Saturday, June 2, 2018

A Tale of Two Suspense Novels

Hello and apologies for my silence over the last months. I promise I have been reading and talking books and writing, just not here. That last one really hurt. I'll work on a summary of some of those from The Great Silence, but today I'm tackling the most recent titles.

One of my girlfriends kind of got me on a suspense kick with Blood Sisters, which I enjoyed and texted her more than once with "wtf?" I requested a few from some library sources I have and surprise! two became available the exact same day. It's hard not to compare them, so I'm going to.

Both of these were enjoyable, interesting, fast-paced, twisty- all the things you want in a thriller. But I have to say, A.J. Finn did a better job in crafting the story.

The Woman In the Window is the Hitchcockian-noir story of an agoraphobic psychologist who spies on her neighbors and witnesses something terrible. It leans on the unreliable narrator structure in a way that doesn't make me hate Anna, the protagonist. Yes, she drinks too much and mixes it with her meds (tsk, tsk, Dr. Fox), but I found it less annoying than the same ploy in The Girl On the Train. Some of the twists were predictable, some I expected but not from whom.

The Couple Next Door follows a couple and a detective in the days after the couple's infant daughter is abducted while the parents are at a party next door. It's definitely a unique premise that could spawn some thought-provoking conversations among parents (and probably lead to a bunch of pearl-clutching and sanctimommying, but let's stay positive for a few minutes). The title suggests much more interaction with the couple hosting the party, but they barely register. The husband is literally only in the first scene. And their big secret adds almost nothing to the plot. Although, with a cliffhanger ending, perhaps Shari Lapena intends to delve more into their lives. It's a page-turner, but in my opinion, falls short of its counterpart today.

- Finn's characters are more engaging. We experience enough of Dr. Fox's interior life to get a feel for who she really is. We are told what Marco and Anne Conti and Detective Rasback are thinking, not shown.
- Finn's crime is the focus of the story, the conflict we want to be resolved. The missing baby is almost secondary to Lapena's story. More time is spent on the possible reasons Cora is gone than dealing with the aftermath of a baby vanishing. More time is spent watching the least sympathetic parent, which makes it hard to find someone to like.
- Finn propels the story from the first-person point of view. This, to me, makes all the biggest difference. The reader gets caught inside the fragile mind of one woman. You feel trapped in her obsession because she is the only one revealing the plot. I kept thinking how much more suspenseful the Contis' story would have been if only one of them had been telling it. Instead, we bounce around and have an omniscient third person telling us how everyone is feeling but never revealing intimate thoughts through action or inner dialogue.

Lest it sound like I hated Couple, I admit I will share it with friends. If you like suspense, it's a good, quick read. It's a good story poorly told. It's a rough draft that still needs editing.

So, those are the two books I read this week. I've got one more suspense novel in my queue before I switch things up.

Others that I won't be reviewing now but finished:
Charlie Bone series by Jenny Nimmo- decent. Not the world-building and complexity of Harry Potter, but an enjoyable child-discovers hidden talent/family secret arc.
Plantagenet series by Phillippa Gregory- reliably good. I enjoy Gregory's research-based imaginings of the lives of women in history. Particularly, I love that different women recounting the same events as friends and as enemies all have my sympathy. These books are the precursors to the wildly popular Tudor books from a few years back.
The Road to Jonestown about the history of Jim Jones' Peoples Temple. Though I took a course in college that focused on Jonestown, I learned so much from this. Warning- the back pages are full of very graphic images.
Hell's Princess- a disappointing offering from a well-respected true crime researcher. Belle Gunness lived on her murder farm in the small town where I grew up. While I did learn more from the book than I picked up at the county museum display, I was put off by the reliance on "yellow journalism" for research while also talking about how unreliable media was at the time.
The Light of Fireflies by Paul Pen. Wow. I should actually write a whole review of it. I wasn't expecting the thriller aspect of this one because it starts out more like book club lit. It's just a really compelling read. The translation to English is skilled and poetic. I highly recommend it.

That's about all the summarizing I can handle today. I downloaded several new titles on World Book Day and put in requests for 13 new books at the library, so there's more material to come. In case you missed it, I did a roundup of titles for the summer over at the Destin 30A Moms Blog.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Book That Almost Broke My Blog

Trans, Juliet Jacques

I've been avoiding this post for months. I even read an entire series since this one, but I want to chronicle my reading in order. So, it's time. This isn't going to be easy.

I mentioned previously that I am trying to read more first-person narratives. And my desire for an authentic storyteller is hipster level. Enter, Ms. Jacques.

To begin, I'm going to share a little of my experiences with trans people. I went to a state school that had a surprisingly large group celebrating and supporting the LGBTQ+ community. Sort of. Those four years I was around people who explored, questioned, and experimented with their identities in many ways. It was at a drag pageant on campus that I learned an acquaintance from high school was performing. My favorite nightclub had drag shows. The restrooms might have had gender signs, but nobody paid attention to them. Honestly, it was one of the few places where I felt like I could just be me, safely, and nobody cared what that meant.

My senior year I moved into a small apartment complex that shared a parking lot with another. The two buildings faced each other. Naturally, many of us became friends. It was an eclectic group of people. It was home. Among the maybe 3 dozen people living in those two buildings, were David and Shel. David was David most of the time, except when he was Kenya- a crowd pleasing queen. It was easy to know which persona was present. Kenya was a character David became. Shel was different. Shel was born male and tried to live as a woman sometimes. It was a painful struggle for him (his chosen pronoun). He had tried hormone therapy in the past but didn't continue it. He hated being a man and was terrified of being a woman. Today he might call himself genderfluid, a term we didn't have back then. The point is, these were people I saw daily. They were friends. They were my most intimate experience with trans identities. I took that for granted.

Now to the book. Jacques has admitted that she didn't want to publish a memoir, a fact that is pretty obvious to me. It's a shame that the only story a publisher wanted to touch was this one because it is not well-written. To be clear, my problems with the story aren't with the overall content. It reads exactly like a book the writer never wanted to pen.

For a memoir, Jacques shares very little of her interior life. There's occasional discussion of depression or the anxious feelings she had when shopping. But mostly it's almost a third person limited narration of events of her life. There are detailed paragraphs about soccer/football plays and many references to the music scene she was into. Both were completely lost on me and did nothing to help me relate to the person behind the story. I can't blame Jacques for this, since she didn't want to write a memoir. But at the same time, I wonder why she bothered with publishing it.

The other thing I didn't care for was the complaining about how hard it was to transition. Remember, I had a friend who was never able to, even though he wanted to. Knowing how difficult and expensive it is for people here, having to live as a woman for a year before having confirmation surgery seems like a pretty privileged complaint to me. It's not a competition, of course, but if that's the hardest thing you have to overcome ...

There are things I really liked about the book, too. Just not the memoir part. Jacques weaves in a little trans theory and politics. She talks about how limited trans lit is- the same thing her own book suffers from. She gives very limited space to her life before transition, which I have deep respect for. If people want to get off on that kind of stuff, they can read Middlesex. I liked that she didn't write a sensational story, that there was no huge battle with her parents or a suicide attempt.

It's hard to give this one a rating. My feelings about it are too mixed up. Most notably is that, as a cis-woman, it's not really my place to rate Ms. Jacques' experience. The obscure scene references and distant storytelling are not good writing, in my opinion. At the same time, I realize that she didn't have many options. I'm glad I read the book, but I'm not sure I'm glad she wrote it.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Dreamland Burning

Dreamland Burning, Jennifer Latham

Brace yourselves for a bit of a rant that isn't directly about this novel and yet is. It's a re-hashing of my thoughts on The Help, so if you are tired of that one, feel free to skip this entry.

The concept of this novel is good. It has so much potential- two mixed race teens separated by decades, united by a corpse. There's a hint of mystery, some interesting historical detail, and a whole lot of trying too hard.

I'll start with the heavy-handedness of the social issues that create the tension of the stories. Considering that the central events revolve around a race-line conflict that left the black areas of Tulsa in ashes, we don't need to be hit over the head with "racism is bad, mkay?" And the supporting character, the girls best friend who also happens to be an asexual guy, is the weakest conjured sidekick I can imagine. He's got a cool car and he's asexual. He's asexual. Oh, by the way, he's asexual. He's also black- which would be much more pertinent to the main story- but we'll keep focusing on his sexual identity, regardless of how little it progresses the story. There are no situations where it's relevant, except to really make the point that their friendship is truly platonic. So it comes across as a detail that was just thrown in to make the whole novel more diverse. Same with the other teen's native mother, although her background gives a little bit of structure and context. We also get a homeless man and an addict as secondary or even tertiary (man, I love that word!) characters to round out our coat of many colors. And this, my friends, is also where I get my knickers in a knot.

This book is written by a white woman. Now, don't get me wrong, I love intersectional feminism and want WW to be good allies. Every important character in this novel is a Person of Color. All of them. Then why is Nice White Lady the one telling it? What insight could she possibly have into the everyday lives of mixed-race Tulsans that we couldn't get from, I dunno, actual POCs? Maybe, just maybe, this isn't her story to tell. Maybe, she could've told it from a different perspective that she can actually relate to better, and, therefore, made it more believable.

Elvis didn't invent rock n' roll.
Aibileen should've written the book, not Skeeter.
Miley wasn't the first to twerk.
The list goes on.

