Reviews: One big ol’ pile of ’em

I’m tossing several reviews together, like a reading salad. This saves your inbox (or web visit) the agony of separate, multiple posts. It’s out of love. Don’t say I never do anything for you.

Resuming formal tracking of my reading has had the unfortunate side effect of inspiring me to read more. I KNOW.  Awful. My determination to fill this journal is a 2018 goal.



Here are the first few I’ve recorded:

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

  • Hardcover
  • Publisher: Raven Books; 1st edition (2017)
  • Purchased via

Where did I hear about this book? I don’t know. In some UK publication, probably. In that case, why didn’t I just buy it there? Was it not out yet? Did I not have time to beg a freebie?

Does it matter? Why am I asking so many questions?

I love creepy gothic books as much as darkly psychological portraits of murderous psychopaths. Makes you wish you could spend a night in my spare bedroom, doesn’t it? Don’t be silly. You wouldn’t wake to find me looming over you.


I relish the dark and brooding. Heathcliff is my ideal romantic hero, which explains the irresistible attraction I have to a certain type of man. I pursue the troubled ones, the mentally unstable. I can save you, angry man with a violent past!

Alas. Sorry, no one can save you but yourself. Seven years of therapy taught me that. Come back once you’ve graduated from therapy, balanced with help of medication. But then, I may not like you as well, because you’d be normal and – GASP – possibly kind.

It’s not me, it’s you.

In literature as in life, the grim attracts me. A very dark stripe runs through my soul – or the empty space it should be, where no sound is heard save the sinister creaking of an empty rocking chair, the tell-tale beating of a disembodied heart. But then, a lot of people must be similarly afflicted, because books like this fly off the shelves. Which makes me normal. Which I resent.

I didn’t enjoy The Silent Companions at first. For at least the first quarter, it irritated me I’d paid across the pond shipping, and an inflated exchange rate, to get my grubbies on it. A haunted house, a woman who’s lost her mind, strange and shifting wooden figures that resemble people she’s known …

Yet, I just wasn’t feeling it.

Tossed to the side of my bed in a huff, I read a couple other books while it lay there, gathering dust. Then I decided dash it! I’ve paid for it, I’m going to give it a few more pages. And you know, I enjoyed it a lot more after letting it sit and stew. Still far from the best gothic I’ve read, it got one hell of a lot better.

The wooden figures – the “silent companions” of the title – are ghoulishly creepy. It’s their shifting around that does it. You know how in horror movies every time a main character works up the courage to jerk open a door, hearing a noise in the hallway, it’s guaranteed as soon as the door closes the monster/killer/icky thing will be RIGHT THERE? That, but in a surprising enough way it’s not as cliché as it could have been. Still a bit predictable, but done well enough.

The heroine develops more fully as a character through the last half of the book, enough that I’d stopped hoping for her swift death, just so the book would be over. It bothered me the plot seemed lifted from Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, done less gracefully. If I hadn’t just watched the Netflix exclusive series, I’d have been blissfully ignorant of the similarity. Purcell is no Margaret Atwood.

If you aren’t familiar with Atwood’s novel, at its center is a woman in a mental asylum. Charged with murder, her mental instability and a lack of firm evidence are enough to keep her locked up, the prospect of execution looming. In The Silent Companions, the main character is unable to speak. Interviewed on an ongoing basis by a man determined to get at the truth, she communicates her story in writing. In Alias Grace, Grace is able to speak, spinning tales like Scheherazade. Grace is completely unreliable as a narrator, the story much more suspenseful. And the ending?


The Silent Companions isn’t the smoothest book. The dialogue tends toward the stilted. The attempted replication of a 19th century writing style comes off cheesily fake. As a lover of Victorian literature, I’m far less inclined to forgive missteps as huge as this.

It was, as you see often in reviews, “readable.” I finished it; that says a lot.

The ending irritated me. Again, picking it up so soon after my experience with the phenomenal TV adaptation of Alias Grace, it did not fare well. The power of Atwood’s novel, compared with the slow fizzle of The Silent Companions, did it no favors. I wonder if Purcell’s read Margaret Atwood’s book, if the similarities were intentional. If so, my opinion drops further.

I don’t hesitate throwing books aside. It’s ridiculous feeling you owe a writer anything. They owe you, the reader. It’s their job. They’ve produced a product, and you’ve paid for an anticipated experience. The writer needs to deliver as promised.

Not a ringing endorsement, I realize. But if you’re into gothics and aren’t looking for something either too heavy or terrifying, this may be it. And if you haven’t read Alias Grace, and aren’t an afficiando of Victorian literature.

Sorry, this just went even further South. The more I wrote, the less impressed I became. Go figure.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Catapult (October 3, 2017)

Holy lyrical and technical perfection. No wonder many lovers of hard-core literary fiction felt this short-listed novel should have won the Man Booker. I own a copy of the winner – Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders – but have yet to give it a proper read (as opposed to skimming pieces). Which deserved the win, I don’t know. All I do know, this one’s a beauty.

The trouble so many readers express is nothing much happens. It’s about perfection of writing, not a story that progresses in the traditional sense. A young girl in a remote English village goes missing. For years, residents search for her. Clues are tossed in occasionally, but they’re so few and far between the trail goes cold.

In place of a suspenseful plot, there are stories about everyday people, human experiences and the drama of everyday life in the space of time a tragedy becomes a distant memory. The parents of the girl are silhouettes on the edge. Hard details about the investigation aren’t well-defined.

If you’re looking for another Gone Girl, this isn’t your book. It’s a novel to be read slowly and savored, appreciated for the beauty of writing executed with perfection. It’s the kind of book you can pick up and put down without loss of continuity. I read it at a snail’s pace.

Every word is a treasure.

Miss Jane by Brad Watson

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (July 11, 2017)

Another beauty, this one with a plot not fast-paced but progressive. And the lyricism, just breathtaking.

Drawn from the story of his great-aunt, native Mississippian Brad Watsons’s Miss Jane is about a woman born malformed, neither her female parts, digestive nor urinary systems intact or functioning normally. She could control neither her bowels nor bladder, her life made painfully difficult.

Participating in normal society required pre-planning, and the constant worry she’d have accidents. From childhood, she was ostracized. Always on the outside looking in, her yearning to be normal, to go to school and live the carefree life of a child was heartbreaking. Forced to wear a diaper, she starved herself to avoid humiliating accidents. She wasn’t always successful.

Eventually dropping out of school, she’d learned enough rudimentary basics to allow her to read and perform basic math functions. As she got older, the dawning realization she could never have a romantic relationship in the traditional sense was a slap in the face. A strong woman, she not only endured but made a satisfyingly full life for herself, not that she never regretted what she couldn’t have. It would have been abnormal not to.

Start to finish a beautiful book, it does have lagging moments. I’m not sure I’d edit them out, though. That’s the thing. I had to pull my way along for brief periods, but overall, very worth it.

Miss Jane has literary prize written all over it.

It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree

by AJ Jacobs

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (November 7, 2017)
  • Courtesy of AJ Jacobs, because friend.

I’ve put off talking about this book because I knew it would be both very personal and time-consuming. I wanted to go into the whole back story of how I’d gotten involved in AJ’s project from the beginning, our personal friendship, and the ways I’d supported him throughout.

Flying out to Manhattan for the Global Family Reunion – the event that is the crux of this book – right around the time my divorce was finalized, it was a defining experience. I hoped to throw in pictures, too, because I went to NY and it was cathartic.

Oh, what the hell. Here are some of the pictures.


9/11 Museum at Ground Zero, Manhattan – a child stares in wonder.


I’ve known AJ at least a decade. His book The Know-it-All, about his experiences reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica, helped bring me out of a deep depression following the loss of a soul-mated friend. Written in short bursts of his thoughts on specific entries, it was both funny and interesting enough to suit my all but non-existent attention span. Losing a friend similarly passionate in his devotion to books, I’d lost the will to and interest in reading. AJ brought me back.

I wrote a deeply personal review of The Know-it-All, which AJ had seen. Meaning to find and get into contact with me, he just never did. Years later, I wrote asking him for an interview following publication of another book. He knew me immediately, telling me then how much my review had moved him.

By the time he started his world genealogy project, we were friends who communicated regularly. An editor of Esquire magazine, a very big deal, he’s still a reference on my resume. I have his personal cell number. AJ is good people.

He described his vision: what if the world traced its roots and realized we’re all cousins. I was hooked. I joined, the site virtually hosting the project. Genealogy began to consume me. The problem: once you start, it’s hard thinking about anything else.

My then-husband was furiously jealous of the amount of time it took up in my life, manifesting in hostility toward anything I tried sharing. The rift already there after decades of a terrible marriage, we’d be divorced by the time I attended the Global Family Reunion.

No, I don’t blame that on genealogy.

One World Trade Center.

Long story short, I followed AJ through what turned out to be a tortuously difficult project to get together this real-world family reunion, held in the summer of 2015. Though his friendliness never faltered, I could see the toll it took. He was still AJ, still kind and caring, frantically busy, but never so much he didn’t return my emails. This one nearly got away from him.

The book itself went months overdue. Intending to finish sometime around March of 2016, publication didn’t happen until November 2017.

The resulting book shows the strain. He doesn’t shy away from admitting he’d gotten in over his head, that pulling together a virtual campaign getting people to join Geni and dig into their roots enough to connect with him, plan an actual event with celebrities and publicity and all that goes with it, and gear up to write this book came dangerously close to breaking him. Normally a jovial writer with a sharp edge of self-denigrating sarcasm, the style of It’s All Relative comes off almost depressing.

This book doesn’t sound like AJ to me.

Ultimately, he drew together thousands who traced their ancestry far enough they realized he was right: we are all interconnected. Real life friendships were formed between total strangers of different races and ethnic origins, small celebrations were held around the world. People who couldn’t make the official reunion held their own.

Though it rained torrentially the day of the actual, mostly outdoor reunion, feet and chairs sinking into inches of mud, he pulled it off. Sister Sledge was there, singing “We Are Family”. I saw the celebrities backstage. That part was semi-amazing.

When I saw AJ that day, met him face to face, he was so distracted it didn’t register who I was. It didn’t help I was an unrecognizable drowned rat, caught in the deluge in Manhattan while tracking down a cab. By the time I caught up with him, the strain from all that had gone wrong had him so near distraught he shook my hand absently.

Leaving the event, I couldn’t find a taxi to take me the staggeringly expensive and long route back to Manhattan. In a shady area of Brooklyn, I wandered for hours. My feet were so sore from a poor choice in footwear – fashion over function – I walked the sidewalks barefoot, lost beyond hope. Returning to the venue, I tearfully asked for help. My phone dead more than an hour, the volunteers kindly ordered my taxi.


Times Square

Back at my hotel, I threw things around, irate I’d paid a tremendous amount of money flying out and staying in Manhattan just to have it turn into a virtual shit show. I tossed my backstage pass lanyard in the garbage. I couldn’t wait to leave New York City.

A few weeks later, once I’d cooled a bit but not completely, I fired off an email to AJ. It was a little ranty. And god, he was sorry. So sorry we set up a Skype call so he could talk to me, apologizing as face to face as technology allows.

Fences were mended.

I guess I did wind up writing a personal review about the book, after all. It was a life experience I won’t forget – not a completely great one, but all’s well that ends friendship intact.


So ends a quick summary of the first few books I’ve finished thus far in 2018. I’m close to finishing more. Hopefully I’ll have time to discuss those singly. We’ll see. Lots of other book-related thoughts, but time has been kicking my arse lately.

