Book Review: THE NIGHT OLIVIA FELL, tangled in the lies we tell

McDonald, Christina - The Night Olivia FellThe Night Olivia Fell
Christina McDonald

One October night, Abi Knight receives a call every parent dreads. Her daughter, Olivia, has been in an accident. She fell from a bridge and a passerby found her on the shore. Though brain dead, the hospital is forced to keep Olivia alive because she is pregnant, another shock to Abi.

Though Olivia has bruises on her wrists and there is evidence of cyberbullying on her computer, the police decline to investigate. Anthony Bryant, a victim’s advocate from nearby Seattle, joins Abi’s crusade to find the truth about what happened to Olivia the night she fell, though he may not be what he seems. And getting to the truth may be difficult when Abi has surrounded Olivia with lies her whole life…

The Night Olivia Fell is told in two timelines, the present, in which Abi is investigating Olivia’s fall, and about six months earlier, in which Olivia is trying to find out the truth about her past after she sees her doppelganger at a school event held at the University of Washington.

Although I found Olivia’s sections juvenile and slightly annoying (as might be expected as they are told from her point of view), they were also incredibly poignant given what we knew about her fate. As she was on her own quest for answers, Olivia pushed against her overprotective mother and started developing a voice of her own.

Abi, backtracking the last months of Olivia’s life, had to face her overprotectiveness of her daughter and her tendency to live vicariously through her.

The Night Olivia Fell questions the validity of lies we tell to protect others, the role of trust in relationships, and the bonds of love even beyond death. Although heartbreaking, the novel is a compelling read with a satisfying conclusion.

Thank you to NetGalley and Gallery Books for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.


Book Review: THE HIDING PLACE, a supernatural thriller

Tudor, CJ - The Hiding PlaceThe Hiding Place
CJ Tudor

English teacher Joe Thorne has returned to his hometown, Arnhill, a village built around a now-closed mine, which he’d vowed to leave forever. He’s used unsavory methods to attain his position; at the same time, few were clamoring to take it as the previous English teacher, Julia Morton, killed her son, Ben, and then herself scandalizing the small town.

Joe learned that young Ben had disappeared shortly before his murder, but he returned changed, acting strangely, smelling foul, and hardly speaking. The same thing happened to Joe’s younger sister when he was fifteen. His return may have something to do with history repeating itself–or with the 30,000 pounds he owes the Fatman for gambling debts. Joe’s old gang, Stephen Hurst, Marie Gibson, and Nick Fletcher certainly aren’t pleased to find he’s returned. Beth Scattergood, the new art teacher, is Joe’s only ally, but she has her own secret reasons for moving to Arnhill.

The Hiding Place alternates between the present day and 1992, when Joe was in high school, to suspensefully unravel the mysteries Joe and his friends are hiding as Joe tries to make good on his debt to the Fatman who has made it clear he is out of chances. Joe himself is a frustrating main character. He is sardonic and thinks himself witty, knowing he is making bad choices as he makes them which is maddening. Beth was my favorite character and I wish the story had more of her! Some of the secondary characters were surprising–a vicious female enforcer, a manipulative cancer patient with a master plan, invisible observers who provide Joe information, and a bully who sacrificed for love.

I don’t want to say to much about the plot, but The Hiding Place obviously draws from classics in the genre in what I believe is a homage rather than a cheap copy and takes a supernatural turn I wasn’t expecting. This part of the novel wasn’t as interesting to me and led to some inconsistencies. More interesting were the relationships among the characters although unfortunately these were secondary to the plot. Many of the characters are bullied, and these scenes are difficult to take, and while no one should have to endure such treatment, the bullied characters are resilient and complex.

Although I didn’t like this as well as CJ Tudor’s previous book The Chalk Man, I did get sucked into it and found it a quick and easy read that I quickly devoured despite its shortcomings.

Thank you to NetGalley and Crown Publishing for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: CULT X, a disturbing and strange book about dueling cults in Tokyo

Nakamura , Fuminori - Cult XCult X
Fuminori Nakamura

In Cult X, Shotaro Matsuo leads a benign group of followers in a revisionist Buddhism that incorporates psychics and neurology. Sawatari, who had studied with him under the teacher Suzuki, was the leader of the mysterious Cult X. Sawatari gains devotion by selecting followers who hate themselves because they are alienated from society and in turn hate society. The cult’s rituals include a celebration of sex which have women given some agency, but it’s only the agency I think a man imagines a woman would want to have. Sawatari had a more private ritual involving new women to the cult in which he rapes them (completely disturbing) and they come to enjoy it (completely unlikely).

While Matsuo, who himself sexually harasses women, seems to see Cult X as an irritant similar to a fly in a room, Cult X is secretive, with members living in an apartment house, and they send spies and scouts into Tokyo. They do have an enemy in Tokyo authorities, but the Public Safety Bureau and the police are distrustful of each other and are working at cross purposes. Cult X also has an enemy within who threatens to destabilize their entire organization.

Cult X is one of the strangest books I’ve read and not really in a good way. I don’t mind explicit sex scenes in books, but I do mind sexual violence which was not only present in this book but gratuitously so. The action of women was solely in response to men, and their jealous fighting over the men they desired reflected male fantasies more than reality.

Several of Mastuo’s “lectures” are transcribed in the novel, and he has wackadoodle theories about Buddha anticipating such advances as string theory. He spoke about the unity of people and the planet through the exchange of atoms, and promoted peace. I’m not sure I understood even some of his discourse but it was interesting.

Also intriguing was the comparison between cults and the government and how the government fosters a cult-like belief in itself through nationalism using at one point the example of the near worship of the Yasukuni Shrine and the promise that Japanese soldiers falling in war are decreed heroes. In Cult X, a conservative government manipulates the belief to consolidate power which sounds very familiar to an American audience.

Although I’ve read about some American cults, particularly the People’s Temple and the Manson Family, after reading this book, I realize I haven’t read about cults in general, so I don’t know how accurate the book is in representing the pull of cults and the way leaders manipulate vulnerable believers. That question, of course, is incredibly interesting, but in Cult X, it seemed to be treated somewhat superficially with everyone joining Cult X having a difficult past that caused them to become estranged from society and so looking for a place to belong. It only gave cursory attention to what would cause them to take the extreme step of pledging their lives to the leader, and in some instances, suggesting that the appeal of sex was enough.

Both Matsuo and Sawatari talked in detail about World War II or the Pacific War as they called it, and I wasn’t sure of the significance of this in the context of the novel. I wondered if there were cultural touchstones that I was just missing being a Westerner reading the book.

Though there are some interesting themes in Cult X, many key characters are jealous, petty, and cruel. Getting through Matsuo’s lectures requires patience, and reading about Sawatari and his Cult X necessitates a strong stomach. I think it will appeal to a very narrow swath of readers.

Book Review: WELCOME TO LAGOS, a more than convincing portrait of the largest city in Nigeria

Onuzo, Chibundu - Welcome to LagosWelcome to Lagos
Chibundu Onuzo

In Welcome to Lagos, motley characters on the run find each other and travel together from near Yenagoa, in Southeast Nigeria to Lagos, the largest city in the country. Army officer Chike Ameobi and Private Yẹmi Ọkẹ have deserted the army after their commanding officer ordered them to fire on innocent civilians. Fineboy, an ex-militant who joined only for the chance to read a ransom demand on the radio, left his unit and ran into them in the bush. There, they encountered Isoken, doubly traumatized by an attack on her mother’s home village that separated her from her parents and then from an assault by a group of men after she ran into the bush for safety. On the bus to Lagos, Chike sat next to Oma, a devout woman escaping her wealthy, abusive husband. In Lagos, their paths cross the reform journalist Ahmed Bakare and the corrupt, discredited former minister of education Chief Rẹmi Sandayọ.

Onuzo describes Lagos as a city with agency, a city that variously will grind people to gristle or like a cannibal eat them to their bones. For an honorable and honest man like Chike, Lagos offers few opportunities. At times, the group, without money, and unable to find work, sleep under a bridge–after paying protection money to the local boss. The dynamic society created in these spaces is succinctly yet vividly captured and it is easy as a reader to imagine what it must be like to live and sleep in so vulnerable a setting in such close proximity to others.

Lagos, too, challenges Ahmed, who was educated in England and worked there until he returned home to found the Nigerian Journal, a paper of the people and by the people. Ahmed committed to publishing an anticorruption piece in every issues, a commitment that angered those in power–especially since Ahmed’s father gained his wealth through the same graft that Ahmed was trying to expose–and the paper lost advertisers and subscribers. When Ahmed heard of the attack on the village that drove Chike and Yẹmi to desert the army, he was unable to convince any reporter to travel to the Delta to cover it because it was unsafe. Given the obstacles to publishing anything critical of the government, an educated, informed populace was impossible.

Problems with education, though, began at the primary school level, and through Chief Rẹmi Sandayọ, we see the corruption in the Ministry of Education, and how funds earmarked for schools instead line politicians’ pockets so that students are deprived of desks, computers, even textbooks.

As Chief Sandayọ tries to reform his image and gain revenge on his political enemies, he unleashes a firestorm of publicity and with the help of the BBC and a popular musician he’d never met, his narrative spread across the globe, giving hope that Chike’s group might make a difference after all.

One of my favorite elements of the novel was in Part II when each chapter had as an epigram an excerpt from the fictional Nigerian Journal. At times, these directly related to the plot; others provided details of life in Lagos.

With so many characters, understandably, not all get equal attention, though I wish that the novel had followed Isoken and Yẹmi more. At the same time, Onuzo writes with an economy that would make additional characterization challenging.

Although dealing with serious themes, Welcome to Lagos had a farcical quality about it. I don’t often read books with this tone, and enjoyed it for them most part. With the outrageous, though delightful, layering of subplots, it was difficult to see how the novel could possibly end, and in some ways, I can understand why Onuzo chose to close the novel as she did. On the other hand, I didn’t particularly like how it ended.

I’ve read a handful of books that take place in or partly in Lagos, and certainly this book captures the essence of the city better than any other, and for that reason alone, I recommend it if you are interested in Nigerian literature. Beyond that, it addresses themes of corruption, morality, and faith and satisfying read.

Book Review: OHIO, a picture of small town hopelessness and despair

Markley, Stephen - OhioOhio
Stephen Markley

In Ohio, on a summer night in 2013, four graduates of New Canaan High School in Ohio return to their hometown unbeknownst to each other. Bill, a one-time activist who sank under a circle of alcoholism and drug use, was there to make a dubious and secretive delivery. Stacey, a doctoral student in literature, has come to confront her past in the form of an ex’s mother. Veteran Danny, who lost an eye in Afghanistan, was visiting to see his parents, and Tina Ross returned for a long-planned mission.

Returning to New Canaan made memories of high school surface, and each of these characters had an old love they couldn’t escape. Although they weren’t friends, in a small town, everyone knew each other, and their paths overlapped, and their friends were friends of each other so they figured into each other’s memories. I am very glad my high school experience was not the depressing, oppressive environment these characters faced as their behavior was constrained by both peer pressure which was in opposition to the strict religion of their families. They were cruel and often unforgiving, in part, I think Markley would argue, because they grew up in a town like New Canaan, a town suffused with hopelessness caused by job loss, foreclosures, drug addiction–all fostering an ether of hopelessness and a vision of a dark future.

Each character has a long chapter, and the chapters overlap so that they only make sense together. Bill’s chapter introduces the book, and, because he is drunk and on LSD, it’s a hallucinatory initiation. The other chapters are more traditional, and by the final chapter, told from Tina’s point of view, the book reads like a crime thriller.

Bill was such a sad character for me because I often agreed with him politically and pitied him for the mess his life became. His activism began when he opposed the Iraq war and wore an anti-Bush t-shirt to school, upsetting both his conservative classmates and teachers. He argued that patriotism (or nationalism) is often a distraction conceived by those in power to distract the populace from sorrow. Alone, he felt, he fought against the “Great American Thing”:

“What you learn’s like: the American system . . .” He flicked his cigarette into the road. “It’s not like this conspiracy of Illuminati. It’s just this adaptive, fucking assimilating, smooth motherfucker. It gives you cars and credit and religion and television and all this other comfort that we go and call ‘freedom.’ Problem is, there’s no raging against the machine because the machine just consumes whatever objection anyone makes about it.”

One of Markley’s achievements in this novel is allowing the reader to feel empathy for even the worst characters. The one that to me was the cruelest also had a love for dogs and had once dreamed of success and opening a no-kill shelter in New Canaan. At the same time, characters that at first were written as very likable were given flaws that deepened and complicated them.

Even though Ohio was filled with despair, reflected in the fact that all the present-day scenes were set at night, and the ending was actually pretty horrific, it was also very hopeful. And, strangely enough, though the characters were messy, unsuccessful (for the most part), and confused, they were also at times honorable, intelligent, and kind. When I was finished reading, I actually found myself missing them.