The Quick by Lauren Owen

At the very beginning of Lauren Owen’s debut novel, The Quick, the reader is introduced to a very secretive and mysterious men’s club called the Aegolius. The number of initiates is kept to a minimum and a story is told than even when the Prince of Wales requested membership, he was turned away because the number had already been reached.

It’s the latter part of the nineteenth century and James, a young man right out of university, goes to London to try his hand at writing a play. He becomes roommates and later intimates with another previous acquaintance from Oxford. When the two men go out for a walk one night, dastardly misfortunes befall them and when James goes missing, his sister, Charlotte, arrives from Yorkshire to find her brother, which leads her to the doors of the enigmatic Aegolius club.

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What initially drew me to The Quick was promise of a Gothic inspired novel set in the seedy corners of Victorian London. The book does begin this way and even has elements of such novels as it includes diary entries and other similar epistles.

However, about halfway through, something inexplicable happens–the novel becomes dreadfully dull and doesn’t pick up at all. Once James disappears, a never-ending slew of new characters are introduced. At first, I tried to keep them straight and then realized that none of them was particularly important. The narrative is thick and slow; every movement of every character is detailed for pages. If I never read about a character sitting down and sipping tea again, that day would be too soon.

I fear that Owen’s editors let her down immensely. The only conciliation is that her publisher masterfully worked up a publicity frenzy by not revealing a key plot point and adding a sense of “plot twist” around it. They also mustered up some top notch writers to blurb it. Sadly, about half of readers have ingested the proverbial Kool-Aid and rave about it on Goodreads, while the other half have the good sense to agree with me.

The writing is solid and decent. Yet, the author builds no discernible mood or landscape. This has been a huge reading letdown, which has added to my sparse posts here as this book was long and took up far too much of my time. Normally, I would’ve put the book down, but I was certain something would be a saving grace. Sadly, this was just a complete bomb.

Exceptional First Sentences: The Thirty-Nine Steps

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“I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had been three months in the Old Country, and was fed up with it. If anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that I should have laughed at him; but there was the fact. The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick. I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing in the sun. ‘Richard Hannay,’ I kept telling myself, ‘you have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.’”

***

I know I’ve noted before that things have been a wee bit quiet around here as of late–this is due to busy, busy, busy. I’ve been running around here, there, and everywhere and it seems as if this will continue for the next several months over the spread of many countries. I’m dead-tired today and can’t help but think of John Buchan’s man on the run, Richard Hannay.

I love The Thirty-Nine Steps and have seen many adaptations (my favorite has to be the stage play which I’ve seen twice). I have so many books lined up for this summer, but I can’t help but imagine running through Scotland on an adventure (minus murder, spies, and anarchist plots).

***

This book is available for free in the public domain.

The Poisoning Angel by Jean Teulé

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During the first half of the nineteenth century in Brittany, a household cook went on a decades’ long killing spree. She poisoned men, women, and children, opting to lace cakes and soup with arsenic. Her victims would swell and be in immense discomfort before they finally expired. The cook killed dozens of people.

It all sounds quite gruesome (and it is, of course), but with time dividing us and a closer examination of Hélène Jégado’s spree, one can’t help but think how preposterous it all is. She had no clear reasoning for it. Hélène was not explicitly after money or other possessions, she just liked offing people. If she was accused of a petty crime like stealing a sheet or book, the accuser was done for. She left so many bodies piling behind her that the villagers outwardly yelled obscenities at her in the streets.

In The Poisoning Angel, Hélène Jégado’s life and crimes have been fictionalized by author Jean Teulé as he portrays the dastardly affairs in a dark comedy vein. As a child, Hélène is taught different folklore including one about the Ankou, the Breton myth of death. She takes on this personification and makes it her life’s work, so to speak, to dispatch everyone in her wake.

The majority of the novel is concerned with the various households Hélène Jégado joins throughout the years. With every new master of the house or suspicious domestic servant, the reader looks through one open eye as her fatal soups and cakes are served one after another. Afterward, this did become a bit repetitive; there wasn’t much variety in each new household. Moments that did stick out were when Hélène’s new position was in a venue different from the others. It was particularly engaging when she takes up as the cook of a brothel, both cooking her fare and providing comfort to the gaggle of soldiers that find their way there. The rapidity of their dispatches is downright farcical.

Beginning each chapter is a simple map of Brittany with points notating Hélène’s movements as she absconds from each residence. At some point, the path criss-crosses adding to that aforementioned preposterous feeling and the addition of a couple of groupie wigmakers, who clip the recently deceased’s hair for their own uses, make me wonder if this story wouldn’t be better suited for a stage play.

The Poisoning Angel is translated from its original French by Melanie Florence. She took a particularly interesting approach as she included some of the Breton language that was surely in the original novel. Hélène comes from Brittany, an area of France that is continually designated as other. This further outcasts her throughout the book.

For further reading, I suggest Contemporary Perspectives on Serial Murder, where I read an excerpt about the real Hélène Jégado, which is available for free here.

The Poisoning Angel will be published on July 14th by Gallic Books.

Added to The International Reading List

Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn

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What better way to celebrate Kafka’s birthday than with a book that delightfully skewers the absurdity of literary prizes? Edward St. Aubyn’s newest, Lost for Words, is a clear satire of the brouhaha surrounding the 2011 Man Booker Prize. Even for those unaware of the uproar surrounding that year’s award, one can still find wicked pleasure in the work St. Aubyn has written. After my last reading dud, I was ecstatic and addicted to Lost for Words.

The fictitious Elysian Prize for Literature is at the center of the novel with a dozen or so characters, all keenly portrayed with whip smart precision resulting in hilarity. There are obvious lines drawn between the real Man Booker Prize and literature in general. The awards committee is made up of a handful of judges, their literary credentials range from professor to a former civil servant who writes mediocre espionage thrillers with the help of writing software named Ghost Writer designed to slip in tired similes and cringeworthy metaphors to spruce up the action. There are a gaggle of writers who are in someway connected through professional threads or tangled personal relationships (which is ever so true about any writing community).

A really marvelous aspect of the novel is when St. Aubyn serves up some of the titles of the books in consideration and their subsequent passages. I found myself relishing in them the same way I’ve always loved the fictional films in Seinfeld (ahem: Rochelle, Rochelle, Sack Lunch, Prognosis Negative). One of the books “excerpted” by St. Aubyn is wot u starin at, a clear takeoff on the novels by Irvine Welsh written in a particular vernacular. Other books bear the titles, The Mulberry ElephantThe Frozen Torrent, The Enigma Conundrum, The Greasy Pole and All the World’s a Stage, the latter being a historical novel set during the time of Shakespeare,

“Why, ’tis in my codpiece,” said William, “for a man is a fool who keeps not a poem in his codpiece, and a codpiece that hath no poem in it is indeed a foolish codpiece.”

Everything becomes even more harebrained when a wrong book is submitted for nomination consideration. In the place of an actual work of literature, the publisher sends along a cookbook, which makes it all the way to the short list. Only one judge can see that this is clearly not literature, but the remaining cabal describes it as some kind of post-modern meta examination of culture through the structure of the easy navigable cookbook recipe or some such hogwash (this plot point is also reminiscent of the madness of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, when many believed the committee had the wrong book, choosing to consider a Russian spy thriller by AD Miller instead of a heavily lauded and awarded novel by Andrew Miller; the committee denied any mistake).

There was never a dull moment and St. Aubyn’s writing was spot on. It was one of those novels where I wondered, Why can’t I write such a book?! I have never read a previous novel by the author, but his series of Patrick Melrose books are quite popular. I know the subject matter and general air are much different from his newest, but I’m curious if anyone has read his previous works.

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

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Stephen King’s newest novel departs from his expected universe of supernatural Maine and plops the reader down into the depressed Midwest as unemployed people seeking a reprieve from their current situations line up during the early hours in hopes of finding something better at a huge job fair. As the queue grows with more and more people, the sad calm is broken by a madman — complete in clown mask reminiscent of the evil Pennywise from It – running them down with a stolen Mercedes.

The crime goes unsolved and it appears as if the perpetrator is entirely out of reach. That is, of course, until a recently retired police detective, who spends his days holding a handgun and considering whether he would look better without his cranium intact, receives a long and boisterous letter purporting to be from the insane driver. The novel continues with back and forth sections between the detective and the unhinged killer, who takes a playing card from the Norman Bates deck and then goes way beyond.

Mr. Mercedes is advertised as a game of cat and mouse rolling forward just as fast as that Mercedes at the commencement of the novel. Yet, if I hadn’t been determined to find out the ending and write about the novel as part of my more highly anticipated summer reads, I would have put it down and moved on. The novel felt sloppy and awkward. None of the characters were particularly appealing and the dialogue between them felt so completely forced, it was cringe worthy. There were parts that I liked: the beginning was indeed intriguing as the initial crime is laid out along with the potential for a new maniacal villain and the final chapters sped up as both sides were attempting to get what they wanted, but there was a huge chunk of the middle (and this being a Stephen King novel, a chunk is hundreds of pages) that floundered. I couldn’t help but think that this book would have been much better if an editor went in a cut out about half of it.

I rarely make such bold recommendations as this, but skip it. Skip it if you’re a fan of Stephen King; skip it if you’re just looking for an entertaining summer read. I’m glad I didn’t take it along with me as I travel this summer, because it would have immediately been chucked and a new full price book would’ve been purchased at an airport gift shop.

I don’t often read reviews of books before I read them, so when I went in search of what the critics had to say, I was baffled by the overwhelmingly positive reviews. I couldn’t help but wonder if we’re reading the same novel. Now that I have finished this 400+ page dud, I can move onto the growing pile of TBR books that I’ve had my eye on for the past weeks.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Extra, Extra

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The long, hot days of summer are coming and the harshness of winter will soon be nothing more than a forgotten memory. There will certainly be sweaty days when idealized memories of snow lovingly pop into my mind. This chilly photo is my example for this week’s challenge, “Extra, Extra” (share a photo that has a little something extra). For the keen eye, there are two unexpected dogs in this shot–click to enlarge.

This photo was taken in the Hudson Valley. I think New York state is a beautiful part of the country and I’ve been known to take quite a few long walks in the forest. Occasionally, this location has informed my own writing. I once wrote a short story taking place in the same biting locale and I am currently working on a longer text taking place in a fictional version of this same village (albeit, in the summer).

And, of course, here is a bit of poetry:

The days are short,
     The sun a spark
Hung thin between
     The dark and dark.
–John Updike

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia

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In 1982, a grim incident occurs at the Bellweather Hotel in upstate New York: a young bride murders her husband and then goes on to hang herself in her hotel room on their wedding day. The violence leaves witnesses and a heavy scar on the once grand hotel. It’s fifteen years later and high school musicians are descending upon it for the annual Statewide festival…oh, and there is dreadful blizzard looming off-stage ready to snow in all of the pubescent musicians and their chaperons.

The above synopsis may appear heavy and brooding (à la The Shining), which it is, but Kate Racculia also completely turns the premise upside down, running many moments of humor and suspense into each other. Most of the chapters focus on a particular character at a time–delving into their backgrounds and anxieties of hidden secrets and the festival itself.

Jumping fifteen years ahead to the same day in 1997, Alice and Rabbit Hatmaker–a pair of twins–are both invited to the festival for their talents in voice and bassoon, respectively. Alice is assigned to share a hotel room–the hotel room–with fellow participant and daughter of the Statewide’s interim director (herself a wickedly crafted character). When Alice momentarily leaves the room only to return to the other girl hanging from the same type of cord in the same exact room, everything starts to unravel. Alice leaves to retrieve help, only to return to a room where there is no body. No sign of a body. Nada. Was there a murder? A suicide? A cruel joke? Or something else?

This is an ensemble cast and I can’t help but have favorites (I assume this is a similar feeling that regular soap opera viewers have to their choice characters). For me, Rabbit Hatmaker, the seventeen year old twin brother of Alice who is struggling with personal identity and his upcoming future post-high school life, was who I clung to from the beginning. The rest of the cast, however, was robust and filled with difficult personalities that transcend the stereotypes we can think of for participants of a “band camp.” Their chaperon, who at first appears to be a meek shadow of woman, is brimming with secret history; the arrogant Scottish conductor is a former piano virtuoso, but is now sporting a hand with fewer than five fingers; that wicked interim festival director is way more wicked than we’re initially led to believe. The cast goes on, but why ruin it.

This novel is more about the characters. It’s a slight of hand that the author produces. Yes, the hotel’s background and the possible 1997 suicide/murder of Alice’s roommate are indeed intriguing, but the strength of Bellweather Rhapsody lies with Racculia’s approach to the characters. The narrative voice is close to each of them and even during this trying weekend, the voice never falters when producing quick-witted and droll chapters.  I hate to compare the novel to other works, but I couldn’t help but feel delight as the book played with the idea of a snow stranded house with a deadly past all the while producing characters that were akin to those found in Agatha Christie or Clue.

Bellweather Rhapsody was recently released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Birdman & Raymond Carver

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This week saw the release of a short trailer for the upcoming film, Birdman. It looks weird, bizarre, and it’s starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, and Emma Stone (pretty much, right up my alley). There isn’t much information out there on plot beyond what IMDb has in the form of a one sentence rundown,

“A washed-up actor who once played an iconic superhero must overcome his ego and family trouble as he mounts a Broadway play in a bid to reclaim his past glory.”

The Broadway play in the film is an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love–a collection filled with much turmoil and difficult relationships.

Take a gander at the trailer.

Criticizing the Critics and Poking at Reading Lists

This morning, I read an interesting article in Vanity Fair that brings up the question of why are literary critics so dismayed by Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Goldfinch. I must admit that I’ve not read any of the author’s work and when The Goldfinch was released, I was not only put off by its size (775 pages), but also by a child narrator (I’m completely biased against juvenile narrators; I generally dislike them). In the aforementioned article, the writer cites many prominent critics’ dislike of the book, usually noting its hackneyed prose and ridiculous plot. They all seemed to be in agreement with the premise that no matter how trite the writing is, plot can overshadow even the worst offenders. One of those writers is Francine Prose, who was appalled by the clichéd writing.

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This brought me to Prose’s controversial 1999 article, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read: How American high school students learn to loathe literature,” which appeared in Harper’s. It’s an excellent article. Even if you don’t completely agree with all of her points, she does an excellent job outlining reasons for young students’ lack of passion for literature and the dull teaching strategies dictated to teachers from various pedagogical manuals.

Her gripe is with both the high school reading lists and the approach of teaching them. She cites many canonical texts (To Kill a Mockingbird, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Catcher in the Rye, etc.) and is usually dismayed by the syrupy plots and what she perceives as bad writing. Prose also points out the failings of many teachers to examine the writing and focus more on the plots and how students are meant to personally relate to them. Instead, works are chosen for the high school readings lists based on their ease to identify what is right/wrong, good/bad. If there is too much moral complication, the book is not normally considered.

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Direct clip from Harper’s article.

I’m particularly on Prose’s side when thinking back to The Color Purple and Lord of the Flies, two high school selections I had trouble “getting on board” about. I don’t know how my adult-self would read these works today, but my sixteen-year-old self was not swayed by the melodramatic plot of The Color Purple, nor, was I taken with the dog-eat-dog plight of the lost boys of Lord of the Flies (why would Piggy tell them all that was his disliked moniker?). In 2012, I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird, a book I liked in school and still like after my re-read, but I can understand Prose’s qualms with the depiction of characters that are either clearly good or clearly not. Around the same time, I re-read Catcher in the Rye and my conclusion was that it is a book that adults will not like or appreciate. Leave it to the kids. If you haven’t read it as a teenager, don’t bother. It will be meaningless and annoying to your adult-self.

Another frightful point Prose brings up is about teachers manuals. She directly quotes examples that pedagogues can use to assure extinguishing any delight in reading and literature or critical thought, for that matter. After reading them, I found myself lucky that my teachers mostly never went in for such methods. Of course, there were assignments I despised (like underlining every mention of money or the color green in the The Great Gatsby), but nothing as so insulting to intellect as these examples–I will leave those up to the Harper’s article to navigate (take special note of one manual’s appalling advice about dealing with The Diary of Anne Frank).

Instead of investigating why a book is written so well or its lasting effects on our culture and reading canon, texts like Huckleberry Finn are boiled down to the discussion of whether Mark Twain was a racist or not, totally eviscerating the humor and craft put into his writing. Also, this idea that everything must be neatly tied up, leaving no moral ambiguity to examine is an insult to the students. Of course, there are students who have no interest whatsoever in knowledge, but you would be surprised by the many who do. They don’t often need someone holding their hand as they navigate the uncomfortable tale of Lolita or the brutal violence in A Clockwork Orange. My teachers certainly didn’t and respected us enough to assign these books without novel projects designed by tedious teaching manuals.

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Of course, there were dull books and assignments (good grief, do I still get a little twinge due to my dissenting opinion anytime The Color Purple is an answer on Jeopardy), but I must agree with Francine Prose on the fact that the approach to teaching literature in high schools is less than desirable and that reading curriculum should be re-examined. It is often disheartening to read when a book is banned at school and even more so when it’s a book that a teacher has chosen that is not considered part of the dusty old cannon, but instead, chosen as a fresh and invigorating offering to high school students.

I’m not sure if I will venture into the pages of The Goldfinch any time soon. There are so many more books on my to-be-read list that I just don’t see this one making the cut in the next months. Although, I am a big fan of a good plot, well-crafted writing and fresh sentences are a top priority for me. Purple prose and shoddy metaphors are things I do not take kindly to.

 

Summertime Books to Read

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It’s been a little quiet over here the past few weeks. I’ve just been a little unfocused, but I do have an ever-growing pile of books to read. I figured it is about that time when everyone is getting antsy about their vacation reads and I’m not ashamed to jump on the list bandwagon. My summer reading list was jump-started by the phenomenal The Fever by Megan Abbott, which I recently reviewed.

So, here are eight selections of galleys that are piling up as I type.* Do you have any summer choices you’re hot to crack open?

1. The Supernatural Enhancements “What begins as a clever, gothic ghost story soon evolves into a wickedly twisted treasure hunt in…Edgar Cantero’s wholly original, modern-day adventure.”

2. Shirley “A fictional young couple spends a year at Bennington in 1964 with novelist Shirley Jackson and her husband in this captivating psychological thriller.”

3. Bellweather Rhapsody “Fifteen years ago, a murder/suicide in room 712 rocked the grand old Bellweather Hotel… Now hundreds of high school musicians, including quiet bassoonist Rabbit Hatmaker…have gathered in its cavernous, crumbling halls for the annual Statewide festival.”

4. Jackaby “Newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, 1892, and in need of a job, Abigail Rook meets R. F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with a keen eye for the extraordinary.”

5. After the People Lights Have Gone Off “This collection of fifteen stories taps into the horrors and fears of the supernatural as well as the everyday.”

6. Lost for Words “The judges on the panel of the Elysian Prize for Literature must get through hundreds of submissions to find the best book of the year…[a] satire that cuts to the quick of some of the deepest questions about the place of art in our celebrity-obsessed culture”

7. The Murder Farm “An unconventional detective story, [it] is an exciting blend of eyewitness account, third-person narrative, pious diatribes, and incomplete case file.”

8. Mr Mercedes “[A] mega-stakes, high-suspense race against time, three of the most unlikely and winning heroes Stephen King has ever created try to stop a lone killer from blowing up thousands.”

 

*I do not have a copy of The Murder Farm yet, but I am looking forward to it, nonetheless. This book is hugely successful in Germany (original title: Tannöd). The first-time writer was rejected several times and only given a 1,000 euro advance by a small publisher. Now, it’s required reading and was adapted into a film.

**Synopses provided by publishers.