Review: Serena by Ron Rash

Author: Ron Rash
Originally published by Ecco Press, October 7, 2008
Paperback, 371 pages

The year is 1929, and newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton travel from Boston to the North Carolina mountains where they plan to create a timber empire. Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena is new to the mountains—but she soon shows herself to be the equal of any man, overseeing crews, hunting rattle-snakes, even saving her husband’s life in the wilderness. Together this lord and lady of the woodlands ruthlessly kill or vanquish all who fall out of favor. Yet when Serena learns that she will never bear a child, she sets out to murder the son George fathered without her. Mother and child begin a struggle for their lives, and when Serena suspects George is protecting his illegitimate family, the Pembertons’ intense, passionate marriage starts to unravel as the story moves toward its shocking reckoning. (From Goodreads)

I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while now, since it’s being turned into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence (of Hunger Games fame) in the title role. After reading the book, I can’t WAIT for the movie to be released next year, because I think Jen will be absolutely amazing in it.

But this isn’t a post about a movie, it’s a post about a book. And this book is stunning.

I love it when a book centers around a villain. And Serena is most definitely a villain. As is her husband, Pemberton, to some extent. They will stop at nothing to get what they want, until Serena finds Pemberton’s weakness: his illegitimate son. The story not only follows the Pembertons, but also the men who work at the Pembertons’ lumber camp, and Rachel, the mother of Pemberton’s son. In several reviews on Goodreads, I’ve seen the workers called “a kind of Greek chorus,” which basically sums up their purpose in the book. They fill in the gaps for us, as well as gossip about what they think really happened. I really loved reading their parts of the book because they were just so much fun. They served as comic relief as well.

I also enjoyed hearing Rachel’s story throughout the novel. It made me sympathize with her a lot more than I would have otherwise. Most of all, though, I enjoyed the character of Serena. No matter how evil she is, her character still made me want to cheer for her most of the time. Did I mention she has a pet eagle? Yeah, she’s a total bad ass.

The way this novel is written is absolutely beautiful. Some of Rash’s descriptions are so descriptive, I feel like I’m there. The whole thing was very, very literary. I feel like it could eventually be a classic. And I hope it is, because it’s just that good.


Review: The Thing About Thugs by Tabish Khair

Title: The Thing About Thugs
Author: Tabish Khair
First US Edition published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, July 24, 2o12
Hardcover, 256 pages

A subversive, macabre novel of a young Indian man’s misadventures in Victorian London as the city is racked by a series of murders

In a small Bihari village, Captain William T. Meadows finds just the man to further his phrenological research back home: Amir Ali, confessed member of the infamous Thugee cult. With tales of a murderous youth redeemed, Ali gains passage to England, his villainously shaped skull there to be studied. Only Ali knows just how embroidered his story is, so when a killer begins depriving London’s underclass of their heads, suspicion naturally falls on the “thug.” With help from fellow immigrants led by a shrewd Punjabi woman, Ali journeys deep into a hostile city in an attempt to save himself and end the gruesome murders.

Ranging from skull-lined mansions to underground tunnels a ghostly people call home, The Thing about Thugs is a feat of imagination to rival Wilkie Collins or Michael Chabon. Short-listed for the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize, this sly Victorian role reversal marks the arrival of a compelling new Indian novelist to North America. (From Goodreads)

I was fortunate enough to receive this book from one of Goodread’s First Reads giveaways.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It was different to what I was expecting, though. By the description, I was thinking The Thing About Thugs was going to be a murder mystery. It wasn’t. Within the first few chapters, the reader is told who is doing the murdering and why they’re doing it. If you’re looking for a good mystery, this is probably not the book for you.

If you enjoy historical fiction, however, you will most likely like this book. The writing is fantastic, and the story is mostly entertaining. There were bits that kind of pulled me out of the story being told, though, when the narrator would talk about finding Amir Ali’s letters in his grandfather’s home and say that he imagined things in certain ways. I know those were put in to make it feel more “literary,” but they kind of made me want to just hurry past them and get back to the real story being told.

I love that the story unfolds in different narratives. You have the chapters that are Amir’s letters (which are written in a script font that some may find hard to read, though I didn’t), others which are his stories told aloud to the Captain, and then the chapters which follow other characters such as the murderers and Amir’s friends. The story moves kind of slowly, but by the end I was really interested to see what was going to happen to Amir and his friends, although we aren’t given a definite answer.

I really liked this book a lot. It wasn’t something that I would have normally chosen to read on my own, but I’m glad that I did. It’s definitely worth reading, especially if you’re into historical fiction.