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on August 25, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
It is going to be difficult to review this novel without spoilers, but I am going to do my level best.

From the cover, it should be clear that this is a novel about primate research. If you have ever visited a chimp lab or research center, you know that most of them are not quite as utopian as the Great Ape Language Lab, where Isabel works with the bonobos. When John Thigpen interviews her, he is as enchanted by her as he is by the communicative apes. When a horrific occurrence changes everything, he is her journalistic champion as she seeks to right the wrongs she unwittingly encouraged.

Let's talk about what works.

There is no easy way to deal with material as potentially heartbreaking as the mistreatment of animals, especially intelligent animals. Gruen hands over the story to characters who are determined to do something about the cruelty. The reader suffers over the apes, but knows someone is working on the problem--eventually hundreds of people are working on it, and it gives a glimmer of hope in what could be an unbearably sad story. The animals in Water for Elephants were not so protected; it was a completely different time in America, and the reader will find herself both cursing and cheering the advent of technology as it plays such a role in the story (both bad and good).

Gruen can really write animals. They are characters in her novels. And though they are adorable and hapless, the apes are not quite as heartrending as Rosie, the elephant in the rundown circus, because the apes have language-they can sign and type, and broadcast their desires and distress. Rosie had only her swaying, expressive silence. This is a relief, because once the reader sees where this novel is going, she might be tempted to abandon a story about the abuse of the power we hold over animals.

Which leads me to what didn't work. I had the basic who-was-behind-what aspects of the plot figured out far too early, in fact almost immediately, so most of book was devoid of revelations for me. But my main objection was how squarely placed the book was in a familiar landscape; descriptions of being downsized, economically pinched, the new realities of publishing, these were spelled out in great detail. Well done, but not exactly giving me much of a break from a world I already live in. Water for Elephants offered escape to a different time, the Depression, and a squalid but exotic world of the circus. The Ape House is planted smack in the middle of the here and now.

The humor was much stronger than I expected. As in Water for Elephants, a straight guy intersects with an subculture he didn't really even know existed; but while Jacob was enchanted by the fading glamor and small dignities of the circus, John's intersection (courtesy of a bad motel) with the world of strippers, drugs and porn kings has none of that same dignity, though plenty of humor. Yes, it IS really funny to read, but it's almost slapstick. "Oh, guess what he's going to step in NOW!" A bit too broad. But again, really, really funny in places.

Did I like the book? Yes. Did I love it? Sadly, no. My guess is that most readers of Water for Elephants will still enjoy this book. And I did, I laughed out loud during the funny parts (well, most of them) and I suffered anxiously through the sad parts. But the power of a fairy tale ending is that it comes at the end of a gruesome tale. This story is not all that horrific, considering where it could have gone. This book, like the fate of the primates, almost skates away from what could have been, as if the author loved the apes and their people so much that she couldn't subject them to the kind of realism that would have made the book truly powerful.
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VINE VOICEon August 31, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Having loved Water for Elephants, I've been anxiously awaiting Sara Gruen's new book, Ape House, all year. Like Sara, I'm an animal lover and a huge advocate for them, so I appreciate her as an author. Unfortunately, I think that those who also embraced Water for Elephants, like me, will be sorely disappointed with Ape House. While it does present an interesting view on animal rights, and I think that Gruen was indeed expressing a lot of her personal and political opinions here which is fine, it lacks the magic and whimsy we experienced with her last book, and which created that strong connection with her characters and readers.

Ape House spends the first 100 pages introducing us to two couples. There's Isabel, an ape researcher in Kansas whose spent years of her life studying a group of Bonobos (small chimps). She is engaged to Peter, another researcher, but their relationship is out of balance after Peter sleeps with one of the interns. Peter is very flat in that we only see him when he's either on the phone with Isabel or being kicked out of her apartment. We don't really get to know him as a person, and we are only "told" about his actions.

Then, there's John Thigpen, a newspaper reporter who has just met the apes and interviewed Isabel. He's married to Amanda, who is the most interesting character out of all of them in the beginning of the book. She's a failing novelist whose written one book that didn't do very well. She's gotten over 100 rejections on her second book. She's also hot and turns all the men's heads. Like one of the men who are always checking her out, I was enamored by her story and wondered if the writer plot line was Gruen herself. Notice the apes don't play a very important part until much later.

The ape lab, which is also their comfy home, gets blown up by some extreme animal rights activists. The apes escape and become misplaced, while Isabel is also badly hurt, requiring reconstructive surgery. Meanwhile, John is reassigned to another story, while his arch-nemesis, a female reporter named Cat, steals the ape story out from under him. We discover the apes are sold to a porn producer to be used in a reality TV show called Ape House. Sounds odd? Indeed it is. And only gets worse.

The pace of the novel moves very fast, with our two couples individually moving all over the place. Amanda moves to L.A. to work with another writer on a sitcom. John is wrapped up in his new assignment (not by choice). Isabel is glued to the TV watching the apes, like everyone else in America. And who knows where Peter is! Eventually John relocates to L.A. to be closer to Amanda and takes a job with a tabloid that reassigns him to the ape story, which has since become the center of attention everywhere due to the apes nonstop sexual antics right on television, that while natural to them to touch and mate with each other, is seen as embarrassing (or enticing) by the show's viewers.

With the apes' misplacement and new location being treated as top secret, and Isabel and John's determination to find them, the novel almost has a Dan Brown-esque feel to it as the two race to find the apes or uncover the story. It's too bad one of the apes wasn't harboring some secret that could unlock the mystery of the ages. At the end of the day, they are just apes falling asleep in a house where they are being used for cheap entertainment, and the reader might find themselves falling asleep too.

Gruen obviously has a strong opinion about realty TV, and I have to say I agree with her. Half the stuff we subject ourselves to in our living room is stupid and lacking quality, and yet we remain glued to our seats each week and the ratings soar. What does this say about us? Porn also plays a bit part in the subject matter, which almost makes you feel uncomfortable, but I think that was Gruen's intention, from the apes touching each other right down to a stripper in a hotel that helps John get the story. The best part of the political agenda in all of the various groups of picketers outside the ape house, half of whom really have no concrete reason to be there including the "Eastborough" Baptist Church who are against the apes because they touch each other which makes them bisexual!

There are various other laughs which give the story some flavor - Amanda's mom organizing the couple's sex toys or John's time spent in a cheap hotel while covering the story and "stranger than fiction" stuff happening all around him including a meth lab explosion. Then, there are parts that aren't there but you wish they were. Isabel practically has a new identity after her surgeries, and you wanted her to go undercover while trying to gain information about the apes, and while she does try to conceal her identity, what you really want to happen just never evolves.

I hate to bring up Water for Elephants again, but in that book while there was a love story in the center ring, it always came back to the elephant which we loved and felt compassion for. Here, there's so much going on that it's hard to connect with any one character. And the apes are locked away. Gruen can definitely write animals and make them interesting, the parts about what the apes are doing is fun and humorous, but it's hard to connect with them since they are indeed just characters on a TV show. But there's just a bit too much political agenda here which succeeds at making you uncomfortable, bored, or both. The characters display flavor at times, but it just gets drowned out as the story pushes forward but really isn't going anywhere.

In the notes, Gruen discusses her own meeting with bonobos that she had read about. She says the ASL conversations in the book amongst the apes all really happened. I think like any fascinating animal, Gruen was touched and determined to put them in a book. Why not? Apes are unique and their similarities to us are amazing. But sadly, the apes aren't the center of attention here and the animal-writing is what we want from Gruen in the end. Instead, we are treated to characters who don't do what we want them to, or they are just bland. And the scenes are pieced together with political banter. I still love Sara as an author and as a person. I'll still suggest 'Elephants to everyone I know whose looking for a great read, but Ape House is nothing but a bunch of monkey business.
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VINE VOICEon October 6, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I had heard good things about WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, so figured that APE HOUSE would be an intriguing read, especially since I'm fascinated by great apes. The book started out well, with great interaction between apes and humans, but as soon as the apes disappeared and the unbelievable human plot started to wind up, the book went right out the window. After the fascinating first section, the apes are onstage only occasionally, and then are mostly pawns to be fought over by the various characters, 90% of whom are the stockiest of stock figures. Every male is an utter heel -- the cheating fiance scientist, the sleazy owner of the "Weekly Times," the evil TV producer, the L.A. types Amanda confronts are all cut out of fairly light cardboard. But it's not men alone: there's a Lisbeth Salander clone who's a punk gothic computer whiz, and we've even got a Russian whore with a heart of gold to help save the day.

The only man who isn't a sleazebag is our hero, John Thigpen (and Gruen has a little too much fun with *that* name) who may be her ideal man, but who I found incredibly wussy, as I watched him blubber, tear up, and bawl his way through the book. He's got a lot to cry about since he's married to one of the most annoying female characters in contemporary fiction, his wife Amanda, who jumps from one goofy lifestyle choice to another as if to see just how much John will put up with before he calls it quits. John, however, is the most uber-sensitive man in history, and willingly accepts it all, perhaps for Amanda's eggs benedict, which he romantically recalls in one vomitous scene. And speaking of vomit, that's how Isabel, our heroine, occasionally reacts to bad news. I felt the urge several times myself as I read along.

As for the plot, suffice it to say that it's utterly ridiculous (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT, if such an absurd plot can be spoiled). That the villains would run the risk of blowing up a lab to get a university to sell them the apes cheap so that they can then be exploited in a reality TV show is beyond belief. And other supposedly satiric critiques of modern society are ham-handed. The Westboro Baptist Church becomes the "Eastborough Baptist Church," the Weekly World News morphs into the "Weekly Times" -- you get the idea. Gruen makes sure you will. And I didn't even mention the grotesque series of coincidences that help to drive along the plots and subplots (a silly paternity plot and the the thrown-away fact that Isabel has, just by chance, read Amanda's flop of a first novel, when apparently no one else in the country has).

There's the germ of a really good novel here, but it's one that should have been written about realistic and fascinating animals and their interaction with living, breathing people rather than about the most artificial of human characters and their soap opera antics.
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VINE VOICEon September 15, 2010
"Water For Elephants" was a magical read. That book had the capacity to bring together humans, animals and history and transport the reader into an unfamiliar world. Obviously, I'm going to compare every elephant and circus book to "Water" and I'm pretty sure most will fall short. Sadly, I'm going to have to compare "Ape House" to "Water" as well and come to the same verdict.

What happened here? Well, to start with, the book's titled "Ape House" but we don't get to the apes for 100 pages. Our introduction is to the human characters: of the four, the one least influencing the apes is the most interesting; however, I suspect many writing coaches would consider 'Amanda' a darling that Ms. Gruen probably should have killed in favor of the story.

When we finally get to the apes, we learn that animal rights activists have bombed their research facility. The apes are running free. Unfortunately, they get captured by sold to reality television creators who decide to make a television show about their activities. Doing what's natural to the animals becomes pornography to the prurient-oriented viewers.

The primary quartet of human characters fall short of their potential. Isabel, the ape researcher, is badly damaged by the bomb blast and is forced to undergo extensive plastic surgery. A fascinating storyline about character identity is sacrificed so we can see how Amanda is attractive to men. John, the ape reporter and Amanda's husband, spends his time divided between trying to follow the apes' story and hopefully recover them and staking his territory with his overly-attractive wife. Peter, the man who dumped Isabel is about as unnecessary as Amanda.

The story does pick up as John and Isabel desperately try to find the apes. A lot of fascinating character studies straight from the pages of the papers. But, do we have to have the 'Eastborough' Baptist Church picketing the apes because they are touching each other and thus, potentially bisexual?

In contrast to the humans, the apes come off as the more compassionate and 'evolved' species. Their conversations and plight are amusing and touching. The small interactions with the apes are the portions of the story that had me riveted to the page while the remainder of the story left me hurrying to return to the animals.

Now, in conclusion, I'm going to mention the fictional work that I consider the "Water For Elephants" of the ape world. It's "Captivity" by Debbie Wesselmann. This is the story of a South Carolina ape research institute with strong human and ape characters.


