Scary Places and Dark Feelings: Books I Read in 2016

So, gang, let’s agree that I fell down on the job of reviewing books in 2016. Recklessly abandoned it, in fact, because as overstated and quickly-reaching-cliche-status as it sounds, 2016 was an awful no-good very bad year. It was pretty crummy for everyone, and for this gal in particular.

BUT! I believe in moving forward.

I believe in things to come.

Why, I’m nearly done with my first book of 2017 and we’re not quite two weeks in, so that has to be…some kind of good thing.

Here are all the books I read last year:

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#1. In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

This story is interesting and quick; I listened to it as an audiobook while painting a project one icy evening.

Leonora, our protagonist, is a crime writer and a recluse. One day, she receives an email invitation to her old school friend’s “hen party” (Brirish term for bachelorette party) in the countryside. She hasn’t spoken to the bride-to-be, Clara, in years, but she musters up the courage to go.

What could possibly go wrong in an isolated house, with long-forgotten school chums, during a weekend full of secrets?

Everything.

We know something did, because the story is told by Leonora as she tries to reconstruct the weekend from a hospital bed, covered in (someone’s) blood and suffering memory loss caused by head trauma.

It doesn’t deliver on all the spookiness promised in the beginning (Odd assemblage of friends! Scary, secluded place! Bad weather! Bumps in the night!), but it remains a fine thriller. My main issue is that there’s a lot of character backstory that feels forced. For example, Leonora has a pretty thin reason for being the person she is. One moment from her past has seemingly shaped her whole life, and her constant revelations about that moment start to feel a bit redundant. It also makes the main players in the story come across as extremely one-dimensional.

It does have its strengths. Like any good mystery, we’re given red herrings and ominous atmosphere aplenty. Despite my qualms mentioned above, I like Leonora and many of the little threads she investigates as the plot marches ever onward. However, our entire cast of characters has a bad habit of revealing their hand just a bit too early, or too voraciously. Ultimately, this was a decent mystery story that was very close to being a good one.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 cups of Breakfast Tea on an eerie winter evening.

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#2. Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson

Oh, this book. This book is a delight. It is a balm to any anxious mind out there, and I highly recommend it. It effortlessly goes from gut-busting humor to heart-wrenching truth about mental illness and the way we each cope with hard things.

Camping gone awry in Australia, hugging koalas, battling opossums, surviving depression, negotiating with cats, and trying so very, very hard to be a responsible adult are all addressed therein. They are discussed through taxidermy, ridiculous conversations about taxes, and unending gratitude for the people who make the good parts of Jenny’s life so magical.

I listened to this audiobook at a point in my life when I really, really needed to and didn’t even realize it. Jenny Lawson narrates the audiobook, which adds a lot of warmth and emotion to its passages.

Rating: 5 out of 5 cups of whatever you prefer to spit out while involuntarily belly-laughing.

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#3. The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates

This is my favorite book I read this year! It is hard to summarize because it is an EPICALLY SPRAWLING TOME OF HISTORICAL FICTION, but I will do my best. In Princeton, New Jersey, beginning in 1905 and concluding in 1906, some very strange events occurred among the elite families. Disappearances, violent behavior, hallucinations, charming strangers, and dark secrets are the (whispered) talk of the town. Framed as a research document compiled of diaries, letters, and other discovered writings, we learn about what came to be known as the Crosswicks Curse and the many players therein.

I enjoyed Oates’ use of real — and very thoroughly researched — people as characters embroiled in the elaborate details of the curse. Woodrow Wilson, Upton Sinclair, and countless others are closely examined and skillfully embedded into the story.

It has a dark humor to its pages and moments of real terror. I hesitate to write too much more about it, as its twists, turns, and ghoulish surprises are such a joy to discover on one’s own.

Rating: 5 out of 5 mysterious glasses of ale given to you by a suspicious visitor.

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#4. Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

While I was reading this book over the summer, I often joked with my friends, “Come for the murders, stay for the architecture.”

The true stories of Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair and America’s first documented serial killer collide in this immaculately presented nonfiction novel. The passion, determination, will power, and unbridled sense of purpose guide the countless people behind the World’s Fair exhibition in Chicago in 1893. Seen as nothing more than a processing town and a slaughter yard, the city of Chicago bids ferociously against New York and other metropolitan areas for the honor of hosting the fair. Their efforts seem insurmountable time and time again, but that only seems to fuel their collective creative madness. (It is especially fascinating to see how logistics for the fair modernized the way America utilized city planning, union labor, and even great leaps forward in mechanical engineering.)

Alongside the fair, a con man named H.H. Holmes comes to the city and builds a strange boarding house. The boarding house has oddly shaped rooms and a number of young, lovely female tenants who seem to constantly disappear into thin air. While following the Fair’s construction and public reception shows the positive potential within us all, tracking the scope of Holmes’ crimes reveals the darker nature of our capabilities.

Rating: 5 out of 5 cups of Waukesha spring water, just a penny a cup!

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#5. Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter

If you are a fan of Gillian Flynn’s work, you’re likely to enjoy this grim murder mystery. Estranged sisters come together after one of them loses her husband in a brutal street attack. They are forced to reminisce about their shared past, which includes the unsolved disappearance of their older sister, Julia, twenty years earlier.

Everything (and everyone) around the sisters seems to be leading back to haunting questions about their family. What happened to Julia that night so long ago? Why is all of this coming to light only now? Most dangerous of all, who can they trust?

(A word to those who avoid it, there are graphic descriptions of sexual abuse and torture in this book.)

Rating: 4 out of 5 glasses of Pinot Grigio while the world you thought you knew falls apart.

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#6. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

I started this audiobook in the fall, during that “rare month” of October, as Bradbury refers to it. I listened to it while working on an exhaustive, finger-aching project for school (which you can see here!), which I would recommend, actually, as the frenzied excitement of this prose pairs well with a good creative spiral.

We meet our young protagonists as they prepare for Halloween in a small Midwestern town. A storm is coming for Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, however. A storm and a dark carnival, a middle-of-the-night, strange affair too late in the season to be any regular kind of carnival. The mysterious Mr. Dark leads a band of grotesque humans in the freak show, along with a dizzying hall of mirrors and a very special carousel.

We meet other people in the town, of course: mothers, teachers, shopkeepers, schoolchildren. We also meet Charles Halloway, Will’s dad, a man who lives a life of the mind in quiet introspection most nights. As Will and Jim come to understand the carnival’s power and its true hold over the townspeople (and unfortunately, themselves), Charles will need to fight his own darker temptations to come to their aid.

The writing style of this book is very unique. The structure is as you would expect, but the flurry of descriptions and the youthfulness of it, the free-floating approach to whose story it is, is very interesting. There is a robust stream of consciousness in the narration, and an effective, constant switch between what is being seen and what is truly happening. It’s a darkly fun yet moving read for any month, but especially October.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 mugs of root beer from the eerie, tattooed man in the midway. Did that tattoo just..move?

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#7.Diary by Chuck Palahniuk 

Ironically, this was the first book I started in 2016 and the last one I finished. Oops. Sorry for losing you in a desk drawer, Diary. Seems just a little bit fitting, though.

But anyway, Diary is about fate (kind of), and art (kind of), and how fate can conspire against you pretty actively, at least if you are a painter living on Waytansea Island.

Misty works at the Wilmot Hotel on the pretty New England island of Waytansea, a place that was once wealthy but has now reduced its finest families into service work as rich tourists buy out the area. Her husband is in the hospital, barely alive and permanently comatose after a failed suicide attempt. Her daughter Tabbi spends a lot of time with her paternal grandmother Grace, and they both constantly urge Misty to paint like she did when she was in art school. Misty feels like a failure, a fraud, and fosters a deep resentment of her husband, Peter, whom she still secretly loves.

As if this isn’t enough to contend with, Misty starts getting calls from former clients of Peter’s architectural service. Whole rooms are missing from beach condos, closets are sealed off in guest houses, and terrible, surreal graffiti has been discovered in all of their homes. The ugly messages left by her husband seem to match more subtle messages Misty finds all over the island: scratched into tables, penciled into library books, painted on ceiling beams. They all seem to be messages for her…but why?

Palahniuk is consistently one of my favorite contemporary authors. This book really shows off what he does best, which is tie seemingly unrelated strings together very neatly — and often shockingly — by the last page. Even the structure of the book, which is written like a diary that Misty actively keeps, is an abstract clue to the larger mystery of the story and of the island.

Rating: 5 out of 5 shots of whiskey while you think nobody is looking.

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