A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

little lifeA Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Doubleday, March 2015

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

I read and was impressed by A Little Life, a very brutal and long story that’s been getting lots of coverage in blogs and mainstream media outlets. I tend to miss the big books, both because of size and because I’m a little leery about overly-hyped books, but I’m glad I read this one. You have to be prepared for lots of violence and repetition over the significant length of the book, though.

A Little Life begins as a story about four friends, all male, who meet in college, and who all have great ambitions in their artistic or legal careers. After an extensive opening section with the four characters finishing college and beginning their lives in New York City, the character of Jude, with a mysterious past that damaged him physically and psychically (he has a pronounced limp and is intensely reticent of his past before he began college at age 16), becomes the focus.

I’m not the first to mention that the book is a bit of a fairy tale: lots of horrible things happen to the main characters, and lots of fantastically good things happen to the characters. There isn’t much middle ground. It’s a bit odd to read a book that feels unrealistic in this way.

My biggest criticism of the book is that  it’s maddening to read such a long book that could be reduced to the subtitle: Complex PTSD, the Novel. Jude is so damaged and so unwilling to grapple with his abusive past, that his adulthood is almost more painful than what actually happened to him. I read somewhere else that Yanagihara wanted to make a point about the limits of male friendship: Jude and his friends don’t get him to grapple with his past, and it seriously stymies their lives and their friendships. That’s well and good, but using the vehicle of this lengthy novel to make that point feels a bit like overkill. I may be missing something about the art of melodrama or critics calling it the great American gay novel because of its reliance on melodrama, but I think a book half of the size could have been just as effective and make the same points about Jude and his friends.

Finally, I want to dig into my disappointment with this book a bit further. Of course part of the draw of this book is trying to understand a character like Jude who in some ways overcomes a truly horrendous childhood filled with abuse and exploitation, and I feel like a get part of the story. In the last few months I watched a documentary called Family Affair by Chico Colvard that also addressed coping with childhood abuse and trauma, and that felt more rounded an approach to the issue. I also remember being disappointed by Middlesex when Eugenides left out lots of the story about the hermaphrodite Callie as she grew up. I think both Eugenides and Yanagihara are skipping out on research or something. 

Additional pieces about this book that I found interesting include this piece in Vulture about Yanagihara’s inspirations for the novel, Garth Greenwell’s piece in The Atlantic about this novel as the great American gay novel, and finally, an ambivalent piece about the book by Lydia Kiesling in The Millions.

 

 

A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine, My #1987book

fatal inversion

A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine

Bantam, September 1987

I borrowed my copy from the library.

A Fatal Inversion is my first Barbara Vine (and I’ve only read one Ruth Rendell that I remember- sort of: From Doon with Death). I figured it would be a good pick for me because I read that this book was heavy on psychological suspense, and it popped up on a list of Top 100 Crime Novels of the Century. Thankfully I agree with the awards and list accolades: A Fatal Inversion is a fine read that grows in my estimation the further I am from it.

The story takes place during an incredibly hot summer in 1976 in England at a country mansion that nineteen-year-old Adam inherited from his great-uncle after his first year at university. He spends the summer with a small group of friends and acquaintances, and the book focuses on three main perspectives: Adam, his friend Rufus, and their new acquaintance Shiva.

The descriptions are very detailed, and the mood of the story from 1976 is quite hazy, lazy and sunny.

Adam closed his eyes and turned his head away from Anne. A down-stuffed duvet in a printed cotton cover lay over them. It had been a quilt at Ecalpemos, faded yellow satin, brought in by Vivien from the terrace when the rain began. Quilts were what you lay on to sunbathe that summer, no for warmth on beds, but slung for lounging comfort as it might be on some Damasene rooftop. Night after night they had lain out there in the soft, scented warmth, looking at the stars, or lighting candles stuk in Rufus’s wine bottles, eating and drinking, talking, hoping, and happy. That summer–there had never been another like it, before or since (p. 57).

The story begins with the discovery of human skeletons in a pet cemetery at said country mansion in 1987, and the story about Adam in 1976 will eventually tell what happened and whose skeletons were discovered over 10 years later.  It’s obvious early on who is guilty, but Vine doles out details of the complete story in the past quite slowly– and effectively– to make this a very involving read. She has a lot to say about guilt and degrees of guilt, and it would make for a great book club discussion.

You have to be able to stand self-involved young adults to be able to get into this story, and thankfully this feels like a condensed, creepy version of The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I much preferred this book to the Tartt. The story is heartbreaking, the plotting is insanely good, and the ending is so apt. I love the ending. It’s really a masterful story.

Thanks to Rich at Past Offences for hosting this monthly Crimes of the Century reading challenge. I’ve picked a lot of female writers I hadn’t read much of before, and I’ve been pretty excited by all of them (du Maurier, Allingham, and Highsmith).

 

 

 

 

In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

unlikely eventIn the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

Knopf, June 2015

I borrowed the book from the library.

Some authors have earned such a tremendous amount of goodwill from me, I’m willing to try their new books even after a long gap. (But I’m not sure that I’m ready to read Go Set A Watchman.) I’m fairly certain I’ve read almost every Judy Blume novel since I was 9 or 10, and while I don’t remember her adult novels so clearly, her books for kids are super-memorable.

In the Unlikely Event is a story sort of based on Judy Blume’s life: she grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in the flight-path of Newark International Airport, in the 1950’s during the time of a major plane crash. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say as much because the cover is pretty on-the-nose.

Blume’s stand-in is Miri, a teenager living with her single mother and her grandmother in the apartment downstairs. There’s a large cast of characters surrounding Miri: her friends, her family, and several other people in Elizabeth, so there are stories about the plane crash from many perspectives. It’s a coming-of-age story with the background of dealing with a horrible plane crash in her neighborhood, and Blume’s strength is in creating realistic characters. Some aren’t totally fleshed out because her focus is on a teenage girl who doesn’t know everything about older people’s lives, but that’s not a problem with the story.

I really liked this book: I could tell that it was a story that wasn’t just dashed off, and it didn’t tell stories about a tragedy just for the sake of drama.

I’m counting this as my entry for New Jersey for the USA Fiction Challenge. It’s a reading challenge I’ve been neglecting this year, but I hope to make more progress before the end of the year.

 

 

Woman with Birthmark by Håkan Nesser

woman with birthmarkWoman with Birthmark by Håkan Nesser, translated by Laurie Thompson

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2009

Originally published as Kvinna med födelsemärke, 1996

It’s been over two years since I’ve read Nesser, and getting back to the Van Veeteren series was a delight. I know it sounds a bit off to call a book with multiple murders a delight, but I’ll try to explain. Parts of the story felt very familiar: first there’s an unhappy, lonely detective in an imaginary Scandinavian city, a team of police working a seemingly  impossible set of cases, and a strong social conscience, but the story gelled for me and is one of my favorite reads of the year.

Van Veeteren and his team investigate a series of murders of men killed the same way (shot in the chest and the groin), and the first half of the book is the search to find the link between the victims. The second half of the book is the chase, and it’s a truly sad ending for the victims and the perpetrator. I’m usually not fond of books with sections in the mind of the killer, but I didn’t mind it in this story. Nesser has such sympathy for the killer and the killer’s life that led her to her crimes: it was a very well-done story.

There’s a bit of an odd passage in the book that sounds a bit like the fact that I feel a bit ambivalent about enjoying this book about horrible crimes: Beck at one point muses that he could have been a criminal because he enjoys hunting the killer as much as the killer must enjoy hunting his/her prey. As he gets closer to catching the killer, he is usually horrified by their motives and wonders what kind of society he lives in that breeds such criminals.  While I liked the book for the chasing-down-the-murderer plot, I was also impressed with how sympathetic Nesser made the killer. It was a tragic story.

I bought my copy of the book, and I have the next three books on my shelves. I’m very much looking forward to them.

 

 

Can Anybody Help Me? by Sinéad Crowley

can anybody help meCan Anybody Help Me? by Sinéad Crowley

Quercus, July 2015

Book 1 of Claire Boyd trilogy

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

I’ve been trying out quite a few new-to-me authors who are female in the past year, and I’ve specifically taken on old and new writers who write domestic suspense. I liked this book particularly because I liked the lead detective, Guard Claire Boyle, who is quite pregnant during the course of the novel.

Can Anybody Help Me? is a book about a series of murders committed against fellow members of an online parenting and pregnancy support group site netmammy. This particular brand of domestic suspense is quite claustrophobic or laced with a touch of post-partum depression with a number of characters navigating the world of new parenthood. I found the book to be a brisk read:  the parenting forums are quite familiar and feel real, there are a reasonable number of plot twists, and though I had a short list of suspects, it was still an enjoyable read.

Other reviews appear in Reviewing the Evidence and Crime Thriller Girl.

 

 

The Door by Mary Roberts Rinehart

crime bookThe Door by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Originally published 1930

This edition, The Mary Roberts Rinehart Crime Book, 1957

I’m trying to read older crime novels more frequently, and I’ve heard of Mary Roberts Rinehart in a few places. This is the least melodramatic of the covers of Rinehart books I picked up at a garage sale recently, and this particular story wasn’t so engrossing.  But given Roberts Rinehart’s huge output and the fact that I picked up a handful more of her books, I’m willing to try more of her books.

The Door is a quite melodramatic story about a significant number of murders in or near the home of spinster Elizabeth Jane Bell. The story is quite long, and the narration is quite matter of the fact. Elizabeth is honest from the beginning that the crimes she talks about are numerous and quite gruesome, but somehow the story didn’t feel like one that ratcheted up the spectacle too much. It’s a convoluted plot, and a week after I finished the book I’ve forgotten some of the details about motive, but it was an entertaining read. Maybe the length stands out to me because the story was originally serialized.

The book feels like a book of it’s era: it’s a bit casual about racism and sexism, and the main detail that makes it feel like an older book is that there’s a retired bootlegger living next door to Miss Bell. I’m looking for something that amps ump the “romance and intrigue” that so many of her book covers mention during my next Roberts Rinehart read.

roberts rinehart

Bev at My Reader’s Block also reviewed The Door. Here is a nice biographical piece about Roberts Rinehart: Mary Roberts Rinehart, America’s Agatha Christie, as well as a detailed post from Curtis at The Passing Tramp: Mary Roberts Rinehart,  Golden Age Crime Queen.

White Crocodile by K.T. Medina

white crocodileWhite Crocodile by K.T. Medina

Mulholland Books, June 2015

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

White Crocodile is one of my favorite books of the year, even though once I start writing this review it doesn’t sound like something I’d love.* Tess Hardy is a mine clearer who moves to Cambodia to work for the non-profit Mine Clearance Trust after several stints in the military. She starts to investigate a series of mysterious deaths that are not the accidents they seem to be, and in the meantime Medina covers Hardy and her colleague’s troubled backgrounds. Balanced with those stories are several detailed scenes about the logistics of mine-clearing and scenes from Battabang, a bustling city, and a rural village on the outskirts.

The story works because of Tess’s outsider perspective standing in for my own. I learned quite a bit about the complicated nature of NGOs working in Cambodia, and along the way there was a good plot. It wasn’t the most twisty thriller I’ve read, but it moved along.  This novel is much darker and much more troubling than what I can read regularly: the characters all have bleak lives to varying degrees.  But the writing is good, the characters almost entirely are complicated beings, and the pacing is superb.

I’m always glad to be surprised by a book that doesn’t seem to fit my reading interests. I was hesitant to read White Crocodile because I thought it would be too horrific, but I was incredibly impressed. A year ago I didn’t think I’d like the vaguely-fantastic Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes, and two years ago I didn’t expect to love the old protagonist of Norwegian by Night by Derek Miller, and both of those were some of my favorites of their respective years.