At the start of this novel, 16-year-old Sasha Samokhina is on a seaside vacation with her mother, where after a few days she finds herself stalked byAt the start of this novel, 16-year-old Sasha Samokhina is on a seaside vacation with her mother, where after a few days she finds herself stalked by a mysterious man with pale skin and dark glasses. She is eventually confronted by this stranger, who entreats Sasha to wake up at 4 am every morning, go to the beach, take off all her clothes, and swim to a buoy and back. She reluctantly agrees to this strange task, and as soon as she's back on shore that first morning, she starts to vomit gold coins.
Thus begins the wildly unconventional journey that the Dyachenkos take the reader on in Vita Nostra, which has safely earned its distinction as the most unorthodox book I have ever read. This doesn't follow any kind of narrative formula that will be familiar to many western readers - it's bizarrely lacking in conflict, resolution, plot twists, and structure. But it's also the most singular and enchanting and darkly horrifying book I have ever read.
Honestly, the marketing team has my sympathy for this one, because I don't think I've ever read another book that so staunchly defies categorization. There are recognizable elements from traditional coming of age novels, but it isn't a bildungsroman; there are hints and whispers of magic but it isn't really fantasy; there are some classic Magical School tropes but it isn't remotely comparable to Harry Potter; and it's filled to the brim with philosophical references but its maddeningly esoteric approach is strangely alienating even to readers who are interested in its central themes. A large part of this book is just stumbling blindly alongside Sasha and waiting for everything to be made clear, which it never really is.
It's proving to be quite the challenge to explain what the appeal exactly is of a book like this, and I fully accept that this isn't going to be for everyone. This isn't really for readers who need to be entertained by plot or readers who need to be invested in complex character dynamics. This is more for the readers drawn equally to a compelling atmosphere and big ideas; readers who are both thrilled and terrified at the idea that their own worldview is more limited than they ever could have imagined. This book mesmerized me from the very first page and proved to be the most unexpected reading experience I've ever had. At times it's frustrating and incomprehensible but never for a single moment does it fail to stimulate. This is one of the most exceptional things I have read in a very long time, and one of those books that will absolutely reward the effort you put into it.
Thanks so much to Harper Voyager for the copy provided in exchange for an honest review....more
For being so sparse, Waiting for Eden manages to pack a powerful punch. Ackerman meditates with surprising insight (aided by potent religious symbolisFor being so sparse, Waiting for Eden manages to pack a powerful punch. Ackerman meditates with surprising insight (aided by potent religious symbolism) on the very nature of life and the impossible decisions we have to make when our loved ones are suffering. This was succinct and chilling....more
On the whole I was so impressed by The Maze at Windermere that I can't help but to forgive the moments where it failed to captivate me. Gregory BlakeOn the whole I was so impressed by The Maze at Windermere that I can't help but to forgive the moments where it failed to captivate me. Gregory Blake Smith has created something that's an absolute masterclass of storytelling - he weaves together seemingly unrelated plotlines (all centered in Newport Rhode Island) from 2011, 1896, 1863, 1778 and 1692 in ways both subtle and forthright, and the precision with which he manages this is feat is undeniable.
But the stories themselves from each timeline vary in the level of engagement they offer. To my surprise, I fell head over heels in love with the 2011 plot, which follows the strange friendship between a nearly retired tennis pro, Sandy, and an heiress with cerebral palsy. This unconventional socialite, Alice, has to be one of the most vivid characters I have ever read; I couldn't get her out of my head when I was reading this book and I still can't now that I've finished. I loved everything about their odd dynamic and tumultuous, melodramatic, tragic relationship. This motivations of a secondary character in this storyline also provides the book with one of its greatest sources of intrigue which goes on to feed into a positively spectacular ambiguous ending that I can't talk about without spoiling. But, it was perfection.
Unfortunately, all of the past timelines paled in comparison. 1896 follows a gay man who's attempting to marry into high society; 1863 follows a fictionalization of Henry James, an overt nod to the thematic parallels to Daisy Miller that litter the different narratives; 1778 follows a British officer during the American Revolution (I found him the most tiresome); and 1692 follows a newly orphaned Quaker girl. Each of these narratives had moments of searing brilliance, but at the same time, none of them was able to offer the same emotional draw as the present-day storyline.
That said, the structure of this book is nothing short of a delight for readers who enjoy riddles and puzzles and similar literary exercises. I'm almost definitely going to want to re-read this at some point after I've read Daisy Miller, because I feel like I've only barely scratched the surface. ...more
I think this was supposed to be droll and ironic but I honestly just found it obnoxious. From the fact that every paragraph ends in some kind of pithyI think this was supposed to be droll and ironic but I honestly just found it obnoxious. From the fact that every paragraph ends in some kind of pithy aphorism of the author's making, Tom McAllister clearly thinks he has something to say in this novel. Unfortunately that 'something' rarely amounted to anything more than "The idea of hiding underground for a few years until everything got better was appealing. That's why groundhogs looked so happy."
The central concept is a salient one and one that hits close to home - that you're never truly safe in a society with lax gun restrictions, and suffice to say that as an American living in 2018, gun control is something I feel extremely strongly about. But there is nothing worthwhile in this book that actively contributes to that conversation, this has nothing to offer aside from being topical. This reads as a 200-something page indictment of modern gun laws; no plot, no character development, no commentary that actually forces the reader to consider anything in a new light. No comedy that actually hits its mark, no hard-hitting moments to punctuate the tedium. I'm sure you all know by now that unlikable characters (unlikable female characters in particular) make for some of my all-time favorite protagonists, but it's like the character of Anna was constructed just to be as abhorrent as possible with no other goal in mind. I also found the constant commentary on womanhood to be incredibly disingenuous coming from a male author, when half of the statements rang false anyway. I'm just not sure why McAllister purports to have the authority to let us know that "Women can wound each other in ways men can never imagine."
Also, full disclosure here - I listened to the audiobook which is never my favorite format, and the narrator sounding like a telephone operator didn't help matters. But whatever the driving force behind my dislike was, I just found this to be a waste of time....more
Nope, not for me I'm afraid. Asymmetry is more of an experiment than a novel, and an experiment that didn't warrant half as much tedium as what I founNope, not for me I'm afraid. Asymmetry is more of an experiment than a novel, and an experiment that didn't warrant half as much tedium as what I found myself subjected to. I 'got it' but I didn't find the payoff rewarding at all. There's a good argument to be made that the first two sections were badly written on purpose (once you figure out from the third section the thread that connects the two disparate stories) but if poorly executed structural innovation is all it takes for a book to be lauded as a masterpiece these days I think we need to raise that bar just a little bit higher....more
The Dreamers is a wonderfully eerie and speculative novel about an epidemic that takes hold of a college town, in the form of a gentle disease which cThe Dreamers is a wonderfully eerie and speculative novel about an epidemic that takes hold of a college town, in the form of a gentle disease which causes people to fall into a deep sleep that they cannot be woken from. As long as these individuals can receive medical care and be fed intravenously they are in no immediate danger, but the more people who fall prey to the highly contagious sickness, the more difficult it becomes to look after the sick.
