Fiction

Reader’s Journal: Mini Reviews

I’ve been terrible keeping up with sharing my thoughts about what I’ve been reading, so I thought I’d try to get back in the swing of things with a couple of posts of mini reviews (although bear with me, because I read these back in June and July, and it seems like a long time ago).

We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler. Let me start with this: SPOILER ALERT. If you haven’t read this book and you do not already know the twist, then read no further. This is Rosemary Cooke’s story, and the story of her family, in particular her two siblings, her brother Lowell and her sister Fern. For different reasons, Rosemary is estranged from her siblings, all because of a single childhood act perpetrated by Rosemary. The story is told by present-day Rosemary in her forties, looking back both to her childhood with Fern and to several weeks in college where Rosemary learned what actually happened to Fern after she disappeared. Fern’s absence shaped much of Rosemary’s life, as did her reappearance. The clincher (the spoiler)—and I knew this going in: Fern is a chimpanzee that the Cooke family was raising alongside Rosemary as her sister. Fowler tells a hell of a story, but she also manages to weave in much of the relevant information about chimpanzee studies over the last century to help the reader understand the real depth of the questions at hand. It’s such a wonderfully strange book, and Rosemary is a compelling narrator. For all the ethical issues it raises (and never, ever beats the reader about the head with), this is finally a family saga, and an incredibly well-written one at that. If Fowler wins the Man-Booker, she will definitely have earned it.

StonerStoner, John Williams. If you love quiet, character-driven fiction about ordinary people that reveals deeper truths about humanity (think of works by Kent Haruf or Marilynne Robinson), then Stoner is an absolute must-read. William Stoner is the son of a Missouri farmer who sends Stoner away to join a new agriculture program at the state university. In his second year of school, Stoner falls in love with literature, and decides to pursue a life in academia. The book tells the story of his life at the university, his struggles with colleagues and students, his unhappy marriage, his experience of fatherhood. It’s beautifully written, revealing the deep complexity of even a seemingly simple life.

The Care and Feeding of Exotic PetsThe Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets, Diana Wagman. This is one of those books I bought on sale, on a whim. I had a long plane trip and had just finished another book, so I decided to give this a shot. I managed to finish it over the course of a five hour plane ride and an hour on the train. Winnie Parker is a single mother to a teenage daughter. She’s recently divorced from her game-show host husband. Waiting at the car repair shop for a loaner car, she mistakes a young man who pulls over to pick her up as the guy from the rental car place. Instead, she finds herself kidnapped by the young man and taken to the house he shares with a giant iguana named Cookie. The story is told in alternating third-person points of view, so we see events not just from Winnie’s point of view, but also from the kidnapper’s, her daughter’s, and her ex-husband’s, as we come to understand what set off this increasingly horrifying chain of events for Winnie. Reviews for this one seem to be all over the place (but mostly favorable), but I was completely absorbed. It helps that Wagman has a sense of humor, and many of the moments are darkly comic; otherwise, this well-paced novel might have teetered between melodrama and just plain terrifying. If you like Gillian Flynn, then I recommend this. I look forward to checking out Wagman’s other books.

*all images and links from Goodreads

Top Ten Tuesday: Character-Driven Novels

For today’s Tuesday Top 10 (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish), participants have been asked to list their favorite character-driven novels. Since character-driven novels are pretty much all I ever read, I could just point you to any of my year-end favorite posts and say, “Have at it,” but what fun would that be? It’s difficult for me to only pick ten, but I’ll give it a shot:

Benediction, Kent Haruf. All of Haruf’s works are character driven, and while my favorite of his is probably Plainsong, this particular novel really wrenched my heart.

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Texasville, Larry McMurtry. This novel (part two of the Thalia Trilogy) revisits some of the cast of The Last Picture Show, 33 years later. Set during the 1980s Texas oil bust, it’s both funny and melancholy.

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In the Woods, Tana French. I could have picked any of French’s books, but I decided to pick her first one because it was the first one I read and it was also the first time I felt like everything I love about literary fiction had been married to everything that’s great about suspense.

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Straight Man, Richard Russo. Again, I could have picked any of Russo’s books, but this is one of my favorite books of all time. If you like books about father-son relationships or dry-witted academics (among other things), then pick it up ASAP.


Lamb, Bonnie Nadzam. This one is not for the faint of heart, but Nadzam does such an amazing job showing what’s going on inside the head of David Lamb that it’s both frightening and mesmerizing.

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Canada, Richard Ford. When Dell Parson’s parents are arrested for robbing a bank, he is estranged from his twin sister and exiled to Canada, where he works for a man with a dark secret. I read this on a whim and loved every second of it.

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The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt. The Sisters brothers are assassins sent to kill a man who has invented a way to discover and steal gold from their boss. It’s a love story about two brothers, it’s a Western, and it’s darkly and awesomely funny.

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You Are One of Them, Elliott Holt. What if your best friend disappeared? What if you had defined yourself around that disappearance, and then you learned it might not be true? This is an unusual coming-of-age story that I thoroughly intend to read again.

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Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout. this is more a novel in stories, all which center around the central character of Olive Kitteridge, who lives in Crosby, Maine. Her story is told mostly through the eyes of the relatives and townspeople who know her.

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The Dart League King, Keith Lee Morris. I’m big on stories about sad-sacks with big dreams. Russell Harmon is getting ready for his dart league to play its final championship game of the season, and he’s banking on more than a trophy if he wins. This book has so much more than meets the eye, and I wish I could get it into the hands of more people.

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*images and links from powells.com and Wikipedia

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.

The Fever: A Playlist

While I wThe Fever, by Megan Abbottas reading Megan Abbott’s The Fever, I kept thinking of a particular Radiohead song on OK Computer, called “Climbing up the Walls.” I decided to listen to it, and the next thing I knew I thought of another song, and then another, until this playlist was conceived. I tried to choose songs that would match the sort of sinister, frustrating atmosphere, but that would also match the new, raw power and sexual tension at play in the novel. I’ve done my very best to avoid anything spoilerish in the explanations below. I hope you enjoy it!

“Blasphemous Rumors” – Depeche Mode. “I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumors / But I think that God’s got a sick sense of humor / And when I die, I expect to find him laughing.” This is possibly the most teen-angsty song of all time: Everyone is struggling to understand what has happened, especially Deenie.
“Teenage Lust” – The Jesus and Mary Chain. “She’s taking hold of her sins now for the first time / Well, she’s been told about sins now but it feels fine.” At the very beginning of the novel, Deenie loses her virginity, and she spends much of the book working through her sense of ambivalence and awakening and how it all relates to the events at hand.
“Call the Doctor” – Sleater Kinney. “They want to socialize you / they want to purify you / they want to dignify, analyze and terrorize you.” All of the high-school girls, afflicted and unafflicted, are subjected to scrutiny after the fever begins to spread. Everything about their lives is analyzed for a root cause. If they are afflicted, they must be to blame. If they are still okay, they must be to blame. It’s a no win situation.
“Climbing Up the Walls” – Radiohead. After the second girl, Gabby, has a mysterious seizure, Gabby’s mother Lara tells Deenie’s father Tom that the world is infused with so much danger that they can never protect their children from. This song is about an actual male predator, but it fits so well with Lara’s view of how sinister everything is: “So lock the kids up safe tonight / And shut the eyes in the cupboard. / I’ve got the smell of a local man / Who’s got the loneliest feeling.”
“Somebody That I Used to Know” – Gotye. I picked this one specifically for Deenie’s parents, Georgia and Tom, who divorced two years’ prior to the events in the novel, but it also applies to Deenie and her mother (they are basically estranged–Deenie’s preference). It also applies to Deenie and Gabby, who has been spending more and more time with another friend Deenie doesn’t like much.
“Do Me A Favour” – Arctic Monkeys. “Curiosity becomes a heavy load / Too heavy to hold, will force you to be cold / And do me a favour, and ask if you need some help! / She said, do me a favour and stop flattering yourself!” Deenie’s brother Eli is worried about his sister, worried about her friends. He’s mystified at how they’ve grown into such unknowable, unfathomable beings, and the fever makes them more mysterious than ever.
“The Sky Is a Poisonous Garden” – Concrete Blonde. “They knew with the dawn / They knew with the day / They knew what they had / Would be young naked prey / And attacked from all sides / By a world filled with / Poison and hate” The fever happens just as spring is beginning to burst forth. On a night when the PTA holds a meeting to discuss the fever and what to do about it, the weather turns strangely warm and the sky takes on a strange glow, and Tom is no longer sure about the town and his or his childrens’ place in it.
“Jealous Girls” – The Gossip. “Jealousy won’t get you anything that you lost / Jealousy it will never be what it was / Jealousy well I’m afraid of what I’ve become / Jealousy it feels like everything’s come undone” Deenie, Gabby, and Lise have been best friends since junior high, but things have changed. The balance has shifted. Lise seemed to become the center of male attention overnight; Gabby has a mysterious new friend she shares her secrets with; and Deenie also has a secret of her own.
“Evil’s Sway” – Japandroids. “A candle’s pulse is no companion / When all you see is sexual red
You burn away your dreams inside a journal / And leave those primal words unsaid” Gabby’s mysterious friend Skye irks Deenie and somewhat fascinates Eli. She talks about energies and spells and incantations and seems immune to any harm.
“You’ve Been a Friend” – The Jesus and Mary Chain. “What if I say / I couldn’t take another day / Aw if I told you would you stay / And I’ve got you / And you’ve always seen me through / Aw if I told you would you stay” Deenie goes to visit Lise, who is in a coma at the hospital. She has to tell her something, something she hopes will wake her up–but that also might mean she will lose Lise anyway.
“Talk Amongst Yourselves” – The Grand National. “So talk amongst yourselves / While I try to figure it out / Figure it out / I’ll let you know in my time” One of the afflicted girls makes a YouTube video where she points the finger at Deenie. Deenie herself worries that she has somehow caused everything that happens, but she’s more interested in uncovering the truth than in anything else.

The Fever by Megan Abbott

The Fever, by Megan AbbottI first picked up a book by Megan Abbott back in 2009. That book was Queenpin, the story of a nameless narrator’s apprenticeship under a 1950s female mob boss named Gloria Denton. I was immediately hooked and went on to read Bury Me Deep, based on the true story of Winnie Ruth Judd, the “Trunk Murderess” of the 1930s who murdered her husband and shipped him from Arizona to California in a steamer trunk. Here’s what I said in my original review of Bury Me Deep: “While fiction hardly lacks for strong female protagonists, one of the things I like about Abbott’s books is that her women are so very pragmatic. These aren’t intellectual heroines, plucky young women defying convention by sneaking into the boys’ club or determining not to marry and instead pursue a life of the mind.” (Always quote yourself whenever possible, people. All the cool kids do. Like Kanye.)

In 2011, when I read about The End of Everything, the story of a 13-year-old girl whose best friend disappears, I was excited to see how Abbott’s ability to create such compelling heroines would translate to a more modern, more conventional plot line (let’s face it—many, many novels have been written about missing girls). Sadly, when I read the novel I found it didn’t seem to translate at all. In fact, I felt like I had picked up a book by another author entirely (and maybe in some ways I had). While I didn’t dislike The End of Everything, it lacked the darkness and the gumption of her earlier books.

I hoped for better when I read the blurbs about her 2012 novel Dare Me, which while entertaining enough felt like little more than Mean Girls meets psychological thriller. While she successfully brought back the darker atmosphere of her earlier works, the characters—popular, oversexed cheerleaders with so much raw ambition they make Cersei Lannister look like an amateur—felt like caricatures.

I admit, I approached The Fever with some trepidation. I say some because the truth is, Abbott is a terrific writer with a unique voice, and so she’s one of those writers who will always make me jump at the chance to read what she’s written, even if I’m just hoping for better than last time. Luckily, The Fever did not disappoint—not by a longshot.

In The Fever, Abbott maintains her own unique style while somehow also channeling the empathy of Judy Blume and the edginess of Joyce Carol Oates. Deenie Nash’s best friend Lise is struck by a mysterious seizure at school one morning. The next day, Deenie and Lise’s friend Gabby is also struck by a seizure during a school orchestra recital. As the days go by, more and more girls at the high school are affected by a mysterious illness that includes symptoms such as uncontrollable twitching and violent vomiting. Parents and teachers are panicked, the whole small-town community of Dryden in an uproar.

Only the girls are afflicted. The boys are fine. Some parents believe a (semi) mandatory vaccine is to blame, others believe pollution in the town lake is the problem, while others still blame demonic possession. The book alternates points of view, from Deenie to her father Tom, a chemistry teacher at the school, to her brother Eli, a popular Senior hockey player. This shift is effective because while Tom and Eli are directly affected by the town’s hysteria and their concern for Deenie, their sections provide a broad viewpoint of Deenie and her friends, creating a less insular experience than the ones Abbott created in her previous two novels. Deenie (named for Blume’s Deenie, perhaps?) also has some of the pragmatism and gumption of Abbott’s early heroines. Abbott also 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. “She thinks I need her but she’s the one who needs me,” Gabby says of Deenie. “I make her feel more interesting.”

Abbott does a terrific job of drawing out the suspense and creating a palpable atmosphere of hysteria. Although the subject matter is completely different, it reminded me of an Australian film (from long, long ago) called Picnic at Hanging Rock, a psychological thriller about the mysterious disappearance of several girls and a teacher and the hysteria that ensues. It’s a frightening movie because it never resolves anything, and the audience is left to wonder whether a crime was committed at all, or if perhaps the missing women were simply the victims of an accident while hiking in the rocks. And if The Fever has a weakness, I would say it’s the ending, which is not implausible but perhaps a little too neatly tied off, at least for my tastes. I would have preferred that Abbott maintain the mystery right through to the end. Four out of five stars.

Full disclosure: I received my copy of The Fever from NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Top Ten Tuesday: Top 10 Books of 2014 (so far)

Yesterday I had the stunning realization that I read only ONE book in May: The People in the Trees. Lucky for me it was a really terrific book, but honestly, it’s bad enough that I generally only average three books a month. Definite room for improvement.

Today’s Top Ten, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, asks us about our ten favorite books so far this year. With such a short list for the year, I don’t have ten books, but I do have six, and here they are:

The Tie That Binds Cover

 

Where'd You Go, Bernadette Cover

 

Big Machine Cover

 

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The People in the Trees Cover

 

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