BOOK REVIEW: Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

Beyond Black by Hilary MantelBeyond Black
By Hilary Mantel
Completed January 1, 2012

I have to admit: I had a hard time writing this review. How can a book be intriguing and boring at the same time? That’s the state I find myself in as I put together my thoughts on Beyond Black.

In summary, Beyond Black is the tale of Alison, a psychic, and her business partner/personal assistant, Colette. Their relationship reminded me of “The Odd Couple” – you couldn’t get two more different people together. Alison was a big presence – vibrant, full-figured, sweet-smelling and congenial. Colette was a drab sidekick – beige, skinny and condescending. How they ended up together is still a mystery to me, even as I finished the book.

Alison is forever tormented by spirits. Her spirit guide, Morris, is a dirty pig, often found fondling himself (thank goodness only Alison could see him). As the story progresses, Mantel reveals that Alison knew Morris before his death, which opens up the intriguing parts of the book: Alison’s tortuous childhood. Bit by bit, Mantel feeds the reader information about Alison’s past – what was done to her and what she did. These bite-size nuggets help propel the story; however, it was not enough. Beyond Black is mixed with so much “non-action” that it overshadowed the compelling stuff.

Parts of Beyond Black were darn funny (my favorite scene was Princess Diana talking to Alison), but the most of it was too dark for my taste. The pace of Beyond Black was uneven, and I think it could have been tightened by a good 100 pages. But we all know that Mantel can write – and I look forward to reading my next Mantel selection, The Giant, O’Brien, very soon. (  )

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BOOK REVIEW: The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian

The Night Strangers by Chris BohjalianThe Night Strangers
By Chris Bohjalian
Completed October 13, 2011

One of the reasons I enjoy novels by Chris Bohjalian is because you never get the same thing twice. Many authors have a little formula to their writing, but Bohjalian shakes it up everytime. And that’s definitely the case with his latest book, The Night Strangers.

The story opens with a shocking plane crash scene. Chip Linton is the pilot who attempts a “Chelsey Sullenberger” landing on Lake Champlain. However, Chip’s plane met with deadly turbulence, and all but nine people, including Chip, survived the crash. Depressed and grief-stricken, Chip and his wife, Emily, and their twins, Hallie and Garnet, decide to start fresh. They move to an old house in northern New Hampshire, hoping for a new life.

As they settle into their home, Chip begins to see visions – or maybe ghosts – of three of the passengers who died during the crash. His behavior becomes erratic, and Emily seeks solace for a group of local women who are avid herbalists. The herbalist women, though, have an agenda of their own – to get the blood from one of the twins for a “tincture.” The two storylines come to head at the end of the book, leaving the reader with an ending that will shock many.

The Night Strangers is one of those books that would make a great movie. As I read it, I had fun casting actors into roles, especially the herbal-loving women. Meryl Streep, Ellen Burstyn, Diane Keaton and Diane Lane all seeped into my mind’s eye as perfect actors for Anise, Sage, Ginger and Reseda. Even the house is its own character with creaking stairs, mysterious doors and bones in the basement. Indeed, The Night Strangers would make a fantastic film.

If you love ghost stories or creepy tales, make sure to put The Night Strangers on your to-read list. Between the diabolical herbalists and mutilated ghosts, you have a story that’s perfect for October. (  )

FTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for review on my blog.

BOOK REVIEW: The Observations by Jane Harris

The Observations by Jane HarrisThe Observations
By Jane Harris
Completed September 11, 2011

The Observations is the story of young Bessy Buckley- a 15-year-old Irish prostitute-turned-maid who stumbles in to a Scottish manor called Castle Haivers. Escaping her past, she convinces the mistress of the house, Arabella Reid, to take her on as a maid, despite shady skills or references.  Bessy’s tenure begins very strangely as Arabella has unusual requests: Requiring Bessy to stand and sit with her eyes closed for long periods of time; requesting a cup of cocoa in the middle of the night, only to make Bessy drink it; and ordering Bessy to collect her thoughts in a journal that she must read to Arabella every evening.

Strange things are afoot at Castle Haivers, and with each turn of the page, the events get more unusual.  Soon, Bessy realizes she’s one of a long string of maids in Arabella’s past – and that one maid in particular, Nora, who was killed in a train accident, has left an indelible mark on the household. Bessy, out of curiousity and loyalty to Arabella, begins to piece together the mystery of Nora, and as she does, unravels tragedies that can’t be undone.

Bessy is a lively narrator with a sharp tongue and street smarts. She could be crass but harmlessly so. Despite her unsophisticated rhetoric, Bessy is a fabulous storyteller and observer of events at Castle Haivers. As she reveals the atrocities of her past, my heart went out to the poor girl, and Bessy became a character I kept rooting for, despite her many blunders.

The Observations could be downright creepy then light-hearted and humorous. Jane Harris is a magnificent writer, and she grabs the Gothic tradition with fierceness. I couldn’t get enough of Bessy’s narrative, and I often was rapt by the story. I highly recommend The Observations to fans of Gothic fiction – if you liked Fingersmith or The House at Riverton, you will love this book too. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger
By Sarah Waters
Completed October 16, 2010

Come by The Little Stranger, and you’ll meet one heck of a creepy character. You may be surprised to learn that it’s not a person or monster. In fact, it’s a house: Hundreds Hall – a sprawling English manor that takes on a life of its own. Turning an inanimate object into a seemingly living character is no small task, but left in the hands of Sarah Waters, Hundreds Hall becomes exactly that – something living, animate and downright spooky.

Inside Hundreds Hall lives the Ayres family, who is struggling to keep their farm profitable after World War II. The once-grandiose home was falling apart – and taking the family down with it. We meet the family through Dr. Faraday, a country doctor who came to Hundreds Hall on a house visit. He starts to treat Roderick Ayres for his wartime knee injury, but it became apparent that Roderick was suffering from more – a type of severe mental stress that was affecting him day by day. Roderick claims something in the house was trying to hurt his family – and this something was leaving burn marks all over his room. Roderick’s delusions and paranoia rob him of all logic, and he becomes the house’s first victim.

As Dr. Faraday helps the family with Roderick’s illness, he gets closer and closer to Mrs. Ayres and Roderick’s sister, Caroline. The weight of caring for Hundreds Hall is great, and Dr. Faraday does what he can to ease their burdens. Despite his best efforts, the house continues to affect the family – first with the haunting of poor Mrs. Ayres and then Caroline. The whole time, the family believes the house was to blame. However, many in the community chalk it up to the Ayres’ reluctance to adjust to the new order of things in England. Others claim it was a “family taint” – a mental condition that struck all of the family members. Whatever the cause, the family was on an unstoppable downward spiral.

The Little Stranger, in a word, was spine-tingling. Certain scenes left me white-knuckled and near sleepless. It was the perfect book for cool autumn nights. Many were disappointed in the book’s ending, but I thought it was somehow appropriate. Waters left it as mysterious as Hundreds Hall itself. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves the mysterious, the old and the creepy. The Little Stranger has it all. ( )

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