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Review: Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies

by Liane Moriarty

“Pirriwee Public School

. . . where we live and learn by the sea!

Pirriwee Public is a BULLY-FREE ZONE!

We do not bully.

We do not accept being bullied.

We never keep bullying a secret. 

We have the courage to speak up if we see our friends bullied. 

We say NO to bullies!”

I love it when I’m turned on to an author I have not previously read. The majority of the books I decide to read either come from a recommendation or from stellar cover art that catches my eye as I browse my local book store. As Big Little Lies premiered on HBO earlier in the year, I was bombarded with social media postings surrounding the new hit mystery-dramedy and asked many times – “Have you read this book?” My answer was sadly a resounding NO. Not only had I not read this book, but I had never read anything by it’s author, Liane Moriarty.

I have been a reader since I was a very young child, using books as an escape from a scarring childhood and bringing them on as lifelong companions into my teenage years and adulthood. I devour books like some devour cheesecake (not that I would know anything about devouring cheesecake. . .) but I also understand that many are not the same way. Reading can, for some, be an intimidating and daunting task. Most believe they don’t have the time to read or that reading is hard. One great thing about a good book is that it will sometimes be turned into a television show or a movie, and people always seem to have time for those. . .so it’s kind of like reading, only watching. I always hope that when someone sees a show that they really love, that they will go back and read the book. The book is always better. Always. Seriously, ALWAYS. The little nuances that you love about the characters are always magnified in books, and if you have seen the program before reading, then you have a wonderful visual image to prop up in your mind and help you move along. It’s like getting to know someone on a deeper level. It’s going on a second date. It’s just better.

I watched the HBO series before reading the book. I spent a weekend binging on the 7-hour miniseries after being hooked and intrigued after the first 15 minutes. I would have watched the show in it’s entirety regardless, but add in some Alexander Skarsgård? Even as a (really) bad guy? I’m all in. No questions asked. And I am happy to report that I enjoyed the series as much as I loved the book.

Big Little Lies chronicles the lives of 3 women over the span of a few months.

” ‘Oh, sure, sure. I’m not saying I didn’t have support. I had my parents to help me too. But my God, there were some nights, when Abigail was sick, or when I got sick, or worse, when we both got sick, and . . . Anyway.’ Madeline stopped and shrugged. ‘My ex is remarried now to someone else. They have a little girl about the same age as Chloe, and Nathan has become father of the year. Men often do when they get a second chance. Abigail things her dad is wonderful. I’m the only one left holding a grudge. They say it’s good to let your grudges go, but I don’t know, I’m quite fond of my grudge. I tend to it like a little pet.’ 

‘I’m not really into forgiveness either,’ said Jane. 

Madeline grinned and pointed her teaspoon at her. ‘Good for you. Never forgive. Never forget. That’s my motto.’ “

Madeline Mackenzie is my spirit animal is a 40-year old mother who doesn’t believe in talking on the phone in the car. She also doesn’t believe that anyone should have to put up with seeing their ex-husband and his (beautifully young) new wife on a regular basis, but unfortunately some things must be endured. With grace. Humility. And in designer footwear. She works part-time to save her sanity, but her life primarily revolves around her two young children with Husband #2 and her teenager with Husband #1. Madeline always tries to maintain an air of positivity and confidence, even when dealing with the minutia that dominates the schoolyard.  She never backs down from a squabble or a perceived injustice — in fact, a good catfight is what gets her blood flowing best.

” ‘Then, years later, I go to this barbecue for a friend’s thirtieth birthday. There’s a cricket game in the backyard, and who’s out there batting in her stilettos, all blinged up, exactly the same, but little Madeline from across the road. My heart just about stopped.’

‘That’s a very romantic story,” said Jane. 

‘I nearly didn’t go to that barbecue,’ said Ed. Jane saw that his eyes were shiny, even though he must have told this story a hundred times before. 

‘And I nearly didn’t go either,’ said Madeline. ‘I had to cancel a pedicure, and I would normally never cancel a pedicure.’

They smiled at each other. 

Jane looked away. She picked up her mug of tea and took a sip even though it was all gone. The doorbell rang. 

‘That will be Celeste,’ said Madeline. 

Great, thought Jane, continuing to pretend-sip her empty mug of tea. Now I’ll be in the presence of both great love and great beauty. 

All around her was color: rich, vibrant color. She as the only colorless thing in this whole house. “

Jane Chapman is a single mother to a beautiful and sweet little boy. She and Ziggy have moved around a lot but have finally settled on a charming seaside town that’s sure to chase all of her worries away. Jane is ready to begin her life with her son anew, but the demons of her past have followed her like a lingering fog. The darkness that shadows her begins to creep towards her son when he is accused of physically assaulting a little girl and fellow classmate on the first day of school. The girl’s mother, alpha-female Renata, makes it her mission to make things as difficult as possible for quiet and docile Jane. Madeline is quickly in her corner, taking up her cause as enthusiastically as she would if she were fighting over a pair of leather pants at a designer sample sale. The secrets that Jane carries are heavy burdens that sit right on her chest at all times . . . she will never be able to forget the abusive and humiliating circumstances surrounding the night Ziggy was conceived, and she is beginning to wonder if wicked behavior is genetic.

” Did she love him as much as she hated him? Did she hate him as much as she loved him? 

‘We should try another counselor,’ she’d said to him early this morning. 

‘You’re right,’ he’d said, as if it were an actual possibility. ‘When I get back. We’ll talk about it then.’

He was going away the next day. Vienna. It was a “summit” his firm was sponsoring. He would be delivering the keynote address on something terribly complex and global. There would be a lot of acronyms and incomprehensible jargon, and he’d stand there with a little pointer, making a red dot of light zip about on the PowerPoint presentation prepared by his executive assistant.

Perry was away often. He sometimes felt like an aberration in her life. A visitor. Her real life took place when he wasn’t there. What happened never mattered all that much because he was always about to leave, the next day or the next week.

How could they admit to a stranger what went on in their marriage? The shame of it. The ugliness of their behavior. They were a fine-looking couple. People had been telling them that for years. They were admired and envied. They had all the privileges in the world. Overseas travel. A beautiful home. It was ungracious and ungrateful of them to behave the way they did.

‘Just stop it,’ that nice eager woman would have surely said, disgusted and disapproving.

Celeste didn’t want to tell her either. She wanted her to guess. She wanted her to ask the right question.

But she never did. ” 

Celeste Wright has it all – stunningly good looks, a devoted husband with a limitless bank account, and two perfect twin boys. But while everything looks immaculate to the outside world, the people closest to her would be shocked if they could see what life is really like just underneath the surface. Celeste and her husband are participants in a very abusive relationship full of physical violence, nerve-wracking panic, and misguided guilt. Perry presents such a flawless picture to those around them that Celeste has to wonder if anyone would even believe her if she tried to genuinely seek help. She’s trapped in her glass house, wrapped in diamonds and furs that hide the bruises but don’t erase them.

All three of the women have children who are attending the picturesque and peppy Pirriwee Public School, and that is the common denominator that brings them together, but certainly not what keeps them them from drifting apart. Each of the women seems to take a piece of the other in an effort to complete themselves in some ramshackle way: Madeline craves the wealth and devotion Celeste is blessed with, Jane envies the confidence and general sparkle of Madeline’s loud life, and Celeste longs for a loving relationship and a quiet atmosphere much like the lives her friends lead. If the three women would truly be honest with each other, perhaps they would see that none of their lives are the faultless and exemplary facade perpetually on display.

The novel changes hands with point of view between the three women and is peppered with testimony from outsiders of their group within the community. Readers will soon discover that something nefariously criminal has occurred within the small confines of the elementary school crowd – a murder. But who has been murdered, by whom, and for what reason, remains a mystery until the end, shocking not only readers but also the town. The undercurrent of small lies turns into a tsunami of bigger ones, and no one is safe from the wreckage.

I give Big Little Lies 5 out of 5 stars, and I can honestly say that I loved this book. The humor was spot on – from the accurate descriptions of elementary school carpool and the ridiculous politics of the schoolyard, to the jealousy surrounding a young wife and an ex-husband, I was left chuckling more than once. I was particularly tickled by the exchanges between Madeline and her ex-husband; I could wholeheartedly relate. In complete balance to the humor, the darkness of the abusive relationship between Perry and Celeste was portrayed in a very interesting light; I truly felt as if the author did her research and due diligence. The voice of Celeste was as similar to a woman caught up in horribly abusive situation as it could be. Moriarty delved into not only the physical aspects of abuse but also the mental and emotional particulars, which are sometimes even more damaging than the bruises left behind. Readers might be interested in an interview given by Alexander Skarsgård, the actor who plays Perry, where he describes his take on the controversial character and his approach to the acting — found here.

The mystery and the way it was presented was unique and while I admit, I figured out who did what and to whom pretty early on,  that didn’t stop me from wanting to know the details. I also found that the show followed the book as closely as possible, with a few extra storylines that didn’t take away from the original manuscript. I am anxious to read more from the author and already have several of her books on my list, including My Husband’s Secret which comes highly recommended to me by several bookish friends.

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Review: All The Missing Girls

All The Missing Girls

by Megan Miranda

I couldn’t sleep in the house, worrying that there was something I was missing — someone who’d been in my house, possibly out there right now.

I came out to the back porch sometime after midnight for the cooler air, the clearer head. I sat on the back steps but kept the outside lights off — I felt too exposed otherwise, with nothing but my dad’s words echoing in my head:

The woods have eyes.

I stared off into the night — the shadows against the dark — drifting in and out of consciousness. The shadows shifting as clouds passed in front of the moon. The dark shapes in my peripheral vision, creeping like monsters. “

Nic left her hometown right after high school graduation, trying to put the past behind her. Trying not to look back.

Trying not to remember that her best friend went missing. And that they never found the body.

And desperately trying to forget the boy she was leaving in the rear view window.

But a decade later, Nicolette gets the phone call she’s spent years dreading – the one from her brother, asking her to come home for a while.

Daniel needs help preparing their childhood home to sell. The fixing up, the cleaning out, and the paperwork. He also needs her to convince their stubborn and confused father to sign the documents that will allow the sale to happen. Nic has been home very few times since she left a decade before. One of those times was to shuffle her father off to an assisted living facility, his dementia finally forcing his time of living alone to come to a close.

She hates coming home. It reminds her of everything bad that she left behind. And Tyler.

All the Missing Girls is a thriller that fans of perplexing Gone Girl and gritty The Girl on the Train will enjoy. In the spirit of what-the-hell-just-happened writing, the story is told mostly in reverse – something I had to get used to but quickly found riveting. Reading about the consequences of the events of the day before before reading about *today* kept me hooked; I anxiously turned page after page, trying to figure out what happened. And even better – I wasn’t able to figure it out, like I am with so many other mysteries.

The day that Nicolette returns home, another girl mysteriously goes missing. This time, it’s the beautiful and young blonde who lives behind Nic’s familial property. The dense but familiar woods between the houses is where the search begins, and what is found (and not found) spins a tale of deceit, blackmail, and the truly unexpected. The disappearances are related, as far as Nic can tell, but figuring out what they have in common is going to be a difficult and convoluted task.

 ” The cops were all from around here, had been here ten years ago when Corinne disappeared. Or the’d heard the stories through the years, over drinks at the bar. Now there were two girls, barely adults, disappearing without a trace from the same town. And the last-known words from Annaleise were about Corinne Prescott. 

It made perfect sense if you came from a place like Cooley Ridge. 

If the entirety of Corinne’s official investigation existed inside that single box I pictured at the police station, I’d imagine this was all the evidence you would see: one pregnancy test, stuffed into a box of candy and hidden at the bottom of the trash can one ring with remnants of blood pulled from the caverns; cassette tapes with hours of interview reports to sort through — facts and lies and half-truths, wound up in a spool; Corinne’s phone records; and names. Names scrawled on ripped-up pieces of paper, enough pieces to pad the entire box, like stuffing.

Until recently, I imagined that this box was taped up and hidden in a corner, behind other, newer boxes. But now there’s the feeling that all it would take is a simple nudge for it to topple over, and the lid to fall free, and the names to scatter across the dusty floor. The box is exactly like it is in Cooley Ridge. The past, boxed up and stacked out of sight. But never too far away.

Open the top because Annaleise mentioned Corinne’s name and disappeared. Close your yes and reach your hand inside. Pull out a name.

That’s how it works here.

That’s what’s happening.  ” 

Although Nic has made it perfectly clear that she now has a flawless and faithful. rich and handsome fiancee (the huge rock on her finger proof of his love for her and the money he has in the bank), her ex-boyfriend just can’t stay away. Tyler keeps showing up at the house and against her better judgement, she can feel the familiar spark shooting off in her belly. Back when she was a teenager, she and Tyler thought they could take on the world; and seeing him now transports her to that exact same headspace. Being around the easy and comfortable Tyler all while being bossed around by her big brother has her flashing back to  those clear and crisp nights when they were kids; running around in the woods, crashing parties, and generally getting into teenage mischief. Nic and her brother Daniel were left to their own devices as they grew up, and the mismatch motley crew of friends they collected along the way were in much the same boat.

Corinne was one of those friends. She was beautiful. She was enigmatic. She was someone who could draw you in and make you want to stay, even while she was being cruel and cutting you down to the bone. But she had secrets.

Were they secrets that got her killed? No one knows. Maybe she just ran away. Maybe it was all a bitter joke. Or maybe it was something else.

When the second girl, the blonde photography student Annaleise Carter, goes missing, it’s like deja vu. All of the old suspects from Corinne’s disappearance a decade earlier are reluctantly brought back into the limelight and questions start spreading around the town. Was it Jackson, Corinne’s old boyfriend? Daniel, the not-so-happily married neighbor? Tyler, the playboy around town? Everyone is on edge and uncomfortable, and it doesn’t help that Nic’s dad is starting to run his mouth about things that he surely knows nothing about.

As Nic begins to unravel the worn threads of what happened on the night she came home to rural Cooley Ridge, other things about the past begin to come to light. And as she gets closer to finding out what really happened to Corinne, she pushes herself deeper and deeper into the strangling arms of the town she fought so hard to get away from all those years ago.

” ‘Goodbye, Nic.’

‘Your daughter is beautiful,’ I said.

She started leaving, tossed her hair over her shoulder, gave me one last searing look. ‘I hope she isn’t like us.’

I heard the ride beside us, the gears shifting, metal on metal as the cars came to an abrupt stop and began spinning the pposite way. The squeals of delight from inside. I tried to focus on that, on every individual sound, so I wouldn’t think about me and Bailey and Corinne oat the top of the Ferris wheel. 

I must’ve seemed so pathetic to Bailey, standing here pretending not to know what she was talking about when that whispered word had become louder and louder over the years. So that sometimes when I thought of Corinne, it was the only thing I heard. 

Her cold hands at my elbows. Her breath in my ear. Bailey’s laughter, tight and nervous, in the background. The scent of Corinne’s spearmint gum. Her fingers dancing across my skin. Jump, she said. 

She told me to jump. “

While I found myself confused at times because of all of the backtracking, I really enjoyed this book. I’d love to read it again knowing what I know now because I bet I missed a lot. The author, Megan Miranda, did a beautiful job at holding the truth back from the readers until the very last second. What I loved most was that I really thought I had it figured out – that I’d solved the mystery – but it turned out I was only half correct. The twist thrown in wasn’t weird or wonky, like in some books I’ve read, but made complete sense once you really thought about it. Miranda has up until this point been a YA author, and this is listed as her first psychological thriller. I’m now pumped to read her second, The Perfect Stranger, that just came out on April 11.

I give All the Missing Girls 4.5 out of 5 stars. It’s an easy read that will keep you guessing all the way up to the end (or beginning, depending on how you want to look at it).

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Recommendation: Outlander

Outlander

by Diana Gabaldon

“ Ye are Blood of my Blood, and Bone of my Bone,
I give ye my Body, that we Two might be One.
I give ye my Spirit, ’til our Life shall be Done. ”

 The Second World War is at an end and British Army nurse Claire Randall can finally pick things up where they left off with her husband, Frank. On a second-honeymoon spent in cozy Inverness, she spends her days gathering interesting herbs and flowers along the rich hills and lush valleys while Frank becomes immersed in the task of researching his family lineage. After hearing of an ancient ritual involving a secret cult of women around a set of standing stones on nearby Craigh na Dun, Claire decides to sneak down and have a look, finding herself mesmerized by the dancing and traditions of years long past. But when she backtracks to the area to recover something, she gets more than she intended, essentially falling through the stones into another era.

Dazed and confused, Claire rushes through the thick trees in a panic, trying to find some semblance of normal. She runs into a man who looks uncannily like her husband, putting her even more off balance. Claire can tell by his uniform that he is from no time period even close to the one she came from, and she begins to suspect that she is stuck in some crevice of history. Captain Jack Randall spends the few moments they are together showing Claire that he and her husband, while they may look the same, have absolutely nothing in common. How her gentle Frank could be related to this brute of a man, she has no idea. Before the Captain can arrest her, he is knocked out by what appears to be some sort of band of Scottish bandits, and while she is initially grateful for the help, she is unwillingly taken as a hostage anyway.

Upon arrival at a secluded shack in the woods, her nursing skills are put to the test. One of the bandits has an arm out of socket and various other injuries. Under the tough and intense scrutiny of the rest of the supposed outlaws, she mends the man as best she can, all while trying to ferret information out of her captors. But as they suspect her of being a British spy, she does not get far in her queries, and is spirited off instead to their Laird’s home, Castle Leoch, despite her pleas to the contrary.

” ‘You’re hurt!’ I exclaimed. ‘Have you broken open your shoulder would, or is it fresh? Sit down and let me see!’ I pushed him toward a pile of boulders, rapidly reviewing procedures for emergency field treatment. No supplies to hand, save what I was wearing. I was reaching for the remains of my slip, intending to use it to stanch the flow, when he laughed. 

Nay, pay it no mind, lass. This lot isna my blood. Not much of it, anyway,’ he added, plucking the soaked fabric gingerly away from his body. 

I swallowed, feeling a bit queasy. ‘Oh,’ I said weakly. 

‘Dougal and the others will be waiting by the road. Let’s go.’ He took me by the arm, less as a gallant gesture than a means of forcing me to accompany him. I decided to take a chance and dug in my heels. 

‘No! I’m not going with you!’

He stopped, surprised at my resistance. ‘Yes, you are.’ He didn’t seem upset by my refusal; in fact, he seemed slightly amused that I had any objection to being kidnapped again. 

‘And what if I won’t? Are you going to cut my throat?’ I demanded, forcing the issue. He considered the alternatives and answered calmly. 

‘Why, no. You don’t look heavy. If ye won’t walk, I shall pick you up and sling ye over my shoulder. Do ye want me to do that?’ He took a step toward me, and I hastily retreated. I hadn’t the slightest doubt he would do it, injury or no. 

‘No! You can’t do that; you’ll damage your shoulder again.’

His features were indistinct, but the moonlight caught the gleam of teeth as he grinned. 

‘Well then, since ye don’t want me to hurt myself, I suppose as you’re comin’ with me?’ “

While under house arrest, Claire can think of nothing but finding a way back to the standing stones that brought her here – back to Frank. She is able to ascertain that she is trapped in the year 1743, in a precipitous and politically-charged Scotland. But although getting back to Frank and the 1940’s is occupying the better part of her mind, Claire is drawn to the russet-haired man she helped back in the shack. His name is Jamie Fraser, and in addition to being a resident horse-breaker at the castle, he is also the Laird’s nephew, a fugitive from the Crown, and a bit of a ladies man.

Because of her skills as a nurse, she is ordered to accompany Dougal MacKenzie and his men to collect rents around the area. Although she thinks this will finally be her opportunity to escape back to the stones, Claire cannot deny there is a hold on her here in the past. The trip to collect rents is an arduous one and full of all sorts of interesting characters. But Claire is not a fool; she can see that on top of the rents collected, Mackenzie is also soliciting funds for a Jacobite rebellion against the Crown. His tactics are, in her opinion, barbaric, and again she is drawn towards the young and roughy handsome Jamie Fraser. Much to her digress, Captain Jack Randall floats back into her life and begins to try and cause trouble, insisting that she is a spy that needs to be dealt with accordingly. While it is again disarming how much his face resembles Frank’s, their demeanor and character could not be more different. Jack Randall is cruel and sadistic, and to escape his evil clutches,  Claire is forced into a position that she does not want – she must marry a man for protection. Namely, she must marry young Jamie Fraser.

” It was a ‘warm’ Scottish day, meaning that the mist wasn’t quite heavy enough to qualify as a drizzle, but not far off, either. Suddenly the inn door opened, and the sun came out, in the person of James. If I was a radiant bride, the groom was positively resplendent. My mouth fell open and stayed that way. 

A Highlander in full regalia is an impressive sight — any Highlander, no matter how old, ill-favored, or crabbed in appearance. A tall, straight-bodied, and by no means ill-favored young Highlander at close range is breath-taking. 

The thick red-gold hair had been brushed to a smooth gleam that swept the collar of a fine lawn shirt with tucked front, belled sleeves, and lace-trimmed wrist frills that matched the cascade of the starched jabot at the throat, decorated with a ruby stickpin. 

His tartan was a brilliant crimson and black that blazed among the more sedate MacKenzies in their green and white. The flaming wool, fastened by a circular silver brooch, fell from his right shoulder in a graceful drape, caught by a silver-studded sword belt before continuing its sweep past neat calves clothed in woolen hose and stopping just short of the silver-buckled black leather boots. Sword, dirk, and badger-skin sporran completed the ensemble. 

Well over six feet tall, broad in proportion, and striking of feature, he was a far cry from the grubby horse-handler I was accustomed to — and he knew it. Making a leg in courtly fashion, he swept me a bow of impeccable grace, murmuring ‘Your servant, Ma’am,’ eyes glinting with mischief. 

‘Oh,’ I said faintly. “

Back at the castle as a newly married woman, Claire attracts not only new friends but also her share of enemies. While Jamie is keeping her occupied in most arenas, she finds time during her days to journey down into the village and make acquaintance with Geillis Duncan, a peculiar and somewhat eccentric woman, the two bond over their collected knowledge of herbs and natural remedies. There is more to Mrs. Duncan than meets the eye, and when the two women are accused of witchcraft, Claire learns something shocking about her red-haired friend.

After the unfortunate incident, Jamie and Claire flee to his childhood home of Lallybroch, and there stay under the care and judgmental eye of his older sister. Jenny is happy to have her little brother home for the time being, but she cannot help her suspicions about his new wife – Sassenach that she is. Jamie struggles with his desire to be man of the house and the ever-watchful eye of his stubborn older sister. He is eventually taken by British soldiers and in a reversal of roles – Claire must save him. . . from none other than Captain Jack Randall.

What comes next is a story not just of romance, but of deep-rooted love and genuine affection, of undeniable courage and the upmost honor, and of the understanding that using your wits and intellect is imperative. Claire finds herself thrust into an unknown and initially unwanted world, but she soon finds that the past can bring you to your future in more ways than one.

The Outlander Series is a set of novels that reach epic proportions, spanning 8 (and counting) novels and several companion books. They are not easy reads due mainly to their size (the debut novel clocks in at over 625 pages, in the large paperback version, with each novel growing larger and larger) and also to their somewhat elevated vocabulary. It is very obvious that the author, Diana Gabaldon, is an educated and intelligent woman, and the fact that she has spent many hours doing extensive research on each historical fact is extremely clear. Over the year that it took me to read all 8 of the novels and the Lord John Grey accompaniments, I did occasionally find myself groaning at all of the intricate detail. But my grumbling wasn’t enough to ever cause boredom or make me put the books down. It is very easy to fall under the spell of Claire and Jamie, and the rich history that surrounds them. It’s also very easy to stay trapped in that spell.

Outlander has been made into a popular television series by the Starz Network, and is currently filming it’s third season, on location. The first two seasons followed the path of the first two books closely, with few adjustments. The costumes are beautiful and the scenery is impressive, making it difficult for anyone to not want to book a plane ticket straight to Scotland in an attempt to fall through the stones.

The order of the Outlander books can be found on Diana Gabaldon’s website. Lord John Grey’s books are wonderful additions to the world that any fan will come to love, and I highly recommend them as part of the series proper. I also recommend the few novellas featuring other characters from the books, and they can be found separately or in compilation form on Amazon.

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Recommendation: Wicked

Wicked

The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

by Gregory Maguire

“ ‘I shall pray for your soul,’ promised Nessarose.

‘I shall wait for your shoes,’ Elphie answered. “

Most everyone has heard of the Tony Award-winning musical, Wicked. It is a world-renowned production that has been performed in both domestic and international theaters for over 16 years, to increased delight of audiences of all ages. However, what I am surprised to find, is that most of the patrons of the arts have no idea that their favorite musical is based upon a book – and not just loosely. The successful musical is the creation of a heavily adapted script born from the novel by Gregory Maguire. The author’s alternative telling of the much-beloved tale surrounding two witches in Oz and a curious brown-haired girl who comes for a visit, is captivating in both forms of art.

Each of Gregory Maguire’s books are unique. He is a master of taking a story that readers feel comfortable saying that they know inside and out, and then spinning it in a provocative manner, leaving the reader both bewildered and beautifully stunned. He has spun gold from confessions of ugly stepsisters and rewritten the perspectives of evil queens with sympathy and caring. Many authors have taken their turn at twisting a fairy tale or two, but none do it with the depth or finesse of Maguire.

Good and evil cannot always be taken at face value, and Wicked, the novel, proves that point. The story is centered around Elphaba, a girl with emerald skin and an untidy outlook on the world around her. The narrative begins with her unconventional conception and birth, and continues it’s chronicles of a hard childhood wrought with jealousy and insecurity. Elphaba is not what her parents had intended in a child and she reacts as such to their constant undercurrent of disappointment, becoming surly and almost savage in her growing years.

“ People who claim that they’re evil are usually no worse than the rest of us. . .

It’s people who claim that they’re good, or any way better than the rest of us, that you have to be wary of.”

As a teenager growing up in “the good part of Oz,” Galinda had expectations for how her life would turn out. She’s pretty, she’s popular, and she has a knack for getting what she wants. To her horror she finds herself having to become roommates with a common green girl, but is surprised when a friendship slowly begins to blossom. Elphaba is a thinker and an activist, and she soon begins to bend the flighty Galinda to her ways. The girls become enraptured by the teachings and fierce cause of a specific professor, but when he is found murdered, both girls spin a bit out of control in their own individual ways. Galinda adopts a new name, Glinda, and throws herself into the studies of sorcery and magic. Elphaba secretly continues the professor’s research, attempting to gain new knowledge in the genetic similarities between animals and humans – which subsequently was the cause for which the professor was murdered.

As it so happens with teenage girls, a couple of boys are thrown into the mix. Boq is an addition to the small group from Elphaba’s hometown, and he hopes that his connections with the green girl will help him get closer to her attractive blonde counterpart. Fiyero is a boy who will have a lasting connection in the veins of Elphaba’s life (throughout the entire The Wicked Years Series, of which there are four novels), and play an important part in the intricately intertwined branches of her future.

Graduation nears and job prospects come to the friends and Elphaba’s younger sister. Nessarose. They are asked by the college’s mistress to travel to different corners of Oz as “ambassadors of peace.” But while something just doesn’t seem right to Elphaba and she begins to fight against the intimation of nefarious magic that seems to be twisting it’s way through her life, Glinda does just the opposite. After further disagreement, it is obvious that the once unlikely friends are closer than they ever thought possible, but also that they cannot agree on the very basic aspects of good and bad. They decide to choose their own paths and depart from one another’s lives.

“ And girls need cold anger.

They need the cold simmer, the ceaseless grudge, the talent to avoid forgiveness, the side stepping of compromise.

They need to know when they say something that they will never back down, ever, ever. ”

The story continues to follow Elphaba, who is five years older and fully immersed in an underground group trying to garner rights for animals and overthrow the corrupted Wizard of Oz. After a reconnection with a man from her past, the two become embroiled in a heated love affair, the fruits of which will not be fully revealed until many years later. But when the love of her life is kidnapped and murdered, Elphaba throws herself into sanctuary and is despondent, relying on the kindness of strangers to keep her going.

In a strange turn of events, Elphaba comes to live with her lover’s abandoned family, bringing with her a young boy. As time passes and the emerald-skinned woman grows in her powers and research, she battles with the internal struggles of being good while also having evil tendencies. She cannot navigate the waters of loving and being kind, and she has no idea how to show her true feelings. The scars of her unhappy childhood have stayed with her and she is unable to trust or believe in the good in people. Perhaps this is because almost everyone in her life has always had such a hard time believing that there is good in her – a green-skinned atrocity.

“ People always did like to talk, didn’t they?

That’s why I call myself a witch now: the Wicked Witch of the West, if you want the full glory of it.

As long as people are going to call you a lunatic anyway, why not get the benefit of it?

It liberates you from convention. ”

When Dorothy eventually makes her appearance, readers will find her nearly insufferable. She is but a pawn in the larger game of chess and as such, plays her part to a productive end. The Wizard pulls all of the strings, after all.

Wicked, the novel, is a richly woven tapestry of mystery, political drama and intrigue, complicated love, and the battle within one’s self between good and evil. It is truly Maguire’s masterpiece, and each book is as enjoyable as the one before it, pushing readers deeper and deeper into the strange recesses of Elphaba’s world and it’s spurs. The land of Oz is not as it seems, and the twists and turns throughout the land of Munchkins, witches of East and West, and talking animals is paved in yellow brick – only to be broken apart by a wayward tornado from Kansas.

I give Wicked 4 out of 5 stars, and recommend it to anyone who has a love of Oz and it’s mysteries but I also forewarn fans of the movie and L. Frank Baum books to keep an open mind. This book takes some attention, so readers should be sure to have time and energy to devote to reading it. The story is wrought with new words, new characters, and new places to visit, and as such is a bit heavy at times.  I do not recommend this book for readers under the age of 18, as there are several sexually deviant situations and highly suggestive scenes.

” And there the wicked old Witch stayed for a good long time. 

And did she ever come out?

Not yet. “

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Review: The Heiresses

The Heiresses

by Sara Shepard

” The girls were the future of Saybrook’s Diamonds, and they had to act accordingly. They were to live their lives with the utmost decorum, smile for the cameras, speak several languages, hold many degrees, cultivate the art of conversation, and, most important, refrain from doing anything that might bring scandal upon the family. 

And yet they had. All of them. It had been a summer of secrets. Secrets that set them apart and made them tighten inside — secrets that they hadn’t even told one another. As they glanced around the sweeping cathedral, they each suddenly feared a bolt of lightening from above. They were the heiresses, all right, the sparkling princesses of a family that might or might not be doomed. But by Edith’s standards, they hadn’t been behaving like heiresses at all. 

And it was only a matter of time before the world found out.  “

It was a sultry and sticky summer night when Steven Barnett mysteriously died.

The waves lapped around his pale body and he was dressed all in white, as was befitting the annual end-of-summer bash at the Saybrook family mansion in Meriweather. The family compound off the coast of New York was full of anyone and everyone who wanted or needed to be seen, including the most famous of the Saybrook family legacy – the beautiful and glamorous heiresses.

However, that fateful summer changed the course of each of their lives. For some,  in more ways than one. And years later, when another mysterious death takes one of their own, the heiresses think back to that summer and have to wonder. . . is this the notorious Saybrook Family Curse at work, or is it something more sinister – like murder? Like. . . revenge?

Poppy Saybrook is the stylish and sophisticated President of Saybrook’s Diamonds, her sparkle and pedigree on par with the cut and clarity of the top-shelf diamonds her family’s company provides to the rich and famous. She has it all – the handsome husband, 1.5 children, a luxurious apartment overlooking Central Park, and the top spot at work. Even though her parents’ died in a plane crash and she is an only child, Poppy never feels lonely, not with her cousins and their troubles to keep her company. But things are beginning to feel frosty between the impossibly beautiful married couple, and Jason’s eyes are starting to wander.

” The kitchen was large and airy, with new marble countertops and Brazilian cherry cabinets. Poppy, dressed in a gauzy batik-print silk popover and skinny pants that made her legs look a million miles long, stood at the island, arranging the tray of chopped-up locally grown vegetables she’d bought at the Union Square farmer’s market, her twenty-month-old, Briony, balanced on her hip. “

Rowan Saybrook has known Jason for most of her adult life, meeting him during their mutual time at Yale. She’s a successful house attorney for the family business but goes home alone to an empty apartment, with only her duo of dogs to keep her company. Being single was never her plan, but the one man she wants is not available, and so she feels she has no other choice but to throw herself into work. . . until one evening, when she’s had too much to drink, and instead, throws herself into the arms of a forbidden man. When Rowan wakes up the next morning, she is horrified to find the much-married man she’s been pining over for years still in her apartment, especially when she finds out that the man’s wife has thrown herself off the balcony of her office onto the dirty and crowded streets of New York – to her death.

” Of course, in time those wee the girls who got steady boyfriends, while Rowan had just acquired a string of make-out buddies. She tried to change her ways, oping what she saw in the paired-up girls she knew, but becoming a softer, needier, whinier version of herself just didn’t work. And so she settled into the role of the quintessential guy’s girl. “

Corinne Saybrook is getting married.  She has the perfect, custom, Chantilly lace gown. She has the most impeccable location. She has just the right man to fit by her side. But when the catering company she’s had booked for months pulls out at the last minute and her fiancee brings in another chef, she is shocked to see a face from her past. A face she’s been trying to forget for more than five years, and a face that dredges up memories of a stolen summer, a broken heart, and a child given up for adoption. Corinne begins to watch as her flawless life garners crack after crack, and she is surprised to find that she doesn’t mind as much as she thought she would.

” Corinne pushed her dirty-blonde hair behind her ears. She’d been with Dixon since their sophomore year at Yale. Well, except for that one summer just after graduation — but Corinne had always liked a story with a happy ending, and she’d neatly trimmed that interlude from her personal history. “

Aster Saybrook couldn’t care less about her sister’s upcoming wedding. She has places to go and people to be seen with. She takes the job of socialite very seriously and makes it her purpose in life to spend as much of her family’s money as she can, her ostentatiousness rivaling that of fellow blonde heiress Paris Hilton.  When her father puts a stop to her incessant partying and forces her to get a job, she finds herself in the position of detective as much as a representative of Saybrook’s Diamonds. Aster becomes wrapped up in solving not one but two murders, and has to relive a summer she only looks back on with regrets.

” Aster teetered in on jet-black five-inch laser-cut booties. A hand-rolled cigarette dangled from her lips, the stench of tobacco overpowering the salon’s light floral scent. Her wet trench dripped puddles on the mahogany floor. Her fuchsia dress, also wet, clung high to her thighs. Though Aster would have still been striking even after a roll in a city Dumpster, there were circles under her large, luminous blue eyes, and her ice-blond hair was matted. She had a disoriented, used-up look about her. Corinne wondered if her younger sister had just emerged from a stranger’s bed after one of her typical all-night bacchanals. “

Natasha Saybrook renounced her title as heiress to the family fortune and struck out on her own, leaving her mark on the city in a very different way than her cousins. But why did she find herself so disgusted with the Saybrook’s Dimonds legacy? Too bad the cousins can’t ask her – Natasha is in a coma after a car violently and determinedly pushed hers off a bridge and she nearly drowned.

” But after Natasha disinherited herself from the family — never explaining why — she treated Rowan and the others like irritating pedestrians taking up the whole sidewalk on Fifth Avenue. “

With a nasty secret threatening to break the family and their illustrious business apart, the heiresses must get to the bottom of the mystery before it’s too late, bringing all of the skeletons out of the closet in the most public of ways. A nefarious website, The Blessed and the Cursed, is garnering heavy web traffic as the site chronicles every move the girls make, Gossip Girl style. The FBI agent in charge of the case is layered in lies and has a personal agenda. And a previously exiled red-head decides to reappear in the most powerful of ways, bringing the family together while simultaneously tearing it apart.

The Heiresses is an adult novel written by Sara Shepard, who is best known for her Pretty Little Liars Series for young adults; a series that has proven itself successful both in literary form and on the small screen, the latter of which is on its seventh and final season. I’ve never personally read any other of the other series by Shepard, but her bibliography is extensive, boasting four series and several other stand-alone books.

]I really enjoyed this novel, one that I picked up for $2 in the clearance section of my local Half Price Books. The story moved quick, and while I sometimes found it confusing as the point-of-view bounced back and forth between the heiresses in the beginning, they are all so vastly different that it didn’t take me long to catch up. The story was really fun and wild, reminding me a lot of Gossip Girl (the show, not the books. I’ve not read any of the novels).  This book would be great to read while on a road trip or vacation, as it moves along very quickly. It definitely falls into the chick-lit category, and I would save it for readers 18+ due to the sexual content.

I give The Heiresses 4.5 out of 5 stars – shaving off half a star only for the fact that I am seriously annoyed that the author has announced this is a stand-alone book and will not have a sequel – despite it being categorized as a “series” on the author’s website. It left off with one heck of a cliffhanger, and I am dying to know what happened! I can’t believe the author would leave her readers hanging like that – shame on you, Sara Shepard! I’m still going to hold out hope!

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Review: Orange Is The New Black

Orange Is The New Black

My Year In A Women’s Prison

by Piper Kerman

” As Nina headed down the hill to the FCI, I felt a real sense of loss. She was the first real friend I had made, and I wouldn’t have any contact with her at all. Prison is so much about the people who are missing from your life and who fill your imagination. Some of the missing were just across the prison grounds — I knew a half-dozen women who had sisters or cousins down the hill in the high-security prison. One day while walking back to work after lunch, I glimpsed Nina through the back gate of the FCI and went crazy jumping up and down and waving. She saw me and waved too. The truck that patrolled the prison perimeter screeched to a halt between us.

“Cut that shit out!” came sharply from the guard inside. “

If you are a subscriber to the multi-faceted and revolutionary streaming site Netflix, then the odds are that you’ve seen Orange is the New Black. The popular show chronicling the lives of women in the prison system is currently the most watched show on the pay-for-play programming service and it’s not hard to understand why. The lives of the women involved are richly woven together, their stories unique and sometimes heartbreaking, and viewers binge watch season after season with impending hope, fear, and optimism.

Orange is the New Black was adapted for television via a book, as most good programs and movies are. The lead character in the show is based upon the real-life author of the memoir, Piper Kerman.

As a freshly graduated 20-something in the early 1990’s, Piper was living in New York and trying to figure out what to do with herself. As all of her friends begin to bundle themselves off into professional jobs in the city or head out of the country for backpacking expeditions, she finds herself prowling around with a group of stylish and laid-back lesbians, one of which catches her eye. Piper falls into step with playful, wisecracking, and older Nora Jansen, (based on the real life Cleary Wolters) and begins to follow her around the world like the proverbial puppy dog. They take exotic vacations to sandy and sunny destinations, all on Nora’s dime. . . and the dimes, they are a’plenty.

Soon enough, Piper learns where Nora is getting all of her money. She’s a drug smuggler, running a game for a drug lord who is flying under the radar somewhere in Africa, and Piper is completely swept up in the intrigue, eventually running a few loads of cash herself. But once the novelty and adrenaline burns off,  it doesn’t take long for the whole scene to make Piper uncomfortable and she hightails it out of there, finding her stomach is just not made for the criminal lifestyle.

It is nearly a decade later when Piper receives a visit from the FBI, learning that she has been indicted on charges of drug trafficking and money laundering, having been named in the case by prior witnesses and other criminals involved, and after another six years of waiting, she is finally sentenced to fifteen months in Danbury, a federal prison in Connecticut. The hip and adventurous girl of 22 grew up to become a mature and law-abiding citizen, engaged to a Jew, and a freelance producer living in New York, but Piper must do the time for her crimes of her youth. She self-surrenders to the prison after weeks of binge eating her favorite foods and drinking as much good coffee as she can, and becomes Prisoner #11187-424 in a place full of women from all walks of life.

Prison is not what Piper was expecting – but it’s not as bad as movies made it out to be either. She’s not in a place with murderers or hardened and seasoned criminals. Most of her dorm and bunk mates are drug offenders like herself, and mostly for the same offenses she carried out. She meets women from multiple avenues of life and in a variety of stages in age, and she is surprised at the camaraderie and heavily maintained levels of respect the women all share for one another. There are strict guidelines to follow – newbies are not allowed to make their own beds, don’t ever get caught out of your dorm during count, never, ever go into the shower without shoes on, negative opinions about the food are forbidden, cleaning on cleaning day is not an option – and Piper is able to navigate her time with integrity, making unexpected friends a long the way.

” Larry came to see me every week, and I lived for those visits — they were the highlight of my life in Danbury, a chest-filling affirmation of how much I loved him. My mother drove six hours round-trip until I begged her to come every other week. I saw more of her during the eleven months I was at Danbury than I had in all my previous adult years. 

Yoga Janet and Sister Platte always had lots of visitors, aging counterculture hipsters and rosy-cheeked lefties in homespun Guatemalan cottons, respectively. Sister Platte was frustrated by the BOP’s effective censorship of her visiting list — international peace figures had tried to gain permission to visit her and had been denied. 

Some women never got visits because they had effectively said goodbye to the outside world. No children, no parents, no friends, nobody. Some of them were halfway around the world from home, and some of them didn’t have a home. Some women stated flatly that they did not want their people to se them in a place like this. In general, the longer you were down, the fewer and farther between were your visits. I worried about my bunkie, Natalie, finishing her eight-year bid; she spoke to her young son on the phone every night and received many letters but didn’t have a single visit in the year we lived together. I observed the unspoken privacy wall we erected between us in our seven-by-ten-foot space, and never asked.  “

Orange is the New Black, the memoir, is not nearly as interesting as the show. The author tends to bog the reader down with statistics and insists upon pushing her agenda –  proclaiming that prisoners are not treated as well as they should be (although why she is complaining I have no idea. She had everything she needed and almost all of what she wanted during her 15 month stint) and most prisoners do not deserve to be locked away in prison in the first place. I found that part of her agenda to be a bit hypocritical, as she was a drug trafficker (albeit, a minor one) and helped put drugs on the streets, and she was locked up with several addicts of whom she felt sorry for. I don’t think that the author really thought about the effects she had on society by her actions in the drug arena, and how drugs being available on the streets creates a ripple that effects not only the user but also their families and friends. It’s ironic that she did not see the connection, seeing as how many families she saw in Danbury – not only as inmates but also in the visiting room. She complained over and over about having to serve her time for crimes that were long since in the past, and I think she completely missed the point as to why she was in prison in the first place. She tended to believe that since she was now a “good person” and a law abiding citizen, her crimes of the past should somehow be absolved and that putting her into the system was a waste of time and tax payers money. I’m not sure I agree with that. The only time Piper truly seems to understand and regret her crimes is when she is denied a furlough to visit her dying grandmother. And even then, she focuses more on how unfair it is that she cannot leave and have her visit, and less on the reason WHY she is there in the first place.

” Southern-proper and birdlike but possessing a stern, formidable personality, my grandmother had been a constant figure in my life A child of West Virginia who grew up in the Depression with two brothers and then raised four sons, she had little idea what to do with a young girl, her eldest grandchild, and I was scared of her. I remained in awe of her, although as I got older, we developed an easier rapport. She spoke frankly to me in private about sex, feminism, and power. She and my grandfather were dumbstruck and horrified by my criminal misadventures, and yet they never let me forget that they loved me and worried about me. The one thing that I feared most about prison was that one of them would die while I was in here. 

I pleaded with my father on the pay phone — she would be fine, she would get better, she would be there when I came home He didn’t argue back, just said, “Write her.” I was on a regular schedule of writing short, cheery updates to my grandparents, reassuring them that I was fine and couldn’t wait to see them when I got home. Now I sat down to write a different kind of letter, one that tried to convey how much she meant to me, how much she had taught me, how I wanted to emulate her rigor and rectitude, how much I loved and missed her. I couldn’t believe I had screwed up so badly, to be in this place when she needed me, when she was sick and maybe dying. 

Immediately after posting the letter, I asked the Camp secretary for a furlough request form. “Were you raised by your grandma?” she asked brusquely. When I said no, she told me there was no point in giving me the form — I would never be granted a furlough for a grandparent. I sharply said that I was furlough-eligible and would make the request anyway.

“Suit yourself,” she snapped. “

Kerman also complains a lot about the exit strategy for prisoners, and how they are not set up to succeed. They are not taught the skills of obtaining a job, a home, health insurance, or at the very least – a stable environment after leaving the confines of the prison.  This is something I can agree with, unlike Kerman’s stance on drug offenders and/or minor crime offenders not having to serve real time. Piper also apparently does not agree with the stoic and cold way that guards treat the prisoners, although I cannot think of how else a guard could treat someone in their care. Being kind can be seen as a weakness and be taken advantage of and the people incarcerated are in fact, proven criminals, no matter what for. I’m not sure what Piper was expecting from her handlers when she was locked up, but the prison guards can’t very well spend their time playing dominos or checkers with their wards. In fact, guards are forbidden from asking anything personal to the inmates under their care, and as this is a women’s prison and most of the guards are male, being overly friendly also opens the door for inappropriate relationships. Kerman spent pages and pages going on and on about one guard in particular who made a crude comment towards her and I had to wonder why she just couldn’t let it go – if the same comment had been said to her on a New York street or subway, she would have laughed it off and moved on with her life.

All in all, I give Orange is the New Black, the memoir, 3 out of 5 stars. While I know that it is critically acclaimed, I got tired of her diatribes on the unfairness of prison, especially as she had an endless supply of money on her tab for commissary,  had multiple visits each week the entire time she was an inmate (oh, sorry, she did complain at length about the time her fiancee did not come and visit her because he had a job interview), had more books and mail than she could read, and pretty much got her way any time she actually tried. Prison isn’t a vacation, after all – maybe someone should have told Piper that before she went away to “camp.”

I’d recommend it if you’ve got 48 hours to plow through this short book (its only 300 pages) and are curious about the real Piper and her real story, but if you’re reading it to gain insight into anything else you will be disappointed. A few notable characters from the television series do make an appearance, but they are far and few between and are not elaborated upon.

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Recommendation: The Martian

The Martian

by Andy Weir

“Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped.”

I just love it when the underdog wins.

Some might not consider Andy Weir, author of the bestselling novel and popular movie, The Martian, to be an underdog because as we all know, his book is a success. The book earned a coveted spot on the New York Times Best Seller List, where it sat for 33 weeks. Matt Damon starred in the movie as the fallible but ever resourceful and likable botanist and engineer, Mark Watney. So on paper, Andy Weir is the picture of accomplishment and triumph.

But he is an underdog. And, he’s a nerd.

A nerd is anyone who willingly chooses to become a scholar of subjects like astronomy, spaceflight, and orbital mechanics in his spare time and someone who readily admits to having seen every episode of Doctor Who. A nerd is someone who decides to write his own computer program just to calculate the orbital trajectory that his imaginary crew might take to get from Earth to Mars and back again. And a nerd is anyone who decides to become a computer programmer at the age of fifteen, that precarious age where most boys are interested in how they look with their shirts off and which girl they can get to go to second base with them in the backseat of their mom’s car.

Andy Weir is a nerd and guess what – nerds run the world. And apparently, they run Space and the Great Beyond as well.

The Martian is the debut novel from a science-fiction geek and meticulously correct and self-made spacial expert, and the story of one man’s quest to make it back home after being stranded on Mars. It is not, as the title may suggest, a book about little green people.

Mark Watney is on a mission with his NASA crew that should be routine, but when a dust storm fouls their plans and the group has to book it out of there in a hurry, he is left behind – and thought to be dead.

But Mark is indeed alive and after waking up on the surface of the planet Mars alone, he begins the slow trek back to camp, only to discover that his crew has abandoned their search for him and has left him with no way to garner communications back to Earth to prepare for his retrieval. He must rely on himself for survival, and begins to take stock of his surroundings and prospects. He knows how much food he has left and he knows how long he can stay alive with it. He knows that he needs to create more food, but to do that, he needs water. Mars isn’t an ideal place to have these problems, and he finds the planet less than cooperative. Mark has to call on every ounce of his ingenuity and skill as a trained botanist and NASA engineer to maintain life.

” LOG ENTRY: SOL 381

I’ve been thinking about laws on Mars.

Yeah, I know, it’s a stupid thing to think about, but I have a lot of free time.

There’s an international treaty saying no country can lay claim to anything that’s not on Earth. And by another treaty, if you’re not in any country’s territory, maritime law applies.

So Mars is “international waters.”

NASA is an American nonmilitary organization, and it owns the Hab. So while I’m in the Hab, American law applies. As soon as I step outside, I’m in international waters. Then when I get in the rover, I’m back to American law.

Here’s the cool part: I will eventually go to Schiaparelli and commandeer the Ares 4 lander. Nobody explicitly gave me permission to do this, and they can’t until I’m aboard Ares 4 and operating the comm system. After I board Ares 4, before talking to NASA, I will take control of a craft in international waters without permission.

That makes me a pirate!

A space pirate! ”

Once he has the problem of food somewhat out of the way, Watney moves on to his second problem – instrumenting his rescue. Readers are privy to his daily schedule and routine via travel logs that he enters into the computer every day, as part of his quest to remain sane. It was great to get insight into Mark’s personality at times like this, because he really is a funny guy.

“ Actually, I was the very lowest ranked member of the crew. I would only be “in command” if I were the only remaining person.
What do you know? I’m in command. ”

In the meantime, NASA has picked up his movements over satellite imaging and they are trying to decide how best to proceed. After all, they have already announced not only to Mark’s family that he is dead, but have also told the Free World – and Mark’s crew is still out there in space, making their own way home. The powers that be decide to withhold the information of Mark’s survival from the crew for the time being, not wishing to distract them.

Eventually though, Mark’s crew is told of his survival and they have a choice to make. Do they go back? How do they go back? How do they even find Mark if they decide to go back?

Readers are given the point of view of Mark, his crew mates, and the NASA headquarters as preparations for Mark’s rescue begin.

What I liked most about The Martian was that at every turn, Watney would hit a snag, and sometimes, it was a major one. More often than not, the NASA engineer seemed almost bumbling, at constant war with Murphy’s Law, and if it could happen to him – well, it did. It helped turn a character from someone who could easily become aloof and unrelatable due to his high intelligence level (I mean come on – NASA engineer, right?) into someone who was common and real. The author did not include a whole lot of character development or description, focusing mostly on the science and orbital function of the missions.

And that brings me to what I did not like about this book. The science. . . oh, the science. Admittedly I am not a scientific sort. I failed high school chemistry and had to retake the course, and still only barely scraped by. I have never been mathematically inclined either, as all of my interests and talents have always leaned towards English and sociological subjects. But I am a reader of anything and I have gotten through many a science fiction novel, although The Martian is more than that. The author sometimes went off on these scientific tangents and it left me so bored and eventually irritated that it took me much longer to get through this book than I think it should have. My advice to any reader who finds this could become a problem is simply this – skip through (unless, of course, you think you may soon be stranded on Mars). You won’t be missing anything, I promise. The underlying story and plot is so interesting and gripping that you’ll find that even with the massive amounts of science, you can get through the book with some ease – as well as find it enjoyable.

All in all, I give The Martian 4.5 out of 5 stars. The book was innovative and original, and I have to hand it to a guy who threw his book up online for .99 and ended up on the New York Times Best Seller List. He’s kind of my hero.

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Recommendation: The Little Paris Bookshop

The Little Paris Bookshop

by Nina George

“ He wanted her to sense the boundless possibilities offered by books. They would always be enough. They would never stop loving their readers.

They were a fixed point in an otherwise unpredictable world.

In life. In love. After death. ”

Monsieur Perdu is a doctor, of sorts.

He is a self-proclaimed literary apothecary, and from his well-worn barge filled to the brim with books of every size, shape, theory, and subject, he prescribes what he believes to be the perfect book to cure what ails each patient that willingly walks across his nautical threshold.  Upon his seaworthy shop, Lulu, Perdu can alleviate the woes of any heart, give credence to the most unrequited of loves, he can stay any deeply rooted anger, and he can bring laughter to the sourest soul.

But although he can almost always find the answer for healing his readers, he sits alone most nights in his home at number 27 Rue Montagnard, wondering whatever happened to that woman he was in love with. She was his soulmate, the woman who left him.  Manon was the one who made the sun bright and the night sultry, and she left him without a whisper of a proper goodbye. Or so he thought.

From his quiet apartment in a building full of colorful characters, Monsieur Perdu can hear the newest tenant crying. She is the soon-to-be divorcee of a veritable swine. The man she was married to walked out on her, leaving her with next to nothing, and she is the current gossip of the building. Something in the woman’s incessant tears, heard from behind an oval-shaped glass door, reaches out to the long-forgotten recesses of Perdu’s heart and he is called to her service in the only way he knows how – in the literary sense. He has avoided emotional connections with people since his great love left him, but he is drawn to the mystery woman behind the glass door.

” He had his cheek almost pressed up against the glass. 

He whispered, “But I can give you a book as well.”

The light in the staircase went out. 

“What kind of book?” the oval whispered.

“The consoling kind.”

“I need to cry some more. I’ll drown if I don’t. Can you understand that?” 

“Of course. Sometimes you’re swimming in unwept tears and you’ll go under if you store them up inside.” And I’m at the bottom of a sea of tears. “I’ll bring you a book for crying then.” 

“When?”

“Tomorrow. Promise me you’ll have something to eat and drink before you carry on crying.”

He didn’t know why he was taking such liberties. It must be something to do with the door between them. “

Also in residence in the French apartment building is young author Max Jordan. His breakout hit Night is the stuff that cult classics are made of, and his following is full of an intense group of fans who harass and follow Jordan day and night. He never expected to become a bestselling author, certainly not with his book full of the desperate moves a young man will make as he tries to navigate the murky waters of women and love. As a result, Max is withdrawn and uncomfortable in his own skin, living as a recluse at the Rue Montegnard, trapped in a slump of writer’s block that is too difficult to even begin to climb over.

When Catherine, the mystery woman behind the door, tentatively approaches Perdu with a letter she found in the castoff kitchen table he left outside of her apartment (he had no use for it and she had no furniture, having been unceremoniously turned out by her swine of a husband), he is shocked. The woman who broke his heart years earlier had left him that letter as her final parting gift, and he had refused to read it, stuffing it away inside the old kitchen table and willfully forgetting about it — spending the rest of his life up until this moment trying to forget about the woman as well.

” He could be a stone in the mosaic of her life, he thought at the time. A beautiful, sparkling one, but a stone all the same, not the whole picture. He wanted to do the same for her. 

Manon. The vibrant, never-dainty, never-perfect girl from Provence, who spoke with words that he felt he could grasp with his hands. She never planned; she was always entirely present. She didn’t talk about dessert during the main course, about the coming morning as she was falling asleep, about meeting again when saying good-bye. She was always in the now. 

That August night 7,216 nights ago was the last time Perdu slept well; and when he woke up, Manon was gone. 

He hadn’t seen it coming. He had thought it over again and again, had sifted through Manon’s gestures and looks and words — but had found no possible clue that could have told him she was already leaving. 

And wouldn’t come back. 

Instead, a few weeks later, her letter.

This letter. 

He had left the envelope on the table for two nights. He had gazed at it as he ate alone, drank alone, smoked alone. And as he wept. 

Tear after tear had run down his cheeks and dripped onto the table and the paper. 

