Obligatory Halloween Post!

Happy Halloween, everyone! Let’s talk about books before I dress up like a mouse and get my squeak on.

For the past few years, I’ve started the wonderful tradition of reading a classic horror novel each year leading up to this wickedest of holidays. This is an especially delightful tradition if you follow these simple steps: 1) curl up next to a crackling fireplace with your horror novel, 2) make sure to stock up on your Halloween candy, 3) don’t forget the apple cider.

I started this two years ago, with Stephen King’s The Shining. Doctor Sleep, The Shining‘s sequel, was about to be released. The timing was perfect. This book is an absolute must for horror novel lovers.

the shining

“Monsters are real. Ghosts are too. They live inside of us, and sometimes, they win.”

–Stephen King, The Shining

Last year, I went for Shirley Jackson’s classic The Haunting of Hill House. This was, dare I say it, better than The Shining. It was horribly, dastardly scary. And if you are a cover geek, seriously google image search The Shining and The Haunting of Hill House. Both books have had incredible covers through the years.

the haunting of hill house

This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity. It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fit place for people or for love or for hope.

― Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House

And this year, I’m reading Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. Stephen King has referred to it as one of the best of the supernatural wave of horror that also carried The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby (uhm, why are horror movies always more famous than the novels they are adapted from?). I’m not impressed yet, I’m not even sure what is going on. But I have high hopes.

ghost story

The mind was a trap–it was a cage that slammed down over you.

― Peter Straub, Ghost Story

None of these, I have to say, compare to the scariest book I read this year. That was Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me, about her relationship with serial killer Ted Bundy. Rule, a true crime author who passed away this year, worked long nights at a suicide prevention hotline alone with Bundy in 1971. They stayed in touch after the job, and Rule eventually came to realize Bundy may be a suspect in the killings she was writing about. The coincidence is a writer’s dream and nightmare all bundled into one.

I unfortunately finished this book, which included descriptions of the Chi Omega murders at Florida State University, just before it was announced there was a prowler on the loose who had been breaking into women’s apartments in my complex in Scottsdale. The combo of Ted Bundy in my mind and a prowler on the streets did not make for well-rested nights. Luckily, they caught the prowler and with doors and windows locked, I moved on to my next read.

stranger beside me

Just be careful,” a Seattle homicide detective warned. “Maybe we’d better know where to find your dental records in case we need to identify you.”
I laughed, but the words were jarring; the black humor that would surround Ted Bundy evermore begun.

― Ann Rule, The Stranger Beside Me: Ted Bundy The Shocking Inside Story

Time for me to put on my whiskers, dear readers. Remember, if it is a part of someone’s culture, it’s not a costume! And save some candy for the kids!

Ottessa Moshfegh’s Wry, Oddball ‘Eileen’

eileen

I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair. You might take me for a nursing student or a typist, note the nervous hands, a foot tapping, bitten lip. I looked like nothing special. — Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen: A Novel

Thus opens Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, a narrative which might indicate our title character is just another girl. But Eileen is an odd young woman, obstinate and unaware in her peculiarities, and this novel’s glimpse into her strange world is at once intimate and incredibly uncomfortable, like a stranger standing too close in an elevator.

It is 1964, and Eileen’s life is bleak. Unmarried, single past her prime in a period not kind to women aged out of the dating pool, Eileen lives with her father. Dad is a former police officer with such a drinking problem, Eileen hides his shoes to keep him from bolting, blackout drunk, into the neighborhood to stir up trouble.

Eileen’s combinations of repression and disinhibition read like a roller coaster of the roles our society demands women to fill. She works at a juvenile detention center, called a boys’ home in those days, and fantasizes about one of the guards, while simultaneously fearing and trying to control her own body, its needs and its functions.

As a character study alone, Eileen is a beautiful, bizarre joy to read. But the real fun comes with the arrival of teacher Rebecca Saint John to the prison. The dazzling, poised Rebecca forms an unlikely friendship with Eileen, albeit a relationship unequal on all levels. The reader can see what Eileen is too girl-crushed to notice–what does this charming vixen want from our dowdy, awkward, dark little narrator?

The big reveal, appearing like a band-aid ripped off in a magnificent and unexpected twist, made me guffaw aloud, which I rarely do. I won’t give anything away here. This is a clever and unique read, full of strange things and strong, warped women.

Eileen on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Further reading:

Commute As Turning Point: Joshua Mohr’s ‘All This Life’

all this life

But perhaps this is what love looks like in the twenty-first century. There’s the heart pumping in our chests, and the one that thrums online, beating a binary rhythm, zeroes and ones. Paul has to find that version of his son.  –Joshua Mohr, All This Life

The morning commute is a lot of things–life-changing is normally not one of them. But on one morning of traffic crawling across the Golden Gate Bridge seemingly like any other, fog rolling across the Bay and not yet fully removed from drivers heads, father Paul and son Jake see something. Something that causes them to stop their car and stand out on the road and cry out. And from that day forward, their lives are changed.

Joshua Mohr’s All This Life is the story of Paul and Jake, the gap between them, and the story of the tragedy they witnessed. Paul, divorced and alone in every way, can’t connect with a world always on Facebook and texting with emoticons. Paul’s character reminded me a bit of something a more authentic, less snarky, Joshua Ferris would write. Paul’s son Jake is the epitome of this tech world: he’s always plugged in, headphones on. Siri’s voice, calling his name, soothes him in a way his father’s never could. He films content on his phone and loads it online as he believes creating content to be his generation’s calling.

Paul and Jake’s lives intertwine with those of others down on their luck but ever-hopeful: there’s Sara, living in a small town in the Arizona-Nevada border desert where men road-fish (literally pretend to fish in the road) for fun. Unfortunately, and without explanation, her boyfriend has just released a sex tape, allowing Sara to become a slut of the week on amateur sites.

Sara’s first love, Rodney, another main character of the story, is now known as balloon boy throughout his neighborhood, as he plummeted in a fall off a weather balloon, and (among other injuries) has aphasia, unable to speak as clearly as he thinks.

Rodney’s mom, Kathleen, abandoned her family after her son’s accident. She is now a caricaturist drawing portraits for tourists on the boardwalk in San Francisco, allowing the story to come full circle. Kathleen’s portion especially lends the story a now-ness, as she lives in San Francisco’s Mission District and identifies with the area’s artists, looking down upon the new luxury housing being built to accommodate the ever-burgeoning influx of tech bros. I understand Mohr’s desire to work a gentrification, tech boom slice of the city into the narrative, but it doesn’t ring true, as Kathleen is a recent transplant herself.

Mohr’s prose is rich and heady, as he taps into the heartstrings of both a middle-aged man going through a life crisis and an adolescent millenial. He describes everything from suicide to emotional breakdowns in crisp, staggering beauty. Most notably, he describes the thought process of a kid who thinks in Google searches (“A Google search of his favorite things would not reveal the boy as a page one result.”) and clicks, a kid so in tune with the world online that he’s not sure what the one offline means anymore. All of Jake’s internet metaphors for feelings and life itself are startling and hilarious.

Although this book starts out incredibly depressing, and does have some dark threads of loss running throughout the entire novel, it is really a book about people triumphing. People struggle, yes, but ultimately they can persevere and look up from their phones now and then. We can come together, despite all these technological barriers. And yes, I said barriers–this book is fairly anti-technology, ultimately leaving it as the monster hiding in the closet, hurting us all. Whether you agree with that or not, Mohr’s All This Life is worth a read.

All This Life on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

In Ava Marsh’s ‘Untouchable,’ ‘Fifty Shades’ Gets A Murderous Makeover

untouchable

Every now and then, I find myself finishing a book and wondering how to review it. Ava Marsh’s Untouchable, featuring Stella, a forensic psychologist-turned-high class call girl (!), is one of those books. It is sexy, it is violent, and it gets down deep into the issues of sex, class, and power controlling our society today. Whether Untouchable handles those issues well or not is subjective, based on the values of the reader. I think much dislike or love of the book will stem from value judgement of it–how it portrays women as call girls, women as sexual beings, women as victims and perpetrators of violence.

Enough analyzation, already. Let’s get to the plot! Stella is a classy call girl, getting down and dirty with men for money. Marsh describes this experience through Stella’s eyes in explicit visuals–from the arousing to the repelling, and everything in between, it’s all there. Get ready to be turned on, then skeeved out. After a party with some high-powered men, one of Stella’s fellow prostitutes ends up dead. The police aren’t too interested in the dead hooker in a hotel room, but Stella thinks there’s a reason for the murder and wants justice. Through her own investigation, utilizing her network of johns and fellow working girls, Stella uncovers what happened to her friend while risking her own life.

The combination of sex and violence make for some heart-pounding, eye-popping, page-turning stuff. Marsh isn’t afraid to build Stella as a fallible character, who makes an occasionally shockingly cruel mistake. If you are looking for a hooker with a heart of gold story, you won’t find it here.

After reading Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery last year, I believe Untouchable did glamorize the profession a bit. This may be a cultural difference–Ava Marsh lives in London, where prostitution is not illegal, although activities surrounding it are. Marsh’s Stella is a high class girl, and her friend is murdered for an elaborate reason not directly related to her profession. But Kolker’s (nonfiction) book described a much bleaker and much more dangerous life, where men who like to kill women specifically seek out prostitutes because they realize so few people notice when prostitutes go missing. Because of this, I have mixed feelings about Untouchable–I applaud Marsh for discussing prostitution at all in a world that often doesn’t, but wonder if she padded the bleaker details surrounding the profession a bit.

Untouchable on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

The Wonder Years Meets Law And Order: SVU In M.O. Walsh’s ‘My Sunshine Away’

my sunshine away

There were four suspects in the rape of Lindy Simpson, a crime that occurred directly on top of the sidewalk of Piney Creek Road, the same sidewalk our parents had once hopefully carved their initials into, years before, as residents of the first street in the Woodland Hills subdivision to have houses on each lot. It was a crime impossible during the daylight, when we neighborhood kids would have been tearing around in go-karts, coloring chalk figures on our driveways, or chasing snakes down into storm gutters. But, at night, the streets of Woodland Hills sat empty and quiet, except for the pleasure of frogs greeting the mosquitoes that rose in squadrons from the swamps behind our properties. –My Sunshine Away, M.O. Walsh

Imagine The Wonder Years, if you are old enough. All that innocent nostalgia for adolescence, ice cream dripping curbside and first loves blushing as they slam lockers in school corridors. Now imagine The Wonder Years merged with a Law and Order: SVU episode, and all its treachery lurking around each corner. Finally, plop this summer break-turned-nightmare down in a muggy Louisiana neighborhood, a place strangely unique in the United States, with its lush greenery and delicious food, and you’ll get an idea of M.O. Walsh’s My Sunshine Away.

The story focuses on the rape of Lindy Simpson, as it affected the town of Woodland Hills, Louisiana. We are told of Lindy’s rise amidst schoolyard friends and fall after the assault through the eyes of an unnamed narrator, looking back at his adolescence in Woodland Hills. Just one of a handful of Lindy’s followers, he worships her, lusts after her, and tries to track down her rapist. The narrator at times tested my tolerance–how much adolescent misunderstanding of love could I handle? Would I put the book down? Couldn’t this kid see how wounded Lindy was? But he couldn’t, and I didn’t. This is a story of growing up, with all the awkward moments, all the aches and pains, that entails.

As a debut novel, this one was highly praised, and M.O. Walsh’s prose is smart and striking. Each meditation on Louisiana, its people, its weather, and its food is clear and crisp, set with a voice so memorable it makes up for what were, for me, the book’s more icky moments. And the payoff is there, as we get to see this young, hungry, desperate boy grow up into something better. Despite its premise, this isn’t one to end on a bad note–I promise.

My Sunshine Away on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

When The Bachelorette Party Goes Very, Very Wrong: Ruth Ware’s ‘In A Dark, Dark Wood’

in a dark dark wood

Scout Press is a new imprint from Gallery Books “dedicated to being on the lookout for modern storytellers.” They’ve roared onto the scene with two releases, Ruth Ware’s In A Dark, Dark Woods and (now Longlist National Book Award Nominee) Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have A Family. I received a promo e-mail about Scout Press before these two were released, and like a chump I passed them over. Once I heard the endless roaring buzz of praise, I picked up In A Dark, Dark Woods on audio, and listened everywhere, all the time, unable to stop.

Ware’s In A Dark, Dark Wood sounds like many things–don’t confuse it with Into The Woods, the Broadway play adapted into a feature film, or master of mystery Tana French’s novel In The Woods. Ever since the Brothers Grimm put the grim in our fairy tales, the woods have been a nightmarish place to lose yourself and tap into the pulse of a canopied underworld severed from sunlight and all things good. In A Dark, Dark Wood acts as an homage to so much that lives in the dark of our nightmares–ghosts, guns, unrequited loves, strangers prowling, phone lines cut, murders in the midst.

In this mystery, instead of wolves or headless horsemen, the woods brings horrors of a particularly modern variety. Reclusive author Leonora reluctantly agrees to attend a long lost school friend’s hen party (for us unaware Americans, that’s the British equivalent of a bachelorette party). The most majestic and notable part of this novel is the hen party’s setting, a glass house nestled amidst a muddy and isolated woods far out in the English countryside. Each attendee to the soiree feels like a performer, vulnerable and exposed in front of a vast expanse of trees. This is the type of isolated home found at the end of a muddy long drive, where cell reception blips from on bar to none, where the land line in the kitchen feels like a life line to the outside world.

The night turns strange quite quickly. Clare, the bride-to-be, has invited a ragtag bunch, with Leonora and her sarcastic sidekick Nina not necessarily adding to the party atmosphere. There’s new mother Melanie, who struggles to pull her eyes up from her phone, aghast at no reception. There’s flamboyant and coke-touting Tom, the hard partying token gay man at the celebration. And finally, there’s Flo. Flo worships Clare, dresses like Clare, and insists that Clare will have the best hen party ever. No matter what.

The isolated party in a strange glass house, fueled by alcohol and Flo’s intensity, quickly moves past social niceties and into the realm of something else. Leonora wakes up battered and brutalized in a hospital bed, police at her door. No longer in a glass house, no longer at a hen night. She takes us along in her struggle to remember what exactly turned a hen party into a much darker, more dangerous trip into the woods.

Ware’s building of suspense is magnificent here, especially in the first half of the novel. Unfortunately, amnesia plays a critical plot point near the end, which always tries my patience as a mystery lover. The writing here is so good though, that I’m willing to overlook this. I do hope Ware steers clear of such devices in her next book. The setting and characters build an unbearable, but irresistible paranoia, that makes In A Dark, Dark Wood an ideal mystery, a quick one to flip through then finish.

In A Dark, Dark Wood on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Further Reading:

‘Scream’ Meets Agatha Christie In ‘A Dark, Dark Wood’ (npr.org)

Author Interview: Ruth Ware (auntagathas.com)

Finding thrills in ‘A Dark, Dark Wood’ (usatoday.com) – Finch’s USA Today review is much less tolerant of the amnesia device, and I don’t disagree with his points, I just still enjoyed the book.

In Elisabeth Egan’s ‘A Window Opens,’ Modern Day Mom Meets E-Pub Giant

a window oepns

In Elisabeth Egan’s debut novel, A Window Opens, Alice Pearse has it all–she’s a modern-day mom, juggling three kids and a part-time job as books editor for women’s magazine You. Her secure life is uprooted when her hubby Nicholas, a lawyer, comes home with news that he isn’t making partner and is leaving his firm (and his steady paycheck) to start his own office. Until Nicholas starts building a clientele and earning some cash, Alice’s part-time magazine job isn’t going to cut it.

Alice considers herself lucky to land a job at e-publishing giant Scroll. They have big plans to get readers into their stores, buying ebooks–think gummy candies, super-lush seating, and curated novel recommendations. It sounds like Alice’s dream. The reality, however, is something a little more maniacal. Scroll is a passive-aggressive mess of tech-speak and never-ending company-wide e-mails. The dream job begins to turn into a nightmare.

Author Elisabeth Egan, in real life, followed a career path similar to Pearse’s. According to the New York Times, Egan worked at Self before accepting a position at Amazon Publishing. She also has three children, like Alice, and there are other echoes of her life in the novel. Egan has taken the old adage “write what you know” very seriously, and the authenticity comes through in the story.

Although marketed as chick-lit, this isn’t an entirely light-hearted story of finding oneself. Egan’s observations about modern life and its expectations of women are so spot on, they are hilarious. Alice’s conversations with her children, all innocence and awkward questions, are charming comedic breaks. But Alice’s father struggles with cancer throughout the story, and in places I felt myself tearing up. A Window Opens is emotional, endearing, and satisfying. Bring your tissues, grab your e-reader, and ask yourself, “What would you do to have it all?”

A Window Opens on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Elizabeth Kolbert’s ‘The Sixth Extinction’ Is The Saddest Story In All The Land

the sixth extinction

What if I told you that a nonfiction book, published in 2014, was the saddest story ever told? More tragic than Travis shooting Old Yeller, that faithful dog of childhood fiction? More gut-wrenching than Searchlight’s heart bursting within 100 yards of the finish line in the ever-traumatizing Stone Fox?

Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History is that book. When I relayed its subject matter to friends, they wished I hadn’t. But it was just too much for me to bear alone–I couldn’t stop talking about. Its information is overwhelming, exhausting, and important.

The Sixth Extinction, as its title suggests, brings to the public the scientific concept of a sixth extinction. Scientists believe that we may be in the midst of a mass extinction event, an event so dramatic that it has only happened five previous times in five hundred million years, since the primordial ooze wiggled out of oceans and onto dry land.

To paraphrase Kolbert: extinction rates are soaring, and the texture of life is changing (2).

We are only learning now about the Big Five previous extinction events, and “the history of these events is recovered just as people come to realize they are causing another one (2).” Kolbert weaves a narrative from the present, where amphibians are dying off in alarming numbers, to the past, as scientists and researchers study previous mass die-offs and hypothesize what to expect for this one.

How bleak is this book?

Kolbert enters a cave of bats so full of dead bat carcasses that it is impossible to not step on them, crushing them as she walks with other researchers.

She visits herpetologists in Panama, frantically building artificial environments for frogs once plentiful, but now extinct, in the wild. References to Noah, and the ark, are plentiful.

She recalls humanity’s total annihilation of the once abundant great auk.

She talks with scientists who hypothesize that coral reefs will become “ecologically extinct,” eroding as early as 2050 (130).

She visits Suci, a Sumatran rhino, and looks at our failed attempts to save the species (feeding them hay when they needed fresh greens, and killing them in our attempts to capture them for breeding purposes).

She looks back at Homo Sapiens possible part in destruction of Neanderthals.

The information is staggering. I haven’t even touched on everything she covers. The Sixth Extinction won the 2015 General Nonfiction Pulitzer, and it is easy to see why. Kolbert manages to take a huge subject, exploring past extinctions over a time period so vast it is almost impossible to comprehend, and makes it digestible. Comprehending a mass die-off of species in the numbers she is describing is difficult, but through striking visuals and comparisons, Kobert conveys the almost unbelievable facts. She includes pictures of her travels and discoveries. And amidst all this devastating information, she isn’t afraid to crack a joke here and there.

Although she does try to end the book on a lighter note (after visiting frozen zoos, where scientists are trying to preserve species in liquid nitrogen after their extinction), she doesn’t intend to soften the blows. In The Sixth Extinction, Kolbert brings information scientists understand to the layperson. She makes their urgency and their concern real for the average suburbanite, who may be disconnected from frogs and bats and the great wilds of the earth. Prepare for tragedy, prepare to be heartbroken, and read this book.

The Sixth Extinction on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Further reading:

In Jonathan Kellerman’s ‘The Murderer’s Daughter,’ A Victim’s Advocate Goes Vigilante

the murderer's daughter

Who can resist a novel with a title like The Murderer’s Daughter?

Not me.

Jonathan Kellerman’s newest release, The Murderer’s Daughter tells the story of survivor Grace. Grace grew up brilliant but fearful, passed from abusive (murderously so, hence the title) family to stereotypically unstable foster homes.

Now, a sought after therapist, considered a “victim whisperer” by those who need just such a soothsayer most, Grace’s dark childhood has caught up with her. A mysterious man seeks a session with her, intrigued by a little-known paper she wrote on families of criminals. Is he related to an offender himself? Does he look familiar?

Before Grace can find answers to any of these questions, the man loses his nerve and stumbles out of the session. Out of the session and right back into the grips of whatever violent element haunted his life.

There was a lot to love about The Murderer’s Daughter, and a lot I just wasn’t feeling. I appreciated Grace as a brilliant, independent, and manipulative woman, and the story of her upbringing interweaved with modern day was as intriguing as the mystery itself. As for the mystery, much of Grace’s investigation was done on the internet–while this may be realistic, it isn’t exactly the most thrilling way to reveal information to a reader.

In the age of Dexter, books with a bad seed turned to justice are all the rage: Chelsea Cain’s One Kick is my favorite thus far. If you love the vigilante justice of Dexter and the heady analysis of psychological thrillers, check out The Murderer’s Daughter.

The Murderer’s Daughter on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Updates and ‘The Marquis’ Giveaway!

the marquis revisited

Thought I’d check in with a few updates and an awesome giveaway!

I started school again, my summer break felt so quick and my piles of summer reading are still so high. For class this week, I’m reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction and H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Both frenzied books of destruction, one science, one science fiction. I love Wells’s writing style. Kolbert’s book, which presents scientist’s claim that we may be in the sixth mass die-off of all time (think when the dinosaurs all died off) is perhaps the most overwhelming book I’ve ever read. If you haven’t got it, get it.

I wrote a little funny thing imagining the wilds of the 2016 Election, before Trump entered the race. With all his antics, it seems more timely than ever and I’ve posted it on Mediium. You can read it here: ‘What I’d Like To See This Season On Who Wants To Be The Next President.’ I remember Medium being a little easier to use from my first post, I definitely couldn’t get a header image going, so anyone who has a tip there, give me a hollaback.

Finally, I’m so excited to announce a giveaway for Laura Auricchio’s biography of the Marquis de Lafayette, The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered, which the wonderful people at Vintage Books sent me. History buffs, this one is for you! It was out in paperback just last week, and has been hailed as “thrilling” by the New Yorker:

When the Marquis de Lafayette returned to France following the American Revolution, to which he had lent military talent and considerable funds, he was a hero eager to lead his people in a revolution of their own. His failure in a second bid for glory is the focus of this astute and often thrilling reconsideration of his legacy.

You can enter to win the book on kalireads.com on Facebook, where I set up a Rafflecopter giveaway! It is my first one, so I hope that it worked…