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Review: Fever Dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Literary Elephant

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Review: The Bride Test

Last year I read Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient in a rare romance mood, and though I had a few qualms with it about miscommunication and lack of consent, I thought it showed a lot of promise and immediately added The Bride Test, Hoang’s second (and related) novel, to my TBR. I managed to get my hands on a copy early this month.

thebridetestIn the novel, Esme (or Mý) is working a steady- if somewhat undesirable- cleaning job at a Vietnam hotel to support herself, her mother, grandmother, and small daughter. At the hotel, she meets a bold woman who is wife hunting for her grown son, Khai, who lives in America and has no idea what his mother is planning. Esme isn’t sure she’ll manage to convince anyone to marry her, but she does want to go to California to search for her long lost father, and decides to take a chance. Then she meets Khai- a kind, autistic man who doesn’t believe himself capable of love. Their families seem eager to push the two of them together, but can they admit their feelings for each other in time to wed before Esme’s travel visa expires?

“She wasn’t impressive in any way you could see or measure, but she had that fire. She felt it. That was her worth. That was her value. She would fight for her loved ones. And she would fight for herself. Because she mattered. The fire inside of her mattered. It could achieve and accomplish. People might look down on her, but she was making her way with as much integrity as she could with limited options.”

Right off the bat, I knew I was going to appreciate the exact same things about this book that I did with The Kiss Quotient; it’s wonderful to encounter a romance that offers such great representation- the man is autistic, he is American but his family is from Vietnam, and the woman is fully Vietnamese, unmarried with a child. I’m not a huge fan of romance books in general, so I like to be able to pick up a book from that genre that’s also going to offer insight into aspects of life that I’m not so familiar with. My list of elements to admire in this one included: seeing Esme learning to navigate a US airport without full grasp of the English language; seeing Khai’s perspective on how autism affects his emotions; seeing Esme care for Khai with the same enthusiasm both before and after she knew about his diagnosis, without letting him use the autism as an excuse when he does something hurtful; and seeing Quan look out for his younger brother (Khai) in a patient and considerate way. The Bride Test is a love story, but it’s also so much more.

“Everyone deserved to love and be loved back. Everyone. Even her.”

But in spite of the positives, I had more issues with this novel than I did with The Kiss Quotient, even though I liked the premise of The Bride Test more.

First, I had the same qualms as with Hoang’s first book- consent is not always asked for or given before things get physical, and, I thought a lot of the climactic tension could have been resolved (or at least lessened) if the characters had taken a moment to communicate with each other instead of walking off alone with their hurt feelings and assumptions. I understand that there’s a bit of a language barrier between Esme and Khai- she prefers to speak in Vietnamese and he prefers English; they understand each other but continue to converse in different languages. I also understand that Esme doesn’t really know what autism is or how it might manifest in Khai’s behavior or thought processes, but I do believe she knows him well enough that she would understand where he’s coming from if they would’ve had an honest conversation instead of being stubborn.

But my biggest problem with this book is simply that the entire major conflict made me uncomfortable. Admittedly, I don’t know much about autism or how to help an autistic person understand something that they seem hardwired against believing, so it’s possible that everything happening here is the “correct” way of going about it. But Esme and Quan, literally making Khai sick while trying to change his viewpoint on the matter at hand was hard to stomach. What bothers me most is that the truth was plain for everyone to see- they only pushed him because they wanted him to admit the words aloud. This is probably just a personal opinion, but I don’t think that what something is called matters as much as what something is. Esme and Khai butting heads over semantics in the final days before the deadline of her visa was not cute and angsty for me; it was torturous seeing Khai squirm between a rock and a hard place. I could see why Esme wanted Khai to say what she was asking him to say, but I couldn’t bring myself to sympathize with her. I agreed with most everything she thought and said, and yet I did not completely agree with her behavior.

“If he didn’t love her, someone else would. She wasn’t going to settle for a one-sided love. Not in this lifetime. Not ever.”

Perhaps most problematic to my reading experience, I was never quite convinced by Esme’s character. From the way she’s described by the other characters and the personality she presents in her own chapters, it seems like there’s absolutely nothing to dislike about her. She’s sunny and optimistic, nice to everyone, and smoking hot besides, of course. She’s worried that she’ll be turned away because of her family’s poverty or her young daughter, born out of wedlock. Unfortunately, these are real possibilities in life, but it’s obvious to the reader- and should be obvious to Esme- that they bear no significance with Khai. Furthermore, I don’t think The Bride Test is promoting very healthy practices between new couples by allowing Esme to get away with concealing her daughter from Khai’s family for almost the entire novel- that’s just not something you should wait to introduce to a potential partner until the day of the wedding, no matter the circumstances.

