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. 

Review: The Perfect Mother

Before I became a mother, I had a lot of preconceived notions about the “proper” way to do many mothering things — how to handle sleeping, whether to breastfeed or offer formula, what kind of behavior was acceptable from women who were mothers. To an extent, many of my core values remain unchanged; but my understanding of variations in mothering has deepened exponentially.

For example, there’s not a chance in hell I’m going to bring a baby into my bed to sleep between my husband and me — I’d be up all night, fearful of rolling over the wee babe or smothering him with blankets — but I know that parenting is often merely about survival (yours + theirs) and if that demands bedsharing from some families, so be it.

And while I won’t pretend to never pass judgement on other parents (c’mon, I’m human), I do refrain from publicly shaming parents on social media, because #NotMyBusiness. Unfortunately, not everyone adheres to this standard, and it’s almost always the mothers who take the fall for “bad parenting.”

In Aimee Molloy’s highly-anticipated debut work titled The Perfect Mother, readers are in for a tense ride when a mom-buddies group gets together for a night out on the town that culminates in the disappearance of one mother’s newborn and an investigation that becomes increasingly public as the mother — and then the group of mothers — are put on trial by the court of public opinion. Winnie, Colette, Francie, and Nell are part of the May Mothers — a group of first-time moms whose babies arrived in the same month and by accident or grand design, happened to become friends in the process. The four (and some other, less important mom-characters) met at a park in NYC a handful of times leading up to the birth of their children and continued to do so after their births.

It’s Nell’s idea, to start with: a night out on the town. The mothers are frazzled with the fears and nerves and sleeplessness that constitutes early motherhood, their social lives have been reduced to the marginal park visits with one another, and their careers have taken a backseat to diaper changes and growth charts. Winnie seems particularly discontent, and the mothers have just discovered she’s doing it all alone (an unfathomable task, to be certain). So Nell makes arrangements for a sitter, wheedles Winnie into joining the girls for a few drinks and some dancing, and everyone’s life goes to hell in a handbasket within a matter of hours.

When Winnie arrives at her expansive Brooklyn home to discover her son missing, she’s heartbroken — though it seems, at times, not quite as much as she should be. (Like there’s a standard expectation for mourning mothers, right?) Colette, Francie, and Nell take an immediate interest in the outcome of Baby Midas’s disappearance and soon find themselves engaging in suspicious behaviors and inserting themselves into conversations and situations they should really remain distant from.

The novel moves fairly rapidly forward from the events leading up to and following the baby’s disappearance: I devoured this 300-page thriller in less than two days. There was a lot to appreciate in this debut work, though a few components left me dissatisfied.

Here’s what worked: Molloy’s real treat for readers lies in her mostly spot-on portrayal of the rigors of motherhood: the unforgiving pressure to breastfeed rather than formula-feed; the struggle to maintain a sense of personal identity, separate from one’s new identity as Milk Cow and Primary Caregiver; the unfairness of a constantly-judging (& publicly posting) society. At times she got a bit preachy (there’s a section on maternity leave in the US vs other countries at the start of the novel that, though absolutely accurate and on point, feels hyper-clichéd and drawn out — most of her readers are likely to be women and have heard the facts and felt the fury themselves; ultimately, it felt like a tirade for the author’s sake, rather than the reader’s) but the majority of Molloy’s commentary on what it means to be a modern mother was on point. Molloy also has this very strong mob-mentality vibe going throughout the novel (re: judging public) but it’s a bit different from other books in which the reader is part of the collective we — in The Perfect Mother, the reader is part of a smaller collective we, the mothers group, which is less focused on burning a witch at the stake and more focused on the horrors done to one of their own. The mothers in this group have only known each other for a few months, and most of their friendships are far from deep and meaningful; but Molly effectively captures the immediately-tethering relationship among new mothers who are so ready to welcome others into their wobbly (& sometimes capsizing) boats of uncertainty.

Here’s what didn’t: The narratives are messily pieced together, leaving the reader confused about which character is the narrator at any given time. It’s like Molloy wanted to deviate from the now-traditional method of starting each chapter with a different character as the heading/narrator, but didn’t quite succeed in creating seamless transitions. There are lots of red herrings in this book, most of which worked for me; but a couple that I felt could have been trimmed. And mostly, Francie: oh, Francie. Her character was a hot-mess express and almost always unbelievable. Molloy isn’t wrong in that postpartum mothers have been known, on occasion, to effectively “lose their minds”; however, I don’t feel that Francie’s character had an adequate resolution, nor were her issues fully addressed. At several junctures, characters indicated they were “worried for her,” but never were definitive steps taken to correct these problems; instead, Francie was simply absorbed into the sweeping conclusion of the book and her borderline-psychosis was just accepted for what it was. Didn’t work for me.

