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Review: The Last Time I Lied

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further recommendations:

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

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

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: The Girl from Blind River

Gale Massey’s The Girl From Blind River was my July Book of the Month Club selection. It’s a crime novel with a heavy focus on small-town poker. I started reading before my week-long road trip, left it home, and finished it quickly when I returned. It was a quick read but I was glad for the break, because there wasn’t much that I liked about this novel…

thegirlfromblindriverAbout the book: Jamie wants to be a poker star. Her uncle, Loyal, is a sort of poker phenom in Blind River. Jamie and her brother have been living with Loyal for more than eight years, ever since their mother’s arrest. They both want out of the dead-end town, but the only way to raise the funds seems to be helping Loyal with his games and schemes– which aren’t exactly played by the book. It’s a fine line to walk, and if Jamie isn’t careful, she could end up in jail like her mom, or dead, like her dad. After a big win that doesn’t pan out and a big loss that does, there’s another death in town, and Jamie has to decide once and for all whose side she’s on. The stakes are high– losing this bet could cost her entire future, or even her life.

Every now and then I come across a book I’m hesitant to read because I’m afraid I’m not knowledgeable enough about its subject matter to fully appreciate what the book is setting out to accomplish. But generally, enough information is supplied to guide the reader through. Unfortunately, in The Girl from Blind River, that is not the case. This is a book about poker that’s not particularly novice-friendly; as a poker newbie, I found it difficult to glean even from context how the game is played and what certain cards or moves meant for the various players. I came out of this book knowing no more about poker than I did going in.

 The problem with that barrier to learning is that the parallels between the game and the overall story were also lost on me. I think that if Massey had offered a bit of educational insight into the game, the character strife going on behind the scenes would have come across as more interesting and significant. There are real-life bluffs and bets and folds for Jamie outside of the hands of poker she plays, but without any real appreciation for the game or understanding of how wins and losses occur, those events didn’t mean a whole lot to me.

Linked to that is the fact that nothing about these characters managed to surprise me. They’re pretty stereotypical, from the trailer park con man to the college drop-out to the motherless violent boy to the do-good cop to the corrupt politician. The chest-oglers are, unsurprisingly, the bad guys. The authority figures who’ve broken the rules once are, unsurprisingly, the ones who’ve been breaking rules all along. Kids who’ve been raised by law-breakers are, unsurprisingly, heading down the same paths themselves. Jamie makes naïve assumptions and learns lessons that are (or at least should be) obvious to the reader: the social worker is not necessarily the bad guy. Thieves have their reasons for stealing. You don’t win every hand, especially at a casino. There’s no future for a relationship with a married man who won’t leave his wife.

There’s no mystery in The Girl from Blind River. There’s a murder, but the reader knows exactly whodunnit and how from the moment it happens, and Jamie knows enough. As the pieces of the puzzle come together, the twists are meant to reveal character rather than shake up the plot– but every character reveals him- or herself to be exactly who the reader expects from the beginning. The biggest surprise, in my opinion, is that these characters have made it eight-plus years without deaths or jail time already. I couldn’t muster respect for any of them as they tried so hard to cheat their way out of holes they dug themselves into. I hope they will not stick with me.

There’s also an overuse of the word “dingy,” which I found mildly annoying. It’s hard to imagine a girl who sleeps on a cot in the storage room of a ramshackle trailer and can’t handle the classes at her local college as describing so many places as “dingy.” The writing simply was not a good fit for me. I didn’t mark a single quote that I wanted to save, but I always like to include a sample of the writing in my review so I had to go back through and find something bearable. This is the best I got:

“What if she was different than them? What if she could shed the past? What if she had her own fate, separate and unknowable? Low on the blue horizon, wild geese flew across the sun. What if there really was something better waiting for her; what if she was moving toward it right now?”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. This was one of my biggest disappointments of the year so far. I could tell right away that I just didn’t like the style and the story wasn’t what I was looking for, and it never improved for me. Poker buffs might have a better time with this novel– there is a story here, and I hope it finds a more appreciable audience, but the only thing that I enjoyed about this reading experience was that it didn’t take long for me to reach the end. It was not a BOTM favorite– better luck next time, I hope. I’m still waiting for my August selection to arrive: David Joy’s The Line That Held Us.