But The Kiss Quotient won Hoang a lot of fans, and I’m sure The Bride Test will as well. It’s funny, it’s steamy, it’s got some quality commentary about minority experiences. Esme’s situation (well, before the mail-order bride bit) feels plausible and worth the attention it receives here, as does Khai’s. Matt and Stella are given a couple of honorable mentions that’ll please past Hoang readers, and despite my criticisms, I am still completely on board for the next novel in this series, which looks to be Quan’s chance to shine. (It is not necessary to read the entire series or to read these books in any particular order, though of course you’ll not catch the references to previous MCs if you haven’t read the earlier books.)

All in all, there’s plenty to recommend about The Bride Test and The Kiss Quotient, and even if they aren’t perfect, they’re a step in the right direction for the genre (and literature) as a whole; I’m so excited to see more authors jump on this trend in the future and make this genre more inclusive and irresistable. In the meantime, I’ll keep trying with Hoang.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This was an incredibly quick read for me; even in the moments I completely disagreed with what was happening, I couldn’t seem to put the book down. I’m glad I picked it up, and I’m sure parts of it will stick with me, but I’m also glad I decided to check this one out from the library instead of purchasing immediately. I’m really looking forward to the Quan book, though! Before that one hits shelves, next up for me in romance will probably be Casey McQuiston’s Red, White, and Royal Blue, but I’ll warn anyone anticipating my review of it that it might be a while before I pick it up, simply because I’m not a frequent romance reader.

What’s your favorite romance novel? Have you read either of Helen Hoang’s books? I’d love to know what you thought!

 

The Literary Elephant

Top of the TBR 6.10.19

Top of the TBR is a new series I’m starting with the intent of it eventually replacing my book hauls. Since my TBR goal for this year is tied to the new books I’m buying throughout the year, I will (probably) still be mentioning new titles I’ve acquired each month for a while yet. But by the end of the year, Top of the TBR should have completely replaced those book hauls. (See my first Top of the TBR post for more info on why I’m making this switch.)

But what is Top of the TBR? Good question. It’s a weekly post that will showcase any new books I’ve added to my Goodreads TBR recently, with a short explanation of why each title caught my interest. I’ll aim for 5-10 books per post; in weeks that I’ve added more than that, I’ll hold some back, and in weeks that I don’t have enough, I’ll include titles I haven’t discussed yet. Each title will be linked back to its Goodreads page for anyone interested in exploring further, as I’m not a fan of copy/pasting synopses. Anyone who wants to take part in this series with me is absolutely welcome! Please link back to any of my Top of the TBR posts so I can see what you’re reading! 🙂

Here are some of the new books I’ve added on Goodreads over the last week:

38463If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin (Pub: 1974)

How I found it: I’ve been hearing quite a bit about this book surrounding its recent film release, but I finally ended up adding it after Grab the Lapels recommended it based on my thoughts about An American Marriage.

Why I added it: It sounds like this one focuses more on injustice and social commentary than a dramatic love triangle; in essence, it sounds like everything I wanted from An American Marriage but didn’t quite find there.

Priority: Low. I don’t have a copy on hand and I just reread An American Marriage. I’m not sure yet when I’ll pick this one up, but I do know I’ll probably want to watch the film at the same time.

7756979Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg (Pub: Jan 2010)

How I found it: Also recommended to me by Grab the Lapels, same situation.

Why I added it: Basically all of my prison knowledge comes from a few scattered pieces of fiction, and the TV series Orange is the New Black; this looks like it’ll be a nice overview from the inside, from a nonfiction perspective. I’ve been so interested in true crime lately that this seems like a good adjacent read.

Priority: Middling. I am planning to read more nonfiction this summer, and even though my list is overly full already it’s possible that I might decide to pick this one up as well.

32073130Animals Eat Each Other by Elle Nash (Pub: July 2017)

How I found it: I read Callum’s highly intriguing review!

