Soulmates by Jessica Grose

soulmates-jessica-groseI was interested in this book because I spotted the word thriller in the jacket copy and I was familiar with the author’s journalism in all sorts of places. I was even more interested when I found out the story is about a young lawyer investigating her estranged husband’s death outside a new age retreat in northern New Mexico: I figured the setup was sinister despite the sort of satirical spin the book starts with (the main character finds out her husband is dead in a headline beginning “Namaslay.” Ultimately, the shift in the book at the halfway mark made it very obvious this really wasn’t the kind of investigation I was looking for, and I ultimately wound up not a fan of the book since I was expecting more of a plot-driven ride instead of a book that, all in all, feels like an expose of a utopian yoga commune.

Here is what the book does well: it captures the emotional state of a woman left by her husband as he went off to lead his spiritually actualized life under the thumb of a guru named Yoni Brooks. The psychological portrait of the woman left behind trying to make sense of her life is the most vivid part of the story. When Dana,  our main character, goes to New Mexico to retrace her husband’s last days, it’s obvious that plot is not the strong  suit of the book. Dana stumbles across her ex-husband’s self-help pamphlet that describes the demise of his marriage, and instead of the book focusing on the investigating and the hunt for answers, it feels like the information magically appears in Dana’s lap. There aren’t really many tense interviews in the book. There aren’t a lot of showdowns in the book. Instead there are people who end up unburdening themselves, and there are some things about Dana making progress in letting go of her anger, but the drive as to finding out the mystery isn’t there. It’s an unexpected shift, and the ending is a bit creepy, but ultimately I’m dissatisfied because I feel duped by the jacket copy and the opening chapter.

I’ve noticed quite a lot of skewering of new-age gurus in what I’ve been reading lately. Unlike the Margaret Millar and Emma Straub books this reminds me of, this book, in contrast, gets into the psychology of why someone would get into the group, and it’s the uncomfortable most of all.

Soulmates by Jessica Grose

HarperCollins, September 2016

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Searching for John Hughes by Jason Diamond

searching-john-hughesThis book didn’t live up to my expectations. I expected the search for John Hughes to be more about Hughes than about the author. I thought it would be more reportage than a memoir, and a pretty harrowing memoir at that. And ultimately I felt disappointed from this turning into a book I wasn’t expecting, and I felt a bit like a gawker at a memoir about a horrible childhood.

Look, I enjoy some meta stories or films, but writing about being stuck is difficult for me to read. Diamond spends so much time establishing why he liked Hughes movies (escapism set in the same neck of the Chicago suburbs as he lived in) and so much time being depressed and trying to write that the arc felt off. There is redemption: he gets mental health treatment, he finds love, he finishes some sort of book, but the actual resolution felt rushed. He never actually meets John Hughes, there is no actual thinkpiece about Hughes buried in this memoir. There are some false starts to a thinkpiece about John Hughes, but not much. It felt short, like the conceit was not that revelatory.

It suffered from the same problem I found in  Middlesex: Diamond, like Eugenides, skipped over the hard parts of grappling with his issues via therapy and medication. How that works, even if idealized or shortened in a novel, would be great.

Searching for John Hughes by Jason Diamond

William Morrow, November 2016

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

 

No Echo by Anne Holt

No echoI was disappointed with this entry in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series. The investigation was too bogged down, and the police procedural elements were so thorough or in such long chapters as compared to the brisk short chapters in the rest of the book that the book didn’t flow for me.

No Echo deals with the murder of a celebrity chef, Brede Ziegler. He remains a cipher through much of the book (he’s the man with “no echo”), and I never felt really intrigued by him, which I was the main reason I was lukewarm about the book. This book also featured Billy T. taking the lead for Hanne Wilhelmsen, who was on leave of absence for several months as the book begins, and while I appreciate the plot point of Billy T floundering without his mentor and best friend Wilhelmsen, Holt laid it on pretty thick in this story. I don’t like being overwhelmed with the details of a police investigation when the investigation flounders for such a long time.

What else? A couple characters felt like caricatures to me, and the plot seemed to depend on clues dropped in mysteriously from above instead of being uncovered organically.  The last book was so good that any follow up would pale in comparison, but this one just didn’t do it for me.

No Echo by Anne Holt and Berit Reiss-Andersen, translated by Anne Bruce

Originally published as Uten ekko (2000)

Hanne Wilhelmsen book 6

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

 

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

couple next door picA new-to-me author’s take on domestic suspense which ultimately didn’t take off for me.

I tried this book because I’m willing to try new authors and curious about what kind of domestic suspense is being published now. Ultimately, this book didn’t take off for me because it felt like too many twists and too many secrets for these characters to be believable, but I can see why people would race through this kind of book.

The Couple Next Door has a high concept: a baby disappears during a dinner party. The child is asleep next door while the neighboring couples spend the evening together, complete with baby monitor and regular visits to check on the young child. It’s a thriller with a movie-like set-up, and from there, the plot is brisk and predictable in that it’s littered with twists. This is a downfall of the “time left” clock on my Kindle. I knew how long the twists would keep coming because I knew how much time I had left in the book.

The plot starts abruptly. I didn’t really get a feel for the characters in the beginning, and I definitely didn’t grow to understand them more as I went along. Unfortunately, they seemed more like a collection of secrets and lies than real people to me. And the other thing that bothered me about the book was that there wasn’t much left to the imagination: lots of scenarios were spun out explicitly, which takes away from the fun of some of the plot. I much preferred Sinead Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? for a smart take on a mother with a baby/ domestic suspense story. There was a greater level of dread and more realistic characters than in this one.

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

Pamela Dorman, August 2016

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Not What I Expected: Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman

wilde lake 2My experience of reading Wilde Lake was a mixed one. I adored the first hundred pages, and I even went to so far to tell people to read it on the basis of the beginning alone. It’s so specific about growing up in a planned suburb in the 1970s that I  was fascinated. Now that I’m finished, there’s so much that bothers me about it, and it mainly has to do with the two main pleasures I look for in a crime novel: there’s some clarity about what happened, or there’s a thrilling chase or setpiece or two that keeps me interested. I think the openness of the ending, which wasn’t a total openness, to be fair, was what bothered me the most.

The Laura Lippman standalones I’ve read tend to deal with past timelines being uncovered in the present. Wilde Lake is no different: the intersecting timelines circle around Lu Brant, the first female state’s attorney in Howard County who prosecutes her first murder case as an elected official. The past storyline involves her older brother who accidentally killed someone when he was a teenager and when their father was state’s attorney. Lu is 10 years old in the bulk of the past storyline, so her memories are not reliable because of the significant passage of time.

Why I liked the beginning: the book is like an update to To Kill a Mockingbird. Lu is a tomboy, her mom is dead, her dad is a prosecutor instead of a defense attorney. She’s wily. She’s trying to figure out her dad and her much older brother. They live in Columbia MD, a suburban dream of equality and egalitarianism halfway between Baltimore and Washington DC, and the political and suburban planning theories sounded great.

But there’s not a lot of forward momentum. What I ended up feeling is that everyone was hiding sordid parts of their past, and there was no resolution for most of the characters. And it ended with Lu alone, out of a job, and a father heading towards death. I’m not sure her goal of writing down her family’s secrets for her young children would really explain her family to them. People lie, people feel guilty, and the legal system can’t expose the truth necessarily. It may be a truthful book, but it left me in an odd place. I’m not saying all crime novels need to be a bit more thriller-like or resolve more issues/ more details about a crime, but those are two things that I like in a crime novel. I’m not as up-in-arms about this ending as, say, I was bothered by In the Woods by Tana French, but I’m feeling dissatisfied.

I borrowed this book from the library.

 

I’m Back to Reading Dramedy

1503935248.01._SX142_SY224_SCLZZZZZZZ_I’ve been reading a lot of non-crime novels lately, and I’ve tried an awful lot of books that I like to call dramedy– the novelistic equivalent of tv shows I gravitate to like Parenthood. My favorite dramedy of the batch I’ve read this summer is In Twenty Years by Allison Winn Scotch.

It’s a book about a reunion of college friends as they approach 40, and it’s organized by their friend who died over 10 years ago. It made me weepy in spots, and I was invested very early on in these characters. There’s something about stories about groups of friends that hits me not only because of course, I had a good group of friends in college and it’s hard to maintain those friendships as you move apart and become adults. It’s also a book where everyone is having a crisis of sorts, professionally, personally, and that feels true. And to be honest, it’s nice to read about someone else’s problems instead of dwelling on my own.

But what makes this book stand out for me is that holy moly is there ever catharsis. The plot builds into absurdity, and laughing while crying was great while I read this book. I’ve read all of Allison Winn Scotch’s books, I believe, and this one feels like a big step forward.

first comes loveI also read the new Emily Giffin, First Comes Love. which was about adult sisters who are still coming to terms with their brother’s death 10 years before. It’s a very talk-y, dialogue-heavy book, and I would have appreciated a bit of a narrator more, I think. Giffin’s male characters tend to be idealized, and this book is no exception. I liked if fine, but it didn’t have the emotional heft of the Scotch book for me.

Disclosure: I received review copies from the publishers.

How to Be a Person in the World by Heather Havrilesky

how to be a person in the worldI grew up with Dear Abby, and that started my love of advice columns. While I don’t read advice columns every day in the newspaper anymore, I’m partial to Ask Polly.  It’s a sort of existential advice column, not quite as sweet as Dear Sugar, but it’s intensely empathetic. Covering such topics as friends, romantic relationships, career, and getting your shit together personally, Polly’s voice is sometimes profane and deeply sympathetic. It’s like therapy or self-help from someone who’s been in the trenches, and it’s honest.It’s a book that I dipped in and out of, and it made me cry in parts and yell, “Hell, yes!” in parts. I’m buying this book for lots of people.

 

How to Be a Person in the World by Heather Havrilesky

Doubleday, July 2016

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

 

Dead Joker by Anne Holt

dead joker

Anne Holt’s characters and plots make her one of my favorites: fast-paced stories with a social conscience and a memorable lesbian detective.

Dead Joker is a downer. Hanne Wilhelmsen is going through personal and professional burnout, and it’s rough going. The book starts with a decapitation (most Holt books aren’t so gruesome at the beginning) and turns from murder to other disturbing crimes that could feel overwhelming, but Holt is so good at pacing and fleshing out her characters that I didn’t feel overburdened by everything in the story that could be too much. I know it’s hard to write something that proceeds at such a clip when it could have felt even heavier given the subject matter. Short chapters help, and spending time with all of her main characters over the length of a substantial book helps too.

Dead Joker is a police and legal procedural with a cast of characters who’ve developed over the series: Hakon and Karen the lawyers and Billy T. and Hanne the detectives. If you haven’t read earlier books in the series, you may not feel as invested in the characters, but on the other hand, this book summarizes lots of the earlier books as well so a new reader doesn’t miss out on crucial plot developments. Holt spends plenty of time with other characters too, and the decline of the prosecutor accused of murderer was very vivid. Other characters are a bit more of a mystery (Billy T.), but I assume he’ll take the lead in another book instead.

My review is a little vague to counterbalance the copy on the back of the book that gives away practically everything. This book is for fans of the series, most of all, and it feels like a sort of summing up of Hanne’s career in the police. It looks like there are just a three more books to be published in English: No Echo, Beyond the Truth, and Offline. I will track them down.

Dead Joker by Anne Holt, translated by Anne Bruce

Originally published as Død joker, 1999

This edition: Corvus, 2015

I bought my copy of the book

He Who Fears the Wolf by Karin Fossum

he who fears the wolfEveryone just read Karin Fossum already.

It took me until book 3 in the Inspector Sejer series by Karin Fossum to be a convert, but now I am. As the book started in the head of a schizophrenic young man having horrifying visions, I wasn’t sure what I was in for. Thankfully it’s not gruesome book, but it is one that hit me.

The story is dominated by Errki, the schizophrenic young man from the first chapter and Morgan, the bank robber who takes him hostage. Sejer is tied to the bank robbery investigation because he was in the bank right before it happened, but his work is dominated by the murder investigation into an older woman living in a remote mountain hut who is found murdered by a young juvenile delinquent named Kannick who found her while escaping to practice archery, his obsession.

He Who Fears the Wolf is kind of an atypical crime novel in that the police procedural is not so dominant. In fact, I may know more about how tracking dogs work than how the police work after reading this book. The story takes place over a day, and most of the time is spent with the bank robber, his hostage, and the young man who discovered the murder victim. It reminds me a bit of a Laura Lippman books that way, but in Fossum’s case, there’s even less a police presence.

This book sticks with me. Fossum humanizes everyone in this story, which is remarkable, especially given the relatively short length of the book. Fossum is also interested in bigger issues, like mental illness and crime, and while she addresses them in speeches by Errki’s psychiatrist Dr. Struel, it felt just a bit on the nose.  How the crimes and their aftermaths unfolded felt overwhelmingly sad to me. And Sejer’s grief about his wife hit me as well.

He Who Fears the Wolf by Karin Fossum, translated by Felicity David

Originally published as Den som Frykter ulven

Harvest/Harcourt, 2006

I bought my copy of the book.

Finishing Up Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years Trilogy

golden ageI stayed up late this holiday weekend finishing up Golden Age, the last book of Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years Trilogy. It’s a sign that I liked the book and that I was involved in the book, but now that I’ve had time to reflect, I feel myself dissatisfied with it. Like I said in my review of the previous book, there were too many characters (sounds like a silly criticism, but I’ll explain more) and the plot felt a little too much like Forrest Gump. It’s hard to suspend my disbelief over three books when this admittedly sprawling family is somehow connected to so many key events/themes (Vietnam, the Middle East, 9/11, the financial crisis, climate change/disruption).

First, it’s been over a year since I read book 2 and it took me quite a bit of time to get family relationships and character names down. Smiley has said that the trilogy is really one big book, and there’s no way to jump into this book without having read the previous ones. Even having read the earlier books, I would have appreciated a color-coded genealogical chart: it would have been clearer than the detailed family tree in the book. Even when I felt more comfortable with my recollection about the characters’ lives in earlier books, the pacing of the story (each chapter covers one year) meant that Smiley had to skip over some characters for years at a time in order to stick to her structure.

Another note on characters: I’m still not enamored of her focus on the antiheroes in the Langdon family, Frank and his son Michael. I have a low tolerance for jerks, even if one of the points of the story was to show the effect of jerks on the people around them. But there were plenty of non-jerky characters, and several of their death-scenes hit me hard

Plot-wise, I was also disappointed because the environmentalist message that’s so explicit at the end of the book after being an undercurrent in the rest of the series just felt odd. Mixing a family saga with muckraking felt discordant here. I would have loved just a straight-up muckraking piece instead. It was a story about generations of Iowa farmers: she could have scrapped lots of other plots for the environmentalist ones!

Anyway, the trilogy is an interesting set of books with some elements that nagged at me.

I reviewed the rest of the trilogy here:

  1. Some Luck
  2. Early Warning

I bought my copy of the book.