Hoarder’s Delight

A dozen years ago my mother flew to California to help my grandma pack up her tiny apartment and move into an assisted living home. Now, my grandma wasn’t the classic definition of a hoarder. There were no precarious stacks of yellowed newspapers or National Geographic magazines going back to the 1940s lying around. Grandma Flower was more of a pack rat: squirreling away slips of paper she’d scribbled on or pretty papers that caught her fancy, even if she never looked at them again.

During the visit, my mom and grandma sat on the couch watching television. My mom studied my grandma as she ripped a piece of Kleenex into tiny pieces and shoved them down the side of the couch. “Hey mom, why are you doing that, why are you tucking pieces of Kleenex into the sides of the couch?” My mom asked gently. Bewildered (and no doubt embarrassed about someone witnessing her little ritual) my grandma spat out “I just don’t know, Linda!” Now my brother and I yell it at each other when we catch each other doing something downright goofy.

In T. Kingfisher’s The Twisted Ones, Mouse’s aging father asks her to clear out her deceased grandmother’s home in rural North Carolina. Mouse thinks, why not? She’s a freelance editor and can work anywhere. Plus, her father said whatever the house sells for she can keep. Mouse and her hound dog Bongo head to North Carolina. How bad could the old woman’s place be since the last two years of her life were spent in a retirement home?

Turns out, pretty damn bad. The house is crammed with the junk of a long life; a house of nonsense collections of items her grandmother couldn’t throw out. Had her grandmother been a kind and warm person, the task might have been a terrible emotional war, but Mouse’s grandmother was nothing but mean with a cruel streak ten miles wide. Instead of taking only a few days, Mouse realizes it’s going to take weeks to clear the house out, especially when she finds a room dedicated solely to her grandma’s creepy doll collection.

She picks out the most livable looking room to stay in and finds a journal written by her step-grandfather. She barely remembers the man. He was mostly a quiet person who read the newspaper all day. As Mouse reads through the journal, she starts to wonder if he had been in the active stages of dementia. He mentions marrying Mouse’s grandmother because ‘They’ steer clear of her. There was something about her that ‘They’ despised and avoided.

He mentions his birthplace in Wales and wonders if ‘They’ crossed the ocean with him. Because really, the old gods and creatures, whose only joy lies within darkness, like to follow humans wherever they go. They’re like ancient pop stars who fear being left behind and made irrelevant. Cotgrave, her step-grandfather, had a mantra he repeated to himself to keep ‘Them’ away: I made faces like the faces in the rocks, and I twisted myself about like the twisted ones, and I lay down flat on the ground like the dead ones.

Mouse finds the sing-song chant creepy but chalks it up to an old man whose mind was beginning to sour. In the following days making trips to the dump (bye bye terrifying dolls) the chant begins to roam through her mind more and more. One night she’s awoken by her dog Bongo who is growling at the window. Mouse looks out to see deer crossing the front lawn except one of them seems disfigured, its legs bent at odd angles. Pretty weird but nothing to be afraid of.

Taking a break from cleaning one afternoon, she takes Bongo for a walk in the woods. The house itself is out in the boonies with a couple of neighbors down the road. Mouse and Bongo follow a trail only to discover something grotesque hanging from a tree. It looks like a deer, but the skull is upside down and pieces of it seem to be held together with wires and strips of cloth. Is it alive in that tree and watching her? It makes a clicking sound: rocks hanging in its chest knock against rib bones, like wind chimes from the deepest reaches of hell.

Mouse and Bongo almost break a land speed record running back to the house. After a fright, humans are good at rationalization, our brains making excuses for what has been seen. But that night she’s woken again by Bongo’s growl. The thing she saw hanging from a tree is at her window and looking at her. There’s no explaining that one. Mouse fears she might be losing her mind.

