If there was ever a book to make you crave food, this is it.
I wanted good, delicious Chinese food every time I cracked this book open. You can basically smell it while you read—the hot, sizzling spices, fried rice, heaping plates of beef and eggplant with garlic sauce (my favorite), and bowls brimming with wonton soup—SO GOOD.
I didn’t quite know what to expect diving into this (besides hunger pangs) but I was pleasantly surprised by an inventive and humanistic tale similar in style to Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere or Jade Chang’s The Wangs vs. the World.
I loved each of the characters and their struggles. Each chapter continues the story from a different characters’ perspective, so the reader gets a bird’s-eye view of the whole story—the good, the bad, the incendiary, and the ugly. From the brothers who co-own the Beijing Duck House that was their father’s dream and masterpiece and the less-than-ideal business decisions one of them has been making, to the servers who have been working at the restaurant for just about ever, to the newer generation and their own struggles.
I loved the entanglements of all the characters, how the book reminisced about the past and how where we come from influences who we are, whether we decide to fight it or let it be a part of our story. Li has a true talent for the craft of characters, from dialogue to being able to switch back and forth between all their perspectives and making them feel like distinct people.
There are many different types of relationships handled very deftly here: brothers, sons and mothers, unlikely lovers, young lovers, business partners, coworkers, spouses, teens and their parents—the list goes on. This web is tangled even further as many characters play multiple roles. The book uses the setting of the restaurant and the hierarchy within the restaurant as a metaphor for the rest of the world—who you are when you are at work is not necessarily who you are when your shift ends. But what happens when all of that comes crumbling down?
Identity is a tricky thing. It is tied to our perception of ourselves but also how other people see us. Where we come from, what we do, who we spend time with—all these things shape who we are. But it is not always easy to craft or change this, even if we desperately want something else. This book is a lot about identity, the finding and shifting of it, through food, the past, and those around us.
This is a book with heart—a true feast for the heart. It has moments of comedy and absurdity, but then vulnerability, loss, and heartache where the reader sees what it means to be part of a community that is so tight it is more like a family. And as it is with families—they know nothing about each other’s inner lives and constantly get on each other’s nerves. I ate this book up—Li is a huge talent and I can’t wait to see what comes from her next.
Boy do I love a good slasher. A movie with a masked guy running around knocking off teens—does it get any better than that? And, what is it about this trope that so has so captured our imagination? The blood and guts and gore, yes, but there is something about that darkened figure, silhouetted in the moonlight voyeuristically watching frolicking teens in the woods, or their neighborhood, or any other environ, his grip tightening around some instrument of death. There is something that draws us in.
It is obvious from that start that Roubique is a fan of the '80s slasher trope. I'm sure he's seen all the flicks, knows all the cliches that we love (and love to hate), and boy does he nail the cover of this book, which he created himself—am I right??
He takes on that very visual medium in book form, something that I really haven't seen that much of. There are a few: Stephen Graham Jones has taken on the genre, perhaps American Psycho counts, though it's more of a social satire, and I can think of a few others, but none that are so steeped in the '80s slasher tradition, that truly golden era, as this one. (And please do direct me to slasher books if you know of them. But before you mention it, no, Final Girls doesn't count—that is a thriller, not a horror novel, and it isn't a very good one at that).
The story has a good setup: bored, older kids at camp go on a rafting adventure and wind up at a water park that seems deserted—but someone is there, watching them, stalking them. Our heroine is a quiet, Walkman-loving girl who has a hard time making friends, but thinks she might have found a few, finally. And so the blood bath begins!
Though I have a few questions about the functionality of water parks—is it really plausible that they hook up to creeks or streams and use that water instead of a more controlled water source? And later, (SPOILER AHEAD, so skip to the next paragraph if you haven't read it) they seem to be extremely trapped in this place, but I wonder why the fences are electric in the first place—that seems dangerous. Public places like water parks shouldn't, and I'm pretty sure they don't, have electric fences. Also, they never goo looking for the entrance/exit, which seems like a no-brainer to me.
But, those kinds of inconsistencies perhaps can be overlooked as plot convenience, which is par for the course in slasher films.
Slightly more egregious is the disregard for consistency with the films and songs used in the book. Though the author does acknowledge one of these in the afterword, that was not the only instance. And I feel like if the music was going to be so integral to the plot, it should have been consistent with the real-life pieces of the book matching the setting of the book. Perhaps a bit nit-picky, but still true.
I can say that I didn't know where the plot for this book was going. I knew there would be blood, but I didn't know who or when or exactly what was going on. The book definitely hit the beats of a slasher film and that was a lot of fun to read and envision.
The writing felt amateurish and underdeveloped to me, which had the effect of pulling me out of the plot. For example, the book is written in third person with multiple POVs, but I found it difficult to follow the thread between who was thinking what sometimes, as it switches back and forth with little warning and with little indication of which character is in focus. This needed to be smoothed out throughout the book.
I have to admit that this is a fun and enjoyable pulpy little read, but in the end, it doesn't feel like a finished book to me. It needs a round of edits to help breathe a little life into it, round out the characters (especially their dialogue and the transitions between each of their thoughts), and to correct basic errors. (I have a hard time ignoring basic copy editing errors in books. So sloppy.)
My thanks to the author for generously supplying the Nightworms with copies of this one to read!
I don't read much YA fiction. I know that the genre has changed a lot, going from not existing at all to now being for adults and not just teens, but whenever I've read books specifically marketed as YA, I tend to find that they just don't hold the same weight as so-called "adult fiction."
This doesn't mean that they can't be well written or have interesting, developed characters (though in my experience this is generally not the case). YA is like the candy, the empty calories that are fun and tasty enough but don't really fill you up the way a true meal, like a literary fiction book, will.
But when a new book by Marisha Pessl comes out, it doesn't matter who the audience is supposed to be—that's a book I'll be buying.
My first experience with Pessl was Night Film, and when the advance copies came in at our bookstore, I just knew I had to have it. Such a striking cover, the bare bones of the plot instantly spoke to me, and flipping through, I could see the hints of the multi-media pages and I was smitten.
It did not disappoint. Pessl has a strong, enticing voice, does not shy away from the dark moments, and goes to interesting places with her characters. I read Special Topics in Calamity Physics soon after and though it didn't sing to me like Night Film, I could see why people were captivated by it.
And it is easy to see now, with this newest book, why Pessl would be interested in YA. Special Topics centers around a group of young adults too and Pessl obviously has a bit of a lock on that demographic. And yet, that book was not called YA and is still not marketed to younger readers. Why is that? The themes do not seem too complex or too explicit compared to some other YA books. Is it too long? Just better writing? What is it that makes a book YA?
I'm not sure I'll ever really be able to answer that question, but unfortunately, it is a category that, for me at least, the marketing is not working. I have been burned before and I will continue to shy away from books branded with this label.
All this to say that I bought Pessl's latest book with no hesitation, but I did begin it with a little trepidation. I didn't know what to expect: would her writing be different? Dumbed down? Would the plot be less complex or interesting?
The short answer is no.
Right away, her voice is apparent. And it is obvious throughout the book that she didn't change her writing style at all—this is Pessl through and through. Similar to her other two books, it is written in first person, with one main protagonist as our guide throughout.
Without spoiling the plot at all, there is a repetitive nature to some sections of the book, and I found them to drag, sometimes unnecessarily and to the detriment of the plot.
The main character Beatrice is a bit thick, honestly, and I wanted more from her. She seemed to mostly react to everyone around her rather than make decisions, which is my least favorite type of character. Action is a must.
The rest of the characters were paper-thin wisps of tired stock elements. I think the group of five (and then six once we start discussing Beatrice's boyfriend who mysteriously died) is a bit too much for the book to handle.
The plot itself ends up being more of an investigation of said mysterious death, which I couldn't quite wrap my head around the logic of that being the locus that will solve their predicament. It felt like a forced way to rehash an old storyline.
I read the book in one sitting; it is definitely short and compulsive enough to read right through. I think people who enjoyed books like If We Were Liars will be fans of the strangeness and dreamy propulsion of this book, but it didn't quite move me the way I've come to expect a book by Pessl to.
In the end—if forced to categorize it—I would call this a YA book. Though it has shades (sometimes a bit blatant) of The Secret History, If We Were Villains, and Pessl's own Special Topics, I think this book definitely caters toward younger readers. It is still an enjoyable read, and fans of her work and mysteries in general will enjoy this one.
And, there is another book on the way from Pessl, so even if this one wasn't for you, there is more to come.
I have not made my love for Wolas’s debut novel, The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, a secret. It is a brilliant literary work that deserves its comparisons to pillars like Irving, McCullers, Capote, Didion. But it also stands alone and shines with a unique voice—so unlike anything I’ve read before not only in story, but in character, strength of the vision that is created on the page, and sheer enormity of the tangible world and people that come alive. It deserves to be read and savored. It is the type of book that gets into the deepest nooks and farthest niches of your heart and forces the beating, reminds you why you are alive, or maybe why you need to start living.
Yeah, it’s that good.
So I did not enter into The Family Tabor lightly. I had high expectations.
While Joan focuses on one specific character and her struggles, Tabor offers multiple perspectives, switching the narrative view every chapter to a different character of the well-to-do Tabor family.
They have all gathered to celebrate the patriarch, Henry Tabor, who is being named Man of the Decade. But though the family is close, not everything is as perfect as it appears and just a tiny tear at the seams of the façade offers a peek behind the curtain of the past and present struggles different members of the family are all privately facing.
The book has many, many strengths, the first of which would be its beautiful use of language. Wolas has a true talent with words and she does not squander it. This is the type of book you can barely get through a page without wanting to read some sentence over and over, or noticing a carefully constructed or unique phrase, or a detailed description you want to mark with a sticky note.
The characters are also deftly wrought, as to me, both their internal dialogue and their interactions with others throughout the plot ring very true. This novel is very much about the divide between public and private—what we share with the world and what we hide away from it. As the reader, we get to see both sides and I loved that.
This book is also very much about family power dynamics: the expectations of family, living up to your parents or your siblings even if the disparity is only in your mind, and trying to hide any flaws and not be too vulnerable or naked in front of them. Though the Tabors seem open and warm with each other, they are very guarded and keep their secrets to themselves, licking their wounds in private.
A thoughtful and meditative book concerned with the human experience and the way our past can dictate our future if we let it, The Family Tabor is not one you’ll want to zoom through. It is a delicate dessert you'll want to taste every flavor of and truly enjoy. The story is quiet and introspective, but not without drama and high stakes.
The past can dictate the future, but we can also learn from it and change ourselves in the present to create a better future. I don't think that's a new lesson or such a revelatory one, but the deft way Wolas peels back the layers illuminates how what we inherit from our parents and their parents and so on does not need to define us, though it will always be within us, coursing just beneath the surface. After all, blood is thicker than water, as they say.
Anyone with a true love of literature and a longing for the great classics who understood that language and the creation of compelling characters were the cornerstone of good storytelling will fall in love with Wolas’s work.
I am a lifelong fan and will always look forward to reading her new releases and rereading my favorites too.
My thanks to Flatiron Books for providing me with an advance copy of this book.
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.