I got my Christmas present early this year: an advance copy of Tracy Curtis’s Holidazed: Wrapping Your Brain Around Christmas. It’s a collection of 30 holiday essays by the Charlotte Observer Humor Columnist, and it will be for sale locally at Park Road Books. Definitely check it out if you’re looking for a good girlfriend gift.
Christmas. It conjures up wholesome, happy images, doesn’t it? Pink-cheeked tots jumping in delight in front of a beautifully tinseled tree; a picturesque colonial home, adrift in snow and festooned with lights; a fat man in red, munching homemade cookies and distributing cheer. Families and food and alcohol. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, nothing, if you’re me. My holidays are perfect. But it dawns on me as I chortle my way through Holidazed that maybe not all festive dazzle goes as planned. In a series of pithy, hilarious and often poignant essays, Curtis shines a light on the frantic weeks between late November and New Year’s Day. Facebook Killed The Christmas Card. Yep, that’s true. We see everyone’s gorgeous, perfectly dressed families within two seconds of anyone having a professional photo shoot these days; you don’t have to wait for the holidays. But hold on a sec…Video Killed The Facebook Card. This essay is about that irritatingly telegenic family from Raleigh who put out a video of themselves rapping in their cute coordinating jammies. Curtis’s clean sentences and dry wit perfectly capture the emotions of the rest of us when we realize the ante has been upped to the point of expertly choreographed dance moves on our “Christmas Card.” I’m nodding like a bobblehead doll as I read her words. Whoville or Bust…anyone who’s ever tried to lug a child and all 35,000 pounds of their travel gear through an airport can relate to this one. And best of all, there are two elf-bashing essays: Suffering From Low Elf-Esteem and Regaining My Elf-Control (you know you hate moving those stupid things, admit it.) Read More →
A few weeks ago, I spoke with award-winning author Dolen Perkins-Valdez, whose second novel, Balm, is a lovely, lyrical work set in Chicago just after the close of the Civil War. The novel examines age-old issues of race and class, following the stories of three people trying to reconstruct their shattered post-war lives in the midst of a similarly shattered nation: Madge, a freeborn Tennessean; Sadie, a newly widowed white woman from Pennsylvania; and Hemp, a formerly enslaved man whose wife Annie has been missing since she was torn away from him in Kentucky. All of them are transplanted to Chicago during a time of tremendous national turmoil, each with his or her own personal (and metaphorical) struggle for peace.
And each of them has a gift. Madge, who was raised by a mother and two aunts who were powerful healers, is herself a gifted healer, making use of natural remedies to ease the suffering of others even as she struggles with her own miseries after a familial rejection. Hemp is a kind man seeking a righteous path. But it is Sadie’s gift that is the strangest: she can commune with the dead. Their three lives become intertwined, as Sadie hires Madge to assist in her odd household, and Madge and Hemp meet and are drawn to one another. Read More →
I’ve been a fan of Chris Bohjalian for years, so having the opportunity to ask him questions was the literary equivalent of my soccer-obsessed son getting to interview somebody on the FC Barcelona team. In case you’re not already familiar with him, Bohjalian is the critically acclaimed, award-winning author of 18 books, including the New York Times bestsellers The Sandcastle Girls, Skeletons at the Feast, The Double Bind, as well as Midwives, which was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller and a selection of Oprah’s Book Club. His work has been translated into more than 30 languages, and three of his novels have become movies (Secrets of Eden, Midwives, and Past the Bleachers).
I also received a pre-release copy of Bohjalian’s latest work, due in January 2016, titled The Guest Room, which I loved reading. (Writer friends: check out his description below of how he structures his novels! Fascinating.) I’m aware that I’m probably causing a lot of anguished hair-tearing jealousy among other Book Nerds at this point, so let’s move along.
The Guest Room is an eye-opening thriller with an illuminating view of how one moment in time can change everything. It’s the story of investment banker Richard Chapman, who makes the stupid but completely understandable decision to host his brother’s debauched bachelor party at his suburban home outside New York City. As you might expect, this goes spectacularly awry: the party morphs into an alcohol-fueled, sex-drenched slaughterhouse after a beautiful ‘exotic dancer’ stabs her Russian bodyguards to death in the Chapmans’ living room. As Richard’s career and marriage start to crumble from the fallout, he is surprised to find his life inexorably intertwined with the young prostitute’s as she flees from the violent gangsters who abducted her.
Bohjalian discusses the new novel in a Q & A, below:
Kimmery: You are known for character-driven novels that explore a particular issue in depth; in this case, you’ve chosen to illuminate the shadowy business of sex-trafficking. Why did you select this topic as a focus? What do you hope to convey to your readers about the subject?
Chris Bohjalian: Perhaps the answer is not a “why,” but a “who.” Read More →
This week I am reviewing new releases from bestselling New York Times authors who will be in Charlotte on November 5th at the second annual Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Foundation’s signature fundraising event, Verse & Vino. Let me be the first to tell you, this event was SO MUCH FUN last year. Even though I am admittedly a huge literary nerd, I think everyone would love it. Last year’s author/speakers were phenomenal, and this year sounds as good or better. I went with a table of couples last year, and all of us, even the ones who rarely pick up a book, were alternately mesmerized/howling with laughter as the authors spoke. Plus it’s a fantastic, glitzy benefit. Click here for more details.
The featured authors this year are T.J. English, Karin Slaughter, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Gregory Maguire and Chris Bohjalian.
I recently spoke with Slaughter and English. Reviews of their books are below.
Fair warning: once you’ve read it, you can’t unread it.
Karin Slaughter’s latest novel Pretty Girls snatches the genre of psychological suspense and infuses it with gritty descriptions that nearly froze my face in a mask of shocked surprise. I’m not squeamish—I’m an ER doctor—but weeks later, I’m still perspiring and fluttering my hands at the thought of it.
Slaughter is a master storyteller. Indisputably at the top of her genre, her work has sold more than thirty-five million copies, claiming a combined 2000 weeks on bestseller lists around the world, including 15 New York Times bestsellers. She’s perfected the art of ratcheting up tension, so that while Pretty Girls begins as a witty character-study, it finishes as a full-on heart-pounding scream fest.
The storyline alternates POVs between three narrators: Claire, a beautiful but callous trophy wife; Lydia, Claire’s caustic, less refined older sister; and Sam, their father, whose journal immortalizes his heartrending despair after the disappearance of another sister many years before. The perspectives of these three are woven together in a powerful and provocative narrative during the course of a self-directed investigation into the whereabouts of a series of missing young women in and around Atlanta. Claire’s life, which is suffused with surface perfection, abruptly boils over into flaming disarray after her husband gets amorous with her in an alley and is promptly whacked by a passing thug. After his death, one disturbing discovery follows another, and soon everything in Claire’s prosperous existence is upended as she copes with monstrous revelations concerning the people she loves most. Read More →
Hoo boy. I have been waiting for five years for Jonathan Franzen to release his latest work. First off, let me elaborate as to why I like him. Burdened with verbal geekiness as I am, it’s a delight to read an author who wields language with such blithe abandon: if there’s an esoteric word that fits the situation with precision, Franzen is going to employ it, all advice to the contrary be damned. (Writers are constantly admonished not to use big words if smaller, common ones could suffice, lest you alienate somebody with your pretentious abuse of Thesaurus.com.) Which is not to say his sentences necessitate a dictionary app at every other word. He’s so witty and interesting! Consider the following description:
“To drive east on Amarillo Boulevard was to pass, in quick succession, the high-security Clemens Unit prison complex, the McCaskill meat-processing facility, and the Pantex nuclear weapons plant, three massive installations more alike than different in their brute utility and sodium-vapor lighting. In the rearview mirror were the evangelical churches, the Tea Party precincts, the Whataburgers. Ahead, the gas and oil wells, the fracking rigs, the overgrazed ranges, the feedlots, the depleted aquifer. Every facet of Amarillo a testament to a nation of badass firsts: first in prison population, first in meat consumption, first in operational strategic warheads, first in per-capita carbon emissions, first in line for the Rapture. Whether American liberals liked it or not, Amarillo was how the rest of the world saw their country.” Read More →
This is another one of those times when I’ve read quite a bit but nothing stands out as excellent. That’s about to change, because I’m in the middle of Purity, Jonathan Franzen’s new novel. I’m sure I speak for everyone on earth when I say he’s an unparalleled maestro in the realm of spectacular sentence construction. Stay posted.
So…this week, I’ll just summarize a few things I‘ve read lately, some of which you may want to avoid spending money on. All of these books have redeeming characteristics, but, sadly, they were not for me. Lots of people loved these, though, so maybe you’ll disagree.
Ghost Fleet: A Novel of The Next World War, by Peter Singer and August Cole. Military Fiction, 416 pages.
One of the authors—Peter Singer—hails from Charlotte, and he sounds cool as all get-out: one of the world’s leading experts on 21st century warfare, Popular Science editor, mega-genius consultant to every possible spy agency, etc, etc. The book is billed as a techno-thriller about World War III, which takes place after China attacks the U.S. It’s a bestseller with glowing reviews, like “eminently readable,” “engaging,” “smart update to Tom Clancy,” and so on.
All I can say is these reviewers must have been baked out of their minds. I loved the concept, and the amount of technical information crammed into the novel is awesome. But from a literary standpoint, it’s completely incoherent. Too many characters, too little exposition, too many short, unrelated vignettes. If you are going to read it, I’d suggest getting a paper copy, so you can flip back and forth to review concepts and characters. I really wanted to like this one! But I’m kind of embarrassed to say I couldn’t finish it.
China Rich Girlfriend, by Kevin Kwan. Contemporary Fiction, 400 pages.
Sadly, this was another one where I find myself baffled by good reviews. (Maybe it’s me?) I enjoyed Crazy Rich Asians, Kwan’s first novel, which was also about social-climbing billionaire Asians. And let’s face it, no matter how wholesome/literary/unworldly you are, you secretly enjoy reading about rich people up to no good. We all do. We like reading about socialites who have gift rooms stuffed with hundred of Hermès bags (at $100,000 a pop) because it allows us to instantly feel morally superior, right? (If I had an extra million dollars to spend on handbags, I’d only buy one Birkin, and then I’d feed refugees with the rest. Obviously.) The plot here is supposed to be about Rachel Chu’s search for her absent father, but, like Ghost Fleet, the storyline flits around between too many characters and too much extraneous stuff, so that it’s very hard to follow. It’s fluffy and tawdry and ridiculous, with a satisfying amount of dirt on the Asian uber-wealthy crowd, if that’s what you’re looking for.
Note: also better on paper than on an e-reader, because there are cultural footnotes at the end of every chapter.
Crow Hollow, by Michael Wallace. Historical Fiction/Romance, 345 pages.
This story is set in Puritan New England, where young, beautiful, widowed Prudence Cotton embarks on a desperate hunt for her kidnapped daughter, aided by English spy James Bailey. Together, they must battle murderous Indians, murderous and treacherous Puritans, and the murderously cold Massachusetts winter. Too many clichés, you say? You are correct. I’ll be honest: I tend to like stories set in America’s earliest days, because the contrast between the savagery and the extreme moralism of that time period is fascinating. But this story is sort of historical-lite and formulaic. Wallace crams in plenty of enthusiastic descriptions of scalpings, torture, and sex—so there’s something for everyone here—but it feels forced. (Would the young women of the novel really be willing to risk the stocks, social ostracization, and even a noose for some unmarried nookie? I’m thinking maybe not. Although, that doesn’t leave much of a plot.) My verdict: it’s okay.
The Good Neighbor, by A.J. Wallace. Suspense, 206 pages.
I got this one for free, and therefore it was worth reading. (It’s also a very quick read.) Sarah McDonald, of tiny Shadow Cove, Washington, endures tragedy (a fire kills her neighbors and destroys her home), only to find herself snared in an unforeseen web of danger and deception. The author does a nice job of invoking a Twilight-esque sense of place: hushed, damp forests; quiet small-town beauty, etc. (And as a weird aside, I’ll just say I’ve never read a book that focuses so much on gripping descriptions of how things smell.) But the characters, conversations, and events don’t seem real, the plot is predictable, and the protagonist is a dingbat. Again: it was just okay.
The protagonist of Luckiest Girl Alive has the worst name in the history of fiction. That, along with the rather non-literary title and a Publisher’s Marketplace blurb describing the author as a former writer for Cosmopolitan magazine, made me worry the book was going to be the kind of cheesy, vampy, Cosmo-lite kind of thing that gives women’s fiction its occasional dippy reputation. Plus, the novel opens with the main character callously imagining gutting her fiancé with one of their wedding registry knives. I read it anyway, and I’m glad I did. It was not at all what I expected.
TifAni FaNelli is not your average Emily Giffin-type heroine. She pushes past edgy, and lands somewhere in the realm of disturbingly rotten. As a teen, TifAni clawed her way out of a prosaic home, located just far enough off Philadelphia’s fabled Main Line to relegate her to the ranks of the middle class. Then, after getting in trouble at her Catholic girls school, she transfers to the private Bradley School, an upper-class bastion of wealth. From there, she launches to a small liberal-arts college, and eventually Manhattan, where she scores a coveted job in the publishing industry writing sex articles for a popular women’s magazine. The distinction between tacky, trend-following Middle America and the cultural elite of glossy, moneyed Manhattanites is one that TifAni has battled with an uncool longing all her life. Now that she’s finally integrated into the world of her aspirations, she’s rigorous in her cruelty toward clueless social-climbers: mocking their strapless wedding gowns, their French manicures, their leased BMWs, their giant pretentious Louis Vuittons. Outwardly, she has the perfect life: she’s attractive and stylish, engaged to a handsome, rich guy with a career in finance, and even has a potential offer to write for the prestigious The New York Times Magazine.
But inside, TifAni is vicious, sick, and broken. She ruthlessly attacks her insecurities, starving her Marilyn-Monroe-type body into slender submission, carefully calculating her avant-garde fashion choices, selecting the people around her—even her fiancé Luke—only for their potential to give her what she wants. The only things remotely appealing about her are her intelligence and her relentless honesty about herself. She’s a nasty, unlikable narrator, but she owns it. Read More →
Last month, I lucked into a bunch of Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) of mostly as-yet unpublished books, which is almost the coolest freebie ever! (Almost. I also self-identify as a fashionista, in case anybody from Prada is reading this.) Anyway, switching back into my Book Nerd hat, here is one medium-long review and three short ones. Alternatively—here are reviews of three man-books and one chick-lit novel. Enjoy!
HOLLOW MAN by Mark Pryor: Meet Dominic. He’s an Austin prosecutor who moonlights as a musician in the city’s vibrant after-hours clubs. Despite a career taking down bad guys, Dominic is hiding something startling: he’s a sociopath, born completely without empathy for other human beings. Which is not to say that he has no emotions—he’s keenly interested in his own well-being. So, Dominic is plenty upset one day when he’s walloped by an awful trifecta: his parents die, he’s unfairly demoted at work, and his gig at his favorite venue is canceled when an anonymous musician reports him for allegedly plagiarizing a song. Since he doesn’t care about other people, his parents dying doesn’t register all that much, but Dominic is quite annoyed by losing income and prestige at work. And his reaction about the accusation that he stole someone else’s song can only be described as apoplectically pissed. Read More →
I’m going to veer off in a different direction this week and review what has got to be the weirdest, most epic book I’ve ever read. I’ll warn you straight up that this is a 900-page, highly technical apocalyptic saga, but to my surprise, I saw it was number three on the New York Times bestseller list the other week. Who knew there were that many hardcore space geeks out there? Please bear with me if you’re not the kind of reader who digs on lavish descriptions of astrophysics.
The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.
When a mysterious explosion separates the moon into seven giant fragments, human beings are at first astonished, but quickly accept the new celestial reality. There is no immediate threat: the tides still roll and the moon fragments—the adorably named Potatohead, Mr. Spinny, Acorn, Peach Pit, Scoop, Big Boy and Kidney Bean—still orbit the earth. But within days of the death of the moon, at least one man realizes the truth: the Earth is doomed.
Within two years, give or take, the chunks of moon will split further into an exponentially increasing number of fragments. Once this reaches a certain critical mass—the sudden upswing on the exponential curve—the skies over Earth will light up with meteorites, a phenomenon dubbed the White Sky. Within a few days of the onset of the White Sky, the the planet will be blanketed with torpedoes of fire, a process termed the Hard Rain. The Hard Rain is inescapable: Earth’s surface will transpose into a boiling, fiery apocalypse that will kill every living thing.
No attempt is made to hide this information from Earth’s doomed population. In a worldwide show of unity, the leaders of each nation take to the airwaves, along with preeminent scientists and religious leaders, to inform their people of the coming annihilation. The novel doesn’t dwell much on the aftermath of this announcement; instead it focuses on humanity’s plan to preserve its species. With remarkable (and unlikely) cooperation, every nation selects a few people to send into orbit. (One exception to all this wholesome spacefaring compliance is Venezuela, which goes rogue and has to be nuked by the U.S.). Read More →
Oh my. Where to begin?
Primates of Park Avenue might be the buzzy book of the summer, at least among the demographic of well-off women in their thirties and forties. Even before its release, the book generated controversy: about its accuracy as a memoir, about its anthropological posturing, and about the notoriety and outlandishness of some of its claims: ‘Wife bonuses’ at the end of the year for high-performing stay-at-home moms? Hiring black-market disabled Disney ‘guides’ so you can skip every line?
Authored by Wednesday Martin, POPA is marketed as an anthropological memoir, a case study of the uber-rich Manhattanite housewives who populate the Upper East Side, partly written from the perspective of a scientist ‘going native’ to infiltrate and document the behaviors of the group. The entire book is studded with pop-anthro commentary:
“As happens for so many nonhuman primates who transfer into a troop, I was stuck at the bottom of the dominance hierarchy, regarded with suspicion, alternately ignored and harassed…There is no one lower than a new female in a baboon troop, and if she fails to build coalitions with the mid-level and top females, her life circumstances and those of her offspring can be dire.”
“…extremes of ornamentation and elaborate “beautification practices”—not infrequently involving the mutilation and reassembling of their bodies and faces into a more “pleasing” arrangement by various “body and face shamans”—are central to the lives of the reproductive and even post reproductive females under consideration.”
Translation: Other moms were mean to the new mom, and a lot of women in Manhattan have had plastic surgery. Got it? Read More →