Imaginary Friend, by Stephen Chbosky***

It was the best of books; it was the worst of books. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Grand Central Publishing for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Chbosky met fame twenty years ago with The Perks of Becoming a Wallflower. He takes a bold step—and I would still argue, a good one—in switching genres with Imaginary Friend. The whole thing is written in accessible language and mostly short, simple sentences with the overall effect of the world’s creepiest bedtime story. At first I wasn’t sure I was down for 720 pages of simple sentences, but he makes it work. I like the horror of it, and I like the voice too. And so when I saw the mixed reviews, I was preparing my heated defense of this work before I was even halfway in. And halfway, sadly, it where the thing begins to weaken.

The premise is that seven year old Christopher is learning disabled, but his mother urges him to keep trying. Nothing much works until the day he is lost in The Mission Street Woods. He is called by a friendly face in the clouds; once he is there, he is incapacitated and held for six days. When it’s over, The Nice Man leads him out. He goes home; the perpetrator is never identified because Christopher recalls none of the six days nor who took him. But suddenly he is the world’s cleverest kid. His grades rise, and he graduates from the special classroom. Later in the story, he is called again to build the tree house to end all tree houses; he must do it furtively at night, because he is no longer allowed in those woods, and naturally that’s where the project unfolds.

This aspect of it is very cleverly conceived and executed. Christopher does all manner of things that no seven year old child, however advanced intellectually, would be able to do but it is plain to us that this is part of the supernatural effect that is part and parcel of The Nice Man and that face in the clouds. Likewise, there are many areas where he infers adult meanings and feelings, but we know that these are also supernaturally bestowed. Meanwhile, he is in most ways the way one would expect a child his age to be. As his friends—the twins and Special Ed—are drawn into the project, they too become capable students with unusual talents. But as to the tree house, that’s a big damn secret. Parents and the public are not in the loop for a long, long time.

As the story unfolds we have numerous subplots and several characters that have significant roles here. They are largely bound together by the children’s school, although we also have the sheriff and a handful of people from the nursing home where Christopher’s mother, Kate works. I have no difficulty keeping up with this large cast of characters, and Chbosky deserves kudos for creating so many distinct characters that stay consistent throughout the story. We see the ways that people become warped, often by the disappointments that life has meted out, and sometimes by mistaken goals, particularly where the children are concerned. I liked this a good deal too. We see a great deal of kickass figurative language, although I would have preferred to see a lighter hand with regard to the repetition. At first when the song “Blue Moon” is used, it gives me chills, but by the end of the story, whenever music enters a scene I find myself grumbling, “Oh let me guess. I bet I know what song is playing.” (The MAD Magazine of the 1970s would have had a field day with this book.)

A number of other reviewers have suggested that the second half of the story could do with some serious editing down, and I echo their concern. It would be stronger if it were tighter. But there are two other more serious concerns that dropped my rating from four stars to three. They have to do with mixed genre, and with Chbosky’s depiction of women and girls.

It is a brave thing to combine horror and literary fiction, but there is such a thing as trying too hard. The last twenty-five or thirty percent of this story becomes tortuous, confusing and overlong with the heavy use of allegory along religious lines. There are multiple places where the plot just doesn’t make sense at all, but because the author is determined to provide us with a virgin birth, stigmata in multiple characters (what?), sacrifice and redemption and yada yada yada, what has been a good horror story becomes a little ridiculous and a lot pretentious. It’s a crying shame. Had the author let the horror story be a horror story, or had he been satisfied with a more subtle level of allegory rather than the screaming-red-flags variety that is shoehorned in here, this would have been a much better book.

The other aspect , the one that made my feminist heart simmer is the way that women are depicted here. We have several important female characters, and none of them is developed in even the tiniest way beyond their relationship to men and their capacity to be nurturers. Our greatest female hero is Kate, mother of Christopher, and I have not seen as two-dimensional a character in many a year. The only thing that matters is her child. The only. The only. Gag me with a stick, already.  And had the author been content to have a horror story that is just a horror story I would cut him a little slack, because most horror stories do not have brilliantly developed characters. Even so it’s ham-handed, but I might have been tempted to call this a 3.5 star read and round it upward. But this is the most reactionary treatment of women—the girlfriend that feels filthy because she rendered oral sex; the women coming unstuck because of husbandly inattention; the stereotypical mean-old-broad at the nursing home—that I have seen in decades. It’s appalling, and it bothers me that other reviewers haven’t mentioned this at all. What the hell, guys?  And with literary fiction, a responsibility for nuance and character development is conferred in a way that horror novels do not require.

In other words, don’t talk the talk unless you’re gonna walk the walk.

