Book Spotlight/Guest Post by Robert Eggleton

It isn’t very often that I receive review/spotlight request for a book with such a unique premise – its contents addressing child abuse and mental health against a backdrop of     SciFi/Fantasy cross-genre. I am so pleased to feature Rarity from the Hollow on my blog today.

Rarity from the Hollow

Synopsis2Lacy Dawn’s father relives the Gulf War, her mother’s teeth are rotting out, and her best friend is murdered by the meanest daddy on Earth. Life in the hollow is hard. She has one advantage — an android was inserted into her life and is working with her to cure her parents. But, he wants something in exchange. It’s up to her to save the Universe. Lacy Dawn doesn’t mind saving the universe, but her family and friends come first.

Rarity from the Hollow is adult literary science fiction filled with tragedy, comedy and satire. The second edition was released on November 3, 2016.

praises

“The most enjoyable science fiction novel I have read in years.” Temple Emmet Williams, Author, former editor for Reader’s Digest

“Quirky, profane, disturbing… In the space between a few lines we go from hardscrabble realism to pure sci-fi/fantasy. It’s quite a trip.”  – Evelyn Somers, The Missouri Review

. “…a hillbilly version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy…what I would have thought impossible; taken serious subjects like poverty, ignorance, abuse…tongue-in-cheek humor without trivializing them…profound…a funny book that most sci-fi fans will thoroughly enjoy.” — Awesome Indies (Gold Medal)

“…sneaks up you and, before you know it, you are either laughing like crazy or crying in despair, but the one thing you won’t be is unmoved…a brilliant writer.” —Readers’ Favorite (Gold Medal)

“Rarity from the Hollow is an original and interesting story of a backwoods girl who saves the Universe in her fashion. Not for the prudish.” —Piers Anthony, New York Times bestselling author

“…Good satire is hard to find and science fiction satire is even harder to find.” — The Baryon Review

About the Author:

Robert Eggleton

Robert Eggleton has served as a children’s advocate in an impoverished state for over forty years. He is best known for his investigative reports about children’s programs, most of which were published by the West Virginia Supreme Court where he worked from 1982 through 1997, and which also included publication of models of serving disadvantaged and homeless children in the community instead of in large institutions, research into foster care drift involving children bouncing from one home to the next — never finding a permanent loving family, and statistical reports on the occurrence and correlates of child abuse and delinquency.

Today, he is a recently retired children’s psychotherapist from the mental health center in Charleston, West Virginia, where he specialized in helping victims cope with and overcome physical and sexual abuse, and other mental health concerns. Rarity from the Hollow is his debut novel. Its release followed publication of three short Lacy Dawn Adventures in magazines: Wingspan Quarterly, Beyond Centauri, and Atomjack Science Fiction. The second edition of Rarity from the Hollow was release on November 3, 2016. Author proceeds have been donated to a child abuse prevention program operated by Children’s Home Society of West Virginia. http://www.childhswv.org/ Robert continues to write fiction with new adventures based on a protagonist that is a composite character of children that he met when delivering group therapy services. The overall theme of his stories remains victimization to empowerment.

Buy Links : 

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Here’s a guest post from the author about writing books with emotional triggers.

courage-n-spirit

Do you cry during sad or uplifting scenes in books or movies? Some people are so sensitive that they weep during fund-raising infomercials for Save the Children or another heart-felt cause.  

Good fiction, unless you are a total narcissist and unable to feel empathy, does trigger emotions on some level. Since adolescence is often a period of strong egocentrism, and since empathy is an acquired skill that develops as we mature, young adult content often prompts basic feelings – romance, excitement, or anger using plot and action. Whereas, literary fiction tends to be more complex and prompt contemplations about emotionally charged issues long exposures to the content, such as the book/movie Precious or The Color Purple.

People who avoid triggers of strong and complex emotions may be considered by some to be “faint hearted.” Some individuals are so faint hearted that they faint when there is no medical explanation, such as at the sight of blood, a condition that may have neurological roots: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/broadcast/read/838. They avoid, for example, horror movies or books because the content causes them to feel so uncomfortable that it could even cause nightmares.

Other people appreciate and pursue the powerful emotions triggered by some fiction. We each have individualized comfort zones, often reflected in our entertainment choices. In general, however, some psychologists believe that people should strive to break out of their comfort zones: http://lifehacker.com/the-science-of-breaking-out-of-your-comfort-zone-and-w-656426705.  

Rarity from the Hollow is an adult literary social science fiction novel full of tragedy, comedy and satire. Here’s what one book reviewer concluded after reading it, the second of two Gold Medals: “… Full of cranky characters and crazy situations, Rarity from the Hollow sneaks up you and, before you know it, you are either laughing like crazy or crying in despair, but the one thing you won’t be is unmoved….” —  https://readersfavorite.com/book-review/rarity-from-the-hollow

Emotional triggers prompted by fiction may also be related to warm or harsh personal memories. Memories of very bad experiences, such as rape, car accidents, war, child maltreatment, can traumatize a person. For example, one of the characters in Rarity from the Hollow begins the story as a war damaged Vet having returned from the Gulf War with PTSD. There is also one violent scene in the story, a flashback of domestic violence. And, there are references to child maltreatment and puns about sex (no actual scenes).

Perhaps more important than parental guidance advisories meant to define adult content appropriate to youthful consumers, book and movie reviews play an important role in helping people scarred by trauma, not merely the faint hearted, from unpleasant experiences in entertainment. We each take one step at a time in putting our bad memories to rest.  

While some degree of cautionary statement is appropriate to advise potential readers of Rarity from the Hollow, the early tragedy amplifies subsequent comedy and satire: “a hillbilly version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, only instead of the earth being destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass, Lacy Dawn must…The author has managed to do what I would have thought impossible; taken serious subjects like poverty, ignorance, abuse, and written about them with tongue-in-cheek humor without trivializing them…Eggleton sucks you into the Hollow, dunks you in the creek, rolls you in the mud, and splays you in the sun to dry off. Tucked between the folds of humor are some profound observations on human nature and modern society that you have to read to appreciate…it’s a funny book that most sci-fi fans will thoroughly enjoy.http://awesomeindies.net/ai-approved-review-of-rarity-from-the-holly-by-robert-eggleton/

As a retired children’s psychotherapist, the novel was written to be a fictionalized road map from victimization to empowerment, especially for those victims still symptomatic after having been involved in mental health treatment or currently involved in treatment. This story is pure fiction, based on people that I’ve met during over forty years as a child advocate. It is not a self-help manual. It is a genre bender that uses science fiction as a backdrop.

To readers who have PTSD and who decide to check out Rarity from the Hollow, I do recommend please reading beyond the third chapter. Several book reviewers privately disclosed to me that they had experienced emotional trauma, and one publicly disclosed for the first time that she was a survivor of rape: “…As a rape survivor… found myself relating easily to Lacy Dawn… style of writing which I would describe as beautifully honest. Rarity from the Hollow is different from anything I have ever read, and in today’s world of cookie-cutter cloned books, that’s pretty refreshing…taking you on a wild ride you won’t soon forget….http://kyliejude.com/2015/11/book-review-rarity-from-the-hollow/

If you decide to read Rarity from the Hollow, yes, I hope that your emotions will be triggered. Its mission is to sensitize readers to the huge, world-wide, social problem of child maltreatment through a comical and satiric science fiction adventure. Author proceeds have been donated to child abuse prevention. “If I could, I would give it all the stars in the universe…I was hesitant to accept. I usually do not read or review books that discuss child abuse or domestic violence; however, I was intrigued by the excerpt and decided to give it a shot. I am glad that I took a risk; otherwise, I would have missed out on a fantastic story with a bright, resourceful, and strong protagonist that grabbed my heart and did not let go….”  http://www.onmykindle.net/2015/11/rarity-from-hollow.html
If you decide not to read Rarity from the Hollow but want to help maltreated children, there are several ways to contribute. There are hundreds of under-funded emergency children’s shelters all over the U.S. Google to find one, and then send an unwrapped anonymous gift to a kid, any size will do because maltreatment comes in all shapes and sizes. It is the Holiday Season. Furthermore, some community-based providers of social and mental health services are likely to be concerned that there could be cuts in federal funding of their programs under the new administration. Your help may be needed more than ever before.

