Kate’s Review: “Girls on Fire”

26074200Book: “Girls on Fire” by Robin Wasserman

Publishing Info: Harper, May 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Girls on Fire tells the story of Hannah and Lacey and their obsessive teenage female friendship so passionately violent it bloodies the very sunset its protagonists insist on riding into, together, at any cost. Opening with a suicide whose aftermath brings good girl Hannah together with the town’s bad girl, Lacey, the two bring their combined wills to bear on the community in which they live; unconcerned by the mounting discomfort that their lust for chaos and rebellion causes the inhabitants of their parochial small town, they think they are invulnerable.

But Lacey has a secret, about life before her better half, and it’s a secret that will change everything…

Review: Who here has seen or heard of the movie “Heavenly Creatures”? It’s kind of a noteworthy gem for a number of reasons. The first is that it was one of the break out roles that Kate Winslet had before “Titanic”. It was also one of the movies Peter Jackson made before he took on the “Lord of the Rings” movies. But the third reason is the kicker: it’s also a true story, in which two girls in New Zealand, bolstered forth by their obsessive friendship, kill one of their moms because she didn’t approve of their closeness. And then one of them grew up to be Anne Perry the crime author. I think that “Heavenly Creatures” kind of sets a standard for the ‘dangerous obsessive female friendship’ trope, even if it was a real life occurrence. When I read about “Girls on Fire” I was pretty intrigued. I was hoping that I would find a new rumination on a story that’s been told many times over, from “Heavenly Creatures” to last year’s smash hit “The Girls”. But sadly I found more of the same old, same old.

I think that it’s definitely important to note that “Girls on Fire” does tackle a lot of important questions about what it means to be a teenage girl in American society, and what expectations are thrust upon this group in terms of how to behave and interact with others. Both Lacey and Hannah (or “Dex” as Lacey renames her early in their friendship) are perceived in certain ways by not only their peers and their community, they are perceived in certain ways by their families, the people who are supposed to know them best. This, too, can be said for the bane of their existence, Nikki Drummond, the most popular girl in school who mistreats Hannah and anyone she sees as beneath her. Nikki has facades that she puts on for different people, and while Hannah thinks she knows one side, Lacey knows another one. The perspectives in this book are mainly those of Hannah and Lacey, alternating in sections called ‘Us’. But every once in awhile we’ll get an outside perspective from one of those close to them, under the sections called ‘Them’. I loved how this was set up, as it really reinforced the ‘us vs the world’ mentality that these two obsessed friends shared. I also liked how the structure served to explain just what happened with the popular boy who committed suicide, as it’s pretty clear from the get go that it’s not as cut and dry as it all seems.

But now we get to the crux of the issue, and that is this isn’t a book that I enjoyed much beyond that. “Girls on Fire” didn’t really do anything new in terms of characterization and plotting. Both Hannah and Lacey were pretty two dimensional, even with their perspectives being laid out in the open. Lacey is the bad girl who has the terrible upbringing and just wants to be loved and turns to drugs, alcohol, and Kurt Cobain (as well as dabbling in the most milquetoast of stereotypical Satanism). Hannah is the quiet one who is so mousy that everyone is shocked when she starts to turn darker, and has darker deeper demons than anyone could have imagined. These are character tropes that we’ve seen before, and neither of them went beyond these tried and true depictions. Even the parents were stereotypes of what we imagine parents with kids like these to be. Hannah’s Mom is banal and unassuming and resents that her daughter is branching out into a more interesting realm. Her father is a former wild child who misses his days of being free, and therefore longs for Lacey both sexually and philosophically. And Lacey’s mother is an alcoholic who has married an abusive man. The only character who intrigued me and surpassed my expectations was Nikki, and even then she still ultimately lived up to our basal expectations of what a mean girl is and why a mean girl might be mean. It’s a real shame, because there was some serious potential in all of these girls to examine how our perceptions of them might be undue. But then they really didn’t have much more to say beyond what their main stereotypes were. And the central mystery isn’t really that much of a mystery, in all honesty. You can guess it pretty early on in the unspooling of that particular thread.

I had higher hopes for “Girls on Fire” than the book was able to deliver. If you are interested in a story examining the perils of dangerous girl friendships, just get your hands on “Heavenly Creatures”.

Rating 5: Though the themes are interesting and the perspectives creatively structured, this book wasn’t reinventing the wheel in any way, and it didn’t really bring a new take to a story we’ve heard before.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Girls on Fire” is included on the Goodreads lists “Books About Female Friendship”, and “Best Quietly Creepy Novels”.

