Wrap-up 7.18

I’m posting my wrap-up a little early this month because I’m going to be gone this weekend through next and I doubt I’ll have time to post. I will be making notes for reviews, etc. so I’ll be able to jump back in with plenty of content as soon as I’m back. I’ve had a ton going on this month so my reading has been all over the place, and I’m looking forward to putting July behind me and starting August fresh. Anything I finish reading through the 31st will just be added onto my August wrap-up.  But for now, here’s a look at July. (As always, titles are linked to my full reviews.)

Some Trends:

  • I’m going on a vacation at the end of the month (leaving the 29th) into the beginning of August (getting back the 4th), and I’ve been pretty busy and distracted all month with planning it. It’s more of a road trip than a relaxcation, so I’ve been looking up all the places we want to go, the drive times, camping and hotels, etc. I’ve never been in charge of a trip this extensive before, so it’s been exciting but also pretty nerve-wracking making sure we have room to stop and see things but also that we’re going to get back home on time.
  • I also am hoping to finish my writing project before the end of the summer, which is going surprisingly well, but it has cut into my reading time.

Book-to-Film Adaptations:

  • None, again, but I’m planning some for next month.

Finished Books:

  1. Circe by Madeline Miller. circe3 stars. I was not as swept away by this story as many readers seem to be; I did enjoy reading it, but it was not quite what I expected. I think it’s always dangerous to pick up a book that’s had tons of great reviews, hoping to feel the same. I definitely thought this was good, and good enough that I’m even more interested in picking up Miller’s other book,  but this one seemed kind of meandering and uneventful. Also I was led to believe there were some strong feminist themes here, but acknowledging the patriarchy and standing against it are two different things, and Circe stuck to the former, in my opinion.
  2. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. homegoing5 stars. A new favorite. I loved this story from the first page all the way through to the end. The writing is simple but beautiful, each of the chapters is its own distinct story that meshes beautifully into the greater narrative, and I learned a lot about African culture. This book spans generations, and my favorite aspect is that each life is so unique and distinct; they’re part of a whole, but each character has their own dreams and burdens and some of their stories stand directly in opposition to each other even as the book connects them. Highly recommend.
  3. Night Film by Marisha Pessl. nightfilm2 stars. If I were a DNF reader, I would not have finished this book. It is not terrible by any means, and a younger me would’ve liked this a lot, but this is an adult book, so the fact that I would’ve liked this better in my primarily-YA days probably says enough. The atmosphere is great, but most of the characters seemed pretty flat and unoriginal, and the book didn’t need to be nearly so long. I did like the formatting and multi-media aspect, though.
  4. Providence by Caroline Kepnes. providence4 stars. This book is completely bizarre, and I can see why it’s been a lot less popular than Kepnes’ You books, but ‘bizarre’ is my favorite kind of reading. I’ve never seen anything like this before, and that’s a great feeling for an avid reader. Parts of this were a little slow and some characters were much stronger than others, but overall this book was a fun ride, mostly for the sake of novelty.
  5. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. onchesilbeach5 stars. This was my first McEwan book in over ten years (Atonement was one of the first adult books I ever read), so I wasn’t sure what to expect– but I absolutely loved this powerful book. Parts of it made me extremely uncomfortable, but it was an experience I think I grew from. McEwan seems like one of those writers who can turn the tiniest, most basic seed of an idea into a compelling story, and this book renewed my interest in his work.
  6. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. adiscoveryofwitches3 stars. This was a reread, and I don’t think I’ll be posting a fresh review (title links to my old one) so I want to talk about it a little here. This is still a guilty pleasure series for me, not because I’m ashamed to tell anyone else I’m reading it but because I can’t justify it to myself. It lets me down and I come back to it, and I don’t know why. There are so many problems here, especially with the controlling boyfriend, but for some reason I still find the magic and characters addicting. Last time I rated this book 4 stars, but I did lower that this time because I had to roll my eyes more often. But, when I started craving a reread I thought I’d just skim for my favorite parts without reading all the background world-building info, but I didn’t remember as many of the details as I expected so I did end up reading the book in its entirety. And, honestly, I might read it again someday. I’m trying to hold off on starting the next book because I have too much on my plate right now, but sometimes an almost-trashy urban fantasy romance is what I want, apparently. (Although I will always find it ridiculous how many times these characters try to get married and then claim it didn’t count.) I’ll respond to comments below if you want to know more about this one, since I’m not planning a full review for this reread.
  7. Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton. socialcreature3 stars. This was really entertaining, but also a bit illogical– or at least, it stretched my ability to suspend disbelief. It was a little slow building up to the good stuff, but about halfway through there began some insanely compelling twists. Though that didn’t improve the pacing, it did pique my interest. There were some elements of the writing style I really liked, and this would’ve been a 4-star read if the ending had been stronger; I like ambiguity, but this felt a bit forced, with the MC giving up her secret before the game was up. I have notes for a full review, but I don’t know if I’ll get it posted tomorrow or during my trip or after. I will answer questions/comments below though, of course.

Some Stats:

  • Average Rating: 3.6 – a little low for me, but higher than expected after the way my reading seemed to drag this month.
  • Best of the Month: Homegoing, by a long shot.
  • Worst of the Month: Night Film. I wish I had read this when it was new, I probably would’ve loved it back then.
  • Books Hauled: 15 – my goal was 3 or less. You can follow the link to see what I bought.
  • Owned Books Read for the First Time: 1 – my TBR grew by 11 books this month, which is way more than it should have.
  • Total Books read in 2018: 68 – I’m still ahead of schedule for my Goodreads goal of 90 books.

Numbers-wise, this wasn’t a terrible month. 7 books is the lowest number of books I’ve read in one month all year, but it was only last year that my average books per month went up from 4 to 8, so it’s still pretty good for me. I had two 5-star reads, which is always great, and I didn’t really hate anything I read, so I can’t even really explain why this felt like such a bad reading month. Maybe because I read so many borrowed books instead of owned books that I went backwards with my TBR. Anyway, here’s to hoping for an awesome August.

What did you read this month? Have you read any of these books?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Book Haul 7.18

I’m posting my haul early this month for a couple of reasons, and I’ll post my wrap-up within the week as well. First, because I’m going to be on vacation at the end of July and beginning of August, and I don’t anticipate having time to blog. I hardly anticipate having time to read, which doesn’t seem in the spirit of vacationing, but I’m more the “do things you can’t do at home” type of vacationer than the type to just relax. I’ll probably need a week of relaxing when I get back home just to recover from my vacation, but I swear it’s going to be fun.

The second reason (and the reason I’m posting early rather than late) is that July has just been a bad month for me. I’m getting close to the end of my writing project, so even though I know I’m making progress it feels an awful lot like spinning my wheels and going nowhere. Also I’m not in a reading slump but I do feel like my reading has been erratic and just generally disappointing this month, and I’m eager to put that behind me and start fresh. I’ll share more about that in my wrap-up.

As for my July book haul, it was a collosal fail. I’m only supposed to be buying 3 books or less per month, but I went way overboard. Here’s what new in July:

  1. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie. The winner of the Bailey’s Women’s Fiction Prize for 2018. I have not read this book yet, but it’s a high priority. There are several Women’s Prize nominees I still want to read within the year (this is the winner, and my 4th title from the longlist), and I’ve made a deal with myself: I can buy one every time I finish one. This one’s a modern Antigone retelling that focuses on Muslim characters.
  2. I finished reading my last batch of Penguin Moderns in June and received a little discount through Book Depository so I ordered another round. I count these as one book here because they’re only 50-60 pages each. This batch includes: The Great Hunger by Patrick Kavanagh, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House by Audre Lorde, Africa’s Tarnished Name by Chinua Achebe, Notes on ‘Camp’ by Susan Sontag, The Duke in His Domain by Truman Capote, and The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges. This time I made my selections based on Goodreads ratings.
  3. The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager. I was going to just buy this book or check it out from the library becuase I loved Sager’s Final Girls last year. But then it was made a BOTM selection and it seemed so easy to just add it to my box. Unfortunately, my box took way too long to arrive this month so I didn’t have a chance to read it yet. I’ve been increasingly disappointed with BOTM lately, between the change in their selections this year, receiving damaged covers on my books, and the long delays in getting my box shipped. This is the second time this year that I didn’t even receive my box until the 3rd week of the month. But I’m still hoping to read (and enjoy) this summer-camp-thriller soon.
  4. The Girl From Blind River by Gale Massey. This was my actual BOTM selection, and the same complaints apply. It sounded like an interesting crime fiction story, but it arrived late. I’ve just started reading this one, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to finish it before I leave for my vacation, if not before my wrap-up is posted. All I remember is that there’s some gambling involved, and I hope I don’t need to know more about poker than I do to make sense of it.
  5. You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott. I’ve been wanting to read an Abbott book, and this one was on sale. It’s a mystery, and I don’t think I know more about it than that anymore. I wanted to read it when it was new but just never did. If I like it, I might even pick up Abbott’s newest release (Give Me Your Hand) when I finish.
  6. Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler. Similarly, I’ve been wanting to read an Anne Tyler book, and this one was on sale. This is probably the point in the month at which I just threw my 3-book goal out the window entirely, because not only do I not plan on reading this book immediately, but it’s based on a play that I haven’t read yet and also don’t plan on reading immediately.
  7. The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare. This is the corresponding play I want to read before Vinegar Girl. I do want to slowly build my Pelican Shakespeare collection, but I’ve only been reading one Shakespeare play per year lately and I already have one for 2018, so this one was superfluous.
  8. Misery by Stephen King. I read this book back in middle school, but I’ve never owned it. I’ve been meaning to reread, but I have no idea how I managed it the first time because none of my friends have copies and neither does my library. In any case, I’m looking forward to revisiting the horrors of a kidnapping superfan. (Although I still have some unpleasant memories about the thing with the thumb, and the thing with the legs. It’ll be interesting to see whether those details disturb me as much the second time around.)
  9. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. I still haven’t read A Gentleman in Moscow yet either, but Towles’ synopses always intrigue me and I’ve been eyeing this one for a while. I figured as long as I wasn’t even pretending to limit myself this month it was as good a time to buy it as any. Also it was on a buy-2-get-1 sale, and I can never resist those.
  10. The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss. This is based on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide, which I was also hoping to read this month and didn’t get to. But I’ve been enjoying classic retellings in the last few years and I’m looking forward to this one, which I believe was nominated for a science fiction award.
  11. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. I read this entire trilogy (the All Souls Trilogy) last year, and I do like to reread guilty pleasures better than I like searching for new ones. The best ones are the ones you aren’t looking for, and then suddenly you’re obsessively reading an entire trilogy in a week. When the trilogy works that way, you stick to it, even if it’s not good. Anway, this series is like Outlander + vampires, and I’ve already binge-read this first volume this month. I can see this being something I come back to now and then, so I figured it was a reasonable investment to buy my own cheap copies rather than trekking to the library to check out the entire trilogy when the mood strikes. I also bought the next two books in the series for next to nothing on Book Outlet:
  12. Shadow of the Night by Deborah Harkness. And
  13. The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness.
  14. If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio. I know very little about this book, but I’ve heard it likened to The Secret History, which I loved. I just needed a couple more things to get free shipping when I ordered the All Souls Trilogy, so I picked up even more titles I didn’t really need to buy this month.
  15. Columbine by Dave Cullen. I’ve been reading more nonfiction this year than I usually do, and this is a book about the well-known Columbine school shooting that I’ve been interested in reading since I was in high school myself. But it is almost 400 pages of nonfiction material, and I’m afraid it will take me a while to get through, so I wanted to be able to take my time with my own copy rather than going through the library. It put me at just the right amount for free shipping, so I saw that as a sign that it was time to pick it up. And, of course, school shootings are, unfortunatley, an extremely relevant topic.

bookhaul7.18

Yikes, 15 books (technically 20 if you want to be picky and count each of the Penguin Moderns), when my goal was 3 or less. An utter flop, but four of these I’ve read previously and I am currently reading another– that’s 11 books added to my TBR this month, hopefully soon to be only 10. Way more than I wanted to add, but you win some you lose some. It is kind of comforting to have a million unread books on my shelves; I have plenty of choices as far as what I’m going to pick up next. And, I mean, an empty TBR would be a nightmare, wouldn’t it?

Have you read any of these books? What did you think? What should I prioritize?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: On Chesil Beach

July has been a weird month. I’ll be posting my wrap-up a little early (later this week), so I’ll talk more about it there. For now, I’ll just say that I’ve been struggling with finishing things; reading Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach was a quick , immersive, and much-needed break from long projects that aren’t going anywhere at the moment. It’s been over ten years since I read and loved McEwan’s Atonement, and my reading tastes have changed so much that I had no idea what to expect from On Chesil Beach, but it was almost perfect.

onchesilbeachAbout the book: After a short but wonderful courtship, Edward and Florence are officially married. They’ve been husband and wife for a few short hours, and are just beginning their honeymoon on Chesil Beach. As they sit down to supper, both are virgins and preoccupied about the main event of the wedding night– for opposite reasons. Edward, after months of making very little progress with Florence physically, is particularly looking forward to freedom from constraint; Florence, after months of trying to coax herself into tolerating physical affection, has absolutely no interest in sex and is trying to convince herself that she can bear it.

“His anger stirred her own and she suddenly thought she understood their problem: they were too polite, too constrained, too timorous, they went around each other on tiptoes, murmuring, whispering, deferring, agreeing. They barely knew each other, and never could because of the blanket of companionable near-silence that smothered their differences and blinded them as much as bound them.”

One of my favorite features of this book is the way it covers time. In just 200 brief pages, On Chesil Beach focuses primarily on a single evening, spanning just a few eventful hours. Of course, Florence’s and Edward’s thoughts take the reader back into their childhoods and the year of their courtship, and the end of the novel shows the future consequences of that evening on Chesil Beach. There is a healthy array of past, present, and future events covered this way, but it all fits into the structure of that one day at Chesil Beach. It’s beautifully symmetric. Technically, the novel is divided into 5 parts, but each sentence leads naturally to the next in a way only great writers can manage. This is a great book to read in a single sitting.

Another compelling aspect is Florence’s introspection regarding sex. She’s hard on herself in a way that can be difficult to read, but it’s clear through McEwan’s prose that what’s “wrong” with her is a social construct, not a personal flaw.

“She could not bear to let Edward down. And she was convinced she was completely in the wrong. If the entire wedding ensemble of guests and close family had been somehow crammed invisibly into the room to watch, these ghosts would all side with Edward and his urgent, reasonable desires. They would assume there was something wrong with her, and they would be right.”

Perhaps the most interesting point of this book rests on the possibility of Florence’s asexuality. I’ve been perusing reviews for this book (something I don’t usually do before writing my own, but I was curious about this) and I’ve discovered that there’s a pretty even split between readers who are sure Florence is asexual and readers who are sure that a sexual trauma in Florence’s past has affected her present attitude toward sex, though not entirely turned her against it. I find both of these options intriguing, and not mutually exclusive. I haven’t decided yet which reading I prefer, though I think both are supported by the text of this novel, a fantastic case of literary ambiguity.

Ultimately, I don’t think it matters especially which way one reads this book. I would love to read more fiction about asexuality, but at its heart I believe the strength of On Chesil Beach comes from the fact that the novel outlines the difficulty of talking about sex at all in this place and time– early 1960’s England. The most important part is simply that Florence doesn’t have the terminology to explain her feelings, and she doesn’t feel that it’s appropriate or even acceptable to try. Though the times have indeed changed, that’s something readers can still understand and learn from.

“She could never have described her array of feelings: a dry physical sensation of tight shrinking, general revulsion at what she might be asked to do, shame at the prospect of disappointing him, and of being revealed as a fraud. She disliked herself, and when she whispered to him, she thought her words hissed in her mouth like those of a stage villain. But it was better to talk of being scared than admit to disgust or shame. She had to do everything she could to begin to lower his expectations.”

There was one rough moment for me on the beach when Florence and Edward start the climactic conversation of the book by simply saying hateful and untrue things to each other. I cannot stand arguing for the sake of arguing. Obviously the tension is set to explode at that point, but for a minute these characters didn’t seem like themselves. Miscommunication in books is one of my biggest pet peeves. There’s a fine line between using it productively and writing hundreds of pages of disagreement for nothing more than emotional turmoil. I can’t stand books whose entire plot hinges on characters whose entire problem would’ve been solved by an honest conversation on page two. Luckily, in the end, I didn’t feel that was the case with On Chesil Beach. The way the argument on the beach began made me worry that the miscommunication aspect was being misused, but it morphs into a much more realistic case of misunderstanding and choosing wrongly rather than obstinate and pointless refusal to speak the truth.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. There were a few pages that worried me about needing to lower my rating despite the beauty of the rest of the book, but in the end McEwan pulled through. I’m not sure whether this will end up a long-lasting favorite– that will probably depend on which way I end up leaning on the asexual/traumatized spectrum, and how well the story stays with me. But I do know that I’m definitely interested in watching the recent On Chesil Beach film soon, and I’m also absolutely interested in reading more from McEwan, possibly starting with Nutshell.

Ian McEwan has published a lot of books– does anyone have any particular recommendations for me?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Providence

A couple of years ago, I picked up my first Caroline Kepnes book, and I knew immediately that I was going to read every book she would ever write. This isn’t to say that I believe Kepnes’s writing is flawless, but it is unique in an utterly compelling way. Providence is her most recent release, and her first novel outside of the You series. Providence is also Kepnes’ first paranormal book.

providenceAbout the book: Jon is thirteen when he’s kidnapped on his way to school. For four years, no one– not even Jon– has any idea where he is or what is happening to him. His best (and only) friend Chloe misses him every day, but life goes on. She has other friends, a boyfriend. But when Jon comes back, she remembers exactly the way things were when it was just the two of them, and she wants that back. It’s the beginning of a life-long love story, but there’s the small problem that Jon is not the same after his kidnapping. He has a secret that he can’t tell anyone, a secret that drives him away from Chloe, from his family, from everyone. Enter Eggs, a middle-aged police officer with a whole lot of baggage and an unshakeable hunch about a set of deaths that look suspicious to no one else. In an effort to escape the pain of tough decisions regarding his autistic son, “Eggie” DeBenedictus obsesses over a pet case of young deaths that lead him to Chloe and The Beard, and the truth of what happened to a stolen boy so many years ago.

“I am powerful, in a way. But it’s a misleading word. The power isn’t mine. I’m full of it, but I may as well be dead. I’m not in control of anything. I’m a host for an evil force.”

I was a little worried when early reviews of Providence showed that many You readers were feeling underwhelmed by Kepnes’s new literary direction. Instead of rushing out to buy this book, I rushed out to place a hold at the library. Though I wasn’t particularly disappointed by Providence (I would’ve been happier with another You series book, but I’ll take what I can get), I do agree that it’s not as strong as Kepnes’s previous publications.

The strength of Providence lies in Kepnes’ knack for detail, and especially character detail. She has this way in all of her books of turning the blatantly unreal into something you can see (or at least imagine seeing) in the tangible world. The paranormal aspects here should be unbelievable, but even after the introduction of “powers” these characters are human and sympathetic. Much in the way that Stephen King brings his characters and settings to life with excruciating detail, so too does Kepnes capture the minutia and nuance of the small moments without ever letting them bore the reader. The connections she makes are fascinating.

