A Sudden Light – Garth Stein

20141012_141506Garth Stein’s new book, A Sudden Light, is about fourteen year old Trevor Riddell whose father, Jones, has taken him on a trip to his father’s childhood the-mad-reviewer-reading-challenge-buttonhome, Riddell House.  Riddell House, overlooking Puget Sound, is a sprawling mansion built off of the former fortunes of the Riddell family timber industry.  Trevor’s mom and dad are on a trial separation and Trevor wants nothing more than for his parents to get back together.  Upon arrival at Riddell house, Trevor meets his seemingly senile Grandpa Samuel, and his much too flirty aunt Serena.  Aunt Serena and Jones have plans to sell off the deteriorating Riddell House, place Grandpa Samuel in a home, and split the profits to live a blissfully happy life.  Riddell House, however, has other plans.

Riddell House holds many secrets.  Mainly, ghosts.  Trevor isn’t exactly haunted, I’d say more like visited, by a long deceased relative. This allows Trevor to get to know the true history of Riddell house as well as its past inhabitants.  These visits give way to some revelations about Riddell family father/son histories which sets Trevor on a path to uproot the plans of his own father and aunt.  While Trevor wants a better relationship with his father Jones, Jones is distant and seems reluctant to put forth any effort to really get to know his son for most of the book.  Aunt Serena is clearly manipulative and has nefarious intent, a sure sign she should not be trusted.

The houseIMG_20141004_191826_404 itself is another character in this book.  Riddell House is built out of wood; this being a deliberate slight from the son who built it (the conservationist) to the father (the timber baron) he was building it for.  The conservationist in me loved the dichotomy of a timber baron having an environmentalist son who has his father live in a house that is meant to eventually fall apart.  The house also symbolizes a lot of other struggles of a father/son relationship.  A theme in the Riddell family that keeps repeating in each subsequent generation.

I found this book to be overall enjoyable.  Sometimes the holes in the story filled by the diary notes got a little in the way in terms of flow for the book and slowed things down a bit for my taste.  Trevor read as an old soul to me, especially given the descriptiveness of some of his recollections/storytelling.  He’s a likable teen who seemed rather well-adjusted to any scenario that he encountered.  His father and aunt were harder to like and didn’t offer much in terms of being redemptive.  But this is Trevor’s story and not theirs.  Stein has created a cool site, asuddenlight.com, that provides extra insight into the book and provides some history on the topics within the book.  It’s well worth checking out!

I was fortunate enough to have Stein make a stop at a local bookstore as part of his A Sudden Light tour.  I found A Sudden Light to be written with a lot of passion and that it was clearly well researched.  I could see this passion on display from Stein at his reading/book signing event, which made the book that much more enjoyable for me.   Garth Stein’s books are a bit different that what I normally like to read.  There is an overall happiness and hope in his books but it’s a happiness that is tinged with sadness, which is what appeals to me.  A Sudden Light is about ghosts, but it’s more about family and how those  relationships can become fractured and destroyed if not taken care of, much like the land we live on.

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How to Build a Girl – Caitlin Moran

20141019_120229Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl is a humorous, painful, realistic, and enjoyable read.  Fourteen year old Johanthe-mad-reviewer-reading-challenge-buttonna Morrigan embarrasses herself on television in the most ridiculous, humiliating, and, laugh out loud funny manner that a fourteen year old can.  To recover from this embarrassment, Johanna decides to reinvent herself as Dolly Wilde.  Two year later, as Dolly, Johanna becomes a hard-drinking, almost chain-smoking, slightly promiscuous, and viscous music reviewer.

Johanna and her family live in Wolverhampton and get by living on public assistance.  Her dad is a never realized rock star and her mom is living through postpartum depression after having surprise twins, and there’s older brother, Krissi as well as the younger brother.  After Johanna’s disastrous t.v. appearance, Johanna is desperate to find a way out.  She invents the persona of Dolly Wilde, who will get her family off public assistance via her writing career.  Dolly scores an interview with a music magazine which sets Dolly off on a wild ride of growing up, losing her virginity, falling in love, and revealing relationships.  Her life as a ruthless reviewer allows Dolly to experience things she only fantasized about in the past.  Dolly connects with a rock star and learns what it takes to be a real music reviewer, as well was being real to herself.

I found this book to be extremely entertaining and, at times, laugh out loud funny.  The humor was self-depreciating and spot on.  The time frame of the very late 80’s to early 90’s brought forth some good memories for me and I loved a lot of the bands mentioned throughout the story.  Johanna has some good and tough times in terms of her sexual experiences. One “almost” experience allows her to reexamine herself where she realizes pretending to be the “Dolly persona” isn’t making her happy either.  Her family relationships are crazy but strong and her brother Krissi is a constant rock in her life.  How to Build a Girl is a fun journey of a young girl working to find out who she is and becoming comfortable with that person.  There is a lot of swearing and explicit sex scenes, all told with brutal honesty, if not a bit of detached emotion.  How to Build a Girl is a refreshing book in a world where, today, the pressure on girls to be princesses is overwhelming.  What’s important is to become comfortable with yourself and it is only then when you are able to become whatever you want.  Johanna becomes who she needs to be and it’s spectacular.

Broken Monsters – Lauren Beukes

Lauren B20140929_181816eukes is a disturbed person.  That’s what I thought while reading Beukes’ latest novel Broken Monsters.  the-mad-reviewer-reading-challenge-buttonBeukes does a good job of painting a drab and disturbing image of her what killer does as well as the city he lives in.  Her writing style was again a bit odd – each chapter is told from a different characters point of view – but in this book it made more sense and had a much better flow than The Shining Girls.

Detective Gabi Versado is trying to balance being a good detective and being a good single mom.  Given the discovery of a body – a young boy who’s had his upper torso fused with the back half of a deer – she’s having a hard time doing so.  Gabi’s daughter, Layla, is playing dangerous game with her best friend when they start to go after an online pedophile.  Clayton Broom is a failed artist who finds inspiration in the most disturbing and brutal way.  These are the three main characters of Broken Monsters and they fit together well.  Two other characters  – Jonno, a wannabe sensationalist journalist, and Thomas “TK” Keen, a homeless man – seem to get in the way of the story at times.  Jonno and TK do play a part but the chapters dedicated to them draw focus away from the story and it’s hard to understand why significant time is dedicated to them.  I would say the city of Detroit is also a main character of the story as well, given its demise over the years and its desire to be revitalized.

The effect of each chapter being a different character allows the reader to see how each life is separate but connected at the same time.  Layla is a teenager who has good intentions but, as typical of teenagers, some of her decisions are dumb and have ramifications in Gabi’s job.  Clayton Broom isn’t quite as fleshed out as I would have liked him to be.  The scenes with Broom tend to be brutal as well as violent and you get a glimmer of his madness, which made me want to know more about him.  I started out thinking his was a story of a person being affected by mental health but Beukes takes things in a different direction towards the end.  The ending seemed a bit odd and was somewhat jarring in Broom’s plot since I didn’t quite see things going that way.  Gabi plays the balance card – her job, her daughter, and a personal relationship – in her life and her story is trying to make them all work while seemingly keeping them separate at the same time.

Broken Monsters is a mix between crime and horror.  The conclusion wasn’t quite what I expected but I was able to switch my thinking and rolled with it. The second half of the book speeds up a bit and I found myself not wanting to put it down.  I enjoyed how detailed Beukes got in describing the various murders since it provided nightmare inducing imagery.  Broken Monsters is an enjoyable read from Beukes (that is if you like gritty gruesomeness).  Reading two of her books thus far I’d say she has a definite style, as odd as it is, and I’m looking forward to more from her.