Rebecca Kyle, September 2010
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on April 14, 2011
I feel like I need to re-read Water for Elephants to remember why I liked it. I picked this novel up at the airport the other day, intrigued by the premise/potential (scientists, humans' interactions/relationships with animals) and remembering that I had enjoyed Gruen's previous novel. I was very disappointed. It comes across as having been written very quickly and without much thought or patience. Too many cliche situations/characters and cheap action. I felt compelled to finish, to see what would happen, even though the writing deteriorated as the novel progressed. I imagine that Gruen had signed some sort of contract that required her to finish by a certain time. It felt very forced. I am not giving up on her, although I won't be purchasing any future novels of hers without reading some reviews first.
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VINE VOICEon September 7, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is a terrific book with lots going on. Specifically, the apes, bonobos, who have learned to understand English and communicate by American Sign Language, are the unifying force in the book. Almost everything that happens relates to their care and eventually their fate. The humans in the foreground are Isabel, their caregiver, and her assistant Celia, John, a reporter featuring them in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and his wife, Amanda, a writer being lured to Hollywood to help write a TV series.

I took time at the start to read the Author's Note at the end to find out how much of the information about the bonobos was fiction and found that it was all factual. Most of the conversations were actually those between the bonobos and their keepers.

The book examines several aspects of modern life, including newspapers, reality TV, Hollywood, animal rights terrorists, and medical research labs. The pace of the book is fast, and while it is a big book, it reads quickly. To outline the plot would be a disservice to the reader though it is tempting to do so. I can only highly recommend it.
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on April 6, 2011
That I loved Water for Elephants so much (I did), that I would be so eager to read her next book (I was), I would
shell out fifteen bucks for the hardback even (which I also did)? I feel like a chump- what a disappointing read. I'd give it zero stars if I could. All bonobos everywhere are signing gimme book book bad dirty toilet book.
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on September 6, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I might turn out to be the only reviewer of this book who hasn't read Water for Elephants, so you won't find any comparisons here. I can only tell you that I found this to be a very enjoyable, funny, and quick read.

Much of it is true, based either on the author's own experiences or those of many apes and researchers. This is the serious side of the book, trying both to spread knowledge of how intelligent apes are and to raise awareness of how humans have mistreated them. And don't think it's part of the past--there's a current attempt by the National Institutes of Health to begin doing medical research again on chimps which have been living out a peaceful retirement at the Alamogordo Primate Facility in New Mexico after enduring years of abuse. The United States is the only "developed" country which still allows this barbarism.

But the book doesn't dwell on that; in fact, the comedy is broad and of an almost slapstick quality. I laughed out loud at "He's a meth-lab pit bull, for God's sake!" but you'll have to read it in context to appreciate the humor. Skewered along the way are the worlds of journalism, Hollywood, reality television, parents who won't let go and their adult children who can't say no.

In the end what I'll remember about the book is a pile of happy bonobos, and I'll wish the best for the people who want to keep them that way.
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VINE VOICEon September 11, 2010
"Water for elephants" was a wonderful novel. "Ape House" is very different. But different from wonderful does not mean bad.
Ape House is a modern novel of moral choices, rather than a colorful/suspenseful historical adventure. But the characters and story were very involving for me. I rate it a 4 star, a notch down from "Elephants." It will make you think, but you should enjoy the ride there as well. Give it a chance!
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on October 28, 2010
I have read a few reviews for this book, some positive, some negative. I think one issue seems to be that some readers were hopeful of another book like Water for Elephants. I think we need to consider these two books separately. I loved Water for Elephants and am still lending my copy to many friends. However, this book spoke to me and I connected with it in a way I did not with Water for Elephants. Perhaps it is my background in Psychology and Linguistics or my secret wish to publish my own novel. Or maybe even the relationship between Amanda and John that caught my attention. I felt that the writing was so smooth, I often forgot I was 'reading' a novel and felt more like I was sitting down with friends. The descriptions were vivid and the detailed relationships she created made the characters feel so real.

It is true that she spent 100 pages getting to the apes. However, I think that was partly the point. When we consider the relationships between the apes, their loyalty and love for each other as well as for Isabella and the way in which they interact with one another, not to mention the way in which they stuck to their 'morals' (as can bee seen in the cap gun incident), I am left with the feeling that they are much better humans than we could ever be. I don't think the point of this would have hit home so well, if we did not see the intense human relationships first. I feel this was a book about relationship first (both human and animal) and about the fate of the apes and realty TV second.

In my opinion this was a finely crafted novel by an experienced writer. This book stands alone for me and I don't think it is fair to compare the two novels. I was constantly blown away by the quality of writing in this novel. It is the best book I have had the privilege to read in a long time!
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