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Review: The Kiss Quotient

So my actual Book of the Month Club selection this month was Michael Rutger’s The Anomaly, but it’s set in the Grand Canyon, which I’m visiting later this summer so I’m putting that on hold for now. In the meantime, I borrowed a copy of another BOTM selection, Helen Hoang’s new adult romance novel, The Kiss Quotient. The draw: the heroine of the story is a woman with autism, in a gender-swapped Pretty Woman love story. Bonus: the hero is mixed-race.

thekissquotientAbout the book: Stella Lane is a phenomenal econometrician– which means she analyses what people buy, and creates algorithms to help sales companies suggest future purchases to their consumers. She’s rich, and up for a new promotion– but her love life is lacking. When her parents start making comments about grandchildren and suggesting help finding her dates, Stella decides to take matters into her own hands before they get too carried away. So she hires a male escort to help hone her skills before she approaches a coworker who she thinks might be a good match. Except Michael, her escort, quickly learns that Stella’s problem isn’t that she’s bad at sex– she just needs a partner who will be considerate of her autism. They agree to work together, each hiding secrets that the other is afraid to admit they already know about– and don’t mind at all.

I wanted to love this book the same way that I wanted to love Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, and in some ways, I did love The Kiss Quotient. The writing and the story completely drew me in, even in the few places where I needed to suspend my disbelief a little more than others. I liked both Stella and Michael. I read the whole book in two days, in perfect summer weather, and it was just the sort of light, addicting drama that I was in the mood for.

And as far as I know, the autism is represented well, as it should be from an Own Voices author. I’ve seen several early reviews for this book stating that it’s helped readers discover their own autism, which is something I find intriguing and wonderful. I couldn’t resist seeing for myself the kind of strong representation that has inspired readers to share their own personal stories.

“With the labels, he might be more understanding, but he’d quit viewing her as Stella Lane, awkward econometrician who loved his kisses. In his eyes, she’d become the girl with autism. She’d be…less.”

But a couple of things bothered me increasingly as the story progressed.

The first is consent. Michael is presented as being very considerate and patient of Stella’s desires and limits. Stella thinks so, Michael thinks so, everyone thinks so. He’s repeatedly saying that he won’t do anything she’s not ready for, and in the chapters that follow his perspective (the chapters alternate between Stella’s and Michael’s stories, though always in third person) his thoughts reveal an interest in Stella for much more than her beauty or their sexual encounters. And yet, in my opinion, this is one of those cases where the telling doesn’t quite match the showing. In actuality, he’s listening to her body language instead of the words coming out of her mouth. This is less of a bother when Stella says ‘go ahead, just do it,’ and he refuses because her body is tense and uncomfortable and clearly not interested in what she says she wants him to do. But later on, once they’ve “mastered” a few skills, she expresses reluctance and he doesn’t listen because he thinks he knows what she wants/needs better than she does.

“He paused. Her words said no, but her body…”

” ‘This can be interpreted as stalking, you know.’ He ducked his head with a sheepish smile. ‘I know.’ ‘You need to stop all of this.’ ‘It’s not just a little romantic? I don’t have a lot of experience with courting, so you’ll have to excuse me if I come across too strong.’ “

No means no. And just because she agrees once does not mean Michael has permission whenever he wants it. Clearly it all works out all right in this book, but I just can’t condone that kind of behavior. The instance that bothered me the most was a kiss– Stella says she doesn’t want Michael to kiss her, and he says “I need this.” She gives in because it’s what he wants, not because she wants to be kissed. That’s not what I want to see in a romance.

The second issue for me is a lesser one, a trope that I just can’t stand though other readers might particularly enjoy it: deliberate miscommunication. This whole book is driven on the tension between Stella and Michael; they want each other, but their relationship begins as transactional, which leads them both to assume that the other isn’t emotionally invested. For hundreds of pages, they’re both thinking constantly, ‘gosh, I like this person a lot but they would never want to be with me for real,’ though the dual perspectives reveal the truth to the reader. Stella and Michael are so busy making assumptions about each other that their only obstacle to a happy ending is that they just won’t have an honest conversation. To me, that’s not compellingly tragic, it’s just frustrating. It’s predictable and boring. Why hit this same doubts over and over when any reasonable reader knows exactly how it’s going to turn out?

I suppose part of that problem stems from the predictability of the romance genre. You just can’t pick up a romance, read the introduction to the lead male and female characters and not know that their problems are going to be overcome. It’s almost entirely an emotional journey.

The emotion plays such a bit part in this story that even the little aspects that should have enhanced this book’s quirkiness were largely skipped over– like Stella’s and Michael’s professions. Stella is shown at her office primarily to display interactions with her coworkers, and provide evidence for her mental state: can she focus on her work today, or is she too distracted by Michael? The few details we do get about her work are tied into her feelings with Michael: an algorithm for underwear purchases turns into a symbol of Stella’s love. And Michael’s job seems designed to cause an awkward run-in with Stella when their relationship is at a low point– the reader is given almost no details of his work at all, even as he returns to the side of it that he’s most passionate about.

But nevertheless, I did enjoy this book. I liked seeing Stella’s and Michael’s individual difficulties, and how uniquely they combined as a perfect pair. Their romance is steamy, explicit but not too graphic, and mostly healthy. The “villain” is not flatly evil or exclusively bad. If you’re looking for a summer romance that’s new and different, The Kiss Quotient would be a great choice. It’s even a little funny, at times:

“He exhaled sharply, and his brow creased in puzzlement. ‘You don’t like French kissing?’ ‘It makes me feel like a shark getting its teeth cleaned by pilot fish.’ “

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Despite how much I loved reading this book, the  issues I had with the story were big enough to keep it firmly off of my favorites list, even as far as guilty pleasures go. But I liked this story and Hoang’s writing enough that I’ll definitely pick up the sequel (The Bride Test) next year, which I believe features an entirely new cast of characters in a completely different situation. A few small tweaks would’ve made The Kiss Quotient a truly fantastic read, so I have high hopes that Hoang will impress me even more the next time.

Do you pick up different genres at certain times of the year? When do you reach for a romance?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

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Review: The Death of Mrs. Westaway

A brief history: I read Ruth Ware’s debut thriller, In a Dark, Dark Wood, back in 2016 and loved it. I was hooked on the creepy atmosphere, the footprints in the snow, the lost phone, the noises in the sleeping house. I felt the same about A Woman in Cabin 10— the rising sense of anxiety and sleeplessness sucked me in completely. There were some predictable plot elements, and there was a lot about The Lying Game I didn’t like, but the one constant is that I’ve always loved Ware’s writing. Until now. I just read Ware’s brand new release, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, and it disappointed me.

thedeathofmrs.westawayAbout the book: Harriet (Hal) Westaway is down on her luck, to say the least. The bills are piling up, and the loan shark she went to for help is calling in the debt Hal owes. It’s the off-season on the Brighton pier, where she works as a tarot card reader in her mother’s old booth. Money’s always been tight, but it’s gotten worse since her mother’s sudden death a few years back. So when she receives a letter from the lawyer in charge of Mrs. Westaway’s estate stating that Hal’s grandmother has died and left her an inheritance, Hal overlooks the fact that this Mrs. Westaway cannot be her grandmother, to attend the funeral and reading of the will. When Hal’s inheritance turns out to be something she wasn’t expecting, she must delve into the mystery of who the estate was supposed to be left to– and whether Hal shares a dark connection with these Westaways after all.

“She should have been afraid, and part of her was. But deep down, in the core of herself, the secret predatory self that she kept hidden and locked away, Hal knew. She would not run again. Someone had tried to scare her away once, and it had almost worked. But it would not work again.”

First, I would say it’s important to approach this book as a mystery rather than a thriller. The story of Hal’s family history is a slowly unraveling thread that doesn’t pose a lot of danger to her until the very end, and even then the reader can be fairly sure about how things will turn out. There seems to be a trend lately of thriller-writers going the way of the slower-paced mystery instead– and that’s fine, but it can affect the way a book is read.

The mystery was the biggest problem with this book for me– I was one step ahead of Hal at every turn. The plot points are so predictable and easy to untangle that I wasn’t reading for answers, I was reading to prove my guesses right. While the mystery itself may be unique and disturbing, many of the clues are completely transparent. The use of twins, of cousins with the same name, odd nicknames, disappearances… these are tricks the seasoned mystery/thriller fan has seen before and will see right through in this novel.

“She found herself gasping for breath, a kind of slow drowning, and then she could not speak any longer, only shake her head- but not in disbelief. It was a kind of desperation for this not to be true. But it was. And she had known it for longer than she had realized. Perhaps she had known it since she had come to this house.”

Yep. Me too.

The one thing that might have made this book better is characterization. The Westaways are no more than the sum of their parts– their histories make them who they are, along with a couple of mannerisms that differentiate them, but otherwise these characters have no personality. I could not connect to a single one. Even Hal, who the reader follows through the novel, is acting most of the time– giving tarot readings she doesn’t particularly believe in, and posing as a member of the Westaway family even though she doesn’t actually think she belongs. It’s hard to know what’s real about Hal, which makes her less compelling. Even the creepiest moments, the little things that worked so well for me in Ware’s previous books, fell flat for me in The Death of Mrs. Westaway because Hal is so ready to dismiss them. Something happens that should unsettle her, but she just muddles on through her uncomfortable stay at Trepassen as though nothing is wrong and she’s not remotely concerned. How could I be concerned for her?

