Category Archives: unreliable narrator

Review: No Hope for Gomez! by Graham Parke

12th June 2013

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*I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. Self-published through Outskirts Press.

 Gomez has a slight problem – ok, he has several problems. He’s absolute crap at managing the antique store his parents left him. The drug trial he entered for extra cash has left him unsure what is real and what may be drug-induced side effect, and he thinks he may or may not be in love with Dr. Hargrove, the lab assistant who administers his drugs each week. When another participant in the drug trial ends up dead, Gomez realizes he may be in much more trouble than he thought.

As part of his entry into the drug trial, Gomez must keep a blog and post about his experiences. As successive posts get stranger and stranger, both the reader and Gomez wonder if what is happening – his upstairs neighbor drilling holes into Gomez’s ceiling; Dr. Hargrove asking him to stalk her stalker; a customer at the antique store wanting to buy his tax documents – is actually real.

Yet what could easily become an unmanageable mess of a novel becomes a funny, human look at life and its idiosyncrasies in the hands of Graham Parke. Gomez creates tests to discover if he’s actually in love with Dr. Hargrove or if his feelings are just the result of the drug trial. He investigates the death of Joseph Miller, another drug trial participant. He attempts to assuage the eccentric behavior of his assistant Hicks, whose proclivities for order rival Gomez’s own increasingly chaotic life.

In the end, the truth about Gomez is much less interesting than what the reader begins to believe, but Parke is forgiven this as it is Gomez’s journey, and his truth that make the novel: What is and what isn’t? How much of what we see is perspective and belief, and how much is objective truth?

Add this to your Goodreads shelf (it looks like they’re hosting a giveaway until July 4!).

Review: The Burning Air by Erin Kelly

18th March 2013

Via Goodreads

Via Goodreads

*This book was sent to me by the publisher Pamela Dorman Books in exchange for an honest review.

Of course it was my love for my children, love for my son, that caused me to act as I did. It was a lapse of judgment. If I could have foreseen the rippling aftershocks that followed I would have acted differently, but by the time I realized the extent of the consequences, it was too late….

Motherhood was my only excuse. I was trying to do right by my son and it made me momentarily blind to the interior laws I have always tried to live by. We all want the best for our children, but I crossed the line between protection and offense.

Lydia MacBride has kept a diary every year, commemorating events large and small, noting her thoughts, her dreams, her confessions. The Burning Air begins with one of her greatest confessions: she is dying, and she has not told her family, but there is an even larger secret she must keep from them.

Close-knit and supportive, the MacBrides must move on after the death of Lydia. She was a force to be reckoned with, but the privilege of their lives – private school, family, a lovely home – has created unknown enemies. On an annual trip to Far Barn, a family residence in the secluded English countryside, one enemy in particular has waited for this moment, has crafted its circumstances, and will threaten the MacBrides and their memories.

A tale of obsession and misguided hatred, The Burning Air by Erin Kelly is a great thriller with an oddly intoxicating villain. Though the narrative shifts between characters to build suspense and divulge only what is known to each, the unreliable narrator is by far the most interesting. The megalomania is fascinating to consider but terrifying to behold.

However, the culmination of years of planning was too rushed and didn’t seem fitting of a truly obsessive enemy. I am being intentionally vague here because there were moments in The Burning Air where I gasped with recognition and knowledge of who the villain was and how it would all play out. A single-sitting read, The Burning Air by Erin Kelly was a fast and electric read with only a mildly disappointing ending.

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.

Review: The Cocktail Waitress by James M. Cain

4th October 2012

*I received this novel from the publisher Hard Case Crime, in exchange for an honest review.

If you’ve mourned the loss of truly good pulp fiction, I’ve got good news for you: James M. Cain’s previously lost final novel, The Cocktail Waitress, doesn’t shortchange in atmosphere, story, or a sensual femme fatale. Joan Medford opens her novel – and indeed it is her story – with the recollection of her first husband’s funeral. Abusive and alcoholic, Ron Medford pounded on his small son one last time before leaving and crashing his car into a culvert. A rookie cop has it in his head that Joan helped him on his way. Broke, scared, and desperate to tear her son from the clutches of her derisive sister-in-law, Joan takes a job as a cocktail waitress and meets two men – one, a broke idealist who tempts her; the other, wealthy but older, who is tempted by her. But is Joan looking for a better life for her son, or is she just spinning her web yet again? For those fans of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, Cain’s final novel is an unexpected delight.

A few years ago, I found a list somewhere (in pre-blogging days, alas, so I can’t share) with the top 100 noir films and novels. I joined Netflix and spent almost every afternoon immersing myself in noir. Two of my favorites were, of course, Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice – Cain’s most famous novels. Yes, there are modern noir novels; in fact, my ESL students read a couple of contemporary noir novels, but it’s just not the same.

The Cocktail Waitress is the real deal (though it is more pulp than noir), and with Joan as our vulnerable but ever-so-slightly unreliable narrator, the story is off and running. Money, lust, dead bodies, and smoke-filled bars are aplenty, and even as I turned the last page, I wondered about this woman and just how far she’d go to protect her son – and maybe more importantly – herself. That’s the beauty of Cain’s craft.

Add this book to your shelf or check out other reviews on Goodreads.

The Great Gatsby Trailer…De-glitzed

30th May 2012

If you were around last week, you may have seen the Internet explode with news of The Great Gatsby trailer. Set to this music by Jay Z and Kanye West featuring Frank Ocean and this song by Jack White, most people were a bit skeptical, ok, a lot. Including this gal. However. The more I sat with this trailer and analyzed it for this post, the more it grew on me, including the songs to which it was set. Granted, seeing roaring 20s splashing on the screen along with the beats and funk of these songs was disconcerting, but here’s why I think the first at least was an interesting choice (besides gaining the attention of youth):

Here are some of the lyrics:

Human beings in a mob
What’s a mob to a king?
What’s a king to a god?
What’s a god to a non-believer?
Who don’t believe in anything?

Compare that to this quote from The Great Gatsby: “The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that – and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.”

Someone is paying attention. You don’t get that song and that quote without knowing a little sumpin’ sumpin’ about the book. That, in and of itself, makes me a little more inclined to give this a nod.

Plus, if you take the song away and just look at these photos, it’s not half bad, especially when you check out some of the quotes I culled. DiCaprio and his accents annoy the hell out of me, but the glitz and glamor that first annoyed me so are actually part of the pull. The novel is most certainly a quiet novel (in my book), but the time period definitely is not. I think Baz Luhrmann (who damn! is kind of hot in his IMDB profile pic) uses the juxtaposition well.

“The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world.”

“It occurred to me that there was no difference between men, in intelligence or race, so profound as the difference between the sick and the well.”

“A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about.”

Complete with typo, here’s Times Square and “Zeigfield” Follies.

“Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent.”

“And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.”

“the air is alive with chatter and laughter, and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names.”

“I noticed that she wore her evening dress, all her dresses, like sports clothes – there was a jauntiness about her movements as if she had first learned to walk upon a golf course on clean, crisp mornings.”

“Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.

“Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it…”

“The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun.”

“It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.”

“She’s got an indiscreet voice,”I remarked. “It’s full of -” I hesitated.

“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly.

“He must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream.”

“If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promise of life…”

“This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism!”

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further…”

“What was it up there in the song that seemed to be calling her back inside? What would happen now in the dim, incalculable hours?”

“It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such — such beautiful shirts before.”

“He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.”

“Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something – an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I heard somewhere a long time ago.”

He was “one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors of anti-climax.”

“I tried to think about Gatsby then for a moment, but he was already too far away.”

“It is invariably saddening to look through new eyes at things upon which you have expended your own powers of adjustment.”

“They had never been closer in their month of love, nor communicated more profoundly with one another, than when…he touched the end of her fingers, gently, as though she were asleep.”

“At his lips’ touch she blossomed like a flower and the incarnation was complete.”

“Then came the war, old sport. It was a great relief, and I tried very hard to die, but I seemed to bear an enchanted life.”

“I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart.”

“So I walked away and left him standing there in the moonlight – watching over nothing.”

What say you? Does it help at all to have the distraction of music gone? Or, like me, does knowing the lyrics help you understand a bit why Luhrmann chose this tune? And, most importantly, does this make you at all eager for November? (I know, I know, another great film to look forward to, other than Skyfall.)

Audiobook Review: Asylum by Patrick McGrath

3rd April 2012

*I bought this audiobook from Audible. Buy yours here.

“Stella Raphael’s story is one of the saddest I know,” intones Dr. Peter Cleave, the senior psychiatrist in the mental hospital central to Asylum by Patrick McGrath. Asylum is a story of obsession.

Stella and her husband Max have moved outside London for Max’s job. Hoping to eventually become superintendent of the facility, Max is quite involved in the asylum’s day-to-day activities, and the couple’s home is on the property. Max has big plans, including renovating the conservatory and gardens of the home. Some of the better-behaved patients are allowed on work teams, and Edgar Stark, a former sculptor, is given the task of carpentry work in the conservatory. Charlie, Stella and Max’s son, is fascinated with the work and the gardens and the pond, spending many of his days outside. When Stella encounters Edgar while outside with Charlie, she is drawn to him. Edgar doesn’t look insane. He is polite and talented. The two become friendly, and Stella, lacking passion in her own marriage, falls in love with Edgar.

Edgar Stark is Cleave’s patient, and Edgar’s intelligence fascinates the doctor. Edgar murdered his wife and brutalized her body after suspecting her of multiple infidelities for many years. Edgar feels completely justified in his actions, and Cleave counts Edgar one of his more interesting patients because of this. It is only when Cleave observes subtle changes in Stella that he suspects the impossible. When Edgar escapes from the facility, Max and Stella both come under scrutiny, leading to a chain of events that is both disturbing and engrossing.

McGrath’s Asylum is an elegant novel. Gothic and dark, it explores the nature of love and obsession as well as mental illness. The novel is, in many ways, timeless, and particularly, it was some time before I could have stated with any assurance the time period in which Asylum is set. Late 1950s, to be exact.

Cleave is narrating the novel, yes, but he is doing so after discussions with Stella, after something has apparently gone badly wrong, and the impending sense of doom only adds to the novel’s complexity. Not that Asylum is a mystery. It isn’t. Edgar murdered his wife. He escapes from the asylum. Stella goes to him. Nothing surprising here. When Edgar begins exhibiting erratic behavior, though, she runs. However, the story doesn’t take the reader into the places you’d think it would. Stella is not repentant. Instead, she feels torn from her lover and sorrowful that she ever suspected his behavior. Willing, even after knowing the full extent of his crime, to go to him and be with him, and Cleave notes this:

At root, I suppose, in spite of everything she loved him, or told herself she did, and women are stubborn in this regard. She had made her choice, she had gone to him willingly, and it was unthinkable to run home because he was ill and his illness robbed him of responsibility. What did surprise me was that she could ignore the proliferating signals that an act of violence was imminent.

Just as Edgar seems to relish the idea of bedding a psychiatrist’s wife, so too does Stella enjoy her role as caretaker. Edgar is ill; therefore, Stella must take care of him, even if it means abandoning her husband and her child. The child she increasingly grows to resent because he is part of his father and therefore part of the imagined trap she feels exists around her.

If you have not yet picked up on it, this is an unreliable narrator speaking to another unreliable narrator. Both Stella and Cleave are obsessed with Stark, Cleave referring to Stark as “my Edgar” many times, a point of pride that Edgar is his patient. So we know what the characters intend to tell us, emphasizing that we never truly know the nature of anyone, much less someone with a mental illness.

The nature of these obsessions is, of course, destructive, and everyone involved hurtles toward that destruction in ways both expected and unexpected. I listened to this on audiobook, and I usually stick to my time on the elliptical only to listen to audiobooks. This was one, however, that after a certain point in Asylum, I had to put my headphones on for the rest of the day, no matter what else I was doing to absorb it all. Unlike Cleave, I don’t think Stella’s is the saddest story I know, and I had very little sympathy for her outside her feeling of entrapment, but I was still completely captivated by her ability to dismiss all rational thought in the face of the man she loves.

The narration by Ian McKellen is absolutely first rate, and Asylum is a story that will sink in slowly, insidiously, forcing you to think about the characters and their decisions long after the end.

Buy this from Audible, Indiebound, or for your Nook.

P.S. Thanks to The Literate Housewife for her recommendation of this book.

Other reviews:

A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook

Coffee and a Book Chick