Before I Wake (1 June 2014) by C.L. Taylor

Before I WakeBefore I Wake by C.L. Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Before I Wake by CL Taylor is the kind of book that kept me up late at night reading, and the kind of book that, after I finished it, I fell asleep thinking about.
It falls into the same genre as many recent novels I have read, such as Under Your Skin, by Sabine Durrant, Jellybird, by Lezanne Clannachan, Precious Thing, by Collete McBeth, and the novels of Samantha Hayes, Julia Crouch, and Claire McGowan. These novels have a lot of things in common; they usually have a female protagonist who may or may not be losing her mind, and they usually deal with female friendships, or the relationships between mothers and daughters, or husbands and wives. There is often a tragedy, either a murder, a kidnapping, or an act of violence, there is usually some kind of obsession, and there is often narrative from both the past and present. There is usually a strong mystery/thriller element, and almost always, some type of twist or reveal.
With that said, these novels are currently popular for a reason…the combination of elements mentioned above are an addictive concoction, even when thrown together in a less than stellar fashion. I think that part of the appeal of “domestic noir” as it has recently been coined by author Julia Crouch, is that it deals with real, normal women, presumably similar to the reader, who are dealing with relationships that are easily relatable.
Most of us have a mother, a friend, a child, or else the lack of those things, and that impacts us in deep ways. So the subject matter of these novels touches the heart of some universal experiences and fears, and allows us to get the voyeur’s thrill of reading about someone else overcome a problem.
To me, many of these novels are like a chocolate bar at the checkout counter of a supermarket; there is a whole selection of similar choices, each with slight variations: milk, dark, caramel, peanuts- it’s very easy to pick one up in passing, to consume it quickly, and to forget about it afterwards. And just like inexpensive chocolate bars, these types of novels pretty much always look tasty.
That said, I love chocolate, including the generic supermarket variety. I also seem to love this domestic-noir genre, and find that some authors who write this type of novel are truly gifted storytellers who are able to touch my emotions deeply. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of writers in this genre, probably because it is such a hot sell for publishers right now, who are simply mediocre.
Luckily, Before I Wake by CL Taylor is one of the more solid offerings in the domestic-noir genre. The story follows Susan, whose daughter Charlotte is in a coma. Despite the assumption of everyone around her that this coma is the result of an accident, Susan suspects that Charlotte was trying to kill herself because she had a terrible secret. What follows is a mystery with many of the aforementioned elements, and a story in which we aren’t sure until the very end who to trust.
Before I Wake is also, to my mind, a successful novel because as well as being a roller coaster of a thriller, it also chronicles the emotional journey and changes that Susan goes through as a result of what happens to her, and her response to it. Is Susan a victim? A murderer? Paranoid? Or is she the only person who can save her daughter? To avoid spoilers, all I will say is that the story ends with a rip-roaring, satisfying conclusion.
One more thing that Before I Wake made me think about was how many publishers and reviewers are comparing this type of fiction to Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, and usually stating that these “imitations” fall short of that inspiration. I had accepted that premise, since domestic noir has definitely seemed to flourish in years following the publication of Gone Girl. However, after reading Before I Wake, I began to think differently.
To me, there are crucial, basic differences between Gone Girl, and the novels categorized as domestic noir. Domestic-noir novels deal with issues primarily pertaining to women. These include the experiences of pregnancy and motherhood, the particular relationships between female friends, mothers and daughters, or of a woman being abused by a man who is physically, clearly stronger than she is. Gone Girl did none of these things.
To my mind, Gone Girl deals with issues that apply to both sexes. It chronicles a twisted marriage from the perspective of both the husband and the wife. It is more about power dynamics, rather than about a specifically female experience. So to me, the basic appeal of Gone Girl is completely different from the basic appeal of domestic noir.
This is not to say that men won’t enjoy reading novels in this genre, but it is interesting to note that domestic-noir authors are mostly (if not totally) women, and that in the novels I have read, there is almost never a male first-person perspective given. All that is NOT to say that domestic noir is better or worse than Gone Girl, but simply to say that I think the two have some fundamental differences. Although novels like Before I Wake are often compared to Gone Girl (perhaps initially in order to promote sales), reading them with that comparison in mind will often lead to judging them negatively.
Instead, I think novels like Before I Wake will be more enjoyed if read on their own terms. When I do this, I find that some of these novels are well written, and contain characters with whom I empathize deeply. I am happy to say that Before I Wake was a well-written novel, a chocolate confection with hidden depths, and I will be going back to the checkout counter gleefully looking to buy the next literary treat that CL Taylor has to offer. I received a review copy of Before I Wake from the publisher through NetGalley.

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Lacey’s House by Joanne Graham

Lacey's HouseLacey’s House by Joanne Graham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I absolutely loved this beautiful little book by Joanne Graham. I requested it on a bit of a whim from Legend Press on NetGalley, because I have really enjoyed several other of their titles, and because a story of female friendship in the south of England appealed to me.
I hoped I might enjoy this debut novel, but I had no idea it would be one of my favorite books I’ve read thus far this year.
   Lacey’s House tells the story of Rachel, a young woman who has recently miscarried, and who lives an isolated life, with memories of a tragic childhood. After she loses her baby, she decides to move somewhere new, to run away from her demons, and try to make a fresh start.
Rachel buys a cottage in a small village in Devon. Shortly after moving in, she meets her closest neighbor, an old woman named Lacey. Lacey is the town “witch,” someone who has always been a little different, and who has therefore been the victim of children’s pranks, and who is treated with contempt by most of her neighbors. Lacey also has a sad past, with multiple secrets that haunt her.
When Lacey and Rachel meet, the two women, although different in age, and with very different life experiences, sense a kinship in one another. The friendship that develops between them will heal and change them both in ways they could never have imagined.
Lacey’s House is a gentle novel; the author dedicated it to her grandmother, and the story conveys a sense of love in the value it places on female friendships.
But despite the fact that the novel, for the most part, chronicles seemingly ordinary events, it is unexpectedly moving and powerful.
And the story is strongest in its final chapters, which literally brought a lump to my throat and made me cry. Lacey’s House ends with lyrical writing, and leaves the reader with a sense of joy. It is a novel about grief, about healing, about friendship, and about the value of every human being, no matter how invisible they may appear to the world at large.
I am so glad that Joanne Graham wrote Lacey’s House, and hope she continues to share her gift of storytelling in the future.

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Starter House by Sonja Condit

Starter HouseStarter House by Sonja Condit

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Okay, so, you know the feeling when you’re reading a really, really intense book and you get incredibly annoyed when the people in your “real” life interrupt you with unimportant issues like dinner and laundry and sleep? And then, when you finally put the book down, you realize that your neck and back are sore because you have been sitting so tensely hunched up, holding your breath in suspense?
Well, that’s the kind of book Starter House by Sonja Condit was for me. I loved this debut novel, which is by turns beautiful, haunting, heart-breaking, and just plain scary.
Without giving too much away, the basic premise of the story is that newly pregnant Lacey and her husband Eric move into what they think is their perfect “starter house.” On the evening that they move in, Lacey lies on the front lawn to this description of the summer evening:
“When the wind brushed her face, the blades rubbed against each other, sharing friendly news. Bees worked the blossoms of the tall purple clover and the short white clover, the small sweet buttercups….Children’s voices rang, far off.”
Sonja Condit captivates the reader, along with Lacey, with the sense of beauty and welcome that initially surround the house. However, in short order, strange things begin to occur, when Lacey meets a mysterious neighborhood boy named Drew. Lacey’s dreams for the future twist into nightmares as she becomes involved with something evil and dangerous in the house.
I loved so many things about this novel. First of all, the writing is gorgeous. This makes for a unique kind of scary ghost story, because the novel manages to be both lyrical and terrifying. Condit’s lovely prose gives the novel a unique and haunting quality.
Also, Condit has created compelling characters, especially her main character of the pregnant Lacey. Lacey is intelligent and courageous, and it is interesting to see how she uses her knowledge as a teacher of troubled children in her dealings with Drew.
On top of this, there is definitely an intriguing mystery element to the story. We know that there is something evil in the house, but we, along with Lacey, don’t know exactly what it is, why it is there, or what it wants. Lacey’s investigation into the tragic history of the house is enjoyable to follow.
And, as mentioned above, especially for the last third of the book, it is almost impossible to stop reading. Starter House is one of the most gripping novels I have read in years, all-consuming in a way that is somewhat comparable to how I felt when I read Gone Girl, although the two books are nothing alike. I marvel at how Condit is able write a story that manages to be both absolutely beautiful, and absolutely terrifying.
There are also a few things in the story that I was less sure about. I had a hard time figuring out Eric, Lacey’s husband. He had a lot of unlikeable qualities, and I really wasn’t sure whether I wanted him and Lacey to stay together or split up after the traumas that they endured. I felt that perhaps his personality could have been portrayed more clearly (either positively or negatively), because as it was, I felt ambivalent about the way things turned out between them.
Secondly, and this is a tiny, miniscule, thing, but there was one line in the novel, about 2/3 of the way through, which was sexually crude and clashed with the tone the rest of the narrative. The sentence was not crucial to the plot, and I literally read it over several times in confusion, because it seemed so out of place in this story. I will be interested to see if other readers react to it like I did.
What bothered me about the sentence was not its inherent crudeness; I have read plenty of gritty, violent, thrillers, but rather that it seemed to disrupt the haunting tone that Condit had so carefully constructed in this novel, the fine line between beauty and tragedy, which was part of what gave it so much impact.
And finally, Sonja Condit currently lives in South Carolina, but grew up in both Canada and the UK. Starter House is set in a fictitious town in South Carolina, but I often found myself feeling like it was set in Britain. To me, this wasn’t a bad thing, because I love stories set in the UK. I simply found it interesting that Starter House had a decidedly British tone, despite its North American location.
All that said, I highly recommend this book. I checked it out from the library, but I plan to buy it, because it is a novel that I want to add to my treasure trove of favorites. And I hope Sonja Condit starts writing her next book right away, because I can’t wait to read more of her stories.

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