The One Memory of Flora Banks

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Review #36: Fiction

Audiobook Review #1

The One Memory of Flora Banks by Emily Barr

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This is my first real go at audiobooks; I’m not sure if this helped or hurt the story honestly. I feel like it may have been better having my own control over how the story sounded. However, for reasons that will be addressed, if I had to read it, every word, on my own… I may actually have put this book down without finishing.

Flora Banks is our narrator, and she is struggling with a form of amnesia. Due to health complications, she doesn’t remember much of her life after her tenth birthday. She is 17 now. What sparks the story is that she remembers something from a party she attends, a going away party for a guy named Drake. She remembers kissing him on the beach. And that’s about all she remembers, and talks about, for the next 300 pages.

As a narrator, Flora gets annoying. She is terribly redundant. This is obviously the point, her character has amnesia and only remembers this one event, the first thing she has remembered in years. It’s a big deal. But as an audience it’s off-putting. This is supposed to let us into Flora’s world, we experience her mind and her life through her illness and it gives us empathy and understanding for her character and her struggles. After a while though, it became quite difficult to hear the same passages over and over.

Flora has to be reminded every day about her illness, her memories, but we as readers do not, so it becomes grating. It’s a lot like if 50 First Dates were being told form Drew Barrymore’s character’s point of view. As a movie, this may have actually worked, being visual and fast-paced. But a book demands the reader encounter the same text over and over and over again for hours.

The one thing I will say about this concept – it is a really unique take on the unreliable narrator. Flora is not a narrator that is lying to us; this is not malicious or deceitful. Flora is innocent in her unreliability. Neither she nor we know if what she’s experiencing is the truth.

Flora has all of her memories up until she was about 10 years old. After this, her memory does not stick. One great detail in Barr’s writing is that Flora comes across as very young, very innocent, very curious. She does a great job conveying youth in this character. At times Flora is invincible and impulsive, and at times very scared and meek. Though she is actually 17 years old, we definitely feel her 10-year-old memory in her actions.

The One Memory of Flora Banks is a little like Groundhog Day, though instead of living the same day over, we are living the same memory over and over; the only memory Flora has since her illness. We follow the same process as Flora finds out who she is every day, what happened to her, notes she leaves herself to know where she is and what she’s been doing recently. This is a very real detail, something that must undoubtedly be a reality for anyone suffering from such an illness. However, it is also one of the things that make this book so hard to get through.

It is difficult to be patient with Flora, and relive parts of her story that we’ve heard before many times. Eventually, I was just as curious as Flora to figure out why she has this one memory, and what actually happened to her so long ago, what the real deal with Drake is, and what’s happened to her brother. We are essentially thrown into a world where we are forced to only know what Flora knows, and what she knows might not be real. Though frustrating at times, Barr does create a very distinctive world in Flora Banks’s memory for readers to wade through.

Unfortunately, probably half this book is repetition. We must get through being told over and over again about Flora’s condition, why she’s doing what she’s doing, her one memory of kissing Drake, etc. Without this material being used again and again and again and again and again… the book would be much shorter, move much faster, and be much easier to get through.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

*Cover art from Amazon.com

 

Grimm’s American Macabre

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Review #35: Fiction

Short Story Collection #1

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Grimm’s American Macabre compiled by Lizbeth Grimm

This is a collection of short stories that grabs you from the very opening line, piking your curiosity the moment you open the cover. Each story will draw you in, keep you wondering what will come next.

Lizbeth Grimm utilizes foreshadowing cleverly with each story, often using one story to foreshadow another. This collection truly comes together as a cohesive text, the stories intertwining and playing off each other as you read. Considering Grimm has woven the stories of other authors into this collection – from story to story and author to author – the consistency of the flow and arc of the book is a feat. The voices are blended well; they’re different, but complimentary. Among the collected authors, Grimm includes her three children, which truly bring the Grimm lineage and tradition of storytelling full circle.

Each story is filled with subtle messages, giving the collection an overall unified theme, that readers will pick up on in their own way. Throughout, the collection provides a takeaway lesson for all, but not one definitive lesson that feels forced on the audience. It shines a spotlight on the unpredictability of nature and the cruelty of the modern world, playing up the conflict between technology and modern-day progress and innovation, and the simple, savage nature of survival instincts and the natural world.

Readers will feel a deeper connection to these stories because they seem familiar. The tales are new in their specifics, but will feel like coming home to old friends. There is just enough similarity to draw on the nostalgia felt for the old Brothers Grimm tales.

Though not every story will speak to every reader, every reader will take something away from this collection. It starts with a bang and continues the pace through most of the text, however, the collection closes on a softer note, losing a bit of the overall steam created.

This is a diverse and modern take on Brothers Grimm-esque fairy tales, and is a unique edition to the family tradition of storytellers.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

*Cover art from Amazon.com

** I received an advanced copy of this collection in return for an honest review.

 

 

 

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry

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Review #34: Fiction

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman

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This is probably one of my favorite novels about loss (close second is Lily and the Octopus). Backman beautifully and simply captures a special bond between grandparent and grandchild. He then knits the heart-wrenching loss of this bond into the fabric of fairy tales allowing the reader to dive completely into the mind of a child processing something so adult.

The way Backman uses these fairy tales, these stories Elsa’s grandmother would tell her, is such a unique way to bring adult readers into the world of young characters. This is not a children’s book, but the main character is a child, and these stories bridge the generational gap between her and the reader. Plus, the fairy tales themselves are fantastically interesting. A book of just these stories would capture the imagination of most readers.

Another genius element of Backman’s writing is his use of supporting characters. Just as in his first novel (A Man Called Ove), My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry truly intertwines the lives of every character to build one complete work.The supporting characters all have their own side stories that seamlessly blend into Elsa’s main arch. Each character is so well rounded and real (and interesting in and of themselves) that Backman’s third novel (Britt-Marie Was Here) is the continuation of the story of Britt-Marie, a supporting character in this novel.

In the end, this book is about loss, enduring it, coping with it, and moving forward. Plus rebuilding broken relationships and realizing what truly matters in life. In telling this tale, Backman weaves a beautiful portrait of life, of the struggles we all face, of the idea that our assumptions about people aren’t always correct — that sometimes it’s the fairy tales that are true and our perceived reality that is fiction.

If you’re a big kid not ready to let go of fairy tales, this book is for you. If you have ever lost a loved one, this book is for you. If you have ever lost touch with someone, sometimes not even remembering why, this book is for you. And if you don’t mind crying your eyes out, this book is for you. Or if you simply like an unbelievably well-written book, this one’s for you.

Every character is important, fully formed, and relatable. Every story is imaginative, purposeful, transforming. Backman creates a support system and manual for dealing with grief with this novel. My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry holds your hand through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance — and in the end, both you and this new fictional family you’ve gained, are better for it.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

*Cover art from Amazon.com

 

Dark Matter

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Review #33: Fiction

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

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This book is a complete and total sci-fi, multidimensional, breakneck mind f*** from start to finish. And I mean that in the best possible way.

It’s hard to even describe how insanely interesting this book is. Much like the brand new ideas filling its pages, the right words are not yet available to praise it enough. The best I can do is tell you I read the whole thing in one day. Every time I stopped, I just couldn’t manage to do something else. I HAD TO KNOW what was going to happen.

Blake Crouch begins with the story of an everyday guy, in an everyday world, doing everyday things. Then BAM! Something not-so-everyday happens and everything goes off the rails. Jason Dessen is kidnapped, given a strange drug, and wakes up to a life that is not his…or so he thinks. Dessen then spends possibly lifetimes attempting to figure out where he is, who he is, when he is and how to get back to the where, who, when he remembers. The always-hard-to-comprehend idea of alternate realities, different versions of ourselves, splitting into someone(s) different after every decision we make is surprisingly easy to follow in Crouch’s story.

I have never been so completely engrossed in a story and world that is so impossibly possible. Crouch sets a new bar extremely high for any alternate reality sci-fi novels that come next. Literally spirally into infinity Dark Matter is a roller coaster ride with unimaginable twists and turns. You won’t see them coming and you’ll eagerly await the next.

My recommendation is to not read this all in one sitting, as I did, in order to enjoy the thrill of it longer, though I don’t think you’ll be able to restrain yourself.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

*Cover art from Amazon.com

The Zookeeper’s Wife

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Review #32: Non-Fiction

The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

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The Zookeeper’s Wife is as delicate, complex, and, at times, scary as an exotic zoo itself. Beautiful moments intertwined with fear that the wild animal may break through the barriers at any second and devour you — that the SS officers just outside the chicken coup you’re hiding in might find you. The parallels that Ackerman draws between living in (the Zabinskis living near) the Warsaw Ghetto and the animals in a zoo become more and more established the more I continue to think about the text.

This true story was pieced together from so many sources —  interviews, journals, memoirs — the scope of the research and effort that Ackerman put in to create this work is astounding. Bringing this amazing and inspiring story to light was no small feat. The Zookeeper’s Wife is a story that needed to be told. The world needs to hear these heroic tales of everyday citizens working against the greatest evil the world had known (especially now), though when asked these people don’t agree that they were heroes. They say they were just doing what was right.

Though the story is one that is both necessary and interesting, the book itself isn’t always. The zoo is important to the story, and it makes sense to include details of the zoo before the war to get perspective, during to feel the immediate loss, and after to see the consequences of war, but there is far too much looking back to before once the meat of the story gets going. Jewish people were rounded up and enclosed in the ghetto, then all of a sudden there were animals running around freely again and cute anecdotes about the animals that once were, but were no more. Perhaps if these had been lumped together in the beginning of the book rather than the back and forth of before and after the war started and bombs had destroyed the zoo, it wouldn’t have felt so out of place. It was a bit frustrating because when I wanted to know more about how Jan Zabinski was helping people escape the ghetto, instead I was reading about their son, Rys, getting a new cat, or hamster, or rabbit.

Unfortunately, much of the book is like this — leaving you wanting more than it’s giving. There was a lot of detail of wartime, “guests” of the zoo, Jan’s work in the Underground resistance — it just never felt like there was enough. Jan spent a good amount of time in an internment camp at the end of the war and the reader is told nothing about it. The book is called The Zookeeper’s Wife so I can almost see why we aren’t told. But we should then be told more about Antonina’s experience without her husband. How she felt, how she dealt with two young children at the time, the stress of also continuing to help people escape when the price would likely be her, and her children’s, life. There needed to be more about the amazing efforts of the Zabinskis’ and other’s survival at this time, and less about the animals that were, unfortunately, a casualty of war.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is about to be a film, and I think the adaptation will focus on the things of this book that worked well, and will leave out those things that were distracting. I look forward to seeing it. This is a story that should be told and known, and the small shortcomings of the book should not deter you from experiencing it.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

*Cover art from Amazon.com

 

Betrayal: The Crisis in The Catholic Church

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Review #31: Non-Fiction

Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church by The Investigative Reporters at The Boston Globe

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This is a collection of articles and research done by the “Spotlight” staff at The Boston Globe that brought the groundbreaking story of a Catholic priest child molestation epidemic to light. Betrayal is the work that spurred the film “Spotlight,” named for the department that was tasked with shedding a spotlight on these monumental stories.

And if you’ve seen “Spotlight” and think that was the whole story — you’d be astronomically incorrect.

This book is more of a companion to the film — a jumping off point with the hard facts and figures leading up to the story that is told in “Spotlight” and continuing on after the final credits rolled.

There is so much devastating information contained in these pages. Several times I had to stop reading and just take a breath, knowing these are real people, the story is real, the numbers are real…and this collection is not even the tip of the iceberg. It’s heartbreaking from start to finish, but that is what makes it so necessary. The harder the stories are to tell, they harder they are to hear, the more we absolutely need to hear them.

It was mind blowing how deep the corruption went, just how big this whole thing was. And knowing it was merely one city, one community that was put through so much…it seems nearly impossible to fully grasp the magnitude.

Betrayal is expertly written. It does not shy away from or sugarcoat the most horrific details. It says what needs to be heard. And it is far from one sided. As any good piece of journalism will do, Betrayal delves into the life and experiences not only of the victims and their families, but it largely examines the background of the perpetrators and their families, as well as the Church itself, and the community. It is well-rounded and all encompassing in its research. It is structured to give us the history of religious institutions, the Catholic church and the men in charge, this huge Boston scandal, and the epidemic that seems to be prevalent even now.

Betrayal is a truly tough read, but such an important one that it really cannot be missed. To make a safer future, we must fully know and understand the past.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

*Cover art from Amazon.com

I Will Find You

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Review #30: Non-Fiction

I Will Find You by Joanna Connors

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At times equally terrifying and engrossing, I Will Find You grabs ahold of you from page one and demands to be read until the end. Joanna Connors writes with such honesty and bravery about such an uncomfortable topic for readers, and an extremely traumatic one for her, that you can’t help but keep turning the page. We don’t want to to know, and yet, we have to know.

This must be how Connors felt when she decided to research her rapist 30 years after the attack. She documents her experience and tells her survival story with courage and grace, even allowing the reader into the moments she decided she needed to tell her children what had happened to her, something she thought she would never do. Connors brings us along on her journey to find peace, and does it beautifully and intelligently.

Being a journalist, it is no surprise that this book is extremely well written, well researched, and unbiased — amazingly so. It is spectacular the way in while Connors is able to research and write about a man who brutally raped her, as if he were any other person she were covering for a story. She speaks to his family and friends, people who were involved in her lawsuit and other cases against him, and stays mostly neutral.

Though she does explain who she is and why she’s interviewing them to some of the man’s family, mainly Connors just tries to find out who he was, and maybe why he did what he did to her, and to others. In doing so, she touches on so many important and topical issues. This book sheds light on institutional and socialized racism, sexism, domestic abuse, victim blaming, and the failure of our current justice system to really do anything about any of them. I Will Find You is so much more than one woman’s search to understand her rapist and to find closure from her one experience.

Joanna Connors perfectly recounts her rapist’s life, the actions that lead to his attack on her, shedding even more light on the idea that crime begets more crime, violence, more violence. He lived in poverty, was addicted to drugs at a young age, was subjected to domestic violence and a violent life on the streets. Though none of this makes you sympathetic to the man who committed such gruesome acts of violence against Connors and others, it does make you pay more attention to the underlying causes of such acts; it makes you see how society both creates criminals and punishes them for it.

In heart-pounding, stomach-wrenching, thought-provoking prose, Connors gives us an awakening not to be missed.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars.