The Only Child by Andrew Pyper

Hardcover, 304 pages
Expected publication: May 23rd 2017 by Simon Schuster

The Only Child started out as improbably as to mock the tradition of true Gothic fiction. The tension and “horror” seemed contrived from the very start, placed into our minds by the forced narration of the author, not by circumstance, not by the skilled hand that every reader searches for to guide them on their path.

This novel was a dabbling adaptation of so many classic stories of the Gothic tradition—Frankenstein, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dracula…my foot. To sample their tradition is one thing, to recreate it, another, more awe-inspiring thing. Yet this, The Only Child, was neither. It sampled their names, their ideas, but never breathed any life into them. In fact, it read as a lifeless shell of them, if that even, that writhed with too much telling me and not enough showing me. I felt nothing while reading this, not even when Pyper tried to tell me what to feel, and was bored from the start of the first chapter.

In short, The Only Child turned out to be a “fast-paced” adventure story with no soul, a play on the classic horror traditions we all love for their originality, though this novel displayed little originality of its own. I recommend it to no one, least of all lovers of classic horror or the Gothic tradition. In fact, the only surprise I found in these pages, before skipping to the end and finally putting it down, was that the renowned Simon and Schuster, whose lists I tend to love, would publish this thing in the first place. 1 star *

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis

Paperback, 320 pages
Published November 16th 2015 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published November 2009)

…there’s a difference between an old-fashioned financial panic and what had happened on Wall Street in 2008. In an old-fashioned panic, perception creates its own reality: Someone shouts “Fire!” in a crowded theater and the audience crushes each other to death in its rush for the exits. On Wall Street in 2008 the reality finally overwhelmed perceptions: A crowded theater burned down with a lot of people still in their seats. Every major firm on Wall Street was either bankrupt or fatally intertwined with a bankrupt system. The problem wasn’t that [they] had been allowed to fail. The problem was that [they] had been allowed to succeed.

I must just have a thing for any work having to do with the “Doomsday Machine” that was our economy at and around the Great Recession. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy this book–and learned a hell of a lot from it as well, but I also would put Carousel Court, a fictional account of the Great Recession, in my top 5 reads of 2016.

There are 2 major reasons for why I’m so enthralled by this phenomenon that occurred in our country and had ripple effects throughout the world economy: 1) When this was happening in 2007 and 2008, I was in college. Just another undergraduate student with big dreams and small money. I didn’t notice what was going on, as so many around me didn’t, because I was used to living off of Ramen noodles and Red Bull, me and 5 of my friends piling into my sedan to go to parties, then still holding down jobs we hated on top of it all. The struggle was real–and it was normalized at that point in our lives, so, at that time, it didn’t occur to me that what was going on around me was not the norm. But now, in retrospect, with the sharpened eyes and heightened cultural awareness I have now, it enthralls me for another reason too (2): because the greed, stupidity and raging capitalism that brought this country to its knees (only for our taxpaying dollars to bail it out and pick it back up again, of course) is what I came to understand that we are widely known for and understood as the world over during my time living overseas. Not the Recession itself, but the mentality that got us there. To see it here, to experience it as close to the inside as I can be, so many years removed, through Michael Lewis’ The Big Short is to understand what has become our weakness and our strength (depending on who you ask) and a global caricature of our mores, our values and our very personalities: greed to the point of raging ignorance.

Don’t worry, I won’t soapbox here unless you ask me to.

The basic idea here stemmed from what we already know of America: it is a land where quite often the rich do get richer while the poor do get poorer, and, because of that, there opened up a market for subprime lending like a yet-undiscovered sea full of plentiful fish just waiting to be pillaged and plundered by Wall Street and the big banks. Not only that, but the big banks functioned like dope boys, essentially, flipping their profits at the buyers’ expense, destroying their surroundings as they did so–only, these flips yielded billions upon billions, and the companies lost billions upon billions as well. The system was set up to profit from others’ losses: as homeowners went into default, homes were lost and lives derailed, there was always someone else there on the other side of the bet (or swap) to get rich off of their loss by buying and betting on the debts of average Americans.

The subprime market tapped a segment of the American public that did not typically have anything to do with Wall Street: the tranche between the fifth and twenty-ninth percentile in their credit ratings. That is, the lenders were making loans to people who were less creditworthy than 71 percent of the population.

I can’t even go into the ratings companies, Moody’s and S&P, who should have been policing this, but were instead lining their own pockets by selling AAA ratings for fees and looking the other way. And, I won’t even further comment on how the mortgage bond market was born and allowed to grow to the size that the U.S. economy came to depend on its stability, all out of greed and ripping of subprime borrowers. Nope, won’t do it–but what I will do is say that anyone who’s never read this book, anyone who is still scratching their heads and trying to figure out, “What the hell was that about?” should pick up this book and read it.

Not only was it a phenomenal read–wholly entertaining, comedic even–but it was also very insightful. I guarantee you, love this country though we do, you’ll understand the next time you’re abroad and you get the side-eye glance from the natives. Our reputations precede us, and this is only one of a million reasons why. An easily earned, happily given 5 stars. *****

Special Update for Navi Review Followers!

Hey guys, I am FINALLY in the last leg of finishing my own novel, SNAKES & LADDERS! I’m so excited, and I hope to be done with it within the next couple of weeks! My next review reads (including these and others) AND upcoming author interviews will recommence as soon as the novel’s last period is placed!

In the meantime, check out the month of April’s edition of Padmore Culture, where one of my latest book reviews will be featured!  https://padmoreculture.com/

Three Years with the Rat Three Years with the Rat by Jay Hosking

The Only Child The Only Child by Andrew Pyper

The Slip The Slip by Mark Sampson

We Shall Not All Sleep We Shall Not All Sleep by Estep Nagy

 

Follow the review at Goodreads @ Navidad Thelamour and on Twitter @thenavireview

The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo

Hardcover, 352 pages
Published March 14th 2017 by Simon & Schuster

Susan Perabo’s The Fall of Lisa Bellow is very on trend at the moment. By this, I mean that she joins the ranks of so many other (novel debut) authors writing their version of the same topic: What happens to an otherwise normal family after a child abduction? The past few months have yielded so many of these novels—the recently reviewed The Trophy Child included—that you can only stop to wonder how long this wave of like novels will continue—and who’ll do it better.

But, let’s turn our attention specifically to Lisa Bellow, shall we?

Perabo started this novel at a walk and never really picked up a lot of speed. In fact, this novel started off with a lull that bordered on boring. Though Meredith’s chapters were believable from a middle schooler’s POV, they were just sort of blah. Essentially, uninteresting chapters describing an “unremarkable” kid, as she claimed of herself early on. Perhaps this was a stylistic tool, but it bored me to skimming. The only thing about those first few chapters that I appreciated was the mother’s outlook on marriage and motherhood. Though it came from a place of cookie-cutter middle-class suburbia—and read as such, with family breakfasts, family games and singalongs described—her reaction to her life, in the context, read as real, and that DID interest me.

However, this novel’s 3-point shots—you know, those pivotal scenes that make a reader gasp for more, desperately turning the pages to become so engrossed in the story that they can’t bear to put it down; yep, those scenes—were not brilliantly handled by a long shot. And those, of course, are the ones that HAVE to be handled well. In the interest of *no spoilers*, I won’t point out specific scenes, but I will say that they weren’t presented with the drama or tension that they needed, that they deserved. It was almost like, “Oh, by the way, that just happened.” I actually had to re-read at least one of the scenes, thinking, “Surely, that’s not how we’re leaving it! Really?”

In all honesty, it’s difficult to really react to this novel, because it was kind of like cardboard—sturdy but bland. There was a unique idea here, but there wasn’t much by the way of thrilling—or even engrossing—about it. It was yet another cozy family thriller—The Trophy Child meets The Most Dangerous Place on Earth + a mug of Earl Grey tea and some fuzzy socks. If that’s what you’re looking for in your next read, CHOOSE THIS NOVEL! But, it didn’t work for me.

Was The Fall of Lisa Bellow deficient in its display of actual writing skill? No, not really. Did Lisa Bellow attempt to put a spin on an inside look at a typical family and what happens when tragedy strikes? Yes, it did. But I never particularly felt anything for these characters or the outcome of their lives. But, by a little over halfway through, I was screaming, “Can we get on with it already?”

***SPOILER*** And, the one person’s life that I did care about was NEVER resolved!***

Picture this: You’re presented with a plate beautifully smeared with a delicate pea purée—BUT that’s it. There’s no meat, no potatoes, nothing to really sink into to feel satisfied by the end of it (excuse the Southerner in me, if you will). I love a delicate purée, but not when there’s nothing else holding it up. And that’s what I got from Lisa Bellow. What am I going to do with all of these details–subtle little details that could have meant so much–if I don’t care about the people experiencing them? I didn’t need the attempted nuances of learning about Meredith’s favorite place to sit in the family car or the mother, Claire’s, perspective on watching her son grow up. Why? Because all of this was just fodder for filling and really amounted to nothing by way of an actual plot.

***SPOILER*** (Fingers to nose bridge) And I really can’t even discuss how this novel was resolved. Just can’t. Just…sigh…the novel just sort of slipped away into oblivion, so much so that I literally kept turning the pages, as if there would be something more there at the end—like that bonus scene at the end of the movie after the credits roll.***

Susan Perabo’s The Fall of Lisa Bellow did nothing for me and, unfortunately, earned little more than a ‘Meh, I coulda done without this one.’ **

*I received an advance-read copy of this novel from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

**To see more reviews, follow the blog here, on Twitter @thenavireview and at Goodreads @ Navidad Thelamour

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Paperback, 216 pages
Published September 6th 2005 by Plume (first published June 1st 1970)

…his mother did not like him to play with niggers. She had explained to him the difference between colored people and niggers. They were easily identifiable. Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud…The line between colored and nigger was not always clear; subtle and telltale signs threatened to erode it, and the watch had to be constant.

While I was not the biggest fan of Morrison’s style in this novel, I did fully appreciate the dagger-sharp insight that she brought to the color caste system that is so prevalent in African-American culture, even today. Her dialogue rang so true, I could hear it coming directly out of my mother’s mouth, my grandmother’s mouth, and those of all of the women who’ve ever filled our kitchens with raucous communal fun and glum communal tragedy alike. Her use of the Dick & Jane children’s books, used for decades to teach children to read (SEEMOTHERMOTHERISVERYNICEMOTHERWILLYOUPLAYWITHJANEMOTHERLAUGHS  LAUGHMOTHERLAUGHLA) created a chilling, ironic and staggering contrast between the lives of the whites and those of the blacks in this novel. Shirley Temple, Mary Jane candies, and Jean Harlow hairstyles – you’ll find the delicacy of all of them here, both in these characters’ reality and in metaphor. While the truth and injustices here were often sobering to read, they were filled with too much truth to rightfully deny or turn away from.

I could spend hours discussing this novel. I could quote from it all day, but I won’t do that, because the entire read was poignant and so crisply aware of the color line – the how and the why – that there is no one point that can overshadow another in the message that these words aimed to send. This novel is older than I am, and yet it still rings with such verity, with such biting truth and reality. With The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison cut open the existence of both internalized and externalized racism in America and laid it bare and exposed at our feet. For that, she deserves nothing but reverence and applause, so she will always have that from me.

Anyone who’s ever been in doubt of a color line in Black America should read this book. Anyone who’s ever questioned, “But why can’t I say those words when you say them all the time? But why do you still believe that racism exists? Why can’t you just get over it – the past is the past?” should read this book. In fact, just read this book anyway – how about that? 🙂 *****

*To see more reviews, follow the blog on Twitter @thenavireview and on Goodreads @Navidad Thelamour.

Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito

Kindle Edition, 432 pages
Expected publication: March 7th 2017 by Other Press (first published 2016)

“No one asked if I wanted to save Sebastian, but you all blame me for failing…”

I was truly excited to read and review this novel, Quicksand, by Swedish author Malin Persson Giolito. I first heard about it when it was just a deal to be translated—just another deal that happens every week in the publishing world. Yet, already I was intrigued by the premise and kept an eye out for it. So, you can imagine that when it happened across my path as an advance-read copy, wrapped in an unobtrusive (and probably at the time, incomplete) front cover, I leapt at it.

Maja Norberg is an eighteen-year-old last-year student at an expensive prep school in the center of a wealthy Swedish suburb. When she meets Sebastian, the son of billionaire Claes Fagerman, she’s immediately swept up in the ultra-cool image he’s always exuded, the weeks spent on his father’s luxurious boats and in all of the perks and toys, drugs and sex, emotional angst and obsession that their relationship evolves into. During this last year in school, the unthinkable happens, and Maja is left holding the smoking gun, literally, tearing her away from her comfy existence in the ‘burbs and placing her right in the middle of the media sensation court case of the century.

This novel started slowly, and in a tone that irritated me at first. Rather, Maja irritated me at first. But I pressed on, and I was very soon rewarded for it. For, all of the pieces of this narrative (this novel is told in interchanging sections) that seemed scattered at first, all moved together to complete the picture as a whole at a brilliant pace, pulling me in with it. This was a superb modern-day characterization of rich teens. Not a single character came off as a caricature or stereotype; they all filled the page, as if they were real people—flaws and all. Imagine Steig Larsson meets The Most Dangerous Place on Earth, and you’ve got a great idea of the sharp insight and cunningly skilled writing that you’re in for here, for this novel was everything that Dangerous Place was trying to be.

One of my favorite goodie takeaways from this novel was those thoughtful yet significant nuggets of truth and awareness here, which I so welcomed and respected. I love a sharp narrator, one who can pick apart the people around them. And that’s who Giolito gave her reader in Maja Norberg. Because, what you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find within these pages is that Quicksand features class tensions, the privilege of wealth and what happens when those taut lines cross one time too many.

“…you are wrong if you think a good story isn’t necessary. All you have to do is watch Idol or X Factor…to understand that the backstory is half the point. You all want to be surprised when the fatty sings like a star, you want to feel gratified when he made it ‘despite the odds,’ and you want to believe that it’s just bad luck that my parents don’t also live in Djursholm and work as doctors and lawyers, that it’s an injustice you are definitely not complicit in, but you can say it’s wrong and feel bad that we don’t take better care of our immigrants, if they would only be a little more Swedish, learn their new language faster, study a little harder, then the American dream would be just within reach. You love the American dream…”

In Quicksand, Malin Persson Giolito not only weaves an incredibly incisive and pulsating story, but she also manages to tackle serious social and economic issues with stunning clarity that made me sit up and re-read her passages. And, her socioeconomic commentary was presented in all of the best ways, so integrated into the actual story line that the latter would have seemed incomplete without the former, so dramatically illustrated by the sharp angles and trajectories at which these teenage lives crossed that it becomes a major undertone of the novel—a foundation of the plot rather than an accessory. Lines like, “Our problem isn’t immigrants, it’s this one percent with too much money,” cut deeply within the narrative and provoke thought all the more, because their brilliant placement within the narrative makes the reader feel that they’ve stumbled across a rare, half-hidden jewel, so that they long to find and pick up another.

I became so fully engrossed in Maja’s story, that I, too, gasped at turns of events in the courtroom and I, too, along with the judge and jury, weighed the evidence against her, trying to decide if I felt that she was guilty or not. Giolito was very skilled with the way that she handled this novel, because all parts of it—the courtroom, the jail/solitary confinement, and the backstory leading up to it—were all truly gripping, once the novel fully took off. Even the small annoyances at the beginning came together and re-presented themselves in a new light in the end, which I could only stand back and appreciate.

Giolito made me question my own instincts as to whether Maja was guilty or innocent, and I loved every minute of it. I was compelled to turn each and every page, to live these characters’ lives out with them until the very end, and for that I award the rarely given and always coveted 5 stars. *****

*I received an advance-read copy of this novel from the publisher, Other Press, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

*To see more reviews, follow the blog on Twitter @thenavireview and on Goodreads @ Navidad Thelamour!

The Trophy Child by Paula Daly

Hardcover, 386 pages
Expected publication: March 7th 2017 by Grove Press (first published January 26th 2017)

“Karen didn’t believe in keeping a lid on things, picking your battles, and all that other claptrap parents were advised to do. When did people stop being parents, exactly? Karen knew when—when they were scared to death their kids wouldn’t love them any more if they scolded them, that’s when. When they’d fallen out of love with their spouses and so the thought of conflict with their child, the thought of saying a simple ‘no’, panicked them beyond measure. For Christ’s sake, people didn’t even scold their dogs any more…”

Trophy children are quite en vogue these days, judging by the recent publications so many publishing houses have put out. I, myself, have read and reviewed a large handful of novels about this “perfect child” phenomenon, often featuring plots wrapped around the mystery of the death or fall of that child. The backstories here are often the same, stemming from parental pressures inflicted by those living vicariously through their offspring, rather than asserting those pressures upon their own lives, so it really ends up coming down to two things: intended audience and execution. Paula Daly’s latest novel, The Trophy Child, is definitely for a certain audience and the execution was fine. But that’s about all that it was: fine. If the above blurb made you think you’d encounter some spin on this “perfect child” motif, adding poignancy, startlingly well-drawn characters, or anything resembling originality, you may be disappointed by this one.

Here you will find the quintessential “thriller” for housewives. I say that more so honestly than sarcastically, but, to answer your next question, “No, this one did not work for me.” I was bored to skimming (if not tears) for the majority of the first half of this novel, and could find nothing of value or originality to take from this one. It was formulaic in most ways imaginable; the twists were enough to keep me reading, while not enough to provide any sense of shock or admiration from me. Not a single character in this novel interested me or made me yearn for more, likely because I never saw anything within any one of these characters that made me care about the outcome of the lives in the slightest. How’s that for honest?

Starting with the “Tiger Mom” herself, Karen Bloom is painted as an overly ambitious sort of mother, one who pushes herself, her children and her husband to exude perfection in all shapes and forms. We have them here in the U.S., too, of course, usually identifiable by their hectic schedules filled to the brim with carting their minivan full of children to this practice or that, passing the days away in Whole Foods in their Lululemon getups. We know these women, and whether we identify with them or not, they have become a notorious stereotype in our culture. Thus, suffice it to say, the brilliantly written blurb for this novel will be more than enough to get readers to pick this novel up, but I suspect there will be polarizing opinions on this one. Here’s why:

Paula Daly has a fan base; there are plenty of people out there who are looking for a comfy pseudo-thriller, some book that you can curl up on the couch with and take in with a cup of Earl Grey and a bit of skim milk. If you’re one of those readers, then you may absolutely love this one! Daly will have lived up to her reputation and really entertained. However, if you’re looking for any sort of depth, action, major thrill, or narrative creativity, you’ve come to the wrong place and should step no further.

The trouble with Paula Daly’s The Trophy Child is that the 350+ pages that it took to tell this tale were not particularly well used. The characterizations were in a lot of ways lackluster and uninteresting, namely because the characters failed to live up to anything more than the stereotypes they’d been written as. Karen Bloom is, seriously, just a disagreeable and annoying person, to the point that she actually contemplates fairly early on in the novel whether not she should throw a huge tantrum, because its ‘been a while since she’s thrown one.’ (Goodness, I just wanted to slap her in the face and tell her to get off the page.) Her husband is mealy mouthed and spineless and also happens to be a drinker and womanizer. Add in the pothead son, the duo of the order-barking military grandfather + the spacy wife and you’ve got yourself a rather interesting novel, right? Wrong. Just think The Nest meets cozy pseudo-thriller, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect here, because none of these stereotypes were particularly turned on their head, no new and entertaining characterization of these typecasts ever happened across the page. I quickly lost interest and had to fight the urge to skim ahead. Often, I lost this fight with myself and went ahead and did it.

I would characterize Paula Daly’s The Trophy Child as an okay read for a quick little jaunt, something to read when you’re off of work on a random Tuesday or something. A nice airport read as you suffer through a layover. But it’s unlikely that I’ll remember anything in particular about this novel by the time I finish my next on, and, for me, that warrants a ‘Meh’ and a half. That’s about it. 2.5 stars, which, on a good day, could be rounded up to 3, per my rating scale of “Average.” ***

 

*I received an advance-read copy of this novel thanks to Grove Press, via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

**To see more reviews, follow the blog on Twitter @thenavireview and on Goodreads at Navidad Thelamour!