& Review: The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson

The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson. Publisher: William Morrow, March 2016

The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson. Publisher: William Morrow, March 2016

The Book Itself: It’s a rather generic cover: thin woman, who we can assume is beautiful although we only see her in silhouette, wearing only a button down that is conveniently see-though so we can see she’s thin, leaning in a doorway. It might be trying to be sexy and mysterious, but it just looked like a cheap mystery novel on first glance. I’d read good things about The Kind Worth Killing before its release in paperback, so I knew I wanted to read it before I saw this cover. Otherwise, I don’t think this would have drawn me in.

My Review: On a flight from London to Boston, Ted Severson meets the stunning Lily Kintner. Over martinis, the strangers play a game in which they reveal intimate details about themselves. But what begins as playful banter between Ted and Lily takes a turn when Ted claims, half-seriously, that he would like to kill his wife. Then Lily surprises him by saying that she’d like to help.

Back in Boston, Ted and Lily forge an unusual bond and talk about the ways Ted can get out of his marriage. But Lily has her own dark history she’s not sharing with Ted. As Ted begins to fall in love with Lily, he grows anxious about any holes in their scheme that could give them away. And suddenly the two are pulled into a very lethal game of cat and mouse, one in which both are not likely to survive when all is said and done.

There’s something about a crime show condensed into a book that is just pure guilty-pleasure for me.

This book is a re-telling/re-configuring of the classic Strangers on a Train situation: two people meet, both people have enemies in their lives that just happen to be their spouses, and they agree to kill each other’s spouse in order to not arouse suspicion. It’s that “perfect crime” lie that can become masterfully suspenseful and interesting to watch unravel.

This time, only our female protagonist agrees to do the killing. Ted Severson witnesses his wife cheating on him. He meets Lily, who says all the right things and sympathizes in just the right way. Then she suggests that she help Ted kill his wife.

Now…if I were pouring out my woes and a stranger I had just met immediately jumped to “let me help you kill someone,” I would maaaaybe lean towards not trusting them or spending so much time with them. But Ted…oh Ted. Ted does not do that. Ted actually falls a little bit in love with Lily. Things do not end well for Ted.

The story slowly becomes more about Lily, who we learn – surprise, surprise – has a past. Her past – surprise, surprise – includes killing someone. Perhaps more than one someone. The story bounces back and forth between present day action and Lily’s past transgressions. We get to see the monster being made. As a sociopath, the way she views things and reacts to people is different, and it makes for an interesting read. It’s also refreshing that she’s not the clichéd Woman with a Torturous Past, meaning that the author didn’t rely on tropes that I’ve seen other authors use: she was abused physically or mentally, she suffers from depression/anxiety/PTSD/schizophrenia, she was raped, etc. Other authors can write this well and make devastatingly good books, but here we have a woman who is just plain sociopathic. She acts on animal instincts alone, and her narrative voice is chilling.

There are a couple of well-timed twists in the book, but I think the best one is the book’s ending. I’m talking the very last couple of lines. As I neared the end of the book, I began to get skeptical – how were we going to get a resolution here?! Is Lily really going to be released on a technicality? Will there be one last surge of evidence, and will they discover all of the killing she’s done? Am I getting a “happy” ending, or a chilling one?

No spoilers, but the last line puts a decidedly ambiguous spin on that decision. I honestly don’t know if Lily gets caught or not. While this might be lackluster or too indecisive for some readers, when I reached the end, I got a little thrill down my spine. I could read it and picture the conclusion either way, and somehow that worked for me.

Overall, it’s a decent crime novel, great for mystery or crime junkies. Lily is a cold hearted killer and one twisted lady. But if you’re not into reading that kind of thing, this book isn’t going to change your mind.

My Grade: C

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& Review: Smoke by Dan Vyleta

Smoke by Dan Vyleta. Publisher: Doubleday May 2016

Smoke by Dan Vyleta. Publisher: Doubleday May 2016

The Book Itself: The colors are more saturated, but the rich watercolor image here is Claude Monet’s “Houses of Parliament,” or more closely resembles one in that series of paintings he did, of the Palace of Westminster at different times of day and in different weather. It is moody and ominous as well as rich and beautiful. I’m not sure if Vyleta or his team in charge of the cover wanted to make a political statement with the use of this painting, or just include it because it had to do with the European setting at the time of the story. Either way, it’s striking.

My Review: England. A century ago, give or take a few years.”
An England where people who are wicked in thought or deed are marked by the Smoke that pours forth from their bodies, a sign of their fallen state. The aristocracy do not smoke, proof of their virtue and right to rule, while the lower classes are drenched in sin and soot. An England utterly strange and utterly real.
An elite boarding school where the sons of the wealthy are groomed to take power as their birthright. Teachers with mysterious ties to warring political factions at the highest levels of government. Three young people who learn everything they ve been taught is a lie knowledge that could cost them their lives. A grand estate where secrets lurk in attic rooms and hidden laboratories. A love triangle. A desperate chase. Revolutionaries and secret police. Religious fanatics and coldhearted scientists. Murder. A London filled with danger and wonder. A tortured relationship between a mother and a daughter, and a mother and a son. Unexpected villains and unexpected heroes. Cool reason versus passion. Rich versus poor. Right versus wrong, though which is which isn t clear.

This book took me quite a long time to get through. Partly because I got addicted to a video game for the better part of the month when I started reading it, and partly because I found the pacing to be rather uneven…

We start at a Victorian-era boarding school for rich boys. A bully golden-child and some probably-corrupt clergy rule the roost, and Charlie and Thomas – our protagonists and perfect foils of one another – barely eke by. The intro chapters are intriguing and set up the world very well. All of the students travel to London and see what real Smoke is like when everyone around you is doing bad things. Charlie and Thomas, now with a taste of the real world, become restless…

Then come some interminable chapters at a country estate with a stiff, mysterious woman and her even stiffer daughter. Vyleta attempts some mystery here, as the lady of the house has some secrets of her own, but for the most part these chapters are a slog to get through. They almost lose all of the momentum the opening chapters built up…

And then they leave the estate. With a bang. No spoilers, but the tension and action ratchets up again, and I started flipping the pages faster. Finally, I thought I was worried there for a second.

And then things slowed down again. I guess you could say the book was consistent in that regard: I felt it rose and fell rather evenly with action and tension and interest, only to falter with some middling actions that didn’t make me want to pick up the book again at night.

The writing and atmosphere I will say, are beautiful. Descriptions are smooth and inviting, there aren’t any clumsy metaphors or drawn out sections of infodumping. The plot just kind of…slows at points and at other times, soars. And I wish it had soared the entire time, because I liked delving into how each character developed. Thomas, Charlie, and then Livia grow tremendously as people. By the story’s close, they don’t even resemble the same naïve teenagers the story started off with.

At times I felt confused at Smoke’s nature: does it display differently for different people? Sometimes actions or words characters would say baffled me: why isn’t the room filling with Smoke? Or why is the Smoke coming out more, or trickling out less than I think it should? As a metaphysical devise, and as a plot devise, I think it was rather…hazy (pardon the pun) on purpose.

The ending does end on a satisfying note, and possibly opens up things for a sequel, although I’m not sure the book needs one. The last 50 pages or so are gripping and raw, and gritty in their description of pain and conflict.

If you have a soft spot for Victorian history or long, beautifully written but meandering tales, this one is for you. It’s a solid middle-ground book for me. I would only recommend it to specific readers.

My Grade: C+

& Review: We Could Be Beautiful by Swan Huntley

We Could Be Beautiful by Swan Huntley. Publisher: Doubleday, June 2016

We Could Be Beautiful by Swan Huntley. Publisher: Doubleday, June 2016

The Book Itself: The shiniest cover I’ve ever seen, I could have probably blinded people had I read this in a sunny area somewhere. I like the woman blurred to the point that we can’t recognize her, the title and intricate scrollwork obscuring her face. I think it’s saying something about superficiality, and not wanting to see what’s right in front of you, but that could just be the English major in me, looking for meaning where there isn’t necessarily any.

My Review: Catherine West has spent her entire life surrounded by beautiful things. She owns an immaculate Manhattan apartment, she collects fine art, she buys exquisite handbags and clothing, and she constantly redecorates her home. And yet, despite all this, she still feels empty. She sees her personal trainer, she gets weekly massages, and occasionally she visits her mother and sister on the Upper East Side, but after two broken engagements and boyfriends who wanted only her money, she is haunted by the fear that she’ll never have a family of her own. One night, at an art opening, Catherine meets William Stockton, a handsome man who shares her impeccable taste and love of beauty. He is educated, elegant, and even has a personal connection—his parents and Catherine’s parents were friends years ago. But as he and Catherine grow closer, she begins to encounter strange signs, and her mother, Elizabeth (now suffering from Alzheimer’s), seems to have only bad memories of William as a boy. In Elizabeth’s old diary she finds an unnerving letter from a former nanny that cryptically reads: “We cannot trust anyone…” Is William lying about his past? And if so, is Catherine willing to sacrifice their beautiful life in order to find the truth? Featuring a fascinating heroine who longs for answers but is blinded by her own privilege, We Could Be Beautiful is a glittering, seductive, utterly surprising story of love, money, greed, and family.

I either like books about privileged, upper class people, or I hate them. I don’t love the woe is me I’m so rich but so unhappy message that so many stories seem to bring to light. I do like when the privileged protagonist (say that ten times fast!) learns something from his/her actions, or changes the game somehow. It can be a kind of escapist fantasy, reading about a character who can go out and buy $600 handbags and thousands of dollars of furniture without batting an eye. For a moment, you can imagine doing that too…and then the crippling reality sets in, about the mortgage/rent, your car payment, that credit card payment you’ve been putting off, etc. etc. etc.

ANYWAY. We Could Be Beautiful is a story about a rich woman. Of the trust fund variety. Catherine West (even her name sounds rich) doesn’t worry that her bespoke stationary boutique never turns a profit. She never frets about rent, clothing herself, or pursuing her hobbies. Every month she gets a hundred thousand dollars or so, and that is that.

Enter William Stockton (again: rich-person name). Because Catherine is just not as happy as she feels she should be, and she’s had troubled relationships in the past and here comes this guy who seems just too good to be true. And surprise, surprise: he is. And we spend the rest of the story puzzling out just why he is.

William as a character comes across as very stilted. In a way, this makes sense: Catherine is so blinded by the fact that she is desperate for someone to love her that she can’t see just how hypocritical and downright rude her partner is being. But William is kind of an ass. The whole time. It is hard to see what is appealing about him, what truly draws Catherine to him. He belittles her when she uses foul language, her best friend immediately dislikes him, they have consistently disappointing sex, and he never speaks a word of his past. On their own, these little things are just character quirks. Aspects of a personality that would make a well-rounded character more interesting. But piled up like this, it feels like the author is just trying to bang us over the head with how bad William is. It would have been far more compelling for me if William were more appealing, and this his secrets were slowly and viciously revealed. As it sits, you just see it coming from a mile away.

Overall, the story and character development felt like they were plodding along to me. I’m not sure if it’s the writing style, or the story’s actual events, but although finding out William’s secret is the main hinge of events, I did not feel overwhelmingly compelled to find out what it was. This was partly because I could already see he was Bad News and that this book would come to that conclusion eventually, and Catherine would move on. But it was also because there seemed to be a lack of urgency. Catherine was in no hurry to confront several facts about her life: that there is something wrong with her boyfriend, that there is something wrong with her family, and that money cannot buy everything (especially when that money starts to run out…)

It’s an escapist read, but Catherine doesn’t really learn anything from the story’s events. I don’t feel like she has grown emotionally at the story’s close, and that leaves a lackluster taste in my mouth. It’s a light read, with an intriguing central mystery, but it’s not my favorite beach or summer read.

My Grade: C-

& Review: Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll. Publisher: Simon & Schuster April 2016

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll. Publisher: Simon & Schuster April 2016

The Book Itself: Powerful and dramatic. Not only is the black rose backlit by a spotlight eerie on its own, but the font that the title is in already makes the title seem tongue in cheek – it’s blocky, in-your-face. This story isn’t literally about the luckiest girl in the world. It’s much darker than that.

My Review: Ani FaNelli is the woman you love to hate. The woman who has it all. But behind the meticulously crafted façade lies the darkest and most violent of pasts…

When a documentary producer invites Ani to tell her side of the chilling and violent incident that took place when she was a teenager, she hopes it will be an opportunity to prove how far she’s come since then. She’ll even let the production company film her wedding to the wealthy Luke Harrison, the final step in her transformation.

But as the wedding and filming converge, Ani’s immaculate façade begins to crack, and she soon realises that there’s always a price to pay for perfection.

I thought this book was going to be one, or a combination of two things: another privileged, rich girl story that would make me roll my eyes a lot, AND/OR a crime drama akin to an episode of Criminal Minds/NCIS/Law and Order, etc. where you get a mystery, a crime, and a certain amount of time to figure it out before it’s revealed to you.

And yes, this is a privileged rich girl story. TifAni is one of the most vapid, judgmental, morally horrible female characters I think I have ever read. But she is so unbelievably over-the-top in her thoughts and actions, unable to let a moment slip by where she doesn’t pass judgment on something or build herself up while tearing something else down, that it read like a parody. Knoll makes her insufferable from page one. She makes you hate everything about this TifAni FaNelli, from her bizarre name to her bitchy comments to coworkers and waitresses. And then she spends the rest of the novel unpacking what makes TifAni tick, and why she is so unbelievably awful. Okay, I thought, upon being introduced to our protagonist. Something’s up with this narrator. Let’s find out what it is. And I couldn’t stop reading after that.

A lot of people seem to hate Luckiest Girl Alive’s comparison to Gone Girl. I personally hate comparisons saying “this is the next Harry Potter!” or “this year’s To Kill a Mockingbird!” because books can and do stand apart from one another. They can be LIKE or SIMILAR TO Gone Girl or share traits with a trilogy or genre, but Gone Girl and Luckiest Girl Alive are completely different books. All they really share is a female narrator with a troubled past and psyche. The plot, the methods of telling the story, and the character motivations are completely different. And both, I think, are good in their own right.

Now that I’m off my soapbox: Luckiest Girl Alive gives you the world’s worst person, and then sifts through her past to find what made her this way. You still don’t necessarily like her by novel’s end, or feel that her past justifies her present day actions, but I think it’s an interesting character study.

There are two horrific events that form the foundation of TifAni’s terrible past. I think both are written well. Both are very sudden, very shocking, and very telling of the characters involved. If you read through other reviews, you’ll spoil both events for yourself. I’ll do my best not to reveal anything. While I think either event would do serious emotional damage to any person, let alone a young man or woman growing up, going through puberty, navigating high school, BOTH are just the perfect storm to royally screw someone up.

TifAni doesn’t have an overwhelming a-ha moment. There is no moment where she comes to terms with her traumatic past and sees the error of her ways. But by the novel’s end, I don’t expect her to. The TifAni FaNelli (every time I type that name is just looks more and more absurd) we come to know would not break down and apologize for everything she has ever done. She couldn’t possibly process everything that has happened and become Mother Teresa.  I wouldn’t say that I like TifAni FaNelli by the end. But I can begin to understand her a little better.

I will say that I thought there would be another side to the story. By that I mean that I thought there might be one more shocking twist at the end, revealing that TifAni was more at fault during the traumatic events than we realized. I kind of wished she was a more unreliable narrator, that there was another facet to her (yes, terrible) personality.

But I didn’t hate the book. I wouldn’t say it’s the next Gone Girl.  But it’s a compelling story that pulled me in. Maybe, just maybe, it had me rooting for the worst girl in the world by the end.

My Grade: C+

&Review: All Stories are Love Stories by Elizabeth Percer

All Stories are Love Stories by Elizabeth Percer. Publisher: Harper March 2016

All Stories are Love Stories by Elizabeth Percer. Publisher: Harper March 2016

The Book Itself: Again, another simple cover. The heartbeat monitor in the background is nice, but not enough to really set this cover apart.

My Review: In this thoughtful, mesmerizing tale with echoes of Station Eleven, the author of An Uncommon Education follows a group of survivors thrown together in the aftermath of two major earthquakes that strike San Francisco within an hour of each other—an achingly beautiful and lyrical novel about the power of nature, the resilience of the human spirit, and the enduring strength of love.

On Valentine’s Day, two major earthquakes strike San Francisco within the same hour, devastating the city and its primary entry points, sparking fires throughout, and leaving its residents without power, gas, or water.

Among the disparate survivors whose fates will become intertwined are Max, a man who began the day with birthday celebrations tinged with regret; Vashti, a young woman who has already buried three of the people she loved most . . . but cannot forget Max, the one man who got away; and Gene, a Stanford geologist who knows far too much about the terrifying earthquakes that have damaged this beautiful city and irrevocably changed the course of their lives.

As day turns to night and fires burn across the city, Max and Vashti—trapped beneath the rubble of the collapsed Nob Hill Masonic Auditorium—must confront each other and face the truth about their past, while Gene embarks on a frantic search through the realization of his worst nightmares to find his way back to his ailing lover and their home.

I picked up this book on a whim: I really liked the title. As I read it, it dawned on me that I was reading about a fictional (though very possible) devastating earthquake that cripples San Francisco….about a week after my best friend and I purchased show tickets and started planning a long weekend in San Francisco for this fall…

Maybe not my best idea. I’m not freaking out and cancelling reservations or anything, but the book does offer a sobering snapshot of a disaster zone, and the very human moments that occur amidst the chaos.

I cannot offer any insight into the scientific or political accuracy of the events that happen in All Stories Are Love Stories. But everything unfolds much the way you’d expect in a disaster film or scary speculative fiction: you get to know the characters, brief snippets of their backstories, their relationships with their families and loved ones, their actions as they move through their last day before the earthquakes. And then disaster strikes and even though you knew it was going to happen – the earthquakes are clearly outlined in the novel’s synopsis – the scenes that unfold afterward are still heartbreaking and even horrifying at times.

And yet…I’m still a bit ambivalent about the whole thing. I tend to be this way about books and movies created solely, it seems, to elicit an emotional response: all they want to do is make you sad. I sound like a heartless robot now, but there is just something…almost manipulative about a tear-jerker. Sometimes they sacrifice true character or plot development for another emotional twist. I particularly dislike Nicolas Sparks’ books and movies for this very reason. Although All Stories are Love Stories is no Nicolas Sparks: it is better written and has a speculative, human interest bent to it.

Max and Vashti had a beautiful, tragic love together in their past. The reason they broke up, and what each of them did while they were apart is a heartbreaking study of love in and of itself. When they are trapped beneath rubble post-earthquake, they are forced to unpack their feelings about what happen. You do root for them, and their situation is so wrought with conflict that you’re not sure how you would have handled it either.

Gene is a geologist stumbling home to get to his ailing partner post-quakes. He more or less knew these quakes were coming, and soon, and the guilt he feels about that and his fear for those around him make him an interesting character to follow. It is smart for Percer to include him as a character because 1) he brings insight to the earthquakes and the aftermath they wreck on a city like San Francisco. I might not be able to understand some of the science, but a character who can put it into layman’s terms is a good voice to have in the novel, and 2) even I would have become very bored if all of the novel’s action was trapped beneath the rubble with Max and Vashti.

There is also a rather confusing side story involving kids from a children’s choir that Max directs, and a nun and priest from an unusual religious order. The book alternates between these three perspectives, and I definitely think the kids/nun/priest perspective is the weakest. Overall the scenes involving them are confusing – I often lost track of who was speaking – and I thought the other two perspectives were much more compelling.

The pace also kind of lagged for me as well. I don’t think it was a bad book, or a bad story at all. In fact, most of the writing was quite beautiful, and the stories of the characters involved were certainly sad and complex. I’m just not sure this was quite my cup of tea. I would recommend it for those of you who like a good, emotionally-wrought story, though. A final twist at the end really sucker punches you in the heart. Even a stone-cold, robotic heart like mine, apparently 😉

My Grade: C+

&Review: The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney. Publisher: Ecco March 2016

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. Publisher: Ecco March 2016

The Book Itself: A very posh cover – quilted details, monogrammed “P’s” for the Plumb family, the title in what should be a coat of arms. Definitely brings to mind a pedigreed family. Fitting for the story.

My Review: Every family has its problems. But even among the most troubled, the Plumb family stands out as spectacularly dysfunctional. Years of simmering tensions finally reach a breaking point on an unseasonably cold afternoon in New York City as Melody, Beatrice, and Jack Plumb gather to confront their charismatic and reckless older brother, Leo, freshly released from rehab. Months earlier, an inebriated Leo got behind the wheel of a car with a nineteen-year-old waitress as his passenger. The ensuing accident has endangered the Plumbs joint trust fund, “The Nest,” which they are months away from finally receiving. Meant by their deceased father to be a modest mid-life supplement, the Plumb siblings have watched The Nest’s value soar along with the stock market and have been counting on the money to solve a number of self-inflicted problems.

Melody, a wife and mother in an upscale suburb, has an unwieldy mortgage and looming college tuition for her twin teenage daughters. Jack, an antiques dealer, has secretly borrowed against the beach cottage he shares with his husband, Walker, to keep his store open. And Bea, a once-promising short-story writer, just can’t seem to finish her overdue novel. Can Leo rescue his siblings and, by extension, the people they love? Or will everyone need to reimagine the future they’ve envisioned? Brought together as never before, Leo, Melody, Jack, and Beatrice must grapple with old resentments, present-day truths, and the significant emotional and financial toll of the accident, as well as finally acknowledge the choices they have made in their own lives.

This is a story about the power of family, the possibilities of friendship, the ways we depend upon one another and the ways we let one another down. In this tender, entertaining, and deftly written debut, Sweeney brings a remarkable cast of characters to life to illuminate what money does to relationships, what happens to our ambitions over the course of time, and the fraught yet unbreakable ties we share with those we love.

I almost didn’t read The Nest. I was worried that it would be another piece about entitled kids from rich parents at the moments that they realized their lives aren’t set in stone for all eternity. I fell a little bit in cover love with the book, and it was everywhere you looked: on TV, in magazines, on giant posters at the bookstore…

So I gave it a whirl. And while it wasn’t as vacuous and superficial as I feared it would be, it did not stray too far from that often-used trope.

We meet the Plumbs – Leo, Jack, Beatrice, and Melody – I had to look up all of their names again, because there are some plot stumbling blocks that makes the story not about them, but also about the effect they have on other people. This sounds like a good thing, but it also lessens the insight we get into each of the Plumb siblings, who all need more development at the story’s close.

In addition to the Plumbs, we get a grieving widower with a 9/11 connection, one or both of Melody’s twin daughters, occasionally one of the sibling’s romantic partners, and most significantly, Stephanie, Leo’s former flame/perhaps only friend. These perspectives narrate chapters in between the Plumb’s narrations, and it gets distracting. In fact, I could almost say that the story is more about Stephanie than about the Plumb siblings. The book ends on such a strong, life-altering note having to do with Stephanie, that I’m kind of reeling, thinking what did I just read? Is this about the Plumbs, or about the people who know the Plumbs?

The Nest is almost a side-plot. I don’t think we know with absolute certainty what really happens with the money still in the fund. What we really watch is the Plumbs digging themselves more and more into their perspective holes – financially, emotionally, relationship-wise, work-wise, and family-dynamic-wise. And it can be kind of fun/terrible to watch. You know, in the way a crash on the highway causes traffic because everyone is rubber-necking: it’s obnoxious when you’re in the traffic because you’re trying to get where you’re going. But you inevitably rubber-neck too.

The Plumbs are almost universally selfish, naïve, and nearly blind to their own faults while pointing out the faults of others (especially their siblings). The writing is very well done, with chapters zipping by, plot twists carefully laid out, and emotional punches around surprising corners. A dinner party at which the reality of The Nest is revealed to all characters not still in the know is particularly well structured and paced.

But I could eliminate almost all the other chapters from other characters and probably like the novel more, if the extra time were spent on developing and growing the main quartet of Plumbs. By novel’s end, none of them seem to have learned a whole heckuva lot. Leo is perhaps the most deplorable, but I’m not about to spoil anything.

It’s a fast-paced can’t-look-away kind of novel, but we don’t get particularly rounded characters, or even a bottom line on the book’s namesake by story’s end. It’s good, quick summer reading though.

My Grade: C+

&Review: Two if by Sea by Jacquelyn Mitchard

Two if By Sea by Jacqueline Mitchard. Publisher: Simon & Schuster March 2016.

Two if By Sea by Jacqueline Mitchard. Publisher: Simon & Schuster March 2016.

The Book Itself: It’s a nice cover. It’s not terrible. It’s not fantastic. It’s really just an image of water and plain writing. Overall, a little meh.

My Review: Just hours after his wife and her entire family perish in the Christmas Eve  tsunami in Brisbane, American expat and former police officer Frank Mercy goes out to join his volunteer rescue unit and pulls a little boy from a submerged car, saving the child’s life with only seconds to spare. In that moment, Frank’s own life is transformed.

Not quite knowing why, Frank sidesteps the law, when, instead of turning Ian over to the Red Cross, he takes the boy home to the Midwestern farm where he grew up. Not long into their journey, Frank begins to believe that Ian has an extraordinary, impossible telepathic gift; but his only wish is to protect the deeply frightened child. As Frank struggles to start over, training horses as his father and grandfather did before him, he meets Claudia, a champion equestrian and someone with whom he can share his life—and his fears for Ian.

Both of them know that it will be impossible to keep Ian’s gift a secret forever. Already, ominous coincidences have put Frank’s police instincts on high alert, as strangers trespass the quiet life at the family farm.

The fight to keep Ian safe from a sinister group who want him back takes readers from the ravaged shores of Brisbane to the middle of America to a quaint English village.

Even as Frank and Claudia dare to hope for new love, it becomes clear that they can never let Ian go, no matter what the cost. A suspenseful novel on a grand scale, Two If by Sea is about the best and worst in people, and the possibility of heroism and even magic in ordinary life.

I fell prey to the magazine-trap with this book. I saw it in a bunch of magazines that listed it as a “Must Read” or “One of the Hottest Books of the Summer” or “Read This or Your Book Club Isn’t Legitimate” (that last one wasn’t a real article title, in case you couldn’t tell).

Two if by Sea is about a grief-stricken man who semi-kidnaps a child endangered in the same tsunami aftermath that killed his wife and her entire family. Because that won’t give you issues. He eventually takes the boy all the way to his childhood farm to live with him and his parents, falsified passport and everything. The thing that piqued my interest about this book is that Ian, the mysterious boy, has some kind of secret/magical ability that Frank and his family feel they must keep secret.

It’s a great premise. But I don’t think it’s told in a very effective or compelling way, and the ending falls rather flat.

First of all, Frank, our kidnapper (he’s not creepy or anything, but come on, that’s what he did), is way too interior throughout the entire book. He’s the third person narrator of our story, and he just thinks way too much. Some of this is to be expected: he suffered an overwhelming trauma and eventually you just have to think your way around how act and function again. But that’s not what he thinks so hard about. Yes, he’s traumatized and full of grief. But beyond that, the narration of the book is spent on unpacking feelings and the mechanics of certain emotions, and not on actions or plot points in the story. At one point, Frank actually says “What is love, really?” and I 1) immediately got “What is Love” by Haddaway stuck in my head, and 2) literally rolled my eyes as he went on for four whole pages on what love can be compared to, and how the love he had for his wife differs from the love he has for Ian or his new lady love, Claudia. It gets old, fast.

Another reason I was intrigued by this book is that it sounded like horses were going to play a big part in the setting, and maybe in the healing process for both Frank and Ian (I went through a big horse phase growing up). Frank takes Ian to his childhood farm, he becomes romantically involved with a woman who show jumps horses, and horses and horse training seem like they are a big part of his life. But so little time is devoted to horses, I’m kind of left wondering about what their actual function in the novel was. Other than a single scene where Frank (briefly) trains Claudia and her horse, the time spent on horses and horse competitions is very cursory. There is a semi-wild filly that helps illustrate Ian’s ability, and the families in the novel do chores around the barn and talk about what horse should do what event, etc. but either I did not understand the role horses truly played in the novel, or it was not made clear enough (maybe both?)

Ian’s ability is…a little confusing. It is never fully explained – there is no doctor specializing in paranormal or superhuman abilities there to explain away his power (and I am glad there is not). We only have the people around Ian’s opinion and observations about what he can do. The extent of what he can do, as well as its limitations are foggy at best. I wasn’t looking for a concrete, easy to explain superhero power – he can become invisible, or he can heal people – but at the end of the story, I still don’t know if I’m sure what Ian can actually do.

You’ve got a boy with a superpower, and a family protecting him, so of course you’ve got a bad guy. Problem is, you never understand who these bad guys truly are, or what their motivation is, even after the book ends. Sure, Frank and his family flee, the action ramps up in the book’s last 40 pages or so, and there is some tense, violent conflict. But I still don’t know who these people are who have been chasing Ian. What are their backstories? What exactly do they intend to do with him? It feels like a lot of build up for not enough return.

Overall, too many components of the plot and characters were not filled out for me, despite Frank’s insistence on thinking through everything for page upon page. I didn’t truly love any of the characters, because I felt like I didn’t really know them. And the conflict that should have brought the whole thing together, as well as Ian’s mysterious ability, did not help my rating. Sorry that I got “What is Love” stuck in your head…

My Grade: C-

& Review: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. Fiction. Publisher: Riverhead Books September 2015

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. Fiction. Publisher: Riverhead Books September 2015

The Book Itself: Are those feathers? Waves? I suppose it’s a cool design, and the title is simple and graphic.

My ReviewEvery story has two sides. Every relationship has two perspectives. And sometimes, it turns out, the key to a great marriage is not its truths but its secrets. At the core of this rich, expansive, layered novel, Lauren Groff presents the story of one such marriage over the course of twenty-four years.

At age twenty-two, Lotto and Mathilde are tall, glamorous, madly in love, and destined for greatness. A decade later, their marriage is still the envy of their friends, but with an electric thrill we understand that things are even more complicated and remarkable than they have seemed.

This is finally the last book I read in 2015! I don’t necessarily post my reviews in the order I read things – Red Seas Under Red Skies , which I read in December, had to be posted right away because I featured it in my Best Books of 2015. Whereas Menagerie, read in October/November, is just now getting posted this month. So I’m not that behind, really. But I am behind.

Anyway.

I had been in fantasy world for a while before I got to Fates and Furies, a book that I had heard so much in magazines and articles that I felt like I kind of had to pick it up. Barack Obama selected this as his favorite book of 2015, so hello big deal fiction right here.

And just so you know, Lotto and Mathilde aren’t all that likeable. The book starts off with Lotto, a rich boy born to rich parents who disown him when he meets and marries Mathilde soon after. He is sullen, spoiled and pouty, and totally wrapped up in either only himself, or just him and Mathilde as they appear to other people. Mathilde narrates the second half of the book, revealing more of her character and the things Lotto didn’t know (which could probably fill up another book). If you only read Lotto’s section, you think Mathilde is an untouchable goddess, practically perfect in every way, beautiful and effortless and above reproach. You find out she’s actually kind of a bitch when it gets to her perspective.

This is the story of a marriage between two bad people, prettied up with flowering prose.

And it tries very hard to be prose poetry in book form. This seems strained when you read things like Lotto, clean as camphor at his neck and belly, like electrified pennies at the armpit, like chlorine at the groin” and “Spin of bottles and flip-flops and zip ties and packing peanuts and boas and baby-doll heads and false eyelashes and inflatable taxidermy.” This book tries way. Too. Hard. The entire way. A few strange sights or elaborate metaphors would have been much more impactful if they were few and far between. As it is, we have a moody/vain actor-turned-writer who churns out a miraculous play every year, whose wife is the perfect Stepford-model partner who polishes his plays to sparkling diamonds and never lets this shiny veneer crack until it’s her turn to speak. I don’t like them (they call any woman who has children “breeders,” even Lotto, who begs for a child nearly the entire story, saying a woman who had a child has a “soft, breeder’s belly,” which I just find really rude), and I got tired of the poetry.

What is it trying to do in regards to marriage is interesting. Gone Girl did this to the extreme: painting the picture of two people who have fallen in love and married, and then slowly exposing their horrible, terrible, sadistic sides. Fates and Furies does that on a much tamer level, although these married folks are just petty and shallow. Gone Girl’s were just psychopaths, the both of them. Both Lotto and Mathilde have secret selves, that even though they have this deep, passionate love, they do not share with each other. They are two different people, and we only see that when we get Mathilde’s perspective – she is much more complex than the mostly-perfect-goddess Lotto paints her to be. I did like this slow unveil of each character, and filling in the gaps of knowledge I had about events in the story once we got both sides to the coin. But that wasn’t enough to make me like either of them.

Plus, the sex scenes are unattractive (not that sex is always attractive) and at times, obscene. Not my favorite book.

My Grade: C-

& Review: How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz

How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz. Fiction. Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt May 2015

How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz. Fiction. Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt May 2015

The Book Itself: I am beginning to think that I only choose simple, graphic covers. While I do like the simplicity of it, it doesn’t really tell you what the book is about. There are three friends involved, and there are three components to the graphic flame?

My ReviewWhen UC Santa Cruz roommates Anna and Kate find passed-out Georgiana Leoni on a lawn one night, they wheel her to their dorm in a shopping cart. Twenty years later, they gather around a campfire on the lawn of a New England mansion. What happens in between-the web of wild adventures, unspoken jealousies, and sudden tragedies that alter the course of their lives-is charted with sharp wit and aching sadness in this meticulously constructed novel.

Anna, the de facto leader, is fearless and restless-moving fast to stay one step ahead of her demons. Quirky, contemplative Kate is a natural sidekick but a terrible wingman (“If you go home with him, might I suggest breathing through your mouth”). And then there’s George: the most desired woman in any room, and the one most likely to leave with the worst man.

Shot through with the crackling dialogue, irresistible characters, and propulsive narrative drive that make Lutz’s books so beloved, How to Start a Fire pulls us deep into Anna, Kate, and George’s complicated bond and pays homage to the abiding, irrational love we share with the family we choose.

*sigh* Too many pet peeves in this one to help me truly enjoy it. It has severely dysfunctional, unlikable characters who all talk and think the same, a jumpy timeline with no backbone or common thread, and a story with no real resolution or redeeming moment for anyone involved.

Let’s break it down by our narrators: Anna is perhaps the most annoying to me. She is power hungry and has a desperate need to be the center of attention, leading to serious, serious problems with drugs and alcohol post-college. She is sanctimonious, rude, and I never believe that she is going to change, even when she tries and tries again to kick her habits.

Kate is everyone’s enabler. She is unambitious, spending most of the novel in front of TVs, jobless, stubbornly hating her family for doing nothing wrong. She is also, largely, too passive to be really memorable.

