Beat the Reaper, by Josh Bazell

Beat the ReaperSometimes the scariest thing about re-reading books is realizing how long ago you read them the first time… this one’s from waaaaaaaay back in 2009 when I was still posting reviews the day I finished every book. Oh, past self. You were so cute.

I picked this one out for my in-person book club because I remembered liking this book a surprising amount and because we’ve been reading a lot of relatively serious books lately and I thought a nice bonkers quasi crime novel would hit that beginning-of-summer sweet spot. After the turnout at the last few meetings, I was sure this ridiculous book would net me a handful of book clubbers, but instead this was our best turnout of the year. Don’t underestimate bonkers fluff, is what I’m saying.

My opinion on the book hasn’t really changed in seven years, although I thought it might when I started listening to it on audio. I guess I sort of had a voice in my head already for our hero, Peter Brown, and the narrator’s voice was just… not that. It was very impersonal and flat and matter-of-fact where I thought it would be more sarcastic and emotive, rather like that time I listened to The Eyre Affair. Also, I had forgotten about the twenty-seven (this is an estimate, I did not count them, though now I feel like I should have) F-bombs Peter lays out in the first, like, two pages, and I was very nervous that my book club would not make it past that minefield.

But either the narrator gets better or the story does or both, as I was quickly drawn back into the weird world of Peter Brown, ex-Mafia hit man turned doctor in Witness Protection. His hospital is weird and terrifying, especially when your fellow book clubbers tell you that yeah, no, it’s totally believable that that terrible thing would happen in a hospital. His childhood is weird and awful as you learn more and more about the circumstances of his grandparents’ untimely demise and his entrance into the Mafia world. His present circumstances are weird and nerve-wracking as everything keeps going wrong, and then vomit-inducing at the end when a certain weapon is procured. Ugh.

I’m not sure I liked the book quite as much this second time around, possibly due to the only-decent narrator and the lack of footnotes (!) in the audio version or possibly due to the lack of surprise when the craziest of things happen. But I still enjoyed it immensely, and I was happy to find out that most of my book club agreed save for two very upset members who came just to tell me, personally, how much they hated the book. But they showed up, so the joke’s on them!

If you’re intrigued by the “ex-Mafia hit man turned doctor in Witness Protection” conceit, and you like your crime hard-boiled, and you like your humor sarcastic and cutting, AND you don’t shy away from an F-bomb or twelve, this is definitely a book to pack in your beach bag this summer. There’s even a sequel, if you end up loving it!

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Joyland, by Stephen King

JoylandPoor Stephen King. I remember when this book came out and it was a big deal that it would a paperback original, only in print, so that people would have to actually read a gosh darn book or whatever. But although I checked out the paperback from my library, I actually ended up reading this one mostly on my Kindle, as it has been long enough that the publishers gave in to those high-tech readers with their confounded devices.

And, really, it wasn’t that much different, reading it both ways like I did. I’m sure the floppy paperback was meant to evoke the early-seventies setting of the book and really get you into the story, but let’s be real, it’s Stephen King and the man can write — I was happily hanging out in rural North Carolina even when I was reading pieces of the book on my fancy smartphone.

This is one of King’s.. quieter novels, for lack of a better word. It’s not a horror novel or a doorstop or a book with Things To Say or some combination of the three, but it’s very obviously a Stephen King novel and it is delightful.

What this book is is a reminiscence by a present-day Devin Jones about his experience working the summer of 1973 at the Joyland theme park. You know from the beginning that something kind of weird and/or terrible is going to happen that summer, but most of the story is about Devin just growing up — spending the summer away from a girlfriend who’s going to (and then does) break his heart, learning how to be himself, finding out what he loves besides the idea of love, that sort of thing. But there is weird stuff, of course, because it’s King, and what we get here is a sort of haunted-theme-park-slash-murder-mystery subplot in which Devin and his friends first wonder about the woman whose ghost is meant to be haunting the park and then sort of accidentally solve her murder.

There’s spookiness and intrigue and yet another kid with The Sight that King loves to give his characters, so if you’re over The Sight you may want to pass on this one, and there’s also wonderful description and spot-on emotional heft. I should probably mention that this book is intentionally a pulp-fiction, noir-y mystery, so the mystery-solving ending is almost necessarily contrived and quick, but the rest of the story is well paced and I probably would have enjoyed it even if the solving bit had been left out.

Reading this book, and even just thinking about it as I write this post, makes me want nothing more than to run off and join a carnival — but maybe just for a week or two because it sounds like a lot of effort, really, and I’ve got bills to pay that I don’t think carnival running can cover. But it’s a beautiful dream.

Recommendation: For chilly winter nights when you want to think about summer; for those who want to experience nostalgia for a place and time they’ve never seen.

Scarlett Undercover, by Jennifer Latham

Scarlett UndercoverOh, man. I don’t even know what to do with this book. I wanted to like it, because the description referenced Veronica Mars and I am a fluffy fluffy Marshmallow, but of course nothing is as good as Veronica Mars (even the VM books themselves!) and also this book was just kind of a hot mess.

So, problem one was obviously the Veronica Mars reference point, because this is not really that. There’s a teen detective, sure, but she’s not a scrappy teen following in her dad’s PI footsteps with his grudging permission/acceptance. Scarlett is instead a scrappy teen who graduated early from high school and instead of going to college set up some sort of detective shop with no discernible training nor method of paying rent. Her grudging father figure is an actual detective who investigated her dad’s murder and who apparently encouraged the whole PI career thing but also thinks she shouldn’t do it? I am super unclear on how Scarlett operates.

Problem number two is my problem with so many things, but on a much grander scale. No one uses their goddamn words in this book. I kid you not, the first at least half of the book involves Scarlett asking people questions and them saying “I can’t tell you” or “I won’t tell you” or “You’re not ready to know that” or “You’re asking the wrong question,” including one scene in which Scarlett asks her bff/quasi-boyfriend why he has a tattoo that he has just revealed to her, and his answer is “The better question is where did I get it?” I have finished the book, and I can tell you that the better question is WHY DOES HE HAVE IT. This answer would have saved so much time and frustration and outright danger, so of course no one answers it.

Problem three is the story itself, which starts out with Scarlett taking the case of a nine-year-old (!) girl who wants to know why her brother is acting weird, but as you may guess from the above problems the case turns out to actually be about a huge secret that was kept from Scarlett her entire life and which led to the inordinate amounts of danger she soon finds herself in. Which, I mean, okay, I guess, but seriously, COMMUNICATION, people. Anyway, the scant clues she gets lead her all over town to all these different people who won’t tell her anything but all kind of know her or her family and are all related in the most convenient of ways and everything is super weird the whole time and I just couldn’t even.

Problem four, the fact that Scarlett is black and Muslim, should have been a slam-dunk plus of a cool diverse character, but Scarlett’s religion was played as a teachable moment instead of a character facet, which was super lame. Information about Muslim culture was shoved into the narrative like, hey, Muslims pray five times a day except not always! Some Muslims are less observant than others! Some Muslims wear a hijab! Muslims have a traditional greeting! Muslims have interesting historical tales that you might not have heard before! I know it’s a book for teens and that I can’t expect teens to be interested in looking stuff up (my goodness, do they not want to look stuff up, says my librarian brain), but I would have found the book so much more interesting if the author (editor? publicist? who knows?) didn’t insist on explaining the heck out of every interesting Muslim tidbit.

So… that’s a lot of problems, and they don’t even include the general weirdness of the writing. But strangely, for all the problems I had with the book as I was reading it, and all the problems I still have now, I still think it was worth reading and that younger teens, including probably my twelve-year-old self, would find it a heck of a lot more entertaining than I did. There’s lots of action, there’s a black Muslim protagonist, there’s a love story that involves no triangles, and there’s some neat historical and cultural information for readers to chew on. I wouldn’t read it again, but I know a few of my library teens that would!

Recommendation: For teens who like plucky teen detectives and super weird weirdness.

Rating: 5/10

Normal, by Graeme Cameron

NormalDon’t you just hate it when you think you know what a book is going to be and then you’re wrong in the worst possible way? Like, you think a book is going to be pretty decent and then you’re just staring at the pages wondering how you even got here?

Yeah, that’s this book.

To be fair, it’s not the worst book I’ve ever read. That would be very difficult at this point. But the only reason I finished it is because it took me like three hours to read and I was already two hours in by the time I realized it was not going to get better.

It started off so promising, though, if you like a certain kind of story. It’s a book about a dude with a girl trapped in his basement who then meets a girl he doesn’t want to trap in his basement, and now he wants to go straight but a) can he and b) can he before the cops show up? And I really did want to know the answers to these questions, at the beginning.

But then I started learning more about our unnamed weirdo narrator, and I was like, wait. Because it’s one thing to empathize with or root for an unrepentant serial killer or whatever, but it’s another to root for a guy who just kind of… does stuff? And this guy just does too much stuff. At the beginning of the novel he’s killed one girl and is dismembering her body when her friend shows up and so he kidnaps the friend and takes her to his well-built and well-hidden basement dungeon thing (the builder of which is buried nearby), and then brings her a friend to play with whom he then takes out into the woods to literally hunt with a bow and arrow, and then later he’s gonna maybe kidnap some girl but he doesn’t and then he’s not gonna kidnap some girl and then he kills her instead and forgets to bury her and I am like DUDE. Pick a thing and stick with it. It is a great surprise to me that he evaded the law for more than ten minutes ever, but he does it for days in the course of this novel.

It feels to me like the author just watched a bunch of Criminal Minds (not that there’s… anything wrong with that) and picked out all the criminals he liked or whatever and made them one dude. And then he picked out some choice FBI interactions with criminals and threw those in, too. There’s just no internal consistency for how anyone is acting, and it obviously bothers me SO MUCH.

On the plus side, I loved the ending, in which (are spoilers spoilers if I don’t want you to read the book anyway?) weirdo dude completely effs everything up, still manages to nearly get away with it, and then one last final thing ruins him. This part of the book is almost satirical in its humor, and if the rest of the book had felt like that I think I could have been completely on board with this as the funniest psychopath story ever told. But I’m pretty sure that’s not what he was going for (based on the interview at the end of my copy of the book), so.

At least I got it over with quickly (which basement friend cannot say).

Recommendation: For those who watch way too much crime drama and who remember not to take this book as seriously as it takes itself.

Rating: 4/10

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the TrainIf you’ve talked to me about books any time in the last month or so, you’ve probably heard me ask the following questions: Did you read and like Gone Girl? Were you okay with the fact that almost everyone in that book was an awful human being?

And then, if the answer is yes, an exclamation: You should totally read this book The Girl on the Train that’s coming out really really soon!

Really really soon is finally now, so seriously, if you liked Gone Girl, look into this one.

The story starts off innocuously enough. Our main narrator, Rachel, rides the train into and out of London every day, and passes by a house on the tracks where she sees a lovely young couple and imagines their wonderful life together. But then, one day, she sees the wife kissing a man who is not her husband, and then shortly afterward Rachel sees this woman’s picture all over the media on account of she’s gone missing. Rachel is sure that this mystery man had something to do with it, so she decides to go to the police and tell them what she knows. But as she gets more involved with the investigation, we (both the reader and Rachel) learn that Rachel’s life isn’t exactly what it seems.

It’s absolutely fascinating. Rachel is a super unreliable narrator, and we find out very quickly that she’s lying about her reasons for being on the train, lying about her interest in the missing girl’s neighborhood, lying about how much alcohol she drinks — really just lying to us and herself about a lot of things. We learn some of this through her admissions, but we learn even more when the narration switches over to her ex-husband’s new wife, Anna, and even more than that when we get narration from the missing girl, Megan. All three ladies’ lives are intertwined, more than any of them really knows, and the pieces from each story they tell add up to an even spookier story than it looks like from the start.

We already know I’m a sucker for unreliable, multiple, and awful narrators, so clearly this book was made with me in mind. But it’s a really great work of suspense, with danger at every turn and terrible decisions being made and that sense of never knowing which way is up in the narrative. And for all that the narrators are terrible people, I really wanted things to work out for all of them. It’s hard to talk about any specific part of the book without spoiling how the story got to that point, so really you should just go read this now and come back and then we will talk about ALL THE THINGS.

I will say that the ending is weak compared to the rest of the book, with things wrapping up just too nicely, but I think for most people that’s a welcome change from the end of Gone Girl, which ending I liked way more than anyone else. For me, if I don’t know what the heck is happening in the rest of the book, it only makes sense not to know what’s going to happen after the book ends you know? That’s probably just me.

Anyway. Go read it. Do it.

Recommendation: For and possibly only for people who like unreliable, multiple, and/or awful narrators, because that’s pretty much the entire book.

Rating: 9/10

Descent, by Tim Johnston

DescentI picked this book up on a whim, knowing nothing except that the cover is cool and that the jacket copy promised a disappeared girl and a bereft family, and you know there’s nothing I like more than a bereft family. Okay, that’s totally not true, but I am definitely fascinated by how people react to trauma, especially a close-knit group of people, so I was intrigued.

The book starts off pretty okay, with a girl and her brother gallivanting about the mountains of Colorado on a family vacation. The girl, Caitlin, is a distance runner looking forward to athletic-scholarship-funded college in the fall. The brother, Sean aka “Dudley”, is, as you may expect by the nickname, less athletically inclined but still for whatever reason willing to grab his mountain bike and at least attempt to keep pace with his sister. But then an accident happens and the kids’ parents get that call that no parent ever wants to get, that Sean is in the hospital with lots of injuries. And Caitlin? She’s gone missing, in the mountains, where no one is going to be found who doesn’t want to be found.

So that’s pretty sweet, right? And really, this is the only reason I stayed ’til the end — I had to know what happened to Caitlin and whether she’d be found and how her family was going to survive this whether Caitlin survived or not.

But everything else, ecch. I just told a friend the other day that I love non-linear stories, but I forgot the caveat that I like non-linear stories when I can take the non-linear pieces and slot them into a timeline that will be nice and pretty by the end of the book. This one, not so much. Not only does Johnston hop back and forth in time, but he does so without warning, without segue, and without any darn proper nouns. He’ll set up a scene with a girl and a boy and you have no idea which girl and which boy they are or when they are or where they are for at least a paragraph and that’s an interesting style, sure, but I do not like it.

And then once you figure out what characters the author’s even talking about, they are mostly inscrutable. I have no idea what’s up with the dad or the brother for the most part, and there’s this whole extended bit with the brother and a hitchhiker and a bar that serves, to me, only to show that dudes are horrible even when they’re the good guys, which is a recurring theme throughout the novel. On the chick side, Caitlin’s plight is pretty straightforward and the mother’s issues are pretty standard, and for the most part they’re just weak and helpless women waiting for one of those horrible men-folk to help them out, which bah. The only character who gets any semblance of an arc is the sheriff’s deadbeat brother, who starts off one-dimensional and then is magically given new and interesting dimensions and becomes actually very cool, and I cannot figure out why all of the characters couldn’t be that cool from the start.

Luckily that gripping plotline comes around again to become this utterly horrifying and awful ending which would have fit better on a much different story, but I wouldn’t have read that story due to it being far too visceral. If I could have that ending as a standalone short story, though… that might work.

Overall there were enough good pieces to this story that I think it turned out decent, but knowing what I know now I would probably not have started this book. It’s like catching one of those murder-of-the-week shows on TV — I didn’t particularly want to stick around another hour (or several, in this case), but I just had to know.

Recommendation: For those who like suspense and intrigue, but really moreso for people who aren’t put off by unusual narrative styles.

Rating: 6/10

Broken Monsters, by Lauren Beukes

Broken MonstersThe other day we got this huge pile of YA and children’s fantasy books in at my library, and I told my coworker that I expected her to take home at least half of them, because that kind of book is totally her thing. Then I said, hey, speaking of things that are totally your thing, I am reading this amazing book right now that you would absolutely hate! That book? Broken Monsters.

If you’ve ever read Lauren Beukes before, you will understand. She does not do cute, fun, adorable stories with magic and/or dragons; her books are far more bleak and gory and weird, and this one is no exception.

We start right off in this novel with the gory; there’s a detective and a dead body, or more accurately half of a dead human body attached to half of a dead deer body. That’s… great… so as a palate cleanser we meet another one of our protagonists, a thirty-something dude in the midst of finding himself and his muse and whatever. He is soon to become the bane of our detective’s existence when he decides to become the “journalist” who reveals everything about this dead kid case.

Then we meet a guy who’s made a career out of looting abandoned houses, of which there are many in Detroit, and after that the detective’s daughter, who gets caught up in an extremely effed-up internet “prank” that leads me to preemptively take the internet away from my hypothetical children until they’re 30. Then we finally meet the guy who turns out to be the killer, whose chapters are all supremely creepy but fascinating in their own special way.

All of the protagonists’ stories connect to each other in some way, which is my favorite thing, with people and places intersecting in foreboding ways until the end where Beukes just throws everyone into an abandoned plant and lets the batshit crazy flow, kind of literally. That’s the weird part, where this strange magical-realism conceit that’s been brewing throughout the novel becomes way less realistic and way more scary as what.

Adding to the creepy factor is the fact that the book is set in Detroit and focuses a lot on the idea of abandoned buildings and neighborhoods and the strange fascination that people have with the city and its deterioration or rebuilding, depending on the person. It’s hard to tell if Detroit is creepy on its own or if it’s creepy because people really really want it to be. I like it.

I was completely entranced by this book, alternately worried about certain characters and whether they would be okay after doing not-terribly-smart things (spoiler: not everyone is okay) and really curious to see how all of this insanity could possibly come together at the end. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the ending, which is just too weird for the tone of the rest of the book, but it was definitely exciting. I continue to fangirl for Lauren Beukes, and am glad there’s still some backlist of hers I haven’t gotten to yet so that I can go find it and devour it when I am in a mood for a book that is nothing like any other book.

Recommendation: For lovers of the strange and anyone with an affinity for Detroit.

Rating: 9/10