 

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[Mini Reviews] The Vegetarian by Han Kang & Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven

The Vegetarian Rating:

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This was pretty unsettling to read. Hard to really summarize the essence of what this was about. On the surface it was about a woman with severe mental health issues, but dig deeper (well, more like scratch the surface a bit..) and it is about renunciation – of societal expectations to get in touch with your most primitive reflections. This story is told in three POVs and interestingly, none of them is Yeong-hye’s. The story progresses with her turning vegetarian to finally giving up on food altogether because of certain recurring dreams and her finally interpreting what they really meant. We get glimpses into Yeong-hye and her sister In-hye’s childhood as they grew up in a patriarchal family system with an abusive father. In-hye later muses whether that was one reason for her sister’s current state. As her “dream” triggers her “madness”, we see the men in Yeong-hye’s life unable to understand her decision to go vegetarian. Instead, they literally try to force-feed her in one scene. Throughout the book, Yeong-hye keeps retreating further away from everyone else and well.. into herself as she resists everyone else’s attempt to tell her what to do to her own body.

I considered quitting this book mid-way quite a few times because I couldn’t connect to a lot of devices used in this story, be it the characters chosen for the three POVs, the three-part narration itself which felt disjointed or the depiction of vegetarianism. I mean, I understand that this book wasn’t really about “vegetarianism” as such, but since so much of the book was about her giving up meat, I really can’t look past it. I didn’t get the people’s reactions around her, and I am not talking about husband and father (both were A-Grade MCPs who were upset for reasons that had nothing to do with her well-being) but I couldn’t understand why the general reaction was one of shock and distaste rather than being supportive or well, checking out more healthy, wholesome vegetarian food options. There were also some other things about the book that I didn’t understand – like the triggering circumstances that caused Yeong-hye’s psychiatric condition. It felt like some sort of half-baked attempt by giving her the background of childhood abuse (like some sort of afterthought, because hey, I need to give a reason, so let me throw in some random reminiscences of childhood). Another aspect of this book that I found irritating is that it isn’t just Yeong-hye plagued by dreams; we also have two of the three narrators getting abstract, creepy dreams and being tortured by it as they are trying to decipher it. Honestly, it was overkill, and well, just way too many people for a less-than-180 pages book that I, as a reader am trying to make some sense of.

This is just one of those books that I can’t rave about, but I am glad I read it, and would definitely not shy away from recommending.

Holding Up the UniverseRating:

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Synopsis2Everyone thinks they know Libby Strout, the girl once dubbed “America’s Fattest Teen.” But no one’s taken the time to look past her weight to get to know who she really is. Following her mom’s death, she’s been picking up the pieces in the privacy of her home, dealing with her heartbroken father and her own grief. Now, Libby’s ready: for high school, for new friends, for love, and for every possibility life has to offer. In that moment, I know the part I want to play here at MVB High. I want to be the girl who can do anything. 

Everyone thinks they know Jack Masselin, too. Yes, he’s got swagger, but he’s also mastered the impossible art of giving people what they want, of fitting in. What no one knows is that Jack has a newly acquired secret: he can’t recognize faces. Even his own brothers are strangers to him. He’s the guy who can re-engineer and rebuild anything, but he can’t understand what’s going on with the inner workings of his brain. So he tells himself to play it cool: Be charming. Be hilarious. Don’t get too close to anyone.

Until he meets Libby. When the two get tangled up in a cruel high school game—which lands them in group counseling and community service—Libby and Jack are both pissed, and then surprised. Because the more time they spend together, the less alone they feel.

Because sometimes when you meet someone, it changes the world, theirs and yours.

My reviewI was a bit skeptical after reading the synopsis and wondered whether this will be one of those stories about an overweight girl transforming herself into a svelte figure by the end of the book and shocking everyone. Then there is also this male protagonist who suffers from face-blindness (known as Prosopagnosia) . But body-image and self-esteem issues are addressed so well in this book that the love story stands on its own rather than not having any relevance beyond Jack’s neurological disorder and Libby’s struggle with weight.

I think what worked for this book is that by the time we meet Libby, she has already gone through some of the darkest phases in her life. We meet her when she is re-entering the “mainstream” life (high-school after months of isolation and counseling. So, when Libby makes friends, meets Jack, faces bullies, you know it is all on her own terms.

So, what about Jack? Well, he has had a different kind of struggle. While Libby’s lowest phase was telecast across electronic media and her struggle with weight is under glaring spotlight of bullies, Jack has somehow managed to hide his condition from everyone (so that people don’t make his life further difficult in school) until an incident forces him to reveal his secret to Libby. What follows after that is definitely one of the cutest YA love stories I have read so far.

There were few things I found a bit unreal – like the fact that Jack could hide his condition from everyone and that no one, not even his parents noticed anything amiss. This felt like one of those classic “clueless YA parents” tropes. I also felt some of the quotes, though mushy and cute, felt unrealistic when thought by or mouthed as dialogues by teenage narrators (especially some super-cheesy lines.. I couldn’t really imagine anyone talking like that)

I also thought the book had a pretty abrupt and quiet ending? I mean, it felt like the book started with a bang and ending with a whimper because the author didn’t know how else to finish it.

I really liked the book though and some of Libby and Jack’s inner monologues were pure gold. I think my 2017 TBR will now comprise of Niven’s previous works.

Holding Smoke – By Elle Cosimano

Holding Smoke Rating:

Note : I received an ARC of this book via Veronica’s blog giveaway. Do check out her lovely blog here.

Synopsis2John “Smoke” Conlan is serving time for two murders but he wasn’t the one who murdered his English teacher, and he never intended to kill the only other witness to the crime. A dangerous juvenile rehabilitation center in Denver, Colorado, known as the Y, is Smoke’s new home and the only one he believes he deserves.

But, unlike his fellow inmates, Smoke is not in constant imprisonment. After a near death experience leaves him with the ability to shed his physical body at will, Smoke is able to travel freely outside the concrete walls of the Y, gathering information for himself and his fellow inmates while they’re asleep in their beds. Convinced his future is only as bright as the fluorescent lights in his cell, Smoke doesn’t care that the “threads” that bind his soul to his body are wearing thin-that one day he may not make it back in time. That is, until he meets Pink, a tough, resourceful girl who is sees him for who he truly is and wants to help him clear his name. 

Now Smoke is on a journey to redemption he never thought possible. With Pink’s help, Smoke may be able to reveal the true killer, but the closer they get to the truth, the more deadly their search becomes. The web of lies, deceit, and corruption that put Smoke behind bars is more tangled than they could have ever imagined. With both of their lives on the line, Smoke will have to decide how much he’s willing to risk, and if he can envision a future worth fighting for.

My review I havent read too many YA books which just have that slight touch of paranormal. The few I have read recently have been disappointing especially a couple of them which are about mind-body-soul because the book somehow ends up reading like religious fiction instead of what was promised in the synopsis. Thankfully, Holding Smoke not just lives up to what is promised in the cover blurb, but also exceeds it by miles.

No aspect of the book threatens to eclipse the other – the murder mystery complements beautifully with the human stories of the inmates. That’s a rarity in mystery books with a sizeable secondary cast – where sub-plots often tend to test your patience and make you question their need. But here, you actually do enjoy and empathize with everyone – with all their background stories that have been added cleverly into the book through Conlan’s paranormal power. I loved all the prison scenes, there was no unnecessary amped up melodrama but yet it is so effective – whether it is the counseling sessions or the power play in the yard. I feel like this is probably one of the biggest strengths of the book – to never lose sight of the fact that this is a juvenile rehab and NOT an adult prison. No matter how “hardened” they might be because of the circumstances, their vulnerabilities as teens are always bubbling beneath the surface.

I loved how we got the background story of how Conlan ended up in the detention center. The author takes her time to build it up gradually – whether it is the details of the fateful day or nuggets from his earlier difficult years with his abusive father. Conlan’s life is a template of childhood degraded, a present devalued and a future lost – A future that had a college degree and a well-paying job.  This is also the story shared by a lot of characters at the center. Of course, if you are lucky you might have an empathetic warden or a counselor taking an interest in you and reinforcing the belief that you can finish your education and making something of your life once you get out. But no inmate seriously believes it.

There is no romance in this book. What Conlan and Pink have between them is more of a strained-friendship-with-romantic potential and that’s a good thing because both have a lot of things going on in their individual lives. Pink is practical and gosh – just so gutsy! Not some wannabe badass. Conlan initially seeks her out because he needs her help but later does start valuing her and respecting the life she leads. He also feels like he is losing out on someone important to him when turns her away at one point in the story. Despite his feelings for her, I liked how Conlan never turns reckless in using his paranormal ability just to meet her.

I really liked the murder mystery though I guessed the “who” halfway through the book. But I think it is more due to the fact that I have gotten pretty good at guesswork than anything else. I couldn’t guess the “why” though. I also liked all the red herrings the author used and explained in the final pages. The only issue I had is probably the presence of another girl – Vivian – in the story. I felt like the book didn’t really need her. I think any other existing character(s) could have contributed whatever she did to the story. But it is a pretty minor gripe and well, I understood why she was there once I read the Author’s Note in the end. (Do read that once you finish the book!!! You will find some great personal insights there.)

There is an epilogue that I felt was not required. I got my closure even without that. Well, with or without the epilogue, it was such a bittersweet conclusion and an immensely satisfying one.

A (very disappointing!) Little life

A Little Life Rating:

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Synopsis:

When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.

My Review: 

(Note: This is more of a rant and contains spoilers.)

WTF did I just read?!!!! The only emotion I was left with by the end of the book was anger, because this book could have been so much more if it had used less pages and the author had resisted piling on every misery-as-a-result-of-abusive-childhood onto one single person. The mildest analogy (for the lack of a better word) I can make – Take all the victims in all the seasons of Law and Order  SVU, heap all their traumas one over the other, and dump them over one person – and you get Jude St. Francis.

And no, I don’t think it is unbelievable that someone can have such a terrible childhood. That is not even my main issue with the book.  My issue is that everything else surrounding it was so unbelievable – For someone who has seen such horrors, who was abandoned as a baby, raised in a monastery and abused over and over again, by hundreds of men, both physically and sexually – he seems to have had an incredibly easy transition into a successful academic and professional life. He easily makes friends, co-exists with roommates, and wins court cases, cooks amazing food, is a wonderful pianist and mathematician and loved by his peers and feared by anyone who faces off against him in court.

And for all the talk about friendship, none of his friends are forceful about him getting counselling, and just let his self-harm continue through decades. He has a large group of friends, the sorts who take care of him or clean his apartment when he is bed-ridden after his latest hospital visit. But no one, no one puts their foot down to have him committed to a psychiatric facility or rehab. Just because they are scared Jude will cut ties with them.

In a few ways, this book was brilliant – possibly the most horrifyingly vivid close-up of what it is to live through such a trauma, and the self-loathing that stays with you. This was probably the first book I read which dealt with adult adoption and I loved how the author conveyed the feeling of constant doubt and insecurity of Jude with respect to the entire transition to being someone’s son – by law – at the age of thirty. Especially someone like Jude, who constantly feels he isn’t worth that privilege and that whatever is happening is too good to be true. I loved Harold and enjoyed the chapters with his first-person narration.  I wish we could have heard more from his wife Julia too. It is just weird she didn’t have much of a voice considering both Harold and Julia adopt Jude. Then again, this book doesn’t really have any prominent female characters.

The extent to which Williem goes to make Jude a part of his life was incredibly heart-warming, but I honestly preferred Jude and Williem as friends than lovers. I mean, what is the opposite term for being queer-baited? Because, that’s how I felt. It was touching to see the Williem’s love for Jude as a friend, and there was no indication he was homosexual or bisexual. So, I didn’t understand why the author felt the need to change “legitimize” it that way.  It felt like, suddenly the author thought it would be unusual to show Williem devoting his entire personal life caring for Jude as a friend, so she went ahead and made it a romantic relationship. I honestly didn’t see it coming, because prior to that, the author seemed so secure in showing  a selfless friendship. But then she decided, “Okay, so Jude and Williem are practically cohabiting, it is so weird to have two middle-aged guys living together, so let me change their equation to something more..”

I am so divided over this. I loved Jude and Williem and yet, was just very unconvinced with some aspects of how their relationship progressed. (This is a general observation about the book too. While I loved that there was LGBT representation, I was not entirely sure it was done well.) Williem and Jude have intimacy issues and later Jude admits he hates having sex, so with Jude’s permission, Williem has sex with other …. Women.  Like.. what?! There is a moment in the book when someone asks (or mentions?) him about being in love with a man and he replies that he is not in love with a guy; he is in love with Jude.  Soo, does the author want to imply that for Williem, being with Jude is all that mattered? It really wasn’t about the gender? I guess the author’s intention was to state that sometimes the society’s expectation to label everything isn’t always met and maybe that’s why Williem doesn’t even explicitly admit he is a bisexual. But, I just felt that this wasn’t conveyed well and a lot was left vague. Heck, with the conversations always being about “straight or gay?”, I felt there was a bit of bi-erasure.

The synopsis was so misleading!!! It wasn’t about four friends at all. It was all about Jude, everything was about him. JB and Malcolm fade away after a couple of hundred pages and I almost wanted to DNF it at that point. I went into this book thinking it was about four friends and though Jude might get more prominent page-time, we are going to get character-arcs for JB and Malcolm too.  But I was sooo off-the-mark. What irked me is how even when some other character got their “moment” in the book, it too turned out be somehow all about “how would Jude feel?”  So, after JB some cruel remarks against Jude during his drug addiction phase, he is immediately boycotted by Williem and Jude for a major part of the book. Oh well, his fate is no different than the two dozen names of Jude’s friends who keep popping up. And there are a lot of friends. All of whom adore Jude and never lose their patience with him. I am not sure what is about Jude which inspires such loyalty though. I mean, he never really confides about his past with them though they keep asking him. Apart from his work, he doesn’t do anything else to have fun and he being a litigator sets him apart from the artistic crowd of Malcolm, Willem or Malcolm. So, what does he even talk with the others? We never get a sense of what kind of a person Jude is beyond his past.

It felt like by the end of it even the author was tired, because all the beautiful prose that held my attention through most of the first half, turned weary and it was just hard for me to plough through the last couple of hundred pages. My patience for all the excessive details (over JB’s art, Malcolm’s architecture, Jude’s injuries and Williem’s movies) was wearing thin.

All of it ends with the most lazy and predictable plot twist (if you can call it that) ever.  I am not even sure why I just didn’t ditch the book. Maybe it is because I have been looking forward to reading it for over a year. Maybe I just thought the ending will be more hopeful for Jude. But, none of that happens. I have read books dealing with these issues (though not so many in the same book and dealt by the same character), and have liked a lot of those books. My problem with A Little Life was that there is no ebb and flow to the story. It is just incredibly one-note – on one side we have Jude who goes through every horrific experience possible and on the other hand we have him and all his friends being super-successful in their fields with lots of wealth (world-famous artist, world-famous architect, world-famous actor and so on). While the entire book could have really used an editor, I also question the need for a lot of the social gatherings that happen in the book. Some of them just don’t serve any purpose and I just found it so unrealistic that around two dozen of their common friends keep in touch so frequently through the years. All of them land up in the same city from different places and when they don’t, Williem or Jude fly over to whichever part of the world they are and meet them – and again, why do we need such details every time they meet friend X or friend Y for dinner? I do applaud one thing though – the representation of LGBT, ethnicity, and the differently-abled in the background cast of characters (well okay, there were times I went “tokenism” in my head, but I am willing to shrug it off) .

Hanya Yanagihara can write, and write brilliantly. This book could have been brilliant too. If only there wasn’t all that gratuitousness floating around.

[ARC Review] Shelter – By Jung Yun

Rating:

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Summary (From Goodreads): 

Why should a man care for his parents when they failed to take care of him as a child?

One of The Millions’ Most Anticipated Books of the Year (Selected by Edan Lepucki)

Kyung Cho is a young father burdened by a house he can’t afford. For years, he and his wife, Gillian, have lived beyond their means. Now their debts and bad decisions are catching up with them, and Kyung is anxious for his family’s future.

A few miles away, his parents, Jin and Mae, live in the town’s most exclusive neighborhood, surrounded by the material comforts that Kyung desires for his wife and son. Growing up, they gave him every possible advantage—private tutors, expensive hobbies—but they never showed him kindness. Kyung can hardly bear to see them now, much less ask for their help. Yet when an act of violence leaves Jin and Mae unable to live on their own, the dynamic suddenly changes, and he’s compelled to take them in. For the first time in years, the Chos find themselves living under the same roof. Tensions quickly mount as Kyung’s proximity to his parents forces old feelings of guilt and anger to the surface, along with a terrible and persistent question: how can he ever be a good husband, father, and son when he never knew affection as a child?

As Shelter veers swiftly toward its startling conclusion, Jung Yun leads us through dark and violent territory, where, unexpectedly, the Chos discover hope. Shelter is a masterfully crafted debut novel that asks what it means to provide for one’s family and, in answer, delivers a story as riveting as it is profound.

My Review: 

Oh, how I loved this book! It reminded me of everything that I love about literary fiction with messed up family dynamics at its core. The book bristles with a frenzied, unsettling energy, with unhappy people, unhappy marriages and .. uneasy silences. At the heart of this story is Kyung, a Korean-American, estranged from his parents, and who has maintained a distance from them for over two decades and kept contact to a bare minimum though they stay only a few miles apart. But a brutal robbery and attack at his parents’ home changes everything – his father is left bruised with a broken arm and his mother and their housekeeper are raped. Overnight, Kyung’s perfect facade of keeping up appearances of a normal family is shattered as he is forced to confront the fact that he has to step into the responsibilities of a son, something he has tried to stay away from for years.
Kyung is conflicted, confused and angered by the strange, changed situation. He is bewildered with Jin’s closeness to his grandson, and wonders why he never had the same equation with Kyung. He is frustrated with Mae’s aloofness with Kyung, even after all these years, and even more puzzled to see Jin and Mae distant with each other. He is surprised to see Mae not acting like a subordinate to his dad anymore. He wonders what has he missed and doesnt know how to deal with everything – his parents, the Korean Church folk who take over his home and seem to do a better job of “caring” for his parents, his wife Gillian, who tries to be “understanding” of Kyung’s dilemma, but for all of her pop psych talk and self help advice, doesnt really “get it”. She doesnt get why he is rigid about not “forgiving” his parents. Why he is unable to move on. Or maybe Kyung does a bad job of explaining it. Because he is not able to explain it to himself in the first place. And Kyung feels, Gillian is swayed by his dad’s financial help as a compensation for all their trouble, and that makes him feel more uncomfortable with everything.
I think it is not until I finished the book did I fully appreciate how fitting and contextually loaded the title of the book is. It means so many things, and in some ways, nothing; atleast for Kyung. What is Shelter supposed to mean or signify anyway? A roof over your head to give you a sense of security? Well, Gillian and Kyung’s current home has brought nothing but constant financial burden through mortgages and bad loans, that they have always tried to play catch up with. Is shelter supposed to remind you of your roots, the first safe place that you look back and think of with fondness? Well, if you ask Kyung, that can’t be right either. The only memories he has of his parents’ place is his dad hitting his mom and his mom in turn hitting him as a means of taking out her frustrations of being trapped in a bad marriage in a new country. Is it meant to be a getaway vacation home for a family to enjoy and destress? Well, Kyung’s dad does have one in New Orleans, but as it turns out, Mae lost interest in that home ages ago, once she finished playing her role as an interior decorator and couldnt pretty up the place anymore. But the current Mae is different, changed by the recent events. She can’t bear to stay here in or near her current house any longer and wants a change in environment. Gillian and Kyung’s in laws are thrilled with the idea, and go along with Kyung’s parents.. but Kyung can’t stand the idea of travelling with everyone and making forced conversation. However, he does join them later when he cannot delay it anymore. What happens next is an outburst from Kyung, of pent-up grievances and complaints, with tragic and irreversible consequences.
I finished this book a few days ago but I couldnt immediately type down a review. And I feel like there is so much more that I want to say, but I am not able to, maybe because I have delayed the review a bit, so I feel like there is so much of the “immediate reactions” to the book that I am not able to recall entirely and put it in words. But I will say this – it was a wonderful read with some characters you would care about and wish that their lives turned out differently. There were a few things that I didnt like much though. Kyung ends up doing something impulsively and I just felt that.. that was an unnecessary add-on to the story.. because it is something irrelevant and independent of Kyung’s circumstances, or atleast that is how I judge it. So Kyung lost some major sympathy points from me there. Okay, to Yun’s credit, she didnt justify or “explain” it, but I guess I was so invested in Kyung’s hard-done-by arc, that, this kind of burst the bubble for me. Another thing I didnt like is the book’s final moments. I did get and appreciate the thought behind it, but I found it a bit schmaltzy rather than impactful. All this doesnt dilute the overall effect of the book though, and I guess the best part of this story is the ample room for grey. Do let me know what you think of this book if you get around to reading it .. maybe you are going to see the Chos differently.

*Note: I received this ARC from the publisher via the Goodreads giveaway programme. Thank you Picador!*

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Rating:

I loved Gone Girl, and for a long time I was under the impression that it was Gillian Flynn’s debut novel. It was much later that I discovered she had authored two other books prior to that, the first one being Sharp Objects. And you can see her flair for writing psychological thrillers and twisted characters in her first book too.

Sharp Objects starts with Camille Preaker , a small-time crime beat reporter assigned by her boss to dig up the story of what seems to be the beginning of a serial killing spree in Wind Gap, her hometown. Two young girls killed in two years, and both of them are well, toothless when their bodies are discovered. Yup, their teeth are plied out by the murderer, every single one of them.  Sounds like a pretty solid premise to base a decent murder mystery, right?  Well, midway through the book the case just felt like a crutch to explore the three main characters and their dysfunctional relationship – Camille, her mother Adora and half-sister Amma who she has never properly met till date. When Camille gets back to Wind Gap after ages, she is forced to stay with Adora,  Amma and Alan Crellin, her step-dad, so that she can increase her chances of networking and picking up quotes from old neighbours and friends. It ends up proving a bit counter-productive though, as her mom isn’t really pleased or supportive of her daughter’s assignment. The local police, assisted by a Kansas City detective, Richard Willis, aren’t forthcoming either.

As you read about Wind Gap, it’s history and folks; you get the feeling that there is something seriously off about the place. It just feels so suffocating and claustrophobic. And at the very least, quite disturbing. We the readers, of course, view that through the microcosm of Preaker/Crellin household.

Camille is damaged and recovering and loss of her sister and emotional abuse years ago, something she still grapples with and can’t make sense of – Did her mother love her? Did she love her younger sister more than her? Why has she always been so distant with Camille at home, though she is perfectly capable of pampering and nurturing to keep up appearances in the society?

Camille lashed out in her teens, by taking part in debauchery and cutting words into her skin. A decade later, she commits herself into a psych facility to wean away the cutting habit. But her stay in Wind Gap begins to take a serious toll on her as old memories, dormant resentment and hurt resurface. At one point she senses herself being sucked back into her old life with her mother, controlling, dominant and .. forceful mollycoddling. Even more unsettling is the new addition into the family charade, Amma, who at thirteen,  acts younger than her age at home, to get Adora’s attention, but acts out more than her age at school and everywhere else in town. She has a vicious streak and through her, we meet her gang of girls, all unapologetic about bullying, drugs, flaunting sexuality and just general meanness. Amma takes the cake though.

Adora literally treats Amma as a pet doll, and when Camille enters the picture, she isn’t sure how to treat this new development.  Camille can’t figure out Amma either. And to be honest, neither could I. So when, Amma seems to warm up to Camille, and has this candid conversation with her, where she admits she gets a real kick out of hurting people, you realize at that point that, both are, in a weird way, two sides of the same coin. Just that Camille went onto hurting herself.

So how did Camille and Amma end up turning into the people that they are? We also get a whiff of rumour about Adora’s mother being a cold, emotionally distant person. Is it a case of abuse handed down from two different generations and manifested in different ways?

So what about the murder mystery, you ask? Well, Flynn handles that too in parallel, but with lesser finesse than what she exhibited in Gone Girl.  The last few pages were convincing but rushed.  At 250 pages, this book makes for a crisp, sharp read. But if a few more pages would have smoothened those li’l frayed edges….