Tom Starks has not been the same since his wife, Renee, was brutally murdered with a baseball bat in a parking lot. He’s been struggling for the last three years to raise her daughter, who he adopted when he married Renee. When Renee’s killer is released after a retrial finds insufficient evidence to hold him, Tom becomes obsessed with dealing out justice himself.
I was so excited that two of my 2014 accepted review copies fit into the RIP IX reading challenge! This book’s title jumped out at me immediately when it was submitted, and I had been saving it up specifically to read in the fall. I’m glad to say that this thriller does not disappoint, although it goes in a bit of a different direction than I originally anticipated. And that’s a good thing.
The main character is not who you usually see from a thriller with a person seeking violent justice. He’s bookish. Rather weak and simpering. Afraid of his own brother-in-law, who used to be a boxer. But he was madly in love with Renee, and so when her supposed killer is released, he becomes obsessed with making him dead. The catch is, Tom quickly figures out that maybe he’s not cut out to do the killing himself, and that’s where the book gets unique and interesting. I was expecting from the title and description to see a typical bad-ass main character chase down a killer around the country (or the world) and ultimately get his revenge. That is not at all the story we get, and yet, it is still thrilling. There is still violence and chase scenes, it’s just they aren’t the ones you usually see in a book like this. And that helps it. That helps keep the thrill level up, since it’s so much harder to predict what’s going to come next. Tom, with his weakness and inability to parent well, is almost an anti-hero, and yet we keep rooting for him because his grief for his wife is so powerful and relatable. It’s strong characterization and plotting mixed into one.
The scenes where Tom is seen teaching The Count of Monte Cristo at the community college where he works slow the thrill down. They feel a bit too aware of themselves, with comparison between The Count of Monte Cristo and the plot in this book. Plus scenes of classroom literary analysis simply slow the thrilling plot of the book down. The one scene where it really works is one scene in which Tom is freaking out about his own life so much that he fails at teaching well. This establishes that Tom’s life is starting to get out of control. Overall, though, there are just too many scenes of him teaching for a thriller.
The setting of Baltimore is interesting, and I was glad to see that it wasn’t set in the more stereotypical Washington D.C. Aymar writes Baltimore beautifully. I’ve never been there, but I truly felt as if I was there, seeing both the run-down aspects, as well as the beauty. I often end up skimming over setting descriptions, but Aymar’s drew me in.
The plot has just enough twists and turns to keep the reader guessing, but not so many that the reader feels jerked around. Also, the plot twists stay rooted in reality. I could truly see this happening in the real world, and that makes a thriller more thrilling.
Overall, this is a unique thriller, with its choice to cast the opposite of a bad-ass in the role of the main character. This grounds the typical revenge plot into reality, lends itself to more interesting, unique plot twists, and has the interesting aspect of a flawed, nearly anti-hero main character that the reader still roots for. Recommended to thriller fans looking for something different and those interested in first dipping their toe into the thriller genre.
4 out of 5 stars
Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review
Book Review: The Walking Dead: The Fall of the Governor: Part One by Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga (Series, #3) (Audiobook narrated by Fred Berman)
In the aftermath of her rebellion attempt against The Governor, Lilly Caul is starting to see him as a man who does what it takes to protect the citizens of Woodbury. So when strangers in riot gear and prison suits underneath show up at Woodbury, she believes The Governor that they’re out to get their supplies and that the woman, unprovoked, bit his ear. But not everyone believes The Governor, and The Governor starts to think he can use the doubters to his advantage.
This non-graphic novel series telling the backstory of the big bad villain of the graphic novel Walking Dead series started off incredibly strong but, unfortunately, each new entry in the series gets worse and worse. Instead of lending new light to the backstory of The Governor and Woodbury, this entry retells scenes readers of the graphic novel have already seen, simply from The Governor and other residents of Woodbury’s perspectives.
While I understand that some things readers of the graphic novel series already know may need to be briefly mentioned again for those who are only reading the print books, a sizable portion of this book features scenes already told once in the graphic novels. Many of these scenes were disturbing enough in the graphic novels, such as the scene in which Michonne is repeatedly raped and beaten by The Governor. Retelling them from the perspective of The Governor just felt unnecessary and was frankly difficult to listen to. It would have been better to have left out showing that scene again and instead showed the, well-told and well-done scene of The Governor after her rapes Michonne back in his apartment where he tries to rationalize his behavior. This lends new insight into the character without forcing the readers to, essentially, re-read.
The characterization of Lilly Caul continued to bother me. First she hates The Governor and leads a rebellion, then turns right around and becomes loyal to him? What? This makes zero sense and is never fleshed out enough to make sense. Similarly, how she handles one particular plot development feels like lazy, cliched writing of women, which bothered me.
Speaking of writing of women, while I understand that the third person narration is supposed to simultaneously be from an evil guy’s perspective, how the narrator talked about Michonne really bothered me. We are constantly reminded that she is black. She is never just “the woman” she is always “the black woman” or “the dark woman.” Her dreadlocks are mentioned constantly. Whereas white characters, Latino characters, and male characters are referred to once with descriptors about how they look, her looks are constantly described. I understand looks need to be described periodically, but this is far too heavy-handed and in such a way that it feels like the narrator feels it necessary to constantly remind the reader that she is “other” and “different from us.” Worse, she is also referred to as a “creature,” etc…, particularly during her rape scenes. I never felt Michonne was mishandled in the graphic novels. She’s a bad-ass woman who just happens to be black in the graphic novels. Here, though, the descriptions of her feel like they are exoticized, which feels entirely wrong for a book in which we mostly just see her being raped. She is depicted so animalistically, it made my stomach turn. Even when she is among her friends, the narrator feels it necessary to constantly refer to her otherness.
So what’s done well in this book? The scenes where we finally learn how the double-cross happens and see it plotted and carried out from the bad guys’ perspective is chilling and enlightening. It’s also really nice to get to actually see the scene where Michonne beats the crap out of The Governor. If other scenes had been left out, the characterization of Lilly Caul and descriptions of Michonne handled better, and the whole book tightened up (and probably part two included here), it could have been a strong book.
Overall, fans of the series will be disappointed by the repetition of scenes they’ve already seen and the overall shortness and lack of new information in this book. Some may be bothered both by how Michonne is presented in this book, far differently from how she is in the graphic novel series, as well as by seeing some of the rapes from The Governor’s perspective. Recommended to hard-core fans who feel they need to complete reading the companion series to the graphic novels.
2 out of 5 stars
Hello my lovely readers! Many book bloggers are already familiar with Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings’ RIP Challenge. For those who aren’t familiar, it’s a reading challenge, covering the months of September and October, during which you read delightfully creepy / horror books to go along with the feelings of fall. The books can be in any of the following genres:
Or anything sufficiently moody that shares a kinship with the above.
There are multiple different ways to participate, including reading short stories and watching movies, plus there’s now a readalong you can participate in. I’ve participated twice before purely in the book reading portion of the challenge, and that’s what I’m going to be doing again. I’ll be doing Peril the First, for which you read four books that broadly fit in any of the categories above.
Books I already own that I could select for the challenge are listed below. I’d love to hear from you in the comments if there’s one you’d particularly like to recommend to me from my list!
- A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts by Ying Chang Compestine
- Barely Breathing by Michael J. Kolinski
- Beverly Hills Demon Slayer by Angie Fox
- Brains: A Zombie Memoir by Robin Becker
- Breed by Chase Novak
- Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King
- Deadtown by Nancy Holzner
- Disclosure by Michael Crichton
- From a Buick 8 by Stephen King
- I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead by E. A. Aymar
- The Keep by Paul F. Wilson
- The Kitchen Witch by Annette Blair
- Nightmare Fuel: Volume 1 by Bliss Morgan
- The Shimmer by David Morrell
- Smokin’ Six Shooter by B. J. Daniels
- A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore
- State of Decay by James Knapp
- Still Missing by Chevy Stevens
- The Strain by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan
- Tales of the Chtulhu Mythos by H. P. Lovecraft
- Unshapely Things by Mark Del Franco
- The Veiled Mirror: The Story of Prince Vlad Dracula’s Lost Love by Christine Frost
- The Walking Dead, Volume 16 by Robert Kirkman
- Wanted Woman by B. J. Daniels
I think I should be able to find four books from a list that large, don’t you?
PS If anyone is doing the short story challenge, I have two short stories published that fit within the parameters (and are free!). Also, my published novel fits into the challenge too. Check them all out on my publications page.
India Morgan Phelps, Imp to her friends, is sure that there were two different Eva Cannings who came into her life and changed her world. And one of them was a mermaid (or perhaps a siren?) and the other was a werewolf. But Imp’s ex-girlfriend, Abalyn, insists that no, there was only ever one Eva Canning, and she definitely wasn’t a mermaid or a werewolf. Dr. Ogilvy wants Imp to figure out for herself what actually happened. But that’s awfully hard when you have schizophrenia.
I’d heard that this book was a chilling mystery featuring GLBTQ characters and mental illness. When I discovered it on Audible with an appealing-sounding narrator, I knew what I was listening to next. This book is an engaging mystery that also eloquently captures the experience of having a mental illness that makes you question yourself and what you know while simultaneously giving a realistic glance into the queer community.
Imp is an unreliable first person narrator, and she fully admits this from the beginning. She calls herself a madwoman who was the daughter of a madwoman who was a daughter of a madwoman too. Mental illness runs in her family. She states that she will try not to lie, but it’s hard to know for sure when she’s lying. This is due to her schizophrenia. Imp is writing down the story of what she remembers happening in journal style on her typewriter because she is trying to figure out the mystery of what exactly happened for herself. The reader is just along for this ride. And it’s a haunting, terrifying ride. Not because of what Imp remembers happening with Eva Canning but because of being inside the mind of a person suffering from such a difficult mental illness. Experiencing what it is to not be able to trust your own memories, to not be sure what is real and is not real, is simultaneously terrifying and heart-breaking.
Imp’s schizophrenia, plus some comorbid anxiety and OCD, and how she experiences and deals with them, lead to some stunningly beautiful passages. This is particularly well seen in one portion of the book where she is more symptomatic than usual (for reasons which are spoilers, so I will leave them out):
All our thoughts are mustard seeds. Oh many days now. Many days. Many days of mustard seeds, India Phelps, daughter of madwomen, granddaughter, who doesn’t want to say a word and ergo can’t stop talking. Here is a sad sad tale, woebegone story of the girl who stopped for the two strangers who would not could not could not would not stop for me. She. She who is me. And I creep around the edges of my own life. Afraid to screw off the mayonnaise lid and spill the mustard seeds. (Part 2, loc 55:35)
The thing that’s great about the writing in the book is that it shows both the beauty and pain of mental illness. Imp’s brain is simultaneously beautiful for its artistic abilities and insight and a horrible burden in the ways that her mental illness tortures her and makes it difficult for her to live a “normal” life. This is something many people with mental illness experience but find it hard to express. It’s why many people with mental illness struggle with drug adherence. They like the ability to function in day-to-day society and pass as normal but they miss being who they are in their own minds. Kiernan eloquently demonstrates this struggle and shows the beauty and pain of mental illness.
Dr. Ogilvy and the pills she prescribes are my beeswax and the ropes that hold me fast to the main mast, just as my insanity has always been my siren. (Part 1, loc 4:08:48)
There is a lot of GLBTQ representation in the book, largely because Kiernan is clearly not just writing in a token queer character. Imp is a lesbian, and her world is the world of a real-to-life lesbian. She is not the only lesbian surrounded by straight people. People who are part of the queer community, in multiple different aspects, are a part of Imp’s life. Her girlfriend for part of the book is Abalyn, who is transwoman and has slept with both men and women both before and after her transition. She never identifies her sexuality in the book, but she states she now prefers women because the men tend to not be as interested in her now that she has had bottom surgery. The conversation where she talks about this with Imp is so realistic that I was stunned. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a conversation about both transitioning and the complicated aspects of dating for trans people that was this realistic outside of a memoir. Eva Canning is bisexual. It’s difficult to talk about Eva Canning in-depth without spoilers, so, suffice to say, Eva is out as bisexual and she is also promiscuous. However, her promiscuity is not presented in a biphobic way. Bisexual people exist on the full spectrum from abstinent to monogamous to poly to promiscuous. What makes writing a bisexual character as promiscuous biphobic is whether the promiscuity is presented as the direct result of being bi, and Kiernan definitely does not write Eva this way. Kiernan handles all of the queer characters in a realistic way that supports their three-dimensionality, as well as prevents any GLBTQphobia.
The plot is a difficult one to follow, largely due to Imp’s schizophrenia and her attempts at figuring out exactly what happened. The convoluted plot works to both develop Imp’s character and bring out the mystery in the first two-thirds of the book. The final third, though, takes an odd turn. Imp is trying to figure out what she herself believes actually happened, and it becomes clear that what she ultimately believes happened will be a mix of reality and her schizophrenic visions. That’s not just acceptable, it’s beautiful. However, it’s hard to follow what exactly Imp chooses to believe. I started to lose the thread of what Imp believes happens right around the chapter where multiple long siren songs are recounted. It doesn’t feel like Imp is slowly figuring things out for herself and has made a story that gives her some stability in her life. Instead it feels like she is still too symptomatic to truly function. I never expected clear answers to the mystery but I did at least expect that it would be clear what Imp herself believes happened. The lack of this removed the gut-wrenching power found in the first two-thirds of the book.
The audiobook narration by Suzy Jackson is truly stellar. There are parts of Imp’s journal that must truly have been exceedingly difficult to turn into audio form, but Jackson makes them easy to understand in audio form and also keeps the flow of the story going. Her voice is perfect for Imp. She is not infantilized nor aged beyond her years. She sounds like the 20-something woman she is. I’m honestly not sure the story would have the same power reading it in print. Hearing Imp’s voice through Jackson was so incredibly moving.
Overall, this book takes the traditional mystery and changes it from something external to something internal. The mystery of what really happened exists due to Imp’s schizophrenia, which makes it a unique read for any mystery fan. Further, Imp’s mental illness is presented eloquently through her beautiful first-person narration, and multiple GLBTQ characters are present and written realistically. Recommended to mystery fans looking for something different, those seeking to understand what it is like to have a mental illness, and those looking to read a powerful book featuring GLBTQ characters whose queerness is just an aspect of who they are and not the entire point of the story.
4 out of 5 stars
Book Review: Something Spectacular: The True Story of One Rockette’s Battle with Bulimia by Greta Gleissner (Audiobook narrated by Dina Pearlman)
Greta Gleissner finally achieved her lifelong dream of making a living just from her professional dancing. She landed the prestigious job of being a Rockette in the New York City show. She hoped that this newfound stability and prestige would cure her of her bulimia. What was there to binge and purge about when she was living her dream? But her eating disorder she’d had since a young age won’t just disappear because of her newfound success. Soon, her bulimia is putting her job–and her life–at risk.
I was immediately intrigued by the elements of this eating disorder memoir that make it different from the, sadly, so many others that exist. Greta’s eating disorder peaks in her 20s, not her teens. She was a Rockette, and she’s a lesbian. An eating disorder memoir about someone in their 20s in the dance industry who is also queer was very appealing to me. What I found was a memoir that gives insight to having an eating disorder, the impact of homophobia, and an inside look at the professional dance world told in a non-linear, honest, and engaging manner.
Greta tells her memoir in the framework of a play. There are scenes, acts, overtures, etc… This lets her address the story in a non-linear way that still makes sense. The overture, for instance, shows a dramatic moment when her eating disorder was at full tilt and destroying her life. Then she backs up to the few months before she became a Rockette. The time of auditioning then being a Rockette is interspersed with flashbacks to help us better understand her life. Finally, she enters an inpatient clinic, where we get flashbacks in the context of her therapy. It’s a creative storytelling technique that brings a freshness to her memoir.
Honesty without cruelty to herself or others is a key part of her narrative voice. Greta is straightforward, sometimes grotesquely so, about her bulimia and what it does to her. The eating disorder is not glamorized. Greta takes us down into the nitty-gritty of the illness. In fact, it’s the first bulimia memoir I’ve read that was so vivid and straightforward in its depictions of what the illness is and what it does. In some ways, it made me see bulimia as a bit of a mix between an addiction and body image issues. Greta was able to show both how something that was helping you cope can spiral out of control, as well as how poor self-esteem and body image led her to purging her food.
Greta also is unafraid to tell us about what goes on inside her own mind, and where she sees herself as having mistreated people in the past. I never doubted her honesty. Similarly, although Greta’s parents definitely did some things wrong in how they raised her, Greta strives to both acknowledge the wounds and accept her parents as flawed and wounded in their own ways. You can hear her recovery in how she talks about both them and her childhood. She has clearly done the work to heal past wounds.
The memoir honestly made me grateful the dancing I did as a child never went the professional route. It’s disturbing how pervasive body policing and addictions in general are in the dance world, at least as depicted by Greta. Similarly, it eloquently demonstrates how parents’ issues get passed down to the children, and sometimes even exacerbated. Greta’s mother was a non-professional dancer who was constantly dieting. Greta also loved dancing but her mother’s body image issues got passed down to her as well. Food was never just food in her household.
One shortcoming of the memoir is that Greta never fully addresses her internalized homophobia or how she ultimately overcomes it and marries her wife. The book stops rather abruptly when Greta is leaving the halfway house she lived in right after her time in the inpatient clinic. There is an epilogue where she briefly touches on the time after the halfway house, mentions relapse, and states that she ultimately overcame her internalized homophobia and met her now wife. However, for the duration of her time in the clinic and the halfway house, she herself admits she wasn’t yet ready to address her sexuality or deal with her internalized homophobia. It was clear to me reading the book that at least part of her self-hatred that led to her bulimia was due to her issues with her sexuality. Leaving out how she dealt with that and healed felt like leaving out a huge chunk of the story I was very interested in. Perhaps it’s just too painful of a topic for her to discuss, but it did feel as if the memoir gave glimpses and teasers of it, discussing how she would only make out with women when very drunk for instance, but then the issue is never fully addressed in the memoir.
Similarly, leaving out the time after the halfway house was disappointing. I wanted to see her finish overcoming and succeeding. I wanted to hear the honesty of her relapses that she admits she had and how she overcome that. I wanted to hear about her dating and meeting her wife and embracing her sexuality. Hearing about the growth and strength past the initial part in the clinic and halfway house is just as interesting and engaging as and more inspiring than her darker times. I wish she had told that part of the story too.
The audiobook narrator, Dina Pearlman, was a great choice for the memoir. Her voice reads as gritty feminine, which is perfect for the story. She also handles some of the asides and internal diatribes present in mental illness memoirs with great finesse.
Overall, this is a unique entry in the eating disorder memoir canon. It gives the nitty gritty details of bulimia from the perspective of a lesbian suffering from homophobia within the framework of the dance world. Those who might be triggered should be aware that specific height and weight numbers are given, as well as details on binge foods and purging episodes. It also, unfortunately, doesn’t fully address how the author healed from the wounds of homophobia. However, her voice as a queer person is definitely present in the memoir. Recommended to those with an interest in bulimia in adults, in the dance world, or among GLBTQ people.
4 out of 5 stars