The Pursuit: A Novel of Suspense by Joyce Carol Oates

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Here is the mistake: to have given into happiness. She will be punished now.

Abby had hoped that becoming Mrs. Willem Zengler could save her, the damned, the cursed. Is it possible to cup happiness in both hands and drink from it? When she closes her eyes to sleep, it is always there, the bones, the horror. Love can’t chase that away, nor could protection. It always finds her, and the past won’t let her go. As a new bride she steps into traffic, maybe she was sleepwalking? She seemed so agitated! Witnesses saw something wasn’t right, her face one of horror, fear but of what? As if she were being chased.

Her husband Willem doesn’t understand, he must remain at her bedside in the ICU. What will he say if she wakes up? What if she strode into traffic by choice? What does any of this mean? He is gut sick, worse, he keeps playing back their meeting in his mind. The possibility that she has lied about her life disturbs him. This disorientation, it’s happened before, hasn’t it? He remembers too the restlessness, the whimpering cries while she was asleep, dreaming. He vowed to protect her, that is his role as her husband, but now as she lies comatose, the proof is he has failed her.

What of that parent-less past doesn’t he know? She doesn’t want to tell, she doesn’t want him to pursue her fears, her dream, her terror. She is both the victim and the perpetrator, in her memory. She carries an entourage of skeletons, she was so young, but it’s her fault, isn’t it? In order to be free, she must stop running from the nightmare. It is a ruined house, her entire childhood, a ruined house. She doesn’t want to be that orphan again with a tragic past, a past that is rotting somewhere, still undiscovered either in her mind or the tall grass, or both. What would Willem think?

She has been trying to keep herself together, to be the right sort of woman, but her happiness as a newlywed is blurring, the poison of her past is bleeding through and there isn’t an escape, not even in a handsome, tall husband. There is no shelter, no escape from the pursuit.

She is not who she professes to be, she is not fully present, and she can’t fake it anymore. Life always circles back, the past comes back for you, how like a ring.

This is a fairly short novel considering the many books I have devoted my days to reading by Oates. She has an intuition about the things we don’t talk about or present to the world, and writes about them like no other, so I am always delighted to read anything she puts to paper. This is a fast read, and you are in the confusion, the terror of Abby’s mind before the “accident” and tormented by the ghosts of her past as if you are in her shoes. It’s very much about the effects of trauma. How unfair, the things we’re forced to carry behind us, like a rotting corpse. Some childhoods aren’t about frolicking in the fields chasing butterflies, at least not in Oates world. Here children are left with blood on their hands.

Publication Date: October 11, 2019

Grove Atlantic

Mysterious Press

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Dark Mother Earth: A Novel by Kristian Novak (Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać)

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When one person took their life, the disease was theirs alone. When four people took their lives, the whole village was afflicted.

Successful Croatian author Matija’s creativity, born out of a disconnect from the torment of his past, seems to have abandoned him. His third book is a failure, nothing is going right since Dina walked out of his life. A pit is opening inside of him, abandoning himself to the abyss he must confront the past he has buried in the dark mother earth of  the Croatian village of his childhood. Fear has been at the heart of his creations, his make believe life the safety net that has maintained his sanity, kept the demons of the past from pulling him back to the trauma he has repressed. He doesn’t even truly know what he has buried. Dina wants his memories, whether they expose his fragility or not, this is the meat of any solid relationship. How can love be real if you don’t share your childhood, the glory days and the goofy awkward stages? What if all you have is horror? How do you share memories you don’t even have? Some things are better left repressed. Some memories are wild animals, animals he left behind before he and his family moved away to Zagreb. But memories have a keen sense of smell and can track you down, no matter how many years pass in between.

Reaching back, further back it all began with the passing of Matija’s father when he was only six or maybe the rot seeped in because of the legend his grandmother told him. Something about the soil of that burial ground disturbs him, some sort of ‘staged’ feeling about his father’s funeral births mistrust of the villagers. This child’s disbelief in the face of loss, death is the seed that germinates into abandonment of reality. Grief gets tangled into stories about the will-o-the-wisp folk, and what is real for a child? What about the world is solid when you are still trying to wrap your mind around all the big and small  nagging questions of the world? What happens when the village starts watching you because they think you are different, a ‘troubled’ child? What happens when you start to see things, know things maybe even become the catalyst for tragedies, and realize that they could be right about you? What’s a boy to do when the brutal dark ‘things’ visit him, as if summoned by his need?

This novel is a strange type of horror story whose engine is revved all because of Matija’s love for Dina. Everything rises to the surface, you must face the dark earth of your origins in order to have a chance at love. The past always comes back for us. For Matija  the things left unexplained have soured his thoughts, a curious, intelligent, creative little boy left to makes sense of the wounds of losing his father. He never really recovered from that first loss, and everything that followed; the suicides, the terrible things people hide from each other in any village or town haunts him so much that any fabrication is better than facing everything he knew. He doesn’t understand his father’s death and his mom and sister are so swamped in grief they don’t know how damaging keeping him in the dark will become. His strange drawings don’t help, he feeds the villagers fear of him, he can’t seem to help it. He is fated to be an outcast, every village needs one, it makes it so much easier to avoid the real horror, within ourselves and each other. Collectively, these people are suspicious and distrusting of anything different, they can overlook the ugliness in those nearest and dearest so long as the person seems admirable, clean..etc. The horror is in that.  War is looming, at least that is something solid to fear and maybe they can turn their hate there.

There is an eeriness in what Matija starts seeing, and the overwhelming horror of fantasy that becomes a threat for others near him, which at the heart really comes from a place of love and grief to have his dad come back from the dead. The scariest moment is in his fervent, childish hope by the water with his friend. His mother just wants him to act like a normal boy, because behaving like his ‘natural’ self carries the threat of being taken away. He learns early on how to betray himself, and in turn, how to betray others in order to ‘fit in’. It’s hard to blame his actions, who doesn’t want to feel accepted somewhere, especially when you’re young and have been on the outside for so long? Sadly, it’s one of the biggest mistakes of his life, some things can’t be fixed. Is he the disease in the midst? Is he really to blame as people begin to take their own lives?

“Things you’ve forgotten bide their time. They keep an eye on you, poke each other in the ribs, and snicker softly so as not to disturb the sanctity of the delusion. They only start getting louder when you begin to stagnate, when there’s no forward movement and that’s when they go after you, seething because you’ve forbidden them from coexisting with all the new things you neatly pack into the storage unit known as your life.” 

We are the horror. It’s a solid novel, it put me in a strange place. We forget how fear can consume young minds and how destructive fantasy can be. What a sad tale.

Publication Date: January 14, 2020

Amazon Crossing

The Doll Factory: A Novel by Elizabeth Macneal

 

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Her eyes, sockets slightly hollowed, contained a loneliness and longing that felt at once familiar. It was as if an invisible cord united them.

Iris Whittle wants freedom, not to endure her sister Rose’s jealousy ‘until, at last, some scrawny boy fattens her with child after child’, slaving over laundry, cooking ‘rotten offal’ and  tending infants ‘mewling with scarlatina and influenza and God knows what else’. Iris and her twin sister Rose apprenticed at Mrs. Salter’s Doll Emporium, spends her day painting the delicate dolls faces, a ‘drudgery’- a dark skill at times painting custom dolls  from daguerreotypes of children, who may or may not be dead, ‘commemorative dolls’. She wants a way out of her life, but with a sick twin sister who relies on her, is marriage the only way? Youth and beauty is currency, but her passion is art, sketching since she was a child.

As The Great Exhibition “of the works of industry of all nations” is to be held in the Crystal Palace now being built in Hyde Park, London- it’s promise is calling out to Iris. It is a world for artists like herself  and what is more thrilling to someone whose life is nothing but toil, feeling like slavery? Then there is Silas and his specimens of the dead, his taxidermy shop, with aspirations for a museum, where he can share his world with the masses. If he could perfect preservation, freeze moments in time, rid the stench and rot of death…if only he could have better specimens, a thing so marvelous that others would be mesmerized, why then he would be someone! It’s never enough, these paltry commissions, not for a man of his ambitions! The average man has no idea the skill, the genius his creations require, no. It takes a discerning eye to appreciate the beauty, the art! These specimens are about life! Why do others only see the macabre?  At least he has ‘street brat’ Albie to scavenge for curiosities! It’s nothing for Albie using a hemp sack as his “Dead Creatures bag”, anything to make a shilling, a boy has gotta survive these mean London streets, even if you peddle death.

The 1850’s London our characters are living in is a far cry from the upper crust Victorian delicacy we think of- the fashion, the fine sensibilities, in The Doll Factory we have an atmospheric England with it’s more offensive smells and underbelly, the dark side of all those gentleman and their baser urges. Albie and others of his ilk turn to crime with limited choices, either pickpockets or prostitutes- their brutal worlds, never dreaming of the sheltered lives of children born to finer families. This is the darkest part of the novel, thinking of children up to their eyes in filth and the scum of the times. We love to look away from the ugly reality of the past, it’s hard to stomach, imagine living it. I’m the type watching Pride and Prejudice and thinking ‘wow, I wonder how awful the lives of the people serving the main characters were’, thinking ‘oh yeah, my luck I’d be the peasant, no time to pine after Darcy’. Not that I don’t love Jane Austen, I just think Victorian Times were more about the spread of infectious diseases like smallpox…syphilis… consumption- ah the past.

Back to the novel… it is through Albie that Silas has a most fortunate encounter with the beautiful Iris, honing in on an unusual part of her, awakening his obsession. Fate for some can be a dark shadow hovering, waiting for fulfillment. For Iris, it is her meeting with Lois Frost that is full of meaning, part of the PRB (Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood), a man who trained at the Royal Academy and feels she would be the perfect model for him. A boon, he will pay her too! She sees this fine bit of luck as the the opportunity to learn how to paint under his tutelage, if he agrees it will seal the deal, her reservations be damned. There are more brave choices for her to make, sacrifices to earn that precious freedom to live as she wants, it could cost her not just her reputation but her family- but she can taste that other life, it’s so close. The threat of ruin isn’t enough to force her to change her course!

There is a thin veil between the present day and dreams for Silas as Iris has been sewn into the very fabric of his future. She longs to be Lois’s treasure, not imagining that she is already one man’s curiosity, the means to fulfillment- who says his visions are mad? Silas is biding his time, losing his grip on reality as each day ticks by. He wants to be taken seriously, he knows in time the world will see him as successful, fine gentleman! One day his work will pay off, then everyone who ever insulted him will be sorry. He is a man struggling with his obsessive desire, disgusted by others vices, while obsessing over Iris, watching, learning everything about her, more familiar with her habits than she herself is. The watching, lurking, waiting- this is how some men are forced to commune, to touch what they desire.

Obsession is shackles of the mind, much like ones used to keep someone in captivity. Silas is a tormented man, one who doesn’t take rejection lightly. She must she let him love her! He just needs her to accept his loyal friendship. She will be that someone who understands, accepts his world, his passion.

Everything is spiraling but that invisible cord, it connects them and everyone who stands between them.

Yes, read it if you enjoy dark historical fiction, and the underbelly of Victorian London. There is a stink of death clinging to the pages, the mad desperation of the lonely and the deception of our own minds.

Publication Date: August 13, 2019

Atria Books

 

 

 

 

Never Have I Ever: A Novel by Joshilyn Jackson

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She smiled, and I had no premonition as I smiled back. She didn’t look like my own destruction to me. She looked… the word was “cool”. 

“Cool” is hard to find once your life is consumed by mothering, or heck, even just “adulting” -mothers aren’t the only ones who lose excitement. When Angelica Roux crashes Char’s book club arriving at Amy Whey’s house, where it’s being hosted, they’ve let it their destruction. It’s not just her beauty that unravels the women, “I could feel her charisma like it was a wind she’d set loose in the room, pushing us all forward in our seats”, it is her very presence, her energy. It is as if she is a mesmerist! Charlotte catches on fast seeing that Roux has ‘hijacked’ the evening, she knows how to bait the women into revealing themselves, loosening their inhibitions and all within minutes of her arrival. Wine bottle after wine bottle, damn but it feels good to let yourself go, when you spend so much time living like ‘domesticated animals.’ Their book club is normally just a spot of stolen time, but it’s never been this exciting!

When it’s Amy’s turn to play,  terror invades her very insides as Roux has “cracked open the past”, and Amy’s past is ugly.  Roux has her right where she wants her, and it could blow her happy little family, and home to the wind. How can she keep a brave face with her beloved husband, maintain normalcy caring for their little boy Oliver when threats are looming. Luca (Roux’s son) has taken a fancy to Amy’s Stepdaughter Madison, just one more entanglement. One mistake Amy made in her past ripped a hole in the world, and you can’t just patch something this big, the skeletons will find you. “If she owned my past, then she owned me with it.” Who is Roux really, it’s a game of cat and mouse, even the reader isn’t sure what is happening and that is why this dark novel works so well!

The flashes into the past beg the question, what is culpability? How much punishment, ownership evens the score? Is it even possible to even a score? Roux forces all the horrific pain and memories to return, things Amy had buried to maintain her sanity, to escape the weight of her guilt, to move on in order to live again. It’s not just Amy pulled into her web. Other women will be hurt too. Some horror stories don’t involve ghosts or monsters, but mistakes made in our youth. It’s too easy, for someone like Roux, to collect currency through secrets, revelations. Yet, who is Roux to manipulate and avenge the past? To use the present to bring others down to her level. Can Amy beat her at her own game? Someone with much more money and resources? Does she have secrets of her own that could turn the game in Amy’s favor? Doesn’t everyone have a past?

This is a thriller, true, but somehow it pulls off tenderly heartbreaking moments, reminding us how vulnerable we have been, are still. As for villainy, sometimes it’s a matter of the circumstances. One split second can make a monster out of us all, despite our intentions. I won’t give anything away, read it! It’s engaging and just the side of dark I like.

Publication Date: July 30, 2019

William Morrow

 

Gretchen: A Thriller by Shannon Kirk

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The problem for us is my age. I’m asking questions now. I’m not a little girl who’s satisfied with simple.

This novel is anything but simple. Lucy and her mother are stuck in a pattern, unable to get comfortable anywhere for long, fleeing the moment anyway takes an interest or even shows a flicker of curiosity about them. It was so much easier to fall in line when she was two, but she is fifteen and weary of it all, hungry to anchor in place and have a best friend, to be a normal teenage girl with concerns that don’t involve looking over her shoulder, keeping her head down, diminishing herself until she is almost invisible. Tired of her mother’s moods, and plans, even if it’s out of love, meant to keep her safe. Sick of the constant hammering of sticking to their rules, rules ingrained in her brain. Exhausted with the longing to be just an ordinary girl, like all the other girls she goes to school with.

Just as she finally became a face like any other to her peers in their latest state, Lucy draws too much unwanted attention from a stranger and in an unguarded moment makes eye contact. It’s more than enough reason to flee again, and flee they do finding themselves in a secluded area of New Hampshire, renting a ranch style home from a man, Jerry Sabin and his daughter Gretchen. Why does the daughter’s name so disturb her mother? Why is the answer always “Lucy, some things I can’t tell you yet?” Why must she always wait until the magical age of 18 to know everything and stop running? The Sabin’s are even stranger than she and her mother, all the Keep Out signs on their property, the traps, alarms, electrical fence and then there are the rumors too. Gretchen has known loss, which may well have turned her into a peculiar person, but her obsession with puzzles really takes the cake! She wants so bad to be friends with Lucy, and it’d be nice to finally be able to bond with someone her own age, even if she acts like a freak sometimes, a little too eager for bonding time.

The real puzzle lies in the entangled past that is set off by a game Gretchen plays. Things are darker than they appear, lies are burning on the tongues of children and adults alike. Who is the villain, and how are they made? There are too many pieces, and somehow they are tied in a bigger game that began so long ago. Lucy’s mother gets her way all the time, in everything, because a mother’s love sometimes has to be tough. Sometimes fate decides to throw twists in the schemes of human beings… and what twists! Some threats mommy can’t outrun!

This is an engaging novel, you can feel the frustration with Lucy’s lack of identity in a sense. How can you ever really know yourself fully when you can’t just be a normal kid? When you don’t have the chance to get close to anyone aside from your mother, whose paranoia and fear for you envelopes your entire life? As Lucy has reached that naturally rebellious period of life, where it’s normal to push away at constrains and flirt with adulthood, she isn’t free to develop confidence, autonomy because there is that unnamed threat looming. How will she ever find her inner strength? Will mommy always be there? Gretchen and her father are catalysts, but everyone has their skeletons, no one knows this better than Lucy’s mother. Lucy goes from being sure to disengage from everything to being thrown into the lion’s den, so to speak. Is it weird it was a little fun too? It starts more as a mystery, who are they running from, why and then leaps into a bit of horror.

I enjoyed the read, it went from odd to downright bizarre and I didn’t see the end coming, I had parts figured out, but not the entire puzzle pieces in place. I always enjoy a read that can surprise me!

Publication Date: July 23, 2019

Thomas & Mercer

The Life of Death by Lucy Booth

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For I am there to carry you through those last moments, through the screaming and the seeping, through the fog, and deposit you softly, gently on the other side.

The story begins in 1590, twenty-three year old  Elizabeth “Lizzie” Murphy of Scotland is condemned to burn at the stake for witchcraft. A woman who has ‘a talent for poultice’, along with her sisters, aunts, mothers and women from the village took care of their people, who desperately had need of their cures, nurturing. It wasn’t long before accusations of evil, of witchery was on the tongues of those they helped. Soon, Lizzie strikes a deal with the devil and while burning before the jeers of the people, feels nothing thanks to him. She has, from the moment of her conception been the chosen one, for all Satan wants is for her to usher in the dead for all eternity.

Free of the burning licks from the fires of hate, Lizzie has spent centuries with brief glimpses into others life, taking them over to the other side. Steadfast in her duties as Death, she never falters, nor thinks about that life she traded so long ago too busy tangled up in the last moments of others. This reminded me of a show I loved, Quantum Leap, because she gets inside of people in guiding souls over but once she plays the devil’s game, it is with a far more tragic and at times darker bend. She is a dutiful worker until Tom. Just as the man becomes a widower, Lizzie is reminded of the burning desire for life and an all consuming love. It is time for Death to die, now if she can just outwit the devil, strike a deal with him so she may escape the monotony of taking lives. Then, and only then, will she be able to taste deep love, with Tom.

There isn’t a soul as dark as the beast’s, nor one as skilled at wagers. All she needs to do is take five lives in order to be released. But the catch, of course, is the devil picks who and relishes in the horror of their pain, the sorrow of their final moments. What happens when one of the Satan’s victim is too much bear? Will she change her mind, risk her only chance at love, freedom in the name of fairness? The devil is tricky tricky tricky… Will she allow the sun to set on the innocent for her own selfish desires? Can there ever be a happy ending when the devil is involved? Why is the devil so enamored of Lizzie, what is it about her that captured his attention while she was in her mother’s womb?

This novel raises the ever present question we have when death comes. Why him, why her? Why me? Death feels like a monster, indiscriminately picking us off, and stomping our feet at the inequality of it all releases us from nothing. For death truly is with us, an ever present shadow from the moment we are born. We can’t, not a one of us, escape it- not even by making a pact with the horned one. If you take the time to read About the Author, you discover Lucy Booth was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011 and continued to write, including finishing this very novel. The cancer returned in 2014 and this time Lucy’s battle ended. I hate saying she lost her battle, because she didn’t, we don’t. We live each day and hope to wake up the next, but just like the souls in this novel learn, life isn’t guaranteed. There isn’t a bargain any one of us can make to extend our time.. eventually we come to the end. Age isn’t always factor, sometimes not even the state of our health, and that’s what makes life so precious, that at any moment it can slip through our fingers. So many choices are really just a circle, and you still end up where you started. We do the best with what time we have, and for some it is in mustering the strength to continue on as before and finish a novel.

Out Today!!!!  May 2, 2019

Unbound

The Laws of the Skies by Grégoire Courtois, Rhonda Mullins (Translation)

 

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We are all children, they thought, and none of us is equipped to deal with such an adversary. We go through life under other people’s protection.We listen to instructions and try to follow them.We don’t know what’s true and what’s not. What’s fair and unfair. Our world is small. Our world is narrow.

One of the first things adults learn, life isn’t fair, but at six children aren’t ready for this lesson! Not all of the twelve six-year-olds lost in the woods are afraid, the adults certainly are. This is a camping treat turned nightmare! All they have, when the night turns to horror, is each other but the woods are deep, dark and filled with unseen predators that lurk, plants that poison, but the cruelest of them all could be among them already. When the children scatter in terror and the adults disappear, all you know is no one is getting out alive. This isn’t a fairy tale with a moral, if only the children could have slept through the horror, the blood splatter, the brain matter… Don’t enter this tale with a lick of hope! For what horror is worse than the senselessness of evil, the creepy demise of a warped mind?

The wild creatures are sleeping, for now, unaware of the chaos, the warm bodies that could fill their bellies. Whimpering cries, cracked skulls, sliced arteries… the children sway, the children fall, the ground drops, there will be a battle, but the hero is no victor, because there isn’t a happy ending. The characters can’t hear you weep for them, words of support won’t be a beacon to freedom, to salvation… this is the end my friend.

There is nothing to give away, every child is doomed, the telling is in the hunt, the story is the who but when is there ever an answer to why? I finished this when I was still on heavy medication from surgery, I cringed a lot. Those poor little ones.

Publication Date: May 10, 2019

Coach House Books