Book Reviews

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

big little lies.jpg

Back in October, I saw a short one minute long trailer for a new mini-series coming to HBO. Whoever created it was spot on. I was hooked. I had that feeling that marketers shoot for: I need this in my life now. The trailer ended with the note that the series is based on a book. When I looked it up, based on the cover, it appeared very much in the “chick lit” genre and perhaps, out of my normal reading purview. But this year, I decided that I was reading outside of my normal zone and in doing so, it has paid off. Especially for this book.

I also found it surprising that Stephen King, of all people, blurbed the book. His brief sentiment is exactly right. Big Little Lies was a dark, mysterious, funny, adroit novel. It was contemporary commercial fiction at its best.

Somehow Liane Moriarty has written a literary thriller that centers around the parents and children of a kindergarten class in suburban Australia. Immediately, a reader can see why Stephen King liked it. There are flash forwards to police interrogations, hinting at a crime that has taken place at a school function. It was reminiscent of the structure of King’s great first novel Carrie.

I often don’t read commercial fiction, because simply, the writing is tedious and abysmal (I imagine myself typing this with my nose in the air), but I unabashedly loved this. I also really recommend this book as a way to get back into using your brain. I’ve heard from many people that the past weeks have been hard and doing anything constructive, even reading or watching television, has been extremely difficult….

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While reading this book, I kept thinking that we are in a heyday of excellent crime novels written by women. I generally prefer the types that don’t feature a detective as the main character and are not part of a series. For example, I’ve enjoyed the imperfect Ruth Ware novels and some of Laura Lippman books are decent, but I still maintain the queen bee to be Megan Abbott (I reviewed her 2014 novel The Fever). Over the summer, she was interviewed on Inside the New York Times Book Review podcast, where she made a case that women writers have made a space for themselves within the genre. Abbott, I say, is an expert at “girl voice” and it’s so enjoyable reading. (aside- if I had the reading time, I would love to delve into Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels.)

On the most recent episode of the NYT Book Review podcast, Pamela Paul talks about her recent pleasure read, All Things Cease to Appear, which she described as a literary thriller. I’ve downloaded the audiobook hoping to start soon.

One aspect of these type of books that I usually enjoy is the closeness to the characters and plot. Attention to writing on the sentence level is very important to me (this year, I’ve begun reading James Lasdun, whose books are thin and mysterious, and the writing is so enviable). I’ve never been drawn to hysterical realism, these big books that are more ambitious than anything else. They seem more concern with their “bigness.”

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But back to this HBO series. It’s developed by David E. Kelley, so I’m hoping he carries over the humor and dark, sharp dialogue and narrative. The book takes place in a beach community in Australia, but the series looks as if it has been transplanted to the craggy and beautiful Monterrey, California. Reese Witherspoon, who stars in the series, also serves as a producer and if you look at her past and upcoming projects, she is very interested in developing films and TV shows from books by women authors.

Last week, HBO released a slightly longer trailer, which shows a little more of the characters and plot. You can watch it on YouTube here, but below is the original one that I watched that got me intrigued (kudos again to the trailer designer!).

The Elephant in the Room by Jon Ronson

the-elephant-in-the-room

For years now, I’ve been a huge fan of Jon Ronson. His writing is entirely interesting and he knows how to tell his fascinating stories. I’ve read many of his books–some, more than once–and I adore listening to the audiobook versions that he reads himself.*

I don’t often get a chance to read non-fiction, but this is generally the kind I like and prefer.

A few years ago, I read Them: Adventures with Extremists and was horrified, but ultimately amused with the absurdity of David Icke and his very tall shapeshifting reptiles that both live underground and are adamant on controlling the human race, along with the tin foil hat variety of nutters like Alex Jones, who goes loony for supposed human sacrifice and for some reason is very keen on the idea that the government is constantly using actors in lieu of real victims of gun violence (if you hate yourself, just Google: Alex Jones + Sandy Hook). Their conspiracy theories were preposterous and if you scratch your nail shallow across their arguments, any rational human could see that they’re really masks for antisemitism (read the book; you’ll see). But these were fringe nutjobs, who I assumed had a small, obsessed following. I also thought they stayed in the shadows, tuning in to their insane radio shows, and keeping, ultimately to themselves and not getting their crazy train cooties on the rest of us. Sadly, that has changed this past year…

One does not have to read Them in order to read with rapt interest, Jon Ronson’s new title. It is a short piece–approximately 15,000 words–and focuses on the obscenely overt influence Alex Jones has on Donald Trump. It’s been about 15 years since the book and even though Jon Ronson has repeatedly stated that he personally likes Alex Jones even if the latter spreads paranoia and frightful insanity, he and Jones have had a falling out. Ronson reunited with him during the Republican National Convention to witness firsthand Jones’ ascent and how the once minor league captain of the tin foil hat society became the number one operator of the hate machine that is Donald Trump, the GOP’s presidential candidate this year.

The Elephant in the Room: A Journey into the Trump Campaign and the “Alt-Right” definitely is in the same vein of Ronson’s other writing: he places himself within the story he’s reporting on to illustrate how the naive reader might also perceive this strangeness and to illuminate a niche that might not be widely known and accessible. There is seriousness and humor. Jon Ronson is never dismissive of his subjects but he will point to when they are being ridiculous or worthy of criticism. He’s also very good at pointing out contradiction (for example, paintball guns and squirt guns were verboten at the convention, but real guns were a-okay).

Readers of Them will enjoy the part 2 aspect of this new essay, but readers who haven’t yet read the earlier book will indeed enjoy (used loosely) this, too. Ronson pokes at Trump’s inner circle and their shady dealings, how even Glenn Beck got creeped out once by Donald Trump, and how frightening it has become that these people that I once pshawed as weirdo fringe fruit loops, have now taken a mighty throne on top of a soap box which a vast number of people in a certain sect of the voting population are listening, too.

To them, it is okay to be an obscene bigot and unapologetic racist. These people enjoy their incendiary speech that is often misogynistic, racist, and antisemitic.

So enjoy!

No, really. I really recommend. I also recommend Jon Ronson’s other full-length books and audiobooks.

This is a Kindle Single and FREE for Amazon Prime US members and Kindle Unlimited subscribers everywhere. Otherwise, it is a mere $1.99 for the rest of us. So, grab it and read it right now.


 

(*) I also highly recommend checking out some of Jon Ronson’s past television shows from British TV. Doing a cursory Youtube search can bring up loads of episodes of Secret Rulers of the World and For the Love Of… When watching, please be forewarned of the 1990s.

(**) Sneaking in a second television recommendation: Louis Theroux also does similar reporting. His shows are great, too. The 1990s warning also applies here for some of his older episodes.

We Could Be Beautiful by Swan Huntley

I know a lot of readers are not fans of reading main characters who are unlikable or–I shutter–unrelatable, but this certainly never bothers me. I’m a sucker for a debut novel, and Swan Huntley delivers.

we could be beautiful

Catherine West is a spoiled, self-involved, bored forty-something Manhattanite. She’s a tragic figure without realizing it. The opening declaration by Catherine reminded me, oddly, of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho.

I was rich, I owned a small business, I had a wardrobe I replaced all the time. I was toned enough and pretty enough. I moisturized, I worked out. I looked younger than my age. I had been to all the countries I wanted to see. I collected art and filled my West Village apartment with it. My home was bright and tastefully bare and worthy of a spread in a magazine.

I was also a really good person.

This book, no doubt, will be compared to other “unlikable women thrillers” a la The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl, but it really doesn’t fit with those. There isn’t frantic movement by the main character, but there is definitely a creeping dread and mystery, and a frustration with the character.

What Catherine West wants is  a family, but single with multiple fiances behind her, she thinks things are looking slim until she meets a handsome man from her far past at an art show. William Stockton is a few years older than her and knew her family at some point when he was a child before he was mysteriously swept off to Switzerland, where he’s lived till recently. He easily woos Catherine, but there are signals to the reader that something is wrong with him.

It’s hard to describe any more without giving away bits of the plot. As more of the mystery oozes out, I was able to figure out what was going on before the end, but by the time you come to the end a feeling of “that is creepy and uncomfortable” still meanders through your mind with the closing of the last page.

