Review: The Grownup by Gillian Flynn

2017: 36
3.5 of 5 stars
Published June 2014

This is a novella or a long short story by Gillian Flynn, the woman behind Gone Girl, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, all of which I really enjoyed.

The unnamed narrator is a woman that has grown up running cons with her grifter mother and is now giving psychic readings in the front of the shop and hand jobs in the back. Most of the people that come in for readings are easy marks for someone that can read people well but when Susan Burke comes in, clearly upset, the narrator gets drawn into a tangle of a situation. Is Susan’s house haunted? Is her stepson evil or possessed? Is the con being conned? The story was pretty good, but the ending was a bit fast and loose.

Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

2017: 28
3.5 of 5 stars
Published October 1953

Fahrenheit 451 was published in the early 1950s during the early days of the Cold War and the McCarthy era where potential Communists were targeted. Bradbury took a look at the present and foresaw a future where society was oppressed and locked down. Even in the 1950s there were book burning threats and censorship which hasn’t really gone away, with books being banned from schools and libraries even today.

At the time, he thought the rise of mass media was minimizing interest in reading and today, that’s even more relevant when people spend so much time watching movies and television, streaming video, and communicating in short sentences, brief video clips and photos of their everyday lives.

This is the story, set in the future (post-1960, remember, it was written in the early 1950s) of Guy Montag. He lives with his wife. He burns books for a living because books are now illegal. Firemen of the future will not prevent fires since houses and buildings are fireproofed, instead, they start them, seeking out places where people have hidden illegal books. Guy’s wife is detached and absorbed into the world of media, blasted out from flat screened walls in the living rooms of their house. He meets a young neighbour whose interests are old fashioned and who is shunned by her fellow students. Oddly enough, she disappears and Montag later finds out she was hit by a car and killed. I’m not sure if it’s hinted that there was a sinister reason behind this or not.

The turning point for him is the day where a woman refuses to leave her home when the firemen are trying to burn the house filled with books. She lights the fire herself and commits suicide. That affects Montag deeply. We discover he is not happy and  has been curious about books, wondering if there might be something in them that could make a difference to his life. He has been pilfering them from the fires and hiding them. We then find out from his boss how books came to be illegal: People began to lose interest with the onset of various types of new media, and little by little, the attention span of the general public shortened, books became abridged more and more until they were next to irrelevant. The government cashed in on the apathy towards books and began burning them, leading to new laws making them illegal altogether.

He connects with a former university professor who attempts to help him but when he impulsively reveals his books to his wife and her friends, they report him. He has to burn his own house but things get out of control and he ends up a fugitive. There are people living “off the grid” that help him. People who still believe in books. The final message of the book is surrounded in the legend of the phoenix, a creature that is destroyed in flames and is reborn over and over. Perhaps mankind can learn from their mistakes rather than self destructing repeatedly. The destruction at the end of the book might lead to a new rising and a lesson learned the next time around. We can only hope.

While censorship doesn’t seem to be prevalent these days, I feel sometimes it’s just under the surface. There are still governments in the world that are oppressive and some that seem like they could go either way if left to their own devices. People are so involved in the online world, social media and the like. Books are still popular but not as much as they were. Travel bans, rules, restrictions are all becoming more and more common. Newspapers are selling less as people turn to television and the internet for headlines. What Bradbury saw from the perspective of the 1950s doesn’t seem all that different to what could happen now. The fears he had are still relevant. We may not turn into a society that burns books or kills people for thought crimes (1984), but if we’re not careful, things might not be so very different in another generation or three.

Review: Purity by Jonathan Franzen

2017: 24
4.5  of 5 stars
Published September 2015

The description of Purity revolves around a young woman, Purity aka Pip and Andreas Wolf, a German media “leak” mogul but really, the book has less to do with Pip than it does Andreas and a lot more to do with a few other characters, too. Pip is the star at the beginning of the tale. Saddled with a lot of student debt, Pip is working in a crap job and living in a crap flophouse. Pip is still tangled in her mother’s apron strings though she’s trying to work her way out of it. She meets Annagret, a German woman who persuades her into contacting Andreas Wolf, the force behind a Wikileaks-like internet exposee company based in Bolivia. She’s decided to go but we don’t get to that just yet. We flip over to Andreas Wolf.

We hear about his life in Communist East Germany, his love for Annagret, his love/hate relationship with his mother (this is turning into a common theme here) and father. He’s got a secret that he carries and now his reputation will be ruined if it ever comes out. Only one person knows about it, a journalist called Tom. The focus then flips over to Tom and Leila.

Tom is running an online news service out of Denver and has a girlfriend, Leila, who is married to a disabled novelist. We hear about her as she’s investigating a story. Pip makes an appearance again finally and is taken on as an apprentice, getting involved with Tom and Leila’s lives. Now, we finally go to Pip’s experiences in Bolivia where Pip ends up going to work with the Sunshine Project for awhile, ultimately getting involved with the magnetic Wolf who has promised to help her find out who her father is because her mother has always refused to tell her. Over to Tom, now and Tom’s relationship with Anabelle, his ex-wife who disappeared abruptly many years ago becomes the next section of the book. Tom also has issues with his mother as Anabelle has with her father.

The focus then flips back over to Andreas. Back to Andreas again, to backtrack a bit for his early life with Annagret and his perspective on some things that we’ve already seen with Pip in Bolivia before all the various streams get tied together and secrets get outed at the end.

