BBAW Day 3: The Joy (and Anxiety) of Influence

Day OneIntroduce yourselfFor Day 3 of Book Blogger Appreciation Week, participants are asked to talk about what we’ve read and loved because of book bloggers. Without bloggers I probably would have stayed stuck in my little literary fiction corner, never realizing that labels are more about marketing than anything. Since I started blogging, I’ve read so many terrific mysteries, thrillers, and YA novels that I never would have picked up otherwise. Here are only a few of the bloggers who have directed me to some of the best books I’ve ever read (and might never have read without their recommendations).

I can always trust Teresa (at Shelf Love) and Jenny (at Reading the End), who have influenced my reading greatly and in the last few years convinced me to read both Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees (Teresa, Jenny) and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Jenny), for which I will be forever grateful. I think I could have convinced myself to skip both of those books for something easier on the heart and the head, but they were just too convincing.  Whenever one of them raves about a book, it goes on the wishlist, no questions asked, even if I don’t read it right away.

Another book blogger I always trust (and who is one of the kindest people I have met online) is Ana (Nymeth) at Things Mean a Lot. If it weren’t for her wonderful reviews and sincere enthusiasm when she loves a book, I would never have read such terrific books as (links to her original reviews) The Knife of Never Letting Go or The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks (because they were YA, one of those genres I didn’t “do” before bloggers like Ana convinced me that good writing is good writing, marketing and pigeonholing be damned). I’m also sure she’s responsible for getting me to read Sarah Waters and A.S. Byatt, who became fast favorites.

And although she’s not participating in BBAW and blogs less frequently than in years past, another book blogger who influenced my reading greatly is Jackie at Farm Lane Books Blog. Because of her reviews, I’ve read so many amazing books (all links go to her original reviews): Skippy Dies, A Fine Balance, The Devotion of Suspect X, The People Who Eat Darkness, Stone’s Fall, and Lamb—among many others.

Of course, the difficult part is when bloggers you trust disagree. While Teresa and Jenny both hated A Little Life, Jackie rated it her favorite book of 2015. I have it on hold at the library. Things could go either way!

The other difficult thing about blogging is recommending books to people who have done such a wonderful job at recommending them to us. As book bloggers, we want to give back as good as we get, to share everything that excites us about reading. It can be difficult to have reviews fall on deaf ears, or to realize that others might even think we’re nuts for loving a specific book. I guess it’s all part and parcel though, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

BBAW Day 1: Introducing Myself

Day OneIntroduce yourself

I decided to join Book Blogger Appreciation Week because I felt like over the past several years I’ve not done a great job at connecting with my fellow book bloggers. When I saw the topic for Day 1—discuss five books that define you—I thought at first I would have no problem, but then I spent the weekend thinking about it and realized what a very difficult topic that is. Naming five favorite books is an easy thing to do, but naming five books that basically tell the world who you are? Whole different story. After careful consideration, here are my selections:

The Secret History, Donna Tartt. I was only 23 the first time I read The Secret History. It had just been published, I and I was in my first semester of graduate school. I grew up in Texas, but I have always had a fascination with New England, with the idea of going “back East” to school, with academic life…I could go on, but let’s just say I identified with Richard Papen in so many ways, an outsider always unsure, a natural dreamer, a drifter looking for a place to belong.

M Train, Patti Smith. I read this whole book on a long flight from Amsterdam to Atlanta. When I finished it I felt like I’d just finished a book-length letter written exclusively to me by my best friend. Smith loves books, gets so involved in her favorite television show she worries over the characters almost as though they’re real people, watches Law and Order marathons, and is possessive of her favorite seat in her favorite coffee shop. If people know us by our friends, I certainly wish I could count her as one of mine.

Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood. “Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized.” Back in the 1990s, way before Mean Girls, this was the book that put a narrative to my own experience growing up as a female. I was always more comfortable in one-to-one friendships, wary of groups, and even today I’m sometimes stunned by the dynamics of women in groups. I’m definitely a feminist, but I also don’t kid myself that as a sex we are always all for each other.

The Best American Short Stories Series. For most of my early reading life, I read novels and biographies exclusively. Short stories were things I read in my English classes only, and like a lot of people I thought we read them because they were easier to discuss and be tested on. It was only after my best friend suggested that I try to write a story that I realized I really had no idea what that meant. How was a story different than a novel? This series supplied my answer, and introduced me to authors like Lorrie Moore, Charles Baxter, Richard Bausch, and Alice Munro, and made me dare to try to write something of my own. (Still trying, by the way.)

What the Dead Know, Laura Lippman/In the Woods, Tana French. I’m kind of cheating here and counting these two books as one, because they changed my reading life. Before I read these novels, I ONLY read literary fiction or classics, and I definitely looked down my nose at people who liked to read mysteries and series. In all honestly, I don’t know where I got the idea that it was all pulp fiction, and I’ve certainly learned my lesson. Reading mysteries has deepened my reading of other types of literature as well. Really, everything is a mystery of one kind or another.

So that’s enough about me. I look forward to reading everyone else’s picks!

Reader’s Journal: Girl Waits With Gun

Girl Waits with Gun (Kopp Sisters, #1)Charming is a word I would like to see restored. These days when people say “charming” they often mean quaint, or old, or precious. For me, the word evokes the idea of having grace and spunk in equal measure, and knowing when it’s appropriate to use more of one and less of the other, or—to use a gun metaphor—when to fire from both barrels.

Amy Stewart’s debut novel Girl Waits With Gun is a charming book based on a true story that Stewart uncovered when doing research for her non-fiction book, The Drunken Botanist. The Kopp sisters—Constance, Norma, and Fleurette—live alone on a farm outside Paterson, New Jersey. The story begins in July 1914, when their horse and buggy are struck by a motor car driven by one Henry Kaufman, a wealthy hooligan who owns one of the silk factories in town. In the street, Constance asks nicely for—and then demands—compensation for the accident. Kaufman and his thug friends scoff at her and then threaten her. All of this sets off a chain of events that upset the quiet lives of the Kopp sisters, but Constance in particular refuses to back down and fights for justice for herself and her sisters. Her case falls on deaf ears at the local prosecutor’s office, but the sheriff of a nearby town becomes her ally, offering the Kopp sisters protection and even teaching them to shoot revolvers.

A less skilled author could have made caricatures of the Kopp sisters, but Stewart does a terrific job of making them each interesting and distinct. At one point, Constance, who narrates the story, describes them as three women with nothing in common and little to say to each other. That they love each other and are fiercely loyal to one another is without question, but Stewart cleverly uses their singular responses to events and their interactions with one another to show how times are changing (but also lagging)—especially for women. Their late mother, an Austrian who never cared for America or bothered to pursue citizenship, had a habit of sharing news headlines about women who were disgraced, injured, or killed in some way, all to convince her daughters that the world was a terrifying place and they were better off at home:

I can’t look at our childhood samplers without remembering the disgraceful fate of Laura Smith, age seventeen, who was lured away from her home by the grocer and ruined by him, or that of thirteen-year-old Lena Luefschuetz, found dead for reasons having to do with her “undesirable companions.”

This upbringing affected the sisters in vastly different ways. Norma, 31, dislikes any and all intrusions from the outside world, preferring to spend time with the homing pigeons she raises on the farm (she trains the pigeons by fastening news headlines—for example, ”Girl Scalded in Kitchen,” on a day when Fleurette is cooking—to their legs). Fleurette, 16, is such an ingenue that it almost seems she believes the stories she reads in the paper are actually fictions just awaiting her embellishment. And Constance, the oldest at 35, is at once restless and pragmatic. With secrets of her own, she is aware of both the lack of opportunities for and the very real threats to women that the world holds. However, she longs for something more than what she has, even daring to picture a life for her independent self apart from her sisters.

Aside from the threat presented by Henry Kaufman and company, a bit of a mystery occurs that draws Constance further into danger and helps develop her relationship to Sheriff Heath in an interesting way. The mystery also brings Constance’s past into play, which helps to explain why she reacts the way she does at the accident scene in the beginning of the story.

Somehow this novel manages to be both lighthearted and serious at the same time. Stewart manages to create comic situations about women in very real peril–and not as a result of Henry Kaufman so much as from being a woman in a society still clinging to Victorian ideas. The sisters’ quirks offer some comic relief. Fleurette is forever twirling and selecting special outfits to suit the occasion, even when that occasion is being the well-dressed target of a kidnapper, and Norma is fully devoted to her pigeons. Constance even has the occasion to manhandle Henry Kaufman to comic effect. However, even in moments of humor, we’re always reminded that the sisters face serious trouble. They are running out of money and have no foreseeable means of making income, which means that they may lose their farm–and if they lose their farm, what will happen to them? Fleurette is young enough still to find a husband, but she knows very little of the world as she was schooled at home and has been kept away even from people her own age. Norma and Constance are both essentially spinsters who are not trained in any skill, and Norma especially would rather not spend time with other people if she can avoid it. As the oldest, Constance feels the most responsible, but Stewart makes it quite clear that the options for her are limited on almost every front except the most unexpected.

This book was absolutely so delightful I did not want it to end. Halfway through the novel I was already sorry about saying goodbye to Constance, Norma, and Fleurette, so I was very happy to learn that Stewart is writing a sequel to Girl Waits With Gun called Lady Cop Makes Trouble, to be released in September 2016. Keeping my fingers crossed for a series!

Top Ten Tuesday: With Love, From Me to You

For today’s Top Ten, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, we’re asked to list our favorite top ten romances (or top ten literary crushes, or something similarly Valentine’s Day themed). I don’t read romance or chick lit, and I don’t get crushes on characters in books (although I do get crushes on books themselves, for whatever that’s worth). I also realize that for many people Valentine’s Day is just another commercial joke, and for other people it’s just another reason to feel shut out of a culture that’s obsessed with couples. Instead of worrying about all that, I offer you ten books I love that are about love of all kinds.

Our Souls at NightOur Souls at Night, Kent Haruf. Addie Moore and Louis Waters are neighbors. They are also both widowed, with grown children who live elsewhere. They live in a small town in Colorado with people who are prone to judge and talk, but despite that they form a touching relationship. Heartfelt and heartbreaking, like all of Haruf’s work.

Just KidsJust Kids, Patti Smith. This book isn’t just about Smith’s relationship with her love and best friend Robert Mapplethorpe—it’s a love letter to a culturally revolutionary place and time, and to self discovery.

The Art of FieldingThe Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach. Several years ago, I had this to say about The Art of Fielding: “It tells a timeless story of love, the ways we’re interconnected, whether through love or friendship or what we sometimes even think of as destiny.” This is most definitely a book about how love—not just romantic love, but that too, shapes our lives. One of my favorite books ever.

You Are One of ThemYou Are One of Them, Elliott Holt. Sometimes we hang on to romantic ideas, because they infuse everyone and everything with interest, including ourselves. Sarah Zuckerman believes her fascinating childhood best friend Jenny is dead, but a mysterious letter makes her think otherwise. As I said in my short review in 2013, “it also considers the mysteries of friendship, why we are drawn to certain people, why we often rely so much on others to define who we are.”

The Secret HistoryThe Secret History, Donna Tartt. Narrator Richard Papen looks back to tell a tale of murder, and of the people and place he loved that changed him irrevocably. This is one of my favorite books of all time. I never reviewed it here, but I did create a soundtrack that speaks to all that love and loss.

We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler. Rosemary Cooke is heartbroken. Her beloved sister Fern is missing. Her beloved brother Kevin is wanted by the FBI. To mend her heart she must confront an awful truth. This book is one of a kind.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest TrailWild, Cheryl Strayed. To recover from her mother’s death (and all her own subsequent personal little deaths of the heart), Cheryl Strayed hiked most of the Pacific Coast Trail. Some people called this book (and Strayed) self-indulgent, but I thought it was a beautiful account of love and grief and imperfection all together.

My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels, #1)My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante. Friendships, especially those from childhood, are probably some of the most intense relationships we have, because we are in the process of discovering who we are and who we are not. Elena and Lila are sometimes friends, sometimes almost enemies, but no doubt their lives are entwined and their feelings for each other are strong.

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, Lorrie Moore. In this wistful and slim novella, Berie recalls her best teenage friend Sils and the summer they were both fifteen.

Reader’s Journal: The Pursuit of Cool

The Pursuit of CoolI don’t know how I came across Robb Skidmore’s self-published novel The Pursuit of Cool, but all I had to do was read the description and I knew I had to read it:

A novel that uniquely captures the 1980s, The Pursuit of Cool tells the story of Lance Rally and his turbulent college years. He faces pressure to live up to his super-achieving family and is fueled by grandiose ambition. He wants to become a success but is easily distracted and obsessed with pop culture. He also has a deeply romantic nature and though inept he is sincere and falls in love quickly…This coming-of-age journey is a funny and emotional ride through album covers, dance techniques, all-nighter revelations, and corporate internships gone bad. The story comes alive with music and movies which give Lance solace as he questions his beliefs and his heart gets crushed. He tries to capture that illusive quality, that magic of youth, the essence that is ‘cool.’

