Book Reviews

The good, the bad, and the ugly about books I’ve recently read.

‘Luckiest Girl Alive’ Author Jessica Knoll In Phoenix Today

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A friend’s mom and I were recently talking books. We were talking Gone Girl–doesn’t everyone? She mentioned that its clever social commentary frequently gets overlooked, and so many other thrillers just don’t include this. The myth of the cool girl, and all that.

Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive picks up where Gone Girl left off, with biting commentary on the modern day woman and the myths surrounding her, wrapped up in a thriller. Although Ani seems to have the perfect job, the perfect fiancé, and the perfect life, an uncontainable past looms behind her. Even a picture perfect life can’t fix her history. But what can?

Although Luckiest Girl Alive has been out for a while, and is now out in paperback, there have been all sorts of new revelations surrounding the book. Author Knoll recently wrote an essay in which she declared that the (spoiler alert?) rape scene in her novel was inspired by her real life experience:

But as I gear up for my paperback tour, and as I brace myself for the women who ask me, in nervous, brave tones, what I meant by my dedication, What do I know?, I’ve come to a simple, powerful revelation: everyone is calling it rape now. There’s no reason to cover my head. There’s no reason I shouldn’t say what I know.

Film rights for the book have been acquired by Lionsgate and Reese Witherspoon’s tour-de-force production company Pacific Standard, at the helm. This is the company that brought you book-to-screen versions of Wild and Gone Girl, so be prepared for a blockbuster.

Jessica Knoll will be at Changing Hands in Phoenix tonight, Tuesday, April 12th, at 7pm.

Luckiest Girl Alive on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

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‘Area X’ Meets ‘And Then There Were None’ In Abby Geni’s ‘The Lightkeepers’

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Abby Geni’s The Lightkeepers is part Area X trilogy, with a swirl of And Then There Were None. It is a bit Jon Krakauer meets Alice Seobold. The novel takes place on the Farrallon Islands, a brutal and isolated archipelago off California’s coast. Nature photographer Miranda arrives to the islands, to join a small crew of biologists already living together in a small building, dorm-style.

The islands are a strange and foreign landscape, isolated and wild, adrift from the world. The biologists are single-minded and obsessed, as one would have to be to leave society behind and become completely immersed in nature.

As with Jeff VanderMeer’s Area X trilogy, the descriptions of the natural landscape here are intoxicating, delightful, both dangerous and wondrous. Pouring rain and scabbing rocks and diving, squawking birds are ever-present. Living on the island there is no way to escape its looming, wild nature. But those that found Area X too weird will appreciate The Lightkeepers, as its struggles, however powerful and awesome they feel, are all of this earth.

Some of the struggles are natural, and some are man-made. One of this book’s messages is that we, humanity, are also part of this wild world, just like the waves beating against the rocks. I’m not sure how much of a spoiler this, as the summaries seem to mention it, but if you want to go in a bit more cold, stop reading here. Still reading? Okay. Let’s continue.

I mention Alice Seobold because Miranda is raped by one of her fellow biologists shortly after her arrival to the island, after a night of hard-drinking. Geni crafts this plot delicately, chronicling Miranda’s very intimate struggle. The external aftermath of the incident, as well as the dramatic change to Miranda’s psyche, is explored.

This isn’t a cheerful book, but if you read the blog often, you know I’m not the biggest fan of the cheerful ones. It is lonely, haunting, and powerful. It reads like a quiet dream of an alien landscape, at once totally strange but totally familiar. Read it.

The Lightkeepers on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Lose Yourself In Lisa Lutz’s ‘The Passenger’ – Review and Giveaway

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When I found my husband at the bottom of the stairs, I tried to resuscitate him before I ever considered disposing of the body. I pumped his barrel chest and blew into his purple lips. It was the first time in years that our lips had touched and I didn’t recoil.

The Passenger, Lisa Lutz

Thus begins Lisa Lutz’s newest thriller, The Passenger, in which a woman tries on identities like new clothes. The novel is broken into sections based on the identity our protagonist assumes, beginning with Tanya Dubois, a woman on the run from her past and her husband’s body, left lumped at the bottom of the stairs.

Tanya Dubois, aka Amelia Keene, aka a handful of other names throughout the book, creeps like a chameleon through the story, trying on identities and glancing back into a history that is slowly revealed to the reader. She acts as a woman adrift, unmoored by circumstances and reacting to situations as they arise, ever a survivor, always a ghost in society’s gigantic machine.

When Tanya aka Amelia meets another woman like herself, a blank slate looking to wipe her past clean, they twist forever into each other’s fates. This is a book about women on the run, and women who get tired of running. This is a chase novel, as I found myself chasing down this woman’s identity just like other characters in the book. Our heroine pushes bravely on, her world collapsing behind her, each step heading further into trouble. She has a penchant for bars, ever-debating what her new identity would drink, and she seems to struggle to make right in a world gone terribly wrong.

The comparisons to other hot thrillers with shifty heroines, the Gone Girl and Girl on the Train set, are impossible not to make. Both books are name-dropped on the dust jacket of my copy. So if you liked those books, then absolutely, check this one out. But too many comparisons limit The Passenger’s own strange and shifty identity. There is something mesmerizing about watching our protagonist step through a house of cards just before its fall, again and again. We may love to read about women gone wicked and wild, but Tanya/Amelia is less that than a shell, becoming whatever her surroundings require of her.

This isn’t Lisa Lutz’s first novel, but this is the first time I had heard of her. I will definitely be checking out her previous work. If you are in my area, Lisa Lutz will be making an appearance at The Poisoned Pen on Tuesday, March 15th.

I’m lucky enough to have an extra copy of The Passenger to giveaway, see the Rafflecopter widget on the Kalireads.com Facebook page.

The Passenger on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

 

 

Hackers Go Head To Head In Drew Chapman’s ‘The King Of Fear’

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When we think terror attack, we think bombs and guns, loud noise and explosions. But in Drew Chapman’s The King of Fear, terror gets a makeover. Something wicked this way comes, and it comes in the form of a single nefarious young man, and he heads directly into the heart of capitalism. His aim isn’t a single tower or certain gathering of people, but our thrumming monetary system and the sense of order it provides.

Garrett Reilly is the sort of genius savant we now expect from our thrillers—a tortured soul, haunted by a heavy history and his brilliant mind. He recognizes patterns in the stock market and in his daily life, and lately he’s seeing strange wisps and echoes of something big brewing. Big money movement that doesn’t make sense is swirling in his periphery vision.

Ilya Markov is the villain to Reilly’s hero–a young chameleon of a conman, a terrorist who may be working for a European country or may be going rogue. He’s a hacker with his eye on the system itself. Markov has big plans for America, and it is up to Reilly to stop them.

The King of Fear is actually a sequel, to The Ascendant, and normally I’m hesitant to pick up sequels without reading the first in the series. But I wasn’t left too out of the loop here. Drew Chapman is not only a novelist, but also a film/TV writer, and this shows in the book’s breezy action and memorable, but likable characters. The King of Fear is a fast, easy read for days lounging by the pool or nights you are looking for an alternative to all the terrorist-fueled TV shows on the air nowadays.

The King of Fear on Amazon.com/Indiebound.org

 

BLOG TOUR: Is Fiona Barton’s ‘The Widow’ The Next ‘Gone Girl’?

The Widow

Fiona Barton’s debut novel The Widow echoes Karin Slaughter’s Pretty Girls, Stephen King’s A Good Marriage, and Lisa Lutz’s upcoming The Passenger. How well do we know anyone, especially those closest to us? How well can we know ourselves?

In The Widow, a kid was kidnapped. Years ago now, back in 2006, a toddler, Bella, disappeared from her yard when her mom looked away.

Now, it is 2010. Our namesake widow, Jeanie Taylor, is grieving the loss of her husband, Glen. Reporters are knocking at her door. Glen’s death matters because he was the main suspect in Bella’s kidnapping and assumed death. The courts never proved him guilty. Jeanie always stood by his side.

The story of then and now, the desperation of the kidnapping and the slow burn of the time to come after, is told through alternating perspectives: the widow, the reporter, the detective, the mother, etc.

Critics (and publicists) are hailing The Widow as the new Gone Girl. So many things have been hailed the new Gone Girl that it seems like a blanket announcement used for a new thriller with an unreliable female protagonist. So is The Widow the new Gone Girl? I would say it is, as much as The Girl on the Train was before it. It takes risks, but only in its muted sensibilities. With all of Gone Girl‘s dark exploration, The Widow edges just a bit darker, pushing towards the mind of a (potential) pedophile and the woman who may or may not love him.

An important thing to remember about Gone Girl is that Gillian Flynn’s narrator was so unreliable (spoiler alert) that some of the book was a lie. The language, the tone, the action itself. This is wonderful for a twist, but difficult to do without a dramatic plot device to rely upon. Gone Girl relied on a planted diary, and in many ways it was just a new version of S.J. Watson’s thriller Before I Go To Sleep, which relied on diaries and (the more dramatic) amnesia. This desire for a twist so big it can’t be plotted within a traditional narrative, post-Gone Girl, has caused authors to push further, and brought us the alcoholic blackouts of The Girl on the Train, a diary-in-reverse in the miraculously appearing novel of Disclaimer, and amnesia post-accident of In a Dark, Dark Wood. But The Widow reminds us that in our post-Gone Girl world, we don’t need our thrillers to come with wilder and wilder surprises each time, girls bopped on the head and blinded to the truth until the last pages. Barton drops smug, unpleasant hints of an ugliness beneath the surface throughout the novel, and it still chills the spine.

The Widow is intentionally rigid and tightly wound, like each of the personalities in the novel which have been so affected by the crime, and it doesn’t deviate from this uncomfortable structure. Where Gone Girl bent full in, giving us all the emotion, The Widow pulls back, reminding us just how much emotion lies beneath the surface, and just how much society demands us to hide.

In a world drowning in advertisements of perfect women, airbrushed and smiling, the popularity of this sort of monster-in-disguise book makes sense. We aren’t all closet psychopaths, of course, but I think we all feel a dissonance between what exists in private and what pop culture suggests we should look like, act like, and feel like.

Whether or not The Widow reaches Gone Girl-level hysteria, this is a thriller that demands attention.

The Widow on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

 

Take A Very Long Walk In The Woods With Diane Les Becquets’ ‘Breaking Wild’

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Lions and elk estrus and bears, oh my! A survivalist thriller with two heroines, one lost in the Colorado woods and another determined to find her, Diane Les Becquets’ debut novel Breaking Wild is unlike my usual diet of thrillers and mysteries. And I’m okay with that. Any book that has a blurb from my girl Tana French on the cover has my full attention.

Amy Raye is a hunter, a woman who likes killing elk with a bow during hunting season, when men are running around spooking elk with their guns. She’s a woman whose husband doesn’t let her store guns in the house. Although I’m not too familiar with hunting culture in general, Amy Raye seems like an anti-stereotype to me, a tough and unapologetic woman who believes in herself and her capabilities far past society’s expectation for women. Amy Raye is determined to bag an elk herself on the last day of the season, and she heads off alone in the early morning. When she doesn’t make it back to camp, the local authorities are called in.

Pru could be Amy Raye’s double in many ways, and I confess I got their story lines confused in the beginning of the book. Pru is a single mom, a park ranger with a dedicated search dog Kona, who can’t help but think about the woman lost out in the cold even when she comes in from the search.

In alternating chapters, we learn about each woman’s past, the things that have shaped them into such strong characters, their secrets, and their regrets. These backstories are interlaced with the actual search for Amy Raye, as she struggles to survive in grisly circumstances.

The first half of the book moves slowly, as it describes Amy Raye’s hunt, and her missteps. Although this feels tedious at times, it may be necessary to give the book its gravity and plausibility. I’m just not sure I felt the urgency between the history of the characters and the current search. I found myself disliking the back and forth between the characters and their histories. Sometimes it feels like a stall static to build tension, and this was one of those times.

If the idea of hunting freaks you out so much you simply can’t read a book about characters who do it, then you might want to skip this one. If you loved Gary Paulsen books as a kid, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Descent by Tim Johnston, or that movie where the guy cuts off his own arm, you might want to check out this book.

Breaking Wild on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Michael Kardos Asks Us To Believe In ‘Before He Finds Her’

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It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.

–Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio; from the epigraph of Before He Finds Her

Michael Kardos published his debut novel The Three-Day Affair in 2012, announcing himself on the thriller scene with an attention-grabbing hook. After stopping at a convenience store, three old friends watch in astonishment as one of their group pulls a woman out of the store and screams “Drive!” as he throws her into the car. In this book, the implausibilities of the scenario didn’t occur to me as I was reading. Kardos is that good at telling stories, and creating characters reacting naturally in unnatural situations.

Now, in his follow-up, Before He Finds Her, Kardos once again asks readers to suspend their disbelief to get an ultimate thrill. Ramsey Miller, a fatalistic truck driver, murdered his wife in 1991. His three-year-old daughter, Meg, survived. The murderous Miller was never caught. Meg is now Melanie Denison, and under the watchful eye of her aunt and uncle, she has led a sheltered life (why all the “M” names? I’m not sure). Her dad is still out there, a murderer-at-large.

But Meg/Melanie is about to turn 18, and she is tired of living in fear. She wants the tragedy of her childhood to be over. She returns to her hometown, the scene of the crime, and seeks out the journalist who covered the case so many years ago. If the police can’t give her justice and peace, she’ll find some for herself. But what really happened? And if the police weren’t able to solve the crime, can a seventeen-year-old girl do much better? Is the truth lost in time?

If you go all in, put your foot on the throttle and flip the pages a bit too fast until you reach the end, you will love this book. It is how I read, and I finished Before He Finds Her thinking it was nearly flawless. If you are a bit of a skeptic, however, as I am once I finish a book and begin thinking about it a bit more, mulling over it like I do a cup of coffee in the morning, Kardos asks a lot of us. There are several twists and turns here that make the book feel brilliantly plotted, but the plot itself may not be firmly rooted in reality.

With this book, Kardos proves himself here to stay, and I can’t wait to see what he does next. I hope he leaves some of the more unbelievable plot points out next time, as he has shown he can write a tense scene. I’d love to see what he does without the bells and whistles.

Before He Finds Her on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Jenny Lawson Makes Us All ‘Furiously Happy’

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Without the dark there isn’t light. Without the pain there is no relief. And I remind myself that I’m lucky to be able to feel such great sorrow, and also such great happiness. I can grab on to each moment of joy and live in those moments because I have seen the bright contrast from dark to light and back again. I am privileged to be able to recognize that the sound of laughter is a blessing and a song, and to realize that the bright hours spent with my family and friends are extraordinary treasures to be saved, because those same moments are a medicine, a balm. Those moments are a promise that life is worth fighting for, and that promise is what pulls me through when depression distorts reality and tries to convince me otherwise.
― Jenny Lawson, Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things

Despite the above quote, which represents the more meaningful aspects of Furiously Happy, Jenny Lawson‘s second memoir is hilarious. She’s hilarious in the same way a person sliding from tipsy into totally wasted is hilarious. She’s funny in the same carefree way a toddler is funny, just wandering way out there past social norms to the unexpected. Lawson is like a wildly manic, taxidermy-loving bus driver taking all her readers on a thrill ride through her emotional landscape, her relationship with her deadpan husband Victor, and her quest for a taxidermied camel.

Lawson writes in a style all her own, a very modern, pulled-from-the-blogosphere stream-of-consciousness. The book is full of her struggles against spellcheck, constant asides, and interjections. Although the effect is jarring at times, it is 100% Lawson. Her personality is quick and jumpy, sliding with ease from a joke into a serious discussion of depression. The momentum of her language matches her message here. The concept of being ‘furiously happy’ as a push back against the suffering of mental illness, a crazy sort of joy that pushes you to do more and feel more because you also experience the dark side of life, comes across in the seemingly endless energy Lawson throws into every joke.

Such a unique style, such a unique person, can take some getting used to. Full confession here, I tried to read Lawson’s first memoir, the much raved about Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, and her writing style bothered me so much I stopped. I was shocked that such a praised book was written in such casual starts and stops, and I didn’t get very far before giving up. But after reading Furiously Happy, I think I understand the spirit behind Lawson’s tone, and I want to go back to Let’s Pretend This Never Happened.

And, second full confession here, without even realizing it, I’ve been living my life the Lawson way. I too am a furiously happy person! I also struggle with anxiety and depression, as well as chronic pain, but drink a ton of coffee and am so chipper I often frighten people with my wide smiles and cheerful hellos. I love to live life big and full, because I’ve seen way down those dark nooks and crannies. So all of Lawson’s philosophies in this book (okay, maybe not the taxidermy stuff as much) had me saying yes, definitely, yes.

If you’ve ever felt like the craziest person in the room, Lawson is here to tell you that she’s felt that way too. And instead of getting upset about it, she’s going to find a taxidermied raccoon, crawl out from under that table, and then get furiously happy.

Furiously Happy on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Further reading:

Judy Batalion Takes On History, Hoarding, And Family In ‘White Walls’

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In White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess In Between, Judy Batalion recounts growing up amidst stuff. Where normal kids cuddled on their mother’s bed for story time, mountains of detritus left no room for little Judy to snuggle up to mom. Tuna fish cans stacked like a great wall through her kitchen; newspapers, free magazines, and library books towered next to the sofa; records overflowed from shelves onto the floor.

Judy’s mother hoards as if fighting off the deprivation of her history, a woman born to Jewish Polish immigrants struggling for survival as they fled the Holocaust, fled the Nazis, leaving behind friends, neighbors, and their homeland. This isn’t inexplicable hoarding, but hoarding grown out of a time of having nothing, starving in camps, standing in breadlines. Judy finds herself, as a third-generation Jewish woman, separated from the Holocaust’s physical hardships but living amidst its emotional aftereffects.

All the dysfunction of Judy’s childhood–her over-anxious and self-absorbed mother, a house filled with so much stuff it had little room for love–bubbles to the surface when Judy, as a successful young woman, finds out she’s pregnant. Although she’s left her home behind, her mother’s mental health is in decline. How can she be there for a mother who has been largely absent? And will Judy, like her mother before her, continue to pass down the trauma she inherited from previous generations? Can she overcome the anxieties of a childhood drowning in unneeded junk, and of a mother (and now grandmother) unlike any other, to her own child?

Judy writes pretty prose, posing questions about her own experiences that she answers through relayed experience without extended navel-gazing. White Walls is funny, as Judy, also a comedian, has a crack-up sense of humor and a gift for one-liners. It is tragic at other times, as Judy, along with her brother and father, seek a court order to hospitalize her mother against her will.

I’ve read books about crazy moms (Chanel Bonfire, Oh The Glory of It All) and books about hoarding (Coming Clean, Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things) but this one explores the heartbreak of mental illness, a struggle to overcome generational trauma, the shame of hoarding, and the anxieties of motherhood all in one free association, full disclosure, flash-back style relay between motherhood and childhood, between then and now.

White Walls on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Cecilia Ekbäck’s ‘Wolf Winter’ Is A Gothic Survivalist Thriller

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“Wolf Winter,’ she said, her voice small. ‘I wanted to ask about it. You know, what it is.’

He was silent for a long time. ‘It’s the kind of winter that will remind us we are mortal,’ he said. ‘Mortal and alone.”
― Cecilia Ekbäck, Wolf Winter

Each Halloween, I like to read a horror novel. This year marks the second in a somewhat accidentally created tradition, in which I review a macabre and magical novel centering around wolves during the Holiday season. These books just patter on up to me during this time of year, wintery and wild, all gleaming teeth and snow-capped mountains and freezing temperatures. It seems a natural progression, from horror during Halloween into the mysteries of the wild during Christmas, which is based on such ancient traditions.

Last year I reviewed William Girardi’s Hold the Dark post-Christmas, a quiet tale of death and cold in the midst of Alaskan wild. You had all year to check it out.

This year, I read Cecilia Ekbäck’s Wolf Winter, a book about the type of winter that changes a family. A book about the type of winter you just don’t come back from, as a person, as a community. It’s a book about the cold and the things that belong to it, wolves and ghosts and rumbling stomachs.

Frederika and Dorotea have moved to the Swedish Lapland with their mother, Maija, and father, Paavo. They’ve left Finland’s ghosts for the new frontier of Sweden. Sweden presents its own spirits, however, as the girls stumble upon a body as they herd the family’s goats.

Frederika especially is haunted by their grisly discovery, and by the mountainside itself. She feels it in a way only the people indigenous to the land, called the Lapps, seem to understand.

I’m not one for magic, but this is a magical book that worked for me. Wolf Winter embraces the supernatural without ever losing touch with the grim truth of reality, placing it firmly in the gothic tradition. The frostbite and starvation and desperation come on strong, as this tiny family struggles against a big cold in a little cottage nestled against a mountain. But there’s something more nestled against that mountain, with that family. Something insidious, something growing louder. Frederika hears the mountain beating to a steady rhythm. She begins to see things.

The local priest investigates the murder, the small group of townspeople on the mountain grow ever more anxious as they wonder who amongst them is a murderer, and then it begins to snow. Wolf Winter is a thriller, historical fiction, survivalist tale, and ghost story all smashed into a dough and baked into one big beautifully monstrous cookie.

Wolf Winter on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org