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Review: Redhead by the Side of the Road

I finished reading the Booker shortlist last week, and will have my final shortlist review coming up in a day or two along with some overall thoughts and a winner prediction coming up before the announcement on the 19th. But before we get there, another recent Booker read I completed was Anne Tyler’s longlisted Redhead by the Side of the Road, which I want to cover today.

In the novel, Micah Mortimer begins his week like any other: a jog first thing in the morning, a shower, breakfast, the cleanup chore he’s designated for that day, and then taking calls and driving around Baltimore as Tech Hermit, a one-man show for fixing computers. But on this particular week, two things out of the ordinary happen: his woman friend (he feels to old to call her a girlfriend) informs him that she might lose her apartment, and a teenaged boy arrives on Micah’s doorstep to announce that Micah is his biological father. Micah responds to these crises as he responds to everything: benignly, in the interest of preserving his comfortable routine. But these problems won’t go away, and he realizes his orderly life will never be the same again.

These details, all mentioned in the jacket copy, are essentially the entire plot. The book is comprised of only 178 pages, and contains no real surprises. It is perhaps a sweet story of a kindly if unsocial man who’s not yet old, no longer young, and still not quite sure how to shape his life into what he wants it to be. If you’re a reader who enjoys very character-driven, feel-good stories, this one might be for you. I was expecting somewhat more of an expansion on that premise, and thus was disappointed to discover that the book does exactly what it claims to, and nothing further.

“He stared bleakly at the crumpled afghan and the clutter on the coffee table- the beer cans and the junk mail. Under the surface, he thought, maybe he was more like his family than he cared to admit. Maybe he was one skipped vacuuming day away from total chaos.”

It’s hard to argue that anything is actually wrong with this book. It tells the story it sets out to. The only element that gave me pause was the woman friend’s behavior; she expects Micah to react a certain way to the news of her potential eviction, but I found this expectation somewhat unfair and unlikely, as she’s been with Micah long enough to note that he’s very literal and terrible at picking up on social cues. It baffled me that she seemed suddenly unaware or unable to remember what sort of personality she was dealing with. But aside from this small hiccup, Tyler does deliver a very competent, very readable tale. She excels at drawing out ordinary details and making her fiction feel like a snapshot of regular life. I thought at times the dialogue felt a little canned, but there is enough of it for the book to build up a quick pace, and the prose flows without friction from start to finish. It’s competent. It’s optimistic. It’s heartwarming, I suppose. Charming. Those just aren’t adjectives I would apply to any of my favorite books, which should help explain my lukewarm reaction.

“Sometimes when he was dealing with people, he felt like he was operating one of those claw machines on a boardwalk, those shovel things where you tried to scoop up a prize but the controls were too unwieldy and you worked at too great a remove.”

The theme, helped along by the title and Micah’s slightly myopic vision, seems to point toward the importance of perspective. At the book’s beginning, Micah can see only his own point of view. As he speaks with friends and family about things that are troubling him and hears other sides to stories he thought he knew through and through, he learns to reconsider how his behavior is perceived by those around him. That perspectives differ and we should consider how our actions look to others is, of course, an important lesson to learn in life, but is it one that’s going to be new to anyone at this point? I have my doubts.

To sum, while I’d agree that this is an easy-breezy one-sitting read with its heart in the right place, I found it far too simplistic and unremarkable to impress in any way. Frankly, I can’t even guess as to how this one ended up on the Booker list at all, other than perhaps people just need comfort reads in this year or our lord 2020. No shade to Anne Tyler fans, and maybe something else from her backlist would work better for me, but I’m at a loss here. Redhead reminded me strongly of Frederik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, minus the humor and emotional depth, which just doesn’t leave much beyond soft fluff.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars. This was one of those occasions where I really had no idea how to rate the book after I finished. I flew through it and didn’t hate the experience at all, but was also totally unsatisfied in the end. I just couldn’t get any real purchase on it, good or bad. I prefer my stories somewhat darker and less straightforward, is all. I’m sure a more appropriate audience will get their hands on this one and have better luck, it does have a very commercial feel that I think will help bring it to the attention of readers who will enjoy it more.

The Literary Elephant

Review: The New Wilderness

I am nearing the end of my Busy Work Season (finally) and expect to be back here more regularly within a week or so. It’s been harder than usual to find time to stop in here, so I have quite a bit to catch up on! In the meantime I’m still slowly but steadily making my way through the Booker longlist, along with a few other reads; earlier this month I finished Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness, which has also now been shortlisted.

In the novel, Bea and her daughter Agnes have fled the City as part of an experimental group meant to answer the question of whether humans can coexist peacefully with the raw nature of the earth’s last Wilderness State. They start as a group of twenty people with an assortment of “wilderness skills” and modern equipment, but soon dwindle to about half the number and learn to replace broken items with handmade pieces they can make from natural resources. Very little ever goes as expected, but it’s a life most of them come to love.

“Bea assumed there must be geese elsewhere, just not in the City. But now she didn’t know. And what of those other lands in heavy use? The cities of greenhouses, the rolling landfills, the sea of windmills, the Woodlots, the Server Farms. What of the lands that had long ago been abandoned? The Heat Belt, the Fallow Lands, the New Coast.”

It’s easy to call this book dystopian, but I think that description does it a disservice. There are little remarks here and there about this eerily plausible future that come with their own disturbing implications and increase the stakes of this tale, but the focus of the book is less of a map through social decline and more of a contained character study, an exploration of mother/daughter relationships, and an exploration of humanity’s animalistic side. I think those picking up The New Wilderness expecting the sort of inventive world building, political commentary, and rebellious plotting that typically comes with dystopian novels may be disappointed, though the perpetual struggle of man vs nature on offer here might appeal to another sort of audience.

Cook’s Wilderness is practically a character in itself. It is a fairly large place, perhaps moreso than the synopsis suggests (I, for one, was surprised by its size); the characters require several seasons to cross through different sections of it, and long journeys between “posts” can take years. Many of the details of mountains and hot springs, forests and salt flats are reminiscent of real natural places, though the variety and geography suggest that this Wilderness is in fact a mishmash rather than any identifiable landmass from our known world. I am not the sort of reader who particularly enjoys long passages of nature descriptions, though I can certainly admit that Cook knows how to paint a scene and plant the reader directly in her characters’ environment. The landscapes are always very clear, and no two places are the same. I mentioned above that I didn’t find the world building very inventive in this book, but I don’t mean that Cook is lazy about creating a believable space- rather that her Wilderness adheres mainly to the known rules of our natural universe while she gives little insight into the vast, overbearing City and its corresponding hubs, the futuristic setting that dystopian readers will likely be more curious about. Of course much of it is self-explanatory- we don’t need much elaboration on how capitalism cannibalizes our world in the name of progress and success, and so it seems Cook is content to drop clues and leave the reader to draw their own assumptions.

In addition to the Wilderness, we have Bea and Agnes. CW for miscarriage; the book opens on a gritty scene of Bea birthing a stillborn daughter alone, outdoors (and this is only the first of several miscarriages in the narrative- food is limited, the work of survival can be grueling, and full-term pregnancies are difficult to come by), which sets the tone for both the feral state of Wilderness life and Bea’s complicated relationship with motherhood. Agnes, Bea’s only living child, was sickly in the City but has grown strong in the Wilderness; Agnes has spent most of her childhood out in the open, and feels that the Wilderness is her natural home. Bea finds Agnes odd and somewhat predatory, though it seemed to me Agnes is simply very literal. She doesn’t understand the nuances of why people lie or hide things from each other, or what can be said without directly being said. Instead, she has an affinity for the physical world around her, which fits with her upbringing. It didn’t quite make sense to me that Bea would find Agnes’s mannerisms so unusual and mysterious, or even off-putting. Agnes is by no means unlikeable, which made some of the commentary around the difficult love between this mother and daughter feel somewhat forced to me. Then again, I’m not a mother myself, and have perhaps read too many books on this theme in 2020.

“And she loved Agnes fiercely, though motherhood felt like a heavy coat she was compelled to put on each day no matter the weather.”