So, the book isn’t really about Purity as such though her story starts and ends it. It’s a lot more about everyone else, where Purity is more of a catalyst than anything else. There’s also the definition of the word Purity which seems to be thematic through the book though metaphors in books tend to sail over my unless it’s made blatantly obvious. I don’t like thinking about themes and influences when I read, preferring to enjoy the story for what it is. And I did enjoy this story. The oft-used phrase “richly descriptive” or similar really does apply here. Each main character’s development and history is crafted and woven like a tapestry where the whole of it comes together to make the big picture. Everyone is connected in some way even if it isn’t evident at first. And when the connection is finally made, it’s a true “Ah!” moment and you keep reading and waiting for the next one.

All of the characters are flawed and nobody is a hero/heroine. People’s basic characteristics don’t really change and everyone has secrets and regrets, just like real life. Lies can and will adversely affect your life and the lives of others in your path and maybe you can find a way to redemption or a way to shake off the negative impact that your parents’ actions had and do something better with your life. Purity is a nice, long, chunky book that you can immerse yourself in.

IWD: Favourite Women Authors

Meeting Diana Gabaldon

Today is International Women’s Day, so I’m told. It may be as good a time as any to write a few notes on some of my favourite female authors. Number one on the list is Diana Gabaldon. She’s been on the top of my list since I discovered her very first book in 1990, Outlander. I love her style of writing and her characters and their stories are well researched, well written and thoroughly enjoyable. Her ongoing saga tells the story of Jamie and Claire Fraser and their family.

Minor spoilers if you’ve never read the books are included in this paragraph: Nurse Claire Randall “fell” through the standing stones in a stone circle in Scotland to find herself in the mid 18th century during the Jacobite Uprising where she met Jamie Fraser. They fell in love and married. Claire’s healing abilities served her well but also, on occasion, got her into trouble where women that could heal were sometimes suspected of being witches in that time period. During the series of books (8 so far), Claire returned to the future just before the battle of Cullodden but when she discovered Jamie didn’t die in the battle, found a way to return to him. Her daughter, Briana, also has the ability to travel through the stones as does Briana’s two children. (I’m covering a lot of ground here!)  Over the years, the Frasers end up in pre-Revolution America in West Virginian mountain country but get tangled up in the War of Independence.

There’s so much more detail, of course, with adventures galore, villains, heroes and everything in between. Diana has also written a few spin off books and stories about a secondary character, Lord John Grey. The books are in the process of being made into a television series on the American network Starz. The first two books have been aired so far with season three following book three coming later this year. Some people find Diana’s books have far too much detail in them but fans of the books wallow in every word! The television series pulls out the best of the books and keeps to the storyline very well with some differences that are inevitable due to the logistics of film/visual storytelling. Her website has excerpts from her books including the one she is currently writing and there is news and appearance schedules when applicable.

As you can see from the photo, I’ve met her (two or three times, actually) when her book signing tours have landed in Halifax. She’s very interesting and a real joy to listen to. She’s intelligent and funny and warm. She really seems to appreciate her fans and all the support they’ve given her over the years.

I could go on and on about Ms. Gabaldon but I was meant to write about other favourite authors as well.

I couldn’t talk about female authors without mentioning Canada’s Margaret Atwood. She really has become the First Lady of CanLit over the past forty years. She writes fiction, poetry, short stories and recently, she’s authored a graphic novel, working with the artist to create Angel Catbird. I own the first volume and I think the second one is due out soon. Her books span a variety of types of fiction though many have a sci-fi Dystopian theme. The Handmaid’s Tale is one of her best known books and has been filmed once already. A new series is due out later this year, debuting at the end of April in a 10 episode series on the American network Hulu. The most outrageous thing is that there is no apparently Canadian debut for this series based on a classic Canadian book. Not that I’ve heard , yet. And they wonder why people continue to download illegally or buy proxy VPN services to circumvent the restrictions between countries.

On the positive side, her novel Alias Grace is going to be a mini-series and will air on CBC in Canada in addition to Netflix in the US. Another recent book, The Heart Goes Last, is going to be filmed as well. It seems like the world at large is finally realizing the gem that we always knew we had here in Canada.

Some years ago, I discovered a series of books about witches in the modern world. The author’s name is Debora Geary. She wrote well over a dozen of these charming little books, filled with a community of strong women who were the hearts of their families and friends. Their abilities varied from fire, water, earth and air, with different witches having different strengths. Not just women, but some of the men and boys were also witches with abilities as well. One small boy will prove to be the most powerful of them all and it’s a challenge to raise a little one like that! It really does take a village! The books are only available on Amazon Kindle and this page on her website gives you more details on the series.

Anyway, I was gutted when she gave up writing about witches a few years ago but she’s still writing under the name of Audrey Faye. I haven’t read any of her newer series but a couple of them seem to be more science fiction and fantasy  and I think I would probably like them just as much. Her books are “clean”, that is, no swearing, no sex (though it’s alluded to among the happy couples). If you were concerned, you would have none were you to give them to your teenagers, though I think they’d appeal more to girls than boys but everyone’s different.

That’s pretty much my top three but I enjoy books but quite a few women. In random order: Anita Burgh, Penny Vincenzi, Miriam Toews, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Fiona Walker, Sharon Kay Penman, Alice Hoffman, Hilary Mantel, Emma Donoghue, Susanna Kearsley, Gillian Flynn, Tana French, Frances Itani, Maeve Binchy, Barbara Erskine, and Val McDermid.