Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told YouI don’t remember who recommended this to me when I was collecting book club titles, but THANK YOU. I picked it for one book club and loved the book and discussion so much that I used it to fill an empty slot in another book club a month later, and the discussion was still top-notch with a different set of readers. But, to get to these awesome discussions, you have to read a pretty devastating book, so, be prepared.

The book opens with the lines “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet,” so you think you know maybe what you’re getting into from the start. Lydia’s dead, you say? Well, let’s find out who did that and call this mystery solved, shall we?

Oh, you want to talk about some other stuff first? Okay, sure, we can talk about the fact that Lydia’s grown up in a mixed family, with an American-born Chinese dad and a white Southern mom, in the 1970s, in small-town Ohio. Yeah, that’s pretty tough. The parents met at Harvard, though? That’s pretty progressive! Oh, but the mom gave up med school to have Lydia’s older brother? And the dad got passed over for a faculty position at Harvard and had to take the Ohio job to pay the bills? Ugh, lame again. Oh, and the parents are both projecting their own insecurities onto their middle child, making her feel obligated to become awesome at both making friends and doing math and science? Man, maybe Lydia killed herself over all this!

Wait, no, did she? No, she’s fine. She’s got friends. Even a boyfriend! She’s been hanging out with that nice… weird… loner kid from down the street, whom Lydia’s brother absolutely hates… and who’s been acting really strangely since Lydia died, like, extra strange, like maybe he’s keeping secrets about that night… Uh-oh. And what’s this? The cops are talking to Lydia’s dad about the last time he filed a missing persons report? For Lydia’s mother? But she’s here, she’s fine… right? Well, she’s not going to be when she finds out Lydia’s dad is having an affair with his TA, that’s for sure.

There is SO MUCH going on in this book! Mostly it’s about Lydia’s parents and their myriad insecurities and hoo boy if you weren’t already second guessing your every thought and action watching these people do it might make you start. When I finished this book, I turned to my husband and said, “If you ever decide to leave me, at least LEAVE A DANG NOTE,” and he was like, “I’m never letting you read books again.” Which seems like maybe a good idea, sometimes.

The big theme of the book is that feeling of being an outsider — Lydia’s dad as a Chinese man in a white man’s world (literally, the man teaches American Studies, let’s just start there, shall we), Lydia’s mom as a scientist and budding doctor trapped in the life of a doting housewife, Lydia’s brother as the second fiddle to his younger sister, Lydia’s younger sister as the strangely ignored youngest sibling. All of these people, living together, feeling completely alone. Normally I would be shaking my fist at the sky at all these people who need to just talk to each other, gosh darn it, but in this book it seems so natural. And depressing.

AND THEN THE END. This is where I shook my fist, let me tell you. I may have literally yelled “ARE YOU SERIOUS?!” I may still be angry about this ending today, not because it’s bad or unbelievable but because it is TOO believable and TOO soul-crushing and it might be supposed to be a bittersweet ending but all I feel is bitter, for Lydia, who is a fake person and see above about how I maybe shouldn’t read so many books.

But you! You should read this book! And then come tell me all your feels about it! And I will tell you even more feels that I have, which I know you think is impossible after this post, but I have them!

Recommendation: READ THIS. But not if you’re already sad. Or especially happy; I wouldn’t want to ruin that. Aim for a mid-level contentedness, maybe?

Night Film, by Marisha Pessl

Night FilmOne of the very first books I wrote about after creating this blog (well, the Blogger version, anyway) back in 2008 was Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, which I picked up because physics and then didn’t like terribly much, possibly due to the book’s decided lack of physics. But even though I did not love the book as much as I wanted to, it’s been in the back of my mind ever since, so when Pessl’s new book started making the rounds of my internets to glowing acclaim, I knew I had to read it.

And good freaking lord this book deserved all that acclaim. I failed to read it in time for RIP but holy heck it is a perfect creepy, haunting book for putting on your list next year if you can possibly wait that long. Or if you’re still experiencing fall, like I am here in Florida, grab your coziest blanket, a mug of hot cocoa, find a fireplace to curl up next to, and read this story right now.

The book opens with our protagonist running around Central Park in the middle of the night, as no one does, and being watched by a shadowy figure in a bright red coat. He is smartly spooked by this fact, one of the last smart things he’s going to do in this novel.

After this prologue, we get a title page and some news-site slideshow-style faux screenshots giving us some backstory — there’s a girl called Ashley Cordova who has just committed suicide and was the daughter of a reclusive filmmaker, Stanislas Cordova, known for dark psychological thrillers shown only in (sometimes literally) underground showings and available only in expensive bootleg copies. Then we meet our protagonist again and find out that his name is Scott McGrath, he’s a disgraced journalist, and it was his obsession with Ashley’s father that caused that second fact. So of course when he finds out that Ashley is dead he thinks it’s going to be a great idea to delve back into that whole investigation. Mistake number [very large number, I’m sure].

I kind of want to tell you about all the crazy places Scott goes and all the crazy people he meets and allows to tag along with him, but I would just end up telling you the entire story because it’s all so bonkers so you might as well just go get the book and read it yourself.

Instead I will tell you that in having Scott adventure to all of these places with all of these people, Pessl creates a lot of really fantastic and suspenseful scenes that had me flipping pages as fast as I could read them and cursing the inevitable end of my lunch break as I squeezed in the last pages of a chapter. I had to know what would happen next, and every time I found out I also found a new thing to worry about in the hours between reading times or to give me strange dreams later that night.

I do have to say that I nearly gave up on this book due to Pessl’s over-reliance on italics (see that quote above). They are everywhere, all the time, and I get that they are probably meant to help me hear the way that the characters speak but they mostly made me wonder where the characters learned to speak English (see: my exact same rant about Fables). These italics pulled me out of many an otherwise absorbing scene and it took sheer force of will and an intense interest in the story and the characters to ignore them. Ugh.

But the characters! Even though I think Scott is kind of an idiot, I was rooting for him completely in his investigation and in his personal life, a lot of which we get to see. He’s also got some annoying manic pixie dream sidekicks whom I wished would get the heck out of the novel, but I found their strange backstories intriguing and so I will allow them to stay (because that’s totally my decision). But of course the most interesting person in the book is Ashley, who for being dead the whole time has a heck of a character arc.

I really loved the way Pessl took the weird underground film aspect of her story and made it an integral part of the story and the book itself. As I mentioned above, the book’s prologue acts as a cold open, followed by a title card, with the real story starting after. There are also many pages that are just screenshots of the story’s internet or case files or photographs that lend a visual component, as well as three completely black pages that delineate the book’s four acts. The characters get into a lot of discussions about Cordova’s films and how they work and their structure leaks into the book’s structure (to the point where a character actually says “I think I’m inside a Cordova film”) and it is super interesting in a really nerdy way. Also, the ending, oh my goodness.

This is absolutely a book (like one Mr. Peanut) that is going to require a re-read or two or seven to really get the whole story and find all of the tiny details that I know are hidden in it, and I hope I will find the time to give it all the re-reads it deserves.

Recommendation: For fans of psychological terror, creepy films, and stories that refuse to give you closure.

Rating: 9/10 (with the story just barely overpowering the italics to keep it from an 8, seriously, I hate those italics)

Weekend Shorts: Stories from The Returned, by Jason Mott

You may recall from earlier this week that I absolutely loved The Returned. So when, in searching for another book, I came across a short story with the same title that was also a prequel to The Returned? SOLD. Well, it was free on Amazon, so not technically sold, but whatever.

And then later, when I discovered that was the middle story of a set of three? I cursed myself for reading things out of order, and then immediately read the other two stories. And then wished there were some more.

“The First”
The FirstThis story chronicles the first of the Returned, Edmund Blithe, who is mentioned briefly in the novel itself and whose story ends up being a little bit different from that of the other Returned we meet. Where other Returned show up in seemingly random places, Edmund comes back just weeks after his death to the same place he died, showing up at work and causing some severe emotional distress amongst his coworkers. The story is told partly from the perspective of his erstwhile fiancée, who has just finally gotten over the recent and sudden death of her favorite person and now has to deal with the fact that he’s come back but may or may not be himself and also he’s in government custody and how will she see him anyway, and partly from Edmund’s perspective of being unable to answer the government’s questions and also he’d really just like to see his favorite person, if that would be okay. I liked this one a lot.

“The Sparrow”
The SparrowThis is the first of the stories that I read, and I almost didn’t want to read the others because it’s kind of weird, or at least quite different from The Returned. It’s about a young couple who find a Returned child and take her in, but the two adults have very different ideas about how to take care of her and the story chronicles that fallout. Much of the story, though, is told in flashback to the child’s first youth and is about the stories that she invented with her parents, one of whom is often away during a time of fighting and is only able to sneak back sporadically. It’s an interesting story, certainly, and has some deep thoughts, but I was expecting something more like “The First” and so was a bit disappointed. Read this second, like you’re supposed to!

“The Choice”
The ChoiceProbably my least favorite of the bunch, this story treads a familiar path if you’ve read the book — a married man finds out that his childhood love, who died as a teenager, has returned and very much wants to see him again. The man, who has had a not-terribly-happy marriage due to still kind of being in love with his dead teenage girlfriend, fights the urge to see her, but after his wife finds out she decides that they should both go to visit her. The story is good, but it is practically straight out of the book so I’m not sure what purpose it serves.

All in all, if you’ve read the book and are interested in taking another trip into that world, I would stick with just the first story, which hews closely to the style and tone of the book. If you haven’t read the book and have half an hour to spare, you should read all of them and then, if you like the stories, put The Returned right on top of your TBR pile! You should do that last part anyway, really.

an RIP read

The Returned, by Jason Mott

The ReturnedI don’t know what it is about stories like this (and like The Postmortal and the fourth series of Torchwood) that I like so much, but I really really like them. People living when they shouldn’t be living, a world dealing with a sudden overpopulation crisis, people being complete assholes and other people being practically saintly, the government having to step in and do something right for the world but not necessarily right… I am a sucker for this plot.

In this particular iteration, the population crisis is caused by the sudden reappearance of previously dead people — not zombies, just no longer dead or somehow never dead, that part’s not really explained — in random places around the world. At first these Returned are a curiosity, and the world governments create a bureau to investigate the phenomenon and get the Returned back to their loved ones when possible. But some of those loved ones, and many of those without Returned loved ones, are hesitant to embrace these previously dead people as actual people, and soon the Returned are being rounded up and put in camps, as you do.

The book follows mainly the story of an older couple whose fifty-years-dead small child shows up on their doorstep. The couple has to deal with their feelings about their son (both the one they remember and the one they have now), their lives without him, and how to become parents again, all while dealing with the government and the opinions of their small-town North Carolina neighbors.

In between the chapters about this family, there are small vignettes about other Returned — how they came back, what they’re up to now, and how the rest of the world that is not small-town North Carolina is dealing with all this. There are also a couple scenes that give you an idea of what the government-types who are running the camps and such are thinking, which, now that I think about it, would be a really interesting perspective for one of these stories. Has anyone done that yet? Must go find!

Anyway. The characters are also pretty awesome; the book is mostly about the plot and the broader questions of ethics and being, so they aren’t the deepest characters ever written, but at least one of them will be relatable to you and even the jerk ones have enough backstory that you feel a little bad for them. Just a little, though.

I think the best part of this novel, and you may vehemently disagree, is that it never tries to explain why people are returning or whether this is going to keep happening after the end of the novel or even whether the Returned are real people or not. I like having the option to have my own opinion (which is currently “I have no idea”), and if Mott had tried to wrap it up nice and neat (like a certain aforementioned television show, grrr) I would probably have been disappointed no matter the outcome.

The second-best part of this novel is the author’s note, where Mott explains how the idea for The Returned came to him. This short note brought unexpected tears to my eyes and gave me a new perspective on some of the events of the story that I had previously not given much thought to. I don’t read poetry as a rule, but since that’s all that Mott’s written outside of this story (and some related short stories that I’m in the midst of reading), I may have to go check his collections out, because dude can write.

Recommendation: Read it. Just go do that. Right now.

Rating: 10/10

an RIP read

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach

StiffMary Roach is one of the few nonfiction authors whom I have on my list of “authors whose entire backlist I should go read right now,” which is partially because I just don’t read that much nonfiction but mostly because Mary Roach writes that special kind of nonfiction that doesn’t feel like learning and therefore I am more willing to listen to it!

And I do mean listen — I don’t actually have any experience with Mary Roach in print form because I take her on road trips with me instead! This is good, because I get to listen to awesome and weird and often gross things that help keep me awake in the umpteenth hour of driving, but also kind of bad because the books end up running together with all the other podcasts and NPR segments I listen to.

That’s not so much a problem with this book, Roach’s first and the last of her backlist I had yet to read (now on to her newest book, Gulp!), because it’s about dead bodies and what strange things we do with them, like donating them to science or breaking them down via composting or plastinating them (is that a verb? I’m going with it) and showing them off to people who can’t decide whether to be intrigued or creeped out. I don’t hear much about that on NPR these days…

I think I was most interested by the parts about donating bodies to science and what sorts of rules and regulations there are for using said bodies and also the strange visceral reactions people have to the use of their dead relatives. I found it strange that a person might have a problem with a relative becoming a crash test dummy or otherwise being an entire body doing something gross or embarrassing for a live person, but be perfectly fine having a relative sort of chopped up into pieces suitable for use on smaller-scale experiments.

I also liked the foray into the funeral business and the true creepiness that is the embalming and beautifying process for those open-casket funerals (which will not be happening to any relatives on my watch, because seriously, creepy), and was supremely grossed out by the chapter on head transplants and the scientific experiments on animals who deserved better from life than to suffer that indignity.

But as always, no matter whether I’m amused or disgusted by what Roach is talking about, she makes the topic as accessible and humorous as possible. I think Roach could do wonders for education if she sat down and wrote a science curriculum or two, but then I wouldn’t have her available to write books for me, so I guess those kids will just have to deal with what they’ve got!

Recommendation: For people with strong stomachs and a love of weird science trivia.

Rating: 7/10

The Dogs of Babel, by Carolyn Parkhurst

The Dogs of BabelMy book club is reading Lost and Found later this year, and maybe a few months ago at a meeting someone was waxing ecstatic about Parkhurst’s first book, The Dogs of Babel, “You know, the one with the talking dogs?”

Right, yeah, that one, no thank you.

“But it’s so good! Look, it’s in the library that you are in RIGHT NOW!” Fine, fine, I said, and then it languished on my shelf for many months until the library was like, no, seriously, bring that back on Monday or you will owe us a dime!

And I had just finished reading The Whore of Akron and I needed something less angry and so I ended up reading this really intriguing and awesome book.

I love it when that happens.

So, this book, it is not actually about talking dogs, not really, but kind of? There’s this fellow, our present-tense narrator, whose wife has died from falling out of a very tall tree and it’s a horrible sad accident except our narrator thinks maybe it wasn’t an accident because of reasons. The only witness to the event is the family dog, and conveniently our narrator is a linguistics professor and conveniently in this fictional world there’s a guy what made a dog actually talk, and so our narrator takes a sabbatical to see if he can’t teach his dog some rudimentary language skills.

But of course there’s more to it than that, and our narrator also spends his sabbatical trying to piece together what might have happened on his own, and what I think is really interesting about this novel is that the wife is a total Manic Pixie Dream Girl and I think this is the first time I’ve encountered an MPDG story in which said MPDG settles down and makes a life with her besotted man, although it would be more exciting if she weren’t, you know, dead. Alas.

Now I really want someone to write a story from the perspective of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Has this already happened? Make this happen!

So, anyway, the story was really engaging. I wanted to know what happened to the wife, and what would happen with the dog and the talking, and Parkhurst added in more things I wanted to know about at just the right intervals and then at the end she made me cry and hug my husband and warn him against climbing any incredibly tall trees. And I am now super-excited for Lost and Found, which is apparently about people on an Amazing Race-like show and hey, is it December yet so I can read that book? Hurry along, year!

Recommendation: Read this if you’re looking for a quick page-turner and/or a decent cry.

Rating: 9/10

The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Vol. 1, by Eiji Otsuka

The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery ServiceThis… this is a very weird book. I read a blurb about it in Booklist and put a hold on it immediately — “Full of gore and humor, this tongue-in-cheek horror series follows five university students as they find a way to turn a profit while granting the last requests of lost souls.” Sounds awesome, yes? Maybe?

I think it’s a great concept, but somehow the execution just did not work for me. I think part of it is that it’s a manga, as you might have guessed, and manga and I don’t always get along. The pictures are fantastic and gory and disgusting, but the dialogue is sparse and jumps around weirdly and in some places is either poorly translated or intended to make absolutely no sense, which doesn’t please me.

Here’s what I did like: everything else. The main characters are super strange, most with some sort of power. There’s a guy who can dowse for dead people, a guy who can strike up a conversation with them and apparently convince them to move about, and a guy who wears a puppet on his hand and channels aliens. As you do. They’re all part of this little band of Buddhist university students who decide to use their powers to find dead people, fulfill their last requests, and profit. This does not always work out.

Unlike my good friend Death Note, each chapter within the volume is its own separate, monster-of-the-week story. A corpse shows up, the KCDS has a chat with it, they find a home for it while possibly fighting bad guys, then go for shawarma. (Not really that last part.) I liked this setup a lot, and I’m glad to know that if I ever want to try Volume 2 I’m not going to have to rack my brains to remember what’s going on.

So, maybe someday I will track down Volume 2. For now, though, I think I’ll stick with things that have a more fleshed-out story and make more sense. Well, I’ll try, anyway!

Recommendation: For those with strong stomachs and an appreciation for the weird.

Rating: 7/10