Joelle's Bibliofile

Deep, Dark and Desolate

The Lost Man - Jane Harper

Jane Harper has a honed talent for absorbing her readers in a setting and immersing them into the lives and minds of her characters.  In her latest book, The Lost Man, Harper maroons her audience in a desolate landscape in Western Australia.  Her protagonist is a deeply saddened cattle rancher who has been ostracized for a former transgression by the small community that populates the lonely expanse.  Nathan Bright is first introduced at the site of his brother’s recent death near an isolated gravestone. Given the area’s harsh climate, he died excruciatingly of exposure without benefit of shade and supplies. Accompanied by his other brother and visiting son, Nathan is left to wonder why his brother would have fallen victim to those elements that they were acutely aware of and had adapted to throughout their lives.  As the novel progresses, it is revealed that Nathan is somewhat estranged from his family, divorced and teetering on the edge of a deep depression.  When he reluctantly gathers with his family during their mourning, he recalls missed opportunities for a different life. He regrets having squandered a chance to win over the woman who became his deceased brother’s wife.  There are flashbacks to his childhood with an abusive father and the resulting necessity for the three brothers to choose between self-preservation and protecting each other.  Unconvinced that his brother had committed suicide, Nathan begins digging into his past and discovers layers of secrets and lies that permeate the entire family.  The Lost Man presents an intriguing mystery and character study with a tone that expertly evokes the dread and unease of its unforgiving setting.  Fans of The Dry and Force of Nature will be delighted with Harper’s new standalone novel that further proves her prowess as an innovative and versatile author.

Chilling and Thrilling

The Invited - Jennifer McMahon

Jennifer McMahon’s gothic novel, The Invited, is a suspenseful and atmospheric ghost story that lures the reader in like the haunted bog that provides its setting.  The book opens in 1924 Vermont with Hattie Breckenridge on the day of her death just as she had predicted it – hunted down and hung by the townspeople accusing her of witchcraft. The novel then flashes forward to the current day with Helen and Nate, a young couple who have left their teaching jobs to embark on a back-to-the-land endeavor.  They try to dismiss the local rumors about Hattie’s ghost haunting their property, but they quickly begin to experience strange sights and sounds as they build their new home.  Both disbelieve the other’s account, becoming obsessed and secretive as they follow their separate paths in order to provide proof.  Meanwhile, their young neighbor, Olive, is seeking some answers of her own on the land. Olive is coping with her mother’s sudden disappearance and suspects it is possibly tied to a hidden treasure that Hattie may have left behind. Each chapter of The Invited is titled after a phase of construction, and building/demolition metaphors are threaded throughout the novel. As Helen and Nate work to erect a house that recalls the past, the surrounding town and its actual historical remnants seem to have been reduced to rubble.  Salvaging both information and artifacts about Hattie and her descendants, Helen visits the sites that relate to their tragic lives.  Just as secrets and mistrust have destroyed the foundations of these actual structures, they also are threatening to erode Helen and Nate’s relationship. The Invited is nicely paced and plotted, with some genuine surprises and interesting diversions. Fans of supernatural tales or meandering mysteries will find Jennifer McMahon’s newest release a chilling and satisfying addition to her body of work.

A Quaint Puzzler

The Dutch Shoe Mystery: An Ellery Queen Mystery - Otto Penzler, Ellery Queen

Penzler Press is releasing The Dutch Shoe Mystery as part of its series of Ellery Queen mysteries, arguably the American paragon of Golden Age Mystery writing. Written by two cousins in the mid/post- World War Era, these puzzlers were extremely popular with readers in their day, and the Ellery Queen Magazine based on them is still being published. Each of the stories follow the same formula: a crime occurs that is seemingly impossible to decipher; writer Ellery and his Police Inspector father collect clues and conduct interviews; there is a summary of the clues along with a challenge to the reader to solve the mystery; the story culminates with a satisfying revelation of the responsible party and a detailed explanation of how the crime was committed. In The Dutch Shoe Mystery, Ellery and Richard Queen are challenged by the murder of a wealthy matriarch just as she was being prepped for surgery at the hospital she financially supported. The family of the woman and other suspects are introduced and questioned about their connections and whereabouts. An abundance of contradictory clues and artifacts are discovered that seem to make the case impenetrable. During the investigation, one of the main suspects also ends up being killed, and the sleuths are confounded by hidden motives and misdirection. Due to the notoriety of the victims, Ellery and Richard are also under pressure from the mayor and DA to solve the case as quickly as possible. Despite some antiquated attitudes and questionable portrayals of women and minorities, the Ellery Queen mysteries are a quaint reminder of classic mystery storytelling. They are a flashback to a time when a good mystery was considered an opportunity for cerebral exercise rather than a chance to merely shock the reader. Fans of Christie, Doyle and other classics would enjoy The Dutch Shoe Mystery and the other Penzler reissues of these entertaining titles. Thanks to Edelweiss and Penzler for an ARC of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

A Fun Fforde Fantasy

Early Riser - Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde, author of the popular Thursday Next and Nursery Crime series employs his signature wit and creativity in the new standalone novel, Early Riser. This fantastical story presents an alternate reality in which people hibernate during the winter every year. In order to ensure survival during this time, they prepare by adding weight and taking medications to make sure they do not regain consciousness too early. A small number of individuals are selected to remain awake to keep things running smoothly and protect the sleepers from the many strange creatures that might prey on them. The biggest threat is from those who wake too early and are caught between states- the Nightwalkers that transform into cannibalistic zombies. The narrator of Fforde’s imaginative story is Charlie, a young man embarking on his first waking winter season. He is serendipitously recruited to enter a special fast-track management program due to his excellent memory and rash willingness to risk almost certain death. Charlie is a witty character, a real “fish out of water” who bumbles his way into an awkward adventure. He tries to cope after he is stranded in a remote district that is subject to extreme weather and assaults by creatures thought only to exist in myth. In trying to learn his way, follow his conscience and simply survive, Charlie uncovers a secret conspiracy that could endanger the world and enslave many of its people. He unwillingly becomes the expected hero and his efforts and reflections are hilariously unspooled by Fforde’s great writing. Early Riser is at times confusing and rambling, but always entertaining and engaging. A truly unique story with endearing characters, Fforde’s new offering provides a fun ride that will thrill fantasy fans from start to finish.

Haunted Hit Man

Hell Chose Me - Angel Luis Colón

Bryan Walsh is haunted-literally-by those he has eliminated in his capacity as a hired enforcer, first for his uncle in the IRA and then for an organized crime syndicate in the Bronx. Angel Luis Colon’s novel Hell Chose Me is narrated by this mercenary whose conscience is manifested in the shadows that follow him as reminders of his wrongdoings. A wanted man and a deserter from the Marines, Bryan rationalizes his actions since he needs to financially support the care of his brother, who is in a coma. As the story progresses, Bryan discovers that he has been framed and betrayed by those closest to him. He attempts to enact revenge while distracted by the increasing number of ghosts that constantly demand his attention. Bryan’s loyalty and sanity are tested, especially when he is forced make some ultimate sacrifices. Hell Chose Me would be a fitting selection for readers who relish cinematic action scenes and are not squeamish about graphic depictions of violence.

 

Thanks to the author, NetGalley and Down and Out Books for an ARC of this title in exchange for an unbiased review.

Eclectic Collection

Best British Horror 2018 - Johnny Mains

Johnny Mains has resurrected his annual collection of short stories for the Best British Horror 2018 edition.  This volume contains seventeen tales that are truly eclectic and prioritize classic horror themes of irony and psychological dread over gore.  Settings span from gothic 19th century to futuristic science fiction, urban to isolated locales. The collection has something to please all horror fans: haunted houses, cursed objects, Lovecraftian creatures, doppelgangers, ghosts and transfigured humans.  As in any collection, there are stronger and weaker entries, but each selection has obviously been curated with care-making Best British Horror 2018 a chilling and worthwhile read from beginning to end.

 

Thanks to Library Thing and NewCon Press for an ARC of this title in exchange for an unbiased review.

Until the Bitter End

As Long As We Both Shall Live - JoAnn Chaney

It has been said that love and hate are equally intense and that transitioning from one to the other is easier than one would think.  In Joann Chaney’s As Long as We Both Shall Live, a couple remain fused together in a tangle of passionate antagonism and attraction.  Matt and Janice are only married about a year when Janice suspects that Matt is having an affair. As the novel opens, she is about to confront the lovers, unsure which of the two should receive the brunt of her rage.  Tragically the night ends in death, but Chaney leaves the details a mystery.  The author instead flashes forward twenty-three years later as Matt and a second wife, Marie, are on a hiking getaway attempting to reset a relationship that has gone seriously awry.  This time, one of the pair winds up missing- could this be an unfortunate coincidence?  Investigators Spengler and Loren are suspicious about the two circumstances connected to Matt and they begrudgingly work together to dissect layers of secrets forged over many years.  As they pursue the case, one of these officers is also being hunted by a former colleague who is convinced that he/she killed a former partner. Full of unexpected twists and relentlessly vicious repartee between characters, As Long as We Both Shall Live is an exciting novel that will keep Chaney fans riveted and guessing right up to its last sentence.

Lone Survivor?

Thirty-Seven - Peter Stenson

All eighteen-year-olds seem to struggle with issues of identity and belonging, but Mason Hues just might be the most extreme example. When he is first introduced as the narrator in Peter Stenson’s novel Thirty-Seven, he is not even sure which name to use. In fact, Mason began life unnamed until his adoption by an upper-class couple who raised him in a life of privilege. Mason is permanently scarred, however, after one of them repetitively abused him as he entered adolescence. Mason describes how he reinvented himself by running away at fifteen to join a “new family of his own choosing,” – a cult led by a former oncologist whose followers used unnecessary chemotherapy drugs to induce illness. The core tenet of the group (later infamously known as “the Survivors,”) was the belief that experiencing life-endangering sickness can elicit profound truth, connection and insight. Mason is dubbed Thirty-Seven, denoting the order in which he joined the cult and to completely obliterate his past. As he relates his story, Mason often refers to a book written about the cult after a catastrophic event that left him as its sole survivor and witness. Now, he is trying to start fresh once again in anonymity, having been released from a stay at a mental institution. Still struggling against the brainwashing he received, Mason lands a job at a thrift store run by a young woman with scars of her own. He becomes increasingly unsure about his life’s purpose and is tempted to reconstruct another group based on The Survivors’ ideas. This juxtaposition of identities- whether real, self-composed or assigned by others- is treated in a unique way by Stenson in this odd bildungsroman. A thoughtful premise and some unexpected twists make Thirty-Seven an interesting choice for readers who can stomach some darkness and despair. The novel would have greatly benefitted by more editing in terms of its length and grammar, and it appears overly-repetitive at times. The depictions of violence, illness and abuse are fairly graphic and those who could be sensitive to those issues might not want to venture too far into the mind of Mason Hues. Thanks to Dzanc Books and Edelweiss for an ARC of this title in exchange for an unbiased review.

Suspenseful Spa

Nine Perfect Strangers - Liane Moriarty

Those first introduced to Liane Moriarty with her novel Big Little Lies and its subsequent Netflix series may not recognize the author from her newest outing, Nine Perfect Strangers. Moriarty provides her trademark page-turning thrills and some big reveals, but her most recent novel has a lighter tone and subject matter.  In the tradition of the “closed room” plotline, nine people hope to achieve physical and mental transformation at a highly-regarded but unconventional new spa, Tranquillum House.  Its mysterious director promises amazing results in ten days, but only if there is strict adherence to her unorthodox methods.  The reader is introduced to each of the guests gradually, each chapter narrated in first person by a different voice.  Their various reasons for attending the spa and past histories illuminate how they will react to each other and the spa’s increasingly strange protocols.  The characters are interesting and well-written archetypes, but the novel stretches plausibility as they continually accede to increasingly questionable demands. Moriarty wraps things up very tidily at the end, providing a rather simplistic view of exposure therapy and resolution of past trauma.  As would be expected from such a talented writer, however, Nine Perfect Strangers remains a quick and absorbing read-especially perfect for those looking for some escapist thrills with lower impact.

A Literary Assassin

The Plotters - Un-Su Kim

The Plotters by Un-su Kim (trans. from Korean by Sura Kim-Russell) is surprisingly lyrical and philosophical for a book about a group of assassins. With references to Roman and Greek mythology, Homer and the Bible, the book invites deeper reflection than most would expect from a modern thriller.  From the age of four, Reseng has been surrounded by an underground group of assassins and hired guns and now is one of the best in the profession.  He was adopted by a man he calls Old Raccoon, a librarian who also happens to coordinate the cabal out of his virtually abandoned library.  Old Raccoon does not encourage Reseng’s love of reading, however and warns that it will “doom you to a life of fear and shame.” Regardless, Reseng devotes his childhood to teaching himself how to read and vicariously learns many life lessons in this way.  The book opens with an assignment that demonstrates Reseng’s ethical code and respect for others combined with a resigned ruthlessness that allows him to complete his mission.  The reader gains a greater understanding of Reseng as he recalls one time when he had a chance to adopt a normal life. He describes how his loyalty has been repeatedly tested in a world where trust is treacherous, and competition is a game of extreme elimination.  When he himself becomes a target, Reseng needs to discover who has put him on the kill list and must use his connections to uncover the motives of those who plot against him. The Plotters is a rewarding book, fascinating for its glimpse into a political system that is mysterious and reflective of a country that is perpetually in a state of vigilance. Un-su Kim deftly creates characters that encourage respect and admiration despite their misdeeds and portrays how a the greatest human vulnerability can be caring about others.

 

Thanks to Doubleday and NetGalley for an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

Cultural Congruence and Clashes

White Teeth - Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith’s White Teeth is a multi-layered, thought-provoking and extremely funny novel that tackles timely and sensitive topics with a rare, nuanced touch.  Archie Jones is the archetypical Everyman-a working-class man with low ambitions and a seemingly simplistic view of the world.  As White Teeth opens, he is on the edge of a successful suicide attempt when he is saved by a Halal Butcher who is more disturbed by Archie’s car blocking his deliveries than by the fact that he has discovered a man on the brink of death. Archie gains a new zest for life after being pulled back from the brink and is riding high on his new-found optimism when he encounters the enchanting Clara at a nearby party.  She is a statuesque Jamaican woman who is also coincidentally seeking change and the two make quite an unusual pair.  From their union the story blossoms to envelop other wonderfully imagined characters, each struggling in some way with the cultural clashes, traditions and identities that are enmeshed in an increasingly diverse British city. Smith addresses the juxtaposition of faith and science, cultural preservation and integration of immigrants, violent protest and tolerant acceptance. Although these topics can easily be rendered too heavy and didactic, Zadie Smith manages to provide incisive commentary on these important issues while also skillfully unfolding an addictive narrative with characters worth caring about. 

Dazzled by Fame

I Invited Her In - Adele Parks

Popular author Adele Parks examines the over-glamorization of wealth and fame, and the consequences of family secrets in I Invited Her In, a novel released in early 2019.  When Melanie is contacted out of the blue after sixteen years by her now-famous friend from University, she is thrilled but uneasy about the reconnection.  Ever since dropping out of school due to an unplanned pregnancy, Melanie has felt alienated from those she left behind.  She imagines that they have moved on to bigger and better things with more exciting lives than her own. She had been feeling settled and content after her struggles as a single parent, now blessed with a loving husband and two additional children. Her oldest, Liam, has grown into well-adjusted, promising young man due to Mel’s earlier sacrifices.  When she hears that t.v. personality Abigail Curtiz is undergoing a very painful and public divorce, Mel invites her old friend to come stay with her family.  Abi is as charismatic and gorgeous as Melanie remembers, and Melanie is dazzled by her incredible lifestyle as a wealthy celebrity.  Mel’s husband, Ben, is not quite as impressed when he is forced to watch his wife cater to Abi’s every need and defend Abi’s selfishness.  Ben is tasked with running the household alone while the two women revert to the irresponsible days of their youth.  What Ben doesn’t know is that Mel is motivated to accommodate Abi due to a hidden wrong-doing she has felt guilty about over all those years.  Abi also has ulterior motives for their reunion, and it soon becomes apparent that Abi may be purposefully ripping apart the family bonds that Mel and Ben had believed impenetrable.  Parks’ novel notches up the tension in the second half when the focus turns to revenge and betrayal, culminating in a violent act that exposes the women’s secrets.  I Invited Her In starts slowly and the female characters border on one-dimensional, but the plot accelerates quickly to a neat conclusion. Fans of Parks and contemporary thrillers might enjoy her new offering – it is not very original or deep, but it certainly is an entertaining read.

 

Thanks to Edelweiss and Mira (Harlequin) Publishing for an ARC copy of this title in return for an unbiased review.

Girls of Steel

Dare Me - Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott takes the Mean Girls trope to extremes in her novel Dare Me, about a team of high school Cheerleaders who revel in their sense of entitlement and perceived immortality.  Addy Hanlon is the sixteen-year-old narrator who identifies herself as the “lieutenant” to her best friend and Team Captain, Beth.  Even as she kowtows and follows Beth’s every command, Addy recognizes how cruel and ruthless her idol can be. The alpha-beta balance of their relationship is threatened however, when the squad comes under the leadership of a new coach.  Colette French is not about to be dazzled or overtaken by Beth. Coach French is also a domineering force with a magnetic personality that upsets the team’s hierarchy and engenders loyalty and adoration from the girls, including Addy.  Beth is so furious with this competition for Addy’s affection that she embarks on a campaign to sabotage the interloper at any cost.  That includes implicating the coach in the suspicious death of a young Guardsman recruiter working at the school.  It is also possible, however, that Beth’s theory is correct- that their Coach is as guilty as she would like her to be.  Addy is torn between the two possessive women, the focus of their power struggle and a pawn susceptible to their deceit.  In this novel, all of Abbot’s female characters are depicted as either rapacious and cruel or passive and vulnerable.  Still, the women fare better than the men, who are mostly shadows in the background- all apparently weak and completely clueless. The themes of domination/submission are omnipresent, with no representation of a healthy relationship in any form.  Still, Dare Me is a well-written and gripping read, with some decent (if implausible) plot twists.  Wicked fun if a reader likes their thrillers dark and does not require likeable characters to root for.

A Labrynth of a Novel

House of Leaves - Mark Z. Danielewski

House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski is a creature of a book, impossible to categorize and describe by conventional means.  The plot is deceptively simple- a young man discovers among a dead man’s possessions the remnants of notes for a book he was writing. The book this older man was working on is an in-depth study of a film called the Navidson Record.  The short film is a “documentary” about the Navidson family who moved into a house that contained a perpetually morphing and sinister labyrinth hidden behind its walls. The film has attracted a cult following due to its sheer artistic value and the captivating mystery about the fate of those the house has seemed to erase from existence. The point of view in Danielewski’s novel switches between the young man, Johnny Trout, who becomes obsessed with transcribing the papers he has found; the text of the deceased’s collected scribblings, and a huge collection of footnotes and editorial comments. Johnny Trout becomes ensnared by the book, and he loses his grip on reality as his transcription releases his inner demons. Simply put, Danielewski has created a tome that is truly meta- a maze of interconnected narrative with its own shifts, diversions and bewildering turns that often lead to the frustrating dead ends that plague any who enter. Even the formatting of the book is not straightforward, with its varying typeface, colors, text orientation and spacing.  House of Leaves is not an easy book to travel through, but it is certainly immersive and haunting for those who are willing to devote the time to digging through its depths.

Worth a Second Look

You Know You Want This - Kristen Roupenian

 When “Cat Person” appeared in 2018 in the New Yorker, Kristen Roupenian was immediately caught up in a fervor of critical attention.  Her short story resonated strongly with readers who clamored for more information about Roupenian and scoured for any other works she may have produced.  You Know You Want This, due for release in January 2019, addresses this demand by collecting eleven additional stories written by the popular author.  “Cat Person” remains the strongest of the lot, but this book contains some other strong entries as well. Roupenian seems most comfortable constructing the contemporary stories, like “Look at Your Game Girl” and “The Good Guy,” addressing themes of self-respect and miscommunication between the sexes.  She also experiments with some traditional forms of fairy tales, folklore, and the occult to a varying degree of success, as in “Scarred” and “The Mirror, the Bucket and the Thigh Bone.” Some readers may be put off by the eroticism and sexual violence contained in a few of the stories, but its inclusion is not excessive or gratuitous and has a purpose in terms of the thematic objectives.  You Know You Want This proves that Kristen Roupenian is not a one-hit author but an interesting and strong new voice for these times.

 

Thanks to Simon and Schuster and NetGalley for an ARC of this book in exchange for an objective review.

Would You Be Willing?

Race Me in a Lobster Suit - Kelly Mahon

Kelly Mahon obviously has a high tolerance for awkward interactions.  In her new book, Race Me in a Lobster Suit, she collects emails from her unique project that exposes how far people will go to make some quick money.  Mahon put up classified ads with outrageous requests for paid services and some of the responses she received led to longer conversations and intense negotiations. The acts that are agreed upon are at times simultaneously hilarious and depressing.  Some examples of requests include: participating in the titular race, acting as a fake fiancé, taking part in a nightmare reenactment, and dressing up snakes for a fashion show. Those who agreed to participate generally had an openness to adventure and a good sense of humor.  As Mahon increases the absurdity of the details involved in the activities, her respondents eventually realize it must be a joke or just stop responding.  What is truly amazing (and alarming) is how long some people keep believing in the ruse, and how little compensation they demand given the tasks assigned. Readers will enjoy this short collection of experiments, especially those who approach Race Me in a Lobster Suit with an appreciation for the nonsensical.

 

Thanks to Quirk Books and NetGalley for an ARC of this book in exchange for an objective review.