Should you buy this book? Probably not, unless your pockets are deep and you have a good deal of free time. For the curious, I recommend getting it cheap or free. But if you are going to read it, read it critically, and don’t hand it off to your middle-schooler until you have read it yourself.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton*****

I am late to the party, but it’s still going strong. Stuart Turton’s masterful debut generated so much talk that I couldn’t not read this book, and it lives up to the buzz. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark.

Aiden wakes up stranded in the woods, and he has no idea who he is. Strangers rescue him and he’s taken to an aging English manor house, where a party is taking place. Everyone recognizes him but he doesn’t know any of them, and in time he realizes that he is living inside the body of another person at the scene of a murder. Every time he wakes up, he is in the body of a new host  at the same party in the same house, often someone he has already seen from the outside while he inhabits a different body; he lives through the same day he has just experienced, but through a different perspective. He will never be permitted to leave the manor or be restored to his own body until he is able to solve the mystery; he is in a competition with others in more or less the same position.  At the outset, he is inside Jonathan Derby, and everyone obsequiously attends to his needs. He is injured. He needs rest.

This story has a house-that-Jack-built quality, because each time Aiden wakes up, he can recall everything he learned when he was inside someone else. This advantage is offset by the fact that each host is more difficult to occupy, with the personality of the host warring for control over the body that he shares with them.  Several curves—including more murders—are added to the mix.  The reader has to decide which events are related to the murder, and which are extraneous; on top of that, some of the characters Aiden encounters are liars.

When I began reading I tried to keep track of the information, but soon it became obvious that I would need a flow chart to stand even a small chance of solving this thing, so I gave up and rode along, enjoying the progress of the story, but clueless as to how it would work out. Even so, it is a complex enough tale that I learned quickly not to read it after I took my sleeping pill.

Not only is it cleverly conceived and well paced, but there is character development, made possible with Anna’s back story and the humanizing of the Plague Doctor. I can only tip my hat in awe.

So Turton has a monstrously successful debut novel, but the pressure is on in terms of what he writes next. Can his second effort live up to the reputation he has created for himself? Whatever he writes, I want to read it.

Highly recommended.

Best Mystery of 2018

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TheCraftsman

Best Horror 2018

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themerryspinster

The Craftsman, by Sharon Bolton****-*****

TheCraftsman“One night…what’s the worst that can happen?”

4.5 rounded up. I am late to the party where this author is concerned; a literature chat session directed me toward this galley, and now I am sure to read Bolton’s work again. My thanks go St. Martin’s Press and Net Galley for the review copy. This book will be available to the public tomorrow, October 16, 2018.

Is it a thriller, or is it a horror story? Bolton successfully rides the center here, and there’s a good case to be made in either direction. Our protagonist, Florence Lovelady, is a high ranking cop in the UK. Her career was made when she identified a serial killer and was instrumental in his arrest; now he is dead, and she returns to the small town where he nearly made her one of his victims 30 years ago. The plan is to attend the service with her 15-year-old son in tow, and then spend the night or two in a hotel, where her spouse will join them.

Things don’t go according to plan.

The plot is cunningly constructed, beginning with one of the creepiest fictional funerals in literature. The foreshadowing will give even the most cynical reader a serious case of the heebie-jeebies. As for me, I know my limitations, and as soon as I saw how things are in this one, I decided it could not be the last thing I read before falling asleep at night. Ever.

The interesting thing here—and what keeps this story from actually becoming too horrible to be any fun—is that we know, at the outset, how this case, which takes place in 1969, comes out. We are told in a smooth first person narrative what the broad contours of the case are. We know what the crime was; what happened to Florence while she investigated it; who did it; and that he was caught and convicted. There now.

So as we look back to the teenager that was kidnapped, then buried alive, I confess my eyes skipped over some of the explicit horror, but really the description isn’t a lengthy one, and after all, we know that the guy was apprehended. We see the numerous humiliations to which Detective Lovelady is subjected, in the day when female cops are scarce on the ground and expected to run along and make the tea for their colleagues and to comfort the crying women; I love the scene in which she is told she’s being (punitively) put on a desk to type up reports, and it turns out that she doesn’t know how to type. Ha. But then again, we also know that her career is a successful one, that she has weathered these miseries and now outranks most of the men that treated her badly.
But there are surprises in store too, as new developments surface while she’s there in town. One thing after another unravels till we are on the edge of our seats—and this time we don’t know how it will all shake out.

At about the eighty percent mark, a plot element that I won’t identify comes into play that makes me stop cold for a moment and roll my eyes. Oh please. Not this thing. Every steadfast reader of the genre has a mental list of overused devices they hope never to read again, and after doing so well at avoiding them all, Bolton lets a big, beefy one loose, and just as things are on a roll, too. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, but it took the wind out of my sails for a moment. However, after a brief visit to the literary corn-and-cheese factory, she comes out on top again, and the ending is deeply satisfying.