This is a mesmerizing character-driven novel. Station Eleven is going to be brought up frequently in conversation with The Dreamers, and I know that comparing books to other books can get tedious but in this case it's with good reason. Emily St. John Mandel's influence can clearly be seen on the construction of The Dreamers, with its omniscient narration flitting between a panoply of characters who are all affected by the sickness all in different ways, their narratives occasionally intersecting but each with its own distinct arc. But Karen Thompson Walker's novel is not without its own unique spin - the disease is much more contained than the one that devastates civilization in Station Eleven, and consequently this isn't so much a survival novel as it is a novel interested in examining its central concept - sleeping, dreaming - through lenses of disparate psychologies and philosophies and sciences, which all come together to tell a story that's as thought-provoking as it is readable.
The only reason I'm dropping this to 4 stars is that there was a bit too much 'isn't childbirth miraculous aren't babies astonishing' in a few of the characters' narratives and it got to be a bit much for me, but that's strictly a personal preference. Everything else I adored. Karen Thompson Walker's writing is both assured and understated in the best possible way, and the way she builds tension is just spectacular. I could not put this book down.
Thank you to Netgalley, Random House, and Karen Thompson Walker for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review....more
There are a lot of elements from Severance that we've all seen before - the global pandemic which brings an abrupt halt to civilization as we know it,There are a lot of elements from Severance that we've all seen before - the global pandemic which brings an abrupt halt to civilization as we know it, the few survivors trying to forge ahead in the absence of a structured society, the juxtaposition of before and after narratives. But the similarities to Station Eleven or Bird Box end there, because what Ling Ma does with Severance is fuse the post-apocalyptic survival genre with anti-capitalist satire, and it works almost startlingly well.
Both wry and meditative, Severance offers a positively haunting commentary on corporate greed and what that means for the individual, and that awful paradox of being trapped inside a system that you feel guilty having any part of. The fictional Shen Fever was pretty awful; rather than offering a quick death it would essentially turn people into zombies who performed rote tasks ad infinitum - it's heavy-handed but it works - but the most horrifying part of this novel was probably how much of the directionless millennial narrative resonated, and the amount of decisions these characters had to make at the detriment of their happiness just to survive, both before and after.
I did think the book's structure could have been more cohesive as a whole, and I felt like Ling Ma didn't really know what she wanted to do with the ending, but ultimately I loved this strong and unexpected debut. I can't wait to see what Ling Ma does next....more
A delightfully sinister novella that essentially puts a bunch of tried and true horror tropes into a blender but still rewards the reader with its almA delightfully sinister novella that essentially puts a bunch of tried and true horror tropes into a blender but still rewards the reader with its almost unbearably tense atmosphere. Though the creepy house in the woods setting does most of the legwork - I'm afraid this won't be winning any awards for creativity any time soon - it was a fantastically entertaining way to spend an hour. The translation is excellent; really poised writing that convincingly unravels with the main character's mental state....more
This is one of those books that's more interesting to think about than it is to read. The main word I'd use to describe this deceptively short book isThis is one of those books that's more interesting to think about than it is to read. The main word I'd use to describe this deceptively short book is tedious - though Vonnegut hits his mark with the humor more often than not, the meandering, repetitive style gets old, and even the once-funny jokes start to become stale. It's also the kind of classic that hasn't aged well, at all; jokes about dwarfism and sexist remarks abound - it's inevitably going to induce more than a few cringes from the modern reader.
So, why 4 stars? Because it's fascinating and smart as hell. This novel is filled to the brim with intriguing, relevant, timeless ideas: how religion adapts to suit the needs of the people, conceptions of social identity and what it means to belong to a group, the paradoxical role of science in how it's used by humanity - both for medicine and for warfare. The interplay between science and religion in this novel is done so well, as is the bizarre fusion of absurdity and realism. This was my first Vonnegut, and I can't help but to think I would have enjoyed his work a bit more if I'd read it when I was a teenager, but it was every bit as thought-provoking as I'd been led to believe and I'll certainly be looking into reading more of his works at some point. ...more
The Third Hotel follows a newly widowed woman named Clare, trying to come to terms with the death of her husband and the illness of her father, whileThe Third Hotel follows a newly widowed woman named Clare, trying to come to terms with the death of her husband and the illness of her father, while attending a film festival in Cuba. One day in Havana she thinks she sees her husband standing outside a museum and she decides to follow him. Much surrealism and existential angst ensues.
I think my biggest issue with The Third Hotel was that I did not feel the slightest emotional connection to this story. I really don't need to feel an emotional pull to every single thing I read - I am happy for something to appeal to me on a more intellectual level if that's what the author is trying to achieve - but when a book is about something as intensely personal as grief, I want to feel... something? Sad or unsettled or moved in some way? Anything other than bored.
But this book's darkly sardonic and disaffected tone just left me cold, and didn't give me enough to chew on that I put it down feeling intellectually stimulated enough to compensate for the emotional hollowness. Laura van den Berg certainly has some interesting ideas, but unfortunately none of them are developed past their infancy. The ruminations on the role of the traveler and the tension between the internal and external selves in particular had the potential to be intriguing - and I also liked the commentary on horror films - but I'm sorry to say that for the most part this was just tedious and lacking in focus....more
This is a rather unassuming short story collection that gave me such joy to read for reasons I don’t know how to articulate. Only my second Ali SmithThis is a rather unassuming short story collection that gave me such joy to read for reasons I don’t know how to articulate. Only my second Ali Smith and I reckon it’s not one of the more essential ones to read but I really enjoyed this. ...more
The Only Girl in the World is every bit as disturbing as you'd imagine, but it's also the single most inspiring story of resilience that I've ever reaThe Only Girl in the World is every bit as disturbing as you'd imagine, but it's also the single most inspiring story of resilience that I've ever read. This is what I was hoping Educated was going to be; the difference for me is that Maude Julien seems to have an appropriate amount of distance and perspective from her horrifying past, whereas Tara Westover's story still felt too close to allow for much analysis. The Only Girl in the World certainly is description-heavy, and it's not until you head into the home stretch that you see the ways in which her childhood impacted the person she was to become, but it's well worth the wait, especially in seeing how her feelings toward her mother shift over time. Only recommended if you can handle reading about very extreme cases of mental and physical abuse; it's almost viscerally painful to read at times....more
I spent a while with this collection and I think on the whole it's stronger than the sum of its parts. Apparently my average rating for these 34 storiI spent a while with this collection and I think on the whole it's stronger than the sum of its parts. Apparently my average rating for these 34 stories was 3.35 stars, but it still feels like a 4-star collection to me, because it absolutely got its job done: introducing me to a number of authors whose work I'm interested in exploring further.
Curated by Jay Rubin and introduced by Murakami, this collection is arranged thematically rather than chronologically: there's a section on natural and man-made disasters, a section whose stories are unified by the theme of dread, and a section on the values of Japanese soldiers, among others. Jay Rubin writes in his forward that he wanted this collection to reflect his personal taste rather than serving as a more generic primer to Japanese lit, and for better or worse I think that shows: I didn't understand why every single one of these stories was chosen, but I did feel like I got a clear sense of Rubin as a reader, and why shouldn't an anthology say something about its editor?
There were three main standouts for me:
(1) Dreams of Love, Etc by Kawakami Mieko: A woman is invited into her neighbor's house, and her neighbor confesses that although she loves playing the piano, she's unable to play a certain piece straight through when someone is watching, and she entreats the protagonist to sit with her until she's able to play the piece perfectly. Compelling, sensual, and subtle, but still rewarding.
(2) Hell Screen by Akutagawa Ryunosuke: The talented but contemptible painter Yoshihide is commissioned to create a folding screen that depicts Buddhist hell. As he's unable to paint an image that he hasn't seen firsthand, he inflicts torture on his apprentices. The climax, though it's easy to see it coming from a mile away, still somehow manages to shock, with horrifying imagery that isn't easily forgotten.
(3) Insects by Seirai Yuichi: Set against the backdrop of the bombing of Nagasaki, Insects follows an elderly woman whose lifelong love had died fifteen years ago, after having been married to another woman. Brutal and tender all at once.
There are a handful of other noteworthy stories worth mentioning. The story that opens the collection, Tanizaki Jun'ichiro's The Story of Tomoda and Matsunaga reads like a film noir mystery but ultimately takes a philosophical turn, ruminating on the conflicting values of the East and the West. Factory Town by Betsayaku Minoru is wry and clever and achieves a lot with its brevity. American Hijiki by Nasaka Akiyuki provides a frighteningly honest look at Japanese post-war psychology. And of course, Mishima Yukio's Patriotism and its graphic, visceral depiction of seppuku will probably haunt me to my dying day.
But I have two main criticisms of this collection: one about its composition and one about its selection. While I enjoyed the thematic arrangement, why oh why weren't the stories' publication dates readily accessible?! All the dates were listed somewhere in Murakami's introduction, but it took a lot of flipping back and forth and I would have liked the date listed alongside the title, author, and translator. The second and larger criticism is that only 9 of these 34 stories are by women, so needless to say we can do better than a mere 26%.
Still, I found this to be a really solid introductory collection for anyone looking to expand their horizons and discover some new favorite Japanese writers, some seminal and some more obscure.
Thanks so much to Penguin for the copy provided in exchange for an honest review....more
Powerful but uneven. It's easy to see why There There has been one of 2018's most beloved books - it provides a much-needed look at the urban Native APowerful but uneven. It's easy to see why There There has been one of 2018's most beloved books - it provides a much-needed look at the urban Native American experience, which Orange takes pains to remind us is a rich and varied culture that has endured unspeakable violence and hardship, and which our contemporary American society is still ready to stereotype and dismiss. The sheer breadth of voices here speaks to Orange's vision with this novel, as do the flawlessly written prologue and interlude, which provide the reader with a brief but succinct idea of the cultural context in which Orange is writing.
But the tapestry of perspectives that Orange attempts to weave doesn't fully come together for me - I think there were a few too many POVs shoehorned in at the detriment of plot and character development. Keeping track of the threads between the characters became a bit of a chore - apparently a character needs only be mentioned once for them to have a significant role in the narrative that we should remember 75 pages down the line - and the ways in which some of their stories converged was beyond contrived. I would have been happier to read about ten different characters' disparate lives in a sort of thematically connected short story collection and been spared the awkward attempt to braid their lives together. For example, one character finds out that he has fathered not one but TWO children he hadn't known about, and these two individuals happen to be friends with one another... I'm happy for a novel to employ this sort of narrative device when fate is being used as a prominent theme, but in There There it just felt like unnecessary coincidence. And I unapologetically love a bit of melodrama, so the novel's conclusion didn't bother me for its theatricality as much as the fact that it felt like a rather hastily drawn attempt to tie up a bunch of narratives that hadn't organically run their course. Maybe that was the point, I don't know. But I think this should have been longer - its denouement could have used some more room to breathe.
Nonetheless, it's an impressive debut. Orange ruminates with a surprising amount of depth not only on Native identity, but also on themes like alcoholism, domestic violence, and sexual assault. It's a short book that packs a powerful punch and I'll definitely be interested in reading whatever Tommy Orange writes next. There There just felt like a rough draft of something that had the potential to be even more hard-hitting....more
The Line That Held Us is less of a mystery than it is a present day Aeschylean revenge saga set in Appalachia, which explores the gruesome ramificatioThe Line That Held Us is less of a mystery than it is a present day Aeschylean revenge saga set in Appalachia, which explores the gruesome ramifications of a hunter accidentally shooting and killing the brother of one of the town's most notorious and violent men. The premise was really fantastic, but David Joy didn't exactly sell me on its execution.
The thing that most struck me about this book was a noticeable lack of tension in Joy's writing. Moments of horror and extreme violence were unable to hit any emotional beats as Joy's prose was so lifeless and perfunctory. At one point there was a paragraph about how a man parked his car down the street rather than parking it in front of someone's house, which laid out these reasons in unnecessary detail before concluding helpfully: '... and that's why Calvin had driven past and parked up the road.' Thanks, I couldn't have deduced that myself.
The lack of suspense unfortunately extended from the writing to the plot, which unfolded as inevitably as you'd expect from the onset. But I do think some writers can pull this off spectacularly, writing a novel which feels like an inevitable train wreck that you're unable to interfere with or look away from, and therein lies the tragedy. I think this tried to be one of those novels, but without any sort of momentum or tension to drive it forward, it failed miserably.
And then there's the treatment of the sole female character, who has no personality whatsoever but that doesn't matter anyway, because her pregnancy quickly becomes her entire identity. "You're going to get out of here for this child, she thought, the world having taken on a singular meaning. Nothing mattered outside of what she carried." (I'll have to remember that the next time I'm kidnapped: as long as I'm not pregnant, there's nothing to worry about.) I mean, I understand the sentiment he's going for, but women having no purpose in their lives until they become mothers is a trope that should have died 50 years ago.
