Shouty Doris Interjects during… The Women in the Walls!

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Shouty Doris interjects

It’s been a while, but today Shouty Doris is back to interject during my review of The Women in the Walls by Amy Lukavics, a YA thriller that we received for review from Simon & Schuster Australia.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Lucy Acosta’s mother died when she was three. Growing up in a Victorian mansion in the middle of the woods with her cold, distant father, she explored the dark hallways of the estate with her cousin, Margaret. They’re inseparable—a family.  

When her aunt Penelope, the only mother she’s ever known, tragically disappears while walking in the woods surrounding their estate, Lucy finds herself devastated and alone. Margaret has been spending a lot of time in the attic. She claims she can hear her dead mother’s voice whispering from the walls. Emotionally shut out by her father, Lucy watches helplessly as her cousin’s sanity slowly unravels. But when she begins hearing voices herself, Lucy finds herself confronting an ancient and deadly legacy that has marked the women in her family for generations.

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Before we get into it I have to ask: Doris, where have you been for so long?

Shouty Doris interjects

Washing my hair.

For seven months?

Shouty Doris interjects

Yes.

But surely you couldn’t ha —

Shouty Doris interjects

Just get on with it Bruce.

Haven’t lost your charming personality, I see, Doris.  Right.  Let’s crack on.  Just a warning – there will be some spoilers in this review.    

I had high hopes for The Women in the Walls when I requested it for review.  The blurb sounded spooky and mysterious, the cover was creepy, with a hint of old-time menace.  I honestly thought that this would be a five-star read and something I would thoroughly relish.  But….

Shouty Doris interjects

It wasn’t.

Well, quite.  From the very first chapter I started to have misgivings about how creepy this book would turn out to be, mostly because from the very start it seemed that the author was having trouble getting a handle on her protagonist’s voice.  I was finding it hard to pick up from the dialogue, thoughts and actions of Lucy, the main character, just what kind of a person she was – what made her tick, what her strengths might be…in short, who she was going to be as a character.  But, I decided to press on regardless because I didn’t want to give up on the prospect of creepy voices in the walls.

Shouty Doris interjects

Well, that was a mistake.  

How so?

Shouty Doris interjects

The voice problem never gets any better.  It’s like the author decided to pick obvious, wooden dialogue for all the characters and just throw it at the page in the hope that it would create a spooky atmosphere.  Quite frankly, I would have been happy if the walls had collapsed on the lot of them by the end of chapter five.  Spoilt, selfish brats, all.  Even the adults.

You’ve got a point there, Doris.  None of the main characters – Lucy, her cousin Margaret, and Lucy’s father – were particularly likable and none were developed in any deep way.  We get told (through Lucy’s thought processes) about the various tragedies that have befallen each of them, but their behaviour toward each other is so cold and unlikely that I couldn’t muster up the motivation to care about what happened to any of them.  Yet still I pushed on, hoping for the atmosphere to take a turn for the creepy.

Shouty Doris interjects

Strike two!  The author doesn’t know anything about creepy.  There’s no suspense, no atmosphere, no tension; just a bunch of whinging young girls bickering and some supposedly spooky happenings plucked out of thin air and slapped down in front of us with no build up.  I think the author was going for shock value rather than bothering to craft a story that felt suspenseful.  It’s like bringing a bag of salt and vinegar chips to a party – people will be disgusted on first seeing them, but it won’t leave a lasting impression (luckily for you.  Who brings salt and vinegar chips to a party?)

I’d have to agree, Doris.  I was hoping for this to be a real psychological thriller, with voices in the walls causing madness and mayhem to ensue.  It does ensue, admittedly, but the execution is so ham-fisted and unsubtle that any sense of tension is completely lost.  There are a couple of violent and outwardly gruesome scenes – Margaret’s death being one of them – that the author describes in detail and then keeps bringing up, as if to try and raise the scare factor, but the narration and plot arc are so clumsy and signposted that these scenes feel like they’ve been included simply to add a bit of gore to the book.

There were also parts of the narration that made absolutely no sense.  My particular favourite of these is Lucy noting, after Margaret’s brutal and frankly dubious (according to the laws of physics) method of suicide – she throws herself out of a window, landing on a spiked fence, causing her to be impaled through both body and head, in case you’re wondering – that she had no idea why Margaret did what she did.

Shouty Doris interjects

HA!! Yes, that had me chuckling a bit too.  No idea why she did what she did? Really, girly? So the inappropriate giggling in the middle of the night, the claim about hearing voices of dead relatives, the scribbling out her mother’s face in every photograph in the house, the waking to find her standing over you with scissors, the dissection of a rat, the previous gruesome suicide of another member of the household ….none of this gave you a hint that Margaret was unhinged and might do something even more unexpected? Like launch herself out of an unfastened window onto a fence worthy of Vlad the Impaler’s summer home?

Exactly.  That, and the intermittent introspection about “Did I ever really know *Margaret/Penelope/My Father/insert name of character here* at all?” felt stilted and pedestrian and did nothing to add any depth or realism to Lucy as a character.

I think the author had some good ideas for a truly creepy story here, but the execution is amateurish.  There are supposedly interweaving plotlines involving magic, the disappearance of Margaret’s mother and the involvement of a country club, but the author couldn’t seem to bring these together in a coherent, suspenseful story.  Every time I felt any kind of suspense building, the author would cut to a scene that allowed the suspense to deflate.  The parties with the country club were a big culprit here.  I mean, her aunt has disappeared, her cousin has killed herself and Lucy is quite content to hang out with her father’s country club buddies?

Shouty Doris interjects

I don’t know why you bothered to finish it.

Weeeellll.  I didn’t.  I pushed on for 227 pages and then I just couldn’t face wading through any more stilted, disconnected events narrated by a bitchy, self-centred teen.  It’s sort of my two-fingered salute to the book for not being what I expected.

Shouty Doris interjects

I’m sure the author is cut to the bone that you read seven eighths of the book and then put it down in protest.

Yeah, yeah.  I just honestly kept hoping it would get better.

Shouty Doris interjects

Let that be a lesson to you, boyo.  Now, I have to go and wash my hair.

But didn’t you just wa —

Shouty Doris interjects

Get on with it.

Right.

In case you haven’t picked up on my mood yet, I was disappointed with this one, but at least I know I gave it every chance.  Have you read The Women in the Walls?  What did you think?

Until next time,

Bruce

The Easy Way Out: An Adult Fiction Read-it-if Review…

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read it if NEW BUTTON

Before I kick off, I should probably mention that WordPress kindly reminded me that it was my four-year blogiversary a few days ago, so have a celebratory snack on me, if you like.

Today’s book is one that will inspire conversation, get your little grey cells pumping and place you in an ethical conundrum from which there may be no return.  It’s also an enjoyable read.  I speak of The Easy Way Out by Stephen Amsterdam, which we received from Hachette Australia for review.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

If you could help someone in pain, would you?

Evan is a nurse, a suicide assistant. His job is legal . . . just. He’s the one at the hospital who hands out the last drink to those who ask for it.

Evan’s friends don’t know what he does during the day. His mother, Viv, doesn’t know what he’s up to at night. And his supervisor suspects there may be trouble ahead.

As he helps one patient after another die, Evan pushes against legality, his own morality and the best intentions of those closest to him, discovering that his own path will be neither quick nor painless.

He knows what he has to do.

In this powerful novel, award-winning author Steven Amsterdam challenges readers to face the most taboo and heartbreaking of dilemmas. Would you help someone end their life?

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Read it if:

* you think George R. R. Martin got it right and prefer a book where nearly everyone dies by the end

*you suspect you’ve got the right sort of temperament, character and belief system to fill the role of a nurse in the assisted-dying unit

*you’re looking for a book that the people in your book club will actually read – instead of pretend to read

*you like books about big issues that don’t rely on preachiness or shock tactics to present their message

This isn’t the first novel featuring assisted dying (or euthanasia or suicide or whatever you want to call it) I’ve read, but Amsterdam impressed me here with the subtle way in which the topic has been approached.  That might seem like an odd statement to make – a book that plainly states that it’s about assisted dying might hardly be deemed to be “subtle” – but Amsterdam has done a brilliant job of laying out many of the complexities, be they legal, ethical or practical, that surround the idea of assisted dying and allowing the reader to absorb these without steering the discourse in a particular direction.

Without making it obvious, the author has included all types of end-of-life choices throughout the novel, including suicide of the conventional type (if we can call it that), the “pre-planned” type of assisted dying that features a clear end-of-life directive, the “look the other way” sort of medically assisted dying that goes on in hospitals all the time for those who are terminally ill and in pain, and the “legally sanctioned” assisted dying of which Evan’s job is a key part.  Simply by including a wide range of characters whose deaths impact on the story, Amsterdam has neatly thrown out the question to both advocates and those opposing an individual’s right to choose their death as to how this concept can be managed realistically.

If you’re the sort of person who has strong views on whether or not an individual should have the right to choose the manner and time of their death, this book is going to provide plenty of fodder for your thought-processes.  Should a mentally ill or socially isolated person have the same access to end-of-life processes as a terminally ill person, for instance?  Should a family’s objections to an end-of-life choice have a bearing on the access to assisted death of the person choosing to die?  What should happen if the person has made a clear choice but is physically unable to carry it out by the time the legal processes are finalised?  I certainly don’t have the answers, but I’m glad that this book has raised these questions (and more!) for pondering.

I should also point out the ending is satisfyingly ambiguous also, which is a clever touch.

Apart from being an “issues” book, The Easy Way Out is also an absorbing and highly readable novel.  Depending on how deeply you want to engage with the ethical content of the story, the book could certainly be read as a sort of grown-up “coming of age” novel that just happens to feature a main character in a highly unusual job.  Evan, the protagonist, does an awful lot of growing and soul-searching throughout the novel as things he thought were clear in his mind become muddied by one life experience or another.  His relationships, family history and work environment all force him to re-evaluate things he thought were obvious, and as his situation changes, so too does his ability to be sure of his decisions.  I particularly liked the authenticity of Evan as a character and the fact that he sits in that hazy position in which most of us have found ourselves at one time or another – that of being completely sure of something until we aren’t – and the absolute upheaval that this can cause on a personal level.

If you’re looking for a reasonably quick read that also provides some food for thought and a cast of fascinating characters, I’d definitely recommend taking The Easy Way Out…off the shelf and giving it a go.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

 

Devilishly Thought-Provoking Adult Fiction: The Summer that Melted Everything

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the summer that melted everthing

Today’s book is that most elusive of creatures – literary fiction that is eminently readable and skilfully demonstrates how reality and our perceptions of reality can merge in ways that result in unexpected personal consequences.  The Summer That Melted Everything is Tiffany McDaniel’s debut novel and an impressive little number it is.  We received a copy from Scribe Australia for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Fielding Bliss has never forgotten the summer of 1984: the year a heat wave scorched Breathed, Ohio. The year he became friends with the devil.

Sal seems to appear out of nowhere – a bruised and tattered thirteen-year-old boy claiming to be the devil himself answering an invitation. Fielding Bliss, the son of a local prosecutor, brings him home where he’s welcomed into the Bliss family, assuming he’s a runaway from a nearby farm town.

When word spreads that the devil has come to Breathed, not everyone is happy to welcome this self-proclaimed fallen angel. Murmurs follow him and tensions rise, along with the temperatures as an unbearable heat wave rolls into town right along with him. As strange accidents start to occur, riled by the feverish heat, some in the town start to believe that Sal is exactly who he claims to be. While the Bliss family wrestles with their own personal demons, a fanatic drives the town to the brink of a catastrophe that will change this sleepy Ohio backwater forever.

While this is by no means a book that’s going to leave you strolling away whistling once you put it down, there is something to be said for storytelling that explores the baser aspects of human existence without casting any particular person as “the monster”.  McDaniel has produced an extremely well-crafted novel for a first-timer, and if you are prepared to delve into a world in which nobody’s flaws are glossed over, then I would highly recommend you take a look at The Summer That Melted Everything.

The book is narrated by Fielding Bliss and alternates between a particularly memorable summer of 1984 and Fielding’s moribund situation in the present.  The story begins with a style that borders on magical realism, with larger-than-life, quirky characters and the unexpected arrival of a young boy whose other-wordliness seems to seep from his very pores.  As the book goes on, it becomes apparent that all is not as it seems, although the “truth” of the matter does turn out to be at least as strange as the fiction.  Sal, as a thirteen year old boy, isn’t a particularly authentic character, being too wise for words in some instances, yet remains incredibly endearing and vulnerable in spite of his apparently redoubtable exterior.  Fielding is a much more genuine portrayal of a young boy, although his narration as an elderly man is quite harrowing at times.  The story is rounded out with Grand, Fielding’s older brother and golden boy of the town, his agoraphobic mother, criminal lawyer father, diminutive, angry and zealous neighbour (named, interestingly enough, Elohim), and a collection of small-town folk whose secrets and personal shames are variously brought to light throughout the story.

By the end of the novel, most of the “magic” of the story has fallen away and the reader is left with the stark and disturbing aftermath of unimaginable actions driven by a town’s collective imaginings.  As I mentioned earlier, the book won’t leave you with an uplifted spirit and the desire to prance along the street, but neither does it employ gratuitous shock tactics simply to provide an action-packed finale. While the content toward the end is reasonably challenging, it certainly leaves the reader with plenty to ponder over and this pondering is aided by the treacle-slow pace of the writing, which brilliantly reflects the apparent stopping of time that occurs during a prolonged heatwave.

The only problem I had with the book is that although it is set mostly in 1984, the characters and dialogue had me more in mind of the 1950s.  This may have been deliberate on the part of the author, and to be honest, it doesn’t make that much of a difference to the story, but it was an interesting side-effect nonetheless.

We highly recommend The Summer That Melted Everything to readers who are looking for realistic literary fiction with a masterfully constructed fantastical streak.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Morgue: A Nonfiction GSQ Review

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It’s time to let the psyche triplets out of the bag again for a Good, Sad and Quirky review of a book about death, justice and medical science.  We received a copy of Morgue: A Life in Death by Vincent DiMaio and Ron Franscell from the publisher via Netgalley.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

In this clear-eyed, gritty, and enthralling narrative, Dr. Vincent Di Maio and veteran crime writer Ron Franscell guide us behind the morgue doors to tell a fascinating life story through the cases that have made Di Maio famous-from the exhumation of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald to the complex issues in the shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.

Beginning with his street-smart Italian origins in Brooklyn, the book spans 40 years of work and more than 9,000 autopsies, and Di Maio’s eventual rise into the pantheon of forensic scientists. One of the country’s most methodical and intuitive criminal pathologists will dissect himself, maintaining a nearly continuous flow of suspenseful stories, revealing anecdotes, and enough macabre insider details to rivet the most fervent crime fans.

morgue

The Good

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There are a number of highly absorbing cases discussed in Morgue, both high profile, such as the death of Trayvon Martin, and otherwise. The interesting thing about this book in particular is that it addresses issues of forensic science as it relates to the law in the USA.  While I have read other books about life as a coroner or medical examiner (chiefly Working Stiff by Judy Melinek and Spoiler Alert: You’re Gonna Die by Kortanny Finn), none have explored how forensic evidence – and particularly, conflicting expert opinions about forensic evidence – can influence whether or not a person is convicted of a crime.  The issues raised in the book regarding whether justice is actually done or simply seen to be done, can be uncomfortable to read about at times, but raises some heartily thought-provoking gristle on which to ruminate.  The cases covered include suicides, murders, serial murders and historical murders and each is discussed in the context of the author’s involvement in presenting evidence at trial or to further a case.

The Sad

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I did find that the author had a tendency to come across as a bit of a Judgey McJudgerson in parts of the book.  He doesn’t seem the type to suffer fools (or indeed anyone who knows less than he does on the subject of forensic
medicine) gladly and is scathing in his view of so-called “armchair forensic detectives” who speculate on high profile cases with only the education of CSI type shows under their belts.  He also makes plain his views on media and lobbyists using particular deaths, such as that of Trayvon Martin, to advance certain political or social causes, which, depending on which side of the fence you sit in these matters, could turn you off a bit.

It is while espousing such opinions that the author dips into that strange American cultural phenomenon that allows one to talk oneself up and proudly declare how learned and experienced one is.  I have no doubt that the author is indeed as famous and influential in the forensic sphere as he claims, but as America seems to be the only place where it’s socially acceptable to blow one’s own trumpet (loudly and at great length), readers from outside that great nation might find these parts a little bit…American.

There is also one chapter in particular wherein the author goes into great detail about his family background in forensics.  While no doubt extremely important to the author, I found this part rather tedious.

The Quirky

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Along with the high profile cases previously mentioned, there are some completely unexpected inclusions hiding in this tome.  The exhumation of Lee Harvey Oswald to reassure (or possibly inflame) conspiracy theorists that the corpse buried in Mr Oswald’s plot was, in fact, Lee Harvey Oswald is one of these.  As is the utterly bizarre final chapter in which the author is called upon to speculate on the death of Vincent Van Gogh.  Odd.

Potential readers might also like to know that while some of the cases go into very little gory detail – such as the two cases of serial child murder – others are shockingly graphic.  One such, detailing the gruesome murder of three young boys**, described the deaths and injuries in incredible detail – for reasons relating to the conflicting forensic opinions explained later in the piece – and I wasn’t quite prepared for this level of illustrative explanation.  You have been warned.

Despite some issues with the narrative style of the author that lessened my enjoyment of parts of this book, the majority of the cases and the information provided is deeply engaging and will greatly appeal to those “armchair forensic detectives” that the author so disdains.  If you have any interest at all in forensic medicine and how forensic evidence can make or break (or manipulate!) criminal trials, then I would definitely recommend this book to you.

**Spoiler Alert!**

So I have a little question about one of the cases.  I apologise if I’ve missed the answer in the book, but if anyone has read it and can fill me in, it would be great!

 In the graphic child murder case mentioned above, the author presents his opinion that the wounds that the original examiner believed were made by a serrated weapon were actually made by animals, possibly after the boys’ deaths.  At the same time, he agrees with the opinion that one of the boys was dead before he went into the water.  So….if the wounds that were originally presumed to have been made by a blade, leading to the young lad bleeding out and dying BEFORE he went in the water, were actually potentially made AFTER he went in the water…or at least, after he had already died…then what was it that killed that particular boy??

Until next time,

Bruce

A Ripping, YA Read-it-if Review: Boo…

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Today’s Read-it-if Review book, I am pleased to announce, has made it onto both my “Top Books of 2015 (so far)” list (which currently only has two other listings) as well as….drum roll please….my Goodreads Favourites list!

*spontaneous applause*

I should probably warn you then that this review WILL include gushing praise.

Today’s book is Boo by Neil Smith. I received a copy of this YA book – which I think is actually adult fiction cleverly disguised as YA – from the publishers via Netgalley. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

When Oliver “Boo” Dalrymple wakes up in heaven, the eighth-grade science geek thinks he died of a heart defect at his school. But soon after arriving in this hereafter reserved for dead thirteen-year-olds, Boo discovers he’s a ‘gommer’, a kid who was murdered. What’s more, his killer may also be in heaven. With help from the volatile Johnny, a classmate killed at the same school, Boo sets out to track down the mysterious Gunboy who cut short both their lives. In a heartrending story written to his beloved parents, the odd but endearing Boo relates his astonishing heavenly adventures as he tests the limits of friendship, learns about forgiveness and, finally, makes peace with the boy he once was and the boy he can now be.

boo cover one

Read it if:

*you like books that feature diverse characters. Even if they’re dead.

*you are either (a) energised or (b) repulsed by the thought of being stuck as a 13-year-old in the afterlife

*you’ve ever been part of a chanting mob

*you like nothing more than discovering something curious turning up in an unexpected place

Now on to the gushing praise!

I have not experienced the kind of satisfaction that I felt on finishing Boo in a long, long time. Here, thought I, is a perfectly constructed tale that is expertly paced, filled with authentic characters, and can be appreciated by those well beyond the YA age-range at which it is marketed. I picked up Boo thinking it would be a reasonably quirky take on the paranormal, life-after-death plot that I generally enjoy, but Smith has created much more than just a fun, creative read here.

For a start, the afterlife that he has created is both expansive and perfectly contained, as well as being pretty original. For in the afterlife in which Boo finds himself, all the residents are 13 years old – the age at which they died. Some died years ago and some are “newborns” like Boo, but all can expect (barring a few exceptional cases) to hang around “Town” as they call it for approximately 50 years, before disappearing into Zig-knows-where. The concept of “Town” reminded me strongly of Neal Shusterman’s afterlife in the Skinjacker series that begins with Everlost. While the similarities are there, Smith’s afterlife doesn’t have the menacing, mysterious undertones of Shusterman’s post-death experience, and feels like a place in which all things have the potential to be made right.

The characters here are diverse (in ethnicity, ability and personality) and felt particularly authentic to me as an adult reader. All of the four main characters have their flaws but come across as complex and layered. I admit to having a soft spot for Esther, the young lass with dwarfism who is applying to be a do-gooder but can sling a stinging one-liner with the best of them. Boo is also a delightful narrator and it didn’t take long for me to relax into his easy narration.

The highlight of the story for me was the depth to which Smith is prepared to take young readers as the narrative unfolds and the events surrounding their untimely deaths are brought to light in Boo and Johnny’s memories. There are twists in this tale, but it didn’t feel like they were thrown in to shock, but to provoke thought from the reader. As these plot twists are revealed I was more and more impressed with the way the author constructed the story. This could have so easily been a two-dimensional, didactic tale in which certain characters were labelled goodies and baddies, but Smith has taken his characters far more seriously than that. The sensitivity with which the boys’ story is rendered was simply a joy to behold.

If you’re looking for a YA read that is, in my opinion, above the common herd, then you should make a point to search out Boo. I will certainly be making it my mission to collect it in print for my shelf.

Until next time,

Bruce

A YA (ish) Read-it-if Review: Hyacinth Girls…

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Welcome to a Read-it-if review for a book that has been on my Netgalley shelf for months and months and months that I’ve only just managed to get to.  Hyacinth Girls by Lauren Frankel, like The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, is one that I put off and put off because its publication date was so far off, only to find that I should have picked it up sooner because it is well worth chatting about.

Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Thirteen year old Callie is accused of bullying at school, but Rebecca knows the gentle girl she’s raised must be innocent. After Callie is exonerated, she begins to receive threatening notes from the girl who accused her, and as these notes become desperate, Rebecca feels compelled to intervene. As she tries to save this unbalanced girl, Rebecca remembers her own intense betrayals and best-friendships as a teenager, when her failure to understand those closest to her led to tragedy. She’ll do anything to make this story end differently. But Rebecca doesn’t understand what’s happening or who is truly a victim, and now Callie is in terrible danger.

This raw and beautiful story about the intensity of adolescent emotions and the complex identity of a teenage girl looks unflinchingly at how cruelty exists in all of us, and how our worst impulses can estrange us from ourselves – or even save us.

hyacinth girls

Read it if:

*you’ve ever been given a demeaning nickname

*you like adult fiction that is cleverly disguised as young adult fiction

*you’ve been clamouring for a book featuring young people and bullying, in which the characters are more than stereotypical, paper-thin, mean girls, and the adults have backstories too

Right off the bat, I have to acknowledge how unexpectedly noteworthy I found this story to be. When I flicked back to the blurb and found out that this was a “teen bullying” story I was preparing myself for the run-of-the-mill, mean girls scenario with cliques and rich bitches and everything we’ve seen before in a thousand movies and books. While the blurb gives the indication that this is a YA book, I think that this is actually properly realised adult fiction that features young characters and bullying, but focuses on deeper explorations of the characters, their motivations and relationships. [Interjection: Yes, I realise YA is “proper fiction” too, so no need to send the hate mail just yet]. I suspect that adult readers will get just as much out of this, if not more, than their teenaged counterparts and that is the mark of a good book all-round.

Hyacinth Girls is told in alternating points of view, beginning with that of Rebecca, who has become the guardian of teenager Callie after her mother, Joyce (Rebecca’s childhood best friend), was killed in an accident and her father committed suicide. The early parts of the story focus on Rebecca’s shock and denial when informed that Callie has been involved in serious bullying of a classmate. The story moves back and forth between the present day, as Rebecca tries her darnedest to clear Callie’s name, and Rebecca’s childhood with Joyce, her older cousin and his girlfriend.

About halfway through the book, the story switches to Callie’s point of view and the reader becomes privy to the “other side of the story” as it were. It isn’t too hard to see that Rebecca suffers from a sort of functional blindness toward Callie’s alleged behaviour and sharp readers will be pleased to note that their suspicions are confirmed in Callie’s telling of the story. Toward the end of the book, the perspectives change again as events come to a head and secrets and lies come back to haunt all the characters.

What I most appreciated about this story is that the characters are all deeply fleshed out. Each character has flaws and a back story and motives that are understandable and familiar, but not stereotypical. The book really explores the concepts of error and redemption through characters who are judged outwardly by their actions and characters for whom the judgement (and damnation) is self-wrought and internal. Hyacinth Girls manages to set itself apart from the crowd of “seen-it-all-before” books on bullying to really explore the people who engage in it, the people who fight against it and the people who unwittingly support it. I particularly appreciated the realistic fallout (or lack thereof) at the very end of the book, when the reader gets to reflect on the tumultuous events of the story and their impact on the lives of the characters in the context of a wider society of those who don’t have a personal stake in the lives of these particular young people.

Overall I think that aside from being a “bullying” book, Hyacinth Girls is just a really absorbing read.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

A Super-Spooky, Adult Fiction GSQ Review: Suicide Forest…

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imageAre you sitting comfortably? Got the lights on? Wearing undies with reinforced gussets? Then you’re all set for today’s jaunt into the particularly creepy, horror novel set in Japan, Suicide Forest by Jeremy Bates. I received a copy of this one from the author for review and it certainly lived up to the series tagline “The World’s Scariest Places”.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Just outside of Tokyo lies Aokigahara, a vast forest and one of the most beautiful wilderness areas in Japan…and also the most infamous spot to commit suicide in the world. Legend has it that the spirits of those many suicides are still roaming, haunting deep in the ancient woods.

When bad weather prevents a group of friends from climbing neighboring Mt. Fuji, they decide to spend the night camping in Aokigahara. But they get more than they bargained for when one of them is found hanged in the morning—and they realize there might be some truth to the legends after all.

suicide forest 2The Good

Bates has done a brilliant job here of capturing the natural spine-tingliness of a place in which many have died by theirimage own hand.  The multiple death factor, coupled with the organic spookiness of dark, ancient woodland certainly provide the perfect setting for an unwitting set of hikers to experience nefarious doings. The best parts of this book are the slow build to the really terror-ridden parts of the story, and the dramatic twist toward the end of the book. For the straight horror fan, this book has everything – there’s gore and violence, ghosts, suspicion amongst the group, a potential stalker, and an ever-present, unseen menace hovering over the whole shebang.

Oh, and it’s set against the beautiful backdrop of Mt Fuji.

The Sad

There were only a few annoying niggles in this tome from my point of view, and these generally had sorted themselves out by two-thirds of the way through. Initially, the antics of the main character group had me thinking that I’d imageaccidentally picked up a schlock-horror book for the YA set, as none of the group seemed to be able to act (or think) like an adult. The childish egging on and teasing by some members of the group to convince others to continue further into the forest seemed very YA-like, but more so was the way in which the characters caved in to this teasing. Is this a collection of Marty McFly wannabes, I thought, who lose all sense of reason when someone calls them yellow? It seemed to me that if I didn’t want to go hiking in a suicide forest, being called a pussy would be unlikely to change my mind. Again, this was a small but persistent annoyance during the first half of the book.

Another niggle was the character of John Scott, who appears as a hanger-on and generally brash, buffoon. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with the writing of the character, I just found him to be a pain in the arse to read.

Finally, I had one or two small issues with the plot of the book, particularly when it becomes clear that the group is completely lost and have spent much longer than expected in the forest. This mainly centred around the fact that there were people on the outside who knew where they were (such as their driver Honda and the wife of one of the group) and it seems strange to me that these people wouldn’t have raised the alarm when they didn’t turn up as expected. This is one of those times when I fear I was being too logical though – horror wouldn’t be horror if the pretty girl didn’t descend into the lightless basement on her own now, would it?

The Quirky

There is quite a bit of unexpectedness in this book that raises the level of excitement and interest in the story. First off, imagethe fact that Aokigahara exists at all is pretty quirky, as is the range of opinions held about it by the Japanese characters in the book. These range from general indifference through morbid curiosity to utter terror. The actions of “the suicides” as they are referred to, such as leaving makeshift gravesites and ribbons to mark their places, are an interesting psychological piece that helps both group and reader to connect with the sense that there may be more than just possessions left behind in the forest.

The story also has a fantastic blend of straight, atmospheric, supernatural horror and visceral, violent, injurious horror – I’m generally not a fan of plain violent bloodbaths, and sometimes a plain ghost story can get a bit predictable, so Bates has created a nice balance here that kept me in throes of terror right to the end.

The twist in the tail of the tale certainly took me by surprise, but Bates has gone even further by extending the story of the survivors after their escape from the forest. Just when I thought all the creepiness had crept its last, one final jab made its way under my carefully placed headgear. So all in all, there’s a lot going on in this tale and it will certainly keep you guessing until at least the second-last page.

Overall, I enjoyed this book very much. “Enjoyed” in the sense that it completely freaked me out and I had to sleep with the light on, grasping one of Mad Martha’s dreadlocks for comfort. I will not deny that I even emitted a little scream when, after having put the book down two-thirds of the way through for the night, the dog snuck into the room, giving the impression that the door was opening on its own. Such is the effect the story had on me.

Recommended for those who want a pervasive and memorable scare.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

The Pause: A YA, GSQ Review…

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I’d like to extend a warm welcome to you and your psyche and I’m happy that you’re here today to join me and my psyche as we take a look at a book that is both timely and illuminating for the YA market. I speak of The Pause by John Larkin, an Australian story that hits upon the simultaneously expansive and reductive nature of time and thought in a hugely relevant way for young people who may be finding the everyday goings-on of life too much to bear. I received a digital copy of this title from the publisher via Netgalley.

From Goodreads:

Declan seems to have it all: a family that loves him, friends he’s known for years, a beautiful girlfriend he would go to the ends of the earth for. But there’s something in Declan’s past that just won’t go away, that pokes and scratches at his thoughts when he’s at his most vulnerable. Declan feels as if nothing will take away that pain that he has buried deep inside for so long. So he makes the only decision he thinks he has left: the decision to end it all. Or does he? As the train approaches and Declan teeters at the edge of the platform, two versions of his life are revealed. In one, Declan watches as his body is destroyed and the lives of those who loved him unravel. In the other, Declan pauses before he jumps. And this makes all the difference. One moment. One pause. One whole new life.

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The Good

imageThis book is based upon an incredibly simple, yet vitally important concept: that when it comes to mental illness and decisions made when not in one’s right mind, a moment can make all the difference. Undeniably, this is something that young people, with their still-developing brains and lack of life experience, can find difficult to grasp and it is the key to overcoming the feelings of desperation that can lead to an individual making a tragic and irreversible decision. Larkin has done a great service here in addressing that important technique for staving off poor decision-making when under the influence of depression or anxiety – just wait a moment. Okay? Now wait for five minutes. Great. Now another five.   If we can extend those pauses out just enough, chances are the emotions will change, the pressure will pass and there is now a window of opportunity for help to be sought and given.

Apart from the general premise on which the book is based, Larkin has done a fantastic job of creating a main character that is, in a sense, an everyman, albeit a reasonably well-off and entitled everyman. Declan is a pretty ordinary teenager who is driven to what he does after the loss of what – in the moment – he believes is his true love. To an adult reader this might seem a bit over the top, but I think Larkin has pitched this just right for reaching a younger audience, for whom events such as this really do seem like the end of the world.

The Sad

imageI did find the tone of the writing to be a little didactic at times. After introducing the pivotal decision that Declan makes early in the narrative, the story splits into a hypothetical timeline in which Declan’s story is played out, with some interjections from the Declan who didn’t Pause (essentially, Declan the dead). These interjections are good reminders to the reader, but are of the “Isn’t Declan’s life going well? Oh wait, it’s not, he’s really dead” variety which seemed a little too crudely executed for my tastes.

While I did generally think Declan was a likeable and relatable character there were a few events in the book that made me dislike him, and thus reduced my sympathy for him considerably. Firstly, his mum is a bit of a self-righteous pill who spends pretty much the whole book being rude and dismissive to her husband, while encouraging her son to do the same. Then about halfway through the book , there is a scene in which Declan complains about the overseas holidays that his father makes them go on. It was at this point that I actually said out loud (to a few odd sideways glances) “Oh you don’t like going on a free annual overseas holiday? Allow me to call you a waaaambulance! Would you like some cheese with that (white) whine?”

Needless to say, it did shift my perspective on Declan away from “suffering teen who needs care and assistance” and toward “entitled North Shore wanker who needs a good kick up the arse”.

The Quirky

imageThere are two things that this book does that sets it apart from other books about teens getting over mental health issues. Firstly, it projects Declan’s hypothetical timestream way into the future. The imagined storyline doesn’t just end with Declan getting over the issues that caused his breakdown and (possible) suicide, but pushes things out even further to hypothetical-Declan in his 20s. I found this really original as it gives a sense of how issues from around the time of his mental breakdown affect his life as an adult.

The other unusual thing that this book does, compared with others of its ilk, is address the issues that the adults in Declan’s life are having that contribute in part to Declan’s breakdown and the way in which he recovers. This allowed for growth from a lot of the characters in the book, rather than just the main character, which is often the case with YA books generally.

All in all, I felt that this is an important read for those in the target age bracket. While I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would, and found some of the events a bit contrived, I did appreciate the originality of the format and concept and I think Larkin has produced a very readable narrative that is going to be a hugely helpful contribution as a conversation starter about mental health and suicide for young people and those who work with them.

If you are a teen or new adult, I would recommend reading it and passing it on to your friends. If you are an adult, I would recommend reading it and passing it on to your young people.

Until next time,

Bruce

Mondays are for Murder: The Norfolk Mystery…

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Welcome to another Mondays are for Murder feature. I feel I must apologise for perhaps leading some of you up the garden path.  You see I mentioned in my last MafM feature that I would be featuring Dorothy L. Sayers work this time around.  Well, I did try. I picked up Whose Body? and tried to wade through it alongside Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, but I just couldn’t do it.  I don’t know whether it was the writing, the character or my mood at the time (or a combination of all three) but I quickly tired of Lord Peter (who, let’s face it, is no Poirot or Marple) and made an executive decision to move on.  Sorry.

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So instead, today I have the first in Ian Sansom’s “County Guides” series, The Norfolk Mystery.  I’ve had my eye on this one for a while and I finally found it at our new library so was spared the expense of buying it. Which turned out to be quite a spectacular turn of good luck, as you will discover. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

In The Norfolk Mystery, the first in the County Guides series, we meet Swanton Morley. Eccentric, autodidact – the ‘People’s Professor.’ Morley plans to write a series of guides to the counties of England. He employs a young assistant, Stephen Sefton, veteran of the Spanish Civil War, and together with Morley’s daughter, Miriam, they set off through Norfolk, where their sightseeing tour quickly turns into a murder investigation.

As Morley confronts the conventions of class, education and politics in 1930s England, as Sefton flees his memories of the war, and as Miriam seeks romance, join them on their first adventure into the dark heart of England.  When Morley’s map leads to mystery, no one is above suspicion!

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I feel I should shed more light on the above blurb by mentioning that on arrival in their first port-of-call in Norfolk, to peruse a church of some significance, Sefton and Morley are greeted by a duo of upset ladies and are shown to the rectory, in which hangs the lifeless body of the village vicar.  I’m not entirely sure why the blurb is so obtuse about the central plot point, but consider yourself enlightened.

The Usual Suspects:

For all intents and purposes, the vicar’s death appears to be a suicide so until Morley mentions the possibility of murder, nobody had actually considered it.  Immediately upon mentioning murder, Morley and Sefton become chief suspects, being strangers who have conveniently turned up out of nowhere and happen to have stumbled upon a not-very-suspicious death.  When Morley and Sefton take up the potential case however, a host of village regulars come into play – the odious local professor, the village doctor, and various wives and barfolk who wish to keep themselves to themselves.

The Hunt for the Murderer/s:

Again, since there is no official cause to suspect that the vicar’s death is murder, the investigation is kept somewhat on the down-low by Morley and Sefton, who conduct their interrogations through the veil of polite inquiry and socially-sanctioned conversation.  Suffice to say, this is one murder-mystery the likes of which I have never encountered.

Overall Rating:

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Two poison bottles for an abundance of unnecessary confusion and delay

In detailing some important point during the investigation, Morley notes that for most suicides, if one were to detail one’s thought processes, one might say “I would not have committed suicide, but for (insert situation here)”.  For example, “I would not have committed suicide, but for the fact that I went bankrupt” or whatever.  I feel it is appropriate to comment in the same vein on my enjoyment of this book.  So here goes:

I would have enjoyed this book, but for the inclusion of Morley himself, as I found him possibly the most distracting, annoying and generally convoluting character I have ever encountered, and would have enjoyed nothing more than to poke him with great force in his flabby underbelly with a sharpened fork.

If you are familiar with British sitcoms of the early 1990s, you will gain a fuller understanding of the character of Morley should I compare him to one Gordon Brittas, from  the BBC’s The Brittas Empire.  Only Morley is considerably more intelligent than Mr Brittas.  If you are unfamiliar with the aforementioned program, allow me to elaborate.  Morley is so verbose as to derail, it seems, even the author in his attempts to keep the plot following a reasonably efficient tack.  He is a well-intentioned character, but his entire reason for being appears to involve distracting, deflecting and otherwise drawing away the attention of the reader (and the poor, suffering Sefton) from the situation at hand.  In my opinion, what this book really needed was this, courtesy of Monty Python:

I had great hopes for this series, but as Morley has annoyed me so greatly I will not be continuing on and will leave Sefton to suffer in silence.  I will however, still have a go at the Mobile Library series written by Sansom, because I enjoyed his writing style, if not his main character.  I’d love to know what others have thought of this series if there are any among you who have read it though.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

A YA Read-it-if Review: Cooper Bartholomew is Dead…

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It’s back to some YA (well, closer to NA actually), teen drama goodness for today’s Read-it-if Review, with the cheerily titled Cooper Bartholomew is Dead by Rebecca James (Australian! Woot!).  I was kindly provided a copy of this intriguing tale of mystery and romance by Allen and Unwin in exchange for review.

The body of Cooper Bartholomew is found at the base of a cliff and all who knew him are shocked and devastated at Cooper’s tragic end, presumed to be suicide.  But what could possibly have caused good looking, charismatic, newly-in-love Cooper to end his life in such a way?  Told from multiple points of view and jumping between the weeks before Cooper’s death and the weeks after, the story of Cooper, his new girlfriend Libby, and old friends Claire and Sebastian unfolds to reveal some long-held secrets that might shed light on why Cooper died…and whether anything could have been done to prevent it.

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Read it if:

*you like a mystery that slowly unravels, leaving suspicion, doubts and a little bit of tangled yarn at the end

* you like your YA characters to be believable, rather than two-dimensional or stereotypical (or both)

*you’ve been waiting and waiting for a YA novel to feature the fates and fortunes of the post-high-school set in small town Australia

Straight off the bat, let me say how impressed I was with the overall experience of reading this book.  The plot is tight, the narrative style is interesting and well constructed and the characters – oh the characters! – are so believable it’s almost painful.  James has done an incredible job, in my opinion, of creating characters that represent pitch perfectly the range of vices and virtues that appear in all of us once school is over and done and we have to figure out who we’re going to be in this strange real world.  This was the greatest strength of the story for me and ultimately what kept me interested through the mushy romance bits between Cooper and Libby.  Well done Rebecca James *insert sound of stone paws clapping heartily here*

Another great bit about this reading experience is the narrative style that features multiple points of view and multiple timeframes.  Regular readers of this blog should know that I just love this writing style and once again it drew me into the story with short, engaging chapters introducing the characters and their relationships in a highly readable way.  In fact, the book opens with Cooper in his final moments pre-death and his surprisingly lucid musings are a great launching point to plunge (sorry, horrid pun in the circumstances) right into the tangled web of secrecy that has led to this point.

Regarding the plot and the elements of mystery surrounding Cooper’s seemingly happy life and strange and unexpected death, clues are thrown out fairly early for the keen-eyed reader but the whole situation is not revealed until the final few chapters, keeping the suspense high throughout.  I admit that I did have my suspicions about halfway through the book, and these turned out to be kinda right and kinda wrong, so in the end I was satisfied with both my level of sleuthery and the author’s level of tricksiness.

This book is going to appeal to a whole range of YA/NA fans – fans of standard contemporary romance, fans of mystery, fans of friendship dramas – and even if you aren’t a big YA fan, the writing and characterisation is strong enough to draw you in anyway, despite the age of the cast.  I expected that I would be fairly interested in this book, but it has far exceeded my expectations and I will certainly be keeping an eye out for James’ other work from now on.

Cooper Bartholomew is Dead is released in October.

Until next time,

Bruce

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