Book Haul 8.18

This haul does not count the stack I bought on vacation July 29 – August 4. It would’ve felt a bit like cheating to celebrate reaching my 3-books-or-less-per-month rule by starting over after vacation, so I didn’t try very hard to hold myself accountable this month. Which is good, because it would have been a fail. I ended up nowhere close to 3 books. Again.

Here’s what’s new:

  1. The Line That Held Us by David Joy. This was my Book of the Month Club selection for August. I’ve already read this one, and it was probably my favorite suspense novel out of quite a few thrillers I read this month. It’s about a hunter who accidentally kills a human instead of a pig, and the vengeful brother who hunts the hunter. There are some fascinating psychological aspects to this one, as well as some gore and a whole lot of Appalachian culture.
  2. Bird Box by Josh Malerman. I’ve heard so many great reviews for this horrifying thriller that I finally broke down and bought it. I’m saving this as one of my spooky reads for October, which I’m getting really excited about already. I don’t remember anything from the synopsis except that the characters have to be blindfolded to go outside? I don’t like knowing much about thrillers going in, so that’s enough info for me.
  3. A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab. Book Outlet had a sale this month that I couldn’t resist. This is one of the six books that I ordered. It’s the collector’s edition, which I didn’t strictly need because I did already have a paperback copy of this book, but I gave that to a friend so I could have all hardcovers in the Shades of Magic series. I’m not usually too matchy-matchy about my books, but I do love a good collector’s edition. This one’s a YA fantasy about a series of Londons that only certain characters can travel between.
  4. Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong. I read this book earlier this year from the library and adored it. It’s about a woman who returns to her parents’ home to take care of them as her dad falls deeper into Alzheimer’s. I really connected with it and I know I want to lend it to my mom because she’ll enjoy it, too. So I’m glad I found a copy on Book Outlet that’s decent and cheap. The dustjacket is crooked on the book, which annoys me, but I’ve done my best to refold it. I’ve definitely been happier with the condition of my Book Outlet books, but they were cheap, at least.
  5. The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton. I read this book in 9th grade and it was the reason I went on to read Gone With the Wind, one of my all-time favorite classics. I’ve been wanting to reread it for a while, and I’ve been interested in this 50th anniversary edition, so when I saw it on Book Outlet, that was one of the reasons I couldn’t resist this sale. I don’t remember a lot of the plot, but I know there are themes of friendship and identity and what I do remember (a knife fight, a fire) I’m intrigued to rediscover.
  6. East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I’ve been slacking on my classics reading this year, but this is one classic title I’m still hoping to get to soon. I saw this centennial edition in Barnes and Noble for full price, and loved it but couldn’t condone buying it when it was sitting right next to cheaper, less pretty copies. So I was excited to find this one on Book Outlet, though it is a bit dinged. Again, I’ve been happier with Book Outlet. If I remember the synopsis correctly, this one’s a sort of Adam and Even retelling set in the early 1900s that features multiple generations of an American family.
  7. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. This is a short story collection I’ve had my eye on since it’s release, and I’ve been holding off because I’ve heard mixed things and also because I hardly ever read short story collections lately. But I would love to get back into short stories, and I’ve decided I’ll have to take a chance and decide for myself with this one. It sounds right up my alley (spanning several of my favorite genres and feminist besides), but I’ve heard (as with many story collections) that some of the pieces are much stronger than others. We’ll see. I’d like to get to this one soon.
  8. The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed. This is a YA book I’ve had on my radar for a while, which I’ve seen recommended for fans of The Female of the Species, which I loved. The synopsis for this one starts with, “Three misfits come together to avenge the rape of a fellow classmate,” which was really all I needed to know to pick this one up, along with it’s 4.4 rating.
  9. The Idiot by Elif Batuman. I’ve been slowly making my way through the Women’s Fiction Prize nominees that caught my eye on the 2018 list, with the rule that I finish reading one before I buy another. I just read Home Fire (and loved it), so I allowed myself The Idiot: one women’s unexpected experiences with college (Harvard) both in America and abroad.
  10. From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan. This author has been on my radar for a couple of years now but I haven’t managed to pick up any of his work. When his most recent publication made it onto the Man Booker longlist, I thought now is the time. All I know is that three men with very different histories come together in this story, and Ryan’s prose comes highly regarded. This is a very short book that I’m planning to read ASAP.
  11. Everything Under by Daisy Johnson. This is another title from the Man Booker 2018 longlist, a retelling of a Greek myth that I’m excited to revisit. I believe this one has some fantasy/magical realism elements and some additional fairy tale parallels, which sounds intriguing. I’m intending to read this one within the next few days, as well.

bookhaul8.18

I definitely bought more books than I should have this month, and I do know I probably won’t stick to my 3-book goal in September, either, which is a great month for new releases. I am glad though that even though I added 11 books to my shelf with this haul, I only added 8 to my TBR shelves (since I’ve already read Goodbye, Vitamin and The Outsiders, and this new copy of A Darker Shade of Magic is just replacing one I already had), and I did read my Book of the Month book already, which puts the number of new unread books down to 7. Then there’s the fact that I did read 7 unread books from my shelves this month, so I didn’t actually increase the number of unread books that I own. So I’m not feeling too bad about any of this, really. Still, I’m hoping to make better progress on my TBR shelves in September.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Nutshell

Earlier this summer I read Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. I loved it, and wanted to read more of McEwan’s work. The other reason I picked up Nutshell this week is that I finally got back to my library. My library is very small. It doesn’t get a lot of new books that I want to read, so I mostly use the interlibrary loan feature to get the books I want. But I feel bad not checking anything out from my own library when I go in to pick up all the books I’ve requested from other libraries, so I always try to find something from my own library as well. This time, I looked up McEwan and picked up Nutshell.

nutshellAbout the book: A fetus has just gained awareness in the womb. He knows by voice his mother (Trudy) and father (John)… and Claude. For unknown reasons, Trudy is living not with John, but with Claude. He wishes this were not the case, but he can’t do much about it. Nor can he do anything about the dreadful scheme he overhears Trudy plotting with Claude. He comes to realize that they’re planning a murder. The more he learns, the more sure he grows that this scheme is not in his (the fetus’s) best interest, and something will have to be done about it. There doesn’t seem to be anyone else for the job.

“So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for.”

If I were to judge his book based on concept and plotting alone, it would have been a 5-star read, no question. Narrating a book from the perspective of a fetus is incredibly unique and interesting, and at first glance all of the details seem to line up to reinforce the argument that this is indeed the correct perspective for this story. The fetus definitely has its advantages as a witness to a crime: he’s always present but practically invisible, he’s not the most reliable judge of character or motive, and he has a unique stake in the outcome of his mother’s potential criminality. I can’t think of any better plot for this fetus to narrate, or any better narrator for this murder.

But beyond that perfection is the iffy execution of the fetus’s stream of consciousness narration. Again, in theory, it’s an aspect that seems like it should be a great fit for this story– a sort of unformed style for an unfinished being. In actuality, the narration did not seem to fit the story at all.

This is my third McEwan book, and though the subjects and plots of all three have been vastly different, I thought the one thing I could be sure of was loving his prose style. Unfortunately, the prose was the worst part of this book. The fetus’s stream of consciousness is unbelievably philosophical with an advanced vocabulary. I like to think I have a wide vocabulary myself, probably because it’s my long-standing habit to look up every word I encounter while reading that I don’t know. But it’s been a long time since I’ve had to look up as many words as I did while reading this under-200-page novel. Here’s an example- matutinal: occurring in the morning. Obviously I doubt any fetus is thinking the phrase “in the morning” any more than it’s thinking “matutinal,” but it’s a brief example of how the intelligence level of the fetus is unnecessarily jarring.

“It’s already clear to me how much of life is forgotten even as it happens. Most of it. The unregarded present spooling away from us, the soft tumble of unremarkable thoughts, the long-neglected miracle of existence.”

Beyond word choice, the fetus as narrator has another problem: lack of agency. Obviously, the fetus does very little throughout the book. Kicking his mother is his tactic of choice, and essentially his only capability beyond observing. The distance between the fetus and the plot is increased by the fact that there doesn’t seem to be much regard between the fetus and his parents. The adults don’t discuss the imminent baby, they don’t seem to want him, and he makes no appearance in their plans. I’m at a loss as to why McEwan chose to create such a disconnect between narrator and story. The confusing part is that the fetus is going to face consequences for the adults’ actions. If his parents divorce, that will affect his life. If they’re dead or imprisoned, that will drastically affect his life. But the fetus’s opinions and desires are constantly changing, which makes it impossible to root for any particular outcome on his behalf.

“We’ll always be troubled by how things are– that’s how it stands with the difficult gift of consciousness.”

Other than finding a murder narrated by a fetus to be an innovatively amusing concept, I think this story would’ve been much better off with a different perspective at the forefront. The scenes in which the fetus faded to the background to highlight the actions and dialogue of the adults were by far my favorite. But there would be losses to the story if any other character narrated it. None of them are who they first appear to be, and placing any of them at the forefront would ruin the twists of betrayal that lend the murder scheme its appeal. So I’m back to the dilemma of being unable to think of any character who could have narrated this story better, and equally unable to think of any story I would’ve rather seen from this narrator. In any case, the pieces just didn’t quite fit together for me here.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m glad this was a short book because I’m not sure I would’ve made it through otherwise. I absolutely loved the idea at its core, but even though I’ve enjoyed McEwan’s narration in the past it didn’t work for me in Nutshell. I’m still interested in reading more from McEwan, but Nutshell simply did not live up to its potential. I’m not sure which of his titles I’ll reach for next, but I am open to suggestions!

Further recommendations:

  • If you’re interested in reading some of McEwan’s work and have not yet read Atonement or On Chesil Beach, both are much better examples of his incredible writing. Atonement features a young girl who tattles in a situation she doesn’t understand and later learns (and regrets) the dire consequences her actions have caused. On Chesil Beach follows a newly wed couple on their wedding night as the asexual heroine must finally admit to her husband that she’s not interested in the same kind of relationship that he is. Both are intelligent and beautiful.

Is there an author you generally love who has published a book you just didn’t like?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Home Fire

I’m still slowly making my way through the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction nominees that I was most interested in this year, and of course that list of titles included the winner, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire. After a disappointing thriller spree and before my Man Booker nominee choices arrived, I decided it was finally time to pick up Home Fire.

homefireAbout the book: Two British Muslim families based in London struggle to fit their beliefs into a world that doesn’t want to accept them as-is. Isma Pasha, the eldest daughter of a known jihadi fighter, is all too familiar with being judged and accused based on her race and religion. Karamat Lone, recently appointed Home Secretary, tries to limit such injustices by encouraging British Muslims to change their ways in order to make their religion fit popular opinion. Isma’s and Lone’s families overlap throughout the novel, sometimes on the same side but most often in opposition. Islamophobia shapes their lives, but so do the choices and betrayals that occur within the Muslim community, and within their own families.

“He rested his head on his knees. He didn’t know how to break out of these currents of history, how to shake free of the demons he had attached to his own heels.”

I knew going in that Home Fire was a retelling of Sophocles’s ancient Greek play, Antigone; I have read the play (twice), but it’s been a long time and I wasn’t sure how many of the plot points I remembered clearly. Fortunately, as I read Home Fire, the parallels became obvious and by the time I reached the end of the book I remembered a lot more about Antigone than I had going in. I’m mentioning this because I think prior knowledge of Antigone will play a roll in your reading of Home Fire, though I can only speak to my own experience. I would say prior knowledge of Antigone is strongly recommended, though not strictly required, for reading this novel.

Aside from the fact that it’s a great classic retelling, this novel was also a learning experience for me. There’s not much of a Muslim community in rural Iowa, where I’ve spent most of my life, so while Islam and Islamophobia are certainly concepts I’ve been aware of, I’ve never found much connection to them before reading this novel. I feel like I can see a part of the world now that I was blind to before, which is a big part of why I read in the first place. I’ll certainly be reaching for more books with Muslim main characters in the future.

What I love most about this particular story is the way these characters fit together. Though each character alone is a bit one-dimensional, they all have a roll to play in the greater story, and together they’re powerful. Shamsie gives each main character their own perspective chapters, usually two chapters in a row before the focus shifts to another character. At first I found this disappointing- I liked Isma’s opening chapters but felt like they had only just scratched the surface of her character; I wanted more. But as I encountered each subsequent character and watched their narratives flow from one to another like a baton passed between racers, I came to appreciate this format, which fits the story well. Even the characters I didn’t like kept me turning pages.

“Laughing, he said, ‘Cancer or Islam- which is the greater affliction?’ “

In the end I had only two small complaints. The first, that Aneeka’s dedication to her twin felt incongruous at times. In the time before Isma leaves for America, her twin siblings begin drifting apart, and while Parvaiz’s sense of betrayal at that separation felt visceral and justifiable, Aneeka’s attitude toward it seemed too aloof and uncaring to convince me she felt as strong a bond with her twin as she claimed to. Her later actions do show devotion, but somehow the relationship never quite convinced me of its closeness. It felt like someone who is not a twin trying to describe what it is like to be a twin, but I’m not a twin myself and I can’t pretend to know Shamsie’s life so I don’t have any authority on that subject. It only gave me pause because Anneka and Parvais’s relationship is so central to the plot, and needed to be strong.

My other complaint, which reversed completely and became a boon for me by the end of the novel, was the level of betrayal in this book. There are a lot of betrayals, small and large, against family members, community members, country members, etc. Every main character in this book betrays someone close to them, and there were times when reading the betrayals was very difficult and upsetting. At one point, I considered stopping my read of Home Fire because reading the betrayals felt like its own brand of torture. But I persevered, and in the end I appreciated how strongly the characters’ actions affected me because it proved my emotional investment in the story- a strong plus for Home Fire. There’s undeniable beauty in the heart-wrenching details.

“Grief was the step-sibling they’d grown up with, unwanted and inevitable. Grief the amniotic fluid of their lives. Grief she could look in the eye while her twin stared over its shoulder and told her of the world that lay beyond. Grief changed its shape to fit your contours- enveloping you as a second skin you eventually learnt to slip into and resume your life. Grief was the deal God struck with the Angel of Death, who wanted an unpassable river to separate the living from the dead; grief the bridge that would allow the dead to flit among the living, their footsteps overhead, their laughter around the corner, their posture in the bodies of strangers you would follow down the street willing them never to turn around. Grief was what you owed the dead for the necessary crime of living on without them.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I can see why this book won the Women’s Prize this year, and I’ll definitely be reading more of the titles that caught my eye from the longlist. There’ve definitely been some gems among the nominees I’ve read so far. I’m also interested in reading further from Shamsie’s published novels, though I’m not sure yet which one I’ll start with. (Please leave me suggestions if you’ve read other Shamsie books that you’ve loved.)

Further recommendations:

  1. If you like Greek retellings and haven’t yet picked up Madeline Miller’s Circe, I recommend that you give that novel a try. Circe is more of a fantasy/mythological story, and to me its modern touch was undeniable, but it’s certainly a beautiful story with plenty of recognizable Greek references to enjoy.
  2. If you like prize-nominated books about hardships faced by minority groups, you should pick up Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, a multi-generational narrative about African slavery in both Africa and America. This one’s another incredibly moving (though unsentimental) story of identity.
  3. If you want to pick up another 2018 Women’s Prize nominee and don’t know which one to reach for next, try Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You, a powerful feminist story about an Indian marriage that devolves into abuse and manipulation.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Sleeping Beauties

I have just finished with a three-week buddy read of Stephen King and Owen King’s Sleeping Beauties, a 700-page dystopian novel that this father and son duo published last fall.  I chose it as an extra through Book of the Month Club a while back, and it’s so nice to have the longest book from my backlog now crossed of that list.

sleepingbeautiesAbout the book: Women around the world are falling asleep, as usual. What’s unusual is that once they’re unconscious, a cocoon forms around them, and the women do not wake up. The men, however, do continue to sleep and wake as usual. While they search for a cure and try to protect their female loves and family members, disagreements mount, power is lost and won, the number of deaths climbs, and chaos is the new ruling order. On the surface, the small Appalachain town of Dooling seems much the same– but the Dooling women’s prison houses Evie Black, a strange creature who appeared out of nowhere at the same time as the Aurora sleeping sickness, and may be the key to the mystery.

“Practically half the world was asleep, and the rest of it was running around like a chicken with its head cut off.”

Format-wise, Sleeping Beauties is much like Stephen King’s other works: chapters within chapters, multiple perspectives, informal and intelligent prose, bizarre but believable characters– and, of course, it’s a bit long-winded. This is a 700-page book that is still laying out premise two-thirds of the way through the novel. Sleeping Beauties goes straight from premise to intense climax to brief conclusion; it’s not a bad structure for this story, but it does mean over 500 pages of women falling asleep and men trying to figure out what to do about it before the main conflict even begins.

” ‘I need to see Lila-‘ So I can say goodbye, Clint thought. It occurred to him suddenly. The potential finality. How much longer could she stay awake? Not much. On the phone she had sounded– far off, like she was part of the way to another world already. Once she nodded off, there was no reason to believe she could be brought back.”

That’s not to say that the lead-up to the big showdown is boring. Every single character– and there are a lot of significant characters in this book: enough to fill a 4-page cast list– is uniquely interesting. Personally, I enjoyed the characters at the women’s prison most of all, but there’s quite a variety. Despite the variation in personalities and backstories, one constant is the undercurrent of feminist commentary. These messages are definitely more heavy-handed than I usually find Stephen King’s writing to be, which makes me wonder whether that’s down to Owen’s influence. I have not yet read any other books by Owen King, but Sleeping Beauties certainly leaves me curious about his writing style when working solo. Even if the feminism was a bit too in-your-face for my taste (one of the male characters is so misogynistic he’s basically a caricature), it is definitely a theme I approve of.

“Of course, everyone’s clothes seemed to be wrinkled now. How many men knew how to iron? Or fold, for that matter?”

One downside to the giant list of main characters and the quickly shifting perspectives is that it can be hard to connect with any of them individually. Even the most compelling chapters end after only a few pages, and then that character might not appear again for another hundred pages. But there’s also an upside to this tactic: the reader never gets to the point of dreading any particular character’s chapters. There was not a single character in this book whose name at the beginning of the chapter disappointed me– I didn’t have a single “oh no, not this guy again” moment in the entire book. Every character is fascinating. Even the fox. Yep, you read that right: one of the significant characters (included on the character list and everything) is “a common fox, between 4 and 6 years of age.”

But let’s talk a bit about the conclusion that follows. No spoilers, of course, but Stephen King’s endings are notoriously divisive, and this ending was the biggest drawback to Sleeping Beauties for me. Some aspects I loved: Evie’s unpredictability, the changes wrought in the aftermath, the reactions to deaths. But I did find the unanimous vote a little too unlikely, and some of the answers about the Aurora sickness a little too evasive– of the “maybe we’ll never know exactly what happened” type– or missing entirely. (Why Dooling? Why now? Why were the two men from the meth trailer killed? Why is Evie always naked?) I loved Part 3, the final 20 pages or so of the book, for its tragedies and triumphs. I loved that this isn’t necessary a happy-ending book, though things go as well as they can. It could’ve been a little better with a little more explanation about the supernatural aspects, but the battle was great. Plenty of firepower, death on both sides, and so much tension. I am a true believer in literary grit. And, of course, it’s always interesting to see how the balance/imbalance between the genders will play out.

“That was one way in which the sexes had never been equal; they were not equally dangerous.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This book really turned around for the better for me in the final third, and even though a few unanswered (or too easily answered) questions about the basic premise and the book’s supernatural element kept me from giving it the full 5 stars, the slow bit at the beginning no longer bothered me by the end. Sleeping Beauties is not my new favorite Stephen King book, but the co-write was an interesting comparison to other King titles I’ve read, and I’m glad I finally got around to picking it up.

About my buddy read: This was only my second-ever buddy read; the first also featured a Stephen King book: It. I love Stephen King’s writing, but it’s definitely easier getting through some of his larger titles with someone to hold me accountable. I probably would have finished Sleeping Beauties faster on my own, but I wouldn’t have been reading other books on the side, and reading all 700 pages at once would’ve felt like more of a chore. Instead, my friend and I read about 230 pages per week, whenever it fit into our schedules, and at the end of the week we’d have a nice spoilery chat. That’s the best part of a buddy read, in my opinion: being able to talk about the book with someone who’s in exactly the same place and knows the same amount of information. That said, this wasn’t the best book to buddy read because there really wasn’t much going on in the first 2/3 of the book beyond characterization and premise-laying. We made some predictions, and spent a lot of the chat time wandering off to other topics. It wasn’t until the final chat that we really had plenty to say about what worked or didn’t. But even so, it was enjoyable enough that I still have positive opinions of both buddy reading and Stephen King.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you liked Sleeping Beauties, you should also check out Stephen King’s Under the Dome. It’s long, but if you’ve made it through Sleeping Beauties you already know you can handle a long book, right? Under the Dome is about another small town facing extenuating circumstances: a dome has suddenly surrounds the town limits. No one (and nothing) can get in or out. The infrastructure devolves much in the same way as it does in Dooling, so if you like the lawless power play in Sleeping Beauties, you’ll find plenty to enjoy in the situation under the dome.

What’s the longest book you’ve read? Did you like it?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The Line That Held Us

I chose my Book of the Month selection for August while I was on a road trip in the Rocky Mountain area. That may have played a roll in the fact that I chose a book rooted in Appalachia, where the other US mountains stand. The trees on the cover of David Joy’s The Line That Held Us looked like the trees out my car window, and gave me a sense of continuing adventure.

thelinethatheldusAbout the book: Darl accidentally shoots a man instead of a wild pig while he’s out hunting one evening. He won’t call in the emergency because he knows he’ll be in trouble for poaching and trespassing, and the brother of the dead man won’t be content to leave justice to the law; admitting to the crime will bring Dwayne Brewer straight to Darl’s  door, and the revenge he’ll seek looks a lot worse than any fines or jail time. So Darl calls a friend instead, to help him move and hide the body. Calvin doesn’t want to get involved, but he can’t abandon Darl in his time of need. What they don’t know is that they’ve been caught on camera. While the police struggle to put two and two together, Dwayne Brewer uses force to find answers of his own. Darl and Calvin fight for survival as Dwayne comes after them and their families, intent on taking an eye for an eye.

“Five weeks ago he was no different from any other man in this county. Work, church, and family. That was it. Same as anyone else, just as plain as apple pie. But all it took was a phone call to rip the rug right out from under his whole life. One decision and now here he stood.”

The thing about The Line That Held Us is that the entire plot can be summed up in two sentences or less. They’d be an interesting two sentences, but the rest of the words in this novel really aren’t necessary in understanding what’s going on. Instead, those words go into the effort of scene-setting, of bringing Appalachian culture to those who aren’t familiar and giving those who are a slice of home– beautiful and terrible as those mountains may be.

Though The Line That Held Us is a novel of suspense, there’s such a level of control in the writing that slows the action and keeps the reader at a remove. One of the characters repeatedly tells long stories and gives impromptu speeches in life-or-death situations. The characters speak in dialect, but even when they’re angry or desperate they seem to have plenty of time to form full, complex sentences and ruminate on details of their landscape and lifestyle. This level of detail doesn’t exactly feel unnatural– it just feels as though life itself runs a little slower in this corner of Appalachia. And we see a lot of that life: the novel follows several perspectives.

