Archive for February, 2011

The Dead Path: A Novel by Stephen M. Irwin

I tip my hat, Mr. Irwin. As a literary fiction snob, curmudgeonly reviewer, and reader of thousands of books let me tell you I don’t impress easily. Besieged by free review copies, I toss aside far more than I read. Then in came this book. The cover was striking, and if it hadn’t been for that I wouldn’t have bothered reading the dust jacket blurb. But I did, and as usual thought, if it’s only half as good as the raves I’ll be shocked.

Reader, I was shocked.

As I said, I read the blurbs and thought blah blah… Impress me. I’ll give you a chapter or two, max. And it took, what, a paragraph for me to be sucked in so completely I didn’t come up for air for at least 100 pages? Yes, it was probably a paragraph. Especially when it reads like this:

“Snow fell.

It drifted down slow as morning mist, settling white on brown, white on silver, white on white. It fell so thickly that Nicholas could see no more than a meter or so ahead. His hair, normally the color of dry grass, was white with it. His hands on his hips, flecked coral, blood red, and indigo, grew steadily paler as he stood in the steady downward wash of white. His eyes, the darkest part of him, were all that moved as he watched the figure above him. A ghost, swaying its arms to the milky sky, waving. Or a summoning angel. A spectral thing, unmindful of him.”

And, once you read another paragraph, you see what he’s describing is actually something different. It’s then you respect him for having accurately described something that fit both situations. Well done.

I read into the wee hours of the morning the first day, cursing the fact I had to put it aside to sleep, since my job that pays the bills (librarian!) requires I get out of bed and wear something besides pajamas, plus I’m partial to rest. Next day: damned laundry! Housework! I pushed most of that away and grabbed the book again. Then, one last spurt of reading, and I ran from my favorite reading spot in bed straight to my computer, so I could rave. Rave!

Is it a thriller? A mystery? A work of supernatural fiction? Fantasy? Yes! Yes! Yes! and Yes!

It also contains cracking good quality prose, spot on dialogue, fully-fleshed characters and a plot that made me wish I were independently wealthy so I wouldn’t have had to put it down for longer than it requires to “tend to urgent needs.”


So, the plot. Nicholas Close and his lovely wife Cate are young marrieds living in London, fixing up the flat they envisioned filling with loads of wonderful young married memories. But then, Nicholas takes a header off his motorcycle, and as he’s falling to the pavement(called “bitumen” to those in the former British Empire, I learned, after it was repeated a hundred times) sees a strange face in the foliage across the street, not enough to make it out, but enough for it to register as strange. Then he hits, for whatever reason survives that nasty accident, and calls home to his wife, who’s on a ladder working on a home improvement project. She slips, on her way to answer the phone, and dies in a tragic and totally unnecessary way.

Wandering through his life in a fog, one day our main character has an accident, falling down cement stairs and cracking his head on the pavement. The chap must have nine lives, because he gets up from that unharmed, as well. But it has a very strange side effect. Suddenly he’s able to see ghosts, people acting out their last moments on earth, over and over and over. They’re caught in an endless loop, and only he can see it. When a therapist asks if he was able to see Cate as well he revisits their now empty flat. And he can see her, falling off the ladder again and again, breaking her neck on the bathtub.

Understandably, Nicholas is distraught, and decides to return to his homeland of Australia, to stay a while with his mother until he can decide what on earth to do next. His mother greets him warmly, but there’s something there, something lacking as if she’s not quite glad he’s back. File that one away for later.

It soon comes out that, as a child, Nicholas’s best friend had been abducted and murdered in the menacing woods near his childhood home. Upon returning home there they are, in all their shivery glory, taunting him in a subtle but very real way. There is something evil in there. He knows that, but the poor man’s just lost his wife. There isn’t time to put a lot of thought into it.

Until… More people die.

I could keep nattering away about the plot, but there’s so much I don’t want to ruin. Let’s just cover a few things briefly: his father committed suicide when Nicholas was young, his sister Suzette… Hmm. Shouldn’t tell you that. But the two are close, and she figures prominently in getting Nicholas started investigating the evil in the woods and the tragic deaths that seem to follow him. And, he’s still seeing ghosts, many of them children being dragged into the woods…

That’s enough for you! You need to read the book. It’s just really, really a terrific read. Does it have its creaky spots? Well, yes. It’s difficult writing supernatural scenes without having them come off sounding stupid. I’ve tried it a couple of times. And it sounded like the script of a really bad zombie movie, and not one so bad it’s good. It was just plain bad.

So, yes. I found a couple spots of struggle that could have been polished a bit more, but it just didn’t matter. When 99 % of something is good, you don’t complain about that one percent now, do you? Okay, sometimes. If you’re feeling foul. But I forgave all, especially once I’d finished and the denouement (fancy French word for resolution) completely sideswiped me. Me! Reader of thousands of books! Did I see that one coming? No!

I’m just, plain impressed. And damn well entertained. Can’t ask for more than that. And when he writes his next novel? I’ll be all over it. Like a spider on a fly… cryptic smile, cocked head, raised eyebrow… nudge, nudge, wink wink…

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday (October 5, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385533438
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385533430


Visit the author’s website here.


Reviews, reviews, reviews!

Posted: February 23, 2011 in Book Reviews, Review Books

My (mostly) great reading streak continues! I’m getting spoiled. I’m also getting really overwhelmed with review books. Ain’t that a shame?

Here are a few I either already have (some digital, some the regular, old fashioned book) or are on the way:

Small Memories: A Memoir by Jose Saramago

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky

Afterword: Conjuring the Literary Dead – Dale Salwak, ed.

Why Jane Austen? by Rachel Brownstein

At Midnight in a Flaming Town  by Lorraine Bateman and Paul Messenger

Acadiana Carl A. Brasseaux

And I better stop before I start a riot.

Now, a few of the books I’ve finished lately:

Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark

Imagine a manor house near Geneva. Locked behind their library doors are the Baron and Baroness and their secretary. Meanwhile, downstairs, the servants wait, planning for what they already know will be a tragedy. For their employers, that is. For them it will bring a very big fortune.

Weird enough?

“They haunt the house,” says Lister, “like insubstantial bodies, while still alive. I think we have a long wait in front of us.” He takes his place at the head of the table. “He said on no account to disturb them. Not to be disturbed, Lister.” You should have seen the look on her face. My mind floats about, catching at phantoms and I think of the look on her face. I am bound to ventilate this impression or I won’t digest my supper.”

Two words: creepy and creepier.

A strange, dark book with a gothic influence. Recommended for those who don’t mind feeling discomfort, and uncertainty in their fiction.

  • Paperback: 96 pages
  • Publisher: New Directions; Reprint edition (June 29, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0811218678
  • ISBN-13: 978-0811218672
  • [I read my personal copy of this book.]

    Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter  by Tom Franklin

    Those of us native to Mississippi will be familar with this method of learning to spell the state’s name: M-I-Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter – I – Crooked Letter, Crooked Leter – I – Humpback, Humpback -I.

    That’s where the name of this novel comes from, which is pretty clever, though a bit obscure if you don’t know this mnemonic tool. And look what you learned today!

    Franklin’s novel is a great read:  atmospheric, great plot, characters the reader cares deeply about, and a gripping mystery that drives the story. At the center of the book is Larry Ott, a middle aged man considered the prime suspect in the disappearance of a teenage girl twenty years prior. As he was the last person known to have seen her alive, the weight of suspicion naturally falls on him.

    However, when no body is found, no charges can be pressed. In any case, the small community in which he lives shuns him, trial or no trial, ruining his auto mechanic business, dooming him to a lonely existence on the fringes of the town. His only hope for business are visitors from out of town who stop by, unaware of his grisly reputation.

    As we get to know Larry Ott, his inherent gentleness and patience become apparent. Resigned to his fate, he spends most of his time – when not at work – sitting at home reading novels, eating the same Kentucky Fried Chicken meal for dinner every day. A reader since childhood, he is, for the most part, content with his limited life.

    Silas (known popularly as 32 – the number on his high school football jersey) Jones, a black man now the town sheriff, grew up a neighbor and friend of Larry Ott’s. He also shuns him, though there  is at least some feeling of humanity underneath, presumably as a result of their formerly close relationship. Of course, in 1970s Mississippi a friendship between a white and black child was – to put it mildly – discouraged, creating many difficulties for them. His reluctance to associate with Ott may lie as much with a desire to keep their former relationship secret as the town’s belief he’s gotten away with murder.

    When a second murder of a beautiful teenage girl occurs, Larry Ott is under suspicion all over again.

    Recommended for lovers of suspense fiction, especially those who enjoy southern settings.

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: MacMillan (January 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0230753051
  • ISBN-13: 978-0230753051
  • [Free review copy.]

    Mr. Toppit  by Charles Elton

    Arthur Hayman, author of a children’s book series, is hit by a truck and killed very early on in the novel. At his side is an American stranger – Laurie Clow -on vacation in London. Her kindness helps soften some of his last hours on earth.

    During the short time she spends holding his hand, talking to him, she develops what she feels is a very close bond, and decides to ride in the ambulance along with him to the hospital. When his family arrives they’re confused as to the woman’s relationship with Arthur, though in their grief they’re more accepting of her than they would have been otherwise. Laurie accompanies them home, helping them struggle through the funeral, staying until they’re back on their feet.

    But her fascination with Arthur Hayman doesn’t end there. Determined in her effort to bring him fame, once she’s back in the U.S. she works tirelessly to promote his books, resulting in him skyrocketing to fame posthumously.

    Hayman’s books are set in the woods near his house, his son Luke the model of the series hero. And Mr. Toppit is the villain, an unseen, ill-meaning force who is Luke’s nemesis. Luke also had a sister, Rachel, who was completely left out of the books, causing her much hurt and resulting depression.

    Once this most interesting part of the book is past, things take a rapid nosedive. From what could have been a charming tale of British eccentrics the plot turns to the world of Hollywood celebrities, changing the character of the story.

    As a result, I can’t recommend the book. It was too uneven, too jarring in its transition. What I expected to be a charmingly English story turned into an Oprah-influenced bore of a book. I’m not sure what Elton was thinking, or why he chose to depart from the main theme of the story – the books themselves and the discovery of the influence behind the character of Mr. Toppit.

    A very disappointing, disjointed and long (400 pp.!) read.

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Other Press; 1 edition (November 9, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1590513908
  • ISBN-13: 978-1590513903
  • [Free review copy.]

    Lit  by Mary Karr

    The fact the memoir market is bloated, filled with books written by everyone and anyone with a life story to tell (which is, actually, everyone), is unfortunate. In a genre so overwhelmed it’s difficult for any one author to stand out; the truly great books can get lost in the shuffle.

    Mary Karr’s memoir is exceptionally well-written, a difficult life story told without a shred of self pity. Despite an ongoing battle with alcoholism, as well as an unfulfilling career that threatened to crush her literary ambitions, Karr’s strength of character is an inspiration. But her story is one thousands have gone through. That in itself isn’t exceptional. What makes this book stand out from the crowd is Karr’s graceful, seemingly effortless prose. This is one memoir truly worth reading.

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; 1 Reprint edition (June 29, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060596996
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060596996
  • [Free review copy.]

    Several more reviews to come, as soon as I can get to them. I’m so far behind it’s pathetic. If I developed an actual system that would help, eh? Oh, but that makes too much sense. And it would “stifle my creativity.”

    Anyone buying that? I tried.

    Release: March 11, 2011 (in select theatres)

    Mia Wasikowska (“Alice in Wonderland”) and Michael Fassbender (“Inglourious Basterds”) star in the romantic drama based on Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel, from acclaimed director Cary Fukunaga (“Sin Nombre”). In the story, Jane Eyre flees Thornfield House, where she works as a governess for wealthy Edward Rochester. As she reflects upon the people and emotions that have defined her, it is clear that the isolated and imposing residence – and Mr. Rochester’s coldness – have sorely tested the young woman’s resilience, forged years earlier when she was orphaned. She must now act decisively to secure her own future and come to terms with the past that haunts her – and the terrible secret that Mr. Rochester is hiding and that she has uncovered…

    Also starring Dame Judi Dench, Sally Hawkins and Jamie Bell.

    Director: Cary Fukunaga (“Sin Nombre”)

    Writers: Moira Buffini (“Tamara Drewe”); Based on the novel by Charlotte Brontë

    Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Holliday Grainger, Sally Hawkins, Tamzin Merchant, Imogen Poots, Judi Dench

    MPAA Rating: PG-13

    Visit the Jane Eyre official site here:

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    According to a columnist for the Guardian U.K., these are the ten most boring books ever written:

    1. Robert Burton: The Anatomy of Melancholy

    2. Robert Musil: The Man Without Qualities

    3. Kazuo Ishiguro: The Unconsoled

    4. Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano

    5. Virginia Woolf: The Waves

    6. James Joyce: Finnegans Wake

    7. Thomas Wolfe: Look Homeward, Angel

    8. William Thackeray: Pendennis

    9. Karl Marx: Capital

    10. James Woodforde: The Diary of A Country Parson

    The only two I’ve read from this list are Woolf’s The Waves and Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. While I’ll admit The Waves pushed me to my intellectual reading limit, I blamed myself more than the book. After all, This is Virginia Woolf! She was smart! She’s one of my most adored writers! She committed suicide on my birth date (the month/day, not the year, to clarify)! Surely it must be me, and not her.

    The Waves is extraordinarily confusing. I had no idea what was going on 3/4 of the time. Then again, I felt the same way the first time I read Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury, but after two subsequent reads I ultimately saw its beauty. And, Faulkner’s another of my triad of worshipped writers, Dickens being the other.

    Both books are written in stream-of-consciousness style, that is, the writer basically spews forth whatever they’re thinking with no thought as to a coherent plot. So, yeah, what’s in one person’s head will never be the same as what’s in another’s. However, I doubt either wrote with the thought, “HAHA, suckers! Just try to figure this one out!”

    Then again, I can’t rule that out completely. Write a few brilliant books, establish a reputation for superior intellect, then throw in something in that’s incomprehensible just to see what critics say, if they continue falling all over themselves praising you or muse whether you’ve had a head injury lately. Now that’s entertainment!

    Then, Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. I read this in high school, on my own time since I was just that much a nerd. It never occurred to me it could be boring. I thought it was lovely. Of all the books on the list, this is the one I feel most compelled to challenge. I’ll let The Waves slide, since it was about 80 % incomprehensible the whole way through. But no way will I agree about Thomas Wolfe.

    Maybe it’s because it’s such a southern U.S. book the average British reader can’t quite get a handle on it? I dunno. I only know I thought it was wonderful. The last scene left me weepy, it was so beautiful. Boring my @$$!

    Which books would I consider the most boring in publishing history? Hmm. That’s a tough one.


    1. Ulysses: James Joyce

    2. The Old Man and the Sea: Hemingway

    3. Pamela: Samuel Richardson

     4. The Golden Notebook : Doris Lessing

    5. Portnoy’s Complaint: Philip Roth

    6.  Pilgrim’s Progress: John Bunyan

    7. The Book of the Courtier by Baldesar Castiglione

    8. Lives: Plutarch

    9. The Vicar of Wakefied: Oliver Goldsmith

    10.  Sentimental Education: Flaubert

    I’ve attempted or actually read all of these, and in most cases have been unable to due to extreme boredom. I’m willing to allow I could have read them at the wrong times, though. Could be I was too busy to fully concentrate, or I just wasn’t in the mood for the subject matter. But most of these were impossible for me to get through.

    In one case, Richardson’s Pamela, familiarity bred contempt. I’ve read it at least three times, with different online book groups, and I’m so sick of it I can’t stand the thought of ever reading it again. Ditto The Vicar of Wakefield. Both are 18th century novels, and so over-wrought it takes extreme patience getting through them. Patience I’ve since lost.

    Ulysses is the one I’ve vowed I will read one day, when I work up the nerve. I think it would best be read alone, with no other books going simultaneously, but that’s just not how I read. I would get far too impatient having no variety to console me in my misery. What I can give it is undivided attention when I am reading it, extreme concentration, plus having a notebook handy to jot down things to look up in various volumes explaining obscure references, etc.

    The time I tried to read it I also bought a sort of guidebook to get the reader through, chapter by chapter. What alarmed me was that book was longer than Ulysses itself!

    The Old Man and the Sea I read in high school. We also watched the film, which consists largely of a man in a boat pulling on a fishing line. Dear God.

    Portnoy wasn’t challenging from a literary standpoint, it was just disgusting to me. It’s supposed to be funny, but if that’s the case I didn’t get it. A young man dealing with rampaging hormones isn’t my thing. Neither do I want to read about his methods of “relieving” his sexual frustrations. Yuck. It’s the one gross out on the list.

    I am game to give almost any book a try, and in many cases more than once. I firmly believe there’s a time and place for reading every specific book. Some books need to be read when you’re young (The Catcher in the Rye), and some when you have more years behind you (Death Comes for the Archbishop). Some are seasonal, and some depend on what else is going on in your life, and I’m willing to allow for that. But after two or three attempts that’s usually it.

    At mid-life, I’ve also thrown in the towel as far as reading classical literature, i.e., the Greeks and Romans. If I feel so inclined, in old age I’ll turn back to them, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. More likely I’ll want to revisit favorite books one more time, reliving fond memories.

    Right now I’m still reading very widely, tossing out that drag-net in most every genre. Nonfiction has become an unexpected favorite, so now that wide world is open before me. My reading list is so full when I finish one book I immediately pick up another. Though I hardly watched before, I’ve cut out 95 % of TV viewing in favor of reading. I even schedule my housework to alternate with reading a set number of pages in between tasks. That helps alleviate the guilt, so I don’t let the house completely slide while I indulge my passion.

    It’s safe to say I’m a pretty big reader, and unwilling to suffer badly written books that waste precious reading time. With so much out there I can never hope to get through it’s necessary to be discriminating in my tastes.

    Do you have a list of “boring” or simply impossible-to-read books? If so, send them to me! I’d love to see what you think.

    As a public librarian, I’m expected to have at least some familiarity with what’s on The New York Times bestseller lists, some knowledge of the writers who regularly appear in the top ten or fifteen. And rightly so, considering how many readers follow popular writers religiously. 

    There are also readers who need to fill time with similar reads, while waiting for their favorite authors to publish their next book, or in an effort to expand their list of favorites based on what they already enjoy reading. Someone has to be there to guide them through those long, dark, lonely nights, and that someone is, traditionally, (wait for it!) a LIBRARIAN.

    Because of that, I’m faced with a dilemma of sorts. My interweb friends, I am forced to admit I’m a reading snob, a holder of a B.A in English literature – a degree roughly as useful as an 8-track tape player in today’s society. Yet, I’m thrown into the position of needing to know who these popular writers are, as well as a bit about their work, so I can connect readers with books they’re likely to enjoy.

    How do I overcome that? By being non-judgmental, I suppose, judging these books by the author’s intention rather than their literary quality. Just as I recognize my own reading is high-middle brow, there are those above me who are even higher brow. They wouldn’t  condescend to read much of what I read, and I can’t even understand the writing they love. 

    Being caught in the middle allows me to see the situation from both sides. Is it so different from the comparison between my reading and a college professor’s. Or, say, a scientist or other person who uses the side of their brain containing spatial logic (which I totally lack)? Not really all that different, if you think about it – which I obiously have.

    But where do I start? There’s mystery, suspense, horror, crime novels, etc., enough for a lifetime. But how do I go about putting a toe in the water, giving some of my precious reading time to popular fiction?

    I squeeze it in somehow, that’s how. Like everything else I do.

    To help me keep track of what I’ve read, and my thoughts about it, I’m going to post my adventures here. I’ll be interested to see how these books compare to my usual fare, keeping in mind these authors’ intents are different from that of those I usually read, judging them on their own merit and not as they compare to “literary fiction.” Ideally, that is.

    What may be interesting is comparing/contrasting these popular fiction works with their equivalent in literary fiction, when I can find books to compare.

    Not enough caffeine in the world to keep my eyes open today, so I’m using transparent tape. The problem is my eyes keep drying out, which makes my contacts detach. I guess that’s okay, though. You don’t need 20/20 vision to see your dreams.

    The following is only a small smattering of the reading I’ve been doing lately. I don’t know how I’ve managed to read so much all of a sudden. Possibly it’s due to the rash of really great books of the unputdownable variety I’ve been lucky enough to read so far this year. Whatever it is, I can’t complain.


    The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

    I’ll start off with a classic, Walker Percy’s 1961 novel The Moviegoer, winner of the 1962 National Book Award.

    I bought a slightly yellowed but decent copy from a used bookseller, partly on impulse but mostly because I wanted to read more southern literature. I’d always heard Percy’s name mentioned in conjunction with the best of the best, so when I happened upon the book I considered it fate. It didn’t hurt that the book was incredibly cheap, or that it’s part of a southern literature series including the names of a few other writers I’d never heard of.

    Books that lead to other books? Yes, thanks!

    The Moviegoer is the story of Binx Bolling, a Vietnam vet living in, and hailing from, New Orleans. A stockbroker by trade, Binx has trouble with long term relationships, choosing to lose himself in movies instead of putting effort into real-life interactions with people. He professes to be bored, discontent with the “everydayness” of life. Therefore, he’s always searching, for what he couldn’t say.

    “To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”


    “The movies are onto the search, but  they screw it up. The search always ends in despair. They like to show a fellow coming to himself in a strange place – but what does he do? He takes up with the local librarian, sets about proving to the local children what a nice fellow he is, and settles down with a vengeance. In two week’s time he is so sunk in everydayness that he might as well be dead.”

    Thanks for perpetuating the stereotype, old buddy old pal.

    The Moviegoer is a strange and occasionally funny novel, as plotless as Binx’s own life, wandering from scene to scene with only the loosest of plots. I loved the atmosphere of New Orleans, the quirky relatives and the tone varying from profound to sad to lyrical:

    “Three o’clock and suddenly awake amid the smell of dreams and of the years come back and peopled and blown away again like smoke. A young man am I, twenty nine, but I am as full of dreams as an ancient. At night the years come back and perch around my bed like ghosts.”

    Lovely stuff. And librarian basher or not, I’ll most definitely read more Walker Percy.

    [Personal copy]

    • Paperback: 241 pages
    • Publisher: Vintage; 1st Vintage International Ed edition (April 14, 1998)
    • Language: English
    • ISBN-10: 0375701966
    • ISBN-13: 978-0375701962


    Vacant Possession by Hilary Mantel

    As far as I can recall, the only novel of Hilary Mantel’s I’ve yet attempted was her hugely successful Wolf Hall. Though I love the subject of the Tudors, around halfway through this novel I became frustrated, putting it aside because I had so much trouble keeping the characters straight it became more a history lesson than an enjoyable read. Mind, I love history, but it became too much a slog to continue.

    Vacant Possession was written in 1986, back in the days of yore. In 1986 I was in college, studying for my Bachelor’s Degree in English literature. I had no idea Hilary Mantel even existed, so immersed was I in the classics.

    I regret that, not reading anything at all by contemporary writers when life was so much simpler, and I had those long summers with hours and hours of idle time to while away. Back then I just never thought to, not when there was a whole world of Victorian literature to keep me set for eons, reading and re-reading the novels of Hardy, mostly, with lots of Dickens thrown in. But modern writers? I was completely in the dark. Had the internet been around and as useful as it is now, things may have been different. But it was easy, as an English major, pushing aside anything that wasn’t considered Literature with a capital “L.”

    This novel is a tremendously satisfying gothic-inspired novel, with a main character as twisted and insane as any Barbara Vine has ever created. Muriel Axon was raised by a mentally disturbed mother who locked her away from life in order, in some warped way, to keep her safe from what’s “out there.”

    “This was Muriel’s life: days, whole weeks together, when Mother didn’t let her out of the house in the mornings. She locked her bedroom door, or hid her shoes. At St. David’s School on Arlington Road, she was nothing but an object of remark. None of the remarks were flattering. She rocked in her chair, played with her fingers. She would not write, could not, had never learned, forgotten how. At the sound of a bell the children rushed out of the room and fought each other in an asphalt circus behind bars. She stood and watched the others, rubbing her arm above the elbow where Mother’s fingers left her permanently bruised. She licked some rust from the railings; there was iron on her tongue, salt, ice. She laid about with her fists. Soon this part of life was over; Mother kept her at home.”

    When she was older, Muriel was released from her prison by a man who happened to see a woman – locked in an upper-floor room where there were, she felt, unnatural, invisible creatures nipping at her legs – gesturing wildly for help. He knocked down the door, pushed Muriel’s mother aside, and broke the woman out of the room. As a result of the excitement, Muriel’s mother had a heart attack and died.

    Later, the same man bought the house. Enraged, blaming the man for her mother’s death, Muriel sets about seeking revenge. And there’s nothing she won’t do to achieve her goal, since she has no sense of rationality, no concept of reality or normal society. Unsurprisingly, Muriel turned out to suffer from the same sorts of mental illnesses as her mother.

    I love books like this, those that give me the creeps. That is, if the characters are human and not creatures from horror novels. I have no use for those. But books that explore the twisted psyche, now that’s my sort of reading. If this is your cup of tea, try Vacant Possession.

    [Personal copy]

    • Paperback: 256 pages
    • Publisher: Picador; Reprint edition (August 31, 2010)
    • Language: English
    • ISBN-10: 031266804X
    • ISBN-13: 978-0312668044

    A couple review books I read for the Amazon Vine program:


    Breaking Night by Liz Murray

    I’ve experienced crappy- life memoir overload after reading umpteen hundred of them, so I’m not sure what possessed me to actually choose to read and review this one. Luckily, it turned out to be pretty impressive.

    Liz Murray grew up the child of two alcoholic crack heads. The family lived month to month on welfare checks, most of which was squandered on drugs. Surprise! What little food they did buy lasted only days after each check. After that it was everyone for him/herself.Liz learned to visit friends on a regular basis, getting hot meals there at least a couple of times a week.

    In the middle is the story of what it was like to grow up in a completely neglectful household, how she and her sister, Lisa, survived. Liz eventually became homeless, again, living largely off the kindness of her friends who gave her what food and shelter they could. Still, she spent a lot of time on the streets. Her eventual success was due to her own strength of character, her refusal to let her godawful childhood doom her to the same fate as her parents.

    Inspiring is such an over-used word. Rather than that, I’m amazed all over again at the ability of the human spirit to recover from seemingly impossible odds. And not just to survive, but to thrive. Many of us surmount the seemingly unsurvivable, so Liz Murray definitely isn’t the first. But what she’s done is write a memoir that’s completely lacking self pity, telling her story without falling into the “poor me” trap. I thought that alone a very good recommendation.

    Worth a read if you’re a fan of memoirs, and a good book to hand to a teenager who thinks his or her life is rough.  Lots of good life lessons here.

    [Free review copy from Amazon]

    • Hardcover: 352 pages
    • Publisher: Hyperion (September 7, 2010)
    • Language: English
    • ISBN-10: 0786868910
    • ISBN-13: 978-0786868919


    The Heroine’s Bookshelf by Erin Blakemore

    And, last but certainly not least, a wonderful, wonderful book about heroines in literature, including:  Lizzy Bennet (Pride and Prejudice), Janie Crawford (Their Eyes Were Watching God), Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables), Celie (The Color Purple), Francie Nolan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), Claudine (Colette), Scarlett O’Hara (Gone With the Wind), Scout Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird), Laura Ingalls Wilder,  Jane Eyre, Jo March (Little Women) and Mary Lennox (The Secret Garden).

     What author Erin Blakemore has done is take these female characters, relate their qualities as we know them from the novels they’re in, while weaving in biographical details from the author’s lives. In the midst of this, Blakemore extrapolates the experiences of these women to apply to women as a whole. And the effect is just wonderful.

    I didn’t expect this book to be nearly as good as it was. When you’re choosing titles blindly it’s an iffy proposition. But this time I struck gold.

    Very highly recommended to those who enjoy books about books, exploring how the fiction evolves from real life.

    [Free review copy from Amazon]

    • Hardcover: 224 pages
    • Publisher: Harper; 1st edition (October 19, 2010)
    • Language: English
    • ISBN-10: 006195876X
    • ISBN-13: 978-0061958762


    That catches me up somewhat. Actually, considering how crazy-nuts things have been around here I’m doing well just to recap this much. The problem is while I’m waiting to catch up with what I’ve already read I’ll be reading other books.

    Wait, did I just say that’s a problem? Okay, it is if it’s a review book. But I’d like to share thoughts about every book I read, including those I pick up on a whim. I ask for lots of the review titles specifically, but  many of them just arrive. Sometimes they’re good, and sometimes not so much. The not so much often wind up in our library sale pile, but the good ones I have the best intentions of reviewing. Sometimes it’s just on Amazon, but for maximum impact I prefer blogging them, as well.

    I have to have everything, don’t I?

    Well, frankly, YES. Shocking I don’t go on a Muriel rampage, actually. Good thing my keeper put me on the choke chain. And now here comes the muzzle! Oh drat.

    Here’s the next section of best-selling books to mull over. Part One of the list can be found here.

    These have sold between 30 and 50 million since their publication:

    The Hite Report by Shere Hite – 48 million

    Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White – 45 million

    The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter – 45 million

    Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling – 44 million

    Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach – 40 million

    A Message to Garcia by Elbert Hubbard – 40 million

    Angels & Demons by Dan Brown – 39 million

    How the Steel Was Tempered by Nikolai Ostrovsky – 36.4 million in USSR

    War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy –  36 million in USSR

    The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi – 35 million

    You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay – 35 million

    Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer – 34 million

    The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank 30 million

    In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? by Charles M. Sheldon – 30 million

    To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – 30 million

    Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann – 30 million

    Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – 30 million

    One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – 30 million

    The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren – 30 million

    The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough – 30 million

    Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill – 30 million

    The Revolt of Mamie Stover by William Bradford Huie – 30 million

    The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson – 30 million

    The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle – 30 million

    My reactions to these? I’ve read:

    Charlotte’s Web (The first book I ever checked out of a library!)

    Harry Potter (I’ve read all of them, actually)

    Angels & Demons (Weak moment, what can I say?)

    One Hundred Years of Solitude (One of the greatest books EVER, one I need to re-read)

    The Thorn Birds (Teenage fantasy! A priest hot for a woman? SCANDAL.)

    The Very Hungry Caterpillar (To my kids, of course…)

    The Diary of a Young Girl (I’ve been to her hiding place in Amsterdam, as well – haunting)

    War and Peace

    To Kill a Mockingbird (Over and over and over)

    Surprises? Valley of the Dolls was interesting. Then again, sex sells. As do drugs and Hollywood celebrity stories. Could Peyton Place be far behind? I have a feeling that’s more my speed.

    I’m a little surprised The Very Hungry Caterpillar beat out Goodnight Moon, though I guess my own kids liked the former better. There are holes in the pages you can stick  your fingers through! Bright colors! And lots of foods!

    I’m disappointed The Purpose Driven Life sold so well. I was given a copy, decided to be game and give it a try, and I found it one of the most hateful, insufferably sanctimonious books I’d ever read. I think I threw it in our recycle bin, actually. The deciding factor was the reference to Bertrand Russell as being simply an “atheist.” Well, that he was, but first and foremost he was a philosopher, and a great one. Let’s give him credit where it’s due, without the judgmental label.

    As for those I’d never heard of:

    The Hite Report is a study of sexuality, one volume for men, one for women. Sounds like one I should have heard of, but haven’t. Not that I’m planning to bolt out and buy a copy.

    Message to Garcia is about achieving success. It’s a very short book. Maybe I’ve been going about this life stuff the wrong way, because I have volumes and volumes of journals but still haven’t figured out how to be anything but a bum.

    How the Steel Was Tempered appears to be a great Russian novel, a fictional autobiography (SEE: Frey, James). Apparently it created more of a splash “over there” than here. I think I’ll stick with War and Peace, thanks.

    You Can Heal Your Life, a major self-help book. I already corner the market on those. Think I’ll pass.

    In His Steps, obviously religious. Pass!

    Think and Grow Rich Hasn’t worked so far. Or maybe for me it’s more “fantasize you are rich.” Subtle difference.

    The Revolt of Mamie Stover is a history of Hawaii, and according to at least one Amazon reviewer a “great American story.” Unjustifiably neglected it may be, but nothing about it really blows up my skirt.

    Aside from pushing me toward a re-read of One Hundred Years of Solitude this portion of the list didn’t inspire me all that much. Also, it reinforced that I should get around to Stieg Larsson already! Sheesh.

    See you next time with another list as we work our way down the ladder.