Tag Archives: Amazon’s best books of June

Book Review: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (Random House; 288 pages; $26).

Forget armed conflict, viruses, terrorism and nuclear war. The people in Karen Thompson Walker’s elegiac, dark and gripping debut novel, “The Age of Miracles,” have other, more important things to worry about — namely, the effects of “the slowing” of Earth.

Walker, a former Simon & Schuster editor, combines science fiction and speculative fiction with a coming-of-age story. The effect is somber yet dazzling; I had never read anything like it.

(To read more of this book review that I wrote for the Mobile Press-Register, please go here.)

 

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Book Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Crown; 432 pages; $25).

 

            “Let me set the scene,” to borrow a phrase from a character in Gillian Flynn’s third novel Gone Girl.  I normally do not read mysteries or thrillers; my exceptions are usually James Rollins and Steve Berry.  Most mysteries are not well-written, and I roll my eyes over what someone says or does.  I would rather read literature and fiction any day.  Another reason I stay away from mysteries is that I can usually guess the plot in the first few chapters.  Knowing what is coming simply takes the fun out of reading a so-called mystery.

I was reluctant to read Gone Girl, although I genuinely liked Flynn’s first novel Sharp Objects.  When I saw Gone Girl was about a wife who disappeared, my first thought was, “Hello, Scott Peterson.”  Been there, done that.  I was forgetting one crucial factor, however.  I had forgotten what a page-turner Flynn could produce and how nothing is simple in her world.

Nick and Amy Dunne have been married for exactly five years when Gone Girl begins.  In fact, the very day the book begins is their anniversary.  There will be no romantic candlelit dinners followed by an evening of dancing.  Amy disappears.  Not surprisingly, the police focus on Nick.

And Nick is all too aware of this fact: “Everyone knows it’s always the husband, so why can’t they just say it: We suspect you because you are the husband, and it’s always the husband.  Just watch Dateline.”

The reader has no choice but to suspect Nick, too.  He loved her once, deeply, but things have changed.  They both lost their jobs and relocated to Nick’s hometown from New York City when his mother became ill.  Money problems weigh heavily on them.  In short, they were having trouble and were far from being a happy couple.

When Nick thinks of his wife, oddly, he “always” thinks “of her head,” specifically the back of her head.  That does not bode well for Amy’s well-being, that’s for sure.

Yet Nick proclaims his innocence.  I was skeptical, especially when he reveals he has told the police five lies, all within the first few minutes of meeting with investigators.  His twin sister, Go (short for Margo), confirms that Nick would “lie, cheat, and steal” and even kill all “to convince people” he’s a good guy.  Nick, we soon learn, is an unreliable narrator.  Nothing he says can be trusted.  He has no qualms whatsoever about lying, and he’s good at it–so good it’s scary.

Flynn takes us on many twists and turns throughout this story that I literally could not put the book down nor could I catch my breath.  Gone Girl is a psychological thriller.  Just when you think Nick is the culprit, Flynn throws us a curve ball by introducing Diary Amy.  We meet Amy, but only through her diary entries.  Through her eyes, Nick becomes a deeply sinister figure.  But can we trust Diary Amy?

Amy loves “mind games” and creates a treasure hunt for Nick every year on their anniversary.  She gives him clues to follow.  Before Amy went missing, she wrote the clues for this year.  As Flynn shows us more and more of Amy’s diary entries, one cannot help but notice the different stories Nick and Amy are telling.  Amy may be unreliable, too; she may lie just as much as Nick does.  The dilemma is who to believe.  The trick is that both may be lying.

Amy is Flynn’s most intriguing character.  Her parents wrote a series of books for children which were quite popular in the 1980s called “Amazing Amy.”  The little girl in the books looked just like Amy; she was Amy, only better.  There was always a moral in each and usually taken from an actual instance in the real Amy’s life.  The real Amy did the opposite, though, of what “Amazing Amy” did.  Her parents, thought real Amy, did it to teach her a lesson.

Kids loved to read the stories.  So did a few freaks, like a girl Amy knew in school who began dressing and even acting like Amy.  She went so far as to push Amy down the stairs.  Then, there was the guy Amy dated who took their breakup so hard he tried to commit suicide.  Nick goes on the offensive and tracks them down, insisting he did not hurt her.  He criticizes the authorities for not going after the real culprit.  Nick swears, despite evidence to the contrary, that he is innocent.

Yet, despite his protestations, all signs point to Nick, especially after the police find blood (and a lot of it!) in the kitchen.    And why does Nick keep seeing Amy bleeding anyway?  As Flynn writes, “I saw my wife, blood clotting her blond hair, weeping and blind in pain, scraping herself along our kitchen floor.”  He hears her call his name: “Nick, Nick, Nick!”  Might he be playing back the crime in his mind?

Just when you think you have it all figured out, Flynn introduces something else into the mix.  This is a who-done-it that really keeps you guessing, right up until the last page.  That’s what makes Gone Girl worth reading and what makes it so darn good.  I do not remember ever reading a thriller with so many plot twists and revelations.  After I finished, I wanted to immediately read it again to see what I had missed.

Amy was once a writer of personality quizzes for magazines.  To end this review, I am going to borrow something from her yet again.  After finishing Gone Girl and loving it, you:

A)  Tweet about it to your followers—hey, it’s the least you can do.

B)  Rate the book on Goodreads and even recommend it to your friends there—hey, they would like it, too.

C)  Write a glowing critical review of the novel—hey, it’s just that good!

D)  All of the above.

I know which choice I would pick.  I have a hunch that, after you read it, you’d give the same answer as I.  Gone Girl is Flynn’s best work.  Everyone needs a good mystery, and I challenge you to find a better one.  I know from experience that it isn’t easy!

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Spotlight on Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles

Today is the publication day for former Simon & Schuster editor Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel The Age of Miracles.  Critics and readers are calling it THE summer read.  I wholeheartedly agree.

I have read it and am lucky enough to be reviewing this book for the Mobile Press-Register.  Walker combines science fiction and speculative fiction with a coming-of-age story.  The tale is really one huge flashback in which an adult woman named Julia narrates what happened the year she was 11.  Time slows.  At first, it is only minutes; then, it is hours; then, it is days; and, finally, it is weeks that are gained.  The world is in a tailspin, and so are its inhabitants.

Julia tries to navigate her way in a radically changed world.  It is not easy.  Walker takes a somber tone in this dark, gloomy, and very human story.  Julia’s account is an elegy of a lost way of life and of an irrevocably changed world.

The Age of Miracles is my recommendation for the week.  We are talking must-read here.

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People Get Weird At Weddings

Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead (Knopf; 320 pages; $25.95).

 

            There are weddings, and then there are weddings.  Destination weddings.  Weekend weddings.  Lavish weddings.  Small weddings.  Weddings where drunken bridesmaids sleep with equally inebriated groomsmen.  Even Shotgun weddings where no one has to guess “is she or isn’t she?”  The wedding of Daphne Van Meter features a little of all of the above in Maggie Shipstead’s strong, hilarious debut novel Seating Arrangements, part social satire and part serious examination of a man’s mid-life crisis.

Shipstead is a California girl who sets her story on an exclusive New England island.  Although a wedding occurs in her tale, Shipstead’s story is not really about the ceremony itself; Shipstead is concerned with the events and details that lead up to the big day.

Daphne’s wedding is the social event of the season.  Daphne, though, can lie back on her beach towel and relax.  She is no blushing bride; Daphne is seven months pregnant.  Both Daphne’s parents and the groom’s parents pushed the couple into walking down the aisle pronto.  If his daughter had a child “out of wedlock,” Winn Van Meter “would die.”  If it had been up to Daphne, though, she would not have gotten married so soon. “If I really had my way,” Daphne confesses, “We’d wait a while so I wouldn’t have to be pregnant in the pictures.”  More than anything else, Daphne does not want to be a “fat bride.”  However, she acquiesces to her father, because she knows how much appearances matter to him.

Winn is truly the novel’s main character.  Winn Van Meter is a 59-year-old, Harvard-educated, wealthy WASP enduring a mid-life crisis.  As Shipstead writes, “people get weird at weddings,” and that is certainly true of Winn.

Shipstead, a 29-year-old woman, ably gets readers into the head of Winn using flashbacks and streams of consciousness.  She uses Winn to satirize New England’s upper-crust culture, but her writing turns serious and somber when we realize how alone Winn feels and how he just wants to be liked.

Seating Arrangements, in my view, is a metaphor.  Seating charts at weddings are complicated affairs.  Just ask Winn’s wife, Biddy, who agonizes over the seating arrangements.  Preparing them means enemies and exes may find themselves seated next to each other, although this is to be avoided at all costs.  Some guests will be downgraded to the “leftovers table.”  Winn prepares his own kind of seating arrangements in this novel as he takes stock of the people in his life: how they have rewarded him, remained loyal to him, disdained him, slighted him, and excluded him.  Nearing sixty, he places them in certain niches, exactly where he thinks they should belong.

Above all, Winn appreciates exclusivity; he yearns for it, in fact.  For that reason, he “summers” on private Waskeke island.  Only the very best will do for him and his family.  Tradition is important to Winn, just as it was imperative to his father.  While at Harvard, Winn joined the elite club called the “Ophidian.”  He worries an old rival, Jack Fenn, who did not get into the Ophidian, may be blackballing his acceptance into the “Pequod,” a privileged golf club.  “People,” Winn knows, “will go to great lengths for revenge on those who have excluded them.”

Worst of all, Winn fears his exclusion from the Pequod may have something to do with his younger daughter, Livia.  Since he spends a great deal of time worrying over what is correct and proper, he cannot help but wonder if his daughters are disparaging his good name.  Just look at Daphne, seven-months pregnant on her wedding day.  A similar, yet different, thing happened to Livia.  While at Harvard, Livia got pregnant by her boyfriend Teddy Fenn, the son of Winn’s would-be nemesis.  Winn went through the roof.  In the end, Livia got an abortion and Teddy broke up with her.  Winn worries this incident will forever bar him from gaining acceptance to the Pequod.  How he wishes for sons when he thinks of all his daughters have put him through.

Despite Winn’s preoccupation with appearances, he contemplates a fling with Agatha, one of Daphne’s bridesmaids.  Agatha is in her twenties and woos and is wooed by Winn.  For Winn, Agatha is like “the fountain of youth.”  He describes any romance the two would have as a “May-December” one.  Winn feels as though Agatha truly likes him and understands him, qualities he appreciates, especially in a young, beautiful woman.  He and his wife have grown apart, and he idolizes Agatha just as much as he idealizes her.  Agatha, though, has a roving eye and roving hands.

Hilarious scenes such as when Winn and Livia catch Agatha with a groomsman inflagrante delicto contrast sharply with the novel’s serene island setting.  Hoopla abounds in this tale, whether it is when Winn gets run over at the golf course and wonders if he can take advantage of the accident to get into the Pequod or when the groom’s brother causes a dead whale’s carcass to explode.  The whole novel makes for good social satire.  Shipstead’s intention is to make your mouth fall open agape while reading what someone said or did.

Interestingly, one of Shipstead’s characters also responds to the Van Meters in this way.  With uncanny and masterful ability, Shipstead shifts perspective in one chapter, showing how a situation or issue looks different based on one’s viewpoint, age, gender, and class.  Nowhere is this more apparent than when Shipstead writes for Dominique, a bridesmaid from Egypt.  Dominique has known Daphne and her family for years.  She knows how the Van Meters and others like them work: “They were set up to accommodate feigned ignorance, unspoken resentment, and repressed passion the way their houses had back stairways and rooms tucked away behind the kitchen for the feudal ghosts of their ancestors’ servants.”  Dominique was “surprised Winn had not leapt from a bridge or gutted himself with a samurai sword after his daughters got knocked up back to back.”  “Daphne’s condition,” Dominique thinks, “would be grandfathered into the boundaries of propriety by the wedding, but Livia’s phantom pregnancy, the missing buldge under her green dress at the front of the church, was a void that could not be satisfactorily filled in and smoothed over.”  In her view, Winn “had the Pequod to take his mind off things” and “set out on his quest for membership like Don Quixote without a Sancho.”

Dominique’s reaction is our reaction.  She is, by turns, fascinated by them and repulsed by them.  So are we.  But, Dominique does her duty.  She will be the supportive bridesmaid and keep her judgments to herself.  Perhaps Dominique’s character also symbolizes Shipstead herself.  Shipstead graduated from Harvard and met hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Van Meter-like families.  Maybe Dominique’s take on the Van Meters was exactly what Shipstead thought of the New England families she came into contact, obsessed with social status, elitism, and correctness.

            Seating Arrangments is THE read of the summer, but this is no fluff piece.  Shipstead constructs a many-layered story in the same way a baker creates a layered wedding cake or a designer sews a wedding gown.  There are layers upon layers, and we must peel them back chapter by chapter. There are debut novels, and then there are debut novels.  Messy, disorganized jumbles lacking cohesion.  Unrealized characters with nothing to drive them.  Settings that fall flat.  A plot that isn’t.  This is not one of those debut novels.

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