Category Archives: suspense / thriller

The Stalin Epigram

Woohoo, I’m finally reaching 2017 books. That’s actually THIS YEAR. I know it’s almost August. Still, go me.

The first book I read this year was called The Stalin Epigram by Robert Littell.

This book wasn’t what I thought it was going to be and for that reason was somewhat disappointing. While it does create an atmosphere of suspense, it really isn’t much of a thriller, which is what I thought I was getting. It’s based on the life of Osip Mandalstam, a widely admired Russian poet, who writes a satirical (and not so satirical) poem about Stalin during the height of Stalin’s power and purges (the 1930s).

Mandalstam writes a forbidden poem, reads it to a bunch of people, gets ratted out to the “Organs” (which is the name for the secret police) and he goes to prison, where he’s tortured, and then into exile with his wife. After he gets out of exile, he’s super jumpy and paranoid and depressed as you would be after being tortured and exiled, so he goes back to Moscow, where he isn’t supposed to go. He is discovered again, sent to a labor camp or a Siberian prison (this time without his wife) and he dies.

I don’t know what the point of this book was beyond telling a fictional account of something that’s well documented. The book is told through several points of view, the main one (to me) being that of Mandalstam’s wife. Other points of view are a weight lifter, one of Stalin’s bodyguards, an actress both Mandalstams are boning (again, more pointless sex writing, ugh), another Russian poet or two (both friends of Mandalstam) and maybe a few others.

The writing was fine, and the characters were interesting and varied, but nobody seemed to really do anything. Like I said, there was no point. The author, I think, has put some pretty serious research into Mandalstam, which is why I thought we were going to get more spy story paranoia and not just “Hey this is what happened.” I think Littell might have actually visited Mrs. Mandalstam in the 1970s before her death to accomplish some of this research, and included his thoughts on the conversations and what they were like after the novel was finished, but again, I’m not sure of the point.

I skimmed a lot of this book, which I guess is why I can’t remember much and entirely missed the point. Like my previous read, this wasn’t great. It was okay. But the font was much smaller, and it was at least 100 pages longer. It took me three months to finish and I put it down for extended periods.

Overall, I wouldn’t recommend it. It doesn’t seem to really know what it wants to be. If you do choose to read it, you won’t regret wasting your life. It’s not that bad. You may, however, find it to be generally disappointing.

Jamaica Inn

Daphne DuMaurier’s Jamaica Inn had been sitting on my shelf for quite some time before I finally picked it up late last year, and as usual I don’t know why I waited so long to get around to reading it. I think I ended up reading it this time because I recorded the movie off Turner Classic Movies and wanted to read the book first.

Jamaica Inn follows Mary Yellan, a very serious, stoic girl whose mother just died to the hotel of the title, where her Aunt Patience lives.

There is a real ‘Jamaica Inn’ on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. It still exists, people still go, and it inspired DuMaurier’s novel, however, the book does mention that the fate of the inn in real life and in the book are not the same and the novel is merely something DuMaurier made up. Apparently it’s a touristy spot these days, but in the novel it’s old and nearly abandoned.

So Mary is dropped off in the middle of the night at a dark, cold inn that “honest people” now avoid. In fact, if I remember correctly, she wasn’t even dropped off at the inn, because the carriage driver wouldn’t get close enough. She was dropped off a few miles away, across a moor, and probably wouldn’t have made it to the inn at all without the help of a passing vicar.

Aunt Patience, who Mary remembers from her childhood as lively and bright, is now cowering and meek, married to Joss Merlyn, the inn’s proprietor, as well as a drunk and local bully.

Mary and her uncle clash routinely, and Mary can’t stand her uncle, but is trapped in Jamaica Inn because Mary can’t bear to ignore her mother’s last wish – which was to go live with and care for her Aunt Patience. Mary also figures out that something is off – the inn never has any guests and the bar/restaurant portion rarely has visitors.

As with DuMaurier’s other novels, this story is full of rich language that creates a dark, brooding atmosphere. Mary is a spunky heroine, if not a little grating. Yes, we get it, Mary has little sense of humor and doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty and is pure of heart and spirit. WE GET IT. The supporting characters are more interesting, with my favorite of them being the vicar. There is a pretty good mystery involved, and some twists you don’t see coming until the very last moment, which I always appreciate. I’ve solved several plots way before the end and it always makes the story less enjoyable.

While Jamaica Inn is classified as a book of “romantic suspense,” I wouldn’t label it as such. It’s a suspenseful novel, certainly a mystery novel, but there isn’t that much that’s typically “romantic” about it. Mary does meet a man named Jem, and his identity and his job are parts of the mystery, but they’re not the main parts, and not even the most interesting parts.

I would recommend the book as a pretty good read, with this added tip: when you come across a word you don’t know because it’s not the 1800s anymore, look it up. The story will make way more sense. Jamaica Inn isn’t as good as Rebecca or My Cousin Rachel, but it’s enjoyable anyway and fairly short. I think the whole thing was 300 pages, tops. Probably more like 270.

Finally, as I previously mentioned, there is a film version of this novel that was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starred Maureen O’Hara and Charles Laughton. The movie was terrible. Supposedly it was hijacked by Laughton who would revise the script to make his role better or more appealing to the audience and what not. For whatever the reason, the film was really bad. And I’m a huge Hitchcock fan, so it’s not like me to dump on one of his films. He killed it adapting Rebecca, and I’ve really come to love and appreciate The Birds. But the screen adaptation of Jamaica Inn? It was bad. It was just bad. It didn’t follow the novel, it eliminated the most interesting character, it featured Charles Laughton as the world’s most obnoxious squire.

In this case, if deciding between the two, just go with the novel.

Last Words From Montmartre

I saw Qiu Miaojin’s Last Words From Montmartre at the Strand Bookstore down in the city on one of their tables. I think it was pre-owned because it was super cheap ($6-ish) and I bought it because the back read like it was going to be an exciting psychological thriller.

This book also satisfied a requirement on the list I lost last year, but I really thought it was going to be super exciting from the blurb on the back cover:

When the pioneering Taiwanese novelist Qiu Miaojin committed suicide in 1995 at age twenty-six, she left behind her unpublished masterpiece, Last Words from Montmartre. Unfolding through a series of letters written by an unnamed narrator, Last Words tells the story of a passionate relationship between two young women—their sexual awakening, their gradual breakup, and the devastating aftermath of their broken love. In a style that veers between extremes, from self-deprecation to pathos, compulsive repetition to rhapsodic musings, reticence to vulnerability, Qiu’s genre-bending novel is at once a psychological thriller, a sublime romance, and the author’s own suicide note.

The letters (which, Qiu tells us, can be read in any order) leap between Paris, Taipei, and Tokyo. They display wrenching insights into what it means to live between cultures, languages, and genders—until the genderless character Zoë appears, and the narrator’s spiritual and physical identity is transformed. As powerfully raw and transcendent as Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, and Theresa Cha’s Dictée, to name but a few, Last Words from Montmartre proves Qiu Miaojin to be one of the finest experimentalists and modernist Chinese-language writers of our generation.

It wasn’t sublime. It wasn’t thrilling. It was 176 pages of a woman feeling sorry for herself and being pathetic. I hated it.

I was excited about all aspects of it – a genre and gender bending queer romantic thriller taking place in far away, exotic cities? Am I tall enough to get on the ride? Sign me up.

And when I got off the ride, I got the distinct impression that I was misled on purpose. I found the unnamed narrator (another aspect of the story I liked, as it was reminiscent of Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, another romantic thriller with an unnamed narrator) whiny, self-indulgent, and as I said earlier, pathetic.

Maybe it’s because of who I am personally, but I have never liked self-pitying wallowers. I understand being depressed after a passionate relationship ends. Eventually, though, pull it together and get over it. Go on living. I always respected myself too much to let my relationship to a significant other define me. I never gave him that kind of power and I have trouble respecting women who do give their significant others, male of female, that kind of power. The relationship in the story, from what I remember now, wasn’t an abusive relationship of any kind, so it’s not that kind of inequality that would trigger someone being unable to leave or be truly damaged by abusive behavior. It was just some woman who couldn’t/wouldn’t get over a breakup.

I had no problem with the translation. Ari Larissa Heinrich did a great job. I can’t comment on the original language, but I thought it was beautifully written and therefore must have been beautifully translated.

My distinct reaction of dislike may be a defect of me personally because a lot of people love this book and comment endlessly on the genius of the author. She has other projects people rave about (though I have no inclination to discover them). Qiu Miaojin committed suicide, which, although I loathe admitting it, darkly fascinates me and is one of the reasons I thought this book would be good. It can be read as her suicide note? What does that mean? How interesting! Let’s find out.

I FOUND OUT. I HATED IT. I WAS GLAD THE NARRATOR WAS SETTING OFF TO KILL HERSELF.

Obviously I feel bad about the author because she was a real person, but the narrator? Nah.

This isn’t the first “great book” where my reaction was one of intense dislike to what I considered to be a whiny, pathetic narrator. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley really rubbed me the wrong way too, and I was only a 16 year old high school sophomore when I read that. But it was the same kind of thing. The narrator went on ENDLESSLY, wallowing in self-indulgent nonsense and oooooh poor him.

I can’t remember for sure 13 years later but I think that narrator commits suicide at the end too and I think my reaction was the same. “Good riddance.”

I would be more specific and look up more details of this book for this post, but I gave it to a friend and she never gave it back, which was fine. I haven’t asked for it back. I don’t want it back. It was $6ish, 176 pages, and 3 or 4 hours I’ll never get back.

It was disappointing enough without remembering all the specific details.

The Quiet Twin

I’m starting this post with a plug.

I bought The Quiet Twin by Dan Vyleta at The Mysterious Bookshop at 58 Warren St. in New York City. I looooove The Mysterious Bookshop. I have a soft spot for independent bookstores and The Mysterious Bookshop is definitely one of my favorites.

The cozy one room store is floor to 12? 15? foot ceiling wooden bookshelves and tables, at least half the back wall is dedicated to Sherlock Holmes, but the rest of the store is full of mysteries and thrillers from all over the world. The green carpet is dated and so is the oversized furniture,  and while many books are new some of the books are used, but it’s extremely easy for any mystery book lover to overlook the antiquated atmosphere and spend an hour? afternoon? day? going through everything from Victorian crime fiction to historical suspense thrillers.

…which brings me back to The Quiet Twin. The story is set in 1939, Nazi-occupied Vienna, in an apartment complex with an inner courtyard. A series of murders have taken place through the city and when Professor Speckstein’s dog ends up murdered as well, he wants to know who did it and why. He enlists the help of Dr. Beer, a physician who lives in the building. Before long, Dr. Beer is in the bedroom of Professor Speckstein’s teenage niece, Zuzka, who is not obviously ill but insists on seeing him. She shows the doctor the oddities of their neighbors she has learned just by watching them through their windows.

By the way, Professor Speckstein is the neighborhood Zellenleiter, an informant for the Nazi party. He’s also a sex offender.

There are a lot of characters in this story, and each one has any number of things to hide.

I kept waiting for the twin to show up, but it becomes obvious, as you read the story, that the twin Vyleta is referring to is the side of ourselves that nobody sees, the secrets we hide from the world, “The Stranger” as Billy Joel would call it.

In this book, Vyleta focuses on what happens to ordinary people when they live in an atmosphere of constant paranoia, and suspicion, where they are constantly being spied on. While the Hitlers, the Stalins, the Pol Pots of the world commit the greatest atrocities, how do regular, usually peaceful people become insidiously complicit? Vyleta seems to suggest they’re petty crimes of opportunity: small betrayals that we may overlook, or may not even remember that we commit, in an effort to secure our own safety.

In retrospect, it is easy to condemn the action and non-action of the populations of Germany and the rest of Europe during the second World War. It’s easy to say now that we would never get caught up in something so violent, that we would condemn something so horrific, that we’d never inform on our neighbors and friends in an attempt to protect ourselves. But would we? Vyleta explores this, and its consequences throughout the story.

A couple of things:

1] The ending is horrifically unsatisfying and bitter. I’ve just found out that there is a sequel, so I’m about to go buy that, but I’m a little nervous that it’s going to be even more unsatisfying than this one.

2] There aren’t many characters to like. In fact, of all of them, I think I liked only two. Don’t get me wrong: I found the characters interesting, I just didn’t particularly like them. Vyleta does some of this on purpose, I’m sure.

3] It can be a bit of a slow read. The atmosphere is tense, but there are long stretches where you just want to speed it up a bit. I found that to be the case anyway.

Overall, though, The Quiet Twin is by far the best book I read in 2015. Suspenseful, disturbing, and a fascinatingly introspective look into human nature during a time where everyone’s actions had the potential to be touched by the creeping evil of Nazi culture, I highly recommend it.

The Doll: The Lost Short Stories

I first read Rebecca the summer between 8th and 9th grades…so coming out of middle school and going into high school.

Summer reading was always a chore and I figured that if it was on the school’s list of approved books it probably sucked. My mom, who read more by my age than I will ever read in my lifetime (probably), looked over the list and picked out Rebecca as “the best on the list.” So I read it as “the book that would suck least.”

I loved it. One of the joys of being a teenager is that your expectations are so ridiculously low for stuff that it usually turns out okay in the end, if not better than okay.

I loved the book. I loved the movie. Seriously, see the movie. It’s fairly true to the book and was fantastically casted. Alfred Hitchcock directed.

The author, Daphne DuMaurier, had written many books (I looked her up at the time), but I didn’t read anymore until college when I read My Cousin Rachel. This book was also a wonderful suspense novel full of twists and turns. I also read a short story collection of her popular works called Don’t Look Now, which contained a short story of the same name and her ridiculously famous short story called The Birds, which inspired the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name. Unlike Rebecca, The Birds film didn’t follow the original story much at all.

I have a number of other books by DuMaurier that I haven’t read yet, but I found a collection of short stories authored by her that were considered “lost.” They were early stories by her, published in magazines and never before reprinted, and as a fan of uncommon things, I naturally bought the book and started reading it almost immediately.

Short story collections always take me a long while to read though because when I’m absorbed in a novel, I’m absorbed until it’s over (if given the opportunity to continuously read). With short stories it’s more of a start and stop type deal, so I start, read the story, and then stop at the next one, not inclined to keep reading immediately.

This book was no exception. I started reading it in May on the train down to the city to meet a friend of mine for dinner (I remember because I pulled it out to show him), and finished it in July waiting for my mom outside the infusion room (another experience I vividly remember).

The fascinating thing about these earlier stories is that you can see a young DuMaurier (all these stories were written before she was 23) beginning to develop themes that run through her later books – romance, romance gone awry, obsession, heartbreak, etc… – but written with less detail (perhaps because the stories were shorter) and skill (much less subtle). Many of the stories were eerie – there was a story about the wind that brought a strange vessel to the shore of a sparsely populated island and the sailors aboard brought drinking and dancing and all kind of relatively strange behaviors to the island’s inhabitants. One married woman slept with one of the sailors, and the ship is gone by the next morning, as if they had come for the specific purpose of causing this kind of upheaval and bringing its consequences with the wind.

Another story had a man meet a woman who was obsessed with a doll. The man is, in turn, obsessed with the woman. Anyone who has ever seen a horror movie knows that dolls are, by definition, creepy at best and psychotic killers at worst, so needless to say this story had a rather unhappy ending.

But not all the stories left you with the same haunted feeling of DuMaurier’s later works. One story had a couple of poor newlyweds trying to get laid ending up with opposite working schedules. Another had a man and woman “madly in love” go away or a weekend and realize they couldn’t stand each other.

Overall, I very much enjoyed and recommend these short stories. As someone who loves DuMaurier, it was fascinating reading these early tales, watching her develop as a writer. We don’t always get to see early stuff that shows an author growing into his/herself, and the opportunity to do it here, if you like DuMaurier (as I do), is not to be passed up.

The Salinger Contract

I read The Salinger Contract on the beach in St. Lucia when I was there in March.

…it was great.

The premise is that the narrator of the book is listening to the story of an author he knows and respects (the narrator previously worked in publishing, then academia, and is now a stay at home husband who takes care of the kids). The author, who he knows for years and who he believes for no reason other than that he trusts him, tells a fantastic story of how he is hired to write a unique, one of a kind manuscript for a very rich man who sets a very strict set of conditions on what the author is and isn’t allowed to do while writing this book.

It turns out that this rich man has a number of these unique manuscripts from many authors who, like Salinger, disappeared or became recluses, whatever. The consequences of not following these conditions set in the contract are dire, but the author is paid a ton of money.

Anyway, this was a literary thriller about writing literary thrillers. It was fantastic. The story unwinds over a period of months where the author the narrator is talking to becomes increasingly paranoid and is increasingly trying to escape his contract and (for various reasons) breaks the conditions of his contract.

There are more twists and turns than this, obviously, but I loved it and read the whole thing in two days.

For some reason, I’ve always been interested in books about books. Lost Shakespeare plays are a particular favorite of mine, and THIS story, is everything The Book of Air and Shadows (by a different author that I read years ago) was not. I was so excited about that book, and it was terrible. I went into this book with the idea that it probably wouldn’t be any good, but it was excellent.

It was interesting. The author of the book inserted himself into the story as the narrator. It was confusing, at first, as to whether or not this was semi-autobiographical. In fact, the whole thing was an exercise in unreliable narration. It was fun. You really had no idea about whether or not the story the author was telling was true. (The author within the story, not the author who wrote the book). The narrator himself doesn’t know at first if the story is true. The story being told to him is ridiculously fantastic, and it’s unclear at first why he and the author are even friends in the first place. The author does count the narrator as a friend – his only friend – and the narrator doesn’t fully grasp the nature of their relationship.

The narrator himself is morally ambiguous. He fully admits that he is a practiced liar who would do just about anything for the right amount of money, although he does seem to have a conscience. He probably wouldn’t kill anyone, but he definitely wouldn’t mind betraying a buddy for the right amount of cash. His family is in dire financial straits, and he maintains he’ll do what he has to to help them, but considering the way he talks about himself, the reader can assume he’s not really that noble, and that he’d do it anyway, even if his family wasn’t in a poor place financially.

I highly recommend The Salinger Contract. It was fast paced, not too long, and a gripping story about a pretty good guy fighting for his life and marriage and career, against a seemingly omniscient man with endless resources. It’s especially good if you’re into literature and are a nerd…so, if you’re like me.

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