The Vanishing – Sophia Tobin

vanishingSet in the dreary Yorkshire moors . . . Annaleigh, a foundling raised by a portrait painter, runs from a doomed romantic entanglement to be a servant at White Windows to a brother and sister, Marcus and Hester Twentyman.

Two other mysterious servants warn her not to develop any kind of friendship with the Twentymans, no matter how warm or inviting they seem. Annaleigh soon discovers that Marcus is volatile and tempestuous, often running into the foggy moor at night to be alone. Hester is timid and paranoid, and suffers from crippling headaches.

The beginning of the story is compelling and has all the elements required for a juicy gothic thriller. The darkness and isolation of the moors enhance the creepiness and claustrophobia of White Windows. There is no escape from the house, nowhere to run. The atmosphere is chilling with a constant presence of foreboding.

The second half of the book, however, becomes more unbelievable, and the characters are inconsistent. Their motivations are ambiguous and their reactions are often incongruous with their earlier temperaments. The story is still interesting enough keep the pages turning, but it requires a strong desire to suspend disbelief in order to accept the plot developments. The plot twists left me with a lot of questions, and the inexplicable actions of the characters were distracting.

I always enjoy a spooky tale, and The Vanishing did not disappoint, but other reviewers’ comparisons to Jane Eyre and Fingersmith are too generous. Despite its flaws, if you seek out Gothic mysteries, as I do, The Vanishing is for you.

Many thanks to Netgalley and Simon and Schuster for the advance copy.

Extinctions – Josephine Wilson

extinctionsThe first few pages of Extinctions reminded me of A Man Called Ove — a cantankerous old man, Frederick Lothian, former concrete engineer, living in a retirement “village,” too grumpy to tolerate his neighbors, shunning his daughter and son. His complaints about the life in the village are amusing and I thought the story would continue in the same vein as Ove, but the similarities ended quickly and the book took on a more serious tone.

A widowed neighbor in the village, Jan, insinuates herself into Frederick’s life. Her life story that she reveals to Frederick  is full of regrets and failings, which causes him to reconsider his own choices and behavior. He finds himself reluctantly revealing his past to Jan, and over the course of a couple of days, reinvents himself and changes his path.

This book won the Miles Franklin award in 2017, and there are discussions about the recent history of Australian Aborigines (of which my knowledge is sadly lacking). The book is interspersed with photos of architecture and engineering marvels that I found enhanced the story. 

It’s the story of Frederick Lothian, but also of the life of his late wife, Martha, who had a vibrant life that he never knew about, and his daughter Caroline and son Callum, who faced battles he never understood or acknowledged. Extinctions revolves around the struggle to be a good parent, when to cling and when to let go, and the unwitting impact that the personal struggles of parents have on their children. The theme of extinctions —the metaphorical deaths of career, adoption, and marriage —runs throughout.
An insightful book with strong character development. 

I vacillated between a 3 and 4 star rating for this one, but it is worth reading.

 Many thanks to Edelweiss and Tin House Books (W W Norton) for this advance copy.  

 

The Wildlands – Abbi Geni

thewildlandsFour orphans living in a trailer in Oklahoma are just trying to scrape by after a tornado destroyed their home and family. Tucker, the only brother, runs off, and Darlene, the eldest, takes on the responsibility of caring for her two younger sisters, forgoing her dream of going to college. They manage to eke out a living until one day when Tucker returns. He’s been on a rampage with an extreme animal rights group, and now he wants to take his activism to the next level. He kidnaps his youngest sister, Cora, and goes on a spree to save animals and avenge their mistreatment. Darlene is left behind with her sister Jane, torn in different directions to keep her family afloat and rescue Cora.

The Wildlands addresses some relevant issues: the media’s responsibility in reporting tragedy, filial duty, and responsible vs extreme activism. This story kept me on my toes, wondering what Tucker would do next and how 9-year-old Cora would cope with her predicament of remaining devoted to her brother while his actions and behavior become increasingly dangerous.

Many thanks to Edelweiss and Counterpoint Press for the advance copy in exchange for my review.

 

Devil’s Day – Andrew Michael Hurley

devils dayMichael Andrew Hurley is a gifted writer who can create an atmosphere that is unsettling and eerie. In Devil’s Day, John and Kat are returning to John’s childhood home, a Lancashire farm, deep in the moor in the Endlands. John’s grandfather, known as The Gaffer, has died, and John returns to attend the funeral and also help with the gathering of the sheep. A celebration before The Gathering is soon approaching, known as Devil’s Day, where the family prepares a feast and engages in festivities, song, and rhyme to banish the devil from the moor. The devil, however, has already settled in the Endlands, and John’s family is infested with evil.

There is something sinister on the farm. Hurley presents the reader with an isolated set of characters with an overzealous sense of family loyalty and deep roots in superstition and folklore. Kat, the outsider, is the most sensitive to this sense of foreboding, and only wants to get through the gathering and leave for home as soon as possible. John, on the other hand, has a compulsion to return permanently to the farm that only grows stronger each day.

I loved the writing, the foreshadowing, and the fearful apprehension that pervades the story; however, with that much anticipation I expected a powerful, revelatory ending and was left feeling unsatisfied. Hurley could have done so many things with the surprises he leads the reader to expect, and the story didn’t deliver. I was left with more questions than answers. Still, Devil’s Day is worth the read. Also be sure to check out Hurley’s book, The Loney, if you love a dark, mysterious tale.

Many thanks to Edelweiss and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for this advance copy.

The Season of Crimson Blossoms – Abubakar Adam Ibrahim

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On the surface, this novel is about the story between Binta, a 55-year-old grandmother, and Reza, a 20-something drug dealer criminal. Set in northern Nigeria, this affair is really a representation of the repressiveness of the culture of Muslim Hausa society. Binta is grieving the loss of her son, Yaro, and finds maternal redemption in her love for Reza. In turn, Reza finds solace in loving Binta, who reminds him of his mother who abandoned him when he was a child. I found this Oedipus/ Jocasta relationship quite distasteful at first, but I accepted it to learn the reasons behind it. 
There are themes of unfulfilled dreams, repression of grief and loss, and how violence only begets violence. Ibrahim is critical of these societal mores and presents a sad story against the background of political upheaval and misogynistic religious oppression. Other characters in the Binta / Reza orbit are suffering from PTSD and feelings of betrayal from society’s lack of sympathy to violence and encouragement of sexism. It affects everyone, and eventually the discovery of the affair causes an explosion in this cultural crucible.
Though the setting and characters are interesting, the story was at times repetitive and in the middle became tiresome. The ending was powerful. It’s a complicated story with an important message, and is definitely worth your time. 
Many thanks to Cassava Republic Press and Edeweiss for the copy in exchange for my review.

Giraffe – JM Ledgard

giraffeI stumbled on this book  by accident. It was on a table at our local library sale, and the title caught my eye, so I picked it up. That cover! Astonishing! I had no idea what I was in for.

Whenever I describe the topic of this book to others, I am immediately treated with responses of rebuke or disgust. “I’m not reading that! That’s awful!” But I encourage you to look beyond the ghastliness of the subject matter. I don’t want you to miss out on the experience of the beauty of this book. I am completely ambivalent. I almost wish I had not read it so that I could have remained unaware of this brutality, and yet, I feel like everyone should read it.

Giraffe is a fictionalized, almost journalistic, account of an incident in the 1970s in Czechoslovakia. The largest herd of giraffes ever held in captivity was intentionally slaughtered, though the political reasons are dubious and inconclusive. The author presents the story through the eyes of the different unwilling participants in this drama: a scientist, a female factory worker drawn to the beauty of the giraffes, even the leader of the giraffes, called Snehuka, “Snow White,” for the whiteness of her unspotted belly.

This book is beautiful and horrifying, honest and without sentimentality. The writing is superb. If you can brave the subject matter, you will feel honored for having borne witness to the story.

 

 

 

The Broken Girls – Simone St. James

I love a good ghost story!

1950: at Idlewild Hall, a boarding school for delinquent girls, 4 roommates develop a bond over their shared circumstances. Lurking in the background is the simmering fear of Mary Hand, the ghost that roams the grounds. Mary Hand summons your deepest fears and calls to you to let her inthebrokengirls from the cold. If you don’t resist her, you die.

2014 : Journalist Fiona Sheridan is investigating the refurbishment of Idlewild Hall. Why would an eccentric wealthy stranger want to restore this dilapidated building to its former glory? Buried secrets come to light during the renovations that reveal the mysteries of what happened to those four friends back in 1950, and also the real story of what happened to Fiona’s sister, Deb, who was murdered twenty years ago and left on the grounds at Idlewild.

The story moves back and forth in time from 1950 to 2014, the constant presence of the ghost Mary Hand tormenting those who visit Idlewild. The supernatural elements of this story were spooky enough to keep me turning the pages, and the earthly, present-day evils only enhanced the tension. The denouement was a bit far-fetched, but I still enjoyed way everything came together.

There is a lot going on in this book. There is the simmering suspense of Mary Hand, and the author weaves in other plot elements of unsolved murders and disappearances to create a complicated story. I was enthralled from start to finish, and relished the creepy atmosphere of Idlewild Hall.

Many thanks to Netgalley and Berkley Publishing Group for the advance copy.