Tag Archives: ghost story

Songs in the Key of Life

small-admissions

Small Admissions: A Novel by Amy Poeppel (Emily Bestler Books/Atria, $26.00, 358 pages)

I was anticipating this book to be a downsized version of The Admissions, an earlier-released novel by Meg Mitchell Moore about the pressures of getting a high school senior daughter – one living in Danville, California, into an elite college.  The Admissions was a funny and entertaining book, but it was also loaded with valuable information for real-life parents on how to attack the knotty college admissions process.

Small Admissions focuses on parents attempting to get their children admitted into a highly competitive pre-school/elementary school in New York City.  While it’s also humorous, I found it to be overly light – both in the manner in which it’s written and in the lack of substantive, useful information.  I expected more of the latter since the author previously “worked in the admissions office of a prestigious private school” in NYC.

On the plus side, this is a relaxing read – like watching a family comedy on network TV, or a film on Lifetime – and Poeppel occasionally gets off a good line: “Happiness is not a zero-sum game.  It’s the only case in which the resources are limitless.”  You may get better mileage and satisfaction than I did.  (Perhaps.)

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I Liked My Life: A Novel by Abby Fabiaschi (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 272 pages)

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is an honest-to-goodness ghost story.  Madeline (Maddy) Starling is a happy housewife and mother.  She has a successful husband, Brady, and a great teenage daughter, Eve.  And then, suddenly, Maddy is gone – by suicide.  This might be the end of the story, but it’s just the beginning as Maddy sticks around as a ghost; one who can observe what goes on with Brady, Eve, and other formerly-important figures in her life.  She also has the power to implant thoughts in their heads – such as the notion that Brady needs to find a new spouse to take care of him and Eve.

Author Fabiaschi, in this debut novel, makes good use of the notion that people tend to feel the presence of a deceased person after his or her passing.  Yes, there’s a touch of the plot used in the 1990 film “Ghost,” but the overlap is minimal.  And she writes well in a ghostly voice:

“Everything in our house looked perfect, which was awesome when I thought everything was perfect, but disturbing now that I know the truth.  It’s like we lived on a stage.”

And:

“Perhaps we all offer what we can, until we can’t, and then our loved ones step up or have others step in.  Perhaps death exists to challenge the people left behind.”

In her ghostly existence, Maddy finds that she’s on a timetable.  There’s only so much time to complete what she needs to get done – via earthly creatures, before her powers erode and she heads for her final destination.

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Surprisingly, Fabiaschi sets up an ending that we can see coming from hundreds of pages away.  Except that the book does not end that way.  Well played!

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

Small Admissions was published on December 27, 2016.

I Liked My Life was released on January 21, 2017.

early-decision

Note: Another novel that deals in a semi-factual way (“Based on a true frenzy!”) with the college admissions process is Early Decision by Lacy Crawford.

 

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The Pied Piper

art of neil gaiman (nook book)

The Art of Neil Gaiman by Hayley Campbell (Harper Design, $39.99, 320 pages)

Neil Gaiman describes his work as making stuff up and writing it down.

Where to begin? The perfect biographer, the physical book (a large one), the captivating stories and their history coalesce to provide the fortunate reader with the feeling of truly experiencing Neil Gaiman. Audrey Niffenegger, author of the ghost story Her Fearful Symmetry and fellow Brit, sets the mood for Hayley Campbell’s thorough exploration into the evolution of Gaiman, to date.

If there is one thing that characterizes Gaiman as a writer (and McKean as an artist for that matter), it’s that he likes to keep moving on, a habit that was no doubt born during his time as a journalist and seeing writers being trapped in boxes from which they can never escape.

I’m a relative newcomer to the world of Neil Gaiman. The only work of Gaiman’s that I’ve read – and it happened in one sitting, is The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The provocative little novel piqued my curiosity. Who would write in this style and what sort of person are they in everyday life?

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Biographer (and model) Campbell establishes her bona fides by explaining that she met Gaiman in 1992 when she was just six years old. He was a houseguest and, based on her dad’s enthusiasm at the visit, she knew he was special. Oh, and he was the author of her favorite childhood story. Their friendship has continued to the present. Campbell had free run of the vast archive of his work, mostly stored in the attic of his home.

The Art of Neil Gaiman is appropriately named. Gaiman made conscious and sometimes not-so-conscious decisions to become a writer. At times he took odd assignments to provide himself with food and shelter. Regardless of the job outcomes, it is clear that Gaiman searches for the lesson and value in his experiences. As a writer for magazines, he learned to quickly produce a finished piece. His habit of taking notes of ideas as they occur to him has provided him with a wealth of material.

The numerous illustrations are widely varied – photocopies of scribbled notes, childhood pictures, sketches for various projects and illustrations from finished works. The book is easy to read and engaging. Each page entertains the reader.

I savored the vignettes along with meals. There was no urgency as one feels with a mystery novel. The unfolding tale of Gaiman’s development as an artist is fascinating. The sections are arranged in quasi-chronological order. Some contain parallel time frames but different aspects of his development as a writer.

So, just what sort of person is this artist in everyday life? Neil Gaiman has a genuine appreciation of readers as well as being a kind person. Oh, and his imagination is boundless!

This book will remain a permanent part of my library.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

You can read a review of The Ocean at the End of the Lane (by Neil Gaiman) here:

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2013/07/01/i-am-a-child/

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Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me

Dying to Know: A Mystery by TJ O’Connor (Midnight Ink, $14.99, 368 pages)

What does former government agent and security consultant TJ O’Connor do for an encore? Well, how about writing a mystery novel? This debut book by O’Connor has a twist that’s reminiscent of the movie Ghost.

The narrative opens with Tuck (police detective Oliver Tucker) investigating sounds of an intruder downstairs in his home in the middle of the night. In rapid succession, Tuck dies and his cop partner, Bear, and Tuck’s wife Angela behave strangely. There are evil goings on happening behind the scenes. As the body count rises, the reader may become a bit confused. Just who is a good guy and who is a bad guy?

The reader is treated to unique antics and seeming magic as Tuck adjusts to being dead and investigates his own murder. Time travel and scene shifting are the primary devices that O’Connor employs to good effect. Tuck’s faithful dog, Hercule, is able to recognize him but the humans need plenty of hints to sense Tuck’s presence. O’Connor leaves an opening for more mysteries to be solved by the ghostly detective.

Well recommended.

Love Water Memory: A Novel by Jennie Shortridge (Gallery Books, $16.00, 328 pages)

Love Water Memory

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The tale unfolds slowly, beginning with a 39-year-old woman found knee deep in the frigid water of San Francisco Bay. She is an amnesia victim who is dressed in designer clothes and seems a most unlikely person to be in her situation. Lucie Walker, as we come to know her, has been in a five-year relationship with Grady Goodall in Seattle. In fact, it’s just two months before their wedding when Lucie disappears from the house she shares with Grady. She’s been gone a couple of months before the incident in the bay.

The main characters are not immediately likeable. The reader learns about them through shifting scenes. Chapters dedicated to Lucie, Grady and Lucie’s Aunt Helen rotate throughout the book. We find major revelations that bring light to Lucie’s actions. Past issues have been deeply buried and Lucie must deal with them in order to accept who she is and how she feels about Grady.

The takeaway from this moody piece is the question, “What makes a person?”

Well recommended.

After I’m Gone: A Novel by Laura Lippman (William Morrow, $26.99, 352 pages)

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After I'm Gone

Super famous author Laura Lippman uses her hometown Baltimore as the setting of this clever mystery that is part family saga and part Cold Case TV plot. The underlying theme is all about the choices of partners made by Bernadette (Bambi) Brewer, and her daughters Linda, Rachael and Michelle. Lippman explores the notion of loneliness and missing a loved one. She uses the lyrics from “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me” to divide the book into sections. Mel Carter’s 1965 version brings back memories for me of slow dancing at parties. Sigh.

Felix Brewer, Bambi’s husband, fled their luxurious home in 1976 rather than waiting for the outcome of his appeal on an illegal gambling/bookmaking conviction. Although Felix appears in flashback chapters, his actions haunt the family he left behind. Each of his daughters has made a choice and must face the consequences that have followed.

Roberto (Sandy) Sanchez, a retired City of Baltimore police officer, takes on a missing person cold case in the capacity of consultant. It is the year 2012 and working cold cases helps him stay busy and spend less time missing his beloved wife Mary who has died. When Sandy diligently pursues every possible angle and information source, the missing person is tied back to Felix Brewer’s disappearance.

Lippman is a master of creating a cinematic feel when she sets the scenes for her carefully constructed plot twists. It seems to this reviewer that a movie could easily follow from the book.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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Spirits (Having Flown)

What I Had Before I Had You: A Novel by Sarah Cornwell (Harper, $24.95, 275 pages)

What I Had Before

This is a novel that seemed to promise a good story. Unfortunately, the story was lost in the execution. The book involves two plot lines, the first about a young woman – Olivia Reed – who loses her nine-year-old bipolar son at Funtown Pier on the Jersey Shore. The second plot line involves her coming into contact – years earlier, with the supposed ghosts of her twin sisters that died at birth. This latter plot line caught my attention as I hoped it would offer some of the unique enjoyment found in Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.

The two disjointed stories, regrettably, come together to no apparent purpose. One reason is that Cornwell sacrifices the two plot lines for a third – the story of Olivia’s psychic and mentally troubled mother, Myla. This means that the narrative jumps awkwardly and often incoherently between present and past times. As greatly disappointing as this is, the reader learns early on that this is no ghost story. The supposed twin ghosts are in fact living young women (how it is that Olivia believed they were the spirits of her dead sisters is never made clear).

Cornwell may have potential as an author but in this debut novel she mixes bad and good writing. Her prose is often leaden as in this example:

The dorm is a high-rise with a view of the Hudson River. In the elevator, older boys look me up and down. I think I’d better be wild tonight: I could use a thrill to get out of my head after all the illuminations of the week. I study Cortney’s warped reflection in the elevator’s chrome wall and see not the flesh-and-blood girl I know she is, but the ghost staring back at me, and this gives me a little push, a little reignition. When the elevator stops and she gets out, we are mortal again, and I feel the loss and need a drink.

And sometimes she writes well as in these two examples:

They are seeing my mother move through the house, while I am seeing the house move through my mother. There is a sense of brokenness and insufficiency and then a sense of crushing loneliness. My mother turns around to look me in the eye and smiles a grim smile. She knows I am receiving her.

I make female friends rarely, but when I do, I find myself acting slightly different: bubblier or quieter or more intellectual, or less. These small calibrations wear me out; I am exhausted after spending time with women.

(Note that Cornwell uses dated words for a story set in modern times – illuminations, calibrations.)

What I Had Before I Had You may appeal to those who harbor intense, lifelong anger at a parent. These readers may identify in some way with the horribly dysfunctional relationship between Olivia and Myla. Yet I suspect that most will fail to connect with this strange, highly troubling tale.

About half way through the reading of this rather short novel, some readers will have figured out a logical conclusion; however, this would rest upon Myla’s being alive. No spoiler alert is needed, but Cornwell figures out a way to get to that conclusion despite the fact that Olivia’s mother is dead. It’s like watching someone pound a square peg into a round hole, and it is not satisfying.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on January 7, 2014.

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Coming Up Next…

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A review of What I Had Before I Had You: A Novel by Sarah Cornwell.

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Comin’ Back to Me

You Came Back: A Novel by Christopher Coake (Grand Central Publishing, $24.99, 416 pages)

“…he’d spent the year before Brendan’s death sullen and sulky as a little boy…  he’d spent his nights drinking and staring at the Internet instead of trying to explain to Chloe how he felt.”

Great ghost stories – ones that seem both plausible and questionable – don’t come along every day.   One of the most recent great ones was Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.   Symmetry had us so enthralled that we posted three separate reviews of the haunting novel on this site.   Now Christopher Coake has presented a story with all the depth of Symmetry, interestingly set in the neighborhoods of Columbus that adjoin the Ohio State University campus.

Our protagonist, Mark Fife, entered a period of isolating and drinking too much, which spurred his wife Chloe – the true love of his life – to leave him at home one night, supervising their young son Brendan.   Mark orders his son to go upstairs while he drinks and watches an Ohio State basketball game on the TV downstairs.   At some point Mark hears a strange sound and gets up to find that Brendan has fallen down the staircase, and has died from a broken neck.   Thus begins the ruination of Mark’s existence.   Chloe, who blames him for their only child’s death, divorces him and sells the house where the family once happily lived.   Mark goes on to spend years living in a townhouse, drinking far too much and thinking about ending it all.

As the story opens, seven full years have gone by and Mark’s now happy with his life.   He’s met Allie, the upbeat woman he’s engaged to, and he’s got a great friend from college, Lewis, who helps him to remain firmly footed in reality.   And then…  The woman who purchased Mark and Chloe’s former home has a story to tell.   Chloe eventually sends Mark a letter explaining that this woman’s son has seen and heard Brendan’s ghost in the house.   Is this for real or is it simply a ruse for Chloe – who hated Mark when she filed for divorce but now professes to once again be in love with him – to break up Mark’s forthcoming marriage to Allie?

Mark has spent his adult life being powerless when it comes to Chloe, and now she’s asking him to go to their old house to see Brendan’s ghost.   Mark doesn’t believe in ghosts (“I’ve never believed anything like this.   Never.   This is hard.“), he never has, but then remembers that his serious and grounded friend Lewis once saw a ghost – and Lewis now tells him that seeing the ghost was one of the most authentic experiences in his life.

Will Mark run back to Chloe and in the process perhaps re-destroy his own life?   Or will he spurn her and maybe lose out on the chance to again communicate with his long-lost son?   What is real and important in life?   Mark Fife is about to find out…

“…he went over the same looping sentences.   If-thens, what-ifs.   He came to no answers.   Either Brendan was in the house or he wasn’t.   Either way, Mark himself was trapped.   Either way, he would hurt Allison or Chloe.”

Coake writes in an all-too-smooth style; one in which flawed humans are portrayed so realistically that the tale moves along as if it’s being projected onto a film screen.   And, like Niffenegger, there’s a calmness about the telling that draws you in – but with the understanding that you’ll receive hints when the story is about to dramatically explode.

You’ll have to devote the time to reading 400 plus pages to appreciate Coake’s offerings.   It’s a worthwhile price to pay for discovering a highly talented, powerfully skilled writer.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   You Came Back was released on June 12, 2012.  

“When I finished the last page of Christopher Coake’s amazing new novel, I set the book down with a real sense of wonder…  (This story) is less concerned with the supernatural than with the all-too-real specters that haunt us all – the ghosts of our former selves, the ghosts of the lives we might have lived had just a few things turned out differently…  What an incredible writer.”   Jennifer Finney Boylan, author of She’s Not There and I’m Looking Through You.

Here is a link to one of the reviews of Her Fearful Symmetry

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2009/09/23/what-comes-after/

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Coming Up Next…

A review of You Came Back: A Novel by Christopher Coake.

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