Sunday, 28 June 2015

You by Caroline Kepnes

It’s incredible how much life has changed over the past 15 years; not in obvious ways, for the most part our day to day lives are much the same. But when it comes to technology, primarily social media, it’s a whole new ball game. Everyone uses social media, older people love the way it enables them to connect to old friends and family; it’s a novelty. For young people it’s a way of life; it’s the way they know how to share with friends, it’s the way they know how to connect to the world. The problem with this is that social media is so ingrained in young lives, in all of our lives really; that it’s hard to control it, hard to control what others put out in our names;  more importantly and terrifyingly, it’s impossible to control what other people do with that information. I’m guilty of it for sure, I don’t put a lot of thought into what I put online except to think about whether it will embarrass me or not. I don’t really consider that other people may be interested in what I put out there – that someone may choose to use that against me. My boyfriend on the other hand, he is constantly reminding me that the cyber world is a dangerous place, that there are creeps out there who know how to use social media to their advantage, to extrapolate information and use it against you. And when you think about it, take a look at all that you put out there for the world to see, without even thinking about it…. It’s a little scary.

Social media at its creepiest is the modus operandi of Caroline Kepnes’ terrifyingly creepy antagonist in her debut novel You. Guinevere Beck walks into to the book store where Joe works and his world is flipped upside down. She is perfect. The absolute perfect woman for him, and he will do everything he can to make her see that he is the prefect guy for her. He grabs her name off her credit card, which she uses to pay, instead of cash, so that he can see her name, of course. Joe accesses her facebook and twitter accounts to follow her and ends up being able to figure out her address. Beck, as she is more commonly known, is an extrovert of the highest order. Her apartment faces the street and Beck never closes the blinds, no matter what activities are taking place in there. Joe uses all that he learns of Beck to orchestrate another ‘random’ meeting… the quotations referring to the fact that Joe spends all of his free time following Beck everywhere, making it easy to ‘run’ into her. Beck makes it easy by almost killing herself, giving Joe the opportunity to swoop in and rescue her. One stolen phone later, Joe now has everything he needs to keep tabs on Beck 24/7 and get to know everything about her, via constant life update emails to her 3 best friends. The only problem is that Beck is surrounded by people who aim to keep Joe out; Benji, the rich entitled playboy who is stringing Beck along and Peach, Beck’s rich, entitled best friend from childhood. “It’s amazing how you can see money in people. His chick-smooth hands have been softening for centuries before he was born and his thick hair never thinned from nights in the wind, days bent over shoveling snow or sand or ash. Something about that hair, something about the slope of his nose proves that life is unfair.” Luckily Joe has a plan for them.

This book is creepy to the max! I’m amazed by how many woman reviewed this book said that they liked or identified with Joe. He is one of the creepiest characters that I have ever read. He methodically manipulates events to entrench himself into Becks life, meanwhile telling himself how much she deserves him, how most people might think there is something wrong with him, but really he is just saving her. I think that maybe the fact that Beck is not the most loveable girl makes it easier to feel for Joe? Maybe, that is, if Joe hadn’t done this before. But he’s just looking for love! you cry… What's truly terrifying is how easy it is for Joe to get what he wants. Anything he wants to know about Beck she puts right out there in the open for anyone to see, she constantly tweets about where she is going or what she is doing. The more I read about Beck the more I dislike her and the more I don’t trust her… there is definitely something go on with her that we don’t know yet, and I think that might end up making her and Joe a better pair than one might think!

