Review: Behind Her Eyes

Disclaimer: There will be spoilers at the end of this post. These spoilers will be preceded by a warning — do not read past that warning if you do not wish to discover the spoilers! The bulk of this post — including the verdict/rating at the end — is safe for those who have not yet read the novel.

Well, friends — I did it. I bought another thriller, despite the fact that I’d adamantly decided against doing so in 2017. Book of the Month Club’s February selections included a mysterious-looking thriller titled Behind Her Eyes, by author Sarah Pinborough. The novel has been touted by many as the closest rival to Gone Girl, a masterful piece of domestic noir fiction, and a thriller that will keep readers guessing until the end.

Only one of those is accurate.

Behind Her Eyes opens in modern-day England with a some very cryptic quips from “then” and “later” and “now.” The novel then switches back and forth between past and present, as well as main characters Louise and Adele. Louise, a divorced mother of a young son, lives a woefully mediocre life. Though she works only a few days per week, she is still supported financially by her ex-husband. One evening, Louise meets a handsome stranger in a bar, shares a stolen kiss, and arrives at work the next morning to discover the man is her new boss, David. To make matters more awkward, David is accompanied on his tour of his new workplace by none other than his flawlessly beautiful wife, Adele.

David and Louise struggle to resist temptation as their work environment draws them closer to one another. Meanwhile, Louise has formed an extremely unlikely (and idiotic) friendship with — you guessed it — Adele. Louise becomes trapped in a double life of sorts, unable to resist the companionship both David and Adele bring to her formerly lonely existence. Although she is guilt-ridden by both relationships, Louise’s need for intimacy overrides her conscience. Her desperation for friendship, coupled with David’s unhappiness in his own marriage and Adele’s equally intense need for companionship, creates a perfect storm of events that lead to the story’s unforeseeable climax.

The GoodBehind Her Eyes certainly delivers on the promise that readers will not foresee the story’s conclusion.

The Bad: The novel’s writing felt sub-par at best, to me. I condede that Pinborough manages to establish an unpredictable plot and three extraordinarily unlikeable characters (who still manage to spark readers’ curiosity); however, the diction itself is infuriatingly simple. Often, I felt like I was reading the diary of a teenager, or a poorly educated adult. This sounds harsh — I know — but when I read adult novels, I want to be inspired by the beauty and complexity of the author’s writing. As a high school student, I adored classical literature for the depth and vibrancy of the writing; as an adult, I am still enchanted by the world J.K. Rowling creates in her Harry Potter series, because the writing is vivid, descriptive, and beautiful. Pinborough’s book brought none of that to the table (which is mostly true to contemporary thriller form), and I had a hard time getting past my annoyance with this aspect of the novel. This was compounded by the frequent use of the F-bomb, which lost its weight with excessive utterances. Other frustrations: see spoilers.

The Verdict: 2/5. Nope, nope, nope. This BOTM pick was a miss for me. I was never truly absorbed by the story — the first half was tediously slow and I struggled to become invested in the plot. When the plot finally picks up at the end, the author makes choices that seem ridiculously over-the-top and woefully forced to achieve that #WTFThatEnding reaction.

 

* * *

Caution: Spoilers ahead! Discontinue reading if you plan to read the book and don’t want the ending spoiled.

* * *

 

The supernatural elements woven into the novel were a major miss for me. Louise suffers from night terrors, and is counseled on how to take control of her dreams by Adele, who suffered from the same affliction as a young child. With practice, the two characters are able to exit their bodies during sleep, and wander the outside world. Their abilities play a dark role in the outcome of the novel — a body swap, of sorts. This thread is strikingly similar to the concepts of Audrey Niffenegger’s novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, which also just didn’t do it for me.

Louise’s character was also far too pathetic for me to enjoy or relate to. I had a hard time connecting to an individual who is lonely, but unwilling to find a job that would introduce her to more friends/provide more stimulation throughout the week. Louise’s perpetual wine drinking is also eye-roll worthy. Nearly every scene that includes Louise also includes a bottle — or two — of wine. While this all contributes to the development of her unhappy and pathetic existence, I have developed a strong sense of distaste for our generation’s glorification of women who love nothing but drinking wine in excess and grumbling about how much they hate their lives. Louise falls a bit into that category and was simply far too annoying for me to connect to or even sympathize with.