Anyway, for all that, I didn't hate this book - it was very quick and readable (despite the fact that I prolonged it for over a month, but that says more about my lack of free time than it does about the quality), and I know I'm in the minority in not thinking this was brilliant. But still... this just didn't do it for me.
Thank you to Netgalley, G.P. Putnam's Sons, and David Joy for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review....more
This is a textbook case of 'it's not you, it's me.' I understand the appeal, and in a lot of ways I'm thrilled about this book's mainstream success (wThis is a textbook case of 'it's not you, it's me.' I understand the appeal, and in a lot of ways I'm thrilled about this book's mainstream success (women in STEM fields and healthy, platonic relationships between men and women are two things we need more of in media), but there were only so many loving descriptions of trees I could take after a while. There was just too much science and not enough human interest to keep me engaged, and while I wouldn't say you need to be knowledgeable about biology to approach this book, a certain amount of interest would be helpful, and I just don't have that, at all. And the audiobook was a mistake; the author narrates it with a positively bizarre amount of melodrama (like, actually in tears at multiple points, and I'm sorry if that makes me sound callous but I really don't react well to overly sentimental narration), so I can't say it was a pleasant listening experience... But anyway, really not a bad book, just not my kind of book....more
I didn't love this quite as much as My Year of Rest and Relaxation, but I think I can confidently call myself an Ottessa Moshfegh fan now. She excelsI didn't love this quite as much as My Year of Rest and Relaxation, but I think I can confidently call myself an Ottessa Moshfegh fan now. She excels at crafting female characters who are sympathetic enough to warrant investment but abhorrent enough to shatter the conception that even the most contentious of antiheroines must above all else be likable. There's nothing sexy or pleasant or charming about our titular Eileen, and it's a breath of fresh air. The novel follows Eileen Dunlop, a 24-year-old friendless young woman living in rural Massachusetts in the 1960s, working at a boys' prison she calls Moorehead by day and caring for her cruel alcoholic father by night. She daydreams of escaping the monotony of her everyday existence, until one day the alluring Rebecca takes a position as a counselor at Moorehead and Eileen finds herself with a new fixation.
In contrast to the richly textured Eileen, her foil Rebecca is drawn rather simply, but with precision. She's beautiful and she wears all the right clothes and says all the right things. Eileen doesn't allow herself to consider that Rebecca is anything less than perfect or that her intentions are anything less than noble, but as these events are being narrated to us by a much older Eileen, the reader is painfully aware that certain limitations in young-Eileen's perspective are going to lead inexorably to a tragic conclusion. But we also know that both Eileen and Rebecca make it out alive, so the question becomes how their dynamic is able to culminate in catastrophe that spares them both.
Moshfegh rises to the challenge, as the whole thing slowly builds toward a chilling and mesmerizing climax, as dark as it is unexpected. My only hangup with this novel is the repetition in its descriptions of Eileen's home life. Maybe it's meant to reflect the tedium that Eileen herself feels, or maybe it's an indication that this would have worked better as a short story, as others have suggested. But still, I really enjoyed this, as both a character study and a commentary on the bizarre and contradictory ways women are socialized to view themselves and others. This is better read as a character-driven literary novel than a thriller, but even so, I was thrilled by it....more
I've read so many fantastic short novels and novellas this year (On Chesil Beach, Convenience Store Woman, Tin Man) that I'm not sure why I insist onI've read so many fantastic short novels and novellas this year (On Chesil Beach, Convenience Store Woman, Tin Man) that I'm not sure why I insist on underestimating what can be accomplished in such a short page count. But the fact of the matter is, I picked up Ghost Wall without terribly high expectations, despite the fact that I'd been eager to read Sarah Moss for a while now. More fool me - this book blew me away.
It follows Silvie, a teenager from northern England whose family joins an anthropology course on an excursion to Northumberland, living for a few weeks as Iron Age Britons once did. From the very start, tensions arise between Silvie's survivalist father who idealizes ancient Britain, driven by nationalism and a yearning to belong to a society where he would be accepted, and the less stringent students who are only participating in the course for college credit. And as the line between reality and play-acting begins to blur, the constant threat of her father's violence draws ever nearer to Silvie, leading to a harrowing climax.
Not a word is out of place in this novel; Sarah Moss knows how to command language to navigate the themes of imperialism, violence, class, and gender roles that are all central to this narrative. Tension builds with unerring precision in just about every facet of this story; between the individual and their environment, between modern and primitive life, between Silvie's father and the rest of the group, and between Silvie and Molly, an older girl raised with feminist values who Silvie is drawn to, despite feeling that Molly is overly dismissive of Silvie's own rural upbringing.
I'm not sure what else to say, other than: read this book. Ghost Wall is subtle and shocking and absolutely masterful.
Thank you to Netgalley, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Sarah Moss for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review....more
Compelling, informative, compassionate, and harrowing. Dopesick is a comprehensive account of America's opioid crisis that has plagued disparate ruralCompelling, informative, compassionate, and harrowing. Dopesick is a comprehensive account of America's opioid crisis that has plagued disparate rural areas throughout the country, though Beth Macy mainly narrows down her research to her local Appalachia. She pieces together interviews with doctors, advocates, addicts, and individuals who have lost family members to the drug, to weave some kind of narrative out of the onslaught of factors which have contributed to the epidemic.
While the reality of the opioid crisis was not lost on me before this (a friend of mine from high school died of an overdose about a year ago, which spurred my interest in this subject in the first place), Dopesick fills in the disturbing details. How Purdue Pharma saturated the market with Oxycontin in the 90s and continuously shifted blame from the addictive nature of the drug to the addicts themselves; how doctors have been made to prescribe these highly addictive painkillers at the drop of a hat (mainly to white patients, due to racial stereotyping that they are less likely to get addicted, which is why the opioid epidemic has hit white communities the hardest); how the government has essentially turned a blind eye and continues to deny adequate funding to address this issue; how MAT (medication-assisted treatment) has been stigmatized to the extent that many rehab programs require patients to be clean before checking in; and how feeling 'dopesick' is so miserable that addicts will do anything to quell the incredibly painful withdrawal symptoms.
Beth Macy fuses thorough research with unfailingly compassionate anecdotes shared with her by mothers who have lost children to the drug. Their individual stories litter Macy's larger narrative, most of them following the exact same trajectory: being prescribed oxycodone for a minor injury, developing a dependency, being cut off from their supply, turning to illegal means of obtaining the drug, trying to get clean, failing to get clean, overdosing. There's one statistic that Macy repeats a few times throughout this book that stayed with me - on average it takes an addicted person eight years of recovery before they've gone a full year without relapsing. That is how impossible it is to quit this drug.
Since this crisis isn't going anywhere any time soon, between a lack of funding, the refusal to acknowledge MAT as a legitimate rehabilitation technique, and incarceration of drug users and dealers as the primary tool being used by the government as a band-aid solution, Dopesick is well worth reading as a starting point, for anyone wondering how this crisis has reached such a critical state with so little government intervention....more
The Overstory is undeniably brilliant, but it's also hard work, and I'm not convinced the payoff was worth the effort. I wanted to be able to say thatThe Overstory is undeniably brilliant, but it's also hard work, and I'm not convinced the payoff was worth the effort. I wanted to be able to say that I was so struck by Powers' genius that I was able to forgive the periods of abject tedium that characterized my reading experience, but that would be a lie. This is undoubtedly a fantastic book, but I don't think I was the right reader for it.
Here I have to echo a sentiment that I expressed in my review of Lab Girl by Hope Jahren: there are only so many loving descriptions of trees a person can take after a while. What I'm interested in when I read is conflict and human interest and interpersonal dynamics, and when none of that is at the forefront of a book, I'm inevitably going to struggle with it.
While Richard Powers did create a host of distinct characters in The Overstory - the first section of the novel is eight different short stories, one following each of the main characters through defining moments in their early lives - it soon becomes apparent that their stories aren't the ones that Powers is interested in telling. I had more than a few moments when I had to wonder why Powers chose to write this as a novel at all, when it would have arguably served its purpose just as well as a treatise on environmental activism.
Powers is a hell of a writer though, I'll give him that. I can't bear to go lower than 3 stars in my final rating because I can't deny the admiration I feel toward Powers' craft. On a sentence-by-sentence level, I lost track of the amount of times I paused and reread a particularly striking passage, and the amount of detail that Powers is able to pack into every page is incredibly impressive. And on a larger level, the thematic complexity that Powers is able to achieve with his anthropomorphic symbolism and thorough examination of disparate disciplines and philosophies is undeniable. When words like 'epic' and 'masterpiece' are being thrown around in conversation with this novel, it's not difficult to understand why.
But at the same time, I'm just not convinced that it was all necessary. I don't believe that this book is able to justify its length of 500 (very long) pages. It's punishingly dense and bloated; I found certain characters to be extraneous and a lot of the detail to be superfluous. But it's also punctuated by moments of such beauty that make it a worthwhile read, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if this wins the Man Booker, but on a personal level, I can't say this was my favorite reading experience I've ever had....more
This is the Man Booker title that I was the most trepidatious about picking up this year, not because I doubted its quality, but just because there isThis is the Man Booker title that I was the most trepidatious about picking up this year, not because I doubted its quality, but just because there is nothing about a nineteenth century Caribbean and North American-set historical fiction adventure tale that appeals to me. So with that said, I guess I did enjoy this more than I expected to... just not enough to really understand its inclusion on the Booker shortlist over more structurally innovative and intellectually stimulating titles.
This book's greatest asset ironically ended up being a detriment for me, and that was the fact that it's incredibly well-written. The thing that immediately struck me about this book was how incongruously poised its first person narration is. Though the character Washington does show a natural intelligence throughout the story, one does have to question where an uneducated boy born into slavery picked up vocabulary words like unconscionable, inviolate, incandescence, leadenly, and disconsolate (these are only a portion of the ones I highlighted which jumped out at me, and I wasn't even including dialogue from other characters). So while I would describe the prose as smart and pleasurable to read, and while I'd seek out more books by Edugyan in the future for this factor alone, I don't think it suited this particular book.
But my bigger problem with Washington Black is the way that the plot seemed to drive the characters throughout the narrative, and not the other way around. To describe this premise and execution as contrived is an understatement. As I was reading, I felt like I could constantly see Edugyan's hand manipulating these characters into the situations that they found themselves in, and this never ended up feeling like anything other than outlandish fiction. I have no problem with coincidences and fate being used by an author deliberately and thematically (see: The Heart's Invisible Furies), but it's a fine line to walk, and if this is what Edugyan was attempting, I'm afraid her efforts ended up seeming to me more like plot devices than divine intervention.
It's a pacey and readable book from beginning to end (especially the end - I loved the last few chapters quite a lot), but the narrative structure of 'character zips along from place to place, encountering quirky characters who quickly come and go' will never be my favorite formula, and though there's occasionally incisive commentary on the relationship between white abolitionists and freed slaves in the nineteenth century, none of it is really groundbreaking enough that I feel terribly enriched for having read this. I could have forgiven it a lot for being an entertaining story through and through, but despite the fact that I breezed through it in two days, it was a thoroughly lukewarm reading experience that I doubt will stay with me in any kind of significant way. ...more
I'm not sure if I'm going to manage the entire Man Booker longlist this year - stay tuned to find out - but I'm prioritizing the books that I'm the moI'm not sure if I'm going to manage the entire Man Booker longlist this year - stay tuned to find out - but I'm prioritizing the books that I'm the most excited about, as well as the books that I'm having the easiest time getting my hands on. The Mars Room fell into the latter category. But this is exactly what I love about literary prizes, because I never would have picked this book up ordinarily, and I ended up loving it.
The Mars Room is an incisive and unsentimental look at the US prison system, through the eyes of Romy, a young mother who finds herself at the beginning of two life sentences. Kushner then explores this narrative from numerous vantage points - the socioeconomic factors that lead to incarceration; the brutal realities of prison life; what it means on a psychological level to be confronted with a life sentence.
While I felt Kushner's political agenda in writing this book was clear, it was actually rendered much more subtly than I had been expecting, which I appreciated. Romy was a thoroughly convincing protagonist, and it never felt like she had an unrealistic understanding of the political structures at play in her own story; she simply relayed her own reality to the reader, and Kushner was able to expertly tie that into the larger context. I think I'd describe this book as first and foremost a novel about humanity. These characters have all done terrible things, and Kushner makes no effort to excuse or glorify or sensationalize any of it. But she still treats each of their stories with compassion, and is interested in the question of when a person stops being a victim (of abuse, of poverty, of systemic violence) and is able to be classified as a villain.
The interplay between the natural and the artificial is another element that I found intriguing, and I thought it came together beautifully in the novel's conclusion, but I did think the execution of this element could have been stronger on the whole. I guess this ties into my biggest criticism of this book, which is that Kushner isn't quite able to justify the chorus of voices in which her novel is narrated. Alongside Romy, we have chapters narrated by other inmates, by one of Romy's teachers who works in the prison, by the man who used to stalk Romy (which led to the altercation which landed her in prison). We also have excerpts from the diaries of Ted Kaczynski, more commonly known as the Unabomber, which is the element that eludes me the most when I think about how this novel is structured. I think this may have been an attempt to draw parallels to Kaczynski's self-imposed primitive lifestyle and the manufactured and inhumane law and order of the prison system, but Kushner seems to expect her reader to do most of the legwork with this comparison, scattering Kaczynski's diary entries throughout the narrative in a haphazard fashion. The perspective from an unrelated male inmate in a separate prison likewise struck me as superfluous, or else not integrated into the narrative in a way that ever justifies its inclusion.
