BOOK REVIEW | Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
Still known to millions primarily as the author of the The Lottery, Shirley Jackson (1916–1965) has been curiously absent from the mainstream American literary canon. A genius of literary suspense and psychological horror, Jackson plumbed the cultural anxiety of postwar America more deeply than anyone. Now, biographer Ruth Franklin reveals the tumultuous life and inner darkness of the author of such classics as The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Placing Jackson within an American Gothic tradition that stretches back to Hawthorne and Poe, Franklin demonstrates how her unique contribution to this genre came from her focus on “domestic horror.” Almost two decades before The Feminine Mystique ignited the women’s movement, Jackson’ stories and nonfiction chronicles were already exploring the exploitation and the desperate isolation of women, particularly married women, in American society. Franklin’s portrait of Jackson gives us “a way of reading Jackson and her work that threads her into the weave of the world of words, as a writer and as a woman, rather than excludes her as an anomaly” (Neil Gaiman).

The increasingly prescient Jackson emerges as a ferociously talented, determined, and prodigiously creative writer in a time when it was unusual for a woman to have both a family and a profession. A mother of four and the wife of the prominent New Yorker critic and academic Stanley Edgar Hyman, Jackson lived a seemingly bucolic life in the New England town of North Bennington, Vermont. Yet, much like her stories, which channeled the occult while exploring the claustrophobia of marriage and motherhood, Jackson’s creative ascent was haunted by a darker side. As her career progressed, her marriage became more tenuous, her anxiety mounted, and she became addicted to amphetamines and tranquilizers. In sobering detail, Franklin insightfully examines the effects of Jackson’s California upbringing, in the shadow of a hypercritical mother, on her relationship with her husband, juxtaposing Hyman’s infidelities, domineering behavior, and professional jealousy with his unerring admiration for Jackson’s fiction, which he was convinced was among the most brilliant he had ever encountered.

Based on a wealth of previously undiscovered correspondence and dozens of new interviews, Shirley Jackson—an exploration of astonishing talent shaped by a damaging childhood and turbulent marriage—becomes the definitive biography of a generational avatar and an American literary giant.

My thoughts:
She kept it up until the end, sending her literary bombs unerringly to their targets, then standing back to watch them explode.

Ruth Franklin hit a home run for me with her comprehensive biography of the amazing Shirley Jackson. If you’re a fan of Shirley’s work, this is a must read. After reading this, I am more enamored with Shirley than I already was. She went against the grain in so many ways, and it was a pleasure to step into her world.

Franklin was granted access to many fascinating letters written by Shirley and her husband Stanley, which provided a truly intimate reading experience. Through the correspondence, we gain insight into their rocky marriage, as well as Shirley’s tenuous relationship with her mother, Geraldine. Reading this biography allows for a deeper understanding of many of Shirley’s works – whether it be humour or horror, Shirley wrote what she knew.

One of my favourite parts of the book comes in a discussion about Shirley’s humerous book about raising her children, Life Among the Savages. Franklin goes on to illustrate how much Shirley’s kids loved this book, displaying the book jacket in their kitchen and endearingly dubbing it Life Among the Cabbages.

Shirley was a woman who struggled greatly in her short life. She struggled with her relationships to her husband and mother, with her weight, financially, with household tasks, with her role was a working mother, and with her eventual agoraphobia. As a mother who works outside of the house in an anxiety ridden and fast paced world, I can relate to many of these challenges.

This is a detailed biography that does sway from the narrative at times, but I found all of those moments to be worthwhile. This book has a well deserved place alongside of Shirley’s on my shelves.

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BOOK REVIEW | The Other by Thomas Tryon

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
Holland and Niles Perry are identical thirteen-year-old twins. They are close, close enough, almost, to read each other’s thoughts, but they couldn’t be more different. Holland is bold and mischievous, a bad influence, while Niles is kind and eager to please, the sort of boy who makes parents proud. The Perrys live in the bucolic New England town their family settled centuries ago, and as it happens, the extended clan has gathered at its ancestral farm this summer to mourn the death of the twins’ father in a most unfortunate accident. Mrs. Perry still hasn’t recovered from the shock of her husband’s gruesome end and stays sequestered in her room, leaving her sons to roam free. As the summer goes on, though, and Holland’s pranks become increasingly sinister, Niles finds he can no longer make excuses for his brother’s actions.

My thoughts:
Niles, look at me…You have a secret. Tell it to me. Tell it to Ada.

This is the sort of book that makes you want to start reading it again as soon as you’ve finished the last page. I went into The Other expecting a quick read, and ended up getting more than I bargained for. This is the dark tale of twin brothers Niles and Holland; a story full of plot twists and chilling imagery. Reading keeps you wondering if things are things what we think they are, or if we are at the mercy of a disturbed mind? As with many works that centre around disturbed children, expect some animal violence as well.

As Dan Chon mentions in his Afterword in the NYBR edition, The Other calls to mind works by Shirley Jackson and Patricia Highsmith – not bad company to be in for Tryon. While this was a bit slow in pace, I really enjoyed it and loved reading the final chapters on Halloween!

BOOK REVIEW | The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

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2.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
Anne and Marco Conti seem to have it all–a loving relationship, a wonderful home, and their beautiful baby, Cora. But one night when they are at a dinner party next door, a terrible crime is committed. Suspicion immediately focuses on the parents. But the truth is a much more complicated story.

Inside the curtained house, an unsettling account of what actually happened unfolds. Detective Rasbach knows that the panicked couple is hiding something. Both Anne and Marco soon discover that the other is keeping secrets, secrets they’ve kept for years.


What follows is the nerve-racking unraveling of a family–a chilling tale of deception, duplicity, and unfaithfulness that will keep you breathless until the final shocking twist.

My thoughts:
The Couple Next Door is a fast-paced read that’s purpose is simply to entertain. That said, as a mother, this story infuriated me.

This is one of those plot lines in which a single crazy revelation leads to many, many more. Let me just say this – there is no way a mother, especially a first time mother, would leave their baby alone in another house to go to a dinner party. There is just no way! Right off of the bat this was just too much for me. I hated Anne and Marco, and there is never much in the terms of character development that changes this throughout.

I did feel some sympathy for Anne; post-partum depression and mental illness are not to be taken lightly, and I appreciate the light that Lapena shed on this. I have not experienced post-partum depression but am no stranger to regular depression, and I can certainly empathize with many of Anne’s feelings – the exhaustion and pressure created by modern day motherhood, with a side of feeling frumpy. There are moments when being a parent is overwhelming, and this came through as a significant element to the story.

If you love thrillers and are looking for something quick that requires little investment, give this a shot. If you prefer a little more depth to your mysteries, take a pass.

BOOK REVIEW | The Crow Girl by Erik Axl Sund

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
It starts with just one body – tortured, mummified and then discarded.

Its discovery reveals a nightmare world of hidden lives. Of lost identities, secret rituals and brutal exploitation, where nobody can be trusted.

This is the darkest, most complex case the police have ever seen.

This is the world of the Crow Girl.

My thoughts:
When I finished The Crow Girl last night, I was on a high and put it down as 5 stars on Goodreads. After thinking about it for a while, I feel like 4 starts makes more sense. This book took me an extremely long time to read, about 2 months, which is very rare for me as I usually read a book in  matter of a few days.I have a few thoughts on to why that was the case, and I will get to them soon. This book is very complex, so I hope my thoughts are coherent!

Let me start by saying that I loved this book, but, it took me a while to realize I did. It starts with a bang, the discovery of a  dead boy, and does not let down it’s pace for the entirety of it’s nearly 800 pages. This is a massive feat for a book of this length – it never lags, is exciting the whole way through, and compels the reader forward. Somewhere in the middle the plot waned, but I must say that the conclusion brought it all home for me.

There are times when this book feel a little…disjointed. This may be because it is authored by 2 people, or it may be due to the fact that the 3 original volumes were crammed together to make 1 large volume for it’s North American and UK releases. I have heard that some sections were cut out to make a single volume, and I wonder if this is why some moments felt a little out of place.

As a side note – how cool is the pen name Erik Axl Sund?! Authors Jerker Eriksson and Håkan Axlander Sundquist combined the first parts of each of their last names to created the pseudonym.

Part of what I LOVED about The Crow Girl was the focus on creating short, easily consumable chapters. I’m often reading with my two young boys around, and it’s great to know when the next break is. I loved that I could say “just 1 more page!”, rather than “just 10 more pages!”. That said, this was a blessing and a curse – I feel that this was a huge part of why the book took me so long to read! I never had to read more than a few pages at a time; sometimes I would devour 50 pages, and other times I would read 3 pages and then put it down for the day. Another reason for the long reading time for me was intense and graphic nature of this book. I never shy away from the dark and disturbing, but when kids are involved I find it much more difficult to take. Small bites worked best for me while digesting this complex piece of work.

This novel is extremely triggering – please know this before going into it. Expect:

  • Sexual violence against children
  • Children hurting other children
  • Child murder
  • Self-harm
  • Extreme phychological disassociation and complex looks at sexuality

This is one of the darkest books I’ve ever read, and I was initially concerned that all of this intensity was without merit – purely for shock value. As the story unravels in the 3rd section, everything becomes clear, and I understand the story that the authors wanted to tell . If you love crime fiction, Nordic Noir, Scandinavian novels, or psychological thrillers – you MUST read The Crow Girl!

If you’ve read this book, please comment below – I would love to discuss this book!

BOOK REVIEW | The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
A teenage girl is held captive and brutally tortured by neighborhood children. Based on a true story, this shocking novel reveals the depravity of which we are all capable.

This novel contains graphic content and is recommended for regular readers of horror novels

My thoughts:
It seems to me…likely that it was precisely because she was beautiful and strong, and we were not, that Ruth and the rest of us had done this to her. To make a sort of judgement on they beauty, on what it meant and didn’t mean to us.

This book was incredibly difficult to read, and at times I wondered why I was. In fact, Jack Ketchum said his “aim was to make you feel guilty about turning the goddamn page” – as a reader, you feel complicit in the torture of Meg and Susan. As horrific as this book is, the true story of Sylvia Likens is much, much worse. If you take this on, please know that is is extremely violent, explicit, and involves kids.

BOOK REVIEW | A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.

My thoughts:
What is happiness but an extravagance…?

I finished A Little Life minutes ago, and am still trying to catch my breath and wipe away the tears. This book pulls you deep into its world, grips you tightly, and finally, relentlessly, lets you go. A beautiful portrait of male friendship, we follow the lives of Jude, JB, Willem, and Malcom from their years after college graduation into middle age. This, however, is Jude’s story. This book explores the darkest dark of humanity, the brutality of life after extreme violence, and the extent of human endurance.

…how hard it is to keep alive someone who doesn’t want to stay alive.

This quote resonated so deeply for me, and brought to light so many questions about what makes life worth living. If someone is in extreme pain, emotionally or physically, why are they meant to hold on? Should they have to? Is their continuation of life only for the comfort of other people? When is it OK to give a loved one permission to leave this world? These are questions that I have spent a lot of time thinking about prior to reading this book, and it was as comforting as it was difficult to contemplate these thoughts as I followed Jude through his life.

This book wasn’t perfect, and certain elements were distracting for me, but I couldn’t possibly give it anything less than 5 stars. I bawled more than once, and the ending was a perfect release. If you’re ready to take this journey, I hope that you will find it a rewarding and challenging endeavour.

BOOK REVIEW | The Vegetarian by Han Kang

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4/5 stars

From the publisher: 
A beautiful, unsettling novel ion three acts, about rebellion and taboo, violence and eroticism, and the twisting metamorphosis of a soul Yeong-hye and her husband are ordinary people. He is an office worker with moderate ambitions and mild manners; she is an uninspired but dutiful wife. The acceptable flatline of their marriage is interrupted when Yeong-hye, seeking a more ‘plant-like’ existence, decides to become a vegetarian, prompted by grotesque recurring nightmares. In South Korea, where vegetarianism is almost unheard-of and societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision is a shocking act of subversion. Her passive rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, leading her bland husband to self-justified acts of sexual sadism. His cruelties drive her towards attempted suicide and hospitalisation. She unknowingly captivates her sister’s husband, a video artist. She becomes the focus of his increasingly erotic and unhinged artworks, while spiralling further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming – impossibly, ecstatically – a tree. Fraught, disturbing and beautiful, The Vegetarian is a novel about modern day South Korea, but also a novel about shame, desire and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.

My thoughts: 
The Vegetarian tells a deeply disturbing story and explores many troubling topics though three succinct parts.

I laughed out loud during moments in part one as they reflected many of my own personal experiences with becoming vegetarian in the 90’s. Similar sentiments were often sent my way – it was bizarre to stop eating meat at that time. Thankfully my family was supportive, but that is not the case for Yeong-hye and we soon get a glimpse into the abuse she has suffered, and how this impacts her emotional well-being. Yeong-hye’s inward spiral progresses as parts two and three shift in narrative, continuing the story from the perspectives of her brother-in-law and sister.

I want to keep this spoiler free, so I won’t say much more. This book tackles topics such as physical abuse, animal abuse, rape, mental illness, and eating disorders. I’m amazed by the story Han Kang has crafted in under 200 pages.