There is something quite remarkable how the writer is able to capture such an oblivious and unlikable person without it getting to the reader. Sure, there have been unlikable main characters for ages, but it is a hard task that the author sets up to keep readers with them.

The detail, the comments that Catherine makes, her actions are entirely ridiculous, but I couldn’t turn away. Even though some pages could have been cut in the middle (there were a few dragging parts but still engaging even if not necessary), this is a great summer read where the pages will be turning.

This book only recently came out, but has anyone else read it? I’m curious of other thoughts on the character and voice of Catherine West.

 

 

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

Oh dear, what a hot mess this book ended up being.

As I’ve stated in recent posts, I’ve been in an unfortunate book slump for AGES. If this hadn’t been a galley from the publisher, it certainly would have been tossed aside weeks ago (it took me weeks to get through what should have been an entertaining ride).

The Invisible Library

The publicity that accompanied this debut wanted to relate it to people interested in Doctor Who (and some American readers will no doubt make the minor leap to that exceptionally mediocre TV show The Librarians). There is time travel, a companion, adventure, supernatural creatures, and magic. Sounds good, right?

Wrong, so very, very wrong.

Like many, I’m a sucker for a book about books. In The Invisible Library, librarians are tasked with retrieving important works of fiction from many different worlds, alternate and otherwise. Our “heroes” are Irene and her unwelcome companion Kai, who is designed solely to be a sounding board and when he disappears at some point during the last quarter of the novel, it doesn’t really matter. Irene must retrieve a version of Grimm’s fairy tales from an alternate London, but, what’s this! The book has already been pilfered by a cat burglar?! Not until the very end to we get a notion why this version is so desperately important.

I am not pleased with myself for bashing a debut, but there really wasn’t anything here keeping my hold beyond the guilt of receiving an advance copy (this book was published this week in the US).

There was too much happening for genre’s sake. You want some cyborg alligators, you got them. You want some vampires and fairies (couldn’t tell you which character was which) with a shadowy connection to the apparently shadowy country of Liechtenstein, there are plenty. Need a villain or two? Voila!

The characters were wooden and one tone. If it wasn’t for their names identifying them, it could’ve been all the same person.

Lately, my inner reader brain has been shouting WHERE’S THE EDITOR?! There seems to be almost no editorial control of a lot of new releases these days. It could be a few things. 1) All books must now be over 400 pages. Didn’t you know? and 2) editors now no longer say no to authors. They do not help the narrative and the author. –end of rant–

At some point toward the end, one of the characters says,

What is the point of this Library?

Who knows. There was much gravitas to the library (plot holes). The stolen Grimm book really didn’t seem that important for every trope of genre fiction to be thrown on the page. I kept wondering more pointedly, What is the point of The Invisible Library?

Has anyone else read this? It came out this week in the US, but was already published in the UK last year.

The Strings of Murder by Oscar de Muriel

I must admit, I’m a sucker for period deduction, whether it be on TV or in fiction (even the odd non-fiction book). So, I was immediately intrigued by The Strings of Murder, the first novel in a series by Oscar de Muriel featuring the particular English inspector Ian Frey and his rougher colleague Detective McGray.

strings of murder

London is caught up in the Jack the Ripper murders, but the accomplished Inspector Frey has been dismissed from his post at Scotland Yard, his fiancee dumps him, and his family seems to nag him about everything. Finally, he is exiled to Edinburgh–a place he views as being inhabited completely by uncouth Scots–to assist in a murder investigation that might be similar if not identical to the Ripper killings.

What initially drew me was the premise of the murders: a violinist is found eviscerated in a locked room with possible occult signs. The violin, too, is reportedly having once belonged to the Devil and any subsequent owner meets an untimely and disemboweled death.

Promises of the strange and Satanic whet my appetite. The novel also starts out with an enigmatic and gruesome slaying of a family (some of the details drip out later in the plot). The opening is entirely intriguing, but it seems to not have much to do with anything; I’m curious if more information is vital in the subsequent pieces of the series.

I found myself flying through the book following along with the two “odd couple” inspectors. The initial crime is propelling enough and the fact that any other owner of the violin soon perishes is most interesting. However, about midway through, this reader felt as if she were tugging at a rope and not much more came out. The story and characters were, sadly, flat, which is disappointing as the story began so compellingly. It was as if the author cooked up an interesting few ideas in his creative mind, but never really did much with them or connected them. It is a hard task these days with so much top notch period detective entertainment.

With that said, the book wasn’t a disappointment. I don’t think I would carry on with the series as the characters didn’t develop much and the entire book felt like a never-ending series of witness and suspect interviews. What initially piqued my interest (the locked room, Devil violin, and occult) were never wholly formed.

This is a strange case to be sure, because I’m sure there will be plenty of readers who will love this book. Yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t one of them and just wanted the final page to come regardless the solution.

 

 

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

I was hesitant, at first, to review this book, so perhaps this really won’t be a review. This is a book that appears to have universal adulation (if the internet is to be believed) and I so wanted to like it too. It was witchy, magical, and fantastical, or so it claimed. It did have some of these elements but, sadly, it was truly terrible.

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It’s been quite a while since I’ve read a bad book; I generally stick to the 50 page rule, but this one really did trick me. The first third is engaging: the plot flowed even with a few bumps and repetitiveness, but the language was compelling and the magic, so to speak, was enough to keep me there (also, after the sad failure of my attempt to watch that horrid SyFy show The Magicians, I was really hoping this book would do the trick to remedy my desire for something enjoyable and magical).

I am baffled by the praise here. Perhaps, the reviewers only read the first third and wisely didn’t finish. The beginning deals with the characters when they’re children and then at some point jumps ahead into adulthood: one is a apocalyptic-type of Silicon Valley engineer that in real life would make me roll my eyes so much they would fall down a sewer drain and the second, Patricia, who had real potential is a “feisty” witch who never is very interesting or magical as an adult….also, there’s something about her being able to understand birds (hence the title, but whatever, really).

The terrible two thirds are twisty and unpleasant. Too much is brought up and it is incredibly opaque. I have no problem with unlikable characters, but I absolutely didn’t care about them. I hoped they quickly perished in whatever future worldwide catastrophe was approaching; at least the book would be over sooner.

I stuck with it because the beginning was promising. It reminded me of the lightness of Neil Gaiman’s writing–as if the reader is in a strange fairy tale of the author’s own making. But All the Birds in the Sky is the biggest con of the publishing schedule for 2016. Avoid at all costs. There are too many books in this world to read. Good grief, was this awful. A huge question I kept wondering was did Charlie Janie Anders even have an editor? Was she just taking four different books she was thinking of and mash them together hoping the reader would be stupid enough to accept this? I have never felt so alone in my opinion (except when I switch over to the 1-3 star ratings on Goodreads).

If I wasn’t borrowing this from the library, I would have certainly chucked it out of a window no lower than the third floor of a building.

 

The Witch Who Came In From The Cold: A Long Cold Winter

This selection is an intriguing one: it comes courtesy of Serial Box, which appears to be a new publisher. With serial entertainment coming back into vogue–podcasts, television, documentaries–it seems a ripe time for traditional fiction publishing to hone in on the action.

witch who came in from the cold

Serial Box only provided an ARC of the first installment of the multi-part series, so I am of course only able to comment on episode one.

I was particularly taken with the premise–1970s Prague at the height of the Cold War and espionage, but to make it a whole new story, the spies are witches and sorcerers. Besides the synopsis, the idea of a serialized story told by a handful of different authors was also intriguing. (Also, for good measure, I’m a fan of Lindsay Smith’s short story Doppel, which I reviewed here a couple of years ago).

For a first installment, the story didn’t do enough to completely draw me in until the latter half. It was a bit muddled and I found myself going back to the beginning and starting again.

Too many characters were introduced and flung around, and the nary bit of witchcraft that the title alludes to is opaque at best. I was also disappointed with the fact that Prague, an excellent setting for such a story, was not really part of the narrative (beyond the fact that it certainly was a place filled with spies and dissidents post-WWII).

However, with all that said, the story did clear up in the final third of this initial episode and moved more clearly at its already breakneck speed. I wondered if it was a hard start out of the gate because it’s a story told by multiple authors who then will have to pass the story off to another. Is it that they stuffed too much in to their introductory bit because they wanted so much introduced to the reader so they would keep reading? I think so. But I think it backfired. I wish the publisher would have provided another episode or two, so I could properly envelop myself in the story and dig deeper into the review, because, even with my critique, I still think it has the capacity to be an entertaining tale.

I would certainly recommend having a gander at the first episode (especially, since Serial Box is offering it on their website for FREE or for your Kindle for 99 cents). I’ve been in a magical mood lately and I was hoping for a bit more from this; although, it might pick up as the series moves along. With the first installment, the story is a general one of spies, and the sprinkling of the fantastic is too limited. If you subscribed to the story through Serial Box’s website or app, there is an audiobook version that accompanies the text. Much to my dismay, however, if you download the free app, there is no immersion reading (meaning you can’t read the text with the audiobook narrating).

Another concern of mine is, since the story had a hard time hooking me, I am feeling less likely to pony up the pretty pennies for the remaining episodes, which are priced at $1.59-$1.99 through their website, including the audio. It is a bit of a bummer for readers who have Kindles, because Serial Box does not have a Kindle app, and the only way to download is to pay Amazon $1.99, minus the audio. I like Serial Box’s premise, but certain logistics still need finessing.

I don’t ever use star ratings, but since this text was a bit more difficult to review and I think I came across harsher than I intended, I hope the star system will help those on the fence.

3/5 stars

Among Others by Jo Walton

I’m not quite sure how this particular novel came to me, but it was recent and it was much needed. I had just finished up some lovely reads suggested to me by a co-worker who is a passionate lover of books with good taste. When I was done with her few recs, I went back into a slight reading slump (I had previously fell victim to a tiresome acute slump in the latter part of 2015…ugh.). I needed something escapist and magical, and although Among Others takes place in reality the tinges of magical realism were so pleasurable.

among others

“You can never be sure where you are with magic.”

I must say that I am a true sucker for novels written in epistles (Dracula, Dracula, Dracula), and Among Others is told entirely in diary entries by 15-year-old Morwena Phelps, or just abbreviated Mor, during the school year of 1979-1980.

Mor’s leg is crippled and she walks with the aid of a cane. This is all the result of some dastardly situation with her mad mother six months prior that left her mom shoved off to an institution and the death of her twin sister who also went by the nickname Mor.

She’s wrenched from her home in Wales where her family and the faeries live to be packed off first to a children’s home and then to her father and his sisters in England, who she’s never met. The controlling and wealthy sisters think it’s best to send Mor to a boarding school (of course the school leaves something to be desired, but she soon find solace in all of the books–including her father’s love of sci-fi and fantasy–and a group of new friends of fellow readers and librarians.

Through Mor’s diary, moments are told quite easily, but there is always a sense that something else–especially, the previous six months with her mad witch mother and twin sister–is not quite exactly as it seems. England is not nearly as magical as Wales with its landscape scattered with faeries of all sorts.

It’s really the strong, imaginative writing of the author Jo Walton that allows for the magical realism to pleasurably flow so easily. It was a snap to get enjoyably lost in Mor’s world even if it was pretty much our world. It is Mor’s imagination that makes the reality magical.

Has anyone else read this novel? When looking up info afterward, I saw that it was the Winner of the 2011 Nebula Award for Best Novel and the Winner of the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Novel.

I’m onto another Jo Walton novel called My Real Children, which so far is excellent, but at times heartbreaking and devastating. Lately, I’m trying to read only one book at a time so I can be totally involved, but I might need something to cut the tragic parts of the novel. It is unbelievable and I can’t wait to see how it ends, but I find I need a breather because of some of the events happening to the main character.

Any other escapist, magical books to recommend? My Goodreads TBR list is mightily growing.

 

 

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

Emily Carroll’s illustrated book Through the Woods came into my life just at the right time. Well, any time would be great, but I’m particularly interested in the uncanny and what spooks us for a few projects I’m working on.

through the woods cover

Besides the engrossing illustrations, Carroll captures the straightforwardness of language that, even though it might appear simple, is in fact hiding the monster that waits beneath our beds ready to pull us by the leg. This book has teeth; large, gnashing teeth ready to eat the characters up.

There are five complete stories in the book and like many of the Grimm fairy tales before it, concern themselves with children protagonist and/or the invasion of the home from an uncanny force. The English name “fairy tales” always seems misleading. In German, these types of stories are labeled Kinder-und Hausmärchen, or children and house stories/tales. Not as fanciful sounding, but more correct.

The stories in Through the Woods do not have happy endings and have not been Disneyfied. It is hard to pick a favorite, but perhaps, if I had a huntsman’s axe pointed at my head, I would choose “A Lady’s Hands Are Cold.” A young wife joins her husband at his expansive home and is haunted by knocking coming through the walls. It’s a bit of a mix of Edgar Allan Poe and Rebecca.

Even though Carroll clearly has a style, she gives each story its own unique look and color scheme. They do not blend together, but reflect well on the story (in words) being told.

It was fortuitous that I finished this book and then the following night–with the lights turned off, of course–that I watched the film Stoker. I’ve been meaning to see it ever since it was released, but I have only now watched it. It clearly was inspired by Hitchcock films and Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. An uncanny presence (who doesn’t eat food) comes into the home. The film utilizes style, and the layering of images and scenes, overlapping events allude to a sinister unease. I enjoyed the film. Although, I absolutely did not like the final scene. Has anyone else seen this movie? I think the song used over that bit was totally ill-fit and knocked me out of sync with the rest of the film.

Anywho, it was an interesting pairing. I’m glad I finally read Through the Woods. It made 2014 a more interesting publishing year than it was.

This book is best read at night before you go to sleep with only a single nightlight or book light. One of the stories is available on the author’s website, along with further stories not collected in the book.

through the woods 1

 

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

Perhaps, I am in the minority, but 2014 didn’t smack me as a great year for novels. There were a few that were personal favorites (most notably The Fever), but there were far more disappointments. I am a bit bummed that I let Julie Schumacher’s novel Dear Committee Members wait till four months after publication, but I am so happy that I finally read it and at an addicting speed, no less.

dear committee members

 

This novel will be especially appreciated by those who have swam through the sludge that is academic bureaucracy (and also anyone seeking out employment where references are required). The book is told entirely in the form of Letters of Recommendation, or LOR, written by a technophobic, vain and unpleasant professor of creative writing and literature at a university in Minnesota. The novel has all the components to steal my heart.*

Professor Jason Fitger has written over 1,300 LOR, a process that seems to be the primary reason for not penning a new book in more than half a decade (I’m not even sure when he would have to time to teach the classes he mentions). The letters he writes are funny, revealing, self-involved, and entirely inappropriate for so many reasons. Readers will love this book, but especially those who have had to deal with the ridiculous requirement of LOR.

Not only is Professor Fitger penning LOR for academic programs, colleagues’ promotions, etc., but also for his students who are applying for employment at RV parks, produce factories, and technology firms.

dear committee members excerpt

Over the school year, Fitger is one of the lone professors who has remained behind in the building housing the English department, which is undergoing vast (and crumbling) renovations. As a former English major, I feel it’s my duty to note the parallel between the department’s physical shambles and the never-ending breakdown of relationships Fitger has in his own life: his ex-wife and former girlfriend have formed a sort of alliance against him, former colleagues deny requests for assistance, and the majority of everyone else is aware of his membership in the pompous ass club.

The novel is, in short, hilarious. It is attuned to what is happening to liberal arts departments, the shunting aside of any course of study that is not part of STEM. It is also a fine critique to the obscene behavior universities deploy so they do not have to pay professor much of anything (employing mostly underpaid and overworked adjuncts, so as to refrain from paying out benefits and salaries).

Shall I dare to say that Dear Committee Members is genius? I shall. (It’s entirely unfortunate how this term–along, with epic, awesome, unbelievable-is splashed upon every article headline these days, but I will refrain from further curmudgeonry, lest I sound too much like Professor Fitger).  I really loved this book and in fact, I finished it in a single day.

 

*I am a sucker for epistolary novels; I’m looking at you, Dracula.