Reading List for Jennie for October through December, Part Two
Underlying by Janelle Harris
I know. I KNOW. Anyone who reads my reviews is probably heartily sick of me bitching about Amazon First Reads, especially all the mediocre suspense I find there. Skip this if you want to avoid my whining (which would be understandable). The book is narrated by Susan/Sue in the first person, switching back and forth between past and present time. In the past, Sue and her twin brother Adam are celebrating their 21st birthday in the flat they share in Dublin. In the present, Susan and her husband Paul have moved to a pastoral village with their daughter Amelia, and are throwing a barbecue to get to know the neighbors. In both timelines, tragedy strikes: Adam goes out to pick up the suit he’s wearing to their big birthday party, and is struck and killed by a drunk driver. In the present, Amelia goes missing at the party and everyone fears she has either been kidnapped, or wandered off and drowned in the local lake.
Gone Girl was my gateway to this sort of suspense novel, and remains one of the best examples of the genre I’ve read. I’ve often trying to recreate the experience I had when reading it, and I come across a lot of authors that I suspect are trying to, if not imitate it in some way, capitalize on its success with some thematic similarities. (Of course, I’m sure there were books before Gone Girl that tread similar ground, but that book’s impact was pretty undeniable, I think.) Anyway, in Underlying, we have the unreliable narrator and the Big Twist about halfway through the book. One of the reasons Underlying didn’t work for me was that it telegraphed the twist for a while before the reveal. I never understand it when authors do this – I’m not sure if I’m supposed to go “aha!” earlier than I do, or if I’m actually supposed to be surprised when the twist is confirmed. It feels like a slow burn twist, where I sort of think – maybe this is what’s going on? am I missing something? – and then when the reveal comes it feels anti-climatic to me. So, in summary, the twist didn’t really do much for me.
Other issues with the book – Susan is thoroughly unlikable. Even when she’s supposed to be sympathetic, there is something very off-putting about her personality. She’s not funny or clever, and she’s certainly not nice, so she’s very hard to root for. The other characters are either similarly unlikable and/or just poorly drawn. The writing is unpolished. It’s only because the story held my attention, and because the ending was more satisfying than I expected, that I’m giving Underlying a C.
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Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey
This was an Amazon First Read I had high hopes for early on, but which just kind of fizzled for me by the end. Cassie McDowell is a 12-year-old living on a farm outside of Lilydale, Minnesota with her older sister Sephie and her parents in the 1980s. The story opens with the McDowells enjoying family game night, the wholesomeness of which is quickly fractured by Cassie’s father’s weird insistence on giving his daughters massages. It turns out that things are really rotten in Lilydale in general and the McDowell household in particular. In town, there’s a reported Peeping Tom and rumors of boys being abducted and molested. At home, Cassie’s father is an unstable alcoholic who throws occasional swingers parties and keeps the basement locked for sinister reasons. I found Unspeakable Things really readable, and appreciated the thorough grounding in 80s pop culture (my wheelhouse, so to speak; Cassie could have been my contemporary).
Slowly, irritants started to build up for me, though: Cassie feels age-appropriate at times but sometimes veers weirdly into behavior that just doesn’t fit my conception of an almost-13-year-old of that era (playing with dolls, for instance). The possible suspects list grows (is ANY man in the vicinity of Lilydale not a thorough creep?) and Cassie keeps having ominous encounters that she barely escapes from (I mean, a ridiculous number – in one outing she flees from a creepy neighbor and later encounters some rough local boys she has to run away from, too). Cassie’s attitude towards her father ping-pongs between suspicion (she’s so afraid of him coming into her room at night that she sleeps under her bed or in the closet every night) and the belief that she needs his help in her determination to solve the mystery of what is happening to boys in Lilydale. The inconsistency could be put down to Cassie’s ambivalence about her father, but it feels more just like she’s all over the place as a character. My grade for Unspeakable Things was initially a B- (again, it was really readable), but the more I think about it the more I have issues with it, so I think I’m dropping my grade to a C.
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The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine
I picked this up as a Daily Deal, in August of 2018. I remembered that Janine had reviewed it, apparently all the way back in 2014 (!) Though it took me five years from the time of Janine’s review to actually read it, I’m glad I did.
I don’t have much to say about this excellent book that Janine’s review doesn’t cover; I also gave it a B+. I had a little trouble getting into the prose style, which is a bit clipped in what feels like an appropriately “Jazz Age” way. But I acclimated fairly quickly. The main character, Jo, comes off as very flinty to the world and especially to the sisters she tries to protect. The tension between Jo’s intentions and the facade she wears made her very sympathetic to me. The fairy tale elements were subtle but well done; there was a slightly unworldly sense to the story. For instance, the girls are so isolated that some of Jo’s sisters never even meet their mother, and her death isn’t made known to the children until years later, even though they occupy the same house. Plus there’s the essential unreal quality to a family of 12 daughters. I will have to check out Valentine’s backlist someday soon.
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A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
I’d never read Bill Bryson and having heard good things, I felt I should remedy that. Unfortunately, I picked this one up without a really good idea of what it was about. I mean, I thought a short history of nearly everything would be sort of more inclusive, but it turned out to be “nearly everything really sciency about the earth and the universe.” I’m not really all that interested in science, generally speaking, so I was sort of at a disadvantage right away. That’s not to say that I mind learning scientific facts if they’re presented in an engaging way, but this was just a bit too much and a bit too long and a bit too sciency for me. It didn’t help that my edition presented the material using metric measurements. This might not have been an issue but when measurements are constantly used to give the reader an idea of how big or how small or how far something is, it becomes frustrating. Another issue that I wouldn’t have expected was that reading about the vastness and capriciousness of our world actually made me kind of anxious. I’m sure this is a great book for some readers, but for me it was a real mismatch, and I’m giving it a C. I may give Bryson another try at some point; I’ll be more careful about which book I choose, though.
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The Chimes by Charles Dickens
I was hunting around for a Christmas classic to read at the end of the year, and I found out that Charles Dickens wrote several other Christmas novellas subsequent to A Christmas Carol. So I thought I’d start with this, the first one, written in 1844. It tells the story of Trotty, a poor, elderly Londoner who ekes out a meager living running messages. His usual waiting spot is by the steps of a church; Trotty identifies with and anthropomorphizes the church bells (the titular “chimes”). On New Year’s Eve, his beloved daughter and her fiance announce they plan to marry on New Year’s Day. An encounter with an alderman and the MP that Trotty is paid to take a message to leave him in despair, feeling that he and his fellow poor folk are wicked and deserve their unhappy fates. That night he dreams a very Ebenezer-like dream, in which he dies while climbing the clock tower to the bells and the spirits of the bells show him the sad futures in store for his loved ones. Though The Chimes follows the themes of A Christmas Carol in some respects, it doesn’t have the magic of that story and Dickens’ penchant for broad characterizations hammers home the morality-tale-ness of it all a bit too hard. I gave it a B-.
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Devil’s Daughter by Lisa Kleypas
So, this is the book that started me back reading Lisa Kleypas historical romances after a long break. Janine’s review intrigued me enough to start the series, and I liked the first four books well enough (I gave them all straight B grades) to keep reading up to this, the fifth book. I would suggest reading Janine’s review for a plot synopsis and lots of very positive thoughts and good reasons why you should read Devil’s Daughter. For me, this was yet another B. Which isn’t a bad grade! I may have had slightly elevated expectations, but I think it’s mostly just that while this series as a whole has been very enjoyable and readable in a way that historical romances haven’t been for me in a long time, they still hew to a formula that keeps “like a lot” from being quite “love.” I did love the cat though! The cat was my favorite.
Bill Bryson’s books either really work for me or fall completely flat. If you do end up trying another one, I’d recommend one of his books about the English language THE MOTHER TONGUE or MADE IN AMERICA.
Can you elaborate on how you found Devil’s Daughter formulaic? To me it was the least formulaic book of the series because West was neither titled nor wealthy.
So happy you liked The Girls at the Kingfisher Club. In hindsight I wonder if I should have graded it higher. It has stuck with me more than other books I read that year have.
Thanks for sharing your list, Jennie. I’ll second Jayne’s suggestion of The Mother Tongue; it’s one of my favorite Bryson books.
@Jayne: Thanks (and to Kareni!) – I’ve heard good things about The Mother Tongue.
@Janine: Ugh, I’ve forgotten parts of it already, honestly. Maybe it was just the good girl/bad boy connection? West was very focused on how he couldn’t be with her because of his misspent past, which felt familiar.
@Jennie: Yeah, that’s true, but I read that as being more what he said than what he felt. My reading of him was that because of his loveless childhood he felt very vulnerable and believed that if his skeletons ever came out, Phoebe and the kids would turn away from him—that he would lose them. And he couldn’t bear for it to happen.
There’s a scene where Phoebe says “Trust us. Trust me and my sons to love you.” And West replies, “How could I ever count on anyone to do that?”
And there’s Sebastian’s statement “I understand you, Ravenel. I’ve been in your shoes. You’re afraid, but you’re not a coward. Stand up to this. Stop running.”
And both the motif with the cat—the question of whether or not she can trust people enough to be domesticated— and West’s fear of being shaved are symbolic of that.
To me all that made it fresh because typically in bad boy / good girl stories it’s the heroine is afraid to trust the hero, and not the other way around.
@Janine: Ooh, that’s an interesting point about how the cat story dovetailed with the Phoebe and West story!
@Jennie: Yes. I didn’t pick up on it the first time I read the book either (On my first read I graded it a B+ too, but after my third read I raised my grade to an A). That kind of stuff was why I read the book five times. I love it when I notice something in a later reading that I missed before. But I was very much into West, and that was a big part of it too. He’s the most interesting character in the series by far.
My favorite Bill Bryson is A Walk in the Woods, Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. Very, very funny bits, some serious and others insightful.
I’ve only ever tried to read read one Bill Bryson book, I’m a Stranger Here Myself. I didn’t get far.
@Mzcue: I’ve heard good things about that one, too. Basically I think I read the one Bryson book I was guaranteed not to like.
@Janine: Do you remember why it didn’t work for you?
It was over a decade ago but from what I remember, I didn’t find the part I read (probably only a chapter or two) humorous. I was also hoping it would focus more about being an ex-pat, since that was what it supposed to be about, but the part I read, at least, seemed to be a superficial take on it. That was disappointing, because I have experience of what that is like, and I wanted him to dig into the topic more than he did.