Thursday, September 1, 2011

review time -- LA Mental: A Thriller (Neil McMahon) and Notes on a Scandal (Zoe Heller)

I confess...I feel odd about combining a Harper and a non-Harper review.  But I'm getting over it.

L.A. Mental was provided to me by the lovely folks at Harper and I will confess at the outset that I'm not usually a huge thriller girl.  This is important because I do always want to give my reviews context...reading for Harper encourages me to step out of my box, but that is sometimes reflected in my opinion.

This is an interesting mix between the detective/thriller genre and a bit of sci-fi.  Tom Crandall gets caught up in drama when one brother takes a fall after going a bit nutty, another brother becomes deeply involved in a movie project headed by a cult-ish leader, and a sister is threatened by the nutty-going brother.  The movie producer character has all sorts of theories and seems to be playing out mind control theses on his followers and his detractors.  There's a beautiful love interest and several sketchy potential villains in the mix, along with family money and secrets that make the Crandall clan a target.

I'm rounding down to 3 from a preferred 3.5 stars.  It just didn't compel me.  It read fast and easy and it did hold my interest okay, but I never got emotionally involved which I need.  The characters were a bit too simply drawn for my tastes.  The author definitely leaves room for a sequel but I don't feel any need to seek it out.  However, I do think that my genre bias is at play and would guess a thriller fan might round up to 4.  To use an overused (including by me) phrase, "it is what it is" and that just isn't my style.

It is rare for me to see a movie and THEN read the book but the reviews suggest I'm not alone in doing this with Heller's book.  I saw the movie some time back and I do recall it being good but I honestly didn't seek the book out because of it, instead I just happened upon the title online and decided to order it.

The book is narrated by Barbara, a long-time teacher who says she wants to chronicle the true story of her colleage Sheba's affair with a teenage student.  The narrator herself is a fairly lonely woman in her 60s who seems to have a history of intense friendships that become a bit frightening as Barbara gets overinvolved/obsessed with another woman.  In this case, it is Sheba who is a new pottery teacher at the school and who has a husband and two children at home. Much of the plot is based on second-hand knowledge of the events relating to Sheba's involvement with the male student.  There is also a lot about how the women became friends and the caretaker role Barbara takes when the affair becomes public.

A strong four star, maybe even four and a half, read.  Truly, this is about Barbara, not Sheba, and Barbara's need for companionship that stretches the boundaries of healty friendship.  She isn't a narrator that the reader likes nor is she totally reliable, but she is fascinating.  Heller's talent is in her ability to get inside this narrator's head and present a very nuanced character.  The voice feels so very real, even as the reader grows increasingly uncomfortable with the narrator herself.  Strong book for readers who like character studies and are okay with not finding any heroes.  I doubt you'll love anyone in this book, but I do think you'll be fascinated by them.

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