Friday, September 27, 2013

Review of Gone Girl by Gillian Fly

Flynn, G. (2012).  Gone Girl.  London:  Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Gone Girl may be one of the only books that you encounter in your life in which the thoughtless, forgetful, cheating husband becomes the victim and the person that you root for in the end.  I can't give away too much in this review because of a mind-blowing twist in the middle of the novel. This is truly one book that you simply must read for yourself.

Nick and Amy Dunne are a mid-thirties couple living in Nick's small Missouri hometown.  Both writers who met when living in New York City, they became victims of the economy and the digital wave that wiped out many print journalists.  When they find themselves both unemployed and Nick gets a call from his twin sister Margo to tell him that their mother is dying from cancer, the decision to move back to Nick's home is an easy one-at least for him.  Amy leaves behind everything she has ever known, including her parents, in order to follow Nick halfway across the country, where he and his twin, who he affectionately calls Go, borrow money from Amy's trust fund to start a small bar.  Meanwhile, Amy tries to settle into her new surroundings and wanders aimlessly through her days as a forced housewife.  Her side of the story is told through her diary entries, which paints a picture of an isolated, unhappy woman who maintains a facade of cheerfulness as her marriage slowly unravels.  Then one day, Nick comes home and finds the front door wide open, their cat outside, signs of a struggle in the living room, and most shockingly-blood in the kitchen.  Amy is gone, and his world goes into a tailspin overnight.

Gillian Flynn earned a bachelor's degree in journalism and English from the University of Kansas and a master's in journalism from Northwestern University. A former critic for Entertainment Weekly, she is the author of two other novels.  Gone Girl is a New York Times Bestseller and has been nominated for several awards, including an Edgar Award.

Gillian Flynn creates a stunning masterpiece with an engrossing, startlingly real character study of Nick and Amy at the center.  Their opposing narratives show how the same actions and events can be viewed in completely different ways by the people involved, a phenomenon that is anything but fictional and leads to the disintegration of real-life marriages too.  Colorful characters such as Tanner Bolt, the obscenely expensive lawyer that Nick hires when it becomes apparent that he is suspect number one in Amy's disappearance, and Ellen Abbott-the prosecutor turned true crime television analyst (shades of Nancy Grace) who vilifies Nick nightly in her self-righteous rants, add humor and irony as well as telling commentary on a society that tries criminal cases in the media and in which spouses of missing or murdered persons are judged innocent or guilty based on the amount of emotion they display.  Gone Girl is a can't-put-down must read with a thriller of a twist and a perverse ending that will leave readers begging for a sequel.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Review of Vuto by A.J. Walkley

Walkley, A.J. (2013).  Vuto. Rocket Science Productions.

Author A.J. Walkley spent time in the Peace Corps after graduating from college, working as a health volunteer in the country of Malawi in Africa.  Her experiences during this time inspired the novel Vuto, a moving narrative that describes what happens when two cultures collide and how help from a well-intentioned outsider can be viewed as interfering and have far-reaching consequences.

Vuto is a 17 year old who is giving birth to her third child when the novel opens.  Samantha, a white Peace Corps volunteer, watches and wonders why she is alone, no family or friends present to provide comfort and support. The nurse explains that Malawian tradition dictates that the woman gives birth alone, as a sign of strength.  As the narrative switches back to Vuto's perspective, readers soon learn that her birth name is not Vuto, but she is called Vuto, meaning "problem" because she is deemed a troublemaker.  Her two previous children, both boys, died soon after birth.  Her third child, a girl, whose birth Samantha witnessed, dies on her 13th day.  Tradition dictates that the woman and the child stay isolated for two weeks after birth.  If the child lives past this time, then and only then, does the mother introduce the child to the father. Because all of her children have died before this time period, Vuto has never been able to show her husband their children.  She has carried the burden of her grief alone.  After the death of her daughter, whom she had named Mwala, meaning "Rock", Vuto summons her courage and confronts her husband in front of a tribal meeting of elders, in order to force him to see his dead daughter.  She is immediately ordered to be banished from the village with only the clothes on her back for her disobedience and violation of cultural traditions.  As she leaves, desperate, heartbroken, and unsure of what she will do next, she encounters Samantha, who remembers her from the clinic.  Upon hearing her story, Samantha offers her a place to stay in the small hut that she is provided as a volunteer.  Because Samantha's home is not outside of the village borders, Vuto is violating her order of banishment by staying there.  Leona, the nurse, sees Vuto enter and secretly goes back and tells that she is there.  Enraged, Vuto's husband shows up at the house and attempts to attack her.  Samantha defends her new friend by stabbing Vuto's husband with her Swiss Army knife, killing him.  Panic-stricken and faced with the realization that Samantha may face murder charges, the two women flee, but only after Vuto reasons through Samantha's naive beliefs that the authorities will understand that the murder was self-defense and that the Peace Corps will come to her aid.  Vuto narrates, "she didn't see it from my point of view, only hers, and her point of view was American, not Malawian. Not African at all." After Vuto tells the story of how a former Peace Corps volunteer was raped by a village elder and the organization swept the incident under the rug to avoid bad publicity, Samantha realizes that she is on her own.  Along the way, they receive help from Samantha's boyfriend Hunter, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, and when they reach the Peace Corps headquarters in the capital, things come to a sad, troubling end.

A.J. Walkley majored in English Literature and spent a year in the Peace Corps in Malawi after graduating from college.  In addition to Vuto, she has written two other books.  She currently works as a writer and blogger for The Huffington Post.  To learn more about her, check out the Q &A on the Author Interviews page of this blog.

Vuto tackles tough issues in a thoughtful, realistic manner.  The Malawian characters, including Vuto, are torn in their feelings towards the Peace Corps volunteers.  On the one hand, they welcome the help that is so desperately needed.  On the other hand, they resent and distrust them, viewing them as yet more white outsiders who have come in to change and destroy their way of life.  Vuto herself questions and disobeys some of her culture's traditions, but it is even worse when a white outsider such as Samantha does the same.  Samantha sorts through her own internal conflicts.   Many of the things that she sees, especially the treatment of women and children, goes against her own belief system.  However, she wonders who she thinks she is to come in and criticize or try to change a culture simply because its traditions don't align with her sense of right and wrong.  The Peace Corps forbids volunteers from interfering in cultural traditions, which is one reason why Samantha cannot expect them to defend her.  However, Samantha's-and the reader's view of the Peace Corps as a benevolent humanitarian organization is tarnished as she learns just how far it will go to maintain good public relations.  Perhaps what makes this story so real and compelling, is that all of the answers are not presented neatly tied up in a nice ending.  Samantha's efforts to help Vuto-although well-intentioned, lead to tragedy.  In the end, although she saves Vuto's life, she cannot save her from her overwhelming grief, nor rebuild her broken spirit that has been crushed by years of cruel disregard and even abuse in the name of tradition.  The reader, like Samantha, is left to wonder what-if anything can be done to bridge the gap between Western culture and the rest of the world, after so many years of oppressive brutality and colonialism on one hand, and misunderstood and sometimes abusive traditions on the other.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Review of Sister Souljah's A Deeper Love Inside: The Porsche Santiaga Story

Sister Souljah.  (2013). A Deeper Love Inside:  The Porsche Santiaga Story. New York:  Emily Bestler Books.

A Deeper Love Inside: The Porsche Santiaga Story is the long-awaited sequel to Sister Souljah's bestseller, The Coldest Winter Ever. The author's first novel chronicled the fast-paced, danger-filled rise of the Santiaga family as the head of the house, Ricky, became a legendary drug kingpin in the projects of Brooklyn, New York.  The Santiaga's eldest daughter, Winter, was the apple of her father's eye and determined to follow in his footsteps, even when the family was broken and disgraced after Ricky's arrest.  A Deeper Love Inside tells the second part of the Santiaga tale through the eyes of Porsche, the middle sister, who at the young age of 10 finds herself navigating the harrowing world of a state juvenile detention center where she is serving a sentence for assaulting the caseworker who removed her and her younger sisters from their home.

After an unbelievably daring (and stomach-turning) break-out from the detention center, Porsche finds herself on the run with her older mentor and friend from inside, a mysterious white girl named Riot who took her under her wing.  They end up on a Native American reservation, where Porsche is healed of the eating disorder that she developed on lockdown and learns about natural healing through the use of organic foods and herbs. Embraced by the Native American community and at peace with their beautiful surroundings, the girls could safely stay there forever without fear of being caught by the authorities, since American law enforcement does not have jurisdiction on the reservation.  However, each girl has unfinished business from the past to face, and so they make a pact to split up and then meet back up in New York City several months later.  Porsche hits the streets of New York in a determined quest to put her family back together and reclaim the money, property, and Long Island mansion that was taken when the police arrested her father.  She finds her mother, the once beautiful diva who was the envy of all of the other women in Bed-Stuy, but who is now a broken-down crack addict.  The two of them live underground-literally, and Porsche uses her street smarts and hustling ability to scrape up several under-the-table jobs to care for the both of them, since she isn't legally old enough to work and has to dodge the authorities who would want her in school, locked back up, or both.  Using the healing talents that she developed on the reservation, she takes her mother through a homemade detox program in an attempt to cure her drug addiction. She also meets and falls in love with Elisha, a prep-school teen with aspirations of being a filmmaker.  However, their budding romance is threatened by Porsche's secrets.  Afraid to reveal her real identity, Porsche tells him that her name is Ivory.  She is too afraid for him to find out who she really is, and to see the poor conditions that she lives in with her drug-addicted mother.  She must also continue to deal with the issues that haunt her.  She wants to find her family and must come to grips with the realization that both her mother and Winter knew where she was when she was locked up but only made one visit to see her and never sent any money to her. While in lockdown, she developed a split personality, a girl named Siri, and as her world becomes more confusing and challenging, the line between where Porsche begins and Siri ends becomes ever more blurred.

Sister Souljah is a community activist, intellectual, and sought after speaker.  A graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in both American History and African Studies, she is the author of four bestselling books-three novels and one autobiography.

Just as with The Coldest Winter Ever, I found myself unable to put this novel down.  Porsche's story was just as compelling as her older sister Winter's, and even more profound and touching.  Whereas Winter was very selfish and thought only of self-preservation, the lengths to which Porsche went to save her mother and find their young twin sisters, Lexus and Mercedes, was poignant and heartbreaking.  Sister Souljah does a great job comparing the outcomes of the two sisters and showing how being greedy and self-centered and focusing on making fast, illegal money, leads to a sure downfall in the case of Winter, in contrast to Porsche, who does her best to help her family and friends and makes her money through legitimate, though under-the table hustles, resulting in lasting wealth for her-both materially and emotionally.  Fans of Midnight, the mysterious, enigmatic character who was introduced in The Coldest Winter Ever and went on to be the subject of the author's next two novels, will be excited to see his return in this novel and the part that he plays in helping Porsche and her family.  Once again, Sister Souljah has done a notable job creating real characters that are very identifiable with the young urban readers who make up the majority of her fan base.  She also presents valuable life lessons about navigating the tough choices presented by the streets without being preachy.  A Deeper Love Inside challenges readers to follow Porsche's example and find love for themselves and then to magnify that into love for their family, friends, and neighbors.