What do you do when you find a literary dud? Do you stop reading, or soldier through hoping to take something from the experience anyway?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

 

Review: The Anomaly

In June, I chose Michael Rutger’s The Anomaly from Book of the Month Club’s selections, but I deliberately put it aside to read at the end of July. This book is a sci-fi thriller set in the Grand Canyon, and by June I knew there was a good chance I would be at the Grand Canyon myself at the end of July. So I brought this book on my road trip last week, and it was indeed the perfect match for reading between National Parks visits.

theanomalyAbout the book: Nolan Moore and his film crew are off on another venture for The Anomaly Files, a small-time YouTube-aired show about the world’s unsolved mysteries. Nolan isn’t an expert on anything, but he does have a lot of obscure knowledge that’s been helpful in this field– knowledge that leads him and the rest of the team to an unmapped cavern high up the Grand Canyon wall. What starts as a group of seven gradually dwindles as the team becomes trapped in the cavern and experiences a set of strange phenomena. Solving this mystery becomes increasingly important, as it could mean the difference between life and death for those who remain.

trippics4“When you’re in a bad situation there’s always part of your mind that carries blithely on, assuming you merely haven’t thought of The Thing yet– that there’s some obvious solution you simply haven’t fallen upon. Sure, it looks bad right now, this voice murmurs, comfortingly, but it won’t when you’ve come up with The Thing That Solves It All. But what if there’s no Thing? What if the situation is actually as bad as it looks? Or worse?”

My only complaint about The Anomaly is that the writing is competent at best. There’s nothing surprising or new or particularly inspiring about the arrangement of words on the page. But this is a small complaint, because there’s nothing wrong with the writing, either. It accomplishes the basic task of story-telling, free of typos and errors. Rutger’s bio states that he’s a screenwriter, and I think that shows. The plot is wild and engaging, but otherwise The Anomaly is obviously a debut.

Despite the blandness of the writing, there were several aspects that I especially enjoyed about this book: the foremost being the atmosphere. Although this novel takes place primarily in the Grand Canyon, there is mention of other National Parks, petroglyphs, and other natural and historical landmarks– I saw a lot of the same (or at least similar) sights on my road trip, which gave me a great level of first-hand background knowledge. Though that certainly helped me visualize the setting, this is not a book that depends on the reader having seen many National Parks and Monuments firsthand. I didn’t finish reading this book until after I’d returned home again, and long after I’d left the Grand Canyon I would pick up the story again and feel like I was still right there. This is a perfect story to read in the dark– but it’s not for the weak of heart.

Though The Anomaly isn’t a horror book, much of it does take place in the dark and most of the events that transpire in the cavern are brushes with the unknown. Needing an answer to the question “What the heck is going on?!” is the basic driving force of the novel. Luckily both the clues and the answers are intriguing. This is clearly a work of fiction, but it did leave me with the impression that the world is a bigger and more mysterious place than I usually give it credit for.

“People have this picture in their head of America as a young place. The ‘New World.’ But it’s as old as anywhere else. It’s been here as long as Europe or Africa. It’s a contentious subject but there’s people who think there were populations here before anybody made it over the land bridge.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’m not sure whether I would read another book by this author. I don’t think I’ll be keeping an eye out for Rutger’s name in future publications, but if I do happen to come across one at some point that sounds interesting, I may pick it up. It was a great reading experience, but I’m not sure it can be duplicated and it might be better to hold on to the memory than go looking for more. In any case, I’m really glad I read this one when and where I did, though it’s not at all what I expected from Book of the Month.

Further recommendations:

  • And if you like (or suspect you might like) sci-fi thrillers, let me also point you to Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter. Though these are vastly different stories, they’re both eerie and compelling, and challenge the reader’s view of the everyday world. Dark Matter focuses on its titular subject, following the main character through collisions with his paths-not-taken as the boundaries of space and time are breached by physics.

Have you read any books that pair perfectly with a real-life setting? (There are no books set in my hometown so reading about the Grand Canyon at the Grand Canyon was a novel experience for me.)

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Book Haul Vacation Edition

trippics3.JPGI’ve been leaving vague hints about my road trip vacation in my last few posts, and now I’m ready to go into a bit more detail. I wasn’t really sure until I was in the car on the road with my best friend that we were really going, so I didn’t want to build it up too much beforehand. Now that I’m back from my 8-day adventure, I want to tell you a little of what I saw, and which books I bought along the way.

trippics1I’ll lead by saying that the Grand Canyon was the farthest point from home that we visited, and I had been saving Michael Rutger’s The Anomaly (a BOTM selection from June) for this trip because it takes place at the Grand Canyon. I only managed to read about a third of that one book across the entire 8 days of the trip because we were just so busy, but that one book was a great choice of reading material. I was able to connect with the characters’ first experience with the Grand Canyon very easily, as well as understanding exactly what they were talking about when some of the other National Parks we visited came up: like Mesa Verde with its cliff dwellings. We saw petroglyphs (ancient drawings on stone), though not the ones mentioned in The Anomaly. We visited the Rocky Mountain National Park. We researched and were near Chaco Culture, though we didn’t end up stopping there. We saw Scottsbluff, and parts of the Oregon, Mormon, Pony Express, and Lewis and Clark trails. A lot of the history and landscapes we saw match exactly what’s described in the book, so that was a win. I did forget to take a picture of the book with the Grand Canyon in the background though. I had some great opportunities and I just… forgot. Because the view was so grand?trippics2

Though I didn’t accomplish a lot of reading while I was gone, I did buy a lot of books. A lot more than I intended to, anyway. Here’s what’s new:

  1. The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang. I actually bought this one right before we left, while we were shopping for supplies. My friend bought a road trip book and I bought this one, though in the end I didn’t pack it, guessing (rightly) that I would not get around to reading it while we were gone. This is a new fantasy novel that’s had a lot of buzz lately; it features a magic school and Chinese history, and I can’t wait to see what else.
  2. Elmet by Fiona Mozley. I bought this one at the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver, CO. It was on the bargain shelf, and I’ve been interested in it since it was longlisted for the Man Booker in 2017 and the Women’s Fiction Prize in 2018. I really don’t remember anything about the synopsis beyond the fact that it centers around familial relationships, but I’ve seen plenty of positive reviews and I couldn’t pass up a bargain at a great bookstore.
  3. The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing by The Editors of Writer’s Digest. This also came from the Tattered Cover. It’s just a book from writers about writing, and as I wrap up my own writing project that’s something that I’m drawn to. I’ve been meaning to pick this volume up for a while, and before I left the store I had already perused a few of the interviews printed in the book. I wanted to pick up a title that I was sure I would look at often, as a positive reminder of this bookstore, this city, and the road trip in general. With fiction there’s always the risk that I won’t like the book and thus it will turn out to be a bad souvenir, so I wanted to pick something useful.
  4. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. I chose this book from Bookworks in Albuquerque, New Mexico. With a new Sarah Perry book coming out this year, my interest has increased lately. It was cheap because it was used, but it looks new.  Also there aren’t good used book stores (or even bad used book stores) around where I live, so I’m glad I had the chance to find some elsewhere. This book is set in the late 1800s (one of my fave time settings) and focuses on the rumored return of the mythical Essex Serpent. The main characters include a woman with scientific interest in the serpent, and a man with religious interest; they are drawn together by their differing views on this creature.
  5. Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake. I found this book in Oklahoma City, just on a regular sale at the Barnes and Noble across from our hotel. This is a YA book about a girl whose twin is accused of rape, and the crisis that follows. It’s a book about identity and relationships, about how we decide who to stand for and what to stand against. I’ve gotten more picky about my YA reads again this year, but this book sounds great.
  6. Snap by Belinda Bauer. This is one of the books from the Man Booker longlist for 2018. It’s a crime novel about two children left in a car, whose mother tells them she’ll be right back, and that the older boy is in charge. She never comes back. That’s all I remember from the synopsis, but combined with the fact that crime/thriller books don’t seem to appear on many literary lists, it was enough to hook me. I bought this one at the B&N in Des Moines, Iowa because it was the only place I could find it for a discount. I’m hoping to read it soon, and that it’ll be a good jumping-off point for the other Man Booker nominees I want to pick up this year.
  7. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. I read and loved this book in July, and wanted to acquire my own copy after returning my friend’s. Barnes and Noble always has those B2G1 paperbacks, and I wanted the other two so I chose this as my free third book. This one is about the generations of two African families through a couple hundred years of world history; each chapter follows a different character and every single one of them is worth reading.
  8. Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore. This is another of my three paperbacks. My taste in books can best be described as “anything I haven’t read something like before.” Sometimes it’s a literary prize winner that does something unique with language or form, but sometimes it’s just the wacky plots that make you think “huh, I wonder how anyone came up with that idea.” Reincarnation Blues falls into the wacky plots category. The main character has 10,000 chances to do life right and find his ultimate purpose, but as he approaches 10k he’s more looking forward to embracing his one true love– death– than solving the mystery of life.
  9. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. The third paperback. This was the Man Booker winner for 2017, and I’m ashamed to say I still haven’t read it yet. I like Saunders’ writing, I like Lincoln, I like prize winners. I don’t know why I haven’t read this one yet, but it seemed like time to pick it up. I better get around to reading it before the 2018 winner is announced. I thought buying it would help.
  10. The Possessions by Sara Flannery Murphy. Same B&N. I’ve been vaguely interested in this one since it showed up as a Book of the Month selection in 2017, and if I hadn’t come across it on sale for a fraction of its cover prize, I don’t know if I would ever have picked it up. But that’s the fun of bookstore shopping: picking up something you wouldn’t have otherwise. This one’s about a character who can channel the dead, and works for an organization that enables the bereaved to talk with their loved ones a final time. Of course, lines are crossed and the dead get a little too close to life again.

