Carousel Court by Joe McGinniss, Jr.

Hardcover, 368 pages
Published August 2nd 2016 by Simon & Schuster

          “He was a thirty-two-year-old, college-educated father drowning his family in debt but energized by a simple prospect: proving to Phoebe that he alone, not a New York banker or some handsome young physician, was the winning play still.”           

Oh, my God. I can’t remember the last time I was so satisfied with a read and applauding of its ending! It was so well done; the writing was just phenomenal. It never came off as corny or cliché, over-embellished or melodramatic. Just real. Honest and real. Fearless and foreboding, raw and sharp at the edges, McGinniss’ Carousel Court was like staring into a mirror with no makeup, no fluff.

Nick and Phoebe are the everyman: He remembers when they were both fresh out of college, full of ambition, energetic and in love. Now they’re 32—not old at all—but what has happened to them? So they decide to go for it: “…it seemed that everyone had a house or was buying one…young married professional buying and selling houses for six-figure profits. So why not them? Of course them, finally them…they quickly negotiated an interest-only, zero-down, 125 percent renovation mortgage on the house in Serenos.” And so it began.

The first thing I thought when I opened this one was: The Big Short. Carousel Court takes that to a whole other level, to a personal level that you can feel. It reaches inside of the macrocosm that was our economy in 2008 and pulls out a first-hand story of people who could’ve been your neighbors, who could’ve been your friends.

And if we’re going to get one thing straight, it’s this: McGinniss’ voice is unique, his writing style distinctive. It’s filled with a sort of nervous energy—ideas hopping around but somehow all fitting nicely together—that is magnetically kinetic. It was almost like free hand, jumping from topic to topic and scene to scene sometimes frantically, creating a brilliantly fast pace set in the California suburbs. It was a lens punctuated with short, curt lines that hit home right in the gut and blunt observations that rang so true that they could only be that. Honestly, I found it hard to follow in the beginning—until I didn’t. At some point, a few pages in, I relaxed into the writing style and let it carry me away. If you’re resistant to an unconventional voice, one that’s punctuated with terseness and modern-day, suburban grit (think the movie Closer, 2004) this read might take a second to sink into, but that’s okay. You’ll get there. Keep going. Though I had to re-read some of the passages in the beginning to find my footing with them, somehow, I found it intriguingly refreshing and immersive.

My sole qualm was a minute one: I’m still not sure if it was my own misunderstanding, but I found inconsistencies with Phoebe’s character, which nagged at me but didn’t ruin the read or bog me down with the necessity of clarity: is she fair-haired or brunette, 30 or 32 years old? (I feel like I read all of these about her and wasn’t sure which was correct.) But those perceived incongruences didn’t make her any less appealing to watch or any less deserving of my attention.

I rooted for Nick and Phoebe every step of the way, right up to the very last page. Every wrong move, every fight and sharp remark, every scathing text message furiously tapped out on an iPhone and every feeling of self-doubt—I felt it with them, and it felt genuine. They were people I wouldn’t mind grabbing a beer with, and I know I’d love every second of it if I could. I was behind them the whole way, and I wanted them to win.

            “Fall, Daddy, fall…”

In Carousel Court, McGinnis truly captured the rhythms and fine grooves of our lives, of college-educated, middle classers right on the line of Gen X and Millennial. He tackles the question, without ever explicitly stating it, that we must all ask ourselves from time to time in this day and age: “How did I go from walking the stage, the world at my feet, full of conquering ambition, to this? How did I get here? Can I get back?” If life has ever dealt you a sobering, swift slap in the face, if you’ve ever asked yourself these questions, pick this one up. And if you haven’t, still pick this one up: you might need a little dose of reality. With that in mind, Carousel grabbed a well-deserved, happily-given 5 stars. *****

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Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

     

Hardcover, 304 pages
Published August 9th 2016 by St. Martin’s Press (first published February 11th 2016)

   Behind Closed Doors turned out to be a decent debut that did its job entertaining me and building some tension, but it didn’t keep me up late at night reading or anything kin to that. B.A. Paris’ debut novel is the tale of Grace Angel (yep, quite the name, I know). She meets her McDreamy—a George Clooney look-alike—after years of potential husbands fleeing at the idea of having to care for her sister, Millie, who has Down Syndrome. Not only does Jack Angel not mind this arrangement, but he’s also a champion in the legal world for defending domestic abuse victims. So, who woulda thought he’d turn out to be a deranged domestic abuser himself, right! Grace finds her every move and conversation controlled by her husband, who portrays the very picture of perfection to outsiders—the beautiful wife who cooks five-course meals and always knows just the right thing to say. But this arrangement is for show only, and he literally keeps her held captive, locked in a thread-bare bedroom for days at a time with ever more sadistic methods of torturing her. As Grace tries to figure out how to extricate herself and her handicapped younger sister from his terrifying and oppressive grip, we learn just how deranged the human mind can be….

Okay, so we have to address the big issue that lots of reviewers are having with this one: yeah, you could drive a freight train through the plausibility of motives, honestly. But, we do live in a crazy world, and anyone who’s known someone who’s gone through domestic violence will understand the imprisonment—mentally, emotionally, physically—that Grace experiences. So, with that in mind, Closed Doors didn’t particularly strike me as “far-fetched,” BUT (no, I can’t just let this one off the hook) I found Grace’s motives to be questionable for sure.

In the first chunk of the novel, I was ready to write Behind Closed Doors off as a beach read if ever I’ve seen one, and I was ready to pinch myself for not taking advantage of the “sample” feature for e-reads (but wouldn’t that just take all the fun out it)! But the novel righted itself at some point, and the thrill finally began.

Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that one of my qualms with this one is that it took the easy way out by narrating all of the little intricacies that would’ve made this read more special—that would’ve earned it 5 stars. It takes real skill to thrill the begeezes out of someone with action scenes and mounting tensions, but it’s a much smaller order to just tell the reader what you want them to know and how that should make them feel. As a reader, it’s those moments of realization, those instances of ah, that’s what he meant. I get it that both delight and submerge us in the story. But, those moments take dexterity of imagination and real skillfulness with plots, with words. That you won’t necessarily find here, but if you’re looking for a quick read that’ll give you a little bit of a heart pound—you know, nothing too crazy, nothing that’ll really stretch or scar you—then look no farther.

In the end, Paris managed to craft a pretty well-executed novel, and I can see why some people were inclined to give it 5 stars. But for me, this was a 5-star idea with 3-star execution. That’s my final answer, and I’m sticking to it. 🙂 ***

Ladivine by Marie NDiaye

Hardcover, 288 pages
Published April 26th 2016 by Knopf (first published February 14th 2013)

So sorry, I couldn’t even finish this one before putting it down, which is extremely extremely rare for me!, because the word that kept popping into my head was overwrought, Overwrought, OVERWROUGHT! It seemed like NDiaye was trying way too hard to be deep or profound, and I just couldn’t get into her writing style. It seemed…melodramatic, but not in a way that I could appreciate. Just couldn’t do it, so, sadly, this will be the first novel EVER to make it onto my “Could Not Even Finish” shelf. But, to be fair, I’ll refrain from rating this one since I couldn’t even get halfway.

Loner: A Novel by Teddy Wayne

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

Hardcover, 224 pages
Expected publication: September 13th 2016 by Simon & Schuster

Loner: A Novel turned out to be an unexpected gift, a surprise wolf wrapped in sheep’s clothing. This, of course, is always the best kind of surprise because—let’s face it—who wants to read through shocking revelations that never shock and humdrum plot lines that fail to thrill?

David Alan Federman is entering his freshman year at Harvard in much the same way that he’s lived his pre-college life: introverted, awkward enough to make a habit of spelling large words and sentences backward in his head for kicks (his college entry essay was entitled “SDRAWKCAB”) and perpetually uncomfortable in social settings of pretty much any kind. The middle child of attorney parents who remind him to take his Lactaid before going down to the freshman ice cream party, he meets—rather, instantly becomes enamored with from quite afar—a fellow freshman who’s too-cool-for-school attitude and socially elite entourage easily draw his attention. But the social caste system of high school still exists, even on the prestigious campus of Harvard, and we all know how that goes. Hence this novel takes off at a trot and never really slows, as one occurrence builds upon the tension of the next. What you end up with is a delicious university-setting tautness and social hierarchies traversed with alarming repercussions.

One of the many things that this novel had going for it was setting. No, not just the fact that everyone knows Harvard, one of America’s darling Ivys, but that everything from the physical landscape of the campus to the “baroque” vocab used by its overachieving matriculates immersed the reader in the scene from the very start, both physically and socially. Immersion is a true key to a great read, as we all know, and Loner offered that in spades in a way that was so unique that it struck me as off-putting at first, offering SAT-vocab-laden narration and interior thoughts that practically oozed with a telling social awkwardness—the kind that could only be the result of years of practiced introversion and prolonged interior conversations with oneself. While at first it struck me as a tick, I soon realized that it was, contrarily, a brilliantly executed mood of the novel that all came together delightfully or maybe disturbingly in the end.

But it is with the unique POV shift that the reader first begins to realize something’s wrong.

The blurb for this one left out one key detail that would probably grab it even more readers: that this is a psychological ride as much as anything else. It pushed the boundaries of what we’re comfortable with. Because, you’ll first notice David’s obsession with Veronica the first time the switch to 2nd person happens. You may run across a passage like, “And then I saw you walk in…” in the middle of a 1st person narration, and you’ll know. Oh, you’ll know. It succeeds in creating a hazily unsettling atmosphere, like at any minute you might find that you’ve entered the mind of a young sociopath…

That kept me on my toes.

I’ll resist stepping up to the podium to deliver a monologue on the pros and cons of 2nd person writing and how it’s increased usage in contemporary writing effects the reader—gosh, sounds like a class I wouldn’t mind taking!—and instead side-step that well-beaten path to say that I genuinely enjoyed this work far more than I would have had that literary tactic not been employed, because it created a charged atmosphere of voyeurism.

What I most applaud the author for, however—and trust me, there’s plenty to applaud here—was the author’s clear use of restraint. Restraint, restraint, RESTRAINT! It’s easy to fill a novel with superfluous passages that go nowhere and superfluous characters who do nothing but it’s a skillful author indeed who can cut away the nonsense and tell a truly streamlined tale that still manages to leave no detail unexplored, without inflating the word count with unnecessary prose. That is what Teddy Wayne did here in Loner, hence the short page count and the knock-out punch ending that landed the hardest blow, unsoftened by uncut fat. This novel was a sure ride toward the dénouement with steadily escalating subtle cues that piqued my reader Spidey senses like a dog’s ears perking in the wind. Put your ear to the ground. Can you hear that? For something wicked this way comes…

**Minor spoiler alert** Following David’s descent into obsession** was thrilling, like the downward slope of a roller coaster that you expected—you saw it as you approached the top of the summit, but your heart still dropped to your stomach on the way down. But, then again, we all know that I’m partial to character pieces that peel back the layers, and this was definitely that.
Sharp and utterly disquieting, this novel is so much more than first meets the eye. Every word and action were deliberate. I loved seeing it all come together, seeing the author’s clever hand at work and realizing that those scattered nuances were all part of a larger, oh-so-deliberate whole. I’d gladly jump in bed with the Loner again, and I recommend you do too. 4.5 stars ****