He hadn’t opened the letter. “

What Perdu finds in the letter is not what he’d expected. It is, in fact, the opposite. He finds a few answers, but discovers he has even more questions. He fearfully tries to connect with Catherine on a heartfelt level, but finds himself clumsy and out of practice. Catherine is in the midst of inner turmoil and grief, and Perdu knows that now is not the right time for either of them — their current states are far too vulnerable for any intimacy to be of worth.

And so he decides it is time for him to stop allowing his life to live him and for him to instead, live his life. When Perdu spontaneously decides to set sail on his barge down the Seine in search of the conclusion to his love-story with Manon, he is surprised to find Max Jordan has resolved to come along for the ride. Max is an unlikely companion with his awkward style, but Perdu soon finds he has a soft spot for the boy. He allows Max to accompany him on his quest for closure, and their adventure down the river puts them in the path of several other bright characters — some who add to the bold liveliness  of their journey and some who subsequently join them for adventures of their own.

Readers learn of Manon’s story through snapshots of her personal journals, finding out exactly why she left Perdu and her feelings for him. Monsuier Perdu eventually reaches his destination, although it is not quite the destination he intended when he set sail. He comes full circle and gains more than just closure along the way, cleansing his palate of the past and commencing upon a path of complete rebirth and emotional metamorphosis.

” In the afternoons, when the heat rose to dangerous levels, Perdu would lie motionless  on his bed in nothing but a pair of shorts, with wet towels on his forehead, chest and feet.  The terrace door was open, and the curtains swayed listlessly in the breeze. He let the warm wind caress his body as he dozed. 

It was good to be back in his body. To feel that his flesh was sensitive and alive again. Not numb, limp, unused — an adversary. Perdu had got used to thinking with his body, as though he could stroll around inside his soul and peer into every room. 

Yes, the grief lived on in his chest. When it came, it constricted his lungs, cut off his breathing and the universe faded to a narrow sliver. But he wasn’t scared of it anymore. When it came, he let it flow through him.

Fear occupied his throat too, but it took up less space if he breathed out slowly and calmly. With every breath he could make the fear smaller and crumple it up, and he imagined throwing it to Psst so that the cat could toy with the ball of anxiety and chase it out of the house. 

Joy danced in his solar plexus, and he let it dance. He thought of Samy and Cuneo, and of Max’s hilarious letters, in which one name cropped up more and more frequently. Vic. The tractor girl. In his mind he saw Max running around the Luberon after a wine-red tractor, and he couldn’t help laughing. 

Amazingly, love had settled on Jean’s tongue. “

The Little Paris Bookshop is not a romance, although there is some romance involved. It is instead a story of a man’s path to finding himself and doing it with a quiet, honest, and slow integrity that is very admirable. I found this book to be very sweet and heartfelt, and I really enjoyed the different characters that showed up along the way. They were written in such a vibrancy that made it very easy to picture them in my mind’s eye. I wanted to give Monsieur Perdu a big hug. He spent so much time taking care of others and their feelings that he forgot about his own healing.

This is not a heavy read and although it weighs in at 370 pages, it is not difficult to get through. It is a definite feel-good book and I was surprised to find it coming from an author who is known more for her science thrillers than her sentimentality. I would have enjoyed a bit more depth in Max’s character, as I found him particularly interesting. His story started off very strong and the author seemed to lose interest in him, which I felt was a shame.

I am rating The Little Paris Bookshop  4 out of 5 stars and I would recommend it for any reader 18+, due to a couple of scenes featuring suggestive sexual content.

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Review: Dark Places

Dark Places

by Gillian Flynn

“I was not a lovable child, and I’d grown into a deeply unlovable adult. Draw a picture of my soul, and it’d be a scribble with fangs.”

Gillian Flynn is best known for her astoundingly successful thriller, Gone Girl – the story of a not-so-good guy who is being investigated in the disappearance of his wife, the twist being that the wife is actually still alive and enjoying herself by putting her cheating husband through the ringer in a most complex act of deception and punishment. Viewers flocked to the theatre in droves when the movie, starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, premiered. It received positive critical response both in novel and film form, and catapulted Gillian Flynn’s career to another level. Gone Girl is the third novel by the author and all three have been critically acclaimed.

Dark Places is in short, the story of the grown-up Libby Day, the only member of her family to survive a mass killing spree –  the exception being  her big brother Ben, who is incarcerated after being found guilty of the murders.

Libby was just a kid when her family were brutally slaughtered in her childhood home – a gun was involved, as was a bit of strangling and some serious business with an axe – and 24 years later, she’s still not dealing with it. She hasn’t worked a day in her life, living off the charity of others, and reality is beginning to hit home as her money is finally running out. She’s haunted by that night as any one would be, and memories creep in and out of her psyche as she struggles to sludge her way through a mundane life. She left the town of Kinnakee, Kansas behind in a cloud of Satanic cults and morbid ministrations, all of which her brother has been accused of.

” I passed a field of cows, standing immobile, and thought about growing up, all the rumors of cattle mutilation, and people swearing it was the Devil worshipers. The Devil lurked nearby in our Kansas town, an evil that was as natural and physical as a hillside. Our church hadn’t been too brimstoney, but the preacher had certainly nurtured the idea: The Devil, goat-eyed and bloody, could take over your heart just as easily as Jesus, if you weren’t careful. In every town I lived in, there were always the “Devil kids,” and the “Devil houses,” just like there was always a killer clown driving around in a white van. Everyone knew of some old, vacant warehouse on the edge of town where a stained mattress sat on the floor, bloody from sacrifice. Everyone had a friend of a cousin who had actually seen a sacrifice but was too scared to give details. “

When Libby is approached by a twenty-something kid named Lyle who promises her money in exchange for chats about her past, she’s tempted. Her anxiety and general laziness doesn’t make working a real job a viable option and the thought of being able to sell some old, doodled-up notebooks and letters from her dead family members for quick cash  is appealing. Lyle is quickly keen on getting Libby reveal and learn more information about that fateful night and when he senses her trepidation, he proposes a meeting with an organization he is affiliated with – The Kill Club.

Deep in the bowels of an abandoned warehouse, Libby is introduced to the members of the Day Chapter of the Kill Club, a group of mismatched misfits and conspiracy theorists, all of whom are convinced that Ben had nothing to do with the murders. They seem to know more details about that night even than Libby and are not as happy to meet her as she thought they would be. Libby’s testimony helped put away her big brother, testimony that many of the members believe was falsified and coerced. Lyle suggests Libby try and gather information from people involved with her family at the time of the murders, like her deadbeat and transient father or a guy named Trey, who used to hang around with her brother. But the most important interview they want Libby to conduct is that with her brother, Ben Day.

” Those “Day enthusiasts,” those “solvers” would pay for more than just old letters. Hadn’t they asked me where Runner was, and which of Ben’s friends I might still know? They’d pay for information that only I could get. Those jokers who memorized the floor plans to my house, who packed folders full of crime-scene photos, all had their own theories about who killed the Days. Being freaks, they’d have a tough time getting anyone to talk to them. Being me, I could do that for them. The police would humor poor little me, a lot of the suspects even. I could talk to my dad, if that’s what they really wanted, if I could find him. 

Not that it would necessarily lead to anything. At home under my bright hamster-y lights, safe again, I reminded myself that Ben was guilty (had to be had to be), mainly because I couldn’t handle any other possibility. Not if I was going to function, and for the first time in twenty-four years, I needed to function. I started doing the math in my head: $500, say, to talk to the cops; $400 to talk to some of Ben’s friends; $1,000 to track down Runner; $2,000 to talk to Runner. I’m sure the fans had a whole list of people I could cajole into giving Orphan Day some of their time. I could drag this out for months. 

I fell asleep, the rum bottle still in my hand, reassuring myself: Ben Day is a killer. “

Although ecstatic to see baby sister after 24 years behind bars, Ben is reluctant to give Libby any more information than what is currently on record, and Libby finds herself curious for the first time since the murders. Questions begin to swim in her mind about things she had once taken as fact – was her brother really part of a Satanic cult? Was he really a child molester as little Krissi Cates had accused? Who is Diondra? Did he really act alone? Aided by the motivation of fast cash and a nagging feeling in the pit of her gut, Libby is on a quest to find out the truth even if it means revisiting the dark places she’s locked away in the back of her mind.

” “Never mind,” I said, removing the phone from my ear so he knew I was leaving. 

“Libby, hold on, hold on.”

“No, if you’re going to work me like some. . . convict, I don’t see the point.”

“Libby, hold the hell up. I’m sorry I can’t give you the answer I guess you want.” 

“I just want the truth.”

“And I just want to tell you the truth, but you seem to want. . . a story. I just, I mean Christ, here comes my little sister after all these years and I think, well, here might be one good thing. One good thing. Sh sure as hell wasn’t helpful twenty-four goddam years ago, but, hey, I’m over that., I’m so over that the first time I see her, all I am is happy. I mean there I was in my fucking animal pen, waiting to see you, so nervous like I was going on a date, and I see you and, jeez, it’s like, maybe this one thing will be OK. Maybe I can have one person from my family still in my life and I won’t be so fucking lonely, because — and I mean, I know you talked to Magda, believe me I heard all about that, and so year I have people who visit me and care about me, but they’re not you, they’re not anyone who knows me except as the guy with the. . . and I was just thinking it’d be so goddam nice to be able to talk with my sister, who knows me, who knows our family, and knows that we were just, like, normal, and we can laugh about goddam cows. That’s it, you know, that’s all I’m asking for at this point. Just something as tiny as that. And so I wish I could tell you something that won’t make you.  . . hate me again.” He dropped his eyes, looking at the reflection of his chest in the glass. “But I can’t.” “

Dark Places tells its story via the perspective of teenage Ben, his mother Patty Day, and grown-up sister Libby. Having something to hide is an understatement when it comes to the angsty and hormonal Ben, and Patty is overwhelmed with the impending loss of her family farm and struggling with the raising of four young children all on her own. Through their words readers learn the truth of the night in question and will be shocked to find out what really happened, in true Gillian Flynn style.

While Flynn is known for her plot twists and dangerous turns as her novels progress, she is also known for surprise endings. Most avid thriller readers find their fun in figuring out the mystery before the literary super sleuth does, but Flynn makes that task difficult as she is very good at keeping things close to the vest. Dark Places is no exception, but unlike Gone Girl, I was very disappointed in the last minute plot twist and found it did not make any sense to the entirety of the story. I had one part of the mystery figured out and was still surprised by the exact how’s and when’s, but the definitive shock factor at the end was out of place and unnecessary – not to mention I found it completely unbelievable after reading testimony from the different perspectives as I had.

Just for that ending, I give Dark Places 3.5 out of 5 stars. She had me at a solid 4.5 stars until that ending. I swear, I was going to give it to her but Gillian Flynn really let me down. To say it was a WTF moment would be an understatement. I found the actual storyline of Dark Places to be superior to Gone Girl until the end, which really made it a disappointment, considering the bang Gone Girl ended with.

Dark Places has been made into a feature film starring the incomparable Charlize Theron. You can find it on Amazon Prime.

 

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Review: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

by Mohsin Hamid

” We are all refugees from our childhoods. And so we turn, among other things, to stories. To write a story, to read a story, is to be a refugee from the state of refugees. Writers and readers seek a solution to the problem that time passes, that those who have gone are gone and those who will go, which is to say every one of us, will go. 

For there was a moment when anything was possible. And there will be a moment when nothing is possible. 

But in between we can create. “

It is incredibly rare that I will read a book that is so profound that it temporarily renders me speechless. Rarer still that I will sit with the book, long after I have finished it, clutching it to my chest as if that action can force it to continue, but knowing that it is a lifeline now broken, and nothing – not even my desperation for more – can put it back together again. The story is over, the story has been told, and it is time to move on, albeit with a part of this story moving along with me.

Our narrator has set our book up as a detailed set of instructions on how to get yourself filthy rich in rising Asia. Each chapter revolves around  a subject matter that will move you closer and closer in the direction of your goal and once you obtain it, there are further instructions on how best to keep yourself on top. However, the narrator also knows that everything that goes up must also come back down again, and as such, has included a series of steps for accepting this predetermined fate.

Coming along for the ride is a young boy with no name. He is a strong boy, able to bypass death and the severe illnesses  that are common in childhood among the populated village in which he lives. He lives with his family on a compound where several extended families also reside. His father, the breadwinner, works in the city and only occasionally is able to come home for visits. After one such visit he decides it is time – that even though he can barely afford to take care of himself, he can stand being apart from his family no longer, and the boy travels the perilous journey to the city along with his mother and two siblings.

This is, of course, the first step to getting filthy rich in rising Asia. You must be in the city.

The boy is the youngest of the family and as such has the privilege of education, his older brother having to leave school when he becomes of a qualified age (somewhere around 12) to begin work so as to help provide for the family. The boy’s sister was sent back to their village of birth for an arranged marriage once she (somewhere around 14) becomes of age. The boy knows that an education is a “running leap towards becoming filthy rich in Asia,” but he also knows it is not something easily achieved. He will have to overcome the obstacles of financing if he can even get into the city’s college – so it’s a good thing that he has learned a few tricks on the streets from which he has been raised.

Step Two : Don’t Fall in Love

” You call her that night but she does not answer. You try again the following day with the same result. Later in the week you get hold of her, finally, yet she is distracted, busy getting ready for a shoot. Occasionally thereafter, when you manage to speak with her, you are able to have a brief conversation, but she is always occupied when you suggest a meeting. You find this perplexing, and consider how best to proceed. You do not know much about women, but you know a fair bit about sales, and it is apparent to you that this is a case when you must let the customer seek you out, lest you devalue your product completely. So you wait. And she does call. Not often. Not even every month. But sometimes, usually late in the evening, after she has watched a film, and her voice is languid with impending sleep, and perhaps with alcohol as well, and she speaks to you softly for a few wonderful minutes from the comfort of her bed She does not invite you over, or propose an encounter elsewhere, but she keeps in touch with you and your life, and this, while at times is quietly painful, gives you a measure of hope. “

This step is perhaps the most difficult of them all, as most teenage boys have a hard time not noticing pretty girls. One pretty girl in particular lives the boy’s neighborhood and while she is not obviously beautiful, she has an alluring cadence about her that makes it impossible for the boy to resist her, especially as she does’t seem to pay much attention to the boy, except of course when she needs something. The pretty girl is an imprint on the boy’s mind, the epitome of all that is love – even if he has no idea what that is or what it means. It will become something he will never be able to shake.

This girl will be the only constant in the boy’s life, traveling in tandem on her own path to getting filthy rich in rising Asia, but she will attain her goals playing by an entirely different set of rules. The boy will grow into a man, the girl will grow into a woman, but his infatuation with her will never wean and as such will cause many problems in his life. Not least of which will be his difficulty in giving his heart to anyone else.

“Your brother accepts their return with a handshake, and also, wordlessly, the rolled banknotes hidden in your grip. It shamed him initially to receive help from his younger sibling, but not so much anymore, and he no longer insists on telling you over and over the stories of his difficulties as a father in the face of runaway prices, even though those stories remain pressing and true. 

Instead he sits you down on his rooftop and asks you about yourself, lighting a joint and sucking a series of shallow puffs into his scrawny chest. The evening sky is orange, heavy with suspended dust from thousands upon thousands of construction sites, fertile soil gouged by shovels, dried by the sun, and scattered by the wind. As usual your brother encourages you to wed, expressing by doing so an abiding generosity, for a family of your own would, in all likelihood, diminish your ability to contribute to the well-being of his. 

“My business fills my time,” you say. “I’m fine alone.” 

“No person is fine alone.” “

The man diligently continues down his steps – he (tries to) avoids idealists, he learns from a (shady)  master, he works for himself (in his own shady business) and he is prepared for violence (from equally shady competitors).

Water is a hugely sought after commodity in the man’s city and the quality of water is so poor that sickness floods the city. The man decides to take advantage of the shortage of quality water and uses old bottles he steals from garbage cans and various places to boil water and repackage it, marking it up at a premium price, thus getting him closer to his goal of. . . you guessed it – getting filthy rich in rising Asia. The man is smart about his business because he is following the set of instructions laid out in the book and as such, has no doubts that his goal will be achieved.

But the man has hard lessons to learn. While his main purpose in life has always been to get filthy rich in rising Asia, and he has carefully followed all of the steps, he has also missed out on many things and areas of his life are sorely lacking. And the truth of the matter is. . . the brutal honesty is. . . that once you move forward, you can never move backwards. The time you lose is gone forever and while having focus on one goal is admirable, if one does not have balance in their life it will eventually take it’s toll. He will watch his mother pass painfully away, his father die of a broken heart, his sister leave the world alone, his brother struggle to hang on for his own family. The man will not understand the things he missed on his path to becoming rich until it is too late.

He will have a family of his own but it will be only a shimmer of what he could have, if he’d only followed Step 2 to the letter.

“You reencounter each other at a pharmacy, a crowded micro-warehouse stacked with pallets not much bigger than matchboxes, mostly white, bearing text too minute to be legible, even while squinting, and, on occasion, iridescent seals of hologrammed authenticity that shimmer like fish in the light. You are progressing incrementally to the counter, buffeted by those who push forward out of line, reliant on strangers who acknowledge you and are good enough to wait. Ahead you see a figure turn after paying for her purchase, a figure you think you recognize, and you are seized by a powerful emotion This emotion is akin to panic, and indeed you consider shoving your prescription back into your pocket and making for the exit. 

But you stand your ground. As the figure approaches, she frowns. 

“Is that you?” she asks, not for the first time in her life. 

You lean on your cane and scrutinize the wizened woman before you. 

“Yes,” you say. 

Neither of you speaks. Slowly, she shakes her head. She rests her hand on yours, her skin smooth and cool against your knuckles. 

“Do I look as old as you do?” she asks. 

“No,” you say. 

“I thought you were an honest boy.”

You smile. “Not always.”  “

And the man will grow into an old man and will realize that sometimes you are better off not being filthy rich in rising Asia.

This book was phenomenal, and I know that any review I could write about it, any words I could say – they could never do the book the justice it deserves. This short novel (a mere 228 pages) held in it more emotion and more honesty than the majority of the books I have read in the last 30 years that I have been a fool for literature. It is uniquely written in a style and a voice that I have never read before, and  I am very anxious to read more by the authorMohsin Hamid. The Pakistani born, American educated, English resident has a modern and superbly thought out way of approaching the art of storytelling. The subject matter (money being the ultimate goal in life) may not be revolutionary, but the telling of this tale certainly was.

I give How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia five out of five stars, and I am going to be so bold as to state it will be the best book I will read all year.

Perhaps, even in this entire decade.