Scattered Thoughts On Recent Books: 'Dead Moon,' 'On the Come Up,' 'Two Can Keep a Secret,' 'The Feather Thief' and More
I haven’t yet written a book post in 2019, so there’s some catching up to do. Let’s kick it off in the Young Adult genre with On the Come Up (2019), Angie Thomas’ follow-up to the phenomenal The Hate U Give. On the Come Up again tracks a teenage girl in a mostly white private school, but here she’s an aspiring rapper (and daughter of a rapper who was on the cusp of fame before he was shot dead). Inspired in part by Biggie Smalls, On the Come Up traffics in a lot of the same themes as The Hate U Give — gang violence, feeling out of place both at school and at home, and complicated family relationships — and it’s almost as successful, although On the Come Up genuinely feels like the first season of a television series (and it has been optioned for one). It’s very good, and I’m excited to watch the show when it premieres on Fox.
Though the title is Two Can Keep a Secret (2019), the latest by Karen M. McManus is not a sequel to her debut novel, One of Us Is Lying, but it is a better, more surefooted effort (I also liked One of Us Is Lying, a mystery about a murder that occurs during high-school detention). Two Can Keep a Secret is another mystery in a high-school setting. It’s about Ellery and her twin brother, who move to the small town where their aunt mysteriously disappeared years ago, the homecoming queen was murdered five years prior, and another murder of a homecoming queen makes Ellery not only a target but puts her in the middle of an investigation that could solve two generations of murders. It’s a fun, engaging Agatha-Christie-style mystery with a few twists and turns along the way, and a definite recommend for fans of YA mysteries.
Leah on the Offbeat (2018) is Becky Albertalli’s sequel to the phenomenal Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, made into one of my favorite movies last year, Love Simon. Simon is back again, but the focus is on his best friend, Leah (played by Katherine Langford, above, in the movie), who has to contend with her bisexuality, high-school angst, and trying to maintain her friend group while preparing to head off to college. This one is not quite as successful as Simon, mostly because Leah is kind of a drag. The book was the equivalent of one of those frustrating conversations where you ask your partner, “What’s wrong,” and they say, “Nothing,” but you know that something is wrong and it takes 27 years to drag it out. I spent much of the book screaming internally, “Spit it out. Just spit it out! Get to the point already!” That’s not to say I didn’t like it — I just didn’t love it like Simon.
Of the YA books I’ve read this year, so far, the best was the first book I read in 2019, Adam Silvera’s They Both Die at the End (2017), set in a near future where everyone gets a phone call on the day they die so that they can try to get the most out of their last day (they have no idea how they will die, or at what time, nor how the government knows). It’s about Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio, two very different young men, who decide to spend their last day together and find themselves bonding and … more, but the story stays true to the title, so it’s a real goddamn heartbreaker. It could not have been more up my alley.
The Dreamers (2019) by Karen Thompson Walker is not YA, but her debut novel The Age of Miracles was (and it was phenomenal). Age of Miracles was set in a post-apocalyptic world where the Earth gets nudged off its axis and each day gets longer and longer, while the more adult The Dreamers explores a small town in California where a mysterious disease leaves people asleep and incapable of waking. It’s a fascinating — and realistic — look at what might happen in a small town if a contagious and potentially fatal virus began to spread, leaving a growing number of people perpetually asleep. Panic sets in. The hospital beds fill up. Doctors and nurses begin falling asleep. The government quarantines the town. Townspeople begin turning against each other. It’s a terrifically well-written novel, a little languid in its pace but nonetheless sharp and compelling.
If you like Ruth Ware, you’ll probably like Ware’s The Lying Game (2017), a murder mystery, set in a coastal village in England, about four high-school friends reunited 20 years later after an incident in their past resurfaces. Ruth Ware doesn’t need any extra promotion from us, so I’ll just say that it was fine. It wasn’t my favorite Ware mystery, and it wasn’t my least favorite.
In addition to Jon Ronson’s phenomenal The Last Days of August, I checked out a few other Audible originals, of varying quality. Curtis Sittenfield’s Atomic Marriage (2019) is a very short and very slight story (narrated by Diane Lane) about a movie producer who is having difficulties in her marriage trying to convince the author of a marital self-help book to adapt it for the screen with a gay character, in defiance of the self-help author’s religious beliefs. It’s fine, and a very quick listen. I was far less enamored with Dany Robins Folsom Untold: The Strange True Story of Johnny Cash’s Greatest Album (2019), which felt more like a podcast. It mostly entailed the author teasing huge revelations only to deliver one anti-climax after another.
Meanwhile, another Audible original, Peter Clines’ Dead Moon (2019) is terrific if you’re into action-driven sci-fi (and this one is almost all action). In the distant future, the moon becomes Earth’s graveyard after we run out of our space to bury our dead — the corpses, however, don’t really decompose up there. After a mysterious explosion, the dead bodies re-animate, providing the template for what is essentially a zombie outbreak set on the moon. If that combo of sci-fi and horror sounds intriguing, Dead Moon won’t disappoint. Shout out to the author, Peter Clines, a Maine native who used to be the props master for Veronica Mars.
Finally, in the non-fiction genre, I read Bad Blood (2018) by John Carreyrou (Kayleigh does a terrific run-down of the book — and the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes — here). It is impeccably researched but also a little dry, so I’m stoked about Adam McKay’s film adaptation starring Jennifer Lawrence, if only because it will streamline all the technical stuff and the repetitive nature of the book (it’s incredibly comprehensive, which means that every other chapter is about yet another person getting fired for getting too close to the truth, while the awfulness of Holmes is belabored almost to the point of numbness).
Meanwhile, a local Maine friend of mine recommended The Feather Thief (2018) by Kirk Wallace Johnson, and it is fantastic, but would be even more fantastic if I cared about fishing or ornithology. It’s about a 20-year-old student who broke into a museum in England and stole a bunch of rare birds to sell off the feathers to wealthy fishermen, who used the feathers for fly-tying. I didn’t particularly care for Part I of the book — which is all about the history of these birds, why they are important ecologically speaking, and the history of how their feathers are used by fly-tiers — but the rest of the book is a page-turner about the museum heist that a master fly-tier named Edwin Rist pulled off, the police investigation, the trial (which involved Sacha Baron Cohen’s cousin) and the aftermath. It’s a hell of a tale, and credit to Kirk Wallace Johnson, who managed to brilliantly bring to life otherwise boring subject material.
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