The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue

A terrifying, enigmatic and ever-accelerating story about the power of imagination.

monsters

Jack Peter Keenan has always been an odd boy. Even before the accident three years ago, he was not exactly normal. Now almost 11 years old, he doesn’t go outside, ever. As Christmas approaches, there are strange happenings afoot: things that go bump in the night, apparitions in the snowy roadway, screams of people who aren’t there. Jack has begun drawing monsters. His parents, Holly and Tim, are increasingly worried.

Holly renews her relationship with the church; when she seeks answers, the local priest and his Japanese housekeeper pelt her with tales of shipwrecks and spirits. Tim resolves to work harder with his son. The parents of Jack’s one friend, Nick, take off for the holiday, leaving him to stay with the Keenans in their remote Maine beachside home, in the snow and bitter cold. As Jack’s drawings multiply and the howls outside grow louder, readers will wonder if he’s withdrawing, abandoning reality (and pulling Nick and the Keenans along with him), or if somehow his interior landscape is populating the outside world.

Multiple mysteries enliven the terror of The Boy Who Drew Monsters, which becomes ever more disturbing as the source of danger comes gradually into focus. In his sensitive, incisive treatment of Jack’s behavior and its effect on his family, Keith Donohue (The Stolen Child) explores the challenges of mental disorders, but suspense and a bright thread of terror evoke the very best of the horror genre. Just as a Maine winter chills the bones, this singular little boy provides a satisfyingly frightening story.


This review originally ran in the October 10, 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: 7 steps outside.

Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville

Two historical storylines, great evil, and an abiding mystery combine into one sinister and memorable fairy tale for the stout of heart.

gretel

As the title Gretel and the Dark suggests, Eliza Granville’s debut novel is a grim, spooky fairy tale. But keeping with the nature of any good fairy tale, there is another layer: it is also a meditation on historical good and evil, set both in Nazi Germany and fin de siècle Austria.

In 1899, a shockingly beautiful young woman is rescued off the street and delivered to the home of celebrated Viennese psychoanalyst Josef Breuer. She claims to have no identity, so the besotted Josef calls her Lilie, a name that will come to have greater significance than he originally intended. She is emaciated, bruised and beaten, hair shorn, with numbers inked on her arm. The story she tells is simply not possible: when questioned, Lilie tells Josef that she is not human but a machine, sent to kill a monster, whom she must find before he grows too large. She frightens him with her dreamy fantasies of how she’ll do it–“it doesn’t take long to kick someone to death”–but she casts an irresistible spell, and Josef (and his equally smitten gardener) is driven to puzzle out the truth of her history and the abuses she has experienced.

In the parallel plot, told in alternate chapters set several decades later, a little girl named Krysta pouts as the world around her changes. Her father works in a “zoo” during the days and can’t stop washing his hands at night; she is surrounded by unfriendly people, and retreats into her imagination to avoid the hazards and hatred she can’t understand. As her personal situation deteriorates and her circle of trusted acquaintances shrinks, Krysta hopes to save herself using the fairy tales on which she was raised–even, or especially, the nasty ones, with wolves, witches, beheadings and gore.

In precise balance and crafted in lovely, lyrical language, Gretel and the Dark is a masterpiece of fantasy, horror, childhood innocence and the evils of both our innermost imaginings and our shared history. Deliciously chilling and both fantastical and gravely real, with momentum building throughout, Granville’s extraordinary debut holds its crucial secrets to the last, adding suspense to its virtues. The connection between the not-entirely-likeable little Krysta and the enigmatic Lilie remains an open question until the final pages, and the power of imagination and storytelling is a prominent theme. This chilling, fantastical tale will simultaneously entertain and provoke serious contemplation on the depths of human depravity.


This review originally ran in the October 7, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 10 cherries.

Teaser Tuesdays: Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

gretel

This is a delightful blend of dark, gloomy fairy tale, historical fiction, and horror. I don’t want to say anything more about it at this point, but I think I’ve found a real winner.

For now, enjoy these lines, which are a fine example of the emphasis placed on the importance of storytelling.

“When I make up stories I’ll write them down so they won’t disappear or be changed.”

Greet shrugs. “Then they won’t be proper stories, will they?”

Also, who doesn’t love a little girl who thinks this:

When I grow up I shall be a famous author like Carol Lewis or Elle Franken Baum, but the girls in my books will be explorers, they’ll fly planes and fight battles, not play down holes with white rabbits or dance along brick roads with a silly scarecrow and a man made out of metal.

Stay tuned. Gretel and the Dark looks like a star.

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

Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell

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

shirley

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.

The Mad and the Bad by Jean-Patrick Manchette

Fans of classic noir will be entranced by this spare, hard-boiled novel of suspense translated from the French.

mad and bad

Jean-Patrick Manchette’s The Mad and the Bad was originally published in French (Ô Dingos, Ô Châteaux!) in 1972. Donald Nicholson-Smith’s 2013 translation is the first into English, and is introduced here by American crime writer James Sallis.

