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.
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.
Rain is a recovering addict trying to forget her past and get her life back on track. She goes to NA meetings, has a small ragtag group of friends, and even has a job interview lined up. Despite her crappy apartment in a bad part of Brooklyn, her life isn’t looking so bad—that is until she looks through a pair of glasses she borrows from a woman on the subway and sees something . . . strange.
Things just get weirder from there and Rain doesn’t know who to turn to—her NA friends will think she’s using and she has burned all the other bridges in her life. What is she seeing? What is real and what is just shadows of her past?
While this book has a lot of interesting ideas, for me it was just too all over the place. Talk about double mumbo jumbo: there are supernatural evil beings, an alternate/dream reality, some weird stuff with time, ghosts, The author was trying to pack too many different threads into one book and I think it would have been a much more successful novel if he had really focused in on one or two elements.
There is a supernatural evil that is following Rain and she discovers (so slooowwwly) that its strength lies in her weakness, and it is connected to the son she gave up before she became a junkie. When I realized that the plot was centered around her specific past, it really started to lose steam for me. The whole “kids in peril” plotline is overused in horror (in my opinion) and it is fairly obvious when a kid is not really in peril.
I also was confused by the main villain of the novel, Doctor Nine—I didn’t fully understand his purpose. What was he trying to accomplish, exactly? And that name is never explained either. Not saying that is necessary, but maybe it would have helped. . . His evil plot never felt spelled out for me and I didn’t fully see the point of everything he and his assistant are trying to do.
And that is only the beginning of the proliferating threads—many of the characters are connected in multiple ways to each other and to other plots that I found unnecessary and unlikely. The detective probably could have had his own book, or at least a spinoff novella, but I didn’t think his whole story was crucial to the plot of this book and I felt that it the way it was slowly spun out slowed down the main thrust of the narrative.
I really got lost in all the different ideas, themes, and plot threads presented in the narrative. There is a dream world that several of the characters discuss—visiting certain places and meeting specific people (most of whom the reader never meets), but we only see brief scenes of this place and much of the setup surrounding it felt superfluous and I was underwhelmed by the reality of it when we actually arrived.
The ending was definitely a letdown as I felt that the action of the climax was all a bit more metaphorical than anything else. Time is a tricky thing to mess with and doesn’t always end up satisfying.
I’d like to thank the publisher for sending the Nightworms copies of this book to read and review.
I took this book on my recent trip to NYC and it definitely added an extra layer—reading about Piper and her friends and how they grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan while actually being there. Hers is an exclusive and privileged view, one filled with restrictions (both self-imposed and adult-imposed), rule-breaking, and tennis.
The true crime–memoir is not entirely a new genre, you could say that The Stranger Beside Me, Ann Rule's incredible 1980 book on her experience as Ted Bundy's friend definitely fits the bill.
But it is one that is currently breaking through the ranks. I have found several true crime books in the last few years that are really compelling because of their authors' unique perspective; it is very different from reading a book—however well-researched—that is done by someone who wasn't personally involved.
Similar to a few of my favorites, Maggie Nelson's The Red Parts and Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich's The Fact of a Body, this book chronicles a story that is very personal and immediate for the author.
Gary Wilensky was Piper's personal tennis coach when she was fourteen. She rode in his car alone, went to lunch with him, her parents trusted him. But that all changed when he committed suicide after a failed attempt at kidnapping another of his students.
Who was this man that she confided in, felt comfortable around, thought of as one of her friends? Why has the case always followed her, almost haunted her?
Piper delves deeply into the story of her own adolescence, finding universal truths about coming of age, no matter where you grew up. She looks down the avenues of obsession that are open to us all, comparing her own walk of that line with the very wrong direction that Gary took. The book contemplates the facts of Gary's case and how that meshes with what she knew of him.
Though I loved Piper's story and I wouldn't have cut any of it, I did wish there was a bit more focus on the case itself and the factual details about Gary, what happened, and how it came about.
This case is kind of weird because it is more of a what-if than anything else. No one really knows what he had planned or what would have happened. There is only the strange evidence, and the torment, he left behind.
