Friday, November 4, 2016

October Reads

Loner: A Novel by Teddy Wayne

Synopsis: David Federman has never felt appreciated. An academically gifted yet painfully forgettable member of his New Jersey high school class, the withdrawn, mild-mannered freshman arrives at Harvard fully expecting to be embraced by a new tribe of high-achieving peers. Initially, however, his social prospects seem unlikely to change, sentencing him to a lifetime of anonymity.

Then he meets Veronica Morgan Wells. Struck by her beauty, wit, and sophisticated Manhattan upbringing, David becomes instantly infatuated. Determined to win her attention and an invite into her glamorous world, he begins compromising his moral standards for this one, great shot at happiness. But both Veronica and David, it turns out, are not exactly as they seem.

Loner turns the traditional campus novel on its head as it explores ambition, class, and gender politics. It is a stunning and timely literary achievement from one of the rising stars of American fiction.

My take: Wow! The unreliable narrator of this novel sucks you into his fever hot delusions almost until the end. The story is not a new one, as so many critical reviews point out. What is fresh and exciting is how David Federman remains a fairly sympathetic character until almost the end of the novel. Yes, he does despicable things; but I rather identified with the gifted social outcast's impulses and forgave him. Who hasn't Face-stalked someone, if not quite to the degree Federman does? Who hasn't found significance in some throw-away social interaction with a someone you had a crush on? Who hasn't sat at the loser table because there was no other place for you? And above all, who hasn't experienced some shift in your daily existence (something far less than life-changing than leaving the Jersey suburbs for the prestige of Harvard) and imagined an opportunity to reinvent yourself or (at the very least) to be recognized for the talent you know you have? C'mon. Admit it.

Yes, I admit the last couple of chapters seem to wind things up a bit too tidily and go on a bit too long. Wayne could have ended the novel before the lengthy explanation of what happened afterwards, and we would have all been satisfied. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this novel.

The Killing Lessons: A Novel by Saul Black

Synopsis: When the two strangers turn up at Rowena Cooper's isolated Colorado farmhouse, she knows instantly that it's the end of everything. For the two haunted and driven men, on the other hand, it's just another stop on a long and bloody journey. And they still have many miles to go, and victims to sacrifice, before their work is done.

For San Francisco homicide detective Valerie Hart, their trail of victims—women abducted, tortured and left with a seemingly random series of objects inside them—has brought her from obsession to the edge of physical and psychological destruction. And she's losing hope of making a breakthrough before that happens.

My take: The opening chapter was practically perfect for a crime thriller. It was horrific, unusual, and made you want to read more. Based on it, I bought the book, which quickly dissolved into a hot mess.

The biggest problem was the perpetual head hopping, and some of the heads just weren't that interesting. The most boring heads belonged to Valerie Hart (the detective), the so-called psychopath, and the psychopath's assistant. Hart is the too predictable and troubled, hard-drinking, makes-bad-choices-and-loses-her-one-true-love detective that haunts about 80% of crime novels. The psychopath and his assistant are a little too easily pigeon-holed. No David Federmans here.

The plot is clunky, and there's a weird revenge thing going on between Harper and another agent. I'm sure it's there to increase the tension, but it doesn't. It sort comes out of nowhere and goes to the same place without adding a jot of tension.

In short, don't be taken in by the perfect beginning. Find something that lives up the promise of the first chapter.

Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst

Synopsis: From the New York Times bestselling author of The Dogs of Babel, a taut, emotionally wrenching story of how a seemingly "normal" family could become desperate enough to leave everything behind and move to a "family camp" in New Hampshire--a life-changing experience that alters them forever.

How far will a mother go to save her family? The Hammond family is living in DC, where everything seems to be going just fine, until it becomes clear that the oldest daughter, Tilly, is developing abnormally--a mix of off-the-charts genius and social incompetence. Once Tilly--whose condition is deemed undiagnosable--is kicked out of the last school in the area, her mother Alexandra is out of ideas.

The family turns to Camp Harmony and the wisdom of child behavior guru Scott Bean for a solution. But what they discover in the woods of New Hampshire will push them to the very limit. Told from the alternating perspectives of both Alexandra and her younger daughter Iris (the book's Nick Carraway), this is a unputdownable story about the strength of love, the bonds of family, and how you survive the unthinkable.

My take: I loved Dogs of Babel, so I was pretty excited about Harmony. Pairing autism and cults, two  flash point issues of our time, promised to knock the story out of the ball park.

For the most part, the novel delivered.  The mother really resonated with me. What mother hasn't been pushed to the point of no return and then did something regrettable that she might not do under any other circumstances? Desperate times, makes people do desperate things, so yeah, totally believable. The Tilly POV ranks right up there with Benjy in Faulkner's Sound and Fury when it comes to capturing the thought processes of an idiot savant.  Iris? Well, Iris is serviceable.

For the first three-quarters of the book, I went along for the ride. Parkhurst did a masterful job of creating doubts about Camp Harmony from the get go, and the chapters about family life with Tilly captured both the humor and the despair. It's when things start to fall apart that the book experienced its weakest moments. While Parkhurst did a great job in  showing us why people might follow Scott to Harmony, his unraveling feels a bit trite and comes too fast in a denouement that isn't set up well. Remember Checkov's dramatic principle?
Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.
Scott's fall in Harmony has the exact opposite problem. There's no gun, not even a shelf. It feels contrived. Still, there's a lot to chew on, and you wouldn't be wasting your time if you read Harmony.

The Call by Peadar O'Guilin

Synopsis: You have three minutes to save your life . . .


You wake up alone in a horrible land. A horn sounds. The Call has begun.


The Sidhe are close. They're the most beautiful and terrible people you've ever seen. And they've seen you.


Nessa will be Called soon. No one thinks she has any chance to survive. But she's determined to prove them wrong.


Could you survive the Call?

A genre-changing blend of fantasy, horror, and folklore, The Call won't ever leave your mind from the moment you choose to answer it.

My take: I am usually not a big fan of novels about the Fae. They often seem either trite or precious. The books remind me of a story I've read about a million times before. Yet, I really liked The Call.

If I had to pitch it, I'd say something like:
A fresh take on YA dystopia when a disabled person goes to a dark version  of Hogwarts to prepare for a supernatural Hunger Games and finds herself in the middle of Lord of the Flies. 
The writing is good; the author knows his Irish mythology; the characters work. I was hooked from beginning to end. If you're a fan of horror, YA dystopia, or mythological twists, read this book NOW!

The Graces by Laure Eve

Synopsis: When a glamorous family of teenage witches brings a mysterious new girl into their fold, they unwittingly nurture a powerful black magic that could destroy them all. This paranormal YA fantasy features intrigue, spells, and a devastating twist. In The Graces, the first rule of witchcraft states that if you want something badly enough, you can get it . . . no matter who has to pay.

My take: A kinder and gentler version of Stephen King's Carrie? It felt a bit like that. Whereas Carrie goes out in a blaze of glory, the protagonist of this story inflicts a million paper cuts.

The protagonist, River, is an interesting unreliable character, but there are just too many "I've seen this all before" moments for that to save the novel from being sort of meh.

Mischling by Affinity Konar

Synopsis: Pearl is in charge of: the sad, the good, the past.

Stasha must care for: the funny, the future, the bad.

It's 1944 when the twin sisters arrive at Auschwitz with their mother and grandfather. In their benighted new world, Pearl and Stasha Zagorski take refuge in their identical natures, comforting themselves with the private language and shared games of their childhood.

As part of the experimental population of twins known as Mengele's Zoo, the girls experience privileges and horrors unknown to others, and they find themselves changed, stripped of the personalities they once shared, their identities altered by the burdens of guilt and pain.

My take:  This book is on a gazillion must-read lists, probably due to the subject matter. Mischling means of mixed blood, and the two narrators are Jewish identical twins who have blonde (Aryan) hair. In this case, the narrator uses mischling to refer to herself as the hybrid creature Mengele makes her into, although it cannot quite shed its original meaning as a Nazi term.

Mischling does a yeoman's job of describing Mengele's Auschwitz, but overall I found it disappointing. Not because I found it too brutal or horrifying, as many reviewers did, or unbelievable. Compared to other books about the Holocaust, Mischling is fairly mild.

I just didn't find the characters particularly compelling despite the circumstances. Their character-arc is pretty much a flat-line. I suppose some might say there was some insights about the beast inside us all or the resiliency of the human spirit. I'm not saying that. Kosar relied too much on the situation and not enough on the story or the journey.

Some reviews call Mischling a dark fairy tale that casts the light on a particularly gruesome aspect of our collective past. It does that, but not as well as some of the survivor stories, no matter how beautiful Kosar's prose is.