Review: Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

A psychological thriller that punches you in the heart. Mystic River by Dennis Lehane (5/5)

Okay I’m skipping a few books that I read first so that I can write about Mystic River. I read Mystic River February 28-March 7, 2019 as part of a readalong hosted by @ilovethispod and @8luebird – it’s not my usual genre, but I had heard enough good things about Dennis Lehane that I wanted to give it a try. I’d also picked up Shutter Island but I know the twist to that one because I’ve seen the movie.

From GoodReads:

When they were children, Sean Devine, Jimmy Marcus, and Dave Boyle were friends. But then a strange car pulled up to their street. One boy got into the car, two did not, and something terrible happened — something that ended their friendship and changed all three boys forever. 

Twenty-five years later, Sean is a homicide detective. Jimmy is an ex-con who owns a corner store. And Dave is trying to hold his marriage together and keep his demons at bay — demons that urge him to do terrible things. When Jimmy’s daughter is found murdered, Sean is assigned to the case. His investigation brings him into conflict with Jimmy, who finds his old criminal impulses tempt him to solve the crime with brutal justice. And then there is Dave, who came home the night Jimmy’s daughter died covered in someone else’s blood. 

A tense and unnerving psychological thriller, Mystic River is also an epic novel of love and loyalty, faith and family, in which people irrevocably marked by the past find themselves on a collision course with the darkest truths of their own hidden selves.

In a technical sense, Lehane is amazing. The word choice, the flow of the language, the specificity of setting without being myopic, and the near poetry of the way he describes things is just incredible work. Even when I didn’t like what I was reading (re: gore, violence, other triggery things) I enjoyed the way it was written. The story unfolds over a very short period of time but so many details and events are documented that it should get boring or feel slow, but most of the time it doesn’t. If anything I wanted more of these deep dives, more of the thoughts of our three narrators as things happened.

The characters are another success of Lehane’s work in this book. The voices of the narrators are all distinct from each other while still maintaining high quality writing. Through their eyes we form not just attachments to them, but to their families, and most especially to Katie (I’ll circle back to her.) They are all strong in their own way, and all pathetic in their own way. I appreciated that the book didn’t wax poetic or hang everything on childhood friendships and get nostalgic over something. It was very clear that what happened to Dave separated them from each other, rather than uniting them. It was more like an ax hanging over their heads rather than something to cling to as a reason for care or loyalty. We see almost everything about Sean, most things about Dave, but I felt like very intentional choices were made to not to tell us about Jimmy. We know Jimmy now – we only see him through his kid eyes for a small amount of page time, and we never get any direct flashbacks to the Jimmy between then and when we first meet him as an adult. Jimmy has always been mysterious, and even when the narration is inside his mind, things are hidden. We know he loves deeply and fiercely, and we know he buried a part of himself away enough to be good on the surface.

The plot is straightforward, and anyone who likes to try and figure out the truth and is also a jaded cynic will figure it out. I had a hunch from the very beginning. I am also an investigator for a living, so maybe that’s why my brain noticed and went back to certain things. Even if you do figure it out, getting there is quite the trip and it makes the confirmation of who killed Katie no less devastating. The resolution of finding and confronting her killer is so damn dark and depressing. There is no feeling of justice, and it’s so brutally well done.

Because if you paid attention, you love Katie. The Katie you seem from her friends, her boyfriend, her dad, and even Dave. She came out the other side of her dad being in jail and losing her mom to cancer as a good, loving person. A daughter, a big sister, a girlfriend, a niece. She was loved and she was easy to love. It makes her murder and the process of finding her killer and trying to find resolution have a strong drive, and it makes the ending hurt in a variety of ways.

Our three main protagonists each get some kind of resolution at the end and like their characterization, the conclusions of their stories in this novel are both strong and pathetic. I have wishes for all of them – I wished that I could speak for them, or be the voice in their heads telling them what they aren’t seeing. The end is dark as fuck and I know that’s kind of Lehane trait. One I think he earns well with his writing.

This novel is detailed and intricate, and for someone who wants a driving plot and an emotional assault – this is definitely your read. Initially, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it and I gave this book four stars, but after writing this review and how I feel a week later – definitely a five star read. Thanks for the book B, I loved it.

Review: Within These Walls

When you move into a house where a cult murder occurred to write about the murder, it can’t end well. A review of Within These Walls by Ania Ahlborn. (4/5)

Within These Walls by Ania Ahlborn was released in April 2015, and I read it December 8, 2017. I basically ignored all other responsibilities I had on Friday to finish this book. Particularly with horror/thriller novels I am not good at reading them in pieces as the tension doesn’t dissipate for me when I close the book to go do other things. Anyway, I binged this and it was great.

A summary from Amazon:

How far would you go for success? What would you be capable of if the promise of forever was real?

With his marriage on the rocks and his life in shambles, washed-up true-crime writer Lucas Graham is desperate for a comeback, one more shot at the bestselling success he once enjoyed. His chance comes when he’s promised exclusive access to death row inmate Jeffrey Halcomb, the notorious cult leader and mass murderer who’s ready to break his silence after thirty years, and who contacted Lucas personally from his maximum-security cell. With nothing left to lose, Lucas leaves New York to live and work from the scene of the crime: a split-level farmhouse on a gray-sanded beach in Washington State whose foundation is steeped in the blood of Halcomb’s diviners—runaways who were drawn to his message of family, unity, and unconditional love. There, Lucas sets out to capture the real story of the departed faithful. Except that he’s not alone. For Jeffrey Halcomb promised his devout eternal life…and within these walls, they’re far from dead.

Warning, this is going to be slightly spoilery.

One of the strongest parts of the novel for me was Vee – she’s normal. Normal in the sense that she’s struggling, angsty, a bit morbid, and trying find where she fits in. I was especially disturbed at the role she played in the novel because she is so much younger than the people Halcomb recruited and influenced at only 12. It made sense because it meant it would be even easier to manipulate a child on the cusp of adolescence who had no life experience to give her any doubts at all. At first, I was actually disappointed in her. About 3/4 through the book I was just thinking “ugh, why? This does not seem in character.” But then when I thought about the way living in that house and the influences within it were impacting both Vee and Lucas, it made sense that Vee would not take a minute to second guess what was happening to her. Sometimes I forgot Vee was only 12, but I don’t think others in the novel did which also led to the authenticity of her voice and responses – I too, would have loved to be left alone all the time when I was 12 and was not allowed to do so.

Lucas made me feel all sorts of ways. I understood what it felt like to disappear inside writing and time passes and you don’t notice it or forget to eat or break promises. But he was so aware of it and kept doing it anyway – he knew that things weren’t right in that house, that something was wrong, and opened himself up to being taken over. While It’s clear Halcomb still had influence and was dangerous, Lucas is at fault, in the long run. He lies, he hedges, he procrastinates, and he acts selfishly. On a spectrum of good father to bad father, he lands on the bad father end of the spectrum.

The atmosphere is SO FANTASTIC. I feel a little bit shamed for my immediate love of the old school retro house with conversation pit living room that everyone made fun of, but I also felt like I could picture the house really well. I could picture why the shadows were creepy. The atmosphere was just right in terms of the house being isolated, the house being a special location that caused the characters would question if something was real or not, and the way each character’s own specific fears were well articulated. Ahlborn describes their fears in a multi-sensation way that it’s easier for the fear to come off the page, and reminds the reader that the characters are always being watched. If they are in that house, they are never alone. It’s very creepy.

Any fan of horror, who has even a passing interest in cults, will enjoy this book. I appreciated the point that people aren’t aware they are joining a cult when they do. That’s kind of the point – you don’t know what’s happening until you’re too stuck to get out.

I would also love to read about young Jeffrey Halcomb and his time in Veldt, KS. I have so many questions, and the origins of the cult leader was one of the parts of the book that intrigued me the most. I’m often more interested in the origins of the criminal than in the crimes themselves.

Overall, I give Within These Walls 4/5 for being eerie and dark and making me say “Oh no!” to the ending. And that there was an extra twist at the that I wasn’t expecting. Abandon hope, anyone who reads this, and prepare to walk into darkness. This was my first Ania Ahlborn that I got from the library, and I will be checking out the others on the shelves.

Book Talk – the Making of Gabriel Davenport by Beverley Lee

The Making of Gabriel Davenport by Beverley Lee came out on April 1, 2016 and I read it August 15-16, 2017.

A synopsis, from Amazon:

In a house built on truth something lays hidden. Beth and Stu Davenport moved to the English hillside town of Meadowford Bridge to give their young son, Gabriel, an idyllic, rural childhood. But in a single evening, the Davenports’ dream is shattered by a hidden, ancient darkness– and their lives are forever changed. Years later, Gabriel Davenport, now a capable, curious young man, makes the ill-fated decision to go looking for answers about his mysterious past. As soon as he begins his quest, his life becomes a place of shadows. The people he loves and trusts are acting abnormally. The strange woman who lives upstairs is even more haunted than usual. Even his most trusted friend seems to be hiding something. As one fateful night deepens, and the line blurs between darkness and light, Gabriel must confront the terrible events that destroyed his family all those years ago. He is faced with a choice: continue living the life that was never his to begin with, or give himself over to a terrifying new reality more sinister than anything he’s ever known. The darkness is watching.


This book is part ghost/haunted house, part demonic threat, and part vampire stories. It makes for a satisfying read because if you like the horror genre, a lot of boxes are ticked by this novel. I have still been itching for a good haunted house story and the almost haunted houseness of this book made that itch even worse.

But it brings me to one of my favorite things about this book: the setting. Setting is one of my own biggest weaknesses, so I pay close attention to the people who do it well. Lee does it very well. It starts with the Davenport house, but it’s also capturing the spirit of the village, of the shape of the roads, and the distance between neighbors. The real success is the Manor though; the house is a character in itself as much as it is a setting – the house itself is almost as possessed, as manipulated, and as broken as any of the people who inhabit it during the course of the story. Houses, dwellings, are always safer than we think they are, and the Manor learns that it is not invulnerable, and that secrets rarely stay buried. The Manor is also part of the character of Edward Carver, and the secrets the house reveals are either Carver’s own, or hurt him the most. This is definitely a story about secrets – the real and the supernatural kind – and the consequences for thinking keeping them is the best course of action.

The other thing I loved about this book was the eponymous Gabriel Davenport. He is a perfect depiction of that liminal space between child and young adult – he believes that he is ready to know the truth about what happened when he was a baby and that he can handle it, while simultaneously being terrified that he cannot. He’s also young enough and has lived such a life that he is aware of his emotions, aware of his fear, and sometimes he even finds the strength to overcome it and do the right thing. I enjoyed the chapters that were in his perspective the most because he was the least damaged in traditional ways (the damage we acquire upon growing up, and the loss of innocence) – Gabriel is ultimately still innocent, but has also been carrying an enormous burden and sense of blame his entire life which is a unique kind of damage. It made him easy to care for, and easy to empathize with.

The only character that ultimately frustrated me was Noah Isaacs, but I wonder what will be resolved with him in the next book, A Shining in the Shadows. One of the subtle questions that Making asks is what power faith has – and not just the religious kind, but the faith we place in other people. Noah’s religious faith is tested, even fails, and that effects the faith the other characters have in him. It’s about the faith the Gabriel has in Carver and Noah to “solve the problem” and save him, and when he begins to doubt that they can, he trusts someone that maybe he shouldn’t.

It’s a book with a very unique family unit, and it is both their strength and their vulnerability. It’s hard to see anything coming in this story, and I liked that a lot. I am definitely curious about what happens next.

If you like moody, scary, semi-violent horror novels then the Making of Gabriel Davenport is definitely for you.

 

A Rant About Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

This isn’t about Miriam, it’s about Harriet, but Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig is killer (ha!) (4/5)

Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig was published September 2015, and I read it February 16-18, 2017. It is the first book in the Miriam Black series – a brief summary:

Miriam Black knows how you’re going to die. This makes her daily life a living hell, especially when you can’t do anything about it, or stop trying to. She’s foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, and suicides. She merely needs to touch you—skin to skin contact—and she knows how and when your final moments will occur. Miriam has given up trying to save people; that only makes their deaths happen. But then she hitches a ride with Louis Darling and shakes his hand, and she sees in thirty days that Louis will be murdered while he calls her name. Louis will die because he met her, and Miriam will be the next victim. No matter what she does she can’t save Louis. But if she wants to stay alive, she’ll have to try.

Yeah, yeah way to go Chuck, great book. It was a 4/5 read for me – some parts were slow going and I’m taking a point off because I really want to hate Ashley but I mostly don’t. I am, however, deeply amused that a book character shares my name and was excited that for once it was a dude. I am a lady, but I know the origins of my name and think men need to reclaim it.


This book is dark, humorous, gory, and pretty graphic. You know how Stephen King sometimes writes really horrifically specific descriptions of bad things happening to genitals? It’s like that, but whole bodies and brains and emotions. But you’re also laughing and the tension is built SO FANTASTICALLY, especially the Interludes of the Interview. It took all of my self-control not to skip ahead and read those parts to see the whole sub-plot. There was also kind of a Pulp Fiction vibe, and I dug it.

I’m also super grateful to Chuck for the Interludes idea, because it really helped with something I was stuck on in my own novel.

Anyway, this isn’t really a review of Blackbirds, I just want to have a kind of spoilery rant about the character of Harriet.

Honestly, just thinking “carpet noodle” fills me with fury! Righteous, glorious fury! Not at Wendig, at Harriet. Wendig is awesome for this.

It just blew my mind that part of how Harriet became Harriet involved murdering a man because down with the fucking patriarchy…only to be manipulated and trapped under the thumb of another man. Only to be willing to disobey his orders to keep him all to herself – Harriet was oppressed by a man, and then controlled by one, and it’s like she couldn’t even see it. She couldn’t see that she was LEASHED! Ugh, even though Harriet was totally amoral and is not a person I would ever like to meet, the stunted possibility of her character just crushed me. Part of me was like – “Yeah, that’s right, carpet noodle, because once again you’re losing everything for a man who doesn’t even appreciate you!”

Yeah. So. You should read this book and then rant with me in the comments.

 

Review: the Winter People

When Ruthie’s mother goes missing, she is pulled into a mystery and a horror more far-reaching than she can imagine. The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon (5/5)

“If snow melts down to water does it still remember being snow?”

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon was published in 2014 – I read it December 4-5, 2016.
As summarized on Amazon:

West Hall, Vermont, has always been a town of strange disappearances and old legends. The most mysterious is that of Sara Harrison Shea, who, in 1908, was found dead in the field behind her house just months after the tragic death of her daughter.
 
Now, in present day, nineteen-year-old Ruthie lives in Sara’s farmhouse with her mother, Alice, and her younger sister. Alice has always insisted that they live off the grid, a decision that has weighty consequences when Ruthie wakes up one morning to find that Alice has vanished. In her search for clues, she is startled to find a copy of Sara Harrison Shea’s diary hidden beneath the floorboards of her mother’s bedroom. As Ruthie gets sucked into the historical mystery, she discovers that she’s not the only person looking for someone that they’ve lost. But she may be the only one who can stop history from repeating itself.

It’s a mystery about grief and letting go – about magic – about ghosts – and maybe even…zombies? I definitely fall into the camp of people who would call this a zombie novel, albeit an elegant and delicately crafted one.

The novel switches between times and points of view: in 1908 we are with Sara and Martin, and in the present time we are with Ruthie, and a woman named Katherine who is pulled into the mystery through trying to understand the source of her own loss.

How things tie together is so immensely layered – all these little pieces come together to form a picture that is multi-dimensional. Things from the past effect the future of course, but things from the present shed a lot of light on the past. It really asks you to consider – how far would you go to see a loved one again? What price would be too high?

It’s interesting as well that the relationships mothers have to daughters and the bonds we form with our families play such an important role – even the peripheral characters have important roles in the plot, and in the survival of the mystery so that it stretches all the way to the present.

I cannot say enough that this novel is just expertly crafted – there are no wasted words or scenes, there’s very little exposition for its own sake, and it makes you question. Art is supposed to make you feel something, it’s supposed to make you uncomfortable or wonder or doubt. I hope that anyone who reads this novel feels uncomfortable. It makes us confront the cost of our choices.

Also, it manages to be totally supernatural in a way that seems completely plausible. It plays on the unknown – just enough is revealed or explained to make you keep your disbelief suspended, but in the end you still don’t entirely understand how the magic works. You even get the feeling that you don’t want to – and I love that.

“Oh what power the dead have over the living!”

I give the Winter People 5/5 – it’s an excellent read.

Disappearance at Devil’s Rock

A review of Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay (5/5)

Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay was released June 21, 2016. I read it November 20-21, 2016.

One night in the heat of August, Tommy Sanderson disappears. He was with his friends in the Borderlands State Park at a place they called Devil’s Rock when he ran into the woods and didn’t come back out.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that.

Tremblay books are really hard to summarize.


This is the story of his mother, Elizabeth, and his little sister, Kate, as they try and figure out why Tommy and his friends went into the woods in the first place, and why Tommy didn’t come out. It’s a story of growing up and growing away, and the moments that take away innocence and thrust children into adulthood. It’s the story of the particular kind of loneliness that comes from losing a parent, from death or from leaving, and the way you might choose to fill that space. The story of what can happen not when we dream too big, but when we think our dreams are too big for us. It’s a story that asks you to believe in the maybe – maybe there’s something more out there, maybe there is a darker shadow in the shadows, and maybe sometimes we can see what’s coming and we can’t stop it.

One of my favorite things about this novel was how much I loved Tommy. Maybe it’s because the story is mostly told from the perspective of people who loved him, but I finished the story with such a sense of attachment to him. It’s also good to see myself reflected in a character – I too spend a lot of time discussing zombie contingent plans when there is a lull in the conversation. I have made note of some of the thoughts shared in these pages to bring to my next discussion with my husband.

I cannot help but compare this to A Head Full of Ghosts. Tremblay’s voice in both works is so strong – his talent for tiny details that make the scene brutally clear, the code in which children speak to each other, and the constant existential crisis of the cusp of puberty and what it means to grow up. Those are all there in both. The difference I enjoyed is that while Merry as unreliable narrator makes Ghosts terrifying, Elizabeth is a very reliable narrator and that makes what happens, the supernatural and the natural, all the more devastating. Her certainty makes me believe. And that’s what makes it scary. That’s what made me get the chills in the end of the book, reading her understanding of events, when I both knew and had no explanation for what happened.

Some might feel that the pace of Disappearance is a bit slow, but I think this was done very intentionally. We experience the waiting and the discovery in almost real time with Elizabeth and Kate. We live through those excruciating days of invasion and the unknown right along with them. We do not get a montage of their pain. We do not get to skip to the revelations. We read their pain, and we earn the revelation. I felt like I was learning teeny bits of information at a time and then when I stopped to look I found myself halfway through the book.

Another excellent book from an excellent writer – 5/5 from me, easily. It is a tight, well-crafted, makes you doubt your own mind kind of story and I would definitely recommend it.

I also want to share a last, slightly controversial, thought. I love the way Tremblay writes women. The controversial part is not that Tremblay writes women well, it is the obvious opposite that some male-identifying authors do not. In both books I have read by him, the women feel very real, like myself or women I know, and a lot of the thoughts and actions that occur could just as easily be a male character too because what they are doing and reacting to is not inherently gendered (for the most part; Marjorie is a bit but it makes sense within the story.) Tremblay writes women as complete people and I think sometimes that doesn’t occur, and is the struggle some women feel in the world of adult fiction. Women are not plot devices, metaphors, or achievements. Tremblay’s work crafts complex and detailed people – his work excellently captures essential humanness, and I think there’s something to be said for that. Both novels easily pass the Bechdel test, and in fact both novels highlight the bonds between women in a way that shapes the narrative. I think that’s awesome.

Review – Ink and Bone

A haunting is a two way street. A review of Ink and Bone by Lisa Unger. (3/5)

Ink and Bone by Lisa Unger was released June 7, 2016 – I finished it October 12, 2016.

inkandbone

Ink and Bone is part detective story, part supernatural thriller, all heartbreak.

Finley Montgomery is some kind of psychic, a Dreamer or Listener depending on who you ask, and she’s come back to the Hollows, NY to learn from her grandmother. Finley was born with her gifts, Eloise got them after a car accident that killed one of her children and her husband. Eloise collaborates with a private detective, Cooper Jones, to solve cases as well as comfort the living left behind. But the Hollows gets what it wants, and it’s reaching out for Finley. Cooper Jones gets a case where all psychic roads point to Finley – and she begins to embrace and explore her gift in order to rescue a kidnapped child from a family of monsters.

As someone who is still moving through grief over the loss of a friend, I found this book oddly comforting. In the world of Ink and Bone, a haunting is a two way street – sometimes the spirit chooses, but sometimes the living haunt the dead and don’t let them go. The sense of peace and awareness of something beyond was also positive without being preachy, without ascribing to any religious belief, and managed to ring true. There are spirits who are recently lost, as well as ones who’ve been haunting Finley’s family for a long time. She can be led astray, or led to the truth. Finley needs a little leading in this book.

This is really a book about exploring the connections we have with one another, and that some of those connections can’t be rationally explained. A lot of Carl Jung is pulled in and the concept that psychic abilities are just a part of the human brain and psyche that we don’t yet understand. Finley and Eloise explain abilities like a spectrum – everyone has a little bit of something, all they have to do is explore it and honor it.

I liked the relationships between Finley and her family members – they were complicated, sometimes negative, but ultimately loving. People don’t always understand each other or get along, and that’s especially frustrating when they’re related. Some of the descriptions or attributes of characters start out very shallow or stereotypical, but Unger always goes deeper. Even the mistress is more than meets the eye, when so much of the initial description is meant to make her seem like nothing. What we learn about some of the side characters almost says more about the narrating character than it does about the people they’re describing. Everyone has something you should recoil from, but they all have something redemptive – hope is a thread that pulls this novel together.

It was a quick, emotional read that I enjoyed getting lost in. It was a good book to cozy up with on a really rainy fall day. It pulls you in to a very vivid world. I give Ink and Bone a 3/5 for giving me a sense of peace, and an intriguing mystery.