This is definitely more of a memoir, a coming-of-age tale with true crime elements than a story about a crime. But Piper is a very talented writer and she has a way of drawing you into the story—I promise this one won't disappoint.
We all have been there: through the debilitating anguish, loneliness, depression, and obsession of young adulthood. Skirting the line of becoming an adult, but not quite there yet. Piper's effortless prose puts the reader in between the lines.
My thanks to the publisher for my copy of this book to read and review.
The highly anticipated novel follows a young mother and exotic dancer who lives in San Francisco and Los Angeles and has been convicted of a horrible crime. She tells her story, the narrative entangling with some of the people she encounters, detailing life at prison, her life before, and how she got to where she is.
If you like Orange is the New Black, this is the book for you. I know that comparison will probably be all over the place, but this book really has a lot of the elements that I love about that show. Witty interesting characters shown to have layers and be real people behind all their banter, interesting prison insights, backstory, and even better, it doesn’t have Piper. (I’m sorry, but she’s so annoying!)
Instead, you’ll fall for the tough, smart Romy Hall, who doesn’t have a glamorous life, but does what she needs to get by. She doesn’t hold prejudices or punches and tells her story like it is without trying to make it pretty. I like her.
The main thrust of the plot following Romy was what I was most interested in and I loved her voice. I wanted to spend more time with this character! It took me a while to really get into the style of the short paragraphs and the back and forth of how she revealed her story, telling a small piece of it and then going off on a tangent about something entirely different before circling back, but though it dragged sometimes, I mostly liked it. It is a bit difficult to read in loonngg stretches.
But overall, I thought the narrative was a little scattered. The way it would jump between different characters narration was sometimes jarring and it took me a sentence or a paragraph to figure out who was talking and what part of the story they were telling. It felt like an unnecessary way to transition. Some of the characters felt a little extraneous and over-written to me, like I wasn’t sure why we were hearing from them at all (Ted Kaczynski?) and as their narratives were not all wound up within the book, those areas could have been trimmed.
The book also felt a little unfinished to me, like there is more that could have been gleaned from the themes of self-imposed isolation (what with all the Thoreau/Kaczynski/woodsy scenes) and the institutional isolation that Romy and the other inmates experience. I don’t know exactly what the book was trying to say about that. Perhaps it is there and I just didn’t get it!
But the book is also interested in injustice, gender in prison, and poverty and other socioeconomic factors that really do affect how the system runs. Too much is being taken on by the book and the narrative doesn’t cover any of it fully.
For me, the disjointed narrative and scattered style—jumping between first and third person, the difficulty in discerning who was speaking (or why they had a voice in the narrative at all), and other reasons really disconnected me from the text. I felt that it lacked the raw emotionality that should have (and could have) been conveyed by a book about such important topics as the realities and injustices of the justice system.
Not quite what I expected, but still a very interesting story by a talented and compelling writer.
My thanks to the publisher for sending me an advance copy of this book to read and review.
“Am I, this trembling, hallucinating ball of sinew, really any stranger of a creature, any more improbable of an object, than a ghost?”
If you are looking for something a bit different to read, something literary, but with a compelling narrative and totally innovative plot, this is it.
The main story revolves around Nick and Hannah, a couple who are not quite sure if their relationship will make it. To try something new and escape the city, Hannah takes a job as the live-in director of the Wright Historic House, a museum in the middle of nowhere dedicated to a nineteenth-century philosopher who barely anyone has heard of.
There is something about the house, a creaky old maze, enticing and creepy at turns, that draws Hannah deeper and deeper inside Edmund Wright’s research. Nick, the narrator of the story, doesn’t realize that something is wrong with her until she is missing one morning. And then he is left retracing her steps to see what happened, what he missed, and if she can be found.
I loved this one. It will almost certainly be in my top ten for the year. (A huge thanks to Belletrist, without whom I wouldn’t have read this one!)
This is not your typical ghost story or haunted house novel—but that is one of the reasons why I loved it. “Haunted house” might be my favorite narrative to read—there is just so much you can do with that idea! I have read a bunch of them and am always looking for new ones . . . (suggestions please!) And this one tried something really new to great effect. I loved every minute of it.
I spent a lot (and I mean A LOT) of time thinking about and trying to wrap my head around ghosts and the idea of haunting as it is presented in this book. First of all, it takes the story a long time to get to these elements—in fact, it is definitely more about the people, the living people and their own psychology than any ghosts.
But in any case, how they haunt, if they even do haunt, and what a haunting might be (something your own mind creates the space for? Something enacted upon you?)—I don’t want to get into it too far since that is part of the mystery that the book threads along, but it presents a very unique concept of ghosts and what a haunted house is.
I wouldn’t say that this is a scary book by any means. It is quiet, introspective, and lyrically haunting. There is a lot of character development and such beautiful writing, but a very ephemeral nature. It touches on depression, stress, and the potential of the psyche through the lens of a relationship—how much do you really know about your partner?
Nick, as he narrates, is really telling Hannah’s story, but there is this gauzy veil around her; we don’t really know what she was thinking or feeling, only his interpretation of it. I enjoyed seeing how his thoughts grew and changed across the book.
I found the plot to be compelling—I didn’t see what was coming and the mix of an intriguing plot, a good psychological mind puzzle, and great writing that I could linger on was a perfect combination for me. I like a book I can think about, puzzle through, one with characters that feel real and complex, and one with enough buildup to let me imagine that there is more to the world of the story than we know.
A trip to California, a new life and a fresh start: in the pioneer days, many took the hard path of a wagon train for the chance to strike it rich and see the vistas of the West. But in 1846, the Donner Party sets out a little too late in the season and then hits one snag after another.
Soon the bad luck piling on them seems ominous, like evil is following them or somehow attached to their group—and in the mountains, the weather is starting to turn cold. But perhaps there is more to this streak of inauspicious coincidences. Is there something in the wilderness, waiting for them?
Growing up in the West, I have definitely heard all about the Donner Party and their ill-fated journey. (When it comes to cannibals, my favorite is probably Alferd Packer, but that’s a story for another time.) And though I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, I always enjoy it—like Dan Simmons’s The Abominable. So this one seemed right up my alley.
I was so on board with the tension and the buildup of this book. Katsu brilliantly weaves subtle prickles of horror, letting the reader see just enough down the trail to realize that nothing good can come from venturing onward, but never quite revealing the full extent of the horror.
I thought that Katsu did a great job with writing from the perspectives of all the characters, but I felt that by the end of the book, a few of the ones I was more interested in had faded into the background. Perhaps there were too many voices in the book.
For me, the flashbacks at the end of each section could have been a little more explanatory, especially toward the end, in explaining exactly what was going on. The information that they revealed was mostly information that I had picked up from the characters as subtext. It didn’t really need further explanation.
I expected the end of the book to have more action, to be a real culmination of all the terror, hardship, and suffering that they went through. I didn’t feel that the ending of the book paid off based on how the tension was built—I kept waiting for the true horror to drop and I felt that the book never really went there.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading this one and would recommend it to anyone interested in slowburn novels or historical fiction. Even if horror is not really your thing, this book skirts the line, and has elements of romance, adventure, and history that a lot of people would enjoy.
The Nightworms would like to thank Glasstown Ent., Putnam, and the author for sending us all copies of this book to review.
I didn’t know what I was getting into when I started reading this book!
Malerman—always inventive—has come up with a creepy, compelling, and genuinely unique tale of betrayal, adventure, and death.
Carol has died many times—but in truth she doesn’t really die, she just has a strange condition where she falls into a coma due to stressful conditions and appears to be dead for several days. She keeps her condition a secret except for a few people she is close to, but what happens when one of the people she trusts wants her dead?
We all learned to love Malerman when he blew our minds with Bird Box—still one of the most truly scary and original horror novels I’ve ever read. He has a very specific, visceral style of writing that draws in the reader so they can’t look away. I was not as big of a fan of Black Mad Wheel, but he is such an interesting voice, I am always excited to see he has a new book coming out.
And this unique voice isn’t lost in his newest novel. The book is styled as a Western and feels very much like it is set in a different time and place from the way the characters speak and interact with the world around them, to the structure of story itself.
The reader switches between a few different characters, seeing all the sides of the story almost like a movie. We see Carol’s perspective—the creepiest and my favorite—as she describes what she can see and hear from her coma and what might be lurking with her in that tenuous spot between life and death. We see Carol’s husband, Dwight, who has a scheme all his own. We see Carol’s old flame, James Moxie, who became an infamous outlaw and now is the only other person who knows her secret. We see another trailrider, the villainous and insane Smoke, who hunts Moxie, and is out to cause whatever chaos he can.
The book threw me a bit when I first started it because the voice is fairly stylistic, but once I got a handle on the lilt of the dialogue and turn of phrase, I really got into it. There are no slow points in this story since it is constantly throwing the reader back and forth between the minds of all the characters and their specific goals, whether their intentions be nefarious or righteous.
Though the style is definitely different, you can’t argue with a great plot! I loved the first chapter set at the funeral and the way all the characters were introduced. I loved the way they fit into Western stock characters (retired outlaw, damsel in distress) but as the book progressed, busted through those stereotypes too.
I would have loved to see more of Howltown (what Carol calls the place where she goes when she is in a coma) and more of her perspective. The book is a little low on women’s perspectives and Carol, her maid Farrah, and her mom, Hattie, were all such great characters. The latter two felt especially underused to me.
Overall, I loved the blended genre that Malerman created and was really impressed that this book came from the same guy who wrote his last two books—he is constantly reinventing his own writing and for that versatility alone it is worth seeking his books out.
I read this book as a part of the Night Worms conglomerate and I’d like to thank Del Rey for sending us all review copies of the book!
If you are into cults—and you are, because what red-blooded human isn’t fascinated or at least intrigued by them—this is the cult novel you’ve been looking for.
Mason Hues is anonymous. He lives in a bare studio apartment, his mattress on the floor.
But before he was Mason, he was John Doe, and before that, he was Thirty-Seven, a member of the Survivors, a cult hidden in the mountains of Colorado where he willingly took chemotherapy drugs to make himself sick because sickness bears honesty and honesty bears change, and the change that the Survivors enacted came to shock the nation.
But now he’s Mason. And even though he’s had therapy, the teachings from his time with the Survivors are still coursing through his mind, through his veins. Maybe there’s something to the Truth he was learning. Maybe he can start over, find it again.
This book—what a wake-up call! It is such a gift when you read something that really sings, that is so unique and vivid that you can’t put it down but you want to savor every second. Not many books fit that bill.
This is not a traditional horror novel, but Stenson is not a traditional writer. He does his own thing and he innovates in a way that is not only new, but courageous—and he is not afraid to get dark. His writing digs in deep to your bone—you can feel the needle biting into your skin, the poison filling your veins. The characters aren’t stagnant; they live and breathe on the page.
Though the book is dark—and stays dark—there is a musicality to the language, a lulling repetition to the style that obviously has a lot of thought put into it. It is really a beautifully crafted book hiding in the skin of something deadly. It creates an atmosphere where every time you open the pages you are in Mason’s head, in his thoughts, seeing his vision of honesty and sickness—and almost believing in it.
Similar to his previous book Fiend, this book paints a raw, honest, and chilling picture of addiction and its consequences, though while Fiend focused on a group of junkies who survived the zombie apocalypse because of their drug habit, the addiction in Thirty-Seven (while still drug-fueled) is more insidious—an addiction of the mind.
Stenson has a knack for creating characters who are on the verge: they make bad decisions, they don’t appear to be good or likable people, but somehow when you are in their mind, you can see how they got to where they are and their choices make sense. I found myself sympathetic to Mason throughout the book, though I wasn’t sure if I should be.
I definitely haven’t read anything like this in the genre, or even at all. This book may be a bit unclassifiable—it slants toward the horror aesthetic, but why put it in a box? I want to put this one in everyone’s hands—start a little Survivors cult of my own, if you’d like to think of it that way.
I recommend this. Read it. Reading bears knowledge and knowledge bears power. Therefore reading bears power. You can’t go wrong, really.
Check out the publisher, Dzanc Books
Assistant editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.