book review

Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand

Wylding Hall

For the past few weeks, I have been staying on the West Coast of Ireland. It is rural, full peculiar cows that like to stare you in the eye and follow you around as you trek across ancient fields to check out Medieval ruined abbeys. It is green and [uncharacteristically] sunny, but some days, still filled with rolling fog atop the mountains. It has certainly put me in the mood for spooks. (If you care to see some photos, stick around till the end for some of my snaps.)

Although Wylding Hall is not set in Ireland, but the English countryside, it certainly was quite a read!

In 1972, a British acid-folk band is carted off by their manager to a remote ancient house to record their next album. The band already suffered one strange occurrence–the ambiguous death of the lead singer’s girlfriend (and former band mate). Of course, when they are at Wylding Hall, there are strange happenings, creepy birds, and lurking presences. Finally, the lead singer mysteriously disappears and is presumed dead after he never reappeared.

The novella is told through interconnected first person interviews: it is present day and a documentary filmmaker is interviewing the band and others involved about the time surrounding the stay at Wylding Hall and the lead singer’s disappearance.

This structure delights my fondness for books written in epistles. Yes, interviews aren’t letters, but in the novella they do give that reading experience. Also, everyone’s experience at Wylding Hall was completely different and when they are commenting on similar moments, there are little tweaks in the perception. Everyone is inherently an unreliable narrator and the question of who to believe is always simmering.

Elizabeth Hand is a writer I’ve been meaning to dip into forever, and I totally dug this book. I read it in a few sittings, quickly flipping pages, as the Gothic atmosphere tinged the entire narrative. Wylding Hall also won a 2015 Shirley Jackson Award.

With the landscape so haunted, I am in search of more spooky tales. I am off to Dublin soon after spending weeks in the country, and I’m curious what hauntings city-life will bring.

Has anyone else read Elizabeth Hand? She is quite prolific. Wylding Hall is easily affordable at $3.82 on Amazon.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Malice by Keigo Higashino

malice.jpg

I don’t often get the opportunity to walk into a bookstore and pick a book randomly off the shelf to buy. There are two reasons: 1) My own doing as I am either directly targeting a library book, used book sale, or online shop for a specific title and 2) retail books are quite pricey. But I went in with the mission of selecting a book on a whim. The first book I tried was a Swedish thriller with solid writing but uninspired plot and then the second attempt was Malice by Keigo Higashino.

I haven’t read a ton of Japanese literature, especially anything contemporary, but this whet my appetite to continue down a Japanese rabbit hole.

The novel touches on a character element that I really enjoy and that is the unreliable narrator. Also, Keigo Higashino clearly has been influenced by a personal favorite unreliable narrator story of mine, “In a Grove,” by Japanese author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa.

Malice is a locked room sort of mystery with a famous and accomplished author being found murdered in his home office. The front door to the house is locked and the two people, his wife and friend, both have solid alibis even though they are most likely suitable suspects. The novel alternates between the narratives of the aforementioned friend and the detective working the case. The murderer is fingered early on, but the mystery is focused more on the why and how.

The book is layered and with each new section, something is pulled away and revealed, but the new information also frustrates the case as sometimes what the detective finds out muddles what is already known. I also say Malice is like “In a Grove” as there is a testimonial aspect to the plot with people beyond the friend and detective testifying, so to speak.

My experience with Japanese literature is limited, but by the few examples I’ve read, the writing is not heavy. A reader feels as if every word is chosen for a reason and with Malice, the narrative didn’t feel clunky like many procedurals can appear. Of course, there is a constraint when an unclear mystery is presented, but I didn’t feel as if the gears were grinding and often crime novels can read very fabricated (I sometimes cringe at the bad writing).

Even if you are not one for crime or detective novels, I would still recommend this to you. I get a bit bored with this tired characterization of detectives as being grumpy, chain smoking loners who always jog in hooded sweatshirts at night. The detective in Malice is a former middle school geography teacher. Also, even though this book published in the US in 2014, it originally came out in the mid-1990s in Japan and the reference and reliability of a fax machine is delightfully antiquated. It is ann interesting thought to consider how storytelling must change as technology changes as well.

Has anyone else read books by Keigo Higashino? It appears that he is quite prolific and popular in Japan. I must admit, I reached out for this book while gazing through the shelf looking for Patricia Highsmith books when I saw this cover. The description and the fact that he’s been nominated for Edgar Awards piqued my interest.

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

the-woman-in-cabin-10

Since writing Monday’s post about the mediocre year in book publishing, I finally have a winner. Three cheers and all that!

I read Ruth Ware’s debut novel In a Dark, Dark Wood earlier this year and even though it was so completely preposterous, I thought it was great. Reese Witherspoon even scooped it up for an upcoming film.

Ware’s writing was great and she certainly knows how to keep a reader turning pages, so I was extremely excited when her newest was released. I read this one in two days. I couldn’t put it down and read it into the night to see how it finally ended.

Its premise was reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and 4:50 From Paddington by Agatha Christiein that a woman–an unreliable narrator for a number of reasons–witnesses a crime that no one believes. There is no body and the more and more she digs, the more the other characters disbelieve her. She is labeled hysterical.

There have been more of these novels–that I dub the women who know too much–probably since the popularity of Gone, Girl. It was a fine read (I was certainly like everyone else on the subway that summer with my nose in the book), but it is the lesser of them all.

Crime and thriller are genres I enjoy when done extremely well. It’s unfair to see excellent books pigeon-holed into a genre ghetto instead of celebrated as literature. Why are we punishing financially successful books?

With that said, there are PLENTY of crap crime books and thrillers. Like all genre, some times the plot synopsis pitch is more interesting the actual composed sentences and for some reason, it is sadly a genre inundated with terrible writing. If a reader is able to find the gems, they will surely be rewarded.

I argue that all books are mystery books. If there is no question the author proposes that needs to be investigated in some way, what’s the point?

Besides The Woman in Cabin 10, I devoured Megan Abbott’s newest title You Will Know Me. Abbott is a stunning writer and I reviewed her book The Fever here a couple of years ago.

*

The Woman in Cabin 10 follows travel writer Lo Blacklock on a week-long luxury cruise. She is invited for the maiden voyage, along with other people in the business: writers, photographers, investors. The idea is that they will drum up publicity for future voyages. After her apartment is burgled the previous week while she was inside, her nerves are shot, she’s not sleeping well, and when she’s assigned next to a room on the ship that is supposedly empty, everything really goes sideways.

She speaks with a young woman in cabin 10 that no one on the ship seems to know exists. Late one night, Lo hears a loud noise and then what she presumes to be a body go overboard. Blood is smeared on the veranda glass door, but when she returns with the head of security, it’s gone. Of course no one believes her, because, you know, she’s an hysterical woman.

I don’t know how Ruth Ware did it (or how Megan Abbott does it in her novels), but the writing is spot on and the story makes you forgo sleep.

This one was far less absurd than her debut novel. One thing that I’m able to track in these novels is that the authors are able to believably hold back information. They don’t withhold just to withhold and the information, when revealed, doesn’t feel like a convenient bombshell. Also, like aforementioned, they’re actually good writers.

Has anyone else read The Woman in Cabin 10 or any of the other mentioned books? I’m always looking for recommendations. Tana French was once recommended, and while I enjoyed her first book In the Woods, when I went on to her second book, I couldn’t finish it because it was truly awful. Thoughts?

 

We Could Be Beautiful by Swan Huntley

I know a lot of readers are not fans of reading main characters who are unlikable or–I shutter–unrelatable, but this certainly never bothers me. I’m a sucker for a debut novel, and Swan Huntley delivers.

we could be beautiful

Catherine West is a spoiled, self-involved, bored forty-something Manhattanite. She’s a tragic figure without realizing it. The opening declaration by Catherine reminded me, oddly, of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho.

I was rich, I owned a small business, I had a wardrobe I replaced all the time. I was toned enough and pretty enough. I moisturized, I worked out. I looked younger than my age. I had been to all the countries I wanted to see. I collected art and filled my West Village apartment with it. My home was bright and tastefully bare and worthy of a spread in a magazine.

I was also a really good person.

This book, no doubt, will be compared to other “unlikable women thrillers” a la The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl, but it really doesn’t fit with those. There isn’t frantic movement by the main character, but there is definitely a creeping dread and mystery, and a frustration with the character.

What Catherine West wants is  a family, but single with multiple fiances behind her, she thinks things are looking slim until she meets a handsome man from her far past at an art show. William Stockton is a few years older than her and knew her family at some point when he was a child before he was mysteriously swept off to Switzerland, where he’s lived till recently. He easily woos Catherine, but there are signals to the reader that something is wrong with him.

It’s hard to describe any more without giving away bits of the plot. As more of the mystery oozes out, I was able to figure out what was going on before the end, but by the time you come to the end a feeling of “that is creepy and uncomfortable” still meanders through your mind with the closing of the last page.

There is something quite remarkable how the writer is able to capture such an oblivious and unlikable person without it getting to the reader. Sure, there have been unlikable main characters for ages, but it is a hard task that the author sets up to keep readers with them.

The detail, the comments that Catherine makes, her actions are entirely ridiculous, but I couldn’t turn away. Even though some pages could have been cut in the middle (there were a few dragging parts but still engaging even if not necessary), this is a great summer read where the pages will be turning.

This book only recently came out, but has anyone else read it? I’m curious of other thoughts on the character and voice of Catherine West.

 

 

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

Oh dear, what a hot mess this book ended up being.

As I’ve stated in recent posts, I’ve been in an unfortunate book slump for AGES. If this hadn’t been a galley from the publisher, it certainly would have been tossed aside weeks ago (it took me weeks to get through what should have been an entertaining ride).

The Invisible Library

The publicity that accompanied this debut wanted to relate it to people interested in Doctor Who (and some American readers will no doubt make the minor leap to that exceptionally mediocre TV show The Librarians). There is time travel, a companion, adventure, supernatural creatures, and magic. Sounds good, right?

Wrong, so very, very wrong.

Like many, I’m a sucker for a book about books. In The Invisible Library, librarians are tasked with retrieving important works of fiction from many different worlds, alternate and otherwise. Our “heroes” are Irene and her unwelcome companion Kai, who is designed solely to be a sounding board and when he disappears at some point during the last quarter of the novel, it doesn’t really matter. Irene must retrieve a version of Grimm’s fairy tales from an alternate London, but, what’s this! The book has already been pilfered by a cat burglar?! Not until the very end to we get a notion why this version is so desperately important.

I am not pleased with myself for bashing a debut, but there really wasn’t anything here keeping my hold beyond the guilt of receiving an advance copy (this book was published this week in the US).

There was too much happening for genre’s sake. You want some cyborg alligators, you got them. You want some vampires and fairies (couldn’t tell you which character was which) with a shadowy connection to the apparently shadowy country of Liechtenstein, there are plenty. Need a villain or two? Voila!

The characters were wooden and one tone. If it wasn’t for their names identifying them, it could’ve been all the same person.

Lately, my inner reader brain has been shouting WHERE’S THE EDITOR?! There seems to be almost no editorial control of a lot of new releases these days. It could be a few things. 1) All books must now be over 400 pages. Didn’t you know? and 2) editors now no longer say no to authors. They do not help the narrative and the author. –end of rant–

At some point toward the end, one of the characters says,

What is the point of this Library?

Who knows. There was much gravitas to the library (plot holes). The stolen Grimm book really didn’t seem that important for every trope of genre fiction to be thrown on the page. I kept wondering more pointedly, What is the point of The Invisible Library?

Has anyone else read this? It came out this week in the US, but was already published in the UK last year.

The Witch Who Came In From The Cold: A Long Cold Winter

This selection is an intriguing one: it comes courtesy of Serial Box, which appears to be a new publisher. With serial entertainment coming back into vogue–podcasts, television, documentaries–it seems a ripe time for traditional fiction publishing to hone in on the action.

witch who came in from the cold

Serial Box only provided an ARC of the first installment of the multi-part series, so I am of course only able to comment on episode one.

I was particularly taken with the premise–1970s Prague at the height of the Cold War and espionage, but to make it a whole new story, the spies are witches and sorcerers. Besides the synopsis, the idea of a serialized story told by a handful of different authors was also intriguing. (Also, for good measure, I’m a fan of Lindsay Smith’s short story Doppel, which I reviewed here a couple of years ago).

For a first installment, the story didn’t do enough to completely draw me in until the latter half. It was a bit muddled and I found myself going back to the beginning and starting again.

Too many characters were introduced and flung around, and the nary bit of witchcraft that the title alludes to is opaque at best. I was also disappointed with the fact that Prague, an excellent setting for such a story, was not really part of the narrative (beyond the fact that it certainly was a place filled with spies and dissidents post-WWII).

However, with all that said, the story did clear up in the final third of this initial episode and moved more clearly at its already breakneck speed. I wondered if it was a hard start out of the gate because it’s a story told by multiple authors who then will have to pass the story off to another. Is it that they stuffed too much in to their introductory bit because they wanted so much introduced to the reader so they would keep reading? I think so. But I think it backfired. I wish the publisher would have provided another episode or two, so I could properly envelop myself in the story and dig deeper into the review, because, even with my critique, I still think it has the capacity to be an entertaining tale.

I would certainly recommend having a gander at the first episode (especially, since Serial Box is offering it on their website for FREE or for your Kindle for 99 cents). I’ve been in a magical mood lately and I was hoping for a bit more from this; although, it might pick up as the series moves along. With the first installment, the story is a general one of spies, and the sprinkling of the fantastic is too limited. If you subscribed to the story through Serial Box’s website or app, there is an audiobook version that accompanies the text. Much to my dismay, however, if you download the free app, there is no immersion reading (meaning you can’t read the text with the audiobook narrating).

Another concern of mine is, since the story had a hard time hooking me, I am feeling less likely to pony up the pretty pennies for the remaining episodes, which are priced at $1.59-$1.99 through their website, including the audio. It is a bit of a bummer for readers who have Kindles, because Serial Box does not have a Kindle app, and the only way to download is to pay Amazon $1.99, minus the audio. I like Serial Box’s premise, but certain logistics still need finessing.

I don’t ever use star ratings, but since this text was a bit more difficult to review and I think I came across harsher than I intended, I hope the star system will help those on the fence.

3/5 stars

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

Emily Carroll’s illustrated book Through the Woods came into my life just at the right time. Well, any time would be great, but I’m particularly interested in the uncanny and what spooks us for a few projects I’m working on.

through the woods cover

Besides the engrossing illustrations, Carroll captures the straightforwardness of language that, even though it might appear simple, is in fact hiding the monster that waits beneath our beds ready to pull us by the leg. This book has teeth; large, gnashing teeth ready to eat the characters up.

There are five complete stories in the book and like many of the Grimm fairy tales before it, concern themselves with children protagonist and/or the invasion of the home from an uncanny force. The English name “fairy tales” always seems misleading. In German, these types of stories are labeled Kinder-und Hausmärchen, or children and house stories/tales. Not as fanciful sounding, but more correct.

The stories in Through the Woods do not have happy endings and have not been Disneyfied. It is hard to pick a favorite, but perhaps, if I had a huntsman’s axe pointed at my head, I would choose “A Lady’s Hands Are Cold.” A young wife joins her husband at his expansive home and is haunted by knocking coming through the walls. It’s a bit of a mix of Edgar Allan Poe and Rebecca.

Even though Carroll clearly has a style, she gives each story its own unique look and color scheme. They do not blend together, but reflect well on the story (in words) being told.

It was fortuitous that I finished this book and then the following night–with the lights turned off, of course–that I watched the film Stoker. I’ve been meaning to see it ever since it was released, but I have only now watched it. It clearly was inspired by Hitchcock films and Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. An uncanny presence (who doesn’t eat food) comes into the home. The film utilizes style, and the layering of images and scenes, overlapping events allude to a sinister unease. I enjoyed the film. Although, I absolutely did not like the final scene. Has anyone else seen this movie? I think the song used over that bit was totally ill-fit and knocked me out of sync with the rest of the film.

Anywho, it was an interesting pairing. I’m glad I finally read Through the Woods. It made 2014 a more interesting publishing year than it was.

This book is best read at night before you go to sleep with only a single nightlight or book light. One of the stories is available on the author’s website, along with further stories not collected in the book.

through the woods 1

 

Storytelling Through Crime: “People Who Eat Darkness”

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been knee-deep in books that can be labelled in the true crime genre. I’m generally not an aficionado of murder as entertainment (the sensationalize plots, bad acting, and terrible cop lingo of police procedurals on television, which make me want to gag with a spoon).  Yet, what has drawn me to a few of these titles has been more about the storytelling and craftsmanship. For me, it’s less about the gruesome, vial acts that have occurred, but more how the writer chooses to unfold them.

This began with The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, which discusses a mid-19th Century crime and the subsequent investigation during the early days of organized police deduction. I carried on with John Safran’s God’ll Cut You Down, whose voice and point of view is very crucial to the storytelling. Safran is an Australian who goes to Mississippi in the aftermath of an odd crime. In the mysterypod podcast, John Safran discusses his approach to writing his book and how it was not as clear cut as one would have hoped.

My ears perked up when he told the host that he didn’t consider himself a journalist but a storyteller. Safran, too, has a six-part podcast that is worth a listen. It’s titled True Crime and he discusses with famous true crime writers the approach they’ve taken when writing such books. In episode 4, he chats with Joe McGinniss who wrote the magnum opus of crime books, Fatal Vision, which in itself is a master class in how to unravel information through a timeline.
people who eat darknessI hope to wind down from crime books soon (honestly, my threshold for debauchery and violence is being tested). I’ve just finished Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat DarknessIn one word, it was stunning. It was stunning in the complexity of the world it created (Roppongi, a Tokyo district known for its night life), the people who lurk through it, and the “characters” (I use this word as a replacement for the actual real people portrayed). The people are complicated; like Safran’s book, nothing is quite so clear as we would like it to be and like Fatal Vision, answers are not satisfactorily answered like in an Agatha Christie novel.

The crime is brutal and inhuman. If a reader can move past that and read the book for its storytelling, a writer can learn a lot from Parry and the others listed above. They have all moved past the sensationalism of the crime itself and focus on the people, the order of invents, and the style of their writing.

Because I’m currently working on short stories that toe the lines of horror, the uncanny, suspense, and unnerving, when to reveal or withhold are very important. Letting go of too much at one time can undermined the atmosphere and story.

I have a few more on my docket, but these, like The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, are from events of years past. There is something about reading about contemporary crimes (let’s say last sixty or so years) that make these books particularly uncomfortable.

True crime can be a hard subject; I found In Cold Blood to be highly difficult to read when I read it six or seven years ago and I’m at my breaking point when it comes to anything Jack the Ripper related. Sometimes, cloaking true events in the guise of a novel can make it a little bit easier to deal with as is the case of the completely gripping The Murder Farm.

Does anyone else read these kinds of books? And if so, what do you make of them? Are they guilty pleasure imbibed in when you’re at an airport bookstore or go to reads when they’re published? It’s definitely been an interesting foray into non-fiction for a while. A different kind of reading experience for sure.

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

brokenmonsters

Wowzer. I’ve never read Lauren Beukes work before. I’ve been a bit disappointed in myself that I wasn’t able to squeeze The Shining Girls into my reading schedule when it was initially released, but after finishing up Broken Monsters, I will certainly have to get it in the new year.

I must admit that I was intrigued by Broken Monsters when I first read the synopsis; it had a very True Detective quality about it (minus the Lone Star beer and interrogation room philosophizing).

Detroit. Present day. The lifeless body of a missing eleven-year-old boy has been found. However, the upper part of his body has been fused to the lower half of a deer. This heinous crime is just part of the ruined remains of Detroit, a city which has obviously seen better days. Most people are gone and the buildings that remain are all broken.

The central point of the novel is the crime (and the subsequent murders carried out by a serial killer). The novel is constructed by alternating short chapters from various characters’ points of view: Detective Gabi Versado, her fifteen-year-old daughter Layla who seems to be moonlighting as Chris Hansen on To Catch a Predator, the washed up journalist Jonno who moves to Detroit in hopes of utilizing the internet for his big break, among others.

At first, I was unsure how all of the POVs related, but as the narrative progressed, their stories intertwined until they all start to overlap into each others’ lives. Besides Detective Versado, once her daughter’s narrative started to roll, I found myself loving her spunky, take-no-prisoners attitude.

About halfway through, I thought that Broken Monsters would be another run-of-the-mill cop drama (there was even grumpy police lingo and macho doughnut grubbing detectives). I would like to believe that Beukes was just turning around our perceptions of genre fiction.

The final pièce de résistance was a complete loopy, wild ride. I was properly anxious–dare I say uncomfortable. It was successfully treading into horror territory. I had that feeling of I must know what’s gonna happen. I must finish!

So, I’ve broken my ban on acquiring any more books for the next two months until I finish up my stack of galleys and the two books designated as my own “winter big reads” and checked out The Shining Girls from the library. I couldn’t help it! Has anyone else read it or Broken Monsters?

I found an interesting short video where Lauren Beukes talks about violence against women and they way it is often fictitiously portrayed.

 

 

The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

I was hoping to review this book before Halloween in case anyone was interested in an off the beaten path sort of read, but, alas, like many hopes, it had to be altered, changed, and delayed. Regardless, I hope everyone was able to squeeze in a ghostly story or two, or perhaps, a movie that makes you hear bumps in the night. Sadly, I was taken with a stupid cold on Friday (no doubt, from all of my traveling and little sleeping) and also, Halloween isn’t really noticed at all here in Berlin. But enough of that and more of the supernatural…

supernatural enhancements

The Supernatural Enhancements is a send-up to classic ghost stories and haunted houses; it’s also a cousin to the once popular “locked door” mysteries. The novel is a combination of fragments–epistles, notes, recorded conversations, video, etc.–and the majority, if not all, of the action takes place within the uneasy walls of Axton House, a large estate in Point Bless, Virginia. After the untimely deaths of the previous owners (the most recent taking a swan dive out of the window), a second cousin twice removed from Europe only identified as A. shows up after the house is bequeathed to him. He is accompanied by a mute Irish teenager named Niamh, who hastily scrawls her thoughts and exclamations onto a notepad, which is presented throughout the pieced together narrative (however, I must admit, these two characters had me rolling my eyes at the beginning, because they were dangerously close to being too cool hipster types; this feeling didn’t completely pass, either).

The novel has a humor about it. The author and the story are well aware of the history of haunted house novels before it and is curiously investigating it in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way.

A: I…I’ve been having some rough nights.
Strückner: Waking up screaming?
A: A couple times.
Strückner: Going to the bathroom in the middle of the night and seeing things?
A: Okay, okay, I see the pattern.

As A. and Niamh continue to live in the house, hoping to identify why the previous owner offed himself, strange occurrences take place and a bigger mystery becomes apparent. I must admit that somewhere in the middle, the once quick and addicting page-turning did become a little tedious. The Supernatural Enhancements would have been served better by tighter editing. There were continuous pages of nothing–meaning, video and audio recording transcripts that offered absolutely no propulsion to the story. Also, the ending did become a bit confusing. Proverbially, I lost the plot. In a way, Cantero was trying to tie up loose ends, but it really didn’t explain the engaging pages he had going for the majority of the book.

Regardless, I would still recommend The Supernatural Enhancements. I’m truly a sucker for epistolary/fragment novels (re: Dracula). Has anyone else read this book? Perhaps, you’ve made better sense of the ending!