Tag Archives: mystery

Book review: eight short reviews to round out 2014

It’s almost the end of the year and the internet is bursting with comprehensive end-of-year book round-ups. This post, I must warn you, will not be one of those. If you want a great list of recent books to check out, the NPR Book Concierge is a fun, interactive collection of book recommendations that I used to find some of these very books that I’m about to review. This post, on the other hand, will be a list of eight books that I’ve read recently, in no particular order. So — you know, forewarned is forearmed.

Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

bel canto

A friend from high school, Erin, recommended this book to me (as well as some of Patchett’s other books, including This is the Story of a Happy Marriage), and I’m so glad she did. The premise — a famous opera singer is taken hostage, along with a number of other people, during a birthday party at the home of the Vice President of an unnamed South American country — did not immediately grab me, but I was soon sucked in by Patchett’s beautiful writing and vividly drawn characters. The book is told from the perspective of a number of these characters — both hostages and kidnappers alike — which, in another author’s hands, might have come out as clunky or overreaching, but Patchett pulls it off seamlessly, easily flowing out of one character’s head and into another’s. The result is that we get to know these people deeply and intimately, and we really care about what happens to them, even the ones who seem, at first glance, completely unsympathetic. The ending of the book is both wrenching and lovely, and will stick with you the way only a truly satisfying ending can. Highly recommended.

The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

oms

When I was a freshman at Stanford, I was lucky enough to take a creative writing class taught by Julie Orringer, who at the time was a Stegner fellow and is now a successful novelist (please check out her gorgeous novel, The Invisible Bridge). One day, as a special treat, she brought our entire class to her house in the Haight district of San Francisco and invited over her friend Adam Johnson, who read aloud to us one of his short stories from his collection Emporium. I remember sitting on the floor, eating strawberries, and listening to him read. Then, twelve years passed and I never read anything else Johnson wrote, until I became aware, two years after it was published, of his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son. “Oh yeah,” I thought, “that’s the guy who read to us at Julie Orringer’s house. I should check out that book.” Anyway, all of this is to say that as I was reading The Orphan Master’s Son, jaw ajar, I kept reminding myself that, oh my God, Adam Johnson READ ALOUD to me and a few other students twelve years ago, and how awesome is that? The Orphan Master’s Son is a truly impressive piece of fiction. It takes place in North Korea in the 1990s and 2000s and manages to capture the overwhelming brutality of daily life in that regime while still telling quite a beautiful story of love and hope. I’ve read non-fiction about North Korea before (see, e.g., Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy), but Johnson’s fictional version of the place felt even more real, even more oppressive and urgent, than the real-life stories I’ve read. This isn’t a lighthearted beach read, by any means, but there are quite a few moments of humor and lightness. Highly recommended. NYT review here, for those interested.

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

77.David Mitchell-The Bone Clocks jacket

I was a big fan of Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, so I was eager to pick up The Bone Clocks, which follows a similar structure of interwoven, temporally distinct stories told from different characters’ perspectives. It’s hard to succinctly describe the plot of The Bone Clocks, since it spans sixty years and a host of characters and sub-plots, but suffice it to say the main action revolves around a metaphysical war between the good guys (the Horologists, a group of immortal souls who are eternally reborn into different bodies) and the bad guys (the Anchorites, a group of evildoers who manage to evade death by drinking the lifeblood of humans with “psychosoteric” abilities). Now that I’m writing this out, the Anchorites sound a lot like the bad guys in Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, don’t they? Anyway, in my opinion, the drawn-out battles between the Anchorites and the Horologists were the least interesting part of The Bone Clocks; I preferred the smaller scale stories about the mortal humans caught in the middle of the larger war. As always, Mitchell’s writing is a delight — who else could coin the term “gentle-twat?”– and even the convoluted fight scenes among the warring forces were pretty fun to read. Recommended for fans of Cloud Atlas who are itching for something else weird from Mitchell’s brain.

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

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This book got a lot of buzz this fall, and as soon as I started hearing about it, I knew I’d buy it since I’ve read and enjoyed (for the most part) two other books by Sarah Waters. This one might be my favorite so far. The Paying Guests, which takes place in 1922 London, explores the reverberating consequences of a series of bad decisions involving love and violence. The plot includes a torrid lesbian love affair, betrayals, money woes, the justice system, lying, scheming, cheating — it’s a page-turner! As always, I love Waters’ writing; she has a gift for capturing universal truths in little snippets of prose. When describing the main character’s solo wanderings through London, she writes: “She loved these walks through London. She seemed, as she made them, to become porous, to soak in detail after detail; or else, like a battery, to become charged. Yes, that was it, she thought, as she turned a corner: it wasn’t a liquid creeping, it was a tingle, something electric, something produced as if by friction of her shoes against the streets. She was at her truest, it seemed to her, in those tingling moments — these moments when, paradoxically, she was also at her most anonymous.” Recommended.

