Marie’s Reading: “How to Stop Time” by Matt Haig

how to stopTom Hazard has a rare affliction: he ages incredibly slowly.   Each year for him is more like fifteen for the rest of us.  As a result, Tom, born in 1581, is still alive today looking as though he’s in his early forties.

Tom’s under the protection of a shady sort of society, as are others like him.  They’re the ones who keep him in fresh identities as the years pass, in return for some “odd jobs” now and then.  And as long as Tom keeps a low, lonely profile, never falling in love or making long-lasting connections with others.  But Tom is getting tired of the lifestyle.  The only thing keeping him going is the memory of his long-dead wife and the hope that his daughter (who has the same affliction he does) might still be alive.

The book follows Tom in modern-day London, and fills in the backstory of his life.  There are wonderful historical touches, particularly the scenes set in Shakespeare’s London.  The glimpses of the past help to drive home the point that people have always, always been the same–and you get the sense of how annoying it must be to have to watch the same cycles played out over and over again over centuries.

Haig has such a compassionate way with his characters.  The message of his novels, particularly this one, always has to do with the importance of being as good a human being as one can possibly be–to love one another, and to recognize one’s place in the grander scheme.  In his novel The Humans, that scheme was the universe.  Here, the scheme is time.  It’s a funny, touching, hopeful, and humane study of love, loss, and history.



Marie’s Reading: “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley” by Hannah Tinti

twelve livesLoo and her dad have lived an unsettled life.  Always moving from place to place.  Loo’s dad, Hawley, has a mysterious past, represented by twelve different scars all over his body–all from bullets.  At last, when Loo is a teenager, she and her father settle in Loo’s late mother’s hometown in Massachusetts.  It’s not an easy adjustment, however–Loo has a lot to learn about navigating the world, and she also has to confront the not-so-warm welcome she and her father get in Olympus.

The story goes back and forth in time.  One part of the book focuses on Loo trying to get her footing in her new town, and her attempts to uncover her family’s secrets.  The novel also explores her father’s criminal past, one chapter for each bullet he took.  Tinti structures the novel very well.  The past sections are interspersed at precise moments in the story to either illuminate or to underscore what’s happening in the present.  And when the past finally catches up toward the novel’s climax, the storylines merge.

I really enjoyed Loo as a character.  She’s tough and maladjusted, as you’d expect.  Yet her relationship with her father is the absolute center of her universe, for good and bad.  The revelation of his past misdeeds seems to come as no surprise to her, and certainly doesn’t shock her.  Instead, there’s the sense that there’s a new depth and understanding between them.  As the story unfolds you realize that Loo and her dad are deeply flawed and not entirely sympathetic–but at least they’re deeply flawed together.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley is a great mix of coming of age tale, crime story, and exploration of a father/daughter relationship.  Tinti’s style is very descriptive, and she puts together scenes for maximum effect–whether it’s thrilling, frightening, or, sometimes, sweet.  The sense of place is amazing, whether describing a shootout at a hotel or the woods of New England.  If you like gritty books where characters aren’t always good but have their own brand of morality, you might enjoy this one.  Fans of Donald Ray Pollock should take a look, too!


Marie’s Reading: “Whistling Past the Graveyard” by Susan Crandall

whistling Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall invites comparison with Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird.  Plot-wise, it is Huckleberry Finn, more or less, just set during the Civil Rights era and with a female cast.

The story: Starla is a sassy red-headed kid who lives with her grandmother, Mamie, in 1960’s Mississippi.  After getting grounded yet again for un-ladylike behavior, Starla decides she’s had enough of Mamie.  She’s going to hitch her way to Nashville, where her mother is a country singer, and live with her instead.  But who should pick Starla up but a young black woman named Eula…who just happens to have a white baby in tow.  From there it’s a coming of age story intertwined with a road trip tale, examining race, love, and loyalty along the way.

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“Help for the Haunted” by John Searles

We’ll ease into our Halloween celebration of Horror fiction with a book that falls into the Not-Quite-Horror category: Help for the Haunted by John Searles.

Help for the Haunted

It might be worthwhile to revisit what “Horror” actually means, since we’re devoting the month to it.  I discussed this last year, but just to recap:  When we talk about a horror novel, we’re talking about a story which is intended to frighten the reader.   There’s usually, but not always, a supernatural element.  Last week, while we were talking about H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, my husband summarized the genre like this:

“Normal person goes to place.  Sees spooky thing.  Discovers that ‘Oh no! The world is run by an evil chaotic force!’  The end.”

He thought he was kidding.

But he was absolutely correct.  That is exactly what the Horror genre boils down to.  And in the case of Help for the Haunted, that is not what’s going on.  There are certainly horror elements, as well as elements of suspense and a little bit of mystery, too.  It’s dark fiction, but it’s not a horror story.   The point is not to instill fear in the reader.  Instead, we want to see everyone saved, and the mystery solved.

Here’s the story:

Sylvie Mason’s parents have an unusual occupation—helping “haunted souls” find peace. After receiving a strange phone call one winter’s night, they leave the house and are later murdered in an old church in a horrifying act of violence.

A year later, Sylvie is living in the care of her older sister, who may be to blame for what happened to their parents. Now, the inquisitive teenager pursues the mystery, moving closer to the knowledge of what occurred that night—and to the truth about her family’s past and the secrets that have haunted them for years.  -Amazon

This novel is a great example of Dark Fiction.  The atmosphere is bleak and a bit ominous.  There’s suspense and a touch of violence.  Most important, there’s a hint of something, if not supernatural, then at least not quite right.   At the same time, there isn’t that core horror element of a supernatural threat, that “evil chaotic force” which turns the world upside-down.

Instead, it’s the people in this book who turn their own lives upside down.  The chaos is familial relationships, tensions between people with deep bonds, and the ugly truth of how far some will go to maintain the reality they’ve created for themselves.  Also, the heart of the story is Sylvie putting the pieces of her life back together, and trying to turn the world rightside-up again.  It’s that crucial difference that keeps this novel from being Horror.  In a Horror novel, the world generally does not get righted again.

If you want more Dark Fiction suggestions, you can take a look at the post I linked above from last year: Not-So-Horrific Horror.  Check out the Suggested Reading tab here on the blog, too–there are a couple of lists that might be promising.

And when you decide you’re ready to cross over to the side of full-on Horror, I’ll be here.  Waiting.


Marie’s Reading: “Schroder” by Amity Gaige

schroderI’m back with Amity Gaige’s new novel, Schroder–just like I promised I would be!

Just hear Erik Kennedy out.  He has good reasons for taking his daughter on an unscheduled vacation.  He’s even got good reasons for fabricating his identity at age fourteen.   Over the course of his story, which he is writing from a correctional facility, he’ll tell you all about his childhood in East Germany, his love for his wife and daughter, and his fateful decision to become Erik Kennedy. Continue reading