Joelle's Bibliofile

Dazzled by Fame

I Invited Her In - Adele Parks

Popular author Adele Parks examines the over-glamorization of wealth and fame, and the consequences of family secrets in I Invited Her In, a novel released in early 2019.  When Melanie is contacted out of the blue after sixteen years by her now-famous friend from University, she is thrilled but uneasy about the reconnection.  Ever since dropping out of school due to an unplanned pregnancy, Melanie has felt alienated from those she left behind.  She imagines that they have moved on to bigger and better things with more exciting lives than her own. She had been feeling settled and content after her struggles as a single parent, now blessed with a loving husband and two additional children. Her oldest, Liam, has grown into well-adjusted, promising young man due to Mel’s earlier sacrifices.  When she hears that t.v. personality Abigail Curtiz is undergoing a very painful and public divorce, Mel invites her old friend to come stay with her family.  Abi is as charismatic and gorgeous as Melanie remembers, and Melanie is dazzled by her incredible lifestyle as a wealthy celebrity.  Mel’s husband, Ben, is not quite as impressed when he is forced to watch his wife cater to Abi’s every need and defend Abi’s selfishness.  Ben is tasked with running the household alone while the two women revert to the irresponsible days of their youth.  What Ben doesn’t know is that Mel is motivated to accommodate Abi due to a hidden wrong-doing she has felt guilty about over all those years.  Abi also has ulterior motives for their reunion, and it soon becomes apparent that Abi may be purposefully ripping apart the family bonds that Mel and Ben had believed impenetrable.  Parks’ novel notches up the tension in the second half when the focus turns to revenge and betrayal, culminating in a violent act that exposes the women’s secrets.  I Invited Her In starts slowly and the female characters border on one-dimensional, but the plot accelerates quickly to a neat conclusion. Fans of Parks and contemporary thrillers might enjoy her new offering – it is not very original or deep, but it certainly is an entertaining read.

 

Thanks to Edelweiss and Mira (Harlequin) Publishing for an ARC copy of this title in return for an unbiased review.

Girls of Steel

Dare Me - Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott takes the Mean Girls trope to extremes in her novel Dare Me, about a team of high school Cheerleaders who revel in their sense of entitlement and perceived immortality.  Addy Hanlon is the sixteen-year-old narrator who identifies herself as the “lieutenant” to her best friend and Team Captain, Beth.  Even as she kowtows and follows Beth’s every command, Addy recognizes how cruel and ruthless her idol can be. The alpha-beta balance of their relationship is threatened however, when the squad comes under the leadership of a new coach.  Colette French is not about to be dazzled or overtaken by Beth. Coach French is also a domineering force with a magnetic personality that upsets the team’s hierarchy and engenders loyalty and adoration from the girls, including Addy.  Beth is so furious with this competition for Addy’s affection that she embarks on a campaign to sabotage the interloper at any cost.  That includes implicating the coach in the suspicious death of a young Guardsman recruiter working at the school.  It is also possible, however, that Beth’s theory is correct- that their Coach is as guilty as she would like her to be.  Addy is torn between the two possessive women, the focus of their power struggle and a pawn susceptible to their deceit.  In this novel, all of Abbot’s female characters are depicted as either rapacious and cruel or passive and vulnerable.  Still, the women fare better than the men, who are mostly shadows in the background- all apparently weak and completely clueless. The themes of domination/submission are omnipresent, with no representation of a healthy relationship in any form.  Still, Dare Me is a well-written and gripping read, with some decent (if implausible) plot twists.  Wicked fun if a reader likes their thrillers dark and does not require likeable characters to root for.

A Labrynth of a Novel

House of Leaves - Mark Z. Danielewski

House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski is a creature of a book, impossible to categorize and describe by conventional means.  The plot is deceptively simple- a young man discovers among a dead man’s possessions the remnants of notes for a book he was writing. The book this older man was working on is an in-depth study of a film called the Navidson Record.  The short film is a “documentary” about the Navidson family who moved into a house that contained a perpetually morphing and sinister labyrinth hidden behind its walls. The film has attracted a cult following due to its sheer artistic value and the captivating mystery about the fate of those the house has seemed to erase from existence. The point of view in Danielewski’s novel switches between the young man, Johnny Trout, who becomes obsessed with transcribing the papers he has found; the text of the deceased’s collected scribblings, and a huge collection of footnotes and editorial comments. Johnny Trout becomes ensnared by the book, and he loses his grip on reality as his transcription releases his inner demons. Simply put, Danielewski has created a tome that is truly meta- a maze of interconnected narrative with its own shifts, diversions and bewildering turns that often lead to the frustrating dead ends that plague any who enter. Even the formatting of the book is not straightforward, with its varying typeface, colors, text orientation and spacing.  House of Leaves is not an easy book to travel through, but it is certainly immersive and haunting for those who are willing to devote the time to digging through its depths.