Why I added it: It’s hard to say just what exactly is appealing to me here, but there’s a specific brand of “weirdness” that just works so well for me that I think I’ll find in this one. A “three-way relationship,” an identity crisis, obsession, pain vs. pleasure… the synopsis is full of what seems like perfect ingredients.

Priority: High. My TBR is way too full to keep spontaneously letting new-to-me titles skip ahead of the line, but I’ve been struggling lately to find 5-star reads that really excite me so I want to make sure I’m reaching for more of the surprising and odd books that I think have a chance at breaking the cycle.

34019105Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach (Pub: Feb 2017)

How I found it: Rachel mentioned this title briefly in her recent ARCs post; her focus was mainly on the author’s newest (upcoming) release, but Dead Letters had been on my radar since it was included as a BOTM selection in 2017 and that small mention was just enough to finally convince me to give this one a chance.

Why I added it: A set of twins, an uncertain death, family secrets? Sign me up. Better late than never. I’ve not had a great relationship with mystery/thrillers lately, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to give up completely.

Priority: Middling. Summer and fall are my best times of year for this sort of story, and since I don’t have many lined up yet. I can see myself getting to this before the end of the year, but you know what they say about good intentions.

40718354The Fire Starters by Jan Carson (Pub: Apr 2019)

How I found it: I read Rachel’s lovely review!

Why I added it: Rachel has great taste and I agree with her more often than not. Also, this just sounds really good! Two fathers who can’t trust their children, mysterious fires, Irish setting, community strife, magical element? I’m there. (If you’re not there yet, definitely check out Rachel’s review!)

Priority: High. This sounds like such a unique and compelling read, and might help me cross back into 5-star territory!

42201100Three Women by Lisa Taddeo (Pub: July 2019)

How I found it: I read Elle’s wonderful review! (Clearly this has been a good week for recommendations, even if they weren’t specifically aimed at me…)

Why I added it: This is a feminist nonfiction book about three women in particular, with desire as a common theme. The synopsis calls the book: “a groundbreaking portrait of erotic longing in today’s America, exposing the fragility, complexity, and inequality of female desire with unprecedented depth and emotional power.” Hell yes.

Priority: High. This one’s on my summer nonfiction list for sure. I’ve already got a hold on this title through my library.

38359002The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay (Pub: June  2018)

How I found it: I don’t remember. This one’s been on my list for months, and just got bumped up because I entered a Goodreads giveaway for it this week. (Still ongoing!) There’s always one.

Why I added it: I have not yet read anything from Tremblay, but I do like horror and suspense and have been meaning to give some of his work a go. I don’t remember any specifics about the synopsis, but the title succeeds at catching my attention every single time I come across it.

Priority: Middling. Hopefully I’ll get to this one in October, when I like to focus on spooky reads.

20702408A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Pub: Sept 2014)

How I found it: This one’s been on my radar for a while, as a previous Women’s Prize Winner, though I hadn’t looked into it very thoroughly until this week.

Why I added it: I’ve been meaning to read some of McBride’s work, and I have her The Lesser Bohemians on my TBR already; I usually stick to one book per author on my TBR at a time, then add another after finishing the first if I’m still interested at that point. But I’ve been chatting about a potential buddy read of this one with some Women’s Prize friends so I want to keep it in mind.

Priority: High. I believe this will be happening in July, so I’m planning to pick up my library’s copy then.

408888A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore (Pub: Jan 1995)

How I found it: I had to give this one a second look during my recent scroll through previous Women’s Prize winners.

Why I added it: This was the first ever Women’s Prize winner, in 1996 (back when it was the Orange Prize). This looks like historical (Gothic) fiction, featuring an intense sibling relationship complicated by family secrets and the woman’s “dark present and haunting past.” The synopsis on Goodreads doesn’t give much away, but I do enjoy dark and mysterious and odd family dynamics, so this sounds right up my alley.

Priority: Low. I would love to read more Women’s Prize winners, but having just reread this year’s winner and with plans to read A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing already in the works, this one’s on the back burner.

53101Nightwood by Djuna Barnes (Pub: 1936)

How I found it: I just read Barnes’s inclusion in the Faber Stories collection, The Lydia Steptoe Stories, and went looking through more of Barnes’s oeuvre.

Why I added it: It was hard to tell from Lydia Steptoe whether this was going to be an author that I would appreciate more broadly (the stories in that volume were so short!), but the synopsis of this one sounds like it’ll tick some of the same boxes for me that Lydia Steptoe did, so I think it’s worth a try. Goodreads says this novel “unfolds in the decadent shadows of Europe’s great cities, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna- a world in which the boundaries of class, religion, and sexuality are bold but surprisingly porous,” which sounds wonderful.

Prioirity: Low. I’m really curious about this, but I’m not in a hurry. I think that’s getting to be the common catchphrase for me in these posts, but with 600+ books on my Goodreads TBR I just can’t get to everything immediately.

 

With exactly ten titles added over the last week, that’s a wrap. I’m really excited about basically all of these, so don’t be surprised to see reviews for some of the titles mentioned start popping up!

Have you read any of these books, or recognize them from your own TBR?

 

The Literary Elephant

Wrap-Up 5.19

May was such a strange reading month for me. It went both better than expected and not quite as well as I’d hoped. It seemed like May lasted about 5 minutes, but apparently that’s just the way life is now. At least the weather is finally becoming enjoyable!

Books I finished this month:

  1. A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin. 4 stars. This is the main reason for my strange reading in May- I spent just over two weeks reading nothing but this 1000+ page beast, the third book in Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. It was enjoyable being back in this world and this felt like a worthy addition to the set, but also I did start to feel like it would never end and I would be reading this until I died. I’ve got a few more long books queued up for this summer though, so this was good practice. The final third of this book was where the plot really picked up, and I definitely prefer a slow beginning with a  strong ending rather than the other way around, so this mostly worked well for me.
  2. Women Talking by Miriam Toews. 4 stars. (I love Martin’s characters and world-building, but after two weeks in Westeros I needed some feminism.) This is a title I’ve been highly anticipating for months, and it was a haunting joy. There are some stylistic choices here that will probably not please everyone, but I thought it all fit together. It’s a short read that packed just enough punch and wasn’t too heavy.
  3. Women & Power by Mary Beard. 4 stars. I didn’t post a full review for this book and I don’t intend to. It’s a collection of two lectures/essays about women’s voices (literally the sound of their voices) and their current standing in governmental/power positions. I loved the way Beard tied her modern standpoints back to Greek and Roman history, and I agreed with her viewpoints overall. But I think there were places it seemed obvious that these were originally speeches, and hadn’t been thoroughly adapted for a wider reading audience; there were details that felt rushed past that I wished for more expansion on, and others that felt catered to a specific audience that I was perhaps not a member of. It felt rather like Beard was trying to answer questions that I hadn’t asked? It’s possible I went into this too blindly. It paired well with Women Talking in the moment that I needed some feminism, but (and I don’t mean this in a discouraging way if you want to pick this up, because I did find it worthwhile and enjoyable) I don’t know who I would ever recommend this to. It’s a very specific sort of book whose reception I think will depend a lot on what the reader is looking for, and why.
  4. Miracle Creek by Angie Kim. 3 stars. This was my BOTM selection from April. I reeeeally loved this in the first twenty pages, and then I made a guess as to who the real culprit of the central mystery was, and grew increasingly bored as every clue pointed toward that guess being correct. It’s exciting to figure out whodunnit, in theory, but reading 300 pages for the reveal that I knew was coming just wasn’t doing it for me. Other than that setback, I loved everything about this book, and I do highly recommend it. There’s a ton of meaningful commentary about immigration and the struggles involved in parenting special needs children, as well as flaws in the US legal system. I just wish it hadn’t been formatted as a mystery.
  5. Cosmopolitan by Akhil Sharma. 3 stars. This is a short story from the Faber Stories collection about an elderly man whose wife and grown daughter have moved away from; he fixates on his neighbor. I thought it was fine, but it’s not a favorite from the collection. More thoughts will be coming soon in another exciting round of Faber Stories mini-reviews.
  6. The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band by Mötley Crüe and Neil Strauss. 4 stars. This is not my usual type of reading material but I have many, many thoughts to share about it in a review that should be up later this week. At a glance, I think these people are victims of their circumstances who act in appallingly abhorrent ways; I found them unlikeable as “characters” but was engrossed in their story anyway, flabbergasted that the world could allow- even encourage!- such debauchery to exist.
  7. Dante and the Lobster by Samuel Beckett. 3 stars. Another Faber Story that’ll appear in my upcoming mini-reviews. This one features a man going about his ordinary afternoon routine, and experiencing a shock at the end. I appreciated the strangeness of this one, but again, not a personal favorite.
  8. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. 4 stars. This was a reread I wanted to fit in before wrapping up my time with the Women’s Prize shortlist and predicting winner. I originally read this novel over a year ago and gave it 4 stars, but over time had lowered my rating and overall opinions because my criticisms stuck with me better than my appreciations. Here are the links to my original review and my updated review, for anyone curious. In short, I’ll simply say that this novel is a commendable effort that just didn’t quite fit what I wanted it to be; there’s a lot to appreciate about it, but I found it difficult to in the characters for a number of reasons.
  9. The Lydia Steptoe Stories by Djuna Barnes. 4 stars. The last of this month’s Faber Stories, and my favorite of the bunch. This is actually a set of three tiny short stories from the early 1920s, and I enjoyed all of them. Each features a character meant to challenge gender and/or sexuality “norms,” generally after something awkward happens to them. They’re written as diary entries. More info coming up in my mini-reviews.