In 1986, Lance Rally leaves his Washington, D.C. area home, bound for the fictional Langford College on the outskirts of Atlanta. His grandfather, father, and older brother all attended Harvard, but Lance’s grades weren’t quite up to Ivy League standards, so he’s headed to a second-tier school to study economics in the hopes of getting into a really good business school after college. But here’s the thing: Lance doesn’t really understand economics, and the famous professor who runs the department (and whom everyone suggests Lance pursue as a mentor) is a crank whose opaque lectures Lance struggles to understand. So Lance begins to float…He befriends a punk rocker from California named Ian LaCoss, who’s majoring and drama and introduces him to, well, punk rock, and a squirrely genius named Charles Boyd. He eventually begins to date a popular dancer who is majoring in psychology, and he struggles (and often fails) to comprehend her subtle hints and moods. He gets a summer internship with a high-powered consulting firm. A few other things happen, but because he’s more of a dreamer than anything, Lance drifts through the rest of his time, and the reader drifts with him.

If that sounds dull, it isn’t. In fact, it’s charming. Skidmore is confident storyteller who clearly cares about Lance, who is compelling and endearing in his confusion. Lance is an all around genuinely nice guy, a good kid. He’s a dreamer. He loves to read. He loves movies. He can spend hours and hours listening to music. He’s observant and slightly obsessive when it comes to going over situations (usually involving his girlfriend Lynn) in his head. He’s constantly trying to figure out how to be. He’s picked the wrong major, but he can’t bring himself to change it for fear of disappointing his father. And besides, he has no idea what he wants to do until the very last page of the book (the very last day of college, incidentally), when everything becomes abundantly clear to him.

It’s highly possible I enjoyed this book because I identified with Lance in many ways. Although I didn’t have any family legacy to live up to, I had talked a big game all through senior year of high school about how I was going to New York to become a playwright. When I wasn’t accepted by the two schools in New York where I actually managed to complete applications for by the deadline, I decided to start college closer to home and transfer after my first year. Five years and five majors later (drama, communications, back to drama, fashion merchandising, and finally English literature) I graduated from that same university. Like Lance, I was a distracted romantic who wasn’t sure where I fit in, who was likely to spend way more time reading novels, listening to music (or going to see bands, my favorite college pastime), or obsessing over friendships and guys than I ever spent studying. It took me two-and-a-half years to settle into a major and apply myself, and another four years until one of my best friends really helped me clue into the same realization Lance has at the end of The Pursuit of Cool.

Another reason I probably identified with this book so much was the time: Lance goes to college in 1986, and I went to college in 1987. My guess is that Robb Skidmore went to college around this same time, because he gets so many things about the time spot-on, especially the music, while managing to avoid so many Eighties cliches. If you like campus novels, if you’re interested in the 1980s, or if you just like a well-told coming-of-age story, I recommend The Pursuit of Cool.

And because music plays such an important part in The Pursuit of Cool, I decided to make a playlist. Instead of adding songs from the book (the playlist would be at least three hours long and range from Led Zeppelin to The Clash to The Pixies), I decided to put together my own “greatest hits” that I loved in college. It’s hardly comprehensive, and to stop myself from going on and on, I picked twenty songs (listen on Spotify or YouTube).

What were your favorite songs from college and/or the 80s? Better to share music than tragic fashion! Happy reading!

Reader’s Journal: Our Endless Numbered Days

Our Endless Numbered DaysWhat am I going to tell you about Claire Fuller’s beautiful, heartbreaking debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days, which won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize for most prestigious first-time novelists? My first five-star read of 2015, it feels like one of those books that defies reviewing. It’s deep. It’s haunting. It’s pretty. It’s enraging. All these things.

In 1976, when she is eight years old, Peggy Hamilton is taken from her London home by her father, James. Up until that time she has lived a relatively normal life as the only child of two somewhat eccentric parents, her aforementioned father James, who does not work but instead obsesses about the end of the world, and her mother, Ute Bischoff, a famous German concert pianist. Peggy goes to school. She has a best friend named Becky. She is attached to her BBC recording of Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children, and even at the age of eight still sometimes relies on her doll Phyllis for company. She loves Ute, but her mother is also larger than life, and is not willing to share that most vital part of her–the piano–with Peggy. Her father belongs to the North London Retreaters, a group of men who gather to drink (heavily) and discuss the best ways to survive the end of days, whether from nuclear apocalypse or some natural disaster. James seems to take things seriously, going so far as to build a shelter underneath their house and outfit it with food and supplies, putting Peggy through regular drills (of which Ute wants no part) where she has only minutes to pack her rucksack and report to the shelter, where at the end of the drill her father inspects the items she has chosen to bring along.

Things seem normal enough. Like any eight-year-old child, Peggy is both fascinated and confused by her parents and their friends. She stays up late to spy on their parties, to listen to the long arguments the men maintain over the best survivalist techniques. She senses a strain between her father and Ute, but through everything she maintains her version of normal, until Ute leaves to go on a two-week concert tour. During those weeks Peggy begins to spend more time outside her normal routine and camping out with her father in the garden. She tells the school her mother has died. More time passes and still Ute does not return. And then Peggy awakens one morning to her father’s sharp whistle. He tells her to pack her things. It’s time to go. He’s promised her a holiday.

He takes her across the Channel and deep into the continent. They are going to a place called “die Hütte,” a place Peggy heard her father and his friends (especially one in particular, named Oliver Hannington) discussing during their late nights. She imagines the place to be something from a fairytale. She is wrong, but not long after they arrive there, her father tells her the world has ended, and that they are the only people left in the world, and nothing exists beyond what he calls the “Great Divide,” referring to the world on the other side of the mountains that surround their valley.

We hear the story directly from seventeen-year-old Peggy, who alternates between her time in die Hütte with her father and present day London where she is back in Ute’s house. In their exile, Peggy and her father struggle to survive. In the woods, they become not Peggy and James, but Papa and Punzel. They have not brought enough food; they have not brought the right supplies; and die Hutte is not equipped as promised. The threat of freezing or starving to death is always an issue. Yet Peggy offers her audience many, many moments of great beauty and grace, such as when Papa teaches her to play the piano with the one book of sheet music he has taken from home, Franz Liszt’s “La Campanella.” He builds her a wooden piano and she learns to sing the notes. She makes up a narrative to guide her through the music:

When I played, my father would sometimes sing the bass line while I was the bell, or the bird; one of us sang the treble clef with the other joining in on the high notes to create the chords. By page six, the bird was joined by a cat, and the fluttering became more desperate. The bird circled higher and higher, trying to escape the open maw that followed its flurries at the window. When the bird tired and swooped too low, the cat jumped, feathers were lost, and I despaired for the creature. In the final refrain, as if sounding an alarm call, the bird began to fight back. The animal I had taken for a sparrow or wren became a fiercer creature, showing its talons and curved beak so that fur flew as well as the feathers.

While Peggy/Punzel loves her father, and while she comes to love things about the woods and she begins to forget her old life, she always has a real sense of danger. And while much of the danger is very real–she is afraid of water, for example, and cannot swim–she knows something else is off kilter. But she has only her Papa to rely upon, and so she makes what life she can.

It wasn’t until well after I had finished Our Endless Numbered Days that I began to associate it with another beautiful, yet also tragic and disturbing book, Bonnie Nadzam’s Lamb. In both books, a man abducts a girl (because yes, even though James is Peggy’s father, what he does is abduction, stealing her away from her life and other family) for incredibly complex reasons of his own and takes her away to a solitary place, where he feels in control, not just of the girl but of something bigger: life, maybe. And like David Lamb, Peggy is an unreliable narrator, not just because she is a child, but because she is in a sense broken forever by being taken away. No doubt about it, what happens to Peggy is clear-cut child abuse. For me, this was the most difficult thing about the book. I had very little empathy for James (although I did have a strange empathy for David Lamb, but I wonder if I would have had the story been told from the girl’s point of view). Aside from the abduction, even in real life, I have no patience for survivalist types. While so many readers (and movie fans) found Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild tragic and romantic—promising young man yearns for more authentic way of life, so gives up all worldly possessions and hits the open road—I saw someone who was quite possibly mentally ill and breaking down. That’s also what the reader sees in James/Papa, no matter how Peggy presents him. And while he cares for as best he can, he is also prone to mood swings, and we know always what he has done to her—and to Ute.

