Category Archives: unreliable narrator

Audiobook Review: Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell

27th February 2012

*I bought this book from Audible.

Sex, violence, and new, brilliant heights of using the “f” word, Beat the Reaper is the avant-garde dark and darker comedy thriller (is that such a thing?) about Pietra Brnwa/Dr. Peter Brown/Bearclaw, a doctor who, as a member of the Witness Protection Program, has a past, a past he tells about between popping pills, checking on patients, and trying to figure out the guy with stomach cancer who has just blown his cover. As a teen, Brnwa’s grandparents are brutally murdered, and he figures out they were a hit for new mafia members being “made.” He trains in martial arts, befriends the son of a well-known mafia member, and ingratiates himself to the family. And by family, yes, I mean the family. Brnwa is selective, though, only taking hits he feels are justified: no women, no children, and he kills only after verifying the guy is scum. But the mob has ways of turning the tables and when Pietra wants out, the mob isn’t ready to let go. When they try to catch up to him, Brnwa realizes he isn’t ready to sacrifice his current life to run from the problems he created.

Bazell’s novel is alternately shocking, gag-inducing, hilarious, and intensely suspenseful. Brnwa narrates his story, talking directly to the reader, like he’s chatting in a bar. No holds barred. You can’t help but like him even though he is everything you should hate: a drugged-out, sexist, violent, killer asshole. But he’s funny…in a sick and twisted sort of way:

The fifth or sixth room I enter is that of Duke Mosby, easily the patient I currently hate least. He’s a ninety-year-old black male in for diabetes complications that now include gangrene of both feet. He was one of ten black Americans who served in Special Forces in World War II, and in 1944 he escaped from Colditz. Two weeks ago he escaped from this very room at Manhattan Catholic Hospital. In his underpants. In January. Hence the gangrene.

Plus, he’s so damn truthful. I’d be tempted to say he’s an unreliable narrator because he swallows so many drugs during his shift I lost count, but there are also these moments where he’s so lucid and spot on, like when he compares humans to animals:

It’s a weird curse, when you think about it. We’re built for thought, and civilization, more than any other creature we’ve found. And all we really want to be is killers.

Brnwa isn’t what you expect him to be. At all. Neither is this book, and I swear to you, I’m not joking when I say it’s one of the most graphic, most obscene (in language) books I’ve read, but I absolutely loved it. Robert Petkoff narrates, and between the writing and his voice, I thought it was one of the more perfect audiobooks I’ve bought. Petkoff matches Brnwa’s sardonic cynicism perfectly, and I couldn’t ask for a better audio experience.

Has anyone other than Elyse of Pop Culture Nerd read this? If so, what did you think? Have you ever read a book that is totally out of your comfort zone but that you loved?

Sister by Rosamund Lupton

20th February 2012

* I borrowed this book from my local library. You can buy a copy from Indiebound here or for your Nook here.

In the midst of a dull lunch party in New York, Beatrice’s dull but carefully-crafted life is interrupted by a phone call: Her mother is calling from London to tell her that Beatrice’s sister Tess – who is also pregnant – is missing. Petrified of the possibilities, Beatrice relies on her older sister role to get her to the airport, the London, to Tess’s apartment. Tess is just being her flighty self, surely. The alternatives are too horrifying, and when that horror is realized, Beatrice is changed. Tess had gone into labor three weeks early, the baby, stillborn. The police mark Tess’s death a suicide in the face of this news, but Beatrice knows this can’t be and begins stacking up questions, trying to find proof that Tess was frightened of someone and that the someone murdered her.

From the start of Lupton’s debut novel Sister, it is apparent that Tess has been killed and that Beatrice is responsible for finding her killer. Sister is told in the form of a lengthy letter from Beatrice to Tess, as the sisters often wrote back and forth to one another. In trying to cope with her sister’s disappearance and death, Beatrice turns again to writing Tess, telling her, through her testimony to Mr. Wright, a Crown Protection Services attorney, what has happened since the moment she arrived in London. I thought this was an incredibly smart choice, as the consistency of Beatrice’s voice and writing makes the impacts of some of the twists and turns that much more effective.

Because Beatrice is writing the letters, the reader is aware that he or she is following a desperate sister down any possible path to gain answers to her many questions: Tess was having an affair with one of her married art instructors. She was part of an experimental drug trial, and she was scared of someone or something. Told from another perspective, I may have doubted Beatrice’s many hunches, but as a sister, I was with her 100%, begging alongside her for the police to follow up just one more oddity in Tess’s disappearance. However, Beatrice is an unreliable narrator, as there are moments in her letter when it’s quite obvious something is wrong with Beatrice. She references being unwell and suspecting that her sister’s killer is watching her, though she knows he’s behind bars.

