His Bloody Project – Graeme Macrae Burnet

project

Wow.

I loved this book.

When I first learned of its publication, I thought that it was a non-fiction account of a murder trial in Scotland in the 1860s. His Bloody Project is actually a novel, written as though it’s non-fiction, which makes the story all that more believable and engrossing. It was short-listed for the Man Booker prize in 2016.

I’m not normally drawn to thriller/mysteries, as that’s what this book is categorized as, but in my opinion it should not be categorized as either of those. This is a novel of psychology, of endurance, of the questions of what is moral and what is immoral. This is not a whodunit, but a whydunit.

The book is broken up into parts, the first part being a memoir of events written by the accused, Roddy Macrae, while he’s in prison awaiting trial for murder. The subsequent sections are medical reports, psychological assessments, and accounts of the trial. Roddy’s first-account narrative lends sympathy for his circumstances. The reader follows Roddy’s thoughts and emotional turmoil, forming a bond with the murderer; but later, others’ interpretations of the events, during the lawyers’ investigations and at the trial, cause the seeds of doubt to be sown, and nothing is certain.

This is an expert writing full of nuances and subtleties. I’m going to be thinking about this book for a long time. His Bloody Project will definitely make you ponder; it would be great for book clubs. I’m planning on stopping at Applecross while visiting Scotland this summer, just to walk around the same village as Roddy Macrae. I have to keep reminding myself that this book is fictional.

No Man’s Land – Simon Tolkien

nomanslandI was excited to be given a chance to review this Advance Reader Copy. I’m fascinated by WWI, especially first-hand accounts of trench warfare. A novel written by JRR Tolkien’s grandson about his experiences at the Somme in WWI, what more could you ask for?

A lot, apparently.

My feelings about this book formed a slightly imperfect parabola: disappointment in a lackluster beginning, then amazing apex, then slowly dwindling back down into jejune story. I think Tolkien is riding his grandfather’s coattails a wee bit. I’ve discovered from previous books that often the descendants of famous authors try to distance themselves from their predecessor’s success in order to stand on their own two feet, but that was not the case here.

The first 47% on my Kindle read like a poor man’s Jeffrey Archer.

A rushed, “tell” not “show” sentimental story of a young boy with a heart of gold just aching to do the right thing. The writing was lacking. There were so many instances where I read “he could feel”, “he could see,” “he could hear,” that I was taken aback. This usage of present perfect – if that’s the tense it is – takes the reader a step away from the events at hand. Bottom line, it’s just poor writing. The first half of the book was overly sentimental with dialog that was stilted and pedantic. The plot was interesting enough to keep me going, but the amateurish writing overrode any enjoyment of the story. About a third of the way into the book, I almost bailed. The story was so full of tired tropes and one-dimensional stereotypes that I wasn’t sure I could keep going. But I’m really glad I did.

At the halfway mark, the reader finally reaches the Somme, the bludgeoning horror of WWI, and the story takes off. The shocking atrocities and grueling fatigue, the appalling brutality of trench warfare, these were things I had read about before but never with such depth. I loved this part of the book, and it was worth the slog to get to this point. I tore through the middle, my eyes blazing across the sentences. The account of the war had the impact I wanted. It was emotional reading without becoming saccharine, and I was captivated. I’m wondering if Tolkien’s real desire was to write this middle section, but to get there he had to write the insipid initial story line.

The necessary last third of the book was essentially an epilogue of what happens to the remaining characters, and I was invested enough now to want to know what happened in the end, even though I knew that everything would be tidied, the wrongs would be righted, that good would prevail. (And sometimes, it’s best if everything doesn’t work out perfectly. Just a thought, S. Tolkien. It makes the story more real.)

So, would I recommend this? Maybe. I would most certainly recommend a heavy-handed editor. The middle of the book about WWI is amazing reading, so if you’re willing to endure the beginning to get there, then I encourage it.

