Categories
Fiction Review

3 Recent Thriller Reviews

To help me break out of a reading slump at the onset of the COVID-19 health emergency, I turned to the books I’ve always trusted to draw me in: thrillers. These three books were among the first I read at that time.

While you can never go wrong with a book by Harlan Coben, the other two didn’t serve me quite so well. I had a twitchy, uneasy feeling while reading both The Holdout and Before She Knew Him. There were specific reasons why both of those books bothered me, and I’ll try to talk about those reasons without giving away too much information in my reviews. 

But I’d like to include a caveat here for my comments on those two books: I was reading them during a time of general upset and unease, and it’s possible that general feeling affected my reactions. Part of what bothered me pertained to the subject matter of each, but perhaps I would have faced them with more equanimity under more normal circumstances.

fancy scroll

The Boy From the Woods by Harlan Coben

The Boy from the Woods

Coben, Harlan. The Boy From the Woods
Grand Central Publishing, 2020 
ISBN 978-1-5387-4814-5

Recommended

The novel opens with a news story from April 18, 1986, about a feral boy, between 6 and 8 years old, found living in the woods in New Jersey.

Then the narrative moves forward to April 23, 2020. Soon we meet the formidable Hester Crimstein, well-known and powerful defense attorney who has appeared in Coben’s earlier books. Her teenage grandson, Matthew, seeks Hester’s help in finding out what happened to his friend, Naomi Pine, who has stopped coming to school and doesn’t answer her phone.

When the boy was discovered in the woods 34 years earlier, he was found because he used to come visit 6-year-old David, Hester’s son, in the woods behind the Crimstein house. Hester and her husband long ago gave up the big house to David’s family, where Matthew and his mother continue to live since David’s death in a car crash 10 years earlier. Hester knows that, to find Naomi, she’ll need the help of the boy from the woods, known as Wilde.

Harlan Coben’s books always combine compelling characterization with pulse-pounding plots,

but this book’s emphasis on characters made it a comforting reading experience during the current health pandemic. All of the characters in this novel care about other people and want to help them. Wilde is a particularly interesting character, even if his backstory does challenge credulity a bit. And I especially appreciated a subplot involving the 70+-year-old Hester and the local sheriff. 

The novel’s ending suggests the possibility that we might meet Wilde again. Whether that happens or not, The Boy from the Woods gave me comfort during troubling times.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown


The Holdout by Graham Moore

cover: The Holdout by Graham Moore

Moore, Graham. The Holdout
Random House, 2020
ISBN 978-0-399-59177-8

Ten years ago, 15-year-old Jessica Silver disappeared. When her teacher, Bobby Nock, is tried for her murder, everyone expects a quick conviction. But juror Maya Seale doubts his guilt and manages to convince the other jurors to acquit Nock.

Now, for the tenth anniversary of the Silver murder trial, a news channel plans  to reassemble the jurors for a documentary. Maya, now a defense attorney herself, originally refuses to participate but reluctantly agrees when one of the original jurors, Rick Leonard, claims to have evidence that Nock was in fact guilty. 

When Rick is found murdered in Maya’s hotel room the first night of the documentary reunion, Maya quickly becomes the prime suspect and is soon arrested and charged. She is represented by a distinguished attorney from the law firm where she works. Although he insists that she stay away from the case and leave the investigation to the firm’s team, Maya just can’t leave things alone.

About four years ago I served on a jury for a murder trial. The experience was emotionally draining, but I was impressed and soothed by how seriously all the jurors took their responsibility. Initially we did not all agree, but the discussions always remained civil and focused on the evidence.

There are lots of potential plot complications and red herrings in The Holdout that keep the story moving. But because of my own jury experience, I felt uncomfortable reading most of this novel. Everything that happens after Maya is charged felt outlandishly wrong. If I hadn’t been a juror myself, I probably would have accepted the story, in which all the pieces eventually fit neatly together, at face value. Instead, I found the story melodramatically improbable.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown


Before She Knew Him by Peter Swanson

Before She Knew Him

Swanson, Peter. Before She Knew Him
William Morrow, 2019
ISBN 978-0-06-283815-5

Henrietta (Hen) and her husband Lloyd have recently moved into a house in suburban Boston, where they hope to live a quiet life. Hen, an artist, has rented studio space nearby where she can work on the children’s book illustrations she’s been hired to do and on her own etchings. Since she’s finally found medication that works to control her bipolar disorder, she’s hoping to get her career back on track.

When the neighbors Matthew and Mira invite Hen and Lloyd over, Hen doesn’t want to go but agrees to placate Lloyd. Hen is instantly drawn to Matthew when she sees him, although she doesn’t know why. When she sees an object displayed on the mantel in Matthew’s study, she begins to suspect he’s a serial killer.

I picked this book up because I’d read Swanson’s earlier novel, The Kind Worth Killing, and found it intriguing. But I became wary of Before She Knew Him right away with the revelation of Hen’s bipolar disorder.

I’m opposed to the use of mental illness as a mystery/thriller trope, and it shows up early here when Hen tells the police her suspicions about Matthew. It’s easy to dismiss the theories of a crazy woman, after all. 

As it turns out, this novel goes well beyond the simple usage of bipolar disorder as characterization. I can’t say more without giving too much away, but the whole basis for the rest of the story—for why the novel’s title is Before She Knew Him—makes no sense to me.

There is a need for realistic fictional portrayals of how characters struggle to deal with mental health issues, but those portrayals should focus on otherwise well developed characters who happen to live with mental illness. Before She Knew Him doesn’t do that in any meaningful way.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Literature & Psychology Review Uncategorized

“An Anonymous Girl” by Green Hendricks & Sarah Pekkanen

Hendricks, Greer & Sarah Pekkanen. An Anonymous Girl
St. Martin’s Press, 2018
ISBN 978-1-250-13373-1

Recommended

Jessica Farris, age 28, works as a freelance make-up specialist, lugging her product cases all over Manhattan and barely earning enough to get by. On a typical Friday night Jessica overhears Taylor, one of her college-student clients, tell her roommate that she won’t be getting up early enough the next morning to participate in the psychological survey she’s signed up for. “It pays $500,” Taylor casually says.

With a couple of distractions Jessica manages to see the appointment information on Taylor’s phone and decides to take Taylor’s place the next morning. After all, she needs the money.

When Jessica shows up at the appointed place and time the next morning, a young man greets her and explains that he’s the research assistant for Dr. Shields, a psychiatrist who’s conducting a morality and ethics research project. He directs Jessica to a seat in a classroom where an open laptop awaits. 

Jessica is surprised to find out that she’s the only person scheduled for that time slot. She’d be more surprised if she knew that Dr. Shields was watching her complete the questionnaire through the computer’s camera. Some of the questions make Jessica squirm in her seat just a bit.

“It can be frightening to become acquainted with parts of yourself that you don’t like to admit exist.” (p. 15)

Dr. Lydia Shields

While watching Jessica from the next room, Dr. Shields recognizes something she needs in the young woman, even though she knows this woman isn’t the scheduled Taylor. Watching Dr. Shields watch Jessica, the reader suspects the psychiatrist’s observation applies to herself as much as to her research subject.

“You are staring at the therapist. The carefully constructed facade is working. It is all you see. It’s all you will ever see.” (p. 61)

Dr. Lydia Shields

But the reader sees everything.

This novel is unusual in its use of two first-person narrators. Jessica and Dr. Shields speak in alternating chapters, and the reader soon has no trouble recognizing which one is speaking. Jessica’s narrations are conversational and straightforward, while Dr. Shields’s use of passive verbs (e.g., “the door is opened to you,” “your coat is hung up,” “a gift is offered”) peg her as a researcher and academician. Dr. Shields at first uses this type of language only sparingly, but she uses it progressively more frequently as the novel develops.

“Sometimes a therapist who coaxes out all of your secrets is holding the biggest one in the room.” (p. 99)

Dr. Lydia Shields

As Dr. Shields asks her to perform more actions as part of the ethics research project, Jessica becomes suspicious. She continues to do as asked, though, because Dr. Shields pays her handsomely and Jessica needs the money to help her family pay for her handicapped younger sister’s special needs.

When Dr. Shields introduces Jessica to her husband, Thomas Cooper, also a psychotherapist, Jessica realizes there’s more to this psychological experiment than she originally thought.

“At least I’ve finally learned something concrete: Neither of them can be trusted.” (p. 233)

Jessica Farris

By now Jessica knows she’s in way deeper than she ever imagined possible. Will she be able to figure out what exactly is going on and how to protect herself?

It would be easy to read this novel as simply an engaging thriller, but, as suspenseful as it is, it also examines serious underlying moral issues of human existence: truth, responsibility, loyalty, betrayal, trust, love. How these moral questions play out will determine if anyone emerges unscathed from this psychological experiment.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Fiction Review

3 Short Reviews

The Suspect by Fiona Barton

Barton, Fiona. The Suspect   
Penguin Audio, 2019   
Narrated by Susan Duerden, Fiona Hardingham, Nicholas Guy Smith, Katharine Lee McEwan   
ISBN 9781524779962

cover: The Suspect

When two British girls spending their gap year in Thailand disappear, journalist Kate Waters senses a possible big story. Always looking for the latest big scoop, she doesn’t hesitate to insinuate herself into the investigation as much as possible. In this case she gets as close as she possibly can to the girls’ families to keep up with all the latest developments.

But Kate is dealing with a personal issue while she’s chasing this story. After a period of sporadic, noncommital phone calls, she and her husband now haven’t heard from their son Jake in quite a while. They are surprised to hear that he dropped out of college a while ago. As they novel continues, they discover that Jake may also be in Thailand. Kate’s attempts to follow up on the missing-girls story while also looking for her son raise the question of how closely a journalist can and should get personally involved in her work.

This is the third book—after The Widow (2016) and The Child (2017)—featuring Kate Waters but can be read as a standalone novel. My favorite of the three is The Child, so if you’re not familiar with the Kate Waters series, I’d suggest starting there.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown


Saratoga Payback by Stephen Dobyns

Dobyns, Stephen. Saratoga Payback
Dreamscape Media, 2017   
Narrated by George Newbern   ISBN 9781520067070

cover: Saratoga Payback

Published in 2017, this book is the 11th in Dobyns’s Charlie Bradshaw series, though the first since 1998. Much has changed in Charlie’s life. The police have revoked his private investigator’s license, and he’s now trying to get used to life as a retired senior citizen. And he is now married to Janie, whose youngest child, a 14-year-old daughter, is still at home. Charlie and his stepdaughter have a good relationship. 

Still, household repairs just can’t replace investigating, so when a corpse lands on Charlie’s front sidewalk, he has to decide whether to hand the situation off to the local cops or to risk breaking the law by investigating without a license. When the cops show little interest in the case, Charlie begins to sniff around surreptitiously; he reasons that, since the dead man was obviously coming to see Charlie, he has a right to look into how and why the guy was killed in Charlie’s front yard.

Fans of the series will be gratified to learn that Charlie’s friend Victor Plotz and The Queen of Softness are still together. I doubt if anyone who has not read at least some of the previous books in the series will be interested in this one. 

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown


She Was the Quiet One by Michele Campbell

Campbell, Michele. She Was the Quiet One   
Macmillan Audio, 2018  
Narrated by January LaVoy  
ISBN 1250205166

cover: She Was the Quiet One

This novel might have been better if it were about 1/3 shorter. But the drawn-out story just emphasizes the book’s shortcomings. 

Two orphaned fraternal twin girls are sent by their emotionally cold grandmother to a prestigious New England boarding school for their sophomore year of high school. The twins fit a stereotype: one, Rose, is light; her sister, Bel, is dark. The girls are assigned to different rooms in the same dormitory. The heads of the dormitory, both also teachers at the school, are devastatingly handsome Heath Donovan and his wife, Sarah.

Rose, although feeling alienated among the cliquish student body, flourishes academically at the fiercely competitive school. But Bel gets pulled into the wrong crowd—the bratty, trouble-making, cruel clique of seniors—as soon as she arrives. For an entire semester Rose harps at Bel to get away from those kids, and Bel continues to defend herself and her new friends, accusing Rose of being jealous.

As the twins’ relationship sours, the Donovans have their own problems. Sarah hears rumors about her husband but refuses to believe them. A little of such behavior would be credible, but Sarah gradually becomes so emotionally needy that her thoughts and actions descend into melodrama. At the same time we see Heath become increasingly unstable and unreliable. This process drags on long enough to become quite annoying and to lose, eventually, any semblance of credibility. 

The ending brings about a sense of relief rather than any semblance of closure. In fact, the book ends with a bizarre epilogue, the only purpose of which seems to be to suggest that a sequel may be in the works. If so, I won’t be reading it.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Fiction Review

Review: “Final Girls” by Riley Sager

cover: Final Girls by Riley Sager

Final Girls by Riley Sager 
Penguin Audio, 2017 
Narrated by Erin Bennett and Hillary Huber

Ten years ago Quincy Carpenter ran from the woods covered in blood—the sole survivor of five young people vacationing in a secluded rental cottage. That experience made her a member of a group no one volunteers to join—Final Girls, the only survivors of killing sprees of slasher-movie proportions. The group is so exclusive that it contains only two others: Lisa and Samantha (Sam). The three women have never met but know about each other.

Now Quincy is doing well, despite her traumatic past, thanks to her Xanax prescription, a steady (and steadying) boyfriend, a popular baking blog, and, whenever necessary, reassurance from Coop, the cop who rescued her as she fled her attacker. But soon after Lisa is reported dead of an apparent suicide, Sam suddenly shows up trying to befriend Quincy. The plot thickens as Quincy and Sam bond while Sam, secretive and jumpy, becomes more and more erratic.

At the beginning I had trouble following how the various characters were connected, but once I got settled in the suspense was nearly nonstop. The ending was a surprise but completely credible, an effect probably heightened by the audiobook’s use of two narrators. If you like psychological thrillers, you’ll probably like this novel, which won the 2018 International Thriller Writers Award for best hardcover novel.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Fiction Review

Books I Read in May

May proved to be a success. I hit my unofficial monthly quota of books completed (5), including one for my classics club list. Better yet, three of the five reads get the recommended rating.


Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney

cover: Sometimes I Lie

text © 2017  
Macmillan Audio, 2018  
Narrated by: Stephanie Racine

Here’s how the book begins:

My name is Amber Reynolds. There are three things you should know about me:

I’m in a coma.

My husband doesn’t love me anymore.

Sometimes I lie.

When Amber wakes up, she slowly realizes that she’s in a hospital. Connected to a ventilator by a tube down her throat, she is unable to speak. She’s also apparently unable to move any part of her body and therefore cannot communicate that she’s aware of what’s going on around her.

She also has no memory of whatever happened to put her in this hospital bed, though she has a vague feeling that her husband, Paul, tried to kill her. As Paul and Amber’s sister, Claire, discuss Amber’s situation and what’s happening now, Amber tries to piece things together. There’s something about a car accident, which would explain her current condition, but she just can’t remember. . . .

The story is divided into sections called now—Amber’s attempts to figure things out—then—the story of what happened in the days leadings up to now—and before—entries from a child’s diary ages 10-12 or so). The narrative moves frequently between the various sections. Although the sections are clearly labeled, I had trouble keeping track of just what happened when.

I listened to the audiobook of this one and therefore don’t have a printed edition to consult. I found the book to be way too long, especially the first half or so, when I kept thinking, “Come ON, let’s just get into the story.” I listen to a lot of audiobooks, so I don’t think it was the audio format that caused me to react that way. I’m pretty sure I would have had the same reaction if I had been reading either a printed or ebook version. And the final payoff didn’t seem worth the long build-up.

Overall, I’d rate this novel as mediocre. The plot had potential, but the pacing was off. The book felt more interested in technical bravado than in suspenseful storytelling.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown


Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

cover: Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Little, Brown and Company, 2012  
ISBN 978-0-316-20426-2 

Recommended

I cannot believe this entertaining novel sat on my shelf for more than five years before I finally got around to reading it, prompted by seeing the movie trailer. 

Intellectually curious and precociously bright, 15-year-old Bee Branch is heartbroken when her mother, Bernadette Fox, disappears just days before the family plans to leave on a trip to Antarctica. Granted, Bernadette has always been outspoken—sometimes outspokenly cruel—about life in Seattle, but, throughout Bee’s life, that’s just the way her mother has always been. 

When Bernadette vanishes, Bee does what she’s always done when faced with a problem to solve: She conducts research and writes a report. Most of the book comprises the documents of the report interlaced with Bee’s commentary. I enjoyed the use of multiple methods of communication (e.g., emails, school memos, magazine article, work reports, letters) collected into narrative sequence. Those documents allow Semple to create well developed characters and to fill in the narrative with information that first-person narrator Bee could not otherwise have known. 

The novel’s social satire is humorous but never angry. (Well, Bernadette is sometimes angry, but the book is not.) Lately on Facebook and Instagram I’ve seen a lot of requests for a light, humorous book, and now I have one to recommend. 

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown


The Eighth Sister by Robert Dugoni

cover: The Eighth Sister

Brilliance Audio, 2019  
Narrator: Edoardo Ballerini  

Recommended

If Robert Ludlum (The Bourne Identity) and Scott Turow (Presumed Innocent) collaborated on a book, they’d probably end up with something like The Eighth Sister.

Charles Jenkins, the protagonist of Dugoni’s recent novel, age 64, is married to a much younger woman. The couple has a nine-year-old son and another baby on the way. Forty years ago Charlie worked for the CIA. Now he owns a security firm on the verge of bankruptcy. When Charlie’s CIA boss from his last posting shows up and proposes that Charlie undertake an undercover mission to Russia, Charlie reluctantly agrees. After all, he needs the money.

In Part One of The Eighth Sister Dugoni writes an espionage thriller every bit as exciting as Ludlum’s tale of Jason Bourne’s undercover pursuit of the truth about his spy identity. But Dugoni introduces us to Charlie Jenkins and his family before Jenkins sets out for Russia. Although this first part is heavy on plot, as are most spy novels, we’ve also become invested in Charlie Jenkins the character enough to root for him to outrun capture and certain death at the hands of the FSB, the current incarnation of the former KGB.

In Part Two Dugoni gives us a courtroom drama, with accompanying background, as compelling as Rusty Sabich’s investigation in Presumed Innocent. Like Turow, Dugoni has practiced law for many years, so the legal aspects of the novel ring true. Also like Turow, Dugoni is an excellent writer interested in exploring characters as much as in formulating racy plots. The result is an outstanding novel that engages our sense of justice and fairness as much as it precipitates an adrenaline rush.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown


The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

Sourcebooks, 2018  
ISBN 978-1-4926-5796-5  
(Originally published in the U.K. as The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle)  

Recommended

At 11:00 pm Evelyn Hardcastle will die—every night until Aiden Bishop can identify the killer and break the cycle. And every time Bishop fails, he wakes up the next morning in the body of a different guest. I loved everything about this mind-bending, genre-blending novel. I came for the puzzle but stayed for the psychology.

The novel combines elements of three genres.

1. The Gothic Thriller

The setting throughout the novel is a decaying mansion reminiscent of the dwelling in “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe. 

I reach the edge of the forest, the trees giving way to the grounds of a sprawling Georgian manor house, its redbrick facade entombed in ivy. As far as I can tell, it’s abandoned. The long gravel driveway leading to the front door is covered in weeds, and the rectangular lawns either side of it are marshland, their flowers left to wither in the verge. . . . I have the sense of having stumbled upon something sleeping, that uncertain light [in a second-floor window] the heartbeat of a creature vast and dangerous and still. (p. 5)

This is Blackheath, “a depressing ruin waiting on the mercy of a wrecking ball” (p. 30). The decaying structure contains hidden rooms and passages that allow the guests to sneak around and spy on each other. Bishop sometimes finds esoteric clues to what’s happening, including books with certain words circled or underlines and notes left by others (or by himself in one of his other bodies). A sense of menace, foreboding, doom, and gloom hangs over Blackheath and its guests.

(For more information on Gothic literature, see Gothic Elements in Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.”)

2. Mystery

Murder is the primary component of mystery, and The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle offers not one, but several murders—or one murder repeated several times. The novel follows the formula of the country-house mystery form perfected by Agatha Christie, which itself is a particular form of the locked-room mystery. The country-house mystery is also called a closed-circle mystery, since none of the characters can leave and no new characters can arrive; the villain must therefore be one of the assembled guests. 

3. Science Fiction

When I read that the narrator of the novel can jump from one character to another, I immediately thought of the old TV series Quantum Leap, starring Scott Bakula. Sure enough, Turton mentions in “A Conversation with the Author” at the end of the book that this show was one of the sources for his conception of the story. This feature places the novel squarely within the science fiction genre.

One reason why I like mysteries so much is that I enjoy literary puzzles. So when this novel’s narrator is charged with solving the puzzle of Evelyn Hardcastle’s murder, I eagerly accepted the challenge along with him. I began taking copious notes and keeping track of each undertaking and its results. 

But soon thematic content began to overshadow the mere mechanics of puzzle solving. The narrator’s concern over his own identity begins early, almost as soon as he awakens in the forest in the opening scene with no notion of how or why he’s there. Soon afterwards he meets Evelyn Hardcastle for the first time:

“I’m a coward, Miss Hardcastle,” I sigh. “Forty years of memories wiped away and that’s what I find lurking beneath it all. That’s what remains of me.”

 . . .

“Well, so what if you are?” she asks. “There are worse things to be. At least you’re not mean-spirited or cruel. And now you get to choose, don’t you? Instead of assembling yourself in the dark like the rest of us—so that you wake up one day with no idea of how you became this person—you can look at the world, at the people around you, and choose the parts of your character you want. You can say, ‘I’ll have that man’s honesty, that woman’s optimist, as if you’re shopping for a suit on Savile Row. . . . You don’t like the man you were Very well. Be somebody else. There’s nothing stopping you, not anymore. As I said, I envy you. The rest of us are stuck with our mistakes.” (p. 40)

In fact, we and the narrator don’t learn that his own name is Aiden Bishop until page 109. The question of identity continues to haunt Aiden Bishop right up until the novel’s end, when all is finally revealed to him.

When Bishop figures out the truth about Evelyn’s murder, that realization is minor compared to what he learns about himself. I didn’t work out the solution to the puzzle because Bishop has information that the reader doesn’t have when he explains who kills Evelyn and why, but by that point in the story the question of identity has become much more important than the puzzle. And it’s the universal human search for identity that makes this novel much more than merely a clever puzzle.

But there is an answer to the puzzle of why the U.K. and U.S. editions have different titles. According to posts by Stuart Turton on Goodreads, the U.K. title was changed for the U.S. edition because of the similarity with The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown


The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill

cover: The Iceman Cometh

text © 1946  
rpt. Vintage Books, 1999  
ISBN 0-375-70917-7

I read this for my classics club spin. My review is here.

Categories
Review The Classics Club

CC Spin: Review, “The Iceman Cometh” by Eugene O’Neill

Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953)

O’Neill, nevertheless, remains all but unique in his persistent and increasingly more nearly exclusive attempt to deal with modern life in such a way as to achieve the effect of classic tragedy. . . . Certainly no other significant playwright has so persisted in the conviction that, if a drama is to achieve great excellence, it must deal with man’s relation to God—or, if one prefers, with his relation to forces outside himself (p. 1249).*

Born in a hotel on Broadway in New York City on October 16, 1888, Eugene O’Neill was the son of James O’Neill, a popular actor of romantic melodrama. Eugene spent much of his youth on tour with his father or in different boarding schools. 

After a year at Princeton (from which he was suspended for a prank) he worked at clerical and journalism jobs, then signed on as a sailor on voyages to Australia, South Africa, South America, and Central America. After his return to the U.S., he came down with tuberculosis in 1912. Five months in a sanitarium followed by a further year of convalescence provided him the opportunity to read widely.

In 1914 O’Neill attended a class in play writing at Harvard taught by the famous Professor George Pierce Baker. In the summer of 1915 O’Neill fell in with a group of vacationers from Greenwich Village summering in Provincetown, Massachusetts. This was the beginning of his experiences with improvised theatrical productions, which lasted until 1924. The members of this little theater group were widely interested in art, literature, and politics, including theories of nihilism, Marxism, and Freudianism, as approaches to social revolution.

Throughout his career O’Neill continued to explore dramatically “the eternally tragic predicament of man struggling for some understanding and some justification of himself in a universe always mysterious and often seemingly inimical” (p. 1244).* 

O’Neill suffered from several health problems, including alcoholism and depression, for most of his life. He died in Boston on November 27, 1953, at age 65.

“The playwright of today,” O’Neill once wrote to George Jean Nathan, “must dig at the roots of the sickness of today as he feels it—the death of the old God and the failure of science and materialism to give any satisfactory new one for the surviving primitive, religious instinct to find a meaning for life in, and to comfort its fears of death with” (p. 1246).*

Four of O’Neill’s plays won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama:

  • Beyond the Horizon (1920)  
  • Anna Christie (1922)  
  • Strange Interlude (1928)  
  • Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956; awarded posthumously)

He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936.

*Reference

Literary History of the United States, 4th ed., revised (New York: Macmillan, 1974).


The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill

cover: The Iceman Cometh

text © 1946  
rpt. Vintage Books, 1999  ISBN 0-375-70917-7

The Iceman Cometh was completed in 1939 but wasn’t published and produced until 1946.

The play is set in the summer of 1912, in Harry Hope’s rooming house and bar in downtown New York. The bar features “[t]wo windows, so glazed with grime one cannot see through them” (p. 3). The walls and ceiling used to be white but are “now so splotched, peeled, stained and dusty that their color can best be described as dirty” (p. 3). A group of washed-up has-beens in various stages of drunkenness occupy this sad, dingy place as Act One begins: a former circus man, a former police lieutenant, a Harvard Law School graduate, a former Boer fighter, a former Captain of British Infantry, a former Boer War correspondent, a former editor of Anarchist periodicals, a former Anarchist, a bartender, and a couple of prostitutes, all residents of Harry’s rooming house. 

In these assembled characters it’s easy to see the causes and events of the time that O’Neill was interested in exploring. All of them have outlived their former occupations and now share a denunciation of life, represented by their extreme states of drunken stupor. Larry, the former anarchist, sums up the situation of all of them in a speech near the beginning of Act One:

To hell with the truth! As the history of the world proves, the truth has no bearing on anything. It’s irrelevant and immaterial, as the lawyers say. The lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober. . . . What’s before me is the comforting fact that death is a fine long sleep, and I’m damned tired, and it can’t come too soon for me” (p. 9).

The play’s main character is Theodore Hickman, known as Hickey, a transient hardware salesman whose impending arrival for Harry’s annual birthday party the others eagerly await. Hickey exhibits “a salesman’s winning smile of self-confident affability and hearty good fellowship. . . . He has the salesman’s mannerisms of speech, an easy flow of glib, persuasive convincingness” (p. 59). When he finally arrives near the end of Act One, he tells the others he has come to “save you from pipe dreams. I know now, from my experience, they’re the things that really poison and ruin a guy’s life and keep him from finding any peace. . . .  Just stop lying about yourself and kidding yourself about tomorrows” (p. 63).

Act Two presents Harry’s birthday party. The characters express their dismay with Hickey for telling them that they all need to stop drinking and face reality by acknowledging their pipe dreams and admitting that they’ll never fulfill those dreams.

Act Three opens as the tomorrow Hickey has warned his companions about. The characters all spruce themselves up and swear off the booze so that they can go out and face the world, looking to get their old jobs back or find something else meaningful to do. But Hickey reminds them, “as I’ve told you over and over, it’s exactly those damned tomorrow dreams which keep you from making peace with yourself. So you’ve got to kill them like I did mine” (p. 142). After they’ve all left, Rocky, the bartender, predicts that everyone will come back. Hickey retorts, “Of course . . . By tonight they’ll all be here again. You dumbbell, that’s the whole point” (p. 147). 

As Act Four opens, we see the characters once again sprawled around the bar. Each one is now even more embittered than before. Hickey tells them how he has dealt with the human condition they all face. In this bleak ending, with their hopes and pipe dreams finally and completely dashed, the characters accept life’s hopelessness and again drink themselves into oblivion in Harry Hope’s bar.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Fiction Reading Review

Close Reading: A Pivotal Scene in “The Silent Patient”

When I posted about The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides, I wondered how many people actually engage with the text of mysteries or thrillers instead of just skimming to find out how the story ends. Michaelides leads the reader along so scintillatingly that a large part of the pleasure of reading this novel lies in recognizing the significance of its stylistic details.

A good example of how this process works occurs early in the novel, when first-person narrator Theo Faber joins his wife, Kathy, an actress, at a bar: “I went to meet Kathy at the National Theatre café on the South Bank, where the performers would often congregate after rehearsal” (p. 45). Kathy is telling “a couple of fellow actresses” the story of how she and Theo met. “It was a story she enjoyed telling,” says Theo.

Kathy begins her story of the night she was at a bar with a guy she wasn’t really interested in “‘when suddenly it happened—Mr. Right walked in.’ Kathy looked at me and smiled and rolled her eyes. ‘With his girlfriend’” (p. 46). 

“This part of the story needed careful handling to retain her audience’s sympathy,” Theo tells us.

Notice what is actually going on here. Kathy, an actress, is performing for her acting friends. This is a well rehearsed story that she enjoys telling with melodramatic effect.

Theo’s narrative of Kathy’s performance continues: “No, but . . . darling . . . seriously, it was love at first sight. Wasn’t it?” Kathy asks, turning to Theo.

“This was my cue,” Theo says. “I nodded and kissed her cheek. ‘Of course it was. True love.’”

Once again, notice what is actually going on here. Kathy is performing, but so is Theo. They have obviously told this story together several times. The statement “This was my cue” lets us know that he is in on the performance. 

So Theo, like Kathy, is a performer. Maybe the entire narrative he’s telling in this book is a performance, too.

Theo’s story of coming upon Kathy telling her friends how they met ends, but he continues with his own memory of what happened later that night. Theo tells us that he and Kathy went back to his apartment and made love all night:

I remember so much white everywhere: white sunlight creeping around the edges of the curtains, white walls, white bedsheets; the whites of her eyes, her teeth, her skin I’d never known that skin could be so luminous, so translucent: ivory white with occasional blue veins visible just beneath the surface, like threads of color in white marble. She was a statue; a Geek goddess come to life in my hands.   (p. 48)

It’s a dreamily descriptive passage. And it echoes something Theo has earlier described for us, the self-portrait she labeled Alcestis that Alicia painted in her studio while at home, under house arrest, awaiting trial. Here’s Theo’s description of the painting:

The painting is a self-portrait, depicting Alicia in her studio at home in the days after the murder, standing before an easel and a canvas, holding a paintbrush. She is naked. Her body is rendered in unsparing detail: strands of long red hair falling across bony shoulders, blue veins visible beneath translucent skin. . . . She is captured in the act of painting—yet the canvas is blank, as is her expression.   (p. 9)

The whiteness of this mostly blank canvas mirrors the “so much white everywhere” of his description of making love with Kathy. Kathy’s skin is luminous, while the skin of Alicia’s self-portrain is translucent. Kathy’s skin reveals “occasional blue veins visible just beneath the surface,” while the painting portrays “blue veins visible beneath translucent skin.” 

By means of these descriptive echoes, Michaelides demonstrates that, from very early on in the narrative, Kathy and Alicia are associated in Theo’s mind. The two women are similar in another way as well: Kathy is an actress, and Alicia gives herself the name of a character in an ancient Greek play.

The metaphors of drama and acting run throughout the novel. Such thematic and verbal repetitions reinforce and drive the meaning of Theo’s narrative.

As the tension builds and the novel nears its end, Theo’s narrative becomes surrealistically chaotic, with no clear timeline and no smooth transitions from one place to another or from one grouping of characters to another. Chapters tumble one after the other toward the inevitable ending. But like the earlier examples, such stylistic significance is easy to miss if one is skimming rather than reading closely.

For Further Reading

For another example of close textual reading see A CLOSE READING OF THE BEST OPENING PARAGRAPH OF ALL TIME.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Fiction Review

Books I Read in April

What? I read only three books this month? I can’t even begin to figure out how I read so little. The Three-Body Problem is quite long, but still . . .


What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

Pan Macmillan, 2009, rpt.2018

Cover: What Alice Forgot
What Alice Forgot

Recommended

When we had to come home early from our world cruise, we flew out of Perth, Australia. With about seven hours to kill at the Perth airport, I spent some time browsing a bookstore near the food court. I wanted to pick up another book by an Australian author. Since I had read and enjoyed Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies in preparation for the HBO series, I was drawn to the shelves of her books. I decided on What Alice Forgot to see how Moriarty presents the well-worn thriller trope of memory loss.

Alice Love takes a nasty fall at the gym and wakes up to discover that she has no memory of the last 10 years of her life. She doesn’t know her three children, the oldest of whom is nine, at all, and she can’t understand how she and Nick, the love of her life, could be in the midst of a nasty divorce.

This could be a gloomy situation, but Moriarty instead treats it with light-heartedness and humor. It’s hard not to at least giggle while watching Alice confabulate her way through getting to know her children, who delight in asking questions they know she can’t answer: “Who’s my best friend?”; “What foods do I refuse to eat?”; “What’s my favorite color?” And Alice’s quasi-grandmother is a hoot as she blogs about Alice’s condition while carrying on a running commentary about the eccentric fellow residents of her retirement community.

And yet, underneath the humor, lies Alice’s serious question: How could she and Nick, who had been so much in love, now be so bitterly estranged? Moriarty answers this question in the book’s epilogue, a third-person narration of what happens to the Love family. I would have preferred an ending that involved more showing than telling, but I did appreciate an ending that not only completes the story line but also presents some grappling with serious issues.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown


The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu

Kindle ed.:

Head of Zeus, 2015

Recommended

I’d read so many recommendations for this book that I had to read it. Also, it fit into two categories of my reading plan for 2019: science fiction and translated works.

Cover: The Three-Body Problem
The Three-Body Problem

My science-oriented husband informed me that the three-body problem is an actual thing—a challenging question that mathematicians and physicists work hard at explaining. But I purposely did not look up anything about the three-body problem because, for me, a prime criterion for evaluating science fiction is how well it presents its world to the general public. If a work of science fiction requires specialized, advanced knowledge, it’s not for me.

A good portion of the novel isn’t science fiction at all, but rather an introduction to many of the characters through their experiences during China’s Cultural Revolution. When the three-body problem does finally appear, it does so as a video game played by one of the characters in a virtual reality simulation. The reader learns about the three-body problem along with this character as he becomes more and more involved in playing the game. 

And from there the truly science fiction aspect of the novel develops as the player of the video game learns how the game fits in with the government’s secret search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

The Three-Body Problem won a lot of awards:

  • Hugo Award for Best Novel (2015)
  • Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novel (2014)
  • Locus Award Nominee for Best Science Fiction Novel (2015)
  • John W. Campbell Memorial Award Nominee for Best Science Fiction Novel (2015)
  • Prometheus Award Nominee for Best Novel (2015)

This is a long book (400 pages), and it is the first volume in a trilogy. I plan to read the other two novels eventually. After all, who could resist finding out how the search for other intelligent life in the universe ends?

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown


The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

Celadon Books, 2019
ISBN 978-1-250-30169-7

Highly Recommended

Here’s the book description from Goodreads:

ALICIA
Alicia Berenson writes a diary as a release, an outlet – and to prove to her beloved husband that everything is fine. She can’t bear the thought of worrying Gabriel, or causing him pain.

Until, late one evening, Alicia shoots Gabriel five times and then never speaks another word.

THEO
Forensic psychotherapist Theo Faber is convinced he can successfully treat Alicia, where all others have failed. Obsessed with investigating her crime, his discoveries suggest Alicia’s silence goes far deeper than he first thought.

And if she speaks, would he want to hear the truth?

Cover: The Silent Patient
The Silent Patient

I always post my completion of a book on Goodreads to keep track of how many books I read each year. When I filled in my evaluation of The Silent Patient and looked at some of the other posts about it, I was reminded once again of how many readers of mysteries and thrillers seem to base their reviews solely on how early or late in the book they “figured it out”—it being the identity of the story’s villain and/or the plot twist. If they figured it out early, this is a bad book. If they were kept in suspense until the end, this is a good book.

I wonder if many of those readers are skimming, eager to get to the last page and discover the ending as quickly as possible, without reading slowly and carefully enough to appreciate the author’s skill (or, sometimes, lack of skill). For me, the point of a mystery or thriller isn’t just to find out who and/or why done it. I enjoy watching how the writer pulls the reader along and skillfully shapes the reader’s reaction to the narrative, salting both valid clues and red herrings throughout the story. 

My copy of The Silent Patient is full of sticky notes marking my reading process. This novel is one of the most skillfully done thrillers I’ve read in a long time. I look forward to Alex Michaelides’s next book.

For more on this novel, see Close Reading: A Pivotal Scene in The Silent Patient.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Fiction Review

Review: “Y Is for Yesterday”

Grafton, Sue. Y is for Yesterday
Random House Audio, © 2017
(print edition also © 2017)

Recommended

I’m always eager to read the newest installment of Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series. However, this time my pleasure in digging into it was bittersweet. Y is, after all, the penultimate letter of the alphabet.

This time Kinsey is hired to look into a murder that occurred 10 years earlier. In 1979 four high school boys from an elite private school sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl and filmed the attack. Soon afterwards the tape vanished, and a female classmate, suspected of the theft, was killed. One boy agreed to a plea deal that got him and two of the other boys convicted and sent to prison, but the fourth boy, the ringleader, escaped and hasn’t been heard from since.

The present time of the novel is 1989, and one of the men, Fritz McCabe, has been released from prison. Although he’s now in his late 20s, he shows little remorse and in fact still acts like a moody, angry, angst-ridden teenager. He’s back living with his parents, who want to control his every movement, when a copy of the tape mysteriously arrives at the house along with a ransom demand. The McCabes hire Kinsey to find out who’s trying to blackmail them.

Kinsey’s investigation turns up secrets that get darker the deeper she digs. Most of those secrets revolve around the feeling of entitlement assumed by the children of families with wealth, status, and power. To complicate matters further, Kinsey soon suspects that a serial killer from a recent case may be in town seeking revenge against her. She continues to rely on friends such as her landlord, retired baker Henry, now 89 years old, to comfort her through the dark times.

There were moments when I thought this book could have been trimmed and tightened up. There’s a long description of Kinsey crawling under a building that particularly befuddled me. This scene includes a lot of detail about how she moved around down in that tight crawl space. I tried to follow all her movements, I really did, but I couldn’t at all visualize what was happening. Of course I knew what that scene was building toward, but the scene should have been significantly compacted to build suspense commensurate with the potential peril of the situation. Also, there were several times when key points about the old murder case were repeated—so much so that I began to wonder whether Grafton had forgotten she had already given us that particular tidbit of information.

Nonetheless, I look forward to next year’s publication of the last book in the alphabet series. I hope Grafton will wrap up the story of Kinsey and friends in a way that is true to their characters. I read a couple of interviews with Sue Grafton at the time of the publication of Y, and she indicated that she is not averse to the notion of perhaps writing some one-off novels about Kinsey after Z. Maybe we Kinsey Millhone fans won’t have to go into mourning after all.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Fiction How Fiction Works Review

Review: “The Blinds”

Background: Genre Fiction

Genre is a term applied to different kinds of literature that can be defined by their subject matter, form, or technique. According to A Handbook to Literature, 7th ed., by William Harmon & C. Hugh Holman (Prentice Hall, 1996):

Genre classification implies that there are groups of formal or technical characteristics among works of the same generic kind regardless of time or place of composition, author, or subject matter; and that these characteristics, when they define a particular group of works, are of basic significance in talking about literary art. (p. 231)

Genre fiction originated in dime novels—cheaply printed paperbound books, originally sold for about 10 cents, featuring tales of crime or adventure. Two of the most popular types of dime novels were detective stories and tales of Western adventure by men like Buffalo Bill Cody.

Dime novels became popular with troops during the United States Civil War and remained popular until about the 1890s, when pulp magazines began to replace them. Like dime novels, pulp magazines were printed on cheap pulp paper and featured tales of adventure, love, or crime. Pulp magazines became especially popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Over time, several distinct genres of fiction developed to fill these publications:

  • mysteries
  • tales of crime detection
  • Westerns
  • tales of adventure, especially stories of espionage or travel to exotic fictional lands
  • science fiction
  • fantasy
  • romance

Each genre had its own standards, including characters, plots, and writing styles.

Genre criticism

Because each genre had characteristic contents and format, the term genre came to refer to formulaic writing. Today the term genre literature is often used pejoratively, with the sneering note of “mere genre fiction” used to distinguish works of popular fiction from more high-brow literature (I do not hold this view. In fact, one of the reasons why I didn’t finish my doctorate in English and American literature was that I didn’t agree with the note of snobbery that pervaded the academic study of literature.)

Here’s an article that makes a case for reading widely, in all genres, by a man whose discovery of genre fiction saved his appreciation for fiction and made him a writer: Class, Race and the Case for Genre Fiction in the Canon.

Review: The Blinds

Sternbergh, Adam. The Blinds
HarperCollins, 2017
ISBN 978–0–06–266134–0

Caesura, an isolated town in rural Texas, houses about 40 people who’ve all chosen to live there, though they no longer remember why. Some committed a crime, others witnessed one. But all they know now is that they agreed to live here before having certain crucial moments wiped from memory, then chose a new first and last name from two lists, one of famous movie stars and the other of former vice presidents of the United States. They also know the rules of their new life: no visitors, no contact with the outside world, and no return if they ever choose to leave.

The town, called The Blinds by its residents, has been receiving a trickle of new inhabitants every few months throughout its eight-year existence. When the novel opens, we meet Frances Adams, one of the original eight residents.

And then she hears a gunshot…

Just like that, the novel’s action is under way. Its progression incorporates elements of five literary genres:

  • mystery
  • police procedural
  • Western
  • science fiction
  • romance

(1) Mystery

That early gunshot produces a body, the traditional opening for a mystery. And the characteristic process of a mystery is to answer two questions: Who killed whom, and why? But a traditional mystery takes almost the complete book to play out. In The Blinds, we learn about the killer much earlier than we expect.

(2) Police Procedural

A police procedural, in some ways a subgenre of mystery, shows the steps a law enforcement officer takes to solve a crime. Although we meet Sheriff Cooper early in The Blinds, it’s Deputy Sidney Dawes who undertakes an investigation—one that involves the sheriff.

(3) Western

This is the genre that carries most of the weight of the novel. In many ways the town of Caesura and what happens there is straight out of the typical Western playbook.

First of all, we meet Sheriff Cooper. Like all the other town’s residents, he has chosen a new name for himself, and he chose Cooper after Gary Cooper, the actor who played a sheriff in many Western movies. Our Sheriff Cooper wears a badge and considers it his job to protect the residents of his town. Second, the town itself resembles a typical nineteenth-century Western town: isolated, located miles away from civilization, a self-contained microcosm of the world.

Third, the plot comprises that of a generic Western: strangers from outside—riding in black SUVs rather than on black horses—arrive and set into motion action that threatens to destroy the town’s equilibrium. And the climax of that action occurs in a shootout, just like the famous confrontation at the O.K. Corral. And for good measure, the person behind the existence of Caesura is Dr. Holliday.

(4) Science Fiction

Research scientist Dr. Holliday (who, unlike her Wild West namesake, is a woman) created Caesura as a laboratory for her experimentation with a technique that removes specific memories from the human brain. Her discussions with Sheriff Cooper late in the novel reveal her as an example of the genre fiction trope of the mad scientist, such as occurs in H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau, published in 1896.

As does most science fiction, this element of The Blinds comprises the novel’s thematic material. Dr. Holliday’s experimentation takes to the extreme current scientific interest in brain science and in the nature of consciousness, of memory, and of self-identity. Can science truly change people by eradicating some of their memories, then giving them a new name? And if such changes could be made, who has the right to make them?

(5) Romance

This novel also contains a bit of romance, but I’ll leave that for you to observe for yourself.

Like many contemporary works of fiction, The Blinds combines elements from several literary genres. A good part of the enjoyment of reading a novel like this is recognizing and appreciating how it both embraces and subverts those generic elements to create an original literary work.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown