoke Girls to read one or two spoiler free reviews before doing so to be sure that it is the right novel for them. For many it isn’t, and I can certainly understand why!

Having said all of this, and considering that I did find the relationships in The Roanoke Girls to be very dysfunctional and in some cases disgusting, I did actually enjoy reading the novel. I think this is largely down to how it is written: Engel creates a narrator in Lane Roanoke who is at once hardened and emotional, world-weary and trusting. Lane was definitely my favourite part of the novel because, although she is very damaged in many ways, she is also unfailingly loyal and loving in a lot of surprising ways too. She is also fearless without denying her fears, brave without keeping her eyes closed to the injustices and inhumanities of the world, and her quick wit, sharp comebacks and sarcasm really endeared me to her. She surely isn’t a perfect character, or even a perfect and unbiased narrator for that matter, but she is interesting and complex, and I appreciated that as a reader. There was a lot to unpack in all of the characters, but particularly in Lane who I believe hides so much turmoil and angst amidst her narration.

For whatever reason, I couldn’t put The Roanoke Girls down, even in the moments when it disturbed me, and I found that I blazed through it when I sat down to read. Despite that, though, one major criticism I have with it is the pacing. While Lane is a great narrator and the story itself is addictive in that the reader wants to get to the bottom of the puzzle and mystery that is the Roanoke family, a lot of the family’s secrets are revealed at the very start of the novel, and then nothing much happens, no situations change and no new details are revealed, until much later in the story. It felt, to me, like there was some dead/dry space in the middle of the story, when Lane is waiting for her cousin Allegra to be found. Although the flashing back between past and present helped some, I still got the sense, after plowing through around 70 pages in the middle of the novel in one sitting, that nothing much had happened and that the story wasn’t moving forward at all and had pretty much stayed put. At the same time though, like I mentioned, I couldn’t stop reading…so this is a paradox I haven’t yet figured out.

To summarize this rambly review: The Roanoke Girls was fascinating – that’s probably the best word I can use to describe it. It will turn your stomach at times, you’ll want to put it down or throw it against a wall, but it is guaranteed to get a reaction from you, whatever it may be. I’m glad I read it and found out what all the hype was about, but I don’t know that I would rush out to read another novel just like it anytime soon (or ever).

❥❥❥ (out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart