Man, there just isn't anyone writing novellas anymore, is there?
Longer than a short story, but shorter than a novel, these interesting specimens seem to get short shrift (no pun intended), at least in the publishing world. Maybe people are writing them by the boatload, but they just aren't a salable format.
Well, I am here to say, the novella is not dead—at least not the way Ahlborn is writing them.
These pieces, both around 150 to 200 pages, pack a killer punch, immersing the reader fully in the world of the main characters without all the messy and entangling structural work that a novel entails. Get right down in the dirt and make some mud, I say. Story, character, chaos—let the fun begin.
And boy, does she.
THE PRETTY ONES
This is a period piece set in New York City, 1977, during the reign of the Son of Sam, a real-life notorious serial killer who went around shooting people, mostly brown-haired women—when they caught him, he said his neighbor's dog told him to do it, no joke, look it up. Anyway, in this story, before he was caught, Nell is a stuffy sort of girl, not very stylish, held back by her brother's strict beliefs about the way girls should look and act, but Nell desperately wants to fit in and make a friend. When she decides to make a change, that's when it all goes wrong.
Of the two, this was my favorite. Don't get me wrong—they are both great—but I am such a sucker for a good period piece. I loved all the little details that made this feel like it was true to NYC of the late 70s, especially for a murderino like me, who happens to know a lot about Son of Sam. A serial killer backdrop for a story is beyond perfect; you know I'm on board from the beginning.
Nell is great character, all her motivations are laid bare on the table for the reader. She holds nothing back; it's like reading her constant mind diary. I enjoyed reading her after the introduction where the author discussed her aspirations of becoming a psychologist that eventually turned into writing instead. I was reading all the characters through this profiling lens and it was interesting to get inside Nell's (and possibly the author's?) head a little bit.
I CALL UPON THEE
Maggie got out of her family's crazy house where so much seemed to go wrong, but now when tragedy strikes, she's forced to return home and confront the shadows of her past and possibly the ones in her closet.
I wasn't surprised to read in the author's note that this story had some autobiographical bits in it—or perhaps I was just self-projecting since there were pieces that so mirrored my own experience in my middle school years. Ah well, perhaps it's a story for another day.
In any case, on the surface, this story has a lot of familiar elements (I am being vague here, but I honestly don't want to ruin it for you; the author goes to a lot of trouble to set up this story and I'm not going to be the one to just kick out that careful scaffolding) but what is unsettling is how she takes the familiar and dumps it on its head, putting the reader in unfamiliar territory—the unheimlich, if you like to get Freudian.
All in all, it is a story that is more intricate than it first appears. It has multiple time periods at work, and a lot of the revelations come late in the game, all stacked up on one another. It is a cathartic kind of read, one that would do well if you have a dark and stormy night to cozy up in bed with. Just hope the lights don't go out.
I of course, can't wait to see what's next from Ahlborn. There are not that many women writing horror and doing it well like she is. I love that, it is not only amazing to read, but highly inspiring. I would especially be interested in a short story collection. I have long held the belief that a writer who is a master of short form truly understands how to write—once you have to strip away all the fluff and are only left with the bare bones and stringiest meat of the story, you see what chops a writer really has. If these novellas are any indication, I'd say she has quite a collection of stories to share. And we'd be happy to devour them, raw beating hearts and all.
There are a lot of thrillers on the market, so it takes a particularly intriguing premise to get my interest piqued in one of these trendy books these days.
Need to Know is about Vivian, a bright CIA analyst on the trail of Russian sleeper cells in the US. It is a unique blend of domestic and spy/political thriller that I personally have not encountered and that is definitely one of its strong points. Originality is key for thrillers in my book!
After a cursory Google search (call me naive, but I know nothing about sleeper cells and this book had me feeling more than a little paranoid) it seems that the initial concept is not at all far-fetched. Also, if you've seen the TV show The Americans, it probably seems like a similar setup.
But this book is set in modern-day Washington DC and the story follows Vivian's perspective as she uncovers huge information about a sleeper cell that puts everything she holds dear—including her husband and four young children—in danger.
It is hard to talk about this book without revealing the first twist (yes, I said first, as in there are more), but I don't want to ruin it for you!
The author herself is a former CIA analyst who specialized in counterterrorism, so that was definitely a plus when it came to the more technical bits and the behind-the-scenes portions of the book. But this also showed in her writing, as it felt a bit juvenile at times and could use some strengthening.
It is a very fast-paced read, one that I got through in just one night—I guarantee that once you read the first chapter, you'll be sucked into the second, and from there it is difficult to leave the story without knowing what happens next.
While this definitely is a fun book, I wouldn't consider it very deep or engaging. It leads the reader around the plot threads on a leash and doesn't offer much in the way to let the reader in to a deeper level where they could participate in solving the twists themselves. I found it to be a fairly surface-level book.
I definitely appreciate the domestic angle, but kids-in-peril plot lines never hold a lot of stock for me personally. I never felt that close to the children in the book as their characters are not well-developed, nor did I feel them to be in immense peril. The story is definitely Vivian's and that is where the bulk of the characterization goes.
This is the sort of book that is perfect when you just want to let your brain go on autopilot and let the book drive. It feels very cinematic and would make for a great movie.
Overall, I found it to be a good, but not overly engaging read.
Thank you to Ballantine Books for my copy to read and review.
I'LL BE GONE IN THE DARK: ONE WOMAN'S OBSESSIVE SEARCH FOR THE GOLDEN STATE KILLER—Michelle McNamara
For anyone interested in true crime, Michelle's name is one that is sure to strike a chord. Most people have a specific, memorable event that made them interested in true crime (if you're a murderino, you'll be quite familiar with the term "hometown") and there's always that defining moment that you can look back on and say, that was it, for me. I was bit and I never looked back.
True crime is like that. It is kind of all or nothing, not really a dabbling kind of interest. It isn't just that Michelle McNamara had a blog (True Crime Diary), any old fool can do that (myself included), it was the way she devoted everything she had to a case that shockingly continues to go unsolved.
The people who are into true crime know their stuff and usually there is one case that got away. for Michelle, this is that case.
The insidious man dubbed the Golden State Killer by McNamara is not one to go into lightly. It will eat at you, get into your heart, have you keeping the lights on, staying up at night, scouring the internet, and also, on a lighter note, getting to know Michelle, an undeterred and completely unrelenting force of vitality in filling in all the blank spaces of this case.
This isn't just his story—nor should it be. Neither is it a catalog of victims and unspeakable crimes, though McNamara's clear, detailed, and thoroughly human look into many of the attacks is exactly what true crime writers should hope to achieve in such tightrope situations. This is the story of Michelle's search—the people she met along the way, whether it be in case files, in real life, or through chat rooms. The breakthroughs, the near-misses, the pain, the loss, the advances in technology.
This story is a touching tribute to a life devoted to a catching a killer. At the same time it is devastatingly heartbreaking, because Michelle did not get the chance to complete her quest. This book was not finished; the monster has not been found.
Some places in the narrative her absence is cruelly felt and I could sense where there could have been more, there must have been more that she was saving or would have written later. But Michelle never got the chance, having passed away unexpected in her sleep in 2016 at the age of 46.
Despite the evidence left behind at crime scenes, dropped while running away, and found after the fact, despite numerous eyewitness accounts and countless descriptions from victims, the Golden State Killer (aka the Original Night Stalker and/or the East Area Rapist) had never been caught. He is a curl of smoke in the night, sensed with unease, followed in circles, but never conclusively traced—yet.
I can't recommend this book more highly, and it's lessons are twofold. You can follow leads—doggedly—wherever they wind. You can, and should, chase the threads of what you feel in your bones is important to you, especially if it is important not just to you, but to others as well, as Michelle's quest was (and remains to be). But be careful.
And it also offers the idea that our time is now—the time we can work together to actually get things done. Through the internet, through people devoted to maintaining strength and belief even when it seems that all hope is dead and there is nowhere to turn, we can lean on each other—and we should.
Even through the darkness that kept Michelle up at night, there was a mission. We can all carry her mission to expose the truth. Turn on the light and step out of the darkness, out of the fear.
This is a stunning debut—multilayered with characters who have unique voices, strong desires, and each their own arc through the story. It is a very realistically written book, both in the characters and setting, which feels eerily too close to home.
The new Personhood Amendment grants all liberties and rights to every embryo. A small, sleepy, rainy fishing town in Oregon hosts the four main voices of this book: the biographer, the daughter, the wife, and the mender, all women who are on their own journeys through understanding these new laws and dealing with challenges that women have always faced: motherhood—whether wanted or not, persecution for lifestyle, accepted gender roles, and their own pursuits of life, freedom, and happiness in the face of social or political objection.
There is also a fifth voice of the novel, a little-known polar-ice explorer, who the biographer has been trying to write a book about. She gets a small section between each chapter, usually beautifully poetic, often with crossed out words, and I loved these interludes into a story of strength and resilience filtered through the mind of the biographer at work.
Even though there is a dystopian near-future setting for this book, it is not the ruling force, unlike so many of these highly popular stylized novels today. Rather it is the characters who run the show and we see them living their lives as completely normal people, some influenced by the changes in the laws more than others.
What is more interesting is to see them each grow as people, independently choosing their own paths to find out who they are and what they want, despite what society (which could mean their own community, or the world at large, depending) thinks of them. Each one is such a strong example of how you can overcome restrictions to get what you want, or change your path in life to move toward a better life.
One thing I'd like to address are all the comparisons to The Handmaid's Tale--this book is nothing like that. I guess it's got such good name recognition right now that it pulls a lot of weight but if you're expecting high dystopia, shocking and brutal conditions for women, and more, to misquote Sir Ian McKellen, this is not the book you're looking for.
Red Clocks is dystopic, yes, but it is on the mild side compared to Atwood's masterpiece and that is where the similarities end. It is completely its own story. Zumas has created a story that is almost more frightening because the background of what the characters are living in, could be just over the horizon for us. You never know. And, they just live through it, every day, like normal—life goes on. While I have a hard time comparing anyone to Margaret Atwood, I just think you're going to enjoy this one if you give it a try.
It really spoke to me as my first 2018 novel, because these are themes that I am contemplating myself—trying to start fresh and overcome obstacles—often ones that I've placed in my own way—to truly start living and doing what it is I believe I'm meant to do.
I'm done walking through every day just going through the motions—I want this to be the year I can look back on and see that I accomplished something, some movement toward my dreams. And it doesn't have to be huge, but it has to be me. I'm the only one who can do it.
No matter what your views may be on abortion—that really isn't the point of this book. Zumas has dug into the lives of normal women and found resiliency, strength, and a desire to change their own lives.
Isn't that what we all want?
My thanks to Little Brown for my finished copy of this book.
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.