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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!

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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!

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The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

Hardcover, 276 pages
Expected publication: March 7th 2017 by Crown

 

Amy Engel’s adult fiction debut, The Roanoke Girls, turned out to be more than I’d hoped for in theme, in characters, in setting and narration. Despite all of the deep, dark and twisty subject matter that a lot of readers are commenting on—followers of my reviews know that I LOVE the dark and twisty stuff; keep it coming!—this novel really struck me as a breath of fresh air, because the characters were all so real in their flaws. They all struck me as real people, people who you might meet on the street and nod to with a passing wave, never knowing the secrets they’ve got stored in their closets at home…

Lane and Allegra Roanoke spent one unforgettable summer together that neither of them will ever forget, a summer that neither of them ever really recover from. The Roanoke Girls all share the same distinguishing features: long dark hair, piercing blue eyes and bodies that few men can ignore or deny. But it is something much deeper that binds them all together: they’re all branches of the same tainted tree. Those who have survived have fled, and those who have died aren’t done telling their secrets. When Lane Roanoke’s mother commits suicide (no spoiler), she ends up right back at the beautifully sprawling home that her mother had fled from, only to one day flee herself. And when Lane’s cousin goes missing, Lane is drawn back to that same ranch in Kansas, the one that those Roanoke girls can’t seem to get out of their blood, the one that they’re all bound to, even in death.

Admittedly, the big secret was alluded to early on, but, honestly, that really helped this novel, because it allowed Amy Engel to take the time to peel back the layers of the family and each of the Roanoke girls, to answer the more important question of why rather than what. With that said, the reveal was less in the subject matter at heart than it was in the history behind it and how it came to shape this family and those around them. The reveal was in the sharp realizations, in the dagger-wielding dialogue and in how the other sisters’ stories wove it all together. In short, the reveal was in how Engel finessed the story rather than beating her reader over the head with it, and for that, readers who love this one will rejoice.

Engel was smart with the way that she executed The Roanoke Girls, because she did away with the unnecessarily large and pompous word count in favor of telling a resonating story with no fat or fillers. That’s something that I always admire, an author’s ability to streamline, to edit, to give the reader what they need, unsubmerged in minutiae. Brava.

This novel was a truly exceptional glimpse into the inner workings of a family with too many secrets, hidden behind a façade that too much money has a way of affording. It was bitter at the edges and dark at its core, while being written in a tone that was both clear and sharp. Aware. And often, those are my favorite kinds of characters—the ones who aren’t fooled easily, who shake off the wool over their eyes without feeling the need to wallow in or latch onto innocence and sheltering. I loved Roanoke for that, for allowing the characters to unfold and to be themselves without shame, without cowardice, without the masking of politesse.

Engel’s poignancy can be found littered throughout the narration. Each and every chapter ending will leave you with a flutter in your chest, maybe a sharp intake of breath. I was hooked from the first chapter of this novel, a rare feat that I’m glad to have experienced with Engel. This novel pulls you into the Roanoke world completely, utterly. You surrender to the soft turns in plot and the biting cuts of dialogue that scrape away secrets and cut you to your core. I will say, however, that I wish I knew more about Allegra and Lane’s mothers. A certain diary probably would have helped—and I’ll leave that note at that.

Roanoke teems throughout with the theme of abuse, neglect, heart-wrenching love, and the effects of too much of all it. It forces the question, “What does a monster really look like? Is it some heinous thing you can spot from miles away, or is it something more subtle—something you can’t identify until you’ve already gotten too close?”
Can you tell one from the other?
Well, can you?
A strong and deserved 4 stars. ****

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

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

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The Devil Crept In by Ania Ahlborn

Paperback, 384 pages
Expected publication: February 7th 2017 by Gallery Books

Ania Ahlborn’s The Devil Crept In is the new Are You Afraid of the Dark? for adults–a lot of you will know that reference *wink*. Centered around a small town in Oregon, this novel had just enough bite to be entertaining, yet, the jury is still out on whether or not anyone’s going to be kept up late at night thinking about this one.

Stevie Clark is a 10-year-old loner—rather, he has no friends other than his best friend and cousin, Jude. His slight speech impediment (echolalia) and missing fingers on one hand make him an outsider, the weird kid in the eyes of other kids. Add to that his abusive father-in-law who knows his way around a belt, and you can image how distraught Stevie would be when, one day his best friend, Jude, goes missing. When Jude suddenly turns back up, he’s…different: blank in the face, unresponsive to questions…his skin is peeling and itchy and…well, he’s attracting all the mangy, sickly neighborhood cats like some sort of sick beacon for wildlife…

All the makings of an excellent novel are here. Ahlborn even did a good job of stepping into a 10-year-old’s shoes and showing us Stevie’s world through his eyes. Stevie was as unreliable a narrator as you would expect from an elementary schooler, seeing shadows in the night and tripping and falling all over himself every time he sensed something—a moving shadow, a twitch in his periphery—out of the ordinary. His relationship to his peers and neighbors, his possibly overactive imagination—it all bundled together to work in this package. The Devil Crept In featured two converging story lines, which Ahlborn did an okay job at integrating—I say “okay” because I was prepared to throw the back of my hand to my forehead with a melodramatic sigh at the cliché-ness of the some of the plot angles. Rosie’s story line, for example, I felt I’d read somewhere already—lots of places, actually. It read like a horror-movie cliché that’d been overdone too many times. Yet, just as I was ready to heave an annoyed sigh, Ahlborn got it together and recovered pretty nicely, definitely helped along by a few awesome turns of phrase that warranted an appreciative pause. Eventually, the creepy crept in and the story lines did, indeed, tie together.

For those of you who are fans Stephen King’s child-centered scary fiction, this one may be a real treat for you! I couldn’t help but think of his “Mile 81,” because of Devil’s tone, descriptions and insight through a determined, though easily frightened, young boy’s eyes. This one read authentically from the POV of a 10-year-old, while using adult language to describe the happenings surrounding these characters. Honestly, I both appreciated that and felt jarred by it. Like, hmm, would an elementary schooler really describe a demon as having “cauliflower ears like a boxer…?” (Thinking face—probably not.)

All in all, Ania Ahlborn’s The Devil Crept In was a fun little read that could’ve been shortened down to 300 pages or so, to make it more streamlined and faster to the action. It had its pros and cons, as many novels do, but there were also more than a few loose ends here left flapping in the breeze, let me tell ya!

With that in mind, I would recommend this novel to anyone in need of a quick jolt of excitement. If you’re not interested in looking under the hood of a read to see how it all connects together—at what every little turned screw and nuance might mean for the overall performance—but you just want to get on with the creepy, pick this one up. It’ll definitely get you where you need to be. But, maybe, don’t read it alone…in the woods…

3-3.5 stars ***

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, go follow the blog on Twitter @thenavireview and on Goodreads under Navidad Thelamour!

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A Harvest of Thorns by Corban Addison

Hardcover, 400 pages
Expected publication: January 24th 2017 by Thomas Nelson

A Harvest of Thorns by Corban Addison proved to be the quintessential “crossover” novel. By that I mean that in reading this novel, it is clear that Addison has a background in law, among other things, and that writing was not his first profession. This, in itself, is not a bad thing, and we see it all the time nowadays: novels about painters, journalists, lawyers, etc., written by authors with firsthand experience in the field who caught a fancy for writing somewhere along the line. Thus, as to be expected from its predecessors in like fiction, here you’ll find thorough and intellectual narration, complete with high-brow vocabulary and a thorough presentation of law and journalistic inside knowledge.

All in all, there was something standing in the way of me feeling anything for this book and its characters. Don’t get me wrong: it was pretty well-executed, the plot flowed (though there did seem to be a dividing point about midway through where the novel could’ve just stopped, been done, concluded—but it continued on with the lawsuit portion). I trusted the narrative voice, because it was so well-informed, so in the “know,” and so fluid in its interpretation of the cultural mores, political and economic lines in the sand and of the subject matter as a whole. Yet, it fell into the same trap that many other novels of this kind do: it was a shade too clinical, too fully immersed in cerebral, to pull me in completely. In short, though the story was well told, it lacked a soul.

There were so many moments where it was obvious that the reader should feel, should commiserate with the characters, but rarely could I do so, because A Harvest of Thorns was not executed in a tone that would allow me cross that line with them. It allowed me to appreciate the sophistication and intellectualism of this read, while forcing me out into the fringes of emotive, not quite there. The backstories seemed almost like an afterthought. They weren’t woven intricately into the fabric of the story, rather they were the fringe details allotted to make it pretty, to dress it up and give it some extra color. Because of the subject matter of this novel, that, again, wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; it was just sort of there, neutral.

And, I absolutely must note two things: The first is that part of the plot seemed a little unrealistic, as though Addison felt it would create tension in the plot but didn’t really think that thought out to the end. Case in point, if our protagonist, Cameron, is so intelligent, sharp at his job, educated at Harvard, yadayada, why would he be so shocked to have “discovered” the reality of slave labor and other avenues of corruption within the realm of outsourcing apparel making to Southeast Asian countries? I mean, that seems like common sense to me—the very act of sending the jobs abroad in the first place reeks of corporate corruption and unethical motives, so why the staggering shock, Cameron? Come on. If you’re going to base half your plot off of an investigation, at least make the motives of the investigation plausible. Cameron, thankfully, was portrayed as a seasoned, incisive lawyer, but this plot angle undercut that for me just a tad. Not enough to take away stars, but enough to annoy slightly. (Though, I must also note that Corban Addison gets major props for writing such an otherwise strong, African-American leading man! We need more of those out there!)

Secondly, the intersection and presentation of the timelines was confusing, because they were not chronological, and, moreover, weren’t centered around just one storyline but many. I had to flip back to the beginning of the previous chapter many times to figure out where I was in the timeline. Was I going forward or backward in time with this next chapter? How’s that for pulling you out of a good read?

By far, the strength of this novel is found in its vivid detail of setting. As a reader, I felt that I was really in Bangladesh, in the corporate war room at the corporation under siege, that I was really in the courtroom during the legal mêlée. Corban Addison wrote on subject matter that he is very fluid and well-versed in, and that showed, much to his credit. If you’re a reader who’s in it for a good political thriller, who wants to be inside of the legal decisions and right on the flapping coattails of the protagonist going undercover and unearthing ugly truths, then this is the read for you! If you’re not here for the Kleenex reads, and you roll your eyes at melodrama, you’ve found your match! This is a Dan Brown meets Stephen L. Carter sort of read—you’ll get a little thrill of the chase and a little high-brow intellectualism all in one shot. This was a great read, but the lack of emotive skill lost it a star or so. 3.5 stars rounded up to 4, PURELY on the basis of the execution of everything not involving emotion :). ****

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In Sunlight or in Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper by Lawrence Block

Hardcover, 288 pages
Expected publication: December 6th 2016 by Pegasus Books

Short stories hold a power that longer works of fiction do not have the advantage of: they can pack a hard punch that’ll knock your socks off in mere minutes, spilling uplifting joy, heart-wrenching pain or newly provoked thought from readers all in one fell swoop. This, of course, is because they are so much more concentrated than their longer counterparts, doing away with excess prose and condensing the narrative arc into a matter of pages rather than chapters. For this reason, some of my favorite reads—the most thought-provoking and resonating reads—of all time have been short stories, and I sought this out here, within this collection, to continue that tradition for me. However, In Sunlight or in Shadow seemed prepared to offer up nothing but the latter, with the few glimmers of entertainment here so weak and sporadic that it was like the sun never quite pushed through the blinds.

Story after story were mind-numbingly dull and unmemorable. In reading through this anthology centered around the paintings of Edward Hopper (also featured within these pages before the start of each story written around them), I often felt like I was trudging through thick mud in search of that jewel that would glimmer brightly from beneath the sludge. It took me longer to finish this than it should have—than it could have—because I didn’t really want to pick it back up. But, alas, that is the magic with short story collections, isn’t it? You always feel that just around the next corner, with the next turn of the page, the next story might be the one. The next story might be enough to carry the entire collection—and so, you read on. But I never found anything magical in this compilation.

To be fair, Stephen King and Nicholas Christopher lightly touched on a literary nerve, and had this collection been filled with stories such as those, In Sunlight or in Shadow would’ve earned itself a far stronger rating from me indeed. But nothing truly moved or inspired me here. In truth, most of these stories took themselves far too seriously, as if the author’s identity or the mere fact that they’d proffered literary prose (rather than commercial plot lines) would alone carry the read, make me love it, make me keep turning pages. Well, Block, it wasn’t enough! Not by a long shot. I found most of these stories to be tedious and stuffy at best. No doubt, some teacher will find this collection and force it upon her high school English students, because it seems to exude the literary seriousness—gravitas, shall we say—requisite to be considered great. And no doubt the students will likely feel as I did.

My life has not been changed in reading this. Neither has my mind been stretched nor my imagination tested, my joy for reading stoked or my heart rate even quickened. In fact, the only thing that changed in reading this collection was my willingness to ever pick up anything else that Lawrence Block has ever laid a finger on. Will I dare? We shall see.

This collection has managed to earn the first 1.5 star review I’ve ever given—I could barely finish it, but somehow Stephen King’s “The Music Room” and Nicholas Christopher’s “Rooms by the Sea” saved it from complete engulfment by the yawning abyss. I have nothing else to even say about this collection, except that I need a good palette cleanser to start anew on something else. *

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Pegasus Books, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

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Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine by Sarah Lohman

Hardcover, 304 pages
Expected publication: December 6th 2016 by Simon & Schuster

I was given a copy of this book by the publisher, Simon & Schuster, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

Sarah Lohman’s Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine offers an eclectic and thought-provoking survey into American culinary culture and palettes. She traces our culinary roots and, through professional and personal experience, as well as meticulous research, offers up the history of eight spices that can be found in modern American kitchens today. But where did these spices come from, and how did they become so commonly used in our culture? These are the questions that Lohman probes and explores, pointing out their place in our contemporary palettes as she goes.

Lohman diversifies the research she offers up with anecdotes of her own history with food—including the summers that she worked in an outdoor historical museum, making historically accurate dishes for audiences. With that, there’s something for everyone here in this survey on the American palette. Included within this book are also a slew of recipes so that readers can step back into history themselves, making this read as interactive as it is entertaining and informative. From historical unearthments to 200-year-old recipes heaped in historic truth, Lohman’s Eight Flavors is a read for true foodies and novice culinary explorers alike. 4 stars ****