Tag Archives: satire

Nicotine by Nell Zink ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide



Pages: 304

Expected Publication Date:  October 4, 2016

Format:  E-book from Netgalley



“She wills her body to be equally wraithlike.  Not sodden, not heavy, not dead, but filled with crackling, electric life, like a stale Marlboro on fire.”

Nell Zink’s Nicotine is a social satire on a grand scale.  It invokes and satirizes the philosophies of shamanism, pragmatism, and anarchy.  It begins with Amalia at age 13 being “adopted” by Norm from a garbage heap in Cartagena, Columbia.  From there, the novel flash forwards to Amalia’s daughter, Penny, at age 12 at her father’s psychadelic healing center.  Her mother is now “married” to Norm and Penny has two older half brothers, who happen to be older than her mother.

When Penny’s father falls ill and is on hospice, Penny is the primary caregiver.  It is said by many of the Shamanist followers at the funeral services that Penny always had that spiritual connection like Norm.

Upon her father’s death, Penny, now in her 20s (a recent business school grad) thinks she will take over his childhood home which has been taken over by squatters, anarchists that are united by their love of nicotine.  Hence, the the name “Nicotine” for the house they have squatted.  There are many houses in this area of New Jersey being squatted by millennials.  Penny falls in love with one of the squatters, who happens to be asexual, and decides to live with them.  Her brother, Matt, decides he will kick out the squatters and he, too, falls in love with one of the squatters.

Penny’s mother initially declares her love for Matt (Penny’s half-brother) which is not returned.  However, this brings up questions of what happened when they were younger.  Could Matt be Penny’s father?  Amalia, too, goes to try to kick out the squatters, and falls in love with one of them.

Matt is a huge sociopath and gets what he deserves when he lands in a huge amount of shit.  Everyone and everything gets confused and turned on its head.  “Nicotine” becomes the “Norman Baker Center” bringing together the Norman Baker followers and millennials alike.

This one was tough for me to connect to.   I appreciated the social satire and the brilliance of the author, but honestly did not feel too much for the characters.  It felt like all of the ideas were thrown together in a slurry and the result was interesting and at times amusing, but just did not seem as polished as it could have been.  2star


Discussion Questions:

  1.  Discuss how and why this is a social satire?  How are the millennials portrayed?
  2. Why do you think Rob was portrayed as asexual in the beginning? What do you think made him sexual in the end?
  3. What do you speculate was the nature of Amalia and Matt’s relationship when they were younger?
  4. Why do you think Jazz continues to communicate with Matt, even after it’s clear that he is a sociopath?  Do you think she still has feelings for him?
  5. What is the role of Sorry in this novel?  Discuss the meaning of her name.
  6. What is your view of Norm by the end of the novel?
  7. What secrets do you think he wanted to write down before he was rendered incapable of doing so?
  8. How are the police depicted in this novel?
  9. How does the book depict pragmatism, anarchy and shamanism?  How does it satirize these philosophies?

Review of “Nicotine” published in “The Guardian”

An interview with Nell Zink published by “The Millions”

The Invoice by Jonas Karlsson ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide




Pages:  208

Published (in Sweden):  September 22, 2011

Expected Publication (in USA):  July 12, 2016


This novel brought to mind The Stranger by Albert Camus, a novel I read back in high school, due to the absurdity of the premise and the situation of the protagonist.  The Invoice is not nearly as dark and in fact this novel has everything to do with happiness.   The protagonist is a 39-year-old single male living in Sweden who works part-time in a video store.  His only friend, Roger, seems to be pretty miserable.  He has a sister who seems overrun with her family life.  His parents are deceased.  Yet, he receives an invoice stating he owes a ridiculous sum of money for his assessed happiness.  Through his investigations into the reasons why he owes so much money which is primarily through the woman he reaches at the call-in center, Maud, it is revealed that calculations were mistaken and the amount he owes keeps increasing.  It seems incredible to him that he could owe so much working a dead-end job, having very little actual life experience, and no money to speak of.  In the end, he realizes just how lucky he his that he is able to experience happiness with the simple things in life where others do not.  He ultimately finds that the ridiculous sum of money they wanted to charge him does not come close to the amount he should owe for all of the happiness he has in his life. I enjoyed this philosophical, satirical novel that seems light-hearted and deep both at once.  It is a novel that makes you think about happiness, the roots of happiness, what it means to be surrounded by people who are truly happy and to be truly happy yourself.  I give this novel images-2 and recommend it to everyone.

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why do you think the protagonist is so happy?
  2. Do you think we could ever truly quantify a person’s happiness?
  3. Compare and contrast Roger and the protagonist’s perceptions of similar events.
  4. Explain the importance of the scene in The Bridge to this novel.
  5. Why do you think Maud spends so much time speaking with our protagonist on the phone?
  6. What do you think are the strongest components or personality traits to being a happy person?
  7. Do you feel happier when you are around happy people?
  8. In what ways is this novel a commentary on governmental regulation?


Review of “The Invoice” in the Independent

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide


Pages: 308

Published:  September 29, 2015

Awards:  Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Science Fiction (2015)

Format: E-book




“Then he’s unconscious.  Then he stops breathing.  The heart goes last.”

A wacked, absurd novel that becomes obvious satire as the novel continues.  As I read this book, I initially took it very seriously, trying to connect with the characters, understand motives, etc.  However, by the end with the organ harvesting, blue bears knitting by inmates for the pedophiles, sexbots, green man group, Elvises and Marilyns it became obvious that the book is entirely satirical and meant to be comical.  It also serves as a cautionary tale of “be careful what you wish for.”  Having someone who loves you only because she has had the laser treatment may not be so fulfilling and rewarding in the end.  Perhaps loving someone so completely is easier if you think you’ve had a brain surgery to make you do so.  This novel is very dark and makes you realize that the author believes we are heading as a society in a very unsavory direction.

I was so excited to embark on this novel after reading the premise:  a couple destitute in this futuristic world decides to sign up for “Consilience,”  a social experiment, where you spend alternate months in a prison and in a home with stable jobs within the confines of Positron.  Their relationship becomes strange and a whole lot of sex ensues, none of which is really sexy.  Their freedoms have been lost by joining this program and they have seemingly signed their own personalities away as well.  They become different, much more superficial in their needs and wants.  It’s almost as if having decisions made for them is appreciated, especially on Charmaine’s part.

I’m a big fan of Margaret Atwood.  This is the 7th novel of hers that I’ve read and maybe my 6th or 7th favorite of them all.  She’s an excellent writer and this is humorous/chilling social commentary, but I just didn’t connect with it as well as I have some of her other novels.  I must give it images-2 even though it wasn’t one of my personal favorites of hers.


Discussion Questions:

  1.  Charmaine continually alludes to her life preceding Grandma Win.  What do you think happened then?
  2. Why do you think Charmaine keeps quoting Grandma Win’s sayings?
  3. Why is Stan leery of getting involved with his brother, Conor, prior to entering Positron?
  4. What is the significance of the blue teddy bears?
  5. Why is it significant that Charmaine has an affair with one of their alternates?
  6. Why do you think Charmaine is willing to kill Stan?
  7. Why do you think Jocelyn coerces Stan to watch the tapes and have repeated sex with her?
  8. What do you think Jocelyn’s full agenda is?
  9. What kind of business do you think Jocelyn and Conor are in?
  10. Do you think Aurora and Phil are happy in the end?
  11. What do you make of Jocelyn’s information at the end to Charmaine for her one year wedding anniversary?  How do you think this will affect Stan and Charmaine’s marriage?
  12. How do you interpret the title?

New York Times Book Review

NPR’s Review of The Heart Goes Last