Taking a cue from Fobbit author David Abrams over at this blog The Quivering Pen (he took his cue from You Are One of Them author Erin Holt), I thought I’d list my favorite reads of 2013 so far. Although I’ve only listed eight books, they all knocked it out of the park, and I don’t expect that any of them will drop off the list at the end of the year.
I seem to be on a mystery kick, but then, it is summer. It must be something about the warmer temps and the (stifling) humidity that makes me want to read about crime. As recently as six or seven years ago, I almost never picked anything in the mystery/crime genre on my own. No no no. While I credit Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know for drawing me in, the book that finally convinced me that mystery/crime and literary fiction were not mutually exclusive categories was Tana French’s In the Woods. Since then I’ve read all of French’s books, discovered authors such as Gillian Flynn and Megan Abbott, and watched the literary world revise its view of psychological thrillers in particular. They’re rather trendy these days, and so enter two new(ish) novels: The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison and The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood.
For some reason, A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife is being marketed as this year’s Gone Girl. In truth, the only things The Silent Wife has in common with Gone Girl: both books are about a relationship gone awry, both books contain a twist of sorts, and they both are told from alternating points of view. The Silent Wife begins promisingly enough: Jodi and Todd have been together for well over two decades (they have a common-law marriage). A part-time psychotherapist, Jodi is an expert at glossing over the unpleasantness in her life—including the fact that Todd is a serial cheater—and in the lives of her clients. In fact, she mostly refuses to treat clients who suffer from anything more serious than insecurity and a vague melancholy. Todd, a real-estate developer, has not only made a highly questionable choice when it comes to his latest conquest, but he’s also decided he cannot go on living a lie, and so the disintegration of the relationship begins.
The Silent Wife is narrated in close third person, so it lacks a necessary immediacy. (Okay, I’ll say it: the kind of immediacy the reader gets in Gone Girl). Add to that, both characters are unlikable in the most pedestrian sort of way. Now wait a minute—I don’t mean I want them to be likable! I want them to be unlikable in an interesting or charismatic way. Because they both lack charisma, the book overall lacks tension. The reader never feels pulled to root for one over the other, which is critical in a she said/he said narrative. I suppose some readers might feel bad for Jodi because she’s the wronged party, but that’s so very Lifetime movie. Harrison gives each of them some underlying childhood problem (to explain how they are, I guess), but really…if they were guests on a talk show, you’d change the channel. And so the novel plods to the not-so-big twist and lands with a dull thud. I gave it 2 out of 5 stars.
The Wicked Girls is British journalist Alex Marwood’s (a pseudonym, by the way) debut novel. In 1986, two eleven-year-old girls are involved in an incident that leads to the death of a young child. They are found guilty and punished by the law, and perhaps more so by the media and the public. When they are eventually released from prison, they are issued new identities and instructed never to contact one another again. More than two decades later, a string of murders in the seaside resort town of Whitmouth brings them together again. Amber Gordon is the head cleaner at Funnland, Whitmouth’s amusement park; Kirsty Lindsay is a freelance journalist. When Amber finds a dead woman in Funnland’s House of Mirrors, the police take notice and begin to believe they have a serial killer on their hands. Kirsty is sent to Whitmouth to write about the murders. The reader learns rather early in the book who the killer is, but the real story in The Wicked Girls is Kirsty and Amber, and how current events threaten the lives they’ve built for themselves over the last quarter-century. Throughout the course of the book, Marwood tackles serious issues such as Britain’s struggling economy, unemployment, sensationalism in media, and the rehabilitation of young offenders. The story moves back and forth in time between present day and the events in 1986; present day events are told in third person mostly from Amber and Kirsty’s points of view.
Reading The Wicked Girls reminded me of reading something by Laura Lippman—Every Secret Thing comes to mind—or Tana French. Like Lippman, Marwood does a terrific job of letting the story be character-driven, so it’s never overwhelmed by issues. What reminded me of French was how Marwood writes about place, which lends well to the overall sinister feel of the book. The heart of the novel deals with lies, misunderstanding, and miscommunication. Much of what happens in past and present has to do with how characters perceive themselves based on how other people have treated them. The book has a few rough spots–the killer is one readers have seen before (of the “women are sluts who ask for it” variety), and the pace begins to drag at the end. The flashback chapters also go on for too long; the pacing would have been helped by Marwood getting to the past accident/crime quickly, and then either dropping the flashbacks entirely or focusing more on what happened to Kirsty and Amber during and after prison. The ending was also somewhat unsurprising. I skimmed through the final chapters, I admit, but ultimately the book still worked well. It was less that I wanted a surprise ending—truly, it has the right ending, it felt organically inevitable to the rest of the story—than that Marwood could have taken a shorter road to get there. I’m hooked, though, and looking forward to her next book. I gave it 3 out of 5 stars.
Full disclosure: I received both books from NetGalley.
Four or five years ago, publishers seemed to be releasing novels about zombies every five seconds. Okay, the novels weren’t all about zombies–there were vampires and werewolves in there, too–and maybe not every five seconds (every ten seconds), but you get my drift: lots of novels about zombies.
Amy Grace Loyd’s The Affairs of Others is not a novel about zombies. But it is set in Brooklyn. Lately I find that just about every other book description I read is about a character or set of characters who live in Brooklyn. Mostly, the authors of these novels also live in–you guessed it–Brooklyn. Brooklyn is the new zombies.
Not that I have anything against Brooklyn. Over half the people I follow on Twitter seem to live there. I have a dear, longtime friend who lives there. It has many terrific book stores and restaurants. It has lots of wealthy people and gentrification but also some borderline affordable neighborhoods where young creative types gather. It has parks with actual trees.
Celia Cassill lives in Brooklyn, in a brownstone apartment building that she bought and renovated after losing her husband to cancer five years ago. Celia is only in her mid-thirties, and the couple was childless. She has enough money so that she does not have to work. Her building has three tenants: a retired ferryboat captain, a young(ish) married couple with no children, and a middle-aged school teacher, George, who decides to travel to France and sublet his apartment to his friend, Hope, who is going through a separation from her marriage of 25 years.
I’m not going to lie to you: this novel is filled with first-world problems and angsty navel gazing. While being widowed at a young age (or any age, really) is surely a tragic thing, and while grief often takes its own individual course (five stages of grieving be damned), Celia is comfortable enough financially that she can isolate herself from much of the world as she chooses, which leaves her a lot of time to think about herself and about her grief. Hope (the person who sublets the apartment, not the thing with feathers) becomes something of an object of infatuation for Celia and disrupts her quiet life not only with her beauty and warmth but also with her own…oh, what’s the word I want for it…idiocy.
Why idiocy? Hope’s husband, a highly successful investment banker, has left her for a younger woman. By choice, Hope has moved out of their palatial Brooklyn townhome and into George’s apartment, where she takes up with a former lover who sexually and emotionally debases her. Hope’s two adult children are distraught and concerned for her, but Hope seems only to care about…hollowing herself out by having rough sex (accompanied by really nice wine and cheese, of course).
I hate that I felt this way, but much of the time I was reading I just wanted Celia and Hope to get a grip. They live in an interesting city (Brooklyn!), they both have enough money to do pretty much anything they want (Hope more so than Celia), and this is what they choose? To be isolated and debased? Like I said, first-world angst.
So then why did I keep reading? Because Celia is not completely annoying. In fact, overall she’s rather compelling, even if she has some annoying habits, like picking up strangers on the subway and having sex with them. She may be self-pitying and a bit stupid, but she’s also an interested and interesting observer (the novel is in first person), that sort of literary outsider infatuated with–yes, the affairs of others that I tend to enjoy. And to give her credit, even Celia finds Hope’s desire for debasement ridiculous on some level. But the best parts of the book occur when Celia is focused on her other tenants, the ferryboat captain Mr. Coughlan and the couple Angie and Mitchell. These two small subplots give the book a more generous viewpoint and keep it from becoming like that one person you knew in college who had everything (looks, brains, talent, money, connections) but who did nothing but complain and wallow in self-pity.
The book’s style and structure reminded me of reading something by Lydia Davis. If you’ve read Davis and enjoyed her work, you know I mean that as high praise. Loyd’s episodic narrative is fully fleshed-out, and she turns a phrase beautifully. Unfortunately, I only have an ARC* and cannot offer any quotes as evidence. Her masterful pacing also lends to the book’s intimate feel, and because of it she is able to turn a bit of a trick.
First-world angst of the privileged abounds in this novel, and in the hands of a lesser writer the book would probably keep on going down its relentless course until someone is homeless or institutionalized or dead. We’ve all read those novels. Instead, Loyd lifts everybody up out of themselves and gives them all to each other. I won’t say how, and I won’t say this book doesn’t have moments of real sadness, but the ending has a real sense of celebration about it, an awakening. Three out of five stars.
*I received an e-ARC of The Affairs of Others from NetGalley.
My first video review! I talk about Becky Masterman’s debut novel, Rage Against the Dying. Yes, I say “uh” and “um” and “anyway” too much, and appear to be moving all over the place because I am sitting on a Swiss ball. Live and learn. Enjoy!
This year, two of my favorite writers are publishing new books. In October, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch will be released, and in August, Marisha Pessl’s Night Film hits the shelves. I was lucky enough to score an electronic copy of the ARC of Night Film from NetGalley, and oh, people, let me tell you: it’s terrific.
A veteran investigative journalist, Scott McGrath, is drawn to investigate the alleged suicide of Ashley Cordova, the daughter of a famous cult-film director named Stanislas Cordova. Years before Ashley’s death, McGrath had been investigating the elder Cordova, a recluse whose films explored the darkest human impulses. After receiving an anonymous phone call with a tip about some of Cordova’s darkest acts, McGrath threatens to expose the director, but eventually finds the tables turned when he’s sued for libel and loses everything, including his marriage. Still convinced of Cordova’s guilt, McGrath sets out to take revenge on the director by trying to prove that Ashley’s death was no accident. Along the way, McGrath teams up with Nora, a young wannabe actress from Florida, and Hopper, a handsome lone-wolf drug dealer, each of whom are also drawn to investigate Ashley’s death for their own reasons.
I wouldn’t even begin to try and untangle the complicated plot for you, mainly because I wouldn’t want to ruin any of the fun. This novel could easily be termed Hitchcockian, with all the twists and sleights it has at its disposal. I have no doubt that we’ll see the usual too-cool-for-school, “Yawn, I had this figured out from page X” reviews. Ignore them. As much as I hate to use the tired term gripping, that’s exactly what this book is. Even if you think you have it figured out (I did, several times, and I was wrong, wrong, and wrong again)—even if you do figure it out—the ride is too much fun. One thing I enjoyed about this book and Pessl’s first book was that she is so at ease as a storyteller. Some authors who write books with complicated plots cannot seem to get out of their own way; they act less like storytellers and more like annoying tour guides who want to make sure you see how clever they are. And even though the book includes “actual” web sites and news articles (which, I’ll admit, don’t work so well on Kindle, but might be terrific on an iPad), these never seem gimmicky like they might in a weaker book or in the hands of a less assured author. Pessl does a terrific job of getting out of the way of her characters and her plot, which means as readers, we are right there with them. She also creates a terrifically noir atmosphere.
And frankly, here’s the best part: I know what happens, and I still want to read it again. When I finished reading Special Topics in Calamity Physics for the first time, I immediately turned back to the first page and started the book again. I’ve pre-ordered my hardback copy of Night Film, and when it arrives I’ll be cracking it open and enjoying all the terror and thrill of reading it a second time. The best books, like the best movies, never lose their suspense and surprise, even if you know what happens.
Let me begin by saying, I loved Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. Olive Kitteridge was essentially a novel in stories that involved the title character, so what emerged at the book’s end was the story of a life from many viewpoints. As a character, as a person, or however one chooses to think of her, Olive Kitteridge was not an entirely likable woman, but she was interesting and complicated in her own way. I knew some people and some reviewers who were bored by that book, and they were generally people who believe something has to happen, as if life isn’t enough action in and of itself.
I wonder if that criticism of Olive Kitteridge—nothing happens—wasn’t on Strout’s mind when she sat down to write The Burgess Boys. She won the Pulitzer for Olive Kitteridge, so it’s hard to imagine she was worried about her critics. Perhaps she just wanted to try her hand at something new. The Burgess Boys is a curious mixture of things, and it never quite seems to make up its mind what it wants to be. At the center are the Burgess boys, Jim and Bob, and Bob’s hapless twin sister Susan. Their relationships are shaped—and strained in many ways—by an early family tragedy: they were playing in the parked family car when it was knocked out of gear and rolled down a hill and killed their father. Bob is thought to be the responsible party, and he carries the burden around like a child with a threadbare favorite toy. To be fair, his older brother Jim, a famous, successful Manhattan lawyer married to a wealthy socialite, never really lets him forget it. The dynamic and the differences between these two are just a little bit too pat—Bob, the kind but hapless sad-sack, divorced and and borderline alcoholic, who works for legal aid, and Jim, rich and powerful, with a full family life, who’s a proverbial master of the universe.
Although plenty happens in The Burgess Boys, the action doesn’t kick off right away. Instead, the novel opens with a prologue narrated in the first person by a woman from the Burgess’ hometown of Shirley Falls, Maine. The woman explains that she and her mother would discuss the Burgess kids with some frequency over the years, that it was a neutral topic to which they would return when things were strained between them, and near the end of the prologue the woman tells her mother she has decided to write their story. I suppose what follows in the novel is what the woman wrote, but I found it a very curious opening. It serves well enough to provide some necessary backstory on the Burgess family, and to set some general ideas in the reader’s mind, specifically the general distrust or dislike that certain New Englanders hold for New York City. The problem for me was that Strout introduced a compelling narrative voice in the prologue, and then promptly dumped it once the story began. I kept waiting for Strout to return to the woman, but eventually it dawned on me that the prologue was nothing more than a device to introduce information that probably could have been worked into the narrative in a more compelling way.
The Burgess story itself begins when Bob and Jim learn about an incident involving Susan’s son Zachary, who has thrown a pig’s head into the mosque in Shirley Falls. The act is viewed as a hate crime against the many Somali refugees who have taken up residence in the town, and it draws national attention. The events are told in alternating third-person points of view, shifting between Bob, Jim’s wife Helen, Susan, Bob’s ex-wife Pam, and a Somali refugee named Abdikarim. Rather than giving the reader a full picture of events comprised from different points of view, this technique serves to make the novel all the more disjointed. The characters come across more as types than as people, and the novel swerves between sweeping family drama and political commentary. If Strout had committed to one or the other, the story probably would have been much stronger, but instead she seems to hedge. With the hate crime and the shifting points of view, I thought Strout was setting us up for her version of a Tom Wolfe type commentary, but the incident sort of fades away near the middle, and we are left to watch some not-so-compelling characters flounder in the face of other life events.
This book ultimately frustrated me. Strout is such a terrifically insightful writer, and her prose is clean and natural, but the story simply never came together for me. Not only were the characters stock, but several events are too neatly resolved while others are simply unbelievable. For example—and I suppose this might be a spoiler so fair warning—at one point Zach, whom as far as we know has never set foot outside the state of Maine, somehow manages to leave the country to go live in Sweden with a father he has not seen in seven years. I suppose we are to assume that his powerful Uncle Jim arranged it all, but it simply seemed unbelievable.
