Monthly Archives: December 2013

A Ghost Story?

HelpDecided to read “Help for the Haunted” by John Searles primarily based on the recommendation of another author whose works I enjoy, Alice Hoffman.  The story centers around the memory of a young girl, Sylvie Mason, whose parents were killed one snowy night in a church, and she is the only witness.  The problem is, she is not sure what she saw.  The story is complicated further by the fact that her parents were people who made their living by expelling demons from the haunted, by helping people who had no one else to turn to in a desperate situation.  The story is further complicated by Sylvie’s troubled sister, Rose, who may be implicated in the parents’ murder.  The story weaves through time, telling about Sylivie’s anxiety over her doubts as to what she saw that night in the church, and the 36-hour period she has before giving her final deposition.  It goes back to the past, giving us the background on this strange family whose parents make their living giving lectures on the supernatural and expelling demons from the troubled souls who seek them out.  It is a story of belief: believing in faith, in one’s parents, in what you have been taught, and it is a story of uncovering truth, no matter how uncomfortable.  The author uses a variety of literary devices to tell the story, most of which is in the first person recollection of the young main character.  He also uses some unusual conventions such as the writings in a journal, the transcripts from an investigation, the writings in a biography.  The tale, weaving through the years prior to and after the killings, provides enormous suspense and an eerie atmosphere surrounding this strange family of demonologists.  Eventually, however, the story comes to a climax when Sylvie starts to piece together the background of events leading up to the murder, and uncovers long buried family secrets.  I thought the writing was top drawer until the end.  Sadly, this creepy and intriguing story totally falls apart at the end.  Not to spoil it, but the characters, including the young heroine, start talking totally out of character like old people, the final climactic scene is unbelievable (in that it does not make sense, not that it is fantastic), and it all feels disappointing and silly after building up so much promise.  Too bad.  I was impressed with the fact that the author, a young man, could write in the voice of a young girl so well, but in the final scenes she totally turns into a two-dimensional cartoon.  A great book for the first 7/8th of it, and still looking forward to this writer’s next work.  Help's_author

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Faith, in Passing

I learned that a friend of mine, Faith, died this week.  She was abroad, so the last time I saw her she was healthy and full of plans for things she wanted to see, places she wanted to visit, and plans for her family.  She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the Spring, and despite a valiant battle, passed away almost seven months later.  Too soon.  Faith was an intellectual, with a keen understanding of the world and an ear for the rhythms of popular culture. She was a brilliant linguist who knew French and Russian and who knows what else.  She could take on a discussion of Jane Austen or J.K. Rowlings with the same measure of seriousness and analytic acumen.  Faith was the one who introduced our book club to “The Hunger Games” when it first appeared, because she had a sense of these things, and recommended it as a good story with a lot of potential. She wasn’t an elitist or stuffy in her reading–she could take on the heavy lifting as well as the  “commercial fiction” with the same measure of enthusiasm.  Throughout this blog, Faith made comments about the posts with insight and a sense of humor.  I miss her comments.  I’ll so miss her at our meetings.  This Christmas, like every holiday season, we meet for a holiday high tea, we exchange gifts (books of course!) and review the previous year.  We’ll set a cup for Faith, who will be with us there in spirit.

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Weather as Character

cjboxAfter reading “Inherit the Dead,” a mystery written by a compilation of famous mystery writers, I decided to pick up a book by one author whose writing really stood out: C.J. Box.  I chose one of his earlier novels, Winterkill.  In the story, his main character, a Wyoming game warden named Joe Pickett, becomes involved in a gruesome murder of a federal agent just as a winter storm is descending on his small, Wyoming town.  The murder, concurrent with the arrival of a group of anti-government reactionaries, draws a particularly bizarre and unbalanced Forestry Service agent to the small town along with some unsavory FBI thugs.  The agent, Melinda Strickland, is hell-bent on conducting a raid on the reactionaries encampment and finds the truth an inconvenient detail when faced with it.  The situation becomes personal when Joe realizes his foster daughter has been abducted, and is likely being held at the camp, directly in the line of fire as federal and local law enforcement converge for an attack.  Think Waco and Ruby Ridge.  C.J. Box draws a vivid picture of the West and its people, but his true strength lies in his portrayal of nature, the wildlife of the mountains, the independ-minded people, and the dangerous beauty of the impending storm.  He reminded me a great deal of another writer who has made the setting a character in his novels: Paul Doiron, who writes about Maine and also has a main character who is a game warden. (See earlier post called Capturing the Male Reader for a review of Doiron’s Bad Little Falls.) In Winterkill, Box explores the theme of protection as the character struggles with his guilt over not being able to protect his daughter.  His sense of leaving her exposed to danger is symbolized by the trees exposed, resulting in winterkill, when the storm hits.  The plot, albeit a tad contrived at times, has enough twists to keep a reader engaged and the characters are well drawn, with the exception of perhaps the villianess. The over-the-top strangeness and cold-heartedness of Melinda Strickland was a bit unbelievable more often than not, but she made a satisfactory “love to hate her” bad gal.  Overall, a satisfying read and apropos on the eve of the snow expected here in the next twenty-four hours. Certainly hope it is nothing like the blizzard in this novel.  winterkill

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