Read my full reviews on Marie's Book Garden (by clicking the title). Alas, April was not a great month for fiction. In addition to all the novels below (none of which lived up to my expectations), I started a novel this morning (Song of the Silk Road by Mingmei Yip) and gave up after one chapter (and reading the reviews on Goodreads and Amazon). I've just started The Book Thief, so I have high fiction hopes for May! Both nonfiction reads, though, were excellent.
Poster Child, by Emily Rapp
Having suffered from birth defects myself in addition to self-image issues from not feeling beautiful or "normal" while I was growing up, I'm drawn to memoirs by people facing similar challenges. Emily Rapp was born with a rare disorder that resulted in one of her legs being shorter than the other. Throughout her early childhood, she had surgeries to amputate parts of her leg and began wearing prosthetic devices. She soon became a "poster child" for the March of Dimes. Perky and smiling on the inside, yet grieving and deeply angry about her lot in life on the outside, she reacted by lashing out at her supportive family and becoming, in her words from an interview, a "spoiled brat." I feel blessed to have read this book and become aware of Emily Rapp's beautiful writing.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo
This is an astonishing, ground-breaking book. Katherine Boo, an award-winning American writer/reporter who has earned accolades for reporting on the poor, married an Indian man, Sunil Khilnani. Over three years, she spent countless hours shadowing the residents of a slum near the Mumbai airport filled with people without permanent work. As she grew to learn their stories, a few stood out. Central to the book is the story of Abdul, a young Muslim who buys and recycles the garbage that others collect, whose family is accused of a crime by their angry neighbor. Manju hopes to become Annawadi's first college grad, but she's disturbed by her mother's constant conniving and corruption (which actually assist in paying her college bills). Kalu, a young thief, entertains the other boys by acting out scenes from Bollywood movies. A young woman commits suicide with poison to avoid the arranged marriage her family has made for her. As a Dalit, she knows that her life in a small village away from relatively progressive Mumbai will be miserable.
What struck me most about this book, more than the extreme poverty, lack of sanitation, and struggling for subsistence on the edge of the sewage lake, was the horrible corruption rife in Indian politics, law enforcement, business, and civil service. This, even more than the poverty, oppresses the disadvantaged and prevents them from advancing out of the slums. If you'd like to learn more, I encourage you to read my full review, which has links to more information about Boo's work.
The Missing, by Jane Casey
I discovered this book by reading a review of one of British author Jane Casey's other novels, The Burning. Unfortunately, this book did not live up to my expectations. I found it to be very readable, but much of what happened seemed unrealistic and unlikely to happen. I also guessed who the murderer is long before it was revealed, which I rarely do. As the protagonist, Sarah Finch is not entirely likeable and a bit too overcome with problems. She is a lost soul, lacking anyone she can confide in or trust, and in the end things just spiral downward in her life. Soon she is left with no one. She also makes some bizarre choices, and a few plot elements seem unlikely (such as the policeman on the case falling in love with her, and the highly convenient coincidences that keep occurring, to name a few). Life seems to just happen to her, and because of this she is not very sympathethic.
Shine, by Lauren Myracle
Such a beautiful cover, and such a furore over this book. If you haven't heard, Shine was announced as a finalist for the National Book Awards ...but oops...the National Book Foundation staff misheard the name of the nominee. It was actually meant to be Chime by Franny Billingsley. The judges didn't catch the mistake until they heard the nominees being announced over the radio! Because of that silly fuss and bother and also what I had read about the story, I was looking forward to diving into this book.
It opens with a newspaper article: Patrick, former best friend of protagonist Cat Robinson, is in a coma after being attacked with a baseball bat and left for dead with a gas nozzle taped to his mouth. Cat, who had become an extreme introvert after a traumatic incident and shut all her friends out of her life, decides to find out who is responsible. Myracle paints the deep poverty, ignorance, and malaise in a North Carolina backwoods town with vivid imagery and words. However, the follow-through of the story could have been better. The book was also full of typos, and even though the book appeared to tackle the issues of homophobia and religious intolerance, in the end it did not. If anything, it seemed to send the message that this kind of bigotry is okay and to be tolerated in small southern towns. The more I think about this novel, the less some of it makes sense to me. It could have been so much more!
Nightwoods, by Charles Frazier
I picked this one up because I loved Cold Mountain, Frazier's first novel, which takes place during the Civil War. Nightwoods, which takes place in 1960s Appalachia, paled in comparison. Luce is the caretaker of an old, decrepit resort lodge, and after her sister is brutally killed by her evil husband, Bud, she finds herself to be the guardian of her sister's mute, damaged children. Bud gets away with the crime and comes after the children, convinced that they have his money.
We know from Cold Mountain that Frazier has a gift for writing, but Nightwoods suffers from too much description of place and weak description of characters and story. I didn't feel much sympathy for any of the characters, even the main character, Luce. This book is a coldhearted reminder of how children can be so easily damaged by neglect, cruelty, and violence. It's a brutal story, but without a whole lot of redemption in it.