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 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

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 ****

 

 

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. *****

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 ****

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

Hardcover, 352 pages
Published May 12th 2015 by Simon & Schuster

This novel was a trumped up work packaged and sold as the must-read of summer 2015. Of course, publishing houses are very good at packaging and selling—that’s what they do—but this one must’ve had the PR agent from heaven! When it appeared on the NYT with its fashionable blurb, I instantly reached for it (all hail the power of sales), but upon reading it, I quickly found it to be an awkward collision between The Devil Wears Prada (though quite the lesser, copy-cat sort of version of it) and Columbine. Yes, try for a moment to imagine that!

The writing was immature, though there were moments where it managed the humorous tone that it was seeking—No man feels very much compelled to rip your clothes off after you inform him, bitchily, that he left one lone turd floating in the toilet—is an example of both, offered fairly early in the novel. However, the juxtaposition between her old life and new was fairly amateurishly handled, and while Knoll tried to paint the picture of “girl with rough past makes it big,” the main character, Ani, really came off as whiny and spoiled and eye-roll-promptingly annoying. Unfortunately, there’s enough to read out there about the privileged white female, so while I have no qualms reading it when done right, generally, no one needs another whiny heroine who fawns over Choo pumps and pink nail polish.

I will give it this nod though, the Columbine-esque overture was handled decently—that entire sequence did prompt page turning, and TifAni’s past sexual experiences were relatable to female readers, I’m sure. We all know of someone who’s encountered something similar (and for similar reasons). In that way, TifAni’s school-age character came off a little of a cliché, but it was a cliché worth exploring because she exists for a reason. And the way that they happened allowed Knoll to reach out and touch an audience that was wide enough, it seems, to propel this novel onto the NYT Bestseller List. In fact, the “past” chapters carried the novel much farther than the “present-day” chapters ever could have.

With that in mind, this one would have been much better if she’d been able to carry that tone throughout because, in a lot of ways, TifAni’s voice was more mature than Ani’s, a regression in tone that irked me to no end and proffered only a snarky tone that often missed the mark and whininess that made her character the utmost annoying and hard to read, let alone like. 2 stars **