“She was about to carry on downstairs when something caught her eye, a darkness in the dark, and she made her way back to stand in front of the closed door, running her fingers over the wood, feeling, rather than seeing, how very wrong she had been. There was a lock on the door. Two, in fact. They were long, thick bolts, top and bottom. But they were on the outside.”

The only things I appreciated at all in The Death of Mrs. Westaway were the allusions to Rebecca and even Jane Eyre. Mrs. Warren as the new and improved Mrs. Danvers was particularly interesting to read, though Trepassen, the big old country house that the Westaways stay in as they sort out Mrs. Westaway’s will, comes across as a totally new creature rather than a facsimile of Manderly or Thornfield Hall. I adore old creepy houses, though the cold in this one did nothing to frighten me.

Oh, I also liked the tarot aspect of this book; usually when tarot is involved in any novel it makes me roll my eyes because it seems like such a ploy for the writer to imbibe meaning and give the characters information they shouldn’t have been able to discover, but in this book Hal is pretty skeptical of tarot herself. She uses her cards as a sort of general filter for how she looks at what she already knows, and as an excuse to offer the sort of positive life advice that her customers won’t admit they need.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Somehow, despite all the things that went wrong in this story for me, I managed to finish it in 2 days without losing faith in the possibility that the next Ruth Ware book will bring me back to In a Dark, Dark Wood-level excitement. I will probably read whatever Ware publishes next, but I certainly hope I’ll have better luck with it than I did this time around. The thing is, I don’t think that The Death of Mrs. Westaway is a bad book. I think the issues I had with it are specific to my reading experience– other readers might not be able to guess every facet of this mystery and therefore will be able to enjoy it more.

Further recommendations:

  • If you’ve read and enjoyed The Death of Mrs. Westaway or The Lying Game, you should also pick up Paula Hawkins’s Into the Water, a small-town mystery about a woman who drowned in a lake that’s infamous for the female lives it’s claimed. This one’s also a character-driven mystery rather than a thriller, though it is atmospheric and peppered with Ruth Ware-style unsettling details– because of course the killer is right under everyone’s noses– and anyone could be next.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The Oracle Year

I am working through my Book of the Month backlog, this time with a recent selection: Charles Soule’s The Oracle Year. This is a science fiction book that was published in April.

theoracleyearAbout the book: Will Dando wakes up from an unusual dream one morning with 108 predictions for the future echoing in his head. The first step is to discover whether they are real, and then whether they can be changed. He includes his friend Hamza, a whiz at investing and economics, and then he includes the whole world. Through “the Site,” Will releases certain predictions– for credibility, for money, for betterment, for survival. Because as soon as the world knows that the Oracle can really predict the future, everyone wants a piece of him. From personal questions and requests, to giant corporations, federal governments, televangelists, mercenaries, and more, Will Dando is on the run. But the biggest problem is that the Site seems to be alive in some way, its predictions interconnected and causing global chaos. Where did the predictions come from? And is their purpose world destruction? Is there anything Will can do to stop them?

“It was like trying to play chess in a pitch-dark room, where you had to determine your opponent’s moves by sense of smell alone. And you had a cold. And your opponent was God.”

Through most of The Oracle Year, I thought I would end up rating it a solid 4 stars; my only complaint in the first 300 pages was that the characterization was a little lacking. Soule was a comics writer before publishing this novel, and I think that shows in his writing– pieces of the characters’ pasts and personalities are shown in snapshot bursts that give just enough information to convey who they are without encouraging the reader to connect on an emotional level. At least, I could not connect with any of these characters. I could not imagine them existing in any way outside of this story, even who they might have been before or after the events in this book. They are not exactly stereotypical, but they present like giant plot devices, created entirely for the purpose of pushing the main ideas of this story along. But I still found the plot interesting, and even if the characters seemed somewhat flat I wanted to know what would happen to them.

But as I neared the end of the novel, something else started to happen. The scope of the story grew to this massive world-wide brink-of-disaster phenomenon, and everything rested on the Oracle: who was no superhero, just a man. Coincidences started to pile up, mysteries were left unanswered. In the same way that the characters had felt like props for the plot, the plot began to feel like a prop for the morals of the story.