A few times while reading I encountered a major perspective or plot shift that threw me off. We read from both Bea’s and Agnes’s perspectives, and certain big events happen to the group in the Wilderness that majorly alter their course and understanding of their position. Which is great in theory, but it seemed like every time this happened it forced me away from an aspect that I was interested in reading about in favor of focusing on something else entirely, and I would have to invest in the story all over again from a new angle. The whole narrative shifts about somewhat aimlessly until the obvious conflict that arises at the end of the book finally drives the story in the direction it has clearly always been aiming. Until the climax, the characters are more or less just existing, describing the natural wonders of their world and the petty conflicts that take place between members of the group. By the time the story begins, Bea and Agnes have already been in the Wilderness several years, and a way of life is well established; I wouldn’t even call this a survival book, as so much of the tension is internal or between characters- the 400+ page count leans instead toward biding time. Because of this, the story feels a bit too controlled and fragmented for the wild and natural thing that I think it wants to be.

” ‘I was never so scared in my life,’ he said, a catch in his breath. ‘But then, it was so incredible. The landscape was utterly changed.’ “

Largely, The New Wilderness reminds me of Richard Powers’s The Overstory. Both are a bit too long and, I would argue, more impactful in concept and implications than in execution as fictional stories. Even though I didn’t entirely enjoy either read, The Overstory still manages to sneak up and haunt my everyday life with regularity and has found its way into conversation with most of the regulars in my life. I’m hoping The New Wilderness will prove similarly long-lived in my thoughts, though I’m not entirely sure I found it surprising enough for it to linger that way. In any case, I think the ideal audience for both of these books will overlap significantly.

The New Wilderness is not my top choice for the Booker win this year, but I did find Cook’s writing intriguing and very easy to fall into, and I’ll be curious to see what she does next.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars. I can see this book making a big impression on the right reader, but in the end that simply wasn’t me. Rather, I found it to be a book I could admire in some ways and truly enjoy in few. I hope other readers will have better luck.

The Literary Elephant

Review: Shuggie Bain

Another Booker Prize review! I happened to be working my way through Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain at the time the Booker shortlist was announced this month, and finished a week or so after. Even while taking it slow, I found Shuggie Bain immersive and emotional.

In the novel, Agnes Bain sinks deeper into alcoholism following her second marriage; Shuggie, the young product of this union, spends his childhood adoring a mother at odds with the world, and trying to save her from herself. Shuggie finds occasional help from the adults in his mother’s life, though very quickly it is apparent that his older half-siblings are going to look out for themselves first, and most of his mother’s “friends” are only looking to take advantage of her. It’s a rough childhood for Shuggie in many ways, though his love for his mother never wavers; through his affection Agnes’s addiction is revealed as a patient disease wearing her down over decades rather than the character flaw that everyone else around her seems to consider it.

“She was in the dangerous in-between place. Enough drink to feel combative but not enough to be unreasonable yet. A few mouthfuls more and she would become destructive, mean-mouthed, spiteful. He stared at her as if he were reading the weather coming down from the glen. He took hold of her and tried to shift her again, before the great rainclouds inside her burst.”

This book is Scottish through and through. Set is 80s-90s Glasgow and told in dialect, Shuggie Bain is a novel that feels inseparable from its time and location, though there’s certainly a universality and timelessness to alcoholism that becomes more pronounced throughout the book, especially as Shuggie meets others who understand his situation all too well. The dialect comes through mainly in the dialogue, where accented speech is spelled out phonetically; I found this easy enough to decipher, and otherwise there are only a few occasional words in the exposition that differ from what I would use in American English, but seem obvious enough in meaning from context. It’s possible other readers may find the writing more challenging, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to anyone interested in the premise on the basis of its style.

The title and general focus on Shuggie are interesting- in many ways this is Agnes’s story, though Stuart head hops just enough to give the reader a clear impression of all of the main characters and their particular perspectives. Everyone feels very real, their motives fully comprehensible and perhaps even frustratingly familiar. The obvious meaning in pointing the focus toward Shuggie in this tale is, I think, twofold: because we’re focused on a character who loves Agnes despite how difficult she makes things for him, sympathy is easy to come by even as the reader becomes acquainted with Agnes’s antagonism. Additionally, centering Shuggie helps convey how very large a challenge alcoholism can be, not only for the person who’s fallen victim to it but for everyone around them, even those they love and would most like to protect. Shuggie may be Agnes’s golden boy, but even he can’t compete with the draw of alcohol for her, whereas in Shuggie’s life, Agnes is a blazing sun that shapes him and his life experience almost entirely.

“He wondered how long it would be till she passed out, till he could have a rest.”

Less obvious but equally important, I think, is that Shuggie really is the lifeblood of this story. While Agnes may be a constant presence throughout these pages, it is nevertheless Shuggie who drives the novel forward. He is the young innocent with a future of great possibility stretching before him, if he can just survive all that is stacked against him. In addition to his mother’s addiction, he’s also got an absent, mean, and selfish father, siblings who leave him behind, a horde of bullies to contend with at school, and no true friends. He doesn’t seem to fit in with his peers at all, who taunt and torment him for being “poofy” even before he has any sense of his own sexuality. And yet, he is kind and caring and steadfast, willing to tolerate more than he should, and it’s impossible not to root for him. Despite the desperate, fraught situation, this is not a loveless tale. The love may be toxic and/or misguided, but it is very present nonetheless, lending the book an aura of tragedy rather than outright cruelty. Even characters who behave despicably don’t do so out of cold-hearted spite or evilness, but rather out of their own need to survive however they can, amid a lack of understanding for the magnitude of Agnes’s battle.

“It was hard at first to start moving again, to feel the music, to go to that other place in your head where you keep your confidence. It didn’t go together, the shuffling feet and the jangly limbs, but like a slow train it caught speed and soon he was flying again. He tried to tone down the big showy moves, the shaking hips and the big sweeping arms. But it was in him, and as it poured out, he found he was helpless to stop it.”

I’m not convinced we really need the full 430 pages that Shuggie Bain gives us, but there were no sections that I found myself wishing had been thrown out entirely, and no moment when I picked the story back up again that I wasn’t instantly hooked back into the flow of Shuggie’s and Agnes’s lives. Parts of it do feel repetitive, which would have been resolved easily by shrinking the page count, but I think ultimately the repetition speaks to the undifferentiated nature of Agnes’s (and thus Shuggie’s) days. It can feel a bit aimless, but I suspect that’s the point.

I can’t deny enjoying myself- if enjoying is the right word for a story this heartbreakingly sad. Very little good happens to Shuggie or his family in the pages of this book, so if you’re someone who needs a happy ending, I’ll warn you now to look elsewhere.

CW: alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide ideation/threats/attempts, child neglect, homophobia, rape, molestation, physical and verbal bullying, death of a loved one.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I knew what to expect, and it went on rather longer than I really needed it to, and yet I was fully drawn in and moved by the particularities regardless. Aside from the dialect, it’s a straightforward story told in a very straightforward way, and yet despite this I can understand its spot on the shortlist and I think anyone who appreciates a good sad book will likely find what they’re looking for here. I don’t think it’s my top choice for Booker winner this year, but it’s a worthwhile read for those who are interested in the premise and have a bit of time to dedicate to it.

The Literary Elephant

Wrap-Up 7.20

Summer is winding down in my corner of the world by the end of July, but it isn’t quite over yet! I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors this past month tending my garden and soaking up the sun, which meant less reading than I was hoping, but July still ended up being a pretty average reading month for me. I didn’t plan well enough to fit all of the specific titles in that I wanted to from my TBR, but I did participate in a record FOUR buddy reads, all of which I enjoyed! (Actually two of these haven’t completely concluded yet, but more on that below.)

To start off, my TBR for July looked like this:

TBR7.20

From the list, I ended up finishing two and a half titles before the end of the month. This is the aspect of my July reading goals I’m saddest about not completing, because I set my TBR full of Black-authored books that I was excited about- it was (and is) important to me to to read these, and yet I couldn’t work all of them around a surplus of additional commitments (which I do not regret either- my only regret here is double booking my schedule, to be clear!). I will still be reading the books that I didn’t get to in July, hopefully in August but definitely before the end of the year.

My completed reading for the month, by title:

  1. Mother Daughter Widow Wife by Robin Wasserman – 3 stars. A new release in July, and one I read because I received a physical ARC earlier this year. I was so excited about the premise of this one (a woman steps off a bus with no ID and no memory of her life up to that point), but the threads of this story never quite came together satisfactorily for me. Furthermore, some of the characterization seemed a bit off and detrimental to the book’s feminist themes.
  2. The Wild Unknown Tarot Guidebook by Kim Krans – 4 stars. I won’t do a full review for this one; it’s a guidebook that came with a specific tarot deck, which is something I’m just starting playing around with. I like how artistic and simple this set is, and the lack of human figures on the cards and in the book. As a total newbie I found this a fair place to start; it answered a lot of questions and helped get me going with basic understanding and simple readings. However, this set clearly reveals the artist’s take on tarot rather than impartially conveying full info; even though I think I like with this approach, I’ll need to see other perspectives to know for sure what’s going to work best for me. I’ve got a couple more guidebooks in line to check out but feel free to recommend anything you’ve found useful!
  3. Four Past Midnight by Stephen King – 3 stars. a 900+ page buddy read of four novellas. There were some ups and downs for me with these stories, but on the whole I found this a solid offering of King’s shorter works with each piece very readable and interesting. We have disappearances on a plane mid-flight, a writer with an extreme fear of plagiarism accusations, a library policeman who exacts extreme payment for late returns, and a Polaroid camera that seems to take the same picture over and over no matter where you aim it. Despite the middling rating, I think it will be hard for other collections of King’s short work to top this one for me.
  4. The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates – 3 stars. Unfortunately, another case of loving the premise but finding the execution a poor fit for my personal taste. This is a magical realism story about the Underground Railroad; I loved the use of the magic and the characterization throughout the book, but found it a bit too episodic and theatrically written, also slightly repetitive after having read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad previously.
  5. Africa’s Tarnished Name by Chinua Achebe – 4 stars. A small essay collection that mainly focuses on how Africa and Africans are (now and historically) perceived and represented by outsiders. Africa may have its own internal struggles, but it is hobbled by the enmity placed upon it primarily by European countries that benefited from slave trade. Achebe also talks about problematic elements of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness here.
  6. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado- 4 stars. I buddy read this collection of short stories with Donna (be sure to check out her post here)! There were more hits than misses for me in this book and I had a great time chatting about the stories with Donna, even though we didn’t always agree on favorites! This volume makes a perfect fiction/nonfiction pair with Machado’s memoir, In the Dream House.
  7. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia – 4 stars. A buddy read with Melanie, and the first time reading Moreno-Garcia for both of us! We had a good chat about this book yesterday and should both have reviews coming up later this week. I enjoyed the read but had some small issues with writing and characterization, and talking with Melanie teased out some more, so expect a mixed review from me, and be sure to check out her post as well on Thursday!
  8. Supper Club by Lara Williams- 4 stars. A Women’s Prize Squad title that’s gotten a lot of buzz from the group lately! I had a lot of fun reading this tale of women reclaiming their space by feasting without restraint. The only downside for me was the book’s failure to explore the theme a little more deeply once it was established. I liked what was on display, but was left wishing for a bit more.
  9. Black Girl Unlimited by Echo Brown – 4 stars. This YA memoir/magical realism tale is a great place for teens to turn to read about Black childhood and adolescence in America- whether looking for something inspiring to relate to, or a bit of education on others’ experiences. There’s an empowering magical element at use here and a cool formatting trick that allows the narration to shift between scenes midsentence. This might have been a stand-out favorite for me 10 years ago but unfortunately it did feel a little too young and repetitive for me at present. Full review coming soon.

wrapup7.20

Honorable mentions:

  • My fourth buddy read of the month is ongoing; we’re making our way through another set of Stephen King novellas, this collection called Different Seasons. Two stories down, two to go. It’s too soon to say for sure but I suspect this one won’t be as successful for me as Four Past Midnight was.
  • Additionally, I’m also more than halfway through Ibram X. Kendi’s nonfiction memoir/guidebook How to Be An Antiracist; it has a great format and so many important messages (of course), but I’m not finding it quite as life-altering as I’d hoped. I knew nonfiction reading about racism was a long game, and this is cementing that truth for me. (Which is ultimately a good thing, considering how many I bought last month!)
  • I started Home Before Dark recently because I was in the mood for a thriller (and wanted to read one to prep for my Spotlight on Thrillers post which… I also forgot to finish before the end of July, so that’s still forthcoming!) but I’m prioritizing the two titles above and am only about 1/4 of the way through this one. Surprisingly for a Riley Sager read, it’s not really grabbing me yet! However, I remain hopeful, and I’m sure it’ll go fast once I get into it.

 

Some stats:

Average rating – 3.6

Best of month – Her Body and Other Parties

Owned books read for the first time – 9 out of 9. But I bought more books than I could keep up with this month, so my personal TBR stash grew. I will be cutting back on book purchases for a little while, but I will also be returning to the library this month for the first time since early March (which is exciting, but will not help my own-unread shelf). I’ll be following safety guidelines and starting off with Booker longlistees as a trial run- if any issues arise I’ll suspend library use again until it’s safer.

Year total – 61 books read. I’m just a little ahead of schedule for my 100 books in 2020 goal.

 

I’ve linked my review posts for the month to the titles above; non-review posts included:

  • a Top of the TBR list featuring some excellent books I want to read and the fantastic bloggers who’ve put them on my radar
  • a round-up of the Booker longlisted titles for 2020 and my initial thoughts/plans on reading the list

My August TBR (including new releases I’ve got my eye on and plans for Women in Translation month reading) will be coming up soon, along with that belated Spotlight post and my two pending reviews. Looks like it’ll be a busy month for blogging! Stay tuned.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Four Past Midnight

I’m on a slow trek through Stephen King’s oeuvre, and have a friend who likes to buddy read the long volumes with me; our latest adventure featured the novella collection Four Past Midnight, which rings in at over 930 pages (in the edition I read from, at least). As always, King’s writing has some issues, but we both really liked these plots! I’ll break it down here story by story, in the order they’re printed. Several (maybe all?) are available individually bound outside of this original collection.

fourpastmidnight

 

The Langoliers – 3 stars.

In this novella, a pilot lands after a white-knuckle flight only to be given the news that something has happened to his ex-wife; he boards another plane, this time as a passenger, to make the journey from west coast US to east. While in the air, a few passengers fall quickly asleep, only to wake over the Rocky Mountains and realize that the majority of the people on the plane have vanished, including the pilot and copilot. Luckily there’s a spare. But things get weirder as our hero tries to communicate with the ground and navigate a safe landing- to fare better than their missing counterparts, they’ll have to do a bit more than touch back down.

This story gets off to a great start as soon as the eventful flight is under way- there’s plenty of suspense and intriguing surprises as the waking passengers try to ascertain their situation. For a few chapters I was on the edge of my seat, even saying “WHAT?” aloud a few times, completely hooked and wondering what would happen next. But the pace slows down in the second half as the characters piece things together and take their sweet time explaining revelations to each other despite time being of the essence. Classic King, indulging in the details to draw the story out longer than necessary at every point. There are also too many main characters and the women, as usual, are characterized poorly (the two adult women seem to exist  to provide assistance and romance for the men; the younger girl seems present only to further the plot with a sixth sense). The execution could have used a little work, but the concept is solid, the action scenes aren’t bad, and it’s fun to guess who will live or die. I expect this story would make for great visuals, and it looks like there is a mini-series from 1995, though I haven’t seen it and I’m not sure a film that old (sorry) would do it the justice I imagine a more current adaptation would be capable of.

“But grownups did not believe children, especially not blind children, even more especially not blind girl children. She wanted to tell them they couldn’t stay here, that it wasn’t safe to stay here, that they had to start the plane up and get going again. But what would they say? Okay, sure, Dinah’s right, everybody back on the plane? No way.”

 

Secret Window, Secret Garden – 4 stars.

In this novella, a recently divorced writer is making a permanent home out of the summer house by the lake he once shared with his ex-wife. He’s been struggling to write and spending most of his time blissfully asleep. But things get complicated when a man shows up on his doorstep with accusations of plagiarism. The two decide to handle the matter between themselves- the writer claims to have proof that he came to it first, and the accuser hangs around quietly menacing him and voicing disbelief. Chaos ensues when the proof proves hard to come by and no one can back up the writer’s tale of a loony false-accuser showing up where he doesn’t belong. (CW: pet violence)

Despite the fact that modern applications of the internet essentially make every detail of this story’s main conflict completely obsolete, it’s a great piece. Perhaps even one of my all-time Stephen King favorites. The psychological horrors always seem to work a little better for me than flashy supernatural twists. This is at heart the story of a writer having a breakdown, worrying about a threat to his career that’s out of his control and dealing with the emotional upheaval of his wife leaving him for another man. The first sentence hooks the reader in, and the tension builds at a perfect pace from start to finish (discounting the epilogue). There is some of the usual sexism/misogyny from King, but because of the story’s focus on the writer’s mental state it’s fairly easy to attribute those remarks to a questionable character rather than pinning them on King.

My only complaints are that the story feels incredibly dated (a magazine has to be mailed to prove publication, the MC has a landline with no answering machine, the accuser must drive out of state to confront the MC rather than simply finding him on the internet, etc.), and that the epilogue is comprised of one character giving a monologue to another to explain what has happened, with a small and unnecessary supernatural twist thrown in right at the end that (in my opinion) detracts slightly from the brilliant psychological conflict laid out through the rest of the story. I’d highly recommend this one, and remember enjoying the 2004 film feat. Johnny Depp, though it’s been almost that long since I’ve seen it!

 

The Library Policeman – 4 stars.

In this novella, an insurance businessman is wrangled into giving a speech on short notice. He knows his way around the topic, but wants to spice up the speech with some jokes, and makes a trip to the library for some tips and examples to improve his piece. He has an oddly sinister experience there, with the building itself (and its decor) seeming designed to frighten, and the librarian giving him a snappy argument when he asks about it. She warns him to return the books on time or face the “library police,” who punish late returns. Of course he misses the due date, and turns to friends who’ve been in town (and used the library) longer than he has for information on the woman who threatened him and the nature of the eerie library policeman, which leads to a little supernatural battle over the unreturned books. (CW: molestation; graphic and on-page)

I had more issues with the writing choices in this one, not the least of which was the totally unnecessary detailed account of a child molestation. Additionally, the way alcoholics are presented and addressed is unpleasant and surprisingly problematic considering King himself was battling alcoholism around this time. I was also incredibly frustrated that in a town of 35,000 people one woman with a business degree is considered “the town’s entire secretarial pool,” as though women go to business school to become secretaries for men who need someone to TYPE UP THEIR CORRESPONDENCE, and as though only one woman out of 35,000 would 1) be capable of this strenuous task or 2) go through business school. The MC also *repeatedly* calls her by a nickname she *repeatedly* asks him not to, and eventually turns her into the (again unnecessary) love interest. Then there’s the fact that this MC will not take responsibility for losing his library books- sure, that can happen accidentally, and no one should be killed for it, but instead of once acknowledging that the books were in his possession and were lost while he was responsible for keeping track of them, which indicates that the fault does lie with him, he blames the man who collected his recycling and the library (specifically the librarian) for holding him to such a “unreasonable” rule as a due date. (Rant over.)

In spite of the flaws, I did actually have a great time with this plot. This is another one that King manages to pace well, with the tension gradually building and small incidents along the way keeping the reader’s attention rapt. The villain is a delightful mashup of Pennywise from It (which was published a few years prior) and the creature from The Outsider (which was published just a few years ago); she is a unique monster, but exists/operates under very similar rules to the two mentioned. One of the things I find most fascinating about King’s work is seeing ideas recycled and repurposed throughout the years, so this was an interesting blend. There was even a great quote linking the villain here to both other books, which I’ll include below. And speaking of quotes, we also get an amusing moment in the dialogue when the librarian states that she has never and will never read a Stephen King novel. Perhaps best of all, the library policeman is actually an intersection of two horrors the MC is experiencing, one the present sci-fi element, one a past trauma. This ties the supernatural element into a psychological horror, and the dual nature of it strengthens both aspects. As an added bonus, this story takes place in my home state (Iowa), a deviation from King’s typical Maine settings. Other than the fact that most Iowans would probably laugh at King calling a 35,000 person town “small” and “unable to support two libraries,” it wasn’t a bad representation.

“There’s somethin not human, some it hidden inside her skin, and I think I always knew that. It’s inside… but it’s forever an outsider.”

 

The Sun Dog – 3 stars.

In this novella, a boy receives a much-anticipated Polaroid camera for his fifteenth birthday. He’s thrilled, until he realizes that no matter where he aims the lens, it only produces pictures of one thing: a mangy dog standing in front of a white fence. He recognizes neither the dog nor the fence nor the surrounding yard, and after using all of his film hoping for a different result, takes the camera to a local fix-it man with a bad reputation, as a last resort. Together they discover that the pictures of the dog are in fact slightly different, and when put together show a slow progression. The inevitable conclusion looks disastrous, but the boy and the fix-it man disagree on what should be done with the portent-of-doom camera, which will have frightening consequences. (CW: spoilers for Cujo within the text)

This one has such an eerie atmosphere that I really wanted to love it. But there are a number of bad “jokes” in the narration (involving a plane crash in Pakistan, the devastation of Hiroshima, a black woman doing yard work [she is called a “marvelous creature” for never speaking], and a set of rich old [women] twins who are shamed for expecting guests to pronounce their names properly [the narration gives them degrading nicknames used behind their backs]). As for plot, there is that annoying trope where the protagonist learns something through magical dreams, as well as several details with the supernatural element that seemed rushed or altogether unaddressed that I would’ve loved to see explored further (like who is holding the camera taking pictures of the dog, and how are the images being sent to the boy’s camera? Why him?). Furthermore, the MC makes a decision toward the end that seems illogical, and useful only in drawing the plot into a more dramatic (read: deadly) conclusion. I loved the concept of this story but was frequently frustrated.

‘The Sun Dog” is set in Castle Rock, one of the fictional Maine towns King frequently returns to in his writing. Some readers prefer to read the Castle Rock books in order, and even if you’re not planning on reading all 17 novels, novellas, and short stories set there, you may want to consider that “The Sun Dog” is the second volume in a loose Castle Rock trilogy, which starts with The Dark Half and ends with Needful Things. I’ve read neither yet, so I can say that “The Sun Dog” can be read alone just fine, but I can’t tell you based on my own experience whether it’s worth reading the trilogy together in chronological order. I’ll leave that up to you.

 

Final thoughts:

I expect at this point that I will always find King’s writing problematic. Tasteless and ignorant bits of characterization and narration has unfortunately become par for his course. I think it’s worth noting where King’s writing fails, if we are to go on celebrating what he does well. And he does do some things well. Even though I had complaints here, I still found each of these plots enjoyable, the concepts duly horrifying and thought-provoking, and the lengths very suitable to King’s storytelling style. The pacing is great in 3 of the 4, all are suspenseful reads, and as a collection they strike a great balance between King’s strengths with sci-fi and psychological horrors, without going overboard on either. I think all of these novellas will be memorable for me, and with the caveat of wanting readers to know what negatives to expect from these stories I would recommend them all to readers looking for shorter works of King’s to pick up.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. My actual average rating was 3.5, but I’m rounding down based on how it holds up against other books I’ve rated 3 or 4 stars in the past. I’m looking forward to checking out more of King’s shorter pieces in the future. My SK buddy reading friend and I are leaning toward Different Seasons (another collection of novellas) next.

Thanks for sticking with me, if you made it this far!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: My Dark Vanessa

My last catch-up post from June is for Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut novel, My Dark Vanessa, which was one of my top reads for the month and for the entire first half of the year.

mydarkvanessaIn the novel, adult Vanessa near present day is dealing with the fallout from a relationship that started when she was fifteen. In dual timelines, Vanessa recounts how she became involved with a much-older teacher at her private school in her teens, while in the present she watches another girl accuse the same teacher of rape and gain traction against his reputation on the internet. More girls come forward. Vanessa must now reconcile what she’d always considered a difficult romance with the stories that are costing her teacher so very much.

” ‘He was a grown man and you were fifteen,’ she says. ‘What could you possibly have done to torture him?’ For a moment I’m speechless, unable to come up with an answer besides, I walked into his classroom. I existed. I was born.”

This is a difficult review to write, both for the painful content it covers and for the simple fact that I thought the book was pretty much perfect. Is there anything more to say, beyond ‘I wouldn’t change a single line?’ My Dark Vanessa is both beautiful and heartbreakingly ugly. It bravely tackles both physical and psychological trauma, and while vilifying predatory behavior it also challenges the reader to accept a response to this treatment that doesn’t seem to fit the narrative of victimhood: Vanessa does not see herself as a victim. She doesn’t want to condemn her teacher. She continues to reach out to him as an adult, even while he is under attack, even while she knows that he has touched other underage girls. She turns down chance after chance to speak out to anyone in a way that could prevent other girls being abused by this teacher, by this school, by other teachers in other schools. And this, too, is a valid reaction to trauma.

“Ordinary girls have shoeboxes of love letters and dried-out corsages; I get a stack of child porn. If I were smart, I’d burn everything, especially the photos, because I know how they’d look to a normal person, like something confiscated from a sex trafficking ring, evidence of an obvious crime- but I could never. It would be like setting myself on fire.”

As for the writing, the eighteen+ years Russell spent working on this story show. The language isn’t ornate or flashy, the sentences straightforward, but every word has clearly been chosen carefully, and absolutely nothing is out of place. It’s extremely quotable. Every detail is aptly delivered, and the tightrope line between the subtlety of literary fiction and the clarity of commercial fiction is walked effortlessly. There’s a natural, flowing pace to the words, and even the switches from past to present are transitioned gently with linked themes and emotions from one chapter to the next. This is a story to get lost in, if you can bear to be broken by it all at once.

There are also, for the bookish reader, several references to well-known poems and literary works within these pages. The obvious connection, of course, being Lolita, which is mentioned frequently. I think anyone familiar with Nabokov’s most infamous work will see an extra layer of richness to the story as similarities can then be drawn and allusions understood. It’s one thing to know vaguely what sort of book Lolita is when Vanessa’s teacher gives her a copy and it becomes her favorite novel, another to be familiar enough with that work to see how disturbing but disturbingly fitting that is for Vanessa’s experience. But, that said, the ties are explained well enough on page that it really isn’t necessary to read Lolita for the sake of this novel, and it’s not a book to go into any more lightly than My Dark Vanessa. Be aware of plot spoilers for Lolita here though, if you do plan to read it later on. (Minor spoiler in the quote below.)

” ‘Like Lolita and Humbert,’ I say without thinking, and then wince as I wait for his annoyance at the comparison, but he only smiles. ‘I suppose that’s fair.’ He looks over at me, slides his hand up my thigh. ‘You like the idea of that, don’t you? Maybe one day I’ll just keep driving rather than bring you home. I’ll steal you away.’ “

One thing I’ve seen some divided opinion on with My Dark Vanessa is the ending. Despite some resolution, there is no happy ending here. It is, perhaps, hopeful, at best. Vanessa sees some character growth, but much like real life, deep hurt is not easily cured and people will always have differences of opinion and experience. Personally, I thought the ending for Vanessa here was inevitable, and the way we leave off with the other characters felt realistic. That is arguably the best way to end a book so rooted in ongoing social issues. Sexual assault resulting from abuse of authority is not something that we should have any reason to consider resolved or concluded at this point.

In the end, this has perhaps been the most haunting and emotional book I’ve read all year, and I have some truly great titles to choose from on that score. I am lucky enough not to have been raped at fifteen or any age (own voices reviews for trauma content should be sought with care, it is no one’s obligation to announce their traumas for others’ benefit), and yet something about sexual abuse stories always manages to cut right into my heart as though it’s personal. This line, I think, really helped to explain my reaction:

“I had no reason to care about rape then- I was a lucky kid, safe and securely loved- but that story hit me hard. Somehow I sensed what was coming for me even then. Really though, what girl doesn’t? It looms over you, that threat of violence. They drill the danger into your head until it starts to feel inevitable. You grown up wondering when it’s finally going to happen.”

CW for molestation, rape, grooming, gaslighting, and destructive behavior, all on page.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I am 100% on board for whatever Kate Elizabeth Russell publishes next, no matter what topic, no matter how much time she spends on it, etc. She’s a brilliant writer and My Dark Vanessa will have pride of place on my shelf for a long, long time.

And as a final note, I haven’t read this book yet but have recently heard about a nonfiction memoir that sounds like it would be a great companion to My Dark Vanessa: Lucy Crawford’s Notes on a Silencing, in which she describes speaking out about sexual assault as a teen and learning later how her school, local police, and others worked to bury her case. I’ll definitely be checking this one out, and if you loved My Dark Vanessa I thought you might also appreciate having this one added to your radar.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Ninth House

Today’s review is a catch-up post featuring a book I started reading back in May: Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House.

ninthhouseIn the novel, Alex is found as the sole survivor on the scene of a homicide, and from there is plucked from her seedy life and given a full ride scholarship to Yale based on her ability to see ghosts. In exchange for her Ivy league education, she must work as an important member in the network of Yale’s secret societies: she’ll be the leader of the house that monitors the uses of magic performed by the eight magical societies. She is supposed to have a mentor for the first year while she learns the ins and outs of the magic and her responsibilities, but something goes awry and Darlington goes missing. Soon after, a girl is killed. When Alex digs for the truth, she finds herself up against some powerful enemies and a whole lot of corruption.

“You should never look into the face of the uncanny, but had he ever been able to turn away? No, he’d courted it, begged for it. He had to know. He wanted to know everything.”

I was immediately drawn in by this book’s main characters: Alex is a kickass take-no-shit heroine whose time among addicts and abusers and whose ability to see the world of the dead alongside the world of the living colors her experience with elite academics. Then there’s Darlington, her Lethe House mentor, whose longing to learn anything and everything (especially when it comes to magic) is both his salvation and his downfall. But the trio wouldn’t be complete without wise Dawes, runner of Lethe headquarters, keeper of knowledge, assistant in all sorts of scenarios Alex would never have dreamed she’d find herself in. The three make an incredible team; they all work together well enough, but each have their own one-on-one relationships which ultimately make them stronger as a set. The only downside is that Darlington is physically absent for the duration of the novel; we see him only in memories and glimpses into the past.

Also notable is Ninth House‘s thorough world-building. We see Yale, down to the architectural styles of its buildings and the names of the streets dissecting campus. We see the town beyond, both its legacy and its layout. We’re given eight secret societies in addition to Lethe House which oversees them all; each society has a name, a location for meetings and magic, its own rituals and rules of operation, and important members. There’s also insider slang, to further complicate the terminology.

Though I loved the attention to detail, the book loses a lot of momentum in laying this all out. The plot becomes tangled up in explanations of the magic system governing it. There’s a sense of waiting for the pieces to come together, for Alex to be able to move freely and confidently through this magical world, and ultimately that doesn’t quite happen in a satisfactory way before the end of the novel. But the groundwork is now laid, and I think it’s entirely possible- even likely- that in the sequel we’ll see this magic realized in a more appreciable way. Perhaps whatever Bardugo is planning to do with all of this detail will play into an exciting plot that’s free of heavy worldbuilding minutiae in the second book. If that doesn’t turn out to be the case, I’ll have to reevaluate my stance, and I know that not every reader will be interested in sticking with a series that’s more concerned with a longer narrative than individual installments, which is totally fair as well. But as I’m optimistic that the ground is being laid for a complex sequel that piggybacks directly off of Ninth House, I think Bardugo does the best one can with such an excess of info; between the back-and-forth format of the fall and spring semesters and the way that Alex’s investigations provide a reason for her (and the reader) to seek intel on each of the societies, Bardugo largely manages to avoid clunky exposition. With the exception of the villain’s dramatic monologue on their evil deeds.

While the pace is slow and the doling of info ponderous at times, there are other reasons to enjoy the read even if you’re not sold on continuing the series. The plot may require some work from the reader, but it does play into interesting deeper themes. Alex is an observant and critical protagonist who uses the scenes she witnesses to comment on the self-serving actions of the rich, the nepotism and favoritism involved, the ease with which abuse of power can be concealed by… further abuse of power. Yale is presented as a dark, exclusionary place, and the societies present as a sort of (fantastical) microcosm of the wider Ivy institution. Alex notes that the only thing that sets the secret society students apart is that someone let them into the club, often based on family or other close connections. The magic here is available only to a few, though essentially anyone could do it- the magic is ritual-based and learned rather than innate. Of course the adults who return to benefit from the magical rituals are the previous members of the societies as well- the rich helping the rich get richer. It’s a closed circle, for no reason other than that those who found power closed the door to it, and granted access only to those who would keep the secrets among themselves and use them primarily to members’ advantage. Because long-standing traditions are involved, there are other prejudices at play in the system as well, including misogyny.

“Did she seem depressed? She was distant. She didn’t make many friends. She was struggling in her classes. All true. But would it have mattered if she’d been someone else? If she’d been a social butterfly, they would have said she liked to drink away her pain. If she’d been a straight-A student, they would have said she’d been eaten alive by her perfectionism. There were always excuses for why girls died.”

Last but not least, I can’t end without mentioning the graphic content in these pages. There are a couple of rape scenes, including rape of a child, and uses of magic as a means to manipulate people (mostly women) into doing things they wouldn’t consent to, including sex. There are also murders, drug and alcohol use, and poor parenting, including abandoning a child. It seemed to me that the intent of these scenes and details was primarily for characterization and furthering the commentary, and in several cases the perpetrator is repaid for their actions. There is no explicit or implied message that abuse is acceptable in any circumstance, though Bardugo perhaps misjudges in places how much of a scene the reader needs to see to get the gist. Is it all necessary? Maybe not, but it’s not handled lightly either. It’s worth remembering that while Bardugo has written primarily for YA audiences in the past, this is an adult fantasy, and there is some disturbing content. If you have any further questions about triggering content that I’ve mentioned here or want to be sure a trigger I’ve failed to mention isn’t actually here, please talk to me in the comments!

“She was relieved when she realized he was dead. A dead man in the girls’ bathroom was a lot less scary than a living one.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I think the next book in the series will see a higher rating from me, because most of my complaints with this one are things that will likely be resolved naturally with the simple progression of the overall plot as the series continues. I also think my rating might have been a little higher for this one if not for Six of Crows… it seems unfair to judge one of the author’s works against another, but that book was such a favorite for me that I can’t forget what heights Bardugo is capable of taking me to, and Ninth House just wasn’t on that level. I did enjoy this read though, and am eagerly awaiting the next installment!

 

The Literary Elephant

Spotlight on: Mystery

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

 

Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 I am focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books! I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred (or more!). I’ll share here what Mystery means to me, filling the post with titles and recommendations from my own experience, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!

 

What is Mystery?

The mystery genre is full of books in which a question is presented at the beginning of the story that will be answered by the end, usually with clues (and red herrings) strewn along the way that allow the reader to guess at the answer. One “type” that appears often is the murder mystery. These often follow a detective (official or not) looking into a suspicious death. But murder is not a requirement of the genre; detectives can investigate any question to which an answer is initially unknown. Another “type” is the closed room mystery, in which a crime or other grievance has been committed in an enclosed space that defies entrance or exit- the culprit is stuck inside, hiding among innocents, and everyone is suspect.

Mystery has plenty of crossover with thriller genre- I’ll be focusing on that one more next month, but I want to draw a distinction in the meantime. Though a book can be both mystery and thriller, I also think a line can be drawn between the two genres, and that comes down to a difference in tone and level of suspense. A subjective matter, to be sure. For me the difference is usually determined by the degree of danger which the detective faces- if their life isn’t directly on the line, or is only in danger only because they happen to be present in a sticky situation, those are often mysteries. If the stakes are reasonably low and/or or distanced from the protagonist(s), that’s a mystery. If it’s a puzzle without edge-of-your-seat life-or-death-urgency, that’s a mystery to me.

Mystery can overlap with pretty much any genre, and it will mean a difference only in the setting or the way that the puzzle is being presented, though no other genre *requires* a puzzle the way Mystery does. Other frequent crossovers include gothic and horror stories.

 

My History with Mystery

I was one of many US children introduced to Gertrude Chandler Warner’s Boxcar Children mysteries during early forays into “chapter books.” The Boxcar Children (The Boxcar Children, #1)I don’t own very many but I did read every volume available at both my school and public libraries, some more than once, throughout elementary school. I am also far from unique in moving on from those to Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew series. Mystery is a great genre for young readers generally, because it provides a hook to keep kids engaged from start to finish, can teach a moral, and uses simple tropes that can be repeated and recognized over and over in endless slightly altered configurations. Quite a lot of stories for young readers are mysteries. I read a lot of them and I remember few.

After binging on mysteries in my young reading years, I took a bit of a break from the genre. I became interested in more varied and wild stories, especially fantasy and the supernatural. Because mystery can fit into any genre, I did encounter it again in the process of seeking more fantastical reading; In my tweens / early teens I briefly loved Elizabeth Chandler’s Dark Secrets series and Meg Cabot’s 1-800-Where-R-You series. The Face on the Milk Carton (Janie Johnson, #1)I also remember reading Caroline B. Cooney’s The Face on the Milk Carton around this time (though faces had never appeared on any of my milk cartons and I remember being young enough that I had to ask someone what that was all about).

In high school I fell into a murder mystery phase, and also a cringey reading-whoever-took-up-the-most-shelf-space-at-the-library phase, which meant (among others) Joanne Fluke, Janet Evanovich (I read a Stephanie Plum per day for a little while there, firmly team Ranger), and James Patterson. By college I was better at finding standalones to fit my taste and preferred a real challenge in guessing the whodunnits, and more suspense.

 

Mystery Classics and Staples

And Then There Were NoneDoes more need to be said than the name Agatha Christie? She’s dubbed “the queen of mystery” for a reason! I’ve actually only read a handful of her books so far, but one doesn’t need to read many to see her skill with the genre. My favorites to date have been (to no one’s surprise) And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express. The former is a closed room mystery which takes place on an island, where ten people are gathered and die one by one while they wait to leave and try desperately to determine which among them is the killer. The latter, another closed room mystery, takes place on a train, where one passenger winds up dead and the evidence seems contradictory.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is a gothic mystery classic in which a young wife feels judged against her husband’s former (now dead) wife, though no one will tell her what happend to the last Mrs. de Winter.

The Good Daughter (Good Daughter, #1)For more modern representation, Karin Slaughter is not to be overlooked. I started with The Good Daughter, in which a woman who survived a terrible attack as a child is later privy to the aftermath of another horrible crime, one that demands she take another look at the past tragedy that changed her family irrevocably. This title in itself isn’t necessarily the staple, but Karin Slaughter is enough of a mystery icon that all of her titles are on the map.

I must also mention Liane Moriarty, whose popular mystery Big Little Lies is a big little adaptation these days; this one follows a group of women whose children attend an Australian school where the parent drama turns deadly.

Robert Galbraith is another big name in mystery, probably due to the fact that J. K. Rowling hides behind the name, but for whichever reason, you’ll probably hear about the Cormoran Strike series if you’re digging into this genre! These are UK-based puzzles led by a one-legged private investigator and his intrepid secretary/partner.

The Silence of the LambsThere’s also Thomas Harris’s infamous Hannibal Lecter series for the horror fans- these are a bit grislier, but if you’re not interested in the whole series skip straight to The Silence of the Lambsit can be read on its own, and is not to be missed! In this story, the FBI’s new behavioral science unit is hunting an evasive serial killer- with the help of an eclectic madman they’ve already caught.

And of course mystery is a popular genre outside of the English language as well. I’ve not yet read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland), a major contender, but I have enjoyed Sarah Blaedel’s The Forgotten Girls (translated from the Danish by Signe Rød Golly), Katrine Engberg’s The Tenant (translated from the Danish by Tara Chace) and Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones), a recent nominee for several literary prizes. It’s good fun to see how mysteries are done in other countries, I highly recommend looking around the world for additional titles!

 

Further Mystery Recommendations

If you’re new to the genre and not sure where to start, let me offer a few suggestions based on other categories you may already be interested in. These recommendations are based off of my own reading, rather than an exhaustive list of everything that’s out there; if anyone has further suggestions please drop them in the comments below!

The OutsiderIf you like YA: Courtney Summers’s Sadie, Akwaeke Emezi’s Pet

If you like magical or supernatural elements: Stephen King’s The Outsider, Yangsze Choo’s The Night Tiger, Caroline Kepnes’s Providence

If you like history: Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, Tina May Hall’s The Snow Collectors, Jess Kidd’s Things in Jars, Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44

If you like social issues: Liz Moore’s Long Bright River, Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek

If you like lit fic: Julia Phillips’ Disappearing Earth, Maria Hummel’s Still Lives

If you like thrillers: Hanna Jameson’s The Last, Riley Sager’s The Last Time I Lied, Ruth Ware’s The Turn of the Key

If you like police procedurals: Susie Steiner’s Missing, Presumed, Adam Sternbergh’s The Blinds (to be clear, the sheriff of The Blinds is a fellow inmate in an experimental town full of criminals so this is a police procedural with a twist)Behind Her Eyes

Special shoutout to my favorite mystery twist to date, found in Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes, which I can’t talk about without giving it away. This one’s polarizing but… I loved it! If anyone is looking for a wild card recommendation, this is it.

 

Mysteries on my TBR:

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Complete Sherlock Holmes is a mystery must that I’ve been sleeping on for far too long! I’m embarrassed not to have read any of these stories yet. I also have Anthony Horowitz high on my mystery to-read list, starting with The Word is Murder. Stuart Turton’s The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is waiting patiently on my shelf, along with Jo Baker’s The Body Lies, and Silvia Moreno Garcia’s Mexican Gothic is on its way to my mailbox. (I’m hazy on whether this is actually a mystery or just gothic, so please excuse me if I’m wrong but I’m getting mystery vibes.) I’ve also got Kate Weinberg’s The Truants on my list, as well as Danielle Trussoni’s The Ancestor, and Claire Fuller’s Bitter Orange, for a few examples. Bitter OrangeAnd I want to do a deep dive into Agatha Christie’s work at some point! Which mysteries are on your TBR?

 

Why Read Mystery?

To exercise your brain! To brush with the morbid and macabre! To learn about real problems with crime from around the world! Mystery can also help readers build a sense of empathy and understand motivations because they often focus closely on character. These are perfect books to escape into, and you can choose to work on the puzzle for yourself while reading or simply follow along as the characters figure things out. Either way, it’s a great blend of fun format with thoughtful (and often very serious) content.

 

Your turn

We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about this genre. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for mystery books, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about the genre. That’s the point of this post! A genre can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you.

Thank you, in advance, for participating! 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant

Mid-Year Book Freak-Out Tag 4.0

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the organization and movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

The Mid-Year Freak-Out is one of my favorite tags to do every year, but with everything going on lately I almost forgot about it. I could really use a dose of bookish excitement right about now, so thanks to those who’ve posted this one already, and here is my contribution! (And, in case you’re curious, links to my previous iterations of this tag: 3.0, 2.0, and the original.) If you haven’t already posted or been tagged… consider this your call to participate! 🙂

 

Best Book You’ve Read in 2020 SO FAR

reallife

Real Life by Brandon Taylor. This may be a biased answer because I finished this book very recently, but it just pulled me in from page one and never let me go, and I’m confident I’ll be thinking about this book for the rest of the year.

Best Sequel

allsystemsred

This is a cheat answer because I haven’t actually read ANY sequels yet this year, which is odd! Instead I’m going with a first-in-series book that I loved, which I expect I’ll love the sequels to as well when I get to them (which I should do soon!); I’m talking about All Systems Red by Martha Wells.

New Release You Haven’t Read Yet But Really Want To

theglasshotel

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel. I loved Station Eleven and ordered the author’s newest novel immediately, but shamefully I haven’t picked it up yet! I can’t wait much longer, I’m still dying to read this one.

Most Anticipated Release for the Second Half of the Year

The Death of Vivek Oji

This is tough because (as always) there are a lot of anticipated releases on my radar, but this year in particular a handful of favorite authors have new books coming up, which complicates the choice. But the one on my mind at the moment is The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi, perhaps because I just read their 2019 YA release and loved it! I cannot wait for this next adult novel, coming in August!

Biggest Disappointment

acrimeintheneighborhood

A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne, primarily because I had such high hopes for it as a previous Women’s Prize winner. (Not to be confused with my least favorite read of the year so far, which is an award that has to go to Edna O’Brien’s Girl this time around!)

Biggest Surprise

trustexercise

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi. It won the National Book Award for Fiction last year, which was the final motivating factor I needed to pick it up. The entire first half of the novel was a bit of a slog for me, so imagine my surprise when the twist of perspective in the second half turned this around to such an extent that it ended up being a 5-star read for me in the end!

Favorite New Author

hamnet

Maggie O’Farrell. I read Hamnet as part of the Women’s Prize longlist, and even though many of her readers say this isn’t her strongest work I had such a good time reading it. I’m so looking forward to checking out more of her books!

Newest Fictional Crush

ninthhouse

I don’t really crush on characters, but I do love great relationships on the page. I think my favorite so far this year is the Darlington/Alex/Dawes combo from Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House, who are, at the end of the first book, an entirely platonic group… But Bardugo is great at slow-burn romances (I will never get over Kaz and Inej) and I’m really hoping for something to develop here. I don’t even have a preference for which way it goes, any budding relationship here is bound to be fantastic. My review for this book coming soon.

Newest Favorite Character

queenie

Queenie, from Candice Carty-Williams’s Queenie. This may come as a surprise after writing a 3-star review for the book, but what prevented it from being a flawless read for me was not the main character, who I found fierce and resilient and unapologetic. Queenie might not have it all together, but she’s a delight to read. I would 100% pick up a sequel (although I don’t think this story line needs one).

Book That Made You Cry

mydarkvanessa

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell. Oh my god, this book. It’s incredible, but I found this SO painful to read (it focuses on sexual assault of a minor by a teacher) and had to set it aside often to regroup because it was hitting so hard. My review will be coming soon.

Book That Made You Happy

redwhiteandroyalblue

Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston is such a fun romp. Both the main relationship AND the alternative political landscape warmed my heart. I can’t wait to read McQuiston’s next book.

Favorite Book-to-Film Adaptation

senseandsensibility

Sense and Sensibility, based on the book by Jane Austen. I haven’t been watching many movies so I had a small list to choose from here, but I’ve always loved this film adaptation (from 1995). Earlier this year I read the book for the first time and rewatched the movie, which was just as much of a success as usual. The book, actually, is perhaps my least favorite Austen novel (so far- I still have Mansfield Park left to read), but I think the film really goes above and beyond.

Favorite Post This Year

NYC_brooklynbridge2

As always, I love posting prize content and series wrap-ups, and I’ve been getting so excited every month to share another round of my 2020 Genre Spotlight series, but for now I have to go with my Vacation + Book Haul post from my trip to New York earlier this year. To be honest it was a rather hasty round-up of pictures and book synopses and the beginnings of pandemic fear, but at this point it feels like a reminder of a whole different era, and I need to be able to remember some good times to get through the dark ones.

Most Beautiful Book You’ve Bought (or Read) This Year

disappearingearth

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. It may look simple, but blue and purple are my colors. I love that the landscape builds the gradient and that the lettering is crisp and cool. I love how bright it is. And this is one of the rare occasions where the people on the cover add rather than detract from the artwork for me. Those two little girl shapes get me all kinds of sad. In a good way?

A Book You Want to Read By the End of the Year

Half of a Yellow Sun

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. I’m hoping to read this one over the summer actually, because it’s one of the previous Women’s Prize winners that might affect my vote in the Winner of the Winners competition! I’ve recently ordered a copy that’s on its way and the deadline for the vote is November, so I’m hoping this will be the one that breaks the trend of my not reading whatever book I name for this prompt… So far I’m 1/4, and that’s not counting my similarly bad turnout for “new release you haven’t red yet but really want to.”

 

Tell me about a book you’re freaking out about this year!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

 

thecomletestoriesofflanneryoconnorFor today’s catch-up review, we’re looking at Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories. I’d read three of these stories previously but started at the beginning and read through the full collection of thirty-one stories in May alongside Melanie’s Month of Flannery O’Connor project. She’s more informed on O’Connor’s life and work than I am, so be sure to check out her posts, which tell a little about the content and publication of each story with some background on O’Connor’s life and overall thoughts on theme and patterns as well. Partially because Melanie did such a fantastic job covering each story (and partially because I didn’t take notes on the individual stories as I read them) I’m going to be talking more broadly about my experience with the collection and some things I’ve noted generally about O’Connor’s short story style.

“She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.”

The first thing to note about O’Connor’s stories is that they don’t make points so much as they make clear where there’s a point of contention to be grappled with. What I mean is, O’Connor seems intent on highlighting conflict- racial, theological, social- not with the intent of making a stance or guiding the reader’s thinking, but simply to demonstrate that the conflict exists, and perhaps to encourage the reader to consider multiple views before choosing one. Her stories often end without clear resolutions, which I think is why they’re so widely studied- the reader must sift for clues, and what the stories are actually saying is hotly debated.

For example, one of O’Connor’s best-known and most-read pieces, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” is either a story of a woman seeing the error of her ways and finding grace in a moment of peril, or a woman blind to the error of her ways remaining selfish to the end, even at the cost of her lifelong faith. The ambiguity is the draw, and presents as O’Connor’s favorite modus operandi; to sow the seeds of discord and then leave the reader to decide- in the case of “Good Man,” to decide whether the old woman’s final act is a cheapening of her religion or a finding of it. So yes, the story is theologically themed, but it’s impossible to tell from the fiction provided where O’Connor herself stood on the matter or which way she expects the reader to lean upon reading.

This is also why I felt so conflicted about the portrayal of racism in her stories. What’s clear is that it’s there. The white and black characters filling these stories are always at odds, there’s no denying that. There’s no denying that the whites often consider themselves superior because of the color of their skin. It’s also clear that many of these characters suffer as a result of their racism. What’s unclear is what O’Connor’s stance is on all of it. Normally I would say it doesn’t much matter- I’m a big supporter of separating the art from the artist wherever possible, though I can certainly admit there are cases (especially with classics) where knowing a bit about the author’s circumstances can enhance the reading experience. But the fact that there is so much up for debate in O’Connor’s stories leaves the reader uncertain which way things are “meant,” and it’s hard to decide what to believe without knowing the author’s intentions- hence questioning O’Connor’s personal stance on the themes she returns to so often in her fiction.

Frequent use of racial slurs and stereotyping can be found in everything from the first story to the last, and O’Connor’s approach to race remains in-your-face and morally questionable throughout the book. I became increasingly uncomfortable with that facet of these stories, especially since I happened to be reading this as George Floyd was killed, protests swept across America, and the volume was turned way up on conversations about racism. There’s plenty of racism to be found in O’Connor’s stories.

There should never be a time where it’s comfortable to read about racism, but the tail-end of May 2020 was one of the absolute worst moments for it. However, while I agree wholeheartedly that racism should not be condoned or supported in any way, I think including racist characters in fiction can have a positive/worthwhile effect, if the racism is portrayed as an evil. It can be used as a lesson, as a cautionary device. And for the most part, that is how it came across for me in O’Connor’s stories. The racist characters O’Connor writes are often depicted as being in the wrong, and learning so. But there’s also some casual racism that is not challenged, which I chalked up to being a product of its time and place- though an article I read recently has made me reconsider that stance. The 1950s – 60s was still a time of significant racial inequality in the US, but it’s worth noting that America was undergoing a change in these years that other authors of O’Connor’s day handled in other, arguably better, ways. In that same article, one particular hypothesis jumped out at me: that O’Connor’s stories on racial tensions were perhaps a way for her to work through her own racism.

Apparently racism is much more apparent and overt in O’Connor’s essays, letters, and other works. I’ve not read any of O’Connor’s nonfiction, so I can’t speak on it, but the speculation about working through her own racist thoughts struck a chord for me even with only her stories to go on. I came to this collection much more interested in the fiction than the author- I knew O’Connor had been an Iowa Writer’s Workshop grad, and since my undergrad studies brought me in close proximity to that program (the grad students there led the undergrad creative writing workshops that I took part in) it’s been a personal interest of mine to read previous Workshop writers when I can, to see the fiction that was produced and published from that familiar environment. (If you’re looking for better alternatives from Iowa Writer’s Workshop grads, let me strongly recommend Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing for starters.) I didn’t intend to learn about O’Connor’s personal history or read her letters- it wasn’t her real life I was interested in. But now that I know a bit about them it’s not something I can ignore.

Ultimately, I have to admit that I don’t know exactly where I stand on whether O’Connor is doing a good thing with the content of her stories or not. I did feel most of the time that O’Connor was questioning and condemning racism through her fiction. But I also thought while reading that perhaps it was progressive for her to do that in her time- but her stories aren’t actually that old, and certainly other writers have done more in the way of calling out racial inequality at that time than O’Connor (these were the days of Martin Luther King Jr’s essays and speeches! He was not alone in challenging the status quo). I want to be able to say that she’s trying to do a good thing here, but I was left feeling uneasy about it all, and I suppose that speaks for itself.

I had the same uncertainties about what O’Connor was trying to say about religion; she’s clearly very concerned with morals and religious rituals, though it’s not always clear where she stands in the fiction despite being Catholic herself. In the end, I just wasn’t as concerned about whether O’Connor was supporting or condemning Christianity as about where she stood on racism. One’s stance on religion, I think, is mainly a reflection of personal choice, whereas one’s approach to racism can impact those surrounding (or in this case reading the work of) that person. Whether you practice religion or not should be up to you. Whether you practice racism should not be.

“She felt that religion was essentially for those people who didn’t have the brains to avoid evil without it.”

So why put myself through all this confusion? Why talk about O’Connor at all? Because she is, I think, a good storyteller (in the way that Stephen King is a good storyteller though he also has a knack for problematic writing). O’Connor’s characters, even the despicable ones, always feel like real people one might meet on the streets (or the farms) of 1950s Georgia. She doesn’t shy away from violence or death, which keeps her plot twists shocking and unpredictable. Her work feels like a snapshot in time- perhaps not a flattering snapshot, but it’s worth recognizing where people have been wrong, I think. Should Flannery O’Connor be remembered and studied? Perhaps. But if so, she should be recognized for her flaws as well as her assets.

I do like that O’Connor doesn’t try to tell the reader what to think; her characters’ actions and opinions leave no room for doubt, and yet conclusions on meaning are still left to the reader. She touches on law and politics, city vs rural life, academia vs spirituality, death and grief, parenthood and care for those in need, loneliness and community, and plenty more big toics that are still relevant today. Her writing noticeably improves as she goes, becoming sharper, more immersive, and I think more personal, toward the end of her career. The stories that originally appeared in her last collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge, are (in my opinion) the most impressive. There’s also a beautiful sort of symmetry to the fact that this chronologically-organized complete collection is bookended by two attempts at writing the same story- her first published short story, “The Geranium,” was also her final work, rewritten as “Revelation,” a much stronger version, shortly before her death. She may not have been a good person, and her talent may have been put to better use with subjects other than race, but she is a skilled writer nonetheless. Do I recommend reading her work? …Not without a lot of caution and a firm idea going in of where you stand on racism and religion.

My favorite stories from the set included:

  • “A Stroke of Good Fortune” – A woman realizes something serious about her health
  • “The River” – A young boy is taken to be baptized by a babysitter and there discovers a way to escape his neglectful parents
  • “A Good Man is Hard to Find” – A family goes on a road trip and encounters danger
  • “The Lame Shall Enter First” – A man takes in a bright but troubled boy, hoping to give him and his own son a better start to adult life
  • “Parker’s Back” – A man gets a bold tattoo in an attempt to impress his wife

“He had not done anything. He was twenty-eight now and, so far as she could see, nothing occupied him but trivia. He had the air of a person who is waiting for some big event and can’t start any work because it would only be interrupted.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I originally pegged this as a 4 because most of the second half of the book consisted of 4-star stories for me, and I was willing to round up for writing growth. But now that I’ve read a bit deeper on O’Connor’s body of work and racist remarks, and as I’ve sat with this collection a bit longer and remember it a little less fondly in general, I’ve changed my rating to a 3 to acknowledge that initial and lasting discomfort over the lack of clarity in whether O’Connor is speaking against racism through these stories. There are certainly individual pieces worth reading, but I would recommend only picking this full collection up if you’re prepared to do a deeper dive into O’Connor’s life and work as a sort of author study; I do think there’s merit here and plenty to learn, but without putting in a substantial amount of work I’m not convinced the reader is able to draw any conclusions that really make the experience worth the time and effort.

 

The Literary Elephant