“The man who bashed me over the head and put me to sleep, this same man went to Target or Home Depot and saw this lantern and thought, Hey, that would look nice on my porch.”

On the flip side, most of the characters in Providence should’ve been pushed a little farther. Jon is wonderfully tortured and complex, but Chloe cycles through the same worries and decisions over and over again, Carrig is nearly stereotypical, Blair is left shrouded in too much mystery, and Eggs, arguably the most complicated and insightful character, puts the pieces together way too easily. Coincidence is not easy to accept in fiction, and his bland reaction to the main events at the end of the novel is frankly dissatisfying.

Furthermore, much of the tension of the novel is lost in the fact that the three perspectives the reader follows (Jon, Chloe, and Eggs) bounce off of one another. We see something happen in Chloe’s life, and are then unsurprised to see Jon discovering it. We see Jon reacting to what he learns, and are then unsurprised to see Eggs following the new trail Jon is leaving. Etc.

It’s also worth mentioning that this book takes a slow lead-in to get to the interesting stuff. Jon and Chloe as thirteen year-olds are the least believable part of the novel, and lingering over this stage of their life feels like obvious set-up for what comes next. Though it’s all interesting, I did have to read through over a hundred pages before catching up to what I knew from the premise, and even then the story didn’t really find its legs and run until well into the second half.

Those may seem like insurmountable criticisms, but despite the way the character chapters inform each other, their sections flow smoothly into one another with some of the least jarring transitions I’ve ever seen in multi-perspective narratives. I found it almost impossible to put the book down between chapters because the end of one led so naturally into the start of the next even though the characters constantly changed. And though the writing moves easily between characters, each one is completely distinct and separate from the others. The characters’ voices are not one flat reflection of the author’s voice.

“You don’t forget the important things, the things that make you who you are.”

But what is Providence? Part epic love triangle, part high-stakes paranormal mystery, this book is also an examination of power and morality, an ode to H. P. Lovecraft, and proof that life is no more than what it is. There were so many ways in which I wished Kepnes would’ve delved deeper into this story, but even so I was glued to the pages and it was hard to know what to expect next. It’s completely bizarre in typical Kepnes fashion, without ever truly leaving reality behind, and that’s exactly my brand of fiction. It’s probably only going to work for a small percentage of the reading population, but I’m a member of that group. If you’ve enjoyed You and Hidden Bodies out of appreciation for the wacky writing, you’ll probably find plenty to enjoy in Providence as well. If you read You for the plot and ended on the fence, you’re probably safest skipping this one. And if you haven’t read any Kepnes books yet, try You first.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Even though I didn’t feel that Providence quite lived up to its potential, I still love Kepnes’s writing style and ideas, and I’ll read whatever she publishes next. (But I really hope it’s another Joe Goldberg novel because I still need to know what happens after the end of Hidden Bodies!)

Which writer do you love even if some of their books just don’t quite hit the mark?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Night Film

I haven’t picked up any horror/mystery novels for a while, but summer nights are perfect for dark reads and it’s good to try new things, so I picked up Marisha Pessl’s Night Film in early June. (Yes, I know it’s July now and no, that was not a typo.) I’ve been struggling through this 600-page behemoth for over a month now, and last night I finally reached the end.

nightfilmAbout the book: Scott McGrath, disgraced journalist, is out for a run late one night when he has a strange encounter with a woman in a red coat. Soon after, Ashley Cordova is found dead. Ashley is the daughter of an eccentric horror film producer whose work is so controversial and terrifying that it exists only in illegal copies and secret underground showings– and the daughter may prove as enigmatic as Cordova himself. Police have ruled the death a suicide, but McGrath knows there’s more to the story and reopens the Cordova investigation that ruined his career years before. Two of his early leads, Hopper and Nora, attach themselves to McGrath’s investigation for better or worse; but the deeper they dig, the more it seems that nothing has been coincidental (including Ashley’s red coat), and everything is tied to an elaborate story part real and part fiction, a story that’s as compelling and creepy as one of Cordova’s films.

Freak the ferocious out— there were quite a few pages on the site devoted to Cordova’s supposed life philosophy, which meant, in a nutshell, that to be terrified, to be scared out of your skin, was the beginning of freedom, of opening your eyes to what was graphic and dark and gorgeous about life, thereby conquering the monsters of your mind. This was, in Cordovite speak, to slaughter the lamb, get rid of your meek, fearful self, thereby freeing yourself from the restrictions imposed on you by friends, family, society at large.”

The best part of this story is its atmosphere. Pessl writes with an eye toward the visual, coaxing the reader toward seeing this story like a film of the mind. The level of detail is rich and eerie, the metaphors evocative, the action scenes heart-pounding. The prologue draws the reader in completely, and the final chapters send the reader to new depths and heights.

“Just when you think you’ve hit rock bottom, you realize you’re standing on another trapdoor.”

But this is a 600 page novel. I think it would’ve been a stronger story closer to 300. Pessl does an excellent job of following every plot thread to its conclusion, but this story does not need nearly as many threads as it provides. Some of these arcs are barely attached to the main web of the plot, and some branch off entirely. For example, there’s quite a bit of information given about McGrath’s ex-wife and their daughter, who he sees only occasionally. These characters are absolutely irrelevant to the mystery, as are the ex-wife’s new husband, the daughter’s nannies, and everyone mentioned in between.

So much of this story felt contrived, as well. Everyone McGrath wants to interview is willing to share everything they know about Ashley or Cordova himself– two of his leads are so interested in McGrath’s investigation that they become active participants in it, and this professional investigator is perfectly content, even grateful (by the end of the book he calls them his family) to let them tag along, though they cause as many problems as they solve. Most of the side characters are flat, including the policewoman who helps McGrath behind the scenes for no apparent reason, and the professor/uberfan who, no matter how much he hates McGrath, will step out of his classes and invite McGrath into his home to share Cordova information with him. McGrath is the only person who gains from his relationships with any of these people; why are they so willing to give him whatever he needs?

“Dottie never forgot that night. She said later she felt as if she were an hors d’oeuvre he’d taken one bite of, then put back on the tray.”

There are so many details that some are left floating rather awkwardly. For starters, McGrath talks about his habit of running around the reservoir at 2 AM in the prologue, but does not exercise again in the entire 600 pages that follow, and is rarely awake at that time of night. When he ruminates on the wreck of his career, he mentions that money has gotten tight, but then proceeds to throw “bonuses” at his assistants, bribes to whichever sources need incentive, props and tools to aid his investigation, etc. He spares no expense, though he doesn’t seem to have any income at all for the duration of this novel. And then there’s the black magic expert he calls to help with “the grimmest situation”– when his immediate concern turns out all right, he seems not to remember the grimness of the underlying problems beneath it. The narration is very near-sighted.

But let’s look at the horror aspects of the book. In some ways, Night Film feels like a mishmash of every horror story that’s been done before: there are headless dolls, hedge mazes, witchcraft, corrupt doctors/therapists, deserted mansions, underground tunnels, misty islands, bloody clothing, anonymous phone calls, black hooded cloaks, mythical creature symbols, and about every other basic spooky detail you’ve ever seen before. It’s impressive that Pessl manages to pull all this together into one narrative, but in my opinion the best parts of Night Film are psychological. The scenes when it’s hard to tell fiction from reality, when McGrath feels like he’s in a Cordova film, when someone isn’t who they seem, when unexpected motives come to light or the truth seems closer to home than is comfortable. Parts of this book made my skin crawl, and that’s what kept me reading. I also loved the ambiguity of the ending.

“The truth about what happens to us in this world keeps changing. Always. It never stops. Sometimes not even after death.”

Another pro: this book has some cool multi-media aspects. Within the novel, there are articles, notes, photographs, etc. that fans of Illuminae and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children will appreciate. And further, there’s a Night Film Decoder app that allows the reader access to additional content on screen, including videos, journal entries, etc. I didn’t look at all of the app’s content, but what I did see was interesting and I would recommend checking it out while reading if you’re enjoying the novel.

Another con: though this seems to be an adult novel, it reads like YA. McGrath is a grown man, but Nora and Hopper (and Ashley) are in their early twenties, and Sam is 6, or thereabouts. The vocabulary of the novel isn’t too advanced, every mystery is overly-explained, and Pessl uses Italics more aggressively than I’ve seen any writer use them– on every page, practically in every paragraph, she shows the reader exactly where to look. There’s no subtlety (which is not to say that the mystery itself is predictable).

“The space around Cordova distorts… the speed of light slackens, information gets scrambled, rational minds grow illogical, hysterical.”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. There were some things I really liked about this book, but they were outweighed by the things I really didn’t like. I appreciated that it was a novel that woke strong opinions, and Pessl is certainly a competent storyteller– but this book was not for me. In my younger years I might have loved this, which is part of the reason I couldn’t bring myself to DNF even though I was slogging through so slowly, but present me still can’t decide whether it was really worth the read in the end or not. I probably won’t be reading any more from this author.

Do you like reading mysteries in summer, year-round, or only in October?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Novel Progress 7.18

In my last writing update, I talked about how much I was struggling to finish Chapter 6 (of 9) of my manuscript. Fortunately, writing that post and admitting how hard of a time I was having helped: I did finish Chapter 6 shortly after that. Unfortunately, I thought I could also finish Chapter 7 before this month’s update, but it just didn’t happen.

For each chapter, I have a 10k word goal. When I opened chapter 7 this time around, I was already at 10k words. But those were thousands of words I had written before spending the last 6 months honing chapters 1-6, so changes needed to be made. The main plot arcs will stand, but there are a lot of details I have to go back to check and brush up, and at this point my characters are stronger than when I originally wrote the events of this chapter so I have to make sure that they’re still themselves in chapter 7. I also added some transitional events to the beginning of the chapter to bridge the gap between 6 and 7. So I have been working, just not enough.

Part of the problem is just that I’ve been busier than I expected (again), but also that while I love writing and revising and editing, I always end up feeling stuck in whichever part of the cycle I’m in.  (Does this happen to anyone else?) I thought that making the first chronological trek through my manuscript with a patchy partial draft already in place would be easier than starting at the beginning from scratch– with pieces of the book already done, I’m not always doing the same thing every time I get to a new chapter. Some chapters require more writing, but others are heavier on revision, and chapter 7 has been mostly editing. It’s nice, in a way, not to be stuck writing all 90k words in one go, and then doing all the revising and editing  at once in additional drafts; this way, I’ll have a nearly complete draft by the time I’m finished with my first full draft. I’ve always operated that way, no matter what I’m writing. But I’ve never written anything this long that had to be a coherent, finished product by the time I reached the end; as I’m approaching that finish line, there are more pieces of the story to juggle, and I’m feeling more constricted. I miss the early days of this project when I let myself work on whichever part of the story I wanted to work on, in any order.

I’ve been really tempted lately to pause these chapters that I’ve been feeling bogged down with lately, to go through my list of small tweaks that I need to make in the early chapters. I’m a pantser with my writing, so when I started at the beginning of this draft I’d intentionally left the end open and I wasn’t entirely sure where the story would end up. Now that I have a clearer idea, I know there are little details I need to introduce earlier on, and I have a better idea of how to characterize my MCs from the beginning, in a way that’s more relevant to the overall plot. I feel like I could be more productive working on those aspects that are on my mind right now than pushing through chapter 7, where I’m just trying to make everything add up. Chapter 7 feels like the part of a jigsaw puzzle when all that’s left is the sky, all the pieces are same shade of blue, and some of them fit in multiple slots. But there’s only one solution to connect all of the pieces, and it takes a lot of trial and error and patience. I want a break from the sky pieces.

But that’s dangerous thinking. Letting myself “quit” chapter 7, no matter how temporarily, is how I kept getting off track in the first place, when I was working unchronologically. Instead of making forward progress, I would just keep editing the same “finished” sections over and over, and even though I am glad that everything I’ve “finished” at this point is as polished as it is, I’ve been working on this so long that I really need a complete draft before I go crazy and abandon the whole project. I will never quit writing… but I could see myself quitting this particular project in a moment of weakness. I don’t want that to happen. I am really happy with what I’ve got so far and where this project is going, and I want to get to the end and have a finished draft to show for the last 2 years of work I’ve put into it, but…. But. I don’t know.

I’ve been rambling through these updates lately. I think I’m just getting more stressed out. I’m juggling multiple perspectives in this narrative and as the main event is looming on the horizon, I’m also trying to weave all these characters together properly. I knew it was an ambitious project, and I’m immensely critical of my own work. I wanted to write something fun that would also challenge me, so even though ultimately I love this manuscript, I’m giving it 200% effort and it’s exhausting. This close to the end, there aren’t little surprises for me in the text anymore, it’s all going the only way it can possibly go because there’s so little left to happen. I know where it’s going now, and without the sense of mystery that I started out with, I’m less driven to transfer it onto paper.

And I suppose, as I’m nearning the end, I’m also getting distracted with the next steps. For months I’ve been so focused on just finishing this project, but I’m in the final third of the manuscript now, and even that final third is half-written and just needs brushing up. Within a couple of months, I’ll be writing query letters to potential agents. And that’s the part I’m most worried about in the entire publishing process. That’s the stage of the process that most makes me worry whether I will ever be published at all, whether anyone will ever read my work (I don’t think self-publishing is the route for me). It’s hard pushing that fear aside long enough to even reach that stage, but I’m trying.

So Chapter 7 is where I’m at. I’ve got over 11,700 words in the chapter right now, and I’m trying to edit it down a little bit. I’m not sure if there will end up being a scene or two I need to add towards the end, but even so I’m pretty confident I can get that number closer to 10k. It’s mostly editing left to do, cutting out what’s not necessary, rewording the sentences I can’t stand anymore, checking details. It really shouldn’t take more than a few days of hard work to get through it, if I just make myself keep going.

Looking ahead: I wanted to be finished with this whole first draft by the 29th of July, when I’m leaving for a little vacation. It seemed like the perfect time to put the whole thing out of my mind for a week and come back to it with fresh perspective to make all those small tweaks I’ve been making note of in the last couple of months. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. If I work really hard, I might be able to finish chapter 8 by that time, but we’ll see. I think I’ve already got about 5k words stored in chapter 8. If I can keep myself going, it might be possible to get through 7 and 8, and spend that week of vacation just gathering all my thoughts for chapter 9. I won’t be actively writing during that week, but I’ll probably still have the project in mind, especially if I’m not through to the end of the draft by that time. Hopefully I’ll come back to it more confident and excited than I have been this month, and ready to wrap it all up. I will be looking for an agent within the year. That’s scary, but also really exciting. The balance of those emotions varies day to day.

I know I’m all over the place right now, and I have no idea what my next update will look like. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep moving forward and making progress.

A little inspo for any other struggling writers out there:

“Once I thought that writing this book would be impossible. It was a skyscraper, massive and complete and unbearably far off. It taunted me from the horizon. But do we ever look at such buildings and assume they sprung up overnight? No. We’ve seen the traffic congestion that attends them. The skeleton of beams and girders. The swarm of builders and the rattle of cranes… Everything grand is made from a series of ugly little moments. Everything worthwhile by hours of self-doubt and days of drudgery. All the works by people you and I admire sit atop a foundation of failures. So whatever your project, whatever your struggle, whatever your dream, keep toiling, because the world needs your skyscraper.” -Pierce Brown (Morning Star)

What’s the hardest part of writing for you? Is there any part of the process that scares you?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Homegoing

Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing (published in 2016) has been on my TBR for a while, but a recent recommendation from a friend encouraged me to finally pick it up. And wow, do I regret not picking this one up sooner.

homegoingAbout the book: One African family morphs into two in the aftermath of a destructive fire. Two women and the descending generations of their families run parallel to each other as both branches continue to grow–unaware of each other– in the midst of the African slave trade. Some characters spend their entire lives in Africa, others in America– some see both. All are affected by the slave trade, even those who are never claimed as slaves or are born after its abolishment. Homegoing is an exploration of culture on a grand scale, weaving a large story whose ends won’t meet again for about 250 years.

“This was how they lived there, in the bush: eat or be eaten. Capture or be captured. Marry for protection. […] He would not be weak. He was in the business of slavery, and sacrifices had to be made.”

About the structure: each chapter is a vignette of a different character’s life; the two families alternate for narrative prominence, but each chapter is entirely different. Long plot arc lines are visible between the stories, but each chapter is essentially complete in itself, though each character’s story leans on the shoulders of the others. Homegoing is masterfully constructed, and the family tree provided at the start of the novel is an effective tool for navigating it if you can’t read the entire novel at once.

“Hell was a place of remembering, each beautiful moment passed through the mind’s eye until it fell to the ground like a rotten mango, perfectly useless, uselessly perfect.”

Though many of the facets of African slavery that this book explores are already familiar– the British colonizers instigating tribal wars to turn Africans against each other, the inhumane conditions of the American cotton plantations, the fact that the legal abolition of slavery did not end unjust laws and racist treatment of African Americans, etc.– the focus of the book is not on any of these details individually. It’s about the accumulation of every tragedy and horror, and they way these hardships link Gyasi’s characters.

“…what he wanted to capture with his project was the feeling of time, of having been a part of something that stretched so far back, was so impossibly large, that it was easy to forget that she, that he, and everyone else, existed in it– not apart from it, but inside of it.”

About the characters: each chapter’s main character (and each important side character) is utterly unique. There are so many perspectives woven into this story, and though I did have favorites, there was not a single character’s chapter that I disliked. I was sadder to see some chapters end than others, but I found Gyasi’s writing so compelling that each new chapter drew my attention as fully as the last.

About Gyasi’s writing: she pinpoints injustice, racism, and unchecked power without a moralizing or sentimental eye toward the consequences. Homegoing is a sort of history, not a blind accusation. Blame falls where it should, but never on the reader, no matter their color. Each character has their own particular flaws and desires, losses and successes. There is no general line drawn between “these people” who are right and “these people” who are wrong; even the villains of these stories are unique individuals with their own motives, and their faults are laid on them individually (or as a group based on their time and social station) rather than the entire white race through eternity. Gyasi does not sensationalize or sentimentalize any detail of this story, and the objective voice that shines through as a result is Homegoing‘s greatest strength.

“When someone does wrong, whether it is you or me, whether it is mother or father, whether it is the Gold Coast man or the white man, it is like a fisherman casting a net into the water. He keeps only the one or two fish that he needs to feed himself and puts the rest in the water, thinking that their lives will go back to normal. No one forgets that they were once captive, even if they are now free.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I absolutely loved this book from the very first chapter. I am anxiously awaiting whatever Gyasi will publish next, and I will definitely be buying my own copy of this book when I return the borrowed copy to my friend. I don’t need to wait another 5 months to know this book will be on my favorites list this year.

Further recommendations:

  • Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. This is a book that covers some modern social issues of gender and perspective, filtered through a specific aspect of African culture– the ogbanje, evil spirits born into a troubled child, creating a fractured self. If, like me, you finish Homegoing wanting more African literature in your life, this is a great choice that challenges Western perspectives.
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. This one features a magical realism twist, and addresses African slavery in America as it has never been done before. If you like Homegoing (or not) and want a fresh perspective on the African slave trade, don’t miss this book.

I haven’t read a lot of African literature, and I feel like I need some more. Any suggestions for me?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant