Little Deaths

ldbyefNew York, 1965. Ruth Malone is going through a divorce. She is separated from her husband and working as a cocktail waitress all while she fights for custody of her two children. Ruth is trying to do the best she can as a mother, but she has her own issues to contend with. Her life is turned upside down one morning when her children are missing from their bedroom in her apartment. From there things go from bad to worse. They are found dead and Ruth is the prime suspect.

Apparently this novel is getting some buzz, but I can’t say I’ve heard a lot about it. I believe that it is classified by many as literary fiction, but there is obviously a mystery at the core of it. I say this because if you go in expecting a gripping mystery you might be disappointed. The plot goes rather slowly and the focus is less on who did it and more on Ruth herself. It studies her character and how rough life was for single mothers in the 60’s. Ruth is judged by her appearance and her vices. Other suspects are tossed aside in favor of pinning the murder on the woman who doesn’t fit the wholesome mother stereotype. This is interesting, but I didn’t find it that compelling and I did not feel that it brought up anything particularly new. To top it off, I found the mystery part of the novel to be very predictable. So, overall, I was bored by this read.

Ruth as a character is simply OK. Nothing about her is original. She drinks too much, has too many men, and cares about her appearance too much according to her community. The injustices she experiences are terrible of course, but it wasn’t unexpected for this time. Strangely, we see much of the plot from another character, Pete Wonicke. Pete is a young reporter who takes an obsessive interest in the Malone children’s murders. He believes Ruth is innocent and goes to great lengths to help her. Though it is interesting to see the events from an outside perspective as well as Ruth’s, I am not on board with the idea. Pete is a thin character who feels like a perspective vehicle. He adds very little to the plot as a character on his own.

This read was just OK. It isn’t as gripping as a mystery should be and it isn’t as introspective and thought provoking as I feel literary fiction should be either. It feels out of place and rather thin.

Jane Steele

jsbylfPicture Jane Eyre meets the TV show Dexter. Jane Steele has had a hard life. After the death of her mother she is alone and orphaned. The family she has left only tolerates her. After an unfortunate accident Jane is sent away to a boarding school where she learns how to survive through deceit and gains a taste for revenge.

I liked this novel, but I had some issues with it. Let’s start with some positives though. I liked the characters a lot. Jane’s opinion of herself and her actions made sense to me. Though I questioned some of her reactions- especially when the romance comes into the picture- I could still rationalize everything. The supporting cast was varied and interesting. Overall, I enjoyed the plot too.

In Jane Eyre I liked the parts after her time in boarding school the most. With Jane Steele my feelings were reversed. After Jane Steele leaves the school the book slows down and the plot becomes a little convoluted. Suddenly the focus shifts from Jane’s own life to the problems of the supporting characters. Though the plot points tie together I still felt like I was reading another book. There are a few long passages where the side characters explain their pasts and the problems they faced which I found myself skimming. It was boring and the amount of “telling” became a bit tedious. Though I enjoyed reading the novel when I picked it up it was easy to put down

The Devil of Nanking

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Grey finds herself on a professor’s doorstep in Japan. Grey is sure Shi Chongming has something from the Nanking massacre that she wants and she has traveled all the way from England to see it. Grey and professor Shi Chongming strike a deal- he will give her what she seeks if she finds something for him. What Grey doesn’t know is that to keep her end of the deal she must tangle with the yakuza, a kind of Japanese mob. The Devil of Nanking is a mix of mystery, history, and a whole lot of violence.

This book is not for the faint of heart. Not only does it mention the horrors of the massacre but it also deals with current day abuse and violence including murder and rape. That aside, it’s pretty good. This is a thriller, but it isn’t the most fast paced one I’ve ever read. The narrative jumps back and forth between Grey’s present day and Shi Chongming’s past in Nanking. Both are very interesting arcs, but if there is a cliffhanger in one point of view it can be frustrating to have to read a slower point of view for a while. Still, both viewpoints are well woven together. Also, I am no expert on Japan or Japanese culture, but from what I know the subject matter is correct and respectfully portrayed.

Grey is a very grey character. She has had a hard life and made some bad decisions. I was not convinced by all of Grey’s backstory though. Throughout the novel she remains mysterious and since her part of the book is told in first person it was difficult to connect with her. The other characters are all quite good. There is Shi Chongming which we get to know mainly through his first person story of Nanking, Jason, the strange man that helps Grey make it in Japan, the humorous Russian twins who live in Grey’s building, and Mama Strawberry, a powerful business owner who obsesses over Marilyn Monroe. The colorful cast adds heart to a bleak story and both the plot and the characters are difficult to forget.

After the Woods

atwbyksWhile running through the nearby woods Julia and Liv are ambushed by a local man. Julia is able to free her friend from his grasp, but takes Liv place. Julia is abducted while Liv runs away. Our story begins with what happens after the woods.

This is considered a Young Adult mystery/thriller and while it isn’t exactly what I’d consider a thriller I reluctantly agree with the classification. The plot works backwards here- we know that Julia and Liv were ambushed. We know that Julia got abducted and we know she got away. These facts aren’t spoliers as we know these things at the start.

What we don’t know is exactly what happened to Julia and why this man targeted the girls. The book builds up to what happened in the woods and there is a mysterious connection between the man and the girls, but I found these reveals to be disappointing and overshadowed by other plot points that I didn’t see coming. I guess you would call this a twist, but I felt duped. I signed up to know about this mystery, figure out the psychology behind the abductor, what happened to Julia, and if other crimes were connected to the abduction. What I got was… something different and difficult to say without giving things away. Basically, there’s another character who might be considered the real villain.

But don’t let that hook you too much. I found most of the characters to be very shallow. Some seem important, but don’t add up to much in the end. Others are just hollow stereotypes and it is easy to see who is good and bad. I was disappointed by this read, but maybe I expected something I wasn’t supposed to or maybe I simply expected too much.

Generation Loss

GLbyEHAs you’ll probably notice from a few upcoming reviews I bought the humble book bundle recently. First on the list is Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand. I’ve been craving thrillers, but since I’m pretty new to genre I don’t know what to read (and I’d rather read something a little less popular than Gone Girl) so this is a good as place as any to start.

Generation Loss‘s protagonist is fairly unique. Cass Neary is a has-been photographer who had a small bit of success during the 70’s/80’s, but between her attitude and drug use she destroyed herself and her budding career. She’s careening through life in a drunken haze, but one day she gets an offer to do an interview with a legendary name in photography who has been a recluse for years. Cass reluctantly accepts and heads to a small town in Maine. There is much more beneath the surface of the sleepy town however.

The novel starts with a lot of backstory about Cass. It really fleshes her out, but it breaks the show not tell rule a bit. She’s not stereotypically attractive and is now on the upper end of middle age. She has a hard time giving a damn about anything any more- even her photography. She’s interesting and morally gray. The other characters also seem pretty unique and are characterized well. But… they don’t always make a lot of sense. For instance, Cass shows up unexpectedly at someone’s doorstep and for some reason they allow this stranger to stay with them. Small towns might be more relaxed about security, but it feels very strange. Cass has free run of the place even though the home owner doesn’t seem to like her and is supposedly paranoid. Characters are very accepting of Cass’s intrusions or simply never catch her. Even though she has some history with stealing I found her stealth and luck a little hard to believe at times.

My other big issue is that the book takes a long time to actually get interesting. Nearly halfway into the novel the mystery is unclear and it certainly isn’t thrilling. There are hints in the first half that something is going on, but it is difficult to distinguish what we’re actually trying to find out and even what the hell Cass is still doing in town. Her job falls through and yet she stays in town. She doesn’t have responsibilities elsewhere and is in no hurry to return home, but I couldn’t understand why she stayed and especially why the people she stays with allow her to stay there.

In the last thirty percent the plot speeds up. The mystery quickly unfolds and is solved. There are hints of magical realism, but they aren’t fleshed out enough to really matter. And the climax was a bit over the top. There is just so little suspense for a large part of the novel and the novelty of Cass’s character begins to wear off after a while. Instead of the pages turning faster as the story progresses, I found myself uninterested in reading on. This was an OK read, but it did not fulfill my craving for a good thriller.

Hidden Bodies

HBbyCKHidden Bodies is Caroline Kepnes’ sequel to her debut novel, You. I really like You. It is disturbing, addictive, and somehow the main character is both appalling and charming. You shocked me and made me laugh out loud. Hidden Bodies is much of the same, but for me that is also the problem. After the events in You, Joe seems to be happy. He has a new girlfriend named Amy and he is acting normal… for him anyway. However, Amy suddenly leaves him and the revenge driven side of Joe returns. His chase after Amy leads him to the land of fame and fortune- California.

Joe Goldberg is a woman obsessed murder, but in You I found myself almost… rooting for him. Joe is still a very interesting character in Hidden Bodies, but he lost a little of the appeal. He still has an entertaining inner monologue on technology and social situations, but I got tired of hearing his repetitive thoughts. The narcissistic tendencies of his new Californian friends appear to be rubbing off on him. It is harder to find sympathy for Joe in this sequel. Perhaps it shows that his madness is catching up with him or it could be that we’ve already seen all there is to see of Joe.

Hidden Bodies does not feel different enough from You. The plot of Hidden Bodies cycles through the same events. Joe gets distracted from his quest, he gets angry, he does bad things, we are led to believe his is about to get caught, but he doesn’t. Repeat. Fortunately, near the end this cycle changes slightly. And because of the ending I am sure there are going to be more books in this series. Also, I know that in the mystery/thriller genre the belief in coincidence has to be flexible times, but some events and characters’ actions feel a bit too unbelievable.

You is more of the same in a different setting- more of Joe, more of the same situations- if that sounds good, then I would recommend Hidden Bodies. I still enjoy Kepnes’ addictive writing and realistic (and often fun to hate) characters. Though still a good read it does not bring enough new material to the table for my liking.

You

YOUbyCKYou are probably wondering if you should read this book. Or maybe you have already heard great things about it. Either way if you like thrillers with a sprinkle of humor and eroticism then it would be a good idea if you picked this one up. If you do decide to read it you will hear Joe’s story of what he would call true love. You will read from his view, an obsessive stalker’s view, and you will probably like it. But seriously, You is a pretty great read. Kepnes writes from the charismatic viewpoint of Joe Goldberg. Joe is a manager of a book store and he’s a bit… strange. He obsessives over women and he has found a new target in an aspiring writer named Guinevere Beck (who prefers to just be called Beck).

Every character in this book has issues. They are not good people, but you can somewhat understand all of them- even Joe. There is a lot of personality in this novel. Joe’s voice is witty, wild, and yet pitiable. It is so odd to actually be rooting for his happiness and then other times be so disgusted with him. The humor comes from Joe’s unflinching analysis of other people and the crazy lengths he goes to when he stalks Beck. I couldn’t help but shake my head and laugh at some of Joe’s thoughts. That isn’t to say the book isn’t chilling. It is, but less so than others I’ve read. The scariest part of it is that social media makes it easy for someone like Joe to find out almost anything about anyone.

You is not a nice book. There is violence, swearing, and lots of sexual scenes and references. It also is not the most scary or gripping thriller, but there is something charming about it. I had a hard time putting it down and I enjoyed reading it. There are a few points that are on the boring side though. There is a lot of waiting and cyclical up and down moments in the plot that might get repetitive. There are also a few times where I am sure Joe should have been caught or had suspicion cast his way, but even those little bumps in the storytelling didn’t turn me off. It’s said that Showtime has the rights to You and there is a sequel called Hidden Bodies (out 2/23/16) that might time up some lose ends in You.

Series Review: The Millennium Trilogy

TMTbySLI listened to the first book, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, last year and really loved it. And I’m very glad that I listened to it instead of read it because I at least somewhat know how to pronounce many of the names and places in the next two books. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo made my favorites list from last year and the second and the third books are certainly up there for this years list already. The first book had me hooked to the point that I spent the next few months trying to find something comparable to it. The book and the characters stuck with me and haunted me long after I read it. That has not happened to me in quite some time. All of this led me to look into who Stieg Larsson was and buy the rest of the trilogy. I’m not sure how accurate it is, but I read somewhere that these books were not meant to be a trilogy at all. Many more books were planned after these three, but Larsson sadly passed away after writing the manuscripts for these three books. Such a shame.

I have read what other readers have to say about The Millennium Trilogy and I can understand the issues they have with Larsson’s plot and characters, but… I don’t have those problems. Maybe that sounds really sassy, but it’s true. I love these books. There’s a lot of buzz about diversity in books these days. Despite that I don’t hear a lot about Larsson’s novels in those discussions. The characters are all very different. Of course you have Lisbeth Salander who is a diminutive “goth girl” with interesting talents and possibly some kind of mental disorder. There are a multitude of other very strong female characters like Erika Berger, the middle aged newspaperwoman with a strong business sense, Monica Figuerola, the iron-pumping secret policewoman, and Annika Giannini, the honest and fierce attorney fighting for other women’s rights to name a few. All of these ladies (and many more) are strong, very different, and flawed. There are also a few characters that aren’t white and many characters who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Did I mention every character feels real? Sure, there are sometimes lengthy sections that outline the characters in an “info-dumping” way, but it feels like you’re really reading their backstory in a police report (which is often the case). There is a good amount of criticism toward one of the main characters, Mikael Blomkvist, being Larsson’s wish-fulfillment of a playboy, goody-two-shoes, journalist, but so what? I like Blomkvist and I doubt there’s too many writers out there that don’t have little of themselves in some character they’ve created.

Don’t get me wrong- I can see the issues in these books. They are often slow, bogged down by copious political details, and sometimes unfocused on the main plot. I get it. I really do, but there’s so much good in them. So much that I can ignore these things or that they simply don’t bother me. Also, from what I’ve heard (again, citation needed here, not sure on the accuracy), but at least the last two books are not edited as much as they should have been since Larsson died early in the publishing process. The books may need a bit more time in the editor’s hands, but they are a hell of a lot better than most of the stuff that passes for “finished.”

I’m very sad that I finished the last of Larsson’s work with these characters. Of course there’s the new Lisbeth Salander book written by someone else… but using a dead man’s characters seems a bit sketchy. I may read it some day, but I’ll have to research the ethics surrounding its publication to calm my nerves about it. That and… I don’t want anyone else writing about Larsson’s characters. I want more from the series, but I want Larsson to write their lives. I’ll have to accept the impossibility of that wish.

Night Film

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Reading Night Film by Marisha Pessl is another attempt at me trying to scratch the literary itch left by The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. I think I may have finally satisfied the itch! That isn’t to say that Night Film is perfect or perfectly comparable to Larsson’s work, but it is certainly good.

Scott McGrath is an investigative reporter who once got a little too investigative into the life of a legendary film maker, Stanislas Cordova. McGrath reports on something outlandish without solid proof and his reporting career is forever smudged by Cordova. When Cordova’s daughter is found dead and the death is being called a suicide, McGrath is suspicious and picks up his investigation again. For better or for worse he is committed to finding the ending to Cordova’s story.

I’ve read a lot of mixed reviews on Night Film and, as I said, it isn’t perfect, but there appears to be a lot of outcry about how it ends. I really can’t say anything more about the plot without giving something away. I will say that it wasn’t what I was expecting and if you like endings that tie up everything nicely then maybe you won’t enjoy this book. Personally, I thought it ended very well… even if I did reread the last page a few times and did a desperate search of the end papers for something more to end on…

There were a few things that kept this book from being a five star review for me, but they are admittedly small. The book, though good and a fairly fast read for being just about six hundred pages, dragged a little. Especially around the middle I got a little bored with it. The pace slowed down and the clues leading from one place to the next appeared a little too conveniently. Some parts weren’t as believable as others, but it must be difficult to write a mystery/thriller and suck every reader into believing the trail of evidence.  The characters were also just a touch flat for me. I didn’t care about anyone that much and I felt like Nora was a poor man’s Lisbeth Salander. It is unfair of me to even compare the two, but I couldn’t shake the comparison as I read the book. That is probably more of a fault with me than the novel though. If the book sounds interesting, pick it up! It was a fun ride and really played with my mind. I will definitely be keeping an eye on Pessl in the future.

Dragonfish

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Robert Ruen is an Oakland policeman who is still in love with his mysterious Vietnamese ex-wife, Suzy. When he finds out that her new husband, Sonny, brutally injured her he goes to rough him up in return. When Suzy disappears Sonny contacts Robert and blackmails him into searching for her. He finds out a lot more than he bargains for, but he also uncovers more questions that need answers.

First off, Dragonfish by Vu Tran is a good book. That being said, it wasn’t quite what I thought it would be. I’ve been trying to find another book that scratches the itch left behind after reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larson. I was hoping Dragonfish would alleviate this craving a little. The inner flap promises a suspenseful noir novel, but after reading it I am a little disappointed at the “suspenseful” part.

There is no sense of urgency in Dragonfish. I think this is because most of the novel contains stories being retold or remembered. Most of the action happens in the past. We are told about events by other characters or see things through flashbacks. Other times important points are told through letters recounting what happened years ago. Very little actually happens in the present. I was expecting a crime mystery to unfold, but it feels like a lot of backtracking. The novel is less about crime and more about learning who Suzy is than anything else.

I found Suzy to be a very interesting character so learning about her is not a bad thing at all. The other characters are a little flat though. We see everything through Robert’s eyes and he is lacking character depth. For as many memories as he recounts to the reader I didn’t feel any real connection to him. The supporting characters are quite good for the most part. I want to know more about them, but maybe it is the mystery of them that I find most alluring.

I liked the book, but I didn’t love it. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but it was an enjoyable read. It was well written and quite good for a debut novel. I will probably keep an eye on Vu Tran in the future.