She’s made friends with people down the road, people her grandmother labeled sneeringly as hippies. Foxy is head of the household, a woman in her late fifties and far from a hippie. More like Annie Oakley, target shooting over her shoulder using only a mirror. Mouse tells her everything that’s been happening and Foxy’s not surprised. She says there has always been spooky happenings in the woods and even more remote places. People don’t talk about it much and treat it like a biting insect: if we don’t bother it, it won’t bother us.

Not really relieved to hear that otherworldly creatures exist and people just accept it, Mouse is ready to pack up her dog and go back home. Her father gave her an easy out. If cleaning out the house was unimaginable, then it could be bulldozed and the land cleared. But before Mouse can make her getaway, Bongo disappears. There’s no way Mouse will leave without him. Foxy invites herself along on the search, because what lies on the edge of their known world is a different and uninviting world.

This was a unique book that brought old customs and beliefs into this century, along with a compulsively relatable friendship between a woman and her dog. Great. Now I can’t see a deer without imaging its skull pressed against my window, watching me. I’d better twist myself about like the twisted ones. Maybe that will help.

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.

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.

Stay Home for This Challenge

Fall is my most favorite season. We get pumpkin spice, falling leaves, and furnaces kicking on. My sweaters and boots are so happy to see me and I’m whipping up soups and stews every weekend. And we get rain. Months and months of glorious, life-giving rain. I may as well call myself Shirley Manson because I’m only happy when it rains. Just kidding–but I do love a great rain shower and/or thunderstorm.

We also get a new reading challenge. Read the book, post a photo of it with #everettreads, and be entered into a drawing for a $25 Amazon gift card courtesy of the Friends of the Everett Public Library. Thanks, Friends! This month we’re going to read a book set in Washington State.

That’s right, dear reader. We get to stay home for this challenge.

You may have heard about a little book called Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. I reviewed it a few years back and the film adaptation was released in August. While I still wholeheartedly recommend reading Bernie, I also think you should try these books set in our wet and wonderful Evergreen State. Just click the cover and be magically–okay, it’s HTML–taken to the summary and with a few more clicks you can reserve your very own copy.

FYI: some of these look really spooky, so if you are looking for some Halloween mood reading you might be able to check two boxes with one book.

I’m going to curl up with Useless Bay by M.J. Beaufrand. Shocking family secrets and a giant mystery on Whidbey Island? Count me in! What will you read for the October challenge?

Spot-Lit for October 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

I’ll Give You $3.50 For Your Soul

One of the drawbacks of being an avid reader is that I sometimes don’t retain much of a book in my head. I might remember specific scenes or characters. I might not remember the entire book, but I do remember if I liked the book or hated it.

I read Peter Staub’s The Hellfire Club over 20 years ago. I had already read the two books he collaborated on with Stephen King: The Talisman and it’s follow up Black House. Already a King reader, those two books urged me to seek out more Peter Straub books. And I did, starting with The Hellfire Club.

Nora Chancel is married to Davey Chancel, the son of a man whose father built a publishing house in the early 1900s. Nora, a former combat nurse in Vietnam, is haunted by her service in the war. Her sleep is often broken by nightmares that send her digging under her pillow for a gun she used to keep there.

Someone is murdering women in the small Connecticut town where Nora and Davey live. The killer’s latest victim is the real estate agent who sold the Chancels their home. Like many women in town terrified of being the next victim, Nora has had an alarm system put in.

Meanwhile, her husband, who has always been obsessed with an author published by his family’s publishing house, seems to have become almost unhinged in his obsession. His father is a blowhard who likes to keep Davey under his thumb. Davey’s mother is a more often than not drunk who spends her days in her study ‘writing.’ Davey’s father has always thought that Nora (10 years older than Davey) was too old for his son and likes to insult her under the guise of flirting.

One day on the drive home from a tense lunch with Davey’s parents, he and Nora drive by their real estate agent’s house. Crime scene tape still scars the front door. Police roam the house. Davey and Nora go to the front door where they’re met by a detective who asks them to come inside since they knew the missing woman and might have answers to his questions. He observes them as they walk through the house.

The woman’s bedroom is a blood bath, blood spatter on the walls, the bed soaked. Nora doesn’t think the real estate agent is dead, but with all the blood in her bedroom it’d be a miracle if the woman was alive. When they get home, Nora sees that Davey is almost manic about something. He stole a couple of paperbacks from the real estate agent’s bedroom, books published by his family and written by the author Davey is obsessed with. He begins to tell her a bizarre story about a woman from his past who was equally obsessed with the writer. She introduced him to The Hellfire Club, an unusual place where time and memory seem to be skewed.

He gives Nora a couple of paperbacks with a scribbled message inside. The same paperbacks the missing and presumed dead real estate agent had on her shelf in her bedroom. But it turns out that Nora was right, the woman is not dead and has been found. The police want Nora and Davey to positively ID the woman.

It is indeed the real estate agent, but she explodes into hysterics when she sees Nora. The killer is caught: a man identified as one of Davey’s former classmates as well as a lawyer for the publishing house. And this is where Nora’s nightmare begins as she becomes accused of heinous crimes and tries to outrun a killer who is actually on the loose.

Peter Straub is a master storyteller, weaving tales both supernatural and steeped in reality. The Hellfire Club is a fast page-turner and if my heart wasn’t a shriveled up black lotus flower, I’m sure it would have been pounding in terror.

Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button?

Even though I’m a huge fan of Stephen King’s work (move over Annie Wilkes because I’m his number one fan), I’ll admit that sometimes I do skip one of his books when it gets published. There’s no real rhyme or reason to it. I’ll acknowledge the book and go about my life, knowing I’ll catch up to his latest and greatest at some point. But some of his novels I visit over and over again, like meeting an old friend for a cup of coffee to swap stories about the paths our lives have taken. Or with King’s books, those coffee catch-ups take the form of terrifying tales told by the light of a campfire.

In Gwendy’s Button Box, a novella crafted by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar, it’s 1974 and 12 year old Gwendy Peterson likes to run up a set of cliffside stairs known as the Suicide Stairs. At the top of the stairs she can hear the summer sounds of pick up baseball games and kids on a playground. One day, a gentleman dressed in black calls to her from a bench. His name is Richard Farris and the neat black hat he wears will haunt her dreams for years to come.

Farris seems to know her mind and her desires. He gives her a wooden box inlaid with eight different colored buttons. He presses one button and dispenses a small chocolate candy. He tells her the chocolate will help her lose weight and stop kids from calling her names like Goodyear (as in the Goodyear Blimp). Gwendy takes the box with its buttons home and her life begins to change.

The chocolates do help her to lose weight. Another button, when pushed, dispenses old silver dollars. As she gets older, she knows the silver dollars are worth a lot of money and will be her ticket to be able to pay for college. Another button seems to help her parents to quit drinking and steer them away from an inevitable divorce. The other buttons tempt her and she knows, if pressed, a button might bring about something truly horrible.

Gwendy decides to try and experiment one day and presses a button that leaves her with an uneasy feeling. What happens next makes her terrified of the Button Box and the power it yields. But along with the evil that the box is capable of, the good it brings to Gwendy’s life is there as well.  She goes through high school making good grades and excelling at sports. She takes a couple of coins from the Button Box to a coin collector and finds out they are indeed valuable and will help her pay for a good college. She begins to worry about the box falling into the wrong hands and takes great pains to make sure it’s safe. But one day, a monster in human skin gets a hold of the box and Gwendy’s life takes another turn.

Gwendy’s Button Box is not only a chilling supernatural tale, but also a coming of age story about a young girl who doesn’t believe she’s special until she’s given a magical box equipped with buttons that shape not only who she is but her own destiny.

To all the kids out there who feel invisible and unremarkable, I hope you find your own Button Box that helps you become who you need to be. Just don’t, you know, press any of the buttons that might bring about the end of the world. I’m just saying….