“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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I always say California is going to fall into the ocean someday. Those fault lines, man. You are just living in denial if you don’t think that entire state is one minuscule step away from a shattering natural disaster. But there they go, building their skyscrapers and freeway systems like it’s no big deal.
Shaker has a powerful, cinematic setup of an enormous earthquake crippling Los Angeles. Enough to put you off going to the beach for a while, or at least rethink your dreams of a glamorous Hollywood life.
Enter Roy Cooper—a New York hitman, quick, reliable, and good at his job, sent to LA to clean up some loose ends. He’s never been on a plane and wants to get in and out quickly, unless he might be able to catch a Dodgers game; he loves baseball and his favorite pitcher is about to break a record.
But then, right after he completes the job, everything goes to hell in a hand basket. He intervenes as a few gangbangers attack an older man in an alley and the whole thing gets recorded by a bystander and goes viral, making him look like a hero.
His anonymity goes out the window—the last thing any hitman wants—and it places him just a few blocks from the crime scene of his hit, which they will surely discover is connected sooner or later, since the bangers stole his gun and used it to kill the old man.
And that wasn’t just any old man, he was the favorite candidate in the upcoming mayoral election and now that he’s dead, the current mayor is being accused of killing off his competition. And why isn’t he doing more about fixing up the city after the quakes, by the way?
The gangbangers have a witness, Roy, and they need to find him and get rid of him. But he’s looking for them too. He knows his employers are not going to be happy about his face plastered all over the news.
LAPD detective Kelly Maguire has been bumped from the gang division due to abuse of an African American rapist/murderer she was interrogating. But she’s onto something with the city’s new hero and something isn’t quite right. And there’s someone more sinister looking for Roy, someone from his past, someone who thought he was dead.
While Roy is definitely the central focal point of this story, all of the characters are attached to him, mostly through those few moments in the alley, whether that’s how they come to know him, or that’s how they come to find him.
It seems that everyone in this book is a shaker—on some form of unsteady ground, the earth splitting beneath their feet and they need to act, to choose one way or the other.
The fact that the earth is literally shaking beneath their feet and causing extra chaos is like an externalization of how these characters' lives are falling to pieces.
I really loved how each character was really humanized--the book gets into each of their heads alternatively and shows how things are not black and white. Ray may be a hitman, but he is a person, and he is a lot more than what is revealed on the surface. Kelly has a lot of anger issues and the city may now see her as a racist pig, but there is a whole 'nother life bubbling beneath her bones, and she is really good at her job. She wants to make a difference.
I didn't really know what I was getting into with this book, but it is a tightly written, cinematic, fast-paced novel, and I definitely expect more great work from Scott Frank in the future. He has already shown us what he can do with the screen, since he wrote the screenplays for Get Shorty and Out of Sight, among others. I would love to see what an adaptation of this would look like. . .
Get your copy of Shaker
Find out more about the author, Scott Frank
Find out more about the publisher, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard (Knopf Doubleday, Penguin Random House)
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Cruel Mercy is my first foray into the Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy series following the burly, fiercely determined, and strongly moral Scotsman (of which this book is the sixth).
I was a little apprehensive to dive blindly into a series following a character I had not yet read anything about—I imagined attempting to read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince without having the faintest idea of what a Muggle was, or a Dumbledore, or what expecto patronum meant, or barely even knowing that Harry Potter was the one with the glasses and the unlikely scar on his head shaped like a weather phenomenon.
Fortunately, the only thing I felt after being glued to the pages of Cruel Mercy, was that I needed to find the other books in this series as quickly as possible!
While you’ll definitely be missing out on some important character building—I couldn’t help but feel that Pharoah, McAvoy’s boss, and Roisin, his wife, are extremely important characters who do more than occasionally call on the phone in the previous installments--Cruel Mercy does an excellent job of working as a standalone novel while introducing new readers to a vivacious, intelligent, and rugged detective in a fish-out-of-water situation.
McAvoy is sent across the pond to New York City to investigate the disappearance of his wife’s brother, and a lot is resting on the investigation since the two people he was last seen with, an up-and-coming Irish boxer and his promoter are attacked in an apparent mob hit in the woods upstate.
There is a tangled web of lies, mob secrets, and long hushed-up mysterious deaths and disappearances that don’t seem connected at all until McAvoy starts digging deeper than is wanted by everyone involved.
The U.S. authorities are deep in the pockets of the rival mob groups and have their own aims in sight, including keeping McAvoy in the dark. But it only takes one black sheep, or one solitary figure who wants to see justice done. . .
The plot of this book is so complex and completely bursting with very realistic details about the city, the organizations involved, and the potential corruption, that it definitely was one of the most realistic crime fiction books I have ever read. Things are not black and white, there is not just a cast of four or five characters, it isn’t always about a serial killer with multiple personality disorder.
David Mark’s book shows a full spectrum of ideas, I learned about the underground boxing world, mob factions and families, corruption in police departments, and seeing the U.S. through the eyes of a foreigner (always an enlightening experience).
It is definitely a dark book, especially in flashbacks where we eventually realize there may be no hope of escape or release for the characters therein, but I think, in the end, it is a redemptive one and one that reflects on the struggles of our own times.
We do not live in times that are black and white, we live in the murkiest grey. Whether it seems easy to label people one way or the other, it is not—just look at our most current election cycle, people being branded one thing or the other, it is so easy in these times of instant media.
I think it is important, maybe more important than ever to read fiction that speaks truths.
We need to delve into what makes us uncomfortable about not having things strictly separated into right and wrong, true and false, black and white. And sometimes, fiction speaks truer than fact. Sometimes the light at coming full circle in a story helps you hold onto what really matters.
And now, a special interview with author David Mark!
Shelf Stalker: First, a few warmup questions. What are you currently reading?
David Mark: As ever, I’m reading several books at once. I sometimes wish I had more eyes. Am loving The North Water by Ian Maguire, and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. I tend to leave books in different rooms of the house and read whatever I’m nearest.
SS: Who are your top three authors and why do they inspire you?
DM: John Connolly, because he has shown how to keep an ongoing series fresh and relevant. Sebastian Faulks, because his use of language is so beautiful it makes me want to kill him out of jealousy. And Hilary Mantel, as she is Hilary Mantel.
SS: If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
DM: I would quite like to be invisible, but as a novelist who spends most of his life in a darkened room, I’ve kind of already got my wish. So I think I would opt for some sort of mind-reading powers. I’d love to know what on earth people are thinking, or if indeed they actually are. Characters in novels have to have some degree of consistency and causality to their actions. Sadly, real life is not so obliging.
SS: Though this book could definitely be read as a standalone, it could be some readers’ first foray into the series—as it was mine, though I think I’ll go back and start from the beginning now. You’ve got me hooked! For readers who might not be familiar with the McAvoy series, what are a few important (or interesting) things to know about this Scottish detective and his past experiences before diving in?
DM: I’m pleased to hear that it works for newcomers as well as seasoned McAvoy fans. That was the idea. I would rather new readers approached it without knowing too much of what has come before but here’s some of the basics. Aector McAvoy is a sergeant on the Major Incident Team in Hull, Yorkshire. He’s a huge Scotsman with a tendency to blush and knock things over and who looks like he would be more at home holding a claymore and wearing a kilt in a bygone age. His life revolves around his wife and children, whom he adores, and his boss, Trish, who is a little bit in love with him. He’s brave, but doesn’t really believe he’s any type of hero, and while clever, he knows he’s not a genius. He follows the evidence wherever it goes, which is why he has so many scars. He doesn’t like upsetting people, and if he hits you hard enough there is a good chance your head will come off.
SS: This is the first McAvoy book set in the United States, or anywhere overseas for that matter. What was the motivation to take Aector so far away from his comfort zone?
DM: I know that McAvoy is synonymous with Hull and I don’t intend for that to change but I felt the time was right to remove a few of his comforts. Without his wife, Roisin, and his boss, he is never quite as sure of himself or whether he is on the right path. Given that there are some real moral ambiguities in this story, I thought that would be an interesting dynamic. I had planned to write a very different kind of New York novel. I had in mind something that was very Ed McBain or a Manhattan version of David Simon. But it occurred to me that to do those kind of stories justice, I would need to write with an authentic voice. I would need to write from the perspective of somebody who knows those streets and given that I had never been to America before, that just seemed absurd. So I decided that the "stranger in a strange land" concept might be a better fit. I wanted the reader to experience New York through the eyes of a blundering outsider, and that is definitely a voice I can find within myself.
SS: While reading this book, I really felt like I had a good picture and feel of that crazy city that never sleeps and the places described. I heard you were able to visit NYC while doing research for the book. Can you share some of that experience? What are some of the most striking differences from your hometown?
DM: There is an air of madness to New York. It’s not just one city—it seems like several different places all crunched together. The result is this patchwork of disparate cultures and influences. And yet it fits together to form this one homogenous entity that is inherently New York. People identify as New Yorkers before they identify as Americans. In that regard, it’s not dissimilar to my usual setting. People in Yorkshire say they are from the North. That’s the bit they’re proud of. In almost every other aspect, it’s a whole new world. If people in Hull were given access to the kind of foodstuffs that Manhattan has to offer, the whole of the UK would sink inside six months thanks to increased bodymass.
In terms of how I researched the book, I’m not 100 percent sure I can remember. There was a lot of drinking! But it would be fair to say that I don’t feel able to write about a place until I have experienced it and there was no way I could write the book without at least breathing in the New York air. So in essence it was a case of coming up with some good ideas for locations and trying to find a real place that worked. If I needed an old church and a boxing gym and two Irish bars, it was a case of looking at a lot of websites and coming up with a shortlist of places that might be right. It was important to me that I didn’t just pick places at random. Certain characters would only visit certain locations and live in certain types of place. There has to be a truth to your fiction. Characters need to behave like real people. Eventually I had a good long list of places that the characters would be likely to visit and where I would enjoy taking McAvoy and I booked myself and my partner a three-day break. We stayed in the hotel that would eventually become McAvoy’s hotel room and dined and drank in the restaurants and bars where he spends his time. We stood shivering outside the police precinct where the New York detective who becomes his ally would have worked. It is such a city of contradictions. It seems to be at once incredibly affluent and utterly destitute and proof of both can be glimpsed in the same panorama.
SS: Might you also talk a bit about your writing process? Your daily process while you are writing as well as what is it like to write a series—keeping all those plot threads straight! Wow!
DM: I’m very lucky that I have the kind of mind that is perfectly suited to writing fiction and which is horribly ill-suited to everything else. I take notes now and again and sometimes find scraps of paper with random words and aide-memoirs scribbled upon them but by and large I think of my skull like one of those candyfloss machines. I just swirl a stick around in there and ideas stick to it. The story I’m living and breathing then squats there in my head and pushes everything else out. Sometimes I look at the clock and I’ve lost a day and I realize I haven’t been to the bathroom since dawn. I write a chapter a day, no matter what. I’m at my desk by 9 am, drinking coffee and grinding my teeth. It’s delightfully masochistic. I kind of enjoy the agony of it, which sounds very pretentious for a writer of dark thrillers! As soon as it’s done, my brain just kind of flatlines for a bit. Then it starts preparing for the next project. Two years later, when the book is in people’s hands, I’ve largely forgotten what it was about. Sorry!
SS: What is essential to writing good crime fiction? Do you stick to some sort of formula or do you break all the rules? Do you read a lot of crime fiction or thrillers as well?
DM: I read everything I can get my hands on. I love thrillers and psychological fiction but it is rather difficult to read them for pleasure now that it’s my day job. It’s hard not to read with an air of comparing the market. I don’t really take any notice of rules, either in the writing process or in life. Actually, I do have one—if the novelist has mentioned the make and model of a car by the end of the first paragraph, the book isn’t for me. And for God’s sake, don’t start off with a dream. For me, it’s just a case of meeting interesting people and twisting preconceptions on their head. Listen to the radio a lot. People who phone DJs are particularly inspiring—they always seem like the sort of person who could be a killer or the killed. Listen to your inner voice. When some dullard is telling you about their tedious problems, think of ways to kill them, and why. It’s less risky than actually doing it. And you think I’m joking.
SS: Do you have plans for many more adventures with McAvoy and company? Where might he travel next?
DM: I’ve just got back from Iceland, and some of the next book will happen there. My American publishers still haven’t made an offer for that one yet so if you want to read it, start bombarding them with demands.
SS: Thank you so much for your time! I so enjoyed reading the book and look forward to more mysteries and crimes to solve with Aector!
DM: Thank you. If you ever come to Hull, I’ll show you around.
Get your copy of Cruel Mercy or the other DS Aector books
Find out more about David Mark
Find out more about the publisher, Blue Rider Press (Penguin Random House)
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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 realized lately that all I really know about law and courtrooms and lawyering is what I’ve seen, heard, and read about through criminal trials (both real and imagined). True crime and crime fiction is generally my scene, but when given a chance to expand my knowledge, I’m game.
Big Law is about a different side of the justice world. One where lawyers from big name firms make boatloads of money working all the time on cases representing big syndicates and companies who are probably in the wrong and have done horrible things, like spill oil all over the habitat of a bunch of poor birds or force people to work in an unhealthy environment that led to early lung cancer related deaths.
Somehow, those corporations seem to skive off without much damage and it’s always Big Law lawyers who are seen skulking away.
Welcome to the world of totally unfair bullsh!t. Oh, wait, I think you’ll recognize it since we are all currently living there for the next four years.
Anyway, back to the story. Big Law follows an up-and-coming newly minted partner, Carney Blake, who is pretty fresh from law school and still rosy-eyed and a bit idealistic about the whole law game.
When he’s given a case fighting against the corporation, for the plaintiff, the people who have been wronged, it seems a bit fishy, but he figures his company is just turning over a new leaf.
The story is told from a point in the future, so the reader gets bits of Carney’s more hardened, mature narration throughout and we can’t help but wonder, where is he telling this story from? The top of his own executive office in a crisp Armani suit? Or a jail cell in a nice orange D.O.C. jumpsuit?
Because things don’t seem to be going so well for Carney. Not in his personal life, where his father is an alcoholic mess and his brother is a drug addict, and not at his job, where every decision he makes for this case seems to send it spiraling out of control—and right into the hands of the firm’s biggest enemy.
This is an extremely fast-paced novel that spins out the world of corporate law in a way that is not only intelligible, but exciting and effortless. It drew me in and I didn’t feel like it stopping to explain every step of the process to me—instead the book treated me like an equal while still giving me all the information I needed. The mark of an experienced and great writer.
I think it definitely helps that this book is written by someone very much in the know: Ron Liebman is a former top litigator himself.
Interestingly, this book has some very clear lines demarcating good and bad, with only one surprise character (who I had a sneaking suspicion about anyway). People who the narrator thinks are bad (and are therefore cast in a bad light throughout) invariably turn out bad, through and through.
No real grey area in law, I guess.
Though the book definitely wraps up with a nicely tight bow, a bit neat for my taste, the story is definitely satisfying and gave me a buzz to read. It puts you right in the action of making the decisions with Carney and floods your brain with just a small bit of the constant wave information that lawyers’ brains must deal with.
Can’t say I’m envious of that life, but it’s nice to take a peek inside for one heck of a wild ride.
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Find out more about the author, Ron Liebman
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Assistant editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.