I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

IBGITDIt took me exactly two pages to become engrossed in Michelle McNamara’s self-described “obsessive search for the Golden State Killer.” But that was no surprise. Given my fascination with true crime, my love for the My Favorite Murder podcast (which introduced me to said fascination and the GSK in general), my appreciation for the comedian Patton Oswalt (the author’s widower), and the recent capture of Joseph James DeAngelo—the monster who terrorized California as the Visalia Ransacker, the East Area Rapist, and the Original Night Stalker between April 1974 and May 1986—there was no question of whether I would love this book.

What I was not expecting was Michelle. Friggen. McNamara. Her mastery of language and the musicality with which she writes terrible and unfathomable things is incredible. Truly. I often had to stop and re-read passages just so I could appreciate how beautifully written they were, despite the content. I can’t gush about her enough, so I’ll just show you with a relatively mild but wildly evocative passage—

Excerpted from the chapter entitled “Goleta, 1979”:

Cheri watched the city swallow her daughter and worried. Santa Barbara beguiled. It deceived. The promise of romance reigned, an the potential for danger was obscured. After a nineteen-second earthquake shattered much of downtown Santa Barbara in 1925, the city was rebuilt in a unified Spanish Colonial style—white plaster walls, low-pitched red tile roofs, wrought iron. Preservation-minded civic leaders continued to keep buildings low and billboards out. There was a gentle small-town feel to the place. Every day for thirty-two years, a Greek immigrant, “the popcorn man,” sold pinwheels and popcorn from his station wagon at the foot of Stearns Wharf. The smell of night-blossoming jasmine drifted in through open windows on hot evenings. The roar of the ocean rocked people to sleep.

But instability lurked. A raggedy undercurrent oiled. The recession had gutted a lot of downtown businesses. There was not yet and open-container law on lower State Street; at night weaving drunks shouted at each other between breaks to piss and puke. The music clubs were changing. Folk and disco were out, replaced by angrier punk. The local papers were reporting that an anonymous male caller was telling children ages eleven to fifteen who answered the phone that they were going to die. Another caller, maybe the same man, was telling women that he’d hurt their husbands if they didn’t comply with his demands. Local cops nicknamed the unidentified creep “our breather.”

[. . .]

Santa Barbara’s magenta bougainvillea could distract you from its hairline cracks. Cheri hoped no harm would come to Debbi out there. Every mother’s brain cycles through the litany of terrible things that might befall her child. Rarely does the reverse occur. Why should it? Especially for teenagers, who between seeing their parents as God and then as human view them temporarily as an obstacle, a particularly cumbersome door that won’t quite budge.

No, it was Debbi who was . . . “at risk.” The story rarely ends well for the beautiful teenage runaway. This time it did.

Not being home saved Debbi Domingo’s life.

 

SEE?! What did I just say?

I did not read this book as part of a challenge or book club. I read this book because I could not wait to get my hands on it. Michelle’s untimely passing meant that her story was left unfinished, and her personal mission to find the GSK was unrealized. Luckily though, she had not been working alone. The men who took up the gauntlet to finish I’ll Be Gone in the Dark gave a valiant effort—one that reads nothing like Michelle’s voice, thereby honouring the work that she had completed by ensuring it would outshine their own submission. And while I would have much preferred to read a full account of how she lived to track down the monster that occupied her waking hours as well as her nightmares, Paul Haynes and Billy Jensen deserve much praise for finishing her book so that her achievement could be brought into the light where we can sing high its praises.

And, of course, shout out to The Man Paul Holes (#HotforHoles) and everyone involved in the impressive capture of DeAngelo. To quote Michelle: “This is how it ends for you.”

 

 

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

CalloftheWildI can certainly understand why this book is on the Banned Books that Shaped America list—it is quite violent, but at least it’s not completely gratuitous. Though London writes detailed scenes of human and animal brutality, Buck’s is a story of strength, dignity, loyalty, and, above all, survival. Honestly, given the tragedies that were committed and occurring in the early 1900s, I’m surprised it’s not worse.

No. 8 on my challenge.

Fun fact: this is the first audiobook that I have listened to and it took me a very long time to finish it because the narrator’s voice was so soothing that he kept lulling me to sleep.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan

TristesseThis short novel was the first work published by French author Françoise Sagan. She was eighteen, and this detestable story featuring a detestable teenage child was (apparently) based on her own experiences.

Seventeen-year-old Cécile is spoiled, demanding, ungrateful, careless, lazy, and self-absorbed—a true enfant terrible. I genuinely dislike her. And yet, I can whole-heartedly relate to her. Not to the way she puts her own happiness and comforts above all else and others, or how she sabotages her doting father’s relationships to suit her own motives, or the carefree summer days she spends on the beach and in the water at a gorgeous French villa, torturing a law student with her sexual awakening, mind you. To those points I certainly cannot relate. But to her teenage woe, the direness of her self-perceived situation, and the strength of her emotions (however misguided they may be)? As a woman who was once just a fledgling—I unfortunately can. I wish I couldn’t. But, having been a child herself when she wrote Cécile, François managed to perfectly capture the best and worst things about being a teenaged girl: everything is raw and urgent and absolutely critical.

So yes, I can recognize pieces of myself in the horrible Cécile. I can also recognize that this novella of only 130 pages is brilliantly and beautifully written. And, despite Cécile—and perhaps even François—I really loved it. Thank you for the recommendation, Lara.

No. 18 on my challenge.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I keep a book journal. In it, I keep track of everything I read, the dates on which I cracked it open and slammed it shut, give it a rating out of five stars, and write a few lines. It was my blog before I started my blog. I read The Hate U Give in one day last September, and though I didn’t immediately share my thoughts with you lovely people, I did write three pages worth of notes in my little red “What I Read Journal.” Here’s what I thought then, and still do now:

THUG_ThomasMaybe it’s because I’ve just read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, or because I’ve recently come to enjoy and appreciate the music of NWA, or because of everything happening in the US right now, but I feel like all of these things and more have converged so that when I did read this incredible book, I would have better context and the message might ring louder and truer. This novel deserves to be read by everyone. Forever. Thomas did a remarkable job depicting all sides of the conflict—victims, cops, white friends, black culture . . . this is not a one-sided manifesto—it is an important commentary on violence, racism, the cultural divide, community, friendship, and family and so much more. It’s shocking and engrossing and is really about how, if you want change, you have to speak up for yourself and for what you believe in; you have to fight against those who oppress you and fight even harder against your own fears. This book is frustrating, and heartbreaking, and frighteningly like real life, but it is funny, and hopeful, and a damn. good. book. 

Oh, and I gave it seven stars. For real.

No. 1 on my challenge.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X As Told to Alex Haley

MalcolmX.HaleyI have to admit, this book is the reason I stopped writing reviews last year. It’s an important book, people. It’s been lauded since 1965. Proof:

“Extraordinary . . . [a] brilliant, painful, important book.”
—Eliot Fremont-Smith, New York Times, 1965

“Will surely become one of the classics in American autobiography.” —John William Ward, historian, 1967

“A mesmerizing page-turner.” —Variety, 1992

“Required reading.” —TIME, 1998

It’s so celebrated that I didn’t know how to write anything that a) would do it any justice, and b) would not make me look like an ass. I still don’t. But what I do know is that getting to read this book was absolutely worth my process of stealing it from my hometown library, carting it half way across the country, getting snitched on by my mother, and subsequently scolded by my librarian (and one-time babysitter). It’s important for a reason. Malcolm X was a truly remarkable man and, though I don’t agree with much of what he preached for most of his career—the Nation of Islam is a whole other kettle of fish that I can’t even pretend to understand—there are some extremely powerful messages to be found in his life story and lessons to be learned from the life (or lives) that he lived. I am glad I read it. You should, too.

No. 7 on my challenge.

Baby Driver

Baby-Driver-Poster.jpg

Phenomenal.

There is literally nothing about this movie that I didn’t love. I saw it three times in the space of four days and cannot wait to own it so I can watch it again whenever I want. If you have not seen it, you should do that right now. Run, don’t walk. And when you do watch it, pay close attention to the music—it is so much more than a soundtrack. In fact, my wonderful friend Cailey, who is incredibly intelligent and well versed in all things Hollywood, told me that she would classify this as a modern musical . . . one where musical numbers are abandoned in favour of a score that is integral to the pacing, the choreography (not the dancing), the gunfire, and even the love story.

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

IAveyard_RedQueenf I had never read the Hunger Games trilogy or the Lunar Chronicles or the Mortal Instruments, or watched the Divergent movies or The 100 television series, I would most certainly have been blown out of the water by this dystopian YA novel.

However, this tale—about a teenaged girl living in a downtrodden society ruled by an elite race of [super-]beings with special skills and a fondness for killing for/as sport, who accidentally discovers that she is also special and is then thrown into an adventure that includes self-discovery, empowerment, battle training, a few unnecessary deaths, a violent stand off (or three), a love triangle, and an unexpected (yet totally expected) twist at the end—hits a lot of the same notes that all of the above series hit, which makes Red Queen just another iteration of a novel that I have read many many times.

That said, it is a very good iteration. I appreciate the world, the premise, the characters, and the pacing, AND there were approximately three “twists” that I honest-to-goodness did not see coming.

So, if you’re over this trend of YA dystopian novels in the vein of the Hunger Games and the Lunar Chronicles, you could probably skip this one. But if you can’t get enough of strong female characters in the vein of Tris and Clarke (and even Clary) who face ridiculous challenges and surmount incredible odds to fight for justice and freedom and to protect their family and their fellow downtrodden comrades, then, by all means, jump on the bandwagon and discover the spitfire that is Mare Barrow.

No. 16 on my challenge. The talented Victoria Aveyard was but 25 when this, her debut, was published in 2015. She has since published six subsequent novels in this series / universe and has two more on the way.

The Witches of New York by Ami McKay

McKay_WitchesI have been enchanted by Ami McKay since her first novel, The Birth House, and it seems she still has me under her spell. (See what I did there? This book is about witches. You get it.)

With both The Birth House and The Virgin Cure, McKay set a precedent as an author of great skill and imagination, and The Witches of New York certainly rises to the occasion. No matter the story, McKay writes evocatively, and effortlessly transports the reader back to early 20th century Nova Scotia or late 19th century Manhattan. She has a knack for convincingly integrating fact (historical tidbits about the setting, medical practices, high society, etcetera) and fiction, and a talent for creating incredible women who are vivid, strong, intelligent, and able to persevere and thrive in the face of adversity and misfortune.

Witches is technically a sequel to The Virgin Cure—it returns to the story of young Moth, now Adelaide Thom—but this new installment is entirely able to stand on its own. It’s the first of McKay’s novels to venture into the mystical, and even the touches of magic are so well integrated that they seem almost normal—as if psychics and spell keepers and young girls who can commune with the spiritual world have always been a part of the natural fabric of Manhattan, and McKay has simply pulled them straight from history, finally telling the stories of the witches of New York.

No. 12 on my challenge. Ami McKay lives in Nova Scotia and my edition of the book was published by Knopf Canada.

Saga by Brian K. Vaughn & Fiona Staples

Saga.StapletonI had no idea what I was going to read for our graphic novel category, but before I even had time to fret about it, the lovely Rosie came to my rescue—she sent me the first volume of Saga through the mail. Snail mail no less!

And I’m going to tell you right now, I’m glad she did.

It’s a strange story about love and family in a universe that’s totally bonkers, but from the first frame it effortlessly transports you to a world that you’re inexplicably fascinated by. Cyborgs with human bodies and computer screens for heads are royalty, alligators are butlers, horns and wings are typical human appendages, bounty hunters have eight legs and no arms or a lie-detecting cat, and ghosts are a secret weapon in an age-old war (and great babysitters). Its universe-so-crazy-you-can’t-help-but-accept-whatever-comes-next aesthetic has garnered more than a few comparisons to Star Wars, and I totally see where they’re coming from.

It’s creative and crazy and violent and sentimental. It’s jam packed with fully realized characters that are neither good nor bad, but who are fighting in accordance to their orders, their moral code, or their desire to be free of a senseless war. Oh, and it’s absolutely beautiful and unexpectedly funny. I can’t wait to get into Volume Two and beyond.

No. 25 on my challenge. Thank you, Rosie!

 

Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick

Hang on to your hats, folks. My first post in nearly three months just happens to be for a book that I adored and from which I scribbled down pages of notes and quotes, so this might take a while . . .

kendrick_scrappylittlenobodyIf you’ve been paying attention, you probably know by now that I read a lot of memoirs, celebrity or otherwise. My love for the genre started with The Glass Castle and ran amok from there. Some of my favourites are Augusten Burrough’s A Wolf at the Table, his brother John Elder Robison’s Look Me in the Eye, Una LaMarche’s Unabrow, Amanda Lindhout’s A House in the Sky (seriously, this one), and of course Jenny Lawson’s brilliantly hilarious Let’s Pretend This Never Happened and Furiously Happy. These authors, and many, many others, have captivated me simply by telling their stories, their history, their truth (fair warning: Augusten Burroughs doesn’t define truth the same way that we do).

I’m pretty sure, though, that this is the first time I’ve read a celebrity memoir that is just so.darn.relatable. (Now, you’re thinking, “Yeah, right, Tori. You relate to Anna Kendrick on a personal level. I’m sure.” Give it a minute.)

I have always loved Anna Kendrick as an actress and as a famous personality. She can act with the best of them and she’s got a set of pipes that nobody expected to find hiding in her tiny frame. She seems quirky and hilarious and genuine and I was very pleased to find that, between the pages of her well-written memoir, she is just as weird and adorable and ridiculous as she portends to be. She convincingly demonstrates, through many amusing and wacky anecdotes, that despite her current career she truly is just a scrappy little nobody that happens to be insanely famous. And she manages to do it without being arrogant or pompous.

So here it is, the relatable part, as exhibited via selected quotes. Read this and tell me you don’t feel a kinship to this little weirdo:

She’s afraid of getting too comfortable in her career 
I’d moved away from everything I knew and loved at seventeen in spite of how scared I was. I wondered if I would still have it in me to do something I found so daunting? Aren’t you supposed to get more independent as you get older? Shouldn’t I be bolder, more self-sufficient? Have I gotten comfortable? Have I stopped pushing myself the way I did when I was trying to ‘make something of myself’? Was that a fluke?

She doesn’t believe she’s special, and some days can’t believe this is her life
Saying other kids were mean felt like I was saying I was more kind, which [I] definitely wasn’t . . I guess all I was feeling was that I was different. Sometimes I’ll be at work and get that same feeling. I am not like these people. I don’t know what I’m doing here.

She’s bitterly sarcastic and delightfully self-aware
I lost a Tony Award to Broadway legend Audra McDonald when I was twelve, so I’ve been a bitter bitch since before my first period. I’m very proud to have lost that Tony to Ms. McDonald. She is one of the finest talents in the theatre world and genuine Broadway royalty. I also feel that if I had won and made a televised speech at age twelve, the delayed embarrassment would have been so severe, I’d currently be a Howard Hughes-style shut-in, but without the money for the mansion or the planes or the legion of servants to take away bottles of my urine.

She’s not sure if she’s an adult or if she’s just really good at playing one
Renting an apartment on my own and going to work at Lincoln Centre made me feel very grown-up. I was constantly congratulating myself for the smallest things. Yeah, I’m just riding the subway to work in New York City like it’s no big deal. Which of course meant that to me, at every moment, it was a HUGE deal. I wish I could say this masquerading-as-an-adult-and-getting-away-with-it feeling was exclusive to being seventeen, but so many things in my life are still like that. Yeah, I’m checking my email on a laptop I own like it’s no big deal.

She’s got a healthy dose of self-doubt
I think I’m supposed to act as though I always knew I’d find success (not out loud, obviously—just using some heavy-handed subtext), but moving to Los Angeles felt like that dream where you’re naked in a grocery store, hoping that no one will notice. I figured I’d be discovered and thrown out at some point. I’m still waiting.

The simple act of moving to the big city didn’t mean her life was instantly amazing
How do I describe my personal life during this time [after moving to LA]? I met funny, interesting people, I went to art galleries downtown, I performed a one-woman show for free on the street corner. Except none of that’s true. I was alone and freaked out and I stayed in my room a lot. I spent most of my time trying to find ways to occupy myself without spending money or ingesting calories. I didn’t have any friends. Well, I didn’t know anyone. Which is the less depressing way to say I didn’t have any friends.

She’s just as gullible as she is naive
“I’ve seen you on meth?!”
“I would say, for the last year, you’ve only seen me on meth.”
I’m the biggest idiot on the planet.
“Why do you think I never wanted to eat the food you were baking?”
“You said you didn’t have a sweet tooth! I believed you! Because, you know, I believe people when they say things!”
He was laughing now. I’d gotten shrill and frazzled. I was laughing with my friend about how he was hiding a meth problem from me. This is when I learned that I cannot tell when people are are on drugs. At all.

Romance and relationships are an enigma to her
It’s not that deep down I want someone to “take care of me”, it’s that I’m exhausted, and occasionally overwhelmed by self-doubt. I’m steering the ship, but I don’t know what I’m doing. None of us do. But it would be so nice to believe that someone out there did, and that maybe they could take the wheel for a little while. It’s a seductive feeling. It would be great if it were real. But I guess I’ve got to count on myself. Which is not great news.

She’s clueless when it comes to fashion
When Up in the Air was chosen to premier at the Toronto International Film Festival, Paramount Pictures hired a professional stylist for me. I suspect word had gotten back to them that I enjoyed dressing like a teenager who lived in her car, and while that was spectacularly endearing, it would be in their best interest to have someone help me dress like an adult woman.

She’s a tightfisted bitch who knows how to stretch a dollar because even famous people need budgets (my personal favourite)
“The Louboutins are a little pricier than the others, but it’s your first big premier, and I think they’re really special.”
“Okay, how much are those?”
“One thousand ninety-nine.”
Dollars? A thousand dollars?! That’s more than my rent! Like, a lot more! Maybe you’ve noticed that I live with two dudes and sleep in an Ikea twin bed. Or has living in a world of luxury for so long left you unable to recognize the signature lines and craftsmanship of the Malm collection? (For context: my stylist was earning more to dress me for Up in the Air-related events than I did for making the actual movie.) There was a feeling from the people around me at that time that although I hadn’t made much money yet, things were about to start going so well that huge checks were right around the corner! I should spend whatever I had to, even if it seemed imprudent, because I’d have tons of money in just a few months! I’m glad I was such a tightfisted bitch, because the money didn’t follow for about two years. In fact, Twilight was the only thing keeping me above water. I’ve said in the past that without that series I would have been evicted, and people think I’m joking. Nope. Me and my Oscar nom would have been living in my car. Which is a charming story now, but at the time I did not find it funny.

This
Now, I know just enough to know that I don’t know anything.

And, last but not least, she’s still figuring out what it means to grow up
With every birthday, I have stupidly expected to feel different only to discover that I’m still me: tragically lazy and childish . . . Every now and then I test the waters of self-improvement with some practical changes . . . I expect to take an interest in my retirement plan, understand general car maintenance, and do my laundry on a schedule instead of three days after I run out of underwear. But just thinking about that stuff makes me want to lie on the floor and eat packets of Easy Mac until I feel too swollen and turgid to do anything but dream up elaborate ways to murder everyone who says “life hack.” I power through. I’m still an embarrassment to civilized society, but now I change the toilet paper roll instead of resting it vertically on top of the old one. There’s hope.

 

I could go on, but I don’t need Touchstone tracking me down for copyright infringement, so I’ll stop here and get to the point: I’m just like Anna Kendrick. And the brilliant thing is, if you read her book, you’ll realize that she’s just like you, too.

No. 24 on my challenge.