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Review: Cross Her Heart

I read and loved Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes last year, and was excited to see her newest release, Cross Her Heart, available through Book of the Month Club for September. I knew going in that this new thriller lacked the sort of genre-bending twist that sold me on Behind Her Eyes, but even with that expectation I was disappointed by this run-of-the-mill thriller.

crossherheartAbout the book: Lisa has a good job, a daughter she’s proud of, a great friend… and nightmares about her dark past. No matter how much better she’s doing and how well-hidden she is, Lisa cannot escape what happened years ago. When signs from an old “friend” begin turning up in the present, Lisa doesn’t know how to cope. Ava doesn’t know how to deal with her mother’s newfound paranoia, and no one knows what to do when Lisa’s cover is blown and she’s spirited away to a safehouse– too late to save herself and Ava from the schemes of someone desperate for revenge.

“Life Is a series of deals, that’s what I’ve learned. Most get broken.”

I’m not sure I can put my finger on exactly what went wrong here for me– I think it was just a bit of everything. I will mention a few specific complaints, but I want to lead by mentioning that I’ve read quite a few thrillers now and my main problem lately seems to be that they’ve gotten predictable now that I know what to expect. This bothers me because I think thrillers, as much as any other genre, should hold up even (especially) if the reader is well-versed in the genre. But Cross Her Heart bored me within the first 10 pages, and never really improved.

One of the first issues I had with this book was characterization. I absolutely loved Marilynn’s character, but she is not the main focus (a tragedy) and the characters that do receive more attention are far more clichéd and unexciting. Ava is a selfish, naïve teenager whose mistakes are obvious from the start, and Lisa is the irksome mother who says her child matters more than anything, and yet she has no idea what’s going on in Ava’s life and makes no effort to keep her safe when scary things start happening around their home. And then there’s Simon, the sort-of love interest who really has no place in the story beyond giving depth to Lisa’s (and Marilynn’s) work life, which again, is not the main focus here. Other coworkers are clearly only present to add possibilities to the list of potential threats, and the people from Lisa’s past are flat and stereotypical, full of evil that lacks an underlying motive.

“I know that rage can lead to terrible things. Can leave someone with regrets like tombstones that have to be carried through life, backbreakingly heavy and deserved.”

Furthermore, the stakes are low. Lisa, the main target, states plainly and repeatedly that she’s willing to die for her daughter. If Lisa doesn’t mind dying, why should the reader mind for her? And with Lisa standing as this person’s sole target, why should I worry about anyone else? I couldn’t even bring myself to care about Ava potentially being stuck in the crossfire– she runs open-armed into the danger, and isn’t a very sympathetic character.

This cast is presented through a range of first, second, and third person perspectives. The sections are labeled by name and (predictable and tired) time stamps: Before, After, Now. The reason this format ultimately failed for me is that it allows for a repetitive duality to the reveals. Every plot twist is shown through at least two characters’ perspectives, hinted at in a sort of bland and overt way by one party and then expanded on by the next. This method muffles a lot of the novel’s shock and suspense.

The biggest obstacle though, is that this is not a mystery one could plausibly solve before the detectives. Pinborough withholds her clues. From the first chapter, it’s clear that the author (and many of the characters) know more than they’ll share; the mystery is a mystery only to the reader. When the author has to play her cards so close, you know the answer’s just too simple.

“Someone can do a terrible, unforgivable thing, and yet you forgive them if you love them. The heart is such a strange thing.”

And that ending– it’s just a little too neat. There are hardly any witnesses to the final act, the witnesses’ credibility should be questionable to the police, and even if the police have no trouble seeing the light there isn’t much to witness. Unless the culprit has made a full confession off-page, I just don’t buy how quickly things turn happy after the big showdown. In my experience, what is true matters a lot less than what people believe to be true, and there are a lot of beliefs that require overturning for this ending to work.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. There was absolutely nothing gripping about this story for me. I wasn’t surprised, I only cared about one lesser character, and the writing style didn’t impress me. I think plenty of readers will be satisfied with the content of this novel, but I was hoping to be wowed. Sadly, Cross Her Heart was enough of a disappointment that I think I’ll be crossing Sarah Pinborough off my list of future interests; I think Behind Her Eyes was a one-off for me with this author.

Further recommendations:

  • Megan Miranda’s The Perfect Stranger is a twistier case that mixes past accusations with present-day drama. The main character of this story must also confront signs of danger in and around her own home and decide whether her friend is the person she claims to be.
  • Another big hit in the thriller world this year with a few thematic similarities (past crimes forced back to the present, teenagers gone missing, false accusations, etc.) is Riley Sager’s The Last Time I LiedThis one’s about a woman who goes back to summer camp where her friends went missing years ago, and new disaster strikes. Though if you’re really looking for a great thriller (and something more different), I can’t recommend Sager’s previous novel, Final Girls, highly enough. This one’s a slasher thriller about a woman who avoided a violent killer once– only to be targeted again.

Do you have a go-to mystery/thriller writer who always comes through? Or have you been disappointed by a thriller author you’ve loved in the past?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Novel Progress 9.18

It’s been two months since my last writing update, instead of one. I could make excuses, but the truth is that when I went on vacation, I came back to three weeks of procrastination in which I made very little progress on the book I’m trying to write. I felt guilty about that for a while, but now that all systems are a go again, I think that time off was helpful. I came back to my project with fresh perspective, and for a couple of weeks now I’ve been sitting down with the novel in front of me every day again, getting a little farther.

So this is where I’m at: I’m mostly finished with chapter 7 (of 9); I’m doing a final read-through just to make small edits and double check details, but the content’s all there and the word count won’t change by much. I’m 500 words short of my chapter goal of 10k, but I’m okay with that because I’m still around 73k toward my total project goal (90k), with two 10k chapters left to finish. Today should be my last day in chapter 7, except for my final read-through of the whole project.

And speaking of the whole project, I have a reader who’s going to go through and check for plot holes and typos, and since my three weeks of procrastination put me behind schedule, I had to pause work on chapter 7 to make another pass through chapter 1 before I passed that off. I really wanted to get through the entire draft before I went back to the beginning again because I get sucked into making small edits and then I get derailed, but I love chapter 1 and it’s in great shape and going through that was exciting and encouraging and helpful. Also, it didn’t take long, so I’m hoping that when I do my final read-through of the project that the rest of the chapters will go as quickly and easily into the final draft stage. It’s still a bit weird that my first complete draft will be more or less my final, but that’s what I get for working out of order and editing as I go– very little obvious progress, and then everything all at once.

Everything all at once: after I close out of chapter 7, I will have only two chapters left. 8 is already half-written, and 9 is not started, but both chapters are fully outlined. I’m usually not an outliner, but I have so many perspectives and plot arcs coming together here at the end of the book that every time I wrote about a character I made a note about where their next section should take them, and at this point there just aren’t many sections left so they’re all accounted for now. I just have to go back through and write out the content that I have planned. And I’m going to be swamped with work in about 3 weeks, so I’m probably going to push ahead and make a lot of progress now through the end of September. The same surge happened at this time last year with great success, so I’m feeling hopeful. I don’t know if I’ll quite make it through the end of chapter 9 in three weeks, but I’m going to work hard and see what happens.

As I am getting closer to the end, part of the problem with procrastinating is that I’m having wild swings of confidence/lack-of-confidence about this project. With the end in sight, I’m thinking more about what comes next. For so much of this project I’ve been putting off thoughts of publication because I couldn’t publish something that I hadn’t even written yet anyway. But now that I’m looking ahead to being done soon, I’m worrying a lot about what comes next. I need this book to be published. But I know there’s no guarantee. So I go back and forth between being so excited because I think the book is turning out great and everything in my life has led me here blah blah how can it not get published? And then the next day I’ll remember that so many writers never get published, I have no connections in the publishing world and I have terrible luck and who would ever publish my work? So for about a month now I’ve been going through some pretty intense euphoria and depression and it’s getting in the way of my writing. By this point, I’m just so emotionally exhausted that I need it to be done and out of my hands, one way or the other.

