*So much for my Freaky Friday posts. I made it one week. **puts head in hands.**
Make me watch a scary movie and I’m the clichéd person watching through the tiny slivers of space between my fingers. But give me a terrifying book and I’m an intrepid explorer, the person who isn’t scared to investigate the suspicious noise or bewildering chill in the house.
I’ve been waiting for a book to scare me, and I didn’t fully realize it until I began Hester Fox’s powerfully atmospheric The Witch of Willow Hall.
Unlike the romances I’ve been reading, this book offered no guaranteed Happily Ever After, and I could feel that uncertainty—and the fears, anger, and resentment—burning on every page as Lydia Montrose settled into her new home, Willow Hall, and learned its secrets.
It’s not just Willow Hall that’s the mystery here.
There is something…different about Lydia, something her mother tells her she must hide from others forever. It leads to Tommy Bishop being hurt when he and Lydia are children; it divides Lydia and her sister, Catherine, reminding them both of the first time their family was almost ruined; and it threatens to erupt at Willow Hall, where they’ve moved in an effort to escape Boston and the public ruination of their family.
Fox is adept at pacing; she shrouds so much of the house and characters in mystery, and then slowly pulls back the veil bit by bit, until Lydia—and the readers—have just enough information to scuttle along until the next crisis. And she’s even more skilled in how she makes use of imagery. The characters and their wild, isolated, terrifying setting are richly evoked, particularly when it comes to the creepy little details that distinguish a really good ghost story from a mediocre one.
There were a few details of the plot that I questioned—they didn’t seem to entirely make sense in terms of characterization—but The Witch of Willow Hall gave me so much that I was looking for: it's a well-crafted, engrossing ghost story that had me shivering in fright and glee.
**I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley but all opinions provided are my own.
Need to Know: Things We Lost in the Fire is creepy, sinister, and mesmerizing.
After reading Mariana Enriquez’s short story collection*, Things We Lost in the Fire, I’m a little scared to go to bed tonight.
The stories are macabre and grotesque, teeming with people, things, and phenomena that should not exist, but do. Set in Argentina and primarily featuring female narrators, the stories are linked together by common themes including, as others have noted, pervasive violence and destruction. But what I found even more fascinating is how the women in Enriquez's stories respond to the violence and destruction: whether they act in some way--and how those efforts do or do not pay off--, or whether they do nothing, which offers a kind of hollow safety.
One of my favorite stories in the collection is “End of Term,” a haunting story focusing on teenage girls, one of whom is seemingly mentally ill. The narrator is one of many at the school who observes Marcela pull out her own nails and later, cut herself on the face. Other incidents of Marcela’s self-harm follow, and the narrator finds herself first interested in a detached sort of way, and then, increasingly invested in finding out why Marcela harms herself. In this story, Enriquez plays with distinctions between madness and truth and the thin line between being a detached observer and someone who has become too dangerously involved.
Enriquez paints Buenos Aires and other cities within Argentina compellingly, if terrifyingly. She focuses little on the natural landscape except to indicate how it’s been affected by elements of the supernatural. Instead, her stories are primarily grounded in the places where people dwell: the “slums,” strange houses, police academies turned inns, and most frightening of all, the homes where the characters should be safest.
Sometimes relationships with others provide some type of bulwark against outside forces, but many times, the stories highlight how very alone these characters are.
Most of these stories provoked a visceral response from me: a clenched, tense stomach or a wince. But I kept reading, and that’s because Enriquez offers much to her readers. Concise prose, often with the air of the colloquial. Characters who are relatable in their uncertainty and their fear. And a sharp and unsettling exploration of how fragile the borders are between safety and danger.
*Translated by Megan McDowell.
I received a copy of this book from Blogging For Books, but all opinions expressed in this post are my own.
At this point of my life, it feels extra special to buy a new, hardback book. I typically buy used books or check out books out from my library. But I’ve been crushing on Book of the Month (BOTM) for several months now, and at Christmas I decided to buy myself a 3-month subscription and say that it was from my husband. (Daniel, this will be a test to see if you actually read my blog. I will wait anxiously to see if you ask me about this supposed gift later today ;) )
You can check out how Book of the Month works here.
I (cough: Daniel) opted for the 3-month plan, which theoretically meant that I would receive a total of 3 books. But, BOTM was offering a magical offer when I subscribed, so I was actually guaranteed a minimum of four hardback books to add to my library. Happiness. But wait, it gets even better.
For the month of January, I selected Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney. All BOTM subscribers also received a free copy of Gillian Flynn’s The Grownup, as a just-because extra gift!!!!! Finally, I got a BOTM tote because it was offered when I signed up. While you’re not supposed to make absolute statements, I have to say: everyone loves a good tote.
So let me tell you, I was very excited to open my box of goodies on Wednesday morning. I was so excited that that day I took several pictures of my books and complimentary paper bookmark, and tore through the roughly fifty pages of Gillian Flynn’s The Grownup, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
The Grownup is marketed as an “homage to the classic ghost story.” Yes, please.
Although I can make myself scared over almost anything, I love a good ghost story, and Flynn’s The Grownup is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s one of those slight but dense stories that I would love to discuss in a book club or a class because so much happens in 50-odd pages and the ending is one that’s open to interpretation.
But let’s go back to the basics. The unnamed female narrator—who has had a series of very interesting jobs—is currently serving as a clairvoyant. She is very skilled at reading people, but the clairvoyant claim is a scam. Still, when a desperate woman named Susan asks her to cleanse her home, the unnamed narrator accepts because of the extra cash and the relatively easy job—she might have time to read from the woman’s library while she’s “cleansing” the home.
Once she arrives at Susan’s house, the story gets more complicated. The unnamed narrator discovers that she is also affected by how the house looks and feels. Add a creepy step-son and you’ve got a rich, weighty ghost story to get scared by and lost in.
Why don’t you read it so we can discuss the ending?
I’m not sure if Daniel will buy me a longer subscription to BOTM once this one ends, but I am loving BOTM so far. If you would like to sign up for BOTM, and you use this link, I’ll get a free book!
Now I’m going to try to enjoy today, and tomorrow, my BFF Laura and I, along with other friends, will be participating in the Lexington, KY Women’s March. Let's remember to stand up for what we believe in and what we know to be right. In the words of Patton Oswalt: "So if we're really going to fight back, and resist, the first thing we have to do -- and it's only a little thing, really, but it's gotta be everyday -- is an ongoing, gentle blowing on the tiny spark of sanity that's still left, to keep it glowing."
*This is not a sponsored post. I just love BOTM so far and wanted to share my experience with you.
Simone St. James
I am what we call in American parlance a “scaredy cat.” I still watch scary movies through a crack in my fingers. When the music starts speeding up and I’m positive that at any moment a ghost-hand is going to dart out from underneath a bed (thank you, The Sixth Sense, for ruining my life), I turn the sound down to half the normal volume so that I won’t be quite as frightened.
All of this is to say that I’m surprised that I love gothic stories. And gothic stories, particularly those with romance in them, are my jam/my happy place.
Simone St. James had been on my “to read” list for a couple of years and 2016 was the year that I finally made it through her catalog: The Haunting of Maddy Clare (2012), An Inquiry into Love and Death (2013), Silence for the Dead (2014), The Other Side of Midnight (2015), and Lost Among the Living (2016). Paranormal romances set in England between the world wars, St. James’ novels are atmospheric, suspenseful, and tender, and I devour them like they’re Chocolate Chunk cookies from Costco. (That means that I read them very, very quickly).
In each book St. James’ main character is an intrepid woman who engages with some element of the occult. Whether the woman is battling a ghost or trying to solve a murder, the stakes are high. And on the romantic front, the main female character in each book finds herself falling in love with a deliciously attractive man. Yes, all of this is highly realistic—and I’m not being sarcastic.
So if you like your frights to be balanced with a healthy dollop of sensuality (more sweet than explicit), try Simone St. James’ books. They offer a delightful, satisfying escape.
Perfect If You: Want to be scared but not too scared; love gothic romances and you’ve read Rebecca a million times already
Not Recommended If You: Are a highly skeptical person who is unwilling to believe that a person might be able to end a haunting + fall in love with a human simultaneously.
Check Out: If you like St. James’ books, try another great book I read in 2016, This House is Haunted, by John Boyne. I also have a MAJOR literary crush on Kate Morton, who has published numerous books in this same vein. While I didn’t read any of her books this year, I recommend her HIGHLY. (I contemplated using “bigly” instead of “highly,” but as far as I’m concerned it’s too soon for those kinds of Trump jokes.)
I’ve read 93 books in 2016 so far. This post is part of a series on my favorites.
The Passage Trilogy by Justin Cronin
This amazing trilogy starts with the somewhat overdone premise of a vampire catastrophe, but if you are allergic to any stories involving vampires, or object to vampire lit. as a matter of principle, don’t write this trilogy off just yet.
This series made me feel all the feelings, as Jane Austen once wrote. The books are terrifying, electrifying, and action-packed, and yet the characters, both human and vampire, and their various motivations, their desperate fights for survival, and their ties to their communities, are the real stand-out here.
And perhaps the best part of all is that Cronin is a really, really good writer. If you haven’t picked these up yet, enjoy digging into three GIGANTIC books, including The Passage (2010), The Twelve (2012), and The City of Mirrors (2016), the latter of which I read and loved this year.
Perfect If You: Want to be a thoughtful-and-reflective-kind-of-scared; enjoy The Walking Dead; are searching for meaty books to get lost in (these are all really long)
Not Recommended If You: Want to read another angst-ridden love-triangle vampire book; are already scared that the apocalypse is nigh because Donald Trump was elected
Have you read The Passage trilogy? What did you think?
About the Author
When my toddler and infant sleep--or are otherwise engaged--I write, read, and eat lots of chocolate.