Kali Reads

Review – A Death-Struck Year by Makiia Lucier

death struck year 400 border

In a sea of uninspired Young Adult books, each struggling to be the next Hunger Games mega-hit in a battle so fierce it might as well be taking place in Panem, reading A Death-Struck Year by Makiia Lucier was, counterintuitively, like an honest and gripping breath of fresh air.

A Death-Struck Year shouldn’t feel so fresh because it takes place in Portland, Oregon, in 1918. For those of you who aren’t familiar with recent history, the Spanish flu (now known to be a variant of the H1N1 virus–ready to get your flu shot yet?) spread like crazy between 1918 and 1920, and killed 3-5% of the world’s population, ultimately killing more people than World War I.

A Death-Struck Year’s unsuspecting heroine Cleo, 17 years old and pensive about her future, watches in alarm as the pandemic closes in around her. First, the reports of sickness are distant, only in papers and heard as vague rumors; then Cleo notices restrictions on travel in town, and masks on faces of travelers; finally, she finds herself in a terrifying situation, as the city shuts down completely and people die in the streets or unnoticed in their homes.

The virus creeps into the community quick, and it is easy to feel Cleo’s confusion. Early on, Cleo’s school keeps a watchful eye on its students’ sneezes, but then it makes the decision to shut its doors completely. With family out of town, Cleo finds herself home alone in the middle of the flu pandemic. When the Red Cross calls for able women to assist the sick, Cleo shyly responds to the request, finding a bedraggled and understaffed Red Cross staff desperate for help. Before she fully comprehends it, a testament to how quickly pandemics seemingly spread, Cleo is driving her brother’s car around town, knocking on doors, educating her neighbors on the virus, calling help for the ill, and, sadly, discovering the dead.

Cleo finds comfort and friendship among the overworked staff at the Red Cross emergency triage center set up in Portland’s auditorium, where nurses, army doctors, and community volunteers group to battle the illness. Together they struggle through the pandemic, relishing small triumphs and mourning the much greater losses they suffer. A wounded army doctor catches Cleo’s eye, and a romance develops.

It seems like young readers are hungry for smarter material, and I think A Death-Struck Year is on the right track. Teens know there is more to a crush than a fast heart beat; there is more to suspense than a fight scene. Lucier has managed to create a gripping story that resonates as honest. Cleo must find in herself unimaginable bravery, and she is a strong heroine–but rather than drop Cleo’s character development as the action develops, Lucier is able to build her into a real young woman that could be any reader of the book growing up in a different time, rather than a caricature of what a girl should be like or think like. Lucier has studied up and written with a painstaking attention to historical accuracy, and the attention to detail certainly shows in the book.

Although at a higher reading level (age range is 12 and up), A Death-Struck Year reminded me of the American Girl books I used to read when I was a younger child. They would recount the struggle of a young girl in a pivotal time in history. I don’t read a ton of historical fiction (although I am currently reading The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd) but I understand how following a young woman through a more turbulent time in history could appeal to a Young Adult reader in the same way a dystopian novel would, but with a more grounded twist. Lucier reminds us of tragedy which took place in years not too far past, and the ability of history to tell us its thrills and heartbreaks.

A Death-Struck Year will be released on March 4th, 2014.  Author Makiia Lucier will be doing an Ask Me Anything in /r/books on Reddit at 12 pm ET on March 4th. Essentially, people ask Lucier anything and she answers.

For those who don’t know about Ask Me Anything (AMA) on Reddit, there is a great Atlantic article which explains the phenomena and speculates on why it works, and I think its title sums up AMA’s evolution: “AMA: How a Weird Internet Thing Became a Mainstream Delight.”

A Death-Struck Year on Amazon.com/Indiebound.org

Related Links:

Review – You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt


The Americans with Russian girlfriends–“pillow dictionaries,” they called them, aware that these lanky, mysterious women were far better-looking than anyone they’d touched back home–began to sound like natives. They were peacocks, preening with slang…A little bravado goes a long way toward hiding the loneliness. You can reinvent yourself with a different alphabet.
― Elliott Holt, You Are One of Them

You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt is a love song of a book: a love song to foreign lands that always seem impossibly perfect until you get there; a love song to a different time when we were younger and everything around us looked so much bigger; a love song to the beliefs we have when we are children, and the hope that we can grasp tightly onto even as adults.

Narrator Sarah had a best friend growing up, a perfect best friend, named Jennifer Jones. They grew up in Washington, D.C. together during the paranoid madness of the Cold War. Sarah’s mom is neurotic, charting nuclear fallout on huge maps spread along the dining table, while Jennifer’s parents are so idyllic they seem quaint.

The girls write letters to the Soviet Union asking for peace, and suddenly Jennifer Jones (just Jennifer Jones, not Sarah) is famous. Her letter has been published in the Soviet papers and answered by their president. They’ve asked her to come to the USSR as an ambassador of sorts. As Sarah watches from home, Jennifer is made America’s darling. And, as Sarah watches from home, Jennifer and her parents crash into the ocean on a small plane, never to be seen again.

Then, years later, Sarah receives a mysterious e-mail from Russia. A woman who knew Jennifer as a child, who hosted her when she visited, asks, “Would Sarah come? Doesn’t she have questions?” She will, and she does. Sarah packs up, and is off to Russia, searching for a truth she isn’t sure exists regarding her long lost friend Jennifer.

If there is a single strong point in Holt’s writing, it is paralleling the disorienting experience of childhood with the disorienting experience of wandering a new country alone. In both situations Sarah seems totally lost and at the mercy of those around her, almost adrift in a sea of people she needs to lean on but may not be able to trust.

In the best way possible, You Are One of Them reminded me of The Gardens of Kyoto by Kate Walbert, one of my favorite books when I was younger. Both books very much have this “Let me sit you down and tell you what I do and what I do not know about my past” feel to the narration, which creates a feel of unraveling a web of dark secrets and drama with the narrator as they explore their own memories.

You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt on Amazon.com/Indiebound.org

Related links:

Review – Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker


The demand for commercial sex will never go away. Neither will the internet; they’re stuck with each other. It may no longer even matter anymore whether the sale of sex among consenting adults is wrong or right, immoral or empowering. What’s clear is that no good can come from pretending that the people who participate in prostitution don’t exist. That, after all, is what the killer was counting on.
–Robert Kolker, Lost Girls

Lost Girls starts with a story straight out of a mystery novel, a trendy Scandinavian crime thriller: a panicked prostitute disrupts a sleepy and isolated beach community, usually peaceful behind its private gate, when she sprints from door to door, asking for help, hiding behind bushes and parked boats. A man in a black SUV chases the woman down as she sprints away from his headlights. The stunned community calls the police. Cops show up too late–forty-five minutes later, they arrive to no trace of the girl or the black SUV. In their search for the young woman months later, police start to discover bodies. Four of them, clustered together, at first.

This mysterious sequence of events, seemingly created in the dark mind of a mystery novelist, is pulled from recent history. Robert Kolker‘s Lost Girls documents the unsolved murders of four women (possibly more) on Oak Beach, a barrier island of Long Island. All four women were prostitutes; all four were using Craigslist to solicit johns. It seems the killer in this case realized what apparently many killers do: prostitutes are often not reported as missing, and their deaths are often dismissed as the price of their chosen vocation. Kolker eloquently describes this after one especially frustrating police ruling: “the police seemed to be saying that [the missing woman] had died because her soul had been rent asunder by a life in the streets.”

