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.

Spot-Lit for May 2021

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 2021 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction 2021 Debuts

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.

Spot-Lit for April 2021

Rejoice! It’s not every month that offers new fiction from 20th-century maestro Marcel Proust, or a pertinent novel on race and policing by Richard Wright from 1942 that only now is getting published, or a new translation of what is described as the most accessible novel by Brazilian phenom Clarice Lispector.

In terms of local color, Willy Vlautin’s latest looks at greed, hardship, and gentrification in Portland, and Joanne Tompkins’ intense Washington-set debut focuses on loss and connection.

April also brings us new titles by Haruki Murakami, Jhumpa Lahiri, Helen Oyeyemi, and Paula McCain along with much-buzzed debuts from Kirstin Valdez Quade, Sanjena Sathian, and Donna Freitas.

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 2021 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction | 2021 Debuts

Spot-Lit for March 2021

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 2021 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction | 2021 Debuts

Spot-Lit for February 2021

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 2021 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction | 2021 Debuts

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!

Spot-Lit for December 2020

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 2020 | All On-Order Fiction | 2020 Debuts

Classic TV

Even as a person who was raised on sixties television, I can be put off by the thought of watching shows produced during that time. Acting styles, writing, pacing and sets were often different from today’s standards. And, hold on to your girdles, programs were sometimes shot in black and white! My brain often decides, on its own, that these shows are inferior, and thus I hesitate to watch them.

But every now and then I’ll talk myself into taking a chance. My latest find is Ironside starring Raymond Burr. Now, I’m a long-time Perry Mason fan, but for some reason Ironside never appealed to my finer senses. Well, let me tell you: It’s fabulous!

Burr plays the San Francisco chief of detectives who, in the show’s first episode, is shot in the spine and rendered unable to walk. Robert T. Ironside is a firecracker of a person, not one to accept physical limitations, and he’s soon working as a special consultant to the SFPD. Along with officers Ed Brown and Eve Whitfield and personal assistant Mark Sanger, Ironside looks to crack a case each episode.

Plots are well-crafted and fascinating, often delving into issues of race and discrimination. At a time when freedoms of Americans are potentially eroding, it’s pretty eye-opening to see a 50-year-old tv show embracing diversity. It’s also educational to see how much the world has changed in those 50 years. One episode features a criminal who steals a machine that issues payroll checks. He uses it to forge checks and then takes them to about 20 grocery stores each day. In San Francisco 2020, I’m guessing you’d be hard pressed to find a grocery store that would cash a payroll check from a stranger.

But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Ironside is the man himself. If you’ve ever watched Nero Wolfe, you’ve seen a character who is set in his ways, unwilling to bend, brilliant, unpleasant and prone to tirades. There is nothing particularly likable or sympathetic about him. Ironside, on the other hand, has many of the same qualities, but his bluster is tempered with a side of compassion and sarcastic humor. The result is a character who you like and admire, perhaps fear a bit, but definitely respect. I’ve not seen another TV character of this same ilk.

Over the years, I’ve not heard too much buzz about Ironside. But let me tell you uncles and aunties, it’s a cut above most of the crime shows that have been produced for television. Intelligent, often riveting, not too predictable, a breath of fresh air in my TV viewing world. As Bob Ironside himself might say, “What’s your flaming excuse for not watching it?!?”