The Book List – The Good, the Bad, and the Downright Ugly from the Road
Travelling without a good book is never a good idea, so when my Kindle died in the first week of our six-week Central America trip, I knew I was in trouble. Thank goodness for hostel book exchanges. Without spending a penny (or a peso!), I managed to keep reading throughout the whole trip. Overall, there were quite a few hits — but also some really big misses. For better or worse, here’s some of the most memorable reads from the road:
A Million Little Piecesby James Frey
This book sounds as though it could be an after-school special (and not in a good way). Spoilt rich kid pisses away his privileges and becomes a violent drug addict on the verge of death. Yet somehow, James Frey’s “autobiographical novel” removes itself from the melodrama to become completely absorbing and even entertaining — if not a little shocking. Frey’s simple and spare narration could have felt cold but instead it’s descriptive, to-the-point, and makes the bleak stories easier to read. Yet despite the misery, the message of hope — for recovery, for redemption — rings out through the book. I was devastated to learn much of story was exaggerated/fabricated — but at the end of the day, it’s a moving tale of someone pulling themselves out of addiction, even if not all the details ring true. In three words: moving, absorbing, inspiring.
Murder in Mississippiby John Safran
As a fan of John Safran’s TV specials and radio shows, I was somewhat surprised to stumble across a true crime/murder mystery book by the Aussie comedian on a remote island off Nicaragua. Who knew? Safran’s comic timing and witty observations of Americanisms are really the big drawcard here. I felt as though maybe he misrepresented or oversimplified some over the quirky and less-than-admirable characters — who are, remember, real people involved in a real murder case, not figments of Safran’s imagination. Unlike most murder mysteries, we know the culprit from the beginning, but the bigger question is “why”? Frustratingly, by the end of a rather big read, there was still no clear answer. In three words: entertaining, addictive, frustrating.
Tea Time for the Traditionally Builtby Alexander McCall Smith
This book was a slow burn… that fizzled out. I really wanted to like it and it seemed like a nice, easy read for the beach. But the plot was kind of boring and formulaic. The premise of a mystery novel set in Botswana, where an older female detective investigates match fixing at the football, sounded quirky and interesting, but the result was an archaic Miss Marple-type investigation without Agatha Christie’s fun characters and high society intrigue. Maybe it felt tired simply because it’s the tenth book in McCall Smith’s “Number 1 Ladies Detective” series, but I never felt hooked. In three words: quaint, slow-building, disappointing.
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
This was the book that killed my Kindle! I was only a quarter of the way through the story and thoroughly enjoying the faux pas that the socially-inept main character experiences in his search for love when I was rudely interrupted. I recently finished it and give it two enthusiastic thumbs up. The book is largely about a late-30s professor, who seems to be somewhere on the autism spectrum, looking for love and friendship according to a preconceived formula (which includes a rather tactless questionnaire for potential partners). Needless to say, his plans go awry, but even though parts of the story are kind of obvious, this is a fun book with a lot of heart. The characters have layers and depth, and as a reader, you too start to connect to them more as Don, the unlucky in love protagonist, learns a bit about empathy and relationships. In three words: funny, clever, fun.
Little Bee by Chris Cleave
Chris Cleave’s 2008 book is also known as The Other Hand in some countries, which seems like a more fitting name by the time you finish the book. It’s hard to review without spoiling critical plot points, but without ruining it, this is the unlikely story of a young refugee girl who meets an upper-middle class British woman and how both of their worlds unravel. It was never going to be an uplifting book, but Little Bee — the title character, a Nigerian teenager — is someone you want to learn more about, as her strength and hope shines throughout the often grim story. The plot is engaging but also a little hard to believe at times. Why would the worldly editor of a glossy magazine go on vacation to a country with travel advisories in place? How does Little Bee walk away from the British detention office so easily at the beginning of the book (supposedly due to an internal error)? Those points aside, this novel brings up uncomfortable questions about racism, compassion, and compromise — and the big one, how much do we really want to know about thorny issues — at home, or on the other side of the world? In three words: hopeful, sad, inevitable.
The Guardian by Nicholas Sparks
I’m not exaggerating — this was the worst book I have ever read. I wanted an easy beach read and there were only three English-language books available in the hostel at the time (one of which I’d read, and the other was 50 Shades of Grey). I still managed to pick badly. Think of every cliche you can possibly imagine in a romance novel, and then mash it up with every cliche from a John Grisham novel and some really bad teen horror movie sequences, and you might just get an idea of what this book is about. It starts off trying to be a truly formulaic love story, then inexplicably switches to a stalker-suspense story, capping off with a ridiculous, hocus-pocus ending. I honestly can’t tell if Sparks was taking the piss with this one. If you really need some infantile prose to pass some time, try it out. I attempted it on the beach, thinking surely it would get better — it didn’t. In three words: worst book ever.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
I think I might be the only female ever who didn’t like this book. And not just the ending. Yes, it’s addictive. Yes, there are parts that are really engaging and clever. But it’s pretty silly. The plot twists are too big and by the end the characters are all so repulsive that it’s hard to really be on anyone’s side. I read it because I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. I have to admit that Flynn delivers an original idea that cleverly inverts the “kidnapped wife” scenario — but the plot gets more and more ridiculous as you go along, all while taking itself very seriously. That’s not to say it’s a terrible book — most of it was pretty entertaining. It’s worth a read, if only to understand why everyone is talking about it, but don’t expect too much. Apparently the movie is better than the book. In three words: overrated, addictive, ridiculous.