The Hit by Melvin Burgess

Oh God, I hope my mom doesn’t read this. Usually she’s busy being retired and teaching our dog tricks. Don’t read this, Mom. I’ll give you $5 not to read this. I think the dog pooped in the hallway. You better go check that situation out. I don’t think you want to hear that the only reason your kid doesn’t do drugs is because she’s too lazy to go find them.

I don’t do drugs. I don’t avoid them because they’re bad for me and will lead my life down a path of ruin and eventual death. I don’t do drugs because I have no idea where I would get them and I’m too lazy to seek them out. The hardest drug I do is Benadryl. And caffeine.

thehitMelvin Burgess’s The Hit is about a drug unlike any other. It’s called Death and it’s in high demand. You swallow it and have 7 days to live, but those 7 days are the best days you could ever hope for. You wake up euphoric, a burst of energy unlike any high you’ve ever felt. Any dream you’ve had, whatever you wanted to become in life, you pursue it with passion (instead of what I do which is ‘I think I want to write a book except my favorite episode of American Dad is on and I’ve only seen it 17 times.’)

Adam comes from a poor family. His dad is disabled and unable to work and his mom works so many shifts that all she can do when she gets home is sleep. His brother Jess, a chemist, hasn’t been heard from in days. England is on the edge of anarchy, goaded on by a terrorist group known as the Zealots who want to bring down the capitalist regime. Adam’s girlfriend Lizzie comes from money and it’s the same old story: boy from the wrong side of the tracks and the rich girl falling in love. Adam doesn’t think his life is going to get any better. He’s going to have to drop out of school and find a job.

He takes Lizzie on a date to see their favorite rock star Jimmy Earle who caps his performance by saying he’d taken Death 7 days before. At the end of the concert, Jimmy Earle drops dead on stage. A near riot ensues on the streets of Manchester. Crowds of people caught up in the fervor of bringing down the government clog the streets. Someone is handing out Death. Adam and Lizzie watch people pop the drug into their mouths. Someone hands Adam Death. He pockets it. It had been the perfect night.

The next day Adam and his parents receive a letter from the Zealots saying his brother Jess has been killed. Jess was working for the Zealots as a chemist, manufacturing Death. His parents are horrified and Adam sinks into a depression. What does his life mean now? He’ll have to quit school and take some crap job and live a crap life. There will be no university. In his despair he swallows the Death he’d pocketed the night before and begins his own countdown. He makes a bucket list for the next 7 days:

1. Loads of sex with loads of girls. Several of them at once.
2. Get rich. Leave my parents and Lizzie with enough money so they’ll never have to work again.
3. Drink champagne till I can’t stand.
4. Do cocaine.
5. Do something so that humanity will remember me forever.

Yeah, that first to-do is definitely a teenage boy’s top priority.

Mixed in with the Zealots is a gangster. Isn’t there always a bad dude in the midst of everything: one hand out for cash in exchange for a bad deed, the other hand holding a machete? This gangster (sorry, entrepreneur ) is named Florence Ballantine and he has a psychotic 46-year-old son Christian who thinks he’s fourteen. Christian wears a baseball cap with the bill flipped to the side, baggy jeans, expensive t-shirts and has a bodyguard named Vince who likes to put his anti-psychotic medicine in a glass of milk. This father and son team manufacture Death. Who cares that it causes people to expire in 7 days? There’s money to be made.

Adam and Lizzie trip through the criminal underworld and get caught up in a race to accomplish everything on Adam’s bucket list all the while counting down the days and hours. While Adam is trying to make the first to-do on his bucket list happen, Christian sees Lizzie at a party and demands that she be his new girlfriend. Nobody wants to be his girlfriend because the dude’s brain is fried. And he’s terrifying.

Is Adam brave enough (or dumb enough) to take on the Zealots, Florence the gangster and his cuckoo for cocoa puffs son? Does Lizzie love him enough to survive a week of knowing he’s going to die? Why was Jess so secretive about what he was working on for the Zealots? Wait until you read the ending. I did not see it coming.

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

a long way downMy co-worker Leslie recently wrote a post about books that are going to be made into movies. Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down is one of them. He’s also the author of About a Boy and High Fidelity. Hey, both of those are movies too.

It all starts on New Year’s Eve when four very different people climb onto a roof to commit suicide. Suicide is a solitary job. You want to be left alone with your thoughts, which is ironic since your thoughts are what make you want to commit suicide. Group suicide is for Jim Jones and those Heaven’s Gates people. .

Martin is a washed up talk show host (think Good Morning America but British) who spent time in prison for having sex with a 15-year-old girl. His career is dead. He’s now the host of a local TV station that is viewed by maybe 30 people. His ex-wife won’t let him see his daughters. He doesn’t want to see them either because he feels like a washed-up loser. He decides he’s done with his life and climbs on top of a roof that’s known for jumpers when he’s interrupted by a fellow would-be jumper.

Jess is a mess. Not even a hot mess because being a hot mess implies you were something grand and slightly astonishing at one point and now there’s nothing left but a glimmer of that. Jess’s dad is an education minister (for some reason I see a preacher in a church throwing literature books at people) and she finds ways of embarrassing him and her mother on a daily basis. Her older sister Jen went missing. Jen didn’t leave a note or any clues as to where she went. Jess’s parents thinks Jen is dead and they go about their lives as if this is common knowledge and they rarely say her name. Jess is wonderfully foul-mouthed, hopped up on drugs and Bacardi Breezers and still chasing after the boy who dumped her. He is the reason why she wants to jump off a building.

JJ is an American musician whose band was starting to get a following when they decided to call it quits. He had a girlfriend, a promising music career and then nothing. The music came to a grinding halt, his girlfriend left him and then he and his best friend parted ways. He’d gone from touring cities with his band to being a pizza delivery boy and decided he’d kill himself on New Year’s Eve.

Maureen is in her 50’s and has a severely handicapped son. She’s sheltered and lonely and shy. As much as she loves her son Matty, she can’t do it anymore. She can’t stand to see the days, weeks, months, and years stretch out in front of her, caring for her child who is a vegetable. She decides to climb to the top of a building and jump.

All four of them find themselves at a loss up on the roof. Nobody wants to be the first jumper, let alone commit the act in front of strangers. They start to talk. Not the kind of “Someone Saved My Life tonight” kind of talk. More like “Why are you jumping?.” And each of them try to out-do one another: “My story’s worse than yours.”

The four of them climb down from the roof and go for a drink. They make a pact that if they still feel like killing themselves in 6 weeks’ time they will go through with it.

Little by little they worm their way into each other’s lives-sometimes not in a good way. Jess is a foul-mouthed brat who says anything that comes to mind. If she doesn’t like you, she’ll let you know. And then some. She’s the character I love. And hate. Martin is still a jerk that goes between knowing he’s a loser and thinking he’s still TV royalty. Maureen is terrified of the world and has never been on a proper vacation. JJ is living in the past, getting embarrassed and delighted when people recognize him from “that band.” What do you call a musician without a girlfriend? Homeless.

What drew me in deeper into this novel was the fact that Martin, Jess, JJ, and Maureen weren’t trying to save each other’s lives by putting suicide on hold. It was more of “Let’s go get a drink or nine, play ‘My life sucks more than yours ever could,’ and see what happens tomorrow.” Not once does this book get preachy or anti-suicide.

Suicide is an uncomfortable topic whether it’s talked about or not. A Long Way Down smashes that uneasiness and says it with honesty: people think about killing themselves. The thought bubbles up and most times it goes away. In the end, Martin, Jess, JJ, and Maureen don’t become best friends and vacation in Maui. But they do go through something that connects them.

Nick Hornby is a hilarious writer and he deals with a subject that makes a lot of people cringe. Since I like books about people who are (or seem) more messed up than me this was the perfect book. 

I haven’t gone looking for a roof to jump off in three days.

Byzantium Or 2013’s Interview with the Vampire

byzantiumI went through a HUGE Anne Rice phase as a teenager. This was when vampires were cold-blooded (hahaha) killers and didn’t sparkle when the sun came out. They couldn’t go out into the light.

Here we are almost 30 years after the publication of Interview with the Vampire and Stephanie Meyer has decimated any coolness cred vampires earned over the last 250 years. Now vampires hiss like a cat that’s been stepped on. They sparkle in the sunlight. They don’t kill for the simple pleasure of it, but because they want to keep that last part of humanity with them. They kill because it is their job. Wonder what the benefits package on that job looks like? Oh yeah. Immortality. No need to go to the doctor.

Okay, let’s talk about immortality. Who wants to live forever? Teenagers who haven’t realized they’re mortal, pop stars, actors. It’s the little things about daily life that I find exhausting: wondering why my underwear feels so weird and then figuring out I’ve had them on backwards all day, looking in the mirror and noticing that gravity has been harder on my left boob than my right and having to take a few minutes every evening to up the girls so they don’t look like they’ve had a stroke. Why on earth would I want to do that until the end of time? Vampires have to watch everyone they love (and hate) die. Immortality means having to watch wars blossom and unfold, cultures destroyed, entire species eradicated. And having to watch it over and over and over again.

Well that was a little trip to a dark place.

In the film Byzantium, Neil Jordan (who also directed Interview with the Vampire) brings us a seemingly ordinary vampire movie about two women who have been alive for over 200 years. Clara (Gemma Arterton, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters) is a stripper. Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan, Hannah, The Host) is an introspective “teenager.” They live together in London. The movie opens with Eleanor writing in a journal (because after being alive for over 200 years a vampire needs to tell her story since there’s only so many Golden Girls reruns to sit through before jumping out a window), tearing out the pages and crumpling them up and throwing them away. An old man finds a page and reads it. He invites her to his house. He is dying and he believes she can help him.

Clara, meanwhile, is giving a private lap dance to a man in the strip club where she works. She invites her customer home with her because she knows she can get a little more money out of him. Over the years she’s run several brothels. But she’s taken the wrong man home. He works for the vampire Brethren. The movie doesn’t explain what that is until almost the end. I’ll just say they don’t like having women in the vampire family. The man tries to kill Clara. She cuts off his head and burns down her apartment. She finds Eleanor and they go on the run. 

Eleanor and Clara run to a small coastal town. Eleanor meets Noel, a man whose mother just died and left him a rundown building called the Byzantium Hotel. They move in and Eleanor turns the Byzantium Hotel into a brothel. Hey, you find something you’re good at, you stick with it. Carpentry and prostitution are two of the world’s oldest trades. If you can find a hooker that can build you a bookcase, your life is complete. Eleanor falls in love with a boy in town but since she’s immortal what’s the point of falling in love if it’s not going to last?

Eleanor and Clara’s lives begin a ripple effect, drawing people, both good and evil, into their lives. This isn’t a fancy art house vampire movie. It boils down to time and how it can become a burden and how even if we feel that our bonds to other people are suffocating, in the end when you have someone who knows you’re a monster and they still love you, well, hold onto that suffocation. For another 800 years.

American Horror Story

american horror storyI’m in charge of finding things for my mom and me to watch. Sometimes I panic. What if I pick something that is right up my alley while Mom is on the couch, looking at me and thinking “We are not related. I found you underneath a rock and took pity on your horrible soul.” My mom’s not into decapitation/cars getting blown up/ or the occasional brain eating zombie. However, she’s one of those cool moms who’ll sit down and watch something because her kid is into it. And by kid I mean her 36 year old daughter who sleeps with a night-light on. Because of shows like American Horror Story.

Ben, his wife Vivien and their daughter Violet make a cross-country move for a fresh start. Vivien is fragile from a miscarriage and from her husband’s infidelity. They move to Los Angeles, buying a beautiful mansion to strengthen their bond as a family. It’s the kind of house you might lose a kid in for 45 minutes because it’s so big. Ben Harmon, a psychiatrist, is over eager to get a new start since it’s his infidelity that has toppled the family. Typical man, thinking if he puts a thousand miles between his family and the affair everything will come up roses.

Ben runs his office out of the new home and he’s a real “How did your father dressing up as a woman make you feel?” kind of shrink. Having his office inside the house means that his family is eventually going to run into a patient, which is weird because hey, what if you’re going through some bitch of a healing session and you go to use the rest room because you used up all the Kleenex and you walk in on Ben’s 15 year old daughter slicing up her skin with a razor blade? Awkward.

AMHasylumLiving next door to the Harmons is Constance (Jessica Lange) and her Down syndrome daughter, Addy. Addy is forever finding ways to get into her neighbor’s house. Every time Violet or Vivien turn around, Addy has somehow made her way into the house, hiding under beds and talking about the formerly living people who occupied the house. I adore Jessica Lange’s roles in all three of the American Horror Story anthology (there’s American Horror Story: Murder House, American Horror Story: Asylum, and the most recent American Horror Story: Coven). Before, I saw her only as that ditsy broad in the King Kong remake. But in American Horror Story she plays an aging Southern belle who came to Los Angeles years ago to be a movie star. When that didn’t happen she remained in La La Land and had children. Lang plays Constance as a real “As God is my witness I’m making a dress out of curtains!” type of gal. And a real cuckoo-ca-choo, if you get my drift.

Apparitions start popping up in the house and you don’t know if they’re really ghosts or just people who have wandered in, curious to see the house where so many deaths have occurred. There’s even a Hollywood tour bus that rolls through the neighborhood, all the seats filled as the guide points at the house and calls it the Murder House because some baaaad stuff went down inside. Cameras and cell phones are whipped out as tourists take pictures of the house that witnessed so much brutality.

I have one word of advice to anyone going near that house: don’t go into the basement. I have no idea why people insist on going into the basement. It’s dark down there. When you reach up to pull the lamp cord there’s always a snap and a burst of light as the light bulb dies. But instead of racing upstairs to get a flashlight you decide it’s a good idea to feel your way through the dark. Touch the sweaty walls; drag your feet through the dirt floor. Get a face full of cobwebs and try not to think of the spiders setting up camp in your hair. Eyes really do adjust to a lack of light. But why are there jars of deformed babies on shelves? Why aren’t there any jars of preserved peaches and raspberry jam? And just what exactly is that thing in the dark that’s been stalking you since it came out of hiding from beneath the basement stairs?

What was I talking about? Oh yeah. The basement is terrifying.

Eventually, the Harmons start to figure out that there’s something REALLY wrong with the house. Duh. Sometimes there’s a dream-like quality to the scenes so you don’t know if something’s really happening or if someone’s having a really bad dream. There’s a huge reveal at the end, something that sent me face down into the couch cushions.

You like originality? You like screaming at the television, maybe even stomping out of the room because those idiots on TV didn’t listen to you and now they’re stumbling down to the basement? You don’t mind sleeping with the lights on? Good. Watch this series. And for God’s sake, stay out of the basement.

Dexter: Serial Killer With a Heart of ?

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been cheering for a serial killer. Not a real one but Dexter Morgan from Showtime’s Dexter series. I think I kinda have a crush on him. Is that wrong? Or is it so wrong that it’s right?

dexter-season-1-episode-guide

Bless the library and Netflix. Both have the Dexter series available. I binged on a Dexter marathon over the holiday weekend but now I’m hoarding episodes because I don’t want it to be over with. It’s that good. And I run away from people who have seen all 8 seasons, my hands over my ears, shouting “SPOILERS!”

This is how I sold the show to my mom when she sat down to watch a couple of episodes with me.

Me: Well, Dexter is a serial killer in Miami. But he’s a good serial killer. 

Mom: He’s a good serial killer? Is that a thing?

Me: Yeah, he only goes after bad guys like pedophiles, murderers, and people who don’t recycle.

I threw that last part in there. I don’t think he’d kill someone who doesn’t recycle. Unless it’s a wife abusing psycho who constantly tosses his Pabst cans into the paper bin.

Dexter was 3 when Harry Morgan adopted him. Harry was a Miami cop and a good one.  When he began to see signs of what Dexter was destined to become (animal corpses buried in the backyard and other behaviors that pointed to the fact that there was something not right with Dexter) he sat Dexter down and explained “the code”. Go after the bad people, Harry told him, do something good for those who are left grieving and whose lives are destroyed. Dexter can’t change what he truly is: a serial killer. Harry tells him he has to hide his true self, act normal, paste a smile on his face and pass as an everyday human being.  

And Dexter passes. He joins the Miami Metro Police as a blood spatter analyst (how perfect, right?). Dexter even finds a girlfriend named Rita. She has two children and was repeatedly raped and beaten by her ex-husband. She’s in no rush to get serious with Dexter. Her idea of a perfect night is pizza, a movie, and nothing else. She feels safe with Dexter and he likes that what they have passes for normal. He’s attracted to Rita because she’s broken in a way that he can understand.

Miami looks like Hell’s waiting room. In every scene that’s shot outside there’s sweat. Most times Dexter (and everybody else) goes around wearing a sweat-soaked shirt. Sometimes it’s all I can concentrate on. Is Dexter going to kill that pervert who’s been diddling kids? I don’t know. Because all I can see is sweat: sweat like there will never be a cooling down period, sweat that melts your whole body and pushes a fever into delirious heights. Man, I could never be a serial killer in Florida. My DNA would be all over the place.

The first episode opens with Dexter kidnapping a man who has killed several children. Dexter injects him with a tranquilizer and takes him to an abandoned building. Dexter has covered the walls and floor with saran wrap (I wonder if he buys it in bulk at Costco?) and when the man wakes up the bodies of the children he killed and buried are laid out on the floor where he can see them. I’ll admit it: I was bouncing up and down in my chair saying “Cut that douchebag up!”

Dexter has a rival in a fellow serial killer dubbed The Ice Truck Killer who has been killing local prostitutes. He bleeds the bodies dry and then cuts them up while they’re frozen and displays them with a weird mix of taunting and flirting. The killer is sending Dexter a message: “I know what you are. Do you want to play?” Dexter sees artistry in the kills, how the victims are perfectly bled and cut up by someone who knows what he’s doing.

And Dexter answers “Yes, I want to play.”

DOLLFACE

There are nail-biting moments ( a couple of times I pulled a blanket over my head like an old world grandmother) when it seems that Dexter is going to get caught since he hasn’t been clever enough or cleaned up the crime scene well enough. I’m only on season 2. There are 8 seasons. I’m at work as I write this, sitting at my desk, doing my job and all I can think of is “How many episodes of Dexter can I watch tonight before I go to sleep?” And another thought: “Will he cross the line between killing bad guys, being a vigilante, and taking an innocent life?” 

Well, just watch an episode. See how you feel at the end of it. Do you feel guilty for thinking of Dexter as a hero? Do you want to shut off the television because of your mixed feelings?

Or do you want to play?

Let’s Try Swapping Crappy Lives or 3:59

359I was bored one day and I tend to get into trouble when I’m bored (because I morph into a 5-year-old and pull all the pots and pans out of the cupboards for a homemade drum kit) and decided to do research for a blog post I was writing on a book about twin sisters. And I discovered something. They should rename Google Crack Cocaine because that’s what it is. I’m never capable of looking up one thing on Google. I look up one thing and that leads me to five other things (and more than half the time none of the things are remotely related) and the next thing I know it’s dark out and I’ve forgotten to get dressed and go to work. Well, I make it to work but I usually spend the morning thinking of all the stuff I learned.

So the last thing I was looking up was twins and Google was kind enough to lead me to Doppelgangers and every other kind of myth about twins (or my favorite, something called Capgras Delusion which sounds hilarious but is a condition where you think someone you know has been replaced by an identical person pretending to be a loved one). Little did I know that the information on Doppelgangers would soon come in handy….

In Gretchen McNeil’s novel 3:59 Josie Byrne’s life is falling into chaos. Her parents are getting a divorce. Her scientist mother is working long hours on a top-secret experiment, ignoring Josie and becoming a completely different person. Josie’s boyfriend Nick has become withdrawn and distant. People are being killed along a wooded path, their bodies torn apart and scattered. Parents divorcing, a distant boyfriend, and unexplained murders. That’s enough to make me want to find a portal to another version of my life.

Jo’s life, on the other hand, is over the top wonderful. She has a boyfriend named Nick who lavishes her with adoration and her parents are happily married. There’s just one thing. Josie and Jo are Doppelgangers and their lives overlap every twelve hours at 3:59. Seeing that Jo seems to have this fabulous life, Josie wants to swap lives for a day. Jo agrees. And what happens next is no Parent Trap. 

Josie finds out that Jo’s “perfect” world has shadowy creatures that hunt at night and eat people. They swoop down and eat them up. Gross but cool. Josie tries on Jo’s life for a day but is ready to get back to her own world, her own life (no matter if it’s screwed to hell and back). One major problem: Jo has sealed off the portal. She doesn’t want to go back to her own life. Jo’s kind of a jerk. I wanted to use another word but I get into enough trouble on a daily basis for using that word so I’ll save it for a rainy day. When I haven’t gotten into too much trouble. Stop laughing.

Will Josie be stuck in the other world, hunted by the gruesome but awesome shadow monsters or will she make it back to her own world? The mysteries in this book go way deeper than this, however. There are mad scientists, parallel universes, teenage angst (which seems to happen in all parallel universes), gory dismemberments, redemption, insane asylums, and forgiveness. Who knows, maybe we all get a case of Capgras Delusion now and again. I hope that’s my co-worker over at the copier. It could be someone pretending to be her.

She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Sister

When I was in elementary school I knew a pair of twins, Sarah and Norah. Looking back, I’ve tried to figure out which one was good and which one was bad; which one would go on to have success and which one would become a drug addict living in a cardboard house under a bridge. I never figured it out.

They were both quiet girls; maybe one was quieter than the other. When you saw one, you wondered where the other one was, as if they came as a package deal. They never seemed upset when people couldn’t tell them apart. Then again, we were in the fourth grade and it was a novelty to us-and probably to them as well-to be around twins. I wonder what they would have been like in high school, if they would have rebelled not only against their parents but against each other.

her

In her memoir Her, Christa Parravani writes about her twin sister Cara who overdosed and died at the age of 28. Cara had been spiraling into hell after being brutally raped while on a walk in the woods with her dog. Even before the rape, Cara seemed the more fragile of the twins, the more outspoken twin, the more dramatic sister. Both girls grew up with a single mother who drifted in and out of abusive relationships.

Cara and Christa earned scholarships to prestigious colleges. The twins burned bright intellectually, always reading and furthering their education. Cara wanted to be a writer. Her stories are woven throughout the memoir. Christa wanted to be a photographer. I tracked down some of her photographs on line. The pictures tell their own stories, many of them portraits of Cara and herself. I can’t tell them apart.  They’re beautiful women but there’s something going on in their eyes, defeat, exhaustion. Both of them looked utterly haunted. Both were pursuing their passions in the arts and in everyday life.

I became envious of Cara’s drive to become a writer. From the age of 13 I knew I wanted to be a writer. Well, I wanted to be the lead guitar player for Def Leppard.  I didn’t know I really wanted to write until my eighth grade teacher, Mr. Fenbert , had me write a few stories for him. Somewhere in my 20s I realized I didn’t have the drive or the passion to be a writer. Sure, I’d churn out ten pages of meandering thoughts and then end up writing a journal entry that went like this:

So….found out how lazy I really am.  The TV channel got stuck on C-SPAN and it was too much work to get up and cross the room to turn the channel.

Reading bits of Cara’s writing I could tell she would have gone places with her writing. Her love of it, of putting words onto paper, lit her up bright bright burning bright.

The twins mirrored each other in everyday life. They both married young and had rocky marriages. After the rape, Cara told Christa that her life before the attack meant nothing. All she was was a cold day in the woods, the frozen earth beneath her back, a beaten face turned towards the sky.

Her: A Memoir isn’t just about Cara’s death. It’s about what happens to Christa and who she is without her twin:

This is what she learned: there is one road of control and two choices: take control and kill the body, or live and struggle; ramble in conversations, stop mid-sentence, hide in bathroom stalls and cry.  Cut your hair and dye it; waste yourself.

Amen.

Christa nearly gives in and follows her sister into death and has some close calls. Her mind betrays her and she sinks into a deep depression. To blunt any emotions, Christa depends on drugs and alcohol, her actions mirroring her dead twin’s. There’s a point in the book where Christa is drinking and taking pill after pill and I was trying to do the math in my head: if she took 18 Xanax and drank half a bottle of vodka, how long will it take her to pass out and slip to the other side? I panic when I take 3 ibuprofen. I need to get to a safe place. Math is hard.

I used to think that having a twin would be a life saver. There would be someone who knew exactly what I was feeling and thinking. I could lean on her and without having to say a word, she would know how to comfort me. She would know how to keep me alive.  She would know how to get me through anything. But then I started really thinking about it. Another me? A me with all these nonsensical problems? Another me who, when bored, has the mentality of a 5 year old? Another me prone to outbursts of bleak moodiness?

Oh hell no.

Life’s hard enough when you’re busy getting through the day to day part of it. Throw in the loss of a sibling and getting through each day becomes a monumental task. Along the way there’s boredom and anxiety. There’s tragedy and disbelief at how truly evil humans can be. There’s helplessness. There’s hopelessness. There’s survival. Christa Parravani’s Her is a testament to not only surviving tragedy but coming out the other side…maybe a little roughed up and scarred, but alive and fighting.

Shine On

shininggirlsThere are empty houses with ugly pasts. People may have lived there, moved around every room, and dropped plates in the kitchen while drying them with tattered dish towels. There may have been love in one room, quiet whispers that never reached the air. There may have been violence in other corners, fists blasting holes into plaster walls, droplets of blood on the door frame, signs of a failed escape.

And then there are houses that are alive and have their own agendas. 

In Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls, a bad man walks into a run-down vacant house in 1931 and walks out of the same run down vacant house into different years. Harper Curtis is a collector of human lives and a destroyer of bright futures. He is fleeing from hoodlums in a 1931 Chicago shanty town, homes made out of found wood and tar paper. He finds a key and pockets it. A key means possibility. A key is a means of escape. While walking the streets of Chicago he begins to hear music and a voice inside his head urging him this way and that way. He finds the house, almost like it was waiting for him. This is where he discovers his opportunity to take lives.

He seeks out women at different times in their lives. He approaches them when they’re 5 or 6, gives them a trinket and comes back twenty years later to kill them. As his calling card, he leaves seemingly random items. On one body, a 28-year-old widow on her way home from a 9 hour shift of welding, Harper leaves a baseball card with Jackie Robinson on it. He visits a young architect sketching at a café table. He takes her fancy black art deco cigarette lighter and years later when he sees her again, he shows her the lighter and she immediately knows who he is.

Harper visits Kirby Mazrachi in 1974 when she’s 7. He gives her an orange toy pony and says he’ll see her later. But 22-year-old Kirby Mazrachi is different. She was supposed to die like the other bright and shining women with so much potential burning in them. Her throat was cut and she was nearly disemboweled like the other women but she survived. She begins to search for her killer. 

Kirby interns at a newspaper and is assigned to Dan Velasquez, a sports reporter. He used to cover homicides but burned out after following so many grisly deaths. He doesn’t want to be a nanny for some college kid. She says she chose him because he “covered my murder.” He grudgingly helps her find old articles about similar murders. He sees her getting more and more obsessed and tries to tell her to slow it down; especially when she riles the police by talking to the mother of a girl who was a victim. Kirby knows the murders are connected and they have something to do with her. 

Harper continues to go in and out of time. He enters the house in 1931 and leaves it in 1950 or 1993 or 1987. He kills for no real reason other than the fact that he sees the light in the girls he’s chosen, their future potential. He wants to snuff out those dreams and ambitions. He takes away mementos from each one, pinning them up on the wall of the house. A bracelet. A baseball card. A dirty tennis ball. 

Kirby is beginning to put the pieces together and is getting closer to finding out who tried to kill her. While going through an old box of toys she notices the little orange pony. She remembers it’s from him. She looks at the bottom of the toy. It was made in 1982. He gave it to Kirby in 1974.

Kirby and Dan, the only one to believe that the killer is from a different time, chase after Harper and what happens next….well, I can’t tell you. I picked this book up on Monday and finished it two days later. If I had less morals (they’re already pretty lax as it is) I would have called in sick and spent the day reading it. That’s how good it is.  Now I’m trying to pass it along to a friend who is going on vacation. It’s a great book to spend reading for hours at an airport waiting for your connecting flight.  Or holed up in your bed with a blanket wrapped around you and three lamps on.

Who Wants to Live Forever Anyway?

anotherlittlepieceI have hungered for things. I have bargained with people I don’t like. I have hated myself for bargaining with people I don’t like. I have slept and dreamed shameful things. Shameful because I’d give anything to make them come true. When I was younger, that hunger was sharper, burned further and deeper. At 16 I would have sold my soul ten times over to get the thing I wanted. Now in my 30s I can shrug my shoulders at the first hunger pang of wanting something I can’t have. Now, I know better. Now I fully understand that annoying adage of “Be careful what you wish for.”

In Kate Karyus Quinn’s Another Little Piece, Annaliese Rose Gordon has been missing for a year. One day, she shows up in front of a trailer covered in blood and wearing nothing but a garbage bag. She is the missing girl who has come back from the dead. But she’s not Annaliese Rose Gordon. She doesn’t know who she is and her memories are just beyond reach. 

She calls her parents ‘The Mom’ and ‘The Dad’ because they don’t belong to her. She vaguely remembers a party, everybody drinking, music thumping against the ground. She remembers being in the woods with Logan, a high school jock. She had a crush on him forever. She makes a wish ( and believe me, this is no Disney “when you wish upon a star”) and gives her soul away to have Logan’s desire.

Turns out, she wasn’t specific enough. He isn’t in love with her. He just lusts after her. He’s cursed with an obsession for her. After she gives her virginity to him (all the while thinking “This is what I wished for? Hurry up and be done already”), a girl comes into the woods to tell Annaliese that she got what she wished for and now it’s time to pay. The girl makes her say it: “I will pay.” An old barber’s razor blade with names branded into the handle slices through Annaliese’s arm. Her rib cage is broken and her heart taken from her chest to be eaten. This is payment for her deepest desire.

I don’t know about you, but the older I get my wishes are less and less about lust and “having” someone. They’re more about “I wish the dishwasher wasn’t leaking” or “Dear God, there’s only one toilet in this house so please don’t let all 5 of us get the stomach flu at the same time.”

With a chunk of her heart being swallowed, the soul of the real Annliese disappears and the girl who has taken her body goes on to live her life, all the while knowing she’s an imposter with unreliable memories. ‘The Mom’ is fragile and hovers close, touching Annaliese as though she can’t believe she’s really there. ‘The Dad’ is mostly silent in a father’s way, watchful, more worried about the mom than he is with the returned Annaliese.

A squat red-headed boy at school follows Annaliese around. She has no clue who he is or what he meant to the real Annaliese. But this chubby little red-head isn’t just a moon-faced freshman. He’s also a body stealer (and he’s a little mad that he’s in a chubby kid’s body but hey, the chubby kid sold his soul and it was time to pay). Feeling smothered at home and overwhelmed at school Annaliese seeks out the boy next door named Dex. They become close friends, especially after he shares his own secret with her.

More memories start to surface. She calls herself Anna and begins to remember who and where she was before she took Annaliese’s body. The chubby kid tells her that they’ve always been together, taking bodies and then meeting up again. He’s the love of her life. She highly doubts that. He tells her that her 18th birthday is in a week. She has to take another body or suffer the consequences. She’s beginning to feel hunger pains, day dreaming about cracking open rib cages and plucking out beating hearts and eating them.

The cover of this book threw me off (yes, I do judge books by their covers) because I thought it was going to be a teen romance. And while it has a little romance in it, it also has cannibalism, body snatching, and wish-fulfillment. Pretty much the trifecta of what I look for in a book.

Another Little Piece isn’t a book about good versus evil. It’s about that lovely gray area: I’ve done horrible things and I’ll probably have to do some more horrible things to make everything somewhat right. This book definitely goes into my top 5 of great books to fall into this year. And I promise you that you’ll be thinking about it long after you read it. But wish for something good, like a leak-free dishwasher and a second bathroom.

Jennifer

Fun and Games With Satan

demonologistSomething unseen and unnamed has been trailing me for years. Sometimes pure happiness rides along on its back. Other times it carries bleakness and the kind of heartache that brings you to your knees. Whatever it is, it hides around corners and walks through doors before I can get a good look at it. Melancholia is such a pretty word for such a smothering feeling.

Well, that was depressing. Let’s call it a soul in crisis or a heavy case of spiritual torpor. Or better yet, demon possession. The devil made me do it.

In Andrew Pyper’s The Demonologist, David Ullman is a renowned demonic literature scholar and an expert on John Milton’s Paradise Lost. He teaches at a college, is in a failing marriage, and the most important person in his life is his 12-year-old daughter Tess. She’s beginning to show the same signs of melancholia that he struggles with himself.

One afternoon, a mysterious woman comes into his office. There’s something off about her, something he can’t pinpoint at first. She’s painfully thin. Her face seems to change ever so slightly with the light so that he can’t quite grasp what she looks like. She invites him to Venice, Italy, to see something extremely rare. She gives David just enough information to pique his interest but it is also vague enough to make him feel slightly uneasy. His plane ticket will be paid for, a lavish hotel suite is booked, and he’ll be given a generous fee just for showing up.

That evening when his wife declares she’s leaving him, David thinks it’s the perfect time for a trip. His marriage is in the toilet, his wife is openly seeing another man, and his daughter has become withdrawn and constantly writes in her journal. David packs a couple of suitcases and then heads off on what he thinks will be an exciting adventure.

In Venice he leaves Tess with a babysitter. She’s old enough to stay on her own but in a foreign country it puts his mind at ease that the hotel has a baby sitter on site. He’s been given an address and then spends a long time roaming the ancient and crooked streets looking for it (because heaven forbid a man stop and ask for directions).

He nearly gives up but then he finds his destination. He is led upstairs into a room where a man is tied to a chair. The man who answered the door hands him a video camera and practically runs out of the building. The man in the chair is muttering, cackling and obviously cuckoo for cocoa puffs.

The man looks up at David, his face shifting and turning. Another trick of the light? And why is this guy tied up? Is this some elaborate hoax being played out? David points the camera at the man and something inhuman takes a breath and begins to speak. Still thinking someone is playing a trick on him, David begins to interact with the demon possessing the man. He taunts it and tries to get the demon to say its name.

Names have power: Rumpelstiltskin realized that once someone knows your name it’s like they have a small piece of you, a piece you aren’t willing to give up. David asks the demon if he is Satan himself. The demon answers, no, just a demon. Evidently, when you think you’re talking to Satan it’s like thinking you’re talking to Elvis only to find out you’re actually talking to Bubba his third cousin twice removed.

Just when David thinks this is all an elaborate joke, it becomes terrifyingly real when the man begins to speak in the voice of David’s long dead father. He says something David has never told another person, words that David himself tries not to think about.

David rushes back to the hotel, his dealings with what he believes was a demonic entity convincing him that his daughter Tess is in danger. He finds her on the hotel’s roof, her feet perched on the edge. In dream-like slow motion she plunges into the Grand Canal below, her parting words: “Find me.” These two words throw David Ullman into an insane journey across America, following clues hidden in the prose of Milton’s Paradise Lost.  He never stops searching for his daughter. Her body was never found. She’s out there waiting for him.

exorcistI watched The Exorcist when I was 6 years old. My parents had gone out for the evening and my oldest brother was babysitting me. In his 16-year-old wisdom it was perfectly normal to let his 6-year-old sister watch a girl projectile vomit on a priest and use foul language that would make a longshoreman blush.

The thought of demonic possession has always terrified me because it seems to be a sibling to mental illness. If depression can get in and tangled up a human’s brain who’s to say some other being couldn’t slip on through and try on a human body? The Demonologist scared me nearly as much as The Exorcist. Almost. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go take some pills to keep the demons out. Or in.

Jennifer