Find “Girls on Fire” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “We Eat Our Own”

27276249Book: “We Eat Our Own” by Kea Wilson

Publishing Info: Scribner, September 2016

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: An ambitious debut novel by an original young writer, We Eat Our Own blurs the lines between life and art with the story of a film director’s unthinkable experiment in the Amazon.

When a nameless, struggling actor in 1970s New York gets the call that an enigmatic director wants him for an art film set in the Amazon, he doesn’t hesitate: he flies to South America, no questions asked. He quickly realizes he’s made a mistake. He’s replacing another actor who quit after seeing the script—a script the director now claims doesn’t exist. The movie is over budget. The production team seems headed for a breakdown. The air is so wet that the celluloid film disintegrates.

But what the actor doesn’t realize is that the greatest threat might be the town itself, and the mysterious shadow economy that powers this remote jungle outpost. Entrepreneurial Americans, international drug traffickers, and M-19 guerillas are all fighting for South America’s future—and the groups aren’t as distinct as you might think. The actor thought this would be a role that would change his life. Now he’s worried if he’ll survive it.

Inspired by a true story from the annals of 1970s Italian horror film, and told in dazzlingly precise prose, We Eat Our Own is a resounding literary debut, a thrilling journey behind the scenes of a shocking film and a thoughtful commentary on violence and its repercussions.

Review: Has anyone out there heard of the movie “Cannibal Holocaust”? Let me give you a quick rundown of this movie and it’s notoriety. And I mean NOTORIETY. So “Cannibal Holocaust” is one of the first ‘found footage’ horror movies. It is about a group of people who go into the Amazonian rainforest to make a documentary about indigenous cannibal tribes, but then disappear. Their footage is found by a professor and the canisters contain many, many horrors including animal cruelty, arson, rape, and murder. When this movie was released, the director, Ruggero Deodato, told the main actors, largely unknown, to lay low for about a year so as to continue the illusion that they did actually disappear and meet terrible fates in the jungle. Which worked too well, as Deodato was arrested and charged with making a snuff film. The actors did come out of obscurity to clear him, but still. Yikes. So what is MY experience with this infamous horror movie? As a huge and avid horror fan, I wanted to show how edgy and hardcore I was and watched that movie a couple years ago. And let me say,  an hour and a half of gratuitous violence and multiple graphic rape scenes isn’t the best way to spend a day off, especially if you are feverish.

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I take it back, I’m neither edgy nor hardcore (source)

I was absolutely disgusted and repulsed by this movie. BUT, when my mother sent me an email about a new book called “We Eat Our Own”, it sounded very familiar. It sounded like the behind the scenes malarkey that went on during the filming of “Cannibal Holocaust”, but in the form of a horror novel. Okay, FINE, as much as that movie made me sick to my stomach, this premise had me TOTALLY SOLD!!!! A horror novel about the production of a “Cannibal Holocaust”-esque film? This clearly is going to be totally screwy and nasty and kind of fun and over the top, right?!

Well, not totally. Kea Wilson’s “We Eat Our Own” is very much based on the filming of “Cannibal Holocaust”, but it’s written in so many interesting ways that it felt less like a horror novel and more like an experimental literary one. For one thing, there are no quotation marks around the dialog, nor are there always indents when a new person is talking. But the most glaring experiment is that whenever the chapter is about the Unnamed American Actor, who is referred to by his character’s name (Richard), it is written in the second person (“You get a call from your agent, you go to pack your bags” etc), giving us an immersive experience for about half of the content of the book. While at first I thought that a second person perspective would limit the reader, Wilson worked around it by saying “you know this, but what you don’t know is that…”, and then tell us about the other characters in the scene or what’s going to happen to “Richard” in the future. I will admit that at first it was hard for me to wrap my mind around these devices. After all, I was kind of expecting a straight forward horror novel about a doomed production team (why I assumed everyone would actually die when that is not what happened in it’s real life inspiration, I couldn’t tell you). Instead I got a writing experiment that touched on more than just what was happening to the production team. I’m not ashamed to admit that it took me a little bit of time to really get into this book because of this style, but once I figured it out I actually really liked it, especially the parts where it would say “what you don’t know is that this extra is going to be running away and escaping her circumstances…”, because it found a really great way to learn more about these other characters without compromising the device.

The other chapters that aren’t “Richard’s”/the reader’s POV focus on other characters involved in the circumstances, be they that of crew members, the other actors, or the locals who are dealing with their own violent circumstances. Wilson takes the time to address not only the quagmire that is happening in the jungle at the time, but also the tenuous political situation that is simmering in Colombia. While an Italian filmmaker and his predominantly Western crew are trying to make a movie about cannibalistic and stereotypical tribal violence, there is unrest in the town that they are in, as a group of M-19 guerrillas are starting to boil over with tension, as they have a kidnapped Venezuelan attaché in their custody and are trying to plan an attack. An American who has set up shop in town has hooked them up with a cartel, and now things are on the brink of an explosion of violence. While it was great to see an acknowledgment of the ills going on in Colombia at the time, some of which were the result of remnants of Western colonialism and the drug trade that fueled Western noses at the time, these were the parts of the story that were the hardest for me to get into. The writing style is jumpy and at times haphazard enough, so to jump completely from one storyline to another was harder for me to follow. That being said, Wilson did a great job of showing how all of these characters are connected, and masterfully weaved them all together. There were times that we would get the conclusions to some storylines of other chapters through the eyes of another chapter and the character that it was following, which I really liked. It was also really biting to show an Italian filmmaker and his crew making a movie that perpetuates a brutal and dangerous stereotype about a group of people in Colombia (specifically the Yąnomamö), only to find themselves in a violent situation that has been built up by Western greed and entitlement.

Thinking about this book more and really dissecting it, I quite enjoyed “We Eat Our Own”. Don’t go in thinking that it’s your run of the mill horror novel. It’s definitely more complex than I expected it to be, and I think that Kea Wilson is definitely an author that I am going to be on the look out for as time goes on.

Rating 8: A complex and twisty exploration of both politics and a filmmaker’s obsession, “We Eat Our Own” is a compelling work of literary horror, and a love letter to one of horror’s most infamous movies.

Reader’s Advisory:

So the two Goodreads lists that “We Eat Our Own” is on are very broad and vague and have nothing to do with the story itself. That said, I think that it is quite reminiscent to “A Brief History of Seven Killings” by Marlon James in tone and political message, and I also think that the list “Amazon Rainforest” might have similar themed books on it.

Find “We Eat Our Own” at your library using WorldCat!

Book Club Review: “Cold Comfort Farm” by Stella Gibbons

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We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last year and a half. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Books with Movie Adaptations.” 

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for bookclub. We’ll also post the next book coming up in bookclub. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own bookclub!

Book: “Cold Comfort Farm” by Stella Gibbons

Publishing Info: Penguin Classics, October 2006 (First Published in September 1932)

Where Did We Get this Book: The library!

Book Description from Goodreads: ‘I saw something nasty in the woodshed’

When sensible, sophisticated Flora Poste is orphaned at nineteen, she decides her only choice is to descend upon relatives in deepest Sussex. At the aptly named Cold Comfort Farm, she meets the doomed Starkadders: cousin Judith, heaving with remorse for unspoken wickedness; Amos, preaching fire and damnation; their sons, lustful Seth and despairing Reuben; child of nature Elfine; and crazed old Aunt Ada Doom, who has kept to her bedroom for the last twenty years. But Flora loves nothing better than to organise other people. Armed with common sense and a strong will, she resolves to take each of the family in hand. A hilarious and merciless parody of rural melodramas, Cold Comfort Farm (1932) is one of the best-loved comic novels of all time.

Kate’s Thoughts:

Something I have come to learn as I’ve been reading more outside of my comfort zone is what kinds of books work for me, and what kinds of books just don’t. I really do have to thank our book club for picking books that I wouldn’t otherwise try out, as I do think that that makes me a stronger reader. Of course, this means that sometimes I just don’t connect to a book, and that is what happened with “Cold Comfort Farm”. And it isn’t the books fault. “Cold Comfort Farm” is just one of those books (specifically the ‘eccentric people living in the country being charming and strange as parody’ books) that I have no interest in. The same thing happened with “I Capture The Castle”. That isn’t to say that there weren’t things about the books that I did like. I really liked Flora as the protagonist. I liked that she was very smart and very determined, but I also liked that Gibbons was having a little fun with her and how clueless she was when it came to her privilege. Classism in Britain is so evident and prevalent in a lot of the literature and pop culture that comes from there, and when authors give a nudge-nudge wink-wink to it I find it a bit easier to swallow. Flora certainly means well and isn’t cruel by any stretch, but she is definitely cringe-worthy at times when she’s interacting with the people at the farm and looking through her very urban rose colored glasses.

I also have a feeling that a lot about this book was pretty transgressive when it came out. You not only have a woman coming in and taking over an estate, competently and kindly to boot, but you also have the same women bringing modern ideals and ideas, some of which are still controversial today. I was blown away when there was a scene in which Flora was encouraging Meriam, a farm hand who had just had her fourth unplanned baby, to look into using birth control when she and Seth Starkadder are hoping to give in to their urges. At first I wasn’t certain that that could have been what I was reading, and was very pleased when I confirmed that it was. But then of course for every progressive moment there were moments that betrayed the time period in their sexism and, yes, classism. There was another scene regarding Meriam, who became the object of affection of a bachelor named Urk who had previously been obsessed (And I mean creepily obsessed) with Flora’s cousin Elfine. There was a throw away line about Urk possibly dragging Meriam off and drowning her, but no one really knew, and who would care if he had? Given that Meriam has FOUR CHILDREN I feel like THEY would care. That didn’t sit with me well at all. Perhaps it was meant to be a part of the parody, but it didn’t feel that way.

This book wasn’t for me, but I do see it’s merits to be sure. If you like tongue in cheek books about country eccentrics, definitely check out “Cold Comfort Farm” because it seems to be a classic of the genre.

Serena’s Thoughts:

I agree with a lot that Kate said. Bookclub has been a great learning opportunity that has helped me refine my thoughts on what I do and do not enjoy reading. Before bookclub, I would have said that I enjoy almost all historical fiction, especially the kind about eccentrics living out in the British countryside. However, like Kate, I couldn’t get completely behind “I Capture the Caste” and had similar problems with “Cold Comfort Farm.” Perhaps celebrating Jane Austen’s complete collection doesn’t necessarily translate to loving all British, comedic novels.

For me, it was the same aspect of the book that both made and broke the story for me. I went into it knowing that it was written as a parody of similar romantic, pastoral novels that were popular at the time. And while I enjoyed the elbow-nudging humor this book used to critique the tropes of these stories, I was also unable to become truly attached to any of its characters for the same reason. They served their purpose in highlighting the more ridiculous aspects of the stories Gibbons set out to mock, but they were also distracting.

There are also aspects of the humor that I think are lost on modern audiences who do not have a strong knowledge of rural dialects in 1930s Britain. Apparently, Gibbons took the Shakespeare-route and dropped in several made up words. Words such as “mollocking” and “clettering.” This is a fun idea, especially since Gibbons apparently included this aspect of parody in her novel as an expression of frustration at other authors’ attempts to use phonics in their writing to capture local accents. Which is something I abhor as well. I’ll immediately put down any book that, say, is set in Scotland, and insists on having characters sprinkle in “didnae” or “woudnae” in their speech. Especially when the rest of their dialogue is unchanged. Maddening.

All in all, I struggled with this story, but I can see why it would have been very popular when it was published and can continue to be appreciated today. I actually enjoyed the book much more on a line-by-line basis. Maybe I could get a coffee table book version of it with some of the best witty lines? That I would really like. But as far as a story, I found it wanting.

Kate’s Rating 5: I definitely get why this book is beloved and a classic, but it wasn’t for me. Flora was enjoyable, but the story didn’t connect with me.

Serena’s Rating 5: Samsies. I think I had more fun reading about the book and Gibbons methods of mockery than I did reading the story itself, sadly.

Book Club Notes and Questions: 

The theme continues to be watching the movie adaptation of the book. The selection for “Cold Comfort Farm” (as there have been a few adaptations) was the 1995 version starring Kate Beckinsale, Ian McKellan, and Joanna Lumley. Unfortunately, the copy that Kate had didn’t play, so she watched clips on youtube. The acting was good, the tone seemed true to the book, and Ian McKellan can really do no wrong as far as we’re concerned.

1. “Cold Comfort Farm” was written in the early 1930s. How do you think some of the themes (feminism, birth control, emotion vs reason) were received back when the book was published? Do they still feel as powerful in 2016?

2. Ada Doom is always saying “I saw something nasty in the woodshed” throughout the novel, though we never find out just what that nasty thing was. Do you think it should have been revealed? Were you happy it wasn’t revealed?

3. This book is a parody of British pastoral stories and melodramas. Do you think that it works as an effective parody of this genre?

4. Have you read other books in the genre that this book sets out to parody? Were you able to spot similarities to other stories like this, and if so, which books and how so?

5. What did you think of the ending? Were you satisfied with how everything got resolved?

Reader’s Advisory:

“Cold Comfort Farm” is included in these Goodreads lists: “All Kinds Of Classics That Should Be Read At Least Once” and “Strong Female Characters Written By Female Authors”

Find “Cold Comfort Farm” at your library using WorldCat!