Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Lost Among the Living by Simone St. James

Lost Among the Living is the fifth novel by Simone St. James.  I reviewed her four preceding novels on this blog: The Haunting of Maddy Clare, An Inquiry into Love and Death, Silence For the Dead, and The Other Side of Midnight.  Click the titles to read those reviews.  St. James' next novel, The Lost Girls, is set to be released next year.  I really enjoy the mix of suspense, supernatural, and mystery in St. James' novels.  Set in post-World War I England, they're a perfect blend of historical novel, mystery, and horror.  Lost Among the Living is creepy and atmospheric, and St. James is expert at spinning a good, old fashioned ghost story.

Jo Manders, a grieving widow, accepts a position with her husband's aunt, a difficult mistress, as the woman's paid companion.  However, from the moment Jo arrives at Wych Elm House, it is clear that things are not right either in the house or in the family.  Phantom footsteps follow Jo around the house, phantom leaves and people and mists appear and disappear seemingly at will, and the terrifying nightmares that haunt Jo disrupt her sleep leaving her exhausted the following morning.  The mysterious malfunctions of the house mirror the tension filled, mysterious dysfunctions within the Forsyth family that occupies the house.  These family dynamics are further reflected in the town residents' resentment, contempt, and distrust of the secretive Forsyth family.  In fact the family's secretiveness has bred rampant rumors and gossip among the townsfolk that only reinforces the tight lipped family ship that Dottie, Jo's husband's aunt, insists upon maintaining.

The return of prodigal son Martin Forsyth from convalescence on the continent brings an uneasy reunion between parents and child.  Martin's parents, Dottie and Robert, resent each other, and it's quite clear that post-war shell shock is not the only illness that ails sickly Martin whom his mother insists has returned to marry and continue the family line.  However, as the days and weeks go on, it becomes increasingly likely that Martin may not survive long enough to fulfill his mother's wishes.

The driving force of the story, and in which much of the familial tensions are rooted, are the dual mysteries of the death of Frances, the beloved, yet mad, daughter of the family as well as the contradictory picture of Alex, Jo's dead husband, that the Forsyths paint.  As the story progresses it's revealed that there were things in Alex's past that he didn't tell Jo.  The questions raised in my mind very early in the story were these: is the man really dead?  What was he really doing during the war?  Why is there such a disparity between the man Jo knew and the one the Forsyths remember?  Was Frances' death really a suicide?

Let's be real here.  Most everyone in this book is odd and prickly, except for Jo and maybe Martin.  And everyone in the Forsyth family or associated with them is weird, creepy, and/or hiding secrets--or all three.  None of which bodes well for a smart, observant woman like Jo, who is expert at sussing out secrets through gathering information and observation of those around her.  And the person ferreting out the mysteries and secrets of a family in which one member is already dead under mysterious circumstances as a result of someone else asking questions is a very dangerous undertaking.

Random Rant (Be warned--SPOILER ALERT)

Who pops back up after 'being dead for years' and is all 'heeeey--not really dead--sorry--my bad?'  Where were you?  Not dead (because obviously) and not a prisoner of war (because 'bureaucratic snafu' as the excuse for why your name didn't show on those lists is a piss poor excuse).  And the most infuriating part of this reunion is your daft idea/attitude that your wife should just be fine with your return and welcome you with open arms.  Who does that?  Not cool.  Not cool at all.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Pride + Prejudice + Zombies

By now you know I love all things Jane Austen.  And I also enjoy a good horror movie.   So it's really no surprise that I wanted to see this horror mash up, Pride + Prejudice + Zombies, an adaptation of the book of the same title by Seth Grahame-Smith.  I have not read the book, but I borrowed it from the library and have it at home.  However, having seen the movie, I'm not sure that I will read the book.  I spent the first hour or so of the movie debating whether or not I really wanted to watch the whole movie, and then I got to the end of the movie was thisclose to declaring it bullshit because, well, I'll get to that issue in a moment.

The simplest way to summarize this movie's plot is to say that it is Pride and Prejudice with a zombie apocalypse happening in the middle of Regency England.  And the humans appear to be losing the war thanks to the arrival of the zombie Anti-Christ (?) [or something; I didn't really understand that part].  I don't know, you guys.  I wasn't into it.  I did like that the Bennett sisters are kung-fu trained, bad ass warriors in the zombie war, so that was nice.  And Darcy is a colonel in the aforementioned war against the zombies that have over run England.  But Wickham.  He's been transformed from a cad into an outright evil villain.  And while Wickham is always the bane of my existence in any Pride and Prejudice adaptation, there was something lacking due to this change in character and plot.  And other minor details of the plot and timeline were changed also; i.e. the root of the rift between Wickham and Darcy has a much darker origin worthy of a horror movie.

Random Thoughts (You know that's why you came)

Why does Darcy sound like Batman?  He's supposed to be Darcy the zombie fighter not Darcy the Batman.  Every time Darcy opened his mouth, this bothered me.

[SPOILER ALERT] At the very end it appears that they blow up Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy along with the bridge, and then they fake us out by making it appear that Darcy did indeed perish.  And I did not like it.  I did not like it.  At.  All.  And if they had not fixed this error, this movie would have been bullshit, and I would have burned down Facebook in retaliation.  Because no one messes with Pride and Prejudice and lives to tell the tale.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes by Anna McPartlin

I have read every Anna McPartlin novel.  Or at least I think I have except for the most recent one released after The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes.  When I was perusing the blog for those reviews to link to, I couldn't find a review for As Sure As The Sun, and I don't remember the plot.  So I will have to investigate that one to make sure that I've read it.  I know I have read four other McPartlin novels: Pack Up the Moon, Apart from the Crowd, The Space Between Us, and  Alexandra, Gone because there are reviews for those on the blog.  Click on the book title to read the review.  And then go read the books if you haven't already.  Or read them again if you already have because they're that good.  I love McPartlin's novels and after I read Somewhere Inside of Happy, I will be all caught up with her novels.  I read on the author's Facebook page that there will be a follow up novel featuring the Hayes family either next year or the year after.   Can't wait to read it.

The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes by Anna McPartlin is a stand-alone novel as are her other novels.  It originally came out a year or two ago.  Rabbit Hayes has cancer, and the novel literally opens with her mother driving Rabbit to hospice.  The novel takes place over the course of a little more than a week and deals largely with Rabbit and her family coming to terms with the end of her cancer battle and subsequently her impending death.  It's not an easy theme to deal with, but McPartlin imparts equal parts grace, raw grief, heartbreak, and humor to this story.

I'll be honest there were some places near the beginning of the book that I needed tissues, and you'll definitely need tissues at the end (lots of tissues for all the tears; I cried my little librarian heart out).  This book is also different in that way from McPartlin's previous novels that suck the reader in to the story and the characters' lives and trials from the first chapter.  And while previous novels also dealt out tragedy and heartache, this one's pages are humor tinged and soaked in grief and tears from page one.  Rather than let us get to know and love the characters before she hits them (and us) with a sledgehammer of tragedy and grief, McPartlin throws us in the deep end of that pool from the very beginning.

The narrative is divided into sections (each section takes place over the course of a day in successive order).  And each section is divided into chapters that rotate among the multiple perspectives of Rabbit and the people who love her best and must cope with her impending death.  Yet at first Rabbit and her parents refuse to accept that she's run out of miracles and life left to live; so much so that no one has told Rabbit's daughter, Juliet, about her mother's terminal nature of her mother's illness.  However, the perceptive girl knows the truth on a subconscious level even as she plays along with her mother's and grandparents' charade.

As Rabbit's loved ones struggle to come to terms with her looming death and to make plans for Rabbit's daughter's future, the story flashes back to Rabbit's teen years.  It was during this time that the Hayes family watched the decline and eventual death of a beloved family friend with whom Rabbit grew up and loved very much.  And this person is ever present in Rabbit's thoughts as she herself nears the end of her life.

If you have read McPartlin's other novels, I highly recommend this one.  There's drama, there's humor, and there are (a lot of) tears.  The characters are vivid, unique, and lively.  And if you've never read any of McPartlin's novels, I highly recommend you start with this one.  You won't regret it.  Just keep the kleenex close by.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Name Therapist by Duana Taha

In addition to British period drama, I also enjoy following celebrity and entertainment gossip.  Years ago I discovered the celebrity gossip blog, laineygossip.com, and I've been reading it ever since.    Duana Taha, in addition to screenwriting for TV, also writes a column for laineygossip.com in which she offers advice for prospective new parents in naming their children.  Taha has been writing this column for a very long time, and I've been reading it for (probably) as long as she's been writing it.

Like Taha, I too am a name nerd.  When I was in middle school I received a book of baby names from one of my aunts for Christmas one year because she knew I liked names.  I read that book cover to cover (and I still have it).  When this same aunt was pregnant with her first child I may have given her lists of names for girls and boys, and when her second child was a boy, I think his middle name came from one of the lists I gave her during her first pregnancy.  While I still consider myself a name nerd, I'm not as much of one as I was then--I mean, I'm not reading baby name books like I did then.  And I think Taha's name nerdiness is on a whole other level from mine.  I mean, the woman has commandeered for herself a career that is partially based upon her expertise in onomastics.

Taha's book The Name Therapist: How Growing Up with my Odd Name Taught Me Everything You Need to Know About Yours is a lot like her column on steroids except she's not doling out name advice.  Instead this book is a long meditation on names and their effects on our personalities and lives.  Taha writes about what it's like to grow up with a given name that no one else has and no one else has heard of.  While I can't really identify with this part of the book, I do have a cousin and another friend who can.  I have a cousin who has a name no one else has (literally no one else has her name), and people always have trouble pronouncing it.  This cousin's name struggles are also wrapped up in people wanting to know 'what she is' or 'where she comes from,' and Taha touches on this too in the context of ethnic names that sound unusual and 'exotic' to Anglo ears.

My name is not as unusual as Taha's given name; however, I was the only Angela in my class until junior year in high school when another Angela moved into our district.  Now that I think about it that Angela was a senior, and we only had one class together, so technically, I was still the only Angela in my class.  I can think of maybe two or three other Angelas that were in different grades at my school.  Reading this book has caused me to ruminate on my name and the representation of other names in my high school class.  So I turned to my high school yearbook as a data source (I told you I was a name nerd).  In the year I graduated there were six (!) Jasons and five Ashleys in my class; five Matthews too.  Four each of Amanda, Rebecca, and Jennifer.  Three each of Jessica, Nathan(iel), Christopher, Michelle, Rachel, Holly, and Michael.  There were a handful of other names that 'only' had two people wearing them and others represented just once (one of which is that friend who has a name no one else has).  So what does this data tell you about when I was born and the names that were popular then?

--Reviewed by Ms.  Angie

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil by James Runcie

Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil is the third installment in the Grantchester Mysteries series.  I reviewed the first two books of the series on the blog here and here.  This installment brings some major life changes as Sidney and his new wife Hildegard enjoy their first year of marriage.

In the first mystery Sidney contemplates the problem of evil in the form of a serial killer targeting clergy.  Each killing is preceded by an avian warning, and the ever irritating, intrepid reporter Helen Randall returns and, troublingly, entices Inspector Keating.  In another mystery Sidney is a material witness to the theft of a painting from a Cambridge gallery in which a nude woman singing a French tune creates a diversion.

In a later mystery Sidney is reluctantly roped in to portraying a priest in a local film production when he witnesses an accidental drowning.  However, something about the whole incident does not sit right with Sidney (of course) and after some inquiries, he discovers the near perfect murder.  In the final mystery as Sidney awaits the birth of his first child, his help is enlisted in locating the stolen premature newborn of a parishioner.

Some Random Thoughts (I always have some)

Sidney is right frustrated when suspected criminal perpetrators lie to him upon being questioned [OMG HOW DARE CRIMINALS LIE]; this strikes me as naive for Canon Chambers.  I mean the man's been investigating all manner of crimes in little Grantchester for how many years now--he is by now the definition of skepticism whenever anything even remotely suspicious happens in his vicinity.

It's rich that Amanda excoriates Sidney for expecting her to 'drop everything' to meet him for tea.  Didn't she expect him to hop a train on a moment's notice to meet her for lunch in London so she could share some mundane news with him at some point during the first book?  (Yes, I have a long memory.)

That Redmond family of Grantchester has some bad luck; they've produced two murderers and then the new grandbaby gets infant-napped.  At least the latter story has a happy ending (spoiler alert!).

Also I hear that in a later installment Sidney gets a new curate who irritates him with his efforts to ingratiate himself with the parishioners, and I have a feeling that the man will irritate me too because NO ONE REPLACES SIDNEY CHAMBERS.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie