Friday, June 2, 2017

May Reads

I had a lot of trouble finding books to read this month. Well, not so much finding books, but finishing books, perhaps. I started several, intrigued by both the premise and the first chapter, which I read via Amazon's Look Inside feature. Somewhere around the third chapter, however, I lost interest in about five different books. Maybe I was just persnickety this month, or maybe it was something else.

As a writer, I am aware of how much emphasis agents and publishers place on the first sentence, the first paragraph, and the first chapter. I've been to enough workshops and talked to enough writers to know that these items consume a huge chunk of the time we spend writing novels. Sometimes, it seems that the rest of the book takes a back to seat to the "firsts." Writers who know me have heard me complain that the end of many current novels are often underwhelming and unsatisfying, as though the writer was too exhausted by the all important firsts to make the ending just as good as the beginning. This month seemed to move the problem forward to the middle of the novels.

Nonetheless, I managed to finish three books. So even while I might be critical, the novels were all well-written enough to propel me to the finishing line. Unlike the five who left me stranded a few feet from the starting gate.

American War by Omar El Akkad

Synopsis:  An audacious and powerful debut novel: a second American Civil War, a devastating plague, and one family caught deep in the middle—a story that asks what might happen if America were to turn its most devastating policies and deadly weapons upon itself.

Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, and that unmanned drones fill the sky. When her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she begins to grow up shaped by her particular time and place. But not everyone at Camp Patience is who they claim to be. Eventually Sarat is befriended by a mysterious functionary, under whose influence she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. The decisions that she makes will have tremendous consequences not just for Sarat but for her family and her country, rippling through generations of strangers and kin alike.

My take: When reviewers say this book reminds them of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, take them seriously. It has the same bleak, soul-chilling, worst-nightmare-you-ever-had about a dystopian future. If you ever stay up late talking with friends about climate change or wondering  about where the quest for oil will take our country, the results of the US leaving the Paris Accords, or how war creates terrorists, this book is for you.

The story of Sarat Chestnut is interpersed with reports and briefings on the Second American Civil War when four states secede. I suppose there might be a play on Mary Chestnut's Civil War Diary, but be assured this story is more brutal by far.  It starts with Sarat as a young girl in Louisiana, one of the states that seceded. A state you might not recognize on the map because climate change altered the eastern seaboard beyond recognition.

The first chapter covers the innocence that Sarat and her siblings lose with increasing brutality. It's nothing that is not already familiar, nothing you can't glean from the nightly news about how people learn to hate and kill one another. The main difference, of course, is this novel is set on American soil. 

The refugee camps and the wall that keeps the diseased citizens of Carolina in check are certainly reminiscent of what you read about Palestine and the Syrian refugee camps. El Akkad recreates the grim daily grind of regugees doing nothing as rumors of atrocities spread like wildfire. He exposes the hypocrisy of aid through the "gift ships" sent by the Red Crescent (yes, the Middle East has risen) filled with blankets that no one needs in the scorching climate of the new American South. It's the closest many of us have yet to come to the crisis that everyone is talking about.

As brutality after brutality  piles up, Sarat seemingly gives in to predestined hatred and revenge, and it's a journey that you might understand for the first time. This tale is a cautionary one, and I urge everyone to read it, think about it, and talk to your friends.

Everything You Want Me to Be: A Novel Mindy Mejia

Synopsis:  "Fans of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl will devour this fast-paced story.”—InStyle 

"Readers drawn to this compelling psychological thriller because of its shared elements with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012) will be pleasantly surprised to discover that Mejia’s confident storytelling pulls those themes into an altogether different exploration of manipulation and identity.” —Booklist (starred review)

2017’s Best Fiction Books —Bustle

12 Books Gone Girl Fans Should Have on Their Wish List —BookBub

No one knows who she really is…

Hattie Hoffman has spent her whole life playing many parts: the good student, the good daughter, the good girlfriend. But Hattie wants something more, something bigger, and ultimately something that turns out to be exceedingly dangerous. When she’s found brutally stabbed to death, the tragedy rips right through the fabric of her small-town community.

It soon comes to light that Hattie was engaged in a highly compromising and potentially explosive secret online relationship. The question is: Did anyone else know? And to what lengths might they have gone to end it? Hattie’s boyfriend seems distraught over her death, but had he fallen so deeply in love with her that she had become an obsession? Or did Hattie’s impulsive, daredevil nature simply put her in the wrong place at the wrong time, leading her to a violent death at the hands of a stranger?

Full of twists and turns, Everything You Want Me to Be reconstructs a year in the life of a dangerously mesmerizing young woman, during which a small town’s darkest secrets come to the forefront…and she inches closer and closer to death.

My take: OK, I get everyone wants the same success as Gone Girl, and  it's a recognizable title to reference.  But Hattie Hoffman is NO Amy Dunne. Not by a long shot. Yeah, she's a little bit scheming, but more in a teenage girl kind of way than a psychopathic kind of way. If I were to compare it to any recent book, I'd compare it Celeste's Ng's Everything I Never Told You, although it's not nearly as good. 

It's a fairly pedestrian crime novel with some of the worst characteristics of that genre, like unmitigated headhopping. It's hard to stifle my "willing suspension of disbelief" when the dead girl speaks as if she's still leaving during some of the head hops.  Although it might touch a little on teenage angst in the new age, Hattie's character has no real depth. In fact, there was no character arc for anyone, and the plot was fairly predictable.

It's an easy read, and you might want to grab it for the beach or the front porch when you have an afternoon to waste. 

Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth

Synopsis:  Fans of Star Wars and Divergent will revel in internationally bestselling author Veronica Roth’s stunning new science-fiction fantasy series.
On a planet where violence and vengeance rule, in a galaxy where some are favored by fate, everyone develops a currentgift, a unique power meant to shape the future. While most benefit from their currentgifts, Akos and Cyra do not—their gifts make them vulnerable to others’ control. Can they reclaim their gifts, their fates, and their lives, and reset the balance of power in this world?

Cyra is the sister of the brutal tyrant who rules the Shotet people. Cyra’s currentgift gives her pain and power—something her brother exploits, using her to torture his enemies. But Cyra is much more than just a blade in her brother’s hand: she is resilient, quick on her feet, and smarter than he knows.

Akos is from the peace-loving nation of Thuvhe, and his loyalty to his family is limitless. Though protected by his unusual currentgift, once Akos and his brother are captured by enemy Shotet soldiers, Akos is desperate to get his brother out alive—no matter what the cost. When Akos is thrust into Cyra’s world, the enmity between their countries and families seems insurmountable. They must decide to help each other to survive—or to destroy one another.

My take: I was a big fan of Divergent, also by Roth, and mildly enthusiastic about the other two books in that trilogy, so I knew I was going to read this book.  As with Divergent, Roth's world-building is top notch. Unlike Divergent, I don't feel compelled to read the second book because the world-building was the best thing about this book. It would have been great if Roth had put as much effort into character and plot development. Or any effort, really. Nor did it particularly remind of Divergent or Star Wars; it felt more like a YA version of Game of Thrones, just not as interesting.

To sum up my major issues: there are too many cardboard characters, and I kept having to think really hard about who these people were and why they were popping up in the story. Ditto, the places that are mentioned; the trip to the water planet seemed like filler or maybe an excuse to set up a scene that could have taken place anywhere. (Maybe I was just too bored at that point to see the significance of it all.) Finally, there were  some rather amateurish timeline issues and jumping between first and third person with no apparent reason.

However, the opening chapter was great, and that was what persuaded me to buy the book. If the remainder of the book had lived up to the first chapter, I would have been one happy camper.