Guys, I have something to tell you about. IT! IS! SO! EXCITING! I! CAN! HARDLY! CONTAIN! MYSELF!
Another dog book! And I've got a GIVEAWAY for this book on my Instagram: @ouija.doodle.reads. Check it out! Open through 8/14!
A boy and his dog—ahhh, love! The short of it: if you’ve ever loved a dog, felt their little paws tug your heartstrings, wanted to just squeeze them forever and never let go, you need to read this book.
Are there tears? Yes, you’ll probably shed a few tears. But there is joy! So much joy and adventure, and so many lessons about life and wonderful experiences along the way.
Ted shares his life with his dachshund, Lily. They are really more like best friends than man and dog, and do all sorts of things together like game night, discussing boys, and eating pizza. But one day, Ted notices something strange on Lily’s head. An octopus has taken up residence there! Why is it there? Does it hurt her? What is going on!?
Lily doesn’t want to talk about it, but obviously, neither does Ted, as he can’t even bring himself to face the truth about what the “octopus” really is. What follows is a journey—both real and metaphorical—that delves into the bond between dog and human, how our lives influence each other, and what it is that pushes us forward in the face of failure, loss, and other kinds of grief.
The copy of this was spot-on. This book spoke to me on the level of The Art of Racing in the Rain and definitely built to the magical-realism feel of Life of Pi. And to top it off, this book kept me smiling throughout; the narrator, Ted, has a very personable voice and I really feel that I got to know him. He is funny and real, but his insecurities and past trauma also float to the surface at times making him have a depth and balance that is not easy to create.
Obviously, the star of the book is Lily. She has two very distinct ways of speaking. One that is all caps and punctuated by exclamation points (see my opening lines) which is Ted’s way of giving meaning to her barking. The other is Lily’s “human voice,” which is normal dialogue for when she has conversations with Ted.
Lily is a very practical sort of dog, protective and fun as well, and she loves Ted. They have always been there for each other, while people have come in and out of their lives, they have been each other’s constant. I'm sure there's so many dog people that this really speaks to. And even if you don't have a dog—maybe it's a cat, or a parrot, or an iguana—pets just have that effect on us. They are always there and the very least we can do is return the favor.
Through eight nautically themed parts (like the eight legs on an octopus) Ted reminisces about Lily's puppyhood, the struggles they went through together, the heartbreak, the laughter, and how they changed and grew. And all the time, the octopus is there, menacing. But Ted isn't going to go down without a fight, and he's not going to let Lily go down either.
There are probably some people out there that are feeling trepidatious, if not downright put-off by reading a book where the lovely, beautiful, adoring, can't-help-but-get-attached-to-it dog character is in potential peril. Let me just say that heartbreak is going to be a part of your life one way or another. An amazing book like this can help you heal, help you train for future heartbreak, help you remember why we put ourselves at risk for heartbreak in the first place. There is meaning in life. But without taking those risks, you may never find the reasons to really, really live.
Rowley has a great voice for these characters, both people and dogs, that everyone can relate to on different levels. He is also a funny guy and interesting speaker, as I was pleased to find out when he visited Denver's Tattered Cover for a reading. Lily and the Octopus is such a strong debut that I expect great things from him in the future. I know you are working on them, Steven. Can't wait to read what's next!
Get your copy of Lily and the Octopus
Find out more about the author, Steven Rowley
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Find out more about the publisher, Simon & Schuster
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Unleash the summer of dogs!
I was so tickled to receive a copy of this book from the publisher as I honestly haven’t read many books about dogs recently. And I don’t know if you know this about me, but I love dogs. I’m that girl giving herself whiplash to look at the puppy when we’re driving down the street. My own dog lords over the couch at home and wherever I am, you can probably find him too!
When we think about dog books, we all probably imagine Stein’s Art of Racing in the Rain or perhaps Marley and Me. Growing up, I was always a sucker for Where the Red Fern Grows, Shiloh (be still, my heart!), and Because of Winn-Dixie—still lovely books to this day and I recommend them to readers of all ages!
But as far as more recent fiction about dogs, I’m having trouble coming up with anything—perhaps I’m out of the loop? I’m sure there have been a few, but this summer there are two great dog books and this one is for those of you who can’t quite face falling in love with a book-dog, only to get your heart broken—as it seems to be the case about 99% of the time. Have you read No More Dead Dogs? But I digress. . .
Jonathan Unleashed is a romantic comedy about a boy in the Big Apple living it up with his two dogs, a border collie named Dante and a cocker spaniel named Sissy. Well—the dogs aren’t actually his, they are his brother’s, who is currently out of the country for work. Also, the “romantic” part is a bit in question, because while Jonathan likes his girlfriend, no one else seems to (including the dogs) and honestly, she can be kind of a stick in the mud imho. But she’s pretty and stuff and is going to move in soon and they are relatively comfortable with each other, so, why change, you know?
He is also in sort of a dead-end job that pays okay but is sucking his soul away bit by bit and isn’t at all what he wanted to do with his life. But the dogs, the dogs are pretty great, until he begins to worry that maybe living in New York is bad for them existentially, like maybe they are meant for the wilderness and fields and hunting and stuff because of natural instincts and maybe they are sad or unfulfilled and they deserve something better. So he takes them to the vet, but there’s nothing wrong with them, and she thinks he is pretty weird.
So you get the gist—Jonathan lives a lot in his head and is maybe putting his own problems out on these dogs because he can’t find a way to escape from his life—or he doesn’t want to face his life. But sometimes we just need a little push to get ourselves going in the right direction and it can be surprising where that push will come from—or who it will come from.
The novel is told from Jonathan’s perspective, which is really refreshing for a romcom sort of book, as they are generally narrated by female characters. The world he and the pups traverse in NYC is envisioned really well. Having recently visited the big bad city and left my furry baby at home, I was constantly thinking, how would I get around with Ouija here? What would we be doing now? Can he take the subway? Answer: Only if he fits in a bag I can carry. (And of course, I was gawking at every doggie I saw like a child waiting for presents on Christmas.) So it was really interesting to see from the inside how dogs might get around.
(Side note: drop everything and go see The Secret Life of Pets. Just do it!)
Jonathan is a very relatable character—though he is a bit neurotic, it’s true—and his issues are just like yours or mine. . . until the moment they go over the edge into crazytown and then we are just along for the ride. He’s a very creative person, but that creativity gets stifled at work. He funnels his energy into the dogs instead—they seem to be the only ones who really get him anyway.
This book is outrageous, funny, and over-the-top, but at the same time insightful and surprisingly real. When your dog looks at you in that way and you know he knows, well, everything, but doesn’t judge you for it but instead is rooting for you and knows you can do better and is so full of buttery love and doggy kisses or just quiet cuddles or more staring or maybe just walking away because he got distracted by his squeaky toy? Man. Dogs just know.
But the point is, that this book will make you feel good about life. It may even make you feel motivated to change something in your life that you’ve been ignoring, or help you realize that you’ve been ignoring something that needs change. If you need those doggy eyes for motivation, this book could be it for you. And it’ll provide some crazy laughs along the way too!
I honestly would love to see this as a movie. I think it’d be straight-up hilarious. Somebody better snatch up the film rights to this one.
Many thanks and puppy kisses to the publicity team at Viking Books for hooking me up with a copy of this!
Get your copy of Jonathan Unleashed
Find out more about the author, Meg Rosoff
Find out more about the publisher, Viking Books (Penguin Random House)
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And now for the second showing in our double feature: Behind Closed Doors. Also featuring a creepy door on the cover, you can grab this chiller August 9th.
Another first-person narrative, this is the story of Grace’s perfect life. She’s got a lovely, expensive dream house, great friends, she’s an amazing cook and hostess, she’s beautiful, and of course, she’s got the perfect guy—Jack. He is so perfect that he is even fully supportive and loving of her sister, Millie, who has Down syndrome.
Jack and Grace are still basically newlyweds and are never apart. Since he’s a high-powered lawyer defending battered women, she doesn’t need a job, but she never goes out of the house during the day. The couple hasn’t really even known each other that long, but you know how those whirlwind romances go when you’re really in love, right? Told in chapters that alternate between Grace’s present and the recent past when she met Jack, the story unravels into a modern horror that seems like it almost could be happening somewhere.
The major plot thread is an early reveal and you sleuthers probably already have a few ideas about what is going on behind the closed doors in this seemingly perfect household. This ain’t no fairytale, but it ain’t no OJ Simpson tale (or Oscar Pistorius if you’re into more recent true crime news) either. It’s worse.
In general, I found myself playing a waiting game with this book. I was waiting for it to truly surprise me, waiting for Grace to lady-up and DO SOMETHING, waiting for things to no appear so black and white, waiting for some good old-fashioned action to occur.
I suppose there is one surprise in this book if you don’t count the initial reveal, but it really is so manufactured by the author to be a surprise, or rather, THEE surprise that it all felt a little empty to me. Without giving it up like a girl on prom night, suffice to say that it makes the big bad seem a little suspect character-wise.
If you’re soooo smart, then I don’t really get why this is the master plan. Even after the explanation. It’s just not quite there for me. Seems concocted to horrify readers and that’s about it. This is not to say that books have to be all about surprise. There’s plenty of other pieces moving around here that will keep you wondering how the book is going to end, so this is no reason to toss this on off your TBR. There is definitely suspense being built throughout the novel.
Grace is an extremely inactive character. I get it, there’s not a whole lot she can do, but let me tell you—if it were me in that situation, I’d be getting a hell of a lot more creative. And this is a book for cripessake! I want to imagine her as a resourceful, interesting, intelligent version of me, so do something, ANYTHING!
This probably bothered me more than any other aspect. I realize that the book is going somewhere specific, but we can’t have a heroine who is inactive for 90% of the book. It’s honestly a bit boring. If what’s trying to be depicted here is the painful struggle that domestic abuse survivors go through (albeit with a nasty twist) it is really missing the mark. I really didn’t feel Grace’s tension or angst at all.
There really is no grey area in this book and the grey area is where suspense, and especially psychological suspense, tends to thrive, like a colony of bacteria on a forgotten sandwich underneath a thirteen-year-old’s bed—an especially muggy atmosphere as all scientists know. People are either black or white, angelic or demonic, and this applies to everything that they do, think, feel, breathe on, or shit. No joke.
Real psychological suspense novels are built around misdirection and relentless and destabilizing twists that keep the reader unaware of the characters’ real intentions, motivations, etc., or even just uncertain about the plot in general. I can’t say that this book is doing any of that; it’s pretty up front about what’s going on plotwise. And beyond that, people are not just black and white. Evil cannot just be hidden the way it is in this book and I found it a bit (eye-rollingly at times) unbelievable.
The action piece really goes along with the lack of action on Grace’s part. We get a bit of action in the flashback scenes, which I really quite enjoyed and added a lot of color to the narrative. They were spliced in really well and revealed everything just at the right moment, digging the knife in a bit deeper at each turn of the chapter. It wasn’t that no action existed, it really was that the reader didn’t get to play along.
And in the end, I honestly wish that we got to see more of Jack, because Grace’s version of him cannot be accurate as it is colored by so many different filters.
This is a problem I am having of late in first-person thrillers. There is an infallible, often sociopathic, and even God-like character who cannot be stopped but has one fatal flaw that makes NO sense at all. Or, whose master plan, when it is revealed, is a total hot mess of contradictions to the rest of the character map that has been created. Or, who is always ten steps ahead of everyone around except for one moment when it is life or death for them. These are all (vague as hell) examples from recent thrillers I’ve read.
I think a lot of this could be cleared up (at least by the author) by going inside the bad guy’s head and seeing what’s really in there, by fleshing them out as a real person, and not just a plot device to get from A to B. I want to be scared of this person, not distanced from them.
I read this book on a short road trip and it filled the time just fine. Definitely not one of my favorite books and it isn’t going to be winning any literary awards. I predict that people with lots of gifs on their Goodreads will approve.
Get your copy of Behind Closed Doors (out 9/8)
Find out more about the author: B. A. Paris
Find out more about the publisher: St. Martin's Press
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Why do we like thrillers so much? There is something about being unsafe, but being about to do inside of a book—a safe place—that really grips us. Thrillers are such a large part of the fiction world and they seem to have really flooded the market as of late.
While this is probably due to the success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, and more recently the Gone Girl and Girl on the Train phenomena. (I try not to comment on these too often, but here’s the short of it: I read ARCs of each and honestly never thought that either would explode the way they did. I felt strongly that they were ordinary, even poorly written books. I’ve read plenty of other great thrillers that have been completely ignored. So you just never know [or at least I don’t] what will pick up and what won’t! No offense if you adore GG—so does the rest of the world.)
Of course, not every book can be those books—and not every book has to be a GG clone (thank whoever it is you deem fit). I like to see a wealth of diversity in my thrillers and even if I don’t always get it, I like to see books working toward that.
This week, I’ve got two thrillers of entrapment, though as you’ll see, the word means very different things in each book. The first, The Trap is already available through Grand Central Publishing (at your local bookstore)!
Linda walked in on the brutal murder of her sister and caught a fleeting glimpse of the killer’s face, but he was never caught. Eleven years later, she is a successful author, but she’s been in a self-imposed housebound exile ever since the murder, stuck in the trauma of that night and only comforted by isolation. When she sees the murderer’s face on television, she realizes she can set a trap to catch him by writing a novel about her sister’s death.
Sounds juicy right?! If that’s enough for you, dive right in; you won’t be disappointed.
The story is told in first person, from Linda’s perspective and she is a pretty straightforward narrator; no artistic frills or really descriptive sentences dangling around. I guess that only stood out to me because the character is a writer, so I expected that she’d see the world in a very illustrative and expressive way, but she really didn’t. There were also sections from her book—her trap, as it were—that the reader was privy to throughout and the style there was very much the same as the rest of the book. Perhaps there was something lost in the translation from the German, which I always hate to lean on as an excuse for a book.
The style of the book didn’t bother me, it was just lacking, and that is just something that I notice. This is something that you tend to see with debut writers—and there’s nothing wrong with that. They can definitely still have that talent to find and tell an interesting story but just lack the discipline and training that you see with more experience writers. That effortless style and feel for words. There aren’t any moments that make you stop and want to read it again, just for the language—not because anything particularly important is happening in the plot, but just because the sentence is perfect. Perhaps it will come.
What this book did well was put the reader in the mind of an extremely unreliable narrator and wrench us through her transitions and conspiracy theories until I didn’t know what to believe! One minute I’m completely on board with her, rooting for her to nail this guy to the wall for killing her sister, and the next, I’m thinking, this girl is crazy. It’s completely all in her head.
Linda’s sanity begins to waver and slowly disintegrates. Her hold on reality is tenuous to begin with, as the stories that she’s invented have often folded into real life for her. With only a little nudge from the right (or wrong) person, she could easily fall into her own trap—and no one knows what she’s done but the killer and herself.
Her slow-burning descent was probably the greatest strength of the book for me. I didn’t know if she was going crazy or going through some sort of hero’s journey and becoming stronger and saner—maybe the truth is that we need a little of both in our lives.
The Trap runs on a very small cast of characters, a trend that I’ve been noticing in thrillers recently (shattered by another translation, The Crow Girl, which I will attempt to dissect soon!). It’s difficult to hide much in so few people. Us thriller-ophiles are looking for tropes, clues, and hints because the name of the game is guess-that-twist, and it’s difficult to hide behind your characters when there aren’t many! This book gets away with that because Linda doesn’t know who she’s dealing with and her views of other people radically change throughout the book, sometimes more than once. As she is our in, we have no choice but to go along for the ride, and it is a bumpy one! Watch out for Chekov’s gun. . . (Couldn’t help myself, it’s a writer thing!)
Get your copy of The Trap
Find out more about the author: Melanie Raabe
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Find out more about the publisher: Grand Central Publishing (Hachette)
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There is something about reading a short story that really gives you a feel for someone's ability as a writer.
I think it has to do with the space, or the lack thereof. In a novel, there's room to hide inadequacies, to write in a roundabout fashion if necessary. But in short fiction, space is paramount. Like living in New York City, I imagine, or one of those 240 square-foot Ikea apartments.
In the seven stories in this collection, Hale crafts seven very different little worlds, full of characters with their own backgrounds, longings, worries, and lives. He is able to put all of this together with the greatest ease, precise characterization, and compact usage of language. All in such a way that draws the reader into the story, wanting to learn more about these people.
And, in the way of truly great writers, Hale is able to tell you more about the character than you are aware you are learning—that whole show-don't-tell thing your teacher is always harping on about. Flawless. You won't even notice it's happening.
I was lucky enough to get to go to a reading of Hale's (he grew up in Boulder, CO, where I'm from—funnily enough, his mom taught my high school IB World History class!) and I'm so glad I went. He is as eloquent as his stories and I will have to pick up his novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore.
Hale is one of those people who can offhandedly quote writers in a completely non-pedantic way. It's inspiring. I'd love to have taken class with him when I was in school! He is a great reader as well—which not all writers are. He read from the last story, "The Minus World," and completely captured the voice of the narrator, Peter.
The stories follow characters on the fringes. Peter, a recovering drug addict, is getting one last chance when his brother hooks him up with a strange new job hauling squid for MIT scientists at the crack of dawn. He's probably destined for failure. But you're rooting for him anyway.
Weirdly, all of these stories live in our world; even at their oddest moments Hale has us on the hook. One of those stranger-than-fiction things, I guess. He doesn't overuse or over-tell. There is just enough information to let the reader fill in the blanks of the world with their own experience.
The opening story, "Don't Worry Baby," is quiet but memorable: three fugitives are on a plane, one a mother with a small infant. She accidentally ingests LSD that the other two are enjoying and the baby gets high through her breast milk. Suffice to say he doesn't have an enjoyable trip, but that isn't even the crux of the story.
Where Hale really succeeds, for me at least, is in the finish. He has a knack for the surprise ending—for setting up every detail so perfectly and then pulling out that one Jenga stick that topples the whole tower. And he leaves you to pick up the pieces, to imagine what comes next. I really had to take some time after each story to think about what the endings meant, and they really stuck with me! His carefully wrought worlds mattered to me when they all came tumbling down for the characters.
The crowning jewel of the collection is definitely the title story. Tristan is a performance and experimental artist who delights in the grotesque and absurd. He pushes the envelope, too far, but the critics seem to love it. His newest piece of art is himself: eating whatever viewers bring him, eating constantly in a glass box, trying to become the fattest person in the world while he slowly kills himself. It brings to mind what people are willing to do for art and what art really means. How art consumes and us, how we consume it, how it sweeps around like fads: huge one moment and completely obscure the next.
A great collection with writing that rivals Adam Johnson's National Book Award winning collection from last year, Fortune Smiles. Definitely worth picking up if you love short stories. If you tend to turn up your nose, think again. They are the mark of a truly great writer and you don't want to pass this one up.
Get your copy of The Fat Artist: and Other Stories
Find out more about the author, Benjamin Hale
Find out more about the publisher, Simon & Schuster
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Here's an upcoming book, out just next week if you are looking for a new, chilling-but-thought-provoking travel read!
Summer always brings an onslaught of thrillers. And I'm always happy to give a few of them a try—for some reason I'm really drawn to this genre even though I find many of the story lines tired and I often figure out the plots less than 50 pages in.
Baby Doll is something different, though. It isn't what you expect. Lily was kidnapped and held captive for eight years. She was subject to unspeakable torment and abuse and gave birth to a child with no one to help her. But this is not that story. Lily escaped. And this is the story of what happens after.
So right from the start, this quick novel is messing with our expectations. It isn't the thriller we think it's going to be, where a tough, resourceful girl is trapped in a basement and we follow her torment and eventual chaotic and heroic flight from her abuser. Instead, we come into the story only seeing the aftermath of all that. I've never read a story that began with such a narrative thread, so that really grabbed me right from the start.
The weight of the book is really in the emotional relationships between the characters. The biggest players are Lily; Lily's twin sister, Abby; their mom, Eve; and Rick, Lily's kidnapper. The reader gets inside each of these characters' heads in alternating chapters, seeing a piece of their inner lives and how they connect to and think about the issues at hand.
It was refreshing to not have a ton of flashback scenes but rather to learn about who the characters were by seeing them as they are now. The book really lives in the present much more than it dwells in the past, which is a plus. It gives off a very positive message about moving forward and about how no matter what type of crisis you have been through, you can rebuild your life and be happy again.
There are a few pretty good, though minor, twists throughout the book that I think the author hides well, not playing her hand too soon as so many thrillers tend to do. They are worth reading for, as I didn't see them coming and it's difficult to pull one over on me!
But I do wish that the book held onto its tension for longer. There seemed to be a good opportunity for a more drawn-out story about a legal battle (or at least a media battle) between Lily and Rick about whose story was true when there was some dispute over whether or not she was actually kidnapped. But it all seems to go away pretty quickly, and it seemed to be out of Rick's character to just throw everything away because he thought that he still controlled Lily completely. To me, he seemed much smarter than that and was always one or two steps ahead of everyone else, except in that crucial moment.
All in all, this had an interesting beginning, but it didn't really stand out the in the crowd of thrillers. In a way, it is more of an after-thriller, as everything "thrilling" has already occurred before the book begins, and for me at least, it didn't come through on its promise to give me more. Or perhaps I'm just too greedy. . . I can't say it had much suspense to it—not that there's anything wrong with that—but it didn't deliver on its emotional promise either and I never got attached to the characters. With a bit more depth to characters and a longer boil to the plot, this really could have had something but as is, it stands a bit mediocre.
Get your copy of Baby Doll
Find out more about the author, Hollie Overton
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Find out more about the publisher, Redhook (Hachette)
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Assistant editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.