Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review: Animals Eat Each Other

I hadn’t heard of Elle Nash’s Animals Eat Each Other before reading the succinct and compelling review that Callum wrote about it last month, but it sounded like just the sort of brief, bizarre, and hard-hitting story that’s been working so well for me this year. I couldn’t miss it. (And if this book sounds at all interesting, you can’t miss Callum’s review!)

animalseateachotherIn the novel, “Lilith,” not long out of high school, is working with an old friend at a RadioShack. One day an enigmatic couple enters the store, and the friend persuades “Lilith” to show them her latest tattoo. Later, “Lilith” is told that the pair is interested in her, and she goes to their apartment to meet them again. Mark and Frankie name her Lilith and adopt her as their girlfriend, treating her more like a pet than an equal. As she becomes more involved with them, she grows less certain of herself.

“All I could think about was how I was not like these people, and how that was bad. I wanted to feel part of something. I wanted Frankie to like me so badly. I was ready to mold myself into what she wanted.”

At its core, this slip of a novel is an examination of identity; how we define who we are, how other people can change our sense of self, what is left of us in times when those powerful influences are not present. “Lilith,” our first person protagonist who reveals no name for herself beyond what Mark and Frankie bestow upon her, is only nineteen and at a perfect point in her life for a crisis in self-discovery. Most of the cast is around the same age, floating between legal adulthood (18) and the legal age for alcohol consumption (21- US); they are more or less all leaning on each other… some leaning a little harder than others.

“I spent so much of my life doing what everybody asked me that I wasn’t even sure what I wanted anymore, if I wanted anything, if I had needs at all.”

The book opens with an intense glimpse into Lilith’s sex life with Matt and Frankie; it’s a grim but memorable moment that sets the tone for everything that will follow. It did leave me a bit worried that Lilith’s account of this period of personal exploration might deteriorate into explicit gratuity, but fortunately this is not the case. Nash keeps the focus consistently on the protagonist’s emotional and mental state, displaying behaviors primarily as a means of characterization and development. There is no denying the narration’s brutal honesty, but it’s handled shrewdly. In fact, there were a few instances in which I had to double check the MC’s age, such is the level of her self-awareness. She may be confused about what she’s gotten into and where it will end for her, but she does recognize that a major change is taking place and is often able to pinpoint what unsettles her.

One thing I found particularly interesting about this story is that while her  experiences with Matt and Frankie clearly alter our protagonist, it seems equally clear that her shaky sense of identity runs deeper than this questionable relationship. Well before meeting Matt and Frankie, she’s tattooed the backs of her thighs with a slogan she’s not sure has ever fit her. She began sleeping with her boss only to tick off a box on a list of taboos. She took a job because her mother prodded her to, and chose the RadioShack because her friend was able to get her a position there. It seems as though Lilith has been waiting a long time for someone to tell her what to do and who to be; she’s uniquely suited for this story. If Matt and Frankie had approached anyone other than this girl they’ve managed to shape as their Lilith, it’s hard to believe that things would have escalated to the level that they do.

“I was an object in her eyes. I was a tool. Every time I heard the name Lilith, pieces of me slipped and gave way underneath her perception of me.”

The only other element that curbed my enthusiasm for this book was the writing- I just didn’t quite get on with Nash’s style. Though I tabbed over a dozen brilliant lines and passages in this 120-page volume, there were plenty of places where it felt to me like the narration was trying a bit too hard to be taken as profound. Furthermore, I thought it relied a little too heavily on telling rather than showing in a way that might have been avoided if the piece had been given a bit more length; some of my favorite concepts and observations in the narration came as quick comments and then were left behind, where I would have appreciated further expansion. The plot is fairly predictable, which shouldn’t matter too much in a character study like this, but when a character takes center stage in this way I hope for a full exploration, to an extent I didn’t quite find here.

But overall, I did find the story compulsively readable. It’s main theme- that people destroy each other- will stick with me, as will some of the more vivid details. There’s one scene, in which Frankie displays her power over Lilith in a very public way at the local WalMart, that will particularly haunt me.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m still debating between a 3 and 4 star rating here, and may change this number as I let it settle more firmly in my mind. Though it didn’t have quite as strong an effect on me as I was hoping for based on its early chapters, this was nevertheless a captivating and read that left quite an impression. I’m glad I picked it up, and would certainly be curious to check out more from this author if she were to publish again.

