Review: The Dinner List

We’ve all been asked the hypothetical question at some point in our lives: If you could have dinner with any 5 people, dead or alive . . . who? and why?

My five changes frequently — sometimes Matthew McConaughey’s on the list, sometimes he’s replaced by John Krasinski (they seem so down-to-earth — how could I not?). My mama is always there, though I alternate between Jodi Picoult and J.K. Rowling on a pretty regular basis. (I’m trembling at the mere thought of being graced by their presence.) Stephen King — duh. Edgar Allan Poe — ditto.

And what would I do if, by some stroke of fortune, we all ended up actually sharing a meal and a few bottles of champ together? Um. Well.

In Rebecca Serle’s debut novel, The Dinner List, this is exactly the predicament Sabrina finds herself in when she arrives at her restaurant birthday-dinner date with her best friend: seated around the table alongside her best friend, Jessica, Sabrina sees her father, her ex-lover, her former philosophy professor, and — gulp! — Audrey-freaking-Hepburn. It’s an initially unfortunate-seeming mishmash of individuals: Audrey’s clearly out of place with the other mere mortals, and Sabrina needs some convincing that the situation is real. But once the cork is popped and appetizers ordered, the table finds itself thrown into the inevitable: serious conversation. Sabrina is forced to confront regrets, frustrations, anxieties, and losses from previous years; not the least of which is her failed relationship with Tobias, the man she’s long considered the love of her life.

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A great deal of this book worked for me: I enjoyed the premise, the storyline trotted along at a quick clip, characters were largely a fun and supportive mix that worked for the scenario. To be honest, I picked this book up thinking it would be a “fluff” read — a little bit of romance, some drama, basic chick-lit — but by the time I was done, I was quite surprised to have had so many feelings while I read. And introspective thoughts. For that, I applaud Serle — she managed to compose a narrative that is seemingly simple and predominantly light, but not without depth.

And while the timeline is all-too-familiar in today’s market — back and forth, past and present — I found it a successful formatting for The Dinner List, in which the “present” portions are noted with the time on the clock (hence creating a countdown vibe that enticed me to stay up until 1 in the morning on a work night) and the flashbacks provide a more adequate portrait of Sabrina and Tobias’s shared history.

In a sense, the novel includes a touch of romance — after all, it is Sabrina and Tobias’s love story — but don’t head into this one expecting anything steamy, sexy, or happy-go-lucky. The pair’s history is fraught with frustrating turns of fate and unfortunate circumstances. But the book is so much more than this love story, too — it’s a tale of redemption, forgiveness, and really, the concept of fate and how our every choice alters fate on a minute-by-minute basis.

My one gripe: Audrey. I know, I know — she’s an icon. She deserved to have a seat at that table, and on several occasions, I felt that seat was well-filled. HOWEVER, for the most part, it seemed Serle became a bit heavy-handed with Audrey’s portions; instead of being another player at the table with a bit of starshine, she became a history lesson for readers and that became a bit tedious. More often than not, it seemed Serle needed to justify her inclusion of Audrey with reasons for Sabrina’s (aka Serle’s?) obsession with the actress, and it wound up feeling like a biography-within-a-novel . . . which took me right out of the story on more than one circumstance.

That being said, the novel is a largely compelling read with an intriguing and witty storyline. I’d recommend it to just about anyone — but I’ll warn you to be wary of the f-word: The Dinner List goes above and beyond fun. It’s downright decadent.

Overall: 4/5 stars.

Thank you to Flatiron Books for sharing a review copy of this title with me! All opinions are my own and were in no way impacted by the publisher.

Review: Bitter Orange

Well, friends, I’ve done it: I’ve read my “best book” of 2018, and it’s only going to be downhill from here. (That’s not necessarily a bad thing; I’m just basically 923% positive none of my other reads this year will top it.)

In July, I reached out to Tin House to request a copy of Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller, slated for release October 9. I’d previously read her dark and disturbing family drama, Swimming Lessons, and I was extremely pleased to have been granted an early copy by the publishing gods.

