Phew! February has been a hell of a month and unfortunately, that means I neglected posting about all of the amazing books I was able to read over the last few weeks. Since I finally had some time tonight to sit down after work and relax, I thought it only fitting that I end the month with one major wrap-up post for all of my February reading.
When Myriam, a mother and brilliant French-Moroccan lawyer, decides to return to work, she and her husband are forced to look for a caretaker for their two young children. They are thrilled to find Louise: the perfect nanny right from the start. Louise sings to the children, cleans the family’s beautiful apartment in Paris’s upscale tenth arrondissement, stays late whenever asked, and hosts enviable kiddie parties. But as the couple and the nanny become more dependent on each other, jealousy, resentment, and frustrations mount, shattering the idyllic tableau.
The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani
Publication Date: January 9, 2018 by Penguin Books
For such a slim book, Slimani’s novel is a very heavy, intense read. The book explores issues of race, gender, and socio-economic status all in a way that blends perfectly together and makes it hard to label Louise a monster despite her monstrous act.
The reader is aware heading into the story that Louise has murdered Myriam and Paul’s two young children and so the novel focuses more on the characters and their intertwined relationships rather than trying to determine the “why” of the act.
The Perfect Nanny gets right into the head of the characters and there was something so disquieting about this type of narration. I essentially felt on edge the entire time I was reading – not so much because I was waiting for something to happen, but more so because I could sense from the interactions between the adults and the thoughts each individual was focusing on that something wasn’t quite right and I just could never really put my finger on what that was.
There is no simple way to tie up a story like this that the reader knows eventually ends with a tragic event, but there was something poetic in the way Slimani leaves the reader to process his/her own feelings as to what would lead to Louise to murder her two young charges. I would recommend this psychological thriller to anyone who likes novels that leave them with more questions than answers!
We all say there is no justice in this world. But what if there really was? What if the souls of murdered children were able to return briefly to this world, inhabit adult bodies and wreak ultimate revenge on the monsters who had killed them, stolen their lives?
Such is the unfathomable mystery confronting ex-NYPD detective Willow Wylde, fresh out of rehab and finally able to find a job running a Cold Case squad in suburban Detroit. When the two rookie cops assigned to him take an obsessive interest in a decades old disappearance of a brother and sister, Willow begins to suspect something out of the ordinary is afoot. And when he uncovers a series of church basement AA-type meetings made up of the slain innocents, a new way of looking at life, death, murder and missed opportunities is revealed to him.
A Guide for Murdered Children by Sarah Sparrow
Publication Date: March 20, 2018 by Blue Rider Press
First, I want to express my gratitude to the publisher for providing me with a free copy of this novel prior to its publication date in March! I was so excited to win a copy through a Goodreads giveaway after reading the synopsis since the combination of crime thriller and dark fantasy/supernatural sounded like such a unique premise! However, much like with The Book of Joan, I enjoyed this concept much more than the actual execution.
A Guide for Murdered Children is a hefty book dominated by dialogue (both between characters and internal). The first half of the book is slow to start and focuses predominantly on providing character background rather than following a decipherable plot line. Part of the disconnect for me personally came with my dislike for one of the main characters, detective Willow Wylde. His character felt like a caricature of a “bad cop” stereotype and I never really became invested in his story.
Events in the novel began to snowball about halfway through and the change in pace was a breath of fresh air. Unfortunately, I had a hard time following the dialogue, especially when characters were not only interacting with each other, but hosts and children were swapping within one body throughout much of the story. It was extremely difficult to always understand who was really speaking.
I felt a Red Queen vibe with this book. I enjoyed Victoria Aveyard’s first novel in the trilogy, but the second felt more like a film script than a novel and reading about her background (and the book’s intention) solidified those thoughts. Sarah Sparrow is a pseudonym for an established author, but despite my online sleuthing, I was only able to determine that Sparrow lives in Los Angeles. Perhaps this book is a film in the making? Because of the originality of the idea, I could see it being an interesting movie adaptation – perhaps this would be one of those rare times where I enjoy the on-screen version more than the book itself.
“I have been acquainted with the smell of death.” So begins Clytemnestra’s tale of her own life in ancient Mycenae, the legendary Greek city from which her husband King Agamemnon left when he set sail with his army for Troy. Clytemnestra rules Mycenae now, along with her new lover Aegisthus, and together they plot the bloody murder of Agamemnon on the day of his return after nine years at war.
Judged, despised, cursed by gods she has long since lost faith in, Clytemnestra reveals the tragic saga that led to these bloody actions: how her husband deceived her eldest daughter Iphigeneia with a promise of marriage to Achilles, only to sacrifice her because that is what he was told would make the winds blow in his favor and take him to Troy; how she seduced and collaborated with the prisoner Aegisthus, who shared her bed in the dark and could kill; how Agamemnon came back with a lover himself; and how Clytemnestra finally achieved her vengeance for his stunning betrayal—his quest for victory, greater than his love for his child.
House of Names by Colm Toibin
Publication Date: May 9, 2017 by Scribner
I’ve made a promise to myself to focus as much as possible on female authors this year, but I made two exceptions for male authors this month (John Boyne being the second). One reason being that I have a soft spot for Irish authors, but also because Scribner graciously sent me a copy of this and The Heart’s Invisible Furies months ago and I felt it was time to sit down and dig in!
House of Names instantly appealed to me because I have a real fondness for Greek mythology. It has been awhile since I’ve read any though and so Toibin’s unique take on Clytemnestra’s story was extremely refreshing.
While the storyline itself is all to Toibin’s credit, he chose to maintain its original setting rather than modernizing it and I’m very glad for that. Despite being about Greek mythology, this is a fast-paced and easy to absorb story – don’t let a lack of prior mythology experience scare you away!
The novel is broken up into several chapters told by the point of view by Clytemnestra, her daughter Electra, and her son Orestes. I felt connected to all three and it was easy to get pulled into each of their narratives – my only disappointment is that I wish I could have read more of Clytemnestra’s point of view, but the story ultimately transitions into Orestes’ story about midway through the novel.
I personally felt like Toibin’s retelling of Clytemnestra’s story was a great example of how toxic masculinity can have such a far-reaching effect on individuals. I recognize that this is my own modern interpretation of their family tragedy, but I will admit that there was something satisfying in Clytemnestra’s bloody revenge on her husband. I also felt my heart aching for Orestes at many points in the story and all these complicated feelings about complicated characters made the book that much more enjoyable!
Cyril Avery is not a real Avery or at least that’s what his adoptive parents tell him. And he never will be. But if he isn’t a real Avery, then who is he?
Born out of wedlock to a teenage girl cast out from her rural Irish community and adopted by a well-to-do if eccentric Dublin couple via the intervention of a hunchbacked Redemptorist nun, Cyril is adrift in the world, anchored only tenuously by his heartfelt friendship with the infinitely more glamourous and dangerous Julian Woodbead.
At the mercy of fortune and coincidence, he will spend a lifetime coming to know himself and where he came from – and over his three score years and ten, will struggle to discover an identity, a home, a country and much more.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
Publication Date: August 22, 2017 by Scribner
Sometimes a book comes along that is every bit as good as all the hype that surrounds its release – Boyne’s novel is absolutely one of those gems. I was reluctant to start it due to its hefty weight and small font, but this actually turned out to be one of my quickest reads for February!
The story spans Cyril Avery’s entire life – it is a novel that at times is downright hilarious, but a few chapters further on can quickly bring you to tears. In short – the book is a total masterpiece.
It’s difficult to share my reading experience without cheapening the book’s contents. By the end, it felt very reminiscent of Yanagihara’s A Little Life because it is such an epic portrayal of the narrator’s life – both love and loss – in the most personal and touching way possible. From start to finish, I felt deeply invested in Cyril’s life as well as those of the other characters. I am also thrilled that this book dove deeply into LGBTQ issues as I am always looking to expand this area of my reading list and The Heart’s Invisible Furies gives an intimate view of what it meant to be gay in the 1960s-1980s, particularly in Ireland.
Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend, and best man at their wedding. As Roy’s time in prison passes, she is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Publication Date: February 6, 2018 by Algonquin Books
This book is equally impressive for Jones’ master storytelling as well as for the commentary it provides on American society and our viciously warped and racist justice system.
Perhaps it’s because I work in public education in a large, urban school district, but I have always made a point to stay aware of current politics related to the justice system. While I’ve read plenty of non-fiction on related topics, An American Marriage is the first fictional book I’ve read recently that has made issues of race, American culture, etc. such a truly personal experience.
An American Marriage consists of chapters that transition back and forth between husband and wife, Roy and Celestial (with a few later chapters told by their friend Andre’s point of view). About midway through, the novel briefly transitions to an epistolary style as the couple writes letter to each other while Roy is incarcerated for a crime he has not committed. I really loved the structure of the novel since it allowed for a deeper view of Celestial and Roy’s characters and personal experiences. Jones also presents a hauntingly sad reality for the many people in this country directly impacted by racial inequality through the ways in which Roy’s incarceration not only changes Roy and Celestial, but both of their families as well.
The world as we know it is ending. Evolution has reversed itself, affecting every living creature on earth. Science cannot stop the world from running backwards, as woman after woman gives birth to infants that appear to be primitive species of humans. Twenty-six-year-old Cedar Hawk Songmaker, adopted daughter of a pair of big-hearted, open-minded Minneapolis liberals, is as disturbed and uncertain as the rest of America around her. But for Cedar, this change is profound and deeply personal. She is four months pregnant.
Though she wants to tell the adoptive parents who raised her from infancy, Cedar first feels compelled to find her birth mother, Mary Potts, an Ojibwe living on the reservation, to understand both her and her baby’s origins. As Cedar goes back to her own biological beginnings, society around her begins to disintegrate, fueled by a swelling panic about the end of humanity.
There are rumors of martial law, of Congress confining pregnant women. Of a registry, and rewards for those who turn these wanted women in. Flickering through the chaos are signs of increasing repression: a shaken Cedar witnesses a family wrenched apart when police violently drag a mother from her husband and child in a parking lot. The streets of her neighborhood have been renamed with Bible verses. A stranger answers the phone when she calls her adoptive parents, who have vanished without a trace. It will take all Cedar has to avoid the prying eyes of potential informants and keep her baby safe.
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
Publication Date: November 14, 2017 by Harper
This novel was a hit and miss for me. Louise Erdrich’s writing style is gorgeous, but I went into this book with certain expectations that it just ultimately did not meet. Future Home of the Living God centered more on Cedar’s experience as a young, pregnant woman and her journal narration to her unborn son than on the dystopian world she found herself living in.
Perhaps it was because of the book’s narrative style, but I felt a bit claustrophobic reading about Cedar’s experiences predominantly through her journal writing. It felt so closed off from everything that was going on around her and while I understand that ultimately this story is about Cedar’s journey through pregnancy in a new and dangerous world, I just never felt very connected to her.
Anna Fox lives alone—a recluse in her New York City home, unable to venture outside. She spends her day drinking wine (maybe too much), watching old movies, recalling happier times . . . and spying on her neighbors.
Then the Russells move into the house across the way: a father, a mother, their teenage son. The perfect family. But when Anna, gazing out her window one night, sees something she shouldn’t, her world begins to crumble—and its shocking secrets are laid bare.
What is real? What is imagined? Who is in danger? Who is in control? In this diabolically gripping thriller, no one—and nothing—is what it seems.
The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn
Publication Date: January 2, 2018 by William Morrow
I was instantly drawn in by the synopsis for The Woman in the Window (and very happy that the author used the word “woman” instead of “girl”). However, I will admit that when I discovered that the author was male, I didn’t feel compelled to pick the book up right away. There seems to be a slew of white, male authors writing crime fiction with female narrators and hiding behind gender-neutral pseudonyms and my first reaction was to assume that A.J. Finn/Daniel Mallory fit into this category.
I decided to do some online digging to find out more about the handsome, male author behind a book that had film rights attached to it before the book was even available to the public and I found myself pleasantly surprised and in a position to check my own assumptions and stereotypes. The link is above (click on the link for the author’s name) for those interested to have more background on Finn prior to reading his debut novel.
The Woman in the Window is unputdownable – I found I couldn’t tear myself away and ultimately finished it in about two days (I was lucky it was the weekend and didn’t have to sacrifice too much sleep to do this). Finn’s background as a book editor and his personal experiences clearly made him aware of what readers are looking for in their psychological thrillers and oh man, he seriously delivers.
There were aspects of the plot that I figured out before they were fully revealed, but this in no way took away from my reading enjoyment. This book is so well-paced, well-written, and such fun to read that I could easily overlook this one aspect of the plot development.
I say this without sarcasm – I am truly looking forward to seeing the film adaptation of Finn’s debut novel and only hope it is as much fun to watch as it was to read!