Scattered Thoughts on the Novels I Have Been Reading Lately
I suspect this is the most unoriginal thing ever written about Stephen King, but having gotten back into the habit of reading his novels for the first time since I was much younger, I can’t get over how fantastic he is at developing characters and setting up a story and how terrible he is at finishing. Sometimes, it feels like Stephen King wants to be a magnificent writer of thrillers or even an observer of people — incredibly strong suits for King — but that he uses horror or the supernatural as a crutch. He writes himself into corners with incredible fiction and then uses supernatural elements to pull him out. Earlier this year, I read The Outsider and absolutely loved it, until he pulled out the supernatural elements to “solve” what was otherwise a pretty excellent legal thriller. Because The Outsider ultimately relied so heavily on supernatural elements, it retroactively left a sour taste in my mouth about Mr. Mercedes (from which The Outsider is spun off), which I read after having watched the first season of the TV show.
Anyway, his latest, Elevation is a novella, and a fine one it is … until the end. It’s about a guy who lives in small-town Maine trying to make good with a lesbian couple who runs a restaurant that is being rejected by the town because the couple is married and, therefore, rubbing their faces in it. It’s a lovely story about the importance of kindness, and about being a good neighbor, and about sticking up for other people, and if it were just that, it would’ve been enough. But the novella also hinges on a character who is unexplainably losing weight. As his weight falls into the single digits, the man’s physical appearance never changes, and everything he touches also seems to defy the laws of gravity. It’s a compelling hook, but King has no idea what to do with it, so the story just kind of … flitters away.
Then again, it’s hardly a discredit to the story. King’s still a master storyteller. He’s just crap at endings. I’m willing to put up with it for the sake of everything else.
Someone who knows how to stick a landing, however, is Catherine Steadman, an actress (Downton Abbey, pictured) turned brilliant novelist. Something in the Water is a nasty little mystery thriller that captivates from the opening scene, which sees a woman painstakingly digging a shallow grave. That’s the end of the story, but the narrative jumps back to the beginning as the reader tries to figure out who is buried in that hole and why. It’s a fantastic, suspenseful novel about a newly married couple who seem to have everything going for them … and yet, the entire time we’re reading it, we know how it ultimately ends. I couldn’t wait to get there.
Conversely, Megan Miranda’s much-hyped All the Missing Girls felt like something of a disappointment. I liked the idea behind it — a woman returns to her hometown ten years after her best friend goes missing, and as soon as she arrives, another acquaintance goes missing. At this point, the narrative jumps ahead 15 days and the rest of the story is told in reverse. Unfortunately, it only works by utilizing a painfully unreliable narrator, and while I typically don’t mind a good unreliable narrator, it pisses me off when you get to the end of the story and that narrator basically confesses that she’s been lying the entire time. That’s All the Missing Girls in a nutshell. It’s infuriating.
Tayori Jones’ An American Marriage is easily one of the five best books I’ve read this year. A National Book Award finalist, it tells the story of a middle-class Black couple in Atlanta who try to maintain their marriage when the husband is convicted and imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. It’s a heart-wrenching and heartbreaking book, but the big question basically comes down to this: What does a Black woman owe a husband who was put away for a decade for the crime of being Black. My sympathies ran both ways. She should be able to move on with her life and embark on her career, yes? But on the other hand, he didn’t do anything, and how is it fair that he loses everything? I obviously cannot speak to the experiences in this book, but it certainly put mine into perspective. Brilliant novel.
All We Ever Wanted by Emily Giffin is another of my favorite books this year. A working-class high-school student with a white father and an estranged Brazilian mother has too much to drink at a party and a wealthy kid she has a crush on takes a picture of her while she’s passed out, her skirt hiked up and a breast exposed. She’s also holding a green Uno card, and the kid who takes a picture captions it, “I guess she finally got her green card.” The teenage kid texts the pic to a friend, and by the next day, everyone in the school has seen it. What do you do if you’re the mother of the son, whose future at Princeton is being jeopardized by that photo? What do you do if you’re the father of the daughter, who doesn’t want to draw even more attention to herself by going after the teenage boy (and also, she still has a crush on him). All We Ever Wanted basically offers a guidebook to (good) parents on how to handle these situations, and asks the question: How much loyalty do you owe to your shitty kid? And as a father, do you report what is essentially a sex crime over the objections of the victim, your daughter? It’s a fantastic read.
I was much less taken with Lauren Beukes The Shining Girls, a serial killer thriller with a time-travel element. Harper Curtis finds a house in Depression-era Chicago that is basically a time portal, in which he can step into the future and murder women and escape back in time. He fails to kill one of his victims, Kirby, who decides to use her second chance at life to become a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and investigate her own serial killer. It features a great lead character, and a lot of grisly murders, but as serial-killer novels go, it’s fairly by-the-books and a waste of an otherwise clever conceit.
I was impressed enough with Noah Hawley’s (Fargo) novel, Before the Fall, that I sought out one of his older books, and The Punch is pretty good, too. It’s a family drama about two estranged brothers who are forced into each other’s orbit when they have to bury their father. It’s fine, and the writing is great, and from reading it, I learned that Noah has a twin brother (in fact, Alexi Hawley created The Rookie). Based on this book (and Fargo season 3), it’s clear that there are some issues between the two brothers. I wouldn’t call it a particularly memorable book, however.
Courtney Summers’ young-adult book Sadie has gotten a lot of attention this year, but I wasn’t particularly impressed with it. Sadie is a small-town girl (living in a lonely world!) whose sister, Mattie, dies, upending her own life. She hits the road in an effort to find her sister’s killer. Meanwhile, a podcast host is a few days behind her, trying to track down Sadie while reporting on the investigation. It’s a beloved novel, and maybe it’s a better book for its intended audience (young adults), but aside from framing the search within a podcast, I thought it was a fairly conventional and sometimes deadly dull book.
Likewise, I was indifferent to Amie Molloy’s thriller The Perfect Mother (soon to be a major motion picture starring Kerry Washington!). It’s another missing kid book (I swear, it’s unintentional — I read what other people recommend). A group of mostly well-to-do Manhattan moms, who know each other from a birth group (their kids were all born the same month), find themselves embroiled in the investigation of one of their own missing children, who is abducted while the Moms are out for a Ladies Night. This is one of those books where the story is actually pretty decent, but most of the characters are insufferable. By the end, I honestly just didn’t care what happened to the baby — I just wanted the book to be over. I could, however, see someone like Kerry Washington bringing this to life.
If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo would make for an amazing Netflix romcom along the lines of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. It operates like a fairly conventional romcom, set in a small Southern town: Girl meets boy, girl falls in love with boy, but girl has a secret that might upend the relationship. The secret? She is trans. The book, I believe, has come under some criticism for being maybe too idealistic — which the author, who is trans, acknowledges — but I appreciate how aspirational it is. “I just wanted a book where good things happen to a trans person,” Russo told The Washington Post.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward is probably the most beautifully written book I’ve read this year, and it’s a hell of a literary achievement. It is intense, haunting, poetic and heartbreaking, but it is a book that I appreciated more than I enjoyed, not due to any fault of its own, but because my brain doesn’t process magical realism well. I don’t want to say it was too smart for me, but it was definitely too smart for me.
Finally, I recently read The Wife by Alafair Burke upon the recommendation of someone in the comments of the last book round-up I wrote, and as far as gaslighting books go, it was definitely top tier. However, I think I must have read seven or eight gaslighting books this year (and another seven or eight missing person books), and I think I’ve hit my limit on both subgenres for the time being. This one was pretty terrific, though, and easily superior to the more talked about The Wife Between Us (guh!).
As always, please use the comments to make your own recommendations. Personally, they have been very helpful to me.
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