The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman

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Like The Paying Guests, The Light Between Oceans is another story about the lasting consequences of a series of bad decisions — in this case, the misguided decision by a childless couple living in a remote lighthouse off the coast of Australia to keep a baby who washes ashore in a boat, rather than alerting the authorities on the mainland. I have mixed feelings on this book. On the one hand, I was absorbed in the story as I read, but on the other, when the story ended, I felt quite let down by the patness of its conclusion. There’s a tough balance to be struck by an author in resolving a plot satisfactorily — tying up loose ends and answering big questions — and tying everything into such a neat bow that the story feels less authentic as a result. I think M.L. Stedman veered too far into “happily ever after” territory in concluding this story, which, at its heart, should have recognized the fact that sometimes, things do get ruined, and you can’t go back to how things were before.

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

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I love a good story about a mysterious disappearance. This story, set in 1970s small-town Ohio, revolves around the disappearance of one Lydia Lee, the eldest daughter of James and Marilyn. The Lee family sticks out in their small college town because James is Chinese-American and Marilyn is white and their children, consequently, are considered oddities at their otherwise all-white high school. When Lydia goes missing, speculative articles in the local paper wonder about whether Lydia’s status as one of the only “Orientals” at her school could have led to her committing suicide. The circumstances leading up to Lydia’s disappearance, we come to understand, seem to have something to do with her unhappy family and social life, but it remains unclear what, exactly, happened until the very end of the book. Along the way, Ng tells a complex tale about family dynamics affected by racial and cultural tensions. My only real complaint about the way the story is told has to do with Ng’s tendency to pepper her story with “ripped from the headlines” real news items, as if to remind the reader that, yes, we’re still in the 1970s. It adds nothing to the story of Lydia Lee to be reminded that “1976 was a topsy-turvy time, [ ] culminating in an unusually cold winter and strange headlines…” Otherwise, the story is well told, moving, and keeps you guessing until the end. Recommended.

The Fever, by Megan Abbott

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The Fever may be one of my favorite books that I’ve read in recent months. It is a deeply creepy, beautifully rendered look at what happens when a mysterious affliction sweeps through a high school, sending girls — and only girls — to the hospital en masse. What’s causing it? The HPV vaccine? Environmental causes? A virus? Or something else entirely? I flew through this book, enjoying how utterly creeped out I was by it, and didn’t read a single review until today, when I read the New York Times review and realized that, yes, there were some troubling assumptions about female sexuality baked into this story. But even accepting that Abbott’s starting point about young women and sex might be problematic and recognizing that her portrayals of female and male characters are somewhat skewed, this book sucked me in and spat me out. Highly recommended for lovers of dark mysteries.

Delancey: A Man, a Woman, a Restaurant, a Marriage, by Molly Wizenberg

delancey

This is a slim little memoir about a couple who opened a pizza restaurant in Seattle, and the trials and tribulations they faced along the way. It’s also sprinkled throughout with some scrumptious sounding non-pizza recipes. I enjoyed reading about the nitty-gritty involved with launching a business, and a peek behind the scenes at the blood, sweat, and tears that go into the day-to-day operation of even a small restaurant. Recommended for food lovers and those looking for a light, quick non-fiction read.

What have you read this year that you couldn’t put down? Let me know; I’m always looking for my next read!

What I’ve been working on

It’s about time for a little update/mea culpa about why I haven’t been blogging much lately. It’s because I’ve been revising a manuscript and I JUST finished! Hooray! I’ve been working on this thing since November, which feels like an incredibly long time, since I can usually bust out a complete and revised manuscript in a couple of months. This time was different, because I wrote a MYSTERY NOVEL.

Turns out, I’ve learned over the past eight months, mystery novels are tough to write. You have to think about things like clues, and foreshadowing, and fairness to the reader, plus all the things you normally have to think about, like pacing, and structure, and character development. To prepare, I read quite a few mystery novels, including Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder and Murder on the Orient Express. (That woman was a genius; if I can craft a mystery half as well structured as one of hers, I’ll consider myself an unqualified success). Anyway, now I have a manuscript, ready to be perused by my beta readers (namely, my husband and a friend who gives great editing feedback).

Other than that, I’ve been working on the usual stuff: freelancing (for Previously.TV and TimeOut) and some short fiction. But mostly, it’s been the manuscript. Now that I have more free time, maybe I’ll blog more — but no promises.

Happy July!

Book review Tuesday: six quick book reviews

As usual, I’ve fallen behind on my blogging. My excuse is that it’s Bachelorette season, which means I’m covering the carnage for Previously.TV, plus I’m revising my mystery novel (more on that later, hopefully!), so things are relatively busy. But, in the last few weeks that I haven’t touched my blog, I’ve read a bunch of books, and want to talk about some of them. So, without further ado, here are six quick book reviews.

Her: A Memoir, by Christa Parravani: A devastating and beautiful memoir written by a woman who lost her identical twin sister to a heroin overdose. Parravani is a photographer who often featured her sister, Cara, in her work. Throughout their adult lives, Christa and Cara Parravani, both artists, struggled with addiction and maintaining healthy relationships, but after being violently raped, Cara’s drug use spiraled out of control. As Cara fell deeper and deeper into self-destruction, her relationship with Christa became increasingly strained. Over and over, Christa would attempt to help Cara and then become frustrated with Cara’s refusal to try to help herself. The cycle repeated itself until Cara’s untimely death. The book explores the tension between loving a person more than anyone else in the world while also resenting (and at times even hating) that person. As Christa writes in one passage about Cara’s struggles, “Not only did she not want to suffer alone, she demanded co-suffering from all who dared love her.” I teared up reading this book. Some of it was difficult to read. But I’m so glad I read it. (Here’s an NPR interview with Parravani).

Source: NPR

Source: NPR

Harbor, by John Ajvide Lindqvist: I love a dark, Nordic thriller, and so I picked up Harbor, the story of a mysterious Swedish island whose inhabitants have struck a bargain with a sinister force. The author, John Ajvide Lindqvist, also wrote Let the Right One In, so I figured his creepy pedigree was strong. The book starts off with a family — two parents and a young girl — skiing from their cottage on the small island where they live to a lighthouse in the middle of a frozen channel. Within a few minutes of reaching the lighthouse, the little girl has disappeared. There are no other people around, no trace of a body, no hole in the ice. The girl appears to have been swallowed up into thin air. The book follows the girl’s desperate father as he searches over the coming years for his missing daughter and unravels the island’s dark secrets in the process. Harbor is not so much a thriller as a supernatural horror story: think a Stephen King novel set in small town Sweden instead of small town Maine. It’s weird, and creepy, but it can be a bit ponderous, at times. Overall, though, it was an engaging read, and something different from your standard Dean Koontz-style horror novel.

The Visionist, by Rachel Urquhart: My mom was the one who recommended this book about a Shaker community in 1840s Massachusetts. First, a disclaimer: I don’t always like historical fiction because I find it can be a bit dry, a bit draggy, or a bit too infused with modern sensibilities (which is why I love Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series so much, because it avoids all of these pitfalls). The Visionist, like much other historical fiction I’ve read, was a bit draggy at times. However, the book’s detailed portrait of life inside a Shaker community kept me engaged. I knew next to nothing about the Shakers before reading this novel, but now I feel like I know what it would have been like to live among them. The titular “visionist” is a teenage girl, Polly Kimball, who is sent to live among the Shakers after she leaves her abusive father to die in a house fire. Her mother wants Polly and her brother to have a better life than she can provide, and so she leaves them at the City of Hope, a Shaker community headed by the severe Elder Agnes. When Polly gets carried away during a worship meeting, the Shakers assume she is receiving divine visions and elevate her to the position of “visionist.” The ensuing tension that unfolds between Polly, a suspicious Elder Agnes, and Sister Charity, Polly’s trusting friend within the community, feels both sad and inevitable.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. The less I say about this brilliant, funny, and touching book, the better, because it’s quite easy to spoil. Please do yourself a favor and just read it. Now. You’re welcome.

Source: NPR

Source: NPR

Sleeping Murder, by Agatha Christie. As I may have mentioned, I’m writing a mystery novel. To get my brain in fighting shape for the task, I’ve been reading a lot of mysteries. In terms of expertly crafted, tightly written, clever sleuth novels, no one beats Agatha Christie. Reading her novels is a great object lesson in What To Do while writing a mystery. The woman was a genius! I’ve enjoyed every Christie book I’ve read, and Sleeping Murder is no exception. This was the first Miss Marple mystery I read and I will be reading more; the character is a delight (and she knits!).

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. Speaking of geniuses, Margaret Atwood is one of the most inventive authors of our time, especially when it comes to imagining post-apocalyptic hellscapes wrought by human arrogance and foolishness. Oryx and Crake imagines a world in the not-too distant future in which humankind has been effectively wiped out by a human-manufactured disease. The world before the disease was dominated by Monsanto-like corporations that cranked out horrific animal hybrids and mutations such as Chickie-Nobs: headless, brainless, motionless chickens harvested in labs for their meat. Atwood’s dire vision of our potential future is gloomy, to put it mildly, and can feel heavy-handed at times, but it’s also fascinating, and so well written that I kept turning pages, even as I was horrified by what I was reading. Even more incentive to read Oryx and Crake: it’s part of a trilogy of novels that’s being turned into an HBO series!

Source: Amazon

Source: Amazon

What are you reading these days? Any recommendations? I’ve just started Neil Gaiman’s Stardust (and am loving it so far) and next in the hopper is Christina Garcia’s King of Cuba. Happy reading!