Review: Incendiary by Michael Cannell

Title: Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling
Author: Michael Cannell
Rating: ★★
Summary: Long before the specter of terrorism haunted the public imagination, a serial bomber stalked the streets of 1950s New York. The race to catch him would give birth to a new science called criminal profiling.

Note: an eARC of this title was acquired via NetGalley.

The most interesting chapter of Incendiary was its epilogue, when author Michael Cannell finally pulled all of his interweaving threads together to tell a concise ending to his story. In my opinion, he spends far too many words on the Mad Bomber and the NYC police department and too little concretely connecting them to the psychologist who used reverse psychology to catch said bomber. This could have been a great magazine article, stripped of its fat and zeroed in on just how revolutionary a case it was. As is, I got too bored trying to wade through the minutiae to make that connection myself.

Interested in more true crime? These sound much more interesting.

Review: The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye by David Lagercrantz

Title: The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye (Millennium #5)
Author: David Lagercrantz
Rating: ★★½
Summary: Lisbeth Salander has never been able to uncover the most telling facts of her traumatic childhood, the secrets that might finally, fully explain her to herself. Now, when she sees a chance to uncover them once and for all, she enlists the help of Mikael Blomkvist, the editor of the muckraking, investigative journal Millennium. And she will let nothing stop her…

Lagercrantz certainly tries to live up to Stieg Larsson’s writing, but so far neither The Girl in the Spider’s Web nor The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye live up to the breathless anticipation I felt while reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (even after I’d already seen the movie). A lot of things happen in this installment – not all of which seem very reasonable – and it comes off feeling more of a Mikael Blomkvist story than a Lisbeth Salander one. Even though I wasn’t in love with Larsson’s writing style, his books didn’t feel so contrived, the action always revved up to eleven.

However, as long as Salander lives on in some way, I will keep reading her story – but the over-heightened plot (which almost bordered on bland) and the ‘wtf was that??’ ending just proves that Lagercrantz lacks the je ne sais quoi which made Larsson so famous.

Goodreads Review: Lumberjanes, Vol. 3: A Terrible Plan

Title: Lumberjanes, Vol. 3: A Terrible Plan
Author: Noelle Stevenson and Shannon Watters
Rating: ★★
Summary: Trying to take advantage of the first quiet day at camp in a while, Mal and Molly’s date takes a bizarre turn with the appearance of the Bear Woman! Back at camp, Jo, April, and Ripley must stay on their toes as they try and earn every badge possible, which ends up being a lot harder than any of them planned.

Noelle Stevenson deftly continues her summer camp saga Lumberjanes, but this third volume doesn’t feel as action-packed as Beware the Kitten Holy or Friendship to the Max – perhaps because our fearless five-some is split up for three of the four issues and, when they are together, we just get to read their attempts at scary ghost stories. Plus, the lack of Brooke Allen’s illustrations is noticeable enough to affect the story. Ultimately, A Terrible Plan just feels like a terrible Lumberjanes installment.

Review: The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray

Title: The Lost Time Accidents
Author: John Wray
Rating: ★★
Summary: Haunted by a failed love affair and the darkest of family secrets, Waldemar ‘Waldy’ Tolliver wakes one morning to discover that he has been exiled from the flow of time. The world continues to turn, and Waldy is desperate to find his way back – a journey that forces him to reckon not only with the betrayal at the heart of his doomed romance but also the legacy of his great-grandfather’s fatal pursuit of the hidden nature of time itself. Part madcap adventure, part harrowing family drama, part scientific mystery – and never less than wildly entertaining – The Lost Time Accidents is a bold and epic saga set against the greatest upheavals of the twentieth century.

I tried to like The Lost Time Accidents, okay. I really, really tried. Look at that cool cover! That wavy green font!! The weird plot I don’t quite understand!!! But the thing about John Wray’s novel is that it is narrated by a whiny, pretentious a-hole who is a) pining after a woman who doesn’t love him and b) buoyed by the belief that he is the only one who can fix his family’s legacy.

