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.

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

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.

Take to the Sky

It’s impossible to keep up with all of the incredible comics that come out each week. There is a constant stream of exciting new projects from industry heavyweights and emerging talents re-imagining beloved characters or creating entirely new stories, from the fantastical to the deeply personal. Whenever I talk about comics with another reader, I walk away with far more recommendations than I can hope to get through, leaving me with a “to-read” list a mile long. Recently I happened to enjoy two debut volumes, both about young women who can fly, that I’m quite eager to push into the hands of my friends and colleagues who love comics as much as I do. 

Riri Williams, aka Ironheart, is the comic book successor to Tony Stark’s Iron Man, but she is also so much more than that. Sure, she has the rad suit, the scientific brilliance, the loner instincts, and the quick quips, but that’s where the similarities with Tony end. Riri is a young woman from Chicago with some serious trauma in her recent past – she lost both her step-father and her best friend to violent crime. She also built her suit with far more limited resources than Tony had at his disposal. Riri managed to create her armor while a student at MIT, basically using supplies that she could discreetly pilfer from the school. 

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Eve Ewing’s Ironheart vol. 1: Those With Courage picks up after this origin story. Riri is now a graduate student at MIT and an ascending super hero, trying to maintain her privileged lab access while also preserving some semblance of control over her work and avoiding the intrusive meddling of school officials. She is clearly grieving the losses in her personal life and struggling to process the trauma she has experienced, while often refusing the help and counsel of those who care about her. And these are just Riri’s “small” problems. A new and mysterious threat has emerged that jeopardizes both the greater world and some of the people closest to her. 

I was thrilled when I found out that Ewing would be writing Ironheart. Ewing is, among other things, a brilliant playwright and poet. Electric Arches, her collection of visual art, prose, and verse about the city of Chicago, identity, and much more, is a stunning and beautiful work. I appreciate that Marvel has hired more black writers who bring new and important perspectives to these comics, but who also come from different writing styles and traditions. This of course includes Ta-Nehisi Coates, who did incredible work on Black Panther and is now writing Captain America, but also Roxanne Gay’s work on World of Wakanda and Nnedi Okorafor’s Shuri comic. 

PrintJoe Henderson’s Skyward is not quite as new – the first volume, My Low-G Life, came out a little over a year ago. Willa Fowler was born shortly before G-Day, the day on which Earth’s gravity abruptly and drastically reduced. This day was tragic for many people who were caught outside and floated off, never to be seen again, including Willa’s mother. But Willa, and many others her age, embrace life in a low gravity world. Rather than suffer through life as an earth-bound being, they are able to soar from building to building, enjoying a life without the constraints of gravity. 

 Yet all is not perfect in Willa’s life. She is disastrously awkward around her crush, she is desperate to see more of the world but is stuck in Chicago, and – worst of all – her father is agoraphobic. He has refused to leave their house in the twenty years since G-Day. Then, in an instant, everything changes. Her father reveals a secret that threatens to completely upend the only world Willa has ever known, a secret that puts Willa and the people she cares about in immediate and grave danger. 

I’ve only read the first of Skyward’s three volumes, but I was immediately taken by the world Henderson builds. There is an interesting treatment of class and corporate greed – the rich all wear gravity boots that allow them to live as if G-Day never happened, for a price. And the new threats and challenges that emerge from this world, such as growing food and preventing people from floating off to their deaths, are interesting and creatively presented. While I’m unsure of the scientific soundness, I also love the way that rainstorms are presented as a new, strange, and terrifying threat that I don’t want to spoil with more details. I can’t wait to continue Willa’s adventure and dive deeper into the weightless, yet menacing world that Skyward has built. 

Even as I write this, new comics are hitting our shelves, demanding attention. I’m eagerly awaiting Simon Says, a Nazi-hunting revenge story, Star Wars: Tie Fighter, which follows a group of the Empire’s elite pilots as they begin to question the Empire’s methods, and Wynonna Earp, following a descendant of the famous Wyatt Earp as she takes on new threats of the paranormal variety. I’d love to hear what comics other fans are excited about right now. Leave a comment and help me make my reading list impossibly long!    

Soon by Lois Murphy

One day, in the novel Soon by Lois Murphy, a mist comes to the little town of Nebulah…. The birds and animals are gone. The town residents try to go on with their lives as usual, until it begins to get dark; everyone runs to the safety of being indoors with every window and door locked, the shades drawn and music or TV turned up loud. Pete, Milly and Li are our three main characters and they all gather to spend the long nights together, and keep each other distracted from the things that come out in the mist.

People in the surrounding towns think that the residents of Nebulah are all crazy, and they don’t believe the things they have been told about the mist. Still, none of them will come to the town at night to try and disprove the rumors either.

When something happens to Li, one of her relatives, Alice, comes to take care of her things. She insists on staying, and when Pete and Milly are unable to convince her to leave, things really get interesting. Alice has an unusual experience with the mist and they can’t persuade her it was a trick.

I think anyone who enjoys suspense will love this book. It was quite a page turner by the end, and the ending was my favorite kind – – one you never saw coming!