Heartwood 6:6 – Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

carmillaI don’t normally read to scare myself, boost my heart rate, or get a jolt of adrenaline, but this time of year I often find myself looking for something a little spooky, dark, or supernatural. This year, the 140-year-old novella Carmilla, one of the earliest vampire tales (predating Bram Stoker’s Dracula), delivered just the dose of gothic elegance I was after.

When a carriage crashes on the road near their Styrian castle, Laura, a young woman, and her father offer their assistance and find themselves taking temporary custody of the weakened Carmilla, a woman in appearance about Laura’s age, as her mother has urgent business she must attend to farther down the road. Laura is thrilled to have found a female companion, and they form a remarkably quick and somewhat seductive intimacy. But early intimations that all is not quite right with the languid guest, who only emerges from her room late in the afternoon, grow more serious when Laura too begins to experience a similar loss in vigor and vitality.

The story moves along quite quickly and is told in an appealingly antiquated style with calm deliberateness and economy (though it does include a bit of unneeded repetition while also leaving a number of things unexplained). What I liked best about the book was Carmilla’s mysterious way of talking about being together forever with Laura, the significance of dreams, and the dreamlike ways in which the vampire would strike. Additionally, avid readers will be happy to see that book learning plays a large role in eventually putting the vampire (and story) to rest.

Boy Scouts, Marital Strife and California Cults: Three Reviews from Sarah

Do you need a good book to read? Of course you do. Get three excellent reading recommendations from Sarah right here.

The Troop by Nick Cutter

thetroopA group of young boy scouts are on a weekend trip on a remote island off Prince Edward Island. An extremely ill and disturbed man makes contact with their camp, and it’s quickly apparent that he is not long for this world. He’s got an insatiable hunger, and as their scout master attempts medical intervention, he inadvertently exposes them all to the pathogen. The pathogen ends up being a genetically modified tape worm, gone viral and out of control. The military has quarantined the island, and unbeknownst to the young boys, they are on their own. This story gave me chills, and the grotesque descriptions of one’s body becoming consumed from the inside are extremely disturbing. Stephen King gave this rave reviews, and I agree.

Carousel Court  by Joe McGinniss Jr.

carouselcourtNick and Phoebe are in a tough place. They moved to Southern California to start over with their small son. Instead of opportunity, they are stuck with an underwater house in a neighborhood besieged with foreclosures. Crime is rampant and morale is low. Phoebe works in medical sales, and is battling her own addiction to painkillers. Nick is making ends meet, working odd jobs and cleaning out bank possessed properties. Their marriage is stressed, and their young son neglected. Each party sets off on their own secretive path to secure the family’s financial footing. Unbeknownst to each other, their choices will soon catapult them into further catastrophe. This reminds me of a modern version of Revolutionary Road, but with more animosity and spite between the spouses.

The Girls by Emma Cline

thegirlsIt’s 1969 in Northern California. 14 year old Evie stumbles across a group of free spirited girls living at an abandoned ranch. The girls all adore an older man named Russell and yearn for his affection. He assures them of a new spiritual awakening and offers free love. Evie totters back and forth between drug induced freedom at the ranch and her stereotypical teenage life with high school and bickering parents. She struggles for acceptance, individuality and finding her place in the world. Evie is especially drawn to a charismatic girl named Suzanne, who mesmerizes Evie with her nonchalance and freedom. This is a dark story about influence and power and a superb debut from Emma Cline.

3 Minutes, 4 Seconds

thecallI would die in the Grey Land. If you placed a bet on me, you’d lose all you money. I’d hear the trumpets declaring the game is on and the monsters are hunting me down and I WOULD DIE. Not because I’m weak. Not because I’m not a fighter. I’d die because I’m naked and about to do battle with monsters while naked. If I tried to run I’d catch a boob in the face and knock myself out.

Don’t worry. I promise this will make sense. I think.

In Peadar O’Guilin’s The Call a dark supernatural barrier surrounds Ireland. Planes have dropped from the sky and all life has ground to a halt in the last 25 years. The Sidhe (pronounced “She”) are deadly beautiful creatures that were banished to the Grey Land: a creepy world parallel to ours where there are grotesque living things in the trees and fields of human heads crying out in agony (the place sounds like one big Hieronymus Bosch painting). Seeking revenge for being shoved out of our world, the Sidhe instituted the Call. After the age of 10, all children are assigned to survival colleges where they learn how to fight, protect themselves, and how to kill. They’re even taught that the deceptive beauty of the Sidhe can get them killed. Whenever I imagine the Sidhe in my head all I can see is meth-addled elves straight out of a Tolkien world that are beautiful until you scrape a layer away and find all kinds of ugliness underneath.

In this new world, teenagers have to grow up fast. There’s no time to cultivate relationships or have feelings for anyone and God help you if you get knocked up because that’s not going to save you from the Call. Once called you’ll have 3 minutes and 4 seconds to survive the hunt. In the Grey Land, those few minutes translate into a full day where the Sidhe try to hunt you down and kill you in spectacular ways. It’s rare that anyone survives over there and when they do they come back like wounded war vets with zombie faces. The Sidhe have a sick sense of humor.  Sometimes they’ll show “mercy” and send a teen back alive but with the head of a dog or their backs twisted to the front or limbs swapped around.

Nessa is 14. Her brother had been called years ago and died in the Grey Land. Nessa has twisted legs and walks with the help of crutches. Most of her classmates and teachers think she should have died at birth or been killed because with legs like hers there’s no way she’ll survive. But Nessa is almost supernaturally fast, adapting her disability to become more of a warrior than most of her classmates.

No one knows when they’ll get the Call. You could be sitting down to breakfast in the cafeteria at a table with your friends and all of a sudden Jimmy’s gone, leaving a pile of clothes behind. That’s when the countdown begins, everyone studying their watches and stating the time with nervous voices. I figure the teens go over to the Grey Land naked because there are two times when we’re most vulnerable: while we’re asleep and while we’re naked. And if you sleep naked, you’re doubly vulnerable. When I’m home alone taking a shower and hear a noise all I can think is “Great. I’m going to have to fight someone naked. Maybe I can flash them and make them vomit and make my getaway.”

Nessa trains twice as hard as her classmates because of her legs. She absolutely refuses to think of dying in the Grey Land. Her one weakness is having feelings for a classmate named Anto who is a pacifist and guaranteed to die when he gets the Call. But she’s in love with him and he loves her. What are they going to do? She sees no future with him. The only future she’s talked herself into is the one where she survives the Call and returns to the college as an instructor.

But something is happening at the survival colleges all over Ireland. Whole schools are being wiped out by a mysterious presence and soon that mysterious presence sets its eyes on Nessa’s College.

If you like books about survival and kicking some monster ass, this is your book. If you like books where people have to fight naked, this is your book. If you believe in a parallel world where you are hunted down like a fox with some crazy hounds on your tail, you’ll like this book.

I still think I’d die two seconds after the Call. I can barely run bare foot let alone in my floppy birthday suit.

Quick Picks!

c1d4eb0de14c5411ecece51e6819d96eDid you know that we have a browsing section of books at the Everett Public Library that consists of newly published trade and mass market paperbacks? They are called “Quick Picks” and you can find great titles that are almost always available because no one can place holds on these books. Think of it: Brand new hot paperback titles, yours for the taking. This is your chance to get those hardbound bestsellers that are just out in paper. Here are a few that I have eyed lately.

index-3Look closely at the photo above.  I just spied a book which is on the current paperback non-fiction bestsellers list. Do you see it? S P Q R by Mary Beard is a history of Rome with passion and without technical jargon. It’s history written with common sense, a point of view and a healthy level of snark just to keep things interesting. So this is how perusing the Quick Picks works. You find books that you didn’t even know you needed!


51ab-hiwhml-_sx336_bo1204203200_I recently found a stunner of a book, Isabella the Warrior Queen.  Kristin Downey takes the Spanish Queen out from behind the shadow of Ferdinand and illuminates her importance in the history of the world. As Queen, she took effective measures against the Muslim threat to western civilization, had the vision to support Columbus’ venture and set the stage for the Spanish/Hapsburg empire building in Europe and the Americas. Oh, yes. And she started the Inquisition. Oops!  Nonetheless, this is an amazing story of a remarkable woman that reads like a novel. I highly recommend it!

indexThere’s a great selection of non-fiction in the Quick Picks section. Julie, a co-worker, recommended Pogue’s Basics: Life; Essential Tips and Shortcuts (That No One Bothers to Tell You). It’s a great ‘nibbler’ book and by that I mean you can open it up anywhere and read a bit. There’s useful information like how to remember how to set the utensils on your table: it’s alphabetical, fork, knife, spoon from the left. Also, fork and left both have four letters while knife, spoon and right have five letters. See? You gotta read this one!

index-1Welcome to Subirdia by John M Marzluff is also available as a Quick Pick. There are always overflow crowds when this University of Washington professor lectures at EPL. Avoid the crowds and get this author all to yourself with this book about how birds have adapted and survived in urban areas. In this fascinating and optimistic work, Marzluff tells how our own actions affect the birds and animals that live in our cities and towns, and he provides ten specific strategies everyone can use to make human environments friendlier for our natural neighbors.

index-2I just grabbed a copy of The Shell Collector which is a collection of exquisitely crafted short stories by the author of the acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning #1 New York Times bestseller All The Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr. This is a wonderful collection of longish short stories. The loose theme that weaves them together is water, the sea, love of nature, and finding your place in life, even if it means severing ties with those you love. Check it out if only to read the title story. And to gaze at the cover. Beautiful.

index-1Did you miss Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun when it was popular as a hardbound book? Read the Quick Pick! This novel by Beryl Markham transports you to 1920’s Kenya and the world of Out of Africa. This is historical fiction that is beautifully written, historically accurate, and utterly engrossing. I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes strong female figures and/or has an interest in 20th century colonial Africa. This is one great read.


index-2Who can resist the idea of a book barge on the Seine in Paris where the bookseller, Jean Perdu, uses his intuition to select just the right book to deal with whichever emotion – small or large – is afflicting you? Nina George writes a charming, wise and winsome novel in The Little Paris Bookshop. We go on a journey with Perdu to the South of France as he moves from being lost in grief to slowly reclaiming himself and his life. The further south we go, the warmer the weather and the more Perdu comes alive. Bookseller. Lost love. The wisdom of books. All combine to make an enchanting read. Don’t miss it.

So remember to check out our Quick Picks collections at both locations. Browse a selection of mystery, romance, and notable bestsellers. Don’t waste your money on books when you can borrow them from your library. Quick! Pick a book!

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

vinegar-girlKate Battista systematically prepares meat mash once a week, dutifully serving it every night to her father and younger sister Bunny. Her father, Dr. Battista has calculated ingredients for efficiency, but his most recent and desperately devised plan involves Kate in a whole new way. One day Kate’s father calls her at home under false pretenses, feigning that he’s forgotten his lunch. His motive is simple: he wants his daughter to marry Pyotr Cherbakov. Pyotr works as a research lab assistant with Dr. Battisa and his work Visa is about to expire.

Kate is offended and hurt by her father’s lack of sensitivity. Taking a stand, she refuses to do her father’s income taxes. Not only does Kate manage the household affairs, she is also expected to enforce her father’s rules, rules which include that her spirited sister Bunny is not to have boys in the house during Kate and her father’s absence. After work one day, Kate comes home to discover Bunny and Edward, an older next door neighbor, alone together. He is supposedly teaching her ‘Spanish.’ Edward’s influence becomes much more suspicious as the story unfolds.

One evening Professor Battista uncharacteristically, and with the help of a few drinks, pours out his heart to Kate which results in her giving into her father’s charade. She agrees to conspire with her father and marry Pyotr Cherbakov for immigration purposes. Gradually life begins to take a turn and a flicker of hope sparks in Kate as she muses over the potential to move from home and her dead-end life.

Pyotr and Kate begin doing things engaged couples usually do: grocery shop, sharing dinner together and so on. All the while Dr. Battista films these activities as evidence of their sincerity. At the market Pyotr grabs pork to which Kate objects. Edward’s influence has converted Bunny to veganism complicating Kate’s meat mash dish. Pyotr comments “In my country they have proverb: ‘Beware against the sweet person, for sugar has no nutrition.’” Beguiled but on the defensive, Kate quips back “Well in my country they say that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”  Pyotr declares her his ‘Vinegar Girl.’ He is able to see beneath her acerbic character and a growing but awkward relationship begins to bud.

On the day of Pyotr and Kate’s wedding, Pyotr does not show up leading to a suspenseful and comical yet sweet ending.

Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl has been dubbed a modern day The Taming of the Shrew and I found it humorous, sincere, witty and delightfully quirky.

Heartwood 6:5 – Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett

PondHeartwood mostly focuses on older books, but once in a while I’m so taken with a new release that I simply must tell people about it. Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond is such a book, one of the most dazzling debuts I’ve read. It could be labeled an experimental novel or linked short stories or even autofictional memoir without really mattering much to me (a pond is a pond is a mudhole). What does matter is how Bennett puts you inside her narrator’s head. I don’t know that it’s voice necessarily (but what a voice!), or even the quirky richness of the main character’s personality, but rather a kind of intensity, a shared personable intimacy, as if the reader is discovering and experiencing the author’s thoughts at the same time that she is writing them down.

The book focuses on an unnamed young woman who has moved to an old stone cottage in the rural countryside on the west coast of Ireland. The chapters often feature small details of daily living which serve as unlikely launching pads for wide-ranging meditations on recent or distant events in her life, relationships past and present, or things going on right inside or outside her cottage. For example, the broken control knobs on her mini-oven, or the act of taking a bath during a storm, or simply cleaning the fireplace grate will trigger a flood of unexpected reflections on such things as the intensity of feelings upon encountering a forgotten love letter, memories of reading a book about the last woman alive, feeling alienated from a particular place and its history. She moves from topic to topic in a perfectly natural but discursive way, telling us everything in a voice that is exactly right, conveying her wit, intelligence, gentle misanthropy and sense of wonder.

Here are some of the themes that stood out for me: a keen attention to the earth – to the everyday dirt, mud, stones, ponds, gardens, storm-blown leaves and other detritus; a concern with language, both to uncover one’s understanding of things but also in that it can misdirect, and its inability to fully capture and communicate experience; the value of solitude; a background fear of the unknown or imagined, and a compulsive interest in embracing it; love in all its complexity – as all-consuming, obliterating, brutal, inexplicable, happy; the unaccountable workings of the mind and imagination; the pressures of history; and the challenge to attune yourself to the “earth’s embedded logos,” to experience a “deep and direct accordance with things.”

I can’t begin, in this short review, to do justice to this phenomenal book; there’s so much going on and, from one perspective anyway, it seems to demand immersion and living-through rather than description and analysis. But let me, as further examples, at least chart some of the unexpected jumps in the first long chapter, “Morning, Noon, and Night.” The chapter opens, comically enough, with a detailed consideration of what makes the best breakfast food but then takes up such things as: living without purpose but just to take things in; abandoning academia; the purchase of a couple of pieces of textile art and changes in what she sees in them; how to talk of what most moves us would spoil it; fulsome sex and the pleasure of writing lustful, salacious emails; finding a secret garden and becoming an accidental gardener; a quiet early evening of intently listening in the garden. This chapter so impressed me that I found myself reading it again immediately.

Librarians have a tendency to compare and connect books, even though the most unique and striking books can only be crudely compared to anything else. So, yes, I encourage you to read Pond, it is beautifully idiosyncratic, and I will add that anyone who admires what Bennett has done with her female lead might also want to look at Robert Thomas’s Bridge (one of my favorite books of 2014), Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, and Joanna Walsh’s Vertigo.

Now I’m going to shut up and return to rereading the rest of this book.

My Paranoid Polaroid

diaryofanoxygenthiefAt first slap I hated Diary of an Oxygen Thief with a passion I usually reserve for people who shuffle when they walk. And I say slap because I was reading it in bed and it fell on my face, effectively bitch-slapping me. I took it as a sign that I needed to read the damn thing.

About 17 pages into it I started to get that “Oh sh*tballs” feeling. You know the one: it’s kind of like a toothache. It’s the most consuming pain but your tongue, that floppy idiot traitor, seeks out that toothache and pokes at it for the thrill of the hurt.

Diary of an Oxygen Thief is by an author who decided not to use his name. I say “he” because the writing is eye-squintingly masculine (in  good way). It’s about an alcoholic Irish man who would drink the Thames if he heard a rumor that someone dumped a bottle of vodka in it. The more he drinks, the more he decides to hurt every woman who falls in love with him:

“I liked hurting girls. Mentally, not physically.”

He seduces women into his world by pretending to be THAT guy: the one who’s a good listener and leans in further as if to catch every word that falls out of her mouth. He makes love with his eyes wide open all the while snickering at how he’s going to tear a woman’s life apart. Just when a woman exposes her heart to him he cuts them loose. He ghosts on them. I came across the term ghost a couple of years ago. Ghosting is when you don’t actually break up with someone (be it a friend or lover) but you ignore them until they’re hurt, baffled, and finally disappear for good. Anonymous sits down to a romantic dinner at a pub with his girlfriend of 4 1/2 years. While she’s smiling with that idiot smile of love at him he begins his destruction:

“This is what I look like when I’m pretending to be in love with you.”

He gets off on seeing the confusion swirling in her eyes, the half-smile melting from her lips like cheap lipstick in a heat wave. What follows after this break up is a gift from the karma police.

He drinks and drinks and becomes sick of his life. I mean, he’s just OVER it. He decides to get sober, becomes a faithful AA attendee and doesn’t touch a woman in 5 years, terrified he’ll regress and hurt someone. Besides, he’s gotten his act together so why screw it up with a complicated relationship?

And then he meets HER. I have to spell it as HER because she’s the one who coaxes him out of celibacy, both physically and mentally. She has a name but it might as well be God in his eyes. No description of her does her justice. She’s every gorgeous painting that caused the looker heartache. She’s every song that is played on repeat. She is God, life, sex all rolled into one. Our poor narrator becomes insecure, a man who once beguiled dozens of women and is now so unsure of himself. He’s imagining a life together with her: suburban house, picket fence, rug rats running around with a dog.  She’s non-committal:

“So, you want to get together for dinner?” He asks.

“Um…..yeah,” she replies and then shows up 45 minutes late.

He finds himself in too deep and has to restrain himself from calling her 30 times a day.

Let me regress a little. I mean digress. Who hasn’t done that, developed some super heavy feelings for someone and then made promises to ourselves in the name of dignity and sanity that we won’t fill up their voicemail with uncertain false cheer:

“Hiya. Thought I’d call and see how you’re doing.”

Translation: “I haven’t stopped thinking about you, everything reminds me of you. I saw a plastic bag floating down the street in a frisky breeze and it reminded me of that scarf you wore that matched the green of your eyes and I’m counting down the minutes until I can accidentally brush your hand with mine and die in suspense wondering if you’ll thread you’re fingers through mine.”

Oh God. I related to him so hard that I had to put the book down, flip my stupid heart the bird, and try to repress wanting to vomit thinking about what I’ve done when I’ve had a crush on someone. I was into this guy once for all the wrong reasons. Since I am socially retarded and not used to men giving me compliments I couldn’t exactly do what I did to Joe Clifford in second grade: I pushed him to the ground threw a rock at him and screamed “I REALLY LIKE YOU. DO YOU LIKE ME?” and then ran off. That kind of crap will get you arrested nowadays. Nah. This time around I would leave little notes for my crush, telling him I was thinking about him, wondering how his day was going all the while behind the words I was asking “Do you ever think of me?”

Being human is crap sometimes, folks. For real.

Our anonymous Irish recovering alcoholic has a streak of paranoia in him because he thinks that since he’s screwed over so many women, the universe is out to get him. It kind of is. The universe is whispering to him “Karma’s a bitch, dude. Assume the crash position.” The object of his affection barely makes an effort to spend time with him, breaking last-minute plans, not even trying to get to know him.  Well, ladies and germs, that’s the hardest lesson I’ve learned in my 39 years twirling around on this planet like an idiot. If someone doesn’t make an effort to be with you, can’t be bothered to even call you, cut them off like the tags to a mattress (don’t worry; they don’t really arrest people for cutting those tags off).

He decides to write everything down and calls it Diary of an Oxygen Thief:

Ultimately, he doesn’t rage about how she’s treated him. He has reaped what he sowed and though it sounds clichéd, he finally understands all the soul scarring pain he’s caused other people. While I’m not reeling over the crushes I’ve had ten years ago, I’m a lot like a two-year old who stuck a fork into the wall outlet: I’m definitely not doing that again.

But our Irish drunk believes in love. That’s something good to hold on to.

I, however, would rather have a candlelight dinner with my cat who doesn’t care how my day went as long as I have the food on the table in a timely manner.