Yet this is still Peggy’s story, and she must be allowed to tell it in her own way. We will never really know what she endured in the woods. It’s the beauty of Fuller’s writing that makes this book so difficult to put down. This novel is so remarkable for a debut, and the author was 47 when it was published, which just goes to show that not every talented, promising writer is under 25 (or 30). And on that note, let’s have some music.

Reader’s Journal: Brilliance

Brilliance (Brilliance Saga, #1)I’m not going to lie to you. I bought Marcus Sakey’s Brilliance because I heard that Gillian Flynn liked it a couple of years ago. And even after hearing that Gillian Flynn recommended it, I didn’t buy it right away. I waited until it was $1.99 on Kindle and thought, “Might as well.” It took me more than two years to get around to reading it, even with people heaping praise on it left and right. And now here I am, ready to heap praise.

Nick Cooper is an agent in the Equitable Services division of the Department of Analysis and Response. Beginning in 1980, large groups of children with abnormally high intelligence were born, a trend that continued to increase over the following decades. At first thought to be a benefit, these brilliants begin to manipulate systems created by normal people, who start to see them as threat. After a brilliant takes over the stock market and causes global financial systems to collapse, the divide between normal people and abnorms, as the brilliants become known, begins to grow.

Defending national security, Cooper hunts abnorms for Equitable Services. The thing is, Cooper himself an abnorm. A series of deadly events cause him to go underground to hunt the abnorm terrorist the agency believes is behind a series of escalating attacks, but in the process, Cooper learns some difficult truths about the abnorm movement that make him call into question just who the good guys are and where his loyalties really lay.

I don’t know what it was about this book, but I could not put it down. At first, it bothered me because while Sakey is a solid writer, he also uses some tired techniques and tropes that typically irritate me enough to put a book down. For example, why do so many thriller writers use characters’ full names, even after they’ve been introduced multiple times, or even been referred to by a single name in a preceding sentence or paragraph? Example:

He went looking for Valerie West—there’d been no need to snap at her that way, especially when it sounded like she had something—and found the whole team together and frenetic…Luisa Abrahams leaned over her shoulder, talking fast into the phone. Bobby Quinn, bulky with a vest, was checking the load on his weapon.

This is on page 106, people. The reader has already been introduced to these characters a dozen times. Just a couple of pages before, they were simply “Valerie” and “Luisa.”

And then there are the sections in italics, to show that Nick Cooper (see what I did there?) is talking to himself. This isn’t terrible, but Sakey often starts these sections mid-sentence, like so:

About six foot, long hair, and a black t-shirt, a shotgun in his hand, the barrel swinging and—

Shotguns are bad news; the wide spread of buckshot cuts down your edge.

But the holes in the door were small, fist-size.

He’s firing double- or even triple-ought shells. Call it six nine-millimeter pellets in each. Incredibly lethal, but intended for tactical operations, which means a full choke in the barrel for precision. The lead will only spread about eighteen inches over fifty yards.

And he’s not even ten feet away.

—his finger tightening on the trigger, and Cooper stepped sideways ten inches as a blast of fire bloomed from the barrel  of the shotgun and the metal shards hurtled through the space he had been standing in.

A little annoying, but as the pages fly by (and they do fly, for the pacing is absolutely spot-on) you get used to it. The only other thing was that when it comes to sex, it’s like Sakey turns into a sixteen-year-old boy writing a letter to Penthouse. For example, he actually uses the phrase “he rode her.” No joke. So just…yeah.

But purple prose and annoying tics aside, Brilliance really is a hell of a story. I should mention that Sakey doesn’t make Cooper go through all this alone—he gives him an abnorm counterpoint, a woman named Shannon, and Sakey creates just the right chemistry between these two characters: they compete, they bicker, they joke, and while they don’t completely trust each other, they need each other. And so even though he can seem silly and sexist, I give Sakey credit for creating Shannon, because she’s likable and strong in her own right, and Cooper really does admire her.

So I’m a little all over the place and not heaping quite as much praise as I thought, but really, trust me: If you’re looking for a page-turner (and a trilogy, because this is book one) and you like thrillers and/or dystopian fiction, you cannot go wrong with Brilliance. I give it four solid stars.