Dark Rooms (March 3, 2015) by Lili Anolik

Dark RoomsDark Rooms by Lili Anolik

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Thank you to William Morrow for my advance reader’s edition of Dark Rooms, by Lili Anolik.
Dark Rooms has been variously promoted as a combination of Twin Peaks, Megan Abbott, and The Secret History. To me, these descriptions didn’t fit the book, and so, I felt disappointed.
There is a little of the wonderful creepy, quirky, hallucinatory quality of Twin Peaks, especially in one scene at the end of the novel, but the strangeness that made Twin Peaks so unique is
lacking in Dark Rooms.
In the same way, Dark Rooms can be compared on the surface to the subject of Megan Abbott’s novels-the social lives of teenage girls-but whereas Abbott’s writing style is visceral and impressionistic, Dark Rooms was told in a much more straight-forward writing style. Megan Abbott describes the sex, jealousy, and cruelty of adolescence in a way that is unsettling and powerful. Lili Anolik used actions, rather than hinting at the deep, shadowy, feelings behind them, to tell her story. And, as to The Secret History comparisons, all I can say is that both novels take place in schools on the East Coast of the United States, and contain characters who do “shocking” things. The gothic mystery of The Secret History is absent in Dark Rooms. In fact, if anything, I am surprised at how little the author of Dark Rooms took advantage of what could have been a gothic setting; attending a private prep school next to a graveyard has never felt so prosaic!
Ultimately, I did not connect strongly with any of the characters. I wanted to root for the narrator, Grace, as well as to Damon, her partner in trying to solve the mystery of her sister’s death.
But they both acted, (or thought) in ways that seemed slightly sociopathic- not all the time, but enough that I just couldn’t fully empathize with them.
In the end, Dark Rooms was readable. It just wasn’t any of the things I had hoped it would be, and, a few days after finishing it, I find myself forgetting it. Dark Rooms is the kind of novel I’d recommend reading on a plane or while waiting for a doctor’s appointment. It’s easy to lose yourself in, but not something you’ll miss if you get distracted.

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Affinity by Sarah Waters

AffinityAffinity by Sarah Waters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read Affinity back in June of this year, and it’s one of those few books that continues to haunt me months later. The descriptions of the labyrinthine Millbank women’s prison in Victorian London, and of the longing for beauty and connection in a world of despair, are exquisite.

The ending, in particular, really affected me. It’s hard to say more without giving things away, but, although the situation is completely different from my life (thank goodness!) in some way, I empathized painfully, truthfully, with the final, climactic night of the novel.

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The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue

The Boy Who Drew MonstersThe Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This wasn’t poorly written, but I enjoyed it less that I thought I would.
I did not connect with any of the main characters…they all seemed to just be showing the least altruistic of human motives, not evil, necessarily, but just, you know, being drunk, and arguing, and being mean to each other.
My favorite character was probably the creepy but wonderful Miss Tiramaku, the ancient, autistic housekeeper to the town priest. With her one cloudy eye, she saw more of what was truly going on than anyone else the novel.
Overall, The Boy Who Drew Monsters was a ghost story with a lot of potential, but one that, rather than giving me chills, just left me cold.

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Rooms by Lauren Oliver

RoomsRooms by Lauren Oliver

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

The more I read, the harder I find it to rate novels. The biggest challenge for me comes in the 3-4 star range, in which, there are books which are engaging reads, but which I’m also aware aren’t necessarily well written.
Also falling within this 3-4 star range are books in which I feel like the author has talent, and is trying to achieve something out of the ordinary, but which don’t fully succeed.
Rooms, an adult novel by author Lauren Oliver, was difficult for me to rate for these reasons. It was an engaging read; it kept my attention and the pages seemed to go quickly. But, I felt overwhelmed by all the perspectives, characters, “rooms,” mysteries….It was all very interesting, and at times the writing was beautiful, but I’m not sure that Rooms worked together for me as a powerful, cohesive whole.
There are scenes, such as those featuring sex addict and struggling single mother, Minna, which have strong emotional resonance. Minna’s self-destructive tendencies, combined with her insight that her decent high-school boyfriend (who refuses to submit to her sexual advances) might be just who she needs, are compelling and tragic. I wanted to know what would happen to Minna, and felt disappointed that her story was more fully explored.
I found some of the other characters’ stories to be less convincing. Rooms included just about every “big issue,” from domestic violence, to extramarital affairs, to car accidents, suicide, teen angst and alcoholism (plus others which I won’t mention as they would be spoilers). I think perhaps having so many characters, with so many problems, meant that each “big” issue lost impact.
This is the first novel I’ve read by Lauren Oliver, who has written several extremely popular young-adult novels (which I understand also deal with “big” issues). At times, I wondered what distinguished this novel as an “adult” story.  That is actually a question I would like to ask the author, as well as other readers who enjoy the blossoming young-adult genre.
Another thing which I found off-putting about Rooms was the author’s use of swearing and graphic descriptions of bodily functions in a way that seemed intended to shock the reader. I have no problem with swearing, or gritty descriptions as such. But you know how when some people swear, it seems put on, or forced, like a performance? This was how the swearing and crude toilet descriptions and metaphors came across in Rooms. These things seemed juvenile and out of place in a novel about longing, regret, and release.
Rooms reminded me in some ways of the recently published, A Sudden Light, by Garth Stein. Both feature haunted houses and dysfunctional families, and deal with the secrets of the past. I found Rooms to be less frustrating than A Sudden Light because it seemed less judgmental and didactic. But while I found the myriad of human stories in Rooms interesting, I’m not sure that I felt satisfied at the end of the novel. Rooms was an entertaining book, but I don’t know that it will stick with me, or change the way I view the world.

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A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

A Sudden Light by Garth Stein

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Sudden LiA Sudden Lightght, by Garth Stein, is a book that I find difficult to rate or categorize, because it was both more, and less, than I expected. On the one hand, it was an enjoyable and easy read, one which included many tantalizing elements.

For example, A Sudden Light includes:
1. a haunted house
2. ghosts
3. a mystery
4. dual-time narratives
5. hidden staircases
6. hidden journals
7. secrets, secrets, and more secrets

On top of this, the setting, an area of beautiful, untamed woods just outside of Seattle, Washington, and the historical fiction element relating to John Muir and a love of nature, were a fascinating touch.

However, part of what didn’t work for me was that the author tried to fit SO MUCH into the story that I had a hard time figuring out what it was really about.
Furthermore, I’ve seen A Sudden Light categorized as both a young adult and an adult novel, and I can understand why this is. I felt like the story’s tone, as well as the way in which issues such as homosexuality, domestic violence, and possible incest were presented, left me feeling like the book hovered in a gray area between young adult and adult fiction.
To me, A Sudden Light clearly read as a coming-of-age story, in that it is a story told by an adult narrator about his 14-year-old self. However, the narrative voice didn’t quite work for me as a convincing 14-year-old point of view, or as an adult whose values and understanding I felt completely comfortable accepting.
I assume that the writer meant for the novel to be positive in tone towards some of the main characters, who were dealing with homophobia. However, some of the statements made by the narrator came across as possibly judgmental to this reader.
On top of this, I felt uncomfortable with the way an incident of domestic violence was never addressed, as well as how some incestuous attitudes were, to my mind, glossed over.
I also felt that the author (thinly disguised as the adult narrator, thinly disguised as a 14-year-old boy who claimed he was a genius) used A Sudden Light to lecture about issues such as conservation, good and evil, and Original Sin. I found the 14-year-old’s metaphors about the Garden of Eden, separation, and John Muir to be somewhat muddled and unconvincing.
Finally, I felt that A Sudden Light succumbed to the pitfall of substituting generic descriptions to create a “gothic” feel, rather than using specific details to create an authentic atmosphere. Stein’s writing reminded me of the generic descriptions in the lightly enjoyable stories of writers such as Simone St. James or Wendy Webb. On the other hand, writers who I admire for their ability to create authentic atmosphere include Sarah Waters, Michael Cox, and Jane Harris.
So in the end, A Sudden Light did a lot of things passably, but nothing brilliantly. I think it could have been a more powerful story if the author had clarified his focus.
I received an arc of A Sudden Light from the publishers through NetGalley.

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Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

RebeccaRebecca by Daphne du Maurier

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
Who hasn’t read that evocative first line in Daphne Du Maurier’s classic Rebecca, and been instantly captured by her gorgeous, gothic, prose?
An inspiration for so very many writers since, Rebecca is an icon of gothic romance. The imposing castle-like Manderley, the ever-present, menacing sound of the waves crashing on rocks nearby, the secluded and mysterious “west wing,” the malevolent Mrs. Danvers, and “always, always, Rebecca.”
Having read this novel for the first time when I was a teenager, and been suitably impressed by it, I decided to give it a second read, and see if the book held the same magic 20 years later.
Although I can see that Rebecca, which became a bestseller almost immediately, has the makings of a classic, I gave it one less star on my second reading of it.
There are two main reasons for my lower rating.
The biggest issue for me was the male/female relationships in this 1938 novel. (I also felt this way upon recently reading du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn). I was unable to put aside the feeling that the narrator perceived herself to be inferior to her husband, because she was female, and even after she had gained some sense of adulthood by the end of the novel.
I was troubled by the expectation that she serve him (for example, pouring his tea), as well as the way in which he told her what to do. Some of this, in part, was probably due to the specific relationship between Maxim and the narrator; he was old enough to be her father, and she had very little experience of the world. Both the particular relationship between the two, as well as the way male/female roles were enacted, made me uncomfortable.
Having recently read some novels written in the 1950’s, this is not the first time I have encountered such an issue. For example, I adore Mary Stewart’s novels, especially her Nine Coaches Waiting, published in 1958. Some of Stewart’s books contain more blatant inequality than others, but in general, I have been able to put isolated statements made by her characters aside, and enjoy the rest of the story.
For whatever reason (maybe even the fact that it was written in an earlier time period) I felt that sexism permeated Rebecca to such an extent that I was unable to separate it from my experience of the novel as a whole.
The other thing that impressed me on my second reading of Rebecca was the deep sense of sadness, perhaps even desolation, that I felt underlying everything else. Apart from the events that occur in the story, I got the sense that Daphne du Maurier was not a happy person. I felt sad while reading most of the novel, rather than excited by the mystery, or engrossed in the romantic setting.
This is another way in which Mary Stewart’s novels of gothic romance differ from those of Daphne du Maurier. To me, there is an inherent happiness, or sense of the world ultimately being good, in Stewart’s stories, even as tragic events do occur. I often think that the way events are presented in a book impacts the tone more than the events themselves.
I am aware that the books I read strongly affect my mood. And to me, this time around, Rebecca left me feeling sad.
Clearly, du Maurier was a gifted, exceptional storyteller. I also greatly admire her loving portrayal of Cornwall, where she lived for many years.
However, unfortunately, for me, Rebecca was most magical when I was younger, before I was conscious of the gender roles of the characters, and of a seeming sadness in the author. Rebecca was, for me, a well-written novel, but a novel of its time, and I found I was unable to go back to Manderley again.

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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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