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Book review: The Map of True Places by Brunonia Barry

The Map of True PlacesThe Map of True Places by Brunonia Barry
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

After the suicide of a client, Zee Finch leaves her fiancé and her Boston psychology practice to care for her ailing father in their Salem family home. Very little drama ensues. Really.

Honestly, I didn’t see any point in this novel. I didn’t particularly like Zee (although I loved the fact that her given name was Hepzibah) or her eventual love interest, Hawk; the emphasis on navigating by the stars was weird and contrived; in fact, the whole of the story felt contrived and weird and and incoherent, like a series of set pieces linked together only because they involved the same characters. Zee traveled some small distance as a character, but in the end I felt she was little different from the wishy-washy human being that began the story.

Sophomore novels are often a let down after brilliant debuts. The Lace Reader was brilliant. This? Not so much.

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Book review: NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

NOS4A2NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“She breathed deeply of the scent of decaying fiction, disintegrating history, and forgotten verse, and she observed for the first time that a room full of books smelled like dessert: a sweet snack made of figs, vanilla, glue, and cleverness.”
Pause for a moment and ponder that quote.
I’d substitute cardamom for vanilla (because I’m not overly fond of vanilla), but otherwise, yes. This is what books smell like. Imminently satisfactory, is it not?

Charles Manx loves children. He wants children to be happy all the time. He seeks out special children so he can take them to Christmasland where, as you may have guessed, it’s always Christmas and children are always happy. Taking these children to Christmasland and leaving them there has the side effect of keeping Manx young and vigorous, but that’s merely an inconsequential bonus to Manx’s generosity of spirit.

Victoria McQueen, usually called Vic, rides her bicycle as an escape from her tense home atmosphere and warring parents. One day when she is still quite young, she discovers her bicycle gives her the ability to travel across a non-existent bridge and find things. She finds jewelry, and scarves, and photographs, and all manner of lost things. She tells the grownups cover stories about where she finds these items, and as she grows older, eventually comes to believe these stories herself. Because riding a bicycle across a non-existent bridge and coming out miles or even whole states away would be crazy, right?

On one of these excursions, Vic encounters Charles Manx. Manx recognizes Vic’s special talent and wants to take her to Christmasland. Of course, her talent will fuel his continued youth, but that’s not his primary motivation, of course. He has true compassion for Vic’s unhappy life and wants to alleviate her pain and suffering. Really, he means nothing but the best for these special children.

Vic manages to escape Manx. She grows up, grows older, has a child, endures multiple hospitalizations and medications (both doctor-ordered and self-prescribed) to deal with the trauma of her kidnapping and the constant murmur of voices in her head.

Then Charles Manx takes her son. And Vic must summon all her courage to go after him.

That’s the story. But this book is really about love. Vic’s love for her son and for Lou, the father of her son; Lou’s love for Vic and their child; Vic’s parents’ love for her, although she didn’t recognize such love until nearly too late; the sacrifices all parents make to keep their children safe; even Manx’s twisted version of love for the children he “saves”: all of it, every word of this novel turns on love in its many-splendoured and sometimes malformed manifestations.

NOS4A2 isn’t the best book ever, but it’s well worthy of the multiple award nominations it received and it’s certainly worth the time one spends delving into its nearly 700 pages.

Hint: Make sure you read to the very last page. Really. The VERY last page. Otherwise, you miss out.

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This book was read as part of the 2017 Award-Winning Science Fiction/Fantasy Reading Challenge.  Click that badge on the right to see what other participants have read.

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Book review: A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

A Sudden LightA Sudden Light by Garth Stein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Trevor Riddell is spending the summer with his father at his father’s family estate. Trevor would rather be elsewhere, but as part of a trial separation, Trevor’s father Jones insisted the boy come with him to rural Washington State rather than accompany his mother to England to be with her family. Jones’s purpose in visiting his estranged and ailing father Samuel is to get Samuel to sign over power of attorney so Jones and his sister Serena can sell off the major portion of the estate and recoup the family fortune. Samuel has good days and bad days: on his good days, he is adamantly opposed to selling off any portion of the Riddell lands; on his bad days, he is confused, insisting he hears and sees his deceased wife dancing in the ballroom, and writing cryptic messages on Post-it notes. And then Trevor begins hearing voices as well.

Part ghost story, part coming-of-age novel, part family saga, A Sudden Light is chock-full of all the gloomy gothic atmosphere one could possibly desire. And while it does get a bit draggy in the middle, it’s still a joy to read, with a dramatic denouement and a satisfying, if bittersweet, ending.

I didn’t realize this book was by the same author who wrote The Art of Racing in the Rain, which I hated, until I picked it up from the library. It’s a good thing I didn’t know that or I probably wouldn’t have read it, thus missing out on a real treat.  High fives all around. I won’t hesitate to pick up Mr. Stein’s next novel, so long as it’s not told from the point of view of an animal.

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Book review: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Sharp ObjectsSharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although Sharp Objects is my third Gillian Flynn novel, it’s Ms. Flynn’s first, for which she won a well-deserved Edgar. It’s beautifully written, deeply disturbing, and knock-your-socks-off holy-cow-what-the-hell-just-happened good.

Camille Preaker is sent by the editor of the tiny Chicago daily where she works back to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, which is little more than a wide spot in the road, to cover the story of two murdered girls and the potential story of a serial killer. Camille left Wind Gap years ago to escape her toxic family and save her own life. She’s not sure she’s managed to do either; in Chicago, while she may have been suicidal, at least she wasn’t carving words into her own skin. Still, Camille is severely damaged. When we meet her mother and stepfather, we begin to understand why.

Because her newspaper doesn’t have the budget to put her up in a motel while on assignment, Camille must stay in her family home while she is in town. Her mother Adora, with an eye to “what would the neighbors think?”, grudgingly grants Camille shelter but insists she keep “all that unpleasantness” out of her house. All that unpleasantness encompasses not only the murders of the two girls, but anything unpleasant that has ever happened, up to and including the death of Camille’s younger half-sister Marian when Camille was 13. Camille has another much younger half-sister, Amma, whom she barely knows, who at times seems just as sickly as Marian was, but at others is robust enough to excel in her “Mean Girl” “Queen Bee” role at the local middle school. Throw in Alan, Camille’s ineffective and virtually silent stepfather, and this dysfunctional family is complete.

We see all this through Camille’s eyes; we are privy to her inner dialogue with all its twists and turns and justifications and attempts to make sense of how she ended up back in the same hellhole she tried to escape. As she reacquaints herself with Wind Gap, she recalls incidents from her past associated with each place. In the park where one girl, Natalie, was last seen alive:

The dirt from the baseball field hovered a few feet above the ground. I could taste it the back of my throat like tea left brewing too long…Garrett Park was the place everyone met on weekends to drink beer or smoke pot or get jerked off three feet into the woods. It was where I was first kissed, at age thirteen, by a football player with a pack of chaw tucked down in his gums.

And getting ready for Natalie’s funeral:

My mother was wearing blue to the funeral…She also wore blue to Marian’s funeral, and so did Marian. She was astonished I didn’t remember this. I remembered Marian being buried in a pale pink dress. This was no surprise. My mother and I generally differ on all things concerning my dead sister.

Camille is more resilient than she knows, but not quite as strong as she needs to be. She drinks too much and too often. She writes the names of the murdered girls and other words on her skin, using ballpoint pen and lipstick instead of a knife. She has questionable judgment in sex partners. And investigating these murders eventually leads her deep into her own history with devastating consequences.

In Camille, Gillian Flynn has created a deeply flawed protagonist who makes bad decisions out of weakness, out of trauma, out of a desire to flee from raw emotion, and she makes us cheer for her even while we shake our heads in dismay at her poor choices. And in the end, I loved Camille and wished her the very best future she can possibly make for herself.

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Book review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nick’s beautiful wife Amy disappeared on their fifth wedding anniversary. To all appearances, Amy was kidnapped with some violence from their riverfront home in North Carthage, Missouri. And naturally, suspicion for such foul play falls on Nick. As the police become more and more focused on his possible involvement, to the point that even Amy’s parents think him guilty, and as national media attention falls on Amy’s disappearance, Nick becomes more and more desperate to prove his innocence.

I wish GoodReads allowed 1/2 stars, because I would rate this somewhere between 3 stars “I liked it” and 4 stars “I really liked it”. I mean, I liked it more than most books I’ve rated three stars but less than most books I’ve rated four stars.

And finding a way to review this without spoilers? Hoo buddy. Suffice to say I alternated between “He didn’t do it” and “Of course, he did it!” for at least half of the book, then got hit with a “Holy cow!” moment, subsequently followed by an intense dislike of everyone involved in this mess. Except for Margo, Nick’s twin sister. Margo is only innocent among these players, presenting a loyal family front to the vulture throngs of media correspondents, while asking sincere and probing questions of her brother in private.

Gone Girl is truly a “good read”, filled with twists and turns and mindbending WTF moments. I don’t think it’s as good as Dark Places, Gillian Flynn’s previous novel, but it’s definitely worth the time spent reading.

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Book review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The remainder of the Blackwood family is odd, no doubt about it. Insular, hermit-like, sisters Constance and Mary Katherine and their elderly uncle Julian have withdrawn from society, with good reason, after the shocking death by poisoning of the rest of the family six years ago. Constance was acquitted of the murder, but the townsfolk still blame her, and she no longer leaves the house except to go into her garden. Mary Catherine (or Merricat, as she’s known within the family) runs the errands, reluctantly, but out of necessity and the desire to protect her sister. Whispers and stares follow Merricat when she comes into the village twice a week for necessities; children taunt her with a cruel nursery rhyme; certain bullying adults make a point of taunting her more directly. Merricat has her own way of dealing with this unpleasantness: she imagines virtually everyone she encounters as dead and takes pleasure in this internal vision of bodies strewn about the village or across her doorstep. Mary spends a lot of time alone and in her head, creating magical charms and engaging in secret rituals to protect herself and her sister from the world.

One day, despite all Mary’s efforts, their cousin Charles appears at their doorstep. He is a disruption and a threat to their future peace, and Mary resolves to make him go away. Her attempts to rid them and their house of Charles’ presence end in catastrophe and set the stage for the disquieting and eerie finale.

I imagines volume can be (and have been) written about this short book’s themes, subtext and symbolism; Mary Catherine’s and Constance’s respective pathologies; and the archetypes represented by each character, major and minor. I have no intention of delving into that morass of scholarship and analysis. All I want to say is this: Shirley Jackson has never failed to astonish me with the quiet terror and creeping unease she imbues in every page, every paragraph, of everything she wrote. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is no different.

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This book was read as part of the Spring into Horror Read-A-Thon. Click the badge to see the list of other folks who participated and go read some of their blog entries too.
Spring Horror 2014

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Book review: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The Haunting of Hill House
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I picked up The Haunting of Hill House for a re-read for a number of reasons:

  1. It’s one of the books I shove under other people’s noses, saying “You must read this!”
  2. I couldn’t remember when I last read it.
  3. It’s R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril time, and this was the perfect book to start my personal reading challenge of four books between now and the end of October. Ordinarily, reading four books in two months isn’t much of a stretch, but one of the books I’ve pledged to read is an historical novel 642 pages long. In hardcover. (It’s 720 pages in trade paper, 909 pages in mass market paper. Yes, I just spent several minutes on Amazon looking up the page count for the sole purpose of impressing the three people out there reading this review, which thus far hasn’t even begun. The review, I mean. So, onward.)

This short novel opens with the single most chilling paragraph I’ve ever read:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

In his introduction to this edition, Stephen King parses that paragraph to within an inch of its life. I differ with him in his interpretation that the paragraph means Hill House dreams. I think the house does not dream; therefore, it is not sane. But who am I to disagree with King?

Regardless, with that opening paragraph, Shirley Jackson immediately creates an eerie setting for her four main characters to inhabit. Dr Montague, a scholar interested in psychic phenomena (the field of his doctorate is never mentioned), has rented Hill House and invited a few select individuals to spend a summer with him, exploring its mysteries and helping him gather material for a definitive work. Only two of his invitees accept: Eleanor, the dogsbody of her family and so browbeaten she believes in her own worthlessness, while at the same time she longs to experience a life of freedom, joy, and love; and Theodora, sparkling, confident, independent of spirit and sharp of tongue. The fourth member of their party is Luke, the nephew and heir of the owner of Hill House, young, brash, perhaps a bit of a ne’er-do-well, and a last-minute addition to the group at the insistence of his aunt.

R.I.P. Review SiteEach bring ghosts of their own to their summer at Hill House, but none more so than Eleanor. And it is to Eleanor, with her diminished spirit, fervent imagination, and yearning for a place to belong, that the house turns its focus, and all the bumps and jolts and noises and quite literally the writing on the walls are aimed at her.

Hill House is a testament to Jackson’s skill with words. Each sentence contributes to the looming dread Dr Montague feels, each scene to the mounting fear the group experiences, each knock of unknown origin on the door and heavy footstep in the hall to the exhilaration Eleanor embraces, building and towering and overwhelming, until the final scene when Eleanor makes her violent and perhaps not-entirely-voluntary choice.

Whatever walks in Hill House, walks alone, indeed.

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Review: The Devil in Silver

The Devil in Silver
The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once upon a time, in Queens, New York, a man named Pepper got in a squabble with three plain-clothes police officers. The police officers were nearly off-shift and didn’t want to deal with the paperwork involved in actually arresting him, and so they washed their hands of him, more or less, by dumping him in New Hyde Hospital’s psychiatric ward for a three-day observation.

Three weeks later, Pepper is still on the psych ward. Not necessarily because he’s mentally ill, but because he has trouble with rules. He’s a big man, you see, loud and boisterous and rowdy, and accustomed to blustering other people into getting out of his way. None of this behavior does him any favors with the psychiatric staff. He ends up in restraints and medicated into submission.

Gradually, Pepper begins to find his place, even as he works at fomenting insurrection. He makes a friend or two on the ward, while still wondering how the hell he wound up there in the first place; he participates in therapy; he questions procedures; he gets placed back in restraints; he eventually learns the unspoken rules of every institution, which, boiled down to their essence, all say: Don’t rock the boat.

Lavalle’s portrayal of life in a locked ward — the diffidence of the nurses; the casual, if unconscious, cruelty of the orderlies; the burnt-out psychiatrists and their reliance on medication rather than therapy, control rather than cure — rings true. And Pepper’s outraged reaction to his wholly unexpected circumstances is dead on. Even while he plays at accepting his situation, he’s plotting.

As would I.

Many thanks to LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewers program for this book.

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Book review: The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood

Three of five stars

On the way home after his shift at the care home where he worked as a nurse’s assistant, 20-year-old Oscar Lowe wandered into a chapel on the grounds of Cambridge University one day to listen to the organ music.  After the service, as young men often do, he began chatting with an attractive young woman, Iris Bellwether, whose brother Eden was the organist.  From such chance meetings do lives change.

Iris and Eden were products of privilege: boarding school, music lessons, prestigious university education, with neither a thought to money nor concept of cost.  Oscar’s life couldn’t have been more different.  But his and Iris’s mutual attraction transcended the difference in their social backgrounds, and they swiftly fell in love.  Iris’s and Eden’s small group of friends made room in their closed circle for Oscar.  Eden, on the other hand, remained aloof, disapproving, with a penchant for insults so subtle Oscar wasn’t sure he actually heard them, or if he was being overly sensitive.

Over time, Iris began to confide in Oscar her worries about Eden: the childhood mistreatments, the obsessive behavior, the sheer hubris of his belief that he can heal people through music.  Convinced he suffered from a severe psychological disorder, she wondered if there was someone who could help:  in secret, of course, because Eden would never willingly subject himself to therapy.  Together, she and Oscar came up with a plan to have Eden evaluated, thus setting in motion the beginning of the end, and the tragedy that opens and closes the book.

Benjamin Wood’s debut novel is beautifully written, and somewhat reminiscent of Donna Tartt’s A Secret History.  He captures the opulence and arrogance of the Bellwethers’ lifestyle as seen through Oscar’s eyes, with echoes of Fitzgerald’s “The rich are different” ringing through the prose.  The living room at the Bellwether family home had “…the conscious extravagance of a hotel lobby;” Iris’s parents “…spent more money on cognac than most people could retire on.”  Oscar enjoys the luxury of becoming part of this privileged circle, but he is not seduced by it, and in the end, may be the only person who survives relatively undamaged.

Many thanks to Goodreads’ First Reads program for the opportunity to read this book.

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Book review: Dirt by David Vann

Two of five stars

It’s difficult to rate this book: the writing is stellar, but two stars and “it was okay” is all the enthusiasm I can muster for the story itself. That’s the trouble with a rating system based on how much I like something. I came away from this novel feeling covered in dirt myself, not a feeling that engenders the warm fuzzies I associate with a three-star rating, nor the cheerful joy of a four-star rating, nor the stunned awe of a five-star rating. Two stars. Yep, that’s about it.

Maybe it’s because none of the characters, with the possible exception of Grandma, are likeable. And Grandma herself is a victim of some form of senile dementia, so who knows what she was like when she had all her faculties? Ah well. On to the synopsis.

Galen, age 22, lives with his middle-aged mother, Susan, in a rural suburb of Sacramento, in the old family home on a once-working walnut ranch. Galen lives inside his head, and seeks transcendence from this mortal coil through Eastern philosophies, Richard Bach novels, vegetarianism, and bulimia. His mother tells him there’s no money to send him to college. He’s not sure if he believes her, especially when his Aunt Helen continually brings up “the trust fund” and keeps asking Susan to write her a check so she can pay for her daughter Jennifer’s college education. Susan insists there’s only sufficient money left to maintain the homeplace and fund Grandma’s stay in the assisted living facility where Susan placed her, and this subject is a continued source of family friction and viciousness. They all say the most awful things to each other, and Galen wonders why they continue to call themselves a family and follow family traditions such as the annual trip to their mountain cabin.

This year, the annual mountain cabin trip results in a massive family meltdown, and they return early. Something has shifted inside Galen, however, which drastically changes his perception of family and of the world, and leads to the disturbing events of the rest of the novel.

As I mentioned before, the writing is stellar. David Vann’s gift for description makes Galen’s odd thought processes seem almost rational; his search for enlightenment through binging and purging almost reasonable; and the events of the last two-thirds of the novel almost inevitable. Ultimately, though, I did not enjoy my experience with Galen and his family. But this may be a story I will like better, later, upon more reflection.

Gorgeous cover art, though.

Many thanks to Goodreads’s First Reads program for the opportunity to read this book.