Overall: 3 stars. This was a *pretty good* domestic thriller and one that many mothers — first time or otherwise — will certainly appreciate, though organization was wobbly at times.

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I received an advanced copy of The Perfect Mother from Harper Books in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts above belong to me, myself, & I. Thanks to the publisher for the free review copy!

Review: Let Me Lie

It’s probably a fair assessment to state that the literary market is overrun with thrillers and psychological “noir” novels at this time. It’s not an exaggeration to state here that every month, I see another hot-ticket item hitting Bookstagram and the blogosphere, touted as “the next Gone Girl” boasting an unreliable narrator, chapters told from multiple perspectives, and “WTF-worthy” conclusions.

On one hand, this is undoubtedly a good market for authors who excel at churning out fast-paced thrillers and detective mysteries — readers are eating that up right now. On the other hand, said readers are left with a deluge of mostly-middling works that primarily feel predictable, if not a bit repetitive.

Clare Mackintosh’s latest thriller — Let Me Lie — falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum; not nearly as chilling as Flynn’s works (to be fair, has anyone lived up to her gorgeously calculating Amy Dunne?), but better than most thrillers I’ve picked up lately.

Here’s what it’s all about: A young woman (and new mom) deals with grief on the one-year anniversary of her mother’s suicide. This suicide came just a few months after her father’s suicide, and both are so similar the authorities have chalked up the mother’s as a copy-cat grief-stricken decision. Something doesn’t feel right, though, and the daughter decides to investigate their deaths more closely when an ominous note appears on her doorstep the morning of the anniversary. Characters prove untrustworthy, there’s a retired detective-turned-civilian-investigator thrown in the mix of things, and more than one twist gave me whiplash.

Anna, the main character, is predictably thrown off-kilter when she begins to discover things that aren’t quite as they had originally appeared. Sadly, she’s fleshed into a weak female lead, who at best seems erratically passionate about solving the mystery behind her parents’ suicides, thanks to the dubious involvement of her live-in psychologist boyfriend and her floundering businessman of an uncle. I think Mackintosh wanted readers to come to appreciate Anna’s persistence as strength, but I mostly felt like she was just another stubborn-but-weak heroine determined to play the detective. Either way, she was okay, but not she’s not a character I’ll remember (or think of) in two weeks, and that’s okay.

Overall, most of the elements are fairly recyclable, but I do have to give props to Mackintosh for a few major twists I didn’t see coming. I had a strong idea about what the underlying truth was, but didn’t know how or when readers would get there, and that was the fun of this read.

The book was quick and mostly engaging, and won’t disappoint — as long as you head into it with an eye for what the book is: your run-of-the-mill thriller.

3 stars — & a big thanks to Berkley Pub who sent me an ARC after I won it on Goodreads!

Reading Roundup: March 2017

People of WordPress: March. Was. FANTASTIC! I somehow managed to finish nine novels this month, thoroughly surpassing my goal of one book per week! As a high school English teacher whose time is rarely my own, I am going to just revel in the glory of those nine books for a hot minute.

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Because your time is precious — and my time is limited — here’s a quick look at the books I enjoyed this month, in order from least favored to most favored.

  1. The Tenth Circle by Jodi Picoult. Fiction. Picoult is one of my go-to authors when I’m craving a palate cleanse and quick but engaging read. I love her novels because each focuses on a different family complexity — betrayal, abuse, deceit, forgiveness, etc. The Tenth Circle tells the story of a 14-year-old girl who is raped at a party — and the incredible toll this experience takes on her mother and father as the family attempts to keep their unit whole. Picoult handles the challenging topic with finesse, but this novel falls short of her other works. Rating: 3 stars.
  2. The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith. Mystery, crime fiction. This second member of the Cormoran Strike series (see #3) is gruesome — but provides readers with another solid mystery to ruminate over as the book lopes along. Strike and Robin return to their sleuthing when a frumpy (and somewhat batty) woman asks them to search for her husband — a moody author who has been missing for ten days. Though the wife is certain her husband is merely hiding away to nurse his wounds, and acquaintances at the publishing house assume the author’s disappearance is a thinly-veiled publicity stint, Strike quickly discovers a much darker truth. This novel was more difficult to follow than the first, and was peppered with characters that were difficult to keep track of, as well as book plot within the book — making for a read that required much more focus on my part. I didn’t dislike The Silkworm, but didn’t love it nearly as much as The Cuckoo’s CallingRating: 3 stars.
  3. My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman. Fiction. Almost-8-year-old Elsa embarks on an adventure after her grandmother’s death — one that involves several grumpy and/or reclusive neighbors, a wurse, numerous Harry Potter references, and a whole heap of fairy tales. Elsa struggles to come to terms with the truth about her grandma’s identity and learns to share her best (read: only) friend with dozens of others, all while dealing with the challenges that arise when one’s parents are divorced and a new sibling is on the way. Read this book for its endearing characters, bittersweet life lessons, and refreshingly childlike bursts of imagination. Rating: 3.5 stars.
  4. Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson. Utopian fiction. A utopian tale in a world full of dystopias, Perfect Little World operates under an intriguing premise: 10 families with newborn children move into a complex to raise their children collectively and function as a communal family of sorts. The novel becomes an engaging examination of family and normalcy, asking readers to reexamine traditional beliefs. Although the experiment starts out with a great deal of promise, all good things must come to an end. . . . The conclusion falls a bit flat, but readers will fly through this fascinating book, all while grappling with personal judgments and preconceived notions of what “good parenting” looks like. Rating: 4 stars. (A more in-depth review can be found here.)
  5. The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith. Mystery, crime fiction. The first in a series of detective novels featuring British war-veteran Cormoran Strike and his trusty sidekick Robin, The Cuckoo’s Calling is a masterfully woven mystery and race against time to find the truth about the tragic suicide (or murder?) of supermodel Lula Landry. Read it for the well-constructed characters and puzzling plot; even if whodunits aren’t your thing, this read won’t disappoint. Rating: 4.5 stars. (A more in-depth review can be found here.)
  6. The Eighty-Dollar Champion by Elizabeth Letts. Nonfiction. This charming nonfiction read is about an underdog horse. Once doomed for slaughter, former plowhorse Snowman is purchased for $80 by Dutch immigrant Harry de Leyer with the intent of making the four-legged creature into a gentle lesson horse for his students at an all-girls boarding school in the Northeast. Against all odds — seriously, this horse beat death — Snowman becomes a legend and national pet. Touted as an inspirational Cinderella story, this novel doesn’t disappoint. Read it for the historical context on an era that gets skimmed over a bit (1950s) and the feel-good vibes that buzz with each turned page. Rating: 4.5 stars.

Rereads & lifetime favorites (don’t want to skew the monthly rankings, folks):

  1. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Fiction, literature. Set in Great Depression-era Southern California, Steinbeck’s novella about friendship, loneliness, and power (or a lack thereof) is a quick and heart-wrenching read. George and Lennie form an unlikely pair, navigating the dangerous waters of a world that is often unkind — especially to those who are different. Read this 100-page masterpiece for Steinbeck’s strong prose and powerful symbolism; love it for its ability to transport readers to a hopeless nation in the midst of great strife. Rating: 4.5 stars.
  2. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Historical fiction. Just read it — it’s timeless and perfect, even the sixth or seventh or eighth read through. . . . Rating: 5 stars.
  3. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (illustrated by Jim McKay). Fantasy. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read this book, and I’m not sad about it. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is my greatest book love, no matter how much I age. Rereading the novel in its illustrated form was a treat! If you are a fan of the series, I highly recommend picking up a copy of the illustrated version here. Rating: 5 (billion) stars.

Read anything great in March? Let me know in the comments section below.

January Reading Roundup

January: A month of renewal, self-improvement, and firmer resolve. I’m speaking about reading habits, of course. 😉

At the end of last year, pregnancy hormones took over and I was quite literally too tired to even read most days after school. (A tragedy, I know.) At the end of December, I realized that September, October, and November had skated by without so much as the completion of one book per month; and friends, that just isn’t right.

Now that the second trimester is well underway, my feverish need to sleep 70% of the day subsided somewhat and I was able to tackle several new reads in January! As a teacher, free time for reading isn’t exactly a luxury; I’m pretty content with my little stack ‘o five! I’ve officially averaged one book per week this year . . . and I’ll drink (grape juice) to that any day.

The Roundup, in particular order (most enjoyed -> most meh):

  1. Descent by Tim Johnston. Genre: Mystery/thriller. I picked up this eerie-looking novel at the local Hastings store as the store heaved its last, sobering, death-rattling breaths. At 70% off, I couldn’t have landed a better deal (unless the book had been given to me, of course). Johnston’s novel opens with an 18-year-old girl and her brother heading out for a run/bike ride in the mountains of Colorado as their parents drowse through the early morning hours of their family vacation. When an accident occurs on the mountain, Caitlin is taken and her family is left to their own devices in the grueling disconnect that comes with her absence. A once-seemingly typical family unit (though not without their flaws) disintegrates at the seams in the months that follow Caitlin’s disappearance. Although the novel was difficult for me to engage with initially, I came to appreciate Johnston’s unique storytelling ability and intentional use of language. The writing became a treat (once Mr. Johnston and I had acquainted ourselves better), and I became entangled in the greatly unexpected complexity and depth of this contemporary thriller. Where so many others have fallen short, Descent holds its own with motifs of distrust, forgiveness, personal anchoring, strife, and familial relationships. At 100 pages, you’ll be invested; at 200 pages, absorbed; and at 250 pages, feverishly racing to uncover the treasure that is Descent. Rating: 4.5/5 — Verdict: You will not regret this one. Unless, of course, you don’t read it.
  2. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. Genre: Fiction/humor. I’ve heard so many wonderful things about Backman’s writing, it became inevitable that at some point in time, I would pick up one of his works. A Man Called Ove is a charming and quick read about Ove (Ooo-vuh, I’ve been told), an elderly-isn man living in a Swedish suburb. Persnickety, irritable, and stereotypically grumpy-old-man-ish, Ove lives alone in a house that once also held his beloved wife, Sonja. Without her, Ove spreads misery wherever he goes. (Truth be told, even with her, he seems to have been a bit sour.) When a new family moves in next door (and breaks about a dozen rules as they go), Ove has no choice but to interact with these imbeciles who can’t back up a trailer, can’t use their own bathrooms, and can’t use a ladder properly. Humph! I won’t share any further plot details at this point, as doing so would give away the premise of the novel; however, I can assure you that this book will make you chuckle, smirk, sob, and laugh out loud a time or two. Ove’s prickly-but-loveable persona are easy to latch onto in this book about friendship, loyalty, death, and living in the wake of death. Rating: 4/5 — Verdict: Cute, sweet, and heartfelt; this book has all the components of a perfect weekend read.
  3. The Wonder by Emma Donoghue. Genre: Historical fiction. I reviewed this one earlier this month, so I’ll just offer a few brief thoughts here. The Wonder felt like a complex read to me. Not because the language was difficult, or the plot all that challenging; but because the issues of morality, faithfulness, skepticism, and duty created such strong foundation for this novel. Although I didn’t find this book an equal to Donoghue’s Room in terms of interest and “wow-factor,” I really appreciated her intense portrait of unfailing piety contrasted with ceaseless skepticism. Rating: 3.5/5 (I’m adding a half star, FYI) — Verdict: An intriguing and not even remotely preachy novel about sticking to your guns in the face of great pressure? Yeah. Count me in.
  4. The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure. Genre: Historical fiction. I’ve also already reviewed this book thoroughly here, so I’ll save you some time and spare you the long synopsis. Writing is a bit clunky throughout the novel, and characters are fairly predictable; but the story offers a unique twist on a widely written-about topic: the persecution of Jews during World War II. While the novel lacks complexity, Belfoure makes up for this shortcoming with an interesting storyline and characters worth rooting for. Rating: 3/5 — Verdict: Worth a read, but not a book that will land on your top 10 list (or even your top 50, if I were to venture a guess).
  5. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Genre: Dystopian/science fiction. A slow-moving tale about a group of English boarding students who are seemingly living the dream at Havisham, an immense property tucked away in a secret corner of the country. Readers discover the nature (and purpose) of main character Kath’s life as she reflects on her upbringing at Havisham and her relationships with her peers and teachers. The novel is maddeningly cryptic throughout. Ishiguro’s slow reveal of the mysterious truths that Kath spends her life trying to uncover is purposeful — and enormously frustrating. Overall, I enjoyed the questions this book forces one to consider; namely, what makes us human? And just how great and terrible can our losses be when we wait for the safest opportunities to act? Rating: 2.5/5 — Verdict: Sadly, a “meh” book for me.

The great thing about reading books? You can always find a reader that has uncovered an entirely different layer of meaning and value in a work you consider beloved or unworthy. Read any of these titles and have some insight to share? Comment below!

As always, happy reading, friends — and happy February!