And I almost missed it. First up, Otto in his younger, spry days.
And then Pete, after locking me out of the car. With him in it. And it running. And without even the grace to look embarrassed.
Title: Day Four
Author: Sarah Lotz
Star Rating: 4 out of 5
Buy, Borrow, Skip: Buy, especially if you liked The Three
Bonus: It'll save you money on cruises.
Sarah Lotz knows a thing or two about suspense and atmosphere, as she proved with her debut novel, The Three. Day Four, her follow up, is a sort-of sequel. It follows a group of passengers and crew on board a cruise ship, and readers of The Three will recognize certain characters and events mentioned (even if they're a little skewed).
On day four of the cruise, something happens--to the boilers? the generators? a fire? It's kept a little vague--and the ship comes to a complete stop. Passengers and crew fall ill to a virus, and those who aren't sick begin seeing...something. The paranoia and claustrophobia only increase as the novel wears on. Lotz has a deft hand with the descriptions and scene-setting, to the point we're not really sure what we're witnessing. Is it just paranoia? Or is something supernatural really occurring? The presence of Celine del Ray, a celebrity medium, does nothing to clear things up; instead she manages to divide the castaways into Believers and Unbelievers.
Lotz is extraordinarily talented in making seemingly mundane details creepy, and her characters are fantastic. Her voice changes completely from character to character, and even the narrative method changes. Some characters are first person narrators, others are third. Sometimes our point of view is through a blog post. Often times with multiple narrators, I'll have to pause and consciously think about which character I'm reading about (The Kind Worth Killing comes to mind here), but that was never an issue with Day Four.
While one needn't have read The Three to enjoy Day Four, I do think it would help. The first novel gives the reader a more in-depth grounding in the world Lotz has created, and the ending especially might be a little more difficult to understand without that background.
However. (Not too terribly spoilery, but again, it might give away more than you want to know.)
I grew up watching reruns of the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman series. I was obsessed, I'll admit it. She was beautiful and strong and took care of problems her way, and she wore some pretty great boots while doing it. I'd run around the house in my Wonder Woman Underoos and red knee-socks, fighting crime and protecting the innocent. So yeah, I was pretty excited to hear about Jill Lepore's The Secret History of Wonder Woman.
It's quite the story. Wonder Woman's creator, William Moulton Marston, was also the inventor of the first lie detector test, a Harvard alum, an ardent feminist, and an incorrigible huckster. He lived with his wife, his mistress, (occasionally) his other mistress, and their combined four children. One of his mistresses was the niece of Margaret Sanger, the feminist and birth control crusader whose organization morphed into Planned Parenthood. After his death, the three women continued to live together in some fashion or another for the rest of their lives.
Lepore skillfully juggles a number of plot points and influences while managing to create a sympathetic (if not entirely likable) portrait of a man with dearly held beliefs, beliefs he held to devoutly despite a world that refused to accept them. Lepore takes his beliefs and, after a few twists and turns, shows us how they became Wonder Woman, and how Wonder Woman later became the face of feminism in the 1960s and 70s. It's a remarkable narrative even without the scintillating bits; part biography, part history of suffrage and feminism, part history on comic books' relevance and impact on children, centered on one character in particular. My only real criticism is with Lepore's writing, which jerks and judders on several occasions. She also drops details into the middle of an otherwise unrelated paragraph on the most tenuous of connections. Still, it's quite the read for anyone who grew up idolizing Wonder Woman or anyone interested in the meandering course of feminism from the 1900s to the present.
Title: The Secret History of Wonder Woman
Author: Jill Lepore
Star Rating: 4 out of 5
Buy, Borrow, Skip: Buy
Bonus: Aphrodite's Shield! Wonder Woman herself is the bonus!
In a Dark, Dark Wood is the debut novel of British novelist Ruth Ware. Nora is a twenty-six-year-old crime writer living by herself in London, her days kept orderly by routine. Out of the blue, she's invited to a hen party (that's a bachelorette party for those of us living west of the Atlantic) for Clare Cavendish, the woman who was her childhood best friend until an unspecified event made Nora leave her hometown for good ten years previously. She hasn't talked to Clare since. So why, Nora wonders, is she invited? Should she go?
Obviously, she does or there'd be no novel. What unfolds is plenty of secrets, a few lies, and a murder. Ware tends to harp on atmosphere to an almost ridiculous degree--she wants the reader to see the secluded location as creepy and doesn't miss an opportunity to describe it as such. (Meanwhile, I spent the whole time thinking I'd love to visit The Glass House. It sounds gorgeous.) I got a little tired of being beaten over the head with how the trees looked intimidating and the characters felt as if they were on stage. We get it already.
Also, the end is telegraphed from about a mile away. What I enjoy about books such as The Girl on the Train or Gone Girl is that I'm not sure how the author is going to tie everything together, how the story is going to end up. With In a Dark, Dark Wood, it was obvious from about halfway through.
Still, I didn't want to stop reading it. Ware has a way of unspooling Nora's inner thoughts that made me want to see where she'd go next, despite some of those places being rather ridiculous. I'll read another Ware to see whether she grows into her skill.
Title: In a Dark, Dark, Wood
Author: Ruth Ware
Star Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Buy, Borrow, Skip: Borrow if you're a fan of thrillers like the two mentioned above; skip otherwise
Bonus: Ouija board! Skeet shooting!
A nonfiction title! Yep, I've gone from trashy pool reads to a true account of "terror, espionage, and one American family's heroic resistance in Nazi-occupied Paris." Avenue of Spies, by Alex Kershaw, tells the story of an American-born doctor, Sumner Jackson; his Swiss wife, Toquette; and their son Phillip during the occupation of Paris during WWII, a time when their apartment on one of Paris's most luxurious avenues was just yards from the Gestapo headquarters. Despite the risks involved, the Jacksons joined the French Resistance and contributed in different ways to undermining the Nazis and regaining their country.
It's a compelling story. Phillip Jackson was a primary source of information for Kershaw, which gives the narrative a truly immediate feel. The juxtaposition of the Jacksons' story with that of several of the highest-ranking Gestapo and SS officials in Paris works well, too, as each section builds suspense toward the next. As a reader, I was constantly wondering how the action described in one chapter would influence or affect the other subjects. I also appreciated Kershaw including the aftermath of the war on his subjects. So often the liberation of the camp or VE Day or the arrival home is an author's end point, even though it's hardly the end for the people involved--I always wonder how people adjusted to life on the other side of the war. Kershaw provides answers here, answers that provided more closure than I sometimes get from other accounts, whether fictional or not.
On the other hand, Kershaw needs a better editor. I cannot count the number of times he wrote, "Toquette's sister, Tat," within just paragraphs, or the number of times he reiterated the Jacksons' address at 11, Avenue Foch, and untold other repetitions. He also handles the Germans in prose bordering on propaganda. The Nazis are the obvious bad guys here, that goes without saying. But to describe a particular Nazi official as "evil incarnate" seems a bit purple, and that's hardly the only instance Kershaw veers into broad generalizations and oversimplified descriptions.
While I wouldn't put Avenue of Spies on an even footing with the works of Ben McIntyre, for instance, it was a fascinating insight into the real horrors the French experienced even after the declaration of peace.
Title: Avenue of Spies
Author: Alex Kershaw
Star Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Buy, Borrow, Skip: Borrow
Bonus: photographs, many from Phillip Jackson himself; lots of notes on further reading
Title: Lucky Bastard
Author: SG Browne
Star Rating: 2 out of 5
Buy, Borrow, Skip: Skip
Bonus: Yeah, I got nothing.
So this is it: the last of the crap paperbacks I bought to read at the pool/lake/whatever this summer. After this it's all literature. Really.
Lucky Bastard is an alternative reality novel in which luck--good or bad--can be stolen by certain individuals born with the knack to poach it from a handshake alone. Nick Monday is such a luck poacher. He poses as a PI to make a little money on the side while he scopes out lottery winners, car crash survivors, and those with that innate charisma that comes with natural good luck. One handshake and he can change their fortunes. (And make a hefty profit on the black market.)
Browne has a great dry sense of humor that really appealed to me, and the premise sounded fun, too. The perfect beach read, right? In the end though, it seemed like Browne was more interested in writing a travelogue of San Francisco than an actual novel. Each paragraph is of the "He started off down Lombard Street before heading down Whichever Avenue" (or whatever the actual street are) variety, and while at first it was fun since I know San Francisco a bit, after a while it just became tedious. There was also A LOT going on. There were something like four different storylines that I expected to intersect but never did. They were all exciting on their own, but none of them were able to come to fruition with everything else going on.
Definitely one to pass on.
I read a lot of literary fiction. It's where my interests normally tend to land, so I was really excited to see a book labelled "literary fiction" in this month's Kindle First offering from Amazon. Typically the Kindle First books are genre reads that I'm not interested in, like romance (or romance masquerading as historical fiction). So I downloaded The Hundred-Year Flood by Matthew Salesses. It's about a half Korean, half Caucasian guy named Tee, who is adopted by an American couple at birth. The novel opens with Tee reeling from 9/11, the suicide of his uncle, and the revelation that his aunt was having an affair with his father. Tee deals (or doesn't deal) with all three issues by skipping out on his last year of college for Prague.
(I would so move to Prague, and I don't even need emotional devastation to do so. Honestly, the main impetus for picking this book was that city. I have a minor obsession with it.)
Tee spends most of the book in his own head, obsessing over his parents' imploding marriage, his birth mother, and a beautiful, much-older woman named Katka, who just happens to be married to an artist he befriends named Pavel. The three of them, along with another Czech with the American name Rockefeller, chat lightly around the Velvet Revolution and drink.
What struck me most about this book was that while the prose is very elegant and at times almost lyrical, Tee never goes anywhere. He circles around his issues and his neighborhood, very often spelling out for the reader exactly how his story mirrors his father's, but he does next to nothing about it. At times it seemed like the whole novel was a written account by a disinterested third party, one who simply wrote what he saw as he saw it--the court reporter approach. I wanted more than that for Tee (and for Prague, dammit). There was a comment by Salesses in the afterword that seemed very telling to me: he mentions he worked on this book for a decade. That lyrical prose sometimes felt overworked, like he literally spent a decade writing and rewriting certain passages, struggling for a way through Tee's ennui.
Ultimately, I didn't find The Hundred-Year Flood to be rewarding, although I think Salesses could be a great writer. I'll be interested to see what he does next.
Title: The Hundred-Year Flood
Author: Matthew Salesses
Star Rating: 2 out of 3
Buy, Borrow, Skip: Skip
Bonus: A new photo of Pete, because he's Pete
So, you guys, I used to work at a small publishing house. This was fifteen years ago, and I was mainly a copyeditor and proofreader, but I ended up designing a few books while I was there. It was kind of fun, and while the books I designed couldn't hang with any the big boy publishers put out, they looked professionally done and I was proud of them.
Fast forward to now. I ordered a copy of Kelly Link's Magic for Beginners in paperback from Amazon, because I needed some paperbacks that could get trashed at the pool or the lake on vacation. When it got here I was a little thrown, because it was HUGE. It appeared to be a large-print edition or something, even though Amazon didn't list it as such. Basically, it looked like someone printed the text of the collection from Word and glued it together with a cheap cover. Well, I started reading it a couple of days ago and finished yesterday. Not only are there two stories missing from the original edition--including the title story!--one story was printed twice. (I found a note in the front papers indicating the two stories were left out "due to contractual obligations," but nothing about the repeated story.) Oh, and there are no illustrations. I'm obviously going to have track a hardback version down from the library to get the whole thing.
I reported it to Amazon as defective and I'm sending it back.
But on the plus side, I did get to read seven of the nine stories. Three were amazing, two were not that great, and two were decent. Link's stories are typically termed magical realism (I've also seen them called surreal), so they're not for everyone. Let's take "The Hortlak" for starters. It's about two guys who work in a convenience store at the edge of town. They also happen to live there. Every night, a woman drives by on her way to work at the local animal shelter. She drives by several times a night, actually, each time with a different dog hanging out the window. She gives the dogs one last ride, one last bit of freedom, before she euthanizes them. Oh, and there are zombies. See what I mean about her style? This was one of the ones I didn't particularly enjoy; the symbolism felt heavy-handed and wasn't really apparent until the last couple of pages. The rest of the story felt like filler. The three I loved were a little more traditional. "Stone Animals" and "Some Zombie Contingency Plans" were rooted in seemingly normal worlds, where only little things were off, but those little things grew. The other, "Catskin" reads more like a fairy tale, a genre most of us are familiar with, but there too, a few little things were not quite right. "Lull" and "The Great Divorce" were both decent stories, but I doubt I'll remember them in a week or a month or a year like the other three.
On the whole, I'd recommend skipping this one. Go instead for Link's latest collection, Get in Trouble, as it's much stronger and absolutely worth the read. If you do decide to get Magic for Beginners, GET THE HARDBACK edition.
Title: Magic for Beginners
Author: Kelly Link
Star rating: 3 out of 5 for content; 1 out of 5 for production
Buy, Borrow, Skip: Skip
Bonus advice: Get the hardback to avoid issues with missing stories!