Book Review: The Broken Girls by Simone St. James (2018)

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Review #90

Vermont, 1950 Idlewild Hall is where parents send daughters that had deemed lost causes. Whether illegitimate, inconvenient, or simply rebellious, girls find themselves dropped unceremoniously at Idlewild. Once there. four girls forge a tight bond of friendship until one of them vanishes without a trace.

Vermont, 2014 Twenty years after her older sister was found murdered on the now-abandoned grounds of Idlewild Hall, journalist Fiona Sheridan returns to her hometown in rural Vermont to cover the story of the school’s restoration. Confronted with memories she has worked so hard to bury, Fiona becomes determined to uncover the mystery of her sister’s death.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that split perspective narratives are difficult to do well because one of the narratives will almost always end up being more compelling. In The Broken Girls, the chapters set in 1950 move at a faster clip and have a stronger voice. Even though these chapters vary between the four girls who reside at Idlewild, they still manage to accomplish more character development than the chapters written from Fiona’s point of view.

The problem is that Fiona spends an inordinate amount of time repeating herself about how broken up she is over her sister’s death, and lamenting that she and her police officer boyfriend may not be meant for one another. Not until the final seventy pages or so does Fiona’s narrative begin to pick up momentum and by that point the tension is lost.

The Broken Girls is billed as a paranormal suspense, but seems to be lacking both paranormal and suspense. The “ghost” story is glaringly underutilized; at no point does the spirit of Idlewild present any kind of threat or intrigue.

Author Simone St. James does get points for her creepy, Gothic atmosphere, I could almost feel the chilly and crumbling halls of the neglected school. I also greatly enjoyed the way that St. James depicts life as a girl in 1950 as a prison. That the girls of Idlewild consistently rebel against the tight strictures imposed by the adults around them made me silently cheer for their victory.

My rating: 3/5

You can find The Broken Girls here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage (2018)

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What would you do if you found yourself unable to love your child? What if your child didn’t love you?

Eight-year old Hanna is sweet and precocious for her father, even if she is unwilling to speak. But for her mother Suzette, Hanna is a manipulative and destructive child who seems hell-bent on destroying the relationship between her parents. As Suzette becomes increasingly strained by Hanna’s behavior, Hanna’s tricks become more sophisticated as she decides that she may have to remove her mother from the picture altogether.

I read a lot, and I mean a lot of horror novels, but this debut novel by author Zoje Stage scared the pants off me. The premise is entirely ridiculous and utterly silly but it’s crafted within enough care to keep the level of suspense heightened until the very end.

The split narrative varies between mother and daughter so that the reader comes to sympathize with both characters. It would be easy to write off Hanna as a deranged child psychopath like Macaulay Culkin in The Good Son, but that would be too easy. Instead we can understand Hanna’s skewed viewpoint and how she has somehow come to view her mother as the enemy. She is never depicted as a “demon child” so much as a confused and disturbed little girl. We can also understand how Suzette has reached a breaking point when it comes to parenting a increasingly difficult child.

There is a hint of Rosemary’s Baby in Suzette’s relationship with her husband. He is too often absent, and since Hanna puts on her best face for her Daddy, inclined to side with her. As the father, Alex is the least developed character and too often plays the role of biased mediator. There are many instances where he says that his wife is “over-reacting” and that there daughter is simply “under stimulated” at home. This is a fairly lazy plot device in 2018 when most parents are more involved in their children’s upbringing.

This book is sure to be controversial with the mommy crowd, particularly the ending. As a currently childless woman, I found the ideas presented in Baby Teeth to be simultaneously disturbing and highly entertaining. It was certainly a compelling read from beginning to end.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Baby Teeth here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman (2015)

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Review #88

Caden Bosch is on a ship headed towards the Challenger Deep, the deepest point on Earth located in the Marinas Trench. Sometimes. Other times he is a fifteen-year old high school kid who is beginning to have difficulty distinguishing between what is real and what is not. Caden Bosch is elected the ship’s artist, whose job it is to document the ship’s crew with pictures. Sometimes. Other times he is a boy who cannot stop moving, who quits the track team and instead wanders for miles around his neighborhood. Caden Bosch is beginning to contemplate mutiny against the ship’s captain but is still holding on to his allegiance. Sometimes.

Neal Shusterman dives deep into the heart of mental illness with Challenger Deep, and explores how a person’s mind can begin to betray them. Caden Bosch is never diagnosed with anything specific, but his symptoms exhibit signs of schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder. He begins to feel constant paranoia and anxiety, and his social functions plummet as he loses the ability to hold a sustained conversation. Shusterman, who uses many personal details from the life of his own son, portrays Caden as someone who has great inner strength but finds that all the perseverance in the world cannot always combat the continuous onslaught of mental illness.

Shusterman depicts the confusion that Caden feels by ensuring that his readers have some difficulty discerning exactly what is going on at any given time. His chapters are short, only three or four pages long, and vary from Caden on board a sailing ship in the middle of the Pacific to Caden trying to hold on to the pieces of his life while his illness threatens to consume him. The first fifty or so pages of Challenger Deep twist into a big jumble before settling into a more straightforward narrative. In this way Shusterman helps us to empathize with his protagonist.

Challenger Deep represents a brutally honest, yet ultimately sensitive portrayal of mental illness. Caden’s struggles are never glamorized or dramatized for effect. We identify with his struggles and rejoice with his rare glimmers of hope. He understands that he will never be “cured” and instead has to come to terms with the fact that his mental illness with be with him for the rest of his life. Instead of this being a sour note, Caden is able to meet it with resignation.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Challenger Deep here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley (2008)

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Review #87

Carrie McClelland comes to the tiny Scottish village to write about Slains, the local castle that played an important role in the Jacobite uprising of 1708. Carrie hopes to use the crumbling ruins in a historical fiction novel she is writing, but ends up writing a completely different kidn of book when she finds herself overwhelmed by someone else’s memories.

Nineteen-year old Sophia Paterson comes to Slains castle after her parents die on a sailing voyage. She finds safety and comfort with her aunt, the Countess, who is playing an active role in bringing the exiled King of Scotland back from France. Sophia finds herself embroiled in a plot that is doomed to fail.

This is my first novel by acclaimed author Susanna Kearsley, and I can see why she is so popular. Her writing style is comfortable and familiar, and she incorporates complicated historical elements in a way that is easy to understand. It is obvious that she has done a great deal of research on the Jacobite uprising and the castle of Slains. I can certainly say that I now know a lot more about the deposed King James II and those who sought to restore him to the throne than I did before reading this novel.

Generally, when an author splits the plot of the book between two characters in different time periods, one of them is going to be more well-developed than the other. That ends up being the case here, as the novel-within-a-novel that is Sophia’s story is far more interesting than Carrie’s plotline. I think Kearsley even began to understand that, since after The Winter Sea hits the halfway mark less and less time is devoted to Carrie’s narrative.

The descriptions of the harshly beautiful Scottish coastline poked my inner travel bug pretty hard. Might have to start looking into a trip to Northern Scotland. Perhaps I’ll stop by Slains castle while I’m there.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Winter Sea here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Note: This novel was later released under the title Sophia’s Secret. No idea why as The Winter Sea is a much better name.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Gods of Howl Mountain (2018)

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Review #86

 

After losing a leg fighting in the Korean War, Rory Docherty returns to the isolated mountain of his birth and continues running bootleg whiskey and trying to out-maneuver the federal agents who are determined to crack down on illegal alcohol. His grandmother Maybelline spends her days mixing potions and herbal remedies for the local townspeople. When Rory meets the daughter of a snake-charming preacher, he finds himself falling in love. But Maybelline Docherty is against the match for reasons that she refuses to admit.

Taylor Brown has a wonderfully descriptive writing style that draws his readers into the world of his creation. The isolated people who live in the hills of Appalachia exist in a society that refuses to conform to modernity even today. In the days following the Korean War, many of the mountain people had little to do with outsiders and instead lived, loved, and died without ever venturing into the larger world. Brown describes the wild and untamed nature of the mountains with a deft hand. His use of metaphor and imagery describe a harshly dangerous world that only a strong and hardy few would chose to live in.

Unfortunately, the characters that Brown places into this beautiful and well-defined world have all the intensity and vigor of a brown paper sack. I felt very little towards Rory because his thoughts, dreams, and desires are never clearly defined. We know he is haunted by memories of the Korean War because Brown tells us he is. But I never felt his pain or his fear. We know he becomes entranced by the preacher’s daughter because the words are written, but I never felt that spark of passion that accompanies the first days of love. His rivalry with a fellow bootlegger and his relationship towards his mentally ill mother are equally uneven.

If you asked me to summarize Gods of Howl Mountain, it would take me a few minutes to remember anything significant about the plot. It simply didn’t leave much of an impression. I do remember a feeling of relief when I finally finished the book.

My rating: 2/5

You can find Gods of Howl Mountain here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Mermaid by Christina Henry (2018)

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Review #85

Once upon a time there was a mermaid who was curious about the lives of men. One day she swam too close to shore, and was trapped in a net by a fisherman. Moved by her alien beauty, the fisherman released the mermaid back into the sea. But the mermaid, entranced by the loneliness in the eyes of the fisherman, used an ancient magic to give herself legs and join the fisherman on land. He named her Amelia and together they lived a long and happy life, until the day came when the fisherman went out to sea and didn’t come back. Isolated in her small cabin on a cliffside, Amelia spends her days watching the sea and missing the fisherman. Many years pass, until another man comes into her life. A man by the name of P.T. Barnum.

Christina Henry has published several revisionist fairy tales, included Lost Boy which I reviewed earlier this year. I would describe her latest novel, The Mermaid, as a re-imagining of the classic story of a mermaid who dreams of life on land. The plot of The Mermaid bares almost zero resemblance to the original Danish fairy tale, choosing instead to follow its own path to 19th century New York City.

The opening of The Mermaid reads very much like a classic fairy tale, with very little dialogue and an omniscient narrator who constructs a sweet and believable love story between a mermaid and a fisherman. The rest of the novel switches to a more modern narrative with the mermaid Amelia as its heroine, a creature who is older and stranger than anyone around her realizes. Christina Henry does a wonderful job of portraying Amelia has inhuman but not inhumane. She has difficulty identifying with those around her but is filled with empathy for the everyday struggles of the people she encounters in New York.

If The Mermaid is lacking anything, it’s a solid antagonist. Because Henry has grounded her story away from its Danish roots, Amelia never makes a deal with a vengeful sea witch. There is no pressing time limit for her to win her true love and remain human. The nearest thing to a villain is P.T. Barnum as the immoral collector of freaks and oddities, but even he is presented as distasteful and greedy rather than actively monstrous.

So far I have enjoyed both of Christina Henry’s novels. I love the imaginative way she transports her readers to another time and place. Her writing is captivating and begs to be read. I’ll keep my eyes open for her next fairy tale interpretation.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Mermaid here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (2006)

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Review #84

Shortly after a brief stay in a psychiatric hospital, Chicago journalist Camille Preaker is summoned back to her rural Missouri hometown to cover the brutal murders of two young girls. This means that Camille must get back in touch with her family, who she has been estranged from for many years. Her neurotic, hypochondriac mother doesn’t seem overjoyed to see her eldest daughter. Her half-sister has grown into a beautiful and manipulative teenager. And her stepfather seems content to sip cocktails and watch from the sidelines. While investigating in a town that seems increasingly hostile, Camille must struggle to maintain her own mental health while trying to find out everything she can about the deaths of two girls who begin to evoke memories from her own past.

Six years before Gone Girl became a runaway bestseller and changed the thriller genre forever Gillian Flynn published her debut novel, Sharp Objects. It’s easy to see Flynn’s obvious talent as well as how she grew as an author with her follow-up books. Sharp Objects is a shorter novel that immediately dives into a dark and haunted place and stays there for the duration.

Everyone in this book seems to be suffering from some form of deeply unhealthy obsession. Even the town itself has a kind of malignant tumor that infects the overall atmosphere. Camille’s family is a warped and twisted caricature of love. Her mother Adora demands control over everyone in her life and is willing to excise anyone who defies her authority, even her own daughter. Camille’s thirteen year old half-sister Amma has learned how to play her mother and everyone else in the town, consummately changing personalities to fit people’s individual perceptions. For Camille, who is dealing with a history of self-arm and anxiety, this is the worst place she could possibly be.

Gillian Flynn deserves props for presenting an honest and unflinching portrayal of mental illness. Camille’s fragile mental state is never romanticized, but neither does it define her entirely. She is more than her illness, and works every day to better herself. At the same time she is ashamed of what she believes to be a weakness, and self-medicates with drugs and alcohol to dull her pain. The longer Camille remains with her family, the stronger the urge to self-harm becomes.

I really enjoyed this novel for its dark and twisted portrayal of familial bonds. The tangled relationship between Camille and those who are supposed to love and support her are described in a realistic if incredibly destructive manner. I could easily relate to Flynn’s protagonist who has to hold on to her inner strength when it becomes nearly impossible to do so.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Sharp Objects here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: Off to be the Wizard by Scott Meyer (2014)

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Review #83

Martin Banks is just a normal, everyday guy who enjoys digging into the depths of the internet in his spare time. On one of these nighttime expeditions, he stumbles across a discovery that will change his life forever. The world as we know it is nothing more than a computer program; a computer program that Martin is able to change at will. He vows that he will use this newfound power sparingly and with great care. This vow lasts for approximately forty-eight hours before Martin finds himself fleeing back in time to medieval England. He decides to pose as a wizard and make a life for himself in the tiny village of Leadchurch.

Author Scott Meyer makes the smart decision early in this novel not to waste time on how any of the plot elements work. The computer program controls everything about the world because it does, and Martin is able to use this to alter his appearance, his bank account, and his location by teleporting. There is very little time given over to trying to apply logic to an inherently illogical premise, and Meyer avoids getting bogged down in the details.

Instead, he offers up a wildly silly story of a man who tries to fool a village of 11th century English villagers that he is a wizard. Martin downloads the computer code into his phone, and uses it to make himself hover, emit sparks, and speak in a booming voice. Don’t bother asking how his phone continues to work in the past, it just does. This process is laid out in a highly enjoyable montage that reminded me of The Matrix, if Neo were learning break-dancing instead of kungfu.

Overall, Off to Be the Wizard was smart, irreverent, and short enough that it ended before the situational comedy began to wear thin. It never made me laugh out loud, but instead caused a kind of perpetual smirk from beginning to end.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Off to Be the Wizard here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (2015)

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Review #82

Sisters Vianne and Isabelle Mauriac have a strained relationship. Isabelle feels that Vianne abandoned her to a series of convent school and a life of loneliness after the death of their mother. Vianne, still mourning a series of miscarriages, feels that Isabelle is reckless and never stops to think about how her actions may affects others. In a quiet French town in 1940, both sisters are put to the test as the Nazis edge ever closer to the French borders. Vianne believes that France will never fall, and is determined to quietly live and raise her daughter. Rebellious Isabelle longs for a chance to contribute to the war effort. The following years will test their bond, their morality, and their desire for survival.

Earlier this year I read and reviewed Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone, and immediately fell in love with her writing style and her focus on relationships and the importance of family. I had heard a lot of good things about The Nightingale and was eager to read another book by this author.

There are dozens of novels published every year that deal with World War II and its aftermath. The Nightingale earns its place in the upper echelons of the genre, but ultimately it has to compete with the likes of All the Light We Cannot See and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and sadly it falls a little short. There simply isn’t anything new or surprising presented by this novel. It felt as if Kristin Hannah had a checklist of “Nazi Atrocities” that she was gradually ticked off as she wrote. The things endured by the Mauriac sisters somehow seem obligatory rather than organic.

The novel occasionally includes chapters that are set in the United States in the 1990’s. One of the Mauriac sisters, now elderly and fragile, contemplates returning to France to confront her past and honor the sacrifices made. These chapters are utterly unnecessary and were obviously put there to lead up to a “twist” that lacked any sort of punch.

This novel has been so highly recommended by so many people that perhaps I went in with expectations that were impossible to fulfill. Ultimately, I enjoyed The Nightingale, but apparently not as much as others.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!