Spoiler-Free Thoughts on The Books I’ve Read In 2019 (So Far)

I made a promise to myself that I would try to read more books in 2019  since I didn’t feel as though I read that much in 2018.  Fortunately (and surprisingly) I’ve managed to keep this vow even with my turbulent schedule and lack of desire to be productive.

So here are some thoughts on the books I have managed to read thus far.

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The Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz 

Summary: After working with bestselling crime writer Alan Conway for years, editor Susan Ryeland is intimately familiar with his detective, Atticus Pünd, who solves mysteries in sleepy English villages. His traditional formula has proved hugely successful, so successful that Susan must continue to put up with his troubling behavior if she wants to keep her job. Conway’s latest tale involves a murder at Pye Hall, with dead bodies and a host of intriguing suspects. But the more Susan reads, the more she’s convinced that there is another story hidden in the pages of the manuscript: one of real-life jealousy, greed, ruthless ambition, and murder.

As someone who grew up on PBS British detective shows, I absolutely loved this book.

I was reluctant to read it initially because I knew it was a story within a story, nevertheless, I found both tales –the one written by Conway and by Susan–both equally captivating and I was just as eager as Susan to discover the conclusion to Pünd’s story.

It’s easy to see Horowitz has worked on many on-screen productions as the pacing is quick and engaging, leaving little room for superfluous details or fluff, but still dedicates enough time to developing characters and setting the scene.

Apart from the plot itself, what makes the story interesting is how it inwardly reflects on the genre of mystery as a whole. It asks why people are so drawn to the subject and provides interesting theories all without being overly sentimental.

It’s a quintessential love letter to Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton and many other mystery writers, all while keeping its own unique identity.

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The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn

Summary: 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. 

I’m a fan of Hitchcock films and a self-proclaimed junkie for unreliable narrators so this book was a match made in Heaven for me. Apart from being a page-turning mystery, it’s also a well-crafted character piece.

Anna is more than just an unreliable narrator. She’s a completely sympathetic person that is as much the victim of her circumstances as she is the cause of them. She’s a three-dimensional character forced into a situation beyond her control and the unravelling of her past is as tragic as it is interesting.

When I learned the author of this book was a man, I was genuinely surprised. I know from first-hand experience how difficult it can be writing for the opposite gender, but Finn does so with such skill and sincerity you completely forget the author is not a woman.

I wasn’t 100% thrilled with how it ends as it comes off as a bit too cartoonish, in my opinion. Nevertheless, if you’re a fan of Hitchcock-like stories you will enjoy this one.

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The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah 

Summary: For a family in crisis, the ultimate test of survival. Ernt Allbright, a former POW, comes home from the Vietnam War a changed and volatile man. When he loses yet another job, he makes an impulsive decision: He will move his family north, to Alaska, where they will live off the grid in America’s last true frontier.

Kristin did an excellent job of showing the brutal beauty of the Alaskan landscape as well as the complexity of human nature. At times I thought it was a little too bleak, rife with almost Jodi-Picolt-levels of drama where one implausibly awful thing is followed by another implausibly awful thing, but the constant conflict was genuinely gripping and kept me going in spite of it all.

This is just a personal hang-up that I have with the novel so take it for what you will, but I found Leni’s love interest to be a bit unconvincing as a character. It was difficult to believe that a boy that grew up in such a harsh, unforgiving climate and had so much of his life devoted to survival would give a crap about poetry. Nor does it seem that plausible that he would have that much devotion to a girl he met when he was a little kid. That could be my own cynicism talking, but I did grow up in a very small town and absolutely none of the males I encountered were anything like this.

I will say this in the novel’s favor, I genuinely didn’t know where it was going and yet I  trusted the writer to lead it to it’s rightful destination. Some suspicions I had early on were confirmed, but Hannah threw many unexpected curveballs that made it damn near impossible for me to put the book down.

I won’t say what happens as I don’t want to spoil it for anyone that wants to read it, but it’s worth all the emotional torture the reader has to go through to reach the end. 

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The City of Z by David Grann

Summary: A grand mystery reaching back centuries. A sensational disappearance that made headlines around the world. A quest for truth that leads to death, madness or disappearance for those who seek to solve it. The Lost City of Z is a blockbuster adventure narrative about what lies beneath the impenetrable jungle canopy of the Amazon.

After stumbling upon a hidden trove of diaries, New Yorker writer David Grann set out to solve “the greatest exploration mystery of the 20th century”: What happened to the British explorer Percy Fawcett & his quest for the Lost City of Z?

I’m typically not a fan of nonfiction, but I made an exception for this book since the subject was intriguing to me.

I picked up this book to learn about the City of Z, but I stayed for the man that tried to uncover its mysteries. Fawcett was a character straight out of myth, both seemingly impervious to hostile-climes and disease as well as endlessly tenacious in his willingness to see a journey through to its end. He was instrumental in increasing our understanding of the Amazon, sacrificing almost everything he had to find Z, even when many scoffed at the notion that such a place ever existed.

I admire Grann’s ability to weave such an interesting narrative all while unloading boatloads of information on the reader without making them feel as though they are trapped at a boring lecture.

The intimate details, journal entries, the attention to socio-political climates at this time really made this story come to life.

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His Bloody Project  by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Summary: A brutal triple murder in a remote Scottish farming community in 1869 leads to the arrest of seventeen-year-old Roderick Macrae. There is no question that Macrae committed this terrible act. What would lead such a shy and intelligent boy down this bloody path? And will he hang for his crime?

This book is a novel disguised as a true-crime book, written by a supposed descendent of the murderer in question. It’s part “memoir” told from Roderick Macrae and part compilation of “historical documents” that describe the events leading up to and after the murders.

Roderick is an interesting character in that he’s surprisingly intelligent in spite of his limited education as well as a seemingly perplexing narrator. The story begins with him explaining his backstory, life and misfortunes and then slowly delves into the crime itself. From the tale Roderick weaves it would seem he was merely a victim of his circumstance, however, the reader will notice several inconsistencies with Roderick’s version of events and the accounts that are later brought to light at his trial. This forces readers to re-evaluate all they thought they knew.

Is Roderick a good person that was driven to murder by his hopeless situation as a tenant farmer? Is he criminally insane? You’ll have to decide for yourself.

There was a lot of research that went into the making of this book. The rural landscape and lifestyle of the average 19th century Scottish Highlander was very vividly depicted. I also appreciated the incorporation of the prevalent sociological theories that existed around that time period. Criminology was in its infancy in the 1800s and it was interesting to see how the school of thought in regards to criminals has evolved over the years.

If you’re a historical fiction lover like I am, you’ll really like this.

The Most Beautifully Awful Writing Advice Ever

Recently I was introduced to a gorgeous poem by the late Charles Bukowski called “so you want to be a writer?”

Here’s a small exert:

if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
typewriter
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
fame,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.
if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.

You can read the poem in it’s entirety here of you could listen to a reading of it here.

It’s beautiful, right? Inspiring, powerful—something you would want to make a wall decal out of to impress your friends at dinner parties.

It’s also very, very, very, very, very, very wrong.

In fact, it’s difficult to recall anything that I’ve read that has been so astronomically wrong about writing.

Don’t misunderstand me, when he’s talking about writing for fame and fortune and sex he’s totally on the mark. Precious few writers reach the level of world-wide recognition and if you only want to write for accolades then you clearly don’t have what it takes to succeed in this craft. However, he also says–

“if you have to sit there and rewrite it again and again/don’t do it”

and

“if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it/don’t do it.

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Uhhhh….I don’t know a single solitary person, good writer or bad, who does not struggle with sitting down and writing.

I also do not know a single solitary person who has never had to suffer through a rewrite.

You know, because first drafts are dumpster fires of confusion and poor grammar.

For those of you who are fans of Charles Bukowski , did he not rewrite any of his poetry? My education on the man is lacking so that’s entirely possible. Nevertheless, if it’s true that he didn’t then he is an anomaly.

His poem goes on to say that a person should wait until the fires of passion are so hot  they have no choice but to let them out before writing something.

“if you have to wait for it to roar out of you, then wait patiently/ if it never does roar out of you, do something else.”

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I have had moments where the desire to write something was so powerful that I felt like the story was literally trying to push its way out of me, but I’ll be the first to admit that these moments are few and far between.

If you wait until you feel as if you physically have no choice but to write something, odds are you will never finish anything.

The Inspiration Fairy is a very fickle creature and will oftentimes screw off at random, leaving you with no will to go on.

My favorite quote about inspiration goes as follows “I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

Courting inspiration is a lot like trying to find a significant other. You can’t just sit around and wait for someone to notice you.

I have found that the best way to attract inspiration is to have a set amount of time each day to write. Believe it or not, the more you write the more inspiration is likely to show up. There have been months where I have struggled to produce anything; however, once I made the decision to write for at least an hour every day, writing started to become less of a drag.

I found myself feeling more and more motivated and my writing began to suck a little bit less.

Better yet I actually started to finish things I started.

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Did that mean I never struggle? Hell no. I’m struggling right now, to be honest. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it.

Same goes for you.

Struggling isn’t a sign you should quit, it’s simply a byproduct of trying.

And if you aren’t interested in trying then, and only then, would I say–

Don’t do it.

Book Review: “My Salinger Year” by Joanna Rakoff

WARNING: CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS FOR THE AFOREMENTIONED MEMOIR. 

A synopsis taken from the writer’s website:

At 23, after leaving graduate school to pursue her dreams of becoming a poet, Joanna Rakoff moves to New York City and takes a job as assistant to the storied literary agent of J. D. Salinger. She spends her days in the plush, wood-paneled agency, where Dictaphones and typewriters still prevail and old-time agents doze at their desks in the late afternoon, and at night she goes home to the tiny, threadbare Williamsburg apartment she shares with her socialist boyfriend. Precariously balanced between glamour and poverty, surrounded by titanic personalities, and struggling to trust her own artistic talent, Joanna is tasked with responding to Salinger’s voluminous fan mail. But as she reads the deeply candid letters from his fans, she finds herself abandoning the agency’s form letter and writing her own responses. Over the course of the year, she finds her own voice by acting as Salinger’s, on her own dangerous and wonderful terms.

Pros:

The writing style. While the premise intrigued me, what drew me in was the author’s voice. From the first page, Rakoff grabbed my attention and held it tight for the duration of the novel. I’m not much of a non-fiction reader so I was entranced by the novel-like style in which it was written in.

New York City. I loved how she describes New York in all it’s hipster-y splendor. She talked about the shops, the club scene, the restaurants, just the attitude of the city. Admittedly, I think New York tends to be over romanticized (particularly by those that live there), however, she was able to capture my awe and attention. It wasn’t an overblown love, but it was enough to show me why this city is considered so magical to some.

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It’s a story about growing up. I am around the same age Rakoff was when these events took place, so I found myself in her. She addresses many of the drawbacks of growing up such as paying the bills for the first time, growing apart from friends, watching other people make it big and become successful, and the doubt you experience in your own abilities. More than this, however, she accurately describes the loneliness of going through life, feeling as if nobody cares about you. It’s a relatable book, particularly if you’re in (or have recently graduated from) college.

Cons: 

The dust-jacket is misleading. While Rakoff’s job of responding to the Salinger’s fan letters is an important part of the memoir, the description makes it sound like it’s the crux of the story, or that she somehow mislead people into thinking she was Salinger when this is not the case. As I mentioned before, this story is more about growing up and figuring out what you want to do with your life than it is about Salinger or her acting as his mouthpiece.

Why Don?  Rakoff was never able to convincingly explain to the reader  why she stayed with Don, her roommate/boyfriend. From what I’m given to understand, she had a phenomenal boyfriend who went to California for school and….for some reason she didn’t go with him. She then decided to cheat on said boyfriend with Don, a egotist with little regard for Rakoff or her feelings, and even moved into a crappy apartment with him. My question is why? Why did she stay with him if she had a much better option? If Don had been the college boyfriend and she was just reluctant to let him go because of their history, I would be able to understand her thinking. However, that was not the case. I think it would have been important to discuss considering it probably reveals quite a bit about Rakoff as a person.

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Rushed ending. If I had to chose which part of this book was the worst, then I would easily say the ending. Up until this point, everything was well paced and shaping up nicely. However, there is no real emotional pay-off with her boyfriend Don. We don’t see or hear about the death throes of their relationship, the narrative just says she left him at some point for her much more desirable college boyfriend. There’s a jarring jump into the future where she learns about Salinger’s death and…nothing else about her life. We know she had kids and that she’s married to someone (she doesn’t tell us if this is the angelic college boyfriend of yore or not), but she doesn’t go into any detail about her life in the future. I wish we could have seen more since it would have been nice to know how her relationship with Salinger altered her adult life. Otherwise there’s not much point in including it other than to say “wow, sucks that Salinger is dead and stuff.”

Overall opinion: 

While I had a few problems with this book, my overall impression of it was a positive one. I was able to really connect with the writer and her experiences working at The Agency. It’s difficult to put down and I definitely think it was worth the read.

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