mini-reviews: fates and furies and before the fall

I’ve been so engrossed in non-fiction the last few months that I decided I should read some fiction that’s been on my shelf and neglected for far too long. I had really been looking forward to these two dramatic stories, only to end up somewhat disappointed in the end.

I read Lauren Groff‘s Arcadia a few years ago and absolutely loved it, so I was really excited to get Fates and Furies right when it came out. Of course and uncommonly, I set it on the shelf and promptly forgot about it. I wish I had added this to my TBR Pile Challenge! Unfortunately, Fates didn’t work for me as well as Arcadia. Fates is the story of Lotto and Mathilde, a couple who married spontaneously and faced challenges through their decades-long union, some typical and some extraordinary. I liked that the book was split in half and readers got to hear both “sides” of the story, first from Lotto and second from Mathilde. Groff is also a beautiful writer. Some of the prose is just stunning and a pleasure to take in. I think she’s very inventive and imaginative with her characters as well. As for those characters, I personally wasn’t crazy about them. Not that characters have to be likable for me to like the book. In this case, I guess I’m not really into stories of privileged elites right now, or of successful men carried by women. The names were just awful too, Lotto (short for Lancelot), Chollie?? Lotto and his sister call their mother “Muvva.” I thought at first Chollie and Muvva were just the accent of the narrator but nope. Ugh. Pretentious. Well they are pretentious characters. There is a composer character in the book whose portrayal I completely hated and wasn’t even a shred of close to realistic. I get that the book is supposed to sort of be Greek mythology but it was just too much for me. Mathilde had a very compelling story though, I really enjoyed her part and perspective, which is the “furies” second part of the book. I’m sure this kind of epic character-driven drama full of secrets is right up some readers’ alleys, just not mine. I’d still like to read more by Groff though! [Listened to audiobook in June 2018.]

I ordered Before the Fall by Noah Hawley right after it was released because I’m a huge fan of the TV show Fargo, for which he is a producer. The premise is great: a private plane carrying eleven people—a Fox News-esque mogul, his family, and their security guard; a rich couple; the crew of 3; and an artist—crashes off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard shortly after takeoff. 40-something artist Scott survives the crash, and rescues one of the children, the four-year-old son of the TV mogul. Everyone else perishes. The book alternates between Scott dealing with the event’s aftermath, being an unwilling hero figure in the spotlight, and backstories on each of the plane passengers. How did the plane crash when all systems checked out before takeoff? What happened? Why? Was there a conspiracy to take down these rich and powerful people aboard? Who exactly is this Scott guy, and why was he aboard? It starts off as a good mystery and survival story, and most of the characters are rendered well (except the women, sadly, are one-dimensional). The ending though… yeesh. Too convenient and I think won’t hold up well over time… it’s hard to say much without spoiling. Despite the lame ending, there are a lot of great ruminations here on hero worship, wealth, power, media consumption, art, and luck. [Read in June 2018.] ***Before the Fall is my fourth of twelve books for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge.

i’ll be gone in the dark

I’d been really looking forward to reading I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara since I first heard about it. I’m sure this would have been on my radar anyway even if McNamara hadn’t been married to a celebrity. I bought it the week it was published, and it will definitely be one that I recommend all year to true crime fans. From the book’s jacket:

A masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer—the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorized California for over a decade—from Michelle McNamara, a gifted journalist who died tragically while still writing and researching her debut book. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark offers a unique snapshot of suburban West Coast America in the 1980s, and a chilling account of the wreckage left behind by a criminal mastermind. It is also a portrait of one woman’s obsession and her unflagging pursuit of the truth, three decades later, in spite of the cost.

I had a little trouble focusing at first on reading this book (my problem at the time, no fault of the author or subject) but I ended up having a cold last week and reading was about all I could concentrate on. I devoured the majority of this one laid up sick in bed in just a couple of days. I have an interest in true crime—read or seen documentaries on Zodiac, Jack the Ripper, etc.—how could I not have heard of this guy before?

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is meticulously researched and completely immersive—one tip or piece of evidence leads to multiple threads to follow, and just when you think “this is the guy, they’ve got him,” he’s eliminated. I had to keep reminding myself he’s still at large (right now, in 2018), is frightening in itself. Is he still alive? Dead? Imprisoned for something else, but hasn’t had his DNA sampled? He’d be in his mid–late 60s right now. Why did he abruptly stop his reign of terror in 1986? I’m just sickened by the depths of his diabolical actions. The victims and their loved ones deserve justice. After reading this book, I’m confident McNamara’s tireless efforts will have played no small part in his capture.

McNamara was not only a relentless researcher but also a gifted, natural writer. She invited you to experience her process, come along on her frequent trips to the crime scenes, and listen in on her conversations with the victims and professional investigators both past and present. I’m impressed and grateful for the dedication of these officers of the law tirelessly investigating this case, no matter how seemingly fruitless the past few decades. McNamara makes sure that every person is real to you, including the GSK. Her incredible skill at suspenseful writing is illustrated in the way she describes the GSK’s horrific crimes without fetishizing or sensationalizing. You absolutely sense her empathy for the victims and their families, even the investigators whose lives have been consumed by the case, and her intense desire for the GSK to be brought to justice. For McNamara, it became personal—less a writing assignment than a mission.

Michelle McNamara was a brilliant, passionate writer and I was totally swept up in the emotional rollercoaster of her hunt for the Golden State Killer. It’s a thrilling, fascinating, and frustrating read, knowing this monster hasn’t been caught, and so tragic that Michelle died midway through writing it, way too young. I teared up reading the end of her husband’s afterword, and her strong sense of resolve and determination rubbed off on me in her own epilogue to the book, “Letter to an Old Man.” I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is just a really excellent piece of narrative true crime journalism. I don’t usually like to predict so early in the year, but this might end up being one of my best reads of 2018.

Read in April 2018.

the mountain story

I first put The Mountain Story by Lori Lansens on my TBR a few years ago, after it came out… I think I entered a Goodreads giveaway for it? But didn’t win. I became distracted by other books (as you do) but this came up again in my big audiobook search last week and I decided to go for it. I’m a sucker for survival stories, fiction or non-fiction! Edited from Goodreads:

On his 18th birthday, Wolf Truly takes the tramway to the top of the mountain that looms over Palm Springs, intending to jump to his death. Instead he encounters strangers wandering in the mountain wilderness, three women who will change the course of his life. Through a series of missteps he and the women wind up stranded, in view of the city below, but without a way down. They endure five days in freezing temperatures without food or water or shelter, and somehow find the courage to carry on. Wolf, now a grown man, has never told his son, or anyone, what happened on the mountain during those five days, but he can’t put it off any longer. And in telling the story to his only child, Daniel, he at last explores the nature of the ties that bind and the sacrifices people will make for love. The mountain still has a hold on Wolf, composed of equal parts beauty and terror.

This was a solid, compelling story, with several thrilling sequences and a satisfying ending. Maybe this is because I listened on audio (which was narrated well), but I had just a little trouble telling the women apart from each other, they’re pretty one-dimensional. I’m also not sure I bought Wolf, as an 18-year-old kid, being mistaken for a wilderness guide and mountain expert. Last quibble—I didn’t feel as immersed in the natural setting or as much a sense of perilous urgency as I have in other survival books I’ve read. The delivery and believability factor was just almost there for me. So, I think I was surprised this was more character-driven than I expected, which is ridiculous on my part, because obviously, just read the blurb! Still, I did enjoy the book—Lansens is an engaging storyteller. I liked how the sections were separated by days and how it’s told as a letter to the protagonist’s son much later. Wolf was fleshed out well with emotional depth and an unsettling backstory.

Listened to audiobook in March 2018.

reading recap: february 2018

I’m pretty sure I’m out of that slump and funk now, by the end of February. I had a great month of reading, much better than January. Almost all of these were audiobooks. Since I knew the end of my membership to my library back home in Kansas City was ending in February, I wanted to capitalize on using it as much as possible. I was pretty pleased to get some highly anticipated new releases, as well as discovering some new gems I hadn’t heard of before.

My favorites were easily Dark MoneyOtis Redding, and Broad Strokes, with Shark Drunk close behind. I’m happy I stuck with writing up posts after finishing books here throughout the month too!

Other bookish stuff… I started The Left Hand of Darkness for my Best Friends International Book Club and quickly DNF’d. It’s just not for me. I have trouble getting into high sci-fi fantasy in general, and I could barely follow the story. I didn’t know who was who or what was happening most of the time. Anthony, my book club buddy, DNF’d too, saying, “So many words I don’t know how to say, let alone keep track of. And the narrative voice doesn’t resonate with me; I can’t understand where I am in almost any given sentence.” Some people have the right kind of mind for elaborate, made-up words and worlds, some don’t. Our first-ever BFIBCDNF! I also bought two new Singaporean small-press books, SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century and The Infinite Library.

Right now I’m reading Homegoing (for BFIBC and the TBR Pile Challenge), The Summer That Melted Everything (TBR Pile Challenge), and SQ21.

Otherwise, I’ve been spending time drawing and trying to get out of the apartment more. I went to see the Museé d’Orsay impressionism exhibit at the National Gallery of Singapore last week, which was fantastic, saw the amazing  Black Panther movie, and also bought a new bass!! It’s a Fender American Elite Jazz Bass. I’m in love.

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mini-reviews: you should have left and the strange bird

I’m definitely out of my reading slump! These two novellas came through my library holds on audio at the same time, and they’re short enough that I was able to listen to both in one day while drawing.

You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann is a taut, unsettling psychological horror novella. Kehlmann handles classic haunted house, ghost story, and existential madness tropes well—a creeping dread is palpable here. Easily read in one sitting, too—the audiobook is just about two hours long. A couple and their 4-year-old daughter stay at an AirBnB in the mountains for vacation, but they’re also there so the husband (our narrator) can work on his screenplay. You spend the entire book in his head, as strange things start to happen (they easily get lost in the house, optical illusions and issues with depth perception abound, doors appear in places there wasn’t a door before, phrases mysteriously appear in his notes, etc., and then the nightmares start), all the while something is up with his marriage. People online have compared it to House of Leaves and The Shining, and I’d agree, although this is much, much shorter! [Listened to audiobook in February 2018.]

Jeff VanderMeer is an author I like to follow. I enjoyed his Area X trilogy (so excited for the movie adaptation of Annihilation!) and loved Borne last summer. I saw The Strange Bird on my library browse and borrowed it right away. This adds a chapter to Borne, from the perspective of another of the Company’s hybrid creatures, the Strange Bird. She is part bird, part human, part… other stuff(?). The biotech lab where she was created, the Company, has devolved into chaos and she, as well as other experiments, have escaped. The sky and land are full of creatures and technology and debris making this near-future world a very dangerous place to be, where humans are now struggling to survive. I do think you need to read Borne first, as that book does all the world-building and set up for The Strange Bird. I kind of wish I had read it on paper or ebook instead of listening to the audio, though—the narrator read in a tortured tone that could be a bit much for me at times. There isn’t quite the level of mystery and tension I felt while reading this one as I did with Borne, but it’s a great expansion of this imaginative setting. [Listened to audiobook in February 2018.]

mini-reviews: ending things, fever dream, white tears, vegetarian

I’m getting more into weird fiction. I love strange, mind-bending stories that have the power to shock me and make me think about them hours (days, weeks) after finishing. I still have quite a lot of wonder to me and an overactive imagination, so OMG twists in books usually manage to surprise me! In 2016 and 2017 I read these four unusual, dark books:

I put Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things on hold before I saw mixed reviews, so I didn’t have high expectations when it finally came through for me from the library. But wow, what a mind fuck! A young couple visit the man’s parents at their rural farmhouse for dinner one night, and the girlfriend is internally ruminating on their relationship and how she might end it soon. Things get progressively creepier and more odd during dinner. On the way home, they are stalled by a snowstorm and end up at a local high school to wait it out… no spoilers! Reid does an effective job creating a menacing atmosphere, and building tension that releases only at the very end. I thought it was a great, short psychological horror! [Read ebook in December 2016.]

Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream was getting tons of raves this year, but unfortunately for me it didn’t quite live up to the hype… but I think maybe it was me—I had a hard time following exactly what was happening, especially towards the end, listening on audiobook. A woman wakes up in a hospital bed with a young boy beside her, and he urges her to recount how she ended up there, what happened to her daughter, and a day she spent with his mother. The boy pushes her to stay focused on what’s important as she searches her memory. “Fever Dream” is a perfect title; it’s surreal and unsettling with a palpable sense of dread and I really, really wish I had been able to get into it. I think maybe in 2018 I’ll try it on paper or ebook. [Listened to audiobook in February 2017.]

Two young men meet in college and bond over their shared love of music and records in Hari Kunzru’s White Tears. One of them explores New York City recording sounds, and one day encounters a blues song being sung by a man playing chess in the park. He and his friend “authenticate” the song, making it sound vintage, give the “artist” a fake name, and list it on record collecting websites. A veteran collector meets up with them and insists the song and singer are real, and at this point the story takes a dark turn sending the boys on a disorienting and disturbing journey to discover the truth. It has some mixed reviews—people either love or hate the new direction in the second half—but I thought it was a good, thought-provoking book on a number of issues including race, privilege, and cultural appropriation and exploitation. Plus a little bit of supernatural mystery/thriller thrown in. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

I read this interesting, short book over the course of one day. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is eerie, sad, provocative, and Kafkaesque. Yeong-hye and her husband live a normal, uneventful life. But one day she starts having dark, violent, gory thoughts and nightmares and decides to stop eating meat. After this decision, Yeong-hye’s sanity starts a descent into madness, where she wants to become one with plant life and transition into being a tree. The story is told from three perspectives: Yeong-hye’s husband, sister, and brother-in-law. We never actually have an inside glimpse into Yeong-hye’s interior thoughts. The blurb says it’s an allegory for modern-day South Korea… but I admit I can’t speak to that accuracy as I’m not familiar with the country’s social and cultural state at the moment. However, my interpretation of Yeong-hye’s decision to take control of her body on her own terms and the negative, sometimes hostile reactions to her decision from men (and women) in her life smack of the infuriating social construct of beauty standards and the archaic “woman’s place” in patriarchal society. I guess there were issues with the translation from Korean, and I’m not quite sure how to feel about that because it was an impactful and interesting story for me in English anyway. [Read in September 2016.]