BOOK REVIEW: It’s Kind Of A Funny Story – by Ned Vizzini

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Title: It’s Kind Of A Funny Story
Author: Ned Vizzini
Genre: YA, Fiction, Contemporary
First published: 2006
Finished reading: December 27th 2014
Pages: 444
Rating 5

“People are screwed up in this world. I’d rather be with someone screwed up and open about it than somebody perfect and ready to explode.”

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This book has been on my TBR pile for quite some time now, and I’m glad I finally came around reading it. It’s Kind Of A Funny Story is without doubt a book with a powerful message about (teen) suicide, and it cannot be ignored that a little over a year ago Ned Vizzini unfortunately chose the same fate. His death does make you analyse this novel in a different way and it was hard to put a rating to his words. I have tried anyway. It’s Kind Of A Funny Story is well written, the characters feel real and Ned Vizzini was able to mix rather heavy subjects with humor. It’s a book that will leave its mark; It’s Kind Of A Funny is unique, in a good way. Definitely recommended and one of the best books I’ve read in 2014!

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Teenage Craig is what you call overambitious and is determined to do everything to achieve the best possible results and future. He forgets about everything else as he studies practically day and night to get into Manhattan’s Executive Pre-Professional High School, and when he finally gets in, the pressure to continue on this high level becomes too much. His ‘friend’ Aaron gets him into drugs, and soon he is starting to feel down. He stops eating and sleeping, wondering what to do with life, and how to continue. Then one night, he nearly kills himself.

Craig was saved by nobody else than himself. He checks himself into a nearby hospital, and is soon transferred to the mental ward. At first he is not sure if he really wants to be there, but soon he realizes this is the best place to finally confront his current situation and possibly find a solution. He slowly improves and when he rediscovers his talent of drawing maps, he becomes ‘famous’ among the other patients. They are not just any maps, but maps that show what is going on inside different brains…

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It’s Kind Of A Funny Story is not only a moving story about a teenager who is trying to recover from a serious depression; it is so much more. Ned Vizzini was able to create a very unique tale that is without doubt worth reading. The mix of serious themes with interesting prose and humor makes this book a must read for those who enjoy reading contemporary books and are interested in reading about mental health. I sincerly hope Ned Vizzini went to a better place, and I thank him for leaving behind his words and beliefs in the form of this powerful book. Again, a must read!

BOOK REVIEW: The Boy In The Striped Pajamas – by John Boyne

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Title: The Boy In The Striped Pajamas
Author: John Boyne
Genre: Historical Fiction, YA, WWII
First published: 2006
Finished reading: June 23rd 2014
Pages: 224
Rating 4,5

He looked down and did something quite out of character for him: he took hold of Shmuel’s tiny hand in his and squeezed it tightly.
“You’re my best friend, Shmuel,” he said. “My best friend for life.”

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The Boy In The Striped Pajamas was a great read. This book by John Boyne can be classified as amazingly moving and is ingeniously written from the point of view of a nine-year-old boy called Bruno. After seeing the movie various times, I already knew this book was going to be sad… And Boyne was able to make the tears flow perfectly while describing the developing relationship between Bruno and the Jewish boy Shmuel. The way Boyne incorporates themes as the Auschwitz concentration camp and other horrible facts of the Second World War and shows them through the eyes of a boy is refreshing. Bruno is too young to understand what’s happening during the Second World War or what his father’s job really implies… With terrible consequences.

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The story is set during the 1949’s in Nazi Germany, where Bruno and his family live a comfortable life in Berlin. His father is an important man and one day the Fury (Fuhrer) visits their home with important news. Soon his father is offered a job at Out-With (Auschwitz) and the family has to move to Poland. Bruno hates it there and wants to go back to Berlin, unable to understand why they moved there in the first place. Being a naive nine-year-old, he cannot grasp the real meaning of his father’s job… And he doesn’t understand what kind of place Out-With really is. When he looks out of his bedroom window, he sees a big group of people wearing striped pajamas and caps. They are all gathered together in a huge area with small huts and a fench surrounding them, and Bruno wonders what is really out there…

Acting like the explorer he wants to be some day, he decides to walk to the fence himself and find out more about those people wearing the pajamas. He knows he’s not supposed to be going there, but his curiosity wins and soon finds himself close to the fence. Bruno then meets a small Jewish boy named Shmuel, prisoner at the Out-With camp. They discover they were born the same day, and soon share more than that… Bruno tries to visit his new friend every day, sharing thoughts and food with the boy. Somehow sensing his friendship with Shmuel might be frowned upon, he decides to keep him a secret. When Bruno’s mother wants to move back to Berlin, he decides to pay one last visit to Shmuel. Bruno had promised to help find the Jewish boy’s missing father, and he wanted to discover for himself what was behind the fence. He had asked Shmuel to bring him an extra pair of striped pajamas so he could walk around the camp unseen…

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The Boy In The Striped Pajamas is a beautiful, but very sad story to read. Make sure to keep a box of tissues close as you will probably need it during the last few chapters. And make sure you watch the movie too if you haven’t; both are definitely recommended! Keep away if you don’t like sad endings though.

BOOK REVIEW: A Dirty Job – by Christopher Moore

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Title: A Dirty Job
Author: Christopher Moore
Genre: Humor, Fiction, Comedy
First published: March 21st 2006
Finished reading: June 6th 2014
Pages: 384
Rating 2

“Mr. Fresh looked up. “The book says if we don’t do our jobs everything could go dark, become like the Underworld. I don’t know what the Underworld is like, Mr. Asher, but I’ve caught some of the road show from there a couple of times, and I’m not interested in finding out. How ’bout you?”

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How I’ve struggled trying to make myself finish A Dirty Job… I’m not even sure how I’ve made it until the end, although I have to admit the story became better during the second half of the book. I just couldn’t get into writing style Christopher Moore chose to tell his story and it was impossible for me to symphatize with the flat and sometimes highly annoying characters. Especially the main character Charlie I just wanted to smack in the face real bad and tell him to get over himself. Which if you think about it is strange since he just lost his wife and now has to raise their newborn child by himself; enough reasons for symphathy you would say. In general I had serious problems with this book and I myself wouldn’t touch A Dirty Job again. Although I’ve heard others really enjoying this book. I guess it’s one of those reads that can go either way…

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To get an idea what the book is about, here follows a short summary without revealing too much of the supposedly hilarious plot and characters. The story starts describing our main character Charlie Asher; a Beta male, owner of a secondhand store and above all quite neurotic. He completely loses it when his wife dies and sees a tall, dark guy in her room just before. He thinks the strange man in mint green had something to do with the death of his wife, but nobody believes him. Soon strange things start to happen. Objects in his shop are starting to glow with a red light, and people seem to drop death around him. Only later he realizes he was recruited to be the new helper of Death. As the book says: ‘it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it’.

Things become stranger and stranger when he discovers that there are ‘monsters’ living in the sewers, creatures from the underworld waiting to take over the world above and feeding on the souls Charlie has to collect. The tall dark guy turns out to be another Death helper called Minty Fresh, and explains a thing or two about the job Charlie was failing to do correctly until then. The underworld grows stronger when they can get their claws on the souls, so it is the job of the so-called Death Merchants to save the souls of the dead and dying and thereby prevent an underworld invasion which would destroy the world as they know. Various people screw up anyway and soon Charlie has to prepare himself for an epic battle with the creatures of the underworld. Soon they are fighting for the right to be Above, and to find out who is the real Luminatus…

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I know A Dirty Job was ment as a book with dark humor and  that Moore is described as an ‘American writer of absurdist fiction’. Still, the mention of a tall, dark guy with big guns called Minty Fresh and a little girl killing around with the word kitty just couldn’t make me laugh. (Although I have to admit it does sound funny when you see it without the actual context.) The way he described the two widows Mrs Ling and Mrs. Korjev was highly stereotypical. I guess Moore wanted them to sound funny (and maybe the use of ‘like bear’ was a little), but I felt that he was generalizing the Asian and Russian immigrants way more than he should have. And we’re not even talking about criticizing other religions… I know for a fact a lot of people won’t agree with me and say this is actually a great read and incredibly funny. Who knows, maybe me and this book just weren’t ment to be?