Worth a Second Look

You Know You Want This - Kristen Roupenian

 When “Cat Person” appeared in 2018 in the New Yorker, Kristen Roupenian was immediately caught up in a fervor of critical attention.  Her short story resonated strongly with readers who clamored for more information about Roupenian and scoured for any other works she may have produced.  You Know You Want This, due for release in January 2019, addresses this demand by collecting eleven additional stories written by the popular author.  “Cat Person” remains the strongest of the lot, but this book contains some other strong entries as well. Roupenian seems most comfortable constructing the contemporary stories, like “Look at Your Game Girl” and “The Good Guy,” addressing themes of self-respect and miscommunication between the sexes.  She also experiments with some traditional forms of fairy tales, folklore, and the occult to a varying degree of success, as in “Scarred” and “The Mirror, the Bucket and the Thigh Bone.” Some readers may be put off by the eroticism and sexual violence contained in a few of the stories, but its inclusion is not excessive or gratuitous and has a purpose in terms of the thematic objectives.  You Know You Want This proves that Kristen Roupenian is not a one-hit author but an interesting and strong new voice for these times.

 

Thanks to Simon and Schuster and NetGalley for an ARC of this book in exchange for an objective review.

Would You Be Willing?

Race Me in a Lobster Suit - Kelly Mahon

Kelly Mahon obviously has a high tolerance for awkward interactions.  In her new book, Race Me in a Lobster Suit, she collects emails from her unique project that exposes how far people will go to make some quick money.  Mahon put up classified ads with outrageous requests for paid services and some of the responses she received led to longer conversations and intense negotiations. The acts that are agreed upon are at times simultaneously hilarious and depressing.  Some examples of requests include: participating in the titular race, acting as a fake fiancé, taking part in a nightmare reenactment, and dressing up snakes for a fashion show. Those who agreed to participate generally had an openness to adventure and a good sense of humor.  As Mahon increases the absurdity of the details involved in the activities, her respondents eventually realize it must be a joke or just stop responding.  What is truly amazing (and alarming) is how long some people keep believing in the ruse, and how little compensation they demand given the tasks assigned. Readers will enjoy this short collection of experiments, especially those who approach Race Me in a Lobster Suit with an appreciation for the nonsensical.

 

Thanks to Quirk Books and NetGalley for an ARC of this book in exchange for an objective review.

Nice Story Collection

This is Not a Love Song - Brendan Mathews

Brendan Mathews shows a great facility for capturing the power and powerlessness of communication in his collection of short stories, This is Not A Love Song. Each entry in the collection has a distinct style and mood, with varying points-of-view and characterization.  All, however, serve to demonstrate how people’s basic need to connect with each other is thwarted when true understanding is elusive or temporary.  The stories we tell each other are self-filtered and the essentials can be lost in translation. The ten tales are all well-written and engaging with unique characters-starting with a survivor of the Bosnian War visiting the U.S. and ending with or a circus clown faced with unrequited love. Mathews is an interesting storyteller, and This is Not A Love Song is hopefully only the first of many collections of stories he will share with his readers.

 

Thanks to Hachette Book Group (Little Brown and Company) and Edelweiss for an ARC of this book in exchange for an objective review.

Greek Lore With a Modern Twist

eye - Marianne Micros

The fourteen stories contained in Marianne Micros’ collection, eye, touch on ideas of Greek culture, mythology, superstition and lore as they relate to a modern sensibility.  Each entry references “eyes” in various ways, both literal and metaphorical.  Some of the themes that run throughout:

  • Predictions and omens of death- The fear it produces despite a strong belief in an afterlife
  • Older generation’s rigid adherence to traditions vs. younger generation’s reluctant abandonment of them
  • Women as the perpetuators of culture through their roles as mother, midwife, herbalist, mourner and storyteller
  • Loss of connection to the natural world and the consequences that result

Micros is most successful in those stories that show the personal struggle between faith and a desire to evolve, as in “Paved” and “Invention of Pantyhose: An Autobiography.” These stories also happen to be the most interesting in terms of style and form. Some readers might be put off by the amount of repetition in the collection and the cynical portrayal of religion and its implied hypocrisy. Eye would be particularly appealing to those familiar with or interested in Greek lore and beliefs.

Thanks to Guernica and NetGalley for an ARC of this book in exchange for an objective review.

Can Sociopathy be Reversed?

Once a Liar - A. F. Brady

The first-person narrator of A.F. Brady’s Once a Liar is exactly what many people assume all Defense Attorneys must be to succeed- callous, soulless and greedy.  The book opens as Peter attempts to feign human emotions at the funeral of his ex-wife.  He is dismissive of his caring girlfriend and clearly dreads the fact that his estranged 16-year-old son will be coming to live with them. It turns out that Peter was not always this way, evidenced in flashbacks to the time when he met the deceased woman and began his career.  Ashamed of his lackluster childhood, Peter has reinvented himself by creating a fabricated life story that allows him to assimilate into the upper echelons of NY society. His ex-wife just happened to be the daughter of his hero and mentor, a famous and ruthless defense lawyer.  Over time, Peter loses more and more of himself as he begins to adopt the attitudes and habits of his father-in-law.   In the present timeline, the consequences of his secret past and increasingly anti-social and amoral behavior are coming to fruition, and Peter is accused of the murder of a long-time rival DA’s daughter. The evidence piles up against him and even his closest associates don’t believe in his innocence.  Even the reader may be suspicious of this character that repeatedly revels in his lack of a moral center.  The mystery of the murder concludes satisfyingly, but some of the plot elements are problematic.  Much of Peter’s character is based on the idea of sociopathy as predisposed, triggered by a trauma, and potentially reversible by another significant event.  If left unaddressed, it can develop into psychopathy.  This is not how modern psychological theory describes these traits (diagnosis is Antisocial Personality Disorder). The women in the story are portrayed as unbelievably long-suffering and patient with this man who seems to have no redeeming qualities and is emotionally abusive.  The clues for the mystery are a bit transparent and many will be able to spot them easily before the end, thereby ruining a pivotal twist. In summary, Once a Liar is a passably decent thriller with some interesting plot elements that are sometimes overshadowed by characters that are too one-dimensional to connect with the reader.

More Than You Expect

My Sister, the Serial Killer - Oyinkan Braithwaite

Some readers will be attracted to My Sister the Serial Killer due to its captivating cover, others will automatically be drawn in by the compelling words “serial killer” in the title.  Still others will be curious about a book written by a new author who has received many positive reviews.  Regardless, all those who pick up Oyinkan Braithwaite’s short novel will be richly rewarded for the experience.  Set in Lagos, Nigeria this book is less of a true thriller and more of a literary gem with an edge. The author tells a tale about women’s roles and the familial responsibilities assigned to them by cultural expectations and external assessments of worth.  Two sides of one coin, Korede and Ayoola are sisters that complement each other as archetypes.  Korede, a nurse, is the older sister-plain and serious.  She is the prototypical protector and responsible one of the two. Ayoola is the carefree beauty who has come to expect all the attention and privilege that her looks have always engendered. The book’s short chapters flash back and forth in time, exploring the women’s troubled upbringing and the genesis of their predictably symbiotic relationship. A bit more unusual is the development that Ayoola has recently been killing off her suitors, and Korede has been helping to clean and cover up the mess.  Their loyalty is tested, however, when Korede’s secret object of affection becomes ensnared by her sister’s charms. My Sister the Serial Killer depicts women as strong and resourceful despite being confined by a patriarchal society that idolizes, abuses or ignores them. Braithwaite explores these complex themes in a novel that is refreshingly unique, deeply funny and insightful.  Hopefully, she will continue to surprise readers with future works to enjoy and contemplate.

Through the Lens of Desire

Watching You - Lisa Jewell

Passion, paranoia, and obsession- In her novel Watching You, Lisa Jewell depicts the tragic misunderstandings that can result from their controlling influence. The main character, Joey (Josephine) Mullen, thinks she may have finally escaped her impulsive tendencies now that she has married and returned to settle down in her hometown.  She hopes that a rewarding career and all the trappings of a stereotypical suburban life will propel her into mature adulthood.  She soon discovers, however, that personal change is not so easily attainable.  Forced to live with her successful brother and expectant sister-in-law, Joey takes an entry-level job while her husband tries to drum up work as a home painter. Dissatisfied and disappointed, she yearns for the excitement they had during their whirlwind courtship. When Joey sees an elegant, attractive older man during her commute, she feels an instant but unwelcome attraction.  She keeps running into him, since he lives nearby and is the new headmaster at the local public school. Tom Fitzwilliam emerges as a central figure in the book, and much of the action revolves around him.  Joey is not the only one drawn to this man. The schoolgirls are besotted with him, a paranoid neighbor is convinced that Tom is spying on her, and his wife seems to acquiesce to his every need.  Only Tom’s own son and one female student at his school seem to be resistant to his charms.  Tension builds as these two teens begin to uncover secrets from Tom’s past and temptations between certain characters prove irresistible. Interspersed throughout the book are police interviews, hinting that a deadly crime has occurred. Jewell uses the different perspectives and flashbacks to tantalizingly reveal the details. She keeps the reader guessing all the way to the end and turns assumptions upside down in a satisfying resolution. Watching You is a welcome addition to Jewell’s already admirable collection of fast-paced and deservedly popular novels.

 

Thanks to Atria Books and NetGalley for an Advanced Review Copy of this book.

Great Gift!

Book Love - Debbie Tung

A delightful gift book for the book aficionado in your life.  Debbie Tung’s drawings are a reminder why a passion for reading remains a comfort and joy to so many despite the competition for our time and attention.

The Shades - Evgenia Citkowitz
Evgenia Citkowitz explores the devastating effects of loss in her first full-length novel The Shades. Catherine is a gallery owner who is still reeling from the loss of her daughter in an accident over a year ago. She wanders around the family’s country home-unable to return to work, barely coping with daily activities, and hiding from neighbors and friends. Her husband is spending increasingly more time at their London address, working and trying to reconcile his own beliefs about his relationship with Catherine before it became so distant and disconnected. Their teenage son, Rowan, has reacted to the death of his sister by running away to a private school. He becomes increasingly involved with environmental activism and seeks concrete ways to wrest back control of his life. The short novel alternates between these three characters, highlighting their separation and alienation from the world and each other. When a strange waif-like girl arrives at her doorstep, claiming to be the daughter of the previous owners, Catherine immediately sees her as a surrogate for her own lost child. Catherine become increasingly obsessed with taking this stranger under her wing, but Keira may not be who she claims to be. Catherine may not be able to recover from another loss and she is casting about for a sense of purpose as depression threatens to overwhelm her. In The Shades, Citkowitz provides a dense tale filled with emotion and a sense of lingering despair as this small family verges on collapse under the weight of their own grief.
 
 

 

Cerebral Mystery

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan

Clay Jannon, newly unemployed, stumbles upon a mysterious bookshop during his frequent wanderings through the streets of San Francisco.  The Help Wanted sign in the window seems like a sign of fate and he feels drawn into the bizarrely shaped store filled primarily with antique one-of-a-kind texts. Although far removed from his previous employment as a tech-savvy designer and marketer for a failed startup, Clay accepts the position of overnight sales clerk. Little does he realize that this spontaneous decision will catapult him into a mystery involving an ancient society whose cryptic workings will change the course of his life. Robin Sloan’s unique novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, brings together cutting-edge advances and time-worn tradition as they conflict and combine. Clay discovers that his embrace of new technology and a new-found respect for the methods of the past brings him great reward. Sloan’s novel also explores the idea that good things happen when people of different backgrounds combine their personal strengths and beliefs to solve problems.  Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a delightful exploration of how curiosity and innovation have acted as universal and timeless inspiration for the advancement of ideas.  A good selection for those who enjoy mysteries that are more cerebral than action-packed.

Thriller with a Unique Perspective

Hunting Annabelle - Wendy Heard

In Hunting Annabelle, , a debut novel of suspense, Wendy Heard introduces readers to a narrator with a unique perspective. Sean Suh is a Korean American who has recently moved to Texas from San Francisco with his mother, a noted neurosurgeon.  The story takes place in 1986 and Heard immerses the reader into that time period by peppering the narrative with many references and cultural allusions. She captures the alienation of her main character as a person of color in Texas, but Sean is a true outsider for other reasons as well.  He is an artist who sees people’s auras, dresses in “alternative” punk/goth clothes, and happens to be a diagnosed violent schizophrenic recently released from inpatient care.  Sean spends his days at a nearby amusement park, drawing people in the crowds that engulf, but do not incorporate, him. One fateful day, Sean spots a girl whose aura strikes him as particularly unusual and he is captivated enough to follow her into the park’s wax museum.  Unlike his other subjects, Annabelle confronts Sean and their interaction leads to an immediate attraction and plans for meeting again.  Sean’s mother is overbearing and controlling, and her overprotectiveness means that Sean needs to keep his new friendship hidden.  When Annabelle is kidnapped right before his eyes, Sean knows that he will not be believed by anyone because of his past instability and police record. He becomes obsessed with finding Annabelle on his own-both because he is convinced that he loves her and to prove his innocence.  Sean must battle his own disturbing impulses and disorienting medication effects while also facing suspicion and discrimination.  Diving into Annabelle’s past, he discovers an abundance of potential suspects and some revealing information about this girl that he barely knows.  Wendy Heard deserves credit for creating a fast-paced and gripping thriller with diverse characters and some unpredictable plot devices.  Some readers might object to her somewhat simplistic portrayal of mental illness, depending on their own experiences and knowledge.  Younger readers might also feel a bit alienated by all the 1980s trivia, but these tidbits would be enjoyable for anyone familiar with them.  The relationship between Sean and his mother was very interesting, and the story might have benefitted from including more details about their shared history.  Hunting Annabelle is a solid page turner with good pacing and entertainment value, worth a look for fans of thrillers with an innovative approach.

Thanks to Edelweiss and Harlequin for an advance copy of this book in exchange for an impartial review.

A Great Standalone From Tana French

The Witch Elm - Tana French

Self-involved, narcissistic and oblivious Toby Hennessy receives a harsh come-uppance in Tana French’s newest novel, The Witch Elm.   This first-person narrative allows the reader to witness Toby’s transformation from an entitled jokester to a man shaken by events that cause him to question his morality and potential for cruelty.  Toby works in PR at an art gallery when he is not out drinking with his friends or cuddled up with his wonderfully perfect and adoring girlfriend. After a typical night at the pub, Toby is awakened to the sound of strangers in his flat.  When he surprises the burglars, Toby gets beaten so badly that he sustains a traumatic head injury that leaves him severely impaired.  His recovery leaves him ashamed of his new limitations, and he soon sinks into a drug-hazed depression.  His cousin suggests that Toby could use his medical leave to help their uncle, who is dying of cancer.  Toby accedes to the plan when his girlfriend agrees to accompany him to his Uncle Hugh’s house, a long-time family estate and the location of many childhood memories. Toby struggles to manage his physical and mental difficulties but finds comfort in a new routine in the familiar surroundings.  Their peace doesn’t last long, however.  A skull is discovered in a tree on the grounds during a family meeting, leading to a disruptive and extensive police investigation.  The evidence points to a potential murder that must have occurred during Toby’s adolescence, and he and other family members become the main suspects.  Toby tries to do a bit of sleuthing, but his inquiries reveal some disturbing things about himself that he may have never realized or just can’t remember. Toby begins to distrust his family and his version of past events, leading him to question motives and suspect shared secrets.  Tana French has an amazing ability to construct complete characters, making them so familiar with all their flaws and foibles. It is a testament to her talent that she can portray such an unlikeable character that believably evolves through her storytelling to become sympathetic. Much more than just an imaginative and well-plotted mystery, The Witch Elm is a study in the delusions brought about by privilege and entitlement.  The author explores the theme of luck-by birth or circumstance-and whether experiences and/or nature allow certain people to avoid difficulties that would plague others. She addresses how small choices and purposeful ignorance can lead to a crisis of self.  Fans of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series will be delighted to see her talents sustained and expanded in this exceptional standalone addition to her work.

Another Great IQ Novel

Wrecked - Joe Ide

Joe Ide delights his many fans again with another exciting entry in his IQ series with Wrecked.  Ide’s version of a modern-day Sherlock Holmes in L.A. manages to be creative, funny, touching and thought-provoking.  In this third installment, Isaiah Quintabe (IQ) finally gets a chance to reconnect with a mesmerizing girl he encountered at the end of the last novel (Righteous).  Although IQ is so perceptive, calm and assured in his sleuthing abilities, he obviously lacks experience and confidence when it comes to connecting with a potential love-interest.  Fortunately for him, Grace initiates contact when she approaches IQ to enlist his help as a highly regarded detective.  She needs his aid in tracking down her mother who left under mysterious circumstances shortly after her father’s death many years ago.  Grace is certain she has seen her mother watching her recently, despite the outstanding warrant for her arrest.  IQ is so anxious to get close to Grace that he risks the displeasure of his new partner, Dodson, by accepting one of her paintings as payment.  Of course, this case will be more complicated than it first appears. IQ may be outmatched in a confrontation with a ruthless group of ex-military operatives who are also looking for Grace’s mother.  These people are leftovers from Abu Ghraib, ready to enthusiastically employ the “enhanced interrogation techniques” they learned there.  Meanwhile, Dodson has been trying to keep secret from IQ that he is being blackmailed for a past action by a man who is apparently completely unhinged.  The action in the IQ series is always fast-paced and the repartee often hilarious. This entry reflectively draws comparisons between the lack of regard for human life fostered in gangs on the street as well as in military “gangs” that have been allowed to cross certain lines with impunity.  Ide’s writing is clever, his characters are captivating, and his storylines are unique.  As with his other IQ books, Wrecked ends on a satisfying note but will leave readers clamoring for more stories about IQ and his friends.