Book Review: Nightwoods

NightwoodsSmall town North Carolina, early 1960s, two children who light fires and kill chickens. Unspeakable things happen when a crazy person infects your family, dipping his poisonous finger into your tranquil country life.

Luce lives at an old lodge that used to serve as a vacation spot. She lives simply, quietly, and uses her small stipend from the lodge’s owner to keep her afloat. No one comes to stay at the lodge anymore, so she tends to her garden, sits on the porch, and thinks. All is disrupted when her sister, Lily, is murdered and her niece and nephew come to live with her at the lodge. They are disturbed children, not only from witnessing their mother’s death at the hand of her husband, Bud, the children’s stepfather, but also from years of presumed abuse also at his hand. Luce, ever patient, must learn to mother the children, to communicate with them without violence, and continue living peaceably in her Appalachian sanctuary.

All is upended when Bud returns to town looking for money.

Nightwoods is so tightly written that you cannot skip a sentence. I picked it up thinking it would be a quick read at 250 pages, but no. Each sentence is important. Nothing can be skimmed. There is no punctuation to indicate speech, something that was initially hard to get used to but eventually became a pleasure to read.


When the coffee was ready, the sisters rowed themselves opposite Luce on the settee. Each one drowning half a cup at one go and then firing up a smoke. Three difference brands.

The unaccustomed caffeine came on like a vibration in Luce’s back teeth and frizzed static into her thoughts.

She blurted out some of what she’d come prepared to say. I’ve been thinking a lot about when I was in school, and about the care of children. Lily’s girl and boy live with me now. My mother wasn’t a model for anything but crazy. And it’s not like I’m thinking back and trying to force any of you into being sweet ladies. You had hard expectations. If we were called upon, you made us step up and answer for ourselves. These children aren’t easy.

The eldest sister cracked two notes of smoker’s laughter, indistinguishable from a TB cough. Said, You want us to tell you how to be a mother? If so, you’ve come to the wrong place.


Sometimes I had to read a sentence twice to make sure I didn’t miss anything, and if that sounds like too much work for you, I get it. However, Frazier is nearly poetic with his writing, so much that it makes me think my own work is elementary. Despite its complexity, Nightwoods is not a story you can leave unfinished. The last quarter of the book flies because it’s hard to put down. Everyone’s in the woods and you want to know who makes it out alive.

Buy Nightwoods here.

Book Reviews: The Execution of Noa P. Singleton and American Sniper

NoaNoa is on death row in Pennsylvania for the murder of a girl her age. In a few months, she’ll be dead and she’s come to terms with it. She doesn’t even argue about being guilty or not guilty. Then the mother of the victim comes to visit her in prison and starts talking about applying for her clemency. They have five months to sort it out.

The story is written in first person but none of it is in chronological order. In between Noa’s accounts are letters written from the mother of the victim to her dead daughter, a strange but useful way to reveal information about the murder to the reader. By the last third of the book you know everyone is hiding something and it’s a quick race to the end to find out Noa’s fate and whether or not justice is truly served.

Unlike In the Woods, also a murder mystery told out of order, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton doesn’t weave so tightly that you have to pay attention to every single sentence. You can just read it and not spend time overthinking or trying to piece together the crime because the author is making you work for it. You know what’s up by the half way point, or at least you know the people in play are fishy. Yet, the ease of the narrative doesn’t take away from the thrill. You read fast because you care about Noa and you want to know if her X-day ever arrives.

Buy The Execution of Noa P. Singleton here.

AMERICAN-SNIPER-CoverPrior to starting Noa, I ended up reading American Sniper. Even though it’s a thick paperback, it was the quickest read ever because the writing was on a fifth grade level. The content is fully mature, but the writing was entirely like reading Dick and Jane. Plus, in the interest of full disclosure, when Chris Kyle got lengthy about describing the different sort of guns he used, my eyes glazed over and I skipped paragraphs. (I categorize guns by color, size, and weight. Is it black? Is it long and heavy? Short and gray?)

I’m glad I read it because it solidified that the book and the movie are separate entities. Sure, it’s the same Chris Kyle, the same wife, the same wars, but American Sniper The Movie is Hollywood script and therefore required a character arc, a plot, a climax, and a resolution. American Sniper The Book is Chris Kyle’s full account of his experiences growing up a cowboy, his experience in BUD/S, his definition of what it means to be a SEAL, and his overall intense passion for and focus on defending his fellow soldiers. You get the bigger picture, not just a glimpse of four tours and a career-long vendetta to kill an enemy sniper.

The movie was entertaining, provocative, and important, but the book is far more telling of who Chris Kyle really was. Upon finishing it, you knew Chris Kyle was anything but a coward.

Buy American Sniper here.

Book Review: In the Woods by Tana French

It’s important to note that In the Woods was Tana French’s first novel. Not only was it warmly received, but it spurred another four murder mysteries that also did well on the market. I’m encouraged by this, especially since the word count of In the Woods surpasses the average for first time novelists.

inthewoods_usOverall, the narrative is beautifully written. French’s ability to capture the emotion of the moment and convey it to the reader is on point and at length. Told in first person by Detective Rob Ryan, you feel as if you’ve sat down for an interview with him, a secret conversation where he tells you things he can’t tell other people. It’s intimate that way, but it’s also deeply disturbing.

Two crimes occur in Knocknaree, Ireland, one in 1984 (the disappearance of two children) and one in present time (the murder of a twelve-year-old girl). At first the crimes don’t seem related, aside from both occurring in the wood near town.

Yet there is a big connection and his name is Detective Ryan, but his memory is shifty and his nightmares are vivid, so it’s only a matter of time before his secrets implode.

There are only two negatives about this book. One, some of the narrative was too long. It’s important for us to be in Detective Ryan’s head, sorting through his memories and processing evidence, but sometimes his inner sermons were really long. Sometimes he conveyed important information pertinent to the crimes, but most of the time it was an emotional outpouring that eventually became unnecessary. We knew the guy was suffering. We didn’t need to continue beating that horse.

Second, I had a pretty good hunch who was involved in the murder early on. I’m not sure if that’s because the character was too archetypal or if I knew it on my own senses. Still, I read most of the second half waiting to see how the character was going to be revealed, which I supposed was a mystery inside the mystery.

Other than those two things, the book was thrill.

Next up: The Execution of Noa P. Singleton.

Buy In the Woods here.

Two days in Horrorstör

I don’t normally finish books in two days, but this one was a quick read. The short page count helped, but it was primarily the tension in the story that kept me enthralled. Once I was in ORSK, I couldn’t leave until the mystery was solved.

First, the cover. If you’ve been in an IKEA, the design concept is entirely familiar to you. In every way the book is designed to make you think of IKEA. The author even references IKEA just in case you’re not sure. The store, in this case, is ORSK, the American version of IKEA and it’s designed to entrap its customers in a counterclockwise maze of home goods and office furniture (just like IKEA). You can eat meatballs in the cafeteria and peruse the make-shift kitchens and living rooms and pretend they’re your own  (just like IKEA). Everything is hard to pronounce so you can’t call anything by it’s actual name (just like IKEA). You get the gist.

Gotta love the back side:

Horrorstor

The story begins with Amy, a dissatisfied ORSK employee, who’s asked to participate in a secret overnight shift to help determine why strange things are happening at the store – odd smells and stains, broken pieces of furniture, other unexplained occurrences that aren’t being caught on the security cameras. Along with Amy’s boss, a third employee agrees to the overnight shift and thus begins the adventure. The entire book lasts one full night in ORSK.

I cannot overstate the brilliance of the book design. Every chapter is named after a piece of furniture that applies to the content of the story. In keeping with the horror genre, the chapters (and furniture) become more gruesome.

Horrorstor chapter

The front matter of the book offers you a showroom map so you can keep track of where the characters are throughout the story.

Inside Horrorstor

This is not just about the solving of a crime. It’s a true horror story with blood and pus and other things that made me squirm. I don’t normally read this sort of fiction but aesthetics of Horrorstör captured me. I love IKEA, with its cheap batteries and meatballs with gravy. I read this book if only to enjoy the parody of the Swedish box store. In the end, it was a thrilling and creative read.

Buy Horrorstör here. 

Edge of Eternity and the 50 Book Challenge

So I finished the third and final installment of Ken Follett’s Century trilogy, Edge of Eternity, and I can say with certainty that he’s still one of my favorite fiction writers. However, this was my least favorite of the three (Fall of Giants and Winter of the World), but that’s only because the pacing of the book was imbalanced, as were the politics of the characters. The bulk of the book is spent in 1960s – a huge chunk just in 1968 – and then all of sudden we jump to the mid-70s and get a short whiff of the 80s. Then boom – the Iron Curtain falls and the book ends. It was a glorious end, but we arrived there swiftly, which is odd to say about a book that’s more than a thousand pages.

The political persuasions of the characters would’ve been fine had there been a better balance of sides, however the only conservative Republican character was a self-centered, deceitful white man who was distasteful in every way. The only other characters that were equally despicable were the Communist leaders. It was an obvious slight that became annoying in the end.

Still, Follett is a beautiful writer and, per usual, I’m left feeling sad that his characters and I have parted ways. I’m mourning appropriately by starting a new book, Horrorstör.

Speaking of books, I’ve joined a group of BookTubers and thousands of fellow GoodReads members by taking the 50 Book Challenge – reading 50 books in one year. Click on the image in the sidebar to keep track of what I’m reading.

One down, 49 to go.

Book challenge start

Buy Edge of Eternity here. 

Book Review: Left Neglected

The synopsis of Left Neglected prepares you for the accident. Sarah is a busy working mother of three, living the high life in Boston, working her tail off to give her children private school, a house in a prestigious neighborhood, and a vacation home in Vermont where they ski in the winter months. Her job demands her attention all day, every day, so much that she’s doing business in bed at night and in the car on the way to the drop-off line. And so it goes: Sarah crashes her car while fiddling on her cell phone and suffers a traumatic brain injury.

Left Neglected

Originally I thought Sarah would have the sort of brain injury that led to paralysis and perhaps she’d end up neglected by family members or hospital staff, but that’s not how it turned out. Her injury resulted in what’s called Left Neglect, a condition in which your brain quite literally does not recognize the left side of anything, including your own body. You don’t eat the food on the left side of your plate, you don’t see the left side of a room, and your left arm and leg become lifeless (not paralyzed, just ignored). It is a condition closely connected with stroke victims, but it’s entirely possible to have Left Neglect as a result of illness or a traumatic brain injury.

But back to Sarah. Of course her life is turned upside down from this event. She was speeding through life and it was brought to a complete halt. The book chronicles the year following her accident as she navigated rehab, relationships, and accepting the inevitable: her life was never going to be the same.

The story is written in first person, so we spend a lot of time in Sarah’s head, an essential component for a story about brain injury. Though there’s a bit of predictability at the end, I thought it was a well-writing cautionary tale about what life could look like if we all don’t slow down.

Buy Left Neglected here.

Conclusions on Gone Girl

GoneGirlWhen I read this book last year, I was hooked on every word, relishing the twists and giddy over all of the things I didn’t see coming. It was brilliant – right until the end. Then, like a sucker, I had fallen for a story that left me unsatisfied and ripped off, like I’d been taken on a fabulous date only to be dumped on the doorstep. I took to the internet and found solace with others like me who rejected Gillian Flynn’s ending. I also discovered that there was another group, just as strong, who defended the book in its entirety. We were at an impasse.

Before I dig in, I’m going to give you an out. For those who’ve not read the book (or seen the movie), turn away NOW so you aren’t exposed to spoilers. If you don’t care either way, go ahead, but I’m going to talk plainly about this story so consider yourself warned.

Continue reading “Conclusions on Gone Girl”

Book Review: May We Be Forgiven

May We Be forgivenThis is perhaps the most unusual book I’ve read in a while. I’ve tried to nail down a better adjective, but unusual always comes back around – unusual and unique.

I bought the book while I was in Santa Fe with Michele, and after reading the first three pages, I wanted to read more. Of course, the first three pages did not prepare me for the next 477.

Frankly, I’m not even confident I could write an informative synopsis, but what’s the harm in trying?

Written in first person and present tense, we go alongside Harold Silver whose life used to be predictable and mundane. But after his brother, George, commits a violent crime, Harry’s day-to-day becomes one impossible situation after another. He becomes responsible for his niece and nephew, whom he hardly knows, as well as aging parents that aren’t his own. The web he weaves through internet sexcapades don’t help matters, and then the cat has a mess of kittens. All the mediocre college professor really wants to do is finish his research on Richard Nixon and forget his brother ever existed. Buying him an iPad was a really wrong move. Who knew you could start so much trouble through Amazon?

The book spans one year exactly, and after 365 days have passed, Harry’s life is on completely different trajectory. May We Be Forgiven is a dark comedy – emphasis on dark – and it earned A.M. Homes the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction.May We be forgiven Cranberry edition

A note about the cover: The first image reflects the cover of the book I own. However, I have to say the updated version is pretty clever too. You will understand the significance of both the lamp and the canned cranberry sauce within the first ten pages. I would say the first chapter, but there are no chapters.

Did I mention this book is odd? The fact that I’m still thinking about it tells me something important about the author. Despite the number of times I shook my head while reading it, or turned to Chuck and said, “This book is so weird,” the story left an impression on me, and in the arena of art, that’s a good thing. Whether or not you like a piece of art is almost irrelevant. If you’re still talking about it weeks after seeing it (or reading it), perhaps the artist (or writer) did her job. After all, where’s the inspiration in indifference?

Buy May We Be Forgiven here.

My ten most influential books

I was tagged by our cousin, Annette, to list the ten books that have had the greatest influence on me or have presented me with some sort of challenge. To use her words, these are the books I’d grab if the house set fire. It’s hard to list only ten, but here goes.

1. She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb (fiction) – Impeccable writing, inspiring story. I loved every word. (Buy it here.)

kiterunner2. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (fiction) – I think I read this in two or three days. Many tears. Amazing storyteller. Unfortunately, I can’t find it on my shelf, so I must have lent it out. Thank goodness this book has made it into classrooms alongside the likes of Jane Eyre, King Lear, and Catcher in the Rye. (Buy it here.)

3. Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (historical fiction) – This was the gateway book to reading all of Follett’s work. He is by far my favorite fiction writer. If only I could be half the storyteller he is… (Buy it here.)

4. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by JK Rowling (fantasy fiction) – Though I could easily say the entire Harry Potter series is a favorite, I thought it best to pick the one I love the most. The Half-Blood Prince taught me that things aren’t always what they seem. (Buy it here.)

5. One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (fiction) – Laugh-out-loud hilarious. (Buy it here.) 

6. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (memoir) – When read in the proper time and context, this one is enlightening and reflective. (Buy it here.)

7. Daring Greatly by Brené Brown (non-fiction/inspirational) – I’m still reading this one very slowly, but that’s only because every page is worth inhaling and digesting. (Buy it here.)

Middlesex8. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (fiction) – Once I got use to his writing style, the story poured out like paint on a canvas. Simply beautiful. (Buy it here.)

9. Evolving in Monkey Town by Rachel Held Evans (non-fiction/memoir/spiritual) – I could’ve have written this book, though not in the same esteem. Rachel is definitely more qualified to tackle religion, but we share similar experiences. (Now call Faith Unraveled, buy it here.)

10. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (non-fiction/memoir/instructional) – Essentially, this is my writing bible. (Buy it here.)

 


 

School update and a book review

We’ve begun our second week of school and if the boys keep at this pace we’ll be finished by March. Not really, but they are zooming through the first few units of math. Things will slow down when we hit fractions and multiplication hard core. Jackson dances around saying, “Multiplication is easy peasy,” but he’s only started with zeros and ones. I’m letting him enjoy the little victories.

As for my school, I’m loving it. Genre writing is the perfect class to take while finishing the novel for my capstone. Right now we’re reading a brainless romance novel, but next on the list is Gone, Baby, Gone. It won’t be a fresh read since I’ve seen the movie, but I expect it to be good.

The Girl You Left BehindSpeaking of books, prior to the start of the fall semester I finished The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes. It was recommended to me a few weeks ago when I asked friends on Facebook to suggest their current favorite reads. The story is a lively mix of historical and contemporary fiction that revolves around the portrait of a French woman, titled appropriately The Girl You Left Behind.

The book begins with Sophie Lefèvre, who runs a hotel in a small French town in 1916 during the German occupation. Her husband, Édouard, is away fighting in the war but has left his wife with a sweet reminder of their love for one another – an informal yet irresistible portrait he painted of her. The painting is all well and good until the German Kommandant takes notice of it. Subsequently, Sophie and the Kommandant become uncomfortably intertwined.

Fast forward nearly one hundred years and The Girl You Left Behind hangs in Liv Halston’s house, a comforting yet cruel reminder of her dead husband who bought the portrait for her as a wedding gift. Liv is in a pit of mourning and complacency when she is threatened with losing the portrait on account of restitution.

Though there’s a bit of predictability with how the book will end, the mystery is all about discovering how the portrait went from hanging on a hotel wall in 1916 France to an unrelated widow’s home in London a century later. There’s also a some suspense when it comes to finding out what happened to Sophie, who disappeared the same time as her portrait.

Overall the book was an enjoyable read and it was the first I’ve read from Jojo Moyes. Her writing is fluid and descriptive, and even though a few of things I suspected early on came true, my attention was kept until the final page because the unfolding of the portrait’s story was so interesting.

In other news, is it autumn yet?