By the end of the book, my legs were incredibly tense from tapping my toes and feet, desperately wanting to beat Beatrice to the finish, yet scared to do so. The ending is so incredibly shocking, but it wasn’t artlessly so. Lupton manages to make you feel you knew what was going on all along, even as you page back through the last chapter to feel the impact again. Even if you’re not a fan of crime fiction, this is one not to miss.

Have you read Sister? I immediately passed it to my mom, who also loved it, and now it’s sitting on my dad’s nightstand. I love that kind of book. 🙂

Calling Mr. King by Ronald De Feo

29th August 2011

*I received this book at BEA from the great folks at Other Press. Buy it now from Indiebound.

What happens when a hit man is tired of being a hit man? He turns to architecture, of course. At least that’s what Mr. King does after he becomes increasingly distracted on the job. Mr. King is the go-to guy if you need someone hunted down and pegged, quickly and in a professional manner, but his latest target bothers him. The target seems cheerful, almost toying with his executioner, and when he buys a white carnation and places it in his lapel, taunting King, it’s game over. But King is thrown.

For a man who, for obvious reasons, has such difficulty in building a stable life, Mr. King suddenly wants one desperately, buying book after heavy book full of Georgian homes and their histories, seeking not just an abode but an area of interest. He knows how to hunt. He knows how to kill. He realizes, almost too late, he wants something more than either of those things.

The book isn’t action packed, which is not at all what you expect when the premise includes a hit man. Instead, King’s obsession takes control of everything, and there were several moments when I wanted to snap him out of it, but De Feo doesn’t let King – or the reader – off that easily, and King travels deeper into himself, unwilling to answer the phone call with his order to kill.

In the end, the symmetry of this novel was perfect. And it’s something I JUST CAN’T GIVE AWAY. And that drives me crazy. Because I totally want to sit and tell you how cool the ending is, but I can’t. And won’t.

This won’t be a book for everyone. In fact, if you are looking for a James Bond-style narrative, please do not pick this up. This novel’s intricacies lie in its exploration of obsession but also in structure and writing, and though not everyone will like that, I really did.

P.S. Read the first chapter here.

The Funny Man by John Warner

29th August 2011

*I received an e-galley of this book through NetGalley from Soho Press. Publication date is 09/06/11. Preorder from Indiebound here. I wrote this review immediately after reading it about a month ago.

The funny man has always been funny enough. As a kid, he didn’t know the word for someone who makes people laugh, but he asked. Comic. At first the laughs come in small clubs late at night while his wife and baby wait for him at home, his wife exhausted from her waitressing job.

One day, his stay-at-home-dad routine pays off. The kid sticks his hand in his mouth and makes a noise, laughing, and the funny guy repeats the gag, complete with impressions of celebrities, for an agent, and then to bigger audiences for larger amounts of money and then on the film screen for obscene amounts of money, until the funny man is no longer amused by sticking his fist in his own mouth. Yet sticking his fist in his mouth and talking is the only way people pay him. The funny man begins breaking under the pressure, using different arrays of pills to numb his physical and psychological pain, until he loses his wife and child, his adoring fans, and eventually his freedom, after he shoots a man who tries to mug him.

I just – not ten minutes ago – finished this book, and though I usually like to sit with my thoughts after I finish a book, this was the sort that made me realize I had to write off the cuff, getting my initial impressions down immediately. When I saw this book offered on NetGalley, I was expecting a graphic novel. Why? Apparently  because I can be a real dumbass when I judge books only by their covers. What I found was a true American novel – one that has its pulse on our sometimes-ridiculous, oft-ludicrous, more-often-than-not sad culture (am I allowed to use that many hyphens?).

Told from the funny man’s unreliable perspective (dude is on all sorts of drugs), his mind drifts in jail and during his trial to the sets of circumstances leading up to his incarceration, all while planning an escape to be with a young tennis player he watches obsessively on DVR.

In turns funny, brutally honest, and downright depressing, The Funny Man holds a mirror up to celebrity and comes away with a bleak reflection tinged with a dark humor. Though not unkind, Warner also criticizes the masses who so willingly seek out and drive the insanity of the rich and famous. (If you doubt me, turn on the TV or walk past a newsstand and try NOT to learn about Kim Kardashian’s wedding.)

This is the kind of book that will:

-make you stay up all night reading and blinking rapidly in disbelief at the lives of the rich and famous.

-make you wish you were independently wealthy so you can stay home and read.

-make you wonder what’s for dinner.

-make you wonder what’s on TV.

-make you want to smack someone, usually the characters.