BOOK REVIEW: Water For Elephants – by Sara Gruen

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Title: Water For Elephants
Author: Sara Gruen
Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance, Drama
First published: May 26th 2006
Finished reading: May 17th 2014
Pages: 335
Rating 2,5

“There is no question that I am the only thing standing between these animals and the business practices of August and Uncle Al, and what my father would do–what my father would want me to do–is look after them, and I am filled with that absolute and unwavering conviction. No matter what I did last night, I cannot leave these animals. I am their shepherd, their protector.”

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I didn’t exactly know what to expect when I started reading Water For Elephants and I cannot say I liked the novel now that I’ve finished it. Sure, a story set in the 1930s and about the life in a circus sounds interesting enough. Sure, Sara Gruen clearly researched the theme very well and was able to incorporate various circus anecdotes in her story. But in my humble opinion she failed to make the characters, and especially the main characters Jacob and Marlena, believable. The way she describes both young and old Jacob feels forced and unnatural. She uses the various and in my opinion unnecessary sex scenes to try and make Jacob more manly. The problem is that it doesn’t work and the scenes just became plain annoying. The character of Marlena is described with cliches, and it didn’t make me care what happened to her at all (except for the part that included unnecessary violence maybe) In fact, I find most characters rather flat and boring. It’s all about Jacob (the good guy) trying to get the girl (Marlena), who is married to the bad guy (August). It can’t get more cliche than that.

The other fact that annoyed me was the excessive amount of animal cruelty and violence used to describe the situation in the circus. Although I understand the story is set in a different era and things were different back then, I cannot stop to believe that Sara Gruen used an excessive amount of violence. And especially when talking about the way August treats the circus animals….In my opinion the fact that August is cruel and clearly the bad guy becomes also clear without the continual mistreating of both animals and people alike. The overdose of violence just made me very annoyed and didn’t add anything to the story.

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 The story is told by the old Jacob, who is in his nineties and lives in a retirement home. His wife had died some time before and his family seems to have forgotten him… He tries to remember both his wife and his glory days with memories that surfaced after witnessing a circus tent installed close to the retirement home. He travels back to the 1930s, back when he was in his twenties and a time colored by the Depression and the prohibition… After his parents die, young Jacob loses everything and is forced to abandon home and study. (He was close to becoming a vet.) During the night he sees something that turns out to be a real circus train, and he decides to hop on board. It was not easy to get accepted, but an old working man named Camel helped him earn a spot with the circus crew. When they find out he’s almost an official vet, he gets hired to care for the animals. The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth circus owns odd bits and pieces of various circus shows gone broke, and its owner Uncle Al is always looking for something or someone new he can buy from the next circus that collapses. 

Things turn interesting when Uncle Al buys an elephant, Rosie. Seemingly dumb, they later discover that she only responds to Polish and she becomes the star of the show. Jacob in the meantime is deeply in love with Marlena, the showgirl that works with horses and the new elephant. But it’s an impossible love since she is married to the violent August, and to make things worse he is in charge with all the animals. So as a vet, Jacob is forced to work with him. Violence escalates, and one day a disaster happens…

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Like I said before, I had some mayor issues with Water For Elephants. Both the lack of dept and credibility of the characters and the excessive use of violence made me enjoy this novel way less than I thought I would when I started reading. I guess that if you are able to ignore those rather big problems I had, you might enjoy the novel anyway since the storyline itself is quite interesting. Approach with caution…

BOOK REVIEW: The Road – by Cormac McCarthy

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Title: The Road
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Genre: Science Fiction, Post Apocalyptic, Dystopia
First published: September 26th 2006
Finished reading: May 9th 2014
Pages: 284
Rating 4,5

“He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”

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I actually confused this book with a different movie (which I detested and apparently don’t remember the name of), so I’m really glad I decided to pick up The Road anyway. Once I started reading, I quickly realized my mistake and recognized it as a whole different movie I saw only a part of and besides a long time ago. But I remember the images were strong and impressive. And so is this book. Although we never get to know where the story is set nor the names of the main characters, Cormac McCarthy is able to make us sympathize with them. The Road is a story about a father and a boy, making there way down south in a post apocalyptic world… A story about determination, survival and the love of a father for his son.

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We follow the father and son on a difficult journey south, where the cold weather, desperation, lack of food and the destruction seen in the post apocalyptic world make it difficult to go on. There is a sense of hopelessness in it all, but nevertheless the father never gives up, and tries to convince his son to do the same. They find all kind of obstacles on their way, and death is never far away… There is hardly any soul left, and most of them are the bad guys. The father wants them to reach the sea, and sees that location as their salvation. But when they finally arrive, he soon finds out he was wrong. That live in the post apocalyptic world is like a neverending circle full of hopelessness… And the only thing that keeps them alive is the bond they share.

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Although I don’t really enjoy the writing style of McCarthy, I cannot deny this is a strong book with a strong story. What made the story worthwhile is the bond between the father and son, and their way of dealing with the situation. Both were born in different worlds, and have accepted the new one in order to survive. An interesting book to read and I will be watching the movie again as well.

BOOK REVIEW: A Necessary Evil – by Alex Kava

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Title: A Necessary Evil
(Maggie O’Dell Series #5)
Author: Alex Kava
Genre: Mystery, Thriller, Crime
First published: 2006
Finished reading: May 3rd 2014
Pages: 597
Rating 3,5

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I didn’t realize this was actually the fifth book of a series when I started reading it, but I must say it was ok to read without background information. The story is quite easy to read, with lots of short chapters and the end was a total surprise to me (although I already suspected someone from the ‘inside’). There are two different storylines in the book, but they are easy to follow as they are connected. But the amount of changes between the various characters appearing in different chapters was confusing sometimes, and made me wonder who was talking at some points. Still, A Necessary Evil was enjoyable, although themes like child abuse by priests and priest murders may set you off.

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It all starts when various decapitated heads of women start to show up, and Maggie O’Dell (FBI profiler) is asked to work on the case. While she is still working on that case, she is called to assist another one; various priests have been attacked and murdered, seemingly at random. She is asked to check if the cases of the dead priests are connected, but soon discovers a different connection… And a computer game thrown in the middle.

Maggie is also confronted with various ghosts from the past. First, the priest murders lead her to a reunion with her ex-boyfriend Nick, who is friends with one of the persons involved. But more importantly, Father Michael Keller shows up again. Maggie knows he is the killer of various boys a few years ago, but was never able to catch him and he fled to South America. Now he offers them information about the priest killings in exchange for immunity, and Maggie has to make a difficult decision… She wants to catch the priest killer, but is she willing to set free a monster for it?

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A Necessary Evil is one of those crime thrillers that delivers; easy to read, a high pace and entertaining in general. Maybe it is not that original, but if you like crime thrillers in general, you will probably enjoy reading this one by Alex Kava as well. I will probably check out more of her work in the future…

BOOK REVIEW: Cross – by James Patterson

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Title: Cross
(Alex Cross Series #12)
Author: James Patterson
First published: 2006
Finished reading: January 11th 2013
Pages: 393

Rating 2,5

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I admit I normally enjoy reading novels written by James Patterson, but unfortunately I’m becoming tired of the Alex Cross series. It almost seems like he doesn’t put any effort into the series anymore, and things tend to become repetitive. It still is a fast read and I guess it does the job of delivering a few hours of easy entertainment. I will probably continue reading this series whenever I need a quick and easy read, but I’ll cross my fingers that James Patterson wakes up and starts writing like before again… I enjoyed his earlier work way better.

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Alex Cross left the FBI to work as a psychologist again. He still isn’t over his wife Maria’s death and wants vengeance, but he tries to get on with his life anyway. Then Cross’s former parter John Sampson asks for help in an investigation. A serial rapist is on the loose, using terrifying photos to threaten his victims. In short he tells them that if they talk to someone about what happened, they end up like those on the pictures: in a horrible death. The women refuse to testify and Cross and Sampson have a difficult job to try and catch the rapist. Things become interesting when they find a connection to Maria’s death. Will Alex Cross finally gets the vengeance he so desperately is searching for?

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Like I said before, if you aren’t looking for the next literary masterpiece and need a few hours of easy entertaining, Cross and the Alex Cross series is a good choice for you. It’s not the best read out there, but it’s a quick one that you can easily finish in one afternoon. Maybe not the best of James Patterson‘s work, but acceptable.