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

Flora

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

 

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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

 

Armada

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Review #29: Fiction

Blogging for Books #10

Armada by Ernest Cline

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I am a HUGE fan of Ready Player One and could not wait to get my hands on a copy of Armada when it came out. Now, Ready Player One is much more focused on ‘80s pop culture as a whole: the music, the movies, the games, the style, etc — which is why I dug it so much. I was born right at the end of the era and sometimes feel I was born a little too late. ‘80s pop culture runs through my veins. I knew Armada is set in the current day, and that it is much heavier on video game knowledge and interest rather than strictly ‘80s culture, but nonetheless, it did not disappoint.

The story revolves around Zack Lightman and his friends who are high school-aged kids that are obsessed with two online multiplayer games; ARMADA and TERRA FIRMA. Both games focus on the human race defending itself against an alien invasion — ARMADA focuses on air defense and TERRA FIRMA on ground defense. Players remote-pilot unmanned drones in ARMADA and unmanned ATHIDS in TERRA FIRMA. Because I’m not a heavy gamer, there are definitely some aspects of Armada that went over my head a little. Some of the gamer language and slang was unfamiliar to me, and some of the descriptions of the games themselves as well as technology and materials used in the games were harder for me to visualize. However, Cline does a pretty good job of making this world and the concept accessible to everyone, and definitely to those who are already gaming nerds.

At the beginning of the book, Lightman notices a spaceship that looks a lot like the alien crafts in ARMADA flying over his school. Chalking this up to too much playing time, as well as some inherited insanity (his father was convinced of a video game/government training program to defeat real alien invasion using civilians — a lot like the idea behind Ender’s Game which Cline touches on several times throughout the book). Zack’s father was killed on the job when Zack was only an infant.

Eventually things happen that Lightman cannot easily explain away, and he and his friends (some of the best ARMADA and TERRA FIRMA players in the world) have to come together to figure out if Zack’s father’s theory holds any water…and if it does, what that means for them and the survival of the planet. If aliens were attacking, would a world full of gamers be enough to stop them? Would civilians trained to fight with nothing more than video games step up to the challenge? And if a government cover up were true, what actually happened to Zack’s father all those years ago?

There are a ton of ‘80s (and ‘90s) references thrown into this book, from old-school video games, to movies and music, and books. Cline once again uses this pop culture to drive his plot, giving us glimpses into his inspiration for the book, his characters, and also just throwing us a big nostalgia party. He references great hair metal bands; movies and TV shows like The Karate Kid, Star Trek,  E.T., Star Wars, and The X-Files (and on and on); and movies like Men in Black, Contact, and The Last Starfighter. This book brings back some great decades of pop culture and ties it to current-day gaming and the continued idea (and question) of whether or not the truth is out there…

Armada is action packed, fun from beginning to end, and a true first-person like book that turns the reader into Zack Lightman. Cline makes you feel like not only are you along for the ride, but you just might be the one driving the ship.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

*I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

J: A Novel

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Review #28: Fiction

Blogging for Books #9

J: A Novel by Howard Jacobson

J A Novel

Jacobson’s novel, set in a possible future, revolves around the lives of those after WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. Though we are never actually told WHAT HAPPENED, it seems to be some sort of genocide, based on religious beliefs or genetics — it was pretty vague with no real facts of any kind to grasp on to to anchor yourself as a reader.

No one (or supposedly no one) in this future knows WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, their real history/pasts; they don’t talk about it, there’s no nostalgia for things, people, or times — no keepsakes or heirlooms. Everyone is very sheltered.

Ailinn and Kevern meet (by accident, we think, but learn otherwise), they become lovers and begin a relationship. Kevern’s teacher and Ailinn’s guardian seem to be hiding something from the both of them. Kevern is highly suspicious of everything and everyone; he thinks he’s being watched. Ailinn has been running from an imaginary foe (her fear) forever. They make a very neurotic and dysfunctional pair.

When a woman in town, her lover, and her husband are all murdered, Kevern becomes a suspect because he once kissed the woman. The detective does not actually suspect Kevern, but uses this investigation as an excuse to keep tabs on him, to learn more about him, to search his home. This investigator is a conspiracy theorist about WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, and thinks Kevern and Ailinn are pieces to the puzzle he’s working on.

Jacobson creates interest and intrigue from the beginning, drawing us into the mystery of WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, and what Kevern and Ailinn have to do with it. He weaves in a bit of romance with Kevern and Ailinn’s relationship, but that flame fizzles out, as does the mystery of WHAT HAPPENED as the story progresses. I really like the book to begin with, but around the middle to the end, the story lost speed and appeal. Some passages and flashbacks seem disjointed and ultimately unimportant to the novel as a whole and pull readers away from the main story Jacobson is telling.

Throughout, Jacobson uses beautiful language, however, some areas felt over-the-top and forced…like these large words and intricate sentences were unnecessary to get the point across. Different language and different tones would have helped the story flow more smoothly.

The book is described as 1984 meets Brave New World, which is a pretty spot on description. That connection does not disappoint.

Overall, I’m not really sure anything actually happened. The story (of the past) was semi-told through flashbacks of Kevern’s family, Ailinn’s family, and Ez’s (Ailinn’s guardian) family, among others. The events of the current story seemed to be setting up an ending that would have been more definite, more certain. Some plot points were started and never wrapped up, leaving us with the feeling that they weren’t important to the novel at all — why include them if they won’t be material in the end? A future to this future was hinted at but not put into motion enough to feel content with it as an end to this novel.

J: A Novel starts with a lot of potential, but falls a bit flat in the end.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

*I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

The Martian

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Review #27: Fiction

Blogging for Books #8

The Martian – Andy Weir

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The Martian is a bestselling novel and a hit blockbuster film…and for good reason. Weir creates a fascinating cast and throws them into a not-so-sci-fi setting. As humans, we’ve always been curious. We’ve explored and traveled and asked questions about everything since the beginning of time. The universe, outerspace, is no exception. Even today we’re exploring the planet of Mars nearly to the degree that Weir imagines in his novel.

On top of an exciting and action packed space thriller, The Martian is both funny and endearing thanks to the group of characters Weir creates. Mark Watney, the astronaut that is stranded on Mars after a dust storm where his crewmates think him dead and must leave to save themselves, is smart, courageous and, at times hilariously human. Everyone can relate to being in a situation where they have no idea what to do, how to start accomplishing the task they must complete, and must dig deep within themselves to succeed. Mark Watney is everyman, which allows any reader to relate to him, and become engrossed in his story of survival.

The only criticism I could possibly find with the text is that it is very science and math heavy. I understand the need to have these details to really create an immersive and realistic story about outerspace and rocketships. A friend of mine described this book as “Math, Math, Science, Explosion, Math, Science, Dad Joke.” She wasn’t too far off. There is a lot of heavy mathematics and science equations and descriptions that at times took me out of the story and felt almost as if I was skimming a text book. However, the overall story, plot, and character development that surrounds these passages more that make up for the glazed over reading I had to do to get through them.

Again, this book is a bestseller, a huge blockbuster film…you don’t need me to tell you to read it. But you should.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

The Little Paris Bookshop

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Review #26: Fiction

Blogging for Books #7

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

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This novel is a love letter, an ode, to the beautiful, magical, healing power of books.

The story follows a man, Monsieur Jean Perdu, who, as a self-proclaimed literary apothecary, uses his wealth of knowledge of books and how they comfort people to help them while suppressing his own pain surrounding the love he lost nearly two decades prior. Monsieur Perdu owns a bookshop boat on the Seine. He refuses to sell books to buyers unless the book is the one he feels they need – he can read their souls and know what they need to read in that moment to find comfort. However, to find comfort himself, he needs to do more than read the right book.

When he reads a letter his former lover left when she disappeared 20 years prior, Perdu finally knows the tragic truth behind her departure, and to truly move on and find peace and new love, he must embark on a journey that takes him across France. On a whim, he packs up and sets sail with his floating bookshop to find closure. With a wonderful cast of characters he meets along the way, Perdu not only reaches the end of his journey, but finds a family, and himself, along the way.

In The Little Paris Bookshop, we are taken on an expedition of love, loss, and literature through the beautiful French countryside. With the various tales of heartbreak, lovesickness, and hope from the supporting characters, Perdu finally finds his comfort, while any reader surely finds theirs in these pages. The Little Paris Bookshop describes the beauty of a book, the solace one finds in literature, while expertly providing that service itself.

Several passages throughout have stuck with me; it is a book that I found exactly when I needed it, which is precisely the kind of literary happenstance that drives Perdu’s life’s work.

