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Sunday, August 27, 2017

Book Review: SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE by Sarah Schmidt


#BookReview SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE by Sarah Schmidt
@ikillnovel US @groveatlantic UK @TinderPress

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." 
~Leo Tolstoy

SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE, Sarah Schmidt's debut novel, examines one of the most infamous true crimes in American history: the axe murders of Andrew and Abigail "Abby" Borden in Fall River, Massachusetts on August 4, 1892. Andrew's younger daughter Lizzie was charged and tried for the murders of her father and her step-mother. Schmidt's literary historical thriller is a superb work of realism and naturalism, filled with the kind of details which can lead the reader to learn what actually happened at 230 2nd Street that sweltering summer day. The novel starts with a vengeance, with Lizzie, in the first person, yelling, "Someone's killed Father."

The story unfolds in chronological order, but Schmidt also uses reverse chronology so that the reader can know which events lead up to the murders. Our unreliable narrators, and potential suspects, are, in alternating chapters, four characters: Lizzie (32), Emma Borden (41), Lizzie's sister, Bridget Sullivan (26), the Borden's Irish maid,  and Benjamin, a man who has come to Fall River at the behest of someone close to the Borden family. Lizzie is clearly an unstable child-woman still trying to please her father and her step-mother, but also misbehaving and acting in a suspicious manner. Emma has spent her life taking care of her troubled younger sister, giving up any chance of love and marriage, and an escape from her father's gloomy and parsimonious household. 

There have been times when Lizzie was away from home that I nursed absence. Always two ways of feeling: relief and loneliness.

Bridget is one of all "the Bridget's," young Irish women who fled Ireland during the 19th century famines and came to work as domestics in the United States. She is overworked and underpaid, and privy to nearly all details of the Borden household.  There was a great deal of anti-Catholic nativism occurring in the United States, so Bridget would have been suspected simply for being an Irish immigrant. Benjamin is a mystery man and, perhaps, a dark horse. Could he be the person who broke into the home and stole some mementos a year before?

The novel's pacing, too, depicts the excitement, the horror and the tedium which happens in every crime investigation--and in every unhappy family. The plot evolves firmly from accurate historical accounts of the Borden family, the crimes, and the subsequent trial. The author knows that the devil is in the details. Andrew Borden is wealthy yet frugal.  He is sparing with his love as well.  Emma and Lizzie are two adult daughters living at home, spinsters in a time when middle-class women were married and living with husbands and children in their own homes. Abby is Andrew's second wife, and her relationship with her step-daughters is difficult. There are too many hens and impotence rules the roost. Money could easily have been the main motive, but the ever-present tension in the household could have driven someone to murder. 

Yet, of course, this is a work of fiction, of literary fiction and of crime fiction. Schmidt's lyrical and beautiful prose captures both the striking and the mundane which occur before, during and after the murders. Her powerful interpretation of these people and events is fueled by a deep understanding of how petty conflicts and co-dependence accumulate until there is a need for some sort of resolution, release and relief. Unfortunately for Andrew and Abby, the catharsis resulted in their deaths.

SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE is an extraordinary novel which shines light on the iconic crime, the darkness within families and the human soul, and the banality of evil. Sarah Schmidt is a gifted and intelligent writer. She is a major new talent, and I await her next novel eagerly.

Highly Recommended.


Thank you to the publisher for allowing me to read this novel through NetGalley. SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE was published in the United States on August 1, 2017. SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE UK



Sunday, July 30, 2017

Book Review: GATHER THE DAUGHTERS by Jennie Melamed


#BookReview GATHER THE DAUGHTERS by Jennie Melamed



GATHER THE DAUGHTERS is an exquisitely written and strong debut novel about a dystopian society known as "the island." The island was settled generations ago by "the ancestors," ten families which fled "the wastelands" (the mainland) after some sort of apocalyptic catastrophe (possibly a nuclear attack). The families live strictly by the rules set down by the ancestors in "Our Book." This is in an agrarian community. Gender roles are very traditional: men do outside labor, women have children and take care of the homes. Most men are farmers, although others have professions such as tanners, carpenters, roofers, i.e. that which is related to keeping the infrastructure. Families are limited to having two children. Children attend school until puberty but there are scarcely any books nor much paper. Some of the men are "wanderers," men who go back to "the wastelands" to scavenge for materials.

Vanessa Adams, age thirteen, is the much-loved daughter of a wanderer, James Adams.  James has a library which has been in his family since the ancestors first came to the island. Father (as Vanessa, and all children, address their male parent)  permits Vanessa to read these books. Her mother also is a benevolent parent who dotes on Vanessa while ensuring she learns how to clean, cook and take care of the home. Vanessa is still at home because she has not yet reached her "summer of fruition," i.e. she has not started her menses. Vanessa has her own opinions about how life could be improved on the island, but she keeps them to herself. She is an obedient daughter. All the girls attend the labor of older women. Some women bleed out and die. Many of the babies are stillborn or "defectives." Most women hope to have sons. 

"Vanessa once asked Mother why everyone cries for girls. It doesn't seem fair that boys are greeted with celebration, but everyone cried when she came sliding into the world on a river of salt and blood. Mother told her she'd understand when she was older."

Other girls on the island are not blessed with loving parents. Amanda, age fifteen, had her summer of fruition last year, and is married to Andrew, a gentle young man who loves Amanda. She is expecting their first child. Amanda's father was not kindly. Caitlin Jacob is beaten by her father regularly. It is spring, and the next season will be Caitlin's summer of fruition, when she will be paired with a young man, married and begin to have children.  Janey Solomon, who is seventeen, has starved herself for years to prevent her menses from starting. She adores her younger sister Mary, and loves her father and her mother. Most of the children on the island, and the adults as well, are frightened by Janey's strong, determined personality. Janey does not want to have the life her mother and all of the other women have had. She dreams of life on other islands, life where women have control over their destiny. When something horrific happens to one of these four, the act sets in motion a series of events which will change life on the island forever.

Jennie Melamed's first novel is astounding.The novel explores violence against women (physical, sexual and psychological), women's reproductive rights, and restriction of women's rights in general in a skillful and straightforward manner.  GATHER THE DAUGHTERS addresses the issue of girls being confined to the role of breeders without any freedom to divert from this role. Melamed's prose is beautiful and clear. The descriptions of the girls and of nature are particularly hypnotic. The novel is told in the third person, and each chapter is written from the point of view of Vanessa, Amanda, Caitlin or Janey.  Each character is distinct and compelling. The pacing of the story flows synchronous with the plot. The girls are subjected to "the unspeakable" (my quotes), deeds and ways about which there eventually are frank and open discussions by the characters. Hopefully the novel will launch similar discussions among readers. 

Other critics have compared this novel to THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood, THE GIVER by Lois Lowry and NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro. However, I think it better to liken GATHER THE DAUGHTERS to P.D. James's CHILDREN OF MEN, Nathaniel Hawthorne's THE SCARLET LETTTER, and Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery." This literary dystopian thriller is raw, savage, intense and magnificent. I very much look forward to Jennie Melamed's future works.

Highly Recommended.

Thank you to the publisher for allowing me to read this novel through NetGalley. GATHER THE DAUGHTERS was published in the United States on July 25, 2017. GATHER THE DAUGHTERS UK

Monday, July 10, 2017

Book Review: FINAL GIRLS by Riley Sager


FINAL GIRLS is a completely unique, dazzling, white-knuckle ride of a thriller which also shows great depth of understanding about trauma survivors. A "final girl" is a horror movie trope whereby there is a lone survivor of a serial killer's massacre, like Sally Hardisty in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Laurie Strode in Halloween, and Sidney Prescott in Scream. Here Riley Sager turns the device on its head by creating a story about actual "final girls," three women who outlived other victims of three different serial killers. Quincy Carpenter (29), the protagonist, is the youngest. Ten years ago she and her closest college friends went to spend an autumn weekend at Pine Cottage, her best friend Janelle's family cabin in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. A man, to whom Quincy will only refer to as "Him," killed everyone with a knife -- except for Quincy (who was critically wounded).  She was rescued by a local cop named Franklin "Coop" Cooper, who shot "Him" dead. Quincy has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and can only remember the beginning of the massacre to when Coop rescued her. 

Everything between those two points remains a blank in my memory. An hour, more or less, entirely wiped clean. "Dissociative amnesia" is the official diagnosis. More commonly known as repressed memory syndrome. Basically what I witnessed was too horrific for my fragile mind to hold on to. So I mentally cut it out. A self-performed lobotomy.

Quincy now leads a very ordered, though somewhat solitary life. Her live-in boyfriend Jeff, an attorney with the city's Public Defender's Office, is very loving and supportive. Quincy has a baking blog, a Xanax prescription, and a two-bedroom apartment in on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (bought with money from lawsuit settlements). Because of the heartache of losing her friends, she doesn't allow herself to get close to anyone. She still remains in touch with Coop, her self-appointed guardian. Coop makes the three-hour drive in to see Quincy because he has some news. He tells Quincy that Lisa Milner, the eldest of the "final girls," has killed herself. 

Quincy is stunned. Lisa (42) had been in touch with Quincy over the years to offer support. Lisa survived a massacre at her sorority house in Muncie, Indiana, and went on to become a child psychiatrist. Only Lisa, Quincy and Samantha "Sam" Boyd (36), who survived a massacre at the Tampa motel where she worked as a maid, know what it feels like to be the only person to endure and outlive their assailants.  Samantha went off the grid years ago, so Quincy feels truly alone...until Sam shows up at Quincy's door.  These two "final girls" form an alliance which may help--or destroy--Quincy.

Riley Sager has written a mesmerizing thriller, and Quincy Carpenter is an unreliable narrator with great complexity.  Her trauma has caused her to lose trust in herself. She has survivor's guilt, she has amnesia, and, being lonely and over-medicated, she is easily psychologically manipulated. She spends a lot of effort trying to appear "fine," when she most definitely is not. Quincy, however, is not someone to be underestimated. 

The narrative is told in two ways.  Present-day Quincy is written in the first-person. Scenes from Pine Cottage are in the third-person, which helps maintain the mystery of what really happened ten years ago.

The character development and the plot development are subtle yet strong. Nothing is revealed before the author wants it to be, and there are delicious twists and shocks. Sager's pacing is flawless, speeding up during action scenes, and sensitive when dealing with exposition and Quincy's internal monologue.

The author clearly knows film history and, with a deft touch, pays homage to classic films like Gaslight, DiaboliqueRosemary's Baby, and Single White Female. FINAL GIRLS is a true original, and will be the psychological thriller everyone will be dying to read this summer.

Thank you to the author and the publisher, Dutton, who allowed me to read this novel through NetGalley. Publication Date: July 11, 2017  Length: 352 pages


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Book Review: THE RIVER AT NIGHT by Erica Ferencik



The River at Night by Erica Ferencik is an exceptionally good thriller which is both a psychological thriller and an action thriller. Four women in their late thirties, friends since they were teenagers twenty years ago in Boston, meet every year for an annual trip and reunion. Winifred "Wini" Allen is the protagonist and first-person narrator. Wini still lives in Boston has a dead-end job graphic designer job at a magazine, an ex-husband who cheated on her, and a recent family tragedy (her younger brother Marcus died). She lacks self-esteem, but she has moxie and is steadfast.  Wini swims every morning at a local indoor pool, and the water may be the one place where she feels strong. 

Wini's friend Pia Zanderlee is "that friend you love with a twinge of resentment," tall, athletic, blonde, gorgeous, charismatic and adventurous and, like Wini, still living in Boston. Pia has decided that this year's gathering of the four friends will be a white water rafting trip in the wilds of Maine, with a twenty-year-old college student Rory Eckhart as their rafting/hiking guide. Wini balks, but Pia says their other two friends are on board.  Rachel is a petite, pragmatic, and feisty ER nurse who left Boston for Philadelphia. She is a recovering alcoholic who has been living sober for many years. Sandra Kato-Lewis, a beautiful college professor in Chicago, and a mother of two in her third marriage. Sandra has been Wini's strongest support through her recent difficulties. 

Three months later on Thursday, June 21st, Wini, Pia, Rachel and Sandra are loading up their expensive hiking and rafting gear in Pia's car and driving hundreds of miles north to Maine. The first night is spent at a base camp, and Wini frets because she finds that rough and wonders how she will manage to get through the next four days in the forest and on the river. Turns out Wini was right to worry.

The River at Night is, in many ways, a twenty-first century feminist version of James Dickey's classic survival novel Deliverance. (Ferencik even has a tribute to James Dickey, since the base camp is located in a tiny Maine town called Dickey.) Erica Ferencik deals with themes of close friendship, of urban dwellers in the wild, and of human nature's own savagery. She also examines the savagery of female friendships. 

"On the surface it might have been about fun or feeling glamorous or exploring someplace new, but when the world, including our own families, got us down or turned its back on us, we were our own family. Dysfunctional in our own female-friendship way; but our bonds were unbreakable."

This trip and its unexpected hardships and horrors certainly tests their friendships.  These women know each other's buttons--they may have even contributed to placing them on one another's psyches. Yet, they love one another fiercely, and only by acting as one unit do they have any chance of surviving.

Ericka Ferencik's writing is both lyrical and realistic. Through Wini's first-person narrative she shows the reader both the internal and the external environment of the setting and the characters. Also, setting is a character. Witnessing the evolution of Wini is spectacular. The descriptions of nature are stunning, as it can be beautiful and cruel, often simultaneously. The pacing of this thriller is perfection. As Dickey's book was adapted into a classic film, my hope is that a producer options this incredible story and makes a film out of it. But read the book first! The River at Night is a captivating, multilevel thriller which you will not soon forget.

Thank you to the publisher Scout Press/Gallery Books which allowed me to read The River At Night through NetGalley. Publication Date: January 10, 2017  Length: 304 pages