 

The Literary Elephant

Advertisements

Review: The Farm

Like many “dystopian feminist” titles released over the past few years, I think Joanne Ramos’s The Farm suffers from its Handmaid’s Tale comparisons. Fortunately, I think it has plenty to offer in its own right.

thefarmIn the novel, Jane, a US immigrant from the Philippines, has recently left her husband and must now care for their newborn daughter alone. When her elderly cousin, Ate, must leave a baby-nursing job due to failing health, Jane is persuaded to take Ate’s place; thus begins her career of caring for the babies of the rich in order to provide for her own small family. When Jane must leave that first job, Ate finds her another- this time as a surrogate mother at a facility where women are paid to carry and birth the babies of those who can afford to outsource their pregnancies.

The first thing to know about The Farm is that it is not, in fact, dystopian. Though Golden Oaks (“The Farm”) is fictional, we do currently live in a world where the wealthy can pay other women to carry their babies to term. Furthermore, I’m not even sure I would call this a feminist book, as Ramos herself admits that she’s not trying to make any particular point with this story:

I didn’t write [The Farm] to come up with answers, because I don’t have them. Instead, the book is meant to explore- for myself, and hopefully for its readers, too- questions of who we are, what we cherish, and how we see those who are different from ourselves.

As such, I think this book is a huge success.

It follows four main characters- Jane, Ate, Reagan (another surrogate mom), and Mae (head of the Golden Oaks facility). Several other significant characters are introduced and play their own tangential roles, but all of these women- even the other three perspective characters- primarily serve to add depth to Jane’s situation. And yet, though each fulfils a specific role and may seem at first a stereotypical representation of the viewpoint they embody, all are nuanced and distinct. Their motivations differ wildly, and yet even as they act in opposition it seems that each is making the only logical choice available to them. The clincher is that there really is no obvious judgment one way or the other; The Farm‘s greatest strength is that it presents so many facets of a delicate issue while also leaving readers plenty of room to form their own opinions.

What is this “difficult situation,” this “delicate issue?” At heart, it is the question of legality vs. morality, especially when it comes to women’s bodies. When Jane agrees to become a surrogate for a Golden Oaks Client, she signs a contract stating that she will care for the Client’s child to the best of her ability. The leaders of Golden Oaks have some ideas about what this means- living in a secure environment, eating particular healthy foods, attending mandatory exercise classes and weekly ultrasounds, etc. But when the “Host” and baby inhabit the same body, where does one draw the line between the Host’s own rights and the Client’s right to dictate their baby’s care?

” ‘Fetal security’ is Ms. Yu’s excuse, although Lisa insists it’s a ruse, a way to keep the Hosts ignorant, because then they’re easier to control.”

The greatest conflict arises when Jane wishes to prioritize her own child’s well-being, while the Golden Oaks folks cannot allow anything to sabotage the well-being of their Client’s child. While searching for middle ground, Jane and Mae push each other nearly to their breaking points.

But the commentary does not begin and end with the complications of surrogacy. Jane, Ate, and many of the Hosts are immigrants struggling with poverty, and Golden Oaks, all specifics of its business aside, is attached to a big corporation that is either helping with or taking advantage of their precarious positions- another moral quandary. Jane cannot afford proper housing and needs money in a hurry; is she in a position to decline questionable business propositions? Furthermore, is she in a position to recognize when she is being taken advantage of?

“She always said the worst thing you can do to a child is raise it with too much softness, because the world is hard. But Jane is not sure. There are people who move through the world like they own it, and the world seems to bend to their demands.”

The Farm is a conceptual story, meant to enlighten and test the boundaries of perspective. It doesn’t have a busy plot, because plot is not the driving force of the novel. In fact, I found the plot completely transparent, especially at its climax. The book doesn’t particularly encourage readers to develop a sense of emotional closeness with the characters over the course of the story either, as not even they are the driving force. And yet, despite the lack of those two main elements that often make or break my reading experiences, I was absolutely hooked from beginning to end. I loved the dialogue, the complex relationships and myriad confrontations within, and most of all the repeated shocks of the many ways in which women are used, allow themselves to be used, and continue to use each other. Ramos has done a stellar job with this one.

” ‘You’re letting a rich stranger use you. You’re putting a price tag on something integral–‘

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I had a few minor issues, mainly with the predictability of the plot, but ultimately I was excited to continue every time I picked the book up again and thought about it constantly when forced to put it down. This story could easily have been sensationalized, but never felt heavy-handed. There are no clear villains and no clear solutions, though The Farm certainly raises a lot of questions. I would absolutely read more from this author.

Hilarious side note: it took me longer than I’d like to admit to realize that the shapes on this cover are probably the vague silhouettes of pregnant women; until I really thought about it, they looked to me like the edges of violins…

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: A Room of One’s Own

Virginia Woolf was one of those classic authors I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read yet (beyond a few excerpts in college), which led me to pick up A Room of One’s Own back in December. I appreciated it enough that I wanted to add a copy to my shelves, and inadvertently ended up with an edition that also contains Woolf’s “Three Guineas” essay. I read the latter last month.

aroomofone'sownIn “A Room of One’s Own,” Woolf considers why women have not been as successful as men in the arts- particularly in writing. She argues that women cannot be judged by the same standards as men if they have not experienced the same advantages as men, and claims that in order to pursue their interests in the way that men have been allowed to pursue their interests, each woman needs a room of her own and 300£ per year.

“Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom.”

Though Woolf’s involved and intelligent style demands the reader’s full attention, I would be flabbergasted by any reader who could read this piece without completely understanding Woolf’s perspective on this matter; such is her power with written argument. Though it is not impossible to disagree with some of the conclusions that Woolf draws, she goes to such painstaking efforts of showing how she’s reached those conclusions that any disparity of opinion must come from differing personal beliefs than any flaw in Woolf’s ability to persuade.

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”

This piece is structured as though scripted for a speech at a women’s college graduation, and though probably most relevant to the audience of its time, it certainly has the feel of a timeless work. Originally published in 1929, “A Room of One’s Own” serves today partially as a historical reference point, as a glimpse into the ongoing struggle of feminism in the recent aftermath of woman’s secured right to vote, to work in professions outside of the home for a fair wage, and to own property (in Britain). Conditions for women today are not as outrageously unfair as during Woolf’s time- in this first essay she mentions visiting a university where she is not allowed to set foot in certain buildings, and even the meals vary according to gender- but enough similarities remain that the crux of her argument has not yet lost its urgency. And for its historic relevance, I doubt it will ever lose its importance.

“For books continue each other, in spite of our habit of judging them separately.”

In “Three Guineas,” Woolf examines how one might prevent war, in response to a letter supposedly asking for advice and a donation. In the course of her argument, she also answers a letter from someone seeking a donation to build a woman’s college, and pens another aimed at female writers; she believes both can help to prevent war, and by donating and asking others to assist with these causes she can aid in that prevention.

Though at first the possible prevention of war may seem to have little to do with women’s rights, Woolf wastes no time explaining that war has always been a man’s profession, and how the historical and habitual silencing of women’s voices may lead to war. It does seem a fitting piece to accompany “A Room of One’s Own” in such a volume as this, though it does advocate more openly for equality between all people rather than focusing solely on assisting women. Indeed, in “Three Guineas” Woolf wants to eradicate the word feminism altogether, because she does not believe it conveys the spirit of total equality the term is meant to invoke.

Sadly, the argument appears to have come too little, too late- it was first published in 1938, only a year or so before Britain entered WWII. Perhaps this essay did not fall into the hands of enough people willing to act on her advice… Who can say?

Nevertheless, Woolf is just as persuasive and convincing in this piece as the first, and the prevention of war feels as timeless a topic as feminism. This second piece is somewhat longer, and unfortunately I did think that it felt longer, as well; this is a multi-faceted argument with many tangents that cause the pacing to ebb and flow more dramatically than in “A Room of One’s Own.” It’s a solid piece that makes some great points, but I wouldn’t recommend “Three Guineas” as a starting point with Woolf’s nonfiction.

“Is it not possible that if we knew the truth about war, the glory of war would be scotched and crushed where it lies curled up in the rotten cabbage leaves of our prostituted fact-purveyors; and if we knew the truth about art instead of shuffling and shambling through the smeared and dejected pages of those who must live by prostituting culture, the enjoyment and practice of art would become so desirable that by comparison the pursuit of war would be a tedious game for elderly dilettantes in search of a mildly sanitary amusement – the tossing of bombs instead of balls over frontiers instead of nets? In short, if newspapers were written by people whose sole object in writing was to tell the truth about politics and the truth about art we should not believe in war, and we should believe in art.”

On the whole, these are not the most accessible or timely classics I’ve read, but I did find them worthwhile. I would highly recommend reading the first piece, to anyone interested in classics or feminism or Woolf’s writing; I would recommend the second only based on a thorough appreciation of the first piece, as it does seem more a continuation than a work that will change any minds about Woolf’s writing on its own.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I rated both essays individually since I read them so far apart, and they both came out exactly the same for me at 4 stars each. I appreciated both, but I wouldn’t call this book a “fun” read; I found it rewarding, and did enjoy Woolf’s voice- I think she would’ve made a great presence on Twitter, though her strength clearly lies in more complex sentences than would fit in a tweet. In any case, I’m very much looking forward to checking out some of Woolf’s fiction!

Have you read any of Virginia Woolf’s work- fiction or nonfiction? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Little Darlings

The summer spooks continue with twins and changelings, a new mom who’s a bit mentally unstable, and a years-old unsolved case of attempted baby-snatching. Such is the content of Melanie Golding’s thriller debut, Little Darlings.

littledarlingsIn the novel, Lauren gives birth to twins. The experience is much more traumatizing than she had been led to believe, and she’s beyond exhausted before she even meets them. To make matters worse, she endures a terrifying experience in the hospital, in which a strange, dirty woman with eel-like twins of her own threatens to take Lauren’s babies when she refuses a one-for-one trade. No one believes Lauren’s story. But the strange woman is persistent, and when an accident with the twins culminates in Lauren insisting that her babies have been exchanged, it’s up to one stubborn detective to find proof that Lauren’s claims are not as crazy as everyone thinks.

The early chapters start this book off with a bang as the narration takes the reader through visceral details of Lauren giving birth to the twins. A bit of grit always appeals to me in novels- I like to know that the author won’t shy away from anything difficult, and Golding proves herself right away with ripped stitches and an invasive fix made by a doctor who says “tell me to stop if it hurts too much,” and then doesn’t. I’ve never given birth, but by the time Lauren is finished I felt like I had.

I also appreciated the way that the narration flirts with Lauren’s “madness” throughout the story. The chapters alternate between Lauren’s perspective and that of DS Harper, a woman willing to bend the rules and follow her hunches; neither of them can abide by the hospital’s assurances that the woman who threatened to take the twins was a figment of Lauren’s overtired imagination. And yet, there’s plenty of room for doubt. Through these two women’s experiences we see many other characters dismiss Lauren’s claims primarily because they seem too far-fetched or inconvenient. The doctors seem eager to medicate Lauren into a stupor and the police just don’t want the expense of spending more time on the case than needed. Is Harper’s gut correct? Are money and protocol guiding the case toward its easiest conclusion, or is Lauren seeing things that aren’t there? A shadow on the hospital camera and trampled grass in an area where Lauren claims to have seen the threatening woman suggest one possibility, while Lauren’s own admittance that she’s only been managing a couple of hours of sleep at a time for weeks and is off her depression medication suggest quite another. It’s a proper mystery.

” ‘You used to walk, every day,’ said Patrick, apparently struggling not to sound accusatory, failing. ‘You said it kept you sane.’ […] For thirty-one days, her boots had stood unused on the shoe rack by the back door.”

Unfortunately, I felt that some of the characterization was overdone and at times even nonsensical. Of course different characters perceive each other in different ways, but Patrick (Lauren’s husband) swung so wildly from devoted family man to selfish cad that it’s impossible to say what kind of person he is or what his motives might be.

DS Harper bothered me as well. It seems she is meant to be taken as a sympathetic and plucky detective, willing to see past the beauracracy of the police department and go the extra mile to track down criminals. Instead, her flagrant and unnecessary penchant for rule-breaking mars this image and makes it difficult to take her seriously. If she doesn’t respect the law enough to follow it, how can we respect her as the potential hero? Many of her decisions seem poor and/or unnecessarily risky. Harper jumps to quick assumptions, makes impulse decisions, and is clearly willing to believe what seems plausible to no one else. Her vote of confidence in Lauren, sadly, does not particularly imply credibility.

Furthermore, there seems to be an odd gap between the real and the magical in this story. Lauren keeps the otherworldly details about the mysterious woman and her babies-that-are-not-quite-babies to herself. Somehow, everyone concludes she is seeing things even without those details. And yet, how could so many people become involved in a case involving infant twins whose mother is worried about them being “changed” without anyone even jokingly making a connection to changeling tales? (Isn’t changeling lore fairly common knowledge?) For the reader, the magical influence is obvious; the characters, even Lauren, seem to remain oblivious.

But the biggest disappointment arrives in the final few chapters, as the solution to the mystery is finally revealed. My issue is not with the reveal itself- it’s not offensive or plot-holed or particularly problematic. Strangely, it does not adhere to traditional changeling narratives at all. I expected, from the premise and the direction the entire novel seemed to be taking, at least the possibility of fairies. Instead, after following Harper into the beginning of a seemingly-unrelated case, we learn a very different truth about what has happened, a truth not hinted at in the premise and tangentially mentioned only once in the story. To me, this complete change of direction feels like a cop-out of sorts; a departure from the original topic. It’s a creative answer to the problem, but left me feeling like I was in one of those awkward conversations where two people are talking about two different things without realizing that they’re not on the same page.

Nevertheless, I found Lauren and the central mystery engaging throughout most of the novel. I never stopped wanting to know whether the mysterious woman was real and what would happen to Lauren’s babies. Despite its faults, I cannot say that Little Darlings was not an entertaining read. It has some great things to say about new motherhood and modern relationships, and will probably delight many readers who their thrillers dark with a dash of magic.

“You can’t stay here until you’re sane. You won’t ever leave.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This was a pretty average read for me- some ups, some downs, worth a few hours of amusement. It’s quick and easy to read as a great summer thriller should be, though ultimately it left me dissatisfied. Little Darlings is a debut that feels like a debut, but I enjoyed enough of its elements that I would probably give this author another try in the future.

Have you read Little Darlings? 

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Killer Across the Table

Two of my current reading goals are 1) to read more nonfiction, and 2) to catch up on the BOTM titles still waiting unread on my shelf. Picking up The Killer Across the Table by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker this month contributed toward both.

thekilleracrossthetableIn the book, former FBI agent / criminal profiler John Douglas looks back on his conversations with convicted serial killers in an attempt to explain why they do what they do.

“Because let’s be honest: the fascination with ‘true crime’ is actually fascination with what writers and philosophers call the human condition. We all want to know and understand the basis of human behavior and motivation, why we do the things we do. And with crime, we are seeing the human condition writ large and at the extremes…”

Right out of the gate, Douglas and Olshaker make clear that this book was written with the intent of showing readers what the human mind is capable of, for the purpose of understanding what causes violent crime and perhaps recognizing the signs to prevent history repeating itself. The book is divided into four sections, each of which examines a different “type” of serial killer, though Douglas flips between cases frequently and with ease wherever they fit his arguments.

In the first section, a would-be serial killer finds himself behind bars after only one crime; his victim’s death ultimately results in the national adoption of Joan’s Law. The second section examines a killer who chooses victims disturbingly close to home. The third, a hospital orderly the likes of whom you’ll never want to meet. And the fourth, a killer whose crimes do not seem to follow any pattern. The first two are the strongest, in my opinion, but my attention and interest never wavered. The Killer Across the Table is a great introduction to true crime, and offers such a wealth of psychological insight that readers already familiar with the genre will probably find something new here, as well. 

If, like me, you’re fairly new to true crime and aren’t sure about your interest level in serial killers, let me assure you that this volume is beginner-friendly. Though it does not read like a novel, it does touch on a wide variety of cases and motivations that will probably help you decide whether you want to read about anything or anyone specific in more depth. My only previous experience with true crime lit was In Cold Blood, so I did appreciate this broader overview. I’ve also watched a couple of recent true crime Netflix films, which is how I came to be reading The Killer Across the Table– I saw Netflix’s Mindhunter, a new adaptation of another book by these authors that uses the same style of approach to accomplish the same purpose, and became intersested enough to pick up this quasi-related work; the two make for great companion pieces. 

John Douglas, the first listed author, is the agent who pioneered this method of criminal profiling that’s become so familiar from detective shows and novels in the last couple of decades. He’s the basis for Jack Crawford, the senior FBI agent from The Silence of the Lambs. There’s no doubt in these 300-some pages that he’s an intelligent person, and good at what he does. And yet, it’s still worth bearing in mind that there’s some subjectivity involved with presuming to know what goes on in another person’s mind. Douglas’s arguments are easy to follow and always backed up with evidence, but this is still a fairly new branch of criminology and Douglas’s word seems to be as close to proof as we can get within this volume.

But this is where it gets a bit controversial. My favorite part of the Mindhunter adaptation (so far) comes toward the end of the first season- agent Ford, the character based on Douglas, seems to become a bit mentally unstable as he spends more time interviewing and deciphering notorious killers. The lengths he goes to in the interviews become more extreme, he lies to cover up an action he knows others will see as morally wrong, he makes serious decisions in both his relationships and career based on deductions from behavior rather than listening to others. Perhaps I read more into it than the writers of the show intended, but in any case this questionable impression of Ford/Douglas’s character was fresh in my mind when I started The Killer Across the Table. For this reason, I was perhaps a bit paranoid in my reading. After cold descriptions of gruesome crimes, Douglas does occasionally admit that the details of the crime were difficult for him to stomach and he feels only disgust for the people who would do such things. But for me, these quick, infrequent statements were not able to penetrate the sense of absolute detachment and indifference in the writing. The grammar is perfect, the words chosen carefully, and behind them… I felt no emotion.

Of course Douglas (and Olshaker, who never seems to be the “I” in the writing here though he must undoubtedly be present behind it) has no need to prove his emotions to me or any other reader. This is a book about what makes serial killers tick, not Douglas’s personal life. But I can’t deny that this sense of detachment in the writing affected my reading experience. The deaths of the victims are described in as tasteful a way as possible, but even in concept these acts are abhorrent; I expected to find an emotional connection, as I did with In Cold Blood. I might have managed to shrug this absence off in the end, if not for this passage:

“Perhaps the most-discussed exchange in the first season of the Netflix Mindhunter series occurs in episode 9 […]. In an effort to get past Speck’s contempt and get him engaged, Holden [Douglas’s character] rhetorically asks him what gave him the right to ‘take eight ripe cunts out of the world.’

It was actually pretty much like that in real life. We were in a conference room in the prison with Speck and a corrections department counselor and Speck was consciously ignoring us. I turned to the counselor and said, ‘You know what he did, your guy? He killed eight pussies. And some of those pussies looked pretty good. He took eight good pieces of ass away from the rest of us. You think that’s fair?’ “

This is exactly the scene in the Mindhunter film series that I began to strongly question the inherent goodness of agent Ford’s character and his motivations behind the criminal interviews. Seeing the same action repeated here, with an attempt at explanation but still no remorse, did nothing to shake my discomfort, though I know that Ford is a character, played by an actor, in what is probably a more fictionalized account. In the interest of keeping things fair, I’ll also point out that Douglas is only acting in the way he believes to be the best, most objective way to extract important information from criminals who don’t entirely want to play along:

“My role is to get these guys to talk, to find out what is, and was, going on inside their minds. Confrontation and moral indignation do not achieve that. In the end, talking to killers is about playing the long game, with every move a deliberate one- outrage, anger, these emotions are ever present in the background, but they work against you only if they come to the surface.”

He admits only one instance when emotion came to the surface for him during an interview.

I am so very curious about what Douglas would have chosen to do with his life if he hadn’t found such a perfect fit as a pioneer of criminal profiling for the FBI. His understanding of the human mind- in all its complex variations- is uncanny.

“We had proved we could think like the worst of’em.”

But whatever your eventual opinion of Douglas’s morals, there’s plenty of reason to read this book if you have any interest in the workings of the human brain. Douglas is undoubtedly an expert in his field, and he does an excellent job of shedding light on the dark side of humanity without glorifying these killers.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I think this is a good moment to mention again that I choose my star ratings based on personal enjoyment. Fortunately, my level of enjoyment is often pretty equal to the amount of merit I find in a book, but this is not always the case. By rating nonfiction, I am using the same scale of enjoyment as with fiction, by expressing a completely subjective summary of my experience; I am in no way attempting to pass judgment on the writer’s life or person. While I did find The Killer Across the Table a worthwhile read, it also taught me that I do tire of reading about serial killers. Though I’m still looking forward to the eventual release of Mindhunter‘s second season, I am not at this time planning to read any of Douglas and Olshaker’s other books, or any other serial killer books for the foreseeable future. I’m fairly new to nonfiction, and serial killers are only one small niche of a much wider interest for me, so I’m looking forward to seeing what else is out there and moving away from this topic for now. That said, if serial killer nonfiction is your niche or a budding interest, I do recommend checking out this author duo!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Last

Summer is the season of heat and light and beach reads, but for me it’s also when the dark and spookies start settling in, and I like to reach for something more chaotic. And so I came by Hanna Jameson’s The Last, a suspenseful apocalyptic mystery set in an atmospheric old hotel. As soon as I heard about it, I knew I would have to get my hands on a copy.

thelastIn the novel, Jon is staying at a large hotel in Switzerland for a conference when nuclear war suddenly wipes out many of the world’s major cities. The hotel guests (including Jon) spiral into a panic; many leave to catch planes that won’t be flying to return to families that no longer exist. Jon remains at the hotel with several strangers who opt to wait for help to arrive. When a dead girl is found in the hotel’s water supply, Jon takes charge of investigating the obvious murder as a means to keep busy. He suspects that the killer is still living among them. As life goes on for the few that remain, it becomes difficult to know who to trust, what is real, and where to draw the line between right and wrong.

“Is this it? I mean, for humanity. Am I the last person alive making notes on the end of the world? I’m not sure whether I would rather already be dead.”

Part dystopia, part murder mystery, part character study, part political/social commentary, part psychological suspense, and part horror novel, this is a book full of surprises. The essential end of the world provides an eerie backdrop, while Jon’s quest to hunt down an unknown murderer lends structure and plot to the novel. The tension of this story does not derive from a burning need to win justice for this girl (most of the characters are surprisingly indifferent to her death) as much as from a desire to uncover the secrets of the other guests stranded in the hotel, and to discover what extremes they might be driven to in the absence of recognized law and authority. The cast of suspects is large, and red herrings abound. I would be beyond impressed by anyone who manages to guess the true culprit before reading the final sequence- the reveal requires a certain level of suspended disbelief, but it does win points for unpredictability. Furthermore, this desperate world full of lies and radiation is made all the more compelling by how closely Jameson ties this nuclear war to our real world’s current political climate.

Though the story is formatted as a record of events written by Jon, he is open about his own biases and faulty memories. Despite the fact that his writing the story at all means he has already survived the dangers being described, the tension of the story is not lessened by this inherent evidence of his safety. Jameson makes it clear that anyone else- friend or foe- is fair game, and there’s a frightening psychological aspect behind every small discovery. The unflinching look at the morally-gray heart of humanity prevents stagnation. Crimes and disagreements within the hotel require the group to make tough life-or-death decisions. There is so much depth behind what is, on the surface, already a dark and captivating premise.

“Existing isn’t everything.”

The characters all come unique and fully formed, though learning their pasts and motives does not prepare the reader for anything these people might try next. But let’s take a moment to look closer at our narrator, Jon. In a story brimming with remarkable characters, I was struck by the unfortunate impression that Jon is the most boring, straightforward person we could possibly follow through this ordeal. Jameson does some interesting things with his characterization, making him receptive to feminism and then throwing him into situations that require him to choose between actively fighting for what is fair or settling for what is easy. His hunts for a child killer stems from an urge to do what is right, but also from a fear of finding himself idle. He is far from a perfect human- and yet, for all the hints that he’s made bad choices in the past, I expected something more extreme than the history that is finally revealed. For all of his flaws though, the biggest obstacle for me was simply that he never stopped feeling like a man written by a woman (an issue that I have only ever experienced in the opposite scenario, finding discomfort in female characters obviously written by men), and I was never quite certain why Jameson chose to make him the lead character. Any one of them could have kept an end-days record. But in the end, this mild confusion wasn’t enough to hold me back from enjoying every single page.

“The only meaning we might have left as a species- indeed, the only thing left that might matter, that might keep us motivated to get up in the morning- is the small acts of human kindness we show one another, and in my compulsion to be helpful, useful, to keep things moving forward, I’ve mostly forgotten to be kind.”

My only other small complaint involves a few inconsistencies that weren’t weeded out before publication. For instance, an entry for one of the most eventful days at the hotel begins with Jon saying that he’s been busy and is writing from the following day. Later within the account of the same day, he mentions taking a break from the group to go up to his room and write the events of the day up to that point. There are a few other details like this that don’t quite match up, but obviously this isn’t a major issue. The plot aligns properly.

As a side note, if you’re a reader who enjoys juxtaposition, let me confirm that The Last pairs perfectly with the first third or so of Stephen King’s The Stand. Though the former features a nuclear “final war” and the later a 99% effective superflu, both are apocalyptic novels that explore life for the few after the deaths of the many. It’s incredible to compare two strong writers’ ideas of the end of life as we know it, and the shreds of humanity that are left. Apparently the answer to “how do I make an apocalyptic novel reading experience more perfect?” is to pick up a second apocalyptic novel.

“I think it was Stephen King who said that the sum of all human fear is just a door left slightly ajar.”

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars. For most of this read, I expected that I would rate The Last as a 4, but once I reached the end I couldn’t think of a single flaw substantial enough to hold it back from a 5. Throughout the week that I read this novel, I was always enthused to pick it up again and find out what would happen next. It was engaging on the surface, and memorable for its hidden depths. It’ll stick with me for a long time, I’m sure. I would recommend this to fans of Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter or Ling Ma’s Severance; though a bit different than both, it’s exciting and introspective on a level that I think will appeal to the same demographic.

Have you read this one? Do you plan to?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Fever Dream

This was the first year I’ve followed along with The Morning News’ Tournament of Books, and as I’d already read the winner (My Sister the Serial Killer– so glad it won!) and its top contender (Warlight– so glad it didn’t win!) I decided to pick up last year’s winner. Samanta Schweblin, also longlisted for the Man Booker International this year for a newer release, wrote last year’s ToB winner, Fever Dream. 

feverdreamIn the novella, a mother and her young daughter have taken a trip to the countryside. They’re staying in a rented house in a small village, where they meet a local woman who shares an odd story about her son. The two children play together, much to their mothers’ fright, but the disaster that occurs soon after can only be linked to the boy’s strange past by those willing to walk the line between reality and impossibility.

“Where is Nina? What happens at the exact moment? Why is all this about worms?”

The book opens on a conversation about a sensation of worms in the body. Our  narrator (the woman on vacation) is already lying in a hospital bed at the local clinic, in critical condition. She is speaking to David, her new acquaintance’s son, who may or may not actually be present. Together they discuss the events of the previous few days in an attempt to locate the “exact moment.”

This is more or less all I can say with certainty about the story, as much of it is confusing and mysterious and left to the reader’s interpretation. Which, honestly, is just the way I like it. I became so engrossed in this little book that I finished the whole thing in one sitting, through which I maintained such a level of concentration that I forgot to tab quotes or make any review notes or any of those other reading-adjacent tasks I normally do. There are no chapters, and no breaks in the narration as the story races to its conclusion, but it’s compulsively readable and the constant need to know more about the situation drives the reader ever onward. Perhaps best of all, the ending is not a clarification and the reader is given the chance to draw their own conclusions.

Why do mothers do that? … Try to get in front of anything that could happen- the rescue distance.

It’s because sooner or later something terrible will happen. My grandmother used to tell my mother that, all through her childhood, and my mother would tell me, throughout mine. And now I have to take care of Nina.”

Thematically, I would say this is a story of family; of what we would do or risk for those we love, and whether those choices are worth their cost. Our narrator constantly calculates a “rescue distance” to ensure her daughter’s safety- the length of time it would take her to reach her daughter at any given moment, should disaster strike. But in the end, horror can strike in any place, at any time, no matter how near your child may be, as both women at the heart of this story discover.

There’s also a striking bit of commentary here about the difficulties of raising children (or living at all) in areas with environmental dangers (whether they’re natural or caused by humans), especially in scenes where our narrator notices local children with deformities and calls David “more normal” than the other children his age, despite what she’s been told of his history.

David was the only element of this book that held me back from a 5-star rating- I found his dialogue a bit jarring and grating at times, and would have appreciated fewer interjections from him throughout the story. I didn’t have any trouble remembering he was there or the conversational format through which this story was being told- I simply didn’t need the constant reminders. But this was a small issue; overall I loved Schweblin’s writing and her command of this completely bizarre story.

It’s a challenging puzzle of a read, one I would love to have spoiler discussions about because I think there are several options to choose from in trying to piece together what has actually happened to these characters. I wasn’t sure what to think when I first closed the cover, but I appreciate books that keep me thinking after I’ve put them down, and after much consideration I’ve formed some opinions. Even so, I will probably want to reread this soon; I think Fever Dream would be one of those excellent stories with as much (or more) to offer the reader on a second pass as the first time through. If you’re a reader who is routinely disappointed or even annoyed by predictable plots, Fever Dream may be the book for you. It’s atmospheric, eerie, and utterly engaging.

“I don’t want to spend another night in the house, but leaving right away would mean driving too many hours in the dark. I tell myself I’m just scared, that it’s better to rest so tomorrow I can think about things more clearly. But it’s a terrible night.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Some of my favorite books this year have been mysterious/experimental novellas- Ghost WallMy Sister the Serial Killer, and now Fever Dream. This wasn’t quite a top favorite forever-love read, but it did confirm that I must read more of Schweblin’s work, probably starting with the Man Booker International nominee Mouthful of Birds (which I think is the only other title she has published that’s been translated into English?)

What’s the weirdest book you’ve read this year?

 

The Literary Elephant