But mostly I found this to be a very intelligent and quietly thought-provoking read, and though it isn't exactly a pretty book, I wouldn't describe it as gratuitous, either. Kushner elucidates harsh realities and it results in a dismal and disturbing narrative at times, but it's never without compassion for the individuals whose stories she's telling....more
You know those moments when you find an author you think you're going to like, but you chose the wrong book of theirs to start with? That's what happeYou know those moments when you find an author you think you're going to like, but you chose the wrong book of theirs to start with? That's what happened with Warlight. This was not a good book, but I don't think it's over between me and Ondaatje. More on that in a minute.
Warlight was almost unbearably boring. I'm sorry, I know that 'boring' is the kind of pedestrian critique that we try to stay away from while reviewing, but I'm not sure I've ever read a book that felt this utterly pointless. There's no conflict, no character development, no intrigue, no payoff. This book meandered through the narrator's recollections of his youth in post-war London, halting all too briefly on defining moments, claiming to imbue them with weight but never willing to properly examine them in any kind of broader context. The nonlinear chronology could have been used effectively, but it served only to create such a distance between present-day-Nathaniel and past-Nathaniel that the chapters about his childhood lacked any sort of spark or passion or urgency. The one question that Ondaatje never seems interested in answering is why the reader should care about any of it.
The one saving grace for me was the prose. Ondaatje's writing struck me as both elegant and effortless. There is no question that this book is well-written, and I found myself pausing at certain sentences, impressed by their construction and insight:
You return to that earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit. You take your adult self with you. It is not to be a reliving, but a rewitnessing.
But despite these flickers of profundity in the sentence-by-sentence writing, there isn't a whole lot of emotional depth to this novel on the whole. For a novel purportedly about memory and perception and unearthing the truth, far too much remains unexhumed. The whole thing is bizarrely perfunctory and passionless, and there is no doubt in my mind that Warlight's inclusion on the Booker longlist is an homage to Ondaatje's illustrious career more than a reflection of the quality of this particular novel. But, again, I'm willing to read more Ondaatje in the future, as I refuse to believe this is the height of what he's capable of....more
I enjoyed Territory of Light and found it sufficiently absorbing, but now I'm finding that I don't have a whole lot to say about it. It's a simple stoI enjoyed Territory of Light and found it sufficiently absorbing, but now I'm finding that I don't have a whole lot to say about it. It's a simple story about motherhood told from the perspective of a newly single woman coming to terms with the failure of her marriage - it's a quiet, meditative work that was originally published in Japanese in 1979, and while I felt that this story's cultural context was readily apparent as I was reading, it does have an introspective universality in its depiction of isolation that I think will resonate with a lot of modern, non-Japanese readers.
I will say, one thing about the fragmented narration started to grate on me - though this takes place over the course of a year and we are theoretically seeing events unfold in real time, the narrator would often say something like 'just two weeks ago, I got a call from my daughter's daycare,' and then we would rewind two weeks and she would tell us the daycare story... even though we were technically with the narrator at the time those events happened? It fractures the chronology in a way that doesn't totally make sense to me and adds an unnecessary level of telling rather than showing.
But still, I thought this was a good introduction to Yuko Tsushima, and I'll definitely look into reading more from her.
Thank you to Netgalley and FSG for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review....more
Hmm. I seem to be in the minority in not being completely enamored with this novel in verse, though in a lot of ways it's certainly an impressive featHmm. I seem to be in the minority in not being completely enamored with this novel in verse, though in a lot of ways it's certainly an impressive feat. Robin Robertson's writing is elegant and immersive, the tone is achingly sad, and he uses the form to explore a myriad of subjects - PTSD, the development of post-war America, the advent of cinema... There's a lot of content packed into this little book, but while I found myself impressed by many aspects of it, there was also something a bit empty about the whole thing.
So much of this endeavor is just very on the nose. The protagonist, Walker, is suffering from PTSD, so how do we show that? By interrupting the narrative with snippets of his flashbacks to the war. One of the central themes is the downside of the extreme modernization of Los Angeles that occurred in the 1950s, so how do we show that? By the characters narrating the ways in which the modernization of Los Angeles is negatively affecting their community. I think I just wanted this to be longer and more nuanced. There's so much going on in this book, but it's all there for you to see right on the surface.
This is ordinarily the sort of book I'd want to reflect on for a day or two before writing a review, but with the Booker announcement tomorrow I'm racing against time, so I will admit up front here that my thoughts on this may evolve over time, for better or worse. I also want to admit that I read this in very punctuated bursts over the span of a week which is just about the worst possible way to read a book like this - if you can, I'd implore you to try to finish it in one or two sittings - so that may have clouded my experience with it. And I did really enjoy it, for the most part; I just didn't quite feel the magic....more
This novel was stunning. Everything Under is a retelling of a Greek myth (more on that in a second), set in the English countryside, which follows GreThis novel was stunning. Everything Under is a retelling of a Greek myth (more on that in a second), set in the English countryside, which follows Gretel, a lexicographer, who's recently tracked down her estranged mother Sarah. It's a tricky plot to summarize as it unfolds with a nonlinear chronology, but it ultimately pieces together the fractured narrative that connects Gretel, Sarah, and a boy named Marcus who stayed with them on their riverboat for a month when Gretel was thirteen, before disappearing.
Daisy Johnson's prose is accomplished and lyrical; of the Man Booker longlisters I've read so far, I'd say she's only behind Donal Ryan in terms of prose quality, which is an incredible feat. This book is stunningly atmospheric; the water beneath Gretel and Sarah's riverboat feels like a living, breathing entity, and the whole novel has a tone that's both vibrant and feral. It can be difficult to rework Greek mythology into a contemporary setting, but I felt that Johnson achieved this with aplomb, turning the ordinary into something almost mythical, which perfectly suited the kind of heightened drama that inevitably must unfold in a story like this.
I'm not really sure what's going on with the marketing of this novel, because in some promos I've seen reference made to the myth it's retelling, and in others I haven't. I did know which myth it was going into it, and rather than hampering my experience with the novel I think it enhanced it. But I have seen others say they wished they hadn't known this information ahead of time as the knowledge does naturally give away quite a few plot points. But I don't think it's a novel which endeavors to shock the reader with its twists and turns, and with fate and free-will at its thematic center, I don't think it's difficult to figure out where the story is headed, even quite early on. So, I guess it's up to you whether you want to look up the myth it's retelling, but if you're a Greek mythology lover, I think you'll enjoy knowing ahead of time so you can properly appreciate Johnson's positively masterful foreshadowing and symbolism.