And if all of that wasn’t enough, there are little extra surprises at the end of the book – a few recipes for some of the delicious meals that are prepared through Perdu’s trip across France, and also a selection of book recommendations and the people/situations they are best suited for from the Book Doctor himself.

The Little Paris Bookshop is a delightful book, with a beautifully tragic, heartbreaking, hopeful, and heartfelt story. I am sure those who need this story will find it.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

*I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Father of Lies

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Review #22: Fiction

Father of Lies by Brian Evenson

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This novel is dark. It is disturbing. It is uncomfortable. And all of it is completely necessary.

Though written nearly two decades ago, it still speaks truthfully and unreservedly about religion, about cult-like followings, about perversions of the mind. It is difficult to read in many passages, but truly sheds light on using religion and blind faith as excuses to harm others (in this case through pedophilic sexual assault, murder, and incest), and as excuses to trust and protect the unworthy against your better judgment.

Evenson does not hold back. Though less graphic than it probably could have been, there is enough here to make your skin crawl—and it should. This is the point of the novel.

Readers follow first person accounts of Provost Fochs as he rapes young members of his congregation, even murdering one of them, and uses his faith and the name of God to justify his actions. His superiors in the religious community believe him when he denies any involvement in these heinous acts, rationalizing his position in the church as proof enough that he couldn’t be responsible for such evil deeds. However, this simply points out the blind eyes turned in religious communities; Fochs’s superiors didn’t want him to be guilty, so he wasn’t. Eventually, some truths become known to these superiors, and since they’d stood by Foch for so long, they couldn’t now turn their backs on him for fear of damaging the name of the church.

Through the novel, Fochs sees a therapist because he begins acting out and speaking in his sleep, worrying his wife with the things he’s saying—things relating to the horrible acts committed against the young members of the community. Readers are given glimpses into these therapy sessions where Fochs relays his actions as if they were merely dreams, spurred by the news coverage of the events. He claims his dreams are a manifestation of the guilt he feels at letting harm come to the youth of his community, that he is unfit to be Provost since he could not protect his congregation.

Eventually his therapist, Dr. Feshtig, feels Fochs’s “dreams” to be more than that, that Fochs is in fact guilty of the events, and reaches out to Fochs’s family and the authorities to try to bring him to justice.

Through the book, Fochs speaks to what first seems an alter-ego, a man he refers to as “Bloody Head”, a person who encourages Fochs to commit his crimes, and to cover them up, all the time insisting that it is God’s will for Fochs to act this way. It is unclear what this “Bloody Head” character is—alter-ego, demon perhaps—and until the end of the book, is not seen or spoken to by anyone other than Fochs. Until the time when Fochs’s wife interacts with this character, it seemed as if “Bloody Head” represented mental illness, personality disorder of some kind in Fochs. But that cannot be the case if he becomes a flesh-blood-character outside of Fochs in the end.

CAUTION, SOME SPOILERS AHEAD

This character becomes increasing confusing when he, through the vary violation to Fochs that Fochs had inflicted on others, miraculously (in Fochs’s mind) gets the investigation of Fochs as the murderer of a young girl stopped. Though Fochs is forced to give a blood sample after a tip is called in, and his blood is a match for some found at the murder scene, somehow, Fochs doesn’t hear from the police again. Evenson doesn’t even explain what happens with the case at all—if it was dropped, if the girl’s brother (who was the prime suspect before Fochs) was charged—it just goes away.

In the end, even though Fochs’s superiors in the church know what he’d done, but because they fought against his accusers previously, they were forced to stay silent to save face. Fochs is transferred to a religious college to remove him from the specific community, and in theory, from a younger congregation. As Fochs himself says in the end, this move is simply a new beginning.

Though there are parts of the story that were confusing, felt unfinished or unexplained, this novel is wonderfully written. It’s very raw, and very real. It calls attention to so many real-life situations—and not just as they relate to religious communities. There are instances of sexism, of victim blaming, that resonate outside of this specific narrative.

Father of Lies is a work of fiction, but the contents of the novel are all too real, and should surely make any reader stop and think about religion in society, of religious leaders who are seen as holy and thus above the law, how we, as humans, see evil where we want to see it and ignore it where we don’t. I would not call this a pleasant read, but it is fascinating in its own way. Do not come into this novel unprepared, but definitely do read it.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

*Cover art from Amazon.com