Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock

alice oliverToday’s posts are about the latest batch of heavy-themed books I’ve read. First up is Alice & Oliver, a brutal and engrossing read about a young mother and fashion designer diagnosed with leukemia when her daughter was about 6 months old.  I have to psych myself up to read a book like this, or, say, watch a movie like Dead Man Walking, and ultimately I’m glad I read this but I’m not sure I’d read it again. I’m not sure I could take it, you know.

Anyway, Alice & Oliver is a cancer story that goes in depth into the treatment process/ protocol about 20 years ago. The sections of the book are divided into treatment steps as well as into Alice’s meditative steps as she copes with treatment and the prospect of dying. It’s also a story about Alice and Oliver’s relationship, their history in New York City, and the status of their relationship during many months of cancer treatment. Looking back at their pasts and Oliver’s tech start-up company are the only respites from the hard stuff in their story (there’s not a lot of black comedy), but somehow it was a fast read. I was drawn to the story because I don’t know the ins and outs of aggressive cancer treatments and because the main characters were so sympathetic. And sometimes I want to read something that will make me weep, and I was definitely a mess by the end of the book.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Multiple Listings by Tracy McMillan

multiple listingsOne of the things I’ve been reading lately is something I thing publishers should market as dramedys. It has less baggage than the term “chick lit,” and since the term has been around in the tv realm for awhile, why not use it in publishing too? Multiple Listings by Tracy McMillan is a dramedy written by someone who was a television writer on Mad Men and The United States of Tara, which made me think this would be my kind of book.

McMillan’s background in screenwriting meant I was expecting good characters and drama, and overall I wasn’t disappointed. Multiple Listings is the story of Nicki, a single mother who runs a successful home appraisal business who is at a relationship crossroads and then hits a family crossroads as her long-estranged father returns to her life.  McMillan gets the characters and the emotional beats of a distant family down. Frankly, the only character I felt was lacking fits the category I find in lots of books:  the nearly-perfect love interest who does no wrong sometimes feels like an afterthought of a character.

Overall, though, the characters felt like they were in a kind of indie movie that I like. Some troubles/ troubled people all together. The one thing I didn’t like was when the  self-help focus got a little too tell-y for me, but there was enough to balance out those sections that impressed me.

This book reminded me thematically of Kitchens of the Great Midwest, which tried to do more with structure (interlocking stories with characters in the same orbit) than this particular book did. I’m 24not sure why one book is marketed as more literary while this one is deemed more relationship-y, but why not just lump into the non-gendered term of dramedy? That’s my proposal.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Complicated Women

I’ve been thinking a lot about what The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl have done to the publishing landscape because I just finished two books with complicated/damaged/bad girl/bad ass heroines: The Passenger by Lisa Lutz and The Murderer’s Daughter by Jonathan Kellerman. On the one hand I’m grateful for interesting protagonists who are women, but on the other hand, I’ve read an awful lot books with women characters like these.

passengerThe Passenger is a very old-fashioned noir-movie-feeling kind of story told by Tanya, a woman on the run for 10 years that changes her identity quite a few times during the short book. Lutz jumps around in time and slowly reveals what happened about 10 years before the present when the main character first went on the lam. I kind of liked the spare narration, I kind of liked the odd steps along the way (she became a teacher in a remote Texas town), and I liked the ins and outs of transforming her appearance, but the plot reveals felt predictable to me just because I’ve read and seen a lot of noir like this.

murderers daughterThe Murderer’s Daughter, like The Passenger, involves some disguises (just like Elisabeth Salander) and a slow reveal of the main character’s backstory that led her from a very troubled childhood to being a super-successful therapist to post traumatic stress sufferers. It feels like a very Kellerman story because the psychologist’s training and the psychologist’s work feel real and very detailed, but the story went off the rails a bit for me at the end. The villain is super-heinous, the main character is super-heroic, but it’s kind of an empty ending.

Both stories felt like they were jamming a super-hero arc into it, Lutz’s by overcoming a lot of people who sent her on the lam and Kellerman’s by having a ridiculously over-the-top villain for the psychologist-turned-freelance-investigator to confront. I wish the last section of each book hadn’t been so over-the-top.

Disclosure: I received review copies from the publisher.

Dare Me by Megan Abbott

dare meDare Me might be the most noir thing I read this year. Unlike the last book I read where I was in the place of the outsider looking in, I was plunged into a contemporary world that felt familiar because it felt like the movie Heathers. Both the movie and this book have memorable teenage narrators. Dare Me is the story of a year in the life of 16-year-old Addy, who feels recognizably sardonic and clueless at the same time.

Addy is a cheerleader who is her longtime friend Beth’s lieutenant on the squad. Addy quickly becomes obsessed with their new coach, Coach French, and the plot kicks off when Coach’s lover apparently kills himself. Adding the noir feel, the death scene feels very much like a movie scene (maybe Blood Simple with the view from the ceiling fan). The mystery takes up as much space as the setpieces about difficult cheerleading routines: their physicality and their dangerousness. Just as the sport of cheerleading is fraught with danger, Addy’s closeness to Coach and her strained relationship with Beth are also menacing.

The parents are quite absent from this book: they are either divorced or remarried and in their own worlds. Coach French is the only adult throughout the story, along with her husband and a group of military recruiters that the teenagers and Coach French become involved with. It’s a story about huge teenage feelings/ obsessions, and it feels like melodrama.

The final section of the book is heartbreaking as the characters’ motivations/ motives are revealed, and while I wasn’t entirely surprised by them, they were still quite heartbreaking. There isn’t much hope at the end of the book, which is why I’m dubbing it the grimmest story I’ll probably read this year.

Finally, a couple random thoughts: first, I wasn’t enamored with the narrator in the audio version I had. Her voices grated on me occasionally. Next, I will say that this is my favorite Abbott book compared to her other teenage-girl novels, The End of Everything and The Fever. The tension felt higher, which is why I preferred it, I think.

I borrowed the audio version from the library.


Ask for Me Tomorrow by Margaret Millar

ask for me tomorrowI like Margaret Millar books because her characters are oddballs and because her stories are compact.

My self-imposed project to read through Margaret Millar continues, this time with the first in the Tom Aragon series, Ask for Me Tomorrow. He’s a young hispanic lawyer in Santa Felicia, Millar’s stand-in for Santa Barbara, and he’s hired by a middle-aged woman named Gilly to track down her first husband who disappeared with a young maid from their home a number of years ago.

It feels a lot like other Millars: there’s a strange-seeming religious group that Gilly’s cook belongs to, the Holy Sabbathians, very much like the the cult in How Like an Angel. There’s an outsider going into a strange world. Aragon is young, and first he’s an outsider at Gilly’s house with its array of hired help for her and her second husband, who suffered a stroke, and then in Baja, Mexico as he tracks down her first husband who spent time in the Rio Seco jail, a jail called the Quarry in a very smelly town. And finally, what makes this feel like other Millar books is her dialogue. There always seems to be something off in Aragon’s conversations: with his client Gilly, with the legal assistant in his office, with the people he meets in Rio Seco.

The characters are vivid oddballs, which makes this story stick with me. And she ends the story without a lot of telling, so pondering motives is what happened to me after I read the book.

I bought my copy of the book.

Recently Read: A Little True Crime, a Little Women’s Fiction

I’ve been reading more than just my favorite Swedish crime novelists in the last month. I’ve tried more than one true crime book and a new book by Elizabeth LaBan which I think gets categorized as women’s fiction. The result is that I want to get back to mysteries, I think: true crime makes me feel too much of a gawker, and this particular LaBan book made me yearn for a conflict that did not involve the two main characters not really communicating with each other.

good nurseMy latest true crime audiobook was The Good Nurse: A True Story of Madness, Medicine, and Murder by Charles Graeber. It’s about nurse Charles Cullen, who is allegedly the most prolific serial killer in the United States though he has admitted to a much smaller number of murders. He worked at a number of hospitals in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, left after suspicious incidents at a number of hospitals, and finally admitted to killing a number of patients at more than one hospital. The most in-depth part of the story was about what the hospitals did and didn’t do when they suspected Cullen of being connected to a number of deaths, not the story of why Cullen murdered so many patients. I skipped over a good chunk of the Afterword, which recounted the legal saga of Cullen trying to get permission to donate a kidney while he was in prison. It felt a bit too gawkerish to me. I basically turned to Wikipedia to find out if the donation went through and finished the book.

restaurant critics wifeAfter Cullen I needed to read a book without any murders, so I picked up The Restaurant Critic’s Wife by Elizabeth LaBan. It’s a book about a struggling mother adjusting to parenting two kids and moving to a new city where her husband, a newspaper restaurant critic becomes increasingly paranoid about preserving his and his wife’s anonymity. The setpieces of Sam, the critic, in disguise where in part fascinating and in part ridiculously funny, but ultimately I was frustrated with the conflict in the book boiling down to the couple not talking to each other. They talked around each other, and I tend to gravitate toward stories that do more than that.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of The Restaurant Critic’s Wife from the publisher.


Life and Other Near-Death Experiences by Camille Pagán

lifeLife and Other Near-Death Experiences by Camille Pagán

Lake Union Publishing, November 2015

Disclosure: I received a review copy from  the publisher.

I realize that I’ve been drawn to books with tragic themes lately. First Voices from Chernobyl, now this novel about cancer by Camille Pagán. I will say that this is not the tearjerker I was expecting, though it is that in part. It’s very funny in parts, and there’s a love story thrown in as well: all in all, it’s a book that surprised me in a lot of good ways.

Life and Other Near-Death Experiences is the story of Libby, a young woman who finds out she has a rare cancer the same day she finds out her long-time husband is gay, and she goes off the deep end for awhile. She’s funny, she’s brittle, she leaves for an impromptu trip to Puerto Rico to visit a place her mother, long dead of cancer, visited. Pagán is good at keeping the dialogue witty and Libby’s life interesting from the premise and the development. It’s not a book about a series of characters: it’s a first-person story told by Libby, and she’s definitely the most-rounded character. Her scenes with her brother are quite affecting, and Pagán in general gets the vulnerable moments down really well.

Finally, I feel calling this a cancer book is a bit misleading: this book is much more in the tradition of fiction with a flawed but engaging heroine. Yes, there’s personal development and therapeutic progress as she deals with her mother’s death. Yes, there’s romance. Yes, there’s a huge complication of cancer and an imploding marriage, but the elements work and I suspended my disbelief about Libby’s fugue after her cancer diagnosis.

Recommending first-person stories is a risky business. I really liked this one, and if you sample a few pages you’ll know if you’re in the mood for this one.

Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

mildred pierceMildred Pierce by James M. Cain

Originally published 1941

This edition: Vintage Books, 2011

I bought the book.

I picked this book to broaden my reading horizons and because I like the incentive of getting to watch a movie version or two. I’m pretty sure I haven’t read anything hardboiled from Cain, Hammett or Raymond Chandler, and I figured a book centering on a woman would be a little less annoying than others. I’m so far from annoyed: I really liked this odd novel which Wikipedia calls hardboiled and which I would call spare and quite bitter. It’s not a story that centers on a crime, though there is some crime.

This is a book about southern California during the Great Depression. The land dealings, the subdividing, the failing fortunes of Mildred’s husband and her lover Monte Bergaron, mudslides and more make it feel like a book about its time and place.

At the beginning of the book, Mildred splits from her husband the troubled real estate developer and has to figure out a way to support herself and her two daughters. I don’t come across books that go into such detail about money and running a business as this: there is lot of information about running a chicken-and-waffle place and a catering business. The story also follows Mildred and her romantic partners, and more importantly, her relationship with her daughter Veda. It’s probably the most dysfunctional mother and child pairing I’ve read about, and it’s quite gripping. You can tell this was written when psychoanalysis was in vogue. If you’re interested in the psychology of the book, I liked this post. 

The turnings of the plot weren’t the draw, though every third of the book seems to switch, which kept things interesting. It felt very open though Mildred held so much back: Cain was in her head.

I haven’t read anything quite like Mildred Pierce. It’s dark. It’s psychological. It’s about money and sex and thwarted ambition. It’s really quite remarkable.


Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

vanish instantVanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

Originally published 1952

This edition: International Polygonics Ltd, 1989

I borrowed this book from the library.

I’ve found the first Margaret Millar novel that didn’t quite work for me. I was still wrapped up in the plot and the characters and the writing, but it didn’t seem as brilliant as Beast in View, How Like an Angel, or The Fiend. I may be overly critical because the bar was so high after those three books, but I will say that this was loads better than lots of other stuff I’ve tried this year.

Vanish in an Instant begins as a story about a weird mother-daughter dynamic. Virginia is in jail for murdering her lover Claude, an older man with money, and the protagonist of the story is her defense lawyer Charles Meecham, hired by her wealthy and eccentric mother from California. The action takes place in a thinly-disguised Ann Arbor, Michigan, named here Arbana. Millar gets the wintry-ness of the setting down, and I’m assuming that’s because she grew up not far away in Kitchener, Ontario.

The story turns into a what-really-happened story when Meecham doubts the confession of a dying man, Earl Loftus, the day after he’s retained to represent Virginia. It turns into a kind of PI novel because Charles isn’t really on the case once Virginia is no longer a murder suspect. 10110Meecham is a bit of an outsider, not in the town, but outside the strange relationships in Virginia’s circle.

Millar is so good at painting desperate characters: that is what has stayed with me the most instead of the mechanics of the plot. Everyone feels a little bit off, which kept me reading. Everyone’s motive is called into question, which is suspenseful, but it got a little tiring. When everyone is lying, it feels like a bit much to me.

I have one more Millar waiting on my shelves, Banshee, but I think I’ll try some other classic crime author before I get back to her.


The Fiend by Margaret Millar

fiendThe Fiend by Margaret Millar

Originally published 1964

This edition: International Polygonics Library of Crime Classics, 1984

Source: I borrowed this from the library.

I’m continuing my haphazard tour through Margaret Millar, and this is a really good one though not my favorite. It’s a haphazard tour because most of her books are out-of-print so I’m reading what I can find for now.

Margaret Millar is getting lots of press lately because of her inclusion in Women Crime Writers of the 1940’s and 1950’s from the Library of America, and I’ll admit it’s one of the reasons I decided to try her in the first place.  I’m approaching her stuff as a crime fiction fan who’s not an expert in the history of the genre, but I will say that it’s obvious that her focus on psychology and suspense has influenced lots of the contemporary writers I read. Millar gets into the minds of her characters without writing chapters in alternating first-person narration, and it makes me like her books more. I tend to be very picky about first-person narrators. All of her characters are given depth, which is quite a feat. And she is pretty damn good at plotting, though that’s not the focus of this particular story.

If you can’t already tell from the on-the-nose-cover of this particular edition, The Fiend spends a lot of time with a character, Charlie Gowen, who is a convicted sex offender who is released from a psychiatric facility and appears to be close to re-offending. There are quite a few other fiendish or at least extremely unhappy characters in this novel, which happens to take place in the same San Felice (a stand-in for Santa Barbara) as part of the last Millar I read, How Like an Angel. Millar has a great deal of sympathy for Charlie, and she doesn’t sensationalize him or his brain’s workings, which is quite impressive. There are so many distressing things happening in the lives of these characters that it’s just one sad part of the story. Charlie discovers Jessie Brant, a nine-year-old girl, and her best friend Mary Martha Oakley on a school playground during his lunch hour. Mary Martha’s parents’ protracted custody battle, the Jessie’s parents’ marital troubles as well as the troubles of their next-door-neighbors frame this story. Millar obviously had marital discord and how young children interpret such discord among grown-ups on her mind, and it provides a fertile background to the story.

This book reminded me a great deal of Tom Perrotta’s Little Children in its focus on unhappy couples and a sex offender living in the neighborhood: the same sort of disappointment and paranoia suffuse this story. I think it’s probably uncommmon to write a book about sex offenders in the first half of the 1960’s. Because both Beast in View and How Like an Angel were so ingenious in their plotting, this book paled in comparison plot-wise. I didn’t mind though because the characters and their paranoia were so vivid.

I heartily recommend this book. Three Millars down, 24 more to go!

Other reviews appear in Tipping My Fedora and Ohlman’s Fifty.