movie: Psycho (1960)

How about a horror movie for Friday the 13th, hmmmm?

I enjoyed this Hitchcock classic. I don’t care what Husband says.

He says he can’t believe people were frightened by this. But I think that 1960 was a different time. Susanne Antonetta writes in Body Toxic, “Nobody was supposed to talk about Psycho. My parents came home unable to sleep.” I can believe that this movie was scarier then; I thought it was scary now, although I certainly noted the ways in which it’s dated: slower paced, longer pauses, far less graphic (on which more in a moment). The psychological question is every bit as chilling as ever. The bones of this movie are still scary; the production is of another era, is all.

Some of the elements for which Hitchcock is known – creative camera angles (downright innovative at the time), stark, simple shots and sets, psychological drama, and in this case, low budget black-and-white – were plainly evident. For that matter, it was graphically violent for its time, I’m told. (We noted that there was strangely little blood in that one scene, but maybe it was a lot by comparison.) It’s a little hard to see these things in context, as I was neither alive nor a movie-goer in 1960 when this film was released. But even from the vantage point of 2015 – when new releases are frantically fast-paced and horror movies flow with blood – I can see the artistry here. It’s a different viewing experience now than it would have been then. Now, it looks vintage, dated, but still charming, and still chilling. Janet Leigh’s pin-up-style beauty is classic; all those shots of her dramatic mascara in black-and-white are arty in a way you don’t really see any more. The one really famous scene was striking, again, whatever Husband may think. I also noted the MacGuffin (a term I learned just the other day while looking up Hitchcock). Actually, the item that bothered me was not a shortage of frightfulness, but a hole in logic: it didn’t make sense to me that Lila and Sam would be so confident in the existence of Mother when they have just talked to two people who saw her buried. (Spoiler in white text – highlight or select to view.)

If you notice I’m being cagey about the plot, it’s because I hold out hope that there may still be someone out there like me, who has never seen this movie and really doesn’t know much going in; and for that person, should I reach her or him, I am avoiding all plot description. Go see it blind, Hypothetical Reader.

I’m on board for the classic thriller/suspense/horror genre, and I like a good psychological twist. More Hitchcock to come.

Rating: 7 sandwiches.

Final note: Husband was deeply frustrated by the consistent habit of drivers, traveling alone, to get in and out of their cars via the passenger-side door, sliding across the bench seat. I have offered that the hoods on these old cars are so long that maybe this really does provide a short cut?

Coming of Age at the End of Days by Alice LaPlante

In this expert psychological thriller, a disturbed teenaged girl meets a doomsday cult and struggles for survival and identity.

coming of age

The title of Alice LaPlante’s third novel, Coming of Age at the End of Days, succinctly describes its plot. At the beginning, Anna Franklin is 16 and terribly depressed, fixated on death. Therapy and medication do nothing to bring her out of it. Her anti-religious mother begins reading to her from the Bible, just to give them some time together and to introduce Anna to literary references; this does not lighten Anna’s world, but instead gives its darkness meaning, as Revelations resonates with her mood. What finally causes her depression to break is a new family in the neighborhood. Lars and his parents introduce Anna to their church, where it is preached that the Tribulation at the End of Days is coming. There will be blood, violence and suffering. Her heart sings at the news.

Anna begins having a recurrent dream of a central image in her church’s system of beliefs; she has visions and becomes convinced she has an important role to play. Joyfully, she plans for the coming End of Days. Her parents are relieved that she no longer appears suicidal, but disturbed anew at this fresh challenge. Anna and Lars, a compelling, alternately magnetic and frightening young man, are socially isolated and bullied at school. On the other hand, Anna’s parents are loving, wise and committed to her well-being. Additionally, there is Anna’s neighbor Jim–back in his parents’ basement, in his mid-20s, suffering his own breakdown–and a chemistry teacher, the youthful, no-nonsense Ms. Thadeous. When Anna experiences a tragedy that “more than satiate[s] her hunger for death,” these few but remarkable friends represent a chance to reconsider the End she is working toward.

At the center of Anna’s story–and of all these characters’ stories–are obsessions. “Images. Sounds. The Red Heifer. Bosch’s depiction of hell. A rock hitting a tree.” Anna’s mother is a deeply devoted pianist; her father is an earthquake nut, eagerly awaiting The Big One, in a secular obsession otherwise not unlike his daughter’s. LaPlante (Turn of Mind) masterfully weaves a distressing plot in which complex, sympathetic characters, each with a complete and absorbing past, are brought to the brink of destruction and then seemingly asked: What kind of life, and death, will you choose? The reader’s imagination will be won by this brilliant, thought-provoking and memorable novel. Coming of Age at the End of Days perfectly captures the dynamics of family relationships and friendships, loyalties and priorities, and the nuanced workings of an unusual mind.

This review originally ran in the July 23, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 8 times vermillion.

Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell

Trauma is reborn for the victims of a double abduction, nearly 20 years after their rescue.

pretty is

Two women in their 30s: Chloe is an almost-famous actor barely hanging on to her Hollywood career; Lois is a precocious junior professor with two book contracts. They share a past neither wants known. When they were 12, Lois and Chloe–then known as Carly May–were abducted and held in a hunting lodge in the Adirondacks for a summer before being rescued. This secret, the victimization they just want to forget, comes back to haunt them in Maggie Mitchell’s first novel, Pretty Is.

The action alternates between the present lives of Lois and the reinvented Chloe/Carly May, and flashbacks to the summer they spent with a man they called Zed. They’ve stuck by their story that he never touched or hurt them, not that anyone seems to believe that. Now, Lois’s latest project and a peculiarly disturbed student seem poised to intersect with Chloe’s struggling acting career. The question becomes not what Zed did nearly 20 years ago, but what agency do the adult women have in their own lives?

Suspenseful, quick-paced and action-driven, Pretty Is also wisely invests in character development. Carly May may have been a beauty queen, but she was an intelligent child, too; Lois was a spelling-bee champion and confirmed bookworm as well as pretty, and those lists of spelling words still serve as a mental aid. Mitchell’s greatest strength, however, is in the riveting, magnetic pull of her plot, as the stakes grow higher and Pretty Is rushes toward its finale.

This review originally ran in the July 17, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 6 text messages.

Hyacinth Girls by Lauren Frankel

A tricky, smart riddle in novel form about bullying and family secrets.

hyacinth girls

Lauren Frankel’s debut novel, Hyacinth Girls, opens when Rebecca puts Callie’s face, along with a provocative question, on a billboard near the high school. A lengthy flashback explains why, in a gradual uncovering of the past. Callie is not Rebecca’s daughter but the daughter of her late best friend, Joyce. The happenings and drama of Callie’s middle and high school years are more troubling than the average teen experience, and have led to some terrible events that call for a billboard. But what exactly happened, and who is the perpetrator and who the victim, and why? These are questions that take the whole book to unravel, with roles reversing throughout. Rebecca’s voice alternates with Callie’s, but not until late in the book, when the reader’s impressions are already formed. The mixing up of clues and the struggle to sort out loyalties results in an unreliable narrator or two.

The story of Callie and her social circle eventually becomes entangled with that of Joyce and Rebecca, when they were childhood best friends. New and old traumas slowly, coyly come out: bullying, suicide, simple mistakes and basic meanness. Betrayals and lies populate the experiences of both generations. In revealing a complex web of family and community secrets, schoolyard bullies and the nature of trust, Frankel nudges her reader to ask questions like the one Rebecca puts on the billboard: Do you know your children?

Hyacinth Girls is a compelling and powerfully evocative novel of friendship and love, deceit and duplicity, and the rough terrain of being a teenage girl.

This review originally ran in the May 26, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 6 tattoos.

Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm

A delicious, deceptively simple tale of art, crime, love and betrayal.


In the opening pages of Rebecca Scherm’s debut novel, Unbecoming, Julie from California is working in Paris at an antiques repair shop, polishing and replacing hinges, cleaning beadwork and resetting jewels. Except her name is really Grace, and she’s from Garland, Tennessee. Two young men are about to be paroled from prison in Garland, and Grace is nervous, because her name is not all she’s lying about. From this beginning, we follow Grace back in time: her unhappy home life, her great luck in being loved by a popular boy from a good family, her joy at being his mother’s daughter, her departure for college in New York City, her work in art appraisal and her ignominious retreat from all of the above. Only at the end of the novel do we learn how exactly Grace landed in Paris with a new name, a forged biography and a fear of her past.

Unbecoming is beguiling: a love story with twists and turns; the tale of an insecure, insufficiently loved girl from the wrong side of the tracks; a delightfully nuanced narrative about trust and trustworthiness. Grace is endearing and intriguing, although she is not all (or is more than) she seems. Layers of lies, longing and duplicity recall The Talented Mr. Ripley, another chilling masterpiece of dishonesty’s helpless acceleration. Scherm’s light, confident touch with pacing, suspense and characterization is pitch-perfect. Beware staying up all night to rush through this engrossing, enchanting debut.

This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the January 27, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 8 trillions.

Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell

Shirley Jackson is brought back to life in a quietly disturbing tale worthy of its subject.


Author Shirley Jackson (“The Lottery”; The Haunting of Hill House; We Have Always Lived in the Castle) casts a long and chilling shadow. The psychological thriller Shirley, from Susan Scarf Merrell (A Member of the Family), follows in its namesake’s tradition.

Jackson and her husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, lived in small-town Vermont while she wrote and he taught at Bennington College in the 1960s. In this book, Fred and Rose Nemser, Merrell’s inventions, are newlyweds and move into the Hyman-Jackson home when Fred becomes a graduate student and teaching assistant. Rose, our 19-year-old narrator, is pregnant, recently rescued from a childhood of poverty and family dysfunction by her new husband; she is staggered by Shirley’s big house, big family and art. Stan takes Fred under his wing, tutoring him in both their profession and in marriage. Shirley’s mentorship of the malleable Rose is more complex.

Rose wants to write about Shirley; she wants to replace Shirley’s children in their mother’s heart; she wants to be Shirley. In her devotion, she can’t help wondering about the phone calls that go unanswered every night, and the female student who went missing so many years ago (whom Shirley and Stan so emphatically did not know). Naturally, not all of Rose’s overtures are welcome.

An apt tribute to Shirley Jackson herself, Merrell’s novel recalls Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Edgar Allan Poe. Jackson’s fans are the clear winners here; Shirley, Stan, Fred and Rose may not be so lucky.

This review originally ran in the July 29, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 6 letters.

book beginnings on Friday: Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.


This is a new novel about Shirley Jackson, styled after that author’s own creepy-crawly work. It begins:

“You have green eyes,” she said. I handed her my end of the fitted sheet and she tucked the corners deftly together, folded again to make a smooth square, her knob-knuckled fingers making quick work of a task I’d never had to do. Bed-making I knew too well, but, oh, the luxury of a second set of sheets!

“No,” I said. “My eyes are blue.”

How’s that for a spooky beginning? Coupled with that cover – good stuff!

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.


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