And finally, as I mentioned previously, the ending of the novel just felt completely forced and ridiculous to me. Perhaps this is largely due to the fact that I wasn’t a fan of the dream-state body-switching element of the story; perhaps my annoyance is due to the fact that I found all of the characters over-dramatized and unenjoyable. Either way, while I was surprised to learn of Adele’s true nature, I wasn’t invested enough in the characters or plot to truly experience that “WTF” reaction that apparently so many of the novel’s readers so greatly relished. Guess I’m in the minority, on this one!

Review: The Paris Architect

Note: This post was originally posted on my school blog, which is just a sample site that I post on infrequently as I guide my students through their own blogging processes. These words are mine. Promise. 🙂

As an avid reader of WWII fiction, I was excited to discover The Paris Architect by author Charles Belfoure. The concept was appealing immediately: a Parisian architect, Lucien, is out of work in Nazi-occupied France and desperate for some cash. When he is approached by a fellow Frenchman with a daunting request: Will Lucien design a hiding place for a Jew within the confines of an already-constructed building?

Lucien’s self-serving nature is appealed to when his French contractor, Manet, also approaches Lucien with several jobs building armaments facilities and warehouses throughout Paris for the Nazi regime. Although Lucien is conflicted about working for the enemy (and is certainly fearful of being “found out” by the Gestapo for aiding Jews), he agrees to both jobs — the hiding place and the warehouse — on the basis of survival. He has one condition, though: Only one hiding place for Manet. No others.

As the novel progresses, Lucien’s morals are called into question on a number of occasions as he grapples with what it means to be human in a city and era dictated by monsters. Tensions rise as lives are put at risk and the Nazi regime’s chokehold grip tightens around the people of Paris.

The Good: This story was compelling and fresh. While the moral dilemmas of Nazi collaboration and fugitive hiding have certainly been broached by writers of WW2 fiction, Belfoure put an intriguing spin on the topic with his use of an architect as the main character. Indeed, in the epilogue of the book, the author notes that he actually borrowed the concept of priest holes from the 16th Century when Queen Elizabeth I reigned over England and persecuted those of the Catholic persuasion. This marriage of historic events created an engaging plot.

The Not-So-Good: Writing felt sluggish and forced in several places, especially during character dialogue. I marveled at this for a bit, given the fact that this book had garnered so much hype from reading circles that I am privy to; but upon reading the author’s bio, I discovered the writer is a historian with extensive knowledge in architecture. While his background contributed to the intriguing premise of the novel, the writing felt clunky throughout.

The Verdict: 3/5 stars. Worth a read (the story is both quick and interesting), but not necessarily a text that will stick with you forever.

Review: Final Reads of 2016!

For almost three months, I abstained from reading (and, so it seems, blogging). This wasn’t entirely planned — I was exhausted, bogged down with grading and lesson planning in the thick of the first semester, and entirely uninterested in doing anything in the evening (other than eating and sleeping, of course). When we went on our vacation to Mexico, I was so mentally exhausted from finalizing a major editing project, wrapping up the quarterly publication I edit, and planning for the school days that I’d miss, I couldn’t bring myself to crack one of the three books I’d toted along with me on the expedition.

At first, I felt guilty. Then I was frustrated. And then — I panicked. What if I was burned out on reading altogether? What if I could never bring myself to finish another book again? If you can’t comprehend the fear that these revelations induced, imagine having your dominant arm amputated.

I should have known, though, that something I loved so dearly could never be pushed aside forever. With the advent of Christmas break, my desire to read returned (as did my sanity). Without further ado, I present to you my final reads of 2016:

  1. The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman. This book felt like a selection-of-obligation. I’d heard of Gaiman, referenced often by other readers and lovers of spectacular literature, but I’d never picked up one of his works. Each mention of his name made my cheeks burn a little brighter with shame. So, when Book of the Month made The Ocean at the End of the Lane an add-on option, I felt a sense of dutiful satisfaction when I added the book to my cart. And let me tell you — this pick was not at all what I expected. For whatever reason, I thought of Gaiman as some sort of contemporary male Jodi Picoult, a writer of the intense complexities of everyday life. I discovered, to my delight, an author with a knack for vivid prose and a captivating imagination. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a remarkably odd and fantastic work that expands on the childhood of a man who has returned home for a funeral. Readers are jerked into the past, along with the unnamed narrator, and sucked into a dark tale of magic, danger, and other worlds. Although this book doesn’t make my top 10 list for the year, I appreciated the beauty of the words in his novel and the nostalgic feelings the story evoked. Mostly, I have conflicting feelings about the work . . . I really admired the author’s diction, but felt “meh” about the story itself. When I was finished, I was left thinking . . . “Okay. Well. That was odd.” That being said, at right around 200 pages, this curious (and brief) book is worth exploring, if you have any interest at all in adult surrealism and fantasy. Rating: 3.5/5 stars
  2. The Sun is Also a Star – Nicola Yoon. This work of Young Adult fiction is, in a word, delightful. It’s also a bit heart-wrenching, idealistic, charming, and dramatic . . . but mostly, it’s delightful. Yoon writes the delicately entwined tale of Natasha and Daniel, resident New York teenagers facing very undesirable futures. Natasha, an immigrant of Jamaican parents, faces deportation after her family’s illegal status is revealed via some rather unfortunate circumstances. Daniel, son of Korean immigrants and lifelong resident of the city, is heavily burdened by the academic and professional expectations of his parents (who have already been disappointed by their first born). The book takes readers on a fast-paced one-day journey through the city, alternating between Daniel and Natasha’s viewpoints with short, witty “histories” of other characters or significant topics sprinkled throughout. The result? A sweet, hopeful account of love in a world of endless possibilities.  I raced through this engaging read in one day and couldn’t wait to recommend it to several of my high school students. Rating: 4/5 stars
  3. The Mothers – Brit Bennett. This book is everything, friends. Everything. Another Book of the Month selection, The Mothers sat on my shelf for two months during the Great Reading Hiatus of 2016. I finally cracked its spine two days before the new year and a handful of pages into the book, I knew I was in for a treat. Bennett writes the aching narrative of two girls estranged from their mothers — one by death, the other by choice. The unlikely pair, both members of a seaside church in a black community in southern California, develop a close friendship bordering on sisterhood as Nadia searches for reason and safety in the aftermath of her mother’s suicide. Aubrey is the perfect companion for Nadia — comforting, seemingly self-assured, and loyal. The pair is destined for lifelong companionship, it seems . . . until one choice and a dark secret forever alter the course of their lives. The plot is heavy with deception, drama, and longing; characters are multifaceted and brilliantly relatable, despite (or because of?) the weight of the circumstances that compose their lives. The Mothers is a richly textured novel that will stir your heart and remain with you for years to come. Rating: 5/5

In short: if you only read one book in 2017, make it The Mothers. You can expect to experience heartbreak, but you certainly won’t know disappointment.

Review: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things (Spoilers at the End)

At the end of this blog post, there will be a spoiler alert. Everything that precedes that alert is safe to read if you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want anything to be given away. If you have read the book, I’d love for you to read the spoiler section and offer your thoughts in the comments section!

Another book I picked up on the BOTM website in September is All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Kansas author Bryn Greenwood. As a lifetime resident of Kansas, I was excited to discover this publication by a graduate of Kansas State University; an author who not only attended school in my state, but resides in Kansas to this day!

I was also drawn in by the title and extreme Litsy hype over this read. This book seemed to jump out at me all the time — I saw it online, in emails from booksellers, on bookshelves at store. Its title appealed to me immensely: life is really all about the ugly and wonderful things, and I knew I’d find some sort of gem within the pages that I could cherish.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is a somber tale of lives intertwined accidentally in the 1970s Midwest. Eight-year-old Wavy is raised in the pits of meth-lab hell: her mother is an obsessive-compulsive user who is barely capable of maintaining her own existence; her father, a promiscuous man known for his wily charms and forceful backhand; a younger brother, whom Wavy must defend from the horrors of their world.

