Review: Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

22609317Blurb:

HER PERFECT LIFE
IS A PERFECT LIE.

As a teenager at the prestigious Bradley School, Ani FaNelli endured a shocking, public humiliation that left her desperate to reinvent herself. Now, with a glamorous job, expensive wardrobe, and handsome blue blood fiancé, she’s this close to living the perfect life she’s worked so hard to achieve.

But Ani has a secret.

There’s something else buried in her past that still haunts her, something private and painful that threatens to bubble to the surface and destroy everything.

With a singular voice and twists you won’t see coming, Luckiest Girl Aliveexplores the unbearable pressure that so many women feel to “have it all” and introduces a heroine whose sharp edges and cutthroat ambition have been protecting a scandalous truth, and a heart that’s bigger than it first appears.

The question remains: will breaking her silence destroy all that she has worked for—or, will it at long last, set Ani free?

Review:

It’s become very trendy to compare any new thriller novel with a mid-book twist to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and true to form, blurbers have done the same with Luckiest Girl Alive, a story about a woman in her late 20s still suffering from the aftershock of a high school tragedy. The revelation as to what happened in this high school tragedy is, of course, the awaited twist, but unlike Flynn’s famous twist, it immediately pops a balloon, erasing all tension when the book is only half over.

Pretty strong evidence then that this character is not strong enough to carry a book. TifAni FaNelli (every time that freaking name appeared on the page it was like a dagger in my eye) is obnoxious, ungrateful, superficial, quite astonishingly stupid, but worst of all BORING. Say what you want about Gone Girl‘s Amy, but at least she wanted things. The problem with TifAni is a lack of any legitimate desire. There is no motor to her action, or maybe there is, but the motor is so faulty I couldn’t reduce myself to a level where I’d understand it.

I love a good thriller novel, but a good thriller novel is not constructed from a single really cool mysterious idea. The idea is a trunk, but trunks need branches and roots and leaves. Without these parts, a story is basically just a lump of wood.

1 star out of 5

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Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

870775Blurb:

Eva never really wanted to be a mother – and certainly not the mother of the unlovable boy who murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker, and a much-adored teacher who tried to befriend him, all two days before his sixteenth birthday. Now, two years later, it is time for her to come to terms with marriage, career, family, parenthood, and Kevin’s horrific rampage in a series of startlingly direct correspondences with her estranged husband, Franklin. Uneasy with the sacrifices and social demotion of motherhood from the start, Eva fears that her alarming dislike for her own son may be responsible for driving him so nihilistically off the rails.

Review:

Today is an era of impermanence. The clothes we buy can be returned to the store with a receipt. The stories we hear on the radio enter our ears and disappear into the ether. The grudges we hold are thrown away with a mere “Sorry.” But I suppose there is one thing we can’t take back, for which there can be no redos or second thoughts. For women at least, a child is forever.

That’s where protagonist Eva finds herself after the birth of Kevin, her ambivalently desired son. From the moment he refuses to nurse from her breast, she wants to give him back. But she recognizes, of course, that this is impossible and would brand her as “evil” by most of the population.

The entire book is composed of retrospective epistles written in the aftermath of a school shooting committed by teenage Kevin. But it mostly grapples around the tense relationship between mother and son, asking, “Is Kevin difficult to love just because Kevin is difficult to love? Or is Kevin difficult to love because his mother doesn’t love him enough/properly/unconditionally/etc?”

Unconditional love has always scared me a little bit. Why should anyone deserve such power? I remember asking an ex-boyfriend question after question, “If I did this slightly horrible thing, would you stay with me? And if I did this slightly more horrible thing, would you still be with me? Okay, and what about if I did this truly truly awful unforgiveable thing? What about then?” He hated this “game” but I loved it. I wanted to know where the line in the sand was drawn. And maybe Kevin and Eva’s entire relationship is the attempt to draw a line in the sand, all the way up to killing several kids in a high school.

So mothers can’t get a redo for a child, and I guess most would also argue that another everlasting thing is murder. Death is forever, and the trigger puller is forever. Except what Shriver excellently shows here is the mania surrounding these mass shootings. His mother is not forgiven for her alleged maternal lapses; Kevin, however, is forgiven by his captivated audience. The reasons for Kevin’s massacre remain opaque. But it’s something about the desire to write his own story, to become an actor. Stricken by affluenza, he wants more and he wants the unknown.

We readers are complicit in consuming this story. But Shriver writes so well, choosing the perfect anecdotes to highlight Kevin’s developing killer psyche, that it’s impossible not to. We Need To Talk About Kevin tells you what will happen from the get-go. Yet it is still so complicated and defies simple understanding. And somehow this story about a mother hating her son, a son hating his mother, and this same son hating the world and thus destroying it is one of the greatest tales of forgiveness that I’ve ever read.

5 stars out of 5

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: Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

425113Blurb:

When they were children, Sean Devine, Jimmy Marcus, and Dave Boyle were friends. But then a strange car pulled up to their street. One boy got into the car, two did not, and something terrible happened — something that ended their friendship and changed all three boys forever.

Now, years later, murder has tied their lives together again …

Review:

The only annotation I took during Mystic River is attached to this quote: “Life wasn’t a fucking movie, man, it was…fucking life.” I wrote, quite simply, “this author sucks at profundity and sentiment.”

Honestly I think that quotation and my brief comment could suffice for a whole review. What more do you need to know about this book after reading that clichéd ‘life is a movie’ line? But I will try to write more.

This is a mediocre mystery novel in every sense of the word mediocre. The writing is passable, just good enough not to distract you from the plot. The plot is, also, passable. The story never goes anywhere I didn’t expect it to go, but it is logical and believable. The main characters—three childhood friends united by a kidnapping in their youth and now a murder in adulthood—are tolerably interesting. And yet they feel like archetypes, not breathing, hurting humans.

In fact the weirdest bit is how the mystery doesn’t truly set off until nearly midway through the book. Although the murder occurs in the early chapters, the author writes in a strange way that makes you think the murderer has already been fingered, which led me to wonder, “hm, what’s the point then?” Once the actual mystery aspect begins, it’s easy to see who’s guilty a good few steps ahead of the detectives.

The novel has a distinctly masculine tone; it’s emotionless and paint-by-numbers. There is nothing offensive about it but nothing to commend it either. Mystic River: a solidly mediocre mystery novel.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: Cartwheel by Jennifer Dubois

17857661Blurb:

When Lily Hayes arrives in Buenos Aires for her semester abroad, she is enchanted by everything she encounters: the colorful buildings, the street food, the handsome, elusive man next door. Her studious roommate Katy is a bit of a bore, but Lily didn’t come to Argentina to hang out with other Americans.

Five weeks later, Katy is found brutally murdered in their shared home, and Lily is the prime suspect. But who is Lily Hayes? It depends on who’s asking. As the case takes shape—revealing deceptions, secrets, and suspicious DNA—Lily appears alternately sinister and guileless through the eyes of those around her: the media, her family, the man who loves her and the man who seeks her conviction. With mordant wit and keen emotional insight, Cartwheel offers a prismatic investigation of the ways we decide what to see—and to believe—in one another and ourselves.

Jennifer duBois’s debut novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction and was honored by the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 program. In Cartwheel, duBois delivers a novel of propulsive psychological suspense and rare moral nuance. Who is Lily Hayes? What happened to her roommate? No two readers will agree. Cartwheel will keep you guessing until the final page, and its questions about how much we really know about ourselves will linger well beyond.

Review:

There are two types of crime fiction: the books that explore who did it and the books that explore why the who did it. Of the interrogative pronouns, why is forever and always the most compelling. Tell me what, tell me who, tell me when, tell me how, but I will not be satisfied until I know why. And so, I’m condemned to eternal dissatisfaction because that pesky why is often unanswerable. Think of all the minute actions you take in the course of a day: can you say why you acted in that precise way? Maybe. But can you say why with certainty?

Jennifer DuBois tries to discover the whys in the aftermath of a murder committed in the most extreme of circumstances. A 21 year old American foreign exchange student Lily Hayes is accused of killing fellow (and altogether more blond and beautiful) American foreign exchange student in Buenos Aires. Why did Lily kiss her boyfriend mere hours after discovering her roommate dead? Why did Lily do a cartwheel after a grueling police interrogation? Why does Lily refuse a lawyer, why does Lily’s boyfriend remain free, why does the media analyze her Facebook like an undergrad analyzes Ulysses, why does the prosecutor believe her guilty nearly instantly?

If you are a true-crime buff and followed the Amanda Knox case, you are probably howling to the moon right now because it is these questions that we wanted answered. It’s fiction but it feels accurate. The success of a psychological novel is gauged by the empathy you are compelled to feel for the characters. As I read I could see a part of myself in every character: the naïveté of Lily, the loneliness of her boyfriend Sebastian, the no-nonsenseness of her murdered roommate Katy, the resolve of her parents, the vigilante spirit of her prosecutor. Ever since the domination of capitalism and Western individualistic ideologies, people prefer to emphasize the differences between humans rather than to discuss our similarities. But when reduced to our base materials, we are of the same atoms, the same cells, the same decision-motivating chemicals. We are of the same species and DuBois excellently captures how alike we are even in such an incredible situation.

I don’t know if we ever learn why in Cartwheel. We learn about the whys we tell ourselves and the whys we tell others, but the true ultimate why? Indefinable. And that’s why mystery novels and crime reporting are so enduring. Murder happens to people like us and murder is done by people like us, and when we recognize all of humanity’s proximity to that darkness, we must ask—we must know—why.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: Serena by Ron Rash

2815590Blurb:

The year is 1929, and newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton travel from Boston to the North Carolina mountains where they plan to create a timber empire. Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena is new to the mountains—but she soon shows herself to be the equal of any man, overseeing crews, hunting rattle-snakes, even saving her husband’s life in the wilderness. Together this lord and lady of the woodlands ruthlessly kill or vanquish all who fall out of favor. Yet when Serena learns that she will never bear a child, she sets out to murder the son George fathered without her. Mother and child begin a struggle for their lives, and when Serena suspects George is protecting his illegitimate family, the Pembertons’ intense, passionate marriage starts to unravel as the story moves toward its shocking reckoning.

Rash’s masterful balance of violence and beauty yields a riveting novel that, at its core, tells of love both honored and betrayed.

 

Review:

Never has a titular character deserved her title as much as Serena in Ron Rash’s Serena. Because Serena Pemberton is everything. She’s intelligent, ambitious, not exactly beautiful, unconventional, and daring; but mostly, she’s ruthless.

It is rare that a book physically affects me, but Serena did. As I rocketed towards the finale, my heart pumped faster and my palms started to sweat. Turning each page felt like the long and low creaking of a door opening in a horror film. There is a suffocating sensation, a feeling, nay an absolute certainty, that terrible events are approaching.

But while the plot chugs with refreshing speed, Ron Rash writes in restrained yet beautiful prose to create a rather thoughtful story. Serena is almost universally recommendable because it bridges commercial and literary fiction in the best way; it’s an exciting thriller that questions standards of femininity, the dangers of ambition, and the lengths of love. Serena will destroy anyone if it helps herself, her husband, and their lumber empire. Because of the early 20th century society Serena lived in and the society we still live in, it’s tempting to interpret Serena’s character as a jealous and unhinged harpy, a woman gone mad following her failure to produce a child, her one true purpose on Earth. But that’s an unfair and sexist designation. Serena is simply ambition magnified a thousand times. In fact, her qualities would likely be admired if she were a man. She’s both awe-inspiring and reprehensible and certainly one of the greatest characters I’ve read about in a long while.

While the main conflict plays out between Rachel, the mother of Serena’s husband’s illegitimate child, and barren Serena, the surrounding Appalachian landscape is ruined, logged until it too rests barren. Serena is thus also a proto-environmentalist tale set in the 1930s. The most alarming part is how so little seems to have changed since that era. Unbridled avarice and unthinking apathy towards the wonder and precariousness of the natural world are still common today, an unfortunate fact that only heightens the novel’s relevance and appeal. With a fantastic touch, Rash includes a Greek chorus of lumberjacks to discuss the personal and natural destruction around them. At the end of the novel, one worker states solemnly, “I think this is what the end of the world will be like.”

And he’s right. As the forests fall, leaving scarred and empty lands, along fall the characters’ facades until only the ugliest scraps of human nature remain, deformed and laid out to fester in the sun.

5 out 5 stars

Review: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

16131077Blurb:

THE GIRL WHO WOULDN’T DIE HUNTS THE KILLER WHO SHOULDN’T EXIST.

Harper Curtis is a killer who stepped out of the past. Kirby Mazrachi is the girl who was never meant to have a future.

Kirby is the last shining girl, one of the bright young women, burning with potential, whose lives Harper is destined to snuff out after he stumbles on a House in Depression-era Chicago that opens on to other times.

At the urging of the House, Harper inserts himself into the lives of the shining girls, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. He’s the ultimate hunter, vanishing into another time after each murder, untraceable-until one of his victims survives.

Determined to bring her would-be killer to justice, Kirby joins the Chicago Sun-Times to work with the ex-homicide reporter, Dan Velasquez, who covered her case. Soon Kirby finds herself closing in on the impossible truth . . .

THE SHINING GIRLS is a masterful twist on the serial killer tale: a violent quantum leap featuring a memorable and appealing heroine in pursuit of a deadly criminal.

Review:

This book is weird. The climax features a one-sided snowball fight. And it’s about a time-traveling serial killer. It’s weird. It’s also not very good.

The Shining Girls is a book of parts, and some parts work, some parts don’t. Each chapter focuses on a person and a time. Harper, the time-traveling serial killer, spends most of his chapters in the Great Depression Era, plotting escapades to the future to kill “shining girls.” The other main character is Kirby, a shining girl from the early 90s who survives Harper’s homicide attempt. She partners with Dan—a loveable Chicago Sun-Times reporter who was my favorite character—to catch her killer. If a chapter title read Kirby 24 June 1992, I would read with gusto. If a chapter title read Harper 18 January 1932, I’d groan and settle in for an unenjoyable chapter. It’s problematic when you don’t want to read any of the antagonist’s boring, tedious, and repetitive chapters since they amount to more than half the book.

I picked this book up after hearing the phrase “time traveling serial killer.” But Lauren Beukes doesn’t sufficiently develop either of these ideas. The time travel seems like a gimmick. Harper finds a House with a Room full of objects and names of shining girls he will kill decades in the future. He can walk out of this House into a different time to hunt these women. I don’t really understand the House or the rules of time traveling here. Harper often loops his own narrative, hopping from a later time to an earlier time with seemingly no consequences. Structurally, the time traveling is difficult to follow. As I said, each chapter is headed with the character’s name and the date, but when I’m reading fast and the chapters are short, I lose track of “when” I am in the text. The intricacies of Harper’s sojourns back and forth through Chicago were lost on me. And since we jump from past to future, events are spoiled long before they ever happen. Beukes could have used this foreknowledge to create great dramatic irony and tension, but the way she used it only lessened my appreciation of the narrative. I knew what was going to happen, but I wasn’t pushed to fear what was going to happen. A linear narrative would not have worked for this story, but—if this makes any sense—I would have appreciated a more linear non-linear story.

As a serial killer story, it fails as well. Why do I read murder novels? To (attempt to) understand a killer’s motivations. To admire the tenacity of a victim. Or to empathize with the devastation of a victim. To figure out whodunit. Yet all of that was absent here. For the excess of Harper chapters I suffered through, I still don’t understand him as a person. Unlike many popular serial killers, Harper is neither charming nor horrifying; he merely kills. Kirby is a likeable protagonist, but her motivation to find her killer is the most striking aspect of her character. Not much else defines her. And while this story is a mystery to Kirby, it is never a mystery to the reader who knows the killer and his secrets from the first page.

One thing that impressed me about The Shining Girls was Beukes’s research. Chicago is an important part of this novel. The time and characters may change, but Chicago remains constant. The research is impeccably detailed and thus, Chicago breathes with life. But as I’ve noticed with other historical novels, especially those set in bright American metropolises during sumptuous eras, the author can become indulgent with the depth of her research. There’s too much here. It’s too referential. Often it feels like a famous Chicago landmark is alluded to merely because the author had seen it in her research. And despite all the research, I’m surprised by the way the dates are written in the chapter headings. Perhaps it’s an editorial error, but the dates are written in the date/month/year format—e.g., 1 July 1989—even though this book is the American edition and it is set entirely in America. Even in the non-American editions, it would be more authentic to use our admittedly backward month/date/year format.

Thematically, The Shining Girls shines a little brighter. Harper’s pursuit of “shining girls” is a good metaphor for the way a patriarchal society punishes girls with promise, wanting to push them back to their “proper” place. And the idea of a House that dictates who Harper will kill years into the future well represents the idea of a true psychopath. Once Harper finds the House, he appears to have no control over himself. Once a psychopath begins to kill, perhaps he has no control over himself. Harper was meant to kill, is meant to kill, will always be meant to kill. He is a killer in every iteration of time and space.

I’ve written a lot about a book I didn’t really like. If you want Chicago and history and murders, read The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson instead. 1. it happened in real life 2. it has Ferris Wheels.

2 out of 5 stars