The reason I've dropped it down to 4 stars from 5, which I thought it would be for most of the time I was reading, was that I wasn't very enamored with certain elements of the ending. I have to quote my friend Hannah's review where she talks about the last 20% of the novel: "Here Johnson makes quite a lot of the subtext text" - this was my main issue as well. The stunning subtlety that I had so admired about the first three quarters of this book was sacrificed for a very literal manifestation of one of the novel's themes, adding a sort of fantastical element that I didn't think was necessary. What can I say, I just don't like magical realism.
But ultimately I did think this was an incredibly strong debut (!!) novel. Johnson's prose was incredible, and the amount of thematic depth here really took me by surprise. Johnson provides us with a thorough meditation on fate, agency, breaking and mending familial ties, the role of language in shaping us. I really loved this....more
In Our Mad and Furious City is a frenetic and imperfect but unforgettable feat from debut writer Guy Gunaratne. Set in London over the course of two dIn Our Mad and Furious City is a frenetic and imperfect but unforgettable feat from debut writer Guy Gunaratne. Set in London over the course of two days, it tells the story of three boys and two of their parents, against the backdrop of an incipient riot caused by a local boy killing a British soldier. Yusuf, Selvon, and Ardan are three friends who live in or around a Neasden housing estate, trying to make a future for themselves in a city fraught with violence and extremism.
This book is a defiant look at the classism, racial tensions, and anti-immigration sentiment that plague not only post-Brexit Britain, but also the previous generation's Britain; it deals in the enduring and intractable nature of violence and the ways in which that ties into national identity for the second-generation immigrants whose voices propel the novel forward. The violence in this novel isn't specifically tied to one race or religion - one of the older characters reflects on fleeing Northern Ireland during the Troubles; another remembers arriving in London from the Caribbean only to find himself confronted with the Keep Britain White movement in the 1950s. Gunaratne's depiction of the cyclical and relentless nature of violence can be disheartening, but this novel is more about the choices the characters make, the strength it requires to turn away from brutality and not engage with it.
Written entirely in different dialects whose cadences and vocabularies vary depending on whose point of view chapter it is (one family is from Ireland, another from Montserrat, another from Pakistan), Gunaratne's prose is gritty and colloquial but also elevated to the level you'd expect from a literary novel (something that Sebastian Barry failed to do convincingly in Days Without End, I thought, but which Gunaratnre manages with aplomb here - I was simultaneously convinced by the authenticity of the narration and impressed by the prose).
So here it all is, this London. A place that you can love, make rhymes out of pyres and a romance of the colours, talk gladly of the changes and the flux and the rise and the fall without feeling its storm rain on your skin and its bone-scarring winds, a city that won't love you back unless you become insoluble to the fury, the madness of bound and unbound peoples and the immovables of the place.
But, as I mentioned above, I don't think it's a perfect novel; the frantic pace leads a few unwieldy moments, like the awkward inclusion of a sixth point of view character for only a single chapter, or Gunaratne not giving the novel's climax much room to breathe. I couldn't help but to think it could have been improved by another 50 or so pages, but at the same time, it's such a snapshot piece that in a way I admire all Gunaratne was able to achieve with its brevity.
Only halfway through the Booker list, but this one feels like a winner....more
Sabrina is only the second graphic novel I've read in my life (actually I'm realizing as I type this that the other is Fun Home which is actually a grSabrina is only the second graphic novel I've read in my life (actually I'm realizing as I type this that the other is Fun Home which is actually a graphic memoir, so, technically the first graphic novel I've read?), so between me being ridiculously out of my element and the fact that its inclusion on the Man Booker longlist caused quite the stir, I had no idea what to expect from this. And I'm writing my review without having settled on a star rating, so, we'll see what happens with that. I really, really enjoyed this, but I have a few too many nagging criticisms to say that I loved it.
Sabrina doesn't really follow its titular character, as she goes missing by the tenth page; instead it mostly follows Calvin who works for the U.S. Air Force, whose childhood friend Teddy comes to live with him. Teddy is Sabrina's boyfriend, and he's utterly broken up about her disappearance. We then follow an array of characters - Calvin, Teddy, Sabrina's sister - all trying to come to terms with their loss, all while being confronted with wild conspiracy theories about Sabrina's disappearance.
What this book excels at is creating an atmosphere thick with paranoia, in the most terrifying portrait of our modern society that I think I've ever seen in fiction. Littered throughout the background of Sabrina as contemporary set pieces are news articles and internet forums; there's talk of mass shootings, conspiracy theories, fake news. The characters are so inundated to this constant and aggressive stream of tragic news that infiltrates their lives, that the stark contrast of their simply drawn, blank expressions is recognizable and haunting. This probably got under my skin more than anything else I've read recently; this is not a comfortable book on any level.
What I didn't love about Sabrina was that there is just so much going on, and it doesn't all come together in a completely satisfying way. This is one of those books that builds and builds tension, but rather than culminating in a brilliant resolution it kind of just ends. After I put it down I wanted to give it 3 stars as I felt so dissatisfied with the ending, but upon some further reflection I do think this was so effective in achieving what it set out to do that I can't help but to commend it for that.
Now, onto the Booker situation, because we clearly can't end this review without touching on that. My feelings on this have run the gamut from 'graphic novels are a form of novel and therefore should be eligible' to 'how can you compare graphic novels with literary fiction when they're so substantively different and rely on fundamentally disparate storytelling conventions' and you know what, I still don't know where I stand on this. I understand both sides of the argument completely. At this very moment, I think I'm leaning toward the idea that graphic novels shouldn't be eligible - not as a gatekeeping, elitist thing, because I absolutely do think that the merit of graphic novels has been dismissed for far too long; I'm just not sure how you can judge something like this against something like The Overstory. Judging is always going to be inherently subjective, but it really is an apples and oranges situation. And with Sabrina, the only text is in the dialogue and glimpses of emails and articles; there's no prose outside that, which makes its inclusion on a literary award particularly perplexing. But, at any rate, I'm glad I took a chance on this one. Booker or no Booker, I see what the fuss is about....more
Man Booker 2018 WINNER! So well deserved; congrats, Anna Burns!
I loved Milkman, but it's so painfully niche I can't think of anyone I'd personally rMan Booker 2018 WINNER! So well deserved; congrats, Anna Burns!
I loved Milkman, but it's so painfully niche I can't think of anyone I'd personally recommend it to. Set in an unnamed city that's probably Belfast in the 1970s, Milkman follows an unnamed narrator who's believed by her community to be having an affair with a man known only as 'the milkman,' who isn't actually a milkman. Told in stream-of-consciousness prose and set against the backdrop of the Troubles, Milkman doesn't offer much of a plot, but it does provide a perceptive and intelligent look at a community under duress and constant surveillance.
It also starts with these stellar opening lines:
"The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died. He had been shot by one of the state hit squads and I did not care about the shooting of this man. Others did care though, and some were those who, in the parlance, ‘knew me to see but not to speak to’ and I was being talked about because there was a rumour started by them, or more likely by first brother-in-law, that I had been having an affair with this milkman and that I was eighteen and he was forty-one."
But this book is hard work, I will readily admit that. Though I loved the narrator's sharp observational commentary, even I found the narrative style painfully long-winded at times. Paragraphs go on for pages; chapters go on for hours; the kind of concentration it takes to really immerse yourself in this novel can be draining. This is not what anyone would describe as an easy read, and I think it's the kind of book that's going to fall under the category of 'I appreciated it but I didn't like it' for a lot of people.
This line of thought actually made me reflect on what it means to 'like' a book, because I wouldn't describe my reading experience as 'fun,' necessarily, but despite that, I found Milkman incredibly rewarding. Anna Burns deftly crafts a living, breathing community, and paints a portrait of the realities of living in a city torn apart by civil unrest. Rumors and false perceptions dog these characters, and our narrator in particular, who's considered an oddity, a 'beyond-the-pale,' due to the fact that she often reads while walking. In order to fit in in a society like this, every time you leave the house you have to bury a part of yourself, and Milkman incisively and comprehensively examines the toll that takes. I don't know if I've ever read another novel that so expertly evokes the kind of anxiety that comes from the inability to trust your neighbor or even your own family. Characters in this novel operate under a veil of formality that you as a reader want to peel back to reveal their genuine hopes and fears and aspirations, but of course all you're able to do is mutely watch them navigate social situations while unable to truly express themselves. This book can be infuriating because of that, but it's supposed to be. There's also an undeniably feminist undercurrent to the whole thing, as the narrator laments the difficulties unique to women during this time, though it remains a subtle element throughout.
Though it’s ultimately more of a psychological story than a historical one, drawing obvious parallels to any number of totalitarian regimes across history, Milkman does feel firmly rooted in its Northern Irish setting. This is a recognizably Irish novel, from its stream-of-consciousness prose to its pitch-black humor, and there's no question that that played a huge role in my ultimate enjoyment of it, so above all else I think I'd recommend this to anyone who loves Irish lit and Irish history, but who can tolerate a lack of plot and likes their novels a bit on the philosophical side.
Personally, I'll be thrilled if this is shortlisted for the Booker, but I also doubt that likelihood as it's not the kind of novel that's destined to reach a wide audience - not that the Booker necessarily prioritizes accessibility, but I would just find it unlikely if all five judges are in complete agreement about this one's merits enough to advance it. But who knows. This had already been on my radar before the longlist announcement, but I'm very happy that it pushed me to read it sooner than I otherwise would have.
EDIT on 10/15: I changed my mind. I think it's going to win!...more
I was ready and willing to be wowed by Snap, the crime novel supposedly innovative and subversive enough to make it onto this year's Man Booker longliI was ready and willing to be wowed by Snap, the crime novel supposedly innovative and subversive enough to make it onto this year's Man Booker longlist. I've talked before about the near-impossibility of divorcing your experience with a book from the context in which you read it; who knows how I would have reacted to this if I'd approached it as a guilty-pleasure thriller and not as a Man Booker nominee, but I did read it as a Man Booker nominee, and I'm at a loss as to how this run-of-the-mill, anticlimactic, bland thriller was able to hoodwink five judges into thinking it's anything more than a supremely underwhelming contribution to the genre (Val McDermid's influence aside).
But I'll start with the positives, because Snap did scrape by with two whole stars from me. It's undoubtedly pacey and gripping, with a fantastic concept: a woman leaves her children in her broken-down car to go get help, and she's found murdered a week later. It kept me reading and kept me wanting to know what was going to happen. I know that seems like it should be a given for a thriller, but having read many which fall flat on their faces in this regard, it is nice to read a proper page-turner. I liked the setting as well; for some reason crime novels set in small town England have a vibe that really works for me and this was no exception.
Now everything else.
Screw utmost serenity! She had to tell Adam! She had to tell the police!
The writing in this book was so dreadfully awful. I can only implore you not to participate in a drinking game where you take a sip every time you see an exclamation point, because you would be unconscious by page 20. For some reason, Bauer doesn't believe that emphasis or gravitas can be achieved without embellishing her sentences with excessive punctuation, italics, or some combination of the two. It only serves to undermine the book's darker themes as it's written with the dramatic flair of a novelized soap opera.
At a glance the plot itself seems intricate as there are so many different characters who play some kind of key role, but when you start to examine it more closely you begin to realize how unconvincing it all is. There are just so many plot holes (a very unique and distinctive knife is used to commit a murder and the police never think to look into the sale of that knife?!) and coincidences (a boy just happens to burgle a random house and look in a man's hiking boot to uncover the missing key to his dead mother's murder investigation?!). Interestingly Bauer attempts to write herself a get out of jail free card on this account, as a character remarks:
He’d never worked a case where coincidence hadn’t played a part, either in the commission of the crime or the solving of it.
... which is undoubtedly true to life in a certain way, but it's also a bit insulting to your reader, to pile coincidence on top of coincidence and try to pass that off as a well-crafted mystery. Some of these coincidences ended up being utterly inconsequential, too, like the fact that one of the investigating officers lives right next door to the family at the heart of the crime without even realizing it. It just didn't add anything to the story except for a VERY flimsy moment toward the end where we're informed by a ham-fisted plot point that their proximity actually did matter! (It didn't.)
But the most insufferable thing about this book - aside from the exclamation points - was the fact that Bauer just shows her hand too early. The only subversive thing about this novel ends up being the fact that there really is no twist, no shocking reveal, just a resolution that plateaus far too early to make the payoff feel remotely rewarding. Watching police try to prove what the reader already knows is just as thrilling as it sounds.
And I can't end this review without commenting again on this book's inclusion on the Man Booker longlist, which in itself caused quite a stir, raising the age-old question of whether genre fiction belongs in a literary prize. When the list was first announced, I was excited by the fact that there was some variety, that we weren't seeing the same names that are nominated year after year. And I'm still an advocate of genre fiction having a place in the Man Booker and other literary awards... provided that it's really exemplary genre fiction. I see no reason why a superb crime novel shouldn't be longlisted. The problem is, this wasn't a superb crime novel. Not even close. And I'm frustrated that the Booker wasted an opportunity to expand literary readers' horizons on this rather pointless and ill-constructed novel....more