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review 2018-06-24 21:58
Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent
Lying in Wait - Liz Nugent

This takes place primarily in the 1980s, in Ireland. On the surface, Lydia, her husband Andrew, and her son Laurence appear to have a perfect life. The whole family lives in Lydia's family home, a beautiful mansion. Lydia is a stay-at-home mom who is devoted (overly so) to her son, and Andrew is a respected judge.

This happy life is a facade. Andrew and Lydia hired Annie, a prostitute, to help them with a problem, and when Annie tried to blackmail Andrew he choked her and Lydia finished her off. Lydia proposed that they bury Annie in their garden, a perfectly safe spot since of course they'd never sell off her family home. Unfortunately, the family also has money problems, brought on by Andrew placing his trust in the wrong accountant. Cracks are beginning to appear in their pretty little life, and those cracks widen when Laurence sees news reports about Annie and begins to suspect that his father had something to do with her disappearance.

I picked up an ARC of this during a recent conference. Although it's been out since 2016, it looks like it was released in hardcover earlier this month.

I read this hoping for an exciting and tense thriller. What I got was sometimes achingly slow pacing, characters I didn't care much about, and boredom. I thought this would be about Lydia and Andrew's increasingly futile efforts to hide their part in Annie's murder. I suppose there was a little bit of that, but the story mostly turned out to be about Lydia and her deeply unhealthy attachment to her son (no incest, but there were a couple moments when I worried that that was where Nugent was going with all of this). Everyone's secrets poisoned everything around them, and the ending was just depressing.

There is no justice and goodness to be found here.

(spoiler show)


The book alternated between chapters from Lydia, Laurence, and Karen's POVs. Karen was Annie's sister, and probably the most sympathetic of the book's more prominent characters. Although I disliked her actions where Bridget was concerned, I wanted things to work out well for her.

Too bad this wasn't that kind of story.

(spoiler show)


I felt some sympathy for Laurence, who was clearly being suffocated by his mother, but that sympathy eventually evaporated. He was more like his father than his mother - he actually had a bit of a conscience, but it didn't stop him from doing horrible things and then finding ways to rationalize most of it later. I completely gave up on him when I got to the chapter from his POV about the first time he met Karen. This took place a lot later than the publisher's description led me to believe it would, by the way.

The bulk of the book was pretty boring. Despite the fact that Andrew made several enormous mistakes, he and Lydia didn't have to work nearly as hard to hide their tracks as I'd have expected. As time passed (the story took place over the course of about 6 years, I think), it seemed less and less likely that the mystery of Annie's disappearance would ever be solved. The story finally became more tense and interesting near the end, as everyone's lies started to unravel. Unfortunately, the ending was a disappointment.

I'll end this with a warning for readers for whom weight and weight loss in fiction are an issue. At the start of the book, Laurence is fat and bullied because of his weight. Throughout the rest of the story his weigh yo-yos. The descriptions of his weight loss bothered me - he struggled with a relentless appetite, but that appetite had a tendency to magically disappear after he started dieting, and deciding to diet also magically gave him the energy and ability to exercise.

All of this was actually addressed later on in the story, but it took a while, and until then readers had to put up with the implication that all Laurence needed to do to lose weight was exert a bit of willpower.

(spoiler show)

There were also lots of mentions of Laurence feeling repulsed by his own weight and of Laurence worrying that the women he was with were repulsed by his weight.

 

(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)

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review 2018-03-01 22:48
The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch
The Book of Joan: A Novel - Lidia Yuknavitch

More a novel of ideas than a "yarn," The Book of Joan's characters exist primarily as symbols, vehicles for ideology. This quality brought to mind older modes of storytelling, such as ancient Greek and Roman epics, fairy tales, and didactic poems. Everything is heightened--the language, the stakes, the characters. At first I highlighted many passages, dazzled by the prose, but the lyric language reached a critical mass about a third of the way through, and I became distracted by linguistic tics such as the overuse of "wrong" as an adjective. It could also be hard to read some of the graphically violent passages.

 

Nevertheless, I applaud this novel's ingenuity, its reworking of Joan of Arc's story and interesting notions regarding gender and sex.

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review 2017-10-22 18:15
Little Star, by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Little Star: A Novel - John Ajvide Lindqvist

After seeing the recent adaptation of Stephen King's It, I was inspired to delve into a big, fat horror novel (I already read It a few summers ago); plus, 'tis the season. John Ajvide Lindqvist has been referred to as Sweden's Stephen King, and I can see why. What I like most about King's writing is his characterization: characters feel like real people, no matter how fantastical, or evil. Little Star is my second Lindqvist novel, and he has a similar gift for creating engaging characters.

 

In some ways, though, I find his horror even more frightening than King's. He has a way of providing the details that are often skipped over in horror movies, such as the way the human body reacts to terror. Acts of violence are shockingly brutal (early in the novel a husband savagely breaks his wife's kneecap). He also appears to be interested in children as protagonists, especially girls. Little Star, like Let the Right One In, the other Lindqvist novel I read, features two children as the characters who drive the narrative. One (Theres) does not seem to be quite human (like the vampire in the latter novel), while the other (Theresa) is a human who is an outcast (like the boy who befriends the vampire). Each one's story is told separately at first, including their parents' points of view, until they meet--virtually and then in person. At this point we know the two will be frightening together.

 

Much of this novel details the angst and alienation of young girls, which can be painful to read if you're a woman who felt like an outsider at some point during your childhood. That alienation is weaponized; it's a freight train whose collision you can't stop but also can't look away from. It reminded me of Dietland, which I read a while ago and is not a horror novel, or even Kill the Boy Band and The Girls. I suppose I'm drawn to stories where patriarchal suppression erupts in violence.

 

I was left with a question or two, including Theres's origins (she's left to die as an infant in a forest before being discovered) and the red smoke she and the girls feed on. I also wanted a bit more of Theres's adoptive mother's perspective at the beginning.

 

Despite these questions, this novel shocked, disturbed, and awed me. I tore through it. AND I learned about several Swedish pop stars!

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review 2017-09-03 18:32
The Discreet Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa, trans. Edith Grossman
The Discreet Hero: A Novel - Mario Vargas Llosa,Edith Grossman

This book put me in a bind: while I found the story and characters engaging, fun, even, there are aspects that offended me. As I read, I would wonder: "Is this attitude or behavior endorsed by the author, or just described by him in depicting this place and these personalities?" By the end, I decided that there are definite ideologies at work here, including the beliefs that when it comes to family, blood is all; that the younger generation is responsible for squandering the hard work of their parents'; and the conservative viewpoint that if one only works hard enough, one can be successful. Other troubling attitudes that are questioned by characters but nevertheless feel condoned by the narrative: blaming victims of rape or sexual coercion; treating women as objects; racism; masculine pride as more important than the lives of loved ones.

 

After I finished the book, I read several reviews as I tried to work out my opinion of it. These mention that Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature but that this may not be his best work; that he used to be a social progressive but became a conservative who ran for president of Peru; that some characters appear in other books of his; that some elements are based on real events and his own life.

 

The book is divided between two alternating and converging narratives with separate protagonists, both fitting the "discreet hero" label of the title. The stories take place in two different areas of Peru, one Lima, one provincial, and their plots appear to have no connection. When they link up, it's very satisfying, even though the connection is quite minor. Each plot has elements of a mystery-thriller that propel the story; I found it hard to put down. The characters are often charming and easy to root for (until they're not). In story one, a man who worked his way up from nothing and owns a transport company is anonymously threatened unless he pays for protection; he refuses. In story two, a man on the verge of retirement and a long-awaited trip with his wife and son finds his life upheaved when his wealthy boss decides to marry his servant to punish his errant sons; at the same time, the protagonist's teenaged son is being approached by a mysterious stranger who may or may not be real, the devil, an angel, or just the kid fucking with his parents (this last mystery is left ambiguous).

 

Other elements I enjoyed included the relationship between the second protagonist and his wife, his feelings about art's role in life, the police sergeant from the first story, and learning about Peruvian life across two settings.

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review 2017-05-22 15:41
Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon
Await Your Reply - Dan Chaon

Await Your Reply is ultimately a tragic story featuring characters who are lost or mentally ill and either want a new start or can't let go of the past. However, I found it hard to sympathize with the three characters whose perspectives the novel shifts between in alternating chapters. As a result I rushed through my reading mostly to finish the book and see how these seemingly unconnected characters were, in fact, connected. It's a story of identity, how it is mutable but perhaps can become its own trap, even when that identity is traded in for a new one.

 

I'm surprised I purchased this book since it features one of my greatest squicks (as we say in fandom): a teacher-student romantic relationship. The recently graduated student, Lucy, is one of the characters whose point of view is narrated. Though she's lost her parents, at first it seems this is not a great loss to her. She also disparages her older, less ambitious sister. This made Lucy and her rash decision to run off with her AP History teacher unsympathetic for me. She's bright academically, but stupid and naive when it comes to everything else. She almost immediately begins to feel uneasy about the promises her older boyfriend made once they arrive at their temporary destination, but she sticks around.

 

Similarly, Ryan, a college student, leaves school and his family behind once he learns the truth about his parentage. He hadn't been doing well in school and wasted the money meant for tuition. He takes off with a guy he's just met and becomes involved in illegal money-moving and identity fraud schemes, though he barely understands what he's doing and why. He doesn't seem that troubled knowing that his family is looking for him. So, he's another character I found I couldn't care about.

 

The third character, Miles, I found the most sympathetic. He's been on the trail of his schizophrenic twin brother, Hayden, ever since the latter disappeared years before. Miles disrupts his own life (or barely develops one) to chase his twin and feeds on occasional communications from him. He gives Hayden the benefit of the doubt, despite the warnings of others and evidence to the contrary. Is he big-hearted or a fool?

 

I won't spoil how the three characters' stories connect, but despite some surprises, the mystery of that connection wasn't enough for me to overcome my issues with the characters.

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