 

wrap-up5.19

Some Stats:

  • Average rating – 3.7, and I’m so bummed that I didn’t have a single 5-star read this month. I don’t think I’ve actually read a 5-star novel since Pachinko in February. I hope that will change in June!
  • Best of month – Storm of Swords. Followed closely by Women Talking.
  • Worst of month – Probably Cosmopolitan, just because it was bland? Nothing I read was truly bad, and even my lowest rated novel, Miracle Creek, was objectively good- I just didn’t have a great experience with it.
  • Books hauled – 11. I’ve read 4 and a half already, which leaves 6 and a half on my TBR for June.
  • Owned books read for the first time – 5 or 6, depending on whether you count rereading An American Marriage in a new, recently-bought copy as “reading for the first time.” My total also includes one book bought prior to 2019 (Storm of Swords), one from my May TBR, and a few that would have ended up on my June TBR if I hadn’t gotten to them early.
  • May TBR tally – 1/1! For the first time all year, I read all of the books acquired in a month by the end of the following month! Obviously it helped that there was only one book I bought in April that I hadn’t read before May (Miracle Creek). I’m still pleased.
  • Year total – 62 books. My Goodreads goal for the year is 100, which I’m well on my way toward. I feel a bit like I’ve been cheating with all the Faber Stories counting toward this tally even though they’re so small. But I’m planning to balance it out with some more long books this summer, so it is what it is. I’m not planning to raise my goal, because I think 100 is a realistic number for me, and I like the room that I have right now to spend two weeks on one book like I did with Storm of Swords. Low key I’d like to beat my record from last year, which was 118, but it’s casual.

I think that’s everything I have to say about May. It was a weird month, but onward and upward!

Did you have any 5-star reads this month?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Miracle Creek

I have been moving away from mystery/thrillers over the last year or so because I haven’t been able to find books in those genres that manage to surprise and thrill me. But I saw Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek as a BOTM selection for April and thought a courtroom drama with current social commentary looked too good to pass up, even if it did have a mystery element. So I took a chance and read it this month.

miracle creekIn the novel, the Yoo family attends a trial in which one of their clients stands accused of starting a fire that destroyed the Yoos’ Miracle Submarine (a submarine-like enclosure that allows patients to receive controversial pure-oxygen treatments) and resulted in the loss of two lives as well as additional injuries. The woman arrested for this crime is the mother of a young boy who died in the fire, a boy who had been diagnosed with autism. The day of the explosion was the first and only day Elizabeth sat out during the treatment, after making sure her son’s oxygen helmet was hooked to the tank that was soon to be targeted by the arsonist. But as guilty as she looks, Elizabeth may not have been the only person on the premises with the opportunity and motive to start a fire; and if the jury leans in that direction… who committed the crime?

“The first time she hurt her son on purpose was six years ago, when Henry was three.”

There’s a lot to like about this book. The Yoos are an immigrant family from Korea who have been in the US for only a few years and have much insight to offer about that experience. Furthermore, most of their patients are special needs kids; as the narrative shifts through POVs, the reader is offered commentary on autism and cerebral palsy, as well as some of the struggle that comes with parenting children with these diagnoses. And for additional intrigue, the book also showcases the shortcomings of the US legal system as the attorneys become progressively more interested in winning the case without any regard for surfacing truths about what might actually have happened. Each of these aspects is delivered impeccably well and makes the book feel relevant and important rather than presenting as 300 pages of simple whodunnit entertainment.

“It scared Matt a little, how these lawyers could take a given set of facts and spin them in opposite directions… Matt got the feeling that Abe cared about the truth only insofar as it was consistent with his theory of the case; otherwise, not so much. Any new evidence that didn’t fit was not cause to reconsider his position, but something to explain away.”

Unfortunately, it was the mystery structure that threatened to ruin the story for me. Miracle Creek contains both of my mystery novel pet peeves, a combination that doesn’t happen often. The only sort of mystery I consider a success is one that hints at its solution throughout the story and still manages to surprise the reader when all is revealed. A solution that is possible to guess, but that I do not guess correctly. With Miracle Creek I correctly pegged the criminal immediately, and yet the narration makes guessing motive impossible until the author spells it out.

The first issue is specific to my reading experience, and perhaps not a fault of the book: I was able to guess the true culprit of the Miracle Submarine arson within the first twenty pages or so, which made the book’s attempts to confuse and shock me seem like transparent parlor tricks instead, once I knew who to watch for. This likely won’t be a problem for every reader, especially for those fairly new to the genre or those who can resist the urge to make a prediction.

But the second issue is something that I do consider a flaw in the book, though admittedly this criticism may also stem from my personal reading taste: the narration intentionally misleads the reader with numerous red herrings, promoting wrong assumptions, and even withholding key information while providing perspective chapters from the dishonest characters. On top of the added difficulty of investing in characters that are clearly hiding things from the reader, this tactic means that character motives and crime details are impossible to decipher throughout the book. There is no way to engage with the mystery (the “why” and “how” of it, at least. You can imagine how uncommon it is to be able to guess the ultimate solution and yet be entirely incapable of figuring out why that person committed the crime); Miracle Creek insists on using every slight reveal as a twist to further characterization, instead of allowing the reader a true glimpse of the characters before the facts are out in the open. This was the most frustrating facet of the book for me, and left me feeling like the plot was dragging me through the novel and that very little of the information precluding the climax is actually crucial to the mystery.

“That was the thing about lying: you had to throw in occasional kernels of shameful truths to serve as decoys for the things you really needed to hide. How easy it was, to anchor his lies with these fragments of vulnerable honesty, then twist the details to build a believable story.”

This quote is a nice reflection of Kim’s tactic in laying out the Miracle Creek mystery. Though the characters do not outright lie to the reader (to each other, yes), the narration is formatted with the intent of misdirecting the reader from the truth. This happens so often that the reader knows when the characters are making incorrect assumptions, at which point their waffling on about them becomes, frankly, a bit annoying. The red herrings are lightly camouflaged with juicy snippets of shameful truths that slowly reveal each of the characters for who they truly are.

Mystery aside, I did enjoy my time with these characters. I learned early on that first impressions are never accurate portrayals, and liked to see Kim mine each one for hidden depths that made each of them unique and interesting. They’re multi-faceted and compellingly flawed, with a nice mix of relatable traits and specific experiences to share. The medical aspects also seem well-researched and informative. In the end I appreciated everything about this book except for its attempt at mysteriousness. I wonder whether I might have liked Miracle Creek more if Kim had been upfront about the cause of the fire in the beginning, and simply followed these characters through the decisions they make during the trial without trying to shock her readers at every turn. I think that story might have made more of an impact for me.

But I would still highly recommend this book if the premise intrigues you, because I think my reaction has been a bit of an anomaly and I don’t see any reason why this book would be a disappointment to anyone who has a better time with the mystery than I did.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I wanted to love this book. When I read the first chapter about the night of the fire, I thought I really would love this book. Sadly, my struggle with mysteries and thrillers continues, instead. But I’m not sad I picked this one up. I would read more from Angie Kim in the future, and I’m still optimistic about my other unread 2019 BOTM selections, which I’m still hoping to catch up on soon!

Have you read this book? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

Tag: Spring Cleaning

I was nominated for this Spring Cleaning bookish tag by Hannah last month! I’ve fallen desperately behind this season between being busy and a bit of a reading/blogging slump, but I had a lot of fun putting this one together and it’s still spring in my corner of the world, so thanks for the tag, Hannah!

The Struggle of Getting Started: A Book or Series You Struggle to Begin Because of Its Size

11264999I’d have to say A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R. R. Martin. I struggle with picking up every single one of the books in this series, even though I love the world and story and do delight in reading them once I get going. I believe the shortest of the series is the first book, A Game of Thrones, which stands at over 800 pages (at least in the copy that I own). I’m currently hesitating about picking up book 4, but I think I’ll get around to it in about a week or so.

Cleaning Out the Closet: A Book or Series You Want to Unhaul

6186357The Maze Runner series by James Dashner. After the harassment allegations against Dashner a couple of years ago I no longer want to support his writing in any way. I’ve been hesitating because The Death Cure (book 3, the final installment) would be the first book I’ve bought and then unhauled without reading, which doesn’t sit well with me either. Though I found the plot of this story interesting, the writing style has bothered me from the first chapter of the first book, so between that and Dashner’s recent reputation, I just don’t have any interest in picking it up in order to read it to send it away- a stalemate.

Opening the Window and Letting Fresh Air In: A Book that was Refreshing

40597810Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. I’d heard a lot of hype, I’d seen some reviews criticizing the documentary-script-style formatting, and I wasn’t sure how interested I was in reading about a fictional 70’s rock band. But The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo had convinced me to set my expectations aside and give TJR a chance with any subject and style, and to no one’s surprise I adored almost everything about this book. By the time I finished, I found myself completely addicted to classic rock. The modern spin on this “historical” trend was perfection. Refreshing.

Washing Out the Sheets: A Scene that you Wish You Could Rewrite

39938177I really liked the plot and characters of Taylor Adams’s recent thriller, No Exit, but there was one disturbing scene that felt gratuitously cruel and ruined the suspension of disbelief for me once and for all. (It was the door hinge scene, for anyone curious who’s read the book. Not really a spoiler for anyone who hasn’t.) I’m not sure what I would have wanted to happen in place of this event, but I found it disturbing and unnecessary in a way that negatively impacted my opinion of the entire book.

Throwing Out Unnecessary Knick-Knacks: A Book in a Series You Didn’t Think Was Necessary

32283133Origin by Dan Brown. Honestly the art that I was encouraged to look up after encountering it in this novel is the only benefit I remember encountering as a result of reading this book. I loved the first three books in Brown’s Robert Langdon series when I was in high school and my first year of college. Inferno (book 4) was beginning to lose my interest, but I still found its concept intriguing (forced mass sterility as a method of worldwide population control) and was interested in Dante and his Divine Comedy at the time, so I didn’t mind. But Origin (book 5) felt completely unnecessary and frankly much less engaging than I’d found the rest of the series. So unnecessary that I’m not sure I would ever continue reading future books that might follow it someday.

Polishing Doorknobs: A Book That Had a Clean Finish

30849411I tend to prefer endings that leave something open for the reader to consider after closing the book, which is not exactly what I would call a “clean” ending. The first thing that comes to mind that might fit what I think is the spirit of this prompt is Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. This is a multi-generational story set in multiple locations, and though the ending was not the most impressive chapter of the book for me, I did appreciate how it tied all of the characters and their stories together without wrapping up all of the suffering in the book in an overly neat or dismissive way. Just the right amount of hope and grief.

Reaching to Dust the Fan: A Book That Tried Too Hard to Covey a Certain Message

37969723I think I’ll have to go with The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. Overall, I enjoyed this book and appreciate its themes, but after much consideration (probably due in part to the book’s inclusion on the Women’s Prize shortlist this year) I’m still not on board with the Achilles chapters. I think Barker makes a valuable point about ownership of stories and history by including him the way she does- allowing him to take over Briseis’s story- and perhaps disliking his character the way I did was the Point. But I wish she had found some other way to make this Point because the Achilles chapters continue to mildly irritate me, months later.

The Tiring Yet Satisfying Finish: A Series That was Tiring But Satisfying to Get Through

165035Last year I read Vilhelm Moberg’s (translated) Emigrants series, about a Swedish farming family relocating to the American Midwest in the mid 1800s. I found the writing a bit dry and progressed through the four books rather slowly, but ultimately look back on this series fondly. I had never before read anything remotely similar to my own family’s history, so it felt rewarding to learn about it through my favorite art medium- fiction, obviously. I’ve actually met some of my grandma’s Swedish relatives since finishing this series, and appreciated having a bit more context with Swedish history and culture prior to meeting them.

 

Since we’re just on the cusp of summer (at least we are where I’m at), I won’t obligate anyone to this decidedly spring tag. It’s definitely my own fault that I’m getting to this one so late, which is not a reflection of my enjoyment level over putting these answers together! So I’m not tagging anyone specifically, but please feel free to try it if it looks interesting to you, and link back to me so I can see your answers!

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

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Women Talking

I’ve been anticipating Miriam Toews’s Women Talking for months, and in the wake of 1000+ pages of George R. R. Martin‘s writing I was in desperate need of some feminism. Women Talking, along with Mary Beard’s Women & Power (which I’ll talk about more in my month wrap-up) gave me exactly what I needed.

womentalkingIn the novel, a handful of women from the Mennonite colony of Molotschna gather secretly in a hay loft to discuss a response to the men that have raped them. The eight men who stand accused of making nightly visits to women of all ages in the colony- subduing them with an anesthetic spray  and then raping them while they lie unconscious in their beds- are being held in the city jail, away from Molotschna. Others from the community have gone to post bail and bring them home pending trial. The women know they will be asked to forgive these men and carry on as usual; refusing forgiveness would mean- according to bishop Peters- being barred from heaven for the hatred they harbor.

“A very small amount of hate is a necessary ingredient to life.”

It would be easy to make an argument that this book presents as fiction for feminism newbies. The Molotschnan women have been cut off from the rest of the world- they are even made to speak a dead language that prevents them from communicating with anyone outside of their own religion- and thus are coming to the idea of gender equality as though it’s a radical revolution. All facets of this concept are new to them, or at least new as a topic of discussion outside their own private thoughts, and thus all sides of the issue are laid out simply and in great detail. To consider disobeying the men of their community is indeed an act of rebellion. The women laugh at the prospect of asking for more rights and protections because they know these desires will be stamped down without any fair consideration. Such is life in Molotschna.

“She once explained to me that, as a Molotschnan, she had everything she wanted; all she had to do was convince herself that she wanted very little.”

What keeps the story from feeling behind the times or too basic is the specific combination of rapes and religion in this limited environment. In an introductory statement, Toews mentions a real-life case of Bolivian colony women who were subjected to similar mysterious attacks as recently as 2009. Beyond the outrage of such a parallel is the necessary consideration that the men in this equation are husbands, brothers, sons, and long-time acquaintances of the women. They have been raised to value non-violence and forgiveness, to such an extent that they believe retaliating will cost them their souls. This is no straightforward discussion about taking revenge against evil men, but an exploration of the community hierarchy that birthed such a situation, without disregarding the fact that these women have been conditioned to believe that fighting the system could mean eternal damnation, a fate they actively fear.

Women Talking takes a philosophical approach to this one unique case of injustice, through which many broader statements can be more generally applied. It is at heart an examination of faith and the self- what each woman is willing to do or sacrifice for what she believes she deserves- rather than a condemnation of men or religion outright.

“Our freedom and safety are the ultimate goals, and it is men who prevent us from achieving those goals.

But not all men, says Mejal.

Ona clarifies: Perhaps not men, per se, but a pernicious ideology that has been allowed to take hold of men’s hearts and minds.”

If you’re looking for plot, you won’t find it here; the title tells it true- almost the entire book consists of a handful of women talking through their options across two days of meetings. Because the women can’t write, they entrust one man with the task of keeping minutes for the meeting- he is our narrator. He goes on many tangents, makes his own assumptions, and in the end manages to skew the process of recording the minutes to seem a project entirely about himself, all of which contributes to the sense of claustrophobia and powerlessness these women must be experiencing.

The format and general lack of action happening on the page will likely alienate some readers, but I found it a beautiful, insightful look at a problematic power structure, which paired nicely with Beard’s nonfiction lectures/essays in Women & Power. I found myself outraged and emotional over many of the story’s details (there are so many infractions I haven’t mentioned in this review), and devoured both books in one sitting.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Though a bit too short and beginner-friendly to pack the full 5-star punch for me, I did find this little book an absorbing change of pace. Everything about it fit so seamlessly together, and I loved the way that this piece of fiction reflects/addresses a real-life catastrophe in a way that gives voice to silenced women. I may pick up more from Toews in the future, but I was more interested in this specific concept and book than the author’s work more broadly at the moment; Women Talking was exactly what I wanted it to be, but… I’m fine with it ending here for now. Feel free to drop suggestions if you think there’s another Toews book I’m missing out on, though!

 

The Literary Elephant