literature

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 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)

inhabited painting

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.

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.

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.

 

 

Froust Questionnaire, 6/21/2016

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

inhabited painting

Reading HorizonFarthing by Jo Walton, backlog of fiction submissions for magazine I edit (the co-editor is way ahead of me, for shame)

ListeningThe Well-Tempered Clavier by Bach

Day dreaming: Travel, always

Audiobooking: The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates (so long, but so good)

Writing: Making a lot of starts but not focusing. Need something that I am passionate about.

Obsessingnot applicable 

Brainstorming: Ideas for article pitches. Harder than you would think.

Procrastinating: Life, le sigh.

Watching: Scream the TV Series (new guilty pleasure)

Disappointing: ALL THE BOOKS I’VE BEEN READING LATELY

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.

 

 

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.