bookhaulvacay18

And that’s my vacation book haul. I’ll post my regular August book haul at the end of the month, which will include any new books added to my shelves from this moment until the end of August. Since my goal for 2018 is 3 books per month or less, I wanted to share these right away and give myself a second chance at meeting my goal. Buying sprees don’t count on vacation, right? Hopefully I can keep myself under control for the rest of the month.

Here’s a teaser for my August book haul: I chose The Line That Held Us by David Joy as my BOTM selection for August, which should be arriving later this week. BOTM describes it as “Appalachian noir,” which sounds like nothing I’ve ever read before.

Have you read any of these books? What should I pick up first?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Social Creature

I’ve been on a road trip for the last week, but before I left I read Tara Isabella Burton’s Social Creature (which sounded a bit like The Great Gatsby meets modern thriller, so of course I was on board for an untamed extravaganza). Before I left I made notes for a review, but at no point during my trip did I have time to round it out. Now that I’m back (I’ll do an overview of the sights we saw and the books I bought tomorrow), and now that I’ve slept, I’m ready to review and return to real life.

About the book:socialcreature Lavinia and Louise meet when Louise is hired to tutor Lavinia’s sister in preparation for her SATs. Lavinia’s sister does not need Louise, but Lavinia does. Lavinia is on the search for a new best friend, and pulls Louise along to elaborate New York parties, expensive bars, and prestigious social events.  It is so different from Louise’s old life of responsibility and loneliness that she can’t let it go. Louise becomes more and more like Lavinia in appearance and behavior, but there’s a moment when it becomes clear that no matter their similarities outwardly, Lavinia is the one with the money and the power to keep Louise afloat, or take her new social life away. This moment ends with Lavinia’s death, which leaves Louise with secret power like a ticking bomb.

(This is not a spoiler. The narrator announces right off the bat that Louise and Lavinia’s friendship will culminate in a fatal end.)

“Now is the part you’ve been waiting for. You and I both know what happens now: Lavinia doesn’t make it. But the thing you have to understand is: why. Now you and I, we’ve been to parties before. We’ve done this a few times before already. But here’s the thing: you’ve never been to a party like this. That’s the whole point.”

Everyone has had a friend who’s “too much,” haven’t they? Lavinia is that friend. She’s over the top in good ways, in bad ways, in ways she’ll admit and ways she won’t. She’s the focal point of any room she enters. She’s utterly unique, and Louise is unique, but there’s something inherently relatable in this friendship-of-a-lifetime.

There were a few things I didn’t like about Burton’s writing, including the way dialogue is presented, which is sometimes clunky and makes it hard to tell who’s talking at times. Also the spaces between paragraphs occasionally make it difficult to tell how much time has passed; the gaps between paragraphs is visually pleasing, but rather unhelpful in conveying chronology.

But there were also several things I particularly liked about the writing style. Burton uses a narrator who knows what is going to happen, and who is willing to address the reader directly. This makes for a comfortably informal style of storytelling that drew me in as easily as my friends do when they have crazy stories to share.

On the surface these seem like very shallow and predictable people; they fit a type. But the more time the reader spends with them, the more distinct and surprising they become. Each of these characters has a secret history, and when the skeletons come out of their closets all manner of chaos breaks out.

“You can dye your hair. You can learn to speak with a very charming mid-Atlantic accent. You can stay up until four in the morning, missing your own deadlines, just to read somebody’s novel and tell them how great it is. But nothing, nothing you do will ever be enough. Even if somebody loves you (or they think they do, or they say they do), it’ll just be because you remind them of someone else, or because you make them feel a little less bad about having lost somebody else, or because somebody else is watching, across the auditorium, in an opera box, and they just want to make them jealous, and you were just an accessory to this.”

The most interesting part of this book, in my opinion, is the second half, when Louise flourishes and flounders after Lavinia dies. There are some interesting parallels where it seems Louise is becoming Lavinia, and their lives fuse into one being. Louise’s actions after Lavinia’s death are completely bizarre and engrossing, and had me on the edge of my seat wondering what was going to happen next. Surely the murderer is not going to get away with this crime, and it’s only a matter of time before there’s a slip-up and the truth comes out. But when? But how? These are the questions that kept me awake at night until I finished reading this book.

The only thing I would’ve changed about Social Creature is the ending. I don’t want to spoil anything, of course. The thing is, the reader knows right away that Lavinia is going to die. And as soon as she does, the reader also knows, based on how it happens, that the truth about her death can’t possibly stay hidden. But in the end, it’s not a confrontation that ends things, but a confession. An unnecessary (at that moment, anyway) confession, given to someone who has no inkling of it and doesn’t even want to believe. If there’s meaning to the way it plays out, I missed it. I like an ambiguous end, but this one could go absolutely anywhere– it’s so vague that I can’t even imagine what happens next. I don’t even know what Louise wants to happen next, though I spent nearly 300 pages getting to know her. It seemed an arbitrary place to draw the end of the story, after everything Louise had been through.

But I devoured it nonetheless. An ending can make or break a book for me, but even though this one seemed disappointing I flew through the rest of the story and I would still recommend it to fans of the literary thriller.

“There’s a reason people are able to function, in this world, as social creatures, and a good part of that reason is that there are a lot of questions intelligent people don’t ask.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Most of this book was a solid 4-star read for me; even though it’s slow at times and the parties become redundant fast, it’s highly entertaining and I was constantly wondering how things would turn out for Louise. There’s an artfulness to the compare and contrast of the girls’ lives that reveals Burton’s talent and gives the book its ominous tone. Some of my guesses were right, some were wrong, but it was a good balance. A great summer read.

Is there a certain type of book you prefer to read in summer?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Wrap-up 7.18

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

Some Trends:

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

Book-to-Film Adaptations:

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

Finished Books:

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

Some Stats:

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

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

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

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Book Haul 7.18

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

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

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

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

bookhaul7.18

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

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

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant