Book Review: House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski

71Vmj-9DZYLNothing I ever say about this body of work (I hesitate to call it a novel. No other work of fiction exists like it.) will come close to offering up the sum total of my thoughts. I’ll do my best.

It took me a couple years to pick this book up. While I cherish my physical books, I often buy unknown (to me) authors in Kindle format, and take the books on my travels. The lack of a Kindle option kept me passing it over on my reading list, until it didn’t. Heading into my annual New Orleans trip, something told me this was the book I had to have with me. So I ordered it.

This is not an easy read. Nor is it a page turner. It certainly isn’t a book you can or should pick up when you’re sleepy or distracted. But it is, hands down, the most ambitious work I’ve ever held in my hands. And yes, I’ve read (and love) War and Peace.

The Navidson Record, or the story that everything else in this book centers around, is, at its core, with all the loveliness and exquisite detail stripped away, a tale of found footage. Especially disturbing footage, from narrators who don’t have the funds for special effects of the nature required to create their extraordinary experiences within the house, leaving behind years of speculation by critics, experts, psychologists, paranormal hunters, authors, and all nature of individuals.

Pulling back further, telling the story is Johnny Truant, an incredibly unreliable narrator who has come across a collection of analysis on The Navidson Record, and, as he begins to assemble and make sense of it, his own reality spirals further out of control. Most of his contributions to the story are a collection of nonsensical ramblings, sometimes for pages and pages on end, with seemingly no connection to the narrative. In the back of the book, there is also a collection of letters from his institutionalized mother, known as P, whose exact diagnosis is never given but evidence leans toward schizophrenia. As with P’s words to her son, it is unclear how much of what she relays to him is the result of her paranoia and hallucinations, and what is real (if anything). Similarly, It is unclear how much of Johnny’s rambling is a retelling of reality and how much is simply from the fabric of his imagination. After all, he tells (and shows us) what a practiced liar he is (not to mention his relationship with drugs).

687637As Johnny adds footnotes to The Navidson Record, he continuously tells the reader that most of the sources don’t actually exist, and his research turned up no evidence of any of the people involved in the project. Again, it is unclear if this is because it does not exist to him, or to us, or both.

At the center of the tale is, of course, The Navidson Record itself, a story told through Hi 8 footage, cassette recordings, interviews, journal entries, and critical analysis. Will Navidson, his family, and all those he brings into his terrifying discovery of a house with continuously shifting dimensions and intentions, all react very differently to events, both at the surface and deeper down, where the house leaves its mark. Deeper still, the Navidson Record is really two stories: that of the wonders of the house and what it means/where it came from, and the enduring relationship of Will and his partner Karen. Taken separately, they are both fascinating, rewarding stories, one relying on the supernatural, and the other, something more sublime. Taken together, the tale seems to send a deeper message, about the restorative and unshakeable nature of love itself. Will and Karen are not necessarily sympathetic characters, but your sense of what drives them toward one another is nothing short of magnetic.

Layered in through the 700+ pages were exhaustive source notes, quotes, psychological analysis, and all manner of detail that, while overwhelming to the reader, helped to bring this into something cohesive. Dare I say it, real. Was it all necessary? Not to tell the story, no. But I suspect the author wanted to do far more here than simply tell a story. He wanted to leave his readers changed. Questioning.

I could dive in further, but, truly, this isn’t a book I can explain effectively to others. My husband asked me what it was about, and I started to tell him, then came up short. Read it for yourself. Push past the slow parts and rest assured, every detail, every word, every layer is part of this tremendously powerful and delicate dance.

Bravo, Mr. Danieleswki.

Pick up a copy here.

Advertisements

Book Review: 6 Classic Horror Novels (Halloween Edition)

In honor of the best holiday ever (Halloween, obviously), I’m sharing my reviews of 6 classic horror novels: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, Terrifying Tales by Edgar Allan Poe, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen, and Ghost Stories of An Antiquary by M.R. James.

My reviews of the individual titles are below.

The Haunting of Hill House

hillhouseTrue haunted house horror that doesn’t rely on gimmicky bumps in the night. Many of the scares come from within a series of intangibles; the questionable history of the house, the unusual and unsettled minds of those who show up. Most of all, and what best sets the story, is Jackson’s unique command of prose, which makes otherwise unlikeable characters sympathetic, and sets every seen on edge, while also giving it dimension. Real horror at its finest. 5 stars.

Pick up a copy here.

Terrifying Tales

download (7)This is a great collection of stories from Poe, each showcasing his varied talents in storytelling. While I typically prefer his stories which more of a horror-bent (Telltale Heart, Pit and the Pendulum), his gift to literature is the strong ability to get inside your head, both with his writing style and with his love of description. Was great to revisit stories I already knew, and discover some new to me. 5 stars.

Pick up a copy here.

Frankenstein

223900

I have to say… I read this book as a kid, forgot about it, and then subsequently allowed popular culture to drive my impression of this old tale. The truth is, the pop culture version is far less interesting. THIS is compelling literature. A classic. Unlike the tropes in the typical Frankenstein movies out there, this is a true horror story, from beginning to end. Chilling. Horrifying. This is what horror is supposed to be. I only wish I’d revisited this sooner. 5 stars.

Pick up a copy here.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

52

I have a love/hate relationship with Wilde’s writing. It is some of the most lush, dimensional, colorful prose I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading, while also being, at times, a painful slog. His observations on society and humanity, as seen through the eyes of his characters, are fascinating and well-fleshed. Harry, in particular, makes so many interesting, thought-provoking observations (if not entirely self-indulgent), that you could write a book about him alone.

My one complaint about this book is the very element I also loved about it; it is roughly a third too long, and some of the meatier themes are buried in pages and pages of description that add minimal to the story, bordering on purple prose.

That said, there are few stories, then or now, that could hold a candle to the thematic masterpiece of The Picture of Dorian Gray. 4 stars.

Pick up a copy here.

Great God Pan

The-Great-God-PanI can no doubt see how this disturbing short tale inspired many a horror writer, including Lovecraft. From the composition of the story, to the shocking ending, the only fault I can find in this tale is that I wish it had been longer. Will definitely read more from Machen. 5 stars.

Pick up a copy here.

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

g3-mr-james-ghost-stories-of-an-antiquaryI am a sucker for a good ghost story… especially one which comes in the wrappings of a 19th century British scholar and the assertion the tales are real events he’s come across in his studies. I loved all the stories, but The Mezzotint stayed with me the longest. I’ve even gone as far as to research the print. 5 stars.

Pick up a copy here.

Book Review: The Plantagenets by Dan Jones

plantagenets

I can’t say enough good things about The Plantagenets. As a junior scholar of the time period, I’m always looking for new and fresh perspectives to add to the tried and true names. Dan Jones is quickly establishing himself among those tight-knit ranks, and he’s done so by taking history and making it compellingly told without taking away from the salient details. He presents a mostly unbiased perspective, allowing the reader to take in the facts and form their own opinions. And though it was written as non-fiction, the narrative is strong enough, and so well-written, that you forget you’re not reading fiction. Read well into the night over several nights. Jones has quickly been added to my list of authors I’ll buy from no matter what he’s writing about. 5 stars.

Pick up a copy here.

Book Review: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

in_cold_blood

One of the first and most successful crime fiction novels, knowing the chain of events and how it ends doesn’t take away from the narrative. While dry in places, the insertion of anecdotes and quotes, as well as trying to use a third person narrative to get inside the head of the killers, keeps it fresh. You can read in Capote’s words his interest and passion in this case. What I liked most of all was that he took a murder case (something, in and of itself, not so rare, unfortunately) and turned it into a case backed with the reasons we should know more. Great re-telling, if a bit slow at times. 4 stars.

Pick up a copy here.

Book Review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

22557272I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. The premise wasn’t something that drew me, but the fact that so many of my friends recommended it made me curious.

Immediately I was struck by the similarities to Gillian Flynn’s novels (mostly in the writing style and the use of mysterious and unreliable narrators). Not at all surprised to come here and see other reviewers are making the same comparisons.

The storytelling in the novel was tight; Hawkins tells the story at the right pace, in the right order, revealing different timelines in tandem in a way that unfolds the story wonderfully. I figured out the “twist” about halfway through, but only because of her use of misdirection on every character EXCEPT the killer. I wouldn’t say it was predictable, though, and right up until the end I still thought things could shift another direction. Everything feels possible.

My one beef with this story was (and this is also keeping in tune with Flynn), that every character was unlikable, to the point of being grating. I love a good antagonist or antihero. I love divisive characters. But Rachel’s tics and issues became tedious and grating by the end of the book. Megan was an interesting character who warranted further time and explanation because, I suspect, she’d have been incredibly more dynamic than her limited narrative allowed and perhaps more sympathetic as a result. Anna wasn’t given enough page time to separate what appeared to be her sociopathic tendencies vs. her love for her child. And the men suffered from similar treatment. Like in any Flynn book, you walk away feeling as if there is no clear winner.

That said, this book kept me up all night reading, which is rare for me nowadays, so I can’t say the challenges above had a significant impact on my enjoyment. The Girl on the Train is a tightly woven, excellently-paced thriller that I’d recommend to readers who love a great suspenseful read. 5 stars.

Pick up a copy here.

Book Review: Gone Girl, Sharp Objects, and Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Sharp. Edgy. Different. Gillian Flynn’s work has been described using these words, and many others. Her skill at piecing a story together, often using co-existing but not immediately evident threads, is unique and refreshing. It’s also not for everyone, as can be evidenced by the polarizing critical reviews. You either love her work, or hate it. I happen to love it.

My reviews of the individual titles are below.

Gone Girl

gone-girl-book-cover-medconveying it effectively to words. All writers aim to do this, but very few succeed in the way she did. She also adequately balanced significant detail in her characters, without feeling like they were being handed to us. Despite understanding who each character was, the story never became predictable.

The first half of the book was stunning. Building up to the second half, even though Nick is our narrator, we are still not sure what happened to Amy, and what his role in it was, or was not. That’s a difficult thing to sell, but it was done well.

The second half (which I won’t spoil) almost felt like a different book altogether. Where the setup of the book had a dark, but steady undertone, this felt more like a rollercoaster ride. I still don’t know how I feel about the big twist here, but I do understand why Flynn ended the book the way she did. While not exactly satisfying, it makes sense in that it was true to the nature of the characters.

Overall, this was a book that kept me reading, and guessing, until the end. For that, and the colorful writing, I would definitely recommend it to others. 4 stars.

Pick up a copy here.

Sharp Objects

71Gz4surBYL._SL1500_As with her other two books, Dark Places and Gone Girl, I’m struck with Flynn’s ability to create an utterly and completely engaging story, while presenting not a single sympathetic character. This makes it challenging to build the proper stakes (I didn’t care what did or did not happen to Camille, or how her coming home impacted her), however this was the first of Flynn’s books where I really felt like it didn’t take a lot away from the story.

Anyone who has ever lived/grown up in a small town can relate to Wind Gap. Flynn knows how to create the perfect small town, midwest backdrop, though her view on it is decidely and resoundly cynical at best. I’ve read in interviews that this is not what her own experiences have been, which surprises me, as she writes with the conviction of one who knows exactly the feelings she wants to emote.

The mystery that carries the story is well told, and despite figuring out early-on what at least part of the big reveal would be, it did not take away at all from the page-turning aspect of the book. And while her characters are not relatable, they are neverthless fully-fleshed and incredibly rich… so much so that I was invested in their futures, which I could not say about the characters in Dark Places or Gone Girl. Interesting to me that it is her first novel that hits on all the right points. 5 stars.

Pick up a copy here.

Dark Places

dark-places-cover-w352I first started reading Flynn with Gone Girl. It was not her characters that hooked me, but her turn-by-turn storytelling and her knack for understanding human behavior. I point this out because, much like Gone Girl, Dark Places stars a case of mostly unlikeable characters. This would not be a problem if they were relatable, or even sympathetic. Libby had few redeeming qualities (if any), and Ben, while I believe readers *should* feel some empathy for him given the situation he was put into for so many years, is equally hard to connect with. The secondary cast is similar, with the sole exception of Libby’s friend from the Kill Club. I normally never “root for” an unlikely romance like that, but I was hoping his influence might make her more sympathetic to readers, and this did not happen.

Having said that… I found that the story kept me fully engaged, start to finish. The flashback storytelling was done with expert finesse, and Flynn was able to keep both the past and present in perfect timing, revealing both at a good pace as we neared the climax. Although there are hints to the answer earlier in the book, I did not pick up on them at all, and so I was utterly shocked at the ending reveal… which is a testament to her storytelling. The other thing Flynn does exceptionally well is create a bleak but vivid backdrop for all her stories, and the depressive midwest in this one was a character unto itself.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book, despite my lack of character connection. 4 stars.

Pick up a copy here.

Overall Collection Rating: 4.5 Stars

Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The_Martian_2014Naturally, I had to know what all the fuss was about.

I have a love-hate relationship with sci-fi. Often it’s too technical with not enough story, or has a great story but the science holds no water. The Martian had a great balance of both. Weir’s love of his subject matter came through with such passion, as the hero, Mark Watney, has to keep his cool (not literally; Mars is quite cold), stranded on Mars, by figuring out creative ways to manipulate his environment and the variables within. Watney’s ability to see and inject humor into his situation helps him as much as knowing how to work with hydrogen and plutonium without blowing himself back into orbit. Even if the science isn’t your thing, you’ll get excited right alongside Mark as he MacGuyver’s all the tools at his disposal. The dialogue, both in Mark’s journal and as he corresponds with NASA, had me roaring. Fantastic read that will easily be found among the sci-fi classics in the future.

Pick up a copy here.

Overall Rating: 5 Stars