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

The Never List, by Koethi Zan

The Never ListI first heard about this book on the Slate Culture Gabfest podcast, when they had Zan on as a guest to talk about the novel and the writing of it. It was a bit of nepotism, as Zan’s husband is one of the Gabfest… panelists? contributors? talking people?… but I was really interested by what she had to say and so I’ll allow it! I made a mental note to check out that book at some point, but then I started hearing about it in other places from people probably not married to Zan, and everyone was excited enough that I made sure my library ordered it so I could read it.

The premise was interesting, and incredibly marketable in light of recent events — three girls who were kidnapped and tortured for years escape their captivity and more or less readjust to life, until their captor is up for parole. Our narrator, Sarah, who has become a work-from-home shut-in, is concerned that with just the kidnapping charges proved, the guy who killed her also-kidnapped BFF will make parole and come terrorize the surviving girls again. She breaks her stay-inside-all-the-time rule to fly across the country and see if she can do some amateur sleuthing and find Jennifer’s body, or at least enough evidence to keep a horrible person in jail.

I wanted to like this book a lot, and I certainly kept flipping pages to find out what was going to happen next, but even though I found the book readable and sometimes intriguing I just didn’t like it overall. Zan does a good job setting up the plot, and I quite like her writing and the voice that she gives to Sarah, but a lot of the big reveals that happen depend on having concern for or just opinions about the characters, and I really didn’t care about them at all. I found Sarah weird and off-putting with the whole Never List thing, designed by her and Jennifer to protect themselves from bad things and clearly imperfect, and while her overly analytical personality lent an interesting style to the narration, her convenient abandonment of it for the sake of the plot left me indifferent to her. And since it’s a first-person, mostly present-tense narration, it was hard to know anything about the other characters except what Sarah was willing to share, which was not much.

The plot definitely kept me going; it had its painfully predictable “twists” but also had some unexpectedly realistic moments that kept the book from going too far off the rails. With a past-tense narration or maybe some third-person omniscient, anything to give me more details about the people involved, I could see this being a book I would like a lot. But sadly, that is a different book for another time.

Recommendation: For those who love crime procedurals and want a view from a victim’s mind, and those who don’t mind some boring characters.

Rating: 5/10

an RIP read

Room, by Emma Donoghue

RoomHey, remember that time I read a book for book club and had nothing to say about it later? Fact: I got to this month’s meeting and someone asked if I liked Room better than the last book we read, and I was like… what book? We read a book last month?

Guys, Room is soooo much more interesting and discussable than whatever that other book was. Perfect book club choice. Highly recommend.

And I would even recommend the book! Several of my club-mates were not thrilled with it, largely because Donoghue chose to make the narrator a five-year-old who knows lots of big words but little proper grammar. I can’t fault them, either; I read through the first fifty pages or so and was like, this is going to get old fast. Five-year-olds definitely do not talk like this. But then — and here, I think, is the secret — I listened to the next hundred pages or so. The woman who voiced Jack, our child protagonist, was amazing, and I found myself recalling that five-year-olds in fact love big words and don’t care about grammar.

I also found myself completely drawn in to the story of Jack and Ma, who share a room called Room that you soon find out is some horrible soundproof shed that Ma was kidnapped to several years ago by some awful guy known to Jack and the reader only as Old Nick. Creepy and gross. Jack has only ever known Room, so he and Ma live in their own little world with their own customs. But there’s an obvious tension between him and Ma when they talk about Room and Outside, and even more so when Ma starts to tell Jack what’s really going on.

I’m not sure if this is a book that can be spoiled, really, but I did find myself constantly wondering what was going to happen next so I’ll let you have that experience if you haven’t already. 🙂 I think it’s safe to say that that tension absolutely does not go away, and that Donoghue’s examination of life and the world from an alien point of view is what made the book so interesting to me. Even if you’ve never been in quite the same situation as Jack, I think anyone can relate to the idea of learning something you can’t unlearn (Santa Claus oh no!) and how dramatically it can change your life.

Recommendation: For those who’d like to know what happens to the victims on all those crime procedurals when they’re not getting rescued.

Rating: 9/10

Misery, by Stephen King (4 October — 12 October)

My second book for the RIP Challenge… I’m a little bit behind in getting to four, but I think I can make it yet, as I’ve just started two challenge-appropriate books.

Misery is about an author called Paul Sheldon who gets into an horrific car crash and wakes up as the ward of a nurse, Annie Wilkes, who just so happens to be Paul’s self-proclaimed “number one fan.” Unfortunately, her love of Paul — and his series of popular fiction novels about a woman called Misery — coexists with a fragile mind that isn’t prepared to let Paul go any time soon. She also has a bit of a mother mentality — when Paul does something bad, like, say, kills off Misery or tries to escape his captor, he’s in for a world of hurt, both mentally and physically.

I very much liked this book. At first, I wasn’t sure it would really classify as an RIP Challenge book, as there wasn’t anything particularly scary or gory about the storyline, just a crazy lady keeping an author hostage. But when it started getting creepy, it was creepy. I was constantly stopping in the middle of a paragraph, looking at my man, and yelling, “This woman is CRAZY!” Let’s just say I’m glad I’m not popular enough to be kidnapped any time soon.

Rating: 8/10
(RIP Challenge)