Fiction

Results: TBR Double Dog Dare 2015

As I’ve mentioned frequently over the last few months, in December I signed up for the TBR Double Dog Dare hosted by James at James Reads Books. It isn’t a challenge, really, but a dare to stick with your own books for three full months, January 1 through April 1. I’m happy to announce that I was mostly successful!

Why only “mostly successful?” I’ll get there.

In the last three months, I read nine books, all from my current TBR. I didn’t read anything I bought or checked out of the library after January 1. In fact, I also finished every single book I started. I never went through a period of picking things up and putting them down 50 or 100 pages through and starting something else (although, admittedly, several of the books I managed to read had suffered such treatment from me in the past). Below are the books I read, in order:

January
Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, Sara Gran
We Disappear, Scott Heim
The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, Joel Dicker
The Lola Quartet, Emily St. John Mandel

February
Seating Arrangements, Maggie Shipstead
Bark, Lorrie Moore
Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty

March
Skippy Dies, Paul Murray
Lake of Sorrows, Erin Hart

While I liked all of them, I enjoyed Skippy Dies and Seating Arrangements the most; I had a difficult time putting them down. The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair was the book that exasperated me the most, but obviously not to the point of abandoning it. And I’m sorry to say—and I have a proper write-up coming at some point in the next few weeks—that the biggest disappointment for me was Lorrie Moore’s Bark. I liked it, it was fine, but it’s far from her best collection. I’ll stop there before I say too much.

With the exceptions of Lorrie Moore and Erin Hart, all of these authors were new to me. I was most pleased to discover Sara Gran, Emily St. John Mandel, and Maggie Shipstead. (Okay, “discover” sounds weird, because obviously I’d heard of them; I own their books.)  I’ve got Station Eleven (which just won the Tournament of Books) and Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway waiting for me, now that April has arrived and I can read my new books.

And I suppose that brings me to that “mostly successful” part of the story.

I read nine books from my backlog. For some of you, that would be a terrible number, because you all are much more dedicated readers than I am. But for me, nine is a good number, a nice dent, especially considering that some of those books had been on my TBR since 2009. The “mostly successful,” then, stems from this: while I was reading only my own books, I never stopped buying them. In fact…I bought…uh…21 books. YOU DO THE MATH. But see, I had Christmas money, I had credit, they were on sale–ALL OF THEM.

Er, anyway, I did it. Yea me! Kind of. Oh, shut up.

Reader’s Journal: Lake of Sorrows

Lake of Sorrows (Nora Gavin #2)For my second book for Reading Ireland Month (well, also my final book I guess, although I started Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand That First Held Mine on Saturday, so that sort of counts, doesn’t it?), I chose Erin Hart’s Lake of Sorrows, the second book in her Nora Gavin/Cormac Maguire series. I read the first book in the series, Haunted Ground, back in 2009. While Hart is technically an American (as is Nora Gavin, her female protagonist), the series is set in Ireland. Nora is a pathologist and Cormac is an anthropologist, so they seem to find themselves pulled into helping to solve modern-day crimes as a result of their work with older specimens, specifically bodies and artifacts recovered from the boglands in central Ireland.

From this point on, my review will contain some spoilers. That’s the thing about series like this one: many of the areas up for discussion will be based on things that happened in the previous books. So one thing to know about Lake of Sorrows from the get-go is that while you can read it as a standalone, some things won’t make much sense, or may seem to take up valuable time in the book without really warranting it.

As Lake of Sorrows opens, Nora is on her way to investigate (as part of a research team from the National Museum) a bog body that has been recovered by an archaeological team that works at a peat cultivation site to ensure the preservation of archaeological finds. One thing Hart does well is to keep the political and environmental impact of the bogland in the reader’s mind. Peat can be cultivated relatively cheaply to fuel power plants, but cheap fuel has its price:

It was astonishing to her that bogs, despite their role as collective memory, were still being relinquished to feed the ever-growing hunger for electric power. Up until a hundred years ago, the bogs had been considered useless, mere wasteland. then men of science had gone to work on them, devising ever more efficient ways to harvest peat—only to find out, too late, that this was a misguided effort, and perhaps the wrong choice all along. Twenty years from now, the outdated power plants would be gone. The bog would be stripped right down to the marl subsoil, and would have to begin anew the slow reversion to its natural state, layer by layer, over the next five, eight, or ten thousand years.

Nora is only at the site a short time when one of the young archaeologists uncovers another body—only this one happens to be wearing a wristwatch. Even though the second body is clearly a modern man, similarities appear to exist in the way the men have died (or were killed). When the lead archaeologist at the site is found murdered not long after the discovery of the second bog body—and again with similar marks and methods, Nora finds herself drawn ever deeper into the mystery, as is Cormac, who has accompanied her (separately) and offered her a place to stay.

Here’s where it gets a bit spoiler-y. In Haunted Ground, Nora and Cormac were set up (as a couple) by a man who was mentor to each of them. At the beginning of Lake of Sorrows, Nora is thinking that she will have to leave Cormac in pursuit of the one thing that obsesses her, which is proving that her dead sister Triona’s husband, who is about to be remarried, is responsible for Triona’s murder a few years earlier. This backstory is given much more space in Haunted Ground, and at the beginning of Lake of Sorrows it seems that this will be one of the larger subplots to help further develop Nora (and possibly Cormac). Strangely enough, although Nora spends the first few chapters acting weepy and strange and guilty for not staying focused on Triona’s death and about her decision to leave Cormac, the entire thing is all but dropped until near the end of the book, when she mentions to Cormac that she needs to return to America, and his response is not much more than, “I knew you would.” I suppose I can understand why Hart would want to save the Triona storyline perhaps for a book that’s more full devoted to that crime, it annoyed me that it was such a huge deal in the first few chapters and then is basically dropped while she and Cormac try to figure out the murders. On that note, Cormac doesn’t get much in the way of development in this book (and neither does Nora, actually, not really), and plays second string to Nora even though he has his own past issues with his father to deal with that were well-established in the first book and only given passing mention in this one.

Another thing that, for me, made Lake of Sorrows less satisfying than Haunted Ground was the mystery itself. While Hart is very good at weaving in cultural history—in this case, mostly about Celtic sacrificial rituals and Iron Age artifacts—the mystery itself is somewhat boring. The characters involved, other than the Detective Liam Ward (whom I hope reappears in later books in the series), are mostly types easily set in to make that subplot move forward. For example, Ursula Downes, the head archaeologist who is murdered, had been involved with Cormac when they were much younger. But she’s simply drawn as a manipulative man-eater (albeit one with a sad, clichéd past). This seemed to me like a real opportunity to develop Cormac’s character and have a complex villain (but not necessarily a murderer, which she’s not). The other problem for me was the pacing. Hart bogs this one down (ha!) with so many little subplots and oddball characters out to get this or that, it becomes tiresome.

Overall, Lake of Sorrows was good enough to make me want to read at least the third book, False Mermaid, if only because Hart does do such a good job with bringing in the history and culture of Ireland. I’m also interested to see if the issues I have with the second book (pacing, character development) are really more about the author feeling her way into a longer series. I definitely recommend it, but do read Haunted Ground first. You won’t be sorry.

Reader’s Journal: Skippy Dies

Skippy DiesWell, it looks like my entries for Reading Ireland Month will be a paltry two novels…but then again, with a book like Skippy Dies on that (very short) list, I feel less ashamed for only having two.

People, I don’t even know where to begin. In truth, I’m feeling very protective of this book and my feelings about it. I’m not sure why because when it was published in 2010, it received mostly highly favorable reviews (read Patrick Ness’s review here), and it was shortlisted for any number of literary prizes, so it’s not as though I am being called upon defend my love for a book everyone hates. The problem is, I just loved it that much, and I realize I may not even be able to explain why.

