Kate’s Review: “These Women”

52218559Book: “These Women” by Ivy Pochoda

Publishing Info: Harperluxe, May 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: In West Adams, a rapidly changing part of South Los Angeles, they’re referred to as “these women.” These women on the corner … These women in the club … These women who won’t stop asking questions … These women who got what they deserved … 

In her masterful new novel, Ivy Pochoda creates a kaleidoscope of loss, power, and hope featuring five very different women whose lives are steeped in danger and anguish. They’re connected by one man and his deadly obsession, though not all of them know that yet. There’s Dorian, still adrift after her daughter’s murder remains unsolved; Julianna, a young dancer nicknamed Jujubee, who lives hard and fast, resisting anyone trying to slow her down; Essie, a brilliant vice cop who sees a crime pattern emerging where no one else does; Marella, a daring performance artist whose work has long pushed boundaries but now puts her in peril; and Anneke, a quiet woman who has turned a willfully blind eye to those around her for far too long. The careful existence they have built for themselves starts to crumble when two murders rock their neighborhood.

Written with beauty and grit, tension and grace, These Women is a glorious display of storytelling, a once-in-a-generation novel.

Review: I know that through my true crime reviews, and maybe even a thriller review or two, that I’ve mentioned the concept of ‘lesser dead’ on this blog. For those who may not have seen that, it’s basically the idea that law enforcement doesn’t prioritize certain victim groups when trying to solve cases. Groups included in this concept are POC, addicts, and sex workers. When I read a book review of “These Women” by Ivy Pochoda, the fact that it was emphasizing a literary thriller take on this concept, I knew that I really needed to read it. But as I read “These Women”, it became apparent that the narrative wasn’t only going to focus on forgotten sex workers who are the victims of a serial killer, but also on other women who are connected, if not directly affected.

We have multiple perspectives in “These Women” who represent a swath of women living different lives in South Central, Los Angeles. You have Feelia, a sex worker who narrowly survived being murdered. Dorian, whose daughter Lecia was a victim of the same murderer. Julianna, a sex worker who Lecia used to babysit for. Essie, a detective for the LAPD whose colleagues don’t take her insistence on paying attention to a potential serial killer seriously. Marcella, a neighbor to Julianna who finds a cell phone that sparks her creativity, no matter what that may mean for another person’s privacy. And Anneke, a judgmental woman who has certain opinions about other women in her community. On the surface a lot of these characters seem different from each other, but once you get really into the grit and meat of this book you realize that, while there are some differences and some privilege differences, all of these women are struggling in their own ways, usually because of societal expectations thrust upon them. I felt that Pochoda gave pretty good attention to most of them, though there were some that were more compelling than others. The pain was very real in a few of them, the rage in others, as well as perspectives that were more about privilege and superiority. They all worked well, and really brought on guttural responses at the various injustices that are feeling especially pertinent in this moment.

While this is definitely more a character study, or an examination of some aspects of the culture we live in, there is a mystery at hand, and that is who is killing these sex workers, and why. The mystery did take a back seat to the other aspects of the book, but for the most part I thought that it was well laid out and plotted so that I was taken by surprise by the reveal when it happened. I also found myself really enjoying how all the pieces eventually came together, both in terms of the mystery and in terms of how all of these characters are connected to one another. It also is a good way of showing that there is common ground between all of these women in a way, and how a society that looks down upon the gender as a whole makes victims of them all in different ways, and sometimes in ways that can be damaging to each other. All of that said, I did feel that the story ended a little abruptly, and I think that that is in part due to the structure of it as a whole, with no moment to tie all of the perspectives together. It doesn’t really matter at the end of the day because this is less about conclusions and more about concepts, but for me it just felt like it was cut off when there could have been a little more room to sink into an end.

Overall, “These Women” is dark, emotional, and gritty. Also very sad. But I think that it tackles a good number of themes and realities that many thrillers sometimes leave by the wayside. Ivy Pochoda has a very clear message, and while it’s hard to immerse oneself in, it’s necessary to do so.

Rating 7: A very powerful message about how society views the victimology of certain groups, “These Women” is a compelling literary thriller, even if it ends a bit abruptly.

Reader’s Advisory:

“These Women” is included on the Goodreads list “Can’t Wait Crime, Mystery, & Thrillers, 2020”.

Find “These Women” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “The Glass Hotel”

45754981Book: “The Glass Hotel” by Emily St. John Mandel

Publishing Info: Knopf Publishing Group, March 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: From the award-winning author of Station Eleven, a captivating novel of money, beauty, white-collar crime, ghosts, and moral compromise in which a woman disappears from a container ship off the coast of Mauritania and a massive Ponzi scheme implodes in New York, dragging countless fortunes with it.

Vincent is a bartender at the Hotel Caiette, a five-star glass and cedar palace on an island in British Columbia. Jonathan Alkaitis works in finance and owns the hotel. When he passes Vincent his card with a tip, it’s the beginning of their life together. That same day, Vincent’s half-brother, Paul, scrawls a note on the windowed wall of the hotel: “Why don’t you swallow broken glass.” Leon Prevant, a shipping executive for a company called Neptune-Avramidis, sees the note from the hotel bar and is shaken to his core. Thirteen years later Vincent mysteriously disappears from the deck of a Neptune-Avramidis ship. Weaving together the lives of these characters, The Glass Hotel moves between the ship, the skyscrapers of Manhattan, and the wilderness of northern Vancouver Island, painting a breathtaking picture of greed and guilt, fantasy and delusion, art and the ghosts of our pasts.

Review: Though I cannot possibly imagine going back and reading it right now, I really loved Emily St. John Mandel’s post-apocalyptic book “Station Eleven”. While it’s true that it takes place in a world that has been ravaged by a super flu (no thanks right now), it is also a lovely and quiet meditation on the power of art, the ties and connections that keep us together, and humanity as a whole. When I saw that she had a new book coming out called “The Glass Hotel”, I put it on my library hold list. And when the libraries closed, it was the first book that I decided to buy to own. Honestly, Mandel should be one of my must buy authors anyway, and she once again has delivered a quiet and introspective tale, this time about Ponzi schemes, of all things. Of course, it’s about as much about Ponzi schemes as “Station Eleven” was about a pandemic. It’s merely a backdrop to something much more intimate.

We follow a few different paths in this book, and a few different timelines, realities, and narratives. They do all connect together in ways that seem more tenuous than they are, but then that’s one of Mandel’s greater talents. The three main characters, I would argue, are the half siblings Paul and Vincent, and John Alkaitis, Vincent’s eventual husband and Ponzi scheme perpetrator. All are running away from something, be it guilt, or the truth, or grief, though it could be argued that all of them are running from all three in different ways and manifestations. Though the biggest thing they’re all running from is responsibility, and all start seeing various ghosts as they do so. It’s unclear as to whether they are real or not, but ultimately it doesn’t really matter. In the end, they are seen because they are the unshakeable reminders of those that these characters have hurt or wronged, so even if they aren’t ‘real’, they still very much are.

None of these characters we meet are exactly ‘good’ people, but because of their depth and their perspectives you become invested in them and their outcomes regardless of their likability. Vincent’s story, being the largest connector of all narratives, is in many ways the most engrossing and haunting, as her complicated relationship with her brother, her ill fated marriage to a criminal, and her longing for her mother (who died when Vincent was a tween, her death mysterious, and mirroring Vincent’s own disappearance later in life) drive her constant moves, shifts, and changes in lifestyle and in some ways personality. Alkaitis, too, runs from his responsibility in the wreckage of so many lives, though his running is mostly done by letting himself disappear into a ‘counterlife’ in which he was never caught, a life that bleeds in and out of his narrative, and then some. Paul’s story is perhaps the smallest of the threads, but in many ways it has some of the largest impacts on the paths that all the characters take. As his overall purpose and his role in the story slowly fell into place, I found myself astounded by the intricacies and how carefully Mandel made sure to bring it all together. And truly, it’s a wonder to behold as it all does flow and merge. By the time I had finished this novel, having read it mostly in one night and definitely staying up far too late to finish it, I just let out a long sigh, knowing that by reading it I had really experienced something remarkable. Like “Station Eleven”, “The Glass Hotel” has a lot of pain and trauma, but it almost feels muted and quiet, as those are not the points of the story. The point is resilience, no matter the cost. It’s wonderful and tragic all at once.

(and yes, this story does have connections to “Station Eleven”. But it stands so well on it’s own it’s more like Easter Eggs than an actual canonical link.)

Gosh I loved this book. It’s haunting and I know that it’s going to stick with me for a long while.

Rating 10: Phenomenal. Mandel has done it again.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Glass Hotel” is included on the Goodreads lists “Covid-19: Books to Read on Lockdown”, and “Books Unbound Podcast”.

Find “The Glass Hotel” at your library using WorldCat, or a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Long Bright River”

43834909Book: “Long Bright River” by Liz Moore

Publishing Info: Riverhead Books, January 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.

Book Description: Two sisters travel the same streets, though their lives couldn’t be more different. Then, one of them goes missing.

In a Philadelphia neighborhood rocked by the opioid crisis, two once-inseparable sisters find themselves at odds. One, Kacey, lives on the streets in the vise of addiction. The other, Mickey, walks those same blocks on her police beat. They don’t speak anymore, but Mickey never stops worrying about her sibling.

Then Kacey disappears, suddenly, at the same time that a mysterious string of murders begins in Mickey’s district, and Mickey becomes dangerously obsessed with finding the culprit–and her sister–before it’s too late.

Alternating its present-day mystery with the story of the sisters’ childhood and adolescence, Long Bright River is at once heart-pounding and heart-wrenching: a gripping suspense novel that is also a moving story of sisters, addiction, and the formidable ties that persist between place, family, and fate.

Review: My sister and I aren’t thick as thieves or anything like that. We get along pretty well, though we’re very different people. Lockdown has actually made us interact more than we have in awhile, vis a vis our Switches, playing “Mario Kart” and “Animal Crossing” together. But even though we aren’t best friends, I do love her very much (and am trying not to worry about the fact she and her wife are in New York City, the worst hit place for COVID-19 in this country). So whenever I see a story about sisters, I am bound to relate to it at least a little bit, which was part of the reason I was drawn to “Long Bright River” by Liz Moore. I figured that I could kind of justify it within the mystery or thriller genre, but once again this is a bit more literary than most thrillers I read.

While there are a couple of mysteries that “Long Bright River” centers around, this is more of a character study about two sisters who grew up in poverty, dealing with generational trauma and addiction. Mickey became a police officer, persuaded in part by her need to escape her familial situation, and by a cop who took an interest in her when she was a teen. Kacey, however, was swept up in drugs and addiction, like many people in their community as the opioid crisis looms. We see Mickey as she tries to find her sister as a serial killer starts to prey on addicts and sex workers on her beat, and as Mickey searches for her we get insight into both sisters through the present and through flashbacks. Moore really captures the complications of their relationship, exploring how their differences and their upbringing influenced them and changed them, and the ways they have both loved and hurt each other over the years. Though the perspective is Mickey’s, I felt like I knew both sisters by the time we came to the end, and could understand both of them, even their darker and rougher sides. You see how their sad home life (raised by their grandmother after their young mother died of a drug overdose and their father fled the coop) shaped them both, and can see why each took the paths that they did.

The mystery of the serial killer targeting addicts and sex workers definitely takes a back seat the the sisterly relationship, but the story of the sisters was so well done and so emotional that I didn’t really mind, even though I thought it would be more of a mystery than a character study. The character study was damned good, and it doesn’t limit itself to a sister theme. Along with the themes of childhood trauma and generational poverty and addiction, we also get a hard look at police corruption, and how communities seen as expendable are easily ignored by those who are supposed to protect them. Or sometimes, even explicitly targeted by them. I feel like sometimes books about police officers or detectives are more inclined to either ignore the systemic problems within the police, from racism to corruption to militarization that targets some groups while upholding the power of others. Or, if it’s not outright ignored there is assurance that the protagonist, and the protagonist’s unit, are not part of that problem, that they are good cops. But what I really liked about “Long Bright River” is that Moore acknowledges that Mickey is in it for the right reasons…. but a lot of the time, that isn’t enough.

I also really enjoyed the writing style of this book. Similar to the works of Cormac McCarthy, the dialogue isn’t in the usual punctuation. Instead it’s minimal, with dashes and not a lot beyond that. It always takes a little bit for me to get into this style, but once I’m in I’m in, and I thought that it was a complement to the overall story. I also liked that Moore played with the timeline, as mentioned above, going back in time to expand upon the narrative and to provide insight along the way. And finally, there are many, many references and moments that acknowledge the opioid crisis that has many people firmly in its grip. The story starts off with a list of people who have OD’d within the community that Mickey and Kacey have grown up in, which really sets the scene and serves to show that there is a pall that hangs over the story, just as there is a pall that’s hanging over society right now.

“Long Bright River” was a fantastic and heart rendering mystery that kept me on the edge of my seat. Steel yourself for something dark. But definitely take it on.

Rating 9: A dark and gritty mystery that examines police corruption, the opioid epidemic, and the powerful, if sometimes fraught, relationship between sisters, “Long Bright River” is a fantastic read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Long Bright River” is included on the Goodreads lists “Sister Mysteries”, and I think it would fit in on “Books of Philadelphia”.

Find “Long Bright River” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!

Kate’s Review: “Saint X”

43782399Book: “Saint X” by Alexis Schaitkin

Publishing Info: Celadon Books, February 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: Claire is only seven years old when her college-age sister, Alison, disappears on the last night of their family vacation at a resort on the Caribbean island of Saint X. Several days later, Alison’s body is found in a remote spot on a nearby cay, and two local men – employees at the resort – are arrested. But the evidence is slim, the timeline against it, and the men are soon released. The story turns into national tabloid news, a lurid mystery that will go unsolved. For Claire and her parents, there is only the return home to broken lives.

Years later, Claire is living and working in New York City when a brief but fateful encounter brings her together with Clive Richardson, one of the men originally suspected of murdering her sister. It is a moment that sets Claire on an obsessive pursuit of the truth – not only to find out what happened the night of Alison’s death but also to answer the elusive question: Who exactly was her sister? At seven, Claire had been barely old enough to know her: a beautiful, changeable, provocative girl of eighteen at a turbulent moment of identity formation.

As Claire doggedly shadows Clive, hoping to gain his trust, waiting for the slip that will reveal the truth, an unlikely attachment develops between them, two people whose lives were forever marked by the same tragedy.

Review: Whenever I hear the phrase ‘missing white woman syndrome’ I immediately think of Natalee Holloway. Holloway was an eighteen year old on a school sponsored trip to Aruba when she went missing. Her disappearance was all over the news, her face practically everywhere even as little new information came up. While her case is technically still unsolved, the general consensus is that she was murdered by a local whose father was a judge, and therefore had a lot of protection (it just so happens the same guy was eventually convicted of murdering another woman in Peru). A very sad and mysterious case all around, and it was all I was thinking of when I read the description for “Saint X” by Alexis Schaitkin. But instead of a run of the mill thriller that takes inspiration from real tragedy for lurid entertainment (I know that I’m one of the people who perpetuates that problematic issue by reading books like that), I instead found a literary thriller that had a lot of deep thoughts and haunting themes.

“Saint X” is less about Alison’s disappearance, and more about the fallout and consequences for those involved with the case, specifically her sister Claire and one of the accused but cleared suspects, Clive. Both Claire and Clive have had their lives completely upended by what happened to Alison. For Claire, it’s the grief and trauma of loss that her family never recovered from, and her obsession of wanting to find out what happened. This is sparked when she sees Clive in New York City. For Clive, being suspected and never officially cleared made his life back on Saint X one of suspicion, and he felt the need to start over and leave it all behind, which meant leaving everything he ever knew and loved. They are both damaged people with one commonality, and Schaitkin really brings out the pain that both of them have been dealing with. Along with these two and their trauma, we also get snippets of other people’s associations with Alison’s death. These bits are left to the end of chapters, and not only shed light into how Alison’s death sent shockwaves through many lives, but how she was as a person before her ill fated trip and during it as well.

Alison herself is a bit more of a mystery, but I thought that that was deliberate and I enjoyed that. We see her through Claire’s eyes, and Clive’s eyes, and the eyes of others. But those eyes can’t really know who Alison was as a person. Even the audio diary entries that Claire finds and listens to don’t quite capture who Alison was, because Alison was still trying to figure all that out. It’s a really interesting way to call out this obsession people get with missing and murdered (usually white and attractive) women, and how we project our own ideas of who they are upon their memory, even if those ideas are totally of the mark. I also liked that what we DO know about Alison is that she is very human, in that she isn’t perfect. Alison is at that tenuous age where she is trying to find herself, and yet still trying to be seen in a certain way by others. She is privileged and naive, and sees the colonizer issue of a resort in the Caribbean, but doesn’t see that her presence, as judgemental of the system as she is, is still perpetuating the problem.

And that was another thing that I liked about this book: Schaitkin definitely takes shots at the resort society on Saint X. It’s an industry that drives the economy, but relies upon a population group that is underprivileged and taken advantage of. Clive is doing his best to support himself and his loved ones, and has to kowtow to wealthy white tourists who see his home as an escape, but doesn’t see the inequities outside of the resort walls. This theme wasn’t at the very front of the story, but it was simmering underneath.

I wasn’t expecting what I got from “Saint X”, in that I was ready for a tense and addictive thriller. What I got instead was a little more ruminative. That isn’t a bad thing, but I will admit that had I known it was more literary I would have probably enjoyed it more. I did enjoy it, but it didn’t grab me as much as I think it would have had I had the expectations it called for. That said, I think that “Saint X” is a worthwhile read. Just go in expecting something more nuanced.

Rating 7: A haunting and evocative literary mystery. It wasn’t what I was expecting. But it’s definitely worth the read.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Saint X” is included on the Goodreads list “Psychological Suspense for 2020 (U.S. Publications January-July).

Find “Saint X” at your local library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “My Dark Vanessa”

44890081Book: “My Dark Vanessa” by Kate Elizabeth Russell

Publishing Info: William Morrow, March 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: I received a print ARC from the publisher.

Book Description: Exploring the psychological dynamics of the relationship between a precocious yet naïve teenage girl and her magnetic and manipulative teacher, a brilliant, all-consuming read that marks the explosive debut of an extraordinary new writer.

2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.

2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?

Alternating between Vanessa’s present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood. Written with the haunting intimacy of The Girls and the creeping intensity of Room, My Dark Vanessa is an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself.

Review: Thank you to William Morrow for sending me a print ARC of this novel!

I will admit that when Serena handed me the print ARC of “My Dark Vanessa” by Kate Elizabeth Russell and said it arrived for the blog and that it sounded more in my genres, at first glance I agreed. I mean, Stephen King’s blurb was on the cover, so clearly it had to be, right? But then when I read the description of the book, I was suddenly nervous. For one, it sounded more literary than horror or thriller. But hey, I can go outside my usual genres if a book really interests me, right? The bigger issue was what the plot sounded like: a woman has to contend with the fact that her illicit affair with her English teacher when she was fifteen was, in fact, abusive. Heavy stuff to be sure. But I was still very interested, especially as time went on and more buzz began to build around the novel. So I steeled myself, and finally dove in. It’s definitely not a book I’d say is within my usual genres. But I’m still glad that I read it.

“My Dark Vanessa” is a complex and very uncomfortable and upsetting novel about abuse, grooming, rape culture, and coming of age in very hard ways. It’s told through two timelines, both from the perspective of a woman named Vanessa. In 2017 she’s a woman who works at a hotel in hospitality, and is seeing her former teacher, Strane, being swept up in accusations of sexual misconduct with his female students. Vanessa, who was in an illicit relationship (I hate using that term here but am at a loss as to how else to describe it) with him that started at age fifteen, has to contend with the fallout of his downfall, and how that trauma of their ‘relationship’ has affected her after all these years. The other timeline is seeing Vanessa during the time that Strane began grooming her, and seeing how their relationship progressed. Russell is frank and unflinching in how she shows the realities of the sexual abuse that Vanessa experienced at the hands of her teacher, but is also very honest about how Vanessa herself cannot seem to view it as abuse as time goes on, even as other women are coming forward with their experiences with him. I greatly appreciated that Russell was also inclined to explore the very complex feelings that a survivor like Vanessa could feel, being groomed and manipulated for so long and therein not comfortable with seeing herself as a victim, and not wanting to expose herself in such a way. A subplot within the story is that a journalist starts pressuring Vanessa to tell her her story so that it can be put in an article, and heavily implies that Vanessa has an obligation to do so for victims everywhere. I think that it’s VERY important to make that point that victims of sexual abuse have NO obligation to open up about their experiences, and they are allowed to unpack and deal with said experiences in the way that they are most comfortable with.

(This kind of segues into some of the controversy that surrounded “My Dark Vanessa” for a hot minute before its release. HERE is a good article that sums it up. My two cents: I think that there are absolutely important questions to be asked about the publishing industry, and what stories get huge cash advances while other ones get left aside and not as promoted. But I think that it’s really gross that the discourse rose to the point where a survivor felt that the only way to move forward was to out herself as a victim of sexual abuse when she really didn’t want to. And unfortunately, abuse like this is probably more prevalent than we think, and the MOs of the abusers are probably pretty similar. Can we say that it must be plagiarism if it’s an experience that is, unfortunately, more commonplace than we’re comfortable admitting? I really don’t think so.)

I did find this book a little bit bogged down by the narrative as it went on, however, and more just in the sense that it felt longer than it probably needed to be and had some repetitive moments that could have been shaved, or at least tightened. I read it in a timely manner, but it did lag a bit at times, and I would put it down less because of the really hard content but more because of how it kind of felt like it was dragging.

And finally, content warnings abound for this book. There are scenes of rape, scenes of grooming and sexual harassment, and some really heavy and hard themes. This is not a book I would say that I ‘enjoyed’, as it’s greatly upsetting and unsettling, but I do think that Russell has crafted a story that is well done and filled with things that we should be thinking about as a society that has issues with misogyny and rape culture.

“My Dark Vanessa” was a hard read. But it’s one that I think has a lot of important points to make.

Rating 7: A deeply unsettling but engrossing novel, “My Dark Vanessa” tackles some seriously difficult themes but sometimes gets a bit bogged down within the narrative.

Reader’s Advisory:

“My Dark Vanessa” isn’t on any Goodreads lists that I feel really do it justice (“Hot For Teacher”? Seriously?), but I think that it would fit in on “#MeToo”, and “Sexual Assault Awareness Month”.

Find “My Dark Vanessa” at your library using WorldCat!

Kate’s Review: “Disappearing Earth”

34563821._sy475_Book: “Disappearing Earth” by Julia Phillips

Publishing Info: Knopf, May 2019

Where Did I Get This Book: I borrowed it from my Mom

Book Description: Beautifully written, thought-provoking, intense and cleverly wrought, this is the most extraordinary first novel from a mesmerising new talent.

One August afternoon, on the shoreline of the north-eastern edge of Russia, two sisters are abducted. In the ensuing weeks, then months, the police investigation turns up nothing. Echoes of the disappearance reverberate across a tightly woven community, with the fear and loss felt most deeply among its women.

Set on the remote Siberian peninsula of Kamchatka, Disappearing Earth draws us into the world of an astonishing cast of characters, all connected by an unfathomable crime. We are transported to vistas of rugged beauty – densely wooded forests, open expanses of tundra, soaring volcanoes and the glassy seas that border Japan and Alaska – and into a region as complex as it is alluring, where social and ethnic tensions have long simmered, and where outsiders are often the first to be accused.

In a story as propulsive as it is emotionally engaging, and through a young writer’s virtuosic feat of empathy and imagination, this powerful novel provides a new understanding of the intricate bonds of family and community, in a Russia unlike any we have seen before.

Review: I was visiting my parents when I saw “Disappearing Earth” by Julia Phillips on their coffee table. I asked them who had read it, and my Dad said ‘Your Mom got it for me. I read it. I didn’t like it at all.’ Not the highest of praise, but I also knew that it was probably less a reflection of the quality of writing, and more of the kind of writing. I know my Dad, and I know that literary fiction isn’t really his style. Therefore, I was definitely interested in giving it a go, especially since it had so much praise from the book community. Because that’s what “Disappearing Earth” is at it’s heart: it has the plot of a thriller, but the foundation and bones of a literary novel.

While it’s true that “Disappearing Earth” starts with, and deeply connects, to the disappearance of Alonya and Sophia, two sisters who vanish in an isolated town in Kamchatka, Russia. But it’s definitely more about life in an isolated town in a country that is still feeling the effects of a fallen empire, and the people who live their lives there every day. Each chapter takes place in a different month after the disappearance, spanning over nearly a year, and has a different perspective of a member of the community, or the surrounding communities. Each character has their own connection to the missing girls, from their mother, to a police officer, to the only witness, to members of the Even community who had their own disappearance a few years prior (but more on that later). But focusing on the various people in the town and their own connection to the girls and their disappearance, as direct or indirect as it may be, we get a slice of life narrative that is steeped in sadness, resilience, and a little bit of hope. Can I understand why this perhaps wasn’t my Dad’s kind of book? Sure. It’s not your typical thriller/mystery, even though Alonya and Sophia’s disappearance is always at hand. It’s really more about how these girls went missing, how different people react to it (from disbelief to coldness to determination to know what happened).

The theme that really stood out to me, however, was that of the Even community and characters, specifically Alla Innokentevna, the mother of the missing Lilia, and Ksyusha, a University student who is torn between her community at home and the community she has at school, specifically her boyfriend, a white Russian named Ruslan. One of the big reveals of this book is the disappearance of Lilia, whose disappearance was like Alonya and Sophia’s, but went largely unnoticed by those outside of Esso and the natives who live there. I know so little about Russian society, and the little that I do know has very little to do with the rural communities and the relationships between the white Russians and the native communities. And like in other parts of the world, the non-white victim has gone largely forgotten while two white girls have their faces splashed all over town and beyond. It’s not a mystery what happened to Alonya and Sophia, as we see what happens to them in the very first chapter, but we do find ourselves wondering if Lilia did actually leave by her own volition, or if she fell victim to the same predator as the two younger girls. And Phillips does a very good job of making you fear the very worst, and wrings out some truly heart wrenching moments involving her family. Especially when Alla interacts with Martina, Alonya and Sophia’s mother.

And finally, Phillips completely captured what life is like in this village, making the village feel like a character in and of itself. I got a very good feel for not only the location and the people, but also the day to day emotions and experiences that the communities as a whole had, and how they were shaped by where they live. This was so well done, and I was a bit astounded by how real and evocative the place of this story was.

“Disappearing Earth” may not be the kind of thriller I usually cover, but it’s so damn good. Phillips has blended two genres to make a satisfying and compelling read. I’m no doubt going to have to have a long conversation with my Dad to try and plead its case!

Rating 9: Evocative and melancholy, “Disappearing Earth” is about life on an isolated peninsula, and the way lives change yet continue when a community is rocked by tragedy.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Disappearing Earth” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Books on the North”, and “Russia Based Thrillers”.

Find “Disappearing Earth” at your library using WorldCat!

Bookclub Review: “A Christmas Carol”

5327We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “American Girl Readalikes”, in which we each pick an American Girl book and a book that can be connected to it, however tenuous as it may be.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

Publishing Info: Chapman & Hall, 1843

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

American Girl Book: “Kirsten’s Surprise” by Janet Shaw

Book Description: The celebrated P.J. Lynch captures the spirit of Dickens’s beloved tale in a richly illustrated unabridged edition.

The story of Ebenezer Scrooge opens on a Christmas Eve as cold as Scrooge’s own heart. That night, he receives three ghostly visitors: the terrifying spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. Each takes him on a heart-stopping journey, yielding glimpses of Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit, the horrifying spectres of Want and Ignorance, even Scrooge’s painfully hopeful younger self. Will Scrooge’s heart be opened? Can he reverse the miserable future he is forced to see?

Now in an unabridged edition gloriously illustrated by the award-winning P.J. Lynch, this story’s message of love and goodwill, mercy and self-redemption resonates as keenly as ever.

Kate’s Thoughts

It’s just me again this time around, as Serena was unable to make book club this session. But I’m going to do my best to bring in some deep thoughts about a Christmas classic that has been part of the Western zeitgeist for generations. We read “A Christmas Carol” along with “Kirsten’s Surprise” because of the obvious Christmas theme, and honestly, this is going to be a fun cycle of reads because of the connections we make between the American Girl books and the other books we read. This was my second time reading Dickens, as I read “A Tale of Two Cities” in high school, and while I could have sworn that I read “A Christmas Carol” at some point I realized as I was reading that I was probably just creating a memory from the countless, COUNTLESS adaptations I’ve seen over the years. Going in and reading the original text was a fun way to get into the holiday spirit, reading wise.

For anyone who may not know, “A Christmas Carol” is a holiday ghost story in which a bitter selfish man is visited by three (technically four) ghosts to learn about the true meaning of Christmas, and to realize he has to change his dickish ways. I’m so familiar with the story I figured that reading it was going to be just par for the course, but I really enjoyed reading this story in it’s own, original words. The ghosts are sufficiently spooky, the pathos is (for the most part, but we’ll get there later) definitely heartwrenching, and the messages of benevolence and charity resonate throughout the years. Ebenezer Scrooge is a complex character whose journey of self reflection and redemption is old hat, but even though I know the story and know how it was going to go I did like seeing him change. Dickens may have been a little ‘on the nose’ by today’s standards when it comes to Scrooge’s reactions as his journey goes on (lots of head hanging, guys), but it is still satisfying to see him realize that he can change and should change for the good of others and for the good of himself.

The greater metaphors that Dickens was going for in the text, specifically Tiny Tim representing the oppressed and downtrodden in England’s lower classes at the time and the references to child labor, are admittedly pretty well played out these days. I myself don’t really care for Tiny Tim, thinking he’s saccharine and cloying (except for Calvin in “Scrooged”, he is ADORABLE and it probably help that he doesn’t talk), but having the context of what Tiny Tim actually is supposed to be was helpful. Because the symbolism is better in the original text, and doesn’t manifest as a sweet faced but constantly coughing/limping/wise beyond his years child, I appreciated Tim more in the book than I usually do. The setting of the Industrial Revolution and knowing how friggin’ AWFUL that was for the lower class in hindsight made me appreciate these messages all the more. Even beyond Tim there are references to children having to go get jobs and not knowing if and when they will see their loved ones come Christmastime, and gosh if that didn’t just make this book a little sadder.

And finally, the ghosts are great. From Marley to Past, Present, and Yet To Come, Dickens made well characterized and freaky spirits that would have perfectly fit into the ‘telling ghost stories at Christmas’ aesthetic that was so popular during this time period. We should bring that back, quite frankly.

I enjoyed reading “A Christmas Carol”. It was a lovely way to get into the holiday spirit!! If you haven’t read it and have a few hours during this holiday season, it is worth the read.

Rating 8: An enduring Christmas classic.

Book Club Questions

  1. There have been many adaptations of “A Christmas Carol” over the years. Which one is your favorite, and why? How faithful of an adaptation was it compared to the original text?
  2. Scrooge has a very clear transformation in this book, and on the page it is made evident from the get go when he feels bad and when he should feel bad for his actions. Do you think there could have been more nuance in his change, or did you appreciate the blatant moments of him realizing he was wrong throughout the story?
  3. “A Christmas Carol” was one of the first Christmas stories to leave a country or pastoral setting to take place in an urban setting. Do you think that the story would have worked as well if it took place in the country instead of London? Why or why not?
  4. What are your thoughts on Tiny Tim? Is he still an effective character as time has gone on?
  5. Why do you think this story has endured for so long and resonated with so many people?

Reader’s Advisory

“A Christmas Carol” is included on the Goodreads lists “Favorite Christmas Books”, and “Ghost Stories”.

Find “A Christmas Carol” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi

Bookclub Review: “The Joy Luck Club”

7763._sy475_We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘Books On Our To Read Shelf’, where we pick books that we’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten to.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan

Publishing Info: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989

Where Did We Get This Book: Borrowed it from family; the library!

Book Description: Four mothers, four daughters, four families, whose histories shift with the four winds depending on who’s telling the stories. In 1949, four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, meet weekly to play mahjong and tell stories of what they left behind in China. United in loss and new hope for their daughters’ futures, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. Their daughters, who have never heard these stories, think their mothers’ advice is irrelevant to their modern American lives – until their own inner crises reveal how much they’ve unknowingly inherited of their mothers’ pasts. 

With wit and sensitivity, Amy Tan examines the sometimes painful, often tender, and always deep connection between mothers and daughters. As each woman reveals her secrets, trying to unravel the truth about her life, the strings become more tangled, more entwined. Mothers boast or despair over daughters, and daughters roll their eyes even as they feel the inextricable tightening of their matriarchal ties. Tan is an astute storyteller, enticing readers to immerse themselves into these lives of complexity and mystery.

Kate’s Thoughts

I first read “The Joy Luck Club” right after college, when I found it on my sister’s book shelf and decided to give it a go. It was around this time that I really started to devote my life to reading again, and I remember really enjoying the book in my early twenties. So when it was chosen for book club, I was interested to see if my thoughts and feelings would have changed as time passed. I found my Mom’s old school copy in their basement, and dove right back in.

Time and reading experience has definitely changed my perceptions, but not in a bad way, necessarily. I still liked how Tan portrayed the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters, sometimes because of the complex relationship between parents and children, and other times because of a culture clash between immigrants who grew up in one place and culture, and their children who grew up in a different place and different culture. We see their lives and personalities through various vignettes and experiences, and see how the hardships that the mothers had made them approach how they raised their daughters, and in turn how the daughters may or may not understand those approaches. Sometimes the relationships were touching and loving, and other times there would be conflicts that were hard to read. For me, the most effective vignettes mostly involved Suyuan Woo (the founder of the Joy Luck Club) and her daughter Jing Mei. Suyuan was living in China during the Japanese Invasion and the lead up to World War Two, and endured the tragedy of not only losing her husband, but having to abandon her twin daughters on the side of the road because she was too sick to carry them. Jing Mei always felt like she wasn’t good enough in her mother’s eyes, and when she finds out that the rest of the Joy Luck Club found out that her half sisters are alive, she has to decide if she’s going to pursue them. Her complicated relationship with her mother is filled with a lot of painful subtext and context, and while through my Western experience I had a hard time wrapping my mind around how Suyuan (and many of the other mothers) treated their daughters I did think that the stories of Suyuan and Jing-Mei had the most emotional oomph, and definitely made me tear up multiple times. Tan does a good job of not necessarily excusing some of the manipulative or cruel behaviors of her characters, but showing why they may be acting that way. Her writing is also gorgeous, as it flows well and brings out a lot of imagery in vibrant ways.

I can see how there are criticisms from some Chinese American authors and scholars when it comes to “The Joy Luck Club”, as for so long this seemed like the go-to book for Westerners when it comes to what Asian American stories are consumed. Hell, I am pretty sure that when I picked it up a decade or so ago it was one of the first books I’d read written by an Asian-American author about Asian and Asian-American characters. As time has gone on it’s important that more Asian and Asian-American authors have been able to tell stories of all kinds, and to show all kinds of experiences that don’t necessary reflect stereotypes that “The Joy Luck Club” may have contributed to, inadvertently or otherwise. But on the other side, this story definitely seems to be a very personal one for Tan, and therefore it’s hard to completely write it off or to say that it should be left behind completely. It’s a complex issue, and I don’t know what the right answer is when it comes to where “The Joy Luck Club” should be in the literary canon.

Reading “The Joy Luck Club” a second time was an interesting experience, and with older and wiser eyes I think that I got more from it. I’m glad that book club gave me the chance to read it again.

Serena’s Thoughts

This was a book that I only knew through vague familiarity with the title and the fact that it had been made into a movie in the early 90s that I may have caught bits and pieces of, here and there. So other than knowing that this type of literary fiction is typically my jam, I didn’t have many preconceived notions of the book going in.

Overall, I was right in my initial assessment that this wouldn’t be my type of book, but there were things that I did appreciate about it. I don’t know a lot of about China during the Japanese invasion and many of mother’s tales were an interesting (if tragic!) look into that time period and how these women came emigrate to America. I do wish there had been a bit more variation between the tales. While they were each distinctive enough, towards the end of the book, I kept waiting for the next mother’s tale to be the starkly contrasting tale to balance out the others. Instead, most of them were fairly similar at their heart, which leads to one of my main criticism.

I had a hard time keeping track of who was who and how each was related to the one who did what. Part of this comes down to the similarity between some of the stories. But there was also similarity between characters. Many of the daughters ended up married to varying levels of scumbag husbands who all also tended to blend together in my mind. The story was also broken up into chapters for the mothers and chapters for the daughters, but they are all scattered throughout the book in a way that forced me to always flip back to the chart in the front of the book and to previous chapters to try to figure out just who we were talking about how and how their story related to others’.

I think the way the book was laid out in this way had a detrimental effect even on one of the main messages the author was trying to get across, about how the mother’s lives effected how they interacted and raised their daughters, and vice versa. Every once in a while I’d be able to form a clear connection from one of the mother’s stories to how she interacted with her daughter. But I think there was also a lot I missed simply because I couldn’t keep track of who’s story was who’s. The book was originally written as a collection of short stories, and I almost think it would have been more successful had it been left as that. The attempt to draw it together as a novel is just enough to technically earn that description, but left me, the reader, more confused than I would have been had I just read the short stories seperately.

We had a really good book club discussion about identity, mother/daughter relationships, and whether or not immigration and 1st, 2nd, generation immigrants may have different experiences now, coming out of differing political climates in their home countries and into a different USA, too. So there’s still clearly a lot of good stuff to be found in this book. As a point of discussion, I really liked it. But as a read, it wasn’t really my thing.

Kate’s Rating 7: An emotional book with complex themes and issues, “The Joy Luck Club” was interesting to revisit, and for the most part still held up for me.

Serena’s Rating 7: An interesting point of entrance into a larger discussion about immigration, family, and culture, but still a bit hard to read for me.

Book Club Questions

  1. The story is broken into several different stories about the mothers and the daughters. Is there one that stands out to you and why?
  2. The story is focused largely on the challenging relationship between the mothers and daughters. What makes this relationship so challenging but also fulfilling? What about these depictions strikes you?
  3. Immigration is challenging issue right now. How does this book fit into the current narrative about immigrants and their experiences leaving their homes and coming to live in a new country?
  4. When Jing-Mei is talking with the other women of the Joy Luck Club about her mother, she says that she doesn’t feel like she knew who her mother was or anything about her. How much do you think we know about our own mothers? Do you think that Jing-Mei’s perceived lack of knowledge (And Suyuan’s privacy) could be generational? Cultural?
  5. The book is broken into several stories and jumps around from one to another. How did this structure affect your read?
  6. There are rumors of a sequel to this book (in film form). If there was to be a sequel to this story set in the modern day, what do you think it would cover? What relationships, what countries, what cultures?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Joy Luck Club” is included on the Goodreads lists “Immigrant Experience Literature”, and “Jezebel’s Books All Women Should Read”.

Find “The Joy Luck Club” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Gone” by Michael Grant.

 

Bookclub Review: “Northanger Abbey”

50398We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is ‘Books On Our To Read Shelf’, where we pick books that we’ve been meaning to read but haven’t gotten to.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Northanger Abbey” by Jane Austen

Publishing Info: John Murray, 1818

Where Did We Get This Book: eAudiobook from the library,

Book Description: Jane Austen’s first novel—published posthumously in 1818—tells the story of Catherine Morland and her dangerously sweet nature, innocence, and sometime self-delusion. Though Austen’s fallible heroine is repeatedly drawn into scrapes while vacationing at Bath and during her subsequent visit to Northanger Abbey, Catherine eventually triumphs, blossoming into a discerning woman who learns truths about love, life, and the heady power of literature. The satirical novel pokes fun at the gothic novel while earnestly emphasizing caution to the female sex.

Kate’s Thoughts

Unlike Serena, I am not as well versed in Jane Austen stories. I’ve read “Emma” and “Sense and Sensibility”, and I’ve read “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”, which admittedly probably doesn’t count. So when book club picked “Northanger Abbey”, I was both a bit excited but also a little apprehensive. I’m always looking to expand my ‘classics’ experience, as that’s admittedly a huge gap in my reading, but one of my biggest hangups with Austen is her writing style. But I got the audiobook from the library, and jumped in.

While I did have problems with the writing, overall I enjoyed “Northanger Abbey”! Given that I quite like Gothic novels (“Jane Eyre”, anyone?), it was kind of fun seeing a gentle satire/ribbing of the genre with Catherine Morland’s imagination running away with her. Given that Gothic novels are incredibly melodramatic it was quite amusing seeing Catherine look for the melodrama in her life, even when there really wasn’t much to be had, at least not in the ways she expected. Catherine herself is a pretty enjoyable protagonist, as she is sometimes flighty and naive, but always has a good heart in place and ultimately is good to other people. I can’t say that I was super invested in her relationship with Henry Tilney, but I did like their witty banter. I was far more invested in Catherine’s friendship with his sister Eleanor, and her frenemy relationship with the vapid and self centered Isabella (side note: Isabella and her dumbshit brother John are fun to hate as villains, and because of that I GREATLY enjoyed them and their nasty scheming). Catherine’s maneuvering through romantic and platonic relationships composed the true heart of this story, and I was definitely rooting for her.

I was also really tickled to see so much of this story took place in Bath, if only because I really enjoyed Bath when I went there. It was also neat to see that some of the tourist-y things to be done in Bath today, like visiting the pump room, were part of the tourist appeal back when this book was written! It’s funny to see how things can endure over time, whether it be a tourist attraction or the appeal of a novel.

But like I mentioned above, I did have a hard time with the writing style. I usually try to read ‘classics’ by listening to them on audiobook, as for some reason listening to the writing is easier for me to process that way. With “Northanger Abbey” this mostly worked, but I still found my mind wandering as I listened. Given that I’ve had success with this when reading other ‘classics’, I do think that had the plot been more to my liking, I may not have had as large of a problem keeping interested. This, however, is probably more a comment on my own personal hangups than the book itself.

“Northanger Abbey” hasn’t necessarily made me want to run out and read all the rest that Jane Austen has to offer, but as I slowly chip away at her work I can see why she has endured.

Serena’s Thoughts

I’ve read all of Jane Auten’s works, most of them twice. “Northnager Abbey,” however, is one of the few I’ve only read the one time, so I was also super excited when this was selected as a bookclub pick. Most of Austen’s other titles serve as comfort reads of some sort or another, depending on the mood I’m in and the type of romantic hero I’m craving. But for some reason I haven’t had this one in my rotation, though I do re-watch the BBC movie of it fairly regularly.

In many ways, this book is very different from Austen’s other works. It is one of her earliest writings (though it was published later, after her death), and you can see the building blocks in development with this work. Her villains are a bit more obviously “villain-y”: the Colonel with his strict meal times, Isabella with her contradictions and manipulations. The comedic characters play almost only for that, like Mrs. Allen’s obsession with clothes. And Tilney & Eleanore are simply good people all around. They all play their parts perfectly, but when compared to Austen’s other characters of the same type, one can see that these first attempts are a bit more bland and one-note. In “Pride and Prejudice,” for example, Mrs. Bennett is both a comedic character but also one that is pitiable for the situation she finds herself in, one that she is completely unable to handle (a questionable future and five daughters whose options are limited).  So, too, Mr. Darcy is both a romantic hero but also flawed man.

Catherine, as the heroine, is given the most fully fleshed out character. One of the lasting appeals of Austen’s work, I believe, is the way she captured the core of people, traits that carry on throughout the ages, regardless of many cultural or societal changes. Catherine, for instance, reads as a very believable seventeen year old girl. She’s a good person, but is prone to flights of dramatics, wishing to make her life more like the ones she reads about, seeing intrigue and mystery where there is none. She is also easily attracted to those she perceives as having more confidence than herself, like Isabella. And while never lead completely astray from the solid foundation of principles that make up her person, we see her fall under the sway of a “popular girl” who is going about life in a very different way than Catherine even understands.

As Kate mentioned, the most unique aspect of this book is the fact that it is a straight satire of the popular Gothic novels of the time. Every character choice and plot point holds in direct contrast to the dramatic events taking place in those books. Tilney is simply a good person (a very good person, given how gently he handles Catherine after she lets her imagination take her a bit too far at one point), with not flights of brooding or penchant to unnecessary dueling. Northanger Abbey itself is simply a home, most notable for being cozy and done up to the latest styles. Catherine’s family are all alive, most notably her mother, a character that even in Austen’s time was often killed off early in the story (Disney and many other YA stories still lean heavily on this trope). There are also several lines where Austen directly references other books and statements from authors that, for the curious reader, are fun rabbit holes to go down on one’s own time.

I very much enjoyed re-reading this book. The piercing take-downs of the tropes often found in Gothic fiction are on point, the story itself is sweet, and Tilney and Catherine are heroes you can’t help but root for. While the story and character portrayals are a bit more simplistic than what we see in Austen’s later work, you can clearly see the foundation that is being built in this first work.

Kate’s Rating 7: I liked the protagonist and the fun satire of Gothic novels, but the writing of the time period has never been my cup of tea.

Serena’s Rating 8: The most straight-forward of Austen’s books, this is a fun read though not as fully engaging as her other novels.

Book Club Questions

  1. This book pokes fun at common themes found in Gothic novels. Have you read any Gothic novels yourself and which of these satirical jabs did you appreciate the most?
  2. This is Austen’s first novel. If you have read her other stories, in what ways do you see her writing and characterization change between this story and her others?
  3. There is a careful balance struck between poking fun at Gothic novels but also defending novel-reading as a whole. How well do you think this balance was portrayed and what do you think Austen was ultimately trying to say?
  4. The romance between Henry and Catherine is very different from the ones in Gothic novels and even Austen’s own other works, especially with the admission later in the book that Henry’s initial interest was largely struck purely based on Catherine’s own obvious admiration. What do you think of the romance between these two? How does Henry compare to Austen’s other heroes?
  5. There is a large cast of characters who fall within the “villains” and “fools” categories. Which of them stood out to you and were they believable characters in and of themselves? Why or why not?

Reader’s Advisory

“Northanger Abbey” is included on the Goodreads lists “Best Books For Girls Who Belong to Another Era”, and “Fictional Crushes”.

Find “Northanger Abbey” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery”.

Kate’s Double Review: “The Real Lolita” and “Rust & Stardust”

Books: “The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized The World” by Sarah Weinman; “Rust & Stardust” by T. Greenwood

Publishing Info: Ecco, September 2018; St. Martin’s Press, August 2018

Where Did I Get These Books: The library; I was sent an ARC from the publisher

Book Descriptions: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is one of the most beloved and notorious novels of all time. And yet very few of its readers know that the subject of the novel was inspired by a real-life case: the 1948 abduction of eleven-year-old Sally Horner.

Weaving together suspenseful crime narrative, cultural and social history, and literary investigation, The Real Lolita tells Sally Horner’s full story for the very first time. Drawing upon extensive investigations, legal documents, public records, and interviews with remaining relatives, Sarah Weinman uncovers how much Nabokov knew of the Sally Horner case and the efforts he took to disguise that knowledge during the process of writing and publishing Lolita.

Sally Horner’s story echoes the stories of countless girls and women who never had the chance to speak for themselves. By diving deeper in the publication history of Lolita and restoring Sally to her rightful place in the lore of the novel’s creation, The Real Lolita casts a new light on the dark inspiration for a modern classic.


When 11 year-old Sally Horner steals a notebook from the local Woolworth’s, she has no way of knowing that 52 year-old Frank LaSalle, fresh out of prison, is watching her, preparing to make his move. Accosting her outside the store, Frank convinces Sally that he’s an FBI agent who can have her arrested in a minute—unless she does as he says. 

This chilling novel traces the next two harrowing years as Frank mentally and physically assaults Sally while the two of them travel westward from Camden to San Jose, forever altering not only her life, but the lives of her family, friends, and those she meets along the way.

Review: I want to extend a special thank you to St. Martin’s Press for sending me an ARC of “Rust & Stardust”.

For someone who reads a whole lot for her profession and her pleasure, I have a pretty gaping hole in my literary experience when it comes to ‘the classics’. Between taking not so typical literature classes in high school and majoring in psychology, my exposure to classic books was limited, and while I’ve tried to pick up the pieces here and there I still have many left on the ‘theoretically to read’ list. So no, I have not read “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov, though the notoriety of the story means that I am pretty familiar with it as a whole. I’m in no rush to read it, not for any other reason than there are so many other books out there that interest me more. But when I got an ARC of the book “Rust & Stardust” by T. Greenwood, the fact that it was based on the very real story of Sally Horner, the girl who served as inspiration to Dolores Haze in Nabokov’s book, caught my attention. And then I heard that a nonfiction book about Sally Horner, called “The Real Lolita” by Sarah Weinman, was also soon to be available. So I decided to bide my time, and to read the two as a pair so that I could compare and contrast the two, which each tell the same story in very different ways.

And perhaps it’s implied, but just in case, I need to give some serious content warnings for both of these books. They do, after all, involve the kidnapping, rape, and abuse of a little girl.

“The Real Lolita” is a non fiction work that juxtaposes Sally Horner’s kidnapping at the hands of Frank La Salle with Vladimir Nabokov trying to write “Lolita”. Weinman surmises that Nabokov, who had been having stumbling block after literary stumbling block as he tried to write what would become his most famous work, heard the sensationalized news stories surrounding the case and used it in his work. Nabokov denied this again and again, but Weinman lays out the similarities between the two cases, and the timeline that he was working within and how it wa well within the highest media furor surrounding the case. It isn’t really a criticism of Nabokov’s decision to use this story as inspiration so much as it’s an indictment of him lifting a girl’s very real pain to profit from it without giving her any credit. I appreciated that she wasn’t going after the inspiration piece, because it isn’t uncommon for creatives to take inspiration from real life horrors and to make them into a fictional work. The issue is that Nabokov was too proud to admit that he in all probability did find inspiration in this trauma victim, which is deeply problematic in and of itself, and couldn’t be bothered to even acknowledge her pain and how successful of a novel it was. Her evidence is well researched and carefully laid out, and the details that she found regarding the Horner case and what her life was like before, during, and after the ordeal gives voice to a girl whose trauma was appropriated for a novel with the subject of her inspiration twisted and misinterpreted  into a nymph-like seductress (even if that wasn’t Nabokov’s intention). It’s a book that I had a hard time reading because of the awful manipulations and abuses La Salle did to Horner, though I appreciated how frank and ‘just the facts’ Weinman was because of the horrors of the case. I also liked that she wasn’t particularly fiery in her critiques of Nabokov, but that she simply presented the evidence as it was and let it speak for itself. Weinman’s book gives this girl a voice, a voice that wasn’t afforded to her in the moment, and that has been drowned out because of time and a novel that overshadowed it.

“Rust & Stardust” is also the Sally Horner story, but it has been adapted into a work of fiction. T. Greenwood  makes it very clear in a long author’s note that she approached this story through the eyes of a fiction author, but tried to keep a good number of the details, especially in regards to Sally’s experience, realistic and plausible. The prose flows neatly and succinctly, and while it is a longer book than “The Real Lolita” I found that it felt like a quicker read just because Greenwood paced it so well. The story is pretty much what you’d expect; Sally Horner is caught by Frank LaSalle as she’s stealing a notebook from the store, and what follows is the story of Sally’s kidnapping, captivity, and return, as well as the perspectives of those in her life during her absence. While it was definitely hard to read at times, Greenwood never made it feel lurid or exploitative. The emotions were there, but were able to remain untangled from bad taste. Greenwood also gave herself some creative plot leeway (though not in regards to Sally, which was good) so that she could highlight the problematic attitudes of the post-War American culture, specifically when it comes to abuse towards girls and women. Whenever someone would raise doubts about Sally’s relationship to Frank, almost every time they were told to be quiet because the very notion of bad intentions was disgusting and inappropriate. Frank is able to get away with his predation because the people around him and Sally don’t want to face that it’s happening. Which brings me back to the criticisms of “Lolita”, in that some people, be it Nabokov’s intent or not, have romanticized the story of Humbert Humbert and the ‘nymph’ he fixates on. Greenwood doesn’t give any leeway for that because the story is Sally’s, and those who care about her.

Reading “The Real Lolita” and “Rust & Stardust” has given me a larger picture of a tale I thought I knew, and in their own ways they tell the side that has been lost to time and literary critique and accolades. If you like “Lolita”, and even if you don’t like it, these books will give it more context, a context that it has probably always needed.

Ratings 8: Though the backstory to “Lolita” has been glossed over and outright ignored by some (and denied by others), “The Real Lolita” and “Rust & Stardust” strive to give Sally Horner the ability to tell her story.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Real Lolita” is included on the Goodreads lists “Women’s Lives”, and “Best Crime Books of 2018”.

“Rust & Stardust” is included on the Goodreads lists “#MeToo”.

Find “The Real Lolita” and “Rust & Stardust” at your library using WorldCat!