I think there’s supposed to be some moral ambiguity in this book– the information given about Dwayne and Sissy Brewer’s childhood, as well as Dwayne’s religiosity and his repeated musings on how all he wanted in life was to take care of his brother seem designed to make the reader care as much for Dwayne’s loss as for the men he targets with such brutality. Every male character in this book has broken the law, but it’s not clear by the end of the novel whether any of them will face legal consequences. Instead, justice is supposed to be achieved by the way the characters settle things with each other. In my opinion, Dwayne is never in the right with his actions, no matter how unjust his brother’s death may be. For some things, I just don’t see that there’s any reasonable excuse, though the complexity of Dwayne’s character certainly makes him more interesting.

“Dwayne understood that his brother was not meant for this place, that some people were born too soft to bear the teeth of this world. There was no place for weakness in a world like this. Survival was so often a matter of meanness.”

I’ve been reading some sadly plot-holed thrillers lately (Snap, The Last Time I Lied, The Girl From Blind River), so my patience was wearing thin by the time I started The Line That Held Us, and I’m happy to say I only had one issue with the plotting: fingerprinting at crime scenes. I’m not sure what year this book takes place, but I know fingerprinting has been around for a good hundred years and this story definitely takes place near present day, so it made absolutely no sense to me that the police couldn’t place anyone at the scene of the grisliest crime, where the culprit touched plenty.

Overall, though this is a crime novel, there is no mystery and little thrill. There’s a great level of psychology rooted in the fact that Dwayne believes the wrongful death of his brother entitles him to the lives of the men who buried him, but even that is not the point of this novel. The Line That Held Us is very much a book focused on place, where the setting and the way of life in the Appalachian Mountains is as important to the story as any of the characters. This would be a great book to read for a mental vacation (though keep in mind it is a bit dark, not anything you would find in a travel brochure).

“Things had a tendency to disappear like ghosts in this place, into the trees, over the ridge, then gone.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. It took a few chapters for me to get the hang of Joy’s writing style and I don’t have any desire to read more of Joy’s work, but I did enjoy the time I spent with this one. The competent plotting of this book was such a relief after several plot-hole-riddled thrillers this month; it was so nice to just sit back and be able to follow the author through the story without questioning everything. Also I’m proud of myself for reading my BOTM selection (plus a few extras from my backlog) within the month because I haven’t managed that since May and I’m finally starting to feel like I’m getting back on track.

Further recommendations:

  1. The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh is another interesting crime novel in which setting plays a key roll. This setting though, is partially fictional. In a new prison experiment planted in Texas, a village is assembled for the worst criminals, where convicts take a home and a job and roam freely through the town amongst each other. Though they’re stuck with each other inside, the town is also a sort of protection from the outside world and an alternative to a lifetime spent in a cell. For years the convicts in this town peacefully co-exist, but trust becomes an major issue when an unexplained murder divides the town. If you like a dark crime story with a strong setting, The Blinds is as captivating as The Line That Held Us.
  2. Michael Punke’s The Revenant might also be a good choice for readers who are interested in revenge stories with a heavy focus on wilderness/landscape. This one’s historical fiction from the US fur trade days, when one member of a trapping company is left for dead, and dedicates himself to exacting revenge.

What’s the darkest book you’ve read?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Snap

The Man Booker longlist for 2018 was announced a few weeks ago, and I added several of the titles to my TBR. I don’t know how many I’ll end up reading, but I do want to get through a few before we see the shortlist. For my first longlist choice, I picked Belinda Bauer’s Snap, a mystery/thriller that I thought would be a quick (and easily available) read to help me dive into the longlist.

snapAbout the book: Eileen Bright leaves her three children in her broke-down car on the side of the road so she can call for help. The year is 1998, and calling for help means walking to the nearest pay phone. Jack, the oldest of the children at eleven years old, watches the hands on his wristwatch mark an entire hour in the stifling car before he decides to investigate. But it’s already too late. Three years later, another woman is awakened by a noise in the night when she thought she was alone. What seems at first like a thwarted burglary turns out to be much more when Catherine finds a knife and death threat by her bed, and doesn’t call the police.

Based on the first two chapters, I thought I was going to love this book. The first chapter focuses on Jack after his mother leaves the car. The second chapter follows Catherine as she’s forced to acknowledge a burglar in her dark house. These chapters are creepy, intriguing, and introduce a lot of questions that had me hooked.

But from there, though the events themselves remain captivating, the rest of the book begins to fall apart. The characters are notably juvenile, which is less excusable after the eleven year-old becomes the “man of the family” and is forced to grow up fast, and the frightened pregnant woman in the middle of the night is more thoroughly developed. This impression might have been influenced by the writing style, which has an overhanded way of repeating or italicizing important words and phrases. There are many short two-or-three-word paragraphs apparently meant to pack a punch that instead just seem to state the obvious.

But the biggest problem, for me at least, is the level of coincidence this plot relies on. Though the underlying mystery remains intriguing, the connections are almost always based on someone remembering something they shouldn’t be able to, or someone having a “feeling.” The point at which the murder weapon is identified by someone who picked it up and just knew it was the exact knife from the Eileen Bright case and couldn’t name a reason for that knowledge beyond instinct, Snap was ruined for me. The characters do occasionally remark on the role coincidence plays in life and investigations, but there is absolutely no commentary that can ever make coincidence come across as anything other than an excuse in fiction. There’s one moment where a chance connection is actually likened to magic, which… is ridiculous. It’s just lazy writing for a mystery to come together with coincidence and “magic” rather than hard work and tangible evidence.

“Marvel nodded. He liked a good hunch himself, and was open to the instincts of others.”

“Rice’s face broke into a broad grin. ‘Sometimes feelings are facts!’ “

I had other issues with this book, including the way women– and pregnant women specifically– are portrayed. Catherine in particular leans on the excuse of hysteria related to pregnancy to rationalize many of her actions, and most of the other characters seem inclined to agree: pregnancy makes women do stupid things. It was horrid seeing Catherine use this mentality as a crutch, and horrid seeing the way some of the men thought of her pregnancy.

“Adam While’s wife opened the door looking like a whale.”

First off, ew. I hate it when the first thing a male character notices about a woman he’s meeting (or vice versa) is that she’s beautiful, or ugly. Yes, appearance is one of the first things we notice when meeting new people in real life as well, but it’s much more pleasant (and easier to visualize) when actual physical descriptions are provided rather than subjective impressions. The latter are only helpful in revealing the character of the observer. But comparing a pregnant woman with a whale neither helps the reader’s opinion of this police officer, nor provides much of a visual for Catherine.

And speaking of officers, let’s look at the policework in Snap. I don’t think there was any investigation at all of the murder weapon until a particular question about it is raised three years later. Someone on the police force looking into the origins of the knife might have uncovered the truth of the murder long before Jack’s life went off the rails. And are they planning to prosecute the murderer at all after this “investigation?” On what evidence? Have they attained anything legally? And how did Marvel not suspect, when another officer talks about Adam’s wife leaving him, that maybe she didn’t come back? And when do criminals– even juvenile ones– get to walk away free and clear after admitting to over a hundred crimes, on good faith?

I know I’ve listed a lot of complaints, but I didn’t actively hate this book. It disappointed me, but it was great starting out, turned bland for the rest of the first half, and then felt rushed from there. The bare bones of this story are superb, and even though I found fault with a lot of the rest of it, Snap still stands out as a story that had a lot of potential that it just didn’t reach. There were even times, outside of the characters’ thoughts, when I even liked the writing style.

“The breathless air twitched in the wake of each car, then flopped down dead in the dust again.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Much like the last thriller I read (Riley Sager’s The Last Time I Lied), this one seemed so promising, and just didn’t deliver. I’ll keep trying, but it’s been hard finding a good thriller lately. Snap turned out not to be a great start to the Man Booker longlist, though if they get better from here maybe I’ll be glad to have started on the less impressive end of the spectrum. (Prediction: Snap will not make the shortlist.) Next up for Man Booker I’ve got Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea and Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under coming my way. I’m also planning on picking up Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room from my library soon. Hopefully these choices will be better fits.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you had better luck with Snap than I did and want something similar, you might enjoy Cate Holahan’s Lies She Told, a metafiction thriller about a thriller writer who is undergoing hormone treatments to boost her fertility, and thinks the hormones are making her think and behave erratically.
  2. I keep recommending this, but if you’re looking for a better mystery with plenty of suspense, Riley Sager’s Final Girls is a fresh take on familiar slasher thriller tropes. In this novel, the sole survivor (final girl, if you will) of a murder spree is running for her life again– maybe from the same crazed knife-wielder who killed her friends last time.

Do you read any longlist books, or do you wait for the shortlist or winner? Or steer clear of literary prizes altogether? I’m not convinced literary prize nominees are always the best choices, but I always find it interesting to see what gets picked.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The Last Time I Lied

Last July I read one of my all-time favorite thrillers, Riley Sager’s Final Girls. When I realized he had another thriller coming out this July, I was immediately on board. The fact that it takes place at a summer camp made me a little wary (I felt like I had heard that story before), but I still couldn’t pass it up. I’m glad I didn’t.

thelasttimeiliedAbout the book: Fifteen years ago, Emma’s summer camp experience came to a crashing halt when the other three girls from her cabin vanished without a trace. She struggles to cope with the loss of her new friends, and is stunned when over a decade later, though no bodies have ever been found, the camp is reopening– and Emma is invited back. Franny, the owner of Camp Nightingale, almost begs Emma to come back to the first session of the reawakened camp, this time as an instructor. Despite several valid concerns, she agrees, hoping for a chance to unearth some missed clue and finally find closure. But from the moment she arrives back at camp, things begin to go wrong. Someone is watching Emma. Someone who knows she lied about what happened fifteen years ago.

“Everything is a game, Em. Whether you know it or not. Which means that sometimes a lie is more than just a lie. Sometimes it’s the only way to win.”

The Last Time I Lied is told in alternating chapters of the present timeline, and Emma’s first stay at the camp. In some ways this works well: there are eerie parallels between the summers despite the time jump and age differences. In other ways, this style of narration seems like a hindrance. The best thrillers, in my opinion, are the mysteries that the reader is unable to solve until the final moments, at the same time as the reader realizes the clues have been right there all along, cleverly hidden. The back-and-forth of the two camp stories in this novel, however, left me constantly feeling that there was more information I needed from the past to understand what was happening in the present, and the author was doling it out excruciatingly slowly rather than giving the reader a proper chance to guess.

Most of the chapters end on little cliffhangers, hints of treachery under the surface. Usually I like this technique, but it’s a little stilted here. A character will tell Emma a story, and Emma goes about her business, and two pages later thinks, “Oh, that might have been a threat.” Or she finds crows in her cabin, sees the window is closed, and takes two more pages to admit, “Well, maybe someone put them in here on purpose.” The pacing might have been better if Sager had let these revelations occur more naturally rather than trying to end every chapter with a bang.

Omnes vulnerate; ultima necat… All hours wound; the last one kills.”

Another pro/con: characterization. Sager is a master of motive, filling his stories with just the right balance of long-cons and impulse actions. Some characters have been holding grudges for years– others have been fine just fine until something small makes them snap. So rarely do thriller events seem to have any plausibility, but there’s just the right balance of intent and accident in The Last Time I Lied to keep the details from becoming too far-fetched.

The flip side of that coin is that I had a hard time sympathizing with any of these characters. I just didn’t find myself emotionally invested– they all felt a bit constructed, even if expertly so. Then there’s the lying game that Emma plays both times she’s at camp; the lies make it as hard to trust Emma as anyone else.

Then there are the plot holes. I won’t give anything away, but I will say there’s a legend about Lake Midnight that seems logistically unbelievable to me, as well as a sort-of romance that feels unlikely and unnecessary, and certain details of the terrain at Camp Nightingale that it seems odd more characters aren’t aware of. Some things just didn’t add up as flawlessly as I would have expected for a thriller/mystery plot web.

But it’s not all bad. The best element is the atmosphere. Sager uses the forced closeness of a group of virtual strangers to create strife, and compounds it with the natural dangers and mysteries of a landscape removed from civilization. With the night noises and weird shadows and the marks left on the land by people long gone, Camp Nightingale feels like a real enough place. 

Despite my myriad small complaints, I did appreciate the way everything came together in the end. There were a few big twists I wasn’t expecting, and the answers to the mysteries satisfied me completely. It ends not quite on a cliff-hanger, but with an exciting loose end. Ultimately, I think the ideas at the core of this book are solid– the execution seemed a little rushed, perhaps, not quite as put-together as Final Girls, though I did enjoy the underlying story just as much.

“What none of them understand is that the point of the game isn’t to fool others with a lie. The goal is to trick them by telling the truth.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. It’s possible I was a little extra critical of this book because I loved Sager’s Final Girls so much last year. The difference is that Final Girls is a slasher thriller; I went in expecting not to take it too seriously, to laugh a bit like I do when watching the old Scream movies. After loving Final Girls more than expected, and not expecting to laugh at this one, I’m not sure The Last Time I Lied had any chance of living up to my expectations. It was a decent read, though, and I’m eagerly awaiting another Sager thriller– hopefully next summer?

Further recommendations:

  • Similar to the summer camp environment is the boarding school environment: it features the same sort of quick and unexpected friendships, a temporary home-away-from-home, and a general air of teenage rebellion. If you liked The Last Time I Lied, you should also pick up Ruth Ware’s The Lying Game, which stars another set of four girls, a missing body, a lying game, and a past/present narrative.
  • And of course, if you’re looking for a good whodunnit thriller, don’t miss Final Girls. Riley Sager’s debut is fun and spine-tingling at the same time, and sure to surprise even the most careful reader. It’s a play on those old scary movies that we laugh at now for being so unrealistic, both embracing and overturning the tropes of that genre.

I’m on a rare  suspense novel binge this month. Next up: Belinda Bauer’s (Man Booker longlisted) Snap, and David Joy’s (August Book of the Month selection) The Line That Held Us. Have you read any great thrillers lately?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant