The Elementals, by Michael McDowell

5 Stars

 

The Elementals is a masterpiece of Southern Gothic fiction. It upends the notion that scary things only happen at night and turns the hot Alabama sun into a terrifying and enervating character of its own. By the time the reader finishes The Elementals, he or she will fear a sun that blazes too strongly, sugar that tastes like sand, and dunes that swallow both houses and people.

The book opens in Mobile, where Marian, the matriarch of the Savage family, is being buried in a gruesome funeral ritual that dates back hundreds of years. The grieving Savage and McCray families then retreat to an isolated spit of land called Beldame on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, where they have been vacationing—and dying—for decades.

Three houses sit on the shore at Beldame, but the third is falling apart, as it is slowly being consumed by a sand dune. No ghosts appear in the book, only mysterious, violent creatures who inhabit the third house, where their movements are visible as shadows flitting past the windows during the hottest hours of the day. Their presence can be heard in a bedroom door slamming shut of its own accord and in the sound of sand sifting through a broken window.

Each of the characters has his or her own reasons for fearing the third house, but it is India McCray, the granddaughter from New York, who brings about the final resolution. That resolution is equal to the finest in horror fiction, even as it leaves the reader wondering just who or what the creatures in the third house really are.

 

#books #amreading

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

3 Stars

The Loney is a literary horror novel that failed to horrify me.  It describes a group of pilgrims travelling to St. Anne’s shrine in coastal England to cure Farther and Mummer Smith’s eldest son, Hanny, of mutism.

On the positive side, the sense of place and atmosphere was engrossing. I loved the setting of the book in what the pilgrims discover is an old Tuberculosis sanitarium. Also, the tension between the simplistic Catholic faith of the Smith family and the naturalistic superstitions of the locals was powerful. In the end, both traditions seemed cruel, more designed to torture Hanny than to cure him.

My big problem with The Loney is that, in the climactic scene, Hurley shies away from giving the reader a close view of the ritual that cured Hanny. Instead, Hanny’s brother, Tonto, steps out into the hallway, so that he cannot witness the violence of the final cure. This takes away from the real horror of the book.

Ultimately, I thought Hurley’s second book, Devil’s Day, was a better book.

The Woman in the Window, by A. J. Finn

The Woman in the Window, by A. J Finn

4 Stars

Dr. Anna Fox is a gifted child psychologist with a bad case of agoraphobia and an even worse fondness for Merlot. Shut inside her New York City brownstone, she observes her neighbors and their daily routines through the lens of her camera, until one day she witnesses what she believes to be a murder.

Anna’s constantly inebriated state makes her an unreliable narrator, so the reader is left questioning whether a murder really occurred—or if the supposed victim ever even existed. The book reminded me of one of the old movies that Anna spends her evenings watching, especially Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

Unfortunately, the middle of the book dragged to the point of boredom. If the pace had been more exciting, I would have given The Woman in the Window 5 stars.

Fans of The Girl on the Train will love this book.

Devil’s Day, by Andrew Michael Hurley

Devil’s Day, by Andrew Michael Hurley

4 Stars

John Pentecost and his pregnant wife Kat return to the Endlands, a small farming community in Lancashire, when his grandfather—the Gaffer—dies suddenly, “like a lightbulb blowing out and blackening the glass.” There, he learns that the Gaffer had recently committed a heinous crime and now someone has tried to burn down the Endlands’ woods. Was it retribution?

He also discovers that Dadda, his ailing father, can no longer handle the farm on his own. John longs to return to the Endlands, which he’d fled years earlier for a stifling job in academia. Kat, however, sees the Endlands “as the setting for a part of my life that was well and truly over… a place where she would always be a visitor and happily so.”

What did I love about Devil’s Day? The sense of place is amazing. Hurley conveys the beauty, rituals, and antagonisms of rural life the way that someone can only if he or she has experienced the annual Gathering of sheep from the moors.

Also, so much of the writing is gorgeous.  I especially loved Hurley’s description of Kat’s relationship with the little girls at her nursery.  “It was on her knee that they sat to cry, her sleeves they snotted on, her hair they plated with their jam-sticky fingers, her hands they clung to when it was time to go home.”

So, what would it have taken for me to give Devil’s Day 5 stars? I would have wanted to see a better resolution of Kat’s opposition to returning to the farm.  This conflict was glossed over at the end and I was left confused by the twists in John and Kat’s relationship.

One thing is certain:  I look forward to reading The Loney, Hurley’s debut book, which won the Costa First Novel Award in 2016

 

 

January 1st, 2018

Today is the start of a new year and the start of my first blog, Weekends@Peet’s, named after the warm and inviting coffee shop in Lexington, MA that I frequent on weekend mornings. I have been considering blogging about books for months, and New Year’s Day strikes me as an appropriate time to start. Maybe blogging is a resolution I will actually keep in 2018.

A light coating of snow had fallen yesterday and, as I stepped outside around 8:30 a.m., ice crunched under my boots and the air smelled of wood burning. It was -1 degrees when I arrived in Lexington Center and a thick frost coated Peet’s windows, with only four or five of the regulars having straggled in. I struggle with insomnia, so I had awakened on this holiday morning at 6:20 a.m., the time my alarm clock buzzes during the work week. After staying up a wee bit too late last night, only a large extra-hot latte could fortify me enough to write today.

One of the things I love about Peet’s is the sense of community it provides. Retirees, young mothers pushing babies in strollers, and cyclists fresh off the Lexington bike path (at least in warmer weather) all wend their way in for coffee, scones, and conversation. Many of the patrons are avid readers, so I oftentimes notice someone engrossed in a book and have to fight the temptation to ask his or her opinion of it. If you are a writer, or an aspiring writer like me, it is a great place to escape to when the walls of your usual writing space–in my case, a spare bedroom–feel like they are conspiring to shut out any original ideas.

I ordered a latte ground from Ethiopian Super Natural beans and, just before the cashier held out her hand for my card, I requested a pecan roll (an act of spontaneity that doomed my just-made dieting resolution). The coffee tasted like blueberries and counteracted the temperature, which rivaled that of Siberia during a cold snap. I chose a seat far from the frigid blasts coming in every time the front door opened and sat down to make my plans for this blog.

So, what will I be blogging about? Books. Nothing more. I am passionate about great storytelling and want to share my thoughts on fiction that worked, or didn’t work, for me. I hope to learn how to write better from analyzing the books that I am reading.

What type of books do I love? Everything from high-brow literature to bestsellers. I devour the Brontes and Dostoevsky and have a weakness for English tea cozies and police procedurals. I am amazed at the great books coming out of Hachette/ Ireland. (If you haven’t read Tana French’s The Trespasser or The Secret Place or Susan Stairs’ The Boy Between, please do.) I love the scratchy feel of unread pages between my fingers (or the cool touch of an eBook on my Kindle), adore a character who doesn’t do what I expect, and long for endings that surprise me. Wonderful dialogue is like a conversation overheard and never forgotten.

Where will I start? With Andrew Michael Hurley’s Devil’s Day. I’m seventy-five pages in and the book already reads like one I will find memorable.

So, here’s to discovering great books in 2018. Maybe this blogging resolution really is one that I’ll keep.

Happy 2018.