Review – Fellside, by M.R. Carey

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Fellside
by M.R. Carey

Genre: Horror

Length: 486 Pages

Release date: April 4, 2016

Publisher: Orbit

Synopsis: 

Fellside is a maximum security prison on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors. It’s not the kind of place you’d want to end up. But it’s where Jess Moulson could be spending the rest of her life.

It’s a place where even the walls whisper.

And one voice belongs to a little boy with a message for Jess.

Will she listen?

rating

four

(3.5 stars, rounded up to 4)

“It’s a strange thing to wake up not knowing who you are.”

Jess Moulsen, our protagonist, wakes up in the hospital unable to remember what has landed her there. A niggling sense of dread turns to terror when she’s told she’s done something awful: in a drugged haze, she started a fire in her apartment complex which ended up killing someone. As soon as she’s recovered enough from her injuries, she will need to stand trial for murder. Fellside is imbued with tension from page one.

While Jess is the clear focus throughout Fellside, she is not the only point-of-view character. Fellside occasionally shifts to the thoughts of various workers in the prison from which the novel takes its name. I’ve heard a lot of people state they don’t like multiple POV stories in general; I am not one of those people. Exploring different perspectives tends to be one of my favorite parts of a novel. That said, I didn’t find the other perspectives in this novel nearly as compelling as Jess. In the long run, these shifts proved to be necessary the show the full scope of the story which Carey wanted to tell, but I found myself suffering through them.

GoodReads users have largely categorized this book as horror, but the label doesn’t feel like a particularly good fit. There are supernatural elements to the story, in the form of a ghost who visits Jess, and there are spooky moments, but the overall atmosphere doesn’t scream “horror” to me. Fellside is somewhat of a mystery and a story about moral redemption; Jess feels a huge sense of moral culpability for an act which she cannot remember. How does one atone for a misdeed which exists as a blank spot in their memory? The appearance of the ghost allows Jess to attempt to work through this question as she questions the truth of everything she’s been told by the authorities.

There was a lot that I loved about this novel, but it felt hampered by uninteresting side plots and poor pacing at times. All in all, I felt this was worth reading, but I was a bit frustrated by how close this came to being great instead of just good.

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Review – The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

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The Night Circus
by Erin Morgenstern

Genre: Fantasy, Romance

Length: 512 Pages

Release date: July 3, 2012

Publisher: Anchor

Synopsis: 

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway – a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love – a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.

Written in rich, seductive prose, this spell-casting novel is a feast for the senses and the heart.

rating

four

Secrets have power. And that power diminishes when they are shared, so they are best kept and kept well. Sharing secrets, real secrets, important ones, with even one other person, will change them. Writing them down is worse, because who can tell how many eyes might see them inscribed on paper, no matter how careful you might be with it. So it’s really best to keep your secrets when you have them, for their own good, as well as yours.

I’d rate The Night Circus 3.5 stars, which I’ve rounded up to four here. The reviews on GoodReads seem to be very divided, and while I enjoyed it, I can see why. The plot was a tad bit thin. The romance wasn’t terribly developed; it was a case of insta-love which was semi-acknowledged, while being hand-waved away within the narrative. Well, of course they fell in love, they’ve had this magical bond their whole lives even though they barely know one another. Just go with it, reader! It’s true love! 

Despite the flaws, however, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Morgenstern’s writing is absolutely gorgeous and remarkably atmospheric, pulling the reader in to the magical and musical world of the circus. The actual story breaks periodically, with passages told in second person point of view, always a risky move in a novel. Morgenstern places the readers into the circus and talks us through our exploration of various attractions. As the main characters are all intricately involved in the workings of the circus, I thought these passages worked really well to make the reader almost as emotionally invested in the fate of the circus as the characters would be.

There is a huge cast of characters in this novel, to the point where it can be almost disorientating at times. (For a point of reference, I generally read several novels at a time, so I’m quite used to holding a large cast of characters in my mind without any problems. I found myself occasionally having moments of “Wait, who was that guy again?” throughout The Night Circus.) That being said, many of these characters were incredibly well developed and emotionally engaging. Celia in particular was a very sympathetic and interesting character, with a somewhat tragic childhood and an enduring strength of character.

The Night Circus is part fantasy, part love story. More than anything, it’s an intensely atmospheric adventure for the reader, with the whimsical circus becoming a character in its own right.

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Review – Where the Line Bleeds, by Jesmyn Ward

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Where the Line Bleeds 
by Jesmyn Ward

Genre: Literary Fiction

Length: 256 Pages

Publication date: January 16, 2018 (Originally released in 2008)

Publisher: Scribner

Synopsis: 

Set in a rural town on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Where the Line Bleeds tells the story of fraternal twins Joshua and Christophe, who are graduating high school as the novel begins. The two boys both anticipate and dread their lives as adults. Joshua finds a job working as a dock laborer on the Gulf of Mexico, but Christophe has less luck: Unable to find a job, and desperate to alleviate his family’s poverty, he starts to sell drugs. Joshua does not approve, but his clumsy concern fractures the twins’ relationship. When their long-missing addict father reappears, he provokes a shocking confrontation between himself and the brothers—one that will ultimately damn or save them.

Where the Line Bleeds is unforgettable for the intense clarity of how the main relationships are rendered: the love but growing tension between the twins; their devotion to the slowly failing grandmother to raised them, and the sense of obligation they feel toward her; and most of all, the alternating pain, bewilderment, anger, and yearning they feel for the parents who abandoned them—their mother for a new life in the big city of Atlanta, and their father for drugs, prison, and even harsher debasements.

Jesmyn Ward herself grew up in a small Mississippi town near New Orleans, and this book makes palpable her deep knowledge and love of this world: black, Creole, poor, drug-riddled, yet shored by strong family ties and a sense of community that balances hope and fatalism, grief and triumph. Hers is an important new voice in American fiction, distinguished by its simple, patient, and utterly focused attentiveness to the physical details of her characters and their lives.

rating

three

This was my second book by Jesmyn Ward. I picked it up after really enjoying Sing, Unburied, Sing when I read it with my book club. I had fallen in love with Ward’s style when I read that book. Where the Line Bleeds fell a little bit flat in comparison.

Set in the rural south, Where the Line Bleeds has a similar feel to Sing, Unburied, Sing. The story follows twin brothers living in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. Christophe and Joshua are struggling to find their footing after high school graduation. While Joshua finds work relatively quickly, Christophe does not, and starts selling drugs to bring in money for the family.

While I found Sing, Unburied, Sing to be quite lyrical and beautiful, Where the Line Bleeds often just felt excessively descriptive. There are lots of long, drawn-out descriptions of actions that could have been much more succinct, and the level of detail included does nothing significant for the story. I think Ward was struggling to develop the evocative, poetic language that comes in her later novel. The end result here is that the pace feels overly slow.

The strength in this novel is in its exploration of familial relationships. The boys, like most twins, have been extremely close to one another for their entire lives. This makes the conflict brought on by Christophe’s decision to sell drugs all the more painful for both of them. As the boys start to pull away from each other, they are each experiencing a sense of isolation unlike anything they’ve encountered before. The boys were raised by their grandmother; they have had a strained relationship with their mother and no relationship to speak of with their father. These varying parental relationships all come into play throughout Where the Line Bleeds. 

The plot, unfortunately, feels rather thin. I spent a good deal of the book waiting for something climactic to happen, and while there is a definite climax, it feels like there is disproportionate buildup before we get to it. This is primarily a story about relationships and coming of age; there are no twists and turns to keep you hooked into the story.

Where the Line Bleeds isn’t a bad book. There was plenty to like about it despite the slow pace. Overall, however, it really called to attention just how far Ward has come as an author between this book and Sing, Unburied, Sing. If you haven’t read any of Ward’s work, I wouldn’t start here.

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Review – Evidence of the Affair, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

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Evidence of the Affair
by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Genre: Short Story, Epistolary

Release date: September 20, 2018

Publisher: Amazon Original Stories

Synopsis: 

The repercussions of an illicit affair unfold in this short story by bestselling author Taylor Jenkins Reid.

Dear stranger…

A desperate young woman in Southern California sits down to write a letter to a man she’s never met—a choice that will forever change both their lives.

My heart goes out to you, David. Even though I do not know you…

The correspondence between Carrie Allsop and David Mayer reveals, piece by piece, the painful details of a devastating affair between their spouses. With each commiserating scratch of the pen, they confess their fears and bare their souls. They share the bewilderment over how things went so wrong and come to wonder where to go from here.

Told entirely through the letters of two comforting strangers and those of two illicit lovers, Evidence of the Affair explores the complex nature of the heart. And ultimately, for one woman, how liberating it can be when it’s broken.

rating

four

This will be a short review for a short story. My love for Taylor Jenkins Reid has been no secret on this blog. I think I mention The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo every chance I get. So Evidence of the Affair was a lovey surprise today when it popped up on my news feed.

This story is told in the form of a series of letters. Two strangers, Carrie and David, begin writing to one another when Carrie discovers that their respective spouses have been having an affair. Carrie discovers the affair when she finds (you guessed it) a stack of love letters from another woman, stashed away in her husband’s briefcase.

Neither Carrie nor David are immediately ready to call it quits on their marriages. Unsure of how they plan to handle things, they don’t feel comfortable discussing things with anyone but each other. The result is that the two slowly begin to form an unlikely bond, as they feel like kindred spirits in their heartache.

My mother has always told me that I have more opportunities, as a woman of my generation, than she ever had. She made it seem like I had an obligation to use them how she would have.

The character development with Carrie was flawless and she was definitely my favorite part of this story. She married young and hasn’t had a career during her marriage, and we watch her struggle to find faith in her own ability to be independent. I was rooting for her to find strength and a sense of self worth from start to finish.

Maybe I’m not equipped for short stories, because this definitely left me wanting more at the end. Can we get a sequel? Also, there was a Daisy Jones reference because Taylor Jenkins Reid feels like tormenting me by casually mentioning her book that isn’t coming out until March. Thanks, Taylor.

Purchase Evidence of the Affair for Kindle here.

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Review – Ghosted, by Rosie Walsh

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Ghosted
by Rosie Walsh

Genre: Fiction

Length: 337 Pages

Release date: July 24, 2018

Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books

Synopsis: 

Seven perfect days. Then he disappeared. A love story with a secret at its heart.

When Sarah meets Eddie, they connect instantly and fall in love. To Sarah, it seems as though her life has finally begun. And it’s mutual: It’s as though Eddie has been waiting for her, too. Sarah has never been so certain of anything. So when Eddie leaves for a long-booked vacation and promises to call from the airport, she has no cause to doubt him. But he doesn’t call.

Sarah’s friends tell her to forget about him, but she can’t. She knows something’s happened–there must be an explanation.

Minutes, days, weeks go by as Sarah becomes increasingly worried. But then she discovers she’s right. There is a reason for Eddie’s disappearance, and it’s the one thing they didn’t share with each other: the truth.

rating

three

I wondered how it was that you could spend weeks, months—years, even—just chugging on, nothing really changing, and then, in the space of a few hours, the script of your life could be completely rewritten.

Ghosted is essentially part mystery, part romance. The story alternates between scenes from the week Sarah and Eddie met and scenes after she has been… well… ghosted. The latter takes up a much smaller portion of the book than the former, so we spend more time wondering why Eddie has dropped off the map than we do figuring out why Sarah cares so much. As I prefer mystery to romance, this shouldn’t have been an issue for me, but the lack of development of the romance makes it difficult to care about the mystery. The reader isn’t really given a compelling reason to root for Eddie and Sarah to be together.

The intense insta-love aspect of this novel felt better suited to a YA novel with a protagonist in high school. When you’re young and inexperienced, that burst of infatuation can feel like the be-all end-all. Sarah is written to be around forty years old, but she doesn’t feel like it. I found her tunnel vision obsession with a man she barely knows to be a bit alienating, personally.

However, despite my issues with Sarah and the under-developed romance, there was something rather compulsively readable about Ghosted. The pace feels lightning fast, and there was more to the mystery than just a spurned lover. At the risk of getting into spoilers, I won’t go into detail, but suffice it to say that the later revelations make for the best bits of character development in the story. For a good chunk of the early section of the novel, it felt like there wasn’t much more to Sarah than pining after a man; thankfully, later sections rectify that.

Nobody warns you that life continues to be complicated after you’ve Done the Right Thing. That there is no reward, beyond some intangible sense of moral fortitude.

Overall, this was a fun book with a lot of potential, but it definitely felt like it was lacking something. This appears to be Walsh’s debut novel, so I’ll be interested to see how she grows as a writer from here.

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Review – VOX, by Christina Dalcher

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VOX
by Christina Dalcher

Genre: Dystopian

Length: 326 Pages

Release date: August 21, 2018

Publisher: Berkley

Synopsis:

Set in an America where half the population has been silenced, VOX is the harrowing, unforgettable story of what one woman will do to protect herself and her daughter.

On the day the government decrees that women are no longer allowed more than 100 words daily, Dr. Jean McClellan is in denial—this can’t happen here. Not in America. Not to her.

This is just the beginning.

Soon women can no longer hold jobs. Girls are no longer taught to read or write. Females no longer have a voice. Before, the average person spoke sixteen thousand words a day, but now women only have one hundred to make themselves heard.

But this is not the end.

For herself, her daughter, and every woman silenced, Jean will reclaim her voice

rating

five

I wonder what the other women do. How they cope. Do they still find something to enjoy? Do they love their husbands in the same way? Do they hate them, just a little bit?

VOX is a dystopian novel in the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale which expertly blends the personal and the political. Set in an America which has been taken over by hyper-conservative extremists, women are no longer allowed to work, and they are forced to wear word counters which administer painful electric shocks if they go over their allotted 100 daily words.

One of the highlights of the novel is Jean’s strained relationship with her husband. Prior to the political shift which left Jean as a second class citizen, she viewed her husband as gentle; now, she views him as meek and cowardly. He privately disagrees with the direction the country has taken, but feels unable to push for change in his professional life, where he works closely with the president. The slow, simmering resentment is palpable.

Jean makes a really intriguing protagonist for a novel like this, as she was a highly respected scientist before losing her rights. She was a neuroscientist specializing in Wernicke’s Aphasia and working to develop a cure. Wernicke’s Aphasia leaves sufferers unable to produce meaningful speech; words come to them freely and perhaps even in a grammatically correct sequence, but their sentences are gibberish, utterly lacking in meaning. (An example from the book: “Cookie for your thoughts and when the Red Sox gossiping and galloping, I don’t know. There’s going to be hyper-tension!”) Jean’s life’s work was to help give people back the ability to communicate, and she has now been robbed of that herself.

If I have any criticism of VOX, it’s this: I would have liked to see more of the novel devoted to exploring how American society ended up in that state. For example, in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood makes a big point of emphasizing how far-right groups pounced on the panic induced by plummeting birth rates. In VOX, it doesn’t feel like quite enough time is devoted to exploring how social mores shifted enough to allow such a drastic change. The America portrayed in VOX is essentially identical to our own… until it isn’t anymore. In retrospect, perhaps this is more ominous than The Handmaid’s Tale.

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ARC Review – The Dinner List, by Rebecca Serle

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The Dinner List
by Rebecca Serle

Genre: Fiction, Magical Realism

Length: 288 Pages

Release date: September 11, 2018

Blurb via GoodReads: 

“We’ve been waiting for an hour.” That’s what Audrey says. She states it with a little bit of an edge, her words just bordering on cursive. That’s the thing I think first. Not: Audrey Hepburn is at my birthday dinner, but Audrey Hepburn is annoyed.”

At one point or another, we’ve all been asked to name five people, living or dead, with whom we’d like to have dinner. Why do we choose the people we do? And what if that dinner was to actually happen? These are the questions Rebecca Serle contends with in her utterly captivating novel, THE DINNER LIST, a story imbued with the same delightful magical realism as One Day, and the life-changing romance of Me Before You.

When Sabrina arrives at her thirtieth birthday dinner she finds at the table not just her best friend, but also three significant people from her past, and well, Audrey Hepburn. As the appetizers are served, wine poured, and dinner table conversation begins, it becomes clear that there’s a reason these six people have been gathered together.

Delicious but never indulgent, sweet with just the right amount of bitter, THE DINNER LIST is a romance for our times. Bon appetit.

ratingthree

The Dinner List was a quick read with an interesting premise. What began as a simple mental exercise with a college roommate (choose any five people, living or dead, to join you for one meal) suddenly becomes a reality on Sabrina’s 30th birthday. The result is an unexpected encounter with four people from Sabrina’s personal life… and Audrey Hepburn.

On its face, this seems like it would make for a light, fun read. Serle’s novel, however, drags her protagonist into a drawn-out exchange with people who represent a monumental amount of emotional baggage for her. Yes, even Audrey, in a way. While there are fun and light moments in the novel, it primarily feels like an analysis of where Sabrina’s life has gone wrong and if/how she can move on from those things.

While I enjoyed this novel overall, it felt like there was something lacking. I think part of the issue is that fundamental weirdness of Audrey Hepburn’s presence as the only person on the list Sabrina did not know personally. The presence of only one stranger, and such an iconic one at that, brought something of a lopsided impression to the plot that I don’t feel would have been there if there had been an additional stranger at the dinner. As it was, it felt a bit like a celebrity barging into an intimate family discussion.

The Dinner List has one bombshell of a plot twist (perhaps you’ll see it coming; I certainly didn’t) that changes the whole tone of the story when it hits. This book was an emotional roller coaster that ends with a glimmer of optimism and light at just the moment it began to feel too dark. Overall, a unique book that was worth the read.

I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and not influenced by the publisher. 

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Review – Force of Nature, by Jane Harper


Force of Nature 
by Jane Harper

Genre: Mystery

Length: 326 Pages

Release date: February 6, 2018

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Synopsis: 

Five women reluctantly pick up their backpacks and start walking along a muddy track.
Only four come out on the other side.
The hike through the rugged Giralang Ranges is meant to take the office colleagues out of their air-conditioned comfort zone and encourage teamwork and resilience. At least, that’s what the corporate retreat website advertises.
Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk has a keen interest in the whereabouts of the missing hiker, Alice Russell. Because Alice knew secrets, about the company she worked for and the people she worked with.
The four returning women tell Falk a tale of fear, violence and fractured trust during their days in the remote Australian bushland. And as Falk delves into the disappearance of Alice, he begins to suspect some dangers ran far deeper than anyone knew.

rating

four

“It’s the panic that gets you. Makes it hard to trust what you’re seeing.” 

Force of Nature is a continuation of The Dry, but don’t worry if you haven’t read it (although I definitely recommend giving it a shot.) Detective Aaron Falk is the central character for both books, and while Force of Nature makes a few passing references to the events of The Dry, Falk is working to solve a new mystery in this second installment, and it could easily be read as a standalone book. (But really, why would you skip The Dry?)

In The Dry, the mystery was incredibly personal for Falk; the man accused of killing his own family was Falk’s closest childhood friend, Luke, and solving the mystery would either clear Luke’s name or reveal how little he ever really knew him. The stakes are slightly less personal in Force of Nature, but still quite high-pressure. The missing woman, Alice, was meant to turn over documents that Falk urgently needs for  an ongoing investigation. The result is a gripping, desperate pursuit that makes for an engaging read.

The novel can basically be divided into two parts, which alternate throughout the story: Aaron Falk’s perspective, starting after Alice has gone missing, and flashback scenes to the retreat where the disappearance took place. The latter varies in perspective, and we get to know each of the women who were lost in the bushland with Alice. The tension is high from start to finish, from Falk’s work pressures to the hysteria-inducing panic of being lost in the Australian wilderness. Both of Harper’s novels have been highly atmospheric; the Australian landscape can begin to feel like a character on its own, raising the stakes and pushing the characters to act.

With plenty of red herrings and twists galore, Harper manages to pull off a shocker of a conclusion which will keep the reader guessing until the end.

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Review – Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward

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Sing, Unburied, Sing
by Jesmyn Ward

Genre: Fiction, Magical Realism

Length: 285

Release date: September 5, 2017

Publisher: Scribner

Synopsis: 

An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing examines the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power – and limitations – of family bonds.

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother, but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.

Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first century America. It is a majestic new work from an extraordinary and singular author.

rating

four

This is an absolutely beautiful book. Ward’s lyrical prose, rich with metaphor and evocative imagery, meshes well with the magical realism woven into the story. Overall, this creates a dreamy atmosphere which provides a nice counter balance for the heavy, dark story lines; ghosts are full-fledged characters in this story, bringing along their baggage and trauma brought on by violent deaths.

If I have any criticism at all of this novel, it’s that Ward’s distinctive voice sometimes gets in the way of her characters. There is too much similarity in tone between different point of view characters, blending them together. The prose was so lovely that it’s hard to mind, but it does have the effect of distracting from the story at times. For example, Jojo is 13 years old, and sometimes seems to have a college-level vocabulary. The writing is stylistically lovely, but not always believable as Jojo’s internal monologue.

Leonie is a deeply flawed woman and unable to bond with her children. Kayla, the youngest child, looks to Jojo for a kind of surrogate parent, and she resents both of them for this evidence of her failure as a mother. I personally disliked Leonie deeply, but still found her point of view chapters endlessly engaging, a testament to Ward’s skill as a writer. If a book has me hanging on every word of a character that I can’t stand, that’s worth noting.

I feel the need to warn readers that this is an emotionally difficult book to read. Themes include, racial violence, sexual violence, drug addiction, and death. These themes are handled masterfully, however, and Sing, Unburied, Sing, is the kind of novel that lives in the reader’s soul for years to come.

“Sometimes the world don’t give you what you need, no matter how hard you look. Sometimes it withholds.” 

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