Before the accident, Wavy knows no such thing as affection or compassion. A highly dysfunctional home life has instilled in Wavy a fear of being “bad” — i.e., transferring her germs to others through touch — and an aversion to eating in front of others. She has come to expect disappointment, fear, and hunger as norms in her world.

After the accident, though, Wavy finds herself in an unusual predicament: for the first time in her life, she begins to interact with a human capable of honesty, responsibility, comfort, and love.

The years that follow the accident unravel to reveal a complex new dynamic, challenging readers to question their ideals of morality, the meaning of family, and those all-too-hasty judgements about those who are raised in dire straights.

This book scooped a nest out i my heart and burrowed way down deep. Greenwood’s prose isn’t much to shake a stick at, but this book isn’t about prose. It’s about unconventional, unconditional love; the underbelly of desperation; and grit.

Rating: 4.5/5 — I can’t say I “loved” the book or that it was “amazing” — read it, and you’ll understand, nor do I plan to recommend it to hordes; but I appreciate the complexity of this work and applaud Greenwood for tackling a subject most wouldn’t dare approach.

* * *

Spoiler Alert! STOP READING NOW if you don’t want the ending ruined!

* * *

Okay . . . let’s get real. I found Wavy’s relationship with Kellen predictable, in the sense that I knew it was coming. From the moment he wrecked his bike and Greenwood described his reaction to this ethereal being, I knew the novel was headed down a road I would probably not enjoy all that much. Having read Nabokov’s Lolita, I didn’t relish the thought of another age-defying relationship.

I was surprised, then, when I kept reading and found myself pulling for Kellen and Wavy. And that freaked me out. Big time.

As much as I wasn’t wowed by Greenwood’s prose, I was blown away by her impeccable depiction of a completely taboo relationship in a manner that was both heart-rending and impossible to fully dismiss. Where Lolita simply felt repulsive and possessive and vindictive, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things seemed — ironically — innocent and tender.

Don’t get me wrong: I did not even remotely enjoy the less-innocent exchanges between Kellen and 14-year-old Wavy. I shuddered often at their semi-sexual (okay, sometimes downright sexual) encounters, which didn’t become any less uncomfortable as I read on. I think it’s worth noting, then, that as uncomfortable as I was reading the passages, one can only imagine how very conflicted Greenwood must have been as she wrote the novel.

When I finished reading — at four in the morning, on a school day, because I couldn’t stop thinking about the story — I needed some time to ruminate over it. I was shaken at the core by Greenwood’s tale, disgusted with myself for being so wholeheartedly obsessed with the Wavy-Kellen reunion that came like a Christmas gift at the end. And yet . . .

I could justify their relationship. Despite every moral fiber of my being straining desperately in the direction of Firm Resolve, I could justify their love for one another, their tender embraces, and their desperate resilience. After all, when a girl like Wavy meets a guy like Kellen — one who will nourish her, and care for her both emotionally and physically, and protect her — how could either of them turn away?

What are your thoughts? Am I headed straight for hell? Or did you, too, experience a tender sort of compassion and heartache as you read?

The Write Stuff: A Teacher Reflection

This summer, I attended a writing institute in Emporia, KS — a location for the National Writing Project. The experience was magical, to say the least (literally: I was dubbed “Most Capable of Turning Any Situation Into a Harry Potter Reference”). I learned a great deal about myself as a writer, gathered feedback from writing peers, and acquired a wealth of knowledge on the topic of writing instruction at the elementary and secondary level.

One core belief demanded attention in the weeks after I’d left: My students need to be writing daily. As an English major — writing, not literature or teaching — I had already established this belief; as a new teacher, though, I struggled to incorporate this principle in my daily labors. I wanted my students to write more, I knew they’d become stronger writers if they wrote more . . . but I couldn’t figure out the time thing. Where would I find all the time they needed to just . . . write?

After three years of teaching, one summer institute, and a few weeks of stubbornly (and metaphorically) ramming my head against the same brick wall time and time again, something finally clicked: I teach in a small, rural school with only one other teacher in the English “department” for grades 7-12, and my school doesn’t have a curriculum or scope and sequence. (That’s a new-teacher nightmare for another day, folks.) The one certainty I do have in this one-man-band I call my content area: time.

My students now write approximately 5-10 minutes daily in their Writers Notebooks. We’re in the midst of the fourth week of school, so it still takes some time to settle down and get in the writing “groove” — especially since they usually write at the beginning of class, and they’re still trying to transition from one subject to the next — but I allow them to plug in their headphones while they write, which minimizes the number of conversations that occur.

A few times each week, I use the projector to show my students an intriguing image (usually a foreign location or fantasy illustration) and ask my students to just create. I want them to have fun with words, to learn that writing doesn’t have to mean five-paragraph essays or the “right kind of creativity.”

And they love it.

I write alongside my students. I’ve noticed they’re more likely to hunker down and scribble away if they see me writing, too — in fact, when they see me whip out my pen and notebook, a hush falls over the room. I gaze around the room some as I write, partially to keep an eye on kids and gauge when to stop the writing; partially to let them know it’s okay to look around sometimes, as long as they return to paper at some point.

When we’ve reached a stopping point, I always ask who would like to share. Since we’re in the early stages of the school year, several of my students are still shy. Sharing writing is extremely intimate, even when the stories are make-believe; but I want my students to learn the joys of putting their work out there, of having their voices heard. I want them to learn that sharing writing is no different than putting their woods projects or art projects on display in the hallways or at the end-of-year student show.

So I share my writing, too.

The first time or two, a few kids joked that there was no way they could live up to the work I’d shared. (I promise I’m not doing this for the ego boost.) Despite their jokes, though, I noticed kids becoming enraptured with the stories I created. They’ve come to expect me to share my work. While it’s nice to have an audience (captive though they be), I didn’t start sharing my writing to impress or intimidate. I had an inkling that if I modeled the act of sharing personal writing aloud, my students might be less terrified of taking the author’s chair, themselves.

Here’s what I’ve noticed in just a few weeks:

Hands have begun to shoot up more quickly when I ask, “Who wants to share their writing?” Students have stopped groaning (as much) when I tell them to pull out their journals. Kids no longer snap their notebooks shut the moment I ask them to find a stopping place — they scribble a bit longer, some several minutes longer, and many wait with their notebooks open on their laps or tabletops: an invitation to be asked to read.

Sure, some still drag their feet and a handful can only manage to eke out a sentence or two in ten minutes; but I feel confident that with time, when writing becomes a habit, the words will come more easily.

Today, I shared this photo with my senior English classes. A handful of the more technical-minded boys wrote about how they would improve the structure, while a few penned stories of runaways seeking a place of solitude amid the waves of this lake (or river, or ocean). I shared last, as

house-on-rock

Borrowed from newslinq.com.

always: a fabricated tale of an unloved sea urchin whose shell grew at a rate proportionate to his loneliness.

After I finished reading, the class sat for a moment before one girl blurted out, “Whoa. Is that what happens when you read all the time? You get good at writing and creating stories?”

I laughed a bit, because their notions of “good” writing are a tad generous among high school students; but I was pleased nonetheless because her comment led to a conversation about the importance of reading. These kids are well aware I’m a book hoarder; there’s a whiteboard posted outside my classroom door with weekly updates about the books I’m currently reading. I also may or may not have taken things to an extreme-geek level when I revealed to them my giddy excitement at the arrival of my first Book of the Month Club box.

If I’m lucky, though, my students will begin making that connection between frequent reading a better writing and taking it more seriously; if for no other reason, to improve the works they bring to the collective table during our daily writing time.

 

Quick Picks

Now that I’ve completed (read: survived) yet another first month of school, my state of denial has begun to waver. The increasingly weighty burden of eighty-some teens and their futures weighs heavily on my shoulders, which have already taken on their fall-semester slump. School is in session! — and my time for pleasure-reading will be reduced to nothing in just a few quick weeks.

Since reading time is limited, I’ve realized that attempting to read long novels with great complexity and depth is futile; usually, I don’t have the opportunity to read the same book every single day, and often I go days at a time without cracking a book. (I know. It’s a crime.) As such, I try to look for books with simpler structures and characters. Below is a list of novels that teachers (and other busy folks) can safely tackle during the (school) year.

  1. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Genre: Thriller. I read this book a few months after it came out, and I’ve been disappointed ever since. Seriously. The novel was gripping, characters were enjoyably despicable, and I didn’t see a single twist coming — right up to the end. This novel is a quick, suspenseful read — you may or may not stay up all night to finish — and the plot is limited to a few integral characters, so readers with limited time don’t have to worry about keeping track of multiple storylines. I’ve been hunting for a similarly gripping thriller ever since . . . and have yet to be satisfied.
  2. The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes. Genre: Fiction/Romance. Don’t be fooled by the genre — this page-turner isn’t a gooey Sparks novel. This novel tells the story of Sophie Lefevre, a 20-something French woman in German-occupied France during World War I. Sophie, her sister, and her sister’s kids must struggle to survive their occupied town; but beyond the normal terrors the villagers face, Sophie’s family must also feed the German officers in their family-owned hotel each night. Intertwined with this early-1900s tale of survival: a modern widow’s struggle to overcome grief and move forward with her life. At the heart of both stories, a common feature exists: an original painting of a beautiful woman. Moyes’ novel satisfied my love of historical fiction stories and featured a strong female lead to boot. The book itself is almost 500 pages, but Moyes’ prose is strong and the story so well-conceived, you’ll fly through the book — and wish there were more.
  3. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Genre: Fiction. This novel is a standout in the realm of Holocaust-fiction works. The story is told from the perspective of Death — lending itself to some rather interesting revelations along the way. It’s been a few years since I picked the novel up, but I remember the story touched me at my core, a unique and shattering piece of Holocaust fiction unlike any other. Perk: the film version is excellent, as well.
  4. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Genre: Fiction. This short read is quite simple in its message, but it packs a powerful punch. The novel is actually almost 30 years old, but I only recently became aware of its existence. A narrator follows the travels of Santiago, a shepherd boy who is determined to find treasure after meeting with a fortune teller who has promised great things at the pyramids of Egypt. The fable-esque tale centers on the idea that we all know our “Personal Legends” (or greatest dreams/destinies) when we’re younger, but lose sight of those Personal Legends as we become adults. Coelho, though, reinforces throughout the novel: “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” This read is excellent for high school/college students and those adults who have forgotten what it means to chase their dreams.

What are your favorite quick reads? Comment below!

On This Day

on this day, the day after —
i probably woke a bit later, sleep
clinging to my lids,
desperate for just
one
more
moment
of sleep —
tired still: the day before a garbled mess
of somber, tear-jerky anchors’ voices
and
panicked, grainy videos of
steely twin splinters vomiting up great clouds of cauliflower smoke
and
ash that covered bridges, manikins, golden retrievers,
even the sun.

i swallowed a pop-tart (cinnamon brown sugar) while
one thousand, three hundred fifty-three miles away
a girl swallowed a lump in her throat, an apricot pit,
as she waited in the armchair with the worn-smooth brown arms
for the person whose arms had done the smooth-wearing, the man who
chewed hot tamales for breakfast and sang made-up songs that embarrassed her.

i stood at the bottom of a hill waiting on a bus while
one thousand, three hundred fifty-three miles away
a man inhaled grit that clung to a throat scratchy with howled promises of rescue
and obedience to a god and anything, really, to argue with his brother just
one
more
time.

i waited in line at the lunch room, probably tuna casserole, while
one thousand, three hundred fifty-three miles away
a woman sat on a sofa covered with the ash and dust of 220 steel floors
and looked at the same tv images
over and over
and over
without ever really seeing anything but her twenty-four children
and their dust-coated backpacks
and the newly vacant seats at their dinner tables
and the whimper in their voices
and the whites of their eyes.

on this day, the day after —
i probably did not yet know that the great clouds of cauliflower smoke
still hesitated in the sky, more fog than vegetable
and ash still hung draped like a blanket over park benches and coffee mugs,
even — still — the sun;
and the ash-fog would hang over the sky
and the rooftops
and the people
many sunrises and sets after.