fiction

FORTITUDE: Recommended Reading

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All is right in the world once again. Personal favorite television show Fortitude is back for its second season in the US (totally jealous of UK fans who got to watch the new season a few months back). I was a bit nervous that we wouldn’t get to continue the complete insanity that is Fortitude as the network that co-produced and broadcasted it stateside when under in the fall.

It returned on Friday! For those who don’t know anything about it, you can watch both seasons on Amazon; I’ve also include the season 1 trailer at the end. We would have to sit here for a while for me to explain what exactly is going on, but briefly, a quiet Arctic Norwegian village is disturbed when a series of brutal death/murders pop up…and that is only the beginning.

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This show ticks so many boxes for me: a chilly, remote climate, difficult characters, mysterious thrills, happenings, and crimes. But it is so much more. It captures the strangeness of it all: prehistoric mammoths, parasites, sketchy Russians, death by polar bear, ghost murder, shamans, Dennis Quaid, British people pretending to be Norwegian, reindeer scientists, the list could go on…

I am also a fan of books that take place in cold places. It is very rare that you will find me reading or writing anything that has a tropical locale. Here are a few reading suggestions for fans of Fortitude or general ice terror.

The Terror is inspired by the ill-fated trip of HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, two ships that were tasked with finding a way through the Norwest Passage. However, in The Terror men are not only devoured by disease and starvation, but an unknown monstrous creature stalking them from out on the ice. I’ve read recently that this book will be adapted into a television series. For history buffs, the once lost Terror was found last year and a video of it was filmed by the Arctic Research Foundation.

The North Water is brutal and captivating. Moments can be so visceral and intense in this novel, and it was one of my favorites of this past year. I am baffled by the fact that it was not moved from the long list to the short list for the Man Booker Prize. I am a complete evangelist for it and I think everyone should read it (don’t get put off by the human murder, bear murder, and venereal disease). Two men are aboard a harpooner: one a medic, the other a murder and then a horrendous discovery is found.

Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History delves in to both animal cannibalism and human. I generally stay away from deep dive cannibalism (unsurprisingly, I find it disturbing), but this book offers a lot on interesting animal behavior, including misconceptions (re: praying mantis and pet hamsters). It also, of course, explores the fiasco that was the Donner Party. Spoiler alert: Men are much quicker to starve to death than women.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is Edgar Allan Poe’s only known finished novel. The writing can be a bit stiff, but it’s worth a read as 1. it’s short and 2. it was influential to other nautical works that came after (Moby-DickAn Antarctic Mystery). It’s has all of the makings of a nineteenth century nautical misadventure: calamity, mutiny, people eating, a dog, an enigmatic snow monster.

Has anyone else watched Fortitude? Appreciate the chilly thriller genre? Here’s the aforementioned trailer for season 1.

Exceptional First Sentence of the Week, The Bell Jar

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This is a bit of cheat, as it is an entire first paragraph and then some. I haven’t read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in many years, but I was required to read the first chapter this week for an unrelated project. It was so striking and I forgot how Plath immediately sets up so many aspects of the novel, including Esther’s life in New York City along with foreshadowing what is to come. The writing of the first chapter grabs you immediately and Esther is so well-defined.

There were many marvelous lines in the first chapter alone, but I loved the simpleness of this line when Esther is out with her friend: “My dream was someday ordering a drink and finding out it tasted wonderful.”

**Read other Exceptional First Sentences of the Week.

Malice by Keigo Higashino

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I don’t often get the opportunity to walk into a bookstore and pick a book randomly off the shelf to buy. There are two reasons: 1) My own doing as I am either directly targeting a library book, used book sale, or online shop for a specific title and 2) retail books are quite pricey. But I went in with the mission of selecting a book on a whim. The first book I tried was a Swedish thriller with solid writing but uninspired plot and then the second attempt was Malice by Keigo Higashino.

I haven’t read a ton of Japanese literature, especially anything contemporary, but this whet my appetite to continue down a Japanese rabbit hole.

The novel touches on a character element that I really enjoy and that is the unreliable narrator. Also, Keigo Higashino clearly has been influenced by a personal favorite unreliable narrator story of mine, “In a Grove,” by Japanese author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa.

Malice is a locked room sort of mystery with a famous and accomplished author being found murdered in his home office. The front door to the house is locked and the two people, his wife and friend, both have solid alibis even though they are most likely suitable suspects. The novel alternates between the narratives of the aforementioned friend and the detective working the case. The murderer is fingered early on, but the mystery is focused more on the why and how.

The book is layered and with each new section, something is pulled away and revealed, but the new information also frustrates the case as sometimes what the detective finds out muddles what is already known. I also say Malice is like “In a Grove” as there is a testimonial aspect to the plot with people beyond the friend and detective testifying, so to speak.

My experience with Japanese literature is limited, but by the few examples I’ve read, the writing is not heavy. A reader feels as if every word is chosen for a reason and with Malice, the narrative didn’t feel clunky like many procedurals can appear. Of course, there is a constraint when an unclear mystery is presented, but I didn’t feel as if the gears were grinding and often crime novels can read very fabricated (I sometimes cringe at the bad writing).

Even if you are not one for crime or detective novels, I would still recommend this to you. I get a bit bored with this tired characterization of detectives as being grumpy, chain smoking loners who always jog in hooded sweatshirts at night. The detective in Malice is a former middle school geography teacher. Also, even though this book published in the US in 2014, it originally came out in the mid-1990s in Japan and the reference and reliability of a fax machine is delightfully antiquated. It is ann interesting thought to consider how storytelling must change as technology changes as well.

Has anyone else read books by Keigo Higashino? It appears that he is quite prolific and popular in Japan. I must admit, I reached out for this book while gazing through the shelf looking for Patricia Highsmith books when I saw this cover. The description and the fact that he’s been nominated for Edgar Awards piqued my interest.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

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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 Ghosts of Winter

Ghost stories are grand any time of year, but they’re particularly alluring during the wintry months. Days are darker and shorter, colder and crisper. Our eyes start to close more easily in winter. This is the perfect time for tales of hauntings and ghouls.

The Dead of Winter This is a children’s book that the algorithmic gods of Goodreads thought I would be interested in and those gods were right. I don’t normally have a chance to read children’s literature and when I do, my adult-reader-brain has trouble squaring the lightweight plots and writing. True, this novel will feel breezy to a grownup, but it was still really enjoyable to read a children’s book that was well-written and clearly influenced by Gothic literature. Of course, we will see the moving parts of this ghost story, but hopefully children will get chills while reading of this haunted house.

Ghosts: A Natural History: 500 Years of Searching for Proof You know you have a good roommate when he or she buys you books and an even better one when they gift you books about ghosts. This gem was sent by an excellent past roommate one Christmas and I can’t recommend it enough for the avid reader. It’s non-fiction that will appeal to both lovers of fiction and non-fiction, alike. Roger Clarke is a witty and astute writer, and he humorously serves up historical ghost stories and reasonings. Clarke is a believer, but he is extremely skeptical.

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places You might be quick to lump this title and the aforementioned Ghosts together, but besides the umbrella theme of ghosts and haunting, they are very different. The writing here is a little more “academic,” for lack of a better term (but still pop enough for a general audience). American readers, certainly, will be familiar with a bunch of what’s being investigated (American History, is in the subtitle, of course), but Colin Dickey does bring in new info. For example, he proffers an aspect of the Salem witch hysteria that is lesser known: land disputes. Families were in business dealings and disagreements with each other over properties, and certain people were fingered as witches when they weren’t playing nice with the others.

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What are you reading during these wintry months? Any ghost stories in your pile?

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Froust Questionnaire, 10/12/2016

n. Proust, or more like the Froust Questionnaire (as in Fake Proust)

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Reading HorizonThe Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker. This was recently recommended as a page-turner. It is, plain and simple. It is not perfect, but Dicker knows how to plot and keep readers engaged. What fun.

Audiobooking: Ready to start A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

Writing: Have a few pieces still in their infant stages. Everything is a bit too abstract right now for my liking.

ObsessingWestworld. Has anyone else seen it? I was skeptical at first and almost didn’t watch it, but I saw the first two episodes and think it’s really intriguing. Because it’s HBO, of course there is annoying female nudity, but it sort of works here (but I argue that you still don’t need it; especially, considering that the male nudity is close to nil).

Brainstorming: Ideas for fundraising for online magazine. This is a very hard task.

Procrastinating: Need to read submissions for aforementioned online magazine. Doing it today! I swear.

Watching: Scream Queens (does anyone else watch? If not, you’re missing out)

Disappointing: The Sunday night presidential debate for so many expected reasons.

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

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Since writing Monday’s post about the mediocre year in book publishing, I finally have a winner. Three cheers and all that!

I read Ruth Ware’s debut novel In a Dark, Dark Wood earlier this year and even though it was so completely preposterous, I thought it was great. Reese Witherspoon even scooped it up for an upcoming film.

Ware’s writing was great and she certainly knows how to keep a reader turning pages, so I was extremely excited when her newest was released. I read this one in two days. I couldn’t put it down and read it into the night to see how it finally ended.

Its premise was reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and 4:50 From Paddington by Agatha Christiein that a woman–an unreliable narrator for a number of reasons–witnesses a crime that no one believes. There is no body and the more and more she digs, the more the other characters disbelieve her. She is labeled hysterical.

There have been more of these novels–that I dub the women who know too much–probably since the popularity of Gone, Girl. It was a fine read (I was certainly like everyone else on the subway that summer with my nose in the book), but it is the lesser of them all.

Crime and thriller are genres I enjoy when done extremely well. It’s unfair to see excellent books pigeon-holed into a genre ghetto instead of celebrated as literature. Why are we punishing financially successful books?

With that said, there are PLENTY of crap crime books and thrillers. Like all genre, some times the plot synopsis pitch is more interesting the actual composed sentences and for some reason, it is sadly a genre inundated with terrible writing. If a reader is able to find the gems, they will surely be rewarded.

I argue that all books are mystery books. If there is no question the author proposes that needs to be investigated in some way, what’s the point?

Besides The Woman in Cabin 10, I devoured Megan Abbott’s newest title You Will Know Me. Abbott is a stunning writer and I reviewed her book The Fever here a couple of years ago.

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The Woman in Cabin 10 follows travel writer Lo Blacklock on a week-long luxury cruise. She is invited for the maiden voyage, along with other people in the business: writers, photographers, investors. The idea is that they will drum up publicity for future voyages. After her apartment is burgled the previous week while she was inside, her nerves are shot, she’s not sleeping well, and when she’s assigned next to a room on the ship that is supposedly empty, everything really goes sideways.

She speaks with a young woman in cabin 10 that no one on the ship seems to know exists. Late one night, Lo hears a loud noise and then what she presumes to be a body go overboard. Blood is smeared on the veranda glass door, but when she returns with the head of security, it’s gone. Of course no one believes her, because, you know, she’s an hysterical woman.

I don’t know how Ruth Ware did it (or how Megan Abbott does it in her novels), but the writing is spot on and the story makes you forgo sleep.

This one was far less absurd than her debut novel. One thing that I’m able to track in these novels is that the authors are able to believably hold back information. They don’t withhold just to withhold and the information, when revealed, doesn’t feel like a convenient bombshell. Also, like aforementioned, they’re actually good writers.

Has anyone else read The Woman in Cabin 10 or any of the other mentioned books? I’m always looking for recommendations. Tana French was once recommended, and while I enjoyed her first book In the Woods, when I went on to her second book, I couldn’t finish it because it was truly awful. Thoughts?

 

A Year of Mediocre Books

A photo by Lacie Slezak. unsplash.com/photos/yHG6llFLjS0

True, the year is still not up, but I have concluded long ago, that the publishing schedule for major houses was a dud. Yes, there were a few good reads, but when I look back at my reading list, I find that many were did not finish. I have been told in the past, however, that I can be hard to please when it comes to reading, but I mostly believe that, my reading preferences aside, this year marked a year of mediocre books.

I haven’t written much on the blog these months, sadly, and I owe this mostly to 1) I am working on a wonderful project with a co-editor: a literary magazine that we are so very proud of and 2) the books that I have read have been uninspired.

To remedy this, I’ve received a couple of imaginative galleys, chucked everything dull to the side and took out a huge stack from the library, and also, ordered a couple of books from the UK that are not available or won’t be available stateside for a while.

I am very excited for these reads! How has your year of reading been? Hopefully, better than mine. I find that my brain is more stimulated, I feel less anxious, and my writing improves when I am reading a great book.

Here are some that I have on deck:

FROM THE UK

His Bloody Project
“A brutal triple murder in a remote Scottish farming community in 1869 leads to the arrest of seventeen-year-old Roderick Macrae. There is no question that Macrae committed this terrible act. What would lead such a shy and intelligent boy down this bloody path? And will he hang for his crime?”

FOXLOWE
“Foxlowe is a crumbling old house in the moors—a wild, secluded, and magical place. For Green, it is not just home, but everything she knows… At Foxlowe, the Family shares everything. Outside, the Bad is everywhere. At Foxlowe, everyone in the Family is safe…”

 

FROM THE LIBRARY

ARTHUR & GEORGE
“As boys, George, the son of a Midlands vicar, and Arthur, living in shabby genteel Edinburgh, find themselves in a vast and complex world at the heart of the British Empire. Years later—one struggling with his identity in a world hostile to his ancestry, the other creating the world’s most famous detective while in love with a woman who is not his wife–their fates become inextricably connected.”

THE HOUSE BETWEEN TIDES
“An atmospheric debut novel about a woman who discovers the century-old remains of a murder victim on her family’s Scottish estate, plunging her into an investigation of its mysterious former occupants.”

THE BOOK OF NIGHT WOMEN
“It is the story of Lilith, born into slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation at the end of the eighteenth century. Even at her birth, the slave women around her recognize a dark power that they- and she-will come to both revere and fear. The Night Women, as they call themselves, have long been plotting a slave revolt, and as Lilith comes of age they see her as the key to their plans.”

THE SELLOUT
“A biting satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. It challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality―the black Chinese restaurant.”

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.

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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.