George is so needy for male attention (daddy issues – what else?) that she either dates huge jerks, or men she feels no attraction to (but they’re the opposite of the guys she usually dates, so she’ll develop feelings for them, right? Wrong). She is also pretty hateful and spiteful towards virtually everyone.

I don’t like them. I don’t connect to any of them. While I think all of their problems are realistic, and we all know people in our lives similar to one or more of these women, they all stay nasty and addicted and subservient. None of them really overcome anything. None of them acknowledge their issues or work through them or treat each other well (even though this is a story supposedly about lifelong female friendship). I’m not asking for a happy ending with sparkles and rainbows, but I want to see characters grow. And I get that not all people grow, not everyone sorts through their flaws or even recognizes them. But it’s incredibly frustrating to read that – I feel like I am cheated out of an actual story. What is this if these characters don’t show growth or change?

This is compounded by the jumpy narrative. Every chapter jumps around on the timeline, and jumps between narrators. It is very hard to keep up, and I eventually stopped trying. Sometimes there are unifying clues – this person has died by the time this chapter’s events occur, Anna has been fired from this job already, etc. But overall, you’re left to fend for yourself. It feels too scattered, too piece-y to bring things together. I think this really affected how I saw and felt about our characters (who I think you can tell I’m not too fond of…)

Finally, they all talk and think in the same tone and inflection. I found myself having to flip back a few pages to see who was talking, because they all spoke in the same, clipped, almost robotic fashion. Overall, I wanted more variety, more growth, more story out of this story, and I was disappointed.

My Grade: C-

& Review: The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan. Fiction. Publisher: Crown, 2015

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan. Fiction. Publisher: Crown, 2015

The Book Itself: This. Cover. I adore it. Who is the artist, because I need prints of this and a whole bunch of other art he/she does. It’s so ethereal and awesome!

My Review: As a Gracekeeper, Callanish administers shoreside burials, sending the dead to their final resting place deep in the depths of the ocean. Alone on her island, she has exiled herself to a life of tending watery graves as penance for a long-ago mistake that still haunts her. Meanwhile, North works as a circus performer with the Excalibur, a floating troupe of acrobats, clowns, dancers, and trainers who sail from one archipelago to the next, entertaining in exchange for sustenance.

In a world divided between those inhabiting the mainland (“landlockers”) and those who float on the sea (“damplings”), loneliness has become a way of life for North and Callanish, until a sudden storm offshore brings change to both their lives–offering them a new understanding of the world they live in and the consequences of the past, while restoring hope in an unexpected future.

Just look at that cover…wouldn’t you pick it up, too? This is one of those books where I saw it, fell a little bit in cover-love, and then I read the synopsis and fell a little bit in synopsis-love. It looked and sounded so cool and interesting! Sailing circuses! Water-people and land-people! Bear tamers and ringleaders and trapeze artists (oh my!)!

It has been compared to Night Circus…but the fact that they both include circuses in their plot is pretty much the end of those similarities. Night Circus had a bright, magical quality to the writing and setting. The Gracekeepers is definitely more subdued and gritty. Death is a predominant theme in Gracekeepers: one of the main characters takes care of the dead in underwater burial ceremonies. North is motherless, and lives with the bear she performs with, aware in every scene that he could turn on her and harm her (or worse).

There are some minor characters that Logan tries to give their moment in the sun.  A few of them narrate a couple of chapters. But they’re not as strongly outlined as North and Callanish. They’re chapters serve to fill in a few of the information gaps in North’s knowledge of the circus’ inner-workings, or a stranger’s impression of Callanish’s strange habits, but overall the secondary characters aren’t as strong.

I lagged a bit reading The Gracekeepers. I’m not sure if it was the gloomy tone or the slow-paced plot or even the characters, but this one didn’t grab me.

I will say something for the atmosphere and tone though: it is all very well built. The world Gracekeepers inhabits is a misty, mysterious moor of islands scattered throughout a large body of water. The main landmass has a nature-based religion all its own, centered on a giant tree where weddings, funerals, and births are celebrated at the base. Other than the floating circus, enormous ships carry members of a more Christian- or Catholic-based religion, performing passion plays every night and frowning on those who worship the nature religion. It’s a marvelously built world system, with the relationships between communities and the characters introduced gradually. There is a conflict between those who choose to live their lives on land, and those on the water, and even those who desire both. And that relationship is explored pretty well, too.

There are some other, more hazy themes that I wish were either explored further, or left alone. The concept of mermaids actually plays kind of a key role, but it’s all but casually mentioned. There are mermaids. Sometimes they sleep with humans. That’s about it. Literally. There is a gorgeous description of an underwater kingdom (that I think had to do with the mermaids? That connection is hazy at best), but it is described and then left alone. Tell me more about that! I wanted to shout. That sounds cool!

I was not besotted with any character. Even North and Callanish seemed a little drab. Their world was complex and wonderfully tension-filled,  but I kept wanting them to do more. They let their circumstances and pasts bring them down, and even the epilogue left me just shrugging, ready to move on to something else.

It’s beautifully written in parts. I just wish I got more out of the characters for it.

My Grade: C