Ammie, Come Home – Barbara Michaels

Barbara Michaels is a prolific writer, having penned over 30 novels (some under her real name, Elizabeth Peters). Somehow her book  Ammie, Come Home found its way onto my tbr list, then shelf and I finally got around to reading it.

Published in 1968, Ammie, Come Home is an old-fashioned ghost story (emphasis on the old-fashioned.) It concerns Ruth, her 19-year-old niece, Sara (who is living with her while she attends college), Pat MacDougal (Sara’s professor and Ruth’s love interest) and Bruce, Sara’s boyfriend. Ruth and Sara live in a house they Ruth inherited from an aunt. It’s quite a famous house, one which causes Professor MacDougal to exclaim “Good God Almighty!” the first time he enters.

A seance kicks off the other-worldly events in Michaels’ novel. Then Ammie, Come Home plods along with all the requisite ghostly bells and whistles (moaning, doors opening and closing, cold air.) Perhaps I am jaded. No, I am definitely jaded because I didn’t find the book even remotely scary and no one likes a good horror story more than me.

It’s got me thinking though. What books have truly frightened me?  I’m going to have to do some thinking on that one. I’ll get back to you. In the meantime, what’s the scariest book you’ve ever read?

Meeting Evil – Thomas Berger

According to Jonathan Lethem, Thomas Berger is  “one of America’s three or four greatest living novelists.”  I’d never heard of him when I added Meeting Evil to my tbr list, then shelf – where it languished for several years before I fnally got around to reading it. 

Meeting Evil is the story of John Felton, a young real estate agent suffering through the downturn in the American economy. He’s married to Joanie, father to Melanie and Philip and his life is about to get very complicated.  It’s Monday morning when his doorbell rings. Standing there is Richie, a young man of John’s general age. His car has stalled in front of John’s house and Richie asks for assistance. What begins as a an act of good samaritanisim, quickly devolves into a harrowing crime spree – with John along for the ride.

I’ve never  read a book quite like Meeting Evil before. While sometimes John seemed ridiculously naive and stupid to me, the character of Richie is a creation of pure malevolence.  He’s dangerous and unpredictable. Before John even knows what has happened, he’s part prisoner and part co-conspirator in Richie’s road trip from hell.  Although John soon realizes the danger he is in, Richie turns out to be a master manipulator. At one point John even announces “We’re all in this together.”  Try as he might to escape (and he does try) John’s day just keeps getting worse.

Berger is a masterful writer. The book has a propulsive energy and is often wickedly funny. It’s quite unlike anything I’ve read before and I look forward to reading the second Berger title on my tbr shelf, Best Friends.

Falling Apart in One Piece – Stacy Morrison

Most of my friends will tell you that I am not really a self-help kinda gal. I read for pleasure – thus the name of this blog. I have to do a fair amount of reading-to-learn for my job, so my personal reading tends to lean towards the “lost-in-a-book” category. A nice balance of fluff and more challenging fare.

That said, there are so many memoirs out there which actually fall into the category of reading I like to do. Stacy Morrison’s book Falling Apart in One Piece ticked a whole bunch of  boxes for me: well-written, engaging, takes place in NYC, heroine who was relatable and, okay, yes, it just happened to be about the deterioration of a marriage…a subject that has been much on my mind these last few months.

Morrison was, for many years, a well-regarded magazine editor (Marie Claire, Modern Bride, Redbook) in New York City. An over-achiever, her career is hitting new heights just as her thirteen year relationship (ten of them married) to Chris starts to skid. The night he announces that their marriage is over is a shock to Morrison, although she is certainly able to trace its demise once she sets herself to the task.

Falling Apart in One Piece doesn’t gloss over any of the details. The stages of grief are all there in full view: shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression and loneliness and finally, hope.  Morrison is also quick to share the blame for what went wrong; she’s done the hard work and scratched beneath the surface of her own shortcomings as a partner.

 Falling Apart in One Piece isn’t a finger-pointing memoir. (In fact, the book is dedicated to Morrison’s son and Chris.) Morrison honestly tries to work through what went wrong, but it takes months of soul-searching to finally get to a place of hope. The beauty of her memoir is that she doesn’t ever make it feel like all it takes is the snap of a finger or a new man to fix what has gone horribly wrong. Her heartbreak is palpable:

Somehow I came back downstairs to finish a conversation I’d never wanted to start, a conversation I had never even had the foresight to dread. I sat on the sofa next to Chris, not touching him and barely even looking at him because I was so afraid, and I cried. He talked, and I talked. I reasoned and begged and pleaded and sobbed and wailed. I tried to manipulate. I tried to convince him I would die That Very Second if he didn’t realize the total wrongness of his thoughts. I didn’t yet understand that these tactics would no longer work, that I was already out of the equation.

Morrison is left with no choice but to pick up the shattered pieces of her life and move on: she has a baby, a new job, a house in need of many repairs and suddenly, she is all alone. Her memoir is full of moments of humour, insight, sadness and, ultimately, hope.

Anyone who has been set on this path  – whether or not they have chosen it themselves or had it chosen for them – will benefit from Morrison’s reflections. The end of a marriage is heart-wrenching, but as Morrison’s favourite poet, Rainer  Maria Rilke says: “The point is to live everything.”

 

Quiver – Holly Luhning

Saskatchewan native Holly Luhning  has written a compelling novel based on the shocking life of the Hungarian Countess, Elizabeth Bathory.  Bathory, who was born in 1560, earned her shocking reputation for having tortured and killed over 600 young girls so that she might bathe in their blood and thus retain her youthful beauty.

Luhning’s novel, Quiver, is a creepy crawly book that follows Danica, a young foresnic psychologist, who has moved to London with her artist boyfriend, Henry, to work at Stowmoor, a Victorian hospital for the criminally insane. Danica’s patient is Martin Foster, a young man incarcerated for murdering a young girl as a tribute to Bathory.

Danica’s fascination with Bathory grows when a woman from her past, the  beautiful and duplicitous Maria, comes back into her life. Maria, it seems, has discovered Bathory’s private diaries and as she translates them and begins sending the horrific snippets to Danica, Danica’s life starts to shift.

We’re all, to some degree at least, train-wreck fascinated by the heart of darkness.  Danica’s morbid curiousity about Bathory (and the translated diary entries are not for the weak-stomached, believe me!) is complicated by her attraction/repulsion to Maria. Maria is impossibly beautiful and crazy-cool. I didn’t trust her at all, but I could see Danica’s attraction. There was something sinister about her and always an undercurrent of sexual attraction, too.

Quiver races along like the best thrillers, but it also has something compelling to say about art and that 15 minutes of fame so many of us seem to desperately crave.

Calling Mr Lonely Hearts – Laura Benedict

I’ve tried to write a review for Calling Mr Lonely Hearts several times but every time I try to say what this book is about I get stuck. It could be summer brain; my mind just isn’t firing on all cylinders or it could be that I really don’t know what to say about Benedict’s book.

We first meet Roxanne, Del and Alice in the park. Roxanne is casting a spell or conjuring a spirit. It’s really nothing more than a childhood prank, but it has serious repercussions for the three friends. We don’t get too much more information about the girls at this stage except for the fact that Roxanne, clearly the daredevil, seduces Father Romero, a new young teacher at their parochial school.

Fast forward to the girls as adults: Roxanne is an unmarried artist of some note, Del is happily married to Jock  and stepmother to Wendy and Alice is married to Thad, a dentist on the cusp of leaving her. The past is just about to bite them all in the ass.

Here’s where I get stuck. Is this book a supernatural thriller, a revenge fantasy gone awry, a titillating sex romp? I dunno. There are elements of all these things many of the wrapped up in the character, Varick, a mysterious and dangerous man who visits the lives of all the women.

The book clicks along at a reasonable pace and the characters are interesting, but the elements of supernatural means they have no free will and so, ultimately, they’re just fish on a hook.

See, I really don’t know what to say about this book. ::sigh::

hello, darkness – Sandra Brown

For many years I subscribed to Entertainment Weekly and for a while Stephen King contributed a monthly column called ‘Pop of King’ where he rattled on about pop culture – movies and music and such. I love King; I love the way he writes and I love his ‘every man’ sensibilities when it comes to popular culture. Every year he did a book round up – sort of a top ten books list and I would avidly copy down the names of books I found interesting. That’s how Sandra Brown’s novel hello, darkness came to be on my tbr shelf. Actually, although the book was on my tbr list for a few years, I only just purchased it in May when I discovered it at the annual library book sale. I was familiar with Brown’s name, but hadn’t ever read anything by her.

hello, darkness is the story of reclusive radio host Paris Gibson. Every night she listens to people tell their tales of woe and plays them a song to cheer them up. And then she gets a call from a man called Valentino who tells her that his girlfriend had acted on some advice she’d given her and dumped him and now Paris is going to pay.  “I’m going to make you sorry that you gave her that advice,” he warns her. He vows to hold her, torture her and kill her within 72 hours.

The girl in question is the wild child daughter of a local judge and once the authorities know she’s missing, they bring in police psychologist Dean Malloy to help solve her disappearance and her connection to Valentino. This isn’t exactly good news for Paris. She and Dean have a history. You know what that means, right? All sorts of unfulfilled lust and crossed wires and missteps until they finally get it…um…together.

In the meantime, there are red herring subplots galore  to keep the reader guessing about Valentino’s true identity. It comes right down to the wire, and then all is resolved. I have no doubt that  fans of the genre (romantic suspense thriller) will be wildy satisfied with both the suspense and the romance. As for me – I was wondering why it made King’s top ten. Sure, it was a  decent thriller and Brown is a capable writer – but  it felt  formulaic for me.

Still, chuck it in your beach bag. It’ll kill a satisfying hour or two.

Go With Me – Castle Freeman Jr.

Lillian is a young woman who has recently moved to a small Vermont town. Early one morning, the town sheriff finds Lillian asleep in her car in the police station parking lot. She’s come for help. The town thug, Blackway, has been harrassing her; has, in fact, driven her boyfriend out of town and killed her cat. The sheriff’s advice is simple: go home.

Blackway is an enigmatic, altogether menacing, figure. The sheriff himself is afraid of him.

“You’re telling me you can’t do anything. You’re telling me I have to wait till he does something. till he gets to me, kills me, before you can do anything?”

“You could put it that way, I guess,” the sheriff said.

“How would you put it?”

“That way.”

The sheriff’s advice is to head over to the mill and find Scotty Cavanaugh because “he and Blackway have had dealings.” But Cavanaugh is not at the mill and instead Lillian solicits the help of the strange, quiet brute, Nate, and an old man named Lester to help her find and confront Blackway.

Go With Me is the strangest book I’ve read in a long time. It is both laugh-out-loud funny and strangely creepy. The book tracks Lillian and her small posse to various places where they might find Blackway, breaking the tension of their search with the commentary of the men at the mill who wonder – Greek chorus style –  at how it might all turn out.

Blackway, as it turns out, is not a man to be trifled with. He deserves his reputation. Lester is resourceful, though, and Nate “ain’t scared” and this slim book rockets along to its shocking climax.

I’d never heard of Castle Freeman Jr. before, but this book was well received and although it wasn’t really my cup of tea, it was weirdly compelling.

Love the One You’re With – Emily Giffin

Emily Giffin is really popular, I guess, but I’d never read her. I’m a huge consumer of chick flicks, but not much of a reader of chick lit. I tend to like my fiction a little grittier and heroines in these sorts of books almost always settle – at least in my view.

Not even a full year after she’s married upstanding and handsome lawyer, Andy, (who also happens to be the older brother of her best friend, Margot), Ellen runs into Leo crossing a busy Manhattan street. Leo is “the one who got away” although in this instance, it’s more like the one who fizzled away. Ellen is sent into a tailspin of memories and she indulges every one of them, glossing over how Leo was kind of a schmuck at the end of their relationship.

Okay – so far I’m with you Ellen. I mean, seriously, who hasn’t had the same sort of intense relationship – the one where you’re up all night…um…talking? But Ellen has moved on from all that. Now she’s a successful photographer and Andy, he’s a great guy. She hasn’t settled. At least she doesn’t think she’s settled until Leo comes crashing back into her life.

And that’s when my cell phone rang and I heard his voice. A voice I hadn’t hears in eight years and sixteen days.

“Was that really you? he asked me. His voice was even deeper than I remembered, but otherwise it was like stepping back in time. Like finishing a conversation only hours old.

“Yes,” I said.

Oh, Ellen. Don’t go down that road. But we all do. We all wonder about the might have beens and question the choices we make. Ellen’s marital bliss is about to get bumpy as she hides her reunion from her husband and best friend, and then makes all sorts of minor adjustments to the truth so she can sort through her feelings for Leo.

The truth, it turns out, is more complicated than it appears on the surface. And so is the first year of any marriage. When Ellen and Andy move to Atlanta to be closer to Andy’s family, sister Margot included, Ellen is further tested.

I’ll give Giffin props; Love the One You’re With isn’t sheer fluff because Ellen is a character who is deeply conflicted about her feelings even though she never doubts her love for her husband and the life they’re building together. The new improved Leo is worth a second look, but Ellen is also mature enough to know what the consequences of taking that leap of faith might be.

(Re)Making Love – Mary L. Tabor

Tabor has been a journalist, teacher, and business woman. She decided to add blogger to the list after her husband of 20 plus years announced that he wanted to live alone. Tabor rights her upside-down world by blogging about it. Having felt this blogging impulse myself and being closer to her age (60) than I am to my daughter’s age (14), I figured (Re)Making Love would be a worthy and interesting examination of singledom after a long relationship. Especially when the break comes at a certain point in a woman’s life. After all, who is going to consider dating again at 60!? Okay, or 50!?

Tabor’s blog turned memoir recounts the heartbroken days immediately following her husband’s departure. It spills the beans on property division, using your children as  a pseudo psychiatrist’s couch, online dating,   post-marital sex. With another man!  (Clearly though this was a possibility for Tabor; she’s incredibly attractive and doesn’t look  – from the jacket photo at least – a day over 40, even with her silver-gray hair.)

So I sat down with (Re)Making Love one Sunday afternoon – prepared to go on Tabor’s journey a la Eat, Pray, Love (which, yeah, okay, I didn’t like either – but at least I could follow it). Sadly, the book just didn’t do it for me. And I really, really, wanted to like it. I mean, I am sorta where Tabor was. I’m not quite as old; I’m not quite as well-off; my kids aren’t self-sufficient but I am looking ahead at a long, empty stretch of road which was once as crowded with traffic (hopes, companionship, sex, etc) as Tabor’s. I wanted to read the book and feel as though a kindred spirit was guiding me through the potholes.

In many places the book was strangely abstract, convoluted and difficult to understand, peppered with dreams that are meaningless to the reader because they have no context. It is peppered with references to chick flicks, fairy tales, recipes, the Obamas. It is meant to be Tabor’s journey of self-discovery, but despite her dalliances with post-marital romance and despite her son’s admonishment that she “move on. It’s time. It’s way over time” Tabor ends up with the very man who wanted to be alone. Okay, that may be her fairy tale ending, but it’s hard to buy into her happiness when D (as she calls him) is so much a non-entity. Why exactly did she want him back?

I understand that memoirs are someone’s personal story, but there has to be a reason for sharing it with the world. Despite the copious praise on the book’s jacket, I just ever settled in to Tabor’s grief or her journey. What makes her story worthy of sharing? I don’t know.

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

Once upon a time – for that is  how all stories should begin – there was a boy who lost his mother.

Thus begins John Connolly’s amazing story The Book of Lost Things. When I finally turned the last page of this book this morning, I felt that keen sense of satisfaction one feels when they have read an amazing book, a book you know you are going to recommend to everyone. I loved every minute of it.

David is just twelve when his mother dies. An only child, David is devoted to his mother and does everything in his power to keep her alive.

He prayed. He tried to be good, so that she would not be punished for his mistakes….He created a routine, and he tried to keep to that routine because he believed in part that his motger’s fate was linked to the actions he performed.

David is not able to save his mother however; she dies. Soon after, his father remarries and he and his new wife, Rose,  have another son, Georgie. David, still heart-broken over the loss of his mother, resents his father’s wife and his new brother.

This family drama plays against the backdrop of WW2. One night, after a fight with Rose, David escapes to the garden. From the sky, a German bomber falls and to escape, David slips into a crack in the swimming pool cum sunken garden. He finds himself, suddenly, in another world; a world of dark and twisted fairy tales.

I am making the book sound much simpler than it actually is. The Book of Lost Things is a coming-of-age-tale and a hero’s journey, a quest for truth and a horror story all rolled into one. Fairy tales, many familiar, are upended, revealing their slimey and rotten underbellies. David’s youth is slowly taken from him as he must fight, both alone and with companions, for his survival.

David begins his journey as a scared and self-involved adolescent, but as he makes his way towards the castle where the old king apparently has a ‘book of lost things’ which may have the answer to how David can get home, he matures and comes to understand certain truths. It’s an exciting  story; funny in places, creepy in others.

And like Dorothy’s journey to Oz, David soon comes to understand the value of what he has left behind. At journey’s end, he is  a changed person. I was profoundly moved by the book’s final pages.