Friday, May 24, 2013

The Never List (Koethi Zan)

Sometimes terrible things can happen to someone no matter how many safety precautions he or she takes.  In Koethi Zan’s at-times gripping The Never List, Sarah and Jennifer are two best friends intent on living their lives as safely as possible, always noting the nearest exit and carrying pepper spray.  One day, they are both kidnapped despite their cautious ways.  Sarah spends the next few years with two other girls, Christine and Tracey, in the kidnapper’s dangerous hands.  Jennifer has a far different fate.

Zan weaves her narrative between following the girls as they try to survive in the dungeon and alternately, as women, trying to make lives for themselves.  As the kidnapper continues to communicate with them from prison, the women desperately attempt to stop him from getting out on parole.  This means going back to a place that they were hoping never to relive both mentally and physically.

The Never List can be a terrifying read, and I found my heart beating wildly in quite a few spots.  The supporting characters are all interesting and seamlessly ingrained into the story.  What keeps it from getting a 5, or even a 4, are the last few chapters, which I found completely outlandish and unbelievable (not in a good way).  However, read The Never List with the lights on, for it has some parts that will definitely keep you up at night.


Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Fatal Likeness (Lynn Shepherd)

In Lynn Shepherd’s A Fatal Likeness, detective Charles Maddox has been called to the Shelley family estate, currently the home of troubled poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s son, daughter-in-law, and wife Mary, the author of Frankenstein.  They are desperately trying to keep secrets from coming out that could completely ruin the reputations of Percy, who is deceased, and Mary.  Charles soon discovers that his seriously ill great uncle was involved somehow in the Shelleys' lives, and based on his missing diary pages, it seems like the uncle wants to erase this from the record.

There is much more to this novel….TOO much more.  Just when you think you have your head wrapped around everything, Shepherd adds another mystery into the mix.  I applaud her for trying to construct a multi-layered story, but the hallmark of a novel with depth is that things easily fall into place at the end.  That didn’t happen here, and I was left with far more questions than answers.

Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, but it always makes me very uneasy when authors try to fill in the gaps too liberally.  Even if you know the general biography of a historical figure, I think authors have to be responsible in their writing in order to not damage the person's legacy.  Shepherd makes the Shelleys do terrible things, but in her author notes, says that much of the novel is based on her own imagination.  That, to me, is walking a fine line.


Monday, May 13, 2013

The Dinner (Herman Koch)

The past few years have seen books trending towards the psychological thriller.  Some, such as William Landay’s Defending Jacob and S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep are like giant puzzles, just begging for the reader to put them together.  Others, like Gillian Flynn’s phenomenally successful Gone Girl, practically make the reader feel queasy inside and want to take a shower at the end.  Herman Koch’s international bestseller The Dinner is a hybrid of the two styles.

We start off with Paul and Claire, a husband and wife, getting ready for to go to an exorbitantly expensive restaurant with Paul’s brother and sister-in-law, Serge and Babette.  As Paul is the narrator (and he becomes an increasingly unreliable one at that as The Dinner progresses), we quickly learn that he does not want to go, but we're left to think that it’s because he does not get along with Serge.  Before they leave, Paul goes to his son’s (Michel’s) room to search for something on Michel’s cell phone.  We know that Paul found what he was looking for but do not quite know what that is until the real reason for the dinner becomes horrifyingly clear. 

Koch wisely fills the book with minutiae that lulls the reader almost into a false sense of complacency.  He describes the food ad nauseam, brilliantly naming each section after the dinner courses.  Then, without warning, Koch pulls the rug out from under us; the serene meal descriptions stop so he can get into the real “meat” of the story, and we are reminded that, unfortunately, things are rarely what they seem.


Sunday, May 5, 2013

The House at the End of Hope Street (Menna van Praag)

The House at the End of Hope Street is Menna van Praag's glorious novel about a magical home and its inhabitants.  It's the type of book that comforts you like a bowl of chicken soup and just makes you feel better about yourself in times of trouble.  With a who's who of historical figures and unforgettable modern-day characters, The House at the End of Hope Street is a beautiful literary work.

Alba perceives her life as being in ruins, having just had her academic reputation stolen from her.  Her beloved mother has just taken her own life, and her siblings do not seem to care one iota for her.  One day, she shows up at a house where people she's never met have been waiting for her.  This is a house for people in despair who are learning to pick up the pieces of their lives again, and the caretaker, Peggy, says that Alba is welcome to stay for ninety-nine nights.  Pictures of past residents on the wall, including Agatha Christie, Dorothy Parker, and Sylvia Plath, communicate with both the main characters and each other, which just goes to show that every single one of us has needed a "time out" at some point.

This book is a delightfully written fable about what life truly means, and when Peggy has her "a-ha!" moment towards the end, I had a light bulb go off in my own head.  You'll come to know these characters well, anxiously awaiting their fates, and seeing a little part of yourself in all of them.