Ghost on Black Mountain by Ann Hite

Ghost on Black MountainGhost on Black Mountain by Ann Hite

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An atmospheric family saga which I really enjoyed. Included plenty of sad bits, and maybe went on a little too long in parts. Told through the viewpoint of several different female characters whose lives are interrelated. Some of the characters felt more fully realized, and some drew me in more than others. But overall, I am so very glad I discovered Ghost on Black Mountain, and author Ann Hite. Hite is a storyteller in the southern tradition, and one who I am so glad is sharing her gift.
*My hardback edition included a short interview with the author which gave fascinating insight into her creative process, and what inspires her. Love this stuff!

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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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The Barter by Siobhan Adcock

The BarterThe Barter by Siobhan Adcock

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Barter is a deceptively easy read with an ambitious scope. This debut novel follows two women, living 100 years apart, in Texas. Rebecca is a German immigrant who has led a life of (relative) luxury in town with her father and elderly aunt. She marries her childhood friend John, a farmer, and they begin the stark, demanding task of living off the land.
The second woman is Bridget, a young mother living in the same location in the present day. Bridget has recently given up her high-powered career as a lawyer to stay at home with her baby daughter, Julie.
Our story begins as Bridget sees the ghost of a woman in her house. As the plot unfolds, the narrative alternates between chapters detailing Bridget’s increasingly terrifying encounters, and Rebecca’s tragic life, the catalyst for present horror.
The two women mirror each other, for while living in different centuries, they both struggle with similar issues of identity, sacrifice, and what it means to be a “successful” wife, mother, and woman.
Siobhan Adcock is an intelligent author, and one who is clearly trying to write a story with a message that she feels passionately about. I applaud her intentions, but have mixed feelings about the results.
First the good:
The Barter contains two interesting, and very different stories. Bridget’s narrative is written in the style of contemporary domestic noir, and calls to mind thrillers such as The Memory Child by Steena Holmes, and Under Your Skin by Sabine Durrant. Bridget goes to yoga, gets coffee at Starbucks, runs out of gas, and wonders how well she really knows her own husband.
On the other hand, Rebecca’s story is a fascinating look into the world of German immigrants living in Texas at the turn of the century. Siobhan Adcock has clearly researched this time period, and I found it fascinating to learn more about a culture that I really knew nothing about. Adcock has the talent of writing historical fiction in which every detail adds to the sense of place. Her inclusion of German fairy tales also created a sense of magic and enchantment.
Now, the not so good:
Adcock’s writing style feels sort of like gorgeous paint spilling all over the place. There is a potential for art there, but Adcock doesn’t have full control of it.
Her writing is lyrical, sometimes beautiful even, but it has a sort of untethered, running-away-with-it feel, which felt sloppy. In addition to this, many of the sentences are long and wordy, and the action in the story (ie, instances of Bridget seeing, and running away from, the ghost) seem repetitive.
On top of this, I found the conclusion of The Barter to be confusing and unsatisfying. It seemed very clear that Adcock was trying to convey a message about women, and sacrifice, and identity. But the metaphor she was using to explain it, and the decisions that Bridget and Rebecca made, didn’t make sense to me. It was disappointing to feel like I had missed the entire point of the story. I did not understand the implications of how Bridget finally dealt with the ghost, or of “the barter.”
And I wanted to understand. Adcock is talking about important stuff…To the Lighthouse, The Awakening, women searching for purpose and meaning kind of stuff. But in the case of The Barter, I was left with the feeling of potential not fully realized. I applaud Adcock for her debut, and hope that in future, her novels will keep the liveliness she brings to history, while including just a bit more structure and clarity.

I would like to thank Dutton Publishers for my advance review copy of The Barter.

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The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian

The Night StrangersThe Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Night Strangers is the first novel I have read by Chris Bohjalian, and I think I’ve found a new addiction! I absolutely loved this touching, disturbing, frightening tale of a family who move to an isolated old house in rural New Hampshire to escape a tragic past, and in fact, encounter a new and greater danger.
The Night Strangers has two main perspectives. The first is that of Chip, the pilot of an aircraft which collides with a flock of geese and who is forced to attempt a water landing. The plane crash, told from the second-person perspective of Chip, is one of the most harrowing prologues to a novel I have yet read. Following the crash, Chip and his family move to a rural area to try to put the past, and his PTSD, behind them.
The second perspective in The Night Strangers is the third-person narration following Chip’s wife Emily, their twin daughters, Hallie and Garnet, and various neighbors in their adopted community. Chip and his family are immediately likeable. Chip is a devoted father with a passion for flying and immense guilt over a plane crash that he could not have prevented. Emily is calm, kind, and intelligent, and the twins, while having very different personalities, are also the closest of companions. The villagers, on the other hand, are a group of women, and a few men, who have an almost obsessive penchant for gardening, or being “herbalists,” as they call themselves. At first, the community seems idyllic, but, as in the tradition of The Stepford Wives, the herbalists are not as innocuous as they at first appear.
I enjoyed so many things about The Night Strangers. First of all, as mentioned above, Bohjalian has a gift of writing an absolutely gripping, hold-your-breath, kind of scary scene. But along with this, he writes characters with great emotional depth and authenticity. Despite the fact that The Night Strangers is a story with elements of the supernatural, it felt to me as if I really didn’t have to suspend disbelief. Bohjalian writes about the supernatural in such a way that I would think, “yes, if such things exist, this is what it would be like.” Bohjalian also is a master of creating a setting that adds to the mood of his story. The Victorian house in New Hampshire, and the descriptions of nature, lend a sense of beauty, fragility, and spookiness to the tale.
Finally, Bohjalian includes fascinating detail about airplanes, plane crashes, and the use of plants by herbalists. He includes detail in a way that enhances the story, rather than slowing down the plot.
So in so many ways, The Night Strangers was a lovely discovery for me. I liked it so much that I purchased Bohjalian’s Midwives, also set in the northeastern United States, and began reading that before I had completely finished The Night Strangers.  Bohjalian has written 17 books, which vary from historical fiction to thriller, and I am very much looking forward to enjoying more of his work.

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