Ape House by Sara Gruen was a book I expected to fit in the genre of literary fiction but the constant telling rather than showing made me feel this was made for mass-market, commercial appeal. Even the plot which involves stereotypically-painted, vegan-branded protesters taking vigilante action to free bonobos involved in a language lab under the misapprehension that they are being mistreated by the university is not very original and the journalist/writer couple do not deliver on the empathy stakes. The fictional Great Ape Language Lab in Ape House was inspired by Sara Gruen’s visit to the non-fictional Great Ape Trust in Iowa and as many reviews say, this fiction would have been better off as a personal memoir reflecting on her own experiences as it falls flat on research. I cannot help but agree.
There are many narrative threads in the story: the main premise involves a language lab which houses six bonobos that can communicate using American Sign Language and scientist Isabel Duncan who is injured during the forceful “rescue” of the bonobos who end up being used in a reality television show produced by a porn mogul; another story explores the trials of reporter John Thigpen and his wife, Amelia as they navigate their marriage while dealing with the ramifications of free citizen journalism and book manuscript rejections culminating in a move from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. The book includes a vile, cheating boyfriend who isn’t who he paints himself to be, an unexpected student friend who ends up being Kevin’s source to break a factual story in a tabloid and thwart a rival reporter at his former job, and a suspected paternity case stemming from a university prank gone wrong.
It’s just too many preposterous things at once and while you can connect the dots, I didn’t find it impressive. Isabel becoming close to Celia was odd and did not sit right with me given what happened after the new year party although I suppose she had no-one else being more bonobo than human. The way Celia bailed her boyfriend out of jail and manipulated Kevin was also unpalatable. Isabel seemed like a doormat but I suppose she was a victim rather than a protagonist in the story. While I found Kevin fairly sympathetic, the way he found the most damning evidence isn’t in the least credible and I found his desire to harp on Amelia’s sexiness rather unnecessary. On the face of it, I suppose apart from Celia’s character, all human characters were either boring or overtly stereotyped. Ape House may be a fun read but it lacks substance.
Dancing on Knives is the third book by Kate Forsyth I have read and it surprised me because I am used to her fairytale retellings and this deviated from my preconceptions as it was essentially a murder mystery. I didn’t understand Sara’s predicament until I realised that she literally had not left her home in five years because she is a sensitive soul. We learn when she was a child that she was subject to so much torment and bullying to the point that she left school and refused to go back. Her way of enduring the predictability of her life is reading romance novels and seeking solace by reading the tarot cards left to her by her beloved grandmother, Consuela, who used to tell her dark fairy tales that inspired her to paint until her volatile and womanising father Augusto Sanchez, a brilliant artist, undermined her efforts. Her siblings regard her fairly useless as she is in fear of most things which subject her to panic attacks and nightmares.
One stormy night, her father does not come home and his body is found hanging on a branch over a cliff. Although he is found alive, the mystery of his fall brings buried family secrets to the surface. There are a multitude of characters who had good motives to kill Augusto Sanchez: Teresa, the half sister who claimed she went to a party; older brother Joe who comes home late claiming he went for a surf; the twin brothers who were supposedly hanging out with their friend Nya; her father’s brother-in-law’s family who want the farm they have to convert it into a tourist caravan park; even her aunt Maureen who had only visited once after her sister Bridget’s car crash. Dancing on Knives is about how family can suffocate and free us, how art can be felicitous and ruinous, and how strong bonds can be constructed from a crisis. The suspense slowly builds and unfolds telling us about the mystery fall suffered by Augustus while the back story leads us to the day of the fall. Meanwhile the power of the sea and the little mermaid story are played up in the book ultimately enabling Sara to rescue herself from her self-imposed imprisonment and open herself to a real romance.
Dancing on Knives is not what I would call a thriller but it is the beautifully written story of a dysfunctional and unusual family and the denouement clears everything up and makes sense. I appreciated this dark, powerful story even if the mystery was subtle without too many unexpected or surprising twists.
I was reading this final instalment of the The Maze Runner trilogy because I thought I will get answers to my lingering questions but the author in a odd turn of events leaves 75% of the story unexplained. While it is hard not to wonder if the The Kill Order will answer them, somehow given the disappointing trajectory of the three books, I’m unconvinced if James Dashner’s prequel will resolve questions about the survivors of the Scorch and those that remain after the final showdown in The Death Cure.
The behaviour of the characters in here conflict with the characters we have come to know. Brenda and Teresa both feature in this book and this time as allies, not adversaries. I think the only point of those two was just so there was a love triangle of the girl/boy/girl variety rather than the stereotypical boy/girl/boy. While it was obvious Thomas was losing the plot in the Scorch in the previous book, in here he makes extremely strange decisions because of his developed mistrust of WICKED. The choices Thomas makes eventually end being incredibly confusing for the reader. I did though like the sudden resurgence and turncoat behaviour of a character I had thought was unlikely to re-appear. There are two deaths in the story: one was expected and also understandable but the other was bit of a pointless melodrama.
The ending is interesting because the author points out it was an alternative solution to the one that was initially planned for those undertaking the trials but the offhand remark by a character who knew too much felt like a cop-out because so much was left out.
Although fictional, the debut novel and Stella Prize winner The Strays by Emily Bitto is somewhat influenced by the story of the Heide Circle of Melbourne and is a fascinating narrative of idealised dreams, emotional sacrifices and conflicted loyalties mostly set in the atmosphere of 1930s depression-era Melbourne.
Only child Lily makes a connection with Eva, the middle daughter of the Evan and Helena Trentham, on her first day at school that evolves into a complex and deep friendship. When tragedy befalls her family, Lily takes the opportunity to stay with Eva and the community of bohemian artists who are given residence to pursue their creative passions at the Trentham home. It becomes obvious this is not an appropriate environment for children as the artists are far too engrossed in their work to do any thing as mundane as looking after the kids, who need a responsible adult in charge. As they navigate their teenage years, Eva starts to keep things from Lily until she realises things have gone too far when she finds out Eva has been having a sexual relationship with an older resident artist who she had thought was interested in her and that starts the cracks in their trust. Upon being exposed, the artist who has also been upstaging Eva’s father leaves but not alone (he leaves with not one but two girls) leaving a scandal in his wake.
What stood out the most to me was how much power author Emily Bitto’s prose gave to the mediums of art and literature, also my passions. The descriptive passages were not too long-winded and the characters were of sufficient interest to keep reading The Strays until I found out how Lily responded to the invitation she received at the beginning.
So it turns out during my December vacation this year, I will be heading off to the exotic destinations of Spain, Portugal and Morocco with my cousins. This reminded me of The Last Dance, a present my sister’s boyfriend gave me for my birthday, because some of the most climactic action in the book takes place in the bustling alleys and bazaars of Morocco. So i’m pretty excited I have the chance to see this North African country in person.
The initial impression I had of The Last Dance was it was a spy thriller but as it progresses the romance takes precedence. The two main characters first meet at a ballroom dance where Stella has resorted to selling herself as a dance partner to earn an income. The mysterious Montgomery, who is charmed by Stella, organises a position for her as a governess at Harp’s End, home of the well-off Ainsworth family. I was wondering at this point if this was some kind of tribute to Jane Eyre but I was wrong on that score.
Stella is responsible for tutoring Grace, the daughter of Douglas Ainsworth. Coming from an impoverished background and given her position, she struggles to fit in with the grand household or the servants as her employer insists dinners are taken with the family but she is still hired help. When Stella finally comes to face her married employer, she realises the family has a lot of secrets but the forbidden love that sparks between them becomes the hardest to conceal because this story is really about an affair. The palpable tension in the house after an accidental slip of the tongue by Grace almost drives Stella away but she somehow finds enough courage to accompany the family on a cruise to Morocco. As the setting is pre World War II, the trip turns out to be fraught with peril and conspiracy as her employer is not quite who she knew at Harp’s End. It turns out it was for the best Stella went on the cruise as she is able to enjoy a brief romance and witness events of significant importance before her world gets shot to pieces. While the sacrifice that is made is bittersweet, Fiona McIntosh gives birth to hope because of the way she reconciles the end.
The last impression I have of The Last Dance is that in spite of the not so savoury motivations of many of the characters, it was still entertaining.
The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna was a birthday present I received from my sister. It is mainly about the six-year-old character of Jimmy Flick, a kid with learning difficulties whose behaviour indicates he may have autism. The only person who seems to understand him is his mother, Paula. Even the local school is unable to provide him with the special care he needs and chooses to neglect him. Jimmy gets some support from his older brother Robby until the escalating domestic abuse at home starts creating a lot of tension in the family dynamics, especially after Gavin is made redundant from his refinery job and Robby chooses to pursue a life at sea because he cannot stand watching his mother get mistreated.
No-one is there to support Jimmy when life for the poor family becomes even worse when they receive devastating news about Paula that will alter the course of Jimmy’s life. Given the narrative is told from his point of view, although he doesn’t realise the future in store for him has changed, we do. During a brief period of temporary bliss, Jimmy finds a friend in Ned, his uncle’s dog who grounds him but when it comes to crunch time, can his father give up the bottle and step up?
The writing is simple and evokes a child who sees things too complex for him to comprehend: bruises on his mother’s skin; his father sleeping in the shed; disappearing bottles of Cutty Sark. It is obvious the parents are in love but the drinking is affecting the family badly. This is why Gavin, Jimmy’s father, sometimes comes off as deserving of empathy in spite of his lapses into violence. The Eye of the Sheep feels like a combination of Emma Donoghue’s Room and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time because of the juxtaposition of child-like perspective filled with hope in bleak times and curious choices of behaviour.
I am a fan of Dickens which is why I picked up Eleanor Catton‘s zodiac-inspired novel, The Luminaries, with its golden spiral formula that helped it win the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Set in 1866 in the New Zealand goldfields, the book imbues its following twelve main characters with traits of the astrological star signs.
- Te Rau Tauwhare (greenstone hunter): Aries
- Charlie Frost (banker): Taurus
- Benjamin Lowenthal (newspaper man): Gemini
- Edgar Clinch (hotelier): Cancer
- Dick Mannering (goldfields magnate): Leo
- Quee Long (goldsmith): Virgo
- Harald Nilssen (commission merchant): Libra
- Joseph Pritchard (chemist): Scorpio
- Thomas Balfour (shipping agent): Sagittarius
- Aubert Gascoigne (justice’s clerk): Capricorn
- Sook Yongsheng (hatter): Aquarius
- Cowell Devlin (chaplain): Pisces
The traditional qualities tied to each sign forms the foundations upon which Catton builds full-fledged characters. These twelve characters provide with each individual version of events the missing links in the story pertaining to a series of unsolved crimes. They are interrupted by the arrival of a stranger who will have a key part to play in a trial because he becomes privy to all their secrets. He and another set of characters associated with traditional planetary bodies listed below are also characters key to unlocking the mystery.
- Walter Moody: Mercury
- Lydia (Wells) Carver née Greenway: Venus
- Francis Carver: Mars
- Alistair Lauderback: Jupiter
- George Shepard: Saturn
- Anna Wetherell: The Sun/The Moon
- Emery Staines: The Moon/The Sun
In spite of its technical prowess, the book didn’t connect with me. It didn’t give me the emotions I felt upon reading Oliver Twist, Great Expectations or Little Dorrit although it attempts some social commentary and contains all the elements of a Dickensian Victorian-era novel: a man is killed; a will is missing; a politician is hiding a secret; the governor accepts a trade off the books; an opium addict is mistreated and so on. While I hold it in high esteem for its structural cleverness, The Luminaries failed to capture my heart.
American Psycho is an extremely graphic and violent book by Bret Easton Ellis about the 26-year-old handsome, educated, intelligent but misogynistic psychopath called Norman Bates who works on Wall Street interspersed with some banal content presented as postmodern social commentary. Having been subject to censorship due to transgressive content, there is a plethora of analysis about American Psycho out there. The common theme seems to be readers either hate it for its blatant sexism or love it because it defies the norm.
Personally I found the book boring given I was reading for pleasure. I may have viewed it differently had I been studying it. To be honest the protagonist’s emotionally-detached first person perspective of the world started to get fairly repetitive and dull. His friends are repulsive in their hubris and obsession with materialism which makes it difficult to like anyone in this book. Naturally with characters as repugnant as this, I was unable form any emotional attachment while the verbose and constant descriptions of brand names and insight into how Bates stimulated himself made me bored very quickly. Bret Easton Ellis may have been making a satire of consumerism but I cannot help wondering if he was trying to be shocking for the sake of it.
I know experiencing or creating a product does not make anyone an advocate of it but the problem was the lack of empathy in how torture scenes are described created prose that wasn’t particularly riveting but was stomach-churning and it happens multiple times. It could be the combination and the equal treatment of the banal and the brutal what makes American Psycho so shocking to most readers but while that may make it an interesting topic for academic dissertations, it failed to engage me which is what I desire from books.
When the boyfriend and I went to watch Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation recently, I saw the trailer for the upcoming movie The Scorch Trials. This reminded me I had read the book and a review for the sequel of The Maze Runner was timely given fans of the young adult genre will be picking it up again.
The Maze Runner didn’t wow me but it won some affection so I was curious to find out how things panned out for the Gladers. The Scorch Trials made me frustrated because the plot kept haphazardly veering off in different directions and the narrative kept getting vague with each cliffhanger. Was it a plot device to make the reader feel as if they don’t know what is happening? It does not come across as intentional and is irritating.
What we learn through this book is that Wicked is issuing more difficult challenges and are continuing the trials explored in the Maze Runner. Meanwhile the surviving evacuees of the old maze have been tasked with a new set of obstacles to surmount on the open roads of a bleak and barren, desert landscape. Meanwhile Thomas seems to have lost his personality as he no longer shines and becomes a massive whinger. Teresa vanishes and apparently becomes a force for evil and new girl, Brenda, who is love interest no. 2 who fangirls over Thomas arrives on the scene and it feels like he likes this female attention. Aris, a telepathic boy, falls into the thick of things out of nowhere and his telepathic attempts to communicate with Thomas isn’t something he encourages because the new guy is a stranger who has replaced his confidante, Theresa but there is a important message he has to deliver. It would have benefited Thomas in the long run if he paid more attention to Aris than Brenda.
I read The Scorch Trials for the answers but ended up finishing it with more unresolved questions.