Tag Archives: Mystery

On Robert Galbraith’s “The Silkworm” (Cormoran Strike #2)

21 Apr

The Silkworm [2014] by Robert Galbraith

The Silkworm [2014] by Robert Galbraith

My head must have been buried in the proverbial sand last summer since it seemed I completely missed the publication of Robert Galbraith’s second novel and second entry in the Cormoran Strike series. Galbraith, better known to the world as legendary British author J.K. Rowling, ups the ante with The Silkworm, a much darker and much nastier murder mystery for our favorite one-legged, ex-military, Cornish private detective Cormoran Strike and his sidekick, the blonde and curvy Robin Ellacott. In a wintry London, an unpopular author disappears on the heels of a public row (see how London I’m being?) with his agent. Strike must navigate the murky waters of the city’s literary elite, with all its undercurrents and toothy predators.

The first Cormoran Strike novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, featured our burly hero solving the murder of tragically gorgeous model Luna Landry, and the high-publicity victim made the detective an overnight sensation. His business is booming with the revenue from wealthy cuckolds, and all seems to be settling into a calm and distinctly murderless daily grind. That is, until–in the grand old tradition of noir mysteries–a distraught woman appears on Strike’s doorstep. Leonora Quine’s husband, the contested and now washed up author Owen Quine, has gone missing, and we all know what “missing” means when it comes to books shelved in the mystery/thriller section of the bookstore.

Look at that guy. So private. Such detective. Though, I doubt Strike keeps such a neat desk. Or ever wears a tie, for that matter. (Photo from "blackwarrior57")

Look at that guy. So private. Such detective. Though, I doubt Strike keeps such a neat desk. Or ever wears a tie, for that matter. (Photo from “blackwarrior57“)

Strike juggles his smaller jobs, the deep and manly angst he feels as his ex-girlfriend prepares to get married to some northern aristocrat, his confusing feelings for his secretary Robin, and the case of the missing author. Can things possibly get more complicated?? They always do. The missing Quine leaves behind the manuscript of his latest novel, a novel so grotesque and slanderous that Strike suddenly has his hands full with suspects in the author’s mysterious disappearance. Quine titled the unpublished novel Bombyx mori, the Latin name for the silkworm, and it reads like a raunchy, X-rated Pilgrim’s Progress. The characters of the novel are thinly veiled references to the people in Quine’s life, and no one escapes the man’s scathing criticism. Quine’s agent, editor, publisher, wife, mistress, protégé, and rival all feature prominently in Bombyx mori and all get the symbolic shaft in the most wonderfully gruesome, vivid and vitriolic ways. The caustic nature of Owen Quine’s opus leaves Strike with too many and, yet, none at all. It’s up to his perseverance and Robin’s clutch skills for the duo to find out what really happened to the antagonistic author.

The brutality of The Silkworm blows The Cuckoo’s Calling out of the water. From the graphic, carnal detail of Owen Quine’s unpublished Bombyx mori to the gruesome nature of Strike’s discoveries in his investigation, the content of this novel proves to the world that Galbraith holds no reservations with her writing and pulls no punches. One can’t help but wonder that, since everyone knows her true identity, Galbraith is making that extra special effort to distance her new works from the young adult categorization of the writing that made her a worldwide phenom. On the other hand, the blood and guts of The Silkworm also point to the deliciously evil minds of writers.

This cute little bugger is the namesake of Owen Quine's novel, Bombyx mori. (Photo from "Steve Begin")

This cute little bugger is the namesake of Owen Quine’s novel Bombyx mori. (Photo from “Steve Begin“)

More disturbing than icky silkworms and the vile details of Bombyx mori is the pattern Galbraith creates among her female characters, who are portrayed as possessive, passive-aggressive, wastes of time. Even Robin, despite one or two flashes of brilliance, suffers from the moodiness of a petulant child. Strike’s desire to help Leonora Quine comes from his personal sense of honor and morality rather than any empathy for her, as seen from his constant impatience with her grief. The men in the novel are evil, and the women in the novel are motivated entirely by the men around them. I hope future Cormoran Strike novels (and I’m sure there will be future Cormoran Strike novels) give women more agency and less angst. Robin won my admiration in The Cuckoo’s Calling and I would love to see her come into her own as a full crime-fighting partner beside Strike.

Read It: Gore hounds and mystery buffs will eat this right up, not to mention J.K. Rowling zealots! The sequel to Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling is classic noir with a touch of Criminal Minds-level grotesquerie, and our favorite one-legged private detective is on the case, prepared to solve mysteries with a combination of brute, Cornish force and straight-up perseverance.

Don’t Read It: Not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach, The Silkworm can be a little too graphic–both in the bedroom and in the Billiards Room with the knife (and the hydrochloric acid), if you know what I mean. All the darkness Rowling alluded to in her Harry Potter series is fully realized here in Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series.

Similar Books: One other author comes to mind as having accomplished exactly what Robert Galbraith aka J.K. Rowling is currently doing: Roald Dahl forged his career penning beloved children’s novels about magic and love and overcoming the horrors of the growing up, while simultaneously establishing his collection of wonderfully raunchy adult stories about sex and kinkiness. Check out Switch Bitch or the collection of stories in The Best of Roald Dahl. And, of course, Robert Galbraith’s first Cormoran Strike novel The Cuckoo’s Calling should be the prerequisite to The Silkworm, but it’s not entirely necessary.

I love that the same author who can sit primly in wedge heels reading to kids in a garden can also write about grotesque murder and psychopathic sexual angst.

Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) reads to her adoring fans from one of her books, presumably not this one. I love that the same author who can sit primly in wedge heels reading to kids in a garden can also write about grotesque murder and psychopathic sexual angst. (Photo from “Devon Steven“)

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Book v. Big Screen: “Inherent Vice”

24 Jan
Paul Thomas Anderson's January 9, 2015 adaptation stars a billion jillion famous people.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s January 9, 2015 adaptation stars a billion jillion famous people.

When the creator of brilliant films takes on the adaptation of a renowned author of modern classics, you go big or go home. You could end up with a critical bomb like The Hobbit installations (go ahead and fight me, but I said it!) or a masterpiece like There Will Be Blood. I think I need to rewatch Paul Thomas Anderson’s most recent cinematographic adventure three or four more times to really decide on which end of the scale Inherent Vice lands. The film, which was released widely to theaters on January 12, is visually stunning and accompanied by one of the better film scores I have heard in some years, but when I read Thomas Pynchon’s novel by the same name, I knew this would be a nearly impossible book to successfully adapt to the big screen. My initial reaction is that Anderson’s attempt, while valiant, fell short of the mark.

Larry “Doc” Sportello is more than a pothead. He’s an enthusiast, a connoisseur, a meta-hippie. That’s just his day job. Doc is sometimes a private detective, and when his ex-old lady Shasta shows up on his doorstep one hazy night going on about a conspiracy to kidnap her new millionaire boyfriend, Doc is helpless to avoid being pulled into a mess. And the mess that real estate moguls, cults, Asian mobs, and drugged-up dentists cause in 1970’s Los Angeles is too much for most to handle. Doc follows Shasta’s trail through the upper echelons of L.A. to the seedy depths where neo-Nazi biker gangs and crew-cut FBI agents like to roam.

Joaquin Phoenix's depiction of hapless Larry "Doc" Sportello is spot on.

Joaquin Phoenix’s depiction of hapless Larry “Doc” Sportello is spot on.

The ensuing drama is a series of long, panning, slow-motion shots of said real estate moguls, neo-Nazi bikers, et. al. in a beautiful side-scrolling painting of a an era. The film wouldn’t be complete or nearly as beautiful, though, without it’s corresponding soundtrack, created by none other than Paul Thomas Anderson’s favorite musical boy genius Jonny Greenwood. The guitarist for famed rock band Radiohead also composed scores for Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and The Master. The two now exist on a spectral plane of their own, like a secret club where only the critically acclaimed and artistically progressive get to go. I expect we’ll see more of their collaborations in the future.

Immerse yourself in the master mood-setter’s musical prowess here: Jonny Greenwood’s immaculate score

Jonny Greenwood and his absolute musical score genius are two of the top reasons to watch Paul Thomas Anderson films.

Jonny Greenwood and his absolute musical score genius are two of the top reasons to watch Paul Thomas Anderson films.

I won’t lie, though; despite its beautiful visuals and score, Inherent Vice was a difficult movie to fully enjoy. The several outright humorous moments, often featuring Josh Brolin’s tightly wound Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, added a wonderful lightness to what would otherwise be a depressing story of corruption and futility. But even I, having read the book quite recently, felt the strain of keeping up with a convoluted plot and unfamiliar verbiage. Those who didn’t read the book first, and I imagine there are many who haven’t, will probably need to lean on the occasional, disembodied narration like a hand rail. It guides viewers through important back story and the jumbled cerebral exercises of Doc’s hazy mind. With the narration, Anderson treads the fine line of telling too little and telling too much. For once, I think a movie could use more narration rather than less, and I’m not just saying this because I enjoy the sound of Joanna Newsom’s voice (talking, not singing so much), but a lot of valuable information is omitted or gets lost. By the second or third re-watch, though, I may change my mind. You will have to decide for yourself and come tell me what you think.

Book or Big Screen: I try to be political about these discussions, but some things are just better left to 369 pages of terse prose. Between the confusing plot and the endless period references, the book–and the slower pace of entertainment consumption of the written word–suits the theme and plot better than the film. While the film is easy on the eyes and ears, Inherent Vice the book takes the cake on this one.

Readers, Beware: You may need to dig into the novel for about one hundred pages before you start swinging with the groovy cats of Los Angeles’ hippie-covered beaches, but once you get there, it’s a beautiful place. Pynchon is magical, hilarious, and driven all at the same time. That being said, Pynchon’s method of setting the mood is by bombarding you with slang and pop-culture references, all of which sometimes takes precedence over plot and character development. The movie has it easy: a few well-placed vintage product placement and an accurate costume designer do all the work.

Viewers, Beware: The film version of Inherent Vice is a wild ride, and if the deep layers and plot twists don’t muddle your mind, then the unfamiliar slang, barely audible conspiratorial whispers, and drug-addled slurs will. Had I not read the book first, I imagined I would have been utterly lost ten minutes in. The only saving grace was Joanna Newsom’s soothing narration, which for the most part, smoothed out the wrinkles.

 

On Jesse Ball’s “Silence Once Begun”

21 Feb
Silence Once Begun is Jesse Ball's eighth book. He is a poet, novelist, and apparently a napkin doodler.

Silence Once Begun is Jesse Ball’s eighth book. He is a poet, novelist, and apparently a proficient napkin doodler.

To keep from feeling too sorry for myself on my lonely Valentine’s Day, I went out to The Elliott Bay Book Company and treated myself to a couple of new books and a fresh pack of Moleskine journals. There is no greater therapy. I had in mind to buy a newly released book for which I hadn’t read any reviews, and the result was Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun. I should pat myself on the back (patting now, actually), because this is one of my most successful impulse purchases. Jesse Ball is an accomplished poet, artist, and novelist, but wasn’t on my radar until now–and, boy, he’s a nice, shiny, big blip on my radar now.

In Silence Once Begun, a reporter named Jesse Ball searches for the reason for silence. His marriage dissolved when his beloved wife suddenly stops speaking to him, and in his quest to find the meaning of her refusal to communicate, Mr. Ball comes across the curious incident of Oda Sotatsu, a man who was convicted of and executed for kidnapping eleven people in an event known as the Narito Disappearances. Sotatsu mysteriously signs a confession to the kidnappings, but refuses to speak a word while imprisoned, on trial, and approaching his execution date. He is reviled by the media and public opinion. Even his family turns their collective back. His only comfort is the equally mysterious Jito Joo, a young woman who stayed as close to Sotatsu as she could, right up to his hanging.

From strikes to monastic vows, intentional silence is a powerful, strategic move. But does Sotatsu's silence indicate guilt or innocence? Victory or defeat? (Image from frontpagemagazine.com)

From strikes to monastic vows, intentional silence is a powerful, strategic move. But does Sotatsu’s silence indicate guilt or innocence? Victory or defeat? (Image from frontpagemagazine.com)

The first half of the novel is a combination of transcribed interviews with Sotatsu’s family, and the poetic musings of a confused, lonely narrator–desperate to find answers, convinced the answers lie in Sotatsu’s strange case. The readers are, of course, reminded that Jesse Ball the narrator is not quite the same as Jesse Ball the author, and in any case, both of them are unreliable. At one point, the narrator says, “While this may have predisposed me to liking him, I assure you, I have tried at all times to be as objective as possible.” The moment someone tells you they’re not a liar, doubt is cast on everything said, and this novel is no different. Ball sets the tone and sets every word written, even the transcribed interviews, in the stark light of one simple fact: this is a narrative being curated by a biased mind. Part of the huge entertainment factor of SOB is the game of differentiating lies from truth, and there are as many versions of the truth as there are characters in the story.

In the second half of the book, the narrative bursts into lyricism. Gone is the laconic structure of the first half, replaced by a display of the author’s poetic roots, and by this new cadence we are carried through Stotatsu’s life again–this time through the heartbreaking words of Jito Joo, Sotatsu’s lover until the end. With her intense, oftentimes metaphorical, descriptiveness, Joo tells the story of Sotatsu’s silence with a stream of words.

“I am a great traveler like Marco Polo,” Joo says to Sotatsu, “who visits an interior land.” For Sotatsu, Joo is the only one who can and would traverse his silence, and who saw his silence not as a void of communication but as a new language and a new territory.

I loved the way Ball allows for wonder in his prose. He makes the novel feel full with Sotatsu’s silence, and mysterious with Joo’s long monologue. I loved the duplicity of Sotatsu’s situation. SOB “No way, a hunger strike imposed by the guards on a prisoner who won’t break would look identical to a hunger strike staged by a prisoner as a protest. No one could tell the difference.” In the same way, Sotatsu’s guilt looks exactly the same as his innocence. The interviewer’s wife is the same after and before her silence began. What changes? Perspective. The observer. Only the interviewer changes. Only the ones perceiving hunger, guilt, silence. It is the reader who changes as the silence drags on, and the reader who evolves to understand silence as a story.

For me, and I'm sure a lot of readers, when I think of "literature" and "Japan" I also think of "Murakami." This reference to the well on Jesse Ball's Website may be coincidental, but connection to Murakami in my mind is now unbreakable.

For me, and I’m sure a lot of readers, when I think of “literature” and “Japan” I also think of “Murakami.” This reference to the well on Jesse Ball’s Website may be coincidental, but connection to Murakami in my mind is now unbreakable.

But here’s where it ALL GOES DOWNHILL. The format of the book is more like a play or movie script. It’s a one hundred page novella with extra wide margins, erroneous section breaks, and a 20-page photo montage to stretch it to novel length. Yeah, I know that’s a ridiculous criticism, but basically it’s my only solid complaint, and I thought I had to put something negative about this book in this review. Otherwise, I just feel too prejudiced. I wracked my brain trying to think of something more valid–a reason not to give this book I randomly picked up–five stars on Goodreads. This is all I came up with. So despite committing the cardinal sin of  using extra wide margins and stuff, Jesse Ball has earned my respect. I’m looking forward to reading his earlier novels and excited to see what he does next.

On Lauren Beukes’s “The Shining Girls”

28 Jan
If you were a slacker like me, and you haven't read Lauren Beukes's The Shining Girls yet, go read it now!

If you were a slacker like me, and you haven’t read Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls yet, go read it now!

Whoa. I mean, like, really whoa. I had a tough enough time understanding the dangers of messing with the space-time continuum in Star Trek episodes, so Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls took a lot of head juices to survive, and I mean this in the best possible way. I’m still reeling from the final revelations of this blockbuster book where a serial murderer travels through time to target victims who, to his psychotic mind, “shine.” Beukes takes us through the mind of Harper Curtis, a Depression-era homicidal maniac, to each of his victims–an economics student, an architect, a ship welder, to name a few–including one survivor: Kirby Mazrachi. Each of these young women carry in them creative genius, ambition, resilience. Each one of them is marked for death by Harper’s “gift.” Between its unique setting, memorable characters, and Beukes’s obvious mastery of time travel, The Shining Girls is a radiant collection of talent and entertainment value.

If you can look past the gruesome murders and the blatant science fiction themes and mind-frigging (See? I’m keeping it PG.) plot twists, you can see that Beukes’s strength lies in her understanding of people. Kirby Mazrachi and Dan Velazquez, the jaded journalist she enlists to help her turn the tables on a serial killer, come alive on the page. Honestly, it was the two of them and the sadistically engrossing Harper that kept me wrapped up in this story. When Harper finds a seemingly magical House that can transport him across years and decades, he begins coming into his own, into his destiny as a serial murderer, and his transformation is both chilling and thrilling. It’s rare to find a novel, especially a sci-fi novel, that finds a balance between character and plot, and it’s rare to find an author who excels at writing character and plot. Beukes certainly excels.

Somehow, Beukes can pull off the crazy-man-red-string-mural and not be crazy or a man. Bravo, Beukes. Bravo.

Somehow, Beukes can pull off the crazy-man-red-string-mural and not be crazy or a man. I guess you have to keep time travel organized somehow. Bravo, Beukes. Bravo.

Now, I have to acknowledge all of you time travel experts: Time travel experts, I acknowledge you. The Shining Girls isn’t infallible. The science of the House is never explained. Harper’s shining objects and shining subjects aren’t explored in detail. I happen to like it better that way. Beukes uses mystery and brevity to move the plot along. She’s certainly no Crichton or Stephenson, and I consider this a simple stylistic difference, not ineptitude. There are plenty of people out in all of the alternate realities and timelines that will criticize Looper or Star Trek or Deja Vu, that totally forgettable Denzel Washington movie, for the plot holes in their time travel logic, and it’s preventing them from enjoying perfectly good fictional entertainment. I’m sure lots of those same folks are going to root around TSG for errors, too, but they can go suck it, because you know what? It’s time travel. Ain’t real. So deal.

Don't argue with it. Just let it happen. Let time travel change your life.

Don’t argue with it. Just let it happen. Let time travel change your life. What’s your favorite time travel movie/book/TV show?

Top 10 of 2013

31 Dec

Happy New Year’s Eve, world! I won’t be like everyone and say, “I can’t believe how fast this year went by,” so I’ll just say, “I can’t believe how slowly this year went by.” We get 365 days and I only managed to read a handful of books! Here’s to a fuller 2014 with more books and more book reviews! For now, it’s time to wrap up the year by reflecting on the important things. Here is my list of the top ten books I read and reviewed this year with excerpts from and links to my reviews on each of them! Enjoy, and thanks to all my followers, casual readers, friends, and family for helping me enjoy myself with this little, whimsical blog.

The Top Ten of 2013

To Be or Not To Be was a smashing success on Kickstarter. Now Ryan North is working on another Shakespeare-Choosable Adventure mash-up featuring none other than Romeo and Juliet.

To Be or Not To Be was a smashing success on Kickstarter. Now Ryan North is working on another Shakespeare-Choosable Adventure mash-up featuring none other than Romeo and Juliet.

10. To Be or Not To Be  by Ryan North

Welcome to the chooseable-path review of Ryan North’s new chooseable-path adventure, To Be or Not To Be, which hilariously takes one of William Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies and recreates it as a humorous, illustrated, maybe-but-maybe-not tragedy! North joins with dozens of the internet’s best/most popular Web comic artists to gamify Hamlet: “play” as Ophelia, Hamlet, or King Hamlet Sr., make choices throughout the book, and see where your will can take your character! This was originally a Kickstarter project that set the bar at a low $20,000 goal, but its novelty and the inclusion of some heavy-weight names (plus, who isn’t interested in Shakespeare …? No, really, who isn’t? Because I’m going to give you a scolding), catapulted the book to a lofty $580,905. Although it’s too late to donate to the project, you should still check out the site to see what it took to get this thing off the ground. …

My first experience with James Baldwin was filled with sighs and my own broken heart. Giovanni's Room takes the win for saddest book of the year.

My first experience with James Baldwin was filled with sighs and my own broken heart. Giovanni’s Room takes the win for saddest book of the year.

9. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

How does one even begin to talk about Giovanni? I’m so overwhelmed still, and I can confidently say, that Giovanni’s Room is my favorite book of 2013 so far … maybe. This novel speaks to James Baldwin’s ever-present awareness of his foreignness, his separateness, his Otherness. Giovanni’s Room is one of the truest most tragic novels I’ve read in a long time because it speaks to my sense of Otherness, too. …

Neal Stephenson tackled massive multiplayer online role-playing games AND terrorism in Reamde. What more do you want?

Neal Stephenson tackled massive multiplayer online role-playing games AND terrorism in Reamde. What more do you want?

8. Reamde by Neal Stephenson

Richard Forthrast—the billionaire, draft-dodger, former drug-runner, T’Rain founder—and his niece Zula find themselves invited to a figurative party of Chinese hackers, Russian mobsters, ex-military rogues, MI6 agents, and Islamic terrorists (obviously) that even Gatsby would envy, it’s so elaborate and wrought with confusion and angst. The plot that began with relatively simple, moneymaking scheme/computer virus becomes frightening and life threatening. But isn’t that how it always goes? …

Italo Calvino wrote a lot of letters in his relatively short life, and many of them are collected here in Princeton University Press' Letters.

Italo Calvino wrote a lot of letters in his relatively short life, and many of them are collected here in Princeton University Press’ Letters.

7. Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 by Italo Calvino

The bizarre thing about reading other people’s letters, is you get to thinking that they’re writing letters to you… Then you start developing some kind of strange celebrity obsession with those people, maybe more like an infatuation, or maybe like True Love. Not saying that happened to me or anything! But with Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985, it’s hard not to fall in love (or fall in respect, whatever) with this magnificent writer, Italy’s premier postmodern author, and one of my personal favorites. …

Forged in Fire by J.A. Pitts is the third installation of the Sarah Beauhall series, and arguably the best (so far). Make sure you start reading from the beginning.

Forged in Fire by J.A. Pitts is the third installation of the Sarah Beauhall series, and arguably the best (so far). Make sure you start reading from the beginning.

6. Forged in Fire by J.A. Pitts

I think, at this point, I can officially classify myself as a Sarah Beauhall fangirl. When I saw the series as Powell’s for the first time, I decided I’d read it on a whim, not expecting anything more than brief entertainment or maybe something to write a scathing review on later. Lo and behold! I have to take back those thoughts of an unbeliever! Forged in Fire is J.A. Pitts’s third Sarah Beauhall installation, and I had more fun than ever. Pitts created a cast of full characters and a massive enough world to keep this series going strongly as Sarah Beauhall uncovers more dark magic, learns about a new secret order, and forms some important human bonds that help her understand the meaning of family. …

As troubling as it is genius, A Handmaid's Tale is a cautionary novel written in Margaret Atwood's iconic prose.

As troubling as it is genius, The Handmaid’s Tale is a cautionary novel written in Margaret Atwood’s iconic prose.

5. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I finally read Margaret Atwood’s dazzling The Handmaid’s Tale and got a bitter taste of how scary religion can be. From my comfy seat in America, looking through my blinders out at the world, I can safely say I feel pretty free in comparison, and that other religions (*ahem* Islam) have gotten a little out of control. But Atwood’s beautiful novel is more like a slap in the face: America, already a so-called Christian nation, is short skip and a hop away from a society mirroring modern-day Iran’s or Afghanistan’s, a society that forbids the interaction between men and women, that “shelters” women with thick cloth and heavy restrictions for their “protection” and “purity,” that uses indoctrination and propaganda to destroy hope, to remove all routes of escape. Atwood’s dystopia is, in the end, much more frightening then the dystopias I grew up with—1984 and Brave New World—because it’s infinitely more possible. …

Do you love mysteries? Do you not love mysteries? Either way, start your 2014 with quality reading and pick up Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy.

Do you love mysteries? Do you not love mysteries? Either way, start your 2014 with quality reading and pick up Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy.

4. The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

It’s never more apparent how brilliant Paul Auster is when you start reading him just after you have finished a mediocre novel. The New York Trilogy is one of Auster’s most renowned works of fiction, and–you guessed correctly!–it’s actually three separate novels. In New York, where all magical things happen, several mysteries are being investigated by several characters, some metaphysical shit goes down, people talk a lot about people talking or not talking, excuse me, my name is Peter Stillman. But all that aside, TNYT is a mystery of mysteries. It is the meta-mystery. It transcends. Best to read it while either completely high or sleep deprived.

I don't usually read nonfiction, but when I do, it has to be creepy, like Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City.

I don’t usually read nonfiction, but when I do, it has to be creepy, like Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City.

3. The Devil in the White City by David Larson

This is the story of two architects, tested on the sooty, soiled grounds of late-19th Century Chicago: Daniel Burnham, an architect of buildings in the age of steel and the director of works of the great World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893; and H.H. Holmes, an architect of manipulation, murder, and the macabre who killed dozens of people while staying hidden from the police, just blocks away from the fair’s entrances–both were equally ambitious and worked incessantly toward their respective goals. At the World’s Fair, they represented the city’s two faces: the White City and the hell hole, the symbol of hope and the harbinger of horror. …

John Fowles's first novel The Collector blew everyone out of the water. I myself have been out of the water since I read it in April this year.

John Fowles’s first novel The Collector blew everyone out of the water. I myself have been out of the water since I read it in April this year.

2. The Collector by John Fowles

John Fowles’s debut novel certainly set the bar high. I felt the need to start by reading this book because it seemed to suit me (or suit my obsession with Law & Order: SVUCSI, andCriminal Minds; a girl can’t have too much crime TV), and I stand by my choice. The Collector follows Frederick Clegg in his project to stalk, kidnap, and woo the object of his affections, Miranda Grey, a young art student of the upper middle class. If Clegg were a young gallant knight or the Earl of Rochester, this story could be romantic, or at the very least, kind of kinky. But Clegg is a loner, a man with little to no social graces who happens to really, really like collecting butterflies, so the story has to go the creepy rout. Fine by me, since Fowles can definitely pull off creepy and pull it off well. …

And the winner of the LitBeetle’s Pick of the 2013 is …

Gone Girl is the 2012 thriller by Gillian Flynn and tells the story of Nick Dunne, under suspicion of killing his wife Amy.

Gone Girl is the 2012 thriller by Gillian Flynn and tells the story of Nick Dunne, under suspicion of killing his wife Amy.

1. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I came to this book without expectations. It seems everyone but I had heard of it and already added it to their Goodreads “Want to Read” bookshelf, but it’s all in character for me, so I shouldn’t be surprised. That being said, I only got to page 16 before I decided I loved this book. Gillian (like my name, so we’re practically twins!) Flynn’s Gone Girl is a perfect specimen for a morbid curiosity. The girl in question is Amy Elliott Dunne, the supposed victim in a missing person’s case. Her husband Lance Nicholas “Nick” Dunne is the supposed perpetrator (because it’s always the husband, right?). Amy and Nick are beautiful, successful, clever, and bursting with love for each other, but when both are laid off, the initial spark of their marriage dies out, and a family crisis uproots them from their beloved Manhattan and lands them in Nick’s rural Missouri hometown of North Carthage, the two are embroiled in a battle of wit, sadism, and manipulation. You won’t be able to tear your eyes away from this train wreck, and you may think you can predict the outcome (and maybe you’re better at that than I am), but you will enjoy the unfolding of this disastrous relationship the whole time. …

A special runner up mention goes to …

A Memory of Light is the final installation of Robert Jordan's beloved fantasy series Wheel of Time.

A Memory of Light is the final installation of Robert Jordan’s beloved fantasy series Wheel of Time.

A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

So I didn’t technically review this book, but I spent the better part of the first quarter of 2013 rereading Robert Jordan’s modern classic fantasy series The Wheel of Time, which culminated in this joint effort with author Brandon Sanderson. A Memory of Light ended a fourteen-book series and what was, for a lot of fantasy readers, an era of genre bliss. The Wheel of Time was my escapism from the minor horrors of high school, and A Memory of Light was a fitting end.

It would be a mistake to say I’m not obsessed with morbid mystery novels. I am. Just going to come right out and say it. Gillian Flynn’s novel goes above and beyond, taking morbidity to high entertainment. I won’t say Gone Girl is great “Literature,” but I enjoyed it the most out of all the books I read this year, and I think it will stand up to the test of time.

I can’t wait to read another several dozen books next year! Thanks, again, to all my followers who tagged along with me on my silly adventures through literature (and not-literature)! Send me book recommendations and help me make 2014 a more exciting year for books than 2013!

The Complete List

The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan

Lord of Chaos by Robert Jordan

A Crown of Swords by Robert Jordan

The Path of Daggers by Robert Jordan

Winter’s Heart by Robert Jordan

Crossroads of Twilight by Robert Jordan

Knife of Dreams by Robert Jordan

The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan

Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan

A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan

Hikikomori and the Rental Sister by Jeff Backhaus

A Spy in the Ruins by Christopher Bernard

The Collector by John Fowles

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

The Snowman by Jo Nesbo

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Ganymede by Cherie Priest

The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley

The Inspector and Silence by Hakan Nesser

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Black Blade Blues by J.A. Pitts

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

To Be or Not To Be by Ryan North (and Shakespeare)

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Vurt by Jeff Noon

Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn

Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985 by Italo Calvino

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot

The Stranger by Albert Camus

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Honeyed Words by J.A. Pitts

A Lifetime by Morris Fenris

Underground by Haruki Murakami

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

Nightlight by The Harvard Lampoon

Forged in Fire by J.A. Pitts

Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

The Wrecking Yard by Pinckney Benedict

A Sudden Wild Magic by Diana Wynne Jones

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro

A Thousand Perfect Things by Kay Kenyon

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

The Fall of the Stone City by Ismail Kadare

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui

City of Glass by Paul Auster

Ghosts by Paul Auster

The Locked Room by Paul Auster

Suicide Game by Haidji

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

On Paul Auster’s “The New York Trilogy”

28 Dec
Do you love mysteries? Do you not love mysteries? Either way, start your 2014 with quality reading and pick up Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy.

Do you love mysteries? Do you not love mysteries? It doesn’t matter. Start your 2014 with quality reading and pick up Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy.

It’s never more apparent how brilliant Paul Auster is when you start reading him just after you have finished a mediocre novel. The New York Trilogy is one of Auster’s most renowned works of fiction, and–you guessed correctly!–it’s actually three separate novels. In New York, where all magical things happen, several mysteries are being investigated by several characters, some metaphysical shit goes down, people talk a lot about people talking or not talking, excuse me, my name is Peter Stillman. But all that aside, TNYT is a mystery of mysteries. It is the meta-mystery. It transcends. Best to read it while either completely high or sleep deprived.

City of Glass

The first book of TNYT, City of Glass, follows the story of a writer of mystery novels named Daniel Quinn. The writer answers a call from a wrong number, beginning his adventures as an unlikely private detective who is hired to protect Peter Stillman from a potential murderer. Peter Stillman lived most of his life locked in a pitch black room and being beaten into utter silence. His potential murderer is the father who locked him in the room and beat him. As Quinn investigates the case and tracks Stillman Senior through the streets of Manhattan, he takes on multiple identities, slowly losing himself to his various fictitious selves and falling into the void of the Stillman’s mysterious story.

The first in The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster's City of Glass takes mystery to a new level.

The first in The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster’s City of Glass takes mystery to a new, meta, super level.

Auster’s narrative breaches the fourth wall again and again, wrapping the reader into the absurd plot, too. Along for the ride, you will feel Quinn’s growing panic as his meticulous notes gradually lose meaning and as his life becomes increasingly isolated, distilling to a narrow view of the world of only two entities–Quinn and Stillman–and then eventually just one entity. Eerie but infinitely gripping, City of Glass kicks off the trilogy with a strong start. I don’t know how anyone could stop at just one book the The New York Trilogy.

“For our words no longer correspond to the world. When things were whole, we felt confident our words could express them. But little by little these things have broken apart, shattered, collapsed into chaos. And yet our words have remained the same. They have not adapted themselves to the new reality.” –City of Glass

Ghosts

The second installation opens with an actual private detective. Blue has just inherited sole ownership of his agency from his retiring mentor, Brown. Blue’s first client is a man named White who comes to him, obviously in disguise, to hire Blue to shadow a man named Black. Taking up the case, Blue spends days, then weeks, then months watching Black do nothing but sit at his desk writing. The reports Blue writes to White start telling more the story of Blue’s life than Black’s the line between their lives begins to blur. (Yeah, blurred lines. I said, and now the song will you be stuck in your head like it’s stuck in mine.) But can the two of them continue to exist as essentially the same person in two different places?

The second installation, Ghosts, tells the story of a private detective, Blue, who has been hired by White to shadow Black.

The second installation, Ghosts, tells the story of a private detective, Blue, who has been hired by White to shadow Black. The question is, where was Burgundy this whole time?!

Auster drops some of the character development and detail of the first novel to introduce more themes of the trilogy–namely, the grey area between author and character. It’s the chicken and the egg conundrum: the author and his character. Which came first? Which is more real? Which one survives the other? The New York Trilogy explores these questions over and over again, from different angles and with different names, but the story is the same. A man stands watching another man who watches back. They tell each other’s stories and therefore tell there own. In Ghosts, Auster gets to the nitty gritty, and maybe that means he’s lost some entertainment value, but by this time I was thoroughly hooked.

“This isn’t the story of my life, after all, he says. I’m supposed to be writing about him, not myself.” –Ghosts

The Locked Room

Auster’s final installation is The Locked Room, a title that references both earlier novels in the trilogy, describing a place of solitude, birth, and demise. In TLR, the protagonist speaks from his own perspective for the first time. His childhood friend Fanshawe has disappeared, leaving behind a wife, child, and boxes of brilliant writing. The narrator steps in to publish Fanshawe’s work for him, making a splash in the publishing community, and begins to take care of the missing author’s abandoned family. Fanshawe has both blessed and cursed the narrator’s life. Our protagonist becomes obsessed with finding Fanshawe and ending the curse.

The Locked Room finishes the trilogy with the story a man searching for his missing friend, who abandoned his family and critically acclaimed writing and disappeared into thin air.

The Locked Room finishes the trilogy with the story of a man searching for his missing friend, who abandoned his family and critically acclaimed writing and disappeared into thin air.

“Then I hauled the two suitcases slowly down the stairs and onto the street. Together, they were as heavy as a man.” –The Locked Room

All three novels bring forward the same conundrum: who writes whom? Does the author birth the character or vice versa? Who is allowed to live in the end? It’s a fascinating question. It’s a fascinating plot that Auster can base three novels–and three entertaining novels, at that–on a mystery that is never really solved, and I suppose that’s the point. There isn’t an answer. There is only the question. Well, that’s kind of cheating, but since it’s Paul Auster I guess I’ll let it slide. Now I will need to pick up a copy of Paul Karasik’s and David Mazzucchelli’s graphic novel adaptation of City of Glass, as should you.

Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli adapted Auster's City of Glass as a graphic novel.

Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli adapted Auster’s City of Glass as a graphic novel.

On Yasutaka Tsutsui’s “Paprika”

23 Dec
Yasutaka Tsutsui's Paprika dives into the world of dreams and mental illness, but Satoshi Kon's anime adaptation did it better.

Yasutaka Tsutsui’s Paprika dives into the world of dreams and mental illness, but Satoshi Kon’s anime adaptation did it better.

Writing a good book about love is hard. Writing a good book about love in the middle of a murder investigation is even harder. Writing a good book about love in the middle of a murder mystery and psychological disorders and dreams is a downright herculean task, but I guess author Yasutaka Tsutsui likes a challenge, because that’s exactly what he does in his 1993 novel Paprika.  You have all, at one point, woken up and said to someone, “Oh, my God! I had the craziest dream last night,” then proceeded to repeat a fragmented story line that sounded much better when you were sleeping while the audience looked on with glazed eyes. I know, because I do this almost every morning. In Tsutsui’s Paprika, dreaming and schizophrenia go hand in hand in a mystery novel that kind of made my eyes glaze over.

Tsutsui begins with a fabulous and daring idea: two brilliant doctors have invented technology that collects and records patients’ dreams in a massive step forward in the world of psychotherapy. The antisocial, grossly overweight Doctor Kosaku Tokita builds the machines. The mysterious, gorgeous Doctor Atsuko Chiba treats the patients using this psychotherapy technology (PT), and, in secret, her alter ego Paprika “cures” members of high society from anxiety neuroses. The two doctors are in line for a Nobel Prize for Science or Medicine, making them targets of jealous colleagues, vindictive subordinates, and controlling administrators alike. When some of the PT devices go missing, unrealized implications of dream tampering become reality. Paprika is the story of dreams becoming realized, and not the good kind of dreams.

In theory, this is a fabulous premise. My dreams are normally violent, freaky, and ridiculously fantastical, and the idea of those coming to life is both exhilarating and absolutely terrifying. Tsutsui misses a lot of opportunities to create a truly suspenseful novel and stifles the plot’s potential with bland prose and unrealistic characters. Instead, he chooses to spend a lot of time describing how every male character (and even one female character) is in love with the impossibly beautiful Doctor Chiba/Paprika. I often found myself skimming pages without taking in any content, looking for plot points tucked within mediocre sex scenes. And let’s face it: sex scenes are already tough in literature, but when they’re mediocre, watching water boil is more titillating.

Wow. So sex. How boiling.

Wow. So sex. How boiling.

My disillusionment with this novel was offset by my strong liking (dare I say, “love??”) for the 2007 anime adaptation directed by the late genius Satoshi Kon. Where Tsutsui’s plot becomes convoluted and improbable, Kon’s film presents difficult concepts with ease. Where Tsutsui’s suspense is dragged out to the point of boredome, Kon’s film delivers shocking terror juxtaposed with brightly colored animations that are eerier than live action could deliver. Kon is able to involve viewers/readers in a dream world whereas Tsutsui ostracizes them. This is one rare case where a film adaptation transcends its original novel.

Satoshi Kon's 2007 adaptation of Paprika far exceeds the original novel. Watch the film and become absorbed in its vibrancy, eeriness, and unique Kon-ness. (from Catsuka.com)

Satoshi Kon’s 2007 adaptation of Paprika far exceeds the original novel. Watch the film and become absorbed in its vibrancy, eeriness, and unique Kon-ness. (from Catsuka.com)

Perhaps I’m judging Tsutsui harshly because I saw the film first and loved it from the start. (There’s just something about the soundtrack and the animated facial expressions, just the theatrics of Satoshi Kon’s film style, that makes me fall in love with him.) Maybe I judge because of Tsutsui’s uncomfortable involvement of homophobic plot points and strange sexual obsession with his own protagonist. Whichever reason is truest, I was disappointed, and I’ll be enjoying my Paprika strictly in her film rendition from here on out.