Monthly Archives: July 2012

A Student of Living Things by Susan Richards Shreve

In the moment it takes Claire Frayn to dig for her umbrella, her politically outspoken brother Steven is shot down next to her on the library steps of their D. C. college. Claire is determined to unravel the mystery of her brother’s murder. Searching for answers, she meets Victor, an enigmatic stranger who claims to know who killed Steven. Claire begins an unusual correspondence with the suspected assassin, but instead of uncovering the truth of her brother’s death, she finds herself drawn into a passionate love affair and an unexpected moral dilemma. (Synopsis source:

A Student is a political thriller, but it is also a portrait of grief and its effects on family dynamics, which is the subtext buried beneath almost every plot point in this novel. Shreve handles this well enough, writing one complicated narrative instead of two competing ones, but I want to talk about them separately because I feel that A Student succeeds in one until it fails at the other.

The Frayn family is very organically DC; highly educated, politically active, classically bourgeoisie enough to be heavily invested in the way that they look to the exterior world. When Steven is assassinated by a mysterious gunman out of what they assume to be nowhere, their heads spin not only because they have lost a son and a brother, but because his death has violated everything they know about themselves. Only Claire, a biology student with broody tendencies, can reflect on his death unselfishly. As she does so, she finds herself being drawn away from her family. Shreve handles this exceptionally well; no character is in the wrong in A Student. Their grief just functions differently. And as Claire, whose childhood was spent with her head in the clouds and whose adolescence was spent collecting dead animals and whose earliest adult years were spent learning about the mechanics of life, struggles to understand what death is, as a concept, she finds herself becoming obsessed with finding the murderer of her brother because – somehow – that will clarify what his death means. 

It becomes fairly obvious early on that Steven’s death is political in nature, which sort of becomes the “B plot” of A Student. It is only a good 100 pages into this 260 page novel that the mysterious and probably insane Victor turns up to inform Claire that he knows who killed her brother, which launches A Student from family drama status into thriller territory. Victor urges Claire to start a pseudo-romantic correspondence with the supposed murderer, which soon becomes a not-so-pseudo romance when Claire begins to fall for the man on the other side of the letters. As she and Victor continue their research into the circumstances of Steven’s death, Claire realizes that she may be on the side of the wrong man. The political intrigue, often relegated to the background in favor of relationship dynamics, could not possibly have stood on its own and I assumed it was mostly there to provide an action-packed climax, but I was proven wrong.

There is no action heavy, thriller-style climax to A Student. There simply isn’t time. By the end of the novel, Shreve is managing a romance in addition to a mystery and a family drama. And all three are underdeveloped. The love story is half-baked and dull, the political intrigue remains shoved into the background, the family drama is left dangling. The end of A Student feels unfocused and rushed. Not suspenseful or quick-paced, but crowded. This novel could have ended nicely in several different ways, but Shreve settled for an awkward mash of all of them. Mixing genres is always a bit of a risk, and Shreve proved unable to take it gracefully.

Not recommended


Notes From a Suburban Library

The fiction section at my local library is a labyrinth that I maneuver with the frazzled efficiency of a book addict whose younger brothers have never been patient. I come in caffeinated and optimistic, ducking past the bespectacled, melanin-deprived woman shelving books (probably my future) and the slow-moving casual reader (definitely not my future, sad to say) who eyes my armful of tote bags with what might be concern. My goal is eight books, but sometimes I find more. I tend towards heavy, hardcover novels and have little in the way of muscle mass. Tucking my finds under my elbow hasn’t done it in years.

The shelves are populated mostly by two categories that I have learned to thoughtlessly avoid: the harlequins and the mysteries. The former are small, thick paperback volumes with glistening spines and gaudy fonts. Every once in a while, they forget to be obvious with the titles and I pull one back to discover a sheet-clad woman hyperventilating in the middle of the Scottish highlands.

The latter category is worse, because it’s not so clearly labelled. Mysteries can take on any form; they’re veritable chameleons. They have cryptic titles that could describe anything and spines designed by artists who are good at what they do. When I pull one out, I search for the subtitle invariably emblazoned on the cover — “a Mr. Detective mystery” — and, once I find it, contemplate making mysteries my new thing until I remember that I don’t care for pulpiness or franchises. Momentarily, I engage in an existential crisis: am I a book snob? Yes, most likely, but the casual reader has wandered over with two novels under her arm and she’s giving me a look that says I’ve lingered too long, so I put it back and browse on.

My first find usually comes fast. Something literary, in most cases. Something with a pretty spine that I notice right away. I never come to the library with specific books in mind. I don’t do holds. I like to go in blind, and my first find usually rewards me for that by being a good one. I haven’t gotten desperate yet. Energy renewed, I breeze past the casual reader and the weary-eyed housewife who has joined her in the ranks of those who do not treat library-browsing like an extreme sport. Staring down the endless column of the next aisle, I momentarily envy them. I find lots of hard sci-fi, most of which uses the same tired premise of robot takeover plague massacre space drama, and a few historical dramas. The Tudors are very popular. So is World War II. While both events are interesting, there are only so many times Henry VIII’s marital troubles can be dramatized.

At this point, I begin to look for favorites, literary lifeboats in a vast sea of breathless highlanders. Palahnuik, de Lint, Gibson, someone whose name I can never remember when I am faced with the sensory wonderland of the fiction section’s middle aisle. I win another find or two. I don’t read the synopses; I barely glance at the titles. I trust these authors to an extent that might be unhealthy.

It becomes harder from here. I begin to settle. The premise isn’t interesting, but the cover is appealing and the publisher is reputable. It goes in the bag. It has coming-of-age emblazoned across its summary; I have the residual angst of a seventeen year old and the patience of a lit major who reviews books she hates for fun. So we’re a match made in library heaven, or maybe purgatory. But that’s good enough for now. It also goes in the bag.

Even though it’s far from time efficient, I always consider using a computer to make my last find of the day. But inevitably, they are occupied by familiar archetypes: a sleep-deprived graduate student dressed too warm for the weather, an elderly woman staring down an error page, a high-schooler avoiding their homework. An impatient sibling, arms loaded with children’s lit that will become my breakfast table reading when it is left lying around, asks me when I’ll be done. In a seizure of panic, I grab my last find of the day. Always something I’d never otherwise read. Often something I end up liking more than almost everything else I’ve chosen.

Self checkout is designed for people like me; I do not have to face the fine-related nags that consistently come when I don’t have any cash with me or the clumsy social interactions that compulsive readers are reputed (correctly, in my case) to hate. The computer screen does not judge me, though it does make me question my ability to scan a bar code and, multiple times, has reminded me exactly how many books are allowed on one account at a time – in my county, it’s fifty. Finds successfully loaded back into the totes, I make my way out the door. On the way, I catch a glimpse of casual reader, whose three romance novels are as reasonable a load as anyone could ask for. We exchange a look of lopsided commiseration and go our separate ways.

Little Green by Loretta Stinson

In Little Green, Loretta Stinson’s stunning, redemptive first novel, tragedy leaves Janie Marek orphaned. The action begins in 1976, with Janie a runaway and stranded on the freeway outside a Northwestern town after hitchhiking. Janie ends up working at a strip club called “The Habit” and falls for Paul Jesse, a drug dealer who spirals into addiction and becomes physically abusive. As the violence escalates, Janie finds a job in a bookstore and her independence begins. After a brutal beating she must make the most difficult and dangerous choice she’ll ever make by leaving. This stirring first novel is a testament to the power of books, education, and a community of friends who help those in need. (Synopsis source:

It is entirely possible to write about abusive relationships, the dangers of drug culture, and the potential for recovery from both of those things without being obvious or preachy.

But Loretta Stinson did not do that in this novel. Little Green  documents homeless teen Janie Marek’s evolution from helpless child to strong, self-possessed woman, a coming of age formula has been done dozens of times by dozens of authors to varying degrees of success. Accordingly, I didn’t expect much when I picked up this book. It still disappointed me. Janie is less than compelling as a protagonist; she is more intellectual than her circumstances would suggest, which is meant to be surprising and progressive but didn’t strike me as either of those things. At best, she scores sympathy points with her tragic background and with the trauma she suffers at the hands of her abusive, drug-addicted older boyfriend. At worst, she is a tedious and predictable character who would be unable to carry a novel if not for the sheer number of things which happen to her through no real fault of her own, which make up pretty much the entirity of Little Green’s plot. Normally, I’d take issue with that, but in this case I’m thankful. The steady pace of Little Green’s plot is its greatest strength.

But Little Green‘s pacing  is not enough to make it an enjoyable book.  Stinson writes in choppy, stiff sentences, much like a grade schooler reluctantly chipping away at a school assignment. She is a good activist but not a very good novelist. Janie’s relationship with Paul has the well-worn echoes of a hundred after-school specials, a thousand public service announcements, and at least ten other novels. That his addiction and abuse would worsen seemed obvious; that Janie would eventually have to break away from him seemed inevitable. Even the last minute “plot twist” that Stinson flings at readers is a lazy attempt to inject suspense into a novel with an ending I had guessed a good 150 pages earlier.

In Little Green, Stinson endeavors to write an “edgy” coming of age story with a message. Unfortunately, it’s heavy on message and light on story. Little Green is a failure of a novel because it so often forgets to be a novel.

Not recommended

Girl in Landscape by Jonathan Letham

At the age of 13, Pella Marsh loses her mother and her home on the scorched husk that is planet Earth. Her sorrowing family emigrates to the Planet of the Archbuilders, whose mysterious inhabitants have names like Lonely Dumptruck and Hiding Kneel—and a civilization that frightens their human visitors.
 On this new world, spikily independent Pella becomes an uneasy envoy between two species. And at the same time is unwillingly drawn to a violent loner who embodies all the paranoid machismo of the frontier ethic. (Synopsis source:

Most summaries of this novel will describe it as Lolita in space, but that is both inaccurate and unfair to the harrowing, beautiful masterpiece that is Girl in Landscape. Letham is clever enough to make a well-worn technique work when he uses setting as a metaphor for psyche – Girl is not only an intricate coming-of-age story but an inventive and enjoyable sci-fi novel. As Pella leaves behind the familiar comforts of her home on Earth – including, most notably, her mother – she ventures into a foreign, frightening new realm populated by imposing, alien creatures: outer space. But also adolescence. With her mother gone, Pella is left to navigate her new world and its strange occupants alone, save for the company of her detached father and childish brothers.

Acclimating to the planet of the Archbuilders has unforeseen complications. Namely, the surreal experiences that some describe as “indigenous diseases” and Pella herself describes as her “deer form,” so named for the small, feral animals that run invisibly over the surface of the planet. Pella, who is herself small and prone to feeling invisible, finds herself periodically slipping into a strange trance state in which she describes herself as unable to be detected and therefore privy to the arguments and accusations that are otherwise kept behind her neighbors’ closed doors. Though Pella’s vaguely sexual relationship with enigmatic outsider Efram Nugent forms one of the novel’s most darkly compelling conflicts, Girl in Landscape is primarily the story of a fledgling community on an isolated frontier and not of a couple with an age disparity issue.

That said, Girl is invested enough in its narrator to narrow its focus on her conflicts rather than those of the entire planet, a choice for which I was thankful. Girl in Landscape is one of those rare novels which takes on an organically adolescent voice without actually becoming a YA angst-fest. Pella is a sympathetic, engaging narrator whose characterization is strong, complex, and absorbing. Girl in Landscape is as much an extended work of portraiture (note the title) as it is a story, and by the time Letham brings his work to its thunderous conclusion, he has drawn a figure in whom we can see every dimension of earthly adolescence reflected back at us through the lens of otherworldly experience.