Posts tagged book review
The Power

I’ve been wanting to read The Power since before it was written. Ever since I lived and traveled abroad for the first time, years ago, and found out how limited I am and how threatening everything is. I can never let down my guard. My only defense is avoiding danger to begin with. 

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I have a bright red trenchcoat. I don’t usually wear bright colors but I got it for free and it’s cute. The number of comments I get from men on the street just about doubles when I wear it, and I remember why I wear black and gray. If I could give those men a bit of a zap, just to let them know that what they’re saying to me is fucked up, to not let them get away with it, that would make a huge difference in my day and in my wardrobe.

I used to think I was alone in this feeling, that I had to explain to people what happened and what it felt like to be harassed on the street. Now, it is known, and things are beginning to change. But to what extent? How much power has lain dormant in women's bodies, yet to be discovered?

The Power did for me what the new Wonder Woman movie did for everyone else. Some people were moved to tears in the first five minutes of the film. I was not. It didn’t strike me that way. She was beautiful and thin, basically wearing a swimsuit the whole time, and a superhero descended from a god.

In The Power, all the women in the word discover that they contain the power of electricity in their bodies. They basically all become superheroes—fully clothed, regular-looking women superheroes.

This book didn’t make me cry. But it made me feel empowered. And then it turned that empowerment on its head. For the first hudered pages or so, it was uber feminist —so much so that some of my freinds (who are feminist) couldn’t get through it. It was too obvious, too cliche. I noticed that, too, but was so thrilled by thought of being filled with power myself, how I would love to walk through the world without fear, that I plowed on, hungry for more zaps.

But, around the hundred page mark, things start to go sour. What do people do when they find themselves suddenly in possession of considerable amounts of power? They use it. They use it to feel safe after being vulnerable for so long. And they can never have enough power, never enough safety.

Reality gets turned on its head. Alderman considers every possible ramification of this power, and the result is that the world is the same, but opposite.

The narrative unfolds masterfully and I was kept guessing—in every scene, I knew there was more going on, more that would happen, and I didn’t know what. Alderman knows what information she is withholding and what information she will bestow upon the reader. She has full command of the story.

In a way, this is the story of The Handmaid’s Tale, but modernized. What seems simple in the beginning is endlessly complicated. That’s how I like my literature: exploring the gray, taking no sides, sharing the best and the worst of all perspectives. And, of course, examining the past and future and how the current narrative nestles in between them.

I could offer criticism, but I think that what the novel achieves is too important for me to want to share anything more than the combination of empowerment and complication I experienced. It's the best book about women's matters that I've ever read.

I can’t find anyone who loves this book as much as I do. If you love it, too, please tell me so I’m not alone.

 

 

 

The Likeness

I binged The Likeness in about two and a half days—something I’ve not done in a long time. I couldn’t stop reading. This book, another murder mystery by Tana French, packs in the double-whammy of a whodunnit and the immersive magical experience of a fairytale world. I didn’t expect to want to be in place where a murder had occurred, but I did. I haven’t been this enchanted with a fictional world since I was a child, and this one takes place in the suburbs of Dublin. Theoretically, it could be real.

This is not your typical crime story. It is more of a surreal prose poem, from the very beginning, from the prologue. Looking back, I see that the ending is given away almost from the first page. The story is not about what happened, but why, and how.

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Cassie is a charming, insightful narrator and I wish we could be friends. She plays with language, calls curtains fugly. She says, of being a detective, things that easily apply to a writer, or to an introvert, or to anyone who isn’t living fully because they think they’re not supposed to: “I had always felt that I was an observer, never a participant; that I was watching from behind a thick glass wall as people went about the business of living—and did it with such ease, with a skill that they took for granted and that I had never known.”

This statement is followed by Cassie, after integrating into the house, beginning to feel that she is truly alive. That deeper self that is so seldom awakened is allowed to thrive. Cassie feels she’s returned home, even though she’s never been to Whitethorn House before. I think many of us are homesick for Whitethorn House: to live in a mansion with four kindred spirits who perfectly understand and accept you, to shut out nasty reality and live in the 19th century except with electricity, to discover secrets in the upstairs room, to live in a perpetual summer with endless days that turn into sparkling evenings spent reading in front of a crackling fire. It's similar to the part in Jane Eyre where she conveniently bumps into her awesome cousins and they save her life and everyone gets along great. Idyllic but doomed to temporality.

Each of the four roommates are fully formed and flushed out with the level of detail only a detective would notice: how they carry themselves, how they interact with one another, how much they're hiding. They're complex and enigmatic. No wonder Cassie falls under the spell. No wonder I did.

Not unlike Thelma and Louise, the mythical victim, Lexie Madison, joins the ranks of wild and free women who refuse to be bound by society, by reality. They run for the sake of it, because that’s who they are. Even though this makes no actual sense and in all counts leads to premature death, it is inspiring. Live free or die. Cassie takes something away from living Lexie’s life and begins to live more fully in her own. (I think? It's unclear how much she's actually capable of such a thing.) Good for her, but I’m not modeling myself after a murdered person.

I was a bit suprised by the mixed, leaning-towards-negative reviews. I totally agree, the premise is out-there: Cassie, the former partner of Rob Ryan, main character of In the Woods, goes undercover when she finds that someone who looks exactly like her has been  murdered. That person had assumed Cassie’s undercover name, Lexie Madison. Cassie seamlessly inserts herself into the victim’s life to find the murderer. It just so happens that the victim lives with her four kindred spirits in pastoral, communal bliss. There are obvious issues with this: it’s pretty darn unlikely that you could have a biologically unrelated doppelgänger, and then that you happen to have experience as an undercover cop, and that you could pick up your doppleganger’s life right where they left off.

There’s a lot that doesn’t makes sense. It bothers me but I also don’t care. I’m too busy caring about the characters and wishing I could be the sixth member of their cult.

I’ll go over a few issues I slightly care about so as not to appear a synchophant. A Frenchie, if you will.

There was no reason to turn this murder investigation into an undercover operation. But an undercover agent got involved. If you ask a surgeon what to do, they’ll say surgery; if an undercover gets his way, he’ll say undercover and fight for it to happen. The impulsivity of these cops is scary; we’re at the mercy of their curiosity. The police performed an experiment on real people, and destroyed four lives. This bothers me so much because the characters feel real to me.

The killer—I won’t tell you who—leaves something to be desired. We never get to find out about this person’s backstory, or the reasoning for the murder. Doesn’t the satisfaction of a murder mystery lay in knowing why a killer did what he did? We are deprived an origin story, the ultimate mystery, just as we were in In the Woods. Tana French is a tease.

The Likeness has joined the ranks of my favorite books. I’m not giving it five Goodreads stars because of the above qualms, but it’s a five in my heart. I miss reading this book and wish I had it to read over again. Your turn; go read it.

 

In the Woods

What is it about murder these days?

Detectives are like early Greeks inventing constellationsgathering limited, scattered facts, like stars, together in coherent pattern using only intuition and a bit of imagination. The collection of stars mean nothing if you don’t know what you’re looking for, but the trained eye picks out the shape and draws in the gaps.

It’s an addictive puzzle I’ve only recently discovered. I believe I can trace this back to the holidays and my binge-watching of The Keepers on Netflix. I need to know what happened. I still think about it.

But what I watch and what I read are two different things. I decided to try out In the Woods by Tana French as a vacation book, along with The Golden Compass, which I wrote about last week. It had been highly recommended to me by friends and by podcast critics whose opinions I trust. I barely even knew it was crime fiction, just that it was good.

I ditched my copy at my BnB in Guatemala. I’m sorry, it feels wrong to me too! But I had overpacked and it was one less thing to carry. Plus I was sending it into the world, most likely to be found be a backpacker trading in one book for another.

I ditched my copy at my BnB in Guatemala. I’m sorry, it feels wrong to me too! But I had overpacked and it was one less thing to carry. Plus I was sending it into the world, most likely to be found be a backpacker trading in one book for another.

And I wasn’t disappointed. What I go for in literature is the beautiful lilt of a sentence that captures a moment or idea in a newer, deeper way. French is a master of this art, applying her lyrical prose to the gritty realities of human nature and modern society.

 

In the Mind

It’s the psychological component that draws me in to crime mysteries. That’s probably what it is for all of us. What happens in the mind of the killer, the victim, the detective? What games do we play with one another and with ourselves? French explores these ideas from the inside.

In the Woods works because the reader is completely in the narrator Rob’s head. You experience his trauma, his addictions, his inability to be honest with himself, and most of all, his attempts to access blocked memories of the moments that tore his life apart. You’re with him as he self-sabotages every aspect of his life. You become as frustrated with him as he is with himself, yet you’re helpless to stop itjust as helpless as he is. Rob’s inner mind is unique; he’s not put into the box of a diagnosis. But if you’re into that sort of thing, there are some interesting explorations of psychopathology. I wish those explorations had gone deeper, but they serve their purpose in the narrative.

French takes on a first person almost-omniscient tone I am exploring in my own writing. Omniscient in the sense that hindsight is *practically* 20/20. The narrator addesses someone (the reader?) from an unknown time in the future. Why does Rob feel the need to tell this story, to make his own confession, so to speak? We are left to speculate. There is a power to this form of narrative, in that the story can be told completely. First person is limiting in obvious ways; the story is skewed by one character’s perception. Third person can be more comprehensive, but lacking the intimacy that draws a reader in. First-person almost-omniscent draws from the best of these two perspectives.

 

The Telling

The two-pronged narrative approach is deadly effective. The novel explores two mysteries that occurred in the titular woods: 1) the murder of a twelve-year-old girl, and 2) the disappearance of two children twenty-some years prior. Two incidents that may or may not be related. When one storyline slowed down, the other one kept me going. There’s nothing like the mystery of a forest filled with supressed memories and potential magic to keep the pages turning.

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There are moments throughout the novel that capture the inherent misoygny ofwhat? The 2000s? Cop culture? Ireland? Our world? Female characters are introduced to every scene first by their physical features and perceived level of attractiveness. What interests me about this is that we have a female author writing from a male perspective. In that scenario, I’d think that the male gaze would not be so accurately captured. I wonder: does this mean that French is incredibly adept at entering the mind of her character, or that she herself is (or was) not entirely feminist? If the former, I wonder that Rob is never reprimanded for his thinking, either indirectly through events or by other characters. What would be the point of such effective execution of sexist thinking, if not to perpetuate this mindset? For this reason, I fear the latter, a slight lack of wokeness. But it really is slight; the female characters, particularly Rob’s partner Cassie, are pretty darn badass.

 

In terms of quality and quantity, Tana French is our era’s Agatha Christie. In fact, think it might be these two rockstars dominating the universe of literary mystery. Has any other era had an Agatha Christie? Can any other author compare? I know little about this genre, so let me know who I’m missing!

In the Woods is the first of French’s Dublin Murder Squad books. While they do not quite constitute a series, they share the same world and the same cast of characters. What changes is the narrator; a different character gets to tell the story in each book. And that’s what French does best. She gets inside the head of a character and takes you with her.

 

The Golden Compass

 

I know, I know—everyone has read this book already. Everyone loves this book already. But I hadn’t, and when faced with a trip to Guatemala involving seven planes and lots of sun, I needed a good travel book. So I scoured Powell’s for a read that would engage me while I was alternately trapped in the iron maiden that is an airplane and lounging by the Lago Atitlán, known as the belly button of the world.

And I found The Golden Compass. As soon as I saw it, displayed proudly on a stack of copies of itself, I knew it was my choice. It’s so endorsed that I was guaranteed not to regret having the extra 1.3 pounds of luggage. For many readers, if His Dark Materials isn't their favorite series, it’s a close runner-up after Harry Potter (which, to my mind, is perfect).

It wasn't until after I finished the book that I learned BBC is going to create a TV series. I love BBC for always doing it up right. I can't help but think the Dust was guiding my decision.

Guatemala has tons of dogs! This one in particular was very friendly - he came right up to me while I was reading and leaned. I love a good leaner.

Guatemala has tons of dogs! This one in particular was very friendly - he came right up to me while I was reading and leaned. I love a good leaner.

My Thoughts:

The Golden Compass is an enjoyable romp through another world. I haven’t romped in far too long. There is nothing like a solid YA/children’s fantasy to get my mind off the mechanics of life and go to a magical place. And how else would I want to live my life?

I loved the concept of the dæmons—the animal companion to every human, their soul made physical, and furry, and cuddly. I would almost venture to say that the desire to have a constant animal friend, especially one that you can communicate with telepathically, is universal. We would never be lonely!

I cheered on the friendship between Lyra and Roger. Boys and girls being friends at that age is uncommon, and I appreciate Pullman’s rebuke of such an unecessary segregation. Why shouldn’t boys and girls of any age be friends? We’re all just people, after all. Lyra’s total disregard for societal expectations is refreshing, inspiring, and increasingly relevant. Characters like her help us to see what can be imagined, which is the first step to making it possible.

I will say I think I missed the boat on this book. It's meant for a younger audience, and this jaded reader struggled with a few aspects. Spoilers below.

For example, our young protagonist Lyra finds out who her parents are halfway through the book—one of them kidnapped her and the other pretended to be a distant uncle her entire life. Lyra seems pretty cool with it, considering. She doesn’t take any time to absorb the shock and betrayal. She isn’t distracted at all from her mission to save Roger. Heroic of her, yes, but also not very human. But these humans are in a parallel universe, so maybe family ties work a little differently there.

Things just work out. Obstacle: solution. Obstacle: solution. I was never worried when Lyra got into a scrape because she always gets into scrapes and either 1) a magical friend comes along to help or 2) the other character she’s up against isn’t very bright and is easily manipulated by a not quite twelve-year-old kid. I wasn’t even worried about her finding Roger—who is supposedly awesome, although I can’t confirm that, having spent only a couple pages with him at the very beginning—which was the whole point of the book.

But these are my problems, not the book’s. If only I could have read it when I was eleven, I’m sure I would have felt differently. I’m looking forward to reading the next two books, particularly the final installment of the trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, which won heaps of awards. After that, I believe I’ll more fully understand why His Dark Materials is such a beloved series. And I can't wait to find out what the heck Dust is!