Category Archives: Fiction

The Devil’s Star: Norwegian murder mysteries FTW

Mum: FTW means “for the win.”

Everyone else: Struggling to read and concentrate? Yeah, me too. But not so with this super absorbing, super ridiculous murder mystery by Jo Nesbo. Having not read anything by them before, I didn’t realize I was dropping into book five of an established series, though I figured it out quickly (because I am So Smart) with references to past cases and dead partners, but WHATEVER, the narrative doesn’t at all depend on knowing these past instalments. I would say, though, that after I finished it and decided to read some more that I felt I knew a sufficient amount about our protagonist detective, Harry, that I didn’t want to read the first four novels, but would instead carry on with the series with book six. Which HAPPY DAY my library carries in electronic format. (Which SAD DAY means that reading on my screen equals I’m 6000x more likely to end up shopping on Amazon which is what I spend Way Too Much Time doing every day anyway.)

Anyway, on to the substance of the book. I don’t really know what to tell you without telling you important details. I guess it’s important to know that Harry is a super smart detective with a troubled past and personal struggles aka: the ideal and archetypal Man Detective. That the plot is twisty and turny enough to be surprising and fun, but not so twisty and turny that you can’t figure out what’s what and form some (obviously wrong) theories about what is happening. And while there is the requisite and troubling number of naked dead women, the book balances this out – a little? – by not making the murders super sexual and including a token male victim.

So anyway. Go ahead and enjoy a distracting read. I even stayed up to finish this one. Which would be more impressive if I wasn’t beset with insomnia of Epic Proportions, BUT WHATEVER.

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Such a Fun Age: I’m done with Reese’s List

I’m sure Reese’s List serves an important purpose for some readers, but for this reader, I’m done. I tried Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age because it promised to be light and distracting and a good read. It was none of those things. I wouldn’t swear off a celebrity endorsement list for Just One Book, but reviewing the selections to date, the only one I’ve read and liked is Little Fires Everywhere and everything else has been Suspect.

Following an African-American babysitter (note not a nanny) as she works for a rich white family, the narrative explores the misplaced ‘good’ intentions of white people and white spaces and the ways race and inequality play out in caregiving. While this is an interesting premise, the book falls short in a few critical ways:  Emira, our protagonist, has motivations and character development that are opaque and explored at a surface level, the novel does little to expand its themes beyond the particular example of This Family, and white readers are invited to distance themselves from the shenanigans of Alix, our white mom in a way that allows Alix to be an object of scorn, rather than one of meaningful self-reflection. We get to shake our heads in dismay at the plentiful ways Alix gaffs, makes appalling assumptions, oversteps and displays her ignorance – all while allowing ourselves to see Alix as distant. It could be I’m not doing enough work to self-reflect, I mean, I am a white mom who employs babysitters and nannies, and even while trying to see myself in Alix I just found her too ridiculous to be an empathetic point of connection.

So yeah. Not worth buying in a moment when libraries are closed, and when they open, not one I’d suggest you go and get. That said… if you are in the greater Guelph area, too bad, I’ve already lent it out.

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My Dark Vanessa: Trauma porn (and slam poetry?)

I don’t usually read other reviews of the books I read. Mostly because I don’t care much what other people think about the novels I read (except, of course, you, dear readers) and because I’d rather be reading novels than reading about them (maybe says something about why I an academic life post-PhD was never all that appealing (even if it had been possible)). Anyway. In the case of My Dark Vanessa, the debut novel by Kate Elizabeth Russell, I wanted to read some reviews just to check that I wasn’t completely crazy for thinking it wasn’t very good.

The review I read in the Atlantic by Sophie Gilbert got the question I had been circling exactly right: “The more salient question, though, is whether it’s illuminating—whether Vanessa’s narrative offers something distinct about the mental aftermath of teenage trauma that makes its graphic descriptions of abuse worthwhile.” Because this is a book that explores, graphically, the abusive relationship between a fifteen-year old girl and her 42-year old male teacher. The narrative makes much of exploring from the first-person perspective of Vanessa whether this is ‘abuse’ if she never sees it that way; if she’s a victim, if she never claims or wants that designation – but the reader easily identifies what she experiences as trauma and abuse. And on each page we are afresh brought to a detailed description of that abuse, or what Vanessa alternately understands as romance and trauma.

I can imagine a narrative in which this kind of detailed description serves a larger purpose that illuminates something for the reader that would be impossible without such specificity. I’m not at all convinced this novel’s exploration of #metoo justifies its violence. I guess I’m circling a question that I ask a lot as an audience member at some slam poetry events: what care is owed to the reader?

Allow the digression: slam poetry (if you’re unfamiliar) is competitive spoken word. It attracts traumatic poems In a Big Way. Audiences, who judge the poems/poets, tend to offer very high scores for Big Traumatic Poems, in part, I imagine, because no one wants to be the person who gives a 7 out of 10 to a rape poem. And there are a lot of rape poems. So it seems from the vantage of a (former) competitor and audience member that each poem has to successively ‘top’ the trauma of the poem before – layering on additional intersectional trauma in an effort to ‘out trauma’ the poet who came before. None of this is ever explicit. Instead poets and audiences describe and celebrate the space of the stage as a place to work through and process this trauma. And that is true, too. Art – performative or narrative – is a space and appropriate place for exploring the contours of this pain. And understanding the intention of the author – was this a piece written to process pain? or to score points? or both? or can it be separate? – is, to my mind anyway, irrelevant. We the audience and reader, can’t know what was intended, and intent doesn’t matter, what we’re left with is the novel or poem and what it does to/affects in us as listeners and readers. Whether it genuinely moves us, or brings us to new insight about the topic, or lets us extend empathy in a new way, or – perhaps most importantly? – changes our orientation and our approach in the world.

In the case of My Dark Vanessa the narrative is, from my reading, unsuccessful in making this bridge. Instead I read it as a ceaseless succession of graphic scenes that shocked and upset me, without illuminating anything (or enough?) about power, gender, or the ties of family/friendship.

It’s an uncomfortable review to write – much like giving the 7 out of 10 to the trauma poem – because who am I to assess the worth or value of this confessional? And you could rightly say that my wide web of privilege makes me exactly the wrong person to be providing this assessment, and you’d be right. All I offer then is my view that the literary merit of this book is highly suspect. That the descriptions of abuse are graphic and extensive and relentless. And that the connections to wider cultural threads are tenuous or simplistic. Another reader will find different meaning and value. (Like Oprah who – briefly – had this book as an Oprah pick (before unceremoniously removing it over allegations of appropriation a la American Dirt)). But if I were you, I’d pass this one over. If you are intent on reading it, and live in the greater Guelph area, I’m – again – happy to leave it on my porch for you to pick up.


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Long Bright River: Remember when Opioids were a public health crisis?

There’s something so strange about reading a book about a public health crisis that is not a book about Covid19 (oh man! when do you think the first Covid19 novel will come out? And better question, the first good Covid19 novel?), but that’s what I just finished. Liz Moore’s Long Bright River explores the opioid epidemic through the lens of a police officer, Mickey, and her addicted sister, Kasey.

I picked the book because all the reviews I read were like ‘thriller!’, ‘page turner!’, ‘Can’t put down!’ and given my ability to focus right now (limited) and to read (limited), I figured these qualities would keep me engaged long enough to actually read something. And it worked! The book is all of those things, if not very good.

Mostly not good because the characters lack depth and the plot twists are very obvious and very Plot Twisty and it’s written as though it anticipates its adaptation (which spoiler, it has already been picked up for TV adaptation). But! If you are worried you will never be able to focus and read again, you could do much worse. The book is so earnestly trying (and sure, failing) to be a critique of the monolithic portrait of ‘junkies’ and addicts. And there’s something in there about gender and policing that isn’t totally ridiculous. So while it misses the mark on almost every front, it might get points for trying. And for somehow still managing to make you want to keep reading.

If you’re in the greater Guelph area and want to pick it up, I’m happy to leave it on my porch for someone – just send me a note:

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Filed under Bestseller, Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction, Mystery