Review: Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell

Author: Maggie Mitchell
Title: Pretty Is
Format/Source: eBook/NetGalley
Published: 7 July 2015
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co.
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Literary fiction + dash of thriller
Why I Read: Pretty cover, gripping premise
Read If You’re: Intrigued by the copy description
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

The summer precocious Lois and pretty Carly May were twelve years old, they were kidnapped, driven across the country, and held in a cabin in the woods for two months by a charismatic stranger. Nearly twenty years later, Lois has become a professor, teaching British literature at a small college in upstate New York, and Carly May is an actress in Los Angeles, drinking too much and struggling to revive her career. When a movie with a shockingly familiar plot draws the two women together once more, they must face the public exposure of their secret history and confront the dark longings and unspeakable truths that haunt them still. Maggie Mitchell’s Pretty Is beautifully defies ripped-from-the-headlines crime story expectations and announces the debut of a masterful new storytelling talent.

I can’t remember how this book came on my radar, but it was some months ago. Every now and then I check NetGalley to see if books on my ‘upcoming publication’ shelf are available. I was very excited when this one finally showed up!

I like many aspects of this novel. I like the prose and the style of narrative. Mitchell writes with a strong voice and her prose injects the story with tension. The first page hooked me. The alternating perspectives of Lois and Carly May balance each other well. I like how it’s a story about stories within stories and about blurring the line between fiction, non-fiction and our own personal lives. I also enjoyed the plot. After Lois is reunited with her parents:

 They could not sit on the couch because Carly was sprawled out beside me; instead, awkwardly, they reached their thin, tanned arms out to me, inviting me to stand and be embraced. Which I did, automatically; but I found no comfort. Their arms felt insubstantial, their eyes held too many questions I knew they’d never be able to ask, their fear was wordless and stiff. (18%)

The plot developed in a direction I wasn’t at all anticipating. When I read the blurb – “a movie with a shockingly familiar plot draws the two women together once more” – I assumed that the story of their kidnapping was widely known, that someone decided to profit off their story without their involvement, and they reconnect through some sort of entanglement with that. I found the actual plot more intriguing and creative than that. I liked that the book description didn’t give it away. I don’t like descriptions that describe a major plot point that doesn’t happen until 100+ pages in the novel. Pretty Is‘s major premise is established 6% in, but I still appreciated that it came as a surprise. The plot is built on some pretty outrageous coincidences that you know would never happen in real life, but well-written fiction like this allows makes it believable. I’d say this novel is plot driven, but the characters are central to the plot’s success – does the plot make the characters or do the characters make the plot?

Please note: This paragraph contains minor spoilers! Read at your own risk.  I noticed two points made by other reviewers that I disagree with. One is that Lois’ behavior seems unnatural or out of character. Lois’ sanity is called into question by at least herself, Carly May and Sean. (Quote from Carly May: “Only one of us can be batshit crazy, I tell myself. I have a sneaking sort of feeling that Lois – rational, orderly Lois – might have claimed that role” [83%]). I didn’t question it while reading – in fact, I wondered why everyone was thinking she was crazy. I’m terrible with unreliable narrators because I take everything they say at face value. When Lois was speaking, I though, ‘Yeah, you’re right’, but in retrospect, how she deals with her creepy stalker is definitely not right. I don’t think this is poor writing – having Lois, an otherwise solid woman, acting ‘out of character’ with her stalker. I think it shows that she is a little bit off and shows how the kidnapping affected her. The second point is that the conclusion is abrupt and/or unsatisfying. I dislike such conclusions, but I found Pretty Is‘s conclusion to be neither of those things. I had all the answers I wanted, and I was satisfied with where the characters ended up.There is a spike in the ‘thrills’, but I was totally absorbed and carried along all the ups and downs it brought.

In genre above, I labeled this book ‘literary fiction + dash of thriller’. Another person might label it ‘chick lit thriller’ or ‘contemporary’. What genre is this book?! Who decides genres, anyhow? Are they useful to anyone beyond the person doing the labelling? I’ve learned over the past years the stories I love the most can be found in the general fiction of a bookstore or library, even though they often have strong touches of fantasy or terror. For me, Pretty Is feels ‘literary’ with a hint of thriller – just a hint; I wouldn’t call it ‘a thriller’, it’s just the nature of part of the plot. Then again, maybe it’s because I was so focused on the ‘literary fiction’ parts of the book that I can’t accept it’s more of a thriller, like how I can’t imagine Paper Towns as a ‘mystery’. I’m sure there are people who would laugh at me calling this book ‘literary’. Maybe it’s just contemporary fiction? What’s the difference between the two, anyhow? (Says the English major…) I do use the two labels separately here on my blog, but they really just follow my own impression of the book… I don’t know what the actual definitions or differences between the two terms are. Conclusion: Labels can be as tricky as ratings when describing books!

The Bottom Line: If the plot intrigues you at all, give it a go. Much better than the few other after kidnapping stories I’ve read, this would be a great read to curl up with during an evening at the cottage.

Further Reading: 

Review: Half a Creature from the Sea by David Almond

Author: David Almond
Title: Half a Creature from the Sea
Format/Source: eBook/Netgalley
Published: September 2015 (USA)
Publisher: Candlewick
Length: 240 pages
Genre: Middle grade historical/fantasy short stories
Why I Read: Browsing NetGalley, caught my attention
Read If You: Don’t usually read short stories; like the atmosphere of small town England ~1960s
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon 
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

This is a collection of dark, powerful and moving short stories from master storyteller David Almond, inspired by his childhood in the north-east of England. It features coming of age stories on the theme of closeness to home, deftly interwoven with illuminating autobiographical pieces on the inspirations behind the fiction. It is [features] black and white vignette illustrations. It comes from the author of the internationally award-winning Skellig.

I last read a short story collection years ago, I suppose. I only read such collections when an author I adore publishes one. Why did I pick up Half a Creature from the Sea? This sentence from the NetGalley description sold it for me: “Set in the northern English Tyneside country of the author’s childhood, these eight short stories by the incomparable David Almond evoke gritty realities and ineffable longings, experiences both ordinary and magical.” Seaside English setting + childhood memories + touches of magic = I want to try it! This book publishes in US in the fall, but since it’s already available in the UK, I’m publishing my review now.

The collection contains only eight stories. This also appealed to me – hopefully there would be few mediocre stories to wade through in hopes of running into the goods ones, as I hear tends to be the case with story collections. GoodReads says it’s 240 pages, but in Kindle-speak it’s only ‘Loc 1522’.  Eight stories was a perfect number for me. I breezed through the collection and didn’t find any story lesser than its companion. Each story has it own charm.

Almond’s own childhood heavily influenced these stories. A few pages of explanation prefaces each story, describing the story’s basis in Almond’s reality and sometimes how it became fictionalized. This telling doesn’t spoil the stories. Almond’s prose still flows clearly in these passages. Understanding the truths in the stories made them all the more vivid for me. I appreciated a bit where he mentions having rewritten one story many times, and will probably continuing doing so in the future. That’s not something you can do easily with novels.

“That’s the strange thing about writing stories – you put in something imaginary to make the whole thing seem more real.” (21%)

Another aspect of the stories I really enjoyed was the role of the Catholic church in the lives of the young boys. I haven’t read a lot of children’s literature where the children are so engaged in a real world religion. In that area, at that time, Catholicism was just a natural, integral part of their lives. I grew up in a church, but my experience differed greatly from the ones in the stories. I liked reading about how the church influenced the boy’s lives, and how their opinions changed and developed.

“Our duties to retain the faith and to please and obey God were much more important than our duty to love and to care for our fellow creatures.” (32%)

Although part of the reason I picked up this book was the mention of magical experiences, these play less of a role in the stories than I expected. Often the ‘magic’ is a minor part, a background note to the characters themselves. I didn’t even mind, though, because the stories are sweet enough without fantasy. The prose, too, is lovely. Almond writes the perspective of a young child well.

Perhaps by now you’re wondering the target age of this book. It appears to be marketed as middle-grade. Candlewick’s website says 7 to 9 years old (which I actually think could be too young) and the protagonists are all 10- or 11-years-old, but to me the atmosphere moves the stories beyond that level. Penguin RandomHouse’s website says young adult and Kirkus Review suggests 13-18, but certainly 14 is ‘too old’. Maybe this is one of those books you can enjoy as child, forgot about as a teen, and return to to find something new when you’re older. The Ocean at the End of the Lane gave me a similar vibe, albeit with a a lot more darkness. I don’t think 10-year-old me would have liked Half a Creature from the Sea so much, because A) I never read short stories (are they common in middle grade nowadays?) and B) there wasn’t a lot of fantasy, just touches here and there. I didn’t come to appreciate slice-of-life until my late teens. Regardless, I think this is a great book. Read it yourself, then pass it on to a young thoughtful reader or one who likes all things British.

The Bottom Line: Perhaps you’re not one much for short stories, but the description appeals to you. Give it a go, and maybe you’ll be wondering, like I am, why you don’t read more short stories!

Review: Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

Author: Neal Shusterman
Title: Challenger Deep
Format/Source: ebook/Edelweiss
Published: 21 April 2015
Publisher: HarperCollins
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Young adult
Why I Read: New work by a favourite author
Read If You: Want to understand what experiencing mental illness can be like
Rating:  ★★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through Edelweiss in exchange for my honest review. 

I don’t know what to say about this book, beyond that it’s probably Shusterman’s best and one I’d recommend to anybody.

The story feels deeply real. I felt I was finally able to understand a bit better what it’s like to have this sort of experience. Shusterman’s prose cuts sharply, more so than anything I’ve previously read by him before. He writes with sensitivity and clarity. I thought he had to be writing from personal experience. His note at the end confirmed this.  His son Brendan experienced mental illness during high school. Brendan’s illustrations during that time are included in parts of the book, and Neal worked closely with Brendan to write this story. (See link to interview below.)

I’m not sure what else to say. If you’re thinking, “Oh, not another book about mental illness” – forget the others, this is something different and definitely worth your time.

The Bottom Line: Read this book to gain at least a glimpse of what it’s like to experience mental illness.

Further Reading: 

Review: Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck

Author: Cecelia Ekbäck
Title: Wolf Winter
Format/Source: eBook/Netgalley
Published: January 2015
Publisher: Weinstein Books
Length: 376 pages
Genre: Historical suspense
Why I Read: Recommended for fans of The Snow Child, description brought to mind Burial Rites
Read If You’re: Looking for an ominous winter tale 
Rating:  ★★★½ [ratings guide]
GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

I came across the term ‘Nordic noir’ a few days ago. When I googled it, I discovered it’s an actual term for Scandinavian mysteries, but I think it’s just the phrase I’ve been looking for to describe books such as Burial Rites, The Snow Child and now, Wolf Winter. Books where winter features as a key character, an atmospheric and sombre (but not necessarily dreary) mood drives the prose, a historical setting strips away modern distractions, and characters’ daily struggles for survival have just a kiss of the supernatural about them (if only due dark and romanticized nature of their situations). The setting doesn’t necessarily have to be Nordic, but it works especially well. All of these components I love are present in Wolf Winter, Celia Ekbäck’s debut novel.

The prose holds many stark moments. I won’t give them away! But there were places I had to pause and shut my eyes for a moment, because the impression in my mind was so vivid. I’m wowed by writing that can truly startle you, when all you’re doing is reading words on a page. It’s such a different experience from watching a movie, and yet a talented writer can draw out just the same emotions. Those specific moments aside, the prose is what you might expect from such a tale – vivid and succinct, atmospheric and bold.

This novel features many great characters. I like the ghosts, and their questionable physicality. I enjoy reading about settlers. Even without winter majesty or supernatural happenings, I would still be happy to read about settlers. I didn’t think I would find myself reading another book featuring a priest so soon! In The Enchanted you have the disgraced priest, in Burial Rites you have the young priest, in Wolf Winter you have both in one. (Maybe I should do a list – “great books featuring non-traditional priests”?). Though I’m not sure how I feel about the priest, I adored Maija! She’s a great mother, sincere in her love for her children,  She loves her children and this shows through (twice I noted passages I thought particularly sweet) but she doesn’t coddle them too closely or have an unbelievable relationship with either daughter. I felt for her as she came to realize she didn’t know Frederika like she used. The mother-daughter relationship becomes prominent as the story progresses. Maija is a role-model for me beyond her role as a mother. I found myself admiring some of the decisions she made and the opinions she voiced, and how she remained down to earth, even if she wasn’t always correct. I sympathized when she worried about her family. She’s not too perfect or too flawed. Maija is the most well-drawn character of the bunch, I think (of course, she is the main character). Some of the settlers could have been expounded on more, considering they’re all meant to be suspects in the murder. I would have liked to have gotten to know some of them better.

Two small comments I’m not sure where to stick: It’s not so often now that I come across words I’m totally unfamiliar with…so it was with excitement I highlighted the word haulm near the beginning of the story. I like the slow creeping fear that pervades through the settlement as the story progresses, heigtened, of course, by the experience of a brutal winter.

Please note: The next paragraph contains minor spoilers regarding the conclusion of the story. Skip to avoid.

I haven’t commented much on the plot yet. There’s a lot going on in the story, but I didn’t really notice it until afterward. Everything fits snug together – women’s place in society, the role/relationship between the church and state, new vs. old religious beliefs, settling in a harsh landscape, handling sexual abuse, etc. For me, though, the story-line was the weakest aspect of the novel, mainly because of the conclusion. First, I wanted to know more about Maija and her family’s background. There’s something like an info dump towards the end of the novel, but that wasn’t really what I was hoping for. The conclusion wasn’t really for me. I thought it too political. I initially liked the inclusion of nameless politics, but I wasn’t expecting it to play such a big role in the storyline. Politics aren’t to my taste. The mysteries are solved quickly and wrapped up almost too neatly. There was a lack of suspense as everything came together. Lastly, I’m not sure about Paavo’s role in the story. I didn’t know whether to put my comments about him in the character paragraph or in the plot paragraph. I decided here because he felt mostly like a plot device, though when he was present in the novel I thought he had a lot of potential. I was sad to see him depart the story early on.  (I feel like there should be a companion novel about what he was doing and why he wasn’t writing and what happens when/if he comes back). I suppose he had to leave so Maija could come into her own? But then why have him there in the first place? I enjoyed Wolf Winter, but the conclusion didn’t meet my expectations.

Wolf Winter is an enjoyable read and a strong debut. I’d recommend it to people who like this kind of story. But, it’s not a ground-breaking book I’ll be pushing to everyone. And that’s okay! One doesn’t always need to be reading amazing books. Sometimes you just need a good read and not something that’s going to transform your world and turn you obsessive…

The Bottom Line: If you like moody winter stories or historical settler tales (or just need a book to snuggle up with during a blizzard), by all means give this a read. It’s a good debut and I already look forward to Ekbäck  ‘loose sequel’ (see the Shelf Awareness link below).

Further Reading: 

    Extra! Here is a song that came on the radio while I was writing this review. It perfectly matches the tone of this novel.

    Review: Tolkien by Devin Brown

    Author: Devin Brown
    Title: Tolkien
    Format/Source: eBook/NetGalley
    Published: October 2014
    Publisher: Abingdon Press
    Length: 145 pages
    Genre: Biography
    Why I Read: New Tolkien book supposedly about The Hobbit
    Read If You’re: New to Tolkien and want to know about his life
    Rating:  ★★★ [ratings guide]
    GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon
     I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

    The subheading of Tolkien implies it’s about how The Hobbit was published (I suppose to draw in new fans of The Hobbit films), but Tolkien is actually just a very succinct general biography. I was about 60% in before The Hobbit came up. When I checked my progress, I was surprised to see I was that far into the book* and had only been reading basic biographical information about Tolkien one can find repeated in many places. There is nothing new to be found here. So, why would one read this instead of anything else that touches upon Tolkien’s life? I suppose this book fills a gap in Tolkien literature for those are newly introduced to Tolkien and just want learn a bit about his life. It’s a fine enough book if you come at it from that perspective – a good introduction to Professor Tolkien for those who have little knowledge about him (and perhaps this is a growing audience now again due to the films), but pass by if you’ve ever read anything about the Professor.

    Brown attempts to distinguish his narrative by pointing out “If this one person didn’t do this one thing…” many times to show the unlikeliness of Tolkien’s Middle-earth being introduced to the public. Once or twice is a nice reminder of how everything really must fall in place, but after reading it numerous times I got a bit weary and started thinking “Well, isn’t that the case with everything in life? One tiny change and everything could be different”.

    There isn’t anything wrong or bad about this book beyond the minor note above; I’m just not the target audience. I still intend to check out Brown’s The Christian World of the Hobbit. I hear a lot about Christianity and The Lord of the Rings but not so much about The Hobbit, so the subject caught my attention.

    The Bottom Line: Nothing about this book makes it stand out, but it’s still a solid if brief introduction that could be a good read for those with no knowledge of Tolkien.

    *This is both the trouble and delight with ebooks – it’s easy not to notice how far in you are or aren’t. Although I find it’s usually trouble – “Oh what, that’s the end already?” “Oh what, I’m already that far in?” “Oh wait, the book is THAT long?”