Review: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

1232Blurb:

Barcelona, 1945: A city slowly heals in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, and Daniel, an antiquarian book dealer’s son who mourns the loss of his mother, finds solace in a mysterious book entitled The Shadow of the Wind, by one Julián Carax. But when he sets out to find the author’s other works, he makes a shocking discovery: someone has been systematically destroying every copy of every book Carax has written. In fact, Daniel may have the last of Carax’s books in existence. Soon Daniel’s seemingly innocent quest opens a door into one of Barcelona’s darkest secrets–an epic story of murder, madness, and doomed love.

Review:

Normally I try to maintain a semblance of eloquence in my reviews, but it’s been three days since I finished The Shadow of the Wind and all I have left to say is this book was dumb. Yes, I understand that “dumb” is the word 5-year-olds use to insult each other as their mothers scold, “Be nice!” but I have no other way to describe this book nor any desire to search for another way to describe it. It was boring, incredibly overlong, sexist, and overall unfeeling.

Despite a decent mystery (although as it unravels it becomes more and more mundane, until it’s no longer “mysterious” but, once again, merely dumb), I cared nothing about what happened here. And it showed—the farther I read, the faster I read, simply to finish and move on to something newer and better. The characters here are caricatures. It’s as if Zafon endowed them with one defining personality trait and then announced “Done!” Accordingly, they’re incapable of attracting our sympathy, problematic for a novel whose plot spins on the sympathetic interactions between characters.

All my least favorite things are here: love stories that become True Love before the characters have exchanged two words; a villain who is villainous because he is a villain who is villainous; a latent, insidious form of sexism where women are never agents and there are about 100 too many comments on their bodies and about 100 too few comments on any other aspect of their existence; and worst of all, an awesome concept—a Cemetery of Forgotten Books, where the sole remaining copies of literature go to die/rest in peace—that serves as scenery, not a motor for story.

Blah blah blah. I see Zafon popped another two of these out to complete an interconnected series. If I can give him one recompense, it’s for making the first one so bad that I’m not obliged to suffer through two more. Thank you, Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

1 out of 5 stars

 

Review: Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm

22571781Blurb:

On the grubby outskirts of Paris, Grace restores bric-a-brac, mends teapots, re-sets gems. She calls herself Julie, says she’s from California, and slips back to a rented room at night. Regularly, furtively, she checks the hometown paper on the Internet. Home is Garland, Tennessee, and there, two young men have just been paroled. One, she married; the other, she’s in love with. Both were jailed for a crime that Grace herself planned in exacting detail. The heist went bad—but not before she was on a plane to Prague with a stolen canvas rolled in her bag. And so, in Paris, begins a cat-and-mouse waiting game as Grace’s web of deception and lies unravels—and she becomes another young woman entirely.

Unbecoming is an intricately plotted and psychologically nuanced heist novel that turns on suspense and slippery identity. With echoes of Alfred Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith, Rebecca Scherm’s mesmerizing debut is sure to entrance fans of Gillian Flynn, Marisha Pessl, and Donna Tartt.

Review:

So the Unbecoming details the construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction of a girl following a failed heist. Shame that I’m not one for a heist novel because the story’s founding ideas are solid; its flashy plot, however, is not.

What we have is a love story. Grace has a childhood sweetheart whom she intends to love forever until her growing up reveals different, contradictory intentions. She’s faced with a question I ask myself a lot lately: at what age can we finally assume that the person we are is mostly the person we are going to be? And whose decision is it? That is, who decides who we are going to be? Us? Someone else? The blind, unfeeling universe?

Grace learns that when whoever that whomever is makes his decision, it’s impossible to bridge the gap. Gone are the days of one leg firmly sunk in the sands of childhood, the other leg tentatively stepping toward adulthood; Grace is pushed along whether she likes it or not. She tries, like any normal human being, to fight what she’s becoming. And that’s where we get the heist, the much touted thriller element crying out to prospective readers on the back cover. That’s also where the story begins to fail. Once Grace’s largely plotless but entirely typical personal metamorphosis disappears under piles of blueprints, printouts from art auction house websites, and million dollar paintings, the story moves too quickly and loses itself. In life climaxes tend to happen quickly; in books climaxes must unwind slowly and carefully or else the reader’s patience is only briefly, perfunctorily rewarded.

The crazy fast plot befuddles character motivations. Where Grace was once recognizable, indeed pitiable, she is now confusing, unrealistic, and unsympathetic. Author Rebecca Scherm tries to say some great things in Unbecoming, but her choice to pursue a commercial thriller plot foils her attempt. Grace’s love and growing up are justifiably convoluted; unfortunately the heist plot is too.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: The Fever by Megan Abbott

18656036Blurb:

The Nash family is close-knit. Tom is a popular teacher, father of two teens: Eli, a hockey star and girl magnet, and his sister Deenie, a diligent student. Their seeming stability, however, is thrown into chaos when Deenie’s best friend is struck by a terrifying, unexplained seizure in class. Rumors of a hazardous outbreak spread through the family, school and community.

As hysteria and contagion swell, a series of tightly held secrets emerges, threatening to unravel friendships, families and the town’s fragile idea of security.

A chilling story about guilt, family secrets and the lethal power of desire,The Fever affirms Megan Abbot’s reputation as “one of the most exciting and original voices of her generation.”

Review:

The thing about red herrings is that they have to be believable. A red herring is plainly not a red herring if it doesn’t inspire you to believe something false while distracting you from the truth.

The Fever is one giant trail of failed red herrings. Teenage girls are falling sick in a small town and the entire book hums along trying to find out why. We are presented with two main options: either the HPV vaccine has led to unanticipated side effects (an awful red herring because um, it’s a real-life vaccine with real-life evidence showing its safety and efficacy–Abbott would have been better off creating a fake vaccine) or the toxic algae coating an off-limits local lake has infected the girls (again, an awful red herring because um, what? it should at least be sensical.)

There is too much jumping from character to character, a tactic that mainly serves to bamboozle and frustrate as you wait for a viable reason for the teenage girl plague. I gave up 52% through because Abbott and the characters were still languishing among the protozoan lake viruses and dangerous yet FDA-approved vaccine reasons, even though these options were ridiculous from the get-go.

I read someone’s spoilers and the final solution is believable but nothing earth-shattering, certainly not incredible enough to justify countless meandering chapters lamely asking and never properly trying to answer “What could possibly be causing this disease???”

All in all, a big disappointment.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: The Secret Place by Tana French

20967058Blurb:

The photo on the card shows a boy who was found murdered, a year ago, on the grounds of a girls’ boarding school in the leafy suburbs of Dublin. The caption says, I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.

Detective Stephen Moran has been waiting for his chance to get a foot in the door of Dublin’s Murder Squad—and one morning, sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey brings him this photo. The Secret Place, a board where the girls at St. Kilda’s School can pin up their secrets anonymously, is normally a mishmash of gossip and covert cruelty, but today someone has used it to reignite the stalled investigation into the murder of handsome, popular Chris Harper. Stephen joins forces with the abrasive Detective Antoinette Conway to find out who and why.

But everything they discover leads them back to Holly’s close-knit group of friends and their fierce enemies, a rival clique—and to the tangled web of relationships that bound all the girls to Chris Harper. Every step in their direction turns up the pressure. Antoinette Conway is already suspicious of Stephen’s links to the Mackey family. St. Kilda’s will go a long way to keep murder outside their walls. Holly’s father, Detective Frank Mackey, is circling, ready to pounce if any of the new evidence points toward his daughter. And the private underworld of teenage girls can be more mysterious and more dangerous than either of the detectives imagined.

Review:

I’ve put a bit of time between finishing Tana French’s newest entry in her amazing Dublin Murder Squad series and writing this review. Which is probably a good thing. Because my initial reaction was, “5 stars! Finally a new Tana French book! Callooh! Callay!” while my more measured, 7-days-later reaction is, “4 stars. Still great, but…lacking?”

The problem with the mystery in The Secret Place is, ironically, its lack of mystery. I am notoriously awful at guessing the culprit in mystery novels, but even I, the anti-Sherlock Holmes, guessed the correct killer from the very start. I never swayed in whom I believed it to be, and while I kept waiting for French to pull the floor out from underneath me and show me what a simple fool I had been to eat up her red herrings with gusto, I eventually realized that, wow, these really aren’t red herrings; the killer is justthat obvious.

But no big deal, I don’t read French’s mystery novels for the mystery and I suspect my fellow diehard fans don’t either. Where French has always excelled is with the development of her characters, especially the detectives, and the subsequent complete emotional annihilation of these characters, followed shortly, of course, by the reader’s own personal emotional annihilation. And here, well it’s a strange complaint, but I didn’t feel sufficiently emotionally annihilated? I wanted to feel more pain, i.e., Broken Harbor-level pain that empties you and exhausts you. Basically, Tana French didn’t put my heart through a blender this time, and I’m slightly upset about it!

The story—particularly a final reveal that emerges even after apprehending the killer—still punched me in the gut, just not quite hard enough. The Secret Place is about teenage girls, the magical feel of adolescence, and the apparent invincibility that comes with finding yourself and a group of close friends for the first time. Thematically, it broaches similar questions as my favorite Tana French novel, her second book The Likeness, in that it’s about friendship and belonging. Throughout the story (which impressively unrolls in a 15ish hour period) we observe the evanescence of friendship between the various boarding schoolgirl suspects and the growth of friendship between the two lead detectives, Stephen Moran and Antoinette Conway, who are both too tough and focused on their careers to concern themselves with companionship.

But we also learn that choosing friendship means choosing to be blind, to ignore your friends’ mistakes and to hide your own from them. By opening yourself to others, you also close off parts of yourself and from this choice can come the most exquisite joys and the most devastating pains, particularly when you’re a mere 16 years old. Detectives Moran and Conway forgot that, and I had too. Leave it to Tana French to remember and record it vividly, to see its beauty yet to tell us its truth.

4 stars out of 5

Review: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

B18214414lurb:

Private investigator Cormoran Strike returns in a new mystery from Robert Galbraith, author of the #1 international bestseller The Cuckoo’s Calling. When novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls in private detective Cormoran Strike. At first, Mrs. Quine just thinks her husband has gone off by himself for a few days–as he has done before–and she wants Strike to find him and bring him home. But as Strike investigates, it becomes clear that there is more to Quine’s disappearance than his wife realizes. The novelist has just completed a manuscript featuring poisonous pen-portraits of almost everyone he knows. If the novel were to be published, it would ruin lives–meaning that there are a lot of people who might want him silenced. When Quine is found brutally murdered under bizarre circumstances, it becomes a race against time to understand the motivation of a ruthless killer, a killer unlike any Strike has encountered before… A compulsively readable crime novel with twists at every turn, THE SILKWORM is the second in the highly acclaimed series featuring Cormoran Strike and his determined young assistant, Robin Ellacott

Review:

The Silkworm is the tenth J.K. Rowling novel I’ve read. I believe that after ten often gargantuan novels I can make fairly accurate generalizations about her writing. And it saddens me to say that she keeps making the same mistakes.

Most glaring is her treatment of female characters. In the Cormoran Strike mystery series, we have another female character of much greater intrigue shunted to the side in favor of a male protagonist, aka Hermione Granger Syndrome. Robin is Strike’s young personal assistant who could definitely contribute to mystery solving but mostly answers phones, schedules appointments, makes coffee, and provokes male gazing. The thing is, Robin is much more fascinating to me than Strike! Robin is desperate, unsure, diffident but ambitious—she would have been a fabulous heroine for a detective series about a woman trying to break into a traditionally male profession. Strike, on the other hand, does not interest me as a protagonist: he’s arrogant and infallible (sorta reminds you of a character whose name rhymes with Barry Lotter, non?), meaning that whenever Strike eliminates a suspect from contention, I know him to be absolutely right, simply because J.K. Rowling writes Strike in a way that he is always right. For all of Rowling’s characterization skills, Strike is lacking. He has a cool backstory—missing leg, missing rockstar father—but none of it manifests itself in his psyche or quotidian actions. They are just things we know about him; like, oh hey, that’s Cormoran Strike, he lost his leg in Afghanistan and his dad is a famous guitarist.

In general, I find J.K. Rowling’s characterization maddeningly brilliant. She’s super into the physicality of her characters. In The Silkworm the first few chapters serve no other purpose than to introduce the story’s players. But we are told who these people are, with special emphasis on their attractiveness and one-word descriptors: he’s the ambitious one and she’s the daffy one. Rowling is an expert at character portraits but you can only know the characters on her unique terms; there’s no room for personal interpretation. It’s as if she is this master dollmaker. Each character is impeccably painted, you can admire the surface details for hours, but if you cracked the dolls open, they’d be hollow. Nothing murks beneath the detailed yet limited picture Rowling has painted us.

And yet, she’s a magnificent plotter, a skill really well-suited to the mystery genre which gives me hope for any subsequent installments (though I will perpetually groan about Strike’s usurpation of the protagonist role in lieu of Robin). She carefully charts her reveals and includes tons of clever but useless information to throw you off. I’m not the biggest fan of how she writes climaxes—this isn’t participatory mystery where you can solve alongside the detective; you must wait for Mind-Numbingly Boring Detective Genius Cormoran Strike to figure it out and share his conclusions with you—but the underlying plot structure is solid. I’d just love to see her combine this knack for plot with deepened characters and themes. Otherwise, it’s forgettable.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia

18222740Blurb:

A high school music festival goes awry when a young prodigy disappears from a hotel room that was the site of a famous murder/suicide fifteen years earlier, in a whip-smart novel sparkling with the dark and giddy pop culture pleasures of The Shining, Agatha Christie, and Glee.

Review:

It’s probably not the best criticism to say that I found Bellweather Rhapsody, a book about a New York weekend music conference attended by hundreds of theatre kids, too theatrical, but there you go. A book about teens who specialize in drama was too dramatic for me.

Some people will love its dark and humorous tone, but for me author Kate Racculia tried to walk a line between funny and bleak, and she falls off this line a few too many times. The combination of these two disparate tones just doesn’t work because the characters don’t act reasonably. They Jekyll-and-Hyde their way through the story, oscillating from farcical to deadly solemn.

If the novel were a grim parody of high school arts programs and the desperate, star-seeking kids that populate them, I could accept this. But it takes itself too seriously at times, like it wants to be more than a silly pastiche of Glee and Agatha Christie. Again, that’s fine, but if it’s a serious book, I expect the characters to behave accordingly. And they don’t. Nobody’s actions make sense. A 14-year-old girl goes missing after being reported as having hanged herself, and her mother doesn’t care, the chaperones don’t care, the students don’t care, not even the police care! A 14-YEAR-OLD FLUTE PRODIGY IS MISSING. And I, the reader, am the only one who cares.

There’s also a whole romance sideplot that just fails on every level because the woman is completely unlikeable, yet she’s written as though we’re supposed to like her?

I understand that ending a sentence of criticism with a question mark isn’t exactly incisive opinion-sharing, but it’s difficult to say what didn’t work for me in Bellweather Rhapsody because it’s just so perplexing! It’s almost like the book wanted to be two books—either a lighthearted skewering of band geek culture and high schoolers jiving to be the Next Big Thing or a gloomy murder mystery/ghost story, where the ghosts are the characters’ secrets and haunted pasts. I would have liked both of these books if they were not bedmates in the confines of a single cover.

My somewhat confused conclusion? Bellweather Rhapsody is entertaining, though slightly whiplashy as well.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

18339662Blurb:

A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
True love.
The truth.

We Were Liars is a modern, sophisticated suspense novel from National Book Award finalist and Printz Award honoree E. Lockhart.
Read it.
And if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.

Review:

The thing about reading a whole book that purports, in its very blurb, to be a massive lie is that when you finish the book you feel unsatisfied because nearly everything you just read was a massive lie.

I don’t have much to say about We Were Liars partly because the book summary instructs me not to reveal the super amazing surprising awesome plot twist (though I will reveal: the twist is not that super nor that amazing nor that surprising nor that awesome) and partly because two thirds of the book feels irrelevant after reading said twist. Apologies for vagueness, but basically you spend most of the book thinking one thing is true only to realize it isn’t true, which left me feeling quite hollow. In essence, pages upon pages of character growth and interaction are false and therefore rather useless.

For a story that seemingly aims to be gritty—with its wtf ending, its family dysfunction, its depressed and traumatized narrator—it didn’t read realistically enough. Nothing about We Were Liarsfeels like something real people with real, beating, breakable hearts would experience. The book follows the Sinclairs, a blueblood family with a private island near Martha’s Vineyard where most of the story takes place. But the Sinclairs rang false for me. They didn’t behave like real East coast elite do, instead they were coarse renderings of how we imagine such people behave.

It could be Lockhart’s inventive prose style that destroys any sense of reality. She writes in short, choppy, almost verse-like sentences with nonsensical descriptions. One character, for instance, is “ambition and strong coffee,” which…I don’t know what that means? I don’t even know what it’s trying and failing to mean. Lockhart also employs faux fairytales to depict the downfall of the Sinclair family, which are interesting but overly obvious. They could have been wonderful metaphorical asides open to interpretation, but instead they were twee retellings of the 10 previous chapters’ intrigue where the narrator’s mother, aunts, and grandfather are played by a king and princesses.

Yes, I enjoyed We Were Liars. Its blurb-writer is a mad genius because I would read anything that warns, “if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.” But I found it heavy on lies and low on truths—real meaningful life truths, you know, the stuff that really matters.

2 out of 5 stars