Now, without trying to sound like a hipster, I want authenticity in a storyteller. That doesn't mean that no white person can ever write a character of color, no straight person can ever write a queer one, no man can ever write a woman. But for the love of Benji, can we please, as white people who like to write, please take a step back? Can we please not assume we can tell these stories better than the people who have actually lived them? And, if we insist on still telling them, can we please do some actual first-person research? Maybe not try to frame an entire novel as a way to fix the social injustices that we are actually largely (if not totally) responsible for? I mean, can you imagine if Jodi Picoult tried to write Push? That's pretty much how this one reads.

And, let's be honest, the two main characters are heroes for different reasons. The young man, who passes as white but is called half-breed by the utterly one dimensional bad guy, who is not in touch with any of his native ancestry, swoops in during a tragedy to rescue a couple of black people that he happened to actually talk to. Thank you, White Savior. We're all so super grateful that you went from punching a guy and getting him worse-than-lynched to carrying beaten black men to a sanctuary. Really, it's great that this guy had a change of heart and did some pretty brave acts on that one single night, but ... then he gets to vanish. He's done his part. Give him a cookie. The young woman, who benefits from her white daddy's public standing, lives in her ivory tower, and is so far removed from not only her black ancestry but also even middle class life, gets to pin a rose on her own nose because she finally has empathy for a homeless man after he dies. I get it. They're kids. They haven't experienced the world outside of Tulsa. It's just so ridiculous that both of them have these massive changes of perspective seemingly overnight. It's so insincere and they have hidden in their privilege for so long I find them hard to like.

I could probably ramble on for several more semi-coherent paragraphs, but I won't. This story is weak and ambitious. It's not particularly well written. It's not challenging or engaging. I did read the whole thing, so it's better than The Orchardist. It gets credit for giving me something new to research- the Tulsa race riot. Dreamland Burning gets a lowly one and half Marias.

P.S. I'm trying to consume more works by outsiders. If you have a recommendation, drop a comment, please.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Fiery Cross, Outlander book 5

The Fiery Cross, Diana Gabaldon

It didn't take me quite this long to read book 5, but sometimes it felt like forever. Still, I've found a moment to write about this one.

If you don't know about Outlander, it's hard to describe. It is a mix of historical fiction, war, romance, fantasy/sci-fi, and ladyporn. Each novel is really long. There is a LOT going on in this story, and Gabaldon does a fine job of weaving a very intricate tale.

Back when I read A Book That Scares Me, I mentioned an incident with my friend. I'd been reading the first three installments of the Outlander series and I told her that, frankly, I was tired of all the rape. So I was going to take a break and pick up a new series. Unfortunately, it was the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, so *spoiler alert* more rape.

Well, when I came back to book 5, really the books are good but you can't just plow through the whole series, I told the same friend that I was starting it. I said something about how the title sounded like something about the Klan not clans (in fact there is a book about the history of the KKK with the same title) but wasn't. Well ... there aren't any white sheets involved, but it does lay the historical groundwork for what would become the white supremacy group we all love to hate.

The story- how many ways can colonists barely escape death? That could be the subtitle of this one. Fortunately for pre-Revolutionary mountaineers, Claire has brought her modern medical expertise back and is brewing some form of penicillin, making luxurious soap, and birthin' babies all over the Carolinas. At least no one kills a bear with a knife in this one.

I don't want to give it all away, but just as I was about to shelf Cross and turn to something else, BOOM! She tries to kill one of the main characters! You know when Jamie and Claire are going to die (or do we?), but there are children and grandchildren and tenants that are still a mystery. And let me say, it isn't an accidental misfire. Dude is hung as a prisoner of war. Well, that got my attention and I dove right back in.

This is not the kind of series where you can pick up any. You need to start at the beginning (a very good place to start). If you're like me, you'll start googling historical events you never learned in school, like the Jacobite rebellion. And, honestly, one thing I enjoy about the series now that they are in the Carolinas is that I'm familiar with the places and the names. If that's your thing, too, then keep at the series. If not, I can probably summarize seven bazillion pages for you over a cup of coffee.

The Fiery Cross runs along my other Outlander recommendations of four Marias.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016


Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I could probably take a few days to write this review. I could turn it into a full-on book report cum sociology conversation. But that's not what you are here for, so I'll curb those desires. A little.

This one took me a while to get into. I don't know if it was life circumstances or what, but I almost didn't renew after two weeks. I almost didn't finish this book. But I picked this book as a conscious effort to read more books by people of color, especially women. So, I kind of had to finish it. And, once I hit a certain point, one I can't really define, I didn't want to stop reading. Full confession, with just 20-ish pages left, I put my tablet on my bedside table and spent a sleepless night worrying that one of the characters might die. You might say I am invested in my stories.

Americanah is the story of Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who moves to the United States, goes through some stuff, writes a blog and then ... well, I try not to give spoilers here. But the tale isn't that straightforward. It's a love story- chapters devoted to Ifem's boyfriend, Obinze, and the path his life takes. These two are school sweethearts who flit around each other like bugs around a lightbulb. They have very different experiences with immigration, but Adichie maintains a parallel storyline.

My freshman year at Indiana University, I took L141 like all my peers. The topic for this lit class was The Immigrant Experience. It wasn't my favorite class or topic. But now, years later, I wish I could track down that professor and talk about this book with her. There were things that I learned in that class that changed the way I read this book. I found myself mentally putting on Ifemelu's shoes to understand her story, not my interpretation of it. It was really quite interesting. I realized how many little things I take for granted daily that are unusual and even frightening to immigrants.

Another interesting thing about this book is that Ifem, as a Non-American Black, has a freedom to say things that American Blacks want to say (and do say) without being accused of reverse-racism or "playing the race card." It's almost as if she is this dispassionate outside observer, and so she can criticize Americans because she is detached. I highlighted many passages- a white woman who always refers to black women as beautiful but never as black, the "aggressive, unaffectionate interest" another woman has with Nigerians, accents, hair, tribalisms, the nationalism of liberal Americans, race as a social not biological construct, privilege, and Oprah. I would love to talk about each of these in depth, but I'll have to save that for face-to-face interactions.

I was a little disappointed when I looked up the Raceteenth blog and only found a couple of entries. This would have been a fantastic crossmojination(TM) of literature and the real world. But it doesn't seem that anyone working on the book was interested in that. Oh well.

I can't think of any reason not to recommend this book. It's love and travel and pop culture. It characters I truly care for. I don't own it, but will look for it in the used bookstore. Americanah earns 4 Marias.

Sunday, October 9, 2016


Room, Emma Donoghue

I started this one, put it down, came back to it. The concept is fascinating and I really wanted to love it. But I had to get through the first section before I could.

In an interview at the back of the book, Donoghue says that people will love the first part or the last part. Boy, she wasn't kidding! I liked the story of the first part- while Jack and Ma are still in captivity- but the storytelling made me want to do violent things to my copy (which, I promise I would never do).

The whole book is told by Jack, a five-year-old boy born and raised in a single room. His mother was kidnapped at 19. All he knows is Room. He gives titles to the objects in his room, much like the language of A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh series. And I love that! I have written a few essays about "proper verbs" and how this incorrect grammar actually represents ideas about language that children have but don't have words for. So that part was good and gave me hope for the rest of it. But it soon became difficult to believe Jack.

Given the headlines about children born in captivity- Jaycee Dugard (who was found after Room was written) or Elisabeth Fritzl- Jack's perspective is sadly believable. But what he knows and doesn't know is so unbelievable that I hated the first half of the book. He watches tv and listens to the radio, but doesn't know there is anything outside of Room. He watches cooking shows, but says Ma "hottens" food. At age five, he knows how to read and multiply but says if he touches the stove the red would spread to his clothes- even though he knows the word fire. It's this bizarre inconsistency that made the first half difficult to get into.

Then the break comes. Ma, who remembers Outside but has spent five years teaching Jack that there is only Room, wants out. She has to undo all the lies she has told and put her baby in the most extreme danger. Here's where it gets better.

After a milder escape and rescue than one might imagine, Ma and Jack move out of Room and into a psychiatric clinic. Ma is relieved to be out of captivity; Jack wants to return to the only world he's ever known. Together, they have to navigate a new life. The second half if painful and joyful, endearing and heart-wrenching. And makes the whole novel readable.

I don't know how they are making a movie with so much exposition from a five-year-old, but I hope the film version manages to be as realistic as the book and doesn't sensationalize an already outrageous story.

Room gets off to a rough start, but earns 3 Marias overall.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Another Flavia Tale

The Week That Strings the Hangman's Bag, Alan Bradley

Poor, Flave. Once again she's witness to a murder. At least this time she's not alone, though.

Charming and precocious Flavia deLuce is back in another murder mystery. This time, a puppeteer meets his untimely demise in front of half the town, in a production of Jack and the Beanstalk. Our favorite, pint-sized sleuth uses her strengths- wit, keen observation, and unquenchable curiosity- and her weaknesses to solve the puzzle.

It's an odd mystery that makes it almost halfway through before the murder occurs. A good bit of the character development of the less-than-angelic Mr. Porson takes place before he dies. Like preparing a good meal, Bradley seasons and salts the character after death.

Alas, the story itself is just not as good as the first. Usually I find that an author gets better within a series, but this is decidedly worse than The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. As much as I looked forward to continuing the series, this one left me unimpressed. Flavia's connection to the story is weird and shallow. The mystery arc itself might have been good, but it doesn't relate to Flavia in even a suspension of disbelief-believable way.

Hangman only earns 2.5 Marias. Maybe I'll try another later.