The Namesake

I’ve been really trying to branch out in my reading. I feel like there are so many amazing pieces of literature out there that I have missed. So, I posted a question on the Great American Book Club FB page asking for recommendations of more “important” books about different cultures and ethnicities. I was thinking along the lines of books by Khaled Hosseini, who I just love. Thankfully, the kind readers on the FB page gave me hundreds of suggestions. When I got my Kindle Unlimited subscription, this book was one that I was able to get. I had heard book things about it but really was unfamiliar with this one. And I can honestly say it’s been a really long time since I enjoyed a book written so simply and so beautifully.

The story begins with a couple getting married and moving to the US. His mother, Ashima, is very nervous about being away from home with her unfamiliar arranged marriage husband but makes the best of it. Once their son is born, they anxiously await a letter from their ancestor who, by tradition, names the baby. The letter never comes, so they are forced to select for him. In their Bengali culture, babies have two names- a “good” name and a nickname. The good name is for school, paperwork, etc and the nickname is how their friends and family name them. His nickname is Gogol, after the author, who his father has an emotional connection to. When they place Gogol in kindergarten, they are then forced to pick his good name and settle on Nikhil, although Gogol refuses to answer to it.

The story follows Gogol, mostly, and his struggles to find his place in his world. He, like most kids, wants to blend in and be accepted and is constantly embarrassed by his parents and their cultural differences. He is forced to visit family in unfamiliar countries for months on end. He leaves home for college, desperate to find himself and who he really is. He falls in and out of love, finds a job, and deals with life.

This book is spectacular and captivating in the most simple of ways. It’s just about a man and trying to figure out life. There’s no crazy plot mystery, so hidden twists, just a good character book, and I absolutely loved it. I’m not like Gogol because I am not torn between two cultures. My family has been in American for generations. But that didn’t matter. I still wanted to read about his life. Books like this are so important for representation. Just because I’m not Bengali-American doesn’t mean I didn’t see myself in Gogol at times. But, I imagine, to people (not necessarily Bengali, but of any one of two cultures) who do deal with, a book of this beauty must be of great comfort. Seeing yoursel fin a book, a tv show, a movie, is life-afffirming, and we need so much more of it.

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A House at the Bottom of the Lake

Back on Prime Day, Amazon was giving its members a subscription to Kindle Unlimited for 99 cents. I jumped right on this deal and figured I would be able to find something from my hundreds of books long wish list that was available on Unlimited. I clicked on every single title (Amazon needs to make some changes to what info you can see on the wish lists) and found that 11 of them were on Unlimited. I also learned that you can only borrow 10 titles at a time.

I sorted the titles by length to create an order in which to read them, and this little novella ended up first. I’m a HUGE fan of the author, Josh Malerman. I’ve read and reviewed Bird Box and Black Mad Wheel and Unbury Carol and loved them all, Bird Box being my favorite. I was really excited to dive (pun intended) into this one.

James and Amelia are teenagers who are on a first date boating on a lake. They take a few harrowing narrow tunnels and find a hidden lake. As they paddle around, they notice there’s a house below the water. They hold their breaths, dive, and look around. It appears as if the house has been lived in with fixtures, furniture, knick-knacks, and working lights. Yep, under the water.  Clearly, something fishy (yep, pun intended again) is going on.

The teens can’t get enough of the house. They are magnetically drawn to it, getting scuba gear, and making their explorations just about every day. The power the house has over them begins to invade their “away from the lake” lives. I loved this book. After Bird Box, this was my favorite story of Malerman’s. He is such a great slow-burn horror writer. Instead of gore, he pulls in with suspense and mystery. I look forward to reading a lot more from this talented guy.

A River in Darkness

I really like memoirs, but it seems like most of them are just the same struggles- abuse, depression, drugs, etc. Those stories are important, and I have no problem with them, but I feel like I’ve read enough of them to last me awhile. I have started branching out and trying to read books written by and about other cultures, beliefs, ethnicities, etc from around the world. I received this book from the Kindle First program and was expecting a harrowing tale of escape. I didn’t get that, but I was riveted by the story anyway.

The author, Masaji Ishikawa, is half Japanese (from his mother) and half Korean. As a child, his father was emotionally and physically abusive, but the family had a stable life in Japan, but when Masaji was 13, his father forced the family to move to North Korea. The family gave up their stability for extreme poverty. They were the lowest caste and worse, returnees, which is the lowest of the low. His family went through hunger like you can only imagine surviving on weeds at times, sickness, struggle, and misery. Life in North Korea is nothing like what the pictures lead us to believe. Unless you are in the upper class or extremely wealthy, life is pure torture.

Masaji survived over 30 years and had a family of his own. He was fortunate enough to escape (because the punishment is death if caught) and made his way to Japan, always looking over his shoulder. However, he is still fighting to get his wife and children out of North Korea.  The majority of the story is about living in North Korea and the hardships rather than the escape, which made the entire book harder to stomach. The horrors that the North Koreans face is astounding. This was a very moving book that will stick with me for a long time.

Red Queen

Hoooo, boy. I just don’t even know what to say here. That’s not true. I know exactly what to say, but it’s not good. I really REALLY wanted to like this book. A friend recommended this one to me after learning about my frustration with recent YA books.  So many of them are just awful. Terribly obnoxious main characters, uncreative plots, etc. I was expecting this one to be great. However, I was so disappointed.

Mare is a Red, meaning she has red blood, an is poor and looked down upon, as all Reds are. She is trying to avoid being drafted by the army, so she conconts this crazy plan which doesn’t work. She’s caught by the Silvers, so named because they have silver blood and are wealthy, but in the process she learns she has powers, as many Silvers (but no Reds) do. Here’s the big gaping plot hole: The Silvers decide to tell people she’s a Silver, but didn’t know her true identity and was raised as a Red. Do you see the hole? If she had ever cut herself as a kid, she would immediately know what color her blood is. Assuming she is raised as a Red, wouldn’t one cut to see silver blood make her think “hm, this isn’t what I was expecting…” and then she would have confronted her parents? Because NO ONE wants to be a red when they are really a silver…..

The rest of the book was okay. Mare poses as a Silver for awhile, crazy things happen where the secret Red Guard tries to overthrow the government, Mare is betrayed by someone, then doubly betrayed by another. It’s just ridiculous. Once again, another YA book is hyped and doesn’t live up to the expectation. Once. Again.

Please, readers out there, find me a good series. I’m begging you.

A Study in Charlotte

I’ve been listening to this book for a couple of months, so I’m going to do my best to remember it well enough to give it a review, but I will simply say this book was so much fun. The premise is a clever one, imagining that Sherlock Holmes and his assistant/caretaker Watson were real people and have modern-day descendants. The story is told from the perspective of James Watson, a new student at a private school in the Northeast. He runs into Charlotte Holmes and the chemistry begins. They strike up an uneasy friendship but are forced into trusting each other due to some unpleasant events that happen on the campus.

Charlotte is stubborn, an addict, but brilliant. Jamie is just trying to figure out what is happening, how involved Charlotte is, and what has happened in Charlotte’s past with the Moriarty family since Charlotte refuses to talk about it at all.  And as Sherlock has his brother, Mycroft, Charlotte has an older brother, Milo, who is smug and annoying, but a fun character.

Charlotte uses her keen sense of perception to follow the clues and solve the crimes. The author, Brittany Cavallaro, wrote a tight plot that kept me guessing. Of course, there were red herrings, as to be expected in a story as this, but the chemistry between Jamie and Charlotte, not romantic, but more like one between the actual Sherlock and Watson was the best part. I had no idea what to expect with this book but really loved it.

Menagerie

Every now and then I read a book that I downloaded from Amazon for free. I’ve found some really great ones like the books by Todd Travis Creatures of Appetite and Trophies The Hail Mary and the Starborn Uprising series (these aren’t currently free, but worth the $5. If you buy the books individually, they may be cheaper) and the first Henry Binns book, 3am, by Nick Pirog. I’ve also read some really horrifying ones like the 314 trilogy and the After the Cure books. In any case, there some really great free books out there. I recommend signing up for Bookbub and Bookscream and Book Riot. Each of these services will email you links to free or deeply discounted books, some of which are current bestsellers!

Menagerie by Kristy Tate is the story of a girl who can talk to animals. This isn’t nearly as bizarre as it sounds. This plot point is woven in fairly well. Lizbet and her mother live on an islolated island and a mysterious visitor arrives. Lizbet wakes up to find her mother near death, bleeding from her head. She’s able to get help, but Lizbet has nowhere to go. Her mother’s true identity is quickly revealed at the hospital, and Lizbet finds an aunt and grandmother she never knew she had. There are parts of the plot involving a romance with a friend of the family, uncovering who her father is, why her aunt hates her so much, selling her grandmother’s ranch, and of course, still being able to talk to animals.

This book was okay. I didn’t love it, but I have read worse when it comes to free books. I think with some editing and fleshing out of the plot and characters this book would be better. If you stumble across it for free, you might as well download it, but don’t get your hopes up.

Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson

I’m a bit of a true crime junkie. I really don’t know what this says about me, but I’m not going to dig deep into my psyche to figure it out. I do know that I’m not alone in this fascination. One day, I was listening to my local sports radio station, and they were interviewing a local author named Jeff Guinn. (Yes, I realize this isn’t sports, but they do other stuff to, like win several Marconi awards, so I give them a pass) about his new book about the Jonestown Massacre. During the interview, Guinn mentioned he had also written a book about Charles Manson. I hopped over to Amazon, put both those books on my Kindle wish list, bought the Manson one when it dropped to $1.99, and found a spot for it on the 2018 book challenge in the “book about a villain” category.

I’ve seen prison interviews with Manson and some of his followers. The followers have clearly learned their lesson, ashamed and remorseful, but Manson remained a lunatic. I was intrigued as to how he got to the point of delusion, and this book was a great place to start. Manson had a terrible childhood. Absent father, absent mother, being shuffled around, in and out of trouble, had very little love given to him, on and on. He left home at a young age, trying to make it on his own. He ended up in California with a mission to be a famous songwriter/musician. He was able to latch onto one of the Beach Boys for awhile, but that didn’t work. He got hooked up with a record producer, but that didn’t work, either. Mostly because Manson’s music was awful. However, Manson was a charmer. During the 1960s, everyone was free, using drugs, wandering around, especially in Cali. Manson was charming and persuasive and clever, so he gathered a “Family” and bid them to do his work. Mostly, he had them steal food from dumpsters, but they also sought out wealthy kids with credit cards to join the Family. Charlie was emotionally abusive, especially to the women, but they couldn’t leave him. They were essentially verbally beaten into submission.

Once the Beatles came out with the White Album (side note, not its real name, but universally referred to as such, also my favorite Beatles album), Charlie knew they were speaking directly to him. It was his job to create “Helter Skelter” in the world. As punishment for the record producer not signing him, Charlie sent his followers to the producer’s former residence to create chaos. This is where Sharon Tate (8 months pregnant with Roman Polanski’s baby) lived. She and some friends were brutally murdered. The next murder was of a business owner and his wife. They weren’t famous, but Charlie wanted the police to think the Black Panthers were behind them, so he had them stage the crime scenes.

After much confusion, the Family was discovered after having left evidence behind, and trials were a circus. Some members turned on others to get immunity, but there are still a few in prison. Overall, this was a very well researched, fascinating book. I’ve never read anything about Manson, so I was pleased at how well documented his life was. I highly recommend this one for anyone interested in Manson’s life.