Guest Post Review: “Whispers Through A Megaphone” by Rachel Elliott

Whispers Through A Megaphone

Hey guys! I have swamped with a lot of work these days, so I decided to bring my oldest friend, partner-in-crime and fellow book nerd, Lubna Amir, to do a guest post. I hope you enjoy her insights as much as I do!

When Aishwarya asked me to review a book for her, I was thrilled. Since childhood, she has been the source of new books for me. From contemporary romance to teenage fiction, thrillers to sci-fi, my book journey would be incomplete without her.

Coming to Whispers through a Megaphone. Nominated for the Bailey Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2016 (which is a great way to discover books by the way), Ms. Eliot’s book is rich in both character and humor. A psychotherapist herself, her book showcases a depth and quirkiness that not many possess. Both Miriam and Ralph are battling their own issues, and Ms. Eliot takes what could be a dark and twisty book and makes it wonderfully humorous.

Miriam hasn’t left her house in 3 years, is immensely socially awkward, literally talks in whispers, and has suffered childhood trauma at the hands of a crazy and mostly absent mother (she was once found sweeping the corridors of Miriam’s school, naked). Being told to stay quiet all the time, Miriam has grown into an adult who whispers. She, however, does have some connection to the outside world through her friend, Fenella. The narrative truly begins when Miriam decides she wants to reenter the normal world and do things like shopping and Zumba.

Ralph is the father of 16-year-old twins and is unhappily married to Sadie, a closeted lesbian. When one day he opens the doors of the closet, literally, and discovers that his wife never loved him, that he cannot relate to his sons, and that his life is a mess, Ralph packs his bags and moves to a shack in the woods with a cat called Treacle. A chance meeting with Miriam leads to the start of an unlikely friendship, and the story of when Miriam met Ralph.

What I really loved about the book was the switch in perspectives – maintaining this shift without a narrational break is a difficult task, but Ms. Eliot manages it quite well. This is also where her background as a psychotherapist comes in play. Whispers through a Megaphone is written in a way which makes the reader delve into the psyche and the quirks of the human mind – and realize that at the end of the day, we all are a little dysfunctional.

It’s a great debut novel, and Ms. Eliot’s books (I’m hoping for more!) are going to be a regular feature on my bookshelf from now on. From the whimsical to the crazy, with a little bit of childhood abuse thrown in, Whispers through a Megaphone is a good read!

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Review: “The Solitude of Prime Numbers” by Paolo Giordano

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When I read The Solitude of Prime Numbers, I had no idea that it was originally published in Italy, had been translated into over 30 languages and had sold over a million copies. The few reviews I read before writing this post were nothing but complimentary, calling real-life particle physicist Giordano a literary genius and an incontrovertible  hottie.

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 At first glance, the novel seems to be a very conventional love story about two people who have been marked by tragedy in their childhood. When she was a plump little girl, Alice used to be forced by her domineering father into taking ski lessons. On one such freezing, very foggy morning, she manages to urinate and defecate into her ski suit, get lost in a fog and lose all sensation in one of her legs. Of course, that means Alice is justified in growing up seething with resentment, taking her revenge upon the world by becoming an extreme anorexic.

Meanwhile, her counterpart, Mattia, a little boy suffering from an undiagnosed variant of autism,  is growing up across town, imprisoned in a desperately lonely childhood largely because of his twin, Michela, who is developmentally disabled. Mattia’s clueless parents persist in sending both children to the same school, so Mattia never gets to play with his classmates and, above all, never gets invited to any birthday parties. When Mattia and Michela finally do get an invitation, Mattia ditches his sister in a public park right next to a turbulent river, telling her to wait a few hours until he comes back. Of course, little Michela is never heard from again. There’s nothing for Mattia to do but turn into a mathematical genius with a propensity to self-harm.

Flash forward to the traditionally harrowing high school years, Mattia and Alice go to the same school. Alice is being systematically tortured by the Italian version of Mean Girls, exacerbating her anorexia. Then the main tormentor orders Alice to find herself a boyfriend. Alice picks Mattia, who may be smart but is utterly lacking in social skills. They kiss at a party, and this experience, though it seems somewhat repugnant to them both, has the effect of making them soul mates for life.