Another issue I had with chapter 7 that made it drag was that even though I had most of the chapter written before this round through it, I had to rewrite a lot of that content. Working out of order landed me with an almost-complete chapter that had all the wrong details; I’d tried to write this first part of the concluding sequence before I knew all of the characters and understood how the setting would develop and wasn’t aware yet of what the emotional atmosphere would be at this point in the novel. So while I sill wanted to use the same basic storyline, I had to go back to old chapters to match up setting details and character names/descriptions, and fix discrepancies in dialogue and actions. I’m afraid there’s going to be a bit of this going forward with chapter 8 as well, in the half-chapter that I wrote probably a year ago. Hopefully now that I’ve had some practice with this process it’ll go faster.

I’ve always written that way, back and forth and out of order. I write whichever part is strongest in my mind so that I don’t lose the words, and then I come back and fix it later. I know the urge to edit as you go is a struggle lots of writers have to deal with, and I think I’ll always be that way, but I’ve learned a lot from the writing and reading I’ve been doing in the last two years and few months while this project has been ongoing, and I think when I finish this one and start my second book, I’ll be ready to try a new approach. I definitely don’t think every book that I write will take me two and a half years, but I had to start somewhere and I’m glad I took the time to make this one as good as (I think, at least) it’s turning out to be. And now I know more for next time. And there will be a next time– whether I’m ever published or not, I don’t see how there could ever be a time when I’m alive and not writing. Which is why I’m really hoping for some luck  in my literary agent search, because I’d much rather make writing a career than a time-consuming hobby. All the words I’ve read that other people have written have shape my life, and I want to share the love by adding to the conversation; hopefully my words will reach the people that need to hear them the way other writers’ words have found me.

How’s your writing project going? Have you had any particular struggles or successes lately?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Warlight

There are only a couple of weeks left before the Man Booker 2018 shortlist is announced, and there are still a lot of titles from the longlist that I want to read. (My only Man Booker 2018 review so far is Snap, though I’ve got a few more coming up this week.) Warlight was my second read from the longlist, and my first Michael Ondaatje novel.

warlightAbout the book: In 1945, when Nathaniel is a child, his parents announce they are going to spend a year in Singapore and leave a guardian at the house for their children. Nathaniel and his sister call this guardian the Moth, and suspect he is a criminal. They don’t hear from their parents, but they do find out their parents have lied about where they’re going and for how long. The year passes, and instead of parents, Nathaniel and Rachel have the Moth and the Darter, among a range of other eclectic  and secretive strangers. The siblings grow apart, finding their own ways to survive with these new companions in London. But eventually something happens to bring Nathaniel’s mother back, and he begins to learn that she is not the woman he supposed her to be. In his adult years, he is able to piece together some of the brave, questionable things she did for her government, and how her choices have irrevocably shaped his own life.

” ‘Who do you think is going to come for you someday?’ I would have asked her, if I had known. ‘What did you do that was so terrible?’ And she would, I think, have said, ‘My sins are various.’ “

The narration in this book stands out as a bit of an oddity because it is Nathaniel’s memories and discoveries laying out the events of the story, though the story is largely focused on his mother’s life. Rachel plays so small and insignificant a roll that I’m not sure why she’s present at all. Many of the characters remain so mysterious throughout the narration that even by the end of this novel of discovery we know little more about them than their names; to an extent, I liked that because it felt truer to life for some curiosities to remain unsolved, though it also left the novel feeling at times that it was going nowhere.

I also found that there was a sort of weak circularity to revelations in this novel. Something would happen that would hint at connections to other characters or events, and by the time I thought I had a handle on what was going on, Nathaniel had also discovered the truth and proceeded to fill in the blanks. This way of piecing things together bit by bit gave the novel much of its mysterious atmosphere, though it also provided plenty of confusion since Nathaniel was narrating these events from far enough in the future that he did possess more information than he would initially offer. In a way, this method of storytelling seemed to fit Nathaniel’s description of his teenaged life– much was going on that he didn’t immediately understand. But it also felt somewhat unsatisfactory to be told who had died or been involved in some scheme after gathering enough clues to figure it out on one’s own.

That was the greatest disappointment of Warlight for me: in large part, there seems to be no direction or point to many of the narrated events. The many things that happen have little aim beyond whimsy and beautiful prose. I would say without a doubt that the style of the prose is the highlight of this book, and it’s written in the sort of plotless way that perhaps stems from Ondaatje’s understanding that readers are here primarily for the prose. There’s not even pretense of plot for most of the novel. But the prose is beautiful. Despite much confusion and lack of interest in where this story was heading, if anywhere, I had no difficulty picking up the book and reading a hundred pages at a time. The only challenge was that the flow of words was so gentle and compelling that I was occasionally lost in the rhythm of the words, and I would read whole passages without taking in any information and have to go back to find out what I’d missed.

“He has shown her over the years the great vistas she desired; but she thinks now that perhaps the truth of what is before you is clear only to those who lack certainty.”

But after over 200 pages of empty, artful prose that did not do much to engage me, there was a development that brought all of the small details home and turned this book around with an incredibly emotional ending. The way that Nathaniel’s present twists to align in a way with his mother’s past is heart-wrenching in a way that so much of the rest of the story isn’t. It makes sense of some of the seemingly-pointless anecdotes from earlier in the story (though not all of them).

In the end, I thought this book was a bit full of itself, though I did find its messages much more captivating and unique by the time I reached the end of the novel than most of the WWII fiction I’ve read. If this story had been much more succinct and found its direction much earlier on, this might have turned out to be a favorite for me in historical fiction. But as it was, the only part of this book that I absolutely loved was the devastating symmetry I found in the ending.

“If a wound is great you cannot turn it into something that is spoken, it can barely be written.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I would much rather read a well-written and plotless book than a poorly written book with an excellent plot, but an imbalance either way impacts my enjoyment of the book, and that’s what happened here. I was so bored through most of this story, even though I ended up appreciating more of the tale at the end than I had while reading. I do wonder if I would get along better with Ondaatje’s older Man Booker novel, The English Patient, which won not only the prize for its year but also the Golden Man Booker prize earlier in 2018.

Further recommendations:

  • My favorite war book is Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which is a novel narrated by a character who has come home from fighting in the Vietnam War and struggling to make sense of what has happened and how to go on. This is one of those incredible stories that blurs the line between fact and fiction, openly acknowledging that parts of the story are an outright lie. It’s fascinating and emotional and not boring at all.
  • Another favorite war book, also nominated for the Man Booker in a previous year, is Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Pick this one up if you’re looking for WWII fiction with intelligent prose and tragic human consequence, as well as a touch of metafiction.

What’s your favorite historical fiction novel? Have you loved (or not) any of Michael Ondaatje’s work?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Home Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further recommendations:

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

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Sleeping Beauties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further recommendations:

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

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

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The Line That Held Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further recommendations:

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

What’s the darkest book you’ve read?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Providence

A couple of years ago, I picked up my first Caroline Kepnes book, and I knew immediately that I was going to read every book she would ever write. This isn’t to say that I believe Kepnes’s writing is flawless, but it is unique in an utterly compelling way. Providence is her most recent release, and her first novel outside of the You series. Providence is also Kepnes’ first paranormal book.

providenceAbout the book: Jon is thirteen when he’s kidnapped on his way to school. For four years, no one– not even Jon– has any idea where he is or what is happening to him. His best (and only) friend Chloe misses him every day, but life goes on. She has other friends, a boyfriend. But when Jon comes back, she remembers exactly the way things were when it was just the two of them, and she wants that back. It’s the beginning of a life-long love story, but there’s the small problem that Jon is not the same after his kidnapping. He has a secret that he can’t tell anyone, a secret that drives him away from Chloe, from his family, from everyone. Enter Eggs, a middle-aged police officer with a whole lot of baggage and an unshakeable hunch about a set of deaths that look suspicious to no one else. In an effort to escape the pain of tough decisions regarding his autistic son, “Eggie” DeBenedictus obsesses over a pet case of young deaths that lead him to Chloe and The Beard, and the truth of what happened to a stolen boy so many years ago.

“I am powerful, in a way. But it’s a misleading word. The power isn’t mine. I’m full of it, but I may as well be dead. I’m not in control of anything. I’m a host for an evil force.”

I was a little worried when early reviews of Providence showed that many You readers were feeling underwhelmed by Kepnes’s new literary direction. Instead of rushing out to buy this book, I rushed out to place a hold at the library. Though I wasn’t particularly disappointed by Providence (I would’ve been happier with another You series book, but I’ll take what I can get), I do agree that it’s not as strong as Kepnes’s previous publications.

The strength of Providence lies in Kepnes’ knack for detail, and especially character detail. She has this way in all of her books of turning the blatantly unreal into something you can see (or at least imagine seeing) in the tangible world. The paranormal aspects here should be unbelievable, but even after the introduction of “powers” these characters are human and sympathetic. Much in the way that Stephen King brings his characters and settings to life with excruciating detail, so too does Kepnes capture the minutia and nuance of the small moments without ever letting them bore the reader. The connections she makes are fascinating.

“The man who bashed me over the head and put me to sleep, this same man went to Target or Home Depot and saw this lantern and thought, Hey, that would look nice on my porch.”

On the flip side, most of the characters in Providence should’ve been pushed a little farther. Jon is wonderfully tortured and complex, but Chloe cycles through the same worries and decisions over and over again, Carrig is nearly stereotypical, Blair is left shrouded in too much mystery, and Eggs, arguably the most complicated and insightful character, puts the pieces together way too easily. Coincidence is not easy to accept in fiction, and his bland reaction to the main events at the end of the novel is frankly dissatisfying.

Furthermore, much of the tension of the novel is lost in the fact that the three perspectives the reader follows (Jon, Chloe, and Eggs) bounce off of one another. We see something happen in Chloe’s life, and are then unsurprised to see Jon discovering it. We see Jon reacting to what he learns, and are then unsurprised to see Eggs following the new trail Jon is leaving. Etc.

It’s also worth mentioning that this book takes a slow lead-in to get to the interesting stuff. Jon and Chloe as thirteen year-olds are the least believable part of the novel, and lingering over this stage of their life feels like obvious set-up for what comes next. Though it’s all interesting, I did have to read through over a hundred pages before catching up to what I knew from the premise, and even then the story didn’t really find its legs and run until well into the second half.

Those may seem like insurmountable criticisms, but despite the way the character chapters inform each other, their sections flow smoothly into one another with some of the least jarring transitions I’ve ever seen in multi-perspective narratives. I found it almost impossible to put the book down between chapters because the end of one led so naturally into the start of the next even though the characters constantly changed. And though the writing moves easily between characters, each one is completely distinct and separate from the others. The characters’ voices are not one flat reflection of the author’s voice.

“You don’t forget the important things, the things that make you who you are.”

But what is Providence? Part epic love triangle, part high-stakes paranormal mystery, this book is also an examination of power and morality, an ode to H. P. Lovecraft, and proof that life is no more than what it is. There were so many ways in which I wished Kepnes would’ve delved deeper into this story, but even so I was glued to the pages and it was hard to know what to expect next. It’s completely bizarre in typical Kepnes fashion, without ever truly leaving reality behind, and that’s exactly my brand of fiction. It’s probably only going to work for a small percentage of the reading population, but I’m a member of that group. If you’ve enjoyed You and Hidden Bodies out of appreciation for the wacky writing, you’ll probably find plenty to enjoy in Providence as well. If you read You for the plot and ended on the fence, you’re probably safest skipping this one. And if you haven’t read any Kepnes books yet, try You first.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Even though I didn’t feel that Providence quite lived up to its potential, I still love Kepnes’s writing style and ideas, and I’ll read whatever she publishes next. (But I really hope it’s another Joe Goldberg novel because I still need to know what happens after the end of Hidden Bodies!)

Which writer do you love even if some of their books just don’t quite hit the mark?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant