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.



Brain on Books

So busy. So very, very busy. Barely able to read a lick of text. I do hate when everything gets chucked to the side. I don’t feel very much like myself when I’m not reading or writing, and there has been way too much of that lately. However, I’ve been getting back into a routine and I’m writing writing writing (excitement!). Sadly, though, I’ve become one of those people that doesn’t read. How is that possible?! (wait, let me backtrack, I have been able to listen to a few books via audiobooks).

How does one unplug their brain? The galleys are stacking up and the publicists are chomping at the bit. While I try to figure out how to unplug my brain from the Matrix, I leave you with this photo of a skull on a pile of books. Odd, yet somehow fitting.

skull on books


Oh, dear. I do believe this is the second post in a row with a video, but….

I just watched the theatrical trailer for the new film adaptation of Joe Hill’s Horns. I reviewed the novel back in April and I have to say it is a mighty gripping read. I hope the film is as entertaining.

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.

the quick

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

39_steps 39_steps1

“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 Bureaucrat’s Recommended Reading List

The unending and illogical madness of government bureaucracy didn’t truly hit me until I worked for the government. For one year, the term kafkaesque permeated my life and my unfortunately battered psyche. Sure, I had read plenty of Kafka’s works up to that time, but they didn’t resonate in the same way until I found myself running in circles only to ram head first into a wall of slow policies and paperwork covered in absurdity resulting in bad handwriting and 4:30 martinis. But this sort of insanity can be found in other works by other authors as well.

Bureaucrat's Reading List

According to Merriam-Webster, Kafkaesque is defined as :  of, relating to, or suggestive of Franz Kafka or his writings; especially :  having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality <Kafkaesque bureaucratic delays>


Catch-22. “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” One of the great American novels of the 20th Century, Joseph Heller’s World War II-set narrative finds bombardier Yossarian caught in an illogical roundabout that exams the insanity, idiocy, and other problematic facets of war.

Metropole. When a linguist boards the wrong plane in Budapest, he arrives in an unknown city where he can’t seem to understand anything anyone is saying. There is excessive queuing and official information is constantly changing from one day to the next.

The Passion According to G.H. A claustrophobic, ecstatic stream of consciousness begins when the maid quits, leading G.H. to go into the former employee’s room to find it spotless save for a cockroach that she goes on to kill. Language, memories, and philosophies are tangled around the lifeless vermin for inspection.

Invitation to a Beheading. I’ve always maintained that if you covered up Vladimir Nabokov’s name on the front cover and gave it to a new reader, they would immediately assume it was written by Kafka based on the style, tone, and premise. In an unnamed country, Cincinnatus C. is sentenced to death by beheading for being found guilty of “gnostical turpitude,” an undefined crime.

The Joke. This is Milan Kundera’s first novel and written during the brewing Prague Spring. Ludvik is sentenced to hard labor after sending a friend a joke written on a postcard that pokes fun at the communist regime. He is turned in and his trial is nothing more than a kangaroo court. 

The Garden Party.  The young Hugo is sent by his father to a garden party to meet a local bureaucrat who his father is certain will employ Hugo. The party-goers mistake him for a seasoned employee and soon Hugo is put in charge of liquidating the liquidation office. He fools them all by quickly mutating his language to that of the bureaucracy.

The CastleThis list wouldn’t be complete without Kafka, right? There are so many to choose from, but The Trial and The Castle are always cited as the most “kafkaesque” of them all. K. is a land surveyor who has been summoned to an unnamed town. He keeps trying to get into the castle to speak with a mysterious and unseen official. Paperwork and the unknowable are just two blockades to his pursuits.

These are just a few selections. Do you have any further recommendations?

Selected dialogue from The Garden Party,

The Garden Party

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100 Years of Bohumil Hrabal

hrabal duo

Okay, maybe I am a few days late, but let’s blame my oversight of celebrating Bohumil Hrabal’s 100th Birthday on some recent jet lag that I’ve been experiencing. March 28 marked the 100th birthday of great 20th Century Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal. He is the author of one of my favorite books of all time, Closely Watched Trains (Czech: Ostře sledované vlaky). He has numerous books and short stories, but for some reason, this one has always stuck with me. I’ve read it several times, penned a grad school paper on it, and have enjoyed the 1966 film adaptation that went on to win an Academy Award.

There is something that draws me to Czech writers. I was lovingly teased for it in my student days, but their affinity for portraying the absurd and humor in even detrimental circumstances is what attracts me. For example, in Closely Watched Trains, the main character is a young train station guard in German-occupied Czechoslovakia. As Nazis come through by way of the station and resistance fighters target the trains, young Milos is completely preoccupied with getting laid and when he can’t perform, he attempts suicide. I know, a little dark, but funny. The reader sees the threats that surround Milos and his country, but he’s too busy flirting with the ladies and worrying about his sexual dysfunction.You must read this book and when you’re done, watch the movie which is available in the Criterion Collection, for Hulu+ subscribers, and in two-parts on Dailymotion: 1 | 2.

Hrabal is so cool that a bust of him resides on the wall of U Zlatého Tygra (At the Golden Tiger), his favorite bar in Prague, where he even took President Clinton and Madeleine Albright to for some pilsnerplease pardon my crummy photo; it was dark that day

U Zlatého Tygra

He’s considered by many to be one of the greatest Czech writers of all time. Even with my limited reading selection of that country, I shall be so bold as to agree. I am terribly delighted to have recently received a galley of a new English translation of one of his books to review (unfortunately for this blog, I will be writing for another publication, but maybe I’ll put a quick write-up here next month).

Hopefully, I’ve convinced you a wee bit. Although, Hrabal needs no convincing from me. I mean, when the man had his 80th birthday, the whole city came out. In honor of what would have been his 100th birthday, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty put up a handful of photos from over the years. Take a look here, which includes the photo below from the film set of Closely Watched Trains (Czechoslovak Press Agency).

closely watched trains


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**The top images are from

Distractions : Dead or Alive, Characters in Literature

I’m really trying to get a bunch of writerly work done today, but before I do, it’s time for a little Dead or Alive? Can you name the status of each character at the end of the literary work? Time for a little distraction…

I did abysmally; only about 50%. How did you do??

The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles by Katherine Pancol

Dutch edition; the American cover is entirely too precious

I came to this book not knowing much beyond the fact that Les yeux jaunes des crocodiles was a big hit upon its release in France, which led to its various translations into many languages but not English…until now.

The novel begins with forty-something Joséphine finding out that her husband Antoine has been carrying on with another women and that Joséphine is last to know. She immediately kicks him out and she is left to care for their two daughters and pay off a large outstanding bank debt by herself. Antoine leaves with his mistress to Kenya to run a Chinese-owned crocodile farm. Back in France, we meet various characters (mostly other family members or close friends) that make up the ensemble of this novel. Some of their plots relate directly to Joséphine’s own and others don’t quite tie in at all. They seemed placed there to flesh out a novel that, at moments, is lacking a genuine connection.

The real meat of the book lies with the plan that Joséphine and her more glamorous but bored sister Iris come up with. Joséphine, a scholar and researcher of 12th century European history, agrees to write a novel that her aforementioned bored sister pitched to a publisher at a party. Iris tells the white lie that she’s been writing a book about this time period and regurgitates what Joséphine has gone on about in the past.

The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles suffers from unrealistic dialogue and stilted language, but it strengths lie with the relationship between the sisters. The shy and modest Joséphine feels freer to write the book she always wanted to by being Iris’ ghost writer. But when the book becomes incredibly successful and Iris is on television and in magazines promoting it, Joséphine has a mild crisis. Pancol could have explored more on the way Joséphine reacts to her new-found vigor. It is lightly mentioned or implied at times, but never really fleshed out. The crocodile farm is almost irrelevant to the novel beyond the title and her estranged husband’s occasional page presence can be chalked up to the reason to roll Joséphine out of her chrysalis.

At times, Joséphine’s sad sackery is infuriating and her older daughter, Hortense, is the only one that Pancol has written with the most believable dialogue to call her on it. Although not completely flat, almost all of the characters could use with a double dose of character development; the closest is Hortense who is first presented as a stereotypical teenage girl butting heads with her mother, but eventually, she becomes the biggest draw of the novel with quick wit and more smarts than the others.

I wonder if the odd language and syntax are present in the original French or if something is fishy with the translation. Sometimes the language is unnatural. I couldn’t help but mentally yell, No one speaks like that! Not even in a novel. Everything is explained matter-of-factly and my inner student had to refrain from the margin note: show not tell. Other odd parts of language could be due to a strange translation of French idioms. Instead of interpreting, the translators chose to stay too close to the original. For example,

It’s not like I’m the son of Frankenstein. I’m a good-looking guy with lead in his pencil, but she doesn’t even care enough to take a picture of me!

Many of the moments and reactions are predictable. This is a book I would recommend as a beach read, because it might otherwise be unfulfilling. By the end, I was more concerned with Hortense and Iris than Pancol’s lead, Joséphine. They showed more gumption and had more interesting reactions to the other characters that encompassed this world. I thought Pancol presented a gripping conundrum between the sisters and their book, but not enough trust was put in the reader to make sense of everything without being told directly by the author. Although, not surface level, it’s a shame the book didn’t pry a little more into the stories of the characters and the trouble they get themselves into.

international big

Distractions : Match the Author’s Pen Name

I am completely inundated with books to read and review, novels to write, Kahlua iced coffee to drink, but I have taken an afternoon pause. Shouldn’t you, too? I just finished playing “Can you match the pen names with the authors’ real names?” I got one wrong! And that one is nagging me. But, I hope you can enjoy a quick literary break.

It’s been a few months since I last posted a Distraction. If today’s doesn’t suit your taste, try the archives.