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?!

Review: Suicide Club

Imagine a world in which people have achieved near-immortality: It’s possible to live for four-hundred years. Skin is replaced with a tougher, more luminous counterpart that renders pimples a thing of the past and leaves people literally glowing. Organs are seamlessly replaced as needed, stress is discouraged by government mandates, and the science of healthful eating has been unlocked and dispersed for all.

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Such is the world of debut author Rachel Heng’s Suicide Club, a novel in which members are fixated on both life and death — as if it’s possible to focus on one without the other. Lea Kirino is a member of the elite “lifer” society: she enjoys the benefits of a well-paying career, such as a separate living facility with its own bathroom and views of the city; she lives a virtually stress-free existence; she’s engaged to one of the nation’s wealthiest and most well-established bachelors; and she’s got a nearly-flawless life record, with few tarnishes such as dangerous risk-taking behavior, burger-imbibing, and no limb replacements to date. That is, until she steps into oncoming traffic on her 100th birthday.

In a world where life — and the strife for immortality — is sanctimonious, Lea’s actions (I’ll let you read about her reasons) are cause for immediate observation by government-ordered officials, at work and in public and possibly even within the walls of her own home. It’s illegal to take a life, or to show anything less than zeal for living, and Lea’s little “accident” has put her hopes for the Third Wave (read: the Immortality generation) at odds.

Lea soon becomes acquainted with the “Suicide Club,” a group of high-society Lifers who by all outward appearances, seem to be living with adequate demonstrations of joy. However, it becomes clear these privileged individuals seek more than mere immortality, and Lea is forced to broaden her perspective on what it means to truly be life-loving.

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I was utterly mesmerized by the world-building Heng accomplishes in her debut novel — honestly, I haven’t been quite so sucked into a fiction-verse like this in many, many years. It sounds cheesy, but I was honestly reminded of my middle- and high-school years when I read a great deal of fantasy and sci-fi, and I found myself quickly steeped in the world that I was reading about.

The book struck me as an interesting portrayal of societal grooming. Characters are taught that living as long as possible is the most worthwhile achievement a person can make. They’re obsessed with prolonging their lives, so much so that relationships — and anything else that is considered cortisol-producing — are minimized and abbreviated. In some ways, the observations in the book felt a bit like a sardonic glance at society’s current fads: characters get their nutrition from a drink, not unlike the juicing and Advocare fanatics who swear by the supreme nutrition of liquefied meals. Characters are zealous about their appearance, fretting over any visible wrinkles or laugh lines, and it is a mark of the truly elite that they are able to receive “treatments” that eliminate signs of aging. Again, I was reminded of our cultural fear of aging, and especially the efforts undertaken to retain youthful features (here’s looking at you, Kardashian troupe).

So, is it possible to enjoy such a novel — one in which characters are ultimately superficial and human relationships are dictated by social class and the placability of such pairings? In a word: YES. I found so much to love in the flawed characters and ideologies of Heng’s futuristic world. This book moved me in deep ways, forcing me to reflect on the darker realities of death as an endpoint — or a destination — of living.

While some bigger questions went unanswered — chiefly, who/what determines the “number” people are assigned at birth? Is it random? Why? — I wasn’t significantly distracted by these flaws in the plot. If you’re a highly cynical reader, though, you may find more to criticize in that respect.

Overall: 4/5 stars. A thoroughly enjoyable read about living and dying; one that I see myself recommending often!

Review: Number One Chinese Restaurant

June will be upon us soon, friends, but before you make your TBR pile for the month, take a quick look at Number One Chinese Restaurant by debut author Lillian Li. This title is slated for release June 19 and I am so excited about it! 

From the publisher:

The Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland, is not only a go-to solution for hunger pangs and a beloved setting for celebrations; it is its own world, inhabited by waiters and kitchen staff who have been fighting, loving, and aging within its walls for decades. When disaster strikes, this working family’s controlled chaos is set loose, forcing each of them to confront the conflicts that fast-paced restaurant life has kept at bay.

Owner Jimmy Han hopes to leave his late father’s homespun establishment for a fancier one. Jimmy’s older brother, Johnny, and Johnny’s daughter, Annie, ache to return to a time before a father’s absence and a teenager’s silence pushed them apart. Nan and Ah-Jack, longtime Duck House employees, are tempted to turn their thirty-year-friendship into something else, even as Nan’s son, Pat, struggles to stay out of trouble. And when Pat and Annie, caught in a mix of youthful lust and boredom, find themselves in a dangerous game that implicates them in the Duck House tragedy, their families must decide how much they are willing to sacrifice to help their children.

For a debut, this novel was remarkably tightly-woven and, in my humble opinion, well-edited. When it comes to reviewing books, there’s a lot I can forgive about plot — but I can’t stand reading a badly composed narrative. Prose is practically everything to me (really, I’ll completely overlook a boring plot if the writing is melodic) . . . and Li’s work does not disappoint (not in terms of plot, or prose!).

Though comedic at times (Ah-Jack is a charmer, people), the novel has an underlying melancholic vibe as readers unwrap the gift that is Li’s work. Characters are vibrant, in an ironically simple way. I felt like Nan and Pat and Jimmy were all utterly possible human beings, and as such, empathized with their frustrations, shortcomings, and tiny triumphs. I wanted to slap Pat for Nan (y’all, I’m praying my kid somehow eludes the attitude portion of teenage years), I was repulsed by Uncle Pang’s sneaky demeanor, and I wanted to hold Annie soothingly (despite her frequent moments of unlikeable-ness). The characters in this novel weren’t remarkable or amped up or, truth be told, super memorable in the long run; but that’s exactly what made the novel work for me. Everyone was so simply usual, I believed their reactions and was sucked into the storyline.

Perhaps the greatest gem of Number One Chinese Restaurant: Li’s skillful infusion of the concepts of community as family and our inherent human desire to be someone else to meet another’s needs.

I worked in the restaurant industry for five or so years and I can attest to the sense of community (& therefore belonging, or ostracism) that occurs within a restaurant. Relationships are fiercely loyal — until someone fucks up beyond repair — and often, time spent together at work spills over into time outside the restaurant until suddenly, the people you see at work are the people you see at home and the line is so blurred between the two, you aren’t sure who you are without your job (read: your work family). As you read, watch for this development in the Duck House characters as the story unfolds.

Adding to Li’s ability to create absolutely believable characters: the subtle manner in which we learn that each character has crafted some sort of facade, some exterior personality, with which to appease his or her colleagues/family/love interests — and how inherently human that perversion of ourselves is. I was touched by characters’ realizations that they had even tricked themselves into believing (if only for a brief time) that they were this other person, only to realize when the fog had lifted — it was all for someone else’s benefit . . . and in most cases, that personality distortion has not benefitted either parties significantly. Perhaps, Li seems to observe, these personal tweaks we make actually serve to damage us far more greatly than they do to benefit others. After all — everything comes out in the wash, right?

Overall: A solid 4/5 stars. Read this debut if you enjoy family/community dramas.

Review: The Comedown

I grew up in a pretty straight-laced household. We were Catholics, which meant that I felt guilt about, well, anything that might be a sin (stole two dollars from my sister’s piggy bank when we were ten, still feeling that guilt). I made it a personal mission of mine to achieve only the highest marks in school, wouldn’t dream of being sent to the office, and generally avoided anything that resembled trouble (i.e. drugs, alcohol, careless teenage sex). So, you know, a book that is devoted to the saga of two families entwined by a drug deal gone wrong (& decades & decades of drug abuse and general debauchery) sounds like it would be . . . right in the opposite direction of my alley, right?

Wrong.

The Comedown by debut author Rebekah Frumkin features a cast of debased characters who struggle with addiction and generally make some of the shittiest choices known to mankind, meaning that this isn’t a novel I would’ve picked up if the publisher hadn’t sent it to me (& that I initially thought I was probably definitely going to hate it).

love when authors prove me wrong, y’all.

At the start of the book, there are two family trees featuring the major members of the Bloom-Mittwoch and Marshall families. Each family’s troubles can be traced back to the choices of their patriarchs, Leland Bloom-Mittwoch, Sr., and Reggie Marshall — addict and dealer, respectively. Leland is obsessed with Reggie in a way I can only assume that addicts might be with their dealers — he thinks they’re friends, despite Reggie’s obvious disgust for Leland’s depravity. (The irony here is not lost on me.) One night, Leland witnesses a deal that results in a fired weapons, a couple of cold bodies, and a suitcase that is chock-full of greenbacks. The events of that night forever alter the course of their families, and The Comedown is a fascinating portrayal of the decades that follow.

Each chapter of the novel is devoted to the telling of a family member’s (or close acquaintance’s) personal history. Readers aren’t given a full picture — that would take ages to read through, and besides, would be tedious — but rather, are told a bit about the character’s early years before touching on the present (2009). The result is a novel that is largely character-driven and immensely engrossing. Although it may seem like readers never get a full glimpse at each of the family members and/or friends who comprise the story’s unraveling, I would argue that Frumkin has created marvelously distinct characters in limited portions — snapshots, if you will.

Although I can’t say that I loved any of the characters, I was drawn in by their histories. This isn’t a novel to read so that you can find your next favorite character — most had variously unlikeable qualities and habits that are often cringeworthy, if not appalling. But again, Frumkin somehow makes these overwhelmingly lost individuals somehow worthy of readers’ attention and pity — and that is what I love most about this novel. I’m not going to pretend it’s easy to write a character that everyone loves; but it is far more challenging, in my opinion, to craft a character (or a slew, if you will) that has few redeeming qualities and yet still somehow manages to make readers sit up and pay attention.

Mingled in there with the character portraits we’re given, Frumkin weaves together this absolutely improbable storyline that falls a bit more into place with each character narrative. By the end of the novel, readers will not have been given the complicated story’s outcome in a series of first-this-next-that events; rather, readers will arrive at the conclusion in a yo-yoing manner as the tangled lives of the Mittwoch-Blooms and Marshalls are strategically outlined.

The Good: See above. Basically, I loved Frumkin’s careful construction of characters and the more subtle plot development that occurred as a result of their choices. Also — I know I didn’t talk about this much, but this novel’s sense of setting is solid. The book spans several decades, primarily the 70s-2000s. As I wasn’t born until the near-90s, there was much about the earlier decades that I needed to look up (I had heard of Kent State shootings, but the book made me want to know more) . . . but I’m perfectly fine with abusing Google while reading if the subject matter is intriguing. That it was, Frumkin; that it was.

The Bad: You know, I’m reflecting on this book a week after I finished it, and I can’t say that there’s anything in here I hated. At first, I was a bit put-off by the rampant drug use; but as the plot developed, I found myself shaking my head at the characters’ choices before furiously reading on to discover the next individual in the Mittwoch-Bloom/Marshall saga.

Overall: 4.5 stars. If you love a novel with solid characterization and a strong sense of place, this is the read for you!