If The Burgess Boys had simply been a family drama where “nothing happens,” focused deeply on one or two characters, I think it would have been a far more satisfying book. From reading Amy & Isabelle and Olive Kitteridge, I know she is a master at creating believable, well-drawn characters, especially characters who come from small towns and lead quiet lives. In The Burgess Boys, I can’t tell if she’s out of her depth with characters such as Abdikarim, who seems stock, even for all the detail Strout gives about the Somali community and their struggles, and Helen, who comes across as selfish, shallow, and smug for much of the book. Especially in the case of Helen, Jim, and Pam, it’s as if she agrees with characters in the book who believe New York is full of strivers who aren’t “real people.” The happy endings are reserved for those who return to their roots or who know their place, whether it’s high or low on the class scale. I gave it 2/5 stars on Goodreads.
Full disclosure: I received my copy of The Burgess Boys from NetGalley.
The Middlesteins tells the story of Edie and Richard Middlestein; their two children, Robin and Benny; and Benny’s wife Rachelle and their two kids Emily and Josh. Edie has a weight problem. She’s eating herself to death, and even after two surgeries for arterial disease in her legs and facing the possibility of heart surgery, she cannot—or more accurately will not—stop eating. As a child Edie was loved and somewhat indulged. Her parents were smart and affectionate people. She eats because she’s hungry, because food makes her feel powerful and complete. The story is told from varying third-person points of view including all the family members, and at one point even from a second-person plural view of friends of the family.
After her husband Richard leaves her, Edie continues to eat, while her family members do their best to deal with the effects of illness and the separation on their own lives. Edie is clearly smart and capable, but she is also angry. She is, you might say, fed up. Richard is by turns helpless, guilty, hapless, and righteous in his decision to leave a woman who clearly was gone long before he physically left her. For Robin, Benny, and Rachelle, Richard is clearly the bad guy for leaving his sick wife. But for the reader, Attenberg quite smartly never makes it easy to lay blame either on Edie or Richard. Neither one of them is particularly likable, but it’s easy to empathize with both their positions, and they both deserve a second chance.
Reading The Middlesteins is a bit like watching an indie comedy-drama about family. It has a daughter with a borderline alcohol problem who teaches private school and has a difficult time with relationships; it has the tightly wound sister-in-law obsessed with raw vegetables and stalking her mother-in-law; it has the hapless Chinese cook who is helplessly in love with Edie and cooks wonderful large meals especially for her. You may not have seen these exact characters on the screen, but you know what I mean—and you can see the story very clearly in this way in your mind as you read. Well, you can if you happen to like indie comedy-dramas, which I do.
The Middlesteins is relatable and easy to read, and I gave it 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads. (Note: This post was written before the announcement that Amazon bought Goodreads. I haven’t abandoned them yet; I’m planning t osee how things evolve over the coming months.) Attenberg writes her characters well—they are wholly flawed and human, likable sometimes and annoying the next. She’s both funny and empathetic. This is a story that could have easily turned the corner into being either absurd or macabre, but it never goes outside the bounds of exactly what it is: the story of an unremarkable family dealing with a problem that’s probably not altogether uncommon—but it’s also a problem that’s strangely difficult to discuss. Lots of novels exist about families dealing with relatives who are drug addicts or alcoholics or who have depression, and in a way, dealing with a family member who is obese seems no different, at least on the surface. The problem is, how do you tell someone to stop eating, when we must eat to survive? That conundrum is exacerbated by the fact that until we have medical evidence to the contrary, we cannot say that someone who chooses to keep eating in the face of death is not of sound mind. We want to believe, as Edie’s daughter-in-law Rachelle does, that eating healthy and exercising and love and support from family can be enough to help someone facing a weight problem. But what if the person does not want to be helped?
This novel seems more personal than political. Attenberg does not make Edie either an object of self-righteous “fat pride” or an object of scorn. And in fact that’s probably the best thing about the book—she doesn’t make Edie an object at all, or a stereotype. She’s just a flawed human, making her way in the world the best way she can.