Science fiction is the genre that I most often hear readers claim to dislike, and most of the time, it’s hard for me to understand that. Each genre has its own way of addressing reality, and sci-fi’s is a what-if, a sort of thought experiment. When it’s done well (my favorite example is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), it doesn’t matter that part of the story is impossible because it can turn that explanation of the inexplicable into a relevant moral. But there are ways in which that attempt can go wrong. For instance, The Oracle Year never answers the biggest questions it poses. It gives a vague sort of reason for Will’s prophecies without fully addressing the issue of where they came from. When Will needs help, he has just the person or information he needs to get him out of it– because “the Site provides.” Powerful leaders bow to him when he says “you know what I can do;” though all he has done is post limited information on the internet that has come true. His power is perceived, rather than earned. Though it’s true in life that some mysteries remain unsolved, that media and the internet is a powerful tool, that coincidence is possible, those are ridiculous aspects to include in a science fiction novel. Sci-fi is supposed to offer possible explanations that real life does not provide. Passing up the chance to do so seems like a sloppy choice, a failure to engage completely with the medium of the story. If one were to choose a book like The Oracle Year as their first (and maybe only) sci-fi read, I would understand an aversion to the genre. Which hurts me, because there’s great sci-fi out there that’s not all aliens and zombies.

The Oracle Year is not a bad book. It’s entertaining, and though its moral isn’t the strongest I’ve seen, it does make sense. This book a quick thrill with some food for thought, at the very least, but it’s not a good example of science fiction. I had heard it compared to Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter (one of my favorite sci-fi books), but I don’t think that’s an apt comparison. The Oracle Year reminded me more of Naomi Alderman’s The Power (minus the feminism) in that its ideas are stronger than their execution, and the chaos erupts in a similar way on a global scale.

My favorite part of this book was its examination of causality. That’s something I like to think about a lot- randomness vs. predestination, whether the future can be changed, etc. It’s a fascinating topic, in my opinion, and this book explores it. There’s a religious aspect that the reader can apply or not to the discussion, which I thought was balanced well. Causality ties in to even bigger questions, like the meaning of life, and humans’ role in the universe, so if you like big-picture quandaries this may be the book for you.

“None of us are meant for anything, and none of us are meant for nothing. Life is chaos, but it’s also opportunity, risk, and how you manage them.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. If the ending would have been stronger, I would have gone with 4 because I flew through this book and did mostly enjoy it. It was a hard book to rate, but I do like forcing myself to choose a number rather than resorting to half stars, just as a personal preference.

Further recommendations:

  • If you’re looking for a science fiction thrill with sturdier explanations, let me point you toward the aforementioned Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch. In this book, a scientist who has given up research to teach is kidnapped and planted in a sort of parallel world in which he did not give up his research to teach. This is a great read for sci-fi newbies because it’s also part thriller and character study, and a lack of knowledge about the science behind the plot makes the twists harder to predict and more shocking to discover.
  • If you read and enjoyed The Oracle Year and haven’t yet read The Power, by Naomi Alderman, I think that would be a great next choice. Though The Power is not a favorite of mine, it does have some great ideas about power and feminism woven into its plot, which includes the female half of the world’s population developing the ability to give electric shocks through their palms.

Do you have a favorite sci-fi book?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

When Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was first released, I pushed it aside pretty easily. I had never read any of Reid’s books, and I wasn’t particularly interested in reading a scandalous story about a fictional celeb. I’m not even very interested in real celebrities. But every review I’ve seen for this book has been glowing, and I was intrigued. So I picked it up.

thesevenhusbandsofevelynhugoAbout the book: Evelyn Hugo was a nobody in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York, with a dead mother and an abusive father and a body that men blamed her for. She needed to get out, and she did it by latching on to her mother’s dream of becoming an actress. She married a poor man who could offer her nothing more than a ride to Hollywood, and from there her legacy began. Evelyn clawed her way up the film fame ladder through the 1960’s-80s, facing prejudices against her race, her gender, and her sexual preferences. By 2015, she’s ready to finally share her story with the world: to expose the truth of her personality and her husbands, without the lies generated by the film industry and tabloids. But the person she chooses to tell her story, a small-time magazine writer named Monique, realizes she may have an unexpected and disturbing connection to superstar Evelyn Hugo.

“You’re an idealist and a romantic, and you have a beautiful soul. And I wish the world was ready to be the way you see it. I wish that the rest of the people on earth with us were capable of living up to your expectations. But they aren’t. The world is ugly, and no one wants to give anyone the benefit of the doubt about anything.”

Let me lead off by admitting that I completely understand the hype surrounding this book. Evelyn Hugo is fascinating in her extraordinariness, but despite her growing wealth and fame, she never loses the humanity that attracts readers to her unfortunate life in her story’s opening. She’s had a rough life, and no matter how high she climbs, the reader can always see and relate to her struggles. She deals with prejudice in the industry, opinionated masses, domestic abuse, forbidden love, powerful enemies, and so much more. She doesn’t see herself as a good person, but she doesn’t regret the choices she’s made. I’ve never read a celeb story (real or fabricated) this important. It’s timely in its advocacy for equality, and it’s entertaining from cover to cover.

“But that’s a luxury. You can do that whey you’re rich and famous. You can decide that wealth and renown are worthless when you have them. Back then, I still thought I had all the time I needed to do everything I wanted. That if I just played my cards right, I could have it all.”

Unfortunately, through no fault of the text itself, the fact that The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is labeled as LGBTQ+ does give some of the plot away. I was pretty clear on which of Evelyn’s loves would drive this story, despite the seven husbands.

Perhaps more to the fault of the text, I also guessed Monique’s connection to Evelyn’s story. Evelyn specifically requests Monique for her interview in the first pages of the book, then immediately throws that interview out the window to give Monique a different kind of exclusive narrative. That, combined with some overt foreshadowing, also made a personal connection between Evelyn and Monique pretty blatant; I spent the story looking for Monique’s tie-in, which eliminated the final surprise and some of the tension for me. I read the entire book with a pretty good idea of its ending, which made this a book about the journey.

Though the journey is great, it also felt a lot like a checklist of social issues for Evelyn to overcome. Novels that challenge current social issues are so important, but I was a little off-put by the way it seemed at times like Reid was simply trying to collect them all in Evelyn’s career. Certainly I understand that one person can face multiple social challenges in their lifetime, but the way they piled up one after the next prevented me from overlooking Evelyn’s fictionality while reading this story.

But even if Evelyn remained no more than a character on a page for me, I’m so grateful that she exists in today’s world of literature. We need minority characters who carve a place for themselves in careers that have excluded them for too long. We need to remember how women have been overlooked and manipulated and victimized by the patriarchy. We need to see how people have been hurt by fast judgments against non-hetero romantic relationships. These are the novels that open minds and encourage change. And the fact that Evelyn Hugo can do all this even with a sort of anti-heroine perspective is fascinating and wonderful– so many of us see our failures more prominently than our successes, and can take a lesson from someone undeniably imperfect so much more easily than an unattainable ideal. Evelyn wields a lot of power, even if she’s not real.

“Never let anyone make you feel ordinary.”

One last thought: on structure. I love how easily The Seven Husbands switches between Monique’s present and Evelyn’s past. Their sections are not labelled, but I was never confused about which character I was following or which timeline they were narrating, which is an incredible win for Reid’s writing.

The news articles sprinkled throughout the book did succeed in pulling me into Evelyn’s world, and I liked the short breaks from the novel proper. But many of the news articles are superfluous, regurgitating information. I wish more had been done with them. One article was slanderous and less expected, but Evelyn knew just what to do to save her name. Evelyn always knows what the media will say about her, and how to spin her life into a scandal that’ll boost her fame; I was somewhat disappointed that she never guessed wrong– Evelyn says “this is what they’ll say about me,” and then an article follows saying exactly that. This formula grew boring after a while, though the articles do add to the atmosphere of Evelyn’s renown.

“I pretend that I am not furious and confused and heartbroken and torn up and disappointed and shocked and uncomfortable. I pretend that I am simply captivated by Evelyn Hugo. Because, despite everything, I still am.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a tough book to rate. I did waver for several days between 4 and 5 stars because I did particularly enjoy reading this book and I do think it’s spreading some important messages in an interesting way. But in the end I just didn’t love it quite as much as I usually love a 5 star book, perhaps because I was able to predict certain aspects of it. I will be keeping my eye out for Reid’s future works, though. I’ll be interested to see where she goes from here.

Have you read any inspiring books dealing with social issues lately?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Novel Progress 5.18

If you missed it, I’m writing a novel. I still don’t know if it will ever be “good enough” or published or even read by anyone other than myself, but I do know that nothing can happen with it if I don’t finish. So here we are. It’s terrifying, but it’s life.

In my last update, I was just finishing chapter 4 (of 9; they’re long, but they’re subdivided into smaller sections) and I was staying positive about it even though I had put a lot of work into what felt like not a lot of actual progress. This time I feel like I’ve made a ton of progress, but I can also feel a slump settling so it’s been harder to stay positive this last week or so.

In the last month, I did my final read-through of chapter 4, and set that aside. I formatted what I had of chapter 5, which was only about 2,500 words (out of my 10,000 word goal per chapter). I edited it down to about 2k. Then I wrote about 7k more words, revised, edited, revised, edited, rinsed, repeated, etc. I was stuck on the last section of the chapter, so I left just under 1k words there to work with later while I polished the rest of the chapter. That all happened in the first two weeks of this writing cycle. I was in a great frame of mind, the words were flowing, it wasn’t perfect but it was falling into place. And then I spent two whole weeks struggling through that last few hundred words. My final read-through turned into three semi-final read-throughs because each time I came a little closer to smoothing out the connections and that ending but I knew it just wasn’t quite there. Yesterday I finally found the right note to end on, to tie it all together. I did a final final read-through. And I backed up that file and closed chapter 5.

It seems like such an obvious milestone: of course after finishing chapter 4 one goes on to chapter 5. But 5 felt like a turning point for me, because I’m now past halfway. I’m comfortably past half of my final word count. I’ve now completed more chapters than I have left. There’s more work to go, of course, but I finally feel like it’s coming together. Like some day in the not-too-distant future I’ll be coming out on the other side.

I’ve been working on this novel (part sci-fi, part romance, and a whole lot of adventure) for almost 2 years now. I would really like to finish it around the 2-year mark at the end of June / early July, but I don’t know if that will happen. I don’t want to push myself so hard that I lose forward motion, because getting there a little slower than planned is better than never getting there at all. I know chapters 5 and 9 were the most content-lacking, but actually the improvements to what’s already there have been more time consuming than filling in the missing writing. Which, I think, is why I kept getting derailed in past attempts to actually finish this thing.

Partially, I hate that I’ve been dragging this out for two years, because the bulk of the work has been done in the last six months. I’m revising/editing so hard that I’m basically rewriting everything I had done before, and if I had worked this hard all along I probably could have been done in one year instead of two and I could be a lot less lost about what I’m doing with my life right now. But also I know that I’ve grown 1000% as a reader and a writer in the last two years, and that even if it seems right now like I don’t have a lot to show for that time, I know I’ve been learning all along and when I finish writing this novel it’s going to be stronger for the extra time it’s taken. I know that this round of intense edits and revisions and additions holds new insights and techniques and intelligence that I just didn’t have two years ago, even if I could have written the appropriate number of words in a cohesive whole. These are some of my better-late-than-never thoughts that came out around the halfway point of this draft.

So going forward, I’ll be looking at chapter 6 (again, it’s obvious, but I’m still excited about it.) I’m going to nurse this writing slump a little because I learned in chapter 4 that pushing through with mediocre content is not worth having to do the work twice. A break can be highly beneficial. I’m hoping that in these next few days I’ll get chapter 6 formatted and do an initial round of edits mostly just to see what’s there and map out what I need; hopefully getting through the mechanics of those set-up stages will excite my creativity again so I can keep working on the hard stuff. I was so impressed with myself when I started chapter 5 because progress was fast and easy and fun; if I felt that way all the time I would fly through this manuscript. Fortunately, I do think the moments of doubt and the days when everything I’ve ever written seems awful do help me pinpoint where my problem areas are and find ways to fix them. Having mixed feelings about my writing helps me to be more objective about it. It’s not the best thing ever written, but it’s not the worst, either.

And hopefully someday people will want to read it.

How’s your writing going?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Great Alone

I’ve been wanting to read a Kristin Hannah book since The Nightingale‘s publication. I thought I should start there even though I’ve got some issues with WWII historical fiction. But I never got around to it. When her new novel, The Great Alone, released earlier this year, I discovered that I was much more interested in reading about Alaska, and I finally found the time to pick up my first Kristin Hannah novel.

thegreataloneAbout the book: When Leni’s dad, a POW from the Vietnam war, finally returns home, he’s not the same. She was too young when he left to remember much of their life before the war, but she knows he’s struggling in the aftermath. He drinks a lot, he can’t hold a job, he moves the family from place to place. And then a buddy from the army leaves him a cabin in Alaska. Unprepared for the wilderness, Leni and her parents set off in their VW bus to learn how to start a new life off the grid. It’s immediately obvious that they lack most of the necessary skills for living off the land in a dangerous environment, but they’re willing to try. When the long, dark Alaskan winter sets in, however, they realize they have a lot to learn about Alaska, about survival, and about each other. Leni’s dad turns violent, her mom turns secretive, and Leni is caught in the middle of her parents’ destructive relationship.

“They lived on a piece of land that couldn’t be accessed by water at low tide, on a peninsula with only a handful of people and hundreds of wild animals, in a climate harsh enough to kill you. There was no police station, no telephone service, no one to hear you scream.”

The Great Alone was more than a story for me– it was a mood. This is a perfect winter read, but even with summer settling in I was completely immersed in the cold, harsh world of this Alaskan wilderness. Even though I have so little in common with Leni and her family, reading about their lives sent me back through many of my own most powerful memories. It was a book that made me feel, in more than a transient way about fictional characters. Few stories have left me reflecting on my own life so deeply.

However, I watched V. E. Schwab’s recent Oxford speech on fantasy literature in the midst of reading The Great Alone. This book is not fantasy, it’s adult contemporary/historical fiction. But some of Schwab’s comments about reading and writing apply to all genres, and one thing in particular related to my experience with The Great Alone. Schwab talks about  seeing the writer’s hand while reading, seeing the constructive framework between an idea and its conveyance. Kristin Hannah is an author that shows her hand. Especially in the beginning of the novel, so many time and place details are stuffed into the story in ways that made me roll my eyes. Whole conversations and scenarios and opinions seemed constructed around the urge to mention 8-track tapes or bell bottoms or the fact that gas cost 55 cents. A few details– like Leni’s beloved polaroid camera, the family’s VW bus, Leni’s weird first-day-of-school outfit– feel like they have a place in the story. But many descriptions seem more like they came straight off a list of “iconic 70’s/80s objects for readers to recognize,” though they have absolutely no relation to the plot or even characterization. Friendships and enmities happen instantaneously, in just the right combination to cause further strife. Dreams have convenient real-life significance. Characters make dramatic use of their final breaths. The story is fantastic, but its seams are visible.

The narration style also seemed an odd choice to me. The narrator utses third-person perspective, but it narrows in so closely on Leni’s point of view that Cora and Ernt are often referred to as Mama and Dad, which made being inside Leni’s head and still seeing her described as “Leni” rather than “I” a little awkward at times.

“Leni knew how dangerous the outside world was. The truth was that the biggest danger of all was in her own home.”

Another struggle for me in The Great Alone was Leni’s mom. My hatred of her had nothing to do with the fact that she chose to stay in an abusive relationship, that she might have goaded her husband into hurting her, that she kept coming back to him after he did. Those things I could understand. What I could NOT stand about Cora was the way that she tried to make Leni adhere to the same abusive life. It goes beyond making excuses for her husband. She is actively telling Leni to lie about what is happening at home, to be careful around Ernt, not to set him off. She makes Leni her confidant, and traps her in that existence where they are both afraid and stifled and victimized in their own ways. Cora puts herself and the relationship that she knows is dangerous ahead of her daughter. She wants them to be “two peas in a pod,” apparently by pulling Leni deeper into her trouble instead of following Leni’s advice to escape it. She says things like this:

” ‘Please, Leni, think about me instead of yourself.’ “

I loathed Ernt, of course, as much as I could through his PTSD, but it was Cora who really got under my skin. Ernt was the obvious threat, the danger Leni shouldn’t have had to worry about, but at least she could identify that problem. And in the meantime, Cora quietly poisons Leni by telling her she needs to love her dad despite what he does to his family. Maybe even because of it: “he just loves us too much.”

But everything Cora lacks, Leni makes up for. She is the strongest female character I’ve read all year. She loves the hardest, she stands up when she’s knocked down, she takes what life throws at her, and she survives. She doesn’t let the world make her bitter, though she has plenty of reason for pessimism and depression and hatred. When planted in Alaska, she becomes an Alaskan.

“If you’ve learned anything from your mother and what happened, it should be this: life– and the law– is hard on women. Sometimes doing the right thing is no help at all.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had a great time with this book. Kristin Hannah’s writing style isn’t my favorite, but once I got into the flow of things that was easier for me to overlook. And I think I’ll try to overlook it again, while I read The Nightingale. I do still have that one waiting on my shelf, and even though WWII historical fiction is not my cup of tea, I liked The Great Alone enough to give Kristin Hannah at least one more try.

Further recommendations:

  • If you love the Alaskan atmosphere of The Great Alone, and the way that it becomes a character of its own, you should check out Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves. This book explores the secluded beauty of northern Minnesota, which is distinct in its own ways but does share some similarities to Alaskan climate. The main character is a girl much like Leni who begins babysitting for her only neighbors in the isolated woodland, and gets dragged into their tragedy before she is old enough to understand what is happening.

What’s your favorite historical fiction book or era to read about?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Our Kind of Cruelty

April was my birthday month so I broke my one-book-per-month rule for Book of the Month Club and treated myself to three of the April selections. I fully intended to read them all within the month, and I was excited for them. But my box arrived 2 weeks later than usual this month, which ruined some of my good feelings. I had to do some TBR shuffling at that point and I knew I wasn’t going to get all three books read within the month when they arrived so late. But now I’ve read the first one, Araminta Hall’s Our Kind of Cruelty, a May 8th release and a Gillian Flynn-approved thriller.

ourkindofcrueltyAbout the book: Mike and Verity were together nine years. In that time, they played a game called “the Crave,” in which Mike stood far enough from Verity at a bar for another man to make a move. At Verity’s signal, Mike would step in to rescue her; this was a turn-on for them, and often led to sex. But Mike went to New York for two years to jump-start his career while Verity stayed in London, and just before he’s ready to return, Verity breaks up with him. The relationship ends messily and Verity is quickly engaged to another man. Mike believes her attempt to push Mike away for her new fiance is simply part of their code– a new, bigger version of the Crave. Is Verity’s increasing difficulty in the matter true affection for Angus, or is she amping up the game for Mike?

“She’s angry because she doesn’t yet understand what I’m doing, but really we’re just playing, we don’t mean any of this, it will all pass as everything does.”

Unfortunately, Our Kind of Cruelty felt almost immediately like a mishmash of a bunch of other books I’ve already read. Mike’s backstory reads a lot like Christian Grey’s in Fifty Shades, his stalking/murdering/jealous tendencies are very reminiscent of Joe Goldberg’s in You, his increasing alcoholism seems an echo of Rachel’s in The Girl on the Train, etc. While the plot itself (including Mike and V’s weird sex game) seemed new enough, most of the narration felt like it was constructed to fit a certain thriller formula that I’ve seen a thousand times before, except in Our Kind of Cruelty it’s never very thrilling.

This book is divided into three parts, all narrated from Mike’s perspective. It’s all part of a “document” he’s writing for his barrister after his arrest. But the big event at the end of part 2 feels inevitable from the introduction of part 1; knowing what will happen takes out a lot of the tension from the majority of the story, leaving the reader with only Mike’s precarious mental state (similar to Patrick Bateman’s in American Psycho) to keep him/her interested in the tale as it moves slowly forward. Most of the events in parts one and two seem orchestrated by the writer to demonstrate Mike’s unusual personality and thought processes, though his psychosis is apparent from the beginning of the book and most of these demonstrations feel like overkill. Many of the secondary characters as well (Kaitlyn, George, Suzi, Elaine) seem to be present in the story for the sole purpose of highlighting certain habits/opinions of Mike’s, and thus act as no more than props.

I almost wish Part Three had been the entire novel. Reading only part three would have given me the entire story without all the repetitions and slow character revelations. Repetitions can be great when they’re serving the purpose of highlighting differences between character perspectives, which I think is indeed the point of the repetitions in Our Kind of Cruelty. But when I these different characters talk about the same scenes, none of their nuances seemed revelatory– once I knew Mike’s perspective, I could filter out his craziness to see what must actually be happening, which made hearing it from the other characters superfluous.

“We are humans, flailing and mistaken, but that doesn’t matter. Because we love, we can forgive. We know the truth. We know what love is: the kindest and the cruelest emotion.”

The biggest saving grace for this book, in my opinion, comes in the Author’s Note at the end of the book where Hall talks about using this narrative to point out a problem with the patriarchy. I’m all for that, and seeing that note did make me feel a bit better about the book, but even after learning about that intent in the writing it’s still hard to actually see evidence of a jab against the patriarchy in this story. It feels more like one specific and highly unusual case than an advocacy for feminism in any form; sure, things might go wrong if Mike’s side of the story is believed and Verity’s isn’t, but the novel makes it clear from the beginning that Mike is an outlier and not the norm. It just doesn’t seem like an argument for “we should believe the woman in a he said/she said case,” but rather like a specific case of untreated psychosis and a sex game gone wrong.

And yet, for all of my complaints, nothing is actually wrong with this book; it does have the right technical pieces to make a cohesive whole. Mike is a train wreck of a character, but no matter the destruction it’s hard to look away from him.

“There was an undeniable beauty in the idea of V safely packed away in a cell just like mine, waiting to be taken out like a precious jewel in a few years’ time. It almost sounded romantic, like something we might tell our grandchildren.”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. It’s been a while since I’ve read a thriller so I thought even if the surprises weren’t very original I would be able to get behind a book recommended by Gillian Flynn– but there were so few surprises. I wanted to give it a higher rating just because it wasn’t really a struggle to read; I wasn’t dying to DNF it or anything while reading, which is usual for me with 2 star books. But in the Goodreads system 2 stars means “it was okay,” which pretty much sums up my experience with this book.

Further recommendations:

  • Caroline Kepnes’s You is a great choice for anyone who wants to read a mysterious and disturbing tale about a psychotic stalker with a rough past and a lot of delusions. The real win for me with this book is that the stalker is somewhat sympathetic– it’s not that the reader wants to root for him exactly, but that rooting for him to be stopped would end the story and it’s too compulsively readable for that.
  • Anything by Gillian Flynn. If, like me, the Flynn blurb on the cover is what draws you to this novel, let me suggest instead that you pick up one of Gillian Flynn’s own books. If you haven’t read them all, any one of them would be a better choice than Our Kind of Cruelty. Flynn’s titles include: Gone Girl, Sharp Objects, Dark Places, and novella The Grownup. Apparently Flynn’s reading choices are not as impressive as her writing ones, so approach her recommendations with caution.

Have you read any great thrillers lately? I’m in the mood now but I haven’t had much luck this year. I’ve got a copy of The Woman in the Window here with me, is that one worth the read?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant