Saint X

Family. Sisters. An undying bond. We all think we know our families, but do we? Do we really?

I found myself asking these questions and more after reading Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin.

Seven-year-old Claire and her big sister Alison are on a family vacation with their parents to a beautiful Caribbean island resort. Alison is on break during her first year of college.

Of course, Claire idolizes her sister but doesn’t understand her aloofness and flirty behavior. Alison sneaks out at night and asks Claire to cover for her. She would do anything for her sister.

When Alison goes missing the family’s last night of vacation, Claire is put in a tough spot… continue to deny she knows anything or tell them she’s been covering for Alison all along. And when Alison is found dead, she is terrified to admit knowledge of anything.

As the mystery of Alison’s death unfolds, we find out about the people she had contact with: Edwin and Clive (Gogo to his friends) working at the resort, the blond boy from the beach on vacation with his family, the locals at Paulette’s bar where she had sneaked off to almost every night.

Fast forward years in the future, and Claire, now going by Emily, is living and working in New York. One-night, Clive (no longer Gogo) is her taxi driver. This opens a flood of memories for Emily and she decides one way or another that she will learn the truth of Alison’s death.

During her journey she realizes she didn’t really know her sister after all. After months of following and then getting to know Clive, she wonders if she wants to get the answers she was looking for, and if it will change anything.

Saint X is a beautifully written story of sisterly love and abandonment. I really enjoyed the path of Claire’s enlightenment and her realizations concerning herself and her sister.

The Stand in a New Light

I’m surprised I’ve never written a post about Stephen King’s The Stand before. I read it about once a year. Maybe its massive size (just over 1,000 pages) has deterred me from trying to write about it. But there’s no better time than now to write about a book depicting a super flu that wipes out most of the world’s population; leaving behind both good and evil who then must battle it out to save what is left of humanity.

The Stand begins at a government base where a man-made flu breaches a medical lab. In the days following, people begin to come down with the flu. It’s not unusual to hear coughing and sniffling in a movie theater and in the streets. People begin to stay off the streets, quarantining themselves in their homes. What starts off as a seemingly simple flu becomes a pandemic nicknamed Captain Trips. The human population is reduced to almost nothing and the streets and freeways are littered with cars and the bodies of people who tried to flee the cities. The world becomes a wasteland.

But there are pockets of people who are immune to the flu, people who pack a few belongings and set out to find other survivors. As decent people search for each other, people filled with darkness also seek out their kind. Randall Flagg, also known as The Walking Dude, is a god to some, but a demon to others. He gathers the evil ones to him and has a plan for what’s left of the population. The heels of his cowboy boots can be heard clicking down the roads of America as he searches for those with evil tucked away in them. Side note: Randall Flagg pops up in King’s Dark Tower series as well. It’s a cross-over event, like when two of your favorite shows merge.

Stu Redman becomes the reluctant leader of a group of good people who find a new place to settle and begin life again. But Randall Flagg has appeared to many of them, showing them nightmare visions of the world he wants to create. On the flip side, there’s Mother Abigail, a 108-year-old woman who is tasked with saving the rest of humankind. She needs to gather the good of humanity to her to give them a chance to overcome Randall Flagg. Along the way, a couple of Flagg’s spies have embedded themselves in Stu’s group and wreak havoc. In the end, there can only be an ultimate sacrifice to bring about a new beginning.

With a brilliant and memorable cast of characters, Stephen King’s The Stand is about more than just Good vs. Evil. It’s about the human condition when presented with the end of the world and the luck of an immune system that bucks disease. The Stand is about being alone at the end of the world and then finding people to create a new life. To quote another King book, Doctor Sleep:  We go on, even in the dark. Even when the darkness seems unending. We go on.

Now look, I know this new disease is terrifying and something like The Stand doesn’t seem like fiction right now, but remember this: wash your hands while singing Happy Birthday all the way through twice, stay away from large gatherings, and if you hear the clip-clop of dusty cowboy boots, run the other way. The Walking Dude has found you.

Clean Getaway

I mentioned in a post a few months ago that I was eagerly awaiting Nic Stone’s new book, her first foray into middle grade fiction. The truth, however, was slightly more complicated. I’ve loved all of Stone’s previous novels but working with a new age group is sometimes a precarious journey for writers. Several authors whose work I’ve loved have tried and, in my eye, failed to find a believable voice when making such a switch. I am pleased that, as is often the case, my apprehension was unfounded and unnecessary! Clean Getaway is a sharply written pleasure to read and I have been delighted to put it in the hands of young readers. 

813MVz8pIzLWhen his grandmother swings by and asks eleven-year-old William “Scoob” Lamar if he’d like to join her for a little adventure, he doesn’t think twice. Scoob is desperate to escape his father’s disappointment after a string of poor choices and misunderstandings lead to serious trouble at school. Scoob has always been close to his grandmother, who is often his main refuge from his disciplinarian father, so a trip with her seems like a great distraction from the looming troubles in his life. Things start out pretty well. G’ma won’t tell Scoob where they are headed and he is surprised when he learns that she sold her house to buy an RV, but the open road feels like freedom. 

Over time G’ma reveals that their path, which takes them from Atlanta into Alabama and across the deep south, is also a journey into her own past. This is the same route that she took with her husband, Scoob’s grandfather, shortly before he was arrested and sent to the prison where he would eventually pass away. As they delve deeper into G’ma’s memories, Scoob also becomes alarmed by G’ma’s behavior. She seems both forgetful and suspect – sometimes calling Scoob by the wrong name or forgetting to pay for meals, other times doing things like furtively switching the license plate on her RV. While Scoob’s unease continues to rise, G’ma also seems to be dodging calls from his father, leading Scoob to wonder what is really happening, what G’ma might be hiding, and how this suddenly dramatic road trip might end. 

Stone manages to build the tension over the course of Clean Getaway while also cleverly deepening the mystery of G’ma’s behavior and her past. This book is also incredibly emotionally resonant. Scoob has a loving and warm relationship with his grandmother, but things with his father are far more complicated and I appreciate the care that goes into exploring the nuance of this relationship. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the incredible illustrations that are sprinkled throughout this book, helping bring Scoob and G’ma’s journey to life. 

I also value the way Stone weaves the legacy of racism in America through this story. Scoob’s grandfather was black and his grandmother is white and as he travels with G’ma, Scoob learns how difficult this made their relationship. He also learns about Victor Green’s Green Book, the guide used by many black motorists to safely navigate a hostile country, and observes both the ways that society has changed over time and the unfortunate and toxic ways that it has not. It is no surprise that a writer of Stone’s caliber is able to present these difficult ideas to a young audience in a way that is easy to understand but does not blunt the truth. But what really stood out to me is how deftly Stone connects the past to today. It is striking how close this history is – that a young person like Scoob is only two generations removed from the era of segregation, and that its legacy still manages to persist and cause harm when left unconfronted.  

Scoob, G’ma and their ill-fated journey stayed with me long after I finished this book. As is often the case, this book for young readers is crafted with the empathy, intrigue, and rich character development to make it a moving and instructive read for audiences of all ages. 

Gonna Wait ‘Til the Midnight Hour

Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour begins with a doctor visiting a beauty of a Victorian house in the Garden District of New Orleans. Two elderly sisters have asked a doctor to see to their youngest sister who has been in a catatonic state for years. The doctor often sees a man standing on the porch with the catatonic woman and when the doctor asks who the man is, both sisters deny the existence of a man visiting with their sibling.

The doctor doesn’t think much of their denial. It is, after all, New Orleans where wealthy people don’t even try to act like every day normal humans. But the doctor knows he saw the man being tenderly attentive to the woman locked within herself. When the man attacks the doctor, the physician believes he’s lost his own mind. Because the man wasn’t there when he attacked the doctor. There was no physical form to the doctor’s attacker. Shaken and having escaped the house, he realizes the only explanation that makes sense is that he was attacked by a spirit.

The Mayfair’s are an old money family with a not so secret history of being called a family of witches. Rowan Mayfair has been kept from the New Orleans Mayfairs and was raised by another family member in San Francisco with the knowledge of who her birth mother is: the woman languishing on the porch of the grand painted Lady house in New Orleans. Rowan is a brilliant neurosurgeon with an odd talent of being able to heal a sick patient along with the power to destroy a life. Her mother’s death in New Orleans sends her back to her birthplace where she begins to learn about the family she’s been estranged from for her entire life.

Michael Curry was born in New Orleans but left for San Francisco many years before to become a popular architect whose talent is restoring old Victorian homes. Michael dreams of the houses of his childhood in New Orleans and longs to return. One day Michael drowns in San Francisco bay only to be brought back to life by Rowan who found him while sailing. A side effect of coming back from the dead is Michael’s clairvoyance, a very unwanted new skill. He can touch any object and see its past. Rowan and Michael fall in love (as two people usually do when brought back from death) and Michael travels to New Orleans with Rowan.

Aaron Lightner is a scholar with a shadow group known as the Talamasca who study strange happenings. He has followed the Mayfair family for centuries and calls them “the Mayfair witches.” He has also seen the ghostly man on the porch and knows what it is – not human and not exactly a ghost – and that it means danger to those outside the family. The not human man has a plan for Rowan, and nothing can stop it from getting what it wants.

This hugely sprawling novel spans centuries of the Mayfair witches along with the guardian man who attaches itself to the stronger females in the family. Will Rowan be the family member to break the thing’s hold or will she too become seduced by it and its ancient history?

Ah, now I remember why I never posted about this book. I can’t fit all the details in from this 976 page saga of a family of witches and the being who is passed down to them like hand me down jeans. The Witching Hour may be ridiculously long, but it doesn’t read as a long novel. It doesn’t feel like you’re slogging through a dense forest of words. Instead, The Witching Hour plays out like a rich theatrical release and the credits roll before you’re ready for them.

If you get into Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour and want more, don’t worry. She has written a series of books featuring the Mayfair Witches and at one point the books have a crossover between the Mayfairs and the vampires from Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. So enjoy, take frequent breaks, make yourself a snack and keep reading as the Mayfair world unfolds like some kind of night blooming flower.

The Dutch House

I can still remember my first diary. It was blue with a little lock and key, inside it contained my secret thoughts and youthful dreams. Nowadays, I journal spilling my thoughts onto paper in order to keep the cobwebs of my mind clear. Writing is therapeutic but writing something for someone else to read is an exercise of the imagination. Reading good literature stimulates my mind and inspires me to write, luring me out of the comfort zone of staying in my head.

Over the holiday we had the pleasure of spending time with our son and daughter-in-law. As is common in these rich visits, the topic of art and creativity came up. One of our conversations centered on the medium of writing where I found myself waxing eloquent on what I think makes for a good book.

Characterization is pivotal. In The Dutch House by Anne Patchett, Danny recounts the story of his life from his early memories to the present. The story seamlessly moves the reader back and forth from past to present without confusion of time, place or setting. A rare talent!

Anne Patchett’s latest novel is told in the first person and felt a bit like reading someone’s diary. It is a story of substance, interjected with Danny’s intimate thoughts as he grows up and as a grown man. The book is also a survey on the complexity of family and the myriad of issues that can arise and how one deals with hurt, mistrust, health, and abandonment.

A mystique surrounds The Dutch House, a stately home whose previous owner’s portrait still hangs on the wall. It’s after World War II and the house lies abandoned and in decline. Danny’s father Cyril Conroy makes his first major real estate investment by buying the house, moving his wife and young daughter, Maeve, out of poverty and into a new life of comfort and ease, or so he hopes.

Maeve is about 10 years older than Danny, their inseparable relationship solidified by their mother’s absence and their father’s neglect. Maeve is brave, smart, and confident. She fills Danny in on life before he was born and the things he was too young to remember after his mother left. The brother/sister bond is strengthened when their father marries a younger woman, Andrea, who has strategically won her way into The Dutch House and their father’s affections.

As a boy, Danny learns unforgettable lessons while spending Saturdays with his dad as he collects rent and makes repairs for his various tenants. The practice of meeting people of lesser means and the business of being a landlord plants a seed deep in Danny’s soul.

Their stepmother is a hard and demanding woman, ungrateful for the loyal housekeepers. Andrea clearly runs the show. Once Maeve has gone off to college, she inserts herself further into the family by moving Maeve’s room up to the attic. This allows her eldest daughter Norma to have Maeve’s room with its coveted window seat. When Cyril suddenly dies from a heart attack it’s not long before Andrea dismisses both Danny and Maeve, taking over the house and inheritance.

After college Maeve returns to their home town despite her potential to make more of her life in the big city. She is a devoted employee helping to revolutionize her employer’s frozen vegetable business. Danny lives in New York where he pursues a medical degree, maximizing the only inheritance money Andrea concedes to him. His real interest lies elsewhere, but his unwavering devotion to his sister compels him to push through school. Throughout the novel there is a cyclical scene of brother and sister parked down the driveway a distance from the Dutch House. They are irresistibly drawn to the house and sit smoking cigarettes recalling their past and imagining what’s transpired since their departure.

I don’t want to give too much away; there is a reason the book has a long waiting list. The novel begins and ends at the Dutch House. Patchett unveils a story so unexpected and unpredictable, masterfully opening metaphorically closed doors and exploring family dynamics amid poverty, wealth, inheritance, and more. It is a book worth reading!

Processed Cheese by Stephen Wright

Wow! Stephen Wright has a way with words!

People’s names: Graveyard, MisterMenu, Ambience, SideEffects, Carousel, Roulette, LemonChiffon, CarnyDoll, CyberLawn, CartWheel, and FancyPants

Places: House of Sweet Delay (perfume store), GutterBalm (makeup store), AlleyOops (clothing store), TooGoodForYou (the up-town shopping district), BurnishMe Island (vacation spot)

These are just a few examples of the unusual names of people and places in Wright’s new book Processed Cheese. They made it really fun to read.

Basically, the story starts with the character Graveyard walking home and a bag of money falling from the sky. He and his wife Ambience go on a spending spree (I mean really, wouldn’t you?) and eventually MisterMenu traces the bag of money his wife threw from his high-rise window to Graveyard and tries to get it back…

It was entertaining to see the lengths that MisterMenu went to try and get it back, and the extremes that Graveyard goes to avoid him.

Does he get the money back or not? You will have to read this astonishing book to find out!

Where I End and You Begin

I find it unsettling that serial killers -both male and female- have been sexualized in the last couple of years. Ted Bundy has become somewhat of a rock star thanks to a documentary on Netflix and a movie based on his life starring Zac Efron. There’s even a young woman somewhere in the world who got a tattoo of Bundy’s bite imprint from one of the bodies of his victims.

With that said, I do have to admit I find true crime beyond fascinating, but mostly I’m fascinated by what makes killers the way they are. I know some people think my fascination is weird and they refer to me as ‘one of those creepy girls.’  Yes. Yes, I am one of those creepy girls. It’s the creepy girls of the world that make everything burn a little brighter.

Stephen King used to keep a notebook full of newspaper clippings about murders when he was young. He said he kept the clippings because it was a way for him to recognize the nightmare people who donned a normal every day face while out in public. I, too, like to be aware of monsters that roam around with false human grace. But if you throw me a character from novels or a television series like Dexter who is a serial killer but only kills evil people, well, that’s something I can easily be obsessed about.

Joe Goldberg from Caroline Kepnes’s book You, throws off major Dexter vibes. Joe runs a bookstore in the East Village in New York. He’s obsessed with books, with literature, and with seeing people for who they really are. Characters fill his thoughts. You know what else he’s obsessed with? Guinevere Beck. From the moment she walks into the bookstore he’s got it bad for her. Like writing their names together on a notebook bad.

Beck, as she’s known to everyone, is a teaching assistant and aspiring writer. She’s working on her thesis, although it seems she never really spends time writing but heads out into the night to pursue a career in drinking and partying all night. Beck is everything Joe wants: beautiful, smart mouthed, and fiercely intelligent. Joe begins an odyssey of learning everything he can about Beck.

Instead of getting to know her through the normal channels, he stalks her social media and spies on her any chance he can get. Is this terrifyingly creepy? Yes. Can you kind of let that slide because Joe seems like one of the good guys? Surprisingly, yes.  That is until things begin to take a sinister turn and the reader begins to learn more about Joe’s past and his level of obsession with Beck. Will nothing stop Joe from being with Beck? Will anyone in the way of gaining Beck’s affection survive?

If you like books where you feel a little guilty about cheering on a main character who’s a lovable sociopath, You is your cup of tea.  Look, we’ve all had a crush that makes the rest of the world fall away and we can’t imagine a time when our crush isn’t a part of our life. But there’s a difference between a crush and an all-consuming obsession. It’s what you do in the middle-ground that makes all the difference.

And if you like You, there’s a sequel called Hidden Bodies that follows Joe after he leaves New York and settles in LA. You can move across the country, but obsessive love, like college debt, will follow you.