All in All it’s Just Another Body in the Wall

At first, I thought Riley Sager’s Home Before Dark might end up being another cliched hum-drum ghost story. My mind was already made up not to feel guilty if I decided to put it down and pick up another book to read. But some little voice (call it Jiminy Cricket, the ghost of the still living Stephen King, or hell, even Leonard Cohen whom I was listening to when I picked the book up) told me to keep going. So kept going I did and this book knocked my socks off. Well, they were already half off because my puppy was tugging on them so he could run around with them in his mouth, but you get what I’m saying.

As the book opens, an abandoned, possibly haunted, house still clings to the family who left it with just the clothes on their backs twenty-five years ago never to return. Ewan, his wife Jess, and their young daughter Maggie moved into the massive mansion for a fresh start. Ewan is a writer and his freelance jobs are drying up. He thinks the move into an old home with a colorful history will give him the push he needs to write a novel.

The house has its eccentricities: a chandelier that turns itself on, a record player in the den that plays a song from the album The Sound of Music. But all old houses have their own personalities, so the Holt family isn’t too worried about it. Jess made Ewan swear he wouldn’t get lost digging into the house’s past and although he makes the promise, he breaks it and finds out some disturbing things about the past owners of the home.

A father killed himself and then his daughter a few years before the Holts moved in. Before that, a 16-year-old girl had killed herself when her father forbade her from seeing a man she fell in love with. Many other inexplicable deaths occurred in the home when it was a bed and breakfast as well.

Ewan is awoken at the same time in the middle of the night to a thump and the record player starting up on its own and a strange tapping noise coming from the hallway. Meanwhile, their daughter Maggie complains about Mister Shadow and Miss Penny Face, two entities who seem to haunt her at night, watching her from the giant armoire in her bedroom. The haunting comes to a head two weeks after they move in and they flee in the night without any of their belongings.

Time shifts to 25 years later and Maggie is all grown up with a home restoration business of her own. Her father Ewan has just died. She remembers nothing from their stay in that house. But after running away in the night her father wrote a bestseller called House of Horrors that made the family a lot of money and pretty much ruined Maggie’s life. She was always “that girl who lived in a haunted house.”

At the reading of Ewan’s will, Maggie discovers that her parents never sold Baneberry Hall and her father left it to her. She decides it’s the perfect time to go there, renovate the house and finally find out what happened all those years ago, believing that both of her parents have spent the past 25 years telling her lies about it. Maggie goes to Baneberry Hall and shrugs off the feeling that the house is haunted by saying it’s such an old house of course it’s going to be odd.

But finding answers and the truth isn’t as easy as Maggie thought it’d be. The Ditmers, who used to look after and clean the house still live in a small house on the property. Mrs. Ditmer is old and has dementia and her daughter Hannah takes care or her. Hannah’s older sister Petra disappeared the same night that the Holt family ran away, and she hasn’t been seen since. Some of the talk is that Ewan must have had something to do with it, especially when her bones show up in the house.

Primarily a spooky mystery about the redemption of family and the need to heal the past, Home Before Dark is a damn fine read. Just spooky enough to pull the blankets around my shoulders and take a glimpse under the bed for any, you know, ghosts or dead folk and mysterious enough to have me wanting to hang around until it was solved, Home Before Dark is a book you can lose yourself in for a couple of hours. But make sure you keep that armoire closed and maybe put a two by four in the handles so Mister Shadow and Miss Penny Face can’t get out and watch you sleep.

The A’s Have it

I don’t know you guys. The idea of having to be an initiate to get into an ultra-elite “it” group in high school just sounds exhausting. Maybe that’s because I’m 43 and at this age I’d be like: “You want me to steal the answers to the trigonometry final, so I qualify to get into this elitist snob factory? Nah. I’m good. I’m going to sit on the couch and eat this family sized bag of Cheetos while I watch The Office for the 800th time.”

In Elizabeth Klehfoth’s debut novel All These Beautiful Strangers, Charlie Calloway is a junior at the prestigious Knollwood Academy, a school her father attended, and his father before him, and so on and so on. She’s got a huge academic load to worry about and now at the beginning of her junior year she gets a letter saying a secret society known as the A’s wants her to join the group. But there’s a catch (isn’t there always?): she must pass three tests to become a member.

This is kind of a back story to the main story which is the disappearance of Charlie’s mother ten years before when she was seven. She doesn’t have much contact with her mother’s family because her father’s family kind of trash talked them because they weren’t rich. But Hank, Charlie’s mother’s brother finds Charlie and has her look at some photographs he found beneath the floorboards at the Calloway Family summer home on Langley Lake.

Charlie’s family believes that Grace, Charlie’s mother, just packed her bags one day and left, tired of being a wife and mother to her two daughters. For ten years Charlie has lived with the feeling that her mother didn’t love her and that it was very easy for her to leave and never contact her children. Questions begin to swirl around in Charlie’s mind, things she remembers as a seven-year-old: the fights her mother and father would have, her mother yelling at her father “Get your hands off of me!” Was her mother and father’s relationship that strained?

Charlie’s father was also a member of the A’s but since it’s a secret society, it was never talked about. Charlie thinks of them as a powerful, king of the mountain type of group that will open the gates to the best universities and careers imaginable for their members. Once an A, always an A for life. I’m thinking the A’s would do everything to help their members get away with anything. Even murder.

Take the case of Jake Griffin, Grace’s first love. He attended Knollwood along with Charlie’s father Alastair but when asked about Jake, Alastair pretends they were never close and just classroom acquaintances which is weird since Charlie found a picture of them in an old year book with their arms around each other and smiling into the camera. It turns out that Jake was being initiated into the A’s along with Alastair.

Jake was found dead in the river, having jumped from the ledge that was where Knollwood’s elite hung out. He got caught stealing the answers to a test and felt so horrible about it that he took his own life, something that Grace never believed. They’d know each other since they were children. She knew Jake inside and out. He never would have killed himself. But then she goes on to meet and fall in love with Alastair and they marry and fall in love. Seven years into her marriage, suspicions started popping up about the man she married and who he really was.

Told in the alternating voices of Charlie, Grace, and Alastair, this book has mysteries inside of mysteries. It’s a damn inception of a book and I couldn’t write all that I wanted to write about it without giving too much away. I will say that Charlie finds out more than she bargained for about the A’s. She begins to realize that they’re a more self-serving group, punishing those who displease them: even punishing a teacher who rebuked the amorous advances of a student. And if an initiate fails a test, they are set up to be kicked out of school. Charlie also realizes the kind of person she wants to be.

Filled with enough twists and turns to give you motion sickness, All These Beautiful Strangers tells the story of a broken family and its past, of a young woman searching for answers while searching for herself, and is a reminder of how nothing is as it seems. Go on, read it. Devour it like I’m devouring this family sized bag of Cheetos.

Anxious People

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman is a story about – – a LOT of different things! All throughout the book you are told that this is a story about a bank robber, or a real estate agent, or a bridge, or a police officer, or a pregnant woman, or a hostage situation. Or a list of other things. Indeed, this was a great story about all of those things, but really, it wasn’t about any one of these people.

It is so interesting in life how no single item is the same for everyone. What may be my favorite aspect of something could very well be the part you hate the most about it. Things that are no big deal for me could be the most tragic thing to you. I guess what I’m saying is that everyone’s threshold for being anxious is different, and we must all remember to be patient with others.

Basically, in this book a bank gets robbed and the robber flees. In trying to escape, they run into an open house for an apartment that is up for sale and everyone attending gets held hostage. UNbasically, there are twists and turns to what should be a straightforward story.

I very much enjoyed this book! I adored the characters and their interactions with each other. I loved how there could still be a happy ending after such a traumatic event. Anyone who is a Fredrik Backman fan is sure to love it as well.

Side Effects May Include but Aren’t Limited To…

Even though I have a better paying job I still find myself short on cash, enough so that I’ve taken a shallow peek into those medical studies programs. You know the ones: they’ll pay you $1500 to see if a diabetic pill will make your foot rot and fall off or a high blood pressure medication will make your eyes pop out. But hey, at least I’d be compensated for a rotten foot and buggy eyes. One of my favorite sayings is “Why does it cost so much to be alive? I’m not even having a good time.”

In Megan Giddings Lakewood, Lena Johnson knows what I’m talking about. After her beloved grandmother’s funeral, her family finds itself under a mountain of debt due to unpaid hospital bills. Lena’s in college and her own mother is poorly and can’t work, so it’s up to her to find a way to get cash to start paying bills off before they all go under. Lena drops out of college to take care of her mother and the mounting bills. She decides to take a job in the town of Lakewood, Michigan.

The job seems sweet as advertised on paper: high paying, all medical care and prescriptions paid for, free rent while she’s living in the small town. But the real job is being put through the paces of both medical and physical experimentation. She must lie to her family and friends about what she’s doing, sign an NDA stating that there will definitely be criminal and financial penalties for leaving the study early and for divulging just what goes on.

The experiments could be anything: eye drops to turn brown eyes blue (ahem, paging Auschwitz’s Dr. Mengele) or a pill that might cure dementia and chase depression away for good. Lena is given the usual medical spiel about her service in the experiments changing the world (and really, who doesn’t want to hear that they might be involved with something that could potentially change the world for the better?). But what Lena actually participates in is much darker in nature.

What follows is a dreamy novel where life becomes blurry, everything moves at a dreamlike speed, and a history laden with medical experiments on African Americans comes to the surface. The entire time I was reading this book (I seriously couldn’t put it down and would sneak a few pages in between answering work calls) I felt like I was floating through dark clouds, my body rotating as if in molasses, and looking down at a world scattered with unscrupulous monsters saying that the way to save humanity is by brainwashing children into killing their entire families and then writing a paper on it. Boom. That’s how you save the world.

If you want to read a novel where you have absolutely no idea where it’s going the entire time, Lakewood is the one. Even the ending has a dream-like quality that leaves you wondering what happened to this character who took a blue pill, had some kind of fit at her desk, and was whisked away never to be seen again. Lakewood is a thoroughly creepy book. But in a good way. Good creepiness and a terrible uneasiness abound in this novel. Go get it. And I don’t care how hard up for money you are, maybe you should stick to donating plasma and leave the “We can help you lose 80 pounds in 24 hours” experiments alone.

Two New Book Reviews for You

The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths

A pensioner by the sea. What a way to spend retirement! It is something I know many of us long for.

Peggy is a happy retiree and spends her time watching everything that goes on – – and writing notes about it in her little journal: 7 people walking the beach (3 couples and a single) 4 people with dogs, how many cyclists, joggers etc.

She has a number of friends and neighbors that call on her to visit and they are murder mystery buffs. And I mean really, who doesn’t enjoy sitting around thinking of ways to bump people off? Peggy is even acquainted with a few authors that ask her for advice on killing people for their books, and they always give her an acknowledgement ‘This is for Peggy.’ Peggy also suspects she is being watched.

There is a dark spot in her history that not many people know about, however. Her friends Edwin, Natalka, and Benedict have all heard some stories about her time in Russia, but never realized they could be true.

So, when Peggy is found dead of natural causes, it is only understandable that her friends suspect foul play even though the police do not. When a postcard falls out of one of Peggy’s book that says “We are coming for you,” DS Harbinder Kaur from CID gets involved. Then an author Peggy had helped ends up murdered so DS Kaur decides to question the trio of friends. With an author’s event coming up, the trio decides to go and follow up on some clues.

I absolutely adored the bumbling investigation techniques in this book where everything gets solved and tied up in a big bow almost by accident! I also enjoyed the subtle clues and connections and trying to solve it myself before the characters (I did NOT solve this one). This was a fun book and a pretty fast read. I highly recommend it!

One Step to You by Federico Moccia

Babi is a popular girl from a well-to-do family. Step is your typical ‘bad boy’ on a motorcycle. Step first sees Babi when he pulls up next to her car while Babi’s dad drives her to high school. You can almost hear the zap as Step is instantly hit by Cupid’s arrow.

Babi has always been a well behaved, proper young woman….  Until Step convinces her to just go for one ride with him on his motorbike. She falls for him but doesn’t want to admit it to herself or anyone else.

There are no parents screaming at her to “keep away from that boy” because they have no idea the things she has been doing. Skipping school and sneaking out. Babi knows what she’s doing is wrong, and that being with Step is dangerous, but it’s LOVE! What can you do?

You have to read all the way to the last page to find out what they do…  you’ll never guess!

And Then There Were Three

From time to time I like to surprise myself by reading something that doesn’t involve monsters or ghosts or the seamier side of humanity or teenagers in a flux of crisis. I’ll pick out a book normally labeled as Chick Lit but what I like to call “just a nice read about friendship.” Because even monster lovers like to read about the bonds of enduring friendship every once and awhile.

Jane Green’s The Friends We Keep studies a friendship between three people that spans 30 years. Evvie, Maggie, and Topher meet at college in England during the 80s. They form a fast friendship, forging their separate paths together into adulthood and the real world. Evvie, American born and raised, constantly starves herself and becomes a super model. Maggie marries college sweetheart Ben, whom she hates at first (isn’t that how most love stories start?). Topher becomes a well-known actor while keeping on the down low that he enjoys the company of men.

Like all friendships and the phases of the moon, the relationship between the three waxes and wanes over the years. They lose touch only to reconnect again and then lose touch once more. But each of them is hiding a dark secret, a secret they would normally share with each other but feel so shameful about that they keep them hidden and let them fester like a wounded limb going gangrenous.

Evvie’s modeling career is stopped in its tracks after an affair with a married man results in pregnancy. Topher has a childhood trauma that keeps him from fully loving someone and accepting love in return. Maggie’s marriage to Ben hasn’t been the perfect wedded bliss she pretends it is. Their marriage is on the brink of oblivion from Ben’s chronic alcoholism.

The three best friends get together close to the 30th anniversary of their friendship and move into a house where their secrets slowly trickle out and begin to poison the well. Will their enduring friendship survive such well-kept, yet insidious, secrets?

I think anyone with a soul can relate to this novel and see themselves in one, if not all, of the characters. We’ve all had friendships that have lasted for what seems like an eternity as well as friendships that seem to be over before they even get started. The true test is who we come out as on the other side.

If you want to read a novel with unforgettable characters (I’m still wondering how Maggie’s doing, living the second half of her life and hope she’s okay) pick up The Friends We Keep and take a ride in the ‘way back when machine’ to your own childhood friendships. If nothing else, you’ll begin to wonder what so-and-so’s up to.

An Easy Accomplishment or Two

Do you enjoy that sense of accomplishment you get from finishing a book, but don’t have the time to dig into a 500 page saga? Also, do you like reading books in translation and exploring a different culture and country?  If, like me, you seek out these types of books, I’ve got two great works of fiction to recommend that satisfy both criteria at once. They are novellas, coming in at the 100 page mark, and are written by authors that hail from Japan and South Korea respectively. Most importantly, they are excellent and intriguing books well worth your, perhaps limited, reading time. Read on to learn more.  

The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada 

The plot seems innocuous enough. Asa’s husband has received a promotion and is transferred to a small country town, that happens to be where he grew up. She has only been doing unsatisfying temporary work in the city, so doesn’t mind going with him and starting a new life in the country. But soon her lack of employment and growing isolation, coupled with an unbearable summer heat wave, combine to make things, well… a little weird. Not only in her day to day life, but in the natural world around her. 

Oyamada has a unique writing style that is elegant, yet deceptively simple and straightforward. Reason is never abandoned, even when events become a bit surreal. I appreciate this. It allows for multiple interpretations and trusts the reader to decide whether events are actually happening, or are in the protagonist’s head. The author, as in her previous work The Factory, also effectively shows the bizarre and often isolating effects of corporate culture on the individual. Especially for those having to deal with the current economic reality.   

Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah 

Told in a series of reflections, the unnamed narrator of this work goes back and forth through time, but mostly tells the tale of her life in 1988 when she was in her early twenties. She is supporting her family by working two temporary dead end jobs and dealing with an alcoholic mother, a distant brother and an absentee father. She is also expected to eventually marry her high school boyfriend, who seems to need as much support as everyone else in her life. The narrator is not a conformist, however. Much of the novel deals with her inability to understand others’ acquiescence; eventually leading to her deviation from and rejection of the role set aside for her.  

Suah’s writing style is sparse and at times matter of fact, but still comes of as a stream of consciousness narrative. The characters innermost thoughts pile one on top of the other, reflecting her ambivalence: not only about the world she finds herself in, but also her own mental state. Her descriptions of the surroundings she inhabits reflect this as well. Whether in a crowded urban street or a desolate country field all is cold, stark and easy to get lost in.  

Heartwood 10:4 – Return Trip Ticket by David C. Hall

As Donald Westlake’s introduction notes, David C. Hall’s 1992 novel, Return Trip Ticket, is grounded in the pulp style first introduced by such writers as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but the character of the classic PI is updated and extended here in the figure of Wilson who is both more worldly and more self-critical than his predecessors. So instead of the hardball patter of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade, in Wilson we get a man who is frequently fatigued and put-upon by his work, but who is also resourceful, diligent and a keen observer. Indeed, it is the detached descriptions of the world around him that first drew me in, and kept me there even as the plot began to grow in complexity and intrigue toward the end of the book.

Wilson is an overweight, balding, forty-something, Vietnam-vet now working as a private detective on a case involving the disappearance in Spain of a wealthy Denver businessman’s daughter. The story is set in both Barcelona and the American desert southwest in that distant past (1988) just before the era of web browsers and cellphone ubiquity. Wilson interacts with an interesting variety of individualized characters as he attempts to track down the young woman, plays cassettes of Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman in his drably oppressive hotel rooms, and looks forward to reading Dickens or Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire when he had a bit of time to himself.

Return Trip Ticket is a quick read that has a fine balance of characters, plot, language, and setting. The ending struck me as a little anticlimactic but also realistic in its insinuation of the all too common corruption of those who hold power.

I don’t want to say much more about what happens in the book (that’s what you read a mystery to find out), but maybe this sample passage, in which the detective and his quarry stop at a southwestern 24-hour pancake house, will give you a bit of its flavor:

            The waitress came over and said, “Good morning,” without a trace of sarcasm, poured them some coffee and went away.  She was wearing a short, pleated uniform with a little white apron and a lot of strawberry lipstick, and she had a frazzled smile that she turned off and on.  A couple of old men in cowboy hats were drinking coffee in another booth and yelling at each other in slow dry voices, and a drunk was sitting at the counter with his chin sinking slowly toward the dish of apple pie in front of him.  It was the kind of place Wilson remembered sitting in all night when he was a kid, getting high on cup after cup of lousy coffee and listening to the piped-in music.  It made you feel grown up, for some reason.

Pulp detective stories are in no short supply. Based on limited online reviews, I don’t see that David C. Hall has been able to achieve widespread popularity (though he has won some crime fiction awards). But that is neither here nor there. I’d say, if you’re in the mood for a finely written chase novel, and like your noir with a dose of attention to detail and humility, this will certainly do the trick.

She Lies Close

A lot is going on for Grace in the novel She Lies Close by Sharon Doering.

After her husband has an affair, Grace buys a house in a new neighborhood with her two young children Wyatt and Chloe. As they are getting settled in and starting to meet people, she begins to hear rumors that her new neighbor Leland is suspected in the disappearance of a young girl. Is she really living next door to a kidnapper and murderer?

Grace can barely sleep, and becomes obsessed with the case of sweet, missing Ava. In the wee hours of the night she repeatedly watches a video that was posted of Ava singing and dancing, desperately looking for clues to her disappearance..

After she discovers that Chloe has a pocket full of tootsie rolls that she got from Leland while she was playing in their adjoining back yards, Grace begins having nightmares and sleepwalking, with reality and dreams blurring the fine line of sanity.

The police have no leads in Ava’s disappearance, and Grace continues to talk to the neighbors, asking questions to try and find the truth of what happened. Then, a body is found, and everything changes. Grace finds herself on the other end of the investigation.

I got to the last 60 pages and could NOT put the book down.

If you like a good page turner, you will really enjoy this book!

Walk-Ins Welcome

They say that there are many parallel worlds all around us, just out of sight. Who are “they?” I don’t know. Fringe scientists, paranormal armchair detectives, somebody’s crazy Aunt Lulu down in Boca Raton who, some speculate, has been baking in the sun too long.

There is a popular thought that in each of these parallel worlds are versions of ourselves. In one world maybe I finally got off my ass and wrote the novel that would become a best seller. In another world, maybe I became the funeral director I always wanted to be. And maybe in another, someone wanted to marry this mess and procreate with me.

I first came across the term “walk-ins” while reading a Stephen King novel. Yeah. Big surprise. Walk-ins are those who very clearly do not belong in our world. They show up in the middle of a sweltering August heatwave wearing winter jackets 50 years out of date. Or they insist a building was once where a building never stood. There’s just something…off about these walk-ins.

Whew. Having said all that, let’s get to the book I want to tell you about.

In Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood, Alice is a 17-year-old girl always on the run from something looming but unseen with her mother. Her mother Ella doesn’t want them staying in one place for too long, but she’ll never explain why to Alice. Alice has never met her grandmother Althea before but knows that the woman has a rabid cult following because of a book of fairy tales she wrote years ago, set in a place called the Hinterland. Ella refuses to talk about Althea or her popular novel and flew into a rage the one time she caught Alice with a copy of the book.

After having settled for the millionth time in a new place and new school, they get word that Althea has died alone on her estate. The estate’s name? Hazel Wood. Alice has a faint memory of being a young child and being abducted by a man. Not exactly kidnapped in a rough fashion. She willingly went with the man. She was found unharmed and alone. Now, over ten years later, she sees the man again sitting in a café, unchanged, unaged. Something is going on, something hovering-like another world-at the edges of her vision.

Her mother inexplicably vanishes, taken by something or someone. All that’s left is a note in her mother’s handwriting reading “Stay away from the Hazel Wood.” Not damn likely to happen, Alice thinks and with the help of a classmate named Ellery Finch (who is a hardcore fan of Althea’s book of fairytales and has his own reasons for helping Alice out) Alice embarks on a dangerous mission to rescue her mother. A mission which includes slipping through to a world not just made up in the mind of Althea.

What follows is a thorn choked path where everything Alice thought she knew to be true turns out to be false. But will she find her mother and escape the strange fairytale world and make it back to her world? Will she be the same person? Are any of us the same person at the end of a magnificent and harrowing adventure? Not damn likely.