A plot summary won’t tell you much about why I loved it (and you can find summaries anywhere: in Ness’s review, or by clicking on the book image to go to Goodreads). I can tell you it’s a campus/boarding school novel (some of you love those as much as I do). I can tell you it’s funny and melancholy at the same time. I can tell you that every bit of Murray’s affection and empathy for these characters is evident on each and every page, and he has a keen ear and understanding for the language and dynamics of young people, without making them seem like caricatures or symbols of some societal problem or another. I can tell you that despite the fact that Murray uses very contemporary references to technology and pop culture, I seriously doubt they will date the book for future readers because the story at the heart of it is timeless. And I suppose one could quibble over its length (it’s about 660 pages, originally released as three volumes sold together), but something about the length immerses the reader and reminds us of how very slow time moves when we’re young, or when we are not as young but feel so very lost.

If you’ve been thinking about reading Skippy Dies, trust your instinct on this one. Just do it. I hope you love it as much as I did.

Top Ten Tuesday: Making the All-Stars Team

For today’s Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish), we’re asked to list books from the past three years that would make our list of all-time favorites. This is without a doubt one of the more difficult questions to answer, at least for me, because it means that I have to leave out other books I loved, even books I’ve been pressing into people’s hands for the last three years.

To pull this list together, I asked myself a few tough questions:

  • Did the book stay with me? Does it pop into my head, not only in reference to other books, but simply for the sheer power of some scene or description?
  • If it’s a book by a favorite author, is it one of the best representations of her/his work? Is it the one I would recommend most highly to new readers?
  • Do I want to read it multiple times?

Of course, one thing I know: if you ask me this same question six months or a year from now, some of the books on this list might change, even ones I selected from 2012 or 2013. No matter, though. Here’s what I chose for today’s list:

The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach. If you think this is a book about baseball, you are so, so wrong. Read my original review here.
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn. Yes, it’s been hyped beyond all belief, and made into a movie, and it’s currently this litmus test for every psychological thriller written by woman, but I think this book stands on its own as a fine example of a literary thriller.
Broken Harbor, Tana French. This might be one of the least popular of her novels, but I think it’s incredibly well done, specifically for painting a picture of a dire economic time in Ireland specifically, in addition to hitting on many more universal issues about what it means to grow up, have a family, and acquire all the things that mean “success,” especially while fighting the demons of the past.
Stone’s Fall, Iain Pears. This historical mystery wends backward in time to explain how shipping magnate John Stone went out of a window one night. The writing, the detail, and the trick of it all work together so well, I couldn’t put it down.
A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry. This novel follows its four main characters through an uprising called The Emergency, which took place in Mumbai, India from June 1975 through March 1977. In Mistry’s capable hands, I learned a great deal about Mumbai and the surrounding areas, but also about fine storytelling. You can read my review here.
You Are One of Them, Elliott Holt. This book surprised me. I have thought about it a lot since I first read it, and I keep telling myself I’ll return to it as soon as possible. This novel is primarily a story about friendship, but also how we use friendship to define ourselves and our place in the world. Read my review here.
The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt. Let’s see, a Western full of dark humor? With well-drawn characters and one of the best narrative voices? Hm. Yep. Makes the list. Read my mini review here.
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. This novel was so vivid for me, I visit it like a memory. I know readers were divided over it, but I clearly fall on the side of “loved every second.”
Canada, Richard Ford. A remarkable story about a completely unremarkable person–over and over again, this is the type of book that really draws me in, I suppose because it requires real mastery of narrative and character development. Read my mini review here.
A Simple Plan, Scott Smith. This is another remarkable story about an unremarkable man, who along with his brother and a friend finds a big bag full of cash in a plane that’s crashed in the woods. If you saw the movie and think that’s enough, it isn’t. Smith’s attention to detail, character development, and tight plotting make this an unbelievable page-turner and a fine piece of literature to boot.

And there you have it! So how about you: was it hard to narrow it down to ten?

Reader’s Journal: The Lola Quartet

The Lola QuartetEveryone has been talking about Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. That book got so much amazing blog coverage over the last few months, I wondered if it was really that good or if everyone was buying into the hype. (I find myself now worrying about this same thing with The Girl on the Train. Has the hive mind taken over?) not that it mattered—because of the TBR Double Dog Dare, I can only read from my stacks, and I don’t have a copy of Station Eleven. (Er, make that didn’t have a copy…I caved and bought it, but I havent’ read it!) I do, however, have a copy of Mandel’s The Lola Quartet that I bought several years ago and hadn’t read yet, so I decided to find out for myself what kind of author Mandel is.

Gavin Sasaki is a 28-year-old journalist living in New York City. He’s broken up with his girlfriend, the newspaper where he works is going digital and laying people off, the shower in his apartment has an ever-worsening leak, and he’s generally come to feel…well, to feel a sort of nothingness. He takes an assignment in Florida, not far from his hometown of Sanderson, covering exotic and dangerous animals that people have released into the wild that threaten the human population. While he’s there, he meets his sister, Eilo, for lunch. Eilo is a real-estate broker who deals in foreclosures. She shows him a picture of a ten-year-old little girl who looks just like Eilo when she was the same age. She also tells him that the girl has sinced vanished, that the lady left the house and took the girl with her and Eilo does not know where they’ve gone.

And so begins the story of The Lola Quartet, which was the name of the jazz band Gavin belonged to in high school, the band that was playing the very last time he saw his girlfriend, Anna Montgomery, on the night of graduation. After Gavin breaches the trust of his editor at the paper, he loses his job. He drifts aimlessly around New York and then finally decides to accept an offer to stay with Eilo in Florida while he gets back on his feet. In Florida, he becomes obsessed with the idea of finding out what has happened to Anna and the little girl in the photograph, so he decides to track down the other members of the Lola Quartet—one of whom is Anna’s half-sister—to understand what happened.

Although the story primarily feels like Gavin’s, it moves between past and present (1999 and 2009) and characters (the Lola Quartet members Daniel, Jack, and Sasha, and also Anna herself, who was not a member). In the present day, Daniel, the bassist, is a cop. In the past, unbeknownst to Gavin, he was a rival for Anna’s attention and affection. Jack, the pianist, is now a drug addict, the result of a nervous breakdown in college. And Sasha, once a talented drummer and swimmer, who suffers from a serious gambling problem and now works the nightshift at a diner. Gavin visits each of them in turn, and as we hear the stories we begin to piece things together along with Gavin. The missing information is filled in with Anna’s narrative, how she got from graduation night to the hiding place where she is now.

The Lola Quartet isn’t exactly a mystery, but it has a noir feel. All of the characters seem wise and weary beyond their years, which feels appropriate to the tone of the book. All of them remember that graduation night, where the Lola Quartet played its last performance. They were set up in the back of a truck, playing late into the night. All of them remember the small hours of the morning, a singer crooning “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön” (translated loosely, this means “you are beautiful to me.” You can listen to a popular version of the song by The Andrews Sisters here.) and the lyrics (“You’re really swell, I have to admit you/ Deserve expressions that really fit you/ And so I’ve racked my brain hoping to explain/ All the things that you do to me…”) fit all the longing these characters feel, sometimes for each other, sometimes for music itself, or for cards, or just for some other life. Anna, who is the only person who is not a member of the quartet, and who prefers electronic music (in particular, New Order) to anything else, seems also to be the one character who is most pragmatic, who spends the least time longing and more time doing. It’s an interesting juxtaposition that works quite well.

In some ways, this novel feels infused with music, especially in Jack’s sections, as he’s the only one of the Lola Quartet who decides to pursue music after high school. He goes to college in South Carolina and then meets his roommate, a jazz guitarist who aspires to be greater than Django Reinhardt. At the midpoint of his freshman year, an event occurs that leads him to feel that he’s lost the music, that he doesn’t have what it takes to play piano or maybe even live in the wider world, and begins his decline. The way the story moves amongst characters, from past to present—it feels like a jazz arrangement. I almost want to say, if you enjoy jazz, then the rhythm of The Lola Quartet should please you. You shouldn’t mind the lack of straightforward narrative drive, and instead you’ll enjoy the improvisations, the parts that seem to wander away but then lop full circle to make the narrative tighter than before.

Stylistically, this novel reminded me a lot of The Goldfinch, which I loved. That isn’t to say The Lola Quartet is quite as good, though, and it does have some issues. The only one that really stood out for me is that near the end, a few characters respond to a major event in a way that seems unlikely. I was happy that happened closer to the end because at that point I was ready to declare it a triumph. If I were going to give stars, those reactions would take one away. But overall, I fully enjoyed it. Mandel is a terrific writer, and now I see what all the fuss is about. Now if April 1 would just get here, so I can finally read Station Eleven!

Reader’s Journal: The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair

The Truth About the Harry Quebert AffairNothing is better than getting lost in a good book. You’re reading along, completely absorbed, as the time passes. It must be hours, you think. You must be at least halfway through! And then you start to worry about the end, because you’re having such a good time with this book. It’s clever! It’s witty! You want to know what happens, but then at the same time you don’t because then it will all be over and you’ll have to pick out a new book and hope it’s at least half as engaging as this one.

And then you glance down at the little progress bar on your e-reader and see that you are actually only 28% through the book, and you feel a slight sense of unease. You could have sworn that you were much further along, because really how can the author keep this conceit (It’s clever! But it’s still a conceit!) going? Maybe you swiped something accidentally and it knocked your progress back. So you check. And the answer is no: you really are only 28% into this book. And the remaining 72% will feel like an eternity. It will feel like one of those runs where you are doing it just to get it done. No joy. No endorphins. No personal best. Just slogging straight through to the end.

That pretty much sums up how I feel about Joel Dicker’s The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair. When I first heard about it this past summer, the plot sounded completely compelling: It’s 2008, and Marcus Goldman is a wunderkind novelist whose first book was a huge commercial success. But Marcus has a big problem: His second book is due, and he hasn’t written a word. He has writer’s block. Desperate for help, Marcus turns to his mentor, Harry Quebert, a writer whose novel, The Origins of Evil, published in 1975, has become an American classic, one of the finest love stories ever told.

Marcus goes to see Harry at his home in New Hampshire. While he’s there he makes a curious discovery about The Origins of Evil after snooping through some of Harry’s things, which is that the book is based on a love affair that Harry—in his early 30s in 1975—had with a 15-year-old girl named Nola Kellergan. Nola is somewhat famous in her own right, because in August of 1975 she disappeared under mysterious circumstances and was never found. Still unable to write, Marcus has returned, dejected, to New York when he hears the news that Harry has been arrested for Nola’s murder. Her body was found in his yard when landscapers were trying to plant some hydrangeas. The original manuscript of The Origins of Evil is also found in a leather satchel next to the body, with the inscription “Goodbye, my darling Nola” on the cover page. Marcus rushes to Harry’s side. Harry declares his innocence–at least when t comes to murder. Marcus decides that he will help Harry by discovering who actually killed Nola. And—here’s the kicker—along the way he’s persuaded by his agent, his publisher, and even Harry himself to write the story—the truth about the Harry Quebert affair.

This novel has a bit of everything most of us bookish types enjoy: it’s a book about books, about writing. It’s clever and at times laugh-out-loud funny. It has a terrific setting (I don’t know about you, but I can’t resist books set in New England). But. The dialog is wooden. The characters are cliché. The metaphors are tired. Even the references (Harry Quebert/Humbert Humbert, Nola/Lola/Lolita) are kind of, well…yawn. And it just goes on. And on. And on. It twists. It twists again. And then—wait for it—another twist. Some of these twists you see coming from a thousand miles away, while others are just barely believable.

The author, Joel Dicker, is Swiss, and the book (originally written in French) was translated into English for an American audience (after becoming a blockbuster in Europe), so about halfway through the book I started to convince myself that Dicker was actually messing with the whole idea of the American novel—that there was some sort of inside joke and I wasn’t getting it. After I finished the book, I decided to look at some reviews to see if they would tell me what I was missing. Apparently, the answer is NOTHING. From The New Yorker:

“The dialogue barely surpasses lorem ipsum in its specificity: “Do you have any change?” “No.” “Keep it, then.” “Thank you, writer.” “I’m not a writer anymore.” And life advice from an alleged literary genius takes the form of shampoo-bottle nonsense: “Rain never hurt anyone. If you’re not brave enough to run in the rain, you’ll certainly never be brave enough to write a book.” The fact that there’s a novel within a novel about the author of another novel isn’t handled with any sort of postmodern panache, and neither are the literary allusions to Roth and Mailer—a food-obsessed Jewish mother, boxing matches—which might actually just be clichéd writing. It lacks the psychological precision of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and the sentence-level skill of Donna Tartt’s novels (both of which come to mind as similarly ambitious, plot-thick works). It’s hard to tell whether the novel is as wooden in the original French, but I’m told that it is.”

Exactly. I wish I could tell you this book raises interesting questions about authenticity, debut author hype, the relationship between teacher and student, the publishing world’s willingness to sell out anyone for a buck, or the nature of “truth” in true crime investigations and narratives (think “Serial”), but I can’t. It could have raised those questions, but ultimately, it doesn’t. Too bad.

Top Ten Tuesday: Underrated Authors in Literary Fiction

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is a freebie, so I decided to go back to a topic I didn’t get to post: the top ten underrated authors or books in a genre. I’ve chosen books by ten authors of literary fiction. Some of these authors are well-known (and some aren’t but should be), but I’ve primarily chosen books I love and wish had a wider audience.

Crooked Hearts, Robert Boswell. This is the simple story of a highly dysfunctional family, beautifully told. The Warrens are a clannish bunch, unable or unwilling to change things due to the compelling bond they feel toward one another.

The Bright Forever, Lee Martin. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 (March by Geraldine Brooks took the honor), this novel is part mystery, part family drama. Told from alternating points of view, it follows the events over the course of summer in a small town when a young girl goes missing.

The Jump-Off Creek, Molly Gloss. If, like me, you were obsessed by books like the Little House series or stories of pioneers, you will enjoy this wonderful tale a of a woman who goes to live alone in the Oregon wilderness in the late 19th century.

Two Girls, Fat and Thin, Mary Gaitskill. Outside MFA circles, Gaitskill is most well-known for writing the short story “Secretary” that was the basis for the indie film of the same name starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader. This novel is about the lives of two women whose lives intersect at a point when they most need each other. Trust me, there’s nothing chick-lit about this darkly comic (and sometimes just dark) novel.

Heat, Joyce Carol Oates. It seems like most people know Oates primarily for her novels, but few people realize what a terrific short-story writer she is. I find her stories tighter than her novels, which ratchets up the psychological tension for which she’s so well known to terrific heights.

Ship Fever, Andrea Barrett. Okay, so this one won the National Book Award. The thing is—maybe because it’s a book of short stories?—people seem to have forgotten about it, and about her. Barrett’s background is mostly in science, which she marries beautifully with historical fiction to produce stories that should appeal to a wide audience. If you like historical fiction but are afraid of short stories, this book will allay all your fears.

The Dart League King, Keith Lee Morris. This book surprised me so much when I first read it—it completely knocked my socks off. Russell Harmon is a self-proclaimed dart-league king in a small town. We get his story and the story of people in his life over the course of one long evening when the league championship is at stake. It’s got mystery, suspense, and dark comedy all rolled up into a heartbreaking, entertaining narrative. (My full review.)

Preston Falls, David Gates. This novel about a man’s midlife meltdown should delight any fan of Richard Ford or Richard Russo. I’ve never understood why Gates isn’t as popular as some of his contemporaries, because he writes with such a keen eye, compassion, and humor about everyday life. this book was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award (in 1999). Seems like so many award finalists (and winners) slip through the cracks, doesn’t it?

And a couple of authors whose works overall don’t seem to get as much respect as they should:

Larry McMurtry. Lonesome Dove gets attention, but then people tend to think of it as a Western. McMurtry has a wide canon that includes more “contemporary” literary fiction (Terms of Endearment, Texasville) and Westerns, among other less easily classified novels. He’s a first-rate storyteller who deserves more attention.

Lee Smith. I think Lee Smith gets the double whammy of being labeled a regional writer (Appalachia/Southern) and a writer of “women’s fiction.” Both labels are limiting and probably keep people away from her work more than they should, but also keep her from being considered “real” literary fiction. She has a lot in common with Kent Haruf in terms of themes, if not in style and location.

What about you? What works or authors of literary fiction do you think deserve more attention?