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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The Ice Twins (May 19. 2015) by S. K. Tremayne

The Ice TwinsThe Ice Twins by S.K. Tremayne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Ice Twins is an absorbing, fast-paced read which I debated between giving 4 and 5 stars. Although not a “perfect” book, it is one of the most interesting suspense novels I’ve read this year, and so, in some ways I think it merits 5 stars.
However, this review reflects my personal reactions to the book, and so I’ve rated it 4 stars. This is because, for all its strengths, I just didn’t love it as much as I felt I should. Below, I’ll try to explain what was great about The Ice Twins, and also, why it didn’t fully succeed for me.

First, a quick plot introduction:
The Ice Twins is told variously from the points of view of Sarah and Angus Moorcroft, the parents of identical, seven-year-old, twin girls. As the story begins, we find out that they are grieving over the death of Lydia, the quieter, more bookish twin. Nearly a year before, Lydia fell from a balcony while vacationing at her grandparents’ home in Devon. Sarah, Angus, and Lydia’s twin sister, Kirstie, have been unsuccessfully trying to recover from this tragedy ever since.
Finally, in an attempt to start anew, the family moves to a small tidal island off the coast of Scotland, which Angus’ family has owned for generations. However, moving to Eilean Torran (Thunder Island) proves to be anything but a good idea. What follows is part psychological thriller, part ghost story, part domestic noir, and part horror, as they (and the reader) begin to suspect that the apparent facts of Lydia’s death are not as straightforward, as they at first seem.

My thoughts:
Author S.K. Tremayne (a pen name for a published author living in Britain), has, in many ways, absolutely nailed it in the choice of Eilean Torran (a fictional name for an actual tidal island near Skye) as the setting for this tale.
The Isle of Skye is well known for its unusual quality of otherness and solitary beauty. Tremayne knows this area well, and has capitalized on this eerie atmosphere in The Ice Twins.
Now, I’m a reader who loves sense of place above pretty much all else. And I am enamored of Scotland. I honestly can’t ever recall having had the experience of reading a contemporary novel in which I felt that the atmosphere was overemphasized before. However, in The Ice Twins, Tremayne inserts descriptions of the light, sea, and sky, so frequently and indiscriminately, that I realized I was beginning to skim some sentences.
For me, it was the quality and the quantity of the description, rather than the fact of description itself, which was problematic. I think that the best authors create a sense of place with enough well chosen, and well-placed words. Description can be almost like poetry, with powerful lines that set a scene, or turn up at perfect points in a narrative, anchoring the reader in a place and time. But the best writers do this, and then entrust the reader with that sense of place, that imagination. It felt to me like Tremayne thought we would forget we were on a Scottish island unless we were constantly reminded.
One thing I did really enjoy was that Tremayne inserted photos of the sea, island, lighthouse, etc., throughout the novel. These pictures added to my immersion and pleasure in the atmosphere.
So this whole ‘sense of place’ thing has another important dimension. Tremayne speaks highly of Skye in the author introduction. As mentioned above, Skye is world-famous for being a “thin place,” a place of unparalleled but stark beauty. However, after reading The Ice Twins, I felt like Skye was a place of nightmare. The photos coupled with the descriptions of the characters and the place evoked a sense of primal fear in me such that I questioned my long-held desire to visit Skye.
I think this reaction goes hand-in-hand with another reason I didn’t love The Ice Twins, which is that it has strong elements of a horror novel.
While I love psychological thrillers and suspense, I am not, so much, a fan of horror. Obviously, the genres sometimes merge. For me, one of the tonal elements that I do not like about horror is the (sort of obvious) goal of creating a sense of “horror” in the reader. I don’t like being taken to a place of primal fear. The Ice Twins was a psychological chiller, a tale of domestic noir, a mind-trip, a novel of suspense. But ultimately, it left me with that icky feeling that all is not right with the world, that deep evil lurks beneath seemingly calm waters, and that none of us is safe.
More than anything, I think this is why I did not love the book. I’d love to hear other readers’ reactions to the novel, especially regarding the portrayal of Skye and its tidal islands.
Thank you to the publishers through NetGalley for my advanced review copy of The Ice Twins.

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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 Sleep Room by F. R. Tallis

The Sleep RoomThe Sleep Room by F.R. Tallis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I find it fascinating to read other reviews of The Sleep Room by F.R Tallis, because some people found this story to hit the perfect note of classic suspense, while others found it slow, predictable, and a letdown. It seems that the biggest disparity of opinion comes in reader’s perceptions of the final twist of the novel…some people thought it was brilliant, and others felt it undermined the rest of the book.
Here are my thoughts about the The Sleep Room. First of all, I enjoyed the setting, the isolated mental asylum of Wyldehope Hall on the Suffolk coast. Crashing waves, misty bogs, shadowy corridors…the novel is a pleasure of gothic escapism.
However, like some reviewers, I felt that the main character, James Richardson was difficult to root for, even though I tried. Although in many ways, his intentions seemed altruistic, there was also a lascivious, narcissistic, unforgiving side of him that made him rather repellent.
Furthermore, the plot was a lot of buildup with not a lot of follow through. The ending of the The Sleep Room was confusing…and almost seemed to consist of two distinct stories.
On the one hand, there was a more traditional partial explanation for the mysterious events that were occurring at Wyldehope Hall. And on the other, the author threw in a twist, that for me, undermined the significance of the entire story that had gone before. The surprise felt unnecessary, and cheapened what could have been an enjoyable, classic ghost story without it. It almost seemed to me like the twist was an excuse to create a flashy distraction, and let the author off the hook from the more difficult task of coming up with a compelling explanation for the mystery that he had created.
In The Sleep Room, F.R. Tallis has written a novel with a strong sense of place and an intriguing premise. Unfortunately, in my opinion, he was unable to back this up with a convincing conclusion, or compelling main character.

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The Unseen by Katherine Webb

The UnseenThe Unseen by Katherine Webb

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Unseen was a pure pleasure to read. I’ve been on a bit of a Kate Morton, Hannah Richell, kick recently-give me the British Isles, a little bit of mystery, a few ghosts, and a little romance, and I’m in literary heaven. 🙂
The Unseen was all these things, and was also a story which affected me deeply.
On the surface, the novel follows Reverend Albert Canning and his wife Hester during one formative and tragic summer in 1911. The newlyweds live quietly in a small village in the English countryside, and have just hired a new maid named Cat. The other main player in the drama that enfolds is a young theosophist named Robin, a charismatic, handsome young man who hopes to make his name by proving the existence of fairies.
Without revealing spoilers, it is safe to say that the novel deals with big issues, such as freedom, women’s rights, homosexuality, and the detrimental affects of guilt. The theme of deception, of oneself, and of others, runs throughout.
What I really enjoyed about the novel was how much I empathized with most of the main characters, flawed as some of them were. Even as they made horrible choices, it was clear to see how their violence and insanity was exacerbated, if not excused, by their own suffering and guilt.
In contrast to the narrative taking place around the turn of the century, part of The Unseen also follows journalist Leah in the present day as she investigates those past events. I found Leah’s story, which includes a rather tepid romance, to be much less compelling than the narrative set in 1911. In fact, I almost think that The Unseen didn’t need the present-day investigation as a structure, and would have been stronger if it had left out the dual-time aspect.
Regardless, I really, really enjoyed The Unseen. It gave me insight into a fascinating period in history, as well as introducing me to a group of characters who I connected with deeply. On a scale of emotional intensity from 1-10, I would rate The Unseen an 8. I fell in love with Cat, with her, earnest, loyal, and kind, lover George, and with Hester Canning, struggling to understand her husband and her world.
I left the characters of The Unseen with reluctance, and highly recommend this memorable novel.

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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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