“Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
--Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene II
There is something a little mysterious, a little intoxicating about Shakespeare. Of course, for many of us, it is a lot mysterious—in fact, nothing but mysterious—and conjures up memories of long afternoons in dusty high school lit classrooms trying to puzzle through the meaning behind every line, sometimes every word, of Romeo and Juliet.
But to see it performed, that is truly something else, that is the way it was meant to be consumed. It filters down to a part of your soul that feels right, feels true, and even if you can’t quite grasp the meaning of every phrase, you feel something special burning at the core. Or maybe just a tingle.
For the seven students in their last year of theatre study at the elite art school in the novel If We Were Villains, Shakespeare is like this, but also, he is more. They live in the bard’s texts, studying him with such constant devotion that it filters into their real lives.
They talk in texts, frequently, having Shakespearian conversations that all seem peppered with double meanings, hidden layers, and sometimes it is unclear whether you are speaking with an actor or their character.
Each of the seven has their type: strong, leading man Richard; his opposite, the sultry Meredith; the beautiful hero James; the wispy maiden Wren; the fool Alexander; and then there’s Filippa and (our story’s hero) Oliver, who seem to get the leftover roles, slipping into whoever is secondary, but never playing the lead.
Who are they really? Is there a separation between the stage and reality? What happens when that line seems to bend, and then snap?
And snap it does. Oh, yes.
Aren’t you all waiting for the turn?
The book is set up in five acts, much like a play, and while the main action of each follows the seven during their fourth and final year at school, each one begins with a prologue, set ten years in the future.
Oliver has just been released from prison, sentenced for something that happened at school, something that he may or may not have done, and now he’s going to tell the real story. To the man who put him away.
And the curtain rises . . .
Rio holds onto the tension of seven characters very well, stringing them along in an even way, making sure they are all developed characters, and I thought she had a great voice for natural dialogue. I can’t claim to know that much about Shakespeare, but I do dabble a bit and I actually quite enjoyed the Shakespearian language spilled across the pages; it developed the characters in unexpected ways when I stopped to really examine what was going on with the bard’s text. I think it even helped me figure out the twist . . .
The seven kids flit in and out of reality, fighting and giving in to obsession, mimicking the violence and drama of the plays (or is it that the plays begin to mimic their lives?) and they begin to come apart at the seams, each breaking down in their own way.
A very promising debut and interesting character study type of novel from a bold and inspiring voice. The only thing I’d ask for in a follow-up book is to cut down on the adverbs—let your descriptions do the work! Ah, well. Room to grow.
One final thought: The ending will rattle your soul.
Whether you like Shakespeare, don’t remember a bit of it from high school, swoon over the lilting words, or shrink away from them in pure fear, this book has a bit of mystery for everyone and it might even bring you a bit closer to learning the mysterious staying power of the bard.
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Find out more about the author, M. L. Rio
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Find out more about the publisher, Flatiron Books (Macmillan)
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This is a book about straight up life. At times, we are all hot messes. At times, everyone can be a bit unlikable. At times, it definitely can be difficult to get up off your ass and actually do something about your life, something that you should do, can do, and actually want to do.
Andrea is just like us. She is pretty average, coasting along through life, not really doing anything extraordinary and ignoring the things that get hard and the things that hurt.
She is an art school dropout who now only sketches the view of the Empire State Building out her window every day, until they build a new skyscraper that blocks that view.
She is stuck at a job she doesn't really care about, dodging promotions and commitments.
Her best friend is settling down and getting married and doing the whole kid thing and doesn’t really have time for her anymore.
Her brother is dealing with his child, who has a terminal illness and her mom has moved out of the city to live with them, leaving Andrea feeling abandoned.
She has meaningless one night stands or horrible dates or some strange relationships that are fruitless and she’s not really sure if her being single is by choice or because she is undateable or some other reason. But she isn’t really looking for a guy to solve her problems.
Basically, Andrea’s problems are not the problems that so-called society thinks she should have, not at her age. She should be having the married-babies-working or stay at home mom problems.
And somehow, all it seems she can get from society is everyone looking down on her, thinking less of her, or directly telling her to pull her shit together, that she’s doing it wrong.
I read some reviews that so hated this book because they didn’t find Andrea to be a likable person. Is she a bit singleminded and self-absorbed? Yes. But so are we all. How often do you actually think about other people during the day versus yourself? Yeah.
Attenberg even writes the entire first chapter in second person, which to me, calls attention to the reader that, hey, this story is about you. Maybe not the specific details, but the story. So pay attention.
Maybe we don’t ever really “grow up” in the sense that we are always just trying to figure everything out, find the best way to be ourselves, to have a place in the world, and make all those dumb adult things work.
I felt it was very refreshing to read a book with a leading female that really digs right to the heart of actual living, cutting through all the crap and focusing on what is really there. This is Andrea’s life. It isn’t a story about her needing to fill her voids (literally and metaphorically) with men and chasing after everything that society tells her she should want. She is just trying to figure life out and she may not be the best at it.
The book is interesting because if you can really look at Andrea’s flaws, if you can see past your frustration with her to the root of the issue—what is causing her to avoid her family, to waste her time with her niece?—then perhaps you might see places in your own life where you are doing the same thing.
The book doesn’t try to explain who Andrea is or why she is living her life the way she is. Instead, it is almost more of a set of interlocking short stories, each one detailing a different interaction that made Andrea who she is.
This seems to echo New York City itself, how everything can become very compartmentalized and each moment exists separate from others. Even people seem to drift in separate spheres, while at the same time, they are literally right next to each other, passing each other on the street, in cars, brushing up against each other in the subway.
It also echoes the way we live our lives, treating each segment as separate: home life, internet life, Instagram life, Twitter life, work life. We put a piece of ourselves into each segment—who really knows who they are anymore.
All Grown Up is a compulsive book, the short chapters making it easy to just keep reading, to try to put together the puzzle that is Andrea, about who she is in this moment and who she has the potential to become.
It’s something we all have inside us, this potential. How long are you going to make yours wait?
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Find out more about the author, Jami Attenberg
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Find out more about the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Who can recognize the ending as it’s happening? What we live, it seems to me, is pretty much always a surprise.
Marlena is a book about so much more than a girl, or even both the girls who inhabit it—insightful, self-effacing narrator Cat and her ethereal, almost mythological Marlena—it is about the boundaries which they crave to expand beyond and end up ultimately caging themselves into.
These boundaries begin with place and circumstance: the two young girls are poor, in the middle of nowhere, and coming to the point in their mid-to-late teen years where they need guidance.
Marlena has a father who is deeply ensconced in the drug trade and a younger brother she has to look after. She has a habit and a creepy older dealer she can’t kick.
Cat’s mom is newly single and juggling jobs and keeping food on the table and Cat finds it easy to slip out of her 3.8 GPA and into a freer lifestyle, following Marlena and her friends around, getting drunk and high, and skipping school.
To her, it seems like she is experiencing life for the first time and there are almost no consequences. Even as she tells the story from a point in her 30s, far away in New York City, where she still hasn’t really accepted her alcoholism, Cat doesn’t seem resigned to or embarrassed by the events as they happened in the past.
The current-day Cat seems worn down—like she is envious of the potential the girl she used to be had, how now she doesn’t see it in herself. But she never did see it in herself—what is so different now? What are we all wasting time on, right?
It’s almost as though she wishes she could freeze that moment in time, and live there—she would almost do it. Especially those months before.
Even though they weren't perfect and she wasn't exactly happy, I got the sense that she really felt she lived more in those months than at any other time in her life.
When it seemed like nothing could go wrong and everything teetered on the brink but they only had one way to go and they would get out of that town and start over.
Doesn’t everyone have a moment like that? But would it really change anything?
I was prettier in reflection. The fragmentary me that lived in shop windows, puddles, the hood of a car passing by, the dark spot in Marlena’s eye—that girl was sheer potential.
Buntin's prose has moments of great insight, especially for teenage girls. It felt very real and caught in the moment. High school was all about changing something fundamental or physical about yourself in order to find out who you really were, to uncover the real you.
I think we can all look back on our high school years and sense a kinship in feeling to this book in some way. Maybe you were in with the drama kids or the band geek, but everyone had their thing that they identified with that also put them on the outside.
And the root of the story is this unknowable, untouchable, godlike Marlena. But, of course, she is none of that.
She wasn’t the most popular or even very well-liked at school. She wasn’t the smartest. She was a drug addict, she lived in a dirty house, hung out with dangerous people, made poor choices for herself and led others to those choices too.
She was just a kid, trying to survive and hoping to get out someday.
This book magnificently portrays all the sides of Marlena, putting her on a pedestal as Cat saw her and also putting her in her place as just another human making some bad decisions.
She is intricate and real, nuanced and confusing, but in the end, she is still a character we don’t get to hear from. This is Cat’s story and I wonder if, had she been given the chance, Marlena would tell it any differently.
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Find out more about the author, Julie Buntin
Find out more about the publisher, Henry Holt & Co (Macmillan)
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My hand’s on the handle of the screen door and I pause, turn. The thought of going inside, drinking a glass of water, reading, undressing—the thought of doing these living things makes it hard to breathe and I think of Crazy Horse and massacres and muscle-bound dudes shooting pool and sex. Which of these thoughts will cast Her in the darkest light, will help me get free?
With sparse, languorous sentences that nonetheless hold a masterful deep-seated tension throughout, The Glamshack is a look into the interior landscape of a man on the edge of self-discovery, and, even larger, it chronicles the ubiquitous nature of us all.
Henry has found the woman of his dreams, he even thinks he loves her, but the problem is that she is engaged to another man and she’s leaving to go visit this fiancé in New Orleans.
Henry has twelve days to figure out what he’s doing with his life. And what it looks like from the outside is living in someone else’s pool house, having an affair with a woman who’s about to be married, and flushing his job down the drain.
But there is a lot more going on beneath the surface. Henry’s story begins not with the entrance of the unnamed Her into his life, but with childhood memories and how he sees an unlikely parallel of his story in the long-past Plains Indians wars.
What is interesting about The Glamshack is the inversion of the expected gender roles. In a book like this, you would generally expect the Henry character to be a woman. Instead, we get the opposite, and we follow Henry’s introspection, his male point of view, and the world looking back at him.
I think it's important that the book is set in 1999, just before the new millennium, when there really is nothing in the book to suggest that it has to be set in this time period. This setting, which the reader is reminded about at the start of every chapter that isn't a memory, is significant.
It is about to be a turning point, the collective holding of breath before something new begins. Henry, and perhaps the rest of the world, are stuck in stasis, but when the clock turns over, it could be a reset, a chance to try again, be better, have freedom. Who knows what will happen. 1999 represents the top of the rollercoaster for Henry, what happens after these 12 days could potentially determine his freedom.
His job involves writing for what he dubs the “Glamrag,” a magazine mostly full of advertisements where “editorial doesn’t count for shit” and he is in charge of interviewing photographers, tv commercial directors, model scouts, and the like.
But he doesn’t seem to be able to ask the right questions, to really get any story now that She is in his head. And his job is on the line. None of these ordinary things seem to matter to Henry anymore, though.
In glamorous LA, everything is surface level. All anyone seems to see in him is that he would make a good model. He’s got a look and he’s got “as little as possible going on behind the eyes.” That’s all it takes to be a male model: a good looking body and nothing in your head.
Is that what attracted Her to Henry? His prettiness and emptiness? And what makes Her so valuable to him anyway?
I spent a lot of time trying to dissect their relationship, since even though Henry is the one telling his story, I didn't find him that redeeming of a character—there really isn’t that much going on with him. He seems damaged, fixated on bringing everything back to this childhood obsession with a madman in the woods, who may have been a figment of his own imagining.
Henry uses his twelve days to unravel his relationship with Her and see what went wrong, if it even did. He delves into his childhood, grasping for threads, and it seems he spent a lot of his childhood running—it’s almost like a totem for him. A type of power.
But being so fast at running means you are always running away from something, hiding from something. And perhaps the madman resides there too, something to shield him from getting too close to the truth.
What makes their affair so special? Perhaps the point is that it isn’t. Perhaps the point is that there is nothing special about Henry or his experience, much as he tries to distinguish himself, to dig through himself to create meaning, to find substance.
It's another history of broken promises and scarring, sadness and broken hearts. Perhaps it's a bit dramatic to compare one torrid love affair to the decades-long struggle and oppression suffered by the Native Americans, but it gives an interesting insight into Henry’s mind.
There is darkness in all of us. What matters in the end is what you’re searching for, what you consider to be worth giving up everything else for. Freedom? The divine? A woman?
What’s the difference really?
Get your copy of The Glamshack (out June 15, 2017)
Find out more about the author, Paul Cohen
Find out more about the publisher, 7.13
This is a dark, entangling, deeply unsettling sort of book. The type that digs gritty fingernails deep into your skin, your very bones, and doesn’t let go, not even after you’re finished reading.
Felicia Sullivan had me wrapped up in her story from the very beginning and from there it only gathers steam, or more like vicious black smoke, a smoke that may smell of charred human remains.
I have a deep love of horror but so often horror is given a bad rap as something shallow or schlocky or just too gory and horrible for the sake of being so. Follow Me into the Dark brings horror into the realm of the literary in a way that reminded me of one of my favorite writers, Stephen Graham Jones.
Like much of his writing, this book isn’t afraid to go to places that may be difficult to understand, to use language that might obscure the meaning, or to just straight up obfuscate the scene in a way that makes you have to feel your way out, almost like you are in the dark yourself sometimes.
Of course, this is intentional—the nonlinear structure of the novel, the slippage between the generations and the years causes a disconnect, while at the same time highlighting how patterns of behavior, pain, and illness can be passed down the line affecting family members differently as they fracture outward.
The main thrust of the plot follows Kate whose mother is dying of cancer. Her stepfather is concurrently sleeping with Gillian, who happens to be a doppelgänger of Kate and further, there is a serial killer called the Doll Collector on the loose killing girls who have similar appearance to her as well. Gillian’s stepbrother Jonah increasingly matches the description of the killer, but it couldn’t really be him, could it?
Kate begins delving into her past and her mother’s past, bringing things to the surface that she would have preferred to keep hidden. Abuse, mental illness, loss, and pain begin narrating the pages and her emotions, especially negative ones like anger and rage, start boiling over in a way she can no longer control and the lines in her own mind begin to blur.
Perhaps the answers to now lie in the past, no matter how difficult it is to face them.
As a reader, I got the feeling that I couldn’t really trust any of the narrators; there is a sense of unreliability throughout the novel, though it is built on enough trustworthy details that I just had to keep digging. I wanted to find the truth!
There is a velvety depth to the language of this book. I got lost in it, I drowned in it. I felt like I was going crazy at times—truth is not absolute in this book, the words sometimes withhold more than they reveal, but what is clear is the profound nature of personal suffering and the lengths that some will go to, however misguided by the mind or the past, to end it.
Chilling and compelling. A beautifully written debut novel.
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Find out more about the author, Felicia Sullivan
Find out more about the publisher, Feminist Press
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What is literally happening in Fever Dream is not so much the point. In fact, the book can be interpreted several ways and probably should be. It doesn’t even limit itself to one state of being, heck, nor should it.
It is not meant to be taken literally, or rather it is, it begs to be taken for exactly what it is, while at the same time being no more than a metaphor, a haunting,
What I mean to say is that this is a very different sort of narrative. It begs to be read in a single sitting—there are no chapters or breaks of any kind, it just reads straight through. All we really know is that there are two speakers, Amanda (writing in roman) and David (writing in italics).
They are in a hospital where Amanda is ill and David is asking her questions, getting her to recount her memories of a specific time, a seemingly innocuous summer when she was vacationing with her daughter. He seems to be looking for some sort of specific information, a precise moment.
We find out that he is a child and Amanda knew his mother.
We find out that something went wrong, but what was it, exactly?
Being suffused into Amanda’s story is a bit like sinking into your own fever dream. At the beginning, the two speaker’s repartee is a bit of a shock—like jumping into cold water—it takes a minute to decipher who is saying what and what exactly is going on, there is a continued discussion of worms? What worms? Why are there worms? And where are we anyway?
But once she settles into the rhythm of her memory, it all feels familiar, like a promised story. It lulls you to your normal state of reading, what you are used to.
And all behind that, tension is mounting. In David’s carefully phrased questions, in the very specific use of language (brava, translator!) there is a feeling of unease that something is coming, something isn’t quite right.
There is this great repeated imagery throughout of a child (Nina) being attached to her mother (Amanda) by a thread by a rescue distance. When the rescue distance pulls taut, Amanda can feel it in her stomach, in her gut, that something is wrong. Depending on the situation, the distance is shorter or longer. I thought this such an apt description of a mother’s intuition and willingness to do anything to protect her child.
This book masters the smudged line of the fantastic. What is real? What is supernatural? Is it all in Amanda’s head, courtesy of her illness? Is it possible? What has even happened? There are several distinct possibilities, but as readers, we are left trying to pick up the pieces, try to decode what of the information we’ve been given is reliable.
Existential, metaphorical, delirious, and all the more compelling for the way it leaves the reader to decide the truth, this tiny book packs a punch. Yet another great achievement from Riverhead. I would love to see the other works from this author translated.
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Find out more about the author, Samanta Schweblin
Find out more about the publisher, Riverhead Books (Penguin Random House)
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A month into the new year, I’m still looking back. Though I read over 100 books last year, I didn’t quite squeeze in everything I wanted to. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still satisfied with my numbers. A great year. When you consider that most of the population didn’t even crack the cover of one book. . . well, I know the people reading this are the exception to that sad statistic!
I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking back, as I’ve spent this January in a fierce re-read of the Harry Potter series with my boyfriend, who never had the joy of reading these magical books. How sweet, how beautiful to delve back into this world, like spending time with an old friend who you know so much about, but still has some surprises up their sleeve.
Harry Potter represents childhood and growing up for so many of us. Maybe those books were the first escape you ever learned, the first fiction you ever clung to outside of your own reality. I know the magic was strong for me.
It has definitely been a way to escape this month, into a place that is familiar, but where evil seems insurmountable and yet the light finds cracks, however small, to break through. That’s something then, when the real world outside seems only worse every day, in a way that I can’t really affect change.
Following Harry, Ron, Hermione, and all the others on their journey to their final battle has put me in mind about so many things. About my younger self and how I saw the story then: my anger and disbelief as some characters passed from its pages, my triumphant realization of figuring out things before the trio, my reveling in their magical moments, and the wistful loss when I’d shut the book and come back to myself, realizing that magic wasn’t real at all.
Books preserve things. Perhaps not so dissimilar to Riddle’s diary, books keep a record of the moments they encounter, the readers that inhabit them. While a piece of my younger self might be embedded in these books, being revealed to the light for the first time in many years, I’m preserving a new piece of myself and the current turmoil around me in the pages for the next time they awaken.
With all that in mind, I decided to do a short round-up of my top ten books of last year, though the time for top lists has been out of vogue for some weeks now. That doesn’t mean that these books are any less good than they were when everyone else was being more timely about top lists, nor that they shouldn’t be picked up and read this year.
It's also sort of a year in review for me and for this blog, as I started it at about the end of January last year.
Weirdly, I didn’t do reviews for some of these books and so plan to cover them more fully as their paperback dates approach. If I did review them, the link is there, so click away if they sound intriguing to you. I’ve also listed the dates they are due to come out in paperback, for your wallet, and perhaps so this list still seems relevant.
Of course, I still have a list of books from last year sitting in a tall stack beside my bed (it’s just sitting there, haunting me every day, threatening to crush me in my sleep) and a lot of them look like potential top books: Hagseed, Thus Bad Begins, Barkskins, The Mandibles. . . Ah, well. Another year, another stack! And next Tuesday, four more books coming out that I want to get. . .
This list is in no particular order, though it may, psychologically, be in some sort of order.
The Girls—Emma Cline
I knew this one was instantly in my top 10 the moment I began it. I read it first in March when the second (or third or fourth?) wave of advance copies were making rounds and then read it again in June when it came out. Gosh, this book really gets it. This coming-of-age story centers on a girl who wishes to become more, but finds she is stunted by society, the time period of the 1960s, her situation, and even the supposed friends she surrounds herself by. Well, how are you supposed to know when you are only 14 and experiencing life for the first time? But what happened then freezes Evie—she is more of an antihero than a portrait of perfect girlhood advancing into womanhood. Rippling sentences, superb characters, this is an excellent debut. (May 9, 2017)
Imagine Me Gone—Adam Haslett
I did not know when I was struck by this incredibly simple but ingenious cover that the book therein would be one of my favorites of the year. Yes, I admit it freely: I do sometimes buy books solely based on design alone. I’m definitely a sucker for a well-designed book—but I think publishers know that. (Three of the books on this list [though not this one] were by Mendelsund, and he’s no newb.) Haslett’s book is an intensely character involved miasma of truly thought-provoking writing. He’s dealing with heavy-hitting topics in a very internal way, depicting a mind under siege, a conflicted family, and people that effortlessly come off the pages. Not to be missed. (February 21, 2017)
An epic, sprawling, incredibly ambitious debut, this is one that will truly envelop you. For African American fiction, it was Whitehead’s Underground Railroad that got all the 2016 attention, and while that was excellent, Gyasi’s work definitely wins out in my book. The book is almost set more as interconnecting short shorts that follow one family as it branches out down the lines of slavery. Beginning with two sisters, who never even knew they were related, every other chapter tells of the next generation of one side or the other. One side tells a story of Africa, while the other side tells a story of American slavery and the two intermingle heartbreakingly, heartwarmingly, and with such exquisite storytelling, I can’t imagine what will come from Gyasi next, I can only tell you that I will read it immediately and love it. (May 2, 2017)
The Crow Girl—Erik Axl Sund
Crime fiction hitting my top list! Truly a surprise. Though I do like to muck around with crime fiction/suspense/thrillers/mystery books, generally I find them disappointing, over-plotted, too generic, and I solve them much too easily. This book, actually 3 books when it was originally published, is none of those things. Sprawling and epic, this book has an extremely realistic characters and a complex and uber-dark plot that I found way more interesting than even The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series that so captivated the world. Scandi-noir is on the rise again, but be warned, it does not hold back. This book may scar you. (June 27, 2017)
The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial—Maggie Nelson
I don’t read a whole lot of nonfiction (so sue me) but I try to branch out a bit here and there. This book is astonishing, incredible, and completely worth reading in every way. Nelson writes about the resolution of the murder of her aunt, Jane, and how she coped with finally finding out what really happened after growing up with a horrible mystery in her family. As a devotee of crime fiction, I was like GIVE IT HERE, but this book also has so much more to offer—an insistence on relating to why our society is so obsessed with crime and continues to be, in increasing numbers. A personal story filled with indelibly gorgeous writing, only the way Nelson could do it. Find it immediately. (April 5, 2016, paperback original)
Mongrels—Stephen Graham Jones
This guy. He somehow pumps out these literary lowbrow horror genius masterpieces and this one is no exception. A werewolf coming-of-age tale? Bet you didn’t see that coming. Werewolves have never been explained quite like this, but honestly, if they’ve made it this far in modern society, it seems like Jones has their number. One of the most original writers I have ever read, he never ceases to surprise in the most honest (and sometimes gory) ways. (January 24, 2017)
Before the Fall—Noah Hawley
A small private plane loads up, takes off, and less than 20 minutes later, crashes into the ocean, leaving only two survivors, a four-year-old boy, and a struggling artist who wasn’t really supposed to be there anyway. What this book encapsulates is the unraveling of what happened on that plane: was it an accident? A planned hit on a high-powered business man? Murder over love? What went on in the cabin of that plane and how it captivates a nation, pushing in on the private lives of the two survivors is the main thrust of the story, casting the artist in the light of hero and villain as the people around him try to create a sensational story. Does what happened even matter to the media? Or the world? Brilliantly written as well. I’d love to see a movie version of this. (June 6, 2017)
I didn’t read as much poetry this past year as I usually do, but this collection is standout for sure. Her use of the page and white space gives the reader time to really think about her use of the language, while the denser parts force the reader onward, reading through the difficulty even without grasping the meaning of every line and every word. It seems almost omniscient at times and at others, hopeful in a heartbreaking way. (No paperback date available)
The Fat Artist and Other Stories—Benjamin Hale
I love reading short story collections. I think they lay bare writers in a way that novels do not; there is no place to hide in the condensed space of a short story. While a lot of good collections came out this year, I’ve chosen this one for my top list. The stories within are consistently great and even challenging, showing a wide range of creativity, character work, and writing styles. Hale mixes humor and darkness and absurd situations. I particularly adored the title story, where a failing experimental artist makes himself the main exhibit. (May 30, 2017)
All Things Cease to Appear—Elizabeth Brundage
This book was a quiet wonder. Simply brilliant and sneakingly dark, set against a stark wintry, country landscape, it tells the story of a murder backwards. We already know who gets murdered from the first chapter but not the murderer’s identity, and then the story rewinds to the beginning. A beautiful, haunting story of more than one broken family with so many more repercussions than just whodunit, this one left me breathless. (February 7, 2017)
I am a true crime buff—I listen to all the podcasts, read all the books, and know about all the cases I can get my itchy fingers on. Serial, you can bet I’ve listened to it—twice. Making a Murderer—yep, don’t even get me started on documentarian ethics. I’ve seen The People vs. OJ Simpson and the new shows on my own hometown murder, JonBenet Ramsey.
Yes, I know about Richard Ramirez aka the Night Stalker, how Ted Bundy stalked his victims pretending to have his arm in a sling, and all about John Wayne Gacy, who was inspiration for everyone from Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs to Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Twisty the Clown on the “Freakshow” season of American Horror Story.
I also know about the cases you’ve probably never heard of either. Ever heard of the Long Island serial killer? The vampire of Sacramento Richard Chase? How about Robert Hansen, the Butcher Baker? Don't google "death of Tim McLean" unless you're ready for a bizarre and horrifying murder on a bus in rural Canada. We're barely scratching the surface here.
I love Ann Rule, got way too into Zodiac theories with Robert Graysmith, and do what is probably considered a bit too much research on serial killers, strange murders, and crime. Sue me. I find the human condition interesting—and after all, the worst monsters are real. (Tagline via Sword and Scale, my favorite true crime pod.)
If you’re nodding your head, if you’re itching to join in, if you feel like this describes you, you’re in the right place. But interestingly, the book I’m about to describe is fiction. It’s not a true crime story at all, although it is set up to feel like one.
His Bloody Project is a novel that I’m hard pressed to really categorize. It’s got elements of crime and horror, but isn’t really either of those things entirely. It is a bit epistolary, as it is told in letters, journal entries, and other documents. What I can say for sure is that it is a psychological riddle that leaves the reader at the center, putting together the statements and pieces to make up their own mind about what really happened.
Make no mistake. You know there was a crime, and you know who committed it, though for much of the book, the details are cast in shadow. This set up left me with this pit of dread in my stomach that just grew and grew—so effective! I knew that murder was coming, I just didn’t know exactly how it would happen.
About half the book is an account by convicted murderer Roderick Macrae of how it came to be that he did what he did. The other half is autopsy reports, some reports from criminal experts who interviewed him, the trial transcripts, news clippings, and other writings that round out the details of the mysterious case.
Not sure if this will be a spoiler for some people, but what the book doesn’t give you is solid answers: the, this is why he REALLY did it—we know for sure! But that’s what makes it so realistic, so true to life. Sometimes we can’t understand people’s true intentions, the “why” we are searching for.
Even more interesting is what I felt I was able to put together, based on all the information given, and how it was given. The book is set in 1869, a time when criminal psychiatry was not nearly as advanced as it is now. There are diagnoses that were simply not available to them because they didn’t exist yet. I recognized qualities in Roderick that make me suspect who he is, who is hiding inside him.
It is also set in rural Scotland, where there was a huge bias against the farming communities of the highlands—those people who were continuing to live in the old Scottish way rather than conforming to the English way of living (and speaking). Despite Roderick’s seeming high intelligence and eloquence in his diary, everyone is exceedingly biased against him and thought he was destined to become a criminal.
It was like being at a real trial—feeling the injustice of it all, sensing that I knew some truth about Roderick, his mind, and his situation that they weren’t quite understanding or getting to, feeling that I had all the pieces there and I somehow had to put them all together!
It’s no wonder this book made the shortlist for the Man Booker this year. I love a book that makes me think and put together the narrative myself. One that has me piecing together the elements like a detective.
In the end, did Roddy even have a chance? That’s the question I’m left wondering. I’d love to chat with anyone else who has read this one! Any thoughts on Roderick? Why he did it? Who he is? Come on, true crime buffs—you know you want a piece of your own mystery to solve!
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Find out more about the author, Graeme Macrae Burnet
Find out more about the publisher, Contraband
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“What’s the real way to make a horror movie?” (256)
You are an actor, but you’ve never been in a movie yet. All of a sudden, your agent calls: you’ve been given the chance of a lifetime, the role you’ve been waiting for, your big break. But you have to get on a plane to the Amazon right now, leaving everything behind, no time to let anyone know what’s going on, barely even time to pack a bag. You don’t know what the role is, or even what it movie is about, but you have to decide right now.
Do you go? Could you leave everything behind? Or would you wait for something with less unknowns?
We Eat Our Own is a literary psychological horror novel that also delves into political turmoil as well incorporating interesting film history throughout.
The main plot is that famed Italian horror director Ugo Velluto is filming a new experimental documentary-style film deep in the Amazon in the 1970s. Think The Blair Witch Project, but this is about 30 years before that movie was made. His American actor for the leading role of Richard, is cast late due to another actor dropping out.
The actor (only called “Richard” by the book) flies to South America, but nothing seems to be quite right—the director doesn’t really care that he is there, no one will give him a script, he can’t call home or potentially even leave, they are doing dangerous stunts that are nothing like movies in America... What is going on?
At the same time, the area of South America they are in is in dangerous political turmoil due to guerillas, drug traffickers, and even a mysterious American who runs the hotel they are all staying at. If the film doesn’t kill him, Colombia might.
Each chapter is told by a different character, some characters repeating frequently, some only being used once or twice. The book borders on experimental at times, with main actor Richard’s sections being told in second person—like my opening paragraph—which is very unusual for novels.
Even from the start, there is a sinister tone to Richard’s sections; there is always some sort of reference like: “Here’s what you don’t know…” which makes the reader uncomfortably omniscient, with this growing sense of dread that something terrible is coming, something horrible is going to happen to Richard.
The other chapters are not in second person, but they use other alienating features, like the lack of quotes around dialogue, which can make the reader lose track of who is speaking as the dialogue runs together a bit.
Interspersed throughout the main plot of the movie set, and a side plot of a few young political guerillas (that comes into play later, you’ll see!), there are transcripts from a trial that make the reader aware that everything we are experiencing in the Amazon has already happened, and Ugo is on trial for something, though we aren’t sure what.
Being a horror movie buff, what really drew me to this book in the first place was the idea that it was inspired by the cult exploitation film, Cannibal Holocaust, along with the Italian giallo tradition, a type of horror movie with crime elements, often featuring a slasher, most prevalent throughout the 70s.
I really enjoyed the chapters from the point of view of the special effects team, a husband and wife who have worked with Ugo on many of his previous films. It’s obvious that Wilson did a lot of research about special effects in horror movies to write these scenes.
There is great detail about how bodies and body parts are created out of gelatin molds and sometimes (when you are in the jungle with no resources) even butchered animals to create horror effects. I loved every second of it.
It’s a mix of schlocky horror like Cannibal Holocaust, with literary horror like Heart of Darkness, and documentary horror like The Blair Witch Project. An ambitious and experimental novel that is deeply unsettling and written to great effect.
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Find out more about the author, Kea Wilson
Find out more about the publisher, Scribner (Simon & Schuster)
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As the weather gets colder, we look for books to snuggle up with and keep us warm!
Alice Hoffman’s newest centers around a tragedy that completely stops Shelby Richmond’s life and sends her into an internal spiral. She holes up in her parents’ basement, buys weed from the kid she used to make fun of at school, and hides away from the world.
The details of this tragedy are slowly revealed throughout the first half of the book, so I don’t want to give anything away, but what is more interesting is how Shelby reemerges into the world—her starts and stops, her mistakes, her successes, and her truly lovely and real personality that comes heartbreakingly to life on the page.
Finally moving out of the basement in Long Island and into an apartment in New York City, Shelby discovers a love for animals: working at a pet store, rescuing drugged dogs from homeless people who use them for money, and later, even saving a monster (you’ll have to read the book to figure out what that means).
Her compulsive rescuing and need to care for these (adorably sad sounding) creatures perhaps comes from her desire to have control over situations that she feels need fixing. When she can make the situation better for the dogs, those dogs that really deserve it, she feels empowered and in control—nothing like the night of the accident, the night she is always trying to forget.
Because Shelby can’t change what happened that night, and she’s been blaming herself all these years, not letting herself move forward.
All the while, she receives intermittent illustrated postcards from some unknown person, urging her to “Do something,” or “Say something.” These notes weigh heavily on her—someone notices her; someone has not forgotten.
Where Shelby falters is with people. She isn’t sure how to accept love from or give love to others and is wary of romantic relationships and friendships alike. What can she give? With the dogs, it is different. They rely on her. They need her, and in return they love her. It makes sense.
But people are so much more complicated and you can get hurt. It takes some rambunctious children, and some time, before she can ease back into letting people into her life.
Hoffman interweaves a brilliant and strong narrative of a young girl trying to find her way in life and redefine who she is without everything she used to be. It is a story about loneliness, dogs, heartbreak, and letting the world find you just as you are—whole and ready to face it.
The postcards come back at the end in a fitting finish. (I have to go find my copy of Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man now!) I liked how it tied up the story and gave Shelby closure and a new beginning all at once.
I truly enjoyed this book. It is a quiet yet filling narrative that offers a real-to-life story that you can still escape inside. Shelby isn’t a perfect heroine, but she is someone who has been through everything that life has thrown her way and she still came out the other side. Something we can all aspire to.
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Find out more about the author, Alice Hoffman
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Find out more about the publisher, Simon and Schuster
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Assistant editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.