While writing this, I keep thinking of those reviews which claimed that every reader of this novel will find small pieces of themselves in it. What particular small piece would that be? Alice spends the next 15 years or so sulking in her room, blaming her oaf of a father for her loneliness and depression. When she finally does get a job, it’s a transparent plot setup for Alice to punish her high school tormentor. She finally marries a nice-enough man who wants nothing more than to have a normal life with some children in it, but Alice’s concave belly is far more dear to her than any hypothetical kid. Her husband is intelligent enough to recognise “Alice’s profound suffering,” but obviously not close enough to help her battle her condition.

Things haven’t been going well for Mattia either. He’s grown up to be a mathematical genius, but when he gets an offer from a foreign university to take a prestigious research position, even his own mother isn’t sorry to see him go: “She hoped with all her might that he would accept, that he would leave this house and that place that he occupied opposite her every evening at dinner, his black hair dangling over his plate and that contagious air of tragedy surrounding him.”

Since I’ve been on a spree of watching Hitchcock movies and listening to Sinatra all day, I can’t help drawing parallels between Solitude and Dean Martin’s Rebel Without A Cause. Except in the latter, James Dean was not only smarter than his obviously moronic parents, but more special, better in every way. He was better because he was cuter, but he was also better because he suffered more; he had a livelier sense of the sorrows of the human (adolescent) condition. It’s a given here that both Alice and Mattia are better, made of entirely finer clay than their parents. To look at your own parents, with all their drooping skin and personal shortcomings, and to realise that odds are pretty good that you’ll end up with the same skin and shortcomings is the quintessential adolescent tragedy. Did I mention that Mattia carves up his skin and puts out the flames on stove tops with his bare hands? He manages to be in agony most of the time. And of course, Alice refuses to treat her behaviour as problematic on any level.

There’s no arguing with this depressive emotional position, besides growing up. We all have to die, and that means in the end that the depressives are right. I’m just wondering about the thousands upon thousands of Europeans who (presumably) subscribe to this position, and have turned, by their adulation, this whimpering cub into a literary lion.

Review: “The Last Anniversary” by Liane Moriarty

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Having read quite a bit of chick lit this year, I’ve found that these novels tend to vary widely upon where they fall on the spectrum. On one end, you’ll have you’ll have your traditional gooey romances where a happily ever after is a given. On the other end, you’ll have darker stories that could just as well be called literary fiction or mysteries or thrillers. Liane Moriarty’s early novel, The Last Anniversary, belongs to the latter category and confounds a number of genre expectations.

Sophie Honeywell always wondered if Thomas Gordon was the one she let get away. He was the perfect boyfriend, but on the day he was to propose, she broke his heart. A year later he married his travel agent while Sophie has been mortifyingly single ever since. Now Thomas is back in her life because Sophie has unexpectedly inherited his great-aunt Connie’s house on Scribbly Gum Island — home of the famously unsolved Munro Baby mystery.

Sophie moves onto the island and begins a new life as part of an unconventional family where it seems everyone has a secret. Grace, a beautiful young mother, is feverishly planning a shocking escape from her perfect life. Margie, a frumpy housewife, has made a pact with a stranger while dreamy Aunt Rose wonders if maybe it’s about time she started making her own decisions.

I have to admit that, having heard so much about the hype surrounding Liane Moriarty’s books, I was expecting something very different from this story than what it turned out to be. While the novel does spend time dwelling on the existential angst that apparently comes with being single and childless at the age of 39, it’s far more than one woman’s race against her biological clock. In addition to some of the more lighthearted fare encountered throughout the narrative, Moriarty engages with a number of challenging themes thoughtfully and unflinchingly. The most prominent of these was the postpartum depression experienced by the outwardly unflappable Grace, presented in a raw, unrelenting yet sympathetic way. While other issues like rape and emotional abuse were also raised, they were addressed in a rather superficial manner. However, it is evident that Moriarty has a knack for balancing challenging themes with the less confrontational parts of the narrative in a way that doesn’t trivialize them.

While the story itself follows a rather predictable path, what’s special about this book are its characters and its setting. The setting of Scribbly Gum Island is beautifully rendered, and Moriarty’s evident attention to milieu is augmented by a cast of characters who slide perfectly into it, with the two bridged together by the author’s profound understanding of what being an Australian means. Moriarty avoids the ponderously overt approach to “doing Australian” injected with such painful determination into so many Australian novels (or worse, novels that aren’t Australian, but try to be), and instead allows her characters’ culture to shine through in a number of snippets that will have readers familiar with the plight of the aspirational classes nodding along.

Despite having a rather large cast for a novel this size, Moriarty’s skill with characterisation ensures that each of them leaves an impression. However, some of the male characters in the book did seem to be left rather one-dimensional and comparatively underdeveloped. Given the diversity of female characters in the book and the balanced approach taken to their actions present and past, the condemnatory approach taken towards the male characters is all the more noticeable.

While The Last Anniversary is, for the most part, a rather well-written novel, with a style that veers from fluffy to astonishingly cruel as needed, this sense of authorial control is not displayed so well at the narrative level. The mystery surrounding Scribbly Gum Island is perhaps played up a little too much, particularly given the fairly mundane (and easily guessable) truth behind it, and I can’t help but feel that the book could have been streamlined a little by reducing the emphasis on this particular plot point. Similarly, there’s some redundancy in Sophie’s quest for love and romance, and this results in a certain amount of tedium that detracts from an otherwise quick and zippy plot.

The Last Anniversary  turned out to be a mostly pleasant surprise for me. While it’s certainly not a flawless work, it’s certainly thoroughly engaging and readers will find themselves getting easily caught up in the complex familial machinations of the residents of Scribbly Gum Island. Moriarty has a considerable knack for characterisation and works hard to balance the darker elements of the plot with moments of delightful levity, resulting in a read that is somehow both insouciant and thoughtful at the same time.

Review: “Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn

Sharp Objects

If you have read Gone Girl or even seen the movie, you know Gillian Flynn is a genius. Or maybe absolutely disturbed. Either way, the products of her mind continue to fascinate me. Gone Girl was the perfect story for those of us who are somewhat put off by the extreme sappiness that is Nicholas Sparks, yet aren’t quite ready for the horror of Stephen King. While tying in an unconventional yet sexy relationship with a shocking mystery, it went from a random grab off the shelf to a favorite book. When I picked up Sharp Objects a few years later, I knew it wouldn’t disappoint.

Camille Preaker, our sardonic anti-heroine, is a journalist for the Daily Post , the “fourth-largest in Chicago,”  a newspaper with its head barely above water, and whose editor, Frank Curry, mines the cold-case files for the next human interest tale sure to snag a Pulitzer. When the disappearance of a second girl occurs in the town of Wind Gap, Missouri, he dispatches the reluctant Camille at once to get the scoop.

There’s only one problem: Wind Gap is Camille’s hometown. Wind Gap hasn’t been good to Camille, a place she has shunned for eight years. A place she describes as “one of those crummy towns prone to misery.” She says this not from dread, but from a quietly haunting intimacy with torment. At the start of the novel, we learn that Camille’s been freshly released into the world after spending several months under psychiatric care. She’s a cutter. Her body is a monument to insecurity and anger, starting at the age of thirteen with Wicked carved into her left hip, and stopping at twenty-nine with Vanish. The only unmarred spot on her body is a circle of perfect skin the size of a fist, on the small of her back which she could never reach.

As with most self-mutilation, it’s but the physical manifestation of deeper emotional traumas, in Camille’s case prompted by the death of her younger sister, Marian, from an ambiguous illness. The tension surrounding this mysterious passing serves as a lynchpin for her strained relationship with her mother, Adora, Wind Gap’s unspoken matriarch and Amma, her sexually hyper-developed thirteen-year-old half-sister who heads a clique of equally spiteful girls, and who in many ways is her mother’s equal in cruelty and malice.

Rattling between the warring factions of her mother and sister, Camille attempts to investigate the abduction-murders in Wind Gap. When the missing girl, Ann Nash, turns up dead not long after her arrival in town—found strangled within a cleft between two buildings, her teeth yanked out (a virtual carbon-copy of the first victim, Natalie Keene)—Camille finds little help from the male authorities. Men view her as suspicious, an outsider with a dubious agenda, yet the scorn doesn’t surprise or upset Camille. She’s used to it. Other than her boss, Frank, who’s a well-meaning but scattershot father-figure, men are often portrayed as dichotomies rather than with any subtlety or depth. They’re afterthoughts, fleeting, a part of the scenery. This isn’t a detriment to the book; they are as Camille sees them based on her experiences.

It isn’t long though before Camille realizes that her best chance to secure clues or leads resides within the secretive cliques of female enmity prevalent in Wind Gap. It is a private world where women hurt each other both overtly and passively, even at funerals. Where gossip is both weapon and shield, wielded for social advancement. This antagonism lies at the core of Sharp Objects. The book is less murder mystery and more an exploration of the cruelty that women inflict upon one another, be it a friend to another friend, classmate to classmate, sister to sister, or mother to daughter—all of which play a role, often spanning multiple generations.

This book is not an easy read. The prose is well written, although not quite yet developed to Flynn’s later flawless standard, and the pace is good, but the subject matter quite simply makes you squirm. That is, however, the intention. This book was not written to be enjoyed. It is about some deeply serious psychoses and the ways in which mental illness affects not only the people who suffer from a condition but also those around them. Camille, we discover early on, is a cutter (hence the title). Yet Flynn is not simply portraying this aspect of her character as it has so often been seen in the past – an almost childish cry for attention, or a result of extreme depression – she has truly explored the root causes of Camille’s condition and fully demonstrated just how destructive it is to every aspect of her life.

The plot may not be scintillating, in places it is downright predictable, the prose might not be perfect, the characters may be inordinately unpleasant, and the topic may be brutal, but the story is brave. It is a subject that many skirt and most will balk at; Flynn, however, has explored it to its outer reaches and revealed not only the ugly truth of it but also the depths to which most people remain ignorant of that truth.

Although I would love to enthusiastically recommend this novel to every single person I meet, unfortunately, I can’t do this – for quite a few reasons. The most obvious of these reasons is there are certain people who just won’t be able to digest the kind of darkness and gore that the author adds in generous helpings to her work. Many murder mystery and thriller novels have perfectly normal, well-functioning people who are thrust into not–so–normal situations as a result of a psychopathic antagonist or a villain along those lines. Here, the protagonist herself is enough of a mess before this even messier, more frightening series of events begins to occur.

There are vivid descriptions of self-harm, substance overdose and animal abuse. Death and terror are elements of the novel discussed in a nonchalant, matter of fact tone. The relationships between people are satirical, almost as if happy, well–settled people were being made fun of. For these reasons, readers who want happy endings and a story that ends in hope and the promise of a better future for the protagonists, this isn’t one for you. However, if you do decide to take the plunge, you’re in for a journey like no other – icy, eye-opening and unforgettable.

Review: “Tiger, Tiger” by Margaux Fragoso

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Who might know a paedophile better than the child on whom he (it’s usually a he) has lavished his attention, sometimes for years? Who has studied him as intimately, allowing him his humanity as most of us refuse to do?

Child molesters, reviled even within prison caste systems, receive little sympathy from the adult world–so little it’s hard for most of us to imagine how long-term sexual abuse can not only be facilitated but also perpetuated by a victim’s loyalty to his or her abuser. Children on whom paedophiles prey, often neglected and needy, advertise hearts as well as bodies to be plundered; for the child who loves his or her abuser, the sexual price exacted for what is offered as affection represents a betrayal from which not every child recovers. The lesson learned–that to be loved one must endure violation–sows a lasting tolerance, even desire, for injury and subjugation.

Spending time with a paedophile can be like a drug high,” Margaux Fragoso observes in her first book, Tiger, Tiger, a memoir of her 15-year relationship with Peter Curran, whom she met at a public pool in Union City, New Jersey, when she was 7 and he was 51. He “can make the child’s world…ecstatic somehow.” Fragoso’s response to Curran, whose genuinely inventive distractions tear her away from the protection of other adults, will continue to mimic the course of addiction, inevitably delivering her to a desperate, entrenched craving for what threatens to destroy her life.

It begins innocently, almost. Under-supervised by her guileless, mentally-ill mother and lacking the well-loved child’s reflexive suspicion of strangers, Fragoso finds a playmate with “bowl-cut, sandy-silver hair,” who “didn’t even seem adult in the sense of that natural separateness adults have from children.” Once she’s crossed the length of the pool to approach him, she asks if she can join him in splashing with his two stepsons. Seven, eight (“the most beautiful age” in Curran’s estimation), twelve, fifteen–as a girl, Fragoso never perceives Curran as he appears to those outside the magic circle he draws around the two of them, can’t see the man her adult self exposes to her readers: by turns pathetic and repellent.

Having binge-watched hundreds of episodes of Law & Order SVU in the past six months, it was incredibly creepy to see how Curran outfitted his home with purple-painted shingles; year-round Christmas decorations; an indoor swing; and a menagerie of reptiles, rodents and birds flying (and excreting) freely inside to demonstrate that in his private Neverland the usual rules don’t apply. Invited to his home with her mother–who, having been sexually abused herself, cannot even in her lucid moments recognise the danger her daughter is in–Fragoso is instantly smitten by the endlessly indulgent Curran. “I want you,” she tells him at the end of their first visit, “to make a schedule of days when we can visit your house.”

It’s testimony to Fragoso’s narrative ability that she can render both her own and Curran’s points of view convincingly, as different–opposed–as they are. Written without self-pity, rancour or even judgement, Tiger, Tiger forces readers to experience Curran simultaneously as the object of a little girl’s love and fascination and as a calculated sex offender who cultivates her dependence on him while contriving to separate her from anyone who might prevent his molesting her. Balanced uncomfortably between these antipodes, Tiger, Tiger is the portrait of a man who will disgust and alienated readers by a writer too honest to repudiate her love for him. There’s little suspense, as we know from the first sentence that Curran has committed suicide and that Fragoso remains sufficiently intact to explain what–who–destroyed her childhood. And while some readers whose appetite for a memoir may excuse the inaccuracies inherent to so subjective a genre, others may require a leap of faith to accept that a detailed account of early youth, including lengthy adult dialogue, could be reconstructed accurately.

So who–other than voyeurs looking for a sustained close-up of a paedophile in action–will want to read this book? To bear witness to a numbingly long series of violations of a child by a man who has honed his wickedness for decades is not more pleasant than it sounds. As a society we energetically oppose sexual abuse; as individuals most of us shy away from investigating a relationship characterised by creepy kisses and inappropriate fondling. Worse, we defend cowardice by calling it discretion–minding our own business. Maybe a book like Tiger, Tiger can help us be a little braver. Certainly, it took courage to write.

WARNING: These extended observations contains spoilers and sexually graphic descriptions.

What begins with mutual intoxication follows a slippery trajectory familiar to victims of long-term abuse: orgies of tickling, hide-and-seek played in the nude, pretending to be “real” and therefore necessarily naked “animals in the jungle,” “Bazooka Joe” kisses requiring two tongues to pass a chewed wad of gum back and forth. An experienced hunter, Curran knows when to watch, when to make a move and what to say. “Only if you want to, sweetheart. No pressure.”

There’s no need to apply any. As Curran well knows, Fragoso’s home life is so punishing she’ll do anything to secure the love and protection of the man her mother has decided “was Jesus in another life.” Once he’s lured Fragoso into his basement lair, Curran explains it is her “great power” that summons the erection of his “magic wand.”  Is it instinct or practice that suggests the perfect words to seduce a child whose father’s alcoholic rages and mother’s frequent institutionalisations have made her feel helpless, without any agency to alter her circumstances? As it happens, the act of fellatio that Fragoso offers Curran as a birthday present inspires her with dissociation rather than sense of potency.

Soon, what appeared a child’s paradise becomes claustrophobic. He can’t live without her, Curran tells Fragoso; if separation didn’t kill him outright, he’d take his own life. When she resists his tightening embrace, he cries. Tears are his currency, as well as praise, gifts and adventures: Curran tries to give Fragoso whatever she demands, telling her nothing can adequately demonstrate a love so absolute it makes its own laws. How can he help doing what love drives him to do? Fragoso, already the victim of her parents’ instability, doesn’t understand that love doesn’t excuse Curran’s molesting her because love would never permit, let alone inspire, such an act.

Nor would love insist she use a razor to remove her pubic hair, or say her vagina began to smell when she started to menstruate. Love wouldn’t work to undermine Fragoso’s connection to her family and friends, cultivating the conceit of an us-against-the-world romance to escape culpability for brutally violating her.

The real cost of a broken taboo is that the revulsion it awakens allows predators freedom to claim one victim after another: because we glance away from crimes–abominations–prevented only by vigilance, the most disheartening aspect of this story is sickeningly familiar. Years before meeting Fragoso, Curran forged papers to marry a 15-year-old; he “hurt” his daughters from a second marriage by “being sexual with” them; during the two years Fragoso’s parents were sufficiently responsible to keep their daughter separated from him, Curran was accused of molesting one of the children he fostered for the state of New Jersey. Tiger, Tiger is an opportunity for its readers to open their eyes and redeem themselves.