They meet and they have an instant connection. They learn from each other, respect each other, complement each other. Each is a perfect friend to the other in a world where very little has gone right and very little has given them cause to be happy.
This is a love story, but it isn't romantic love. Rather, it is a story about the deep and fierce love of friendship—about the family we find in other people and how beyond all measures of human cruelty and across time and distance, that friendship can still ignite a fire that can create change.
Savitha and Poornima meet each other when Poornima's father hires Savitha to weave and help make saris, which are in high demand. In each other they find joy and hope. On the eve of Poornima's wedding—which was extremely difficult to arrange for her father—tragedy befalls the girls and Savitha flees, leaving them both to their own fates—two pieces of one thread unraveling.
The girls each experience brutality, learning that their lives matter little to many around them. But they each keep an internal flame alive, that spark of hope and passion that their friendship ignited and Poornima leaves behind everything to find her friend.
This is not an easy book. It describes very harsh realities in detail like rape, domestic abuse, sex work, immigration issues, human trafficking, and other issues that people around the world—especially women—still face on a daily basis.
But reading about their struggles and how they react and overcome is a form of empowerment. These characters are not ones to take anything sitting down and they constantly move toward their goals.
What I love most about this book is that not only are the women the narrators, each taking a chapter in turn as the narrative progresses, what is central to the narrative is not dating, marriage, or the general search for or loss of men, but rather it is about their empowering friendship.
It seems to me that so often books about women or with women as the main characters are too often centered around men, sometimes so much so that the book ceases to be about the female character and is instead about how she is somehow not complete without some guy. Honestly, this is so boring to me and is the whole reason I avoid what is generally marketed as "women's fiction."
It is so refreshing to read a story that is so real and honest about the struggles of these women—so often they struggle silently with no one to help them except their own mental strength and perseverance. A book about women finding their way—their own way to what they want even though it is not an easy path, and where men are not the target.
Also I so enjoyed really becoming immersed in a culture that is very different from my own, and the author has a way of weaving in the details of that world in such a way that you can understand and see the surroundings even without knowing anything about living in the places in India that are described.
Thank you to Flatiron Books for sending me an advance copy of this book.
A weekend of corporate bonding in the woods goes awry when five women go out on a hike, but only four come back. What happened out in the woods? And where is Alice?
This book is the follow-up to The Dry and I read them both in quick succession. I am pleased to say that I found them to be very different books, in style, substance, and structure—which in my book, is what success is all about when it comes to thrillers with a successive character. Readers who liked The Dry should find plenty here to keep them riveted to the page.
I thought this thriller was similar in structure to Ruth Ware's In a Dark, Dark Wood, but with a much more interesting and smart storyline. As such, it follows Aaron Falk and his new partner in the present while they try to uncover leads on the missing woman who is entangled in an ongoing financial investigation.
At the end of each chapter, it also gives small snippets of what happened before five becomes four, before and as things go astray, and the interesting part begins as the reader tries to unravel fact from fiction, truth from lies, and it becomes clear that there is much more at stake here than first meets the eye.
The converging storylines are a nice way to build tension and definitely kept me reading chapter after chapter. I began to suspect one person after the next—it really could be any of them at so many different points of the story!
While The Dry told a story that was much more personal for Aaron Falk, the lead investigative character that ties the two books together, Force of Nature gives him room to breathe, not feeling the need to give him the tired, worn-out characteristics of a tired, worn-out cop.
I found him interesting, as the way he gets entangled in these cases is not at all straightforward—as a federal agent dealing with financial white collar crime, he doesn't get much practice at crime scenes anymore. Though he may be a little bland, he is capable enough, though in both books, the plot does seem to be lead along without much of his help.
Harper's writing is not very stylistic; it gets right to the bones of what is going on, and though I can't fault her for that, as I've read plenty of bad thriller writing to know that her straightforward and well-formed prose is a breath of fresh air, there's nothing wrong with a bit of style either.
If there are more Aaron Falk mysteries to come, I'm not sure if I'll continue to follow them—I am not much of a serial thriller/mystery reader myself. Though I would be interested to see what else Harper may have up her sleeve—if there is a standalone novel in the works, I'd happily devour it.
My thanks to Flatiron Books for my copies of these two novels.
Man, there just isn't anyone writing novellas anymore, is there?
Longer than a short story, but shorter than a novel, these interesting specimens seem to get short shrift (no pun intended), at least in the publishing world. Maybe people are writing them by the boatload, but they just aren't a salable format.
Well, I am here to say, the novella is not dead—at least not the way Ahlborn is writing them.
These pieces, both around 150 to 200 pages, pack a killer punch, immersing the reader fully in the world of the main characters without all the messy and entangling structural work that a novel entails. Get right down in the dirt and make some mud, I say. Story, character, chaos—let the fun begin.
And boy, does she.
THE PRETTY ONES
This is a period piece set in New York City, 1977, during the reign of the Son of Sam, a real-life notorious serial killer who went around shooting people, mostly brown-haired women—when they caught him, he said his neighbor's dog told him to do it, no joke, look it up. Anyway, in this story, before he was caught, Nell is a stuffy sort of girl, not very stylish, held back by her brother's strict beliefs about the way girls should look and act, but Nell desperately wants to fit in and make a friend. When she decides to make a change, that's when it all goes wrong.
Of the two, this was my favorite. Don't get me wrong—they are both great—but I am such a sucker for a good period piece. I loved all the little details that made this feel like it was true to NYC of the late 70s, especially for a murderino like me, who happens to know a lot about Son of Sam. A serial killer backdrop for a story is beyond perfect; you know I'm on board from the beginning.
Nell is great character, all her motivations are laid bare on the table for the reader. She holds nothing back; it's like reading her constant mind diary. I enjoyed reading her after the introduction where the author discussed her aspirations of becoming a psychologist that eventually turned into writing instead. I was reading all the characters through this profiling lens and it was interesting to get inside Nell's (and possibly the author's?) head a little bit.
I CALL UPON THEE
Maggie got out of her family's crazy house where so much seemed to go wrong, but now when tragedy strikes, she's forced to return home and confront the shadows of her past and possibly the ones in her closet.
I wasn't surprised to read in the author's note that this story had some autobiographical bits in it—or perhaps I was just self-projecting since there were pieces that so mirrored my own experience in my middle school years. Ah well, perhaps it's a story for another day.
In any case, on the surface, this story has a lot of familiar elements (I am being vague here, but I honestly don't want to ruin it for you; the author goes to a lot of trouble to set up this story and I'm not going to be the one to just kick out that careful scaffolding) but what is unsettling is how she takes the familiar and dumps it on its head, putting the reader in unfamiliar territory—the unheimlich, if you like to get Freudian.
All in all, it is a story that is more intricate than it first appears. It has multiple time periods at work, and a lot of the revelations come late in the game, all stacked up on one another. It is a cathartic kind of read, one that would do well if you have a dark and stormy night to cozy up in bed with. Just hope the lights don't go out.
I of course, can't wait to see what's next from Ahlborn. There are not that many women writing horror and doing it well like she is. I love that, it is not only amazing to read, but highly inspiring. I would especially be interested in a short story collection. I have long held the belief that a writer who is a master of short form truly understands how to write—once you have to strip away all the fluff and are only left with the bare bones and stringiest meat of the story, you see what chops a writer really has. If these novellas are any indication, I'd say she has quite a collection of stories to share. And we'd be happy to devour them, raw beating hearts and all.
There are a lot of thrillers on the market, so it takes a particularly intriguing premise to get my interest piqued in one of these trendy books these days.
Need to Know is about Vivian, a bright CIA analyst on the trail of Russian sleeper cells in the US. It is a unique blend of domestic and spy/political thriller that I personally have not encountered and that is definitely one of its strong points. Originality is key for thrillers in my book!
After a cursory Google search (call me naive, but I know nothing about sleeper cells and this book had me feeling more than a little paranoid) it seems that the initial concept is not at all far-fetched. Also, if you've seen the TV show The Americans, it probably seems like a similar setup.
But this book is set in modern-day Washington DC and the story follows Vivian's perspective as she uncovers huge information about a sleeper cell that puts everything she holds dear—including her husband and four young children—in danger.
It is hard to talk about this book without revealing the first twist (yes, I said first, as in there are more), but I don't want to ruin it for you!
The author herself is a former CIA analyst who specialized in counterterrorism, so that was definitely a plus when it came to the more technical bits and the behind-the-scenes portions of the book. But this also showed in her writing, as it felt a bit juvenile at times and could use some strengthening.
It is a very fast-paced read, one that I got through in just one night—I guarantee that once you read the first chapter, you'll be sucked into the second, and from there it is difficult to leave the story without knowing what happens next.
While this definitely is a fun book, I wouldn't consider it very deep or engaging. It leads the reader around the plot threads on a leash and doesn't offer much in the way to let the reader in to a deeper level where they could participate in solving the twists themselves. I found it to be a fairly surface-level book.
I definitely appreciate the domestic angle, but kids-in-peril plot lines never hold a lot of stock for me personally. I never felt that close to the children in the book as their characters are not well-developed, nor did I feel them to be in immense peril. The story is definitely Vivian's and that is where the bulk of the characterization goes.
This is the sort of book that is perfect when you just want to let your brain go on autopilot and let the book drive. It feels very cinematic and would make for a great movie.
Overall, I found it to be a good, but not overly engaging read.
Thank you to Ballantine Books for my copy to read and review.
I'LL BE GONE IN THE DARK: ONE WOMAN'S OBSESSIVE SEARCH FOR THE GOLDEN STATE KILLER—Michelle McNamara
For anyone interested in true crime, Michelle's name is one that is sure to strike a chord. Most people have a specific, memorable event that made them interested in true crime (if you're a murderino, you'll be quite familiar with the term "hometown") and there's always that defining moment that you can look back on and say, that was it, for me. I was bit and I never looked back.
True crime is like that. It is kind of all or nothing, not really a dabbling kind of interest. It isn't just that Michelle McNamara had a blog (True Crime Diary), any old fool can do that (myself included), it was the way she devoted everything she had to a case that shockingly continues to go unsolved.
The people who are into true crime know their stuff and usually there is one case that got away. for Michelle, this is that case.
The insidious man dubbed the Golden State Killer by McNamara is not one to go into lightly. It will eat at you, get into your heart, have you keeping the lights on, staying up at night, scouring the internet, and also, on a lighter note, getting to know Michelle, an undeterred and completely unrelenting force of vitality in filling in all the blank spaces of this case.
This isn't just his story—nor should it be. Neither is it a catalog of victims and unspeakable crimes, though McNamara's clear, detailed, and thoroughly human look into many of the attacks is exactly what true crime writers should hope to achieve in such tightrope situations. This is the story of Michelle's search—the people she met along the way, whether it be in case files, in real life, or through chat rooms. The breakthroughs, the near-misses, the pain, the loss, the advances in technology.
This story is a touching tribute to a life devoted to a catching a killer. At the same time it is devastatingly heartbreaking, because Michelle did not get the chance to complete her quest. This book was not finished; the monster has not been found.
Some places in the narrative her absence is cruelly felt and I could sense where there could have been more, there must have been more that she was saving or would have written later. But Michelle never got the chance, having passed away unexpected in her sleep in 2016 at the age of 46.
Despite the evidence left behind at crime scenes, dropped while running away, and found after the fact, despite numerous eyewitness accounts and countless descriptions from victims, the Golden State Killer (aka the Original Night Stalker and/or the East Area Rapist) had never been caught. He is a curl of smoke in the night, sensed with unease, followed in circles, but never conclusively traced—yet.
I can't recommend this book more highly, and it's lessons are twofold. You can follow leads—doggedly—wherever they wind. You can, and should, chase the threads of what you feel in your bones is important to you, especially if it is important not just to you, but to others as well, as Michelle's quest was (and remains to be). But be careful.
And it also offers the idea that our time is now—the time we can work together to actually get things done. Through the internet, through people devoted to maintaining strength and belief even when it seems that all hope is dead and there is nowhere to turn, we can lean on each other—and we should.
Even through the darkness that kept Michelle up at night, there was a mission. We can all carry her mission to expose the truth. Turn on the light and step out of the darkness, out of the fear.
This is a stunning debut—multilayered with characters who have unique voices, strong desires, and each their own arc through the story. It is a very realistically written book, both in the characters and setting, which feels eerily too close to home.
The new Personhood Amendment grants all liberties and rights to every embryo. A small, sleepy, rainy fishing town in Oregon hosts the four main voices of this book: the biographer, the daughter, the wife, and the mender, all women who are on their own journeys through understanding these new laws and dealing with challenges that women have always faced: motherhood—whether wanted or not, persecution for lifestyle, accepted gender roles, and their own pursuits of life, freedom, and happiness in the face of social or political objection.
There is also a fifth voice of the novel, a little-known polar-ice explorer, who the biographer has been trying to write a book about. She gets a small section between each chapter, usually beautifully poetic, often with crossed out words, and I loved these interludes into a story of strength and resilience filtered through the mind of the biographer at work.
Even though there is a dystopian near-future setting for this book, it is not the ruling force, unlike so many of these highly popular stylized novels today. Rather it is the characters who run the show and we see them living their lives as completely normal people, some influenced by the changes in the laws more than others.
What is more interesting is to see them each grow as people, independently choosing their own paths to find out who they are and what they want, despite what society (which could mean their own community, or the world at large, depending) thinks of them. Each one is such a strong example of how you can overcome restrictions to get what you want, or change your path in life to move toward a better life.
One thing I'd like to address are all the comparisons to The Handmaid's Tale--this book is nothing like that. I guess it's got such good name recognition right now that it pulls a lot of weight but if you're expecting high dystopia, shocking and brutal conditions for women, and more, to misquote Sir Ian McKellen, this is not the book you're looking for.
Red Clocks is dystopic, yes, but it is on the mild side compared to Atwood's masterpiece and that is where the similarities end. It is completely its own story. Zumas has created a story that is almost more frightening because the background of what the characters are living in, could be just over the horizon for us. You never know. And, they just live through it, every day, like normal—life goes on. While I have a hard time comparing anyone to Margaret Atwood, I just think you're going to enjoy this one if you give it a try.
It really spoke to me as my first 2018 novel, because these are themes that I am contemplating myself—trying to start fresh and overcome obstacles—often ones that I've placed in my own way—to truly start living and doing what it is I believe I'm meant to do.
I'm done walking through every day just going through the motions—I want this to be the year I can look back on and see that I accomplished something, some movement toward my dreams. And it doesn't have to be huge, but it has to be me. I'm the only one who can do it.
No matter what your views may be on abortion—that really isn't the point of this book. Zumas has dug into the lives of normal women and found resiliency, strength, and a desire to change their own lives.
Isn't that what we all want?
My thanks to Little Brown for my finished copy of this book.
It's that time of year again. . .
How did this happen? It is so crazy to me that another year has blown by, though this one was no walk through the park.
But we made it and I know one of the things that kept me sane were books. Books are like an escape—somewhere we can pretend that the rest of the crappy stuff in the world isn't going on, or see a different version of reality that is even scarier than the one we live in, or just laugh for a while, or go on an adventure, or a thousand different things. Books are truly magic that way. I read 145 books in 2017, which is probably an all-time high for me, but I think I really needed books this year, as a safe place to go when it seemed like the rest of the world might just fall apart.
In other areas of my life, I feel like I went a bit inert. I didn't write as much as I wanted to—I certainly wasn't as active on this blog as I could have been! But I am planning for next year, planning that goes beyond just flimsy resolutions. I want to get things done.
Beyond all that, I read some great books, some that really stuck with me. I hope you might take a look at my top ten and be inspired to give these books a try sometime in 2018. I'd love to hear your favorite books too, so I can add them to my list.
THE RESURRECTION OF JOAN ASHBY by Cherise Wolas
Though I usually have trouble choosing one solid favorite book of the year, that slot goes to this debut novel with no contest. At 544 pages, it will take a bit of commitment, but every page is truly a gift.
Exploring both Joan's sprawling life and her own writing is such a dynamic and emotional experience and makes this book unique, but I stayed for the beautiful story of exploration of self and discovery of identity—something we can all connect with.
My thanks to Flatiron, and especially Nancy, for providing my finished copy of this book.
HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES by Carmen Maria Machado
This short story collection is a must—for women, for readers, for people who just lived through all the crap of 2017.
The stories here pulse with originality, crossing all the genre lines from sci-fi and fantasy to experimental to crime drama and beyond. She doesn't stop for a breath and barely lets the reader breathe either, pushing them into her characters—their space, their experiences, their bodies—in every story. Where she is most successful, she leaves the reader obscured in the fog; you have to let the stories sit with you and entangle with them emotionally, sometimes more than intellectually. Her writing reminded me of Angela Carter at times.
My thanks to Graywolf Press for providing my finished copy of this book.
LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders
This one is probably not much of a surprise to see here, but I think Saunders is one of the finest writers of the modern age and it was great to see his first novel—a genre- and form-bending (if not breaking) masterpiece—get a lot of attention all year. I both read and then listened to the audio (in that order), which if you like the book I definitely recommend. The audio version has a full cast, sort of like a play, where each character has a different voice actor.
Besides just breaking novelistic conventions, the plot and characters of BARDO are brilliantly conceived and developed. It is a heartbreaking, heartwarming, and truly weird story in the way that only Saunders can invent.
My thanks to Random House for providing my finished copy of this book.
TORNADO WEATHER by Deborah E. Kennedy
This is the story of a young girl who goes missing, which doesn't seem like such an innovative storyline, but it really tells the story of all the people who live in her small town, following a group of them after her disappearance as the continue to go about their daily lives. Each of them have some sort of connection to her, whether it be strong or just tangential, but in the end the story is more about the people left behind—an innovative viewpoint for a mystery story. I can't recommend this one enough.
My thanks to Flatiron for providing my finished copy of this book.
THE FACT OF A BODY: A MURDER AND A MEMOIR by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
I am a true crime buff (murderinos unite) so this one was definitely on my radar early in the year. What I didn't expect was its beautiful and haunting mix of memoir and reporting elements. The writing is simply stunning, the type of writing that really stops you in your tracks and makes you remember why you love reading so much in the first place. And the story, though not some famous serial killer or the like, goes much deeper and really dug into my heart as I read it.
If you read The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson and loved that, this one is for you too.
My thanks to Flatiron for providing my ARC of this book.
HUNGER: A MEMOIR OF (MY) BODY by Roxane Gay
I don't read a lot of nonfiction, but I'm glad that two books can be represented on my list this year. I just read this one a few days ago, but there was no question that it would join the ranks of my top list. Gay has such a powerful voice and telling her story is obviously not something that she takes lightly. This book carries the weight of the actions enacted against her, how she has tried to deal with it, and also realizes that her story is not the only story out there. That is a lot.
MY ABSOLUTE DARLING by Gabriel Tallent
This is not an easy book to read. It has difficult moments that have been very divisive, but there is a such a beauty, strength, and reality in the main character of Turtle, one that felt very true to me. I loved the way the natural world and her movement through it was described so fully, but her interiority was kept close to the vest; it takes a long time for her to come into her own.
This book is probably not for everyone but I loved the writing and can't wait to see what Tallent comes up with next.
SHADOWBAHN by Steve Erickson
This book is doing something so different and interesting, it is difficult to ignore. With fiction becoming something that feels sadly mass-produced—one book does well and then six months later I see a bunch of books come out that all seem exactly the same as that one—it is a true pleasure to read something original, not only in narrative, but it structure and style as well.
The story here can't get any weirder, which in itself I love, but the writing is stunning and Erickson's innovative thinking puts him in my top list.
LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng
Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. How have I not read her debut yet? This layered book deals so acutely with the finer points of character, really showing how there is no black and white, no right or wrong, only shades of gray. Maybe this is a lesson that our whole country needs to learn right now. I loved all the characters, likable or not, and the way the stories come together is both heartbreaking and emotionally cleansing. She is a talent.
THE HEART'S INVISIBLE FURIES by John Boyne
Another huge one at 582 pages, I might consider this one required reading for the state of our nation today. It is not quiet about bigotry and hatred for all classes of people who have been othered, and Boyne has a real knack for showing both the absurdity and the terror of such situations and how it has a lasting impact. A beautiful and important novel.
My thanks to Crown/Hogarth for providing my ARC of this book.
There are definitely others I could recommend and there are others that I didn't get to that I have a suspicion would fight for a spot on this list. Well, there's always next year!
I am hoping to get plenty of reading done in 2018 of course, but I'm making a resolution to focus more on my current collection of books and reading some classics and other books rather than just frontlist titles. We will see how it goes—there's a whole world of books of course, and I'd like to get started right away!
I had a slow reading month in October, but November is already off to a whirlwind start with a thrillerthon weekend.
I missed out on Lapena's wildly popular The Couple Next Door, so when sent copies of both of these just in time for Halloween, I figured I'd dive in and here is your double-hitter review.
The Couple Next Door begins with a bad parenting decision that only gets worse: when Anne and Marco's babysitter cancels last minute, they decide to attend their next door neighbor's dinner party anyway, bringing along a baby monitor and checking in every half hour, but leaving baby at home. Not good.
Of course, when they finally arrive home for the night, they find they front door unlocked and the baby missing. What follows is a tangled web of lies, deceits, and unsteady foundations that come crumbling down around the family and everyone they are connected to.
While the pacing might be quick enough to keep a reader turning pages, the writing is so simplistic and (sorry to say) boring that it was hard to imagine someone actually tearing through the pages of a book like this actually caring about the characters.
Have thrillers really come to this? That all that matters is finding the twist, the whodunnit, that crucial unmasking-the-murderer, I-would-have-gotten-away-with-it-if-it-weren't-for-you-meddling-kids scene?
When books can't deliver on style, I find myself just scanning the pages and drifting off. I'll probably solve the mystery, but who cares? If you aren't invested in the people, in their story, what's the point of figuring out who took the baby?
This book was so easy to read. 308 pages and it probably took me less than two hours to read. There just wasn't any substance, no sentences you wanted to stop and read again, no interesting turns of phrase, no indication at all that the author was in fact interested in writing. It's all just plot device spewed out on the page.
And if you want to talk about that ending, feel free to send me a note. Because I have some thoughts.
All that said, there was a germ of an interesting idea here, so I didn't want to give up.
A Stranger in the House follows Karen, who, while driving erratically in a bad part of town, causes a car accident that gives her amnesia. When it turns out that her car is connected to a grisly murder scene nearby, all the lies connected with her past and present start to come uncovered. And perhaps she's not the only one with a few secrets.
I fell into the story of this one a lot more naturally, though the writing definitely had not improved. There are a lot of similar elements: a husband and wife at odds over a criminal situation they are involved in, neighbors who know more than they let on, and a familiar homicide detective makes an appearance.
But I just don't think a somewhat interesting plot can make up for tedious and uninspired writing. Aren't we here for the writing? Or does that not matter anymore? I guess I'm honestly interested to know what people consider "good."
For example, in these books, even as it switches between the different character's perspectives, there is no differentiation in the writing. It feels as though the only reason for the change is because that specific character knew something we needed to know, so they got the floor. It is so stilted.
And as far as the plot of A Stranger in the House goes, I have three words: gunshot residue test. That's all I'm saying.
I can't exactly recommend these books. But there are plenty of people who loved them. If you are looking for a fast, brainless, twisty, whodunnit sort of read, one where you don't have to do a lot of thinking or puzzling, this will totally be your jam. If you have higher aspirations for crime books, we'll have to keep looking.
My thanks to Pamela Dorman Books/Viking for my copies of these books.
Get your copies:
The Couple Next Door
A Stranger in the House
Find out more about the author:
Find out more about the publisher, Pamela Dorman Books (Viking, PRH)
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Cute pumpkin carving templates sent by Viking. What a cool idea!
A literary haunted house tale? I was drawn to this book for many reasons, not the least of which being haunted houses have always intrigued me. And maybe houses don’t even have to always be haunted, but rather just look that way, or emit a certain aura or feeling. And they don’t have to be houses either.
The haunted house genre certainly leaves big shoes to fill. There is of course the pinnacle, Shirley Jackson's Haunting of Hill House, but there are so many other great ones, with varying degrees of horror, suspense, and gothic influences: The House Next Door, Burnt Offerings, The Fall of the House of Usher, House of Leaves, The Woman in Black, The Turn of the Screw, and of course The Shining, are just a few of my favorites.
How to reinvent this genre? How to make it still scare us, or at least keep us reading, when we've potentially read everything on this list (and a bunch of others too)?
Jemc's new novel pays obvious homage to several lines of haunted house tradition, but it searches for new ways to unpack what really scares us about domestic life, isolation, and the things that go bump in the night—or perhaps just go bump inside our own minds.
The story centers around a couple, James and Julie, who are hoping for a fresh start. They move out of the city and buy a house in a secluded area, but almost immediately, strange things begin to happen that they can't explain and that no one would believe. The house is expanding, weird rooms appearing behind the walls. Water turns bad in their cups and strange markings appear on the walls. Should they leave? Or are they just seeing things?
Do we define our home? Or does where we live define us? How do you really take possession of a place, of a set of walls and doors and appliances? What of the people who inhabited those walls before you—do they leave a mark? And what might even be more interesting is what you bring to that place and how it might manifest.
I think the main strength of this book lay in the atmosphere it evoked. There was a building dread emanating from the pages that was very palpable. I was never sure what was coming next and that propelled me through the book.
The book alternates perspectives between James and Julie and it was very telling to watch them discover certain things or have chilling moments in the house, and then see exactly what they decided to tell their partner (or not) about their experience.
The book was as much about the breakdown of James' and Julie's relationship, about the tensions that develop between them when they don't communicate, as it was about the house being haunted. In fact, I began to read the haunting itself as a physical manifestation of their self-doubts and relationship troubles. It’s the classic “chicken and egg” problem. Is the haunting coming from house, or from them?
The first half of the novel was much stronger than the second half for me. It might be a stylistic choice, but as each of their mental states deteriorated, the plot seemed to fizzle away in deference to vivid imagery and an unresolved side plot with the elderly next-door neighbor.
I wished that the book had delivered more on the promise of the first half, building into the creative imagining of the house, holding onto the suspense of the fantastic, and offering a solid climax. While I appreciate ambiguity in books, I think in this case a tighter plot with less side narratives and some kind of resolution on the haunting would have been more fulfilling.
Overall, this is an atmospheric, quick read that would be great for a dark and spooky night in October. Perhaps you are just moving into a new house. . . One that has been around for a while—it has some history in its walls. Perhaps you’ll look at it differently, walking through the halls late at night. It’s almost as if it’s watching you.
My thanks to FSG Originals for my copy of this book.
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Find out more about the author, Jac Jemc
There is an art to the short story. It is not as simple as most people would think. People are daunted and awed by the novel—that long, arduous journey of pages, which of course, is no cake walk itself.
But in those pages, there is room to grow and splinter off in any sort of direction the characters take you, feeling free to meander down any trail the plot draws you down.
A short story has to be tight, has a word limit, has to create all of those feelings and momentums and arcs within the character and the reader in a much tighter scope.
That takes skill. A writer that has a handle on how to craft a great short story really has something.
These stories burn brightly, with a fierce determination, by turns dark and by others comedic, and it all keeps turning like those merry-go-rounds we used to play on as kids until it’s one swirl of nausea-inducing color that makes more sense than the painful world outside.
Behr captures that sense of unrestrained wildness, that captive clarity, the moment of crazed hilarity breaking through the horror.
The stories here, sometimes intertwining, with a consistent tone and dark eye turned toward the world, are narrated by characters lost, broken, set to repeat, and caught up in the uncertain fears we all force on ourselves.
I’ve been ruminating on children in fiction a lot, what with the huge release of It in theaters (and I’ve seen it three times, so sue me, it’s great), and the kids on the page here are hard as nails. They have that bright, intuitive sense of the world that kids so easily grasp and are dealing with so much more than they should have to carry. Brilliantly rendered.
The stories do tend to drop off at their conclusions like that step you forgot in the dark, leaving a bewildered sense of incompleteness. Perhaps stylistic and purposeful, but when overused, one tends to not feel as deeply for the characters, sensing no real conclusion for them will be achieved.
I found the standout stories in the collection to be the ones that center on darkness in more permanent ways, but ways that were only glancing for the narrators, like “A Reasonable Person,” where a juror reflects on her own life and the grisly case she has been assigned to assess, and “Afterword,” where a character reminisces about a young boy she knew growing up who was brutally murdered and how it still affects her.
Stories like these have a deeper resonance, a darkness that sinks to the bones and sits there, chilling and spreading, a real feeling that there is true evil in the world. They show the sparks of a true talent developing in these pages and I’d be glad to see where they go in the author’s work in years to come.
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Find out more about Alex Behr
Find out more about the publisher, 7.13 Books
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Assistant editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.