Thanks to Netgalley, Doubleday Books, and Simon Tolkien for the advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

 

Tirra Lirra by the River – Jessica Anderson

tirra-lirra-by-the-river-225x300Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River should be brought up from the depths of its obscurity  and celebrated for its timeless relevance. The story follows Nora Proteus, a 70-ish divorcee convalescing in her childhood home, reflecting on her life. Nora has finally returned to the place of her youth, a place she thought would bring her the peace she seeks, only to find that no matter her surroundings, her quest for her purpose goes unfulfilled.

What I really appreciated about this semi-autobiographical novel is how Nora and her close friends  handle their disregard. The men in their lives want them to do their duty, serve their families, and have no voice. For some women, being ignored slowly wears them down, often with brutal results, and for others, like Nora, the freedom to pursue a purpose overcomes them.

Tirra Lirra reminded me of Madame Bovary and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. The subtlety of women enduring their lack of empowerment is what makes these books so important. Winner of the Miles Franklin award when it was published in 1978, Tirra Lirra is especially relevant today, when women are still undervalued and considered less-than. Even those misguided women angrily chanting “not my march” on social media can thank all the brave women who marched before them for the opportunity to have their say.

Books like Jessica Anderson’s reflect how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go.

 

Himself – Jess Kidd

himself

For the dead are always close by in a life like Mahoney’s. The dead are drawn to the confused and the unwritten, the damaged and the fractured, to those with big cracks and gaps in their tales, which the dead just yearn to fill. For the dead have secondhand stories to share with you, if you’d only let them get a foot in the door. 

Mahoney, a handsome Dublin drifter, goes back to his hometown of Mulderrig to discover the long-buried secret of his origins. The townspeople believe his mother left him in an orphanage and then was never heard from again. Did she disappear and start a new life, or was she, as Mahoney suspects, murdered? All he has to go on is a photograph of him and his mother with a few short sentences written on the back.

Himself is an Irish Spoon River Anthology with ethereal descriptions and supernatural interventions. It’s charmingly rural, replete with folklore and eccentric characters, but also eerie with disquiet. My favorite character was Mrs. Cauley, described as a looking like a benign, geriatric spider, boarding in a house among toppling towers of books and old sheet music. She’s tart, but benevolent, and she can drink Mahoney under the table. She takes up Mahoney’s cause to solve the questions of his mother’s disappearance, and her money and chutzpah are just the motivation Mahoney needs. She knows that the ghost of her first love is lurking around. He often loiters in her hydrangeas while she sits in her garden plotting with Mahoney.

I was drawn to this book because of the Irish setting and the endorsement of M. L. Stedman (A Light Between Oceans). Several elements keep this book from being the usual hum-drum mystery:  the gothic Irish setting, where the town itself is a living, breathing thing; the peculiar, enigmatic, and often hilarious townspeople that you get to know as well as your own kooky great aunt; and the fact that the dead of Mulderrig are also skulking around, visible only to Mahoney, indulging in their vices and prey to their temptations, even in their spectral forms. The writing in Himself is exceptional. It’s rare to encounter such rich, apt characterization or creation of such foreboding atmosphere.  There’s a ghost of a little girl whose tinny voice taunts Mahoney, the incessant drum of the bees who murmur about impending storms, and the trees who “hold their own counsel” and dig their taproots deep. They all portend murder as the answer to the mystery of Mahoney’s mother, with more murder to come.

4 stars for the story, 500 stars for the writing. As soon as I picked this one up, I dropped everything else I was reading. It will grab you from the first sentence and won’t let go.

Himself will be published on March 21, 2017. Many thanks to Netgalley, Atria Books, and Jess Kidd for this advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

Geek Love -Katherine Dunn

geeklove This is one of the most bizarre and outlandish books I’ve ever read . . . in a good way.

Things you will encounter in this book:

  • self-mutilation
  • severe, purposeful birth defects
  • borderline-incestuous relationships
  • maggots

Other things you will encounter in this book:

  • unusual concepts of beauty and normality
  • a universal yearning for acceptance
  • loyalty and maternal devotion
  • a riveting family saga

Geek Love follows the life story of Oly, an albino humpback, reflecting on her life growing up as a member of her family’s traveling freakshow, the Binewski Fabulon. Her parents, Al and “Crystal Lil”, purposefully engineered their own family of oddities using experimental drugs and radiation when conceiving their children. There’s Artie the “Aqua Boy,” a tyrant and prophet with his own coterie of self-mutilating followers; Elly and Ipphy, the conjoined twins who share legs but have vastly different personalities; and Chick, the youngest Binewski, who was almost abandoned for being a “norm,” but proves to have invisible powers.

Oly’s story of the carnival is wrought with jealousies, lust for power, manipulation, and yearning for love, like any family drama; however, the weirdness factor casts a shadow on it all, which only makes the story that much more interesting. There are other unusual characters in the freak show, including the Bag Man, who gave me serious heebie-jeebies. There’s a second story as well of Oly developing a relationship with her estranged daughter, complete with more peculiar characters and perspectives about the negativity of beauty.

I enjoyed this story, warts – quite literally – and all. The only drawback from my enjoyment was I felt a bit more editing was in order as the pacing was off. I got bored in the middle and found the story repetitive, but the unusual storyline and gory characters compensated when the story seemed to stall. Many reviewers complained that this book was nauseatingly gruesome (have they never read Cormac McCarthy?). This book is not for the faint of heart, but if you enjoyed “American Horror Story” (especially season 4), you should be just fine.

Best of 2016!

I’m doing something a little different. All the BEST BOOKS OF 2016 lists I’ve seen everywhere list all the same books. We all know about Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. We know about Commonwealth (see my review here).  Enough already. Tell me something I don’t know.

SO, I’m going to let you know about some great books I’ve read in 2016 that maybe you haven’t heard of ad nauseam:

Damnificados – JJ Amarowo Wilson – published 2016

damnificados

600+ vagrants, addicts, damnificados take up residence in an abandoned, crumbling 60-story tower. Nacho is their reluctant leader, a damnificado since birth.

The residents of this make-shift society set up a bakery, a hair salon, a school for various ages on different floors, a repair shop.
 They rig electricity and water. They form their own community, and everyone pitches in, until members of the Torres family claim ownership of the building, and thus begins the struggle for squatters’ rights and their continued existence. This book incorporates magical realism, folktales, and social science into a compelling story.

Us Conductors – Sean Michaels – published 2014
conductors2

So, not published in 2016, but still one of the best books I read in 2016. This is a fictionalized account of the life of Lev Termen, known in America as Leon Theremin, inventor of the eponymous “invisible instrument.” The novel follows Leon’s beginnings in Russia as an engineer, his subsequent world-tour in America promoting his instrument and other feats of physics, and his re-capture and imprisonment by the KGB. There are enticing descriptions of prohibition-era New York City and speakeasies, and thread throughout the story is Leon’s unrequited love for Clara Rockmore, his star pupil. This book is concise, well-researched, and spell-binding.


 

Sweetland – Michael Crummey – published 2014

sweetland

Not only is Sweetland one of the best books I read in 2016, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

 At the beginning, this book reminded me so strongly of The Shipping News that I was beginning to think that Crummey just ripped it off hoping no one would notice. That feeling soon faded after delving into the lives of the residents of Sweetland. The characters here! Everyone has a backstory, and they’re all interwoven so expertly that I felt like they were my own family. I haven’t savored writing like this in a long time. There are aching descriptions of the cold, the unpredictable weather, the scenery of Newfoundland, the daily backbreaking chores that need to be done to survive. I hate to use the cliché “atmospheric,” but that is what you get with Sweetland. I felt the cold, the pain, the injuries, the starvation, the overwhelming silence. The relationships of the residents of Sweetland run deep, and there are skeletons in the closet that should not be revealed.

I don’t want to get into the plot , because it’s best if you don’t know much going in. This is the story of a man battling his past and the brutality of nature. A beautiful treasure of a book. Haunting and sad.

 

A Head Full of Ghosts – Paul Tremblay – published 2015

head_full_of_ghosts
At first glance, this seems like a traditional demonic possession story, but told in 2 different narratives. Both narratives are voiced by Merry (Meredith), the younger sister of the possessed Marjorie. The first narrative is an adult Merry posting on her blog incognito as “Karen”, analyzing the reality show that was on TV years ago that documented Marjorie’s possession. The analysis and horror-genre knowledge here is
fascinating and spot-on.
The second narrative is Merry telling her story to a journalist about what happened to her as a child. Her older sister Marjorie claimed she was possessed by the devil, and a TV crew lived in their house to film a reality show about the family.
It’s a gripping story from the very beginning, then things take a drastic turn, and you don’t know who or what to believe. The ending is a killer.

Pym – May Johnson – published 2011

pym

Pym is inspired by the open-ended story of Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. This story is a jaunty Antarctic adventure full of social satire, absurdism, and hilarity.

The protagonist, Chris Jaynes, is a bitter African-American literature professor who was recently denied tenure. In a fit of insanity, he becomes obsessed with the tale of Arthur Gordon Pym as outlined in Poe’s novel, and discovers an unpublished manuscript that suggests Poe’s novel of hidden islands and Antarctic monsters may be based in fact. He assembles a motley crew of fame-seekers and a snack-cake addict, and heads to the South Pole, where things just get even weirder. This book quite literally made me laugh out loud more than once. It’s an imaginative tale with the intelligence to back it up. I recommend this for anyone who enjoys Christopher Moore or Tom Robbins.

Also, since I don’t want to repeat myself, see previous blog posts about these amazing 2016 reads:

Spill Simmer Falter Whither

When Captain Flint was Still a Good Man

The Lightkeepers 

The North Water

A Gentleman in Moscow

Commonwealth – Ann Patchett

I’ve never read Ann Patchett before. Actually, I lie. I tried to read Bel Canto and didn’t finish it. I think now I know why. Given the five-star reviews I see everywhere and the deluge of praise on all my social media apps, my review here won’t be popular.

Commonwealth commonwealthhad an interesting premise: guy crashes an acquaintance’s christening party, flirts with the acquaintance’s wife, and begins an affair with her. Divorce is inevitable, families are ripped apart. As a reader, you think: here it comes! But really, not so much. The two families kinda, sorta work it out, the kids spend time with both families, everything seems to settle down. Yawn.

The story, surprisingly, wasn’t boring. This ability of the reader to stay focused and not indulge in mind-wandering or paragraph-skimming is undoubtedly due to Patchett’s skill. In the hands of a lesser writer I would have bailed on the book about 1/3 of the way in, but Patchett manages to make the story interesting, perhaps because the reader is led to believe that more story is coming. The thing is though, it never shows up.

There were so many characters: the four divorced parents, all their children (were there six of them?), the spouses of subsequent marriages, and then, later, the kids from those other spouses. I honestly needed a kinship chart. I could barely remember which kid went with which parent.

I did appreciate the themes explored here: divorce, and its effect on the kids once they were adults; the sadness of aging, ailing parents; the nagging lack of self-respect if your career peters out. The main protagonist, Franny, was sympathetic, and I could relate to her.

This depth of human empathy, however, does not make up for the lack of story. There’s a tragedy, but it doesn’t have the impact I’d hoped for. The tragedy is told in retrospect, which moves the reader a step away from feeling anything. This event could have been powerful; this unexpected moment could have made me invested in these characters. Instead, all I think is, “Oh, so that’s what happened. Okay.”

There is no Big Reveal, no Huge Family Argument, no Gasp of Denouement. It just peters out with a shrug of “yep, that’s my family.” Eh.

I’m not giving up on Ann Patchett, though. I’m having another go at Bel Canto. She is such a great novelist that I know there’s another book out there of hers that I’ll love.