My Heart Is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

THIS BOOK. I didn’t know quite what to prepare myself for, seeing as this was my first Stephen Graham Jones novel. But My Heart Is a Chainsaw blew my expectations out of the water. 

Rating: 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Mini Plot Summary: Jade Daniels, a half-Indian high school senior, lives in tiny Proofrock, Idaho with her abusive father. Horrible things in its history made Proofrock and its idyllic Indian Lake what it is, and Jade – a scholar and enthusiast of horror films – is certain that her hometown is ripe for its own slasher cycle. When the first body shows up and proves her right, she’s equal parts elated and determined – because she, more than anyone else, knows exactly what’s going to happen… and just how much blood is about to be spilled. 

image from amazon.com

What I Liked About This Book: First, I LOVED the beginning. It really set the tone. It was creepy and gory and absolutely wonderful. Not since that scene in Scream when Drew Barrymore is on the phone, her popcorn popping in the background, have I felt such a delicious thrill of excited foreboding. 

The protagonist, Jade is a remarkable character. She is brave, she is humble, she is self-sufficient, she is witty, she is resilient, she is self-aware, she is optimistic, she is relentless. She felt so real to me. I completely 100% understand why the title of this book is “my heart is a chainsaw,” because I think Jade would believe that of her own heart. In its destructiveness, in its ability to evoke panic and chaos. In its absolute symbolism of the genre she loves. But I don’t think her heart IS a chainsaw; I think it’s an open wound. You’ll have to read the book to find out why, and to understand what hurt her and whether she can ever fully heal. 

This book is, in large part, an homage to the horror film. References to Jaws, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Scream, and many more abound. While I mostly enjoyed the horror movie nostalgia that was threaded through the narrative, it got to be a little much for me… but it felt very in-character for Jade. I could imagine how many people (including her beloved history teacher and the local sheriff) she wearied with her enthusiastic overview of the latest horror flick, and so felt a lot of empathy for how it must feel to have a passion that few people share or understand. (By the way, I couldn’t help thinking of Survive the Night by Riley Sager while I was reading this. Jones used horror films in much the same way as Sager used suspense films as a tool to move its plot forward and motivate its protagonist. I found it much more successful here, partly because of Jade’s unbridled adoration of the genre.)

I also loved how completely bonkers the last third of the book is. I mean, it’s a horror novel, so I expected blood and gore. But WOWZA did it over-deliver. While I felt like the “who done it and why” portion of the book got a teeny bit convoluted, I didn’t really care because I was on the edge of my seat, waiting to find out who was going to die next and how. The writing is, unsurprisingly, extremely cinematic, and I can’t imagine it will be long before My Heart Is a Chainsaw comes to theaters near all of us. 

What I Didn’t Like About This Book: Okay, real talk: there was a point in the middle of the novel – maybe the middle third – where this book dragged a bit for me. The primary plot stagnated a bit, and Jade’s obsession with horror films got a little tiresome for me. But I stuck it out, and I am SO GLAD because the payoff in the final third or so is just completely worth a little bit of a slog through the middle. 

Should You Read This Book? This was a phenomenal, layered, pulse-pounding, gruesome horror novel with a tender beating heart at its center. If you like horror, you will love this. If you like great writing, you will love this. If you like complex characters with satisfying story arcs, you will love this. You will love this. 

Thank you so much to Gallery Books, NetGalley, and the author for the free e-arc of this book in exchange for my unbiased review! 

* So many content warnings, which seems obvious because of the genre. But if you want specifics, I am happy to share more details.

The Grandmother Plot by Caroline B. Cooney

Do you remember The Face on the Milk Carton? How about Flight #116 Is Down? Or maybe one of the YA horror trilogies, like Fog, Snow, & Fire or The Vampire’s Promise? These books were a staple of my middle school years. So, when I saw that their author, Caroline B. Cooney, had a new book coming out earlier this month, I requested an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley right away. To my delight, they approved my request and I got my hands on an electronic version of The Grandmother Plot

I was expecting a thriller, but what I ended up with was a surprisingly honest and candid portrayal of Alzheimer’s disease and how it affects those afflicted with the disease and all the people they love. It was never sappy, because it was told in such a matter-of-fact and sometimes sardonic manner. But I found it moving nonetheless. Freddy, the protagonist of this book is a wonderfully drawn and deeply likable young man, and I found myself sincerely caring about him and his attempts to do the right thing  – moreso than I did about getting to the bottom of the mystery.

Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Mini Plot Summary: Freddy – a lampworker (i.e. glassblower) and a stoner – is staying in his grandmother’s house, trying to make the perfect glass pipe in between visits to his grandmother at the memory care center where she lives. The intersection of Freddy’s passions – making beads and drug paraphernalia out of glass – has gotten him tangled up with some shady characters. One of them wants something Freddy doesn’t want to give him, and has sent his goons to find Freddy and make him comply. Now, one of the residents at his grandmother’s nursing home has been murdered, and Freddy can’t rule out that it’s because of him. With help from his friend Laura – a sixty-something musician with a passion for pianos, organs, and smashed brass – Freddy tries to uncover the identity of the murderer… before his beloved grandmother becomes the next victim.  

image from amazon.com

What I Liked About This Book: This book was a tender but very straightforward depiction of what it’s like to love someone whose memory has failed. Throughout the story, you get a glimpse of the struggles faced by many dementia patients and their loved ones. Cooney writes about dementia in such a wry, frank way – her prose is sincere and sympathetic toward everyone involved in dementia care, but does not shy away from how upsetting and sometimes absurd it can be. The exploration of memory care was the real heart of this book, I felt. 

I also loved the characterization, particularly of Freddy. He was such an unlikely hero; a pothead who basically leeches off his grandmother, he hasn’t renewed the car insurance or notified the Social Security department that his late mother should no longer be getting checks. But he is such a loving person, not just to his grandmother, whom he cares for despite all the challenges and difficulties and sorrows that accompany her disease, but to the other nursing home residents, their family members, and the nursing home staff. I really liked Freddy, and found myself rooting for him. 

This book also did something I love, which was to toss in details about the lives and occupations of people I know nothing about. It must have required tremendous research on the part of the author, and I found it fascinating to read about lampwork, and Freddy’s process of making beads and pipes. I also loved learning about Laura’s passions. It’s wonderful to be caught up in a story, but when the characters have interests that are totally new to me, I find it so fascinating to learn about them and it was evident that Cooney was fascinated with what she’d learned as well. 

What I Didn’t Like About This Book: This book was marketed as a thriller, and there is, indeed, a murder and a mystery to solve. But it didn’t read like a thriller. The tension fell a little flat for me, and the stakes didn’t seem very high. And the resolution didn’t feel particularly satisfying for me. I guess I got too caught up in what Freddy and Laura were doing in their spare time, and just wasn’t that interested in the actual murder investigation. 

The only other complaint I had was that I felt that Laura’s fascination with Charles Ives took up too much real estate in the book and didn’t really go anywhere, for me. 

Should You Read This Book? For me, this wasn’t an edge-of-your-seat thriller, although the mystery is solid. But the book has plenty to recommend itself nonetheless: It’s an easy read with vivid, truly likable characters and offers a very moving portrait of the effects dementia has on its victims and their loved ones. I think it’s well worth your time. Now excuse me as I go track down a copy of Cooney’s other most recent book, Before She Was Helen.

Thanks so much to the author and publisher and NetGalley for the free eARC of this book in exchange for my honest review!

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

There are three things you need to know about my experience of reading Jean Hanff Korelitz’s latest novel, The Plot. First: Once I started, I did not want to stop. I took this book with me EVERYWHERE.

Second: I listened to this book, and the audiobook was excellent. Just putting that out there, in case the experience of reading the print book is vastly different.

Third: I found this book to be super predictable and yet it was RIVETING. I did not care that I knew what was going to happen, I had to find out HOW and I had to find out WHY. 

This book is really good. Just a fun, enjoyable, absorbing thriller.

Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Mini Plot Summary: Jake Bonner’s first novel achieved critical success, but never skyrocketed him to the level of Famous Author. His subsequent books are less well-regarded. To earn a living, Jake starts teaching at Ripley, a relatively unknown, low-residency MFA program. There, he meets a student who has a dynamite idea for a book. A plot that could sell a million books. A plot that even a terrible writer could turn into a best-seller. Over the years, Jake keeps wondering when the book will appear on the literary scene, but when it never does, he figures that his student simply never finished the manuscript. Then, as his own career continues to dwindle, Jake discovers that the student with the remarkable plot is dead. Jake figures that a writer can own his own words… but he can’t own the idea for a plot. And, he tells himself, a writer owes it to an idea – especially one as explosive as this one – to bring it to life. So he writes a novel – Crib – using his student’s plot. Just as he and the student suspected, the book is an immediate international hit. Jake’s entire life changes in an instant – he suddenly has the wealth and fame and credibility he always dreamed of. All because of this extraordinary plot. But someone knows that the plot doesn’t belong to him… and Jake needs to own up to his theft… or else.

image from amazon.com

What I Liked About This Book: This was a good, solid, well-written, well-crafted thriller. It’s also a good example of how books don’t necessarily need to shock and surprise to still be captivating reads. While I figured out the main twist very early on, I still couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. In fact, knowing (or suspecting I knew) what Jake didn’t know heightened the tension for me. When would he uncover the truth about his blackmailer? Plus, while I guessed the broad strokes, there were lots of little details that made it absolutely fascinating to read. 

I also really liked the characterization. As a would-be writer myself, and a former writing teacher, I get really cranky about plagiarism. But I’m also aware that ideas occur to people simultaneously, and, as Jake points out, there are really only so many types of plots. Most books are variations on a handful of stories – it’s the details and the storytelling that make us keep reading the manifold variations on a single plot over and over again. This is all to say that I both strongly disagree with Jake’s decision to steal his student’s plot… and also, in some small way, understand it. I kept wanting to hate Jake, but I didn’t. He wasn’t the most likable protagonist I’ve ever encountered, but he wasn’t terrible. He seemed to have some good in him. So I didn’t mind being in his head for most of the book. He felt like a real person, with real complexity.

I also liked how the story unfolded – on the one hand, it was very linear, with all the detours into the past occurring in real time by way of Jake interviewing people about the past or reading old newspaper articles and the like; on the other hand, we got little snippets of Jake’s book Crib, which helped reveal what this exciting bestselling plot looked like, while also giving us insight into the blackmailer’s beef with Jake. 

I also loved the ending. It wasn’t surprising, but I found it very satisfying. Very. Satisfying. Indeed.

What I Didn’t Like About This Book: Jake was kind of an idiot. So much so that his naiveté veered very close to unbelievable, for me. I cannot say more. 

Should You Read This Book? If predictability is a dealbreaker for you, then I would skip this one. But if you don’t care about being surprised as much as you care about tight writing, compelling storytelling, and escalating tension, then you should definitely read this book. 

Audiobook Review: As I mentioned, I listened to this book instead of reading it in print. And it was so well done. The narrator – Kirby Heyborne – was excellent. He has kind of a quiet, soothing voice, and at first I wasn’t sure if I liked it at all. But very quickly, I realized that he is a very good voice actor. He did such a great job of making each character’s voice distinctive – even characters we met only briefly had their own distinct inflection or accent or speaking style. Plus, I felt like Heyborne really excelled at putting just the right level of feeling into each sentence – I never once felt like he was over-acting or was pulled out of the story because of him. In fact, I feel like he really enhanced the book for me. My only complaint is that he pronounced “Whidbey Island” as “Wid-bay Island.” I grew up visiting that island and always heard it pronounced “Wid-bee Island,” so it kind of grated on my ears. But I recognize that could be my mistake, or an acceptable alternative pronunciation, and I also know that even an awesome reader like Heyborne simply may not know how to pronounce it. So it doesn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the audiobook. In fact, I would give the audiobook narration five stars. I would definitely listen to more books narrated by Heyborne.

Books That Broke My Heart

Do you like books that make you cry? It’s my understanding that some people seek out tear-jerkers, just for the release. I am pretty much always on the edge of tears anyway, so I don’t really need a book to give me a push. 

Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying I’m sad all the time – it’s just that I tend to be A Crier. I tear up at sappy movies… at the end of the school year, and the beginning of the school year, and anytime a teacher says something nice about my daughter… I get misty when my friends have new babies or get promotions or talk passionately about something they’re working on… and, man, Subaru commercials make my eyes a little damp. 

So it isn’t a surprise that a good book – even if it’s not necessarily a sad book – can get me a little choked up. (Anxious People, I’m looking at you.) 

But despite the occasional sniffle, I wouldn’t say that many books make me cry-CRY. Perhaps that’s because I read a lot of thrillers and murder mysteries and I’m so eager to find out whodunit that I can’t spare a tear for the victims. Perhaps it’s because I actively steer clear of tear-jerkers. (The same goes for movies and TV shows – give me a fast-paced action adventure over a sappy romance any day.)

However, I will admit that a small handful of books have made me full-on WEEP. Like, ugly cry. Nose running, tears gushing, sobbing out loud. 

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: This book follows four classmates across the decades of their friendship. It is the saddest, most devastating book I have ever read. It is also beautifully written, the characters are complex and nuanced and wonderful, the story is exquisitely plotted — it’s a book that will change you. I think about the protagonist, Jude, ALL THE TIME and I read this book back in 2016. 

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez: A writer’s mentor dies and leaves her his dog. This is not a storyline that appeals to me. And yet this is one of my FAVORITE BOOKS OF ALL TIME. Yes, the caps are necessary. The writing in this book is perfect. It’s insightful, fascinating, funny. And when it ended I sat on my couch and cried until I had no tears left. (You can find my full review here.)

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger: This is a love story between Henry and Clare. Henry has a unique genetic quirk: he involuntarily travels through time. The way this book is put together — crisscrossing time — is masterful. And the love story is perfection. You absolutely fall in love with Henry and Clare, and the heartbreak of their relationship worms its way into your soul.

What books have made you cry?

A Burning by Megha Majumdar

This slim little novel, with its short chapters and vivid characters, is an absolutely chilling fable of ambition. A fable without a moral, perhaps, which makes the truth at its core toll with horror. 

A Burning by Megha Majumdar

Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Mini Plot Summary: Jivan, a Muslim girl from Kolkata trying to pull herself and her parents out of poverty, becomes the scapegoat for a government eager to punish terrorists for a recent and deadly attack. Her fate falls to two people who know her: Lovely, a hijra actress whom Jivan has been teaching English, can attest that Jivan was carrying a package of textbooks on the day of the attack – not a bomb, as so many assume. And PT Sir, Jivan’s former physical education teacher, who brought her food when she was hungry and encouraged her athleticism at school. Lovely and PT Sir are both called to testify in Jivan’s trial. But their involvement in her case puts their own social aspirations at risk. 

image from amazon.com

What I Liked About This Book: This book was magic, from beginning to end. I loved everything about it.

I love the way Majumdar uses imagery. She has a vivid way of describing things that makes the events and her characters’ feelings jump off the page. But she also has this tendency to end sections with a small image or two that adds this wonderful lyrical complexity to the prose. I just love it. It gives you a moment of pause between more plot-driven segments… it zooms in, focusing onto something very small (“There is a thin shard of porota sticking to the rim, an airy nothing made of flour. Not even a fly would be nourished by it. I pinch it with my fingers, and put it in my mouth.” “The fragrance of the pickled lime makes my tongue water. The salt and acid play on my tongue, and I chew the sourness down.”), and it also, sometimes, somehow simultaneously, zooms out (“Outside, the din of car horns.” “Somewhere a clock ticks. Far away, an ambulance siren sounds.”) so that you become aware that these characters’ stories are part of a bigger, more complicated, more beautiful or, often, more cruel, universe. These details from the world intrude on her characters’ thoughts – removing us from the action in a way that emphasizes its poignancy.  It’s a very simple rhetorical technique, and yet I find it very effective and often quite heartbreaking.

The three primary characters in the book – Jivan, Lovely, and PT Sir – are so different from one another, so beautifully imagined, so complex, so real. I would read an entire book about each one. Majumdar somehow made me care about them so deeply – even PT Sir, whose trajectory is uncertain; is he a villain or a hero? – that I was on tenterhooks waiting to learn how their stories would play out. They each had very distinct voices. Today, when books are often told via the perspective of multiple characters, I think it’s rare to find that each perspective has its own distinctive voice. But Majumdar was very successful in achieving this with each of her characters. 

There is a simplicity in the way Mujamdar tells this story that is very effective, as well. A relaying-of-the-facts, anthropological remove in her descriptions of the mundane and the extraordinary, the repellant and the picturesque, the heart-breaking and the charming, often all bound up together. 

What I Didn’t Like About This Book: It feels like a cop-out to say that I only wish it had gone on longer. But that’s truly my only complaint. 

Should You Read This Book? Yes. It is startling, upsetting, but also tender and honest. It takes an unforgiving look at corruption and morality. It was beautifully written, very easy to read, and one of the best books I’ve read so far in 2021. Buy a copy – you won’t regret it.

Dream Girl by Laura Lippman

I received an ARC of Dream Girl from Net Galley and Faber & Faber LTD in exchange for my honest feedback. 

This book. Oh, happy sigh. 

I have to admit, Laura Lippman’s Dream Girl started out a little slow for me, but really gained momentum and by the time I was about a third of the way in, I had entered can’t-put-it-down mode. 

Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Mini Plot Summary: Sixty-one-year-old author Gerry Anderson – renowned for his novel Dream Girl – has moved back to Baltimore to care for his mother in her final days. Then an accident leaves him bed-bound, with only his personal assistant Victoria and his night-nurse Aileen for company. The pain and immobilization are bad enough… but then he begins receiving mysterious communications from someone who says she is Aubrey, the main character in Gerry’s most famous book. The only thing is, there is no Aubrey. Gerry made her up. 

image from amazon.com

What I Liked About This Book: I loved that this book was told from the perspective of a writer. I know it can be dangerous to conflate author and protagonist, but it’s difficult to separate the two, especially when the main character is a writer! Of course, Gerry has his own… idiosyncracies that I doubt Lippman shares. But I couldn’t help but wonder if her experience as a successful-for-many-years writer were helping to shape some of Gerry’s musing about art and teaching. 

I also loved that Gerry’s thoughts were so infused by other works of art. We get lots of references to King and Roth and Hammet… and so many others. There are lots of movie references – most of which went right over my head and made me want to seek out the films in question. It made the book feel so layered – like every novel is a palimpsest written over the top of all the works that came before. As a would-be writer myself, I found that so comforting in some way. 

The plot of this book felt familiar in some ways; I am sure it was informed by MANY of the books and films mentioned throughout, but I was able to see the influence of one book/film couplet in particular, which I loved because it both acted as a guidepost and a differentiating point.  

I also liked seeing The World Today through the eyes of a sixty-one-year-old man. Lippman was able to explore some of today’s social issues (#metoo, changes in preferred language style, Twitter) through Gerry, which I enjoyed. He was, for me, a deeply unlikable character… and yet Lippman crafted him in such a way that I ended up sympathizing with him and seeing the world from his perspective.

This was the first book I’ve read in a while that had a single narrative perspective, which I enjoyed. However, the chapters did alternate between the present and the past. I think it was done really well, and helped enhance the feeling of being inside a drifting, dreamy mind while also building out Gerry’s character for us. 

What I Didn’t Like About This Book: Because so much of this book takes place inside Gerry’s mind, it had a meandering, dream-like quality that I found difficult to attach to at first. It felt, for awhile, like listening to someone monologue – and some of that felt very “kids these days! Back in my day, I had to walk up hill both ways…” But it grew on me, and I was able to appreciate how complex and nuanced Gerry was as a character. 

The ending felt a little unsatisfying to me. Or, maybe not unsatisfying (I felt like things happened as they should), but unrealistic. Of course, I don’t want to say too much lest I spoil it for you. But once you read it, let me know how you feel about it. 

Should You Read This Book? This is just on the edge of horror – not so gruesome or terrifying as many books, but more of a smoldering, dreamlike build to truly horrifying events. The writing was excellent and the characterization was nuanced and the undercurrent of social commentary was really sharp and thought-provoking. I loved it and I think you will too.

The Shadows by Alex North

This book was on my radar because I’d enjoyed Alex North’s previous novel, The Whisper Man. I listened to the first two-thirds of that one on audiobook and read the last third. My memory of it was that it was well-paced, well-written, and eerie… and that the resolution to the mystery was fairly disappointing. But that disappointment was negligible compared to my overall experience of the book, and I was eager to buy the next North novel when it came out. 

The Shadows, which shares a detective from the previous book, started out very slow for me. I’m not sure if it was the pacing of the book, or if I was burned out from reading multiple thrillers in a row, but I just could NOT get into it. It took me more than 100 pages – probably closer to 150 – before I felt like it got going. But then I was really glad I’d stuck with it, because it became extremely hard to put down.

Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Mini Plot Summary: We follow two main characters to the small, rundown town of Gritten. Paul has returned to Gritten – his hometown – for the first time in twenty-five years to care for his mother, whose rapidly declining health has landed her in hospice. Police detective Amanda is investigating a horrific murder that took place in her town of Featherbank – a murder that has ties to an equally disturbing murder in Gritten’s past. Paul knows the details of that long-ago murder all too well, because it involved his best friends. Including Charlie Crabtree – who disappeared after the murder and hasn’t been seen or heard from since. Everyone has always insisted he died, lost forever somewhere in the depths of the sinister forest known by townspeople as The Shadows. But now that Paul has returned to Gritten, a series of upsetting incidents remind him of Charlie and their troubled history… and these events keep escalating. Paul and Amanda must face up to their pasts as they try to figure out what’s going on – and discover what really happened to Charlie.

image from amazon.com

What I Liked About This Book: This book was full of genuine surprises for me. Because I read so many thrillers/mysteries, and because that’s the sort of television show I gravitate toward, and because I love trying to solve a mystery as I go along, it’s increasingly rare that I find myself caught off guard. But this book caught me off guard, not once but several times. I had a general idea of who I thought was responsible… and I was SO WRONG. Delightful. 

This book also felt very thoughtful to me, which I liked. Don’t get me wrong – I love a good ol’ mystery where all you have to think about is who killed whom and why. But I really enjoyed how this book prodded at some deeper themes – the relationship between parents and children, what inner strength means and where it comes from, how history informs the present, the power we have over our own trajectories and thoughts and dreams. I enjoy North’s writing style, and often found the imagery quite beautiful. 

As in The Whisper Man, we get to know the main characters (Amanda and Paul, here) quite well, and I really enjoyed discovering their backstories and how their histories motivated them. 

What I Didn’t Like About This Book: As with its predecessor, finding out the murderer’s identity was kind of a letdown. We get a chilling echo of something revealed earlier on in the book, which I enjoyed… but it also felt a tiny bit contrived, as though achieving that echo was the only reason for making the murderer out to be who it was. This didn’t ruin the book for me – what came before and what came after were too strong. But it was a little bit disappointing. 

There was one point in the book when I felt a little… manipulated. The plot hit a point that surprised me, and for a moment I could not understand how it could be true. The “explanation” for how it could, indeed, be true felt a little bit unbelievable, but also logical in the universe of the book, so I got over it. But it did stand out as a point that pulled me right out of the magic of the story.

Should You Read This Book? While this took a long time to catch hold for me, I would ultimately say it’s an excellent book that’s definitely worth a read. For me, it was a stronger and more cohesive book than The Whisper Man, with a similarly deeply creepy and unsettling backdrop that made The Whisper Man a gripping novel. The Shadows has cemented Alex North as a writer whose books I will continue to seek out.

Print

I don’t really like talking about my writing. I find it embarrassing, somehow. As though writing a novel is a weird little quirk like practicing 80s dance moves by myself in my backyard every day. Worse, though. Because one might assume a certain level of 80s dance expertise after five years and I have nothing to show for my odd little hobby.

However, part of the reason I started this blog was to chronicle the writing process, as much for myself as for anyone. And this weekend, I made a Big Step. I printed out my manuscript. 

All along, I’ve been working on my novel in Scrivener, doing all the writing and all the edits digitally. I’m grateful that I’ve spent the majority of my career working remotely, because I feel very comfortable with reading and editing documents on a computer. I might say that I vastly PREFER working on a digital document, in fact.

But there are definite advantages to editing a physical object. You can manipulate a print-out in so many ways – and I’ve finally reached that point, where I want to be able to scribble notes on each page, and physically move chapters around and examine pages right next to each other. For all I know, Scrivener makes these things possible in a digital world, but I am not familiar enough with its functions. So printing it is.

However. 

My manuscript is a BEAST. It is 150,000 words at this point, which – 1.5-spaced, in 12-point Times New Roman font – amounts to 520 pages. (I have no idea what this translates to in terms of pages in an actual book. I just know that books in my genre are typically 80,000-150,000 words.) My little home printer would probably burst into flames if I tried to use it to print such an enormous file, so I called around to see where I could get the best deal on printing and wound up at Staples. 

I learned three things during this first printing experience.

  1. Printing is expensive. Staples was the best deal I could find and it costs 14 cents per page which amounts to a lot of money. I plan on printing the manuscript again at some point, hopefully after I’ve cut 30,000 words, but I definitely need to be choosey about how often I do it.
  2. You can, apparently, have your manuscript hole-punched WHILE printing it. I did not know this and subsequently hole-punched the thing myself, twenty pages at a time, so I could put it into a giant binder for safe keeping.
  3. Even double-sided, a 520-page print-out is a big, heavy thing and maybe next time bring something in which to contain it? (The giant binder was not with me at the time.) We had errands to run after our Staples outing, and I held the document on my lap in the car like a wriggly puppy who may at any moment leap out of the window.

I had many simultaneous and opposing reactions, seeing my manuscript in physical form:

Emotion #1: Pride. I did that. I wrote all those words. 

Emotion #2: Discouragement. That’s it? That’s what I spent the last five years of my life on? 

Emotion #3: Energy. Okay! I have something to work on, let’s get to it! 

Emotion #4: Overwhelm. OMG, there is so much work left to do.

(Okay, okay, there was also Emotion #5, Impulse Buying, which had quite a while to develop while I stood in front of the printer, cranking out page after page, and scanned all the aisles of wonderful products that would surely make editing both breezy and fun! Post-it notes! Colorful pens! Wite out! Rainbow-hued paperclips!)

My daughter was, at first, impressed. 

“Wow, Mommy!” she said. “You wrote all those words?”

“Yes,” I said, chin raised, chest swelling with Emotion #1.

“How long did it take you to write all those words?”

Instant deflation as Emotion #2 sets in. “Five years.”

“WHAT? It took you five years? I would have thought it would take one year, not five.”

Me too, kiddo. Me too. 

There is only direction, and that is forward. So I will try my best to tamp down Emotions #2 and #4 and get to work. Because there is much to be done. 

The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse

A locked-room murder mystery that takes place on a snowed-in mountain in the Swiss Alps? Yes please. The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse was a slow-burning, atmospheric thriller that kept me reading straight through.

Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Mini Plot Summary

Elin Warner – a detective on leave after a devastating error in judgment – and her boyfriend travel to Le Sommet – a former sanatorium turned luxury hotel high in the Swiss Alps – to celebrate the engagement of Elin’s brother. Elin and her brother Isaac have a strained relationship – if you can even call it a relationship. But she plans to make the best of it – after all, she and her boyfriend deserve a break from real life, and from Elin’s anxiety and grief. Soon after they arrive, Isaac’s fiancée Laure goes missing… and then a body turns up. And then another. As a dangerous storm closes off access to the hotel, and amid the pileup of bodies and the threat of an unknown killer, Elin must put her self-doubt and anxiety aside to find who’s responsible.

image from amazon.com

What I Liked About This Book: I am a sucker for atmosphere, and this book had it in spades. The isolation of the hotel… the fact of its history as a sanatorium… the turbulent, ominous weather… it all added up to a really deliciously creepy backdrop for a murder mystery. 

Elin’s story was really enjoyable. She has A Past, as so many protagonists do, and the way Pearse weaves her history and its aftershocks into the present-day plot felt (mostly) believable and well-done. 

The sanatorium itself, with its spare décor and hanging monuments to its clinical past, was such an unsettling and delightfully creepy character. And I loved how Pearse dropped us into the rotten core of the building’s own dark history.

What I Didn’t Like About This Book: Because I was reading on a Kindle, I was able to pinpoint exactly when this book stopped working for me. It was at the 93% mark, right about when the villain was revealed. The reveal felt… false to me, somehow. I tried to talk myself out of feeling this way: The backstory, the motivation, both seemed like acceptable justification for the villain’s actions… but they also felt a little flat to me. Not necessarily because the Inciting Incident in the villain’s past is a common provocation (and common trope), but because it just felt so removed from the actual crime. Or maybe… the breadth and specificity of the crime. 

One thing that wore on me a little bit was Elin’s pervasive self-doubt. Self-doubt is a completely relatable emotion! I love self-doubt as a protagonist’s fatal flaw! But the way Pearse executed it felt a little flat. Like… it was both overemphasized and yet wasn’t as evident as I felt it should be? For instance, Elin’s actions seemed so opposite to how she felt about herself that I wasn’t sure how to resolve the discrepancy. Maybe if she’d had more physical manifestations of her anxiety (rather than just the occasional need for her inhaler) I would have bought it more. Or if she’d shown more purposefulness in pushing past her self-doubt, rather than sort of floating along just because she felt that was what was expected of her. This is a small criticism, though, and didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the book.

I also felt like there was a missed opportunity to make use of the other characters stranded with Elin. The pool of potential villains was pretty small, which made it easy to guess who it was. The other left-behind guests ended up feeling shadowy, like stage props rather than real, vivid players in the story.

Lastly, I know that it is part and parcel of murder mysteries to point the finger in one direction when you should be looking elsewhere. But Pearse paid a lot of attention to making one particular character look suspicious… and it felt disingenuous. She ended up explaining it, which helped… but I still felt intentionally misled – and in a way that was slightly irritating, because it was so obvious that this person wasn’t the villain that it was almost insulting to imply that anyone might think they were.

The epilogue came completely out of the blue for me. I am eager to read the next book, to figure out how it ties in with what I just read… but I found it to be a moment of discord in my reading experience.

Should You Read This Book? Despite the disappointment I felt during the last quarter or so of this book, I really enjoyed most of it. The hostile environment outside, the indifferent cold of the hotel itself, and the constant, pressing fear of what would happen next all really worked to keep me engaged and compelled me forward. If you like closed-room mysteries, settings with loads of atmosphere, and complicated main characters, I think you’ll really get a kick out of this one.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Oh this book. I enjoyed it SO MUCH. For me, it brought up echoes of other “nanny fiction” (if that’s even a thing) – The Nanny DiariesFriends and Strangers. But even though I enjoyed both of those older books, Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid was far and away the best version I’ve ever come across. 

Of course, this book is so much more, too. It’s about class, race, the tensions between those who employ and those who serve. It’s about motherhood and adulthood and transition and deciding who you want to be. It’s a wonderful, remarkable, easy to read book – easily one of the best I’ve read so far this year.

Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Mini Plot Summary: Emira Tucker, a young Black woman trying to find her path in life, applies for a gig babysitting two-year-old Briar. The white woman who hires her – Alix Chamberlain – has just had her second child and moved from bustling New York City to a smaller, more suburban corner of Philadelphia. Both women are embarking on new stages of their lives: Emira is about to lose the safety net of her parents’ insurance and is struggling to figure out what she wants to do for a career; Alix, who has made a name for herself as a sort of self-help guru, feels aimless and out of place in her new lower-key surroundings. She sees Emira as endlessly cool, a potential friend, and a project. Emira, on the other hand, just wants to do good work and show her young charge, Briar, that someone understands how unique and special she is. One evening, while babysitting as an emergency favor for Alix, Emira faces down an accusation that she – a Black woman with a white child – has kidnapped Briar. The experience – witnessed by a crowd of shoppers, filmed by a stranger – leaves Emira feeling humiliated and angry, and all she wants to do is forget it ever happened. Alix, outraged on her behalf, wants to make things right. But the incident itself shakes loose elements of Alix’s past – things she would rather leave buried – and puts the women on an unexpected crash course that could blow up both their lives.

image from amazon.com

What I Liked About This Book: Characterization is always a big deal for me, and this book did it – chef’s kiss – so incredibly well. Emira was a wonderfully complex, relatable character. Even though I’m quite a distance removed from those early, aimless years out of college, I can still completely empathize with her feelings of uncertainty and urgency and panic about trying to figure out what she should do For the Rest of Her Life. Even in the face of career rootlessness, Emira was such a strong person – she had values and convictions that she stuck to. She was a good friend. She was an excellent employee – and such a wonderful advocate for poor little Briar. Her experiences with everyday racism – both casual and overt – were eye-opening for me, and she dealt with every instance with a stoic dismissiveness that I found heartening and heart breaking. Reid breathed such life into this woman. I rooted for her all the way through the book and would read fifty books with Emira as the protagonist.

Reid was just as deft in crafting the Alix character. Complicated in her behaviors and her motivations, Alix was someone I found realistic and recognizable. Many (most?) of her actions were indefensible and I did not like her one bit, but she was vivid and well-drawn. And even though I could not stand her, I could, at times, empathize with her. She was the manifestation of some of the darker, more uncomfortable traits I recognize in myself, and I suspect that was why I rooted for her redemption even as I cringed away from her in disgust. 

Each character also has a friend group that I loved to read about. Aside from each serving to support their respective main character, these groups of women are diametric opposites, in their ambitions and pastimes and palatability. Emira’s friends are people she can really look up to and admire – they are generous and kind and fierce and ready to back her up no matter what. Alix’s friends are her own little echo chamber of White Feminism – yes, even though one of her closest friends is a Black woman – and help her rationalize and justify her behavior, even at its most abhorrent. 

I also loved the plot. Reid’s sharp social observations. Her ability to raise deeply disturbing social issues in a matter-of-fact way that makes them all the more upsetting. Her tenderness for Emira and Briar and Emira’s friends. Truly, so much to love about this book.

What I Didn’t Like About This Book: When I think about this book in terms of dislikes, I find I have many… but then I go to write them down and it turns out they are simply things I dislike about Alix (her smug judgmentalism of her new neighbors) … or her behavior (how she treats Briar)… or about injustices that are baked into our society (how Peter suffers zero consequences for his “faux pas”). And the fact that these are my takeaways just proves again how skillful Reid is as a writer in mirroring the world we live in and exposing its dirty underbelly. 

Should You Read This Book? Absolutely. It is searing social criticism, yes, and it’s also a hell of a good book. Easy to read, well-written, fast-paced, surprising at times, and extremely thought provoking. I loved it and I bet you’ll love it too.