Halloween Read: “The Ghost Notebooks” by Ben Dolnick

theghostnotebook

Is it ghosts?  Or is it madness?  Or maybe a little of both?

The Ghost Notebooks follows Nick and Hannah, a newly engaged couple at a crisis point in their lives and their relationship.  Their careers are stagnating, and so is their bond.  In hopes that a big change might help them out of their rut, they take jobs as caretakers for a house museum in upstate New York.

From the first, there’s something eerie and secretive about both the town and the house.  The museum was the family home of a 19th century writer and philosopher who, it’s rumored, dabbled in spiritualism.  As the days wear on in this remote and creepy new place, Hannah starts to unravel.  She stops sleeping, hears voices at night, and becomes obsessed with researching the house and the writer.  Nick can only stand by as something tragic happens.

While there’s some occult and spiritualist elements here, this is less a story about a haunting than it is about minds in crisis.  Is Nick a reliable narrator?  Is something nefarious going on?  Or is everything seemingly supernatural simply the result of grief and trauma?

The narrative voice is often wry and funny, and there are a lot of humorous moments balanced against the heavy ones.  If you enjoy just a maybe-sprinkling of ghosts around Halloween, or you’re fascinated by how human minds might create ghouls and goblins, give this one a look!

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Marie’s Reading: “All Things Cease to Appear” by Elizabeth Brundage

all-things-cease-to-appear-1Quick one for today, post-gorgeous holiday weekend.  It’s a blend of suspense, mystery, ghost story, and family story told with rich prose and a haunting tone–All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage.

At the beginning of the story, George Clare finds his wife murdered in their old farmhouse in upstate New York.  He’s the immediate suspect, but his parents manage to bail him out, and the police can’t get enough evidence to bring a case against him.

From there, the story goes back in time to show the backstory of the Clares and the story of their marriage, and how the murder is just the latest crime in a string of them.  We also learn the story of the Hales, who owned the farm before the Clares moved in.  Soon the story shifts to more of a “how-dunnit” than a “who-dunnit,” blending with the story of a poor small town and the people who try to survive there.  There’s also just a hint of the supernatural, but just enough to add another dimension to the story and characters.

The sense of place and the atmosphere is wonderfully evocative–the whole book feels cold, a little desperate, a little bleak.  The intense moments sneak up on you.  This is a very rich, well-crafted story, with strong characters and a good dose of atmosphere.  The pace is slow, but the characters and the mystery keep the story going.

If you enjoy the Dublin Murder Squad books by Tana French, or the slightly-otherworldly intricate suspense of Jennifer McMahon, give this one a try!

–Marie

April Simply Books! Meeting

Thank goodness for the stalwart Simply Books! crew.  Gentlefolk and scholars all.

I was sick on Saturday.  While I chugged Dayquil and herbal tea and watched Spaced on YouTube, four of our regulars got together and had a great meeting.  So I’ll say again: thank goodness for this wonderful group!  I can’t tell you how nice it is that they don’t even need a facilitator around.

Many many thanks to the member who served as scribe this month, and then sent me the list!  I appreciate it immensely!

Here’s the list of books the Simply Books! members talked about this month:

improve marriage the constant princess

wreath

all the lightOur next meeting is scheduled for Saturday, May 23rd at 2pm at the library.  It will be our last official meeting of the season!  Hard to believe summer break is already upon us.  As ever, we’ll reconvene in September.

See you in May!

Marie

Marie’s Reading: “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins

Girl-on-the-TrainWithin the first few pages of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, we learn that our primary narrator regularly gets drunk on the train and has made up names and life stories for a couple whose house she watches out the window at a regular stop.

Yes, I thought to myself.  Totally off her nut.  This is going to be a great story!  Yes!

I wasn’t wrong.

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October Simply Books! Meeting

Hi All!  Sorry for the delay in getting this up.   I couldn’t think of a way to tie in a Simply Books! update with Horror Month.  We’re not all that scary.

So here we are with another great list of books to share.  It’s as varied as ever, and we had some great conversations about this month’s reads.  I always like to share these books in our members’ words whenever I can (read: whenever I take good enough notes), so I’ve done that here.

Enjoy!

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Marie’s Reading: “Starter House” by Sonja Condit

starterhouseThis is a Saturday Afternoon Movie in prose form.   That’s not a criticism, merely the best way I can think to describe the general vibe of this novel.

It’s got a nice even pace, some creepy imagery, a couple laughs, and a few scenes to tug the heartstrings.  The characters are flawed but not too terribly complex.  There’s also enough suspense and mystery to keep you going through to the end, which boasts a reveal that’s a bit out of the ordinary.  It’s not absorbing, but it is compelling.  The structure is cinematic, going from scene to scene and character to character in a nice linear way.

That’s what I mean by a Saturday Afternoon Movie feel.  I was completely absorbed for a few hours, got my entertainment and my suitable ending, and then it was time to go do something else.  Sometimes, that’s just what you need. Continue reading

Marie’s Reading: “The Humans” by Matt Haig

cvr9781476727912_9781476727912_hr.JPGHumans are violent and dangerous and not to be trusted.  We especially cannot be trusted with technology or advancements that we aren’t mentally or emotionally equipped for.  So, when mathematician Andrew Martin makes a discovery that has the potential to grant us technological advancement which we’ve never even dreamed of, the Vonnadorians must step in.  Our unnamed narrator kills Martin and takes his place, on a mission to erase all knowledge of this mathematical advancement.  However, our narrator begins to develop an affection for humans–alarming for a being whose race is devoted entirely to pure mathematics.   Will he complete the task he’s been set by his superiors and return to his life in his distant galaxy, or have the humans won him over?

This is one of those books that’s just nice.  There’s some swearing and some sex and some violence (it’s about humans, after all), but at its core it’s a sweet story about appreciating the good about humanity.   Plainly Haig is in agreement with Robert Ardrey, who wrote in his African Genesis: A Personal Investigation into the Animal Origins and Nature of Man:

“But we were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted into battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses.”

There you have the central idea of The Humans.  As I read I couldn’t help thinking how unfashionable it is to focus on the nice things about us.   To focus on our achievements seems quaint at best and dangerously deluded and arrogant at worst.    And while there’s some truth to that, I also think there’s a place for novels like this one.  We do have to acknowledge our darkness, but not to the extent that we forget the light.  Those critical of this book have called it saccharine or trite, and I can see how some readers could walk away with that impression.  There are those who really enjoyed the narrator’s initial critiques of humanity, but were totally not on board for the part where he grows to like us.  All fair enough. But readers who enjoy the occasional reminder that life isn’t all bad, and that love really might be the whole point, will find a lot to like in this book.

Calvin and Hobbes
Gratuitous Calvin and Hobbes. As I was writing this post this particular strip leapt to mind.

Matt Haig’s writing style reminds me very much of Terry Pratchett.  My husband, who also read and enjoyed The Humans, suggested Pratchett’s Reaper Man as a readalike, and I heartily second the suggestion.  In Reaper Man, Discworld’s Death must spend some time as a mortal, which gives him a new and unique perspective on the human experience.  Actually, if your favorite aspect of this novel was the outsider perspective on humanity, any of the Discworld books that focus on Death might be good choices.

Kurt Vonnegut might be a good choice for a readalike, too, particularly if you like the humanist bent of Haig’s book.  Breakfast of Champions would be a great one to start with, as would Slaughterhouse-Five.  If you’re not so much a fan of sci-fi, the curious incident of the dog in the night-time by Mark Haddon might appeal to you.  There’s still the outsider aspect, but this time it’s because our narrator is a mathematical genius with Aspberger’s Syndrome.

Adam Rex’s hilarious and touching The True Meaning of Smekday, which I talked about here, might be a good choice for those who enjoyed the angle of humans and aliens becoming friends and allies.  It’s aimed at late elementary/middle school readers, and it’s a wonderful story that plays with format and has a great sense of humor.

–Marie

P.S.

Ken also read The Humans–he rated it a 5 and said in his review: “Best book I’ve read in a long time–it’s part sci-fi, mathematics, suspense, love, and perspective on us humans.”  Well put!