Category Archives: not recommended books

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: susanshreve.com)

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

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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: amazon.com)

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

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier

The City is inhabited by the recently departed, who reside there only as long as they remain in the memories of the living. Among the current residents of this afterlife are Luka Sims, who prints the only newspaper in the City, with news from the other side; Coleman Kinzler, a vagrant who speaks the cautionary words of God; and Marion and Phillip Byrd, who find themselves falling in love again after decades of marriage.

On Earth, Laura Byrd is trapped by extreme weather in an Antarctic research station. She’s alone and unable to contact the outside world: her radio is down and the power is failing. She’s running out of supplies as quickly as she’s running out of time. (Synopsis source: amazon.com)

The Brief History of the Recently Dead had the appearance of a soft sci-fi novel with literary inclinations, which caught my interest and urged me to look past its bland premise: a pleasantly mundane, purgatorial afterlife set against a harrowing, painful earthly existence. I was therefore disappointed to find that the most interesting thing about The Brief History turned out to be that rather uninspiring premise. The City is entertaining enough, but when the novelty of Brockmeier’s afterlife concept wears off, it becomes a dull read, in large part because Brockmeier fails to generate empathy for his already dead characters or insert meaning into their existences. There is no reason why the reader should care that any of these people still exist, or are doomed to soon not exist. They are not interesting human beings; they do not have fates, destinies, or concerns which need to be addressed.

Yet The Brief History is at its most boring when it chronicles Laura Byrd’s ill-fated trek towards death. As she slowly comes to the realization that an epidemic has left her alone on Earth, Laura questions her existence, drifts through a series of mundane childhood memories, and plays word association games. She also speculates about the role of the corporation she worked for in the epidemic, which is intended (probably) to create some sort of existential crisis but fails to do so. Laura is no more interesting than the people in The City. Alone, unaffected by the madness, genius, or tragedy that makes the internal journey of an isolated character memorable, Laura is like a performer who stands in the middle of a spotlight and does nothing.

The Brief History of the Dead fails most deeply when it forgets that a novel must give a reader some reason to keep going. In other words, The Brief History required momentum which it did not have. There is no suspense in The Brief History. There is no need for closure. No cliff-hanger. No mystery. And, though it appeared that there might be one near the end, no literary meaning either. It seemed inevitable that Laura would die. That when she did die, the City would probably disappear. I waited for that to mean something within Brockmeier’s grand scheme of existence, but it did not. Not a very satisfying conclusion to a novel that answers few questions and seems to pose even less.

Not recommended 

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

In a quiet suburb of Detroit, the five Lisbon sisters–beautiful, eccentric, and obsessively watched by the neighborhood boys–commit suicide one by one over the course of a single year. As the boys observe them from afar, transfixed, they piece together the mystery of the family’s fatal melancholy, in this hypnotic and unforgettable novel of adolescent love, disquiet, and death. Jeffrey Eugenides evokes the emotions of youth with haunting sensitivity and dark humor and creates a coming-of-age story unlike any of our time. (Synopsis source: www.amazon.com)

The Virgin Suicides may be one of the most unconventional coming of age stories I’ve read, if only because its protagonists end up dead instead of functioning adults at the end of the story. It is in that unconventionality that both the best and the worst parts of this novel lie – Eugenides’ attempt to capture the essence of youth’s fragility and temporality is successful only insofar as it exists completely outside of the real world. In other words, The Virgin Suicides should be read as a fairy tale. Whether or not Eugenides meant for his novel to be read this way, he makes it very easy; like any (good) fantasy writer would, Eugenides spends enough time building a self-contained world that one can become lost inside his novel’s universe without paying attention to the rules and realities that govern our outside world. The dreamy, surreal suburb in which the novel is set is historical, otherworldly, and above all macabre: it is a world in which five pretty girls in white dresses killing themselves violently is an aesthetic spectacle that simultaneously horrifies and enthralls their neighbors.

This is where the problem comes in. Eugenides writes very absorbingly. That makes it easy to forget how deeply, profoundly problematic this novel is, especially given that The Virgin Suicides is stylistically voyeuristic, narrated by neighborhood boys who have a decidedly sexual fascination with the Lisbon sisters and see their deaths as increased fuel for that fascination. If Eugenides wishes to comment on the fleeting nature of adolescence – and how that nature makes it beautiful – he has done so in the most sexist, morbid way possible. At the end of The Virgin Suicides, I was disappointed with my reading experience because the entire story felt like an elaborate gag to drag the reader into the faulted, narrow mindset of the neighborhood boys, who grow older but seem frozen in perpetual adolescence along with the objects of their fascination. Yet Eugenides writes his novel so that the Lisbon sisters become inhuman idols, held above the reach of ordinary people like the boys who narrate the story. They are not characters so much as they are things; they are not subjects so much as they are objects.

The Virgin Suicides could have been a brilliant novel if it were written with an ironic spirit, but I find no indication that it was. A story whose narrators are vague shadows that speak in plural first person and whose main protagonists are attractively doomed to never even being characters (a fate much worse than death in a novel) is not a story that can hold the reader’s attention without resorting to sentimentalist tripe. Which is what Eugenides did. The Virgin Suicides is an absorbing and beautiful read, but you may feel cheated when you reach its end.

Not recommended

Phantom by Susan Kay

A child is born… His  mother’s only gift is a mask. Precocious and gifted, he will live friendless and alone. taunted and abused, he will flee, only to find himself caged  again – as a freak in a Gypsy carnival. A brilliant outcast… the world is his home. Filled with  bitter rage, he will kill to escape, becoming a  stonemason’s apprentice in Rome… a dark magician at  the treacherous Persian court… and finally, the  genius behind the construction of the Paris Opera  House and the labyrinthine world below. Lacking one thing only: A woman’s love. Cloaked in secrets,  his power complete, he will see the exquisite  Christine and for the first time know what it means to  love. Obsessed, he will bring her into his eerie  subterranean world, driven to posses her heart and soul. (Synopsis source: http://www.amazon.com/Phantom-Susan-Kay/)

For fans of The Phantom of the Opera, Kay’s Phantom should, theoretically, be a compelling read. Both prequel and retelling, the novel follows Erik’s life as he steadily sinks into psychological instability and moral darkness, ending with the story that is so familiar to those who enjoyed Leroux’s Gothic classic. Yet Phantom is a messy and poorly executed novel, one which fails to make improvements upon its source work. Like countless others who have attempted to delve into Erik’s complicated psyche, Kay explains his steady decline from innocent child to remorseless killer with a series of traumatic incidents in which Erik is exposed to the brutality that people show to each other. Unfortunately, most of these incidents are related not by Erik himself, but by a scattered cast of bystanders and acquaintances, from his abusive mother to his kindly mentor to, finally, Christine by way of her diary. As a result, the majority of the novel finds the reader observing Erik from a distance, often through perspectives that are ill-informed or severely limited.

It is unclear what Kay’s intent in this is, other than to shield the reader from the perspective that they want most. Erik narrates at only two points in the story: when he is being held captive by gypsies as a young boy and, more than thirty years later, when he is hidden in the Paris Opera House. Phantom is a novel which is very much interested in the way that perspectives of others impact the way we see ourselves. But without giving the reader a firsthand glimpse at the way that Erik reacts to the prejudice and hatred that he encounters when he attempts to engage in normal human relationships, she fails to consistently give readers the most important perspective: that of Erik himself. In a work that strives so hard for psychological intimacy, this feels like a problem. Phantom could have been a fascinating book in which readers were forced to critique their own prejudiced perceptions, but Kay completely failed to do this. In the end, after all, Erik is proven to be exactly what we think he will be. By the time he can speak for himself, he is already transformed into the stereotype behind the mask.

As a result, I find Erik’s character no more sympathetic at the end of Phantom than I did at the end of The Phantom of the Opera, a work which was markedly more successful in creating stirring portraits of morally complicated characters. Though there were parts of Phantom that I found enjoyable, I was almost always distracted by the shifting first-person perspectives that told me everything but that which I really wanted to know. The last 100 or so pages of Phantom are by far the best because they finally put the reader in the place where they should be: behind the mask of the novel’s elusive main character.

Not recommended