The Humans by Matt Haig

IMG_20141223_070600_427Professor Andrew Martin has died and his body is taken over by an alien visitor from Vonnadoria.  The unnamed alien comes the-mad-reviewer-reading-challenge-buttonwith a purpose to destroy life changing information/data that the professor had discovered.  When the alien first takes over Martins body he has a hard time adjusting to and tolerating the humans on Earth, seeing humans as purely violent beings who have disgusting habits, abhorring diets, and are hideous.  While he sets out to accomplish his goal of destroying the data and all who know about it, he starts to see humans in a different light.  Taking over the daily life of the professor, he comes to understand humans – how they live, how they act, what they eat, what they listen to, and how they feel.  This leads him to question his mission and he is placed in a very unexpected situation.

Matt Haig’s The Humans is one of my favorite books I’ve read this year, I’d even say this is one of my favorite books I’ve ever read.  Haig puts a wealth of emotion, truth, humor, wit, and love into this book.  The alien narrator’s journey from destroyer to acceptance is told from someone who has never known caring or love and who then finds out what it’s like to care, to love and to be loved.  It sounds as though this would be a story full of sappy, sentimental crap, but it’s not.  There is the right amount of humor, cynicism, and compassion to provide a good balance and makes the story readable and thoroughly enjoyable.

The reader eventually finds that Professor Martin was an ass.  But when the alien takes over Martin’s body, the alien sees things in ways Martin wasn’t capable of seeing.  Martin’s family is fractured and on the brink of complete destruction.  As the alien learns what it means to be human, the family just might be able to be put back together again.  Don’t be mistaken and think this is a sci-fi book about an alien. It’s not. It’s a book about humans, the human condition, and how we miss out on so much because we are so focused on other things.  I found this book to be incredibly good and would recommend that everyone read it.  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

 

The Ghosts of Belfast – Stuart Neville

Gerry Fegan is20141104_193129 haunted by twelve ghosts.  Twelve souls who he either helped bring to their demise or he brought them there the-mad-reviewer-reading-challenge-button himself .  The twelve want revenge for their deaths and they won’t leave Gerry alone until their revenge is taken.

The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville is set in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and draws upon Belfast’s violent past with The Troubles.  Gerry Fegan is a former Paramilitary who, after being freed from serving time for his crimes, is wracked with the guilt that comes with what he’s done.  Fegan drinks heavily and openly talks to the souls who have started to haunt him, causing those around him to think he’s gone insane.  Fegan’s only resolution to get the twelve to leave is to carry out the revenge they so desperately want.  Carrying out this revenge will threaten the fragile peace process that is playing out amongst government officials as well as the individual citizens within Belfast.

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Stuart Neville speaking at a local bookstore for his new novel, The Final Silence

The Ghosts of Belfast is a descriptive and brutal story that puts the reader right into the action.  One can feel the tension between characters.  The reader is able to get into Fegan’s mind and understand his guilt and torment. Surprisingly, for all of Fegan’s, atrocities (past and present) he is a likable and sympathetic character.  His quest for justice to those who haunt him is difficult, brutal and filled with nightmarish scenes.  The aftermath of The Troubles is a constant presence in the air and is on display in the individuals within the story.  I thought the book to be well written, fast paced, and the supporting characters to be well fleshed out.  The only stumbling part for me was at the beginning of the book – I found myself getting confused with who was who. But that only lasted for a few pages and  I was able to get back on track and read the book in just a few days time.

Stuart Neville is currently touring for his most recent book, The Final Silence, and I recommend going to see him if he stops in a city near you.  He’s an engaging speaker and offered good insight into his writing process and ideas.  I’ve only read this first book of his but am looking forward to reading all of the rest.  I thought The Ghosts of Belfast to be an excellent read; one that will stay with you long after you are done.

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.

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.

 

The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper

20140910_210701Writers often say there is a little bit of themselves in a character in their books.  How could there not be since it’s the voice in their head that is leading them to the writing.  As readers, I think we tend to find a little bit of ourselves in a character as well.  It may have been what drew us to the book to begin with or we may be looking for something or someone we aspire to be (whether we are aware of it or not).  the-mad-reviewer-reading-challenge-buttonI picked up The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper because I thought it sounded interesting – David Ullman a professor who teaches mythology and Judeo-Christian religious narrative but whose tenure is based on his expert knowledge of Paradise Lost by John Milton, is asked to go on a trip to Venice and provide his opinion on an event. He takes his young daughter along where she ends up disappearing, causing David to question the actual existence of demons in the world. Little did I know that I’d find a bit of myself in this book.

I was fully engaged in this book from the second I started reading it.  I liked the main character and enjoyed the topic.  Then I came across these lines:

“For me it is the dark cloud of depression. Or should I say, what I reluctantly feel obliged to call depression, just as half the world has diagnosed itself, though it doesn’t seem to precisely fit my case. All my life I have been pursued by the black dogs of unaccountable gloom…” (p. 9)

and

“Professional semantics, maybe, but it feels more like melancholy to me than anything as clinical as the chemical imbalances of depression. What Robert Burton called in his Anatomy of Melancholy … a “vexation of spirit.” It’s as though my very life has been haunted.” (p. 10)

And this is where I started to love this book.  I felt a kinship with this professor (as unreal as he is) and saw a tiny bit of myself in him.  It’s the melancholy that stuck out.  I would say I’m an overall melancholy person – it’s not depression, more of that gloomy feeling that I identify with.  Although I’m not pursued by any “black dogs…”, or are my nightmares my form of black dog pursuers?  In any case, I felt a familiarity while reading The Demonologist.

David Ullman is a gloomy and lonely guy.  His marriage is on the tail end of over due to his wife sleeping with a colleague. He doesn’t have a vast circle of friends, his best friend being a fellow teacher in a different department, Elaine O’Brien.  His one shining spot is his daughter Tess.  She makes him happy and they have a connection that enables them to understand one another.  Early on, David is approached by a mysterious woman who offers him a chance to fly to Venice and provide his expert opinion on a “primary case of interest”.  Ullman is initially reluctant to go on this trip but after a discussion with O’Brien, his mind is changed.

Ullman flies to Venice with Tess and the days before he has to view the case are full of joy and happiness for the two of them.  They site see and get lost and have a good time together.  The hour arrives for Ullman to go to the agreed upon location where he is to watch something and offer his opinion.  To me, this was the scariest part of the book.  It was creepy and disturbing – more of a mental scare than a graphic one.  What Ullman sees terrifies him and he runs back to his hotel room with plans to leave immediately.  While packing, Tess somehow goes to the rooftop area.  Ullman goes with the intention of bringing her back so they can leave.  Tess, however, is not herself and it’s there that she completely disappears.  This starts Ullman’s search for real demons.  The search tests his beliefs – he is an atheist and thinks demons a manmade invention – as well as his fortitude.

I throughly enjoyed this book.  It is dark, sad, and almost depressing, but there is something beautiful in all of it.  David Ullman is pushed to his limits and the reader is left guessing to the very last page to find out if he is successful or not.  I made the mistake of reading this book the same night I watched an episode of The Strain and had horrible dreams of a vampire/demon hybrid.  I’d recommend not doing the same, especially if you are prone to nightmares like I am.  If you like a book that is smart and offers true feelings of being scared, I’d highly suggest you read this book.  I thought it was a great read and was happy to have picked it up.

 

The Shining Girls – by Lauren Beukes

20140902_181129Harper Curtis has found the perfect way to get away with murder – a house that transports him into the future and back.  He finds the girls when they “shine” and he goes back years later to snuff out their shine and walks away, not worrying about getting caught. the-mad-reviewer-reading-challenge-button Kriby Mazrachi survived the brutal attack on her life and she is set on catching the guy who did it.  But how do you catch someone who leaves no trace?

I liked the overall idea behind The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes – a serial killer who can jump to different points in time in order to commit his crimes.  Kirby, the one who gets away, is a likable character.  She’s a tough girl who doesn’t let people easily into her life.  The reader doesn’t get much insight into the killer, Harper, but it’s fairly safe to assume he was never a good guy.  The hardest part about this book is how the story is told.  Almost every chapter is a different time – from the 1950’s to the 90’s to the 80’s, and then back to the 1950’s.  This makes for confusing reading at first, however, once you get your head around the chronology, it’s gets easier to read.

Harper is able to go to different times due to the house that calls hims, and would have liked to know how this came to be.  Although I don’t think it would have quite fit into the story, more just a curious thought on my part.  The murder scenes are rather brutal and one or two are described in gory detail.  Don’t know if this book falls easily into crime or mystery since it touches on both elements.  I wish I had more to say about this book but I don’t.  The Shining Girls is a quick paced and an average read.  The way it ends leaves the door open to a future book or maybe it’s just a way to show how things continue on.  Not sure if I’d recommend this book to others.  If you’re looking for something a bit different in overall concept, I’d say read it, but the overall formula – killer on the loose, girl gets away, girl driven to find who did it – is nothing too new.  I didn’t hate it but I didn’t love it either.