Author: priscilla

The Secret Place

Faithful Place USIn all the frenzy surrounding pub day for David Mitchell’s much anticipated The Bone Clocks, not much has been said that September 2 is also pub day for Tana French’s fifth installment in the Dublin Murder Squad mystery series, The Secret Place. I pre-ordered my copy months ago, but I was also lucky enough to snag an early copy from NetGalley for review. I should probably go ahead and admit my bias (although I guess I already did, by telling you I ordered the book early), but I loved all four of her previous books, so I was already inclined to give this one a positive review. Lucky me, because it isn’t just my bias talking—this book deserves all the positive reviews it’s receiving. That’s not to say it doesn’t have a few bumps, but nothing bad enough to distract or derail enjoyment.

Detective Stephen Moran gets a visit out of the blue from 16-year-old Holly Mackey, who has possible information about a murder at a posh girls’ boarding school (one she attends) called St. Kilda’s. Holly was still a child when Detective Moran last saw her (in Faithful Place, the third book in the series), and he believes she is bringing him information now because of a fundamental trust that was established years before. The information Holly brings him is about a murder case that was considered solved by an outcast Murder Squad detective Antoinette Conway. Detective Moran wants to help Holly, but even more, he knows that the information she has brought him gives him a shot at getting out of cold cases and onto the Murder Squad. The problem is that Detective Conway has a reputation for being difficult to work with, so she could easily take the evidence and try to solve the case on her own—and if she doesn’t, by association Detective Moran could end up the partner of the department pariah.

In the present, Holly has brought Detective Moran a postcard with a picture of Chris Harper and some anonymous hint that someone has information about what really happened. Holly swiped the card from a bulletin board at the school that the girls call The Secret Place, where they can anonymously share their innermost feelings, thoughts, and frustrations (the school’s headmistress seems to believe this will stop the girls from airing those things in more public forums on the Internet). The scenes with Detectives Moran and Conway, narrated in first person by Moran, alternate with scenes that flash back to more than a year ago at St. Kilda’s, when Chris was still alive. Those scenes are offered in limited third-person through Holly and her three best friends, Julia, Serena, and Becca. Through them, we’re also introduced to Chris and his mates (they attend the brother school to St. Kilda’s) and their St. Kilda’s rivals, another clique of four girls who make The Plastics in Mean Girls look like Little Women. (French is not simply playing on bitchy stereotypes. Instead, she’s illuminating something about what it means, sometimes, to be a girl. It reminds me of one of my favorite lines from Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye“Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized.”)

The alternating narratives almost make The Secret Place feel like two books. In one storyline, we see Detective Moran trying to develop a relationship with the gritty, no-nonsense Conway. The present action takes place over the course of one day, which adds to the tension the reader feels. Detective Moran really does have only one shot at Murder, or he’s likely to end up on Cold Cases for the remainder of his career. More importantly, though, is what he tells the reader about Conway, how he presents her skills, how he explains what he believes she’s gone through to get where she is, and how she’s managed to become such an outcast.

In the other storyline, the reader gets to know Holly and her friends and the events that led up to the murder. In a sort of True Detective style, the reader also gets the truth about what really happened, as opposed to what the girls are telling the cops in their present-day interviews. Suffice it to say, all the girls lie, and they a lot—to the detectives, to their teachers, to each other, and often to themselves. It’s to French’s credit that this makes them more complex and human than simple stereotypes. At the heart of everything that happens to Holly and her three friends is a pact they make to each other, one that frees them in ways they did not expect, and binds them in others.

One of the best things about French is her ear for the authentic. She loads the girls’ chapters with up-to-date references and slang, which is important because it helps to make those chapters (and the girls themselves) stand in stark contrast to who they are when they’re being interviewed by the detectives. It can be grating in the moment (a little like being at my neighborhood Starbucks when the nearby private school lets out for the afternoon), but it adds a layer to the characters the reader wouldn’t see otherwise.

I admit, my favorite parts of the book were the present-day chapters narrated by Detective Moran. While the girls’ chapters are well done, too, Moran is such a compelling character, and the interaction between Moran and Conway—wait! No spoilers! But like I said, Moran provides a view of Conway that’s an interesting reflection of what’s happening to the girls. The reader roots for them to solve the case, of course, but for them both as people.

As for the mystery, the whodunnit of it all, it’s probably the least important part of the book, which is good because it’s just the tiniest bit lame. French most definitely writes character-driven mysteries, so if you’re expecting an action-packed page-turner of a mystery, this isn’t your book. It has that (among other things) in common with another adult mystery of sorts that features teenage girls, Megan Abbott’s The Fever. What I said about that book applies here as well:

“[She] does such a terrific job of—how else to say this?—showing what it means to be a girl. Not a cheerleader, not a prom queen, but not Carrie, not an outcast. Just a girl, with all those mysterious feelings about herself and her friends, all the changes taking place physically and mentally, the safety of staying in childhood and the excitement of becoming something more, something else, and how all that shifts alliances and balances of power in relationships that once seemed so easy.”

Four out of five stars. Full disclosure: I received an early review copy from NetGalley, but also purchased the book.

So Many Books, So Few Reviews

Please forgive my unintentional hiatus. I went away on a Friday in July, fully intending to return on Tuesday, and then I just didn’t. I have reasons, but most of them are boring. Nothing dramatic, nothing earthshaking. Let’s just say that summer takes it out of me, and I am so happy to see the light changing and getting tiny, tiny hints of fall in the air now and again.

I’ve been away from the blog, but I most certainly have not stopped reading. In fact, I’ve kept up what for me is a pretty decent pace considering my limited reading time. I believe the last book I mentioned reading was (Man-Booker long-listed) We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. I finished that in early July and since then I’ve read:
Stoner, John Williams
Lucky Us, Amy Bloom
The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets, Diana Wegman
The Children Act, Ian McEwan (Pub date Sept 9)
The Secret Place, Tana French (Pub date Sept 2!!! Yes, multiple exclamation points!! It’s so good!!!)
Canada, Richard Ford

(And I know I’ve had A Man Came out of a Door in the Mountain listed as “On My Nightstand” for like six weeks. And it was on my nightstand. I just wasn’t reading it. I am reading it now. Really.)

Lucky Us CoverWith a couple of exceptions, all of these really deserve their own reviews. One that doesn’t warrant a full review for me is Amy Bloom’s Lucky Us, which I thought was just okay. Lucky Us is the story of two half-sisters, Iris and Eva, told through alternating points of view by Eva in the first person and other characters through third-person POV and letters. The story takes place in the United States during the late 1930s and through the 1940s. The book begins well enough—Eva at least is a compelling narrator—but if the heart of the book is really the two sisters, it seems to lose its way. An accident estranges Iris from Eva, but something about the accident–something about the whole plot–just never came together for me. Bloom writes smoothly and Eva is a compelling narrator in her sections, but ultimately it’s rather dull. (But look at that lovely cover! Away also had a lovely cover, and was also…well, read on.)

I discovered Amy Bloom when I read her debut short story collection Come to Me in graduate school. In fact, it was probably one of the first short story collections I ever read, as at the time I was a stranger to short fiction. For several years, I named it as one of my favorite books. I hesitate to say I was wrong and just didn’t know any better at the time, mainly because I haven’t read it in at least 15 years. But then again, I haven’t read it again in the last 15 years, and I HAVE re-read (many times) plenty of other collections I read back then. I tried to read her novel Away, but I never finished it. As with Lucky Us, nothing was wrong with it—I simply found it ho-hum. If you’ve read my blog for any period of time, you probably know that I am all about character-driven fiction. I’ve seen many of my favorite authors’ books—Kent Haruf, Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson—labeled boring. So if I say something is dull…well, maybe chalk it up to my mood. (Or maybe it’s just dull. I’ll let you decide for yourself.)

Alright, enough about that. I need to get busy writing reviews of all those other books. Believe me, if I can do them justice, you definitely won’t want to miss some of them!

*Image and links from Powell’s; links are unaffiliated. I received my copy of Lucky Us from NetGalley.

Freestyle Friday: 07.18.14

Today’s Freestyle Friday is a short one. I’ve been days off my schedule after our trip to Amsterdam last week. Unfortunately, our reason for traveling did not pan out: my husband was there for a job interview, and although they liked him, they decided they needed someone with more experience specific to the role. The job would have required us to move to Amsterdam, which has been a dream of ours for years and after last weekend has now become a mission. We are disappointed but determined to get there in the next few years.

I’ve got three books awaiting review (The Enchanted, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and Stoner—let me give you the short version of what I plan to say about all three books: They are wonderful. Read them.). I realize that I need to get back into the habit of not letting myself start a new book until I have written a review of the current one (at least as long as I intend to write a review—I don’t always). I’m traveling to Seattle next week, and long plane rides provide ample reading time. As I am in a middle seat going both ways (joy), there is a good chance I won’t have enough space to do much more than operate my tablet. Also, my laptop battery only lasts about three hours, and it’s a five-plus hour flight. Darn! Reading it is.

Today I learned about Kindle Unlimited. I know you all hate Amazon, but it’s taking everything I have not to sign up for a free trial. I admit I am not doing that to protest Amazon. I’m trying not to sign up because I have so many unread books and review copies already, and I don’t need any more temptation. (We all know as I write this that I will be signed up by the end of the day.)

Running. Haven’t been doing it. When I get back from Seattle, I plan to pick up my Sub-65 Minute 10K program. I cannot decide if I should pick up where I left off or start over. I admit that I am less worried about the outcome and more interested in simply having a plan that tells me what to do and when to do it. I made it five weeks last time before travel interrupted.

And with that, I close and bid you all a Happy Weekend!

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Movies and TV Shows

For today’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and The Bookish, we are asked to list our favorite movies or television shows. I’m always afraid of leaving something off these types of lists. I should note, I’m not offering up any reason as to why they are my favorites. It’s a bit like having to answer as to why I married my husband. I love him, and the answer is as simple and as complicated as all that. For me, favorite is a feeling, not (necessarily) a value judgement. So without further ado:

Top Five Movies

Rushmore (1998) Poster

Goodfellas (1990) Poster

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) Poster

Auntie Mame (1958) Poster

Lost in Translation (2003) Poster

 

Top Five TV Shows

Breaking Bad (2008) Poster

The Wire (2002) Poster

Battlestar Galactica (2004) Poster

Mad Men (2007) Poster

Freaks and Geeks (1999) Poster
All images from imdb.com

Freestyle Friday: The Sunday Edition

Welcome to this special Sunday edition of Freestyle Friday. I’m ready to ramble. Let’s do this.

“Baby went to Amsterdam / She put a little money into traveling…”

We got back yesterday evening from our whirlwind trip to Amsterdam. The trip was short but fun. When we arrived Wednesday, it was cool and blustery. We ventured out anyway to find food and keep ourselves awake. Things were very festive because people were getting ready to watch the World Cup. (Yes, that’s me below, looking as tired as I felt!)

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We went back to the hotel and I did some work and we went to sleep about 8:00 PM Amsterdam time. We both woke up around 11:30 and immediately checked our phones to see if the Netherlands had won their match against Argentina, but they were still playing so we stayed up for a while to follow the game and watch them win…which they did not do. Oh, well. On Thursday morning we woke up to this:

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Not too shabby, eh? We walked around a bit and then Bob went off to a business meeting while I settled in to work at the hotel, which had blazing fast free WiFi. After Bob got back from the hotel later that afternoon we headed out to stroll around and grab some dinner. Beautiful!

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The next day we walked through the Vondelpark and around the Museum District and then back to the other side of the Canal District and then back over to our hotel which was near the Dutch National Opera and Ballet. I only managed to take pictures in the park:

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On our flight home yesterday, I just happened to open the window blind then we were flying over Greenland:

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It was breathtaking and blindingly bright.

Welcome back to ‘Murrica. You want fried potato sticks with that?

This morning we went out for breakfast. We typically go to one of three places, one of which is a national chain called Mimi’s, which is based on a New Orleans theme. A little cheesy, but this is Atlanta and chains dominate and the breakfasts at Mimi’s are pretty good. I typically get something called the Marseilles Omelette (an egg white omelette with vegetables), and Bob gets a dish called the Pommes Lyonnaise (basically Eggs Benedict on potato cakes instead of an English muffin). When I gave the server my order, she said, “Wait, let me see what that’s called now…we changed the menu.”

We both grabbed the menus, thinking maybe we would see some new options, but she quickly dispelled that notion. “People were confused by all the French names,” she explained. “They were too hard to say and people were getting angry so they changed them back to English.”

And so I had the Veg & Egg White Omelet and Bob had the Potato Pancake Benedict. I am sure it will make you feel better to know they did not dumb it down so much as to change quiche to “egg pie.” I know it makes me feel better.

Atlanta actually might be the new Hollywood…

Last weekend my mother-in-law was visiting, so we took her to see the Dream Car Exhibit at the High Museum (more on that in a minute). Afterwards we walked down to Mi Cocina (founded in Dallas, and one of the only decent places in Atlanta to eat Mexican food). The weather was beautiful so we decided to sit outside. At one point the waitress came out and said that one of us had to go inside because there was a “very famous, older blonde” actress inside and no one could remember her name. Of course I had to get up and go to the bathroom. I mean, I really did have to go. Seriously.

The “very famous, older blonde” actress? Naomi Watts. The staff had to Google her until they figured it out, but I knew the second I saw her. (No, I did not try to talk to her.)

And then the waitress told us that the week before, Jack Black had been in the restaurant and was so very nice to everybody. I may need to eat more Mexican food.

We’ll have fun, fun, fun ’til my daddy takes the concept car away

The Dream Car Exhibit at the High Museum was amazing. All of the cars were concept cars, not models that were put into actual production. Probably the thing about this exhibit that most struck me was how very forward-thinking and unique the vehicles from the 1930s through the 1970s were especially. They had a couple of recent concept cars from BMW and Porsche, and while they are pushing the boundaries in terms of materials, from a design standpoint both cars looked like cars you would see driving on the road today.

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When I look at these designs, I wonder if we’ve lost something. I wonder if people are too busy designing apps and hoping they are the next Yo. I realize these are concept cars, but it made me wonder, when did everyone start to want cars that looked the same? I remember a few years ago being so excited by the Mini and then the Fiat because they looked like nothing else on the road. If this exhibit comes to museum near you, I highly encourage you to go.

And with that, I am off to watch the final match of the World Cup. Have a great Sunday, everyone!

Top Ten Tuesday: Blogging/Bookish Confessions

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. Today’s topic is all about confessions of a blogging or bookish nature. Why hold back? Let’s get started.

  1. I will read initial review(s) (or even part of one) for books that look interesting, but after I add a book to my wishlist, I stop reading reviews until I’ve read the book. I don’t want any spoilers, nor do I want to be thinking about how so-and-so mentioned the one thing that bothered her in chapter ten. I like to have as clean a slate as possible. For authors I know I love, I don’t read any reviews at all.
  2. People who spam blog links make me crazy. I used to participate in Booking Through Thursdays (BTT), but I got so tired of “OMG!!! Great list!! Here’s my link!” comments that I quit participating. For a while I included a warning on every BTT post that I wrote, but the spammers persisted and I grew weary. (Luckily I haven’t really had this experience with Top Ten Tuesdays.) When weekly feature hosts (such as The Broke and the Bookish) have included a linkshare, you should not also spam all the other participants’ comments sections with your link, particularly when the rest of your response is completely generic and generally thoughtless.
  3. I’m always baffled by commenters who respond to a book review or list of books with the comment, “I have never heard of this book/these books.” What a strange thing to say. Then why are you reading book blogs? To have your own opinions confirmed? To read reviews of only books you have heard of over and over again? I read book blogs to find books I might have missed and to learn about something new. I realize not everyone shares this goal, but still, that comment irks me. It sounds so narrow-minded.
  4. I am frankly sluggish (and sometimes downright resentful) about writing book reviews, even when I absolutely love the book (or, actually, because I love the book). I have a whole folder of incomplete reviews that go back over the years. Generally I have too much to say, and I cannot get it all on the page in any way that pleases me or I worry about boring everyone to death.
  5. I’m terrible at finishing series. In fact, since I started book blogging I haven’t even gotten to a second book in a trilogy. I suppose some exceptions would be Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan series (I’ve read the first three) and all of Tana French’s books (although they are really standalone books that contain one or a few of a same cast of characters).
  6. No matter how many books I read, I never feel that I am well-read. I don’t read diversely enough in terms of race or nationality. I don’t read enough translations. I don’t read enough non-fiction. I read too much literary fiction and not enough classics. I never have time to re-read the books I love. I haven’t revisited Shakespeare.
  7. Following on the “I never feel that I am well-read” thread, I willingly admit that I have no interest in reading some books that others deem essential to being well-read: in particular, James Joyce’s Ulysses and Marcel Proust’s A Remembrance of Things Past.
  8. I do not believe that schools are responsible, as has recently been suggested, for killing students’ interest in reading. Quite frequently, parents kill childrens’ interest in reading long before they get to school. It’s not so different than adults who refuse to try new foods/eat vegetables themselves but remain baffled as to why they cannot get their kids to do so. Also, when it comes to school curricula in literature, I fully agree with Flannery O’Connor: “The high-school English teacher will be fulfilling his responsibility if he furnished the student a guided opportunity, through the best writing of the past, to come, in time, to an understanding of the best writing of the present…And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.”
  9. I don’t care what genres people want to read, but I find the fact that so many people are willing to read crappily written books (“as long as the story is good!”) completely irritating. I will never understand why books such as Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey become best sellers while much better books die on the vine. I think a lost of this has to do with the problem in #8 above. Schools have started to try to entertain students through literature, instead of helping them to understand that learning to analyze “difficult” books can be a reward unto itself. If that makes me out of step with popular culture, then I’ll just march on by myself.
  10. I hate key lime pie. (Neither bloggish nor bookish but this felt like the right time and place to admit it.)

Freestyle Friday: 07.04.2014

Happy Fourth of July to my American readers! I hope you all have a safe and fun holiday planned. My mother-in-law is visiting us this weekend, and so we have planned a visit to the Atlanta Aquarium and the High Museum for a classic car show. The weather is beautiful right now, so if it stays less humid all weekend it should be quite lovely.

This morning thousands of runners gathered in Atlanta to run the Peachtree Road Race. I was not one of them. The female elite winner, Amy Hastings, won the 10K race in 32:18. (The men’s winner, Christo Landry, ran it in 28:22.) In other news, I did go for a run and managed to run two miles with an average 10:00 pace (first mile 9:47!). That’s the fastest I’ve run in two years. Winners all around!

Yesterday I posted a review of Lisa Robinson’s There Goes Gravity: A Life in Rock and Roll. I forgot to add a link from Vanity Fair of these terrific behind-the-scenes pictures of Robinson with all these talented people.  I also forgot to mention that Megan Abbott is the young Lisa Robinson’s doppelganger (photos from Vanity Fair and I think Megan Abbott’s official website):

And just to round out this recent rock and roll reading obsession, yesterday I came across this article in The Believer about the women behind all those rock and roll legends. So many of them wanted to be a part of something larger than themselves, but lost so much of their own identities to do so.

Next week I hope to have a review of Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted for you. It will be tricky because we are going to Amsterdam (my favorite city) on Tuesday. We will only be there through Saturday but I hope to return with plenty of pictures.

And finally, Cathy at 746 Books very kindly passed the Very Inspiring Blogger Award along to me. I greatly enjoy her blog and we seem to have similar taste in books so I was happily surprised to see that she had included me in her list of very deserving winners.

very-inspiring-blog-award

I am supposed to list seven “interesting facts” about myself and then pass the award to other bloggers who have inspired me, so here goes:

  1. I have never smoked a cigarette. Never even taken a puff off one.
  2. I cycled through four majors in college: Theater, Journalism, Theater (Part 2), Fashion Merchandising, and English. I really wanted to double major in English and French or English and Math, but for the sake of time majored in English with a minor in French.
  3. Speaking of French (but not actually speaking it), I have retained a lot of my vocabulary and can understand it when I hear it spoken, but I am still like a deer in headlights when someone speaks directly to me and expects me to respond.
  4. I didn’t start running until right before my 40th birthday. I hated running because I was one of those kids traumatized by the President’s Physical Fitness Test in elementary school. I was always the last person to complete the mile, and it still makes me angry when I remember how mean the adults were, never mind the kids.
  5. I try to eat a mostly plant-based, vegan diet for health reasons. I do eat eggs or fish once or twice a week.
  6. I once had dinner with Karl Malden, whose wife is my stepmother’s cousin. I told him I wanted to be a writer, and he told me that writing is a very lonely life.
  7. In graduate school I got to take a writing class with the writer Lee Martin, who wrote one of my favorite novels, The Bright Forever. It was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, but lost to Geraldine Brooks’s novel March.

Okay, there are seven facts, interesting or not. And now I am passing the award to:

Reading the End

Shelf Love

Things Mean a Lot

Reading Matters

Farm Lane Books Blog

Fourth Street Review

Sophisticated Dorkiness

Running Off the Reeses

Peanut Butter Runner

Shut Up and Run

fANNEtastic Food

One Can’t Get Over the Habit

Nubby Twiglet

Many of these blogs are “big” and have a wide readership, but each one of these blogs keeps me inspired in many ways, whether by recommending books, offering running and health tips, making me laugh, inspiring me to be more creative or push boundaries, or all of the above. So my thanks to them. They are welcome to pass it on, but should not feel obligated.

Have a wonderful weekend, everyone!