Tag: Dark Stories

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne: Darker Than The Heart’s Invisible Furies, But Still 5 Stars!

November 15, 2018 Fiction 4

A Ladder to the SkyFiction – Literary
Release Date: November 13, 2018
384 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher: (Hogarth 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’m two for two on 5 star books by John Boyne…though, A Ladder to the Sky is much darker and not necessarily for the exact same type of reader as The Heart’s Invisible Furies.

Plot Summary

Maurice Swift is single-mindedly focused on becoming a world famous author (despite having trouble coming up with story ideas) and will use anything and anyone to get there.

Why I Read It

Because The Heart’s Invisible Furies (my review), obviously!

Major Themes

Ambition, literary world, using people, relationships, writing process

What I Liked

  • Y’all know I loved Boyne’s 2017 novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, so A Ladder to the Sky had huge shoes to fill! While it didn’t fill that exact pair of shoes, it did fill a pair of equal size, just in a different style.
  • It’s much darker (I don’t mean sadder…I mean more messed up) than The Heart’s Invisible Furies. For that reason, I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone who loved The Heart’s Invisible Furies, but Boyne’s writing style is absolutely there and I 5 star-loved it.
  • Maurice is an operator / manipulator to a degree I don’t think I’ve seen all that much in fiction. He’s much like many of Herman Koch’s characters in that he’ll say incredibly unsettling things that most regular people may not even think, much less say aloud. He’s not the least bit likable (readers who want to see likable characters in your reading, this is your warning!), but he sure is disturbingly fascinating.
  • A Ladder to the Sky, particularly its structure, unfolds brilliantly. Each section is told from the perspective of someone Maurice impacted on his quest for literary dominance…including the real life literary legend, Gore Vidal. These sections feel a bit like extremely interconnected novellas. I loved it more and more with each new section.
  • The story begins in the 1980’s and moves forward, but a large chunk of the opening section is told through flashbacks to World War II in Germany. Parts of the book felt like historical fiction and parts felt very contemporary. Y’all know I have a finicky relationship with Historical Fiction, but I loved this mash-up of the historical and contemporary.
  • I loved the look into the dark side of publishing and the literary world. I’m hoping Boyne’s portrayal is a bit exaggerated, but it made for delicious reading. I can’t help but wonder how much of this stuff actually goes on in real life.
  • This one could’ve gone on my list of 16 Character-Driven Novels I Couldn’t Put Down and my list of 12 Memorable Villains of Fiction if I’d read it in time!
  • This would be an excellent book club selection!

What I Didn’t Like

  • This isn’t truly a criticism…more of a nit-picky observation about A Ladder to the Sky compared to The Heart’s Invisible Furies. But, one of the things I loved most about The Heart’s Invisible Furies is that it made me feel a  wide range of emotions (joy, sadness, delight, amusement, etc.). A Ladder to the Sky is not that kind of book…it’s more like watching a series of massive betrayals one after the other. You know it’s coming, the surprise is in what form it will take. The prevailing emotion throughout the whole thing is horrified incredulity.

A Defining Quote

“And you’ve heard the old proverb about ambition, haven’t you?”
He shook his head.
“That it’s like setting a ladder to the sky. A pointless waste of energy. […]”

Good for People Who Like…

Dark stories, dislikable characters, a memorable villain, stories set in the literary world

Other Books You May Like

Another book starring authors that features dislikable characters:
Dear Mr. M by Herman Koch (my review)

Get Weekly Email Updates!

12 Memorable Villains of Fiction

October 23, 2018 Book Lists 21

Villains of Fiction

 

I love to read dark fiction, so not surprisingly, I encounter lots of villains in my reading. Putting together my 12 most memorable villains of fiction was disturbingly fun! 

Many on this list are adept manipulators, some are well known among readers, and some are not. And, the main character in the book I just finished (A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne) could possibly top this list. But, I felt weird about including him since the book isn’t coming out until November.

This post contains affiliate links (plus: here’s your Amazon Smile-specific affiliate link).
Linking up with Top Ten Tuesday hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl.

12 Memorable Villains of Fiction

Dr. Alan Forrester
All is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker (Spoiler Discussion)
Why are psychiatrists so often creepy villains in fiction? This one was arrogant and diabolical, too.

Amy Dunne
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Possibly the most manipulative character I’ve ever read. But, her husband almost deserved her. Almost.

Annie Wilkes
Misery by Stephen King
A terrifying version of fangirl-ing. More power to you if you can get that vision of Annie hammering Paul’s ankles out of your head.

Bull Meacham
The Great Santini by Pat Conroy (my review)
Maybe the worst Dad in literature. But, he also had a sense of humor that made reading him slightly less traumatic.

Double Eagles
Natchez Burning by Greg Isles (my review)
A group rather than a person, but this is a dangerous splinter group of the KKK that reigned in the 1960’s and was even more ruthless than the regular KKK. The fictional Double Eagles is based on the real life “Silver Dollar Group.”

Jake the Bartender
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler (my review)
The first of two sociopathic boyfriends on this list.

Joseph Castleman
The Wife by Meg Wolitzer (my review)
A bit of a different type of villain than the others on this list. He’s not downright evil, just completely self-centered, oblivious, and expects to be coddled. His poor wife…  

Miranda Priestley
The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger
The boss from hell. Except also thoroughly entertaining for readers…

Nate Piven 
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman (my review)

Again, not as evil as some of the other villains on this list. But, a pretty unabashed and callous manipulator of women. I remember thinking when I read this, “this perfectly portrays dating in NYC!” 

Oliver Ryan
Unraveling Oliver by Liz Nugent
Here’s the first line of Unraveling Oliver, told from Oliver’s perspective:

I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her.

Olivia Foxworth (aka the Grandmother)
Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews
Locked her grandchildren in her attic for years. I should probably include Corrine Dollanganger (the mother) on this list as well, seeing as she agreed to her mother’s diabolical plan.

Stephen DeMarco
Tell Me Lies by Carola Lovering
The second sociopathic boyfriend on this list. But, definitely worse than the first one (Jake the Bartender from Sweetbitter).

What villains of fiction do you love to hate?

Get Weekly Email Updates!
Privacy Policy

October 2018 Books to Read (and Skip)

October 12, 2018 Mini Book Reviews 17

October 2018 Books to Read

 

My October reading has been stellar! I’ve got a couple successful books to share with you today and stay tuned for my review of one more, A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl, on Thursday, October 18.

Hosted by Modern Mrs. Darcy.
This post contains affiliate links (plus: here’s your Amazon Smile-specific affiliate link).

Read These

A Well-Behaved WomanA Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler
Historical Fiction (Release Date: October 16, 2018)
400 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (St. Martin’s Press)

Plot Summary: To save her family from financial ruin, Alva Smith finagles a marriage to the extremely wealthy, but socially shunned William K. Vanderbilt, but it doesn’t turn out to be everything she’d hoped.

My Thoughts: I absolutely adored Fowler’s 2013 novel, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald (my review)…so, A Well-Behaved Woman had big shoes to fill. While I liked A Well-Behaved Woman, it was a lukewarm like and it didn’t come close to filling Z‘s shoes. Alva is interesting, but not nearly as dynamic a character as Zelda. I liked that Alva was a modern woman in some ways (i.e. her desire to have a hobby beyond social obligations, her belief that husbands shouldn’t be allowed to treat their wives badly, etc) and had a sassy side. I liked the fact that it made me think about class, the working rich vs. the inherited money rich, and women’s roles in society and the household. But, I got tired of all the rules of society and machinations people went through to rise to the top. I just didn’t care all that much and couldn’t understand why they did. Overall, it’s a decent read, but it just didn’t knock my socks off like I expected. 

These men must believe themselves completely beyond reproach! And, well, why wouldn’t they? Wives permit all of it. Because of course if we’re to believe what we read in the Lady’s Book, the True Woman is completely fulfilled by her domestic duties – her home, her children, her charity functions. The True Woman understands that men have needs of a different kind. 

But I don’t believe a word of it. We accept their behavior because of what would happen if we didn’t.

Witch ElmThe Witch Elm by Tana French
Fiction – Mystery (Release Date: October 9, 2018)
464 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Viking)

Plot Summary: After lucky golden boy Toby gets beaten in his apartment during a burglary, he goes to Ivy House (his ancestral home) to recover and care for his dying uncle Hugo…but, a skull is found in the trunk of a massive elm tree in the garden.

My Thoughts: The Witch Elm is only my second Tana French (I read The Secret Place years ago) and expectations played a big role in my reading experience this time around. I consider Tana French a “mystery” author, but The Witch Elm doesn’t start out with a “mystery” feel. It’s more of a family drama / mystery hybrid, which I knew was absolutely up my alley once I aligned my expectations. It’s a mystery with a level of complexity and character development generally uncharacteristic of the genre…and that’s a good thing! It’s a slow build but, especially by the quarter mark, I was engrossed in the story. I wanted to find out what happened, but I also wanted to enmesh myself with this flawed family. It’s a story filled with shades of gray…the characters aren’t entirely likable or dislikable, the revelations about the mystery aren’t entirely blame-worthy or understandable, and there is no obvious honorable path to take. I loved these elements and think they’d make for great book club discussion if your club is cool with 500 page books. But, on that note, I do think editors could’ve cut out about a hundred pages or so (specifically, there was a great ending point to this story, but then a couple extra plot points were tacked on…almost like putting a tacky topper on a delicious wedding cake).

I think my luck was built into me, the keystone that cohered my bones, the golden thread that stitched together the secret tapestries of my DNA; I think it was the gem glittering at the fount of me, coloring everything I did and every word I said. And if somehow that has been excised from me, and if in fact I am still here without it, then what am I?

Skip This One

November RoadNovember Road by Lou Berney
Fiction – Historical (Release Date: October 9, 2018)
336 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (William Morrow)

Plot Summary: Frank Guidry, a lieutenant of New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello is on the run because he knows too much about JFK’s assassination, and Charlotte, a mother of two girls on the run from her husband and previous life, meet up for a road trip West.

My Thoughts: November Road was my September Book of the Month choice and it appealed to me because I’m pretty much in for anything JFK assassination conspiracy theory-related. However, for a book that was supposed to have a thriller-style plot, it was kind of boring. Once Guidry’s connection to the assassination became clear, I got really intrigued, but the story veered from there to a run-of-the-mill chase across the country. Guidry really could’ve been on the run from pretty much anything and the story would’ve played out the same…the JFK assassination ceased to really drive the story. The pace did pick up at the end, but I didn’t buy some of Guidry’s feelings or decisions. The writing style was gruff…I could hear a bunch of old men more or less grunting at each other through a haze of smoke, using two or three words instead of full sentences. This style fit the story’s plot, but I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it. Overall, I just didn’t see the point of the book and didn’t particularly care about these characters. If you’re looking for fast-paced fiction about JFK assassination conspiracy theories, try The Bone Tree by Greg Isles (my review) instead.

It was a big, big world. How hard could it be to disappear off the face of it? Oh, so hard if Carlos Marcello was the man searching for you.

The DNF’s

Bitter OrangeBitter Orange by Claire Fuller (October 9, 2018)
DNF at 24%
Sigh…I loved Fuller’s previous two novels, Our Endless Numbered Days (my review) and Swimming Lessons (my review), but this one was sloooow. The writing was too descriptive and focused too much on architecture. I also couldn’t get a good sense of Frances (the main character)…she felt vague and the whole story felt hazy. There was supposed to be simmering tension similar to Tangerine (my review), but I felt absolutely zero tension.

 

Virgil WanderVirgil Wander by Leif Enger (October 2, 2018)
DNF at 18%
When I started reading this story about a small, down-on-its-luck Midwestern town and its residents, I’d get into the story, but then completely forget what I’d read when I picked it up the next day. I kept zoning out and couldn’t keep track of all the characters. But, I also tried to read it right after finishing a 5 star book that absolutely blew me away and I don’t think it was the right choice for that moment.

What’s the best book you’ve read so far this month?

Do you want a monthly personalized book recommendation from me and access to our private Facebook Group?
Support Sarah’s Book Shelves on Patreon for access to these special bonuses (more details here)!

Get Weekly Email Updates!

September 2018 Books to Read (and Skip)

September 13, 2018 Mini Book Reviews 25

September 2018 Books to Read

 

Well, my September books didn’t turn out swimmingly. I really liked two of them (and they’re both super unique!), but DNF’d the other three. That’s a lot of DNF’s.

The good news is I have a stellar October line-up and hope to report back with lots of fantastic books for you!

Hosted by Modern Mrs. Darcy.
This post contains affiliate links (plus: here’s your Amazon Smile-specific affiliate link).

Read These

Foe Foe by Iain Reid
Fiction – Literary / Science Fiction (Release Date: September 4, 2018)
272 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Gallery / Scout Press)

Plot Summary: Set in the near future, Junior is selected to participate in a partially government-run endeavor that requires him to leave his wife (Hen) on their isolated farm for a long time…but, the powers that be will make sure Hen is not alone in Junior’s absence.

My Thoughts: I’m don’t typically love Science Fiction, but I have been known to occasionally enjoy genre mash-ups that dip their toes into Sci-Fi (e.g. Dark Matter, The Beautiful Bureaucrat). Part literary fiction, part page turner, part Sci-Fi (and definitely creepy), Foe falls in this category. From the moment the book opened (and, really, well into the second half), I had no idea what was going on. It was clear that some omnipresent higher power had control over regular citizens and something wasn’t quite right with Junior’s wife, Hen. Outside of that, Foe had that “WTF is going on” vibe that permeated The Beautiful Bureaucrat. And, I was incredibly curious to find out. My overwhelming curiosity and very short chapters had me turning the pages quickly. The best thing about Foe for me was that, in addition to the unsettled feeling about what was going on, it examines a marriage (power dynamics, life choices, and isolation) and makes you consider big life questions (What is humanity? How do you feel about progress?). Foe is a unique book and a great choice if you’re looking to try out some Science Fiction without jumping headfirst into the deep end (plus, make sure you don’t mind creepy, but not in a scary way!).

Everything changes. Change is one of the only certainties in life. Human beings progress. We have to. We evolve. We move. We expand. What seems far-fetched and extreme becomes normal and the outdated pretty quickly. We move on to the next thing, the next development, the next frontier.

The WildlandsThe Wildlands by Abby Geni
Fiction – Literary (Release Date: September 4, 2018)
368 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Counterpoint)

Plot Summary: After the McCloud children lose everything in a Category 5 tornado in their hometown of Mercy, Oklahoma (thus attracting considerable media attention), their brother (Tucker) runs away leaving the three McCloud sisters to fend for themselves. He returns three years later amid further tragedy and thrusts the family into the spotlight yet again.

My Thoughts: The publisher describedThe Wildlands as a literary thriller…and while I don’t think that’s quite accurate, it is a fast-paced story about children that have lost literally everything trying to find their way again. This story touches themes far and wide…humans’ place in the ecosystem, environmental terrorism, children surviving on their own, the media spotlight, Patti Hearst-esque Stockholm syndrome, and complicated sibling relationships. There was lots in this book that reminded me of other books I read, but it all came together in its own unique way…making it very hard to find a single read-alike for it. It has the love of animals and nature of Where the Crawdads Sing (my review), the focus on media attention following a tragedy of Before the Fall (my review), and the family manipulation of Wiley Cash’s This Dark Road to Mercy (my review). There’s also some similarity to Christian Kiefer’s The Animals (my review). The place where I really did see the “literary thriller” come out was the ending, which was surprising and riveting, if not a tad improbable. A solid start to Fall book season! P.S. the publisher’s synopsis gives away way too much of the plot for my taste…I went in pretty blind and recommend you do too!

Maybe it all came back to the tornado. Maybe everything, in the end, came back to the tornado. Darlene wondered whether the storm transfigured her brother – shattering his temperament and reforming the shards into a new structure – or whether it had merely been a catalyst for a tendency already inside him. She would never be certain. Maybe the seeds of instability were present in his brain since birth, lying dormant, awaiting the right trigger to flourish. If it had not been the tornado, it would have been something else. Perhaps Tucker was always destined to chase wildness.

The DNF’s

Ordinary PeopleOrdinary People by Diana Evans (September 11, 2018)
DNF at 1%
Yep, 1%. Again…writing style. And huge blocks of text about some party that sounded pretentious and boring.

 

 

The Golden StateThe Golden State by Lydia Kiesling (September 4, 2018)
DNF at 3%
I immediately didn’t like the writing style…it was wordy, overly descriptive, and full of run-on sentences. I knew pretty quickly I wouldn’t be able to tolerate 300 pages of it.

 

 

Real LolitaThe Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman (September 11, 2018)
DNF at 34%
This true story of the 1948 abduction of Sally Horner and the connection to the classic novel, Lolita sounded incredibly fascinating and right up my alley (true crime and books? yes!). Alas, the execution wasn’t there. The sections about Lolita read like a term paper and the sections about Sally Horner were hit and miss…with frequent tangents that I didn’t see the point of.

What’s the best book you’ve read so far this month?

Do you want a monthly personalized book recommendation from me and access to our private Facebook Group?
Support Sarah’s Book Shelves on Patreon for access to these special bonuses (more details here)!

Get Weekly Email Updates!

August 2018 Books to Read (and Skip)

August 14, 2018 Mini Book Reviews 22

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!

Hosted by Modern Mrs. Darcy.
This post contains affiliate links (plus: here’s your Amazon Smile-specific affiliate link).

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.

What’s the best book you’ve read so far this month?

Do you want a monthly personalized book recommendation from me and access to our private Facebook Group?
Support Sarah’s Book Shelves on Patreon for access to these special bonuses (more details here)!

Get Weekly Email Updates!

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. 

Hosted by Modern Mrs. Darcy.
This post contains affiliate links (plus: here’s your Amazon Smile-specific affiliate link).

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.

 

 

What’s the best book you’ve read so far this month?

Do you want a monthly personalized book recommendation from me and access to our private Facebook Group?
Support Sarah’s Book Shelves on Patreon for access to these special bonuses (more details here)!

Get Weekly Email Updates!

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?!

Get Weekly Email Updates!

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.

Get Weekly Email Updates!

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

Looking for a specific book recommendation? I’ve got you covered!
Participate in a limited time, free trial of my
new PERSONALIZED BOOK RECOMMENDATION service!


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.

Get Weekly Email Updates!