It’s Like “The Sixth Sense.” But Good.

Great news! I have the perfect book for this Halloween season and I’m only two weeks late! That might not seem particularly helpful now, but all things being equal, this is the perfect book for any season, especially the wet, cold, and dark days of November through…(sigh) May. Leigh Bardugo is a name I’ve mentioned here before. Her Grishaverse novels are among my favorites, so I was ready to love Ninth House, her debut for adult audiences. Yet even with high expectations, it left me incredibly impressed and desperate for a sequel. 

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Alex Stern can see dead people. While this might seem neat to the gothically inclined, it makes Alex’s life a nightmare. For as long as she can remember, ghosts have lurked around her, decorated with the grisly evidence of their unseemly demises (semi-decapitated heads, gunshot wounds, etc.). Her grim ‘ability’ drives her in a dangerous direction – she is a teenage runaway under the influence of drugs, alcohol, and selfish, manipulative men. And yet, when she wakes in a hospital after a violent and tragic night, a tidy gentleman is waiting by her bedside suggesting that her power might open doors to a fresh start in an unlikely environment – Yale University. 

It turns out that New Haven, Connecticut is a city brimming with potent magic. This supernatural resource is channeled by eight ancient houses at Yale which operate under the guise of secret societies, while playing a huge role in world affairs, from throwing elections, to manipulating securities markets, to boosting pop star’s careers. This magic, however, can be extremely dangerous which is why a ninth house, Lethe, was formed to monitor the use of magic by Yale’s young elites. With her powerful connection to the supernatural, Lethe believes that Alex will make a valuable warden against the abuse of magic.  

Alex is assigned to train under the wing of Darlington, an uptight but brilliant and charismatic senior. Darlington has high standards and is skeptical that Alex has the necessary character or background to thrive in this world. At first, Darlington appears to be correct. Alex struggles to learn the rites and history that Lethe demands of her, while also suffering from the academic pressure of student life at Yale and the weight of managing a secret life as a college freshman. Just as she begins to get a feel for her many different roles at Yale, everything falls apart. Darlington disappears under strange and sinister circumstances and a young woman is murdered on campus, with Alex suspecting involvement by at least one of the houses. Alex is left to deal with magical forces she is only beginning to understand, indifferent bureaucracies, and rich, privileged, students who are empowered by a heady mix of supernatural power, generational wealth, and good old-fashioned toxic masculinity. Oh, also someone definitely wants Alex dead, and is not being shy about it. 

Ninth House is told in a non-linear fashion. I’m an impatient reader, and I am often annoyed by this style of storytelling, but not when a master of the genre like Bardugo is at the helm. Alex is an incredibly fun protagonist to follow – she is both self-aware and self-destructive, incredibly capable, but not unrealistically so, and a narrator of very questionable reliability. Bardugo is not just a deft writer, but also a thoughtful one. She is able to take a thrilling story of magic, power, and corruption and weave in a mediation on the destructive power of trauma without a whiff of heavy-handed moralizing. Books with magic can be a tricky proposition, especially for adult audiences, but Bardugo manages to make the magic in Alex’s world both frighteningly powerful and almost laughably mundane, grounding the supernatural in the onerous burden of everyday reality. Ninth House has already been picked up as a potential streaming series, which is why I looked up from the book and exclaimed to my partner “they have to cast Danny DeVito as Anderson Cooper!” But you’ll have to read the book to understand why.

Post Punk, Dance and New Order

It’s a fundamental rule of life that all the cool kids like certain bands. Oddly enough, I often can’t generate much enthusiasm for these bands, which is strange since I am one of the cool kids. Joy Division is such a band. Everybody who is anybody worships the very particles of sweat generated by these early post-punk legends, and their song Love Will Tear Us Apart is a theme song of my generation. Although the band recorded many additional outstanding songs, I can’t say that I really dig their sound: cold, distant and uncaring music accompanying frequently somber lyrics.

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After the band was no more, some of the Division went on to form New Order. This was an exciting prospect leading fans to expect more of that frozen post-punk groove. And the band’s first album, Movement, seemed like a fulfillment of expectations. Subsequent albums, however, moved in a different direction. And their second album, Power, Corruption & Lies, kicked off this journey to a veritable new… order.

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What’s amazing about this album is that it came at a unique point in time with a group moving on an unusual artistic trajectory, from somewhat morbid post-punk to solid gold dance hits. And while I’m not a fan of where they came from or where they went to, New Order created a perfect gem of post-punk dance hits on Power, Corruption & Lies.

Take the album opener, Age of Consent. It starts with a catchy high-register bass hook and simple dance-oriented drums. Jangly guitar and bass-end synth fill out the sound until vocals with a bit of the requisite angst enter, completing this gorgeous melding of genres. The result is a kind of happy sorrow that leaves me near tears while I tap my foot and shake my moneymaker. Songs do not get much better than this.

The next ditty, We All Stand, moves away from danceability and straight into quirky, dark and rhythmically complex worlds. It’s the perfect song for watching people attempt to keep the beat. But just when things look decidedly non-terpsichorean, we are immediately thrust back into the dance with The Village. Bass and drums act much like they did in Age of Consent and although the tempo is a bit medium, we hear many of the elements of the synthpop that is soon to take over New Order’s oeuvre.

Now I’m not going to take you through every song on the album, so let’s move ahead to Blue Monday. Here the group hits its stride, creating synth dance music complete with non-stop drum machine and repetitive synth-bass riff for 7 minutes and 28 seconds. Vocals are not plentiful, but are dripping with, oozing with ennui when present. And, there’s not much going on musically, so ya just gotta dance!

I will leave you all with Your Silent Face, a truly beautiful, slow synthpop song featuring melodica, jangly guitar leads and a lovely synth melody. Not really a dance tune but highly introspective, hummable and heartstoppingly sad, this song cements Power, Corruption & Lies as one of the best albums from the 80s.

Stop by the library and see what there is to hear. And be sure to check out New Order in your journeys. As always, don’t forget your dancing shoes.

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Spot-Lit for November 2019

These titles – from established, new, and emerging authors – are some of the most anticipated new releases of the month, based on advance reviews and book world enthusiasm.

Click here to see all of these titles in the Everett Public Library catalog, where you can read reviews or summaries and place holds. Or click on a book cover below to enlarge it, or to view the covers as a slide show.

Notable New Fiction 2019 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction | 2019 Debuts

Did You Know? (Brain Sand Edition)

That your pineal gland produces tiny gritty bone particles that are called ‘brain sand?’

I found this on page 12 in the book A World of Information by James Brown and Richard Platt. If I was going to have just one reference book, this would be it! Planets, anatomy, music, morse code, roman numerals etc, etc. are all in here. Perfect for answering all the questions kids (and adults) have. Descartes and others wrote of the pineal gland (which is pine cone shaped) with great reverence. It has been called the seat of the soul and referred to as the ‘third eye.’ It is a split pea sized endocrine gland located in the geometric center of the brain, and it gathers an increasing amount of mineral deposits or ‘brain sand’ as you age.

It appears that the Freemasons and other secret societies have referred to the awakened pineal gland as the Philosopher’s Stone. The Source Field by David Wilcock talks all about this and the symbolism of pine cones through out history.

Becoming Supernatural by Dr. Joe Dispenza tells us about the pineal gland, energies in your body, brain chemistry, your bodies’ electrical fields, the movement of cerebrospinal fluid, heart rhythm patterns and much more. He describes how the pineal gland works with adrenal hormones, melatonin, and serotonin. According to the author, it is your bodies’ energy center. This revolutionary book is touted as a “body of knowledge and a set of tools that allow ordinary people … to reach extraordinary states of being.” I’ll admit, I just kind of skipped around and read bits of it. It seemed to me rather technical, but Dr. Dispenza made it fairly easy to understand, in spite of all the big words!

For children, or for those of us with an aversion to big words, the Ultimate Body-pedia by Christina Wilson has excellent pictures of the body and all of its systems, including the endocrine system showing. It also explains all of the glands in the body, including the pineal gland.

Imagine how much brain sand it would take to fill a beach. I think I’d rather just have regular sand on my beach! Two fun stories featuring beach sand are Pig Kahuna Pirates by Jennifer Sattler where Fergus and little brother Dink make a sand castle pirate ship, and If You Ever Want to Bring a Piano to the Beach, DON’T by Elise Parsley. Parsley’s book is a cute story telling the dangers of having your piano at the beach.

And then, there is quicksand! Quicksand is a colloid hydrogel consisting of fine granular material (such as sand or silt), clay, and water. Quicksand forms in saturated loose sand when the sand is suddenly agitated. When water in the sand cannot escape, it creates a liquefied soil that loses strength and cannot support weight. Quicksand can form in standing water or in upward flowing water (as from an artesian spring).

Finally, there is the novel Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito which is touted as the Best Swedish Crime Novel of the year for 2016. Maja and Sebastian have a ‘relationship.’ A mass murder shooting occurs at the high school they attend and Maja is one of the few people to survive. She is accused of pulling the trigger for some of the murders, but this gripping story will make you wonder if she was really to blame. Maja finds herself sinking as if in quicksand as the trial goes on. Hmmmmm….. Maybe her glands made her do it?

In the Hall with the Knife

It’s YA Clue! The End.

For some reason my editor didn’t think my first draft review of this book (see above) was long enough. So I’m going to take another stab at reviewing In the Hall with the Knife by Diana Peterfreund.

First, I want to take you back in time. No, we won’t need a DeLorean but we will need Christopher Lloyd.

I wouldn’t discover this for another five years, but in 1985 a totally bonkers film based on a board game with an all-star cast was getting mixed reviews. Critics didn’t understand at the time that they were witnessing cinematic gold; gold my family and I would watch repeatedly over the years to the point it became a family tradition.

I’m talking about the movie Clue. It takes the characters and layout from the board game and re-imagines it as a 1950s-era dinner party-turned-murder mystery. Thrills, chills, puns, and innuendo are all served up on a platter of physical comedy. While this might not sound amazing to you, it captured my heart and mind in a way that no other media has ever been able to do.

Author Diana Peterfreund had a similar backstory and relationship with the film. She gives a great shout-out in the book’s acknowledgements:

Finally, my eternal devotion to anyone even marginally involved with the beloved 1985 classic movie, as well as my parents, who thought nothing of letting us bring along our battered VHS tape of Clue on every road trip growing up. I could know a foreign language: instead I know that movie’s script by heart.

Same, girl. Same.

If you have a similar love for the film, you will appreciate the 5-6 subtle references I spotted in the text of In the Hall with the Knife. But rest assured that no knowledge of the film is required in order to enjoy what I’ve told friends is “a delightful murderous romp through a flooded and frozen Maine boarding school campus.”

Scarlet, Mustard, Green, Peacock, Plum, and Orchid are students at Blackbrook Academy, an elite, secluded boarding school in the wilds of Maine. It’s winter break and they are among the handful of students unlucky enough to be on campus when the storm of the century strikes. Flooding has wiped out the bridge to the mainland, making escape impossible. Flooding has also systematically invaded most of the buildings on campus until there’s only one place left for everyone to try to survive until help arrives: Tudor House.

Tudor House was once a home for wayward girls or some such nonsense. It housed teenage girls who somehow didn’t fit the norms established by society; in some cases they were accused of crimes and sent to Tudor House to be “reformed.” When Blackbrook went co-ed, they acquired Tudor House to serve as the first girls’ dormitory. For decades Mrs. White has served as Tudor House’s proctor and chaperone.

When it becomes clear that help isn’t coming, or is at least a ways off, the group of students, Mrs. White, Headmaster Boddy, and the school’s caretaker work to weather-proof the old mansion as much as possible while keeping spirits up and learning to get along.

But just as secrets are shared and trust is starting to form tentative bonds, tragedy strikes: Headmaster Boddy is found dead. At first most people try to convince themselves it was a suicide: he must have stabbed himself to death. The school’s caretaker leaves to get help, but Green is the only one who sees the absurdity of ruling his death a suicide and tries to convince the others that it’s definitely murder and the police are needed more urgently than ever.

Who murdered Headmaster Boddy? Was it Beth “Peacock” Picah, Orchid McKee, Vaughn Green, Sam “Mustard” Maestor, Finn Plum, or Scarlet Mistry? All we know for certain is he was killed in the hall, with the knife.

Trapped in a rambling old mansion with a sordid history (and wait–is that a secret passage?) during a brutal winter storm, will anyone survive to tell the police whodunnit?

The Great Forgetting

How do you describe a book that is best not described? That is the conundrum I’ve found myself in when trying to talk about The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa. It is a beautiful, haunting, touching and disturbing read very much grounded in the real. When you describe the plot, however, it sounds like a fantastical and dystopian work with possible tendencies toward heavy handed allegory. I was hesitant to pick it up myself after reading the synopsis, but I’ve absolutely adored other books by the author (The Diving Pool is a standout) and knew I had to give it a try. I was well rewarded and I think you will be as well.

Now let’s get that problematic plot out of the way.

The unnamed protagonist, a young novelist who recently lost both her parents and now lives alone, resides on a very peculiar, also unnamed, island. The residents wake up every so often and find they have forgotten that a specific object (a hat, a bird, a rose) exists. The objects then cease to exist in the world. While this is definitely disturbing at first, the residents come to accept it and eventually forget the object ever existed in the first place.

A very few people, however, are not subject to this forgetting. It is the job of the Memory Police, a sinister lot in well pressed uniforms, to find these people and take them out of the community; to where exactly, no one knows. The young novelist discovers that her editor is one of those who can remember and with the help of an older neighbor, decides to hide him in a basement compartment of her house.

So yeah, not your standard storyline.

Don’t let the fantastical nature of the plot scare you off though. The relationships between the characters, and Ogawa’s plain but haunting use of language, are the real stars here. Their thoughts and feelings are described in such a straight forward and seemingly plausible way, that you too come to accept the seemingly impossible.

As with most of the author’s work, however, there is a sense of unseen menace behind the plain language. It is hard to describe, but the lead character captured my own feelings about this novel, while describing her own work:

I myself wasn’t sure what would happen next. The story seemed simple and pleasant enough, but I had a feeling it might take a frightening turn.

So, if you don’t mind a frightening turn or two, and appreciate really great writing, definitely check out The Memory Police.

Time Means Nothing Here

You gotta forgive me. I just adopted a puppy and my reading life has gone straight down the toilet. I’m either chasing after him because he has nabbed something he shouldn’t or I’m trying to break the land speed record to stop him from pooping on the floor. I have a theory that puppies are 50% sweetness and 50% crackhead. So, I’ve been reading novellas in the short time my puppy is passed out.

In the Tall Grass, a novella that you can find in the story collection Full Throttle, was kind of a cheat for me. I saw that Netflix had made it into a movie and before I watched it, I wanted to read the novella by Stephen King and Joe Hill. Side note: when I first started reading Joe Hill’s work I’d think “Man, this writing reminds me a LOT of Stephen King.” Turns out Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son. If I had just tracked down a photo of Joe Hill, I would have seen he’s the spitting image of his father.

In the Tall Grass begins with siblings Cal and Becky Demuth making a cross-country drive. Their parents call them ‘Irish twins’ because there’s only 19 months between them and they are as close as twins. Becky was in her sophomore year of college when she got pregnant. Her parents decided that the best thing for their unwed pregnant daughter was to go stay with an aunt across the country. Since it’s spring break, Cal decides to join her and the two make it a sort of adventure. They do a few touristy things, including seeing the world’s biggest ball of twine; I must be getting older since the idea of seeing a giant ball of twine actually peeked my interest.

After three days of driving, they come to a stop at a never-ending field of tall grass. Not just waist high grass but towering, over Shaq tall grass They hear a little boy crying for help from the grass. A woman’s voice, also calling from the grass, tells the boy to be quiet because “he might hear you.” Cal parks the car in the dusty lot of a dilapidated church. There are several other cars parked, all of them looking like they have been there for months.

While Cal is parking, Becky goes into the grass to investigate. She can still hear the boy, who says his name is Tobin, calling for help. The woman, named Natalie and presumably Tobin’s mother, has gone quiet. Cal enters the grass and calls out to Becky and Tobin. He expects his sister and the kid aren’t too far off since it sounds like they’re five feet to his right. And then they sound like they’re behind him. Cal blames the long swaying grass for distorting sounds.

Becky tries to call 911 on her phone, but the call is dropped. Meanwhile, it’s maddening to both Cal and Becky that they can hear each other but can’t find each other. It’s like a never-ending game of Marco Polo. Already uneasy, Cal begins to panic as Becky’s voice gets fainter and fainter. Night falls with only one or two voices calling for help.

Cal passes a decomposing dog tangled in the grass. It looks like someone (or something) has taken a bite out of it. The night begins to get more and more terrifying and Cal thinks he might never see his sister again or escape the tall grass. What seems like an innocent field of grass is becoming a dark, almost alive, creature with the intention of driving people insane who get lost in it.

Do you trust me, Faithful Readers? You know I can’t say anything else because it would spoil the story much like a dead rat stuck under a couch. You’ll be glad I didn’t say anything more. Trust me.

And would you do me a favor (Please and thank you)? If you see a field of monstrously tall grass, keep driving until it’s only a blur in your rearview mirror.