Lost Girls asks the traditional true crime questions–who is the murderer? Why haven’t they been caught? Why weren’t the bodies noticed? And what about the pathologically lying, limping doctor who lives on Oak Island? But there is an even greater mystery at hand which Lost Girls chooses to explore–how does someone end up on Craigslist, offering their body to strangers for cash? Kolker, in a fascinating, touching, and intimate way, tracks the story of each woman back by finding those who knew her best, from childhood forward. Illustrated by maps charting each woman’s ominous progression towards her final destination point of Oak Beach, NY, Lost Girls documents the four women’s lives. They all encounter hiccups, struggles, and tragedies along the way that lead them to prostitution and Craigslist; their stories all halt mid-frame as each young woman goes missing in the midst of a life they were planning to earn just a bit more from and then get the hell out of.

By making Lost Girls the story of the murdered women, much more than the investigation or the killer-at-large, Kolker manages to shine light on a glaring and uncomfortable point of the sex trade: police seem to dismiss reports of missing prostitutes. Or their friends, working girls themselves, are too fearful to report them missing. When the women are found murdered, and the police are forced to show more interest, they still seem to chalk murder up to a direct result of prostitution, placing the blame with the women and the women’s families. Kolker documents some unbearable victim-blaming by the police, and near the end of the book, it gets to be difficult to read: police describing the women as “greedy”, suggesting they can’t resist going with a serial killer john who offers them a lot of money to hop into a shady situation.

The only thing I did feel was missing, and it seemed to be achingly absent from the second half of the book, was documentation of some of the police work done on the case. I’m not sure if this is because the killer is still out there and the police didn’t want to reveal too much of their investigation, or if there was another reason for this, but Kolker doesn’t document the police investigation itself. It seems that Kolker has one brief interview with the Suffolk County police commissioner and his chief of detectives, both desperately needing a lesson in PR. I kept waiting for more detailed information on the police investigation that never came.

Mysteries without a clear solution are captivating, exhausting, frustrating. As noted in my review of The Hanging Judge a few weeks ago, there can often seem to be a moment when looking over all the evidence, in puzzles both real and created, where it is clear no single explanation can possibly explain past events. Kolker has managed to write clearly about a puzzling mess of facts, rumors, and biases which have built this unsolved case into something daunting and nonsensical. He writes about what happened in the only way we can understand, for now: by telling the stories of the victims, overlooked for so long, unable to speak for themselves. These women were, truly, lost girls. Kolker dared to try to find them. Sadly, he was too late.

Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery on Amazon.com/Indiebound.org

Robert Kolker’s Author Page/selected articles written by Kolker for New York Magazine

Related Links:

Review – The Burn Palace by Stephen Dobyns

the burn palace

The Burn Palace: A Novel by Stephen Dobyns is an enchanting kind of book, a pick-it-up-at-the-bookstore-because-the-dandelion-yellow-cover-calls-your-name kind of book, a read-the-glowing-blurb-from-Stephen-King-on-the-back-and-you’ve-gotta-get-it-now kind of book, a happy-to-curl-up-with-its-little-towns’-happenings-at-night kind of book, a baby-turns-snake-while-vicious-coyotes-prowl-oh-my! kind of book.

In The Burn Palace, small town life get weird. The quaint community of Brewster begins experiencing bizarre (and possibly supernatural?) occurrences: coyotes turn cruel, and a baby disappears from a bassinet leaving a snake in its place. Characteristics of small town life once considered quaint and sleepy become glaringly inefficient in a crisis, and Dobyns ensures we are privy to each town resident’s struggle to adapt to the odd on-goings and the hysteria surrounding the events.

Dobyns writes in a fantastical tone, boldly dropping into the second point-of-view (that’s right, you heard me) to include the reader as a sort of peeping tom, an unseen witness or incredibly private private investigator, and we are taken flying through the town and into residents’ homes at intimate times, checking out their thoughts as they tuck themselves into beds, asking us to try and put together the puzzle pieces while we also feel the tension bubbling up within the community like a pot ready to overflow.

The one thing (okay, maybe two things) glaringly absent here were a map and a character list. With such a focus on the layout of the town of Brewster, and such a wide array of characters included, I kept flipping back to the beginning of the book seeking an illustrated map of the town that just wasn’t there. Would it have been a bit too cheeky? I think Dobyns already took us there, and it would have felt just right. So many characters were introduced so quickly and briefly, that I had a hard time keeping them straight. I think a map and a list of characters, their relations, and professions at the beginning of the novel would have been a greatly utilized tool to help readers further envision and understand the town we were being invited into.

In many ways, The Burn Palace feels like a light tale when compared with some of the gritty and gruesome mysteries that are popular today. I have a lot of love for darker mysteries, but some can get so graphic that I wonder where authors have left to go. When we’ve all visited our darkest nightmares, where will we go for our thrills? The Burn Palace reminds me that the shock value doesn’t always need to be there for a great mystery. All you need is a great story, one that people would enjoy gathering around a campfire to hear, maybe. One that perhaps starts in a small town, maybe a town named Brewster, on a dark and windy night…

The Burn Palace on Amazon.com/Indiebound.org

Related articles

Review – Night Film by Marisha Pessl


“‘Anyway,’ he added softly, ‘a man’s ghoulish shadow is not the man.'”  –Night Film, Marisha Pessl

Night Film by Marisha Pessl is a big, bold statement of a book; released at the perfect time, right before Halloween when everyone is craving a scary story told in the dark.  Pessl brings us “a myth, a monster, a mortal man” in Stanislas Cordova, the film producer at the core of the novel.  He’s described as “a crevice, a black hole, an unspecified danger, a relentless outbreak of the unknown in our overexposed world.”  Cordova’s films are outlawed (an inspired copycat killed a girl in imitation of one film), and bootlegged “black tapes” are passed among obsessive Cordovites.  Renegade underground screenings of Cordova’s films take place, and fans flock to a secret website where they post their darkest secrets as well as the most mundane bits Cordova trivia.  The film producer’s beautiful but haunted daughter Ashley commits suicide, and a ragged journalist past his prime, Scott McGrath, decides to look into the death.  McGrath reluctantly picks up a few delightful sidekicks, and they begin to unravel the mystery surrounding Cordova, his family, and his films.

I was originally listening to Night Film as an audiobook, and I realized I must be missing something as at times the narrator seemed to be reading captions from photos and newspaper articles.  I discovered a used copy of Night Film at Diesel Books for $8 (score!) and was glad I did.  The book features photos of Ashley before her death, articles and pictures from the New York Times on Cordova and his films, and other pieces of evidence displayed as they are discovered.  Until they add a .pdf to the audiobook, I’d recommend grabbing an actual copy of the book to avoid missing out on the full story.  There is additional media built around the book, including an app called the Night Film Decoder and Night Film found footage on the web.  I’m sure cynics will see this as too much hype, but I saw it all as a great addition to the story.

Night Film is reminiscent of the post-modern masterpiece House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski and the terrifying European hit Syndrome E by Frack Thilliez. All of these books are built around creepy (and nonexistent) films; in House of Leaves, a documentary about a house with shifting boundaries is studied, and in Syndrome E, a terrifying old film is found and blinds a man who watches it.  I’m not sure why reading imagined documentation is so irresistable and terrifying.  In Night Film, Pessl takes care to blend Cordova and his horrors into our current culture, pointing out details of the films in which fans have found meaning.  This careful interweaving of fiction and reality heightens fear by making stories feel real.  All these imagined dark films are made all the more terrifying by people’s reactions to watching them, which in the real world we just don’t see or experience.  A man begins to lose his mind when reading about the documentary in House of Leaves;  Cordova’s films are “so horrifying, audience members are known to pass out in terror.”

I haven’t read Pessl’s first book, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, even though it was highly praised. It is now at the top of my list of books to get next.  The plot of Night Film is fantastic, but being able to place the looming figure of Cordova believably at the center of our world took some serious writing talent.  Pessl has wit, and displays it Night Film‘s moments of much-needed comic relief.  The Night Film Quotes page on Goodreads is full of memorable gems.  Night Film is the best kind of horror novel, with just the right amount of brains and brawn on board.

Related articles

Review – Me Before You by Jojo Moyes


I didn’t know too much about Me Before You before I picked it up and started reading.  I thought the cover was fun and funky, and had a vague recollection of a positive blurb in a magazine.  I’m glad I stumbled into this book without knowing too much about the plot–I’m not too much of a romance buff, but I was pleasantly surprised by this story.  Instead of the usual boy-meets-girl, the concept here is that girl (Lou) is hired to look after quadriplegic man (Will), paralyzed when a motorcycle struck him as he crossed the street.  Lou and Will must interact for 8 hours each day as it is her job to keep him company and assist him with daily activities.  Emotions ensue.

Glance through the .gifs featured on Goodreads reviews of Me Before You, and it appears to be the most devastating novel ever written. Although I didn’t find it that heartbreaking, there were some times I chose to put the book down and take a break; it is some seriously heavy reading material, confronting moral issues and human emotions with the same brutal honesty of a Jodi Picoult story.

All the love aside, what I really appreciated about this book was its broach of a topic I haven’t often encountered in popular fiction, the day-to-day experience of a quadriplegic man in our world.  As Lou began to see the world from Will’s perspective, I did too.  Lou points out: “There are things you don’t notice until you accompany someone with a wheelchair.  One is how rubbish most pavements are, pockmarked with badly patched holes, or just plain uneven.  Walking slowly next to Will as he wheeled himself along, I saw how every uneven slab caused him to jolt painfully, or how often he had to steer carefully around some potential obstacle.”  Moyes does a great job of describing the discomfort people have when interacting with someone who is paralyzed or immobile.  There are failed handshake attempts, people obviously attempting to avert their eyes, and others noticeably staring.

Me Before You was similar, in some ways, to The Dive From Clausen’s Pier by Ann Packer.  In that book, a young man is paralyzed after a dive into a shallow lake, and his fiancé chooses to flee the situation.  The Dive from Clausen’s Pier shows us the significant other’s perspective.  In Me Before You, Will’s girlfriend has already tried to make it work and left him; we see the aftermath of this from his perspective rather than hers.  Both books are worth checking out.

This was the first book by Jojo Moyes I had read.  Her latest novel is called The Girl You Left Behind and sounds to be in the same love-through-history vein as Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, which was a hit.

Me Before You on Amazon

Me Before You on Indiebound

Jojo Moyes webpage

Related articles

Review – Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink


Five Days at Memorial:  Life and Death in a Storm Ravaged Hospital was everything that makes nonfiction great to read:  a subject worth uncovering, documented by a voice with a clear penchant for obsessive detail.  Sherri Fink recounts the struggle for survival at New Orleans’ Memorial Hospital, which acted as a port in previous storms, in the days following Hurricane Katrina; she discusses at length the choices made by hospital staff (several doctors and nurses made the choice to euthanize patients they felt couldn’t be evacuated) and the investigation that followed.

I listened to this as an audiobook, and I could not stop telling people about it. First off, I had no idea things got this bad at Memorial Hospital during Hurricane Katrina.  The scenes described were more harrowing than any fiction could be: hospital staff stuffing preemie babies in their shirts to evacuate as there was no space for incubators, nurses ventilating patients by hand due to power outage, stifling heat with smashed windows acting as the only ventilation, while gunshots were heard outside, and rumors of martial law were spreading.  Hurricane Katrina was a testament to our government’s inability to organize a response to disaster, and Five Days at Memorial illustrates the high human costs of that inability.  This was at points a difficult book to get through; the descriptions are so clear I felt sick even imagining such an experience, let alone living through it.  I kept asking myself, “Why doesn’t the army come to relieve these exhausted hospital staff members, and help them evacuate these dying patients?”  It was so frustrating to know this happened in America and there was nothing I could do about it now.

The questions of justice presented here are some of the most difficult questions that exist about human life, and at points reminded me of the perplexing moral issues presented in Michael Sandel’s epic Justice class at Harvard, free on iTunes U.  Is it right to evacuate the most able-bodied people, who need the least help and will be the quickest to get into helicopters? Or is the more moral choice to evacuate the most sickly to safety first, as they are the most in pain and most in need of help? The questions presented at Memorial Hospital in that hellish time after the storm speak to historical ethical dilemmas, and Fink does a great job of explaining the dangers with and benefits of each choice.

Kirsten Potter narrated the audio version of the book, and did an incredible job. This story could have easily been overdone by a different narrator.  Potter managed to stay neutral but interested, the voice of a reporter bearing witness to history rather than a character actor.

Although the second part of the book (covering the aftermath of choices made at the hospital) may not be as gripping as the harrowing account of survival in the storm, I think this is the portion that makes this book so important.  We can all guffaw at the tragedy, but examining it with a critical eye is the only thing that will keep it from happening again.  Perhaps the most terrifying part of Five Days at Memorial is its end, when Fink embeds with American medical disaster teams after the earthquake in Haiti.  Seemingly logical decisions to preserve oxygen for those who need it most almost cost a young woman her life.  It seems like in a disaster, the luck lies with those who have the most innovative, creative doctors who are able to see beyond the complicated machines of modern medicine.

Five Days at Memorial on Amazon.com

Five Day at Memorial on Audible.com

Review – Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem


I’m a huge fan of Jonathan Lethem.  His books are always oddness worded authentically, and I think he is able to capture a lot of the bizarre struggle of life we go through in a way only the greatest authors can.  My favorite of his books are the ones considered the more genre-fied odd ducklings of the bunch, such as This Shape We’re In, Gun, With Occasional Music, and As She Climbed Across the Table.  I think the fact that he can dabble in different genres (like Margaret Atwood is so easily able to) is a testament to his ability to write great stories, regardless of their setting.

Lethem’s newest novel Dissident Gardens, released last month, is not a genre novel.  The story documents the struggles of three generations of a radical Leftist family.  Rose is the almost-Jewish Communist matriarch, “a dark tower, a ziggurat.” Struggling to escape mom’s shadow, “like crawling out of a bomb crater,” is daughter Miriam; a cool, confident hippie chick in the way only the daughter of a rebel can be.  Miriam’s Quaker-raised son Sergius struggles to find his own identity amidst the mayhem of his history.  Stealing the show is Cicero, a sort of step-son to Rose, a frustrated gay black professor who prides himself on making the simpletons surrounding him uncomfortable:  “Cicero, like Rose in the end, preferred his listeners stunned and bleeding, all masks on the floor, or on fire.”  There has been much talk of what this more realist book means for Lethem – is he growing up, is he demanding respect as a legitimate author, is he giving in to reviewers’ requests that he give up comic books already?  Lethem has a great interview on Slate answering many questions about the book. The summary: the metaphysical here is the concept of ideology, of that intangible better way of living each character is searching for.  And I can certainly dig it.

I was hesitant when reading the summary of Dissident Gardens, because I love a story with bells and whistles (a mystery, an apocalypse, a drug-laced seedy background).  Once I began reading, however, I was reminded immediately that Lethem could rewrite the phone book into something meaningful said in a way I never would have imagined.   His unique but effortless wording had me doing double takes.  Even the first scene, of Communists gathering in Rose’s kitchen, has sentences so well crafted it is hard not to pause and mull over them for a while:  “They’d overdressed, overcompensated with vests and jackets, now arraying themselves on her chairs like some Soviet oil painting, postured as if on some intellectual assignment.  In pursuit of that chimera, the Dialectical Whosis, when really there was to be no dialectic here. Only dictatorship.  And the taking of dictation.”  An ocean atmosphere is “noon-luminous”, Cicero allows his class to sit in silence and “plummet into that abyss of the inexpressible where the truth lies.”

The intensity and accuracy with which Lethem allows his characters to document their emotional landscapes, and the room with which he gives them to grow large in his words, remind me here of that other Jonathan who has created epic American family dramas, Jonathan Franzen.  And like that other Jonathan, Lethem shows us everything it is to be part of a family, everything there that isn’t as simple as love.

The surreal feeling of past books is there, when Miriam competes in a TV quiz show and begins to have almost hysterical fantasies under the blinding studio lights.  It is there as Rose falls for, and meets, Archie Bunker.  The surrealism is there as these characters reach out for a sense of certainty in their beliefs, struggling to reconcile an imagined idealism with the harsh realities laid out before them.  Lethem shows us that struggling through true life, with bizarre self-talk and strings of random experience molded into belief, can be just as disorienting as any supernatural tale.

Dissident Gardens on Amazon.com

Dissident Gardens on Powell’s Books

The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon – What went wrong?


I recently read the “highly anticipated” novel The Bone Season, by Samantha Shannon.  Reading this book just confirmed two of my beliefs:

1)  Marketing campaigns can easily hurt the books they are promoting.

2)  The best non-fiction authors do an amazing job of incorporating facts seamlessly into their stories.

First, point one.  Marketing campaigns can hurt books and disappoint their readers.

All the readers who reviewed The Bone Season on Goodreads seemed to feel the same way about it I did.  Way too much information being thrown out, with a beginning that is almost comical thanks to its info-dumping.  I wanted to love this book so much (as did every other reviewer on Goodreads, it seemed).  A cool young woman publishing a hit?  What isn’t there to love about that story.  Someone, somewhere compared this poor girl to JK Rowling and immediately set her up for failure.  As we saw with The Cuckoo’s Calling, JK Rowling’s writing can’t even build a new JK Rowling-level of success.  The blurbs for this book are also overly optimistic–U.S.A. Today called The Bone Season a combination of George Orwell and J.R.R. Tolkein!  No pressure, right?  What this means is the expectations for The Bone Season were incredibly high.  Readers were expecting an Orwellian brand-new Lord of the Rings series that could create a Potter-worthy hysteria.  With that sort of hype, of course readers are going to be disappointed.  I often feel this way when a book is declared a “hit of the summer” or “next Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” or “new Hunger Games”.

In Janet Maslin’s brilliant and brutal review of The Bone Season at the New York Times, she calls it “a human interest story, not a book.”  She points out that much of the hype around the book has been on the author and her success-the movie options, the money.  Obviously the average reader isn’t looking for a literary masterpiece, but the fact that books have become hollow hype machines similar to blockbuster movies is something to notice.

And that brings me to point two:  The Bone Season’s writing itself.  It takes skill to make information become digestible  and the best non-fiction authors are masters of this.  I think studying how great non-fiction incorporates facts into vivid stories would absolutely help The Bone Season become readable.  This is such an information-laden book (granted, the information conveyed is regarding a fictional world but there is a ton of it), I think it would have benefitted from a more journalistic narrative.  Great non-fiction books pack an incredible amount of information into a readable story.  I think The Bone Season would have benefited from the focus on creativity and details which build a picture of the facts.  There is a saying in writing that you “Show, don’t tell,” and The Bone Season is a book of telling.  Great non-fiction manages to show all its information.  Spillover, a non-fiction book by David Quammen about the spread of zoonotic diseases, is 600 pages of scientific facts and history.  Quammen is such a brilliant writer that these facts go unnoticed in the story.  Bad Pharma, a huge non-fiction book covering the pharmaceutical industry’s faults, reads more clearly than The Bone Season.  I think great non-fiction has the ability to place the reader in a story rather than simply conveying a story’s information.  I also think this was exactly what The Bone Season was lacking.  The Bone Season was a textbook of information, a list of ideas with little explanation as to why we should care.

How would I fix The Bone Season?  Clearly there is a world inside Samantha Shannon that needs to get out.  We all want to hear about this world she has created and fall in love with it, we just need her to show us what its like there.  I would start with Paige at the protests in Ireland when she was six.  Make that the introduction to a book entirely based upon Scion’s beginnings in a world which sees ghosts, and Scion’s growth from Paige’s view.  Cut the rest of the plot, with its aliens and secret islands.  Get rid of some action and focus on the context.  I would focus on conveying all that information thrown at us in The Bone Season’s first chapter into an entire book, tidbit by slow tidbit.  Once we understand the creepy world under Scion rule in a clear way, other books could bring in more information.  The second book could focus on Paige’s gang, and allow us to get to know them better.  And maybe, by the third book, when all this information is embedded into our memories in a less overwhelming way, we could approach the whole alien demon species thing.  We’re all cheering for you, Samantha, but please give us something we can work with next time!

There is some absolutely great and really dark stuff in The Bone Season.  The idea of masks that seal to a person’s face, making them unrecognizable, was wonderful.  The terms of endearment were beautifully executed in the dialogue, pulling off a new-world slang that rang true.  There is a lot of great stuff here, and I will definitely read the next book with hopes of a smoother story.

The Bone Season on Amazon.com

Review – The Salinger Contract by Adam Langer


I was pleasantly surprised with The Salinger Contract.  This is a theme mystery, focusing on literature, and I’m always skeptical of theme mysteries (cat mystery novels, and now yoga mystery novels?  really?).  However, this book worked.  As I love books and I’m interested in writing, I appreciated the look into the life of the less glamorous authors out there.  The lives and livelihoods of average authors are made charming, if bleak, here. The Salinger Contract is a glimpse into the world of the starving artist, with a literary tilt.

The narrator is a one-time author and journalist, Adam Langer (yes, same as the author), who was forced to adapt to the life of a stay-at-home dad after the literary mag he writes for closes down.  The book is broken up into four parts:  1) Upon Signing, 2) Upon Submission, 3) Upon Acceptance, and 4) Upon Publication.  It is a tricky mystery to explain without giving too much away.  Langer seeks out a favorite author from his former life as a literary journalist, and an odd plot unfolds involving rich old men in limousines, secret and unknown classical mystery novels, guns, accents, theft, and sassy YA writers who lack manners but have huge followings.  What more could you ask for?

This is a very unique book – its pacing is uneven by design, as it goes from a very fast-paced recounting of events to a slower-paced status quo.  In many books that use this style of storytelling within a book, it feels like the present is just unnecessary filler taking up time until you get to the important flashbacks which seem to be the true meat of the story.  In The Salinger Contract, when action isn’t being recounted, we are getting to know Adam Langer.  With no opportunity and no glamour in his life, Adam Langer (narrator) comes across as charming rather than pathetic.  He seems to be an everyman just trying to make it through our tough financial times.

The writing here is clear and simple, and this book is a fast, light read – great for anyone who is craving a creative and fun mystery, or anyone who is big into reading and writing.  Although I don’t think I’d classify this as a cozy, it has a cozy feel – not a lot of grit or gore.

My only complaint is that quite a jump is taken at the end that left me raising an eyebrow.  You’ll know it when you get there, and you’ll also be like, “say whaaat?”

From “The Making Of” the novel on OpenRoadMedia.com, Langer explains:  “It came about through wanting to satirize the idea, so often repeated in interviews, that a book can change your life. It’s a cliché and so rarely true and so I wanted to write a book where that idea is literally true—a writer’s life depends on writing this book. I’ve also been fascinated by this idea of literary recluses—of people like B. Traven and J. D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon who disappear and how these stories develop around them. And I wanted to explore some very compelling reasons as to what would explain an author’s disappearance.”

The Salinger Contract on Amazon.com (release date September 17th)