Mini-Reviews: Between the covers with Lionel Shriver and Benjamin Hale

Posted June 25, 2012 by Heather in Book Reviews / 20 Comments

We Need to Talk About Kevin
Title: We Need to Talk About Kevin
Author: Lionel Shriver
Format: eBook
Length: 414 pages
Genre(s): Fiction
Publisher: Counterpoint – May 2011

Goodreads | Amazon

Yes. Let’s talk about Kevin. Kevin is a sociopath. Kevin is one of the scariest kids I have ever read about. Rosemary’s baby’s got nothing on Kevin Khachadourian. Kevin is a terror from the day he is born, and what begin as relatively small acts of terrorism become progressively worse, until a few weeks before his sixteenth birthday when he goes to school and kills seven of his classmates, a teacher, and a cafeteria worker.

In We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver tells Kevin’s story through a series of letters written by his mother (Eva) to her estranged husband (Kevin’s father). This book is as much Eva’s story as it is the story of her evil son. Eva uses her letter writing as a kind of therapy for herself, thinking back over Kevin’s childhood and her role as his mother. Did she love him enough? Did she love him at all? Does she share any blame in what he’s done? How much? Could she have changed anything through different parenting methods?

Being a parent is one of the hardest jobs out there, and every parent finds reasons to question their parenting skills/decisions. How much of our children’s personalities and actions is nurture versus nature? In We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver attempts to answer some of these questions; and with the recent rise in school shootings carried out by teenage kids, she also attempts to take a closer look at the mind of a kid who decides to do something like that.

I read this book in one day–it completely creeped me out, but I couldn’t stop reading. I wasn’t sure I would like the epistolary format, but it worked very well in this book. Shriver did a good job getting inside the mind of Kevin’s mother and writing from that perspective, and Kevin is just terrifying. The ending bothers me a little because it doesn’t feel cohesive with the rest of the story–it feels too…easy. Other than that it was great, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes a good thriller. (If you aren’t a parent already, this book might temporarily make you think twice about becoming one.)

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore
Title: The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore
Author: Benjamin Hale
Format: Hardcover
Length: 592 pages
Genre(s): Fiction
Publisher: Twelve – February 2011

Goodreads | Amazon

From the inside flap:

Told from the point of view of the world’s first chimpanzee to develop the power of speech, this stunning debut novel chronicles the extraordinary events that lead to his imprisonment for murdering a man…

Bruno Littlemore is unlike any chimpanzee in the world. Precocious, self-conscious, and preternaturally gifted, young Bruno is raised in a habitat at the local zoo and soon falls under the care of a university primatologist named Lydia Littlemore. Discovering Bruno’s unique talent, Lydia removes him from the laboratory and places him in her home to oversee his education and nurture his passion for painting. But for all of his gifts, the chimpanzee has a rough time caging his more primal urges. Bruno’s untimely outbursts ultimately cost Lydia her job and send the unlikely pair on the road in what proves to be one of the most unforgettable journeys–and most affecting love stories–in recent literature.

This is also one of the most perverse love stories told in recent literature.

Bruno Littlemore is pretentious as hell. When I started reading this, I was so annoyed with Bruno’s way of speaking and his attitude that I wasn’t sure I was going to like the book at all. But I stuck with it because I don’t like to put a book down once I’ve started reading it, and it soon becomes clear why Bruno is so pretentious which made him less annoying to me. There are still things about him that frustrate me, but I ended up having a lot of sympathy for Bruno and Lydia (his guardian and cough-girlfriend-cough). The perversity of this story isn’t just in the relationship between Lydia and Bruno, but also in the crime that is committed by a religious wingnut against Lydia because of that relationship.

For Bruno, the power of speech brings with it a strong desire to be human, and although the storyline is engaging, the most interesting parts of Bruno Littlemore (for me) concern Bruno’s philosophies about love, language, evolution, religion, and what it means to be human. Benjamin Hale did a fantastic job writing from a chimpanzee’s point of view, I think, and I really got sucked into the story. I was a bit grossed out over the nature of the relationship between Bruno and Lydia, but it’s fiction. I suspended judgment as best I could and just let the story take me.

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore–although a little grotesque in parts–is intriguing, thought-provoking, and even heartwarming in a way. I’m glad I took the time to read it. It’s quite enjoyable.

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  • I can’t believe you read Kevin in a day. That scared me and made me so deeply uncomfortable as a mother that I HAD to put it down and process it at a couple different points. Such good writing!

    • It scared the crud out of me, too, but I just couldn’t stop reading. I did put it down a couple of times throughout the day…I didn’t read it in one sitting. Haha!

  • Loved Kevin! And you’re right, it’s almost enough to put you off kids!

    • I swear if I didn’t have kids already when I read this, it would have put me off from having them for quite a while. Haha! Whoa.

  • Haven’t read either. Although Kevin sounds fascinating…especially as a high school teacher. You’re right about the constant questions we ask ourselves as parents. Great reviews.

    • Thanks, Karen! Kevin is very good, but holy cow it made me nervous. Haha! I’m so glad I have good kids.

  • Good reviews, Heather. Both sound like profound novels, though I think Bruno is quite a controversial read. You did well reading it to the end. I wouldn’t have continued with it because a love relationship beween a human and a chimp is quite unsettling to say the least, fiction though it may be.

    • The few parts in which their relationship was the focus were pretty unsettling. But…the book was essentially about what it means to be human, and I think that looking at us from an outside viewpoint (that of Bruno) was a good way to go about it. And a story about what it means to be human…without love…wouldn’t have worked. So yes, the book might not be for everyone, but I’m glad I finished it.

  • I didn’t know that We Need to Talk Kevin was a book. I have the movie sitting here to watch. I may have to check out the book. Yes, parenting is very scary, especially when you have a son like mine who has anger issues. I really worry what he will be like when he’s a teen. I feel like I’ve given, and am still giving him, good guidance, but sometimes I think it goes beyond the parenting. This book/movie might just scare me to death.

    • Yeah, you MIGHT want to wait to watch/read it. There is no sense getting yourself freaked out about something that I have no doubt will never happen. You should also keep in mind that Kevin’s parents never took him to see a doctor for his anger issues, and he was never really on any kind of medication to help him.

  • Thanks for writing this, as it has encouraged me to read “We need to talk about Kevin.” I saw the film a few weeks ago and it has stayed with me in a powerful way. Normally I would read the book first, but I had no idea it was even a novel! I will surely do so now.

    • Oddly enough, I had no idea it was a movie until I started reading the book. Haha!

      This is definitely one of those books/movies that stays with you for a long, long time.

  • I’ll probably skip Bruno Littlemore but We Need to Talk about Kevin is definitely in my tbr pile. Hopefully it won’t scare me too much.

    • Oh, it’ll freak you out, but it’s really good.

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  • Kevin is so scary to read. You really question almost everything about being a parent while reading it. It’s a great read – but definitely one you shouldn’t read while planning to have children or expecting …! I have the Bruno book on my shelf and I’m so looking forward to reading it. It sounds fascinating and like it might have some profound insights in what it means to be human.

    • I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts about Bruno!

  • I *need* to pick up Kevin, I’ve heard so many great/disturbing things about it. I just put aside Lionel Shriver’s The New Republic. I was about half way through but I couldn’t do it anymore..it wasn’t my cup of tea. That’s always a bummer when that happens. Love your blog and your reviews!