Either way, I’ll be back soon. Until then, happy January reading.

Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield



“As a boy, William Bellman commits one small cruel act that has unforeseen and terrible consequences. By the time he is grown, with a family of his own, he seems to be a man blessed by fortune – until tragedy strikes. Desperate to save the one precious thing he has left, William enters into a rather strange bargain, with an even stranger partner, to found a decidedly macabre business. And thus, Bellman & Black is born.”



A new book by Diane Setterfield is cause for celebration. Her freshman outing, The Thirteenth Tale, was a delicious gothic novel involving the daughter of a bookseller and a ruined old house. Universally loved, it was – surprisingly – a genuinely wonderful book. Popularity doesn’t always equal quality but it certainly did with The Thirteenth Tale. A delightful surprise and well-deserved success for a new writer.


Like other fans of her first book, I’ve been looking forward to her second. It’s a wait that’s felt interminable: six years to be specific. But she’s come through with a corker, a second book arguably better than her first.

Yes, BETTER THAN HER FIRST. You read that correctly.

Bellman & Black is dark. Very dark, as the title suggests. William Bellman is the main character, at the beginning of the book a young, typically high-spirited, rambunctious boy fond of hanging out with his friends, committing small acts of badness. In the opening scene he sports a slingshot. Taunted by his friends and despite his own queasy feelings of unease, he aims a small stone at a rook impossibly out of range. But his trajectory, the arc of the stone’s flight, is perfect. He picks off the bird, knocking it to the ground, dead:

“He felt something move in his chest, as though an organ had been removed and something unfamiliar left in its place. A sentiment he had never suspected the existence of bloomed in him. It traveled from his chest along his veins to every limb. It swelled in his head, muffled his ears, stilled his voice, and collected in his feet and fingers. Having no language for it, he remained silent, but felt it root, become permanent.”

Bellman & Black

Young Will could never have dreamed the ramifications of killing a rook, an act he regretted but too late. The price he pays throughout the remainder of his life is inordinately steep, the story accompanied by Setterfield’s complete and thorough re-telling of the legend and lore of the rook, a bird with a long and storied past. The tale unfolds slowly. Deliciously – though painfully – so, as Will grows up, marries and makes his way in the world.

In the great scheme of things, despite the loss of so much he should have felt more, all that motivates him is success in everything he touches. He’s willing to work for it, around the clock if necessary, with more efficiency than any other human being could be expected. The toll it takes, in the form of nightmares and insomnia, brings him low but his determination powers him through. Yet, curiously, it isn’t the money he craves. He lives the life of a monk in his cell. Rather, it’s his mania for excelling he cannot resist. Others in his circle who see his success at first feel jealousy, yet once they weigh the cost find it not at all worth the price.

William Bellman ultimately builds around himself an empire, dedicated to the expensive necessities surrounding mourning in Victorian society, a time in which the observation of death is virtually a competition. The proper accoutrements surrounding it are many and expensive, if done correctly – and they must be done correctly. Only the dirt poor were excused from showy, lavish funerals requiring everything from the appropriate crepe cloth for black dresses to the nodding black feathers adorning the six horses pulling the funeral carriage. Death being inevitable, and the Victorians holding it in such esteem, the business is secure. After all, one thing no one can escape is dying. Success building upon success he soon becomes one of the most respected and prosperous businessmen in the city.

But oh, the price he pays.

The more wealthy he becomes, the less human he behaves. Paranoia mounts. He starts seeing birds everywhere: threatening, purply-black birds with sharp beaks an implied threat. In the background a certain Mr. Black lurks, a mysterious, threatening entity from earlier in William’s life. As with the nightmares and the paranoia and the horror of birds, Mr. Black inspires in him a level of dread and white-knuckle fear he can’t express but also can’t escape.

Of course I won’t spoil the plot for you; that would be as much a tragedy as the storyline of Bellman & Black, a novel that moved me deeply. It’s gothic, improbable and filled with hints of the supernatural, yet at its core the truth is all too possible. What makes the heart ache are the brief moments of clarity, when Will realizes what he’s become yet does nothing. His drive to succeed is just too strong; it is his undoing.

And the prose! Flawless. I love finding little niggling details to complain about in every book but I couldn’t find even one in Setterfield’s second book. For all that The Thirteenth Tale was an especially well-written book, this one really is – as I said earlier – even better. If you loved her first book you should consider pre-ordering – or putting on hold at the library – Bellman & Black. Did this book take so long because she was going over it with a fine-toothed comb? Certainly seems like it. And it was worth the wait.

You will love it. YOU WILL. Easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.


  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books (November 5, 2013)

Thank you to NetGalley for my e-Galley of this book.

Thank you, thank you!



The history of the observation of death in the Victorian era is fascinating to explore. Books written about it are many and would be an excellent complement to this novel.

Here’s one place to start:

The Victorian Celebration of Death by James Stevens Curl

FACTOID: in the Victorian era it was not uncommon to pose a corpse into a life-like position, in order to take a portrait. Sometimes these were family group portraits and often eyes would be painted onto the dead loved one’s lids to simulate life.


Google the Victorian death portraits if you can stomach it.


The Bird of Night by Susan Hill



  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (April 29, 1976)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140040722
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140040722

I went through a Susan Hill mini-phase last year, reading her The Woman in Black and I’m the King of the Castle within a very short space of time. During my mania I also ordered two or three used copies of her other titles, including the book I read today, The Bird of Night.

In this novel a man named Harvey Lawson meets the poet Francis Croft at a house party.  Soon the two begin hanging out together, as the saying goes, and it’s not long before they develop a sort of friendship. Lawson finds himself drawn to the mysterious, oddly eccentric Croft. After a while it becomes apparent all isn’t well with Croft’s mental condition but rather than being run off Lawson feels the urgent need to care for the poet. Despite the fact Francis is constantly paranoid he will leave, Harvey finds himself more and more drawn in. He believes Francis is a poetic genius, and in fact Francis does produce a poem to great acclaim, titled “Janus.”

The years go by and Francis slides further and further into insanity. Eventually he attempts suicide, though unsuccessfully. Even relatively early on it’s obvious Harvey loves Francis, though the very nature of Francis’ madness makes any sort of real relationship impossible.  Still, he’s content to care for him, hoping for even a glimpse of sanity. These moments of rationality, though, become further and further apart.

The book is framed by the years following the death of Francis, when Harvey is a very old man being cared for in the same manner he cared for Francis.  Literary worshipers assail him constantly, looking in vain for any papers Francis may have left behind him.  Harvey tells them “there are no papers,” when in fact there actually are but he doesn’t want to encourage any more attention than he’s already getting. The intrusions are a nuisance. He would prefer to be alone with his memories,

The Bird of Night is a book I read in one day. It was compelling enough, and likewise short enough, I didn’t want to put it down unfinished.  Though not as masterful as Hill’s I’m the King of the Castle, it is nevertheless a fascinating portrait of a descent into madness.

The Other Eden by Sarah Bryant

Amazing what a good, old fashioned case of food poisoning can do for one’s reading.  It’s also a sad statement I actually consider this a positive. Biblioholism, anyone?

Yes, please.



  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley Trade (August 4, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0425229297
  • ASIN: B005Q62N5S

[Free review copy: Snow Books]

Snow Books (UK)  very kindly sent me a review copy of Sarah Bryant’s lushly gothic novel set at an antebellum home in Louisiana, and despite the size of it (459 pp.) I positively flew through the book.

The book begins with twin sisters, Eve and Elizabeth, switching identities so one may marry the man she loves.  Having traded identities so often in childhood, with nary a suspicion from their parents, they figure switching for a mere bridegroom will be no problem at all.  With lightning flashing and thunder rumbling in the background, they complete the exchange of the wedding dress and the sisters’ identifying necklaces.

A generation later Eleanor Rose, the daughter/niece of Eve and Elizabeth, is plagued by recurrent nightmares about her mother and aunt. In all her dreams both women are in dire peril at the hands of a mysterious man, and both call desperately for her help. Strangely, it’s her aunt Eve who seems to be appealing to her most desperately in her dreams, a fact she can’t quite reconcile.   Why is it her aunt Eve and not her mother?

Eleanor, raised by her grandfather, is an indulged and privileged child who’s also a prodigy on the piano.  Her grandfather takes her to music concerts where she hears the greats play. At one of these concerts she sees Alexander Trevozhov perform. She’s immediately smitten.

On the death of her grandfather Eleanor learns she’s inherited the family’s land and home in Louisiana, so leaves Boston with her companion, Mary, to live on the estate.  As soon as she arrives she gets a chill. The place itself is beautiful but menacing, in a way she can’t quite understand.  Bryant’s writing here is lush and lovely:

“Over the years of disuse, the rampant foliage had nearly swallowed the house. Bougainvillea, ivy and kudzu hung in swaying curtains from the roof, tangling with honeysuckle and roses climbing from below. … Beautiful as the house was – or rather, would be, with some care – I felt repulsion at that first sight of it.”

Eleanor moves into one of the smaller houses on the estate, as Eden House is in such a state of disrepair.  She is immediately plagued by insomnia. Already pale and wan following the sudden loss of her beloved grandfather, she becomes even more sickly looking.  Not long thereafter a man arrives to rent one of the houses on the property. The man is none other than Alexander Trevozhov, arriving with is niece Natalya.  Coincidence or orchestration, you may ask?  Well, some things are best not revealed.

Trevozhov appears somewhat aloof and mocking at first, but soon warms to Eleanor. He reveals that he, too, has been having strange dreams and their fates seem inexplicably intertwined.  He’s able to recite specifics from her dreams, a fact that leaves Eleanor baffled.  Who, exactly, is this Alexander Trevozhov, and how does he know the details of the dreams that terrify her?

Eleanor begins exploring Eden House. Locked doors become unlocked, and unlocked doors are suddenly fast closed, as she wanders through the big house. Her feeling of unease mounts, despite her vain attempts to rationalize the things happening around her. A piano she originally found under a dustcover, unused for ages, begins playing a familiar piece when there’s apparently no one in the house but herself. Eleanor begins to feel she’s losing her grip. Is there truly a legacy of insanity in her family?

Enter Dorian Ducoeur, a former friend of the family who knew both Eve and Elizabeth, and things really start to heat up.  Dorian, Eleanor discovers, is one of the figures from her nightmares.  Alexander’s back is immediately up. He doesn’t trust this man and makes no bones about it. Who is Dorian Ducoeur, really, and what does Alexander really know?  Apparently he knows more than he’s at first willing to reveal.

Telling much more would be spoiling the rest of the plot.  Suffice to say there are more delightfully mysterious house rambles to come, more lush, beautifully-written descriptions of the wonderfully gothic Eden House, and even a death or two for good measure. There are also more shocking revelations, and many more layers added to the tale of Elizabeth and Eve, before all is said and done.

Heavily influenced by the gothic classic Jane Eyre, Sarah Bryant’s strength is in her description.  She imagines a nicely complex plot, but her slips into melodrama are her weakness.  However, with writing so atmospheric and evocative of the steamy Deep South the reader can forgive her the occasional slip into purple prose.

On the strength of this effort I would most definitely read another book by Bryant. Despite its length The Other Eden demands you read it at a gallop. There’s no slowing down as each element is revealed, peeling away the layers of the mystery and simultaneously building the suspense to nearly unbearable proportions.  You won’t want to stop until the last page is turned. As a good summer read I would very highly recommend The Other Eden.

For Sarah Bryant’s other works, see her Amazon author page.