*groan* 😔 💤

My gut told me to give up by, like, page 100, but I convinced myself to keep going… and let me tell you, that was a stupid decision. (Always trust your gut.) The book interweaves two narratives: Chosen One™ Waldemar Tolliver exiled from time in his aunts’ claustrophobic, hoardish New York apartment and the story of the Toula/Tolliver family, conveniently narrated by Waldemar through the letters he writes to a Mrs. Haven. The plots finally converge at the end – when beginning-of-book-Waldemar makes an appearance in end-of-book-Waldemar’s final letter – but everything feels disjointed as a result. I kept wondering if I was looking at this alternate twentieth century as Waldemar’s great-grandfather Ottokar or (in the one bright spot in Wray’s otherwise dreary escapade) as his grandfather Kaspar Toula; as a young, pre-Mrs. Haven Waldemar, digesting and narrating his family’s history after the fact; or as exiled-from-time Waldemar, explaining both the events AND their reflection as he writes to Mrs. Haven.

I mean, I didn’t even fully understand what a lost time accident was until it’s explicitly explained in the text – some 90% of the way through. This is on top of the book being a perfect DNF candidate AND having a main character who grates on my nerves – like, a straight-up STFU kind of privileged elitist who will not accept that a woman does not (and probably never did) love him and so writes his emotions as irrefutable fact so that she will “better understand” how much he has suffered and is thus entitled to a second chance. It’s called ghosting, Waldemar, and your failure to accept that Mrs. Haven straight up ghosted out of your not-so clandestine affair means she’s not interested. Going back to her husband means she’s over it. LEAVING THE COUNTRY WITHOUT TELLING YOU MEANS SHE’S NOT INTO YOU. MOVE ON.

(Side note: let’s all just conveniently overlook the fact that Waldemar exclusively refers to Mrs. Haven as Mrs. Haven because I do not have the energy to explain why a female character should not be solely identified through her marriage to a man. Okay? Okay.)

I have seen reviews of The Lost Time Accidents praising its brilliance, but I’m at a lost as to why there was such a disconnect between what those reviewers got out of the novel and what I came away with. As such, it’s hard for me to say “this book sucked, ergo, don’t read it” because I seem to be in the minority. Maybe, after slogging through a less-than-stellar City on Fire, I’m just at my cap of Novels Featuring White Dudes Saving the Day Written by Upper Middle Class White Dudes? (You know who isn’t? People loving this book.) By all means, read The Lost Time Accidents if so inclined. You can find me enjoying something else entirely.

Review: City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

Title: City on Fire
Author: Garth Risk Hallberg
Rating: ★★½
Summary: New York City, 1976. Meet Regan and William Hamilton-Sweeney, estranged heirs to one of the city’s great fortunes; Keith and Mercer, the men who, for better or worse, love them; Charlie and Samantha, two suburban teenagers seduced by downtown’s punk scene; an obsessive magazine reporter, Richard, and his idealistic neighbor, Jenny, and the detective trying to figure out what any of them have to do with a shooting in Central Park on New Year’s Eve. The mystery, as it reverberates through families, friendships, and the corridors of power, will open up even the loneliest-seeming corners of the crowded city. And when the blackout of July 13, 1977, plunges this world into darkness, each of these lives with be changed forever. City on Fire is an unforgettable novel about love and betrayal and forgiveness, about art and truth and rock ‘n’ roll, about what people need from each other in order to live… and about what makes the living worth doing in the first place.

City on Fire is a behemoth of a novel – clocking in at over 900 pages – but it feels overwrought and excessive, as if author Garth Risk Hallberg simply wanted the world to know that he was capable of writing such an opus. The core action – which spans about seven months in 1977 – fails to juggle its own story, dragged down by the weight of twice as many characters and three times too many plots and sub-plots and “enough already” detailed character histories and sub-sub-plots. Sarah Churchwell of New Statesman writes that “City on Fire is not bad, but it also is not great,” which is unfortunate only because it’s true. For a debut that fetched a whopping two million in a two-day bidding war among eight to twelve publishers (depending on who you believe), and was compared to both Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and Don DeLillo’s Underworld – but perhaps should also share company with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite JestCity on Fire should have been both commercially and critically spectacular (like, say, The Girl on the Train or Between the World and Me). In reality, the New York Post cited the book as “a steaming pile of literary dung.” (No, really.)

The only thing I knew about Hallberg’s novel was what sold me in the first place, that “City on Fire is a postmodern epic in the vein of…2666. Beginning with a mysterious shooting in Central Park and culminating in the real-life New York City blackout of 1977, Hallberg weaves a complex story with an ensemble cast. The book’s seven parts are divided by and interspersed with letters, news clippings and images, similar in form to Marisha Pessl’s Night Film.” (via Literary Hub) But Hallberg doesn’t quite capture what I loved most about 2666 – the dense, intellectual prose from both the novel’s characters and its author; the competing narratives that don’t really seem like they connect until suddenly they do; and the overwhelming need to start the book again after I’d finally finished its 898 pages. City on Fire’s main characters seem too perfect, their prose too thought-out and pretentious; and the text was mentally taxing to wade through until I could finally arrive at the “culminating” thread holding everything together – a whopping five or six hundred pages in.

Hallberg’s attempt to pen The Next Great American Novel™ was a noble attempt, but ultimately a failed one. Instead of just stating what we need to know to understand a narrative arc which he explicitly wants us to know takes place immediately before and during the summer of 1977, Hallberg explains – in great detail, mind you – what happened to our characters before said dates and then what happened to our characters before before said dates. The backstory that, say, Hamilton* fits into four minutes (about 3% of the show), Hallberg manages to stretch over about five hundred pages (more than 50% of the novel).

If you’re into white dudes proselytizing about their epic, multi-year struggle to write the definitive book of their generation, give City on Fire a go. Otherwise, skip it. It’s not worth the months it will take just to say you’ve read it.

* I’m obsessed, okay? I know this. I am okay with this.

Review: Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg

ModernRomanceTitle: Modern Romance
Author: Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg
Rating: ★★
Summary: At some point, every one of us embarks on a journey to find love. We meet people, date, and get into and out of relationships, all with the hope of finding someone with whom we share a deep connection. This seems standard now, but it’s wildly different from what people did even just decades ago. Single people today have more romantic options than at any point in human history. With technology, our abilities to connect with and sort through these options are staggering. So why are so many people frustrated?

To solve this problem, Aziz Ansari teamed up with NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg and designed a massive research project, including hundreds of interviews and focus groups. They analyzed behavioral data and surveys, created their own online research forum on Reddit, and enlisted the world’s leading social scientists to produce a result unlike any social science or humor book we’ve seen before.

In Modern Romance, Ansari combines his irreverent humor with cutting-edge social science to give us an unforgettable tour of our new romantic world.

For a stand-up comedian, writing any type of full-length work is ambitious. For Aziz Ansari – perhaps best known as either a stand-up comedian with his own Netflix special or as Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation (and who, might I add, received a reported three and a half million dollar advance for this work) – something like Modern Romance should be lauded as the next great debut-memoir by a well-known and respected comedian (a la Yes Please, Bossypants, or Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)). Except it isn’t a memoir, and you can’t force it to be one just by wishing. (Trust me, I tried.) I think Vanity Fair sums up the book pretty well: “It’s an unexpectedly serious work about the challenges and pitfalls of looking for love in the Digital Age via, OkCupid, Tinder, Twitter, Facebook — the whole techno shebang.”

Which, okay, is still pretty awesome and interesting and what-have-you. But an interesting pop-science look at romance in the twenty-teens is still not a hilarious memoir written by a pretty funny stand-up comedian whose voice is so distinct I can hear his inflections just by reading. I think that if a reader were to go into this book absolutely knowing that he or she would not be getting Ansari’s stand-up in written form, and if said reader were interested in how teens through baby boomers (and maybe even octogenarians) find love since the invention of the smartphone, then, yeah, go for it. Modern Romance is for you.

But it wasn’t for me (even though I really, really wished it were).

Sidenote: I’ve heard* great things about the audiobook, read by Ansari. The only real interaction I’ve had with him is through talk-show interviews, GIFs of Haverford on Tumblr, and an episode of This American Life – but hearing Ansari’s voice act out the words that comprise Modern Romance made the text come alive in a way that, unfortunately, the words themselves lacked.

*(Eh. Heard. Did you get it???)

Review: Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

BrokenMonstersTitle: Broken Monsters
Author: Lauren Beukes
Rating: ★★½
Summary: Detective Gabriella Versado has seen a lot of bodies, but this one is unique even by Detroit’s standards: half-boy, half-deer, somehow fused. The cops nickname him “Bambi,” but as stranger and more disturbing bodies are discovered, how can the city hold on to a reality that is already tearing at its seams?
If you’re Detective Versado’s over-achieving teenage daughter, Layla, you commence a dangerous flirtation with a potential predator online. If you are the disgraced journalist, Jonno, you do whatever it takes to investigate what may become the most heinous crime story in memory. If you’re Thomas Keen, you’ll do what you can to keep clean, keep your head down, and try to help the broken and possibly visionary artist obsessed with setting loose The Dream, tearing reality, assembling the city anew.

It’s odd for me to read two works of narrative fiction back-to-back – if I don’t alternate novels with nonfiction, it can become too easy to just read made-up stories and forget all the rest. But reading Station Eleven only to follow up with Lauren Beukes’s Broken Monsters seemed like a no-brainer: although both novels peppered microcosmic bursts throughout a macro narrative, their similarities kind of stopped there. Where Station Eleven cornered speculative fiction with a flu virus turned pandemic, Broken Monsters turned its spotlight on a probable schizophrenic serial killer roaming around the city of Detroit in real time.

And, yes, both hooked me with narratives, and kept me reading past bedtime, and fed me answers just as quickly as they kept me asking questions. Each new chapter was just so freaking good that it left a weird feeling in the literary part of my gut – I really wanted to believe that all chapters would be so gracefully composed… but what if they weren’t? What if the high of reading a perfectly proposed, interconnected narrative was just this one chapter? What if the narrative peaked too soon and left me feeling both disappointed in the story and also annoyed with myself for setting my hopes too high? (What if? What if?!)

If you read my review of Station Eleven, then you know that Mandel’s novel did not disappoint – it was so very not disappointing that I found myself brimming over with positivity – and just plain gross affection – about how wonderfully magnificent a single, 300-page volume about a space station and Shakespeare can be. (It just makes me feel things, okay? Like, why is literature art? And how can artistic forms of expression explain the human condition? And maybe what is the meaning of the universe? And also what does it mean to be human?)

Which brings me to Broken Monsters and how this novel had so much shit going for it and also how its ending left a gritty paste in my mouth. For example:

  • our protagonist is both female AND fierce AND a single mum AND Latina AND in charge of her own sexuality
  • each section is narrated by a rotating cast of characters who meet up and interact at various points in the novel (my kryptonite!!!)
  • the novel opens on a murder victim and unfolds into the mind of a twisted serial killer who is probably schizophrenic or maybe suffers from paranoid delusions but is also definitely one of those narrators WAY before you realize that he’s also our killer
  • underneath it all, a very lovely homage to the city of Detroit, MI

And so you’re reading about this awful murder – written in grisly detail – and you get to follow the development of the narrative along with three vastly different characters and everything is amazing and you’re, like, yeah, Lauren Beukes! Get it, girl! Make me question my own moral values as I revel in the disgusting gore that is at the heart of your novel. Strip away my conscience. Slather me in filth. BECAUSE I AM DIGGING THIS SO HARD RIGHT NOW.

And then the last couple of chapters happen and you’re like wait. Hold up. WTF is going on. Is this real life. How is this happening. I DON’T UNDERSTAND.

And, okay, I get that maybe this was just me: because both Rebecca Schinsky and Amanda Diehl liken the novel to season one of HBO’s True Detective, and I LOVED season one of True Detective. But the rest of the novel was strictly realistic fiction. (Hella creepy but still within the vein of reality.) And then the ending comes? And it feels like a fever dream? And not humanly possible? It just didn’t flow with the rest of the story in a way that felt satisfying or coherent. Beukes didn’t allow us to marinate in that head space for enough time so that I could buy that what was happening was truly happening. (Like in, say, American Psycho.)

And so it kind of sort of ruined the preceding 300 pages of amazingly constructed characters, plot, and narrative drive. If Beukes wanted to write a trippy “wtf is going on is what’s happening really happening” kind of novel, she should have done it throughout – ESPECIALLY because she already puts us in the mind of the novel’s killer. And never once did I question the reality of the story when I was reading his parts; I only questioned HIS reality – and that is an entirely different thing.