The truth is though; I am quite enjoying the novel. It’s incredibly well written, and even though Joe is a deviant, he is a well read and eloquent narrator. Beck is an aspiring author and Joe works in a bookstore, so there are plenty of book references, which makes me happy. Told from the point of Joe talking to Beck (in his head); telling her everything that is going on, narrating his life and love to her. It can be confusing at first, but it doesn’t take long to catch on. This is definitely a book of its times though; there are numerous topical references, which I think help make the book as potent as it is, but I’m not sure how well it will translate in 20 years, when the references are no longer relevant.  I have the impression that Kepnes knows this though. The book has way more impact the way it is, and maybe sometimes it’s better to make a huge impact than try to attain longevity? Up to this point I don’t really have any complaints, although there is one point where Joe and Beck are travelling to IKEA and Joe references one of my favourite movies – 500 Days of Summer, which contains a romantic IKEA love scene. Kepnes talks about Joseph Gordon Levitt, one of the main characters, but refers to the other character, Zooey Deschanel as ‘the chick’. To be fair, this only bothers me because Zooey Deschanel is one of my favourite actors! I figure if this is my biggest complaint, it must be a pretty good book.

So. All in all I am really looking forward to finishing this book. There have been some pretty good revelations and twists, and I have a feeling there are some even bigger ones in store. The book is incredibly readable and deliciously creepy. It’s also a bit of warning – be careful what you send out to the world… you really have no idea what’s going to come following you back home.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

The City & the City by China Mieville

 Living in Canada I have been pretty lucky to be able to experience a society that is full of a mishmash of cultures. I have seen the positive influence of other foods, artwork, clothes, religions and ways of life. I’ve seen people embracing their favourite bits of different cultures and creating something new and beautiful. I’ve also seen a darker side of the culture clash; neighbors fighting about opposing views and whole communities ostracizing those with a different belief system. I would say that these are both common phenomena around the world today. With the ability to travel as far and wide as we do, it’s easy enough to pick up and move to the other side of the world. Blended communities, towns and even countries are the norm nowadays, forcing people to deal with other cultures whether they want to or not.

Imagine though, if you will, a city that doesn’t accept the new blended status quo; a city that doesn’t want to blend, doesn’t want a mixture of cultures, of people, of foods or architecture or clothes, even colours. A city so divided that it literally divides. Imagine living in this city where two different cultures exist, but are so separated and divided that they remain unseen by each other. You see your town, the others see their own, and you all agree to ignore, to unsee what doesn’t belong to you. Neighbours can exist side by side, but the rift between them is as big as the biggest ocean. They never see each other, and do everything they can to avoid even knowing the other exists.

If this all sounds ridiculously complicated, well… that’s because it sort of is. This is actually my second time reading China Mieville’s The City & the City. I started reading it ages ago and was so confused I needed to put it down. The synopsis states right off the bat that there are two parallel cites living in the same space, but it’s hard to tell whether these cities exist in a parallel universe type situation, or if they actually are just the same city. Turns out it’s the latter, and I really think that knowing that before you start this book can make a huge difference in understanding it.  Once you get past the confusion though, the book drags you in; hook line and sinker.

At its heart, The City & the City is a good old fashioned noir detective story. A girl has been found in one of the cities (Beszel), brutally murdered. Detective Tyador Borlu of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad is on the scene and determined to do everything he can to avenge this girls death. Things get complicated when it turns out that the girl is actually living in the other city (Ul Qoma) on a student visa. Detective Borlu assumes that this must be a case of breach, when a person illegally goes from one city to the other, and tries to hand off the case, but the truth turns out to be much more complicated, so Borlu must team up with his Ul Qoman counterpart to solve the case. 

At the midway point, Borlu has just crossed into Ul Qoma and is getting to know his new partner, Qussim Dhatt, and they have discovered that another girl may be missing. I have no idea who the murderer may be, but it’s not something that I am fretting about like I normally would. I am thoroughly enjoying the ride this book is providing. I love the gritty aspects of the murder story; Beszel is run down and gritty itself, creating the perfect atmosphere for murders and mayhem. Borlu is a great character, we are learning enough of his backstory to flesh him out, without being overwhelmed, and he is enough of a rebel to create a little excitement without going overboard. He talks constantly about all the things that he ‘unsees’ which goes a long way to help the reader understand the dynamic between the two cities. I also love, LOVE the world that Mieville has created with Beszel and Ul Qoma. Beszel, as I said earlier is more run down and seedy; Ul Qoma is prosperous and clean. The difference reminds me of walking downtown in any decently sized city and ignoring the seedy underbelly that no respectable citizen wants to acknowledge. We ignore, or unsee, the homeless, the dirty and shabby, those down on their luck, the crumbling buildings and empty storefronts, covered in graffiti and broken glass. Mieville has fully imagined the technicalities that a divided city like this would require. There are areas that are mostly one city or the other, and then areas that they share – crosshatched – where it’s easy to see the wrong thing, or walk into the wrong building. There is the mysterious force “Breach” which controls and oversees all pertaining to the divide of the two cities. Go where you are not allowed and you may never been seen again, but everyone will know that Breach got you.

The City & the City may start out complicated, but it with a little patience I promise you won’t even remember your confusion after a while and will get sucked into the mystery. I am really hoping that that last half of this book follows the same path – as long as I don’t see the wrong thing, of course.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue

Full disclosure: I did not like Room. I did not like Room so much that I didn’t even finish it. I understand what Donoghue was trying to do with Room, I get that it was amazing that she was able the channel the voice of a 5 year old who knows nothing about the real world. But – it drove me nuts. I couldn’t stand reading the story told from the 5 year olds perspective.  Everyone else I know loved it though – so maybe I am just totally wrong here – but it was literally one of the worst books I attempted to read last year. HOWEVER! I have looked over the rest of Donoghue’s bibliography and, other than Room, her books certainly appeal to me; based on their blurbs anyway.

I first noticed Frog Music at Chapters one day by its bright and fun cover, upon closer inspection the synopsis sounded pretty cool so I added it to my list. Luckily (or usually annoyingly) my list is hundreds of books long and I found myself kind of avoiding Frog Music. It’s been on display in the library forever, but I was still nervous about picking it up, thinking about how much I hated Room. Well. The other night, while volunteering at the library, I didn’t have time to look through the books, so I grabbed Frog Music off the shelf and crossed my fingers.

Frog Music is the story of Blanche, an exotic dancer/prostitute, her lover Arthur, his companion (lover?) Ernest and Blanche’s new friend Jenny, all living in small-pox infested, boiling hot San Francisco in 1876. Blanche, Arthur and Ernest were all Circus performers in France who decided to come to San Francisco after Arthur fell from the flying trapeze and effectively ended his circus career. Blanche meets Jenny one night after Jenny runs into her with her bicycle (click here for an image). At first Blanche is annoyed and repulsed by Jenny – with her short haircut, her pants (Jenny will only wear pants, a fact that has had her fined on multiple occasion and even thrown into jail every now and again) and her brash ways. At the same time, Blanche finds her intriguing; she’s never really had female friends before and Jenny has a way of getting under her skin, in good ways and bad; and it also seems that Jenny may have come from France as well, although long ago. Jenny is different from anyone Blanche has ever met. She is confident and lives life her own way. She isn’t bogged down by possessions, by people, by her past. She lives the way she wants, she catches and sells frogs to the local restaurants, she refuses to play the submissive woman in a time when that’s what was expected and demanded of women, she is not afraid of anyone, no matter their station in life “I say it again; you like everything disgusting.” “You mean Maria?” She does, but that sounds harsh. “I mean her story.” “I just like stories,” Jenny says with a shrug.“

Jenny has a way of getting inside Blanche, she questions everything, she doesn’t stop when a story seems painful, or if it’s obvious that people don’t want to talk about it. However, she never reveals anything about herself. Blanche knows nothing about her, which becomes blatantly obvious, much to Blanche’s chagrin, after Jenny is murdered (don’t worry, this happens super early in the book – I am not giving anything away!) Blanche is certain that she knows the killer, and that she was the intended target. But in trying to figure it all out, she begins to wonder if maybe she should have gotten to know Jenny better, and if maybe it wasn’t about her at all.

The story alternates between the fateful meeting of Jenny and Blanche, and Jenny’s murder; one month later. Blanche and Jenny are on the run from Blanche’s ex-lover when Jenny is shot through a window one night at the hotel they are hiding at. Blanche has only narrowly missed being killed herself, which leads her to believe that it is Arthur who was the killer, or his faithful and creepy companion Ernest. Blanche does have a very good reason for suspecting Arthur – but the rumour is he’s out of the city. Blanche would love nothing more than to run away, never see San Francisco again, but there is one very big thing stopping her from leaving. Arthur has their son, although Blanche is not sure if the baby is dead or alive at this point, and she can’t leave until she knows for sure. “Would Arthur have hired some neighbor or one of their old lodgers to keep an eye on P’tit while Papa was off murdering Maman?”

I didn’t actually realize before I started reading (although it says it on the front flap!) but this story is actually based on a real life story. I must say that so far I am enjoying it, although I definitely have some issues. Donoghue has painted a realistic portrait of the place and times; (well as far as I know…. Which I mean, I know nothing, but it feels good to me!) she has engaged all of my senses with the book, she talks about the smells and the sounds, the characters are always singing. The City (as it’s referred by his inhabitants) becomes one of the characters. The big problem that I have with the book so far is Blanche, which goes back to my problem with weak characters. Blanche is devoted, completely and utterly devoted to Arthur; she dances and prostitutes herself out to keep Arthur and Ernest in money for their bohemian lifestyle. Meanwhile they do nothing except gamble and sleep with other woman and spend her money. Blanche literally does everything Arthur wants her too, including sleeping with Ernest – which seems to be mostly Ernest trying to get physically close to Arthur. Arthur and Ernest have a very strange relationship; it bounces between brotherly, parental and at times, dominant. Either way, Ernest is also totally devoted to Arthur, and I think that Arthur plays Blanche and Ernest off of each other. They both vie to be the most important one in his life. It bothers me that Blanche lets Arthur walk all over her, though I know those are the times. At the same time, she does notice that things are off. She hides money from Arthur and has also hidden the deed to the house, as it is in her name. In fact, the deed is hidden behind a painting that makes Blanche a little uncomfortable, but is one of Arthur’s favourites – ‘a strange picnic in which a naked woman sits on the grass between two black-jacketed dandies”.  

My only other small issue is that since Blanche is from Paris, she uses a lot of French throughout the story. It’s not a huge issue for me, I know what most of it means, but I find it distracting when I don’t. Donoghue has put a glossary at the back of the book, which is great – but it distracts the flow of the story when you have to flip to the back. I’ve also noticed that sometimes she translates in the next paragraph, which I think is definitely the way to do it when using another language. I wonder what other people think about this, if it bothers them or adds to the flavour of the story?

I am looking forward to finishing the book. There are still a lot of unanswered questions – to the point that I really have no concrete guesses about what’s going to happen. Because the story is told in alternating time lines, there are still things about the lead up to Blanche and Jenny running away that I don’t know. From what I know so far, there really has not been any sort of real reason for Arthur to have lost it as he did. The big problem right now is Blanche’s attempt to be a good mother – Arthur cannot really handle that Blanche’s attention has been diverted from him “Her man and her child. How can Blanche weigh them against each other, and why should she have to?” But there has to be more to it than that? I also need to know more about Jenny, which I am assuming that we must get – there is just too much built up about her mysterious past for it to not have any connection whatsoever to the murder. Although apparently in real life the murder was never solved, so maybe the book will end on a cliffhanger… which would be pretty awful... so I really hope that doesn’t happen. The book is at a pretty good place right now – it could end up being great, but depending on how various things turn out... this may not get as high of a rating as I am anticipating.