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The novel comes adorned with a dark and mysterious cover that features three oranges — two grouped together, one off to the side; appropriate when one takes into consideration the synopsis:

Frances (“Franny”) is a reclusive 39-year-old woman whose only friend (and roommate — her mother) has just died. She’s never had pals her own age before, and remembers in all-too-vivid detail the humiliation of childhood birthday parties attended out of obligation. As she reaches middle age, Franny is socially isolated and overweight — characteristics I later came to attribute to her mother’s overpowering nature. At any rate, in the wake of her mother’s passing, Franny accepts a stint at Lyntons for the summer. She’s to move to the countryside estate and take stock of its outbuildings and decorative architectural features, then report back to a wealthy American who has just purchased the sprawling property sight-unseen.

Naturally, when Franny discovers she’ll be living with two others, she’s a bit hesitant — how should she greet them? Is it too forward to assume they’ll even speak? But she’s quickly welcomed into Cara and Peter’s lives and granted access to their life-loving ways: late night picnics, drinking on the roof, skinny-dipping in the pond. Ever uncomfortable in her own skin, Franny flirts with the idea of becoming beloved to someone.

When she discovers a peephole in the floor of her bathroom — leading directly into Cara and Peter’s bathroom below hers — Franny is overcome with curiosity . . . and remorse. She can’t resist the temptation to peek into their private lives, but the choice leaves her feeling guilty. And lemme tell y’all: guilt is a beautiful thing when you’re writing a character.

Fuller does SO. MANY. THINGS. right with this novel — the prose is evocative and atmospheric, the very definition of “painting a picture with words.” For example:

“I went into the corridor and looked both ways but there was no one there. I called for them again but heard nothing. The shadow at my back returned, grey air pressing up against me, and I spun around to catch it. Wrongdoing. The word came into my head as if someone had spoken it aloud. “Hello?“ I said, but my voice sounded hollow, and I ran then, along the corridor—the locket around my neck bouncing— out of the staircase door, and up into the daylight.”

And:

“Small grey mounds lay on the floor in various states of decay and I saw they were oranges, and I realized that for years the tree must have been fruiting and dropping them on the stone paving, nature hoping some of them would seed. I flapped my hand in front of my face to keep away the tiny flies and wasps which buzzed around the rotting fruit. There were no orange tree saplings in the orangery; the main tree had been taking all the water and light. But other plants were growing: bindweed snaked across the floor, and the whole of the back wall, which must have been built of brick, once whitewashed and covered with trellis, was pasted with the great hairy trunks of ivy, and almost completely obscured. Many of the iron seats around the sides of the room had rusted away, and there were gaps in the stone pavers where an underfloor heating system must have once supplied warmth.”

And sure, the writing is gorgeous; but what about the meat of the story? That’s what you want to know about, right? Is the plot strong?

In a word:

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I discussed this novel in depth with my bookstagram buddy, @cassinthewilds, and we couldn’t stop swooning over Fuller’s absolutely thrilling current of suspense that slowly builds from the start. I may or may not have referred to Fuller as the Queen of Modern Horror at one point. And it’s a silent horror; that’s the beauty of it. I’m not keen on graphic violence, shock-factor, or gore — I think it takes a great deal more skill to quietly horrify readers — and Bitter Orange does just that. The creep-factor sneaks up on you slowly, until you find yourself asking Why am I reading this at 11:47 pm on a Saturday night when I’m home alone?

Another strength lies in Fuller’s characterization of the two leading females, Cara and Frances. Both display complex, deeply-rooted psychological . . . disturbances? . . . which are a direct result of their relationships with their mothers. In turn, their relationships with other humans are also tainted by these past experiences — Franny’s inability to live without her mother has rendered her incapable of self confidence and independence. I’ll leave Cara to you for analysis, dear readers, but just know this — the parallels between the two women are utterly fascinating.

I thought I knew how the book would end. I was certain there’d be a murder, and I was equally sure I knew “whodunnit” — alas, I was absolutely incorrect in my musings. The resolution left me a bit breathless, and to be honest, I’m already looking forward to rereading the novel to follow the trail of breadcrumbs again (this time with the conclusion in mind). I will warn you, though: once you start thinking about the narrative, and the characters, and the concept of truth — you’re going to have a few questions to consider at the end of this book.

Overall: 5 stars. Do not wait to read this book. Pre-order it today. I get nothing if you do, but you’ll get a freaking amazing thrill and I’ll have more friends to talk about this new obsession of mine with.

Also: for fans of Shirley Jackson, “A Rose for Emily,” and Shutter Island. 

The Neighbor (Part 2)

Part 1: Read here.

I just spoke to the dispatcher. About the boards in her window.

For several moments, there is nothing at all — not even the irritating thrill of three dots appearing and disappearing. Lottie’s nothing if she’s not a drama hog, and we all know she won’t offer anything else until someone takes the bait.

…and?

Almost immediately, the dots appear . . . and as quickly, they disappear. Nothing. Just as we’re all uttering the first syllable of a curse under our breaths, Lottie pulls through. A gray mass of words appears in our Messages, a torrent of gossip she’s surely had typed and saved into her notes for the seven minutes since that call to the dispatcher ended.

Leon figures he saw the husband late last night, says he saw the truck roll in around one. Who works that late?! I clock out the minute that second hand hits five. Anyway, the neighbors called in a noise complaint around four this morning — heard some loud banging — and the sheriff drove by for a look. He said boards were going up, sure enough, but couldn’t tell who was doing the hammering. And since it’s on the inside, and there’s no current noise problems, there’s nothing he can do at the moment. I bet it’s that woman. She’s always been…different.

We absorb this noninformation: a disappointment. In the moments before the message came through, our breath hung suspended at the doorways of our mouths — lips parted softly, stagnant air drowsing in a relieving moment of inaction. I would say that nobody hopes for bad news, but that seems a bit idealistic for this day and age, doesn’t it? We, each of us, salivated over fantasies of doors being broken down by bomb squads and the woman being led from the cracked steps of the front porch, hands cuffed behind her back.

The wanting, the buzzing need for a dramatic denouement: I’m sure it’s a genetic mutation that’s occurred over lifetimes, since humankind reached a state of existence that didn’t demand constant vigilance against the dark of night.

***

The woman slumps against the living room wall, fingers curled around her phone. The screen betrays nothing, no one. Slivers of daylight pierce the drab room, highlighting floating particles of DNA and who-knows-what-else as they drift toward destinations unknown. She can smell the boards, their scent unnatural in the room manufactured by machinery rather than soil, and she hates them for that.

While she sits, the house sings its daily score: from the hallway, the methodic thrumming of the dryer; from the kitchen, a here-and-gone-again hum from the refrigerator; a startling groan from shifting joists every so often. It’s as though the woman is hearing this music for the first time — she sinks into the chorus, allowing her head to tilt back as she considers the rustling nature of silence. How can it be possible to occupy a still space and encounter ceaseless chatter?

When she was a teenager, the woman had an affair with a married man. He’d capitalized on her naïveté, snaking an arm around her shoulders seemingly haphazardly at first; later, with the confidence that accompanies ownership. Quick side-armed hugs goodbye lazily transitioned into embraces that lingered moments longer each time — she was never sure when it was okay to pull away — and then one day, he pointed at his cheek and said Can I have a little kiss? and then seven weeks had passed and she was holed up in the bathroom at the Kwik Stop in town with a box at her feet and cellophane littering the floor nearby and a room full of silence bearing down on her with the weight of ten thousand hands. She remembers, now, that the silence had had a vibrancy then, too: the fluorescent fixture whined at an unreasonably low pitch while the cellophane crinkled in a slow unfurling on the floor, independent of human contact.

Three weeks later, she’d experienced silence for the last time she could remember, in the front seat of her car while it idled in a parking lot she never thought she’d call a resting place. The engine prrrrrrr-ed in alternating levels of high- and low-volume as she retched into a McDonald’s cup — formerly host to sweet iced tea — and moaned into the emptiness around her.

Yes, the woman decided now: silence was alive, and just like her son, incapable of keeping still.

***

From the corner of Elm and Hyacinth, the house looks abandoned. The boarded-up windows are dark, and when the sun hits just right, it’s almost impossible to tell if the windows have been covered or if the house is merely vacant.

Almost.

The garden is a dead giveaway: a healthy growth of weeds dominate, with two or three marigold bushes sprinkled throughout and a miraculous patch of zinnias shouting “Look at me!” to passersby. If the house were abandoned, the zinnias would have wilted long ago, while dandelions and clover and other pests sprouted upright and starved the flowers of sunlight and moisture. The garden would look a bit like Jumanji, after the kids have opened Pandora’s box and they’ve floundered about helplessly for a day or two. An observant neighbor will notice the zinnias, tended — albeit, haphazardly — and know: someone lives there.

***

A phone rings in another room — her daughter’s, she thinks — and its chirpy proclamation is shrill and unwieldy in the heavy near-silence of the house. The woman quivers imperceptibly. The tune plays two, three, four times before cutting off abruptly mid-ring; the stillness returns, the call a brief (but jarring) ripple already fast dissolving.

To be continued.

Review: Sweet Little Lies

One of August’s Book of the Month picks is a novel that I had the good fortune to receive an early copy of from my friends over at Harper — Sweet Little Lies by English author Caz Frear. If you’re on the fence about what to pick, take it from me: your credit won’t be wasted on this debut procedural.

Sweet Little Lies is one of those books that just vibes noir in every single way. A detective in London is part of a task force met with the grisly murder of an unidentified but seemingly upper-class woman whose body is dumped in the street — and they know that’s not where she was killed. Detective Cat Kinsella is eager to prove she has the stomach for the job after a previous case ended with mandatory time off and visits to the unit shrink. In an effort to prove herself useful, DI Kinsella is suddenly drawn into a much darker rabbit hole than anyone could have expected. Suddenly, her bleak upbringing is brought to the forefront and Cat is forced to hide some unsavory truths from members of both her work and personal lives. (Although, as far as that goes, she’s been withholding on both fronts for years.)

Although the book isn’t void of cliches — the main character becomes an investigator due to some past trauma and a need to right these wrongs from her childhood — characters are tightly drawn and the added element of family drama ups the juice-factor. Cat feels like the kind of person I’d be drawn to in real life: she’s down-to-earth, just the right blend of friendly and sarcastic, and her relationship with her boss — Parnell — is a perfect complement to Cat’s own disastrous personal relationships. She’s also the kind of character readers will empathize with — I think it must have something to do with her utterly normal vibes? — which makes the book that much more enjoyable.

Pacing is just right, motive is logical, and the twist(s): timed perfectly. Though I knew that such-and-such wasn’t likely to occur, I was definitely not expecting the outcome of Sweet Little Lies — and I wasn’t irked to find some “WTF-that-ending” surprise waiting for me from the depths of left field.

Frear manages to write a compelling novel that binds together my favorite mystery elements — dark, dark, dark! — without succumbing to trendy pressure to “blow readers away” with some ridiculous twist (or seven). A perfectly cracking debut novel, Sweet Little Lies read like the start of a lengthy and lucrative career to me.

Overall: 4 stars. Sweet Little Lies is chock full of assumptions, secrets, and childhood memories gone awry. If you’re into Law & Order: SVU and fancy yourself the next Liv Benson, give this debut a peek.

Side note: If you’re interested in reading Sweet Little Lies and want to give Book of the Month a shot, you can sign up using this link — we’ll both get a free book! And who doesn’t love that?!