The story features witches—yes, real ones! As well as shadowy, mostly unnamed stonemasons, and Dwane, who is by far the best-written sexton in a thriller or mystery anywhere.

Highly recommended to all that enjoy a creepy murder story with supernatural elements.

The Woman in the Woods, by John Connolly****

thewomaninthewoodsConnolly is one of a handful of writers whose names I search when I go to Net Galley. He’s consistently brilliant, and so I am grateful to Atria Books and Net Galley for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

This is number sixteen in the popular Charlie Parker series, which began as detective fiction with mystic overtones reminiscent of James Lee Burke, and in the last volume moved into the horror genre outright. Either way it’s a compelling series. One of my favorite aspects of this series is the author’s incorporation of social justice themes. Here we find a sadistic butcher hot on the trail of the shelter volunteers that assisted Karis Lamb in escaping the father of her child, and a magical book she took with her.  Karis died in childbirth and is buried in the woods, and there are nightmarish individuals—human and not—trying to find her child so they can get the book. His adoptive mother and grandfather are determined to protect Daniel at all costs.

“Tell me the special story,” Daniel said. “The story of the woman in the woods.” 

Karis’s body is dead, but her spirit is not at rest. She is looking for her boy, and a particularly chilling detail is the repeated use of Daniel’s toy phone to call him from beyond the grave. 

At the same time, Angel, one of Parker’s two assistants who is also his close friend, is lying in a hospital bed following cancer treatment, and his partner, Louis, whose impulse control is never tiptop and is now strained to the breaking point, becomes enraged when he sees a vehicle bearing a Confederate flag parked near the hospital, and so he blows up the truck. As events unfold, our supernatural villains and the Backers—sinister characters whose lives hold no joy, and whose fate is eternal damnation—are joined in their pursuit of the Atlas, the child, and now also Parker by some local white supremacists seeking vengeance on behalf of the van’s owner.

As always, Connolly juggles a large number of characters and a complex plot without ever permitting the pace to flag, and he keeps the chapters short and the details distinct so that the reader isn’t lost in the shuffle.

This will be a five star read for most of Connolly’s readers.  Rating horror stories is immensely subjective, because some readers may find this book too horrible to be fun, whereas others will appreciate the way Connolly continues to turn up the creepiness and the gore. As for me, I had a rough time getting through the first half. I didn’t want it in my head at bedtime, and the graphic torture scenes prevented me from reading while I was eating. The result is that I had to read much more slowly than I usually would do; there were too many times I just couldn’t face it, and there were other times when I could read a short amount, then had to put it down for awhile. I suspect I am a more sensitive horror reader than most, but there will be some besides me that began reading when this was a detective series, and that may find it too grisly now.

None of this will prevent me from jumping forward when the next in the series comes around.

Highly recommended to those that love excellent fiction, and that can withstand a lot of horror and a lot of gore.

The Magic Spinster, by Mallory Ortberg*****

themerryspinsterMallory Ortberg’s feminist horror collection is bound to be the best short story collection of 2018, darkly funny, cleverly conceived and brainier than I realized when I signed on for it. Many thanks go to Henry Holt and Net Galley for the review copy, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. This title is for sale now.

Ortberg takes well known children’s stories and fairy tales and injects sinister elements into them, sometimes starting with the exact wording of the story, cited in her endnotes, and then changing it a tiny bit at a time. If you don’t know the story quite well, you may not be able to pinpoint the exact place Ortberg goes off script; some of these are Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which are fairly, uh, grim in the first place and not originally intended for small children. She often combines the influence of a second fairy tale, and everything is beautifully documented at the back, just so you can see how she did it.

At first I wondered if I would react badly to this; I am a grandmother of tiny children as well as a retired teacher, and these stories tread on sacred ground. But it’s done with such genius that all I can do is shake my head in admiration.

There are eleven stories. One of my favorites is the title story, in which a woman is held prisoner by a captor that builds her a fabulous library, but tells her that he will decide what she will read. There’s horror for you. There’s a takeoff on The Little Mermaid that left me with half the story highlighted out of admiration. The Thankless Child features a fairy godmother that is more of a mafia figure, like a supernatural, female Godfather.

But perhaps my very favorite is The Rabbit, which is a takeoff on The Velveteen Rabbit. I began this one with a furrowed brow, because the original story is so dear to my heart, a cherished experience held with each of the four babies I bore and raised. But my prior knowledge is actually a useful thing, because with the original more or less committed to memory, I can see where she begins to alter the story. At first she changes just the tiniest things, and then gradually adds more…and in her version, the rabbit loathes the boy and seeks revenge. In the end it is the same story, and yet different enough that it doesn’t offend me as I suspected it might. She started with apples and made bleeding red oranges.

Ortberg has created a masterpiece of feminist fiction replete with some of the best word smithery found in contemporary prose. It can be read at the surface level, just for your amusement—which is guaranteed to all that enjoy gallows humor—or as a scholarly endeavor. I expected this book to be full of darkly ridiculous stories themed around women’s issues. Instead it is even better, both brainy and hilarious, the best surprise of 2018.

Highly recommended to all that appreciate great feminist fiction and enjoy dark humor.

Zero Day, by Ezekiel Boone****

ZeroDayWelcome to the spiderpocalypse. Boone wraps up his creepy, crawly trilogy with engaging characters, great humor, and an ending that is deeply satisfying. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria books for the DRC, which I received free of charge in exchange for this honest review. The book will be available to the public tomorrow, February 20, 2018.

The narrative begins with a recap of our characters and what has gone before in Skitter and The Hatching . Whereas I don’t recommend skipping the first and second books, it’s great that Boone brings us up to speed; with such a complex story, the refresher is useful for both new readers and old ones. And holy Moses, as we join President Stephanie Pilgrim, she is faced with an attempted coup. The military divides into camps, and quick thinking is called for. After all, Pilgrim knows there’s only a matter of time before everything goes “kaploowee.”

Boone has several side characters and plot threads that heighten suspense. We revisit the Nazca line where the first terrible eggs were uncovered; we check in on civilian survivors in places across the US; and in my favorite thread, we join the Prophet Bobby Higgs and his followers. It’s so droll and darkly funny that if you can read it without laughing out loud, you are advised to take your pulse to be sure you are still alive.

Ultimately, of course, what we have are spiders, and here Boone saves the best for last. New to the series is the “Hell Spider”, and the descriptions are his most deliciously satisfying yet:

“Realistically, to the Hell Spiders, a human being is just like a burrito, a soft wrapper with a tasty filling.”


Boone’s progressive bent makes good fiction even better. I particularly appreciate his deep and abiding respect for women, which makes him one of the finest male authors of feminist fiction I’ve read. I also wonder whether this might be the first series carried by a major publisher that features a gay married couple whose status is incidental to the story rather than a crisis moment in the plot. Within the genre, I’d bet on it.

Boone keeps his prose accessible, yet it’s not dumbed down. There is no explicit sex here, and I can see this as a title that teens will also enjoy. If I still had a classroom, this series would grace my shelves.

Recommended to all that enjoy a good horror series. 

Smoke City, by Keith Rosson*****

SmokeCityNerds, geeks, and bibliophiles be ready. Marvin Dietz, who in an earlier life was the executioner of Joan of Arc, is leaving Portland, and he’s collected some unlikely traveling companions. Why not join him?  I read this story free and early thanks to Meerkat Press, but it’s worth your nickel to seek it out, because there is nothing else like it. This book is available to the public Tuesday, January 23, 2018.

Mike Vale was once a great painter, and now he has been forced out of his record store by a shifty, corrupt landlord, so he heads south to Los Angeles to attend the funeral of his ex-wife. En route he picks up Dietz, who is hitchhiking, and further along the way Casper stows away in the back. The voice with which their story is told is resonant and the word-smithery makes me shake my head in some places—who writes like this?—and in others I laugh out loud. Here’s a sample from the passage where we meet Casper:

 

‘I want my money,’ Casper said. “My money or my gear. You pick.’
‘Jesus wept,’ the last counterman said before wheeling around on his stool. Then Gary, our mechanic, walked past me and threaded his way through the tables. He laid his hand on the end of the bat… Casper turned and looked at him. What little fight there was deflated out of him like a balloon. Almost lovingly, Gary put him in a headlock.

‘Casper, Duncan sold your meter for a bag of crank days ago. Give it a break. Getting money from him is like getting Thousand Island from a basset hound’s tits, man. You can squeeze all you want, but it ain’t happening.’

 

As the journey continues, somewhere in California, the Smokes appear. They’re the undead, and they appear as if they are made of smoke. They can’t hear live people or see them, but their personal dramas and torments play out for people in the here and now, and they don’t observe the laws and conventions regarding private safety and property, either.  They show up at random times and in random places, causing traffic accidents and other complications. And so we have to wonder if there’s a connection between Marvin, whose many incarnations are recounted to us in his confidential narrative, and these apparitions. The government and the military are at a total loss; the press is enjoying itself, but even the most ambitious journalist recognizes that things have spun out of control.

The plot is complex, and readers must bring their literary skills along for the ride or there’s no point in coming.  It’s a story that takes awhile to develop, but it’s more than worth the slow build. The playful use of language and quixotic spirit of the prose are reminiscent of Michael Chabon at his finest hour.

Highly recommended; get it in hardcover.

Best of the Year: 2017

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2017 has been a stellar year for literature, and when I sat down to rate my top ten, I found myself stymied. Working up to it by offering the best of each genre seems more approachable, although still daunting. Most … Continue reading