Michel Hartog is an architect, made fabulously wealthy by the sudden death of his brother and sister-in-law. Along with their riches, he has inherited the responsibility of caring for their spoiled and difficult son, Peter, age “six or seven.” Michel has a reputation for employing the damaged, crippled and ill, so it is in character that he would use his wealth to have a shockingly beautiful young woman released from an insane asylum to look after his nephew. Julie Ballanger is rightfully suspicious of her new patron; the eccentric Michel immediately supplies her with alcohol, which she had learned to avoid in her former home, and it mixes poorly with her tranquilizers and antidepressants.

A killer named Thompson and three semi-competent thugs have been hired to execute Julie and Peter, but an ulcer is eating Thompson from the inside out, and his is a race against time. After Julie and Peter are kidnapped from a public park by Thompson’s men, the madwoman and her young charge manage to escape and race for a labyrinthine estate in the mountains that Julie saw in a picture Michel carries. She hopes to find her employer and safety there, but in fact finds neither. The reader wonders if Thompson will get to Julie and Peter before his stomach gets to him; meanwhile, the remote mountain fortress holds an unexpected surprise.

Manchette’s plot is straightforward, and his characters’ motives are fairly simple, if profoundly disquieting: to kill, to survive, to inflict pain or to avoid it. The bulk of the story is devoted to character sketches and explorations of those simple, disturbing motivations. The dialogue is spare, almost dreamlike, and Manchette’s settings tend toward the cinematic. Special attention is paid to architectural features; bare white walls, opulent yet sterile, are the perfect backdrop for blood splatters. Shots are fired, large tables are turned, fires are set and cars are driven into crowds. The Mad and the Bad is odd and gruesome, but maintains a twisted sense of humor throughout.

Nicholson-Smith’s translation is unadorned, a perfect match for Manchette’s style, which is sparse and tersely written but with an artistic eye for detail. Julie and Peter flee, Thompson pursues them doubled over in agony, and the reader is well satisfied by the end of the suspense.


This review originally ran in the June 24, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 croissants.

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

A detective novel by the horror master in which a mass murderer torments a retired cop who fights back.

mr. mercedes

Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes opens in a present-day depressed Midwestern metropolis, where retired detective Bill Hodges is haunted by the one who got away. It has been several years now, but he can still see the job fair, the long lines of unemployed people who’d waited overnight in the cold, the ghostly gray Mercedes accelerating through the crowd, the gristle and gore dripping from its fender as it drove off. Hodges is considering suicide when he receives a letter from someone claiming to be the Mercedes Killer.

Hodges is reinvigorated by a second chance at solving the cold case, with a few unlikely allies. The neighbor kid who mows Hodges’s lawn contributes computer skills and a surprisingly strong sounding board for new theories. The sister of the car’s original owner is both a delightful foil to the former cop’s depression and a potential love interest. Her niece brings the challenge of dealing with mental illness, but also a steely resolve, to this dubious crime-fighting team. While tracking Hodges’s efforts, Mr. Mercedes simultaneously follows the Mercedes Killer himself. He’s a loner who works two jobs, lives with his mother and attracts no attention, but harbors creepy inclinations worthy of Stephen King.

King’s fans will recognize his talents with suspense, finely drawn Americana and the horror of pure evil lurking in the everyday. His characters are as true-to-life and likeable as ever. As the improbable heroes and the Mercedes Killer rush toward a crashing finish, Mr. Mercedes is proof yet again that King can still terrify his readers without invoking the supernatural.


This review originally ran in the June 3, 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: 8 ice creams.

Maximum Shelf: I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on May 27, 2014.


I am pilgrimA woman is found dead in a ratty New York City hotel. Despite the outward hallmarks of a “simple” murder–one motivated by rage, sex or money–it quickly becomes clear that this is an intelligent and carefully planned crime. The room is awash in sulfuric acid, and the victim has been stripped of her face, fingerprints and teeth. A powerful antiseptic has been used to destroy all DNA on the scene. Detectives link the crime to a borrowed library book about investigations, written by one of the world’s best professional investigators, a man who doesn’t officially exist. The author of that book happens to be present at the crime scene: he is the unnamed narrator of I Am Pilgrim, an intricately plotted thriller of global proportions, and the debut novel by screenwriter Terry Hayes.

Hayes has made an inspired choice in selecting an unnamed narrator to tell this story–information can be meted out methodically, with all the oblique references and foreshadowing one might expect from a secret agent. We learn from the man who eventually consents to the code name “Pilgrim” that he has a complicated past in many cities and countries around the world, including the small Turkish town of Bodrum, which is improbably linked to the murdered woman in New York City. When detectives learn that the hotel room in question had been occupied since the morning of September 11, 2001, more questions are raised–who checks in to a NYC hotel on that morning?–and international implications begin to be theorized. Pilgrim planned to be on hand at the scene only as a consultant, to assist his friend, NYPD homicide detective Ben Bradley. But perhaps he belongs there after all.

As it turns outs, the nameless murder victim in New York City is