Tag: Dark Stories

August 2018 Books to Read (and Skip)

August 14, 2018 Mini Book Reviews 12

August 2018 Books to Read

 

This August line-up is a little deceiving. It seems light (mainly because I’ll cover Where the Crawdads Sing all by itself on Thursday), but my August books were really solid overall. Also contributing to this light load is publishing’s annual August slowdown (in case you didn’t know, this is a thing)…not many new books are published during this month!

In addition to the August 2018 Books to Read in this post, I read and LOVED Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. Stay tuned for my full review coming on Thursday!

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Read These

Distance HomeThe Distance Home by Paula Saunders
Fiction – Literary (Release Date: August 7, 2018)
304 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Random House)

Plot Summary: In 1960’s rural South Dakota, siblings Rene and Leon both find outlets for their differentness and their sometimes stressful family life in a local ballet studio.

My Thoughts: This debut novel is part coming of age and part dysfunctional family story…though the dysfunction is much more subtle than the outrageousness you usually find in dysfunctional family novels. It’s not about one outrageous thing that happened within the family…more about a lifetime of small slights stacked on top of each other. Again unlike many dysfunctional family novels, this family has many positive and loving characteristics in addition to the darkness and mistreatment. It’s about children not fitting in at school, parents picking favorites when a child doesn’t match their expectations, children finding excellence in their chosen escape routes, and parents having completely disparate views on the appropriate paths for their children. And, the writing is fantastic…especially for a debut. If you like beautifully written, character-driven novels, Paula Saunders (who is George Saunders’ wife!) might be your best new find. I’ll absolutely be watching what she does next.

And as Rene sat in her bed that night, looking across the hall at Leon’s closed bedroom door, she couldn’t help but wonder where all the hurt and anger went after something like that. Did it just disappear, as a person grew older, dissolving in a mist of resignation and forgetfulness? Or did it crystalize, so that you carried it with you, building layer upon layer as the years went by, each incident adding to a more solid core of pain, until you came to face the world more rock than flesh?

The Line That Held Us by David Joy
Fiction – Grit Lit (Release Date: August 14, 2018)
272 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Putnam)

Plot Summary: When Darl Moody enlists a friend to help him cover-up a hunting accident, it ignites a violent feud in their Appalachian community.

My Thoughts: David Joy writes gritty, Southern fiction (aka Grit Lit) set in Appalachia and I really liked his debut novel, Where All Light Tends to Go (my review). The Line That Held Us has a very similar feel to Where All Light Tends to Go…gritty, bleak, yet containing characters trying to do their best within their messed up world. It’s rare to find characters you can root for in a Grit Lit novel, but I found them here. The plot clips along and I turned the pages quickly. The ending fizzled a bit for me on the action front, but I appreciated its overall message. I should warn you that there are some graphic descriptions of a body decomposing that lots of Goodreads reviewers mentioned; however, they were as bad as I expected. If you liked Bull Mountain (my review), The Line That Held Us will be right up your alley!

The unthinkable had suddenly become one more thing a man had to do to survive.

The DNF

Ohio by Stephen MarkleyOhio by Stephen Markley (August 21, 2018)
DNF at 30%

Originally, I put Ohio down at the 7% mark, but I ended up picking it back up last week. There were long sections about the characters’ high school experience that sucked me in, but as soon as the story went somewhere else (these other places were generally pretty self-indulgent), I hated it again. After wrestling around with it for a few days, I finally decided that, if I’m going to invest my time into a 500 page novel, it shouldn’t be this hit and miss. One Goodreads reviewer said it perfectly: “This really needed to be tightened up. In places, it’s a total mess. In others, it’s brilliant.” I just thought the % mess vs. brilliant was too heavily weighted to the mess side. Ohio has gotten a lot of pre-publication buzz, but I think it’s one of those critical darlings that probably won’t resonate with many regular readers.

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July 2018 Books to Read (and Skip)

July 12, 2018 Mini Book Reviews 18

July 2018 Books to Read

 

Well…July was a bit of a letdown after my excellent June reading. I only really enjoyed two books (but, I’ll be adding both to my 2018 Summer Reading List!) and suffered through two others that didn’t work out…then, there are the DNF’s. 

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Read These

Charlotte Walsh Likes to WinCharlotte Walsh Likes to Win by Jo Piazza
Fiction – Brain Candy (Release Date: July 24, 2018)
320 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Simon & Schuster)

Plot Summary: When Charlotte Walsh leaves her high powered job as COO of a Silicon Valley tech darling to run for Senate in her home state of Pennsylvania, she’s forced to confront the impact on her marriage, her sanity, and her past.

My Thoughts: I’ve been loving books about substantial topics that read easy this summer and I can now add Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win to that list! Though it reads easy enough for the beach, it’s full of astute commentary on women in politics, women in business, managing your image in public life, marriage, motherhood, and gender roles. It makes you feel how truly soul-sucking campaigning and politics can be. But, it also has snappy dialogue, a badass sister-in-law (Kara), and a Friday Night Lights name-check (the easiest way to my heart). Charlotte is a complex character and your sympathy level for her will probably flip-flop throughout the story. The ending will drive some people bonkers and made me say “WTF,” but the more I thought about it, the more it fits with the overall message of the book. An excellent choice for fans of The Hopefuls by Jennifer Close, for book clubs, and for your beach/pool bag!

“You’re thinking, ‘Why does it matter?’ Why does your husband matter?” Josh read her mind. “Your husband matters. Your marriage matters. As a woman, you bear the burden of having to appear to be charismatic, smart, well-groomed, nice, but not too nice. If you’re married, you need to look happily married. If you have kids, you should be the mother of the year.”

Give Me Your HandGive Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott
Fiction – Thriller (Release Date: July 17, 2018)
352 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Little, Brown)

Plot Summary: When Diane and Kit become lab partners in high school, Diane shares an explosive secret. And, when the two women meet again as star lab scientists, the secret comes back to haunt them both. 

My Thoughts: Megan Abbott is one of my go-to authors for intense summer reads…generally about demented high school girls (The Fever and You Will Know Me are my favorites). She’s kept her streak alive with Give Me Your Hand…her most grown-up novel yet. This story is set in the world of science and Abbott’s writing makes the lab, the competition for limited positions on important studies, and the researchers’ dedication seem like the pressure cauldron of an Olympic Trials (similar to how Michael Ruhlman wrote about the Culinary Institute of America in The Making of a Chef). The players are intriguing: the enigmatic legend who seems almost non-human (Dr. Severin), the star researcher who is possibly unstable (Diane), the flirty and slightly reckless researcher (Alex), and the obedient worker bee (Kit). I guessed some of the twists, but not nearly all of them, and each twist revealed deeper layers to one of the characters. Ultimately, this is a story of two women locked in competition…and how a secret that gets told can tear apart both the secret-teller and the person she tells. Grab this one if you like dark and twisty with some substance…and I’ll be adding it to my 2018 Summer Reading Guide!

I wanted to know her secrets, but I didn’t want them to be this. And now I was in there, in that heart of hers, the coldest, darkest place I’d ever been.

Skip These

Baby TeethBaby Teeth by Zoje Stage
Fiction (Release Date: July 17, 2018)
320 Pages
Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Publisher (St. Martin’s Press)

Plot Summary: When four year old, non-verbal Hanna begins to escalate her terrible behavior towards her mother, the whole family must decide how to handle their only child.

My Thoughts: This book left me kind of speechless. It’s horrifying, but also weirdly intriguing. I kind of hated it, but also needed an explanation for what was going on (which was why I finished it). Hanna is hands-down the most diabolical child I’ve ever read about and I felt bad for her parents. But, they have their own faults. Hanna’s father is in denial about Hanna’s behavior and coddles her. Before Hanna’s behavior got really bad, her mother made her feel unwanted. Hanna is jealous of the affection her father gives her mother and sort of pits them against each other. If you need likable characters in your reading, you won’t find them here. The overall family dynamics and premise of the book could have been really fascinating, but Stage took the plot way over the top (won’t say more to avoid spoilers!). If she’d left out one particular element and cut back on another, I think I could’ve liked it. The ending did bring things down to earth, but I wish the culmination of the story had happened earlier (maybe 60-70% of the way through?) so we could explore the aftermath and how it impacted the family. I wanted more psychology and less shock value. If you’re on the fence about having kids, Baby Teeth might just push you into the “hard no” camp.

It was unacceptable; Mommy was failing her tests to prove her motherly love. And the more she failed, the more opportunities Hanna tried to provide for her to redeem herself. Though she wasn’t always sure of the rules to their war games. And when she scrunched up her brain, she couldn’t quite remember who had started it.

Fruit of the Drunken TreeFruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras
Fiction – Literary (Release Date: July 31, 2018)
304 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Doubleday Books)

Plot Summary: Amid the violence of Pablo Escobar-era Bogota, Colombia, a wealthy young girl (Chula) and her maid (Petrona) become friends while growing up side by side, but end up with very different stories.

My Thoughts: Fruit of the Drunken Tree is a debut novel inspired by the author’s life. That, the juxtaposition of Chula’s privileged perspective and Petrona’s perspective of poverty, and Pablo Escobar (I’ve always had a weird fascination!) were what attracted me to this book. And, all the pieces for a home run were there, but it was missing the intangibles for me. I loved seeing the drug wars through the eyes of a child and I identified with Chula’s combination fear / fascination with Pablo Escobar and the violence that accompanied him (on a far less personal level, I remember feeling similarly about the Russians as a child during the Cold War). And, the story had explosive plot elements that should have kept me frantically turning the pages. But, something about the way the story was told made all of it feel very distant and kept me from getting invested in these characters. Overall, I wavered over whether to recommend it, but decided against since I found myself frequently zoning out, checking Instagram, and sampling other books while reading it. 

I knew there was no gate surrounding the invasiones where Petrona lived, no iron locks on the doors, no iron bars on the windows. When I asked Petrona how she and her family stayed safe, she laughed. Then because I was embarrassed she shrugged her shoulders. She thought for a moment then said, “There’s nothing to lose.” Five syllables.

The DNF’s

What We Were PromisedWhat We Were Promised by Lucy Tan (Released July 10, 2018)
DNF at 18%

I was just kind of bored. Nothing was happening and I didn’t care about the characters.

 

 

 

The IncendiariesThe Incendiaries by R.O. Kwan (July 31, 2018)
DNF at 10%.

This debut novel about a girl who gets wrapped up in a cult and the boy who is obsessed with her has gotten tons of pre-release hype (and Annie Jones and Tyler Goodson both rated it 4 stars), but it just seemed weird to me. I kept spacing out and the writing was really distant.

 

 

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Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton: The Book I Could’ve Rated Either 2 or 4 Stars (Spoilers)

June 5, 2018 Mysteries/Thrillers 13

There’s a short section at the end of this post that contains spoilers. It’s clearly labeled and everything before that section is spoiler-free.

Social Creature by Tara Isabella BurtonFiction – Thriller
Released June 5, 2018
320 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Doubleday Books)

This post contains affiliate links (plus: here’s your Amazon Smile-specific affiliate link), through which I make a small commission when you make a purchase (at no cost to you!).

Headline

I could’ve rated Social Creature 2 stars OR 4 stars and felt good about either choice….it’s completely ridiculous and messed up, but also addictive and intriguing. This book made me say “holy sh*t” multiple times.

Plot Summary

When Louise, a nobody trying to make it in NYC, meets Lavinia, an outrageous party girl/socialite, they embark on an intense friendship during which Lavinia ends up dead (this is not a spoiler…it’s revealed almost immediately and in the publishers’ blurb!).

Why I Read It

I’m a sucker for NYC social world books…especially dark and disturbing ones. Plus, Tyler Goodson (Manager at Avid Bookshop in Athens, GA) and one of my top recommendation sources gave it 4 stars.

Major Themes

Friendship, obsession, social media, New York City, image, socialites

What I Liked

  • This is one demented story. Maybe the most messed up book I’ve read since The Roanoke Girls. If you like dark and twisted, Social Creature is for you! But, fair warning, this book is not for everyone. Some people will absolutely hate it.
  • The bottom line with Social Creature, and the reason I decided on 4 rather than 2 stars, is that it’s absolutely addictive. I couldn’t put it down, especially during the second half.
  • At first, I was bored by the seemingly endless stream of ridiculous parties and socialite antics, but I couldn’t have predicted in a million years where this story would go. It’s the rare book that I wanted to DNF many times in the beginning, but I’m thrilled I didn’t.
  • The writing has a frantic, breathless, almost childlike quality with lots of “and, and, ands”…which totally fits the story.
  • Lavinia and Louise (and some fringe characters) seem ridiculous and unrealistic. But, having lived in NYC for years, I can assure you that people like this really exist. There are “It” Girls who are essentially exaggerated caricatures and have personal “brands” they try to live up to. There are nobodies who completely reinvent themselves into somebodies…while disavowing their past. And, there are the kids of famous and successful people who live lives of debauchery funded by their parents. These characters would’ve made me want to throw the book across the room (and will probably make many other readers do just that) had I not lived in NYC and understood that the craziness is very real.
  • Finally, try to go in as blind as possible. Shockingly, the publisher’s blurb actually does a good job of not revealing too much.

What I Didn’t Like

  • The publishers compared Social Creature to Gillian Flynn and Donna Tartt, which I don’t think are quite accurate. I can see Gillian Flynn a bit, but definitely not Donna Tartt. Publisher comparisons are always a crapshoot!
  • The story takes a bit to heat up. At first, the endless stream of NYC socialite parties was over-the-top, but also annoying and monotonous. I wish some of this had been cut down.
  • It got kind of raunchy at times, which doesn’t bother me, but will absolutely bother people who are more sensitive to that stuff.

A Defining Quote

There’s a reason people are able to function, in this world, as social creatures, and a good part of that reason is that there are a lot of questions you’re better off not knowing the answer to, and if you’re smart you won’t even ask.

Good for People Who Like…

Dark and disturbing books, New York City, dislikable characters, open-ended endings

Other Books You May Like

Another dark, disturbing book with a cat and mouse game:
Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach (my review)

SPOILER-Y Thoughts / Questions

  • Did the second half of this book remind anyone of a more sinister, online version of Weekend at Bernie’s?!
  • I wondered why Louise didn’t just let Lavinia be found in the bathroom by someone else. If she managed to sneak out of there with Lavinia’s dead body, couldn’t she have more easily snuck out alone and let the police try to piece together what happened? Or, couldn’t she have said it was an accident? I realize there wouldn’t really have been a story had either of these things happened, but I wanted a better reason why Louise chose the strategy she did…especially since she picked one that probably would never have occurred to most sane humans.
  • The Ending! I’m still trying to understand exactly why Louise killed Rex. Some possibilities:
    1) She needed him out of the way since she’d just confessed to Lavinia’s murder and cover-up. Purely a “get rid of the evidence” play. But, it seemed more emotional than that…
    2) She was enraged and jealous that he still loved Lavinia…and was lying about loving her (Louise). 
    3) So she could step into Louise’s life for good with people on her team. I thought it was this one for sure, but then why did she abandon that life and walk off into the sunset as Elizabeth Glass? Was she planning to stay around until Cordelia posted her Facebook rant outing Louise?
  • What do you think about why Louise killed Rex?

Have you ever read a book that you wildly swung between loving and hating?!

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Backlist Beauties: The Best Backlist Books I’ve Read in 2017 So Far

October 10, 2017 Book Lists 20

Since my Fall reading has been so lackluster, I thought it would be a good time to share some of the best backlist books I’ve read in 2017 so far. When new releases aren’t working for you…dive into the backlist for some relief!

I always say I’m going to make more time for backlist titles and, every year, I don’t follow through. My goal is to read enough additional backlist titles by the end of the year to warrant another Backlist Beauties post!

This post contains affiliate links.

The Best Backlist Books I’ve Read in 2017 So Far

Books for Living by Will SchwalbeBooks for Living by Will Schwalbe
Nonfiction – Essays (Released December 27, 2016)
288 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Knopf)

Plot Summary: The author of The End of Your Life Book Club‘s collection of essays featuring individual books and how they impacted his life.

My Thoughts: Each chapter of this introspective collection focuses on one book and how it impacted and contributed to Schwalbe’s life. He covers classics (Stuart Little), nonfiction (The Importance Of Living), serious books (A Little Life), and lighter fare (The Girl on the Train). I certainly hadn’t read all the books he discusses, but I related to many of his points about life. And, I’m now in the process of reading a couple books Schwalbe talked about in Books for Living (What I Talk about When I Talk about Running by Haruki Murakami, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott). This book would be a fantastic gift for serious readers or someone who is reflecting a bit on life. 

Reading is a respite from the relentlessness of technology, but it’s not only that. It’s how I reset and recharge. It’s how I escape, but it’s also how I engage. And reading should spur further engagement.

Dark Matter by Blake CrouchDark Matter by Blake Crouch
Fiction – Thriller / Sci-Fi (Released July 26, 2016)
354 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Library (Publisher: Crown)

Plot Summary: After college physics professor Jason Dessen is abducted at gunpoint one night, he awakens in another world.

My Thoughts: Despite the hype, I avoided this book for quite awhile because I’m decidedly NOT into sci-fi. But, Dark Matter is sci-fi like The Martian (my review) is sci-fi (i.e. it has broad appeal). There’s definitely some science in it, but the story is deeply human and is more about life choices than the science. The story begins with a “WTF is going on here” vibe reminiscent of The Beautiful Bureaucrat (my review). I had no idea what was going on for awhile, but could not stop reading. Dark Matter is a page-turner in the purest sense…with an action-level on par with an episode of 24

No one tells you it’s all about to change, to be taken away. There’s no proximity alert, no indication that you’re standing on the precipice. And maybe that’s what makes tragedy so tragic. Not just what happens, but how it happens: a sucker punch that comes at you out of nowhere, when you’re least expecting it. No time to flinch or brace.

Imagine Me Gone by Adam HaslettImagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett
Fiction (Released May 3, 2016)
368 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Little, Brown)

Plot Summary: A multi-generational family saga of the impact of depression and mental illness on a family.

My Thoughts: Incredibly sad, but poignant, this 2016 National Book Award Long-Lister is beautifully written and captures the frustration, resentment, and crushing sense of responsibility and worry that come with having a family member who suffers from mental illness. While extended sections from Michael’s perspective are hard to read and nonsensical at times with long tangents on esoteric music, they serve a distinct purpose (allowing the reader inside mind of someone suffering from depression). And, the second half flows beautifully toward the inevitable, yet still drama-filled conclusion.

There is no getting better. There is love I cannot bear, which has kept me from drifting entirely loose. There are the medicines I can take that flood my mind without discrimination, slowing the monster, moving the struggle underwater, where I then must live in the murk. But there is no killing the beast. Since I was a young man, it has hunted me. And it will hunt me until I am dead. The older I become, the closer it gets.

Lots of Candles Plenty of Cake by Anna QuindlenLots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen
Nonfiction – Memoir (Released April 24, 2012)
182 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Random House)

Plot Summary: A combination memoir/essay collection covering marriage, girlfriends, motherhood, faith, loss, work, and much more!

My Thoughts: Listening to Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake was like seeing a therapist and falls into the same category as Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things. Quindlen just has such a grounded, practical outlook on life that really puts things in perspective for me. Highly recommend for anyone craving a “life wisdom” type read!

Being a parent is not transactional. We do not get what we give. It is the ultimate pay-it-forward: We are good parents, not so they will be loving enough to stay with us, but so they will be strong enough to leave us.

Mothering Sunday by Graham SwiftMothering Sunday by Graham Swift
Historical Fiction (Released April 26, 2016)
177 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Library (Knopf)

Plot Summary: While the staff of British estates has time off for Mothering Sunday of 1924 (a Protestant and Catholic religious holiday that was somewhat of a precursor to our current secular Mother’s Day), Jane (a maid) and Paul (an heir to the neighboring estate) meet to continue their illicit affair.

My Thoughts: Mothering Sunday is a technically a romance, but is so unconventional that I hesitate to call it a romance at all (maybe also because I’m not a romance fan). It’s a quiet, gorgeously written story about the evolution of a woman (Jane) from the Mothering Sunday tryst with her illicit lover to late in her life. The story is unique, yet not weird and I could say the same about Swift’s writing style. Mothering Sunday reminded me a bit of Brian Morton’s Florence Gordon (my review) and would be an excellent choice for fans of Downton Abbey.

It was called “relaxation,” she thought, a word that did not commonly enter a maid’s vocabulary. She had many words, by now, that did not enter a maid’s vocabulary. Even the word “vocabulary.” She gathered them up like one of those nest-building birds outside. And was she even a maid any more, stretched here on his bed? And was he even a “master”? It was the magic, the perfect politics of nakedness. More than relaxation: peace.

One True Thing by Anna QuindlenOne True Thing by Anna Quindlen
Fiction (August 30, 1994)
315 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Random House)

Plot Summary: Ellen Gulden returns home from her prestigious job as a New York City journalist to care for her mother as she’s dying of cancer…only to be accused her mercy killing.

My Thoughts: I’m a bit late to the Anna Quindlen party, but she’s fast becoming a go-to author for me whenever I’m craving some “life lessons/perspective” in my reading. She just gets life…especially marriage, motherhood, and women’s work/life balance. One True Thing explores the relationship between Ellen (an ambitious career woman) and her mother (a Stepford-style stay-at-home mother) and their efforts to understand each other as people before it’s too late. This novel is heartfelt, sad, moving, and thought-provoking and reminded me a bit of My Name is Lucy Barton (a novel about a mother and daughter getting to know each other during a hospital stay) and Home is Burning (a memoir about children serving as caregivers for their parents). 

But in the end what was important was not that we had so misunderstood one another, but that we had so misunderstood her, this woman who had made us who we were while we barely noticed it.

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If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio: The Dark Campus Novel I’ve Been Craving

April 27, 2017 Fiction 19

If We Were Villains, ML RioFiction – Debut
Released April 11, 2017
352 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (published by G.P. Putnam)

Headline

If We Were Villains is the dark campus novel I’ve been craving ever since loving Christopher J. Yates’s Black Chalk three years ago…and is one of my favorite books of 2017 so far.

Plot Summary

After spending ten years in prison, Oliver Marks is ready to tell the story of the tragedy that happened to his seven best friends and fellow Shakespeare theatre students during their fourth year at Dellecher, an intense Conservatory for the arts. 

Why I Read It

Susie at Novel Visits recommended this book and compared it to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (which I loved). Plus, I’m a complete sucker for campus novels, especially dark ones.

Major Themes

Friendship, Shakespeare, Secrets / Betrayal

What I Loved

  • If We Were Villains is a dark, sinister, Gothic campus novel jam-packed with emotional tension. The dynamics between Oliver and his group of friends are incredibly complicated and constantly shifting, resulting in nail-biting suspense. After the 20% mark, I could not put this book down!
  • The story kicks off with a Prologue that made me think A) I’m dying to know what happened to this group of friends ten years ago and B) I’m pretty sure it’s going to be really messed up.
  • Though I have mixed feelings about all the Shakespeare in this book (see “What I Didn’t Like” below), I do think the general theme contributed to much of the book’s Gothic feel and made what could be interpreted as mundane friendship dynamics feel much more sinister. I just knew that one of these people was going to become believably capable of doing something monstrous.
  • What ended up happening with the Dellecher fourth years was surprising (particularly how it went down), but absolutely made sense within the context of the story. I could see how each player ended up in the role (obligatory acting pun!) they did.

What I Didn’t Like

  • References to and excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays are incorporated throughout this book. The students pepper their own conversations with Shakespeare one-liners, discuss the plays in class, and refer to themes from the plays in their daily lives. I admit I’m not a fan of Shakespeare and find his language kind of unintelligible, so this initially annoyed me. Just before the 20% mark, I actually considered putting the book down. However, I’m so relieved I kept going. I realized that you don’t have to pay close attention to the Shakespeare excerpts or really understand them to get invested in the story. So, don’t let a wariness of Shakespeare deter you from reading this!

A Defining Quote

Actors are by nature volatile – alchemic creatures composed of incendiary elements, emotion and ego and envy. Heat them up, stir them together, and sometimes you get gold. Sometimes disaster.

Good for People Who Like…

Campus Novels, Friendship, Shakespeare, Secrets / Betrayal, Dark Stories

Other Books You May Like

More dark, sinister campus novels:
Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates
The Secret History by Donna Tartt

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Read One, Skip One: The Fall of Lisa Bellow and The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

April 6, 2017 Mini Book Reviews 17

Fall of Lisa Bellow, Susan PeraboThe Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo
Fiction – Debut (
Released March 14, 2017)
352 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link:
Source: Publisher (Simon & Schuster)

Plot Summary: After Meredith Oliver witnesses the abduction of a her classmate (but not necessarily friend), Lisa Bellow, she and her entire family struggle to process the impact of being the one left behind.

My Thoughts: I adored Susan Perabo’s short story collection, Why They Run the Way They Do (my review), so was thrilled to hear her first full length novel was coming out this year. While I still prefer Why They Run the Way They Do, The Fall of Lisa Bellow is a psychologically suspenseful novel that gets to the nasty little heart of things (thank you, Catherine!), a type of story I’m always game for. This story is not about what happened to Lisa Bellow, but about the survivors and survivor’s guilt. It’s about the often ungenerous, but brutally honest thoughts, of those who escaped the worst. And, it’s about the minefield of life as a middle school girl. Perabo’s biting portrayal of middle school made me alternately chuckle and cringe…just like actual middle school.

Lisa looked at her. There was the look. This was why everyone hated her. This was why middle school girls had stomachaches when they woke up in the morning. This was why girls were afraid to read the next text, or turn the corner into the cafeteria. This was why Jules could think, why they all could think, all the girls who were not her friends, why they could all secretly think: Good riddance.

My major gripe lies with the publisher’s blurb, which calls The Fall of Lisa Bellow “gripping” and “suspenseful,” leading readers to expect a page turner. The suspense here is the emotional type rather than “what happens next” type, and readers going in expecting the latter will likely be disappointed. I’d call it more of a coming of age novel with a crime in the background than a page turning mystery.

Twelve Lives of Samuel HawleyThe Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti
Fiction (
Released March 28, 2017)
400 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.
Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Publisher (The Dial Press)

Plot Summary: Following a life of crime, Samuel Hawley and his daughter (Loo) move back to Loo’s mother’s hometown of Olympus, Massachusetts, where Loo begins to unravel her father’s past and how her mother died.

My Thoughts: This novel has gotten a ton of pre-publication hype and two fellow bloggers whose tastes I usually agree with loved it (Novel Visits, It’s Tara Leigh). It was also marketed as a coming of age novel / thriller, which sounded right up my alley. Unfortunately, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley was just okay for me and I’m having trouble understanding all the hype.

The story alternates between Loo and Samuel navigating life in Olympus (the “coming of age” portion of the story) and chapters explaining each one of Samuel’s twelve bullet scars (the “thriller” portion of the story), with the two threads converging towards the end. I enjoyed the coming of age aspect (Loo/Samuel sections) of this structure, but after multiple “thriller” chapters (i.e. the bullet sections), I started to get bored with all the violence. With an exception or two, these chapters seemed senseless and the stories began to run together in my head. By the 75% mark, I began skimming just to find out how things would end.

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Read Both: Every Last One and Always Happy Hour

January 26, 2017 Mini Book Reviews 17

Every Last One, Anna QuindlenEvery Last One by Anna Quindlen
Fiction (Released August 13, 2010)
299 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Library (Publisher: Random House)

Plot Summary: The story of the Latham family – a normal, but not perfect family with teenage children – and the ripple effects of small decisions.

My Thoughts: Catherine at Gilmore Guide recently got me started on Anna Quindlen by recommending Miller’s Valley and then Every Last One…and I cannot thank her enough. Quindlen just gets it…she gets motherhood, marriage, adult female friendship, life with teenagers, and grief (and I’m sure I’ll discover more as I read more of her work)…and that shines through in the “yes, that’s exactly how it is” writing that permeates Every Last One.

A loose end—that’s what we women call it, when we are overwhelmed by the care of small children, the weight of small tasks, a life in which we fall into bed at the end of the day exhausted from being all things to all people.

This is the rare book that combines a booming plot with depth, emotion, and sparkling writing. A central plot point drives the story, but the action really isn’t what this book is about. Quindlen kicks things off with an honest portrayal of a family that isn’t too perfect and isn’t too dysfunctional…they are decidedly average and relatable (I know, a departure from the dysfunctional families I normally love to read about). Mary Beth, the mother, is someone I could see myself being friends with and their three children are characters I recognized clearly from my youth. But then, something unimaginable happens and the book becomes about how regular people deal with inconceivable events. An overarching theme of the constant politeness that society expects…the sometimes cavernous disparity between what society expects people to say vs. what people truthfully feel or want to say…pervades the second half of the story.

Every Last One was not the light read that I expected…it was much better than that and enabled me to finish my 2016 reading (I read this in late December) with a 5 star book.

Always Happy Hour, Mary MillerAlways Happy Hour by Mary Miller
Fiction – Short Stories (Released January 10, 2017)
256 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Liveright)

Plot Summary: A collection of short stories from the perspective of women in bad situations making bad decisions.

My Thoughts: Always Happy Hour is going to be a tough sell because 1) short stories generally are and 2) my descriptions of the book aren’t the kind that generally make hoards of readers run to the bookstore…but, this collection is very, very good if you like dark stories (read between the lines: it isn’t for everyone). Elements of this collection reminded me of two beloved TV shows: Seinfeld because the stories aren’t really about anything, yet they’re about everything (sort of snapshots of life rather than plot-heavy)…and The Office because of the deadpan tone.

This is not my life, or it is not the life I’m supposed to be living, and so I can pretend that it is. I don’t consider the actuality of my situation, which is that every day I live this life it becomes more and more mine, the real one, and the one I’m supposed to be living falls further away; eventually it will be gone forever.

Most of the women in these stories have a defeatist quality about them; life has sort of left them behind. There is a sense of inertia hanging over everything and they can’t seem to take control of their lives. I wanted to shake them many times…but, we’ve all had defeatist moments in our own lives and those moments are the reader’s lifeline to relating to certain aspects of these characters’ lives, if not the overall wholes. There is a sameness to many of the stories and so they ran together in my head a bit, but reading a story a day or so helped, and my two favorites (Little Bear and First Class) came towards the end of the collection. Pick this collection up if you’re a fan of dark, dry humor and gorgeous writing.

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Why Idaho by Emily Ruskovich Didn’t Quite Gel For Me

January 5, 2017 Fiction 38

Idaho, Emily RuskovichFiction
Released January 3, 2017
320 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.
Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Publisher (Random House) via NetGalley

Headline

This debut novel has some intriguing story elements, but they never quite gel into a cohesive story.

Plot Summary

Ann Mitchell tries to piece together the details behind the crime that ended her husband, Wade’s, first marriage, and landed his ex-wife (Jenny) in prison for murder.

Why I Read It

This debut novel caught my attention when I reviewed Random House’s Spring 2017 catalog and, later, I heard good things about it from Shannon at River City Reading.

Major Themes

Marriage, family secrets, memory

What I Liked

  • Idaho is a quiet mystery of what happened to a family…and I don’t think I’ve ever used the words quiet and mystery in the same sentence. However, this combination had promise.
  • While the story is built around the crime that destroyed Wade’s family, that’s not really what the book is about. It’s more about the layers on top of the central mystery (Wade and Ann’s marriage, Wade’s illness, living under a cloud that you don’t know much about)…making it feel like more than your average mystery.
  • The writing is gorgeous at times. There are beautiful sentences, but they rarely string together to create a gorgeous paragraph or chapter.

The postwoman in Ponderosa feels entitled; she moves with confidence and knowing, as if because her fingertips have had the privilege of sorting out Ann’s envelopes, she has glimpsed what she thinks is inside them all – lies, pleas, false trails, dirty news, licked closed by the tongues of the past.

What I Didn’t Like

  • This is an odd book. There were times when I couldn’t put it down and others when I found myself skimming just to get through it. I was intrigued at times, but bewildered at others.
  • There are compelling elements to this story…I think the downfall is in the execution. The story construction is clunky and there are a number of sub-plots going on, yet they never converge into a central theme. It’s almost like Ruskovich couldn’t decide whether the book was about Wade and Ann’s marriage, Wade’s illness, the murder itself, or Jenny’s fate following the murder and her experience in prison.
  • There were parts of the story that seemed pointless and confusing (ex: Ann’s imaginings of how the murder might have happened, Elliott’s – an extremely minor character – romantic issues later in life)…but I was sure things would all tie together in the end. They didn’t.
  • The major questions of the book were never addressed. I don’t mind open-ended endings, but this was so extreme that it made me wonder what the point of the book was. For example, one of the things that kept me reading was to find out why Jenny committed the murder she did. There are sections of the story from Jenny’s perspective while she’s in prison where Ruskovich could easily have addressed the why of it all, but never did.
  • While beautiful at times, the writing also veered into “head-in-the-clouds” territory too often for my taste.

The sameness of that prison wall is like a winter spent in a wilderness you can’t hope to matter to.

A Defining Quote

“You know you don’t like me going up there, but you don’t know why. You’re so angry at me and you don’t remember why.”

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Two Winning Novels about Dysfunctional Families: Commonwealth and All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

October 18, 2016 Mini Book Reviews 22

Dysfunctional families are one of my favorite topics to read about in fiction…and I was lucky enough to come across two winners this Fall.

Commonwealth, Ann PatchettCommonwealth by Ann Patchett
Fiction (Released September 13, 2016)
336 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Harper)

Plot Summary: An ill fated christening party is the catalyst that ruins the Keating and Cousins marriages…and creates a blended family trying to navigate their new world.

My Thoughts: Commonwealth is a simply and perfectly told story of a cobbled together family…and is one of my favorite books of 2016 so far! Every member of the blended Keating/Cousins family behaves dreadfully, but I was somewhat sympathetic towards all of them. The four Cousins children and two Keating girls are impressively creative in their antics, but I rooted for them because their parents are so completely uninterested in and overwhelmed by them. And, it wasn’t their fault that their parents selfishly created this impossible situation. But, I also sympathized with the parents because their children’s united hatred of them resulted in an incredible amount of tormenting.

The Cousins children and the Keating children smiled up with beatific forgiveness. They had done everything they had ever wanted to do, they had had the most wonderful day, and no one even knew they were gone.

There is nothing grand about this story, no bells and whistles in the plot or the writing. But Ann Patchett can really tell a story…one that is beautiful and satisfying and reflects the mess of real life without resorting to tricks. She releases information about her characters in drips and drabs (similar to Did You Ever Have A Family) and describes scenes of mundane life that perfectly illustrate her characters:

When their father took the girls to the alley behind the grocery store at six o’clock in the morning with their racquets and fresh cans of tennis balls, Caroline would have as many as twenty-seven consecutive hits without missing. Thwack, thwack, thwack, into the blank wall that was the back of the A&P, her long arms intuitively graceful in their swing. Franny’s personal best was three consecutive hits, and that had only happened once. But the real difference between Caroline and Franny was that Caroline cared. She cared about the law and tennis and her grades in classes she didn’t even like. She cared what their father said about their mother, what he said about everything. Franny just wanted to go back to the car and read Agatha Christie.

Commonwealth is a book that I enjoyed every minute of reading. I couldn’t wait for my next opportunity to read and I didn’t want it to end.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, Bryn GreenwoodAll the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood
Fiction (Released August 9, 2016)
352 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books)

Plot Summary: After Wavy, the daughter of a meth dealer father and addict mother, witnesses Kellen’s (one of Wavy’s father’s “employees”) motorcycle accident, he takes her under his wing, leading to an unlikely relationship.

My Thoughts: I was all over the place with my feelings about All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, but I ended up in an emotionally invested and somewhat surprising (to me) place. I immediately loved the voice of Amy, Wavy’s cousin, and the storyline of Wavy’s integration into her extended family’s normal way of life the first of many times she stayed with them. Then, I became thoroughly creeped out by the story’s direction once Wavy returns to her parents at the ranch (her home and the site of her father’s meth cooking business). My discomfort with a specific theme of the story began to make me actually dislike the entire book. I kept saying to myself “please tell me this isn’t going there.”

But, by the halfway point, Greenwood completely brought me around again. She sold me on her creepy storyline (to the tune of 4 stars instead of the 2.5/3 stars I was considering)! I’ve read many books that started off well only to fall off a cliff later on, but it’s rare that I find one that does the opposite (Fates and Furies is the last one I can think of). Greenwood wrote in a way that demanded my sympathy for and understanding of these characters, despite my initial misgivings. Plus, the story’s action picked up considerably in the second half. Because All the Ugly and Wonderful Things addresses a controversial topic likely to spark strong feelings one way or another, it would make an excellent book club selection.

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Koch’s Distinct Style Makes Dear Mr. M A Winner, Despite Plot Inconsistencies

September 6, 2016 Fiction 18

Dear Mr. M, Herman KochFiction
Released September 6, 2016
416 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Hogarth) via NetGalley

Headline

While Dear Mr. M‘s politically incorrect social commentary, dislikable characters, and somewhat meandering nature mean it’s not for everyone, Koch’s distinctive writing style make it a winner for me despite some plot inconsistencies. And, its divisive nature would make it a fantastic book club selection.

Plot Summary

M, an aging writer riding on the long-ago success of his bestselling novel based on the true story of a teacher’s murder involving two of his students (Payback) piques the stalker-ish interest of his neighbor, leading to a revisit of the crime at the center of M’s novel.

Why I Read It

I loved Koch’s breakthrough novel, The Dinner. While I didn’t love his follow-up (Summer House With Swimming Pool) nearly as much, Koch is an author whose distinct writing style will make me at least try every book he writes.

What I Liked

  • While I didn’t love Dear Mr. M quite as much as The Dinner, it came dang close. And I thought it ran circles around Summer House With Swimming Pool.
  • Dear Mr. M employs one of my favorite literary devices: the mystery or crime that provides suspense, but is not at the center of the story. The prospect of finding out what happened to the teacher at the center of Payback certainly kept me turning the pages, but it’s more of a catalyst to explore human behavior and emotions.
  • Dear Mr. M is a style book…and Koch’s style is odd and often uncomfortable, but it is incredibly distinct. I adore his writing (and particularly his social commentary), but he’s certainly not for everyone. He’s a master at putting uncomfortable thoughts that the average reader would likely keep hidden front and center.

When someone has been ill for a long time, there’s always a sense of relief when it’s over. Relief on behalf of the sick person who no longer has to suffer, but above all on your own behalf. It’s difficult to admit, especially at the age I was then, but I felt an enormous relief because everything could finally be cleared out of the house. The curtains could be opened again to let in the light. This is where my life begins, I thought to myself. My new life. My life free of sickbeds.

  • Sometimes that commentary is tinged with political incorrectness (i.e. sexism and ageism make appearances in Dear Mr. M). But, it’s refreshing that Koch isn’t afraid to allow his characters to be politically incorrect on the page, even if I don’t agree with the specific viewpoints. 

A writer doesn’t have to do anything, of course. All a writer has to do is write books. But a lovely, young wife can help him do that. Especially when that wife is completely self-effacing; the kind who spreads her wings over his talent like a mother hen and chases away anyone who comes too close to the nest; who tiptoes around the house when he’s working in his study and only slides a cup of tea or a plate of chocolates through a crack in the doorway at fixed times; […] because his mind, after all, is brimming over with things that she, with her limited body of thought – her limited feminine body of thought – could never fathom anyway.

  • The story is told through multiple perspectives and shifting timelines. You see flashbacks to the long-ago lives of the two students involved in the teacher’s murder and their friends, which some reviewers thought distracted from the real story. I liked these sections as they painted vivid pictures of the personalities and dynamics of the group, which better enabled me to understand how the crime ends up playing out. Plus, these sections reminded me a bit of Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings!

What I Didn’t Like

  • Parts of the book meander a bit and it takes awhile for the story to find its direction…it could’ve been shorter and tighter.
  • I’m still scratching my head over why exactly M’s neighbor felt compelled to stalk M. There is lots of ambiguity here, as the most logical explanations can be eliminated based on details provided in the book or just seem too farfetched.

Good for People Who Like…

Social commentary, dislikable characters, writer’s life, crime that’s not the center of the story, gorgeous writing, dark stories, creepiness

Other Books You May Like

Contains a mystery or crime, which is not the center of the story:
Shelter by Jung Yun

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh

Uncomfortable Social Commentary:
The Dinner by Herman Koch

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