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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?


The Literary Elephant


Review: The Pisces

I could not let summer escape completely without jumping on the literary mermaid trend. I added several mermaid books to my TBR this year, but the first one I picked up features a merman. Melissa Broder’s The Pisces is a 2018 release about a woman who falls completely in love with a merman, and wow, is it weird. In a good way.

thepiscesAbout the book: Lucy, 38, has been working on her thesis about the spaces in Sappho’s poetry for 7 years. Her funding is going to be pulled if she doesn’t have a satisfactory draft to share with her advisory committee by the end of the summer. And to top it off, her boyfriend just traded her in for a younger woman. Things get pretty dark before Lucy’s sister convinces her to dog-sit at her fancy house on a Californian beach. In California, between group therapy meetings for the love obsessed, Lucy rediscovers the world outside of her long-standing and dissatisfying relationship– by sampling other relationships, including one with a mysterious merman who just might be the perfect match for Lucy.

“I knew that what I wanted was something that couldn’t exist. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t something I wanted.”

I can see why a lot of people might dislike this book. Lucy herself is unlikable, the narration is intimate and graphic (bordering on merman erotica), there’s some neglect and mistreatment of the dog, and the premise is just downright strange (as is the case with much of the magical realism genre, in my opinion). But I found some redeeming qualities.

“I’d always imagined that there was a subjective reality. But there was nothing subjective about this. I was objectively selfish and cruel.”

First, is the narrative voice. Despite her flaws, some of Lucy’s thoughts are surprisingly relatable. They simultaneously make a farce of modern relationships and serve as a guide through them. There’s a point at which adult language and content in a book can become excessive and overbearing, but in my experience it’s also such a relief to read a book with language that doesn’t shy away from expletives and bodily functions– when literature skirts around them there’s almost a sense that that content is undesirable, abnormal. The Pisces talks about farts, and dog breath, and waxing, and menstrual blood. There were a few times while reading this book that I thought the details were almost too much, but I appreciated Lucy’s bare honesty.

There’s also an admirable level of honesty in Lucy’s relationship with Theo (the merman) in this book. Sure, sometimes she lies and she’s quick to admit it to the reader, but one reason her relationship with Theo seems to work so well is because they are so willing to speak whatever’s on their minds. About death, sex, poetry, love, etc. They can admit when they’re scared. Some truths are omitted, but what they do share is refreshingly straight-forward.

“Was it ever real: the way we felt about another person? Or was it always a projection of something we needed or wanted regardless of them?”

Next, I loved the way that Lucy’s other relationships– though some of them are clearly bad and going nowhere– offset the cues Broder points to for healthy relationships. What goes wrong with these other men (and with the female friendships Lucy is forming in California as well) is held up as an example of what doesn’t work, and why. Lucy is flawed, yes, but she admits her flaws and sometimes even embraces them. Which doesn’t mean that thinks she’s always right, only that she’s always Lucy. Maybe she doesn’t know what she wants or how to get it, but she’s learning which questions to ask and she’s always listening for answers. With Theo, she learns a sort of gender-defying love in which sometimes he seems (to her) more like a woman and is “strong in his softness,” and sometimes when she detects his vulnerability and comforts him she seems (to herself) more like a man. Much like the two fish that comprise Pisces, Lucy claims that she and Theo are two parts of one being, that they are the same. This complete acceptance is balanced by the more rigidly gender-typical encounters Lucy has with other men who only want to sleep with her. Between the lines lies a beautiful exploration and defiance of gender norms.

“You never think, in your fantasies, that the object of the fantasy can be hurt. I had known that he was sensitive. But I hadn’t trusted that it was real, or at least, that it was as real as my own sensitivity. I didn’t believe that he could actually feel betrayed. Was it because he was a man and I was a woman? I thought that only I could feel that kind of shame, need, and rejection. I thought that only a woman could feel that. It all seemed crazy now. I was crazy when I was the one begging for someone to stay and I was crazy when I was the one leaving.”

And, of course, there are the Greek elements and parallels. Mermaids, mermen, sirens, etc. all come with certain stereotypes from Greek mythology, and while The Pisces does not strictly adhere to what one might expect from merfolk, there are darkly captivating parallels in Lucy and Theo’s story that harks back to the old myths in a way that Greek fans will enjoy. There’s also ample mention of Sappho and her work, with strong echoes in Lucy’s own work and experiences. The Pisces is modern through and through, but it shows plenty of respect for its Greek roots.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I must admit I wavered on this rating. There were a few things I disliked about the book (especially the pet neglect),  but I don’t think I’ll be able to stop thinking about this one for a while and it was certainly an engrossing read. This is one of the easiest 5-star reviews I’ve written lately, which I think speaks to how incredibly interesting I found this book. I’ll be keeping an eye out for any future novels from Broder, and you can bet that I’ll be picking up more of these new books about merfolk.

Further recommendations:

  • The narrator of The Pisces strongly reminded me of the narrator of Emma Cline’s The Girls, not necessarily in style but in content, despite the vast difference in premise between these two novels. The Girls is a fictionalized account of the Manson cult in 1960’s California, but just as Lucy explores love and desire (and the trauma that accompanies them), so too does Evie brush with love and violence, searching for herself within the narrative of her life.

Have you read any (great or terrible) sea creature novels this year?


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?


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?


The Literary Elephant

Review: Snap

The Man Booker longlist for 2018 was announced a few weeks ago, and I added several of the titles to my TBR. I don’t know how many I’ll end up reading, but I do want to get through a few before we see the shortlist. For my first longlist choice, I picked Belinda Bauer’s Snap, a mystery/thriller that I thought would be a quick (and easily available) read to help me dive into the longlist.

snapAbout the book: Eileen Bright leaves her three children in her broke-down car on the side of the road so she can call for help. The year is 1998, and calling for help means walking to the nearest pay phone. Jack, the oldest of the children at eleven years old, watches the hands on his wristwatch mark an entire hour in the stifling car before he decides to investigate. But it’s already too late. Three years later, another woman is awakened by a noise in the night when she thought she was alone. What seems at first like a thwarted burglary turns out to be much more when Catherine finds a knife and death threat by her bed, and doesn’t call the police.

Based on the first two chapters, I thought I was going to love this book. The first chapter focuses on Jack after his mother leaves the car. The second chapter follows Catherine as she’s forced to acknowledge a burglar in her dark house. These chapters are creepy, intriguing, and introduce a lot of questions that had me hooked.

But from there, though the events themselves remain captivating, the rest of the book begins to fall apart. The characters are notably juvenile, which is less excusable after the eleven year-old becomes the “man of the family” and is forced to grow up fast, and the frightened pregnant woman in the middle of the night is more thoroughly developed. This impression might have been influenced by the writing style, which has an overhanded way of repeating or italicizing important words and phrases. There are many short two-or-three-word paragraphs apparently meant to pack a punch that instead just seem to state the obvious.

But the biggest problem, for me at least, is the level of coincidence this plot relies on. Though the underlying mystery remains intriguing, the connections are almost always based on someone remembering something they shouldn’t be able to, or someone having a “feeling.” The point at which the murder weapon is identified by someone who picked it up and just knew it was the exact knife from the Eileen Bright case and couldn’t name a reason for that knowledge beyond instinct, Snap was ruined for me. The characters do occasionally remark on the role coincidence plays in life and investigations, but there is absolutely no commentary that can ever make coincidence come across as anything other than an excuse in fiction. There’s one moment where a chance connection is actually likened to magic, which… is ridiculous. It’s just lazy writing for a mystery to come together with coincidence and “magic” rather than hard work and tangible evidence.

“Marvel nodded. He liked a good hunch himself, and was open to the instincts of others.”

“Rice’s face broke into a broad grin. ‘Sometimes feelings are facts!’ “

I had other issues with this book, including the way women– and pregnant women specifically– are portrayed. Catherine in particular leans on the excuse of hysteria related to pregnancy to rationalize many of her actions, and most of the other characters seem inclined to agree: pregnancy makes women do stupid things. It was horrid seeing Catherine use this mentality as a crutch, and horrid seeing the way some of the men thought of her pregnancy.

“Adam While’s wife opened the door looking like a whale.”

First off, ew. I hate it when the first thing a male character notices about a woman he’s meeting (or vice versa) is that she’s beautiful, or ugly. Yes, appearance is one of the first things we notice when meeting new people in real life as well, but it’s much more pleasant (and easier to visualize) when actual physical descriptions are provided rather than subjective impressions. The latter are only helpful in revealing the character of the observer. But comparing a pregnant woman with a whale neither helps the reader’s opinion of this police officer, nor provides much of a visual for Catherine.

And speaking of officers, let’s look at the policework in Snap. I don’t think there was any investigation at all of the murder weapon until a particular question about it is raised three years later. Someone on the police force looking into the origins of the knife might have uncovered the truth of the murder long before Jack’s life went off the rails. And are they planning to prosecute the murderer at all after this “investigation?” On what evidence? Have they attained anything legally? And how did Marvel not suspect, when another officer talks about Adam’s wife leaving him, that maybe she didn’t come back? And when do criminals– even juvenile ones– get to walk away free and clear after admitting to over a hundred crimes, on good faith?

I know I’ve listed a lot of complaints, but I didn’t actively hate this book. It disappointed me, but it was great starting out, turned bland for the rest of the first half, and then felt rushed from there. The bare bones of this story are superb, and even though I found fault with a lot of the rest of it, Snap still stands out as a story that had a lot of potential that it just didn’t reach. There were even times, outside of the characters’ thoughts, when I even liked the writing style.

“The breathless air twitched in the wake of each car, then flopped down dead in the dust again.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Much like the last thriller I read (Riley Sager’s The Last Time I Lied), this one seemed so promising, and just didn’t deliver. I’ll keep trying, but it’s been hard finding a good thriller lately. Snap turned out not to be a great start to the Man Booker longlist, though if they get better from here maybe I’ll be glad to have started on the less impressive end of the spectrum. (Prediction: Snap will not make the shortlist.) Next up for Man Booker I’ve got Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea and Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under coming my way. I’m also planning on picking up Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room from my library soon. Hopefully these choices will be better fits.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you had better luck with Snap than I did and want something similar, you might enjoy Cate Holahan’s Lies She Told, a metafiction thriller about a thriller writer who is undergoing hormone treatments to boost her fertility, and thinks the hormones are making her think and behave erratically.
  2. I keep recommending this, but if you’re looking for a better mystery with plenty of suspense, Riley Sager’s Final Girls is a fresh take on familiar slasher thriller tropes. In this novel, the sole survivor (final girl, if you will) of a murder spree is running for her life again– maybe from the same crazed knife-wielder who killed her friends last time.

Do you read any longlist books, or do you wait for the shortlist or winner? Or steer clear of literary prizes altogether? I’m not convinced literary prize nominees are always the best choices, but I always find it interesting to see what gets picked.


The Literary Elephant


Review: The Last Time I Lied

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further recommendations:

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

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


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Girl from Blind River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Literary Elephant