I have become the literary equivalent of a food taster: People throw books at me so I can try them out and let them know if they’re worth reading. That’s where this blog came from and how I came to read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. It’s unlikely I would have picked this book on my own after reading (and strongly disliking) Flynn’s first book, Dark Places. To her credit, Flynn’s writing and pacing have come a long way since then—the story is better balanced, her characters have more unique voices, and while it’s still predictable, it’s very entertaining. Such improvement between her first and third books actually has me excited for her fourth. read more
Daphne duMaurier’s Rebecca, first published in 1938, has been on my list of favorites since I was given a copy a decade ago. The book’s biggest weakness is the cover: recent printings are teal and pink with flowing script; other editions feature gold lettering over a red silk background (as shown). It often looks as though it belongs among books with Fabio-esque men on the cover, which makes it a hard sell to friends. But it really, really, is not like that.
At the outset, the unnamed narrator is on holiday as companion to the hilariously gauche Mrs. Van Hopper. While there, she meets Maxim de Winter, Rebecca’s widower. After a brief courtship, the narrator becomes the second Mrs. de Winter and returns with Maxim to Manderley. Since Rebecca’s death, the housekeeper has preserved the house as a shrine and Mrs. de Winter finds herself in competition with Rebecca’s ghost. Being introverted and naive, she believes herself a poor replacement of someone so vibrant, beautiful, and intelligent. The first half of the novel is her struggle to carve a place for herself in the house. It’s hard to describe how engaging and suspenseful this book is without giving away the ending, so you’ll have to take my word that this scant summation of plot doesn’t do the novel justice. read more
Richard P. Feynman was an American physicist known for a great many intellectual discoveries. In this book, he becomes known for cracking his colleagues’ safes while working on the Manhattan project. I’m sure there are more serious stories he could have told about his work at Los Alamos, but “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” isn’t that kind of book. read more
Shirley Jackson is best known for The Haunting of Hill House and has a reputation for scary stories. I’m not keen on stories that have a net effect of making me more afraid of the dark, but We Have Always Lived in the Castle presents a different kind of horror. Mary Katherine and Constance Blackwood live with their uncle in a grand mansion at the edge of a town filled with fearful and envious people. The reader understands, as the Blackwoods do, that their only security lies in seclusion. Between mounting tension with the town and the unexpected arrival of their grasping cousin, it is clear their security cannot last indefinitely.
[NOTE: As the suspense of the story is entirely dependent on not knowing when or how this dam will break, if you have a copy of this work that includes Jonathan Lethem’s introduction DO NOT READ IT before the book. When he discusses WHALitC, he dissects it point by point to thoroughly and completely spoil it for anyone who might be reading it for the first time.] read more
Erin Morgenstern’s novel, The Night Circus, has the roots of a good story, but her writing isn’t strong enough to make use of them. The bulk of her 512 pages are filled with nondescript descriptions and repetitive phrases. The general idea: Celia and Marco have been trained from childhood to participate in a decades-long dual within the confines of the miraculous Le Cirque des Rêves, which is only open at night. Neither of them has an understanding of the rules or knows how the victor will be chosen. Fortunately, the back cover elucidates this little mystery for the reader: “Unbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing.” I purchased this book with the expectation of a high-stakes contest, but after hundreds of pages of pretty illusions (color-changing dresses, ice gardens) there is no sensation that anything is at stake. Celia and Marco attempt to control the circus by creating new attractions for its guests, but without criteria to rank their efforts or to understand what these exhibitions mean for their livelihood, it’s hard to view them as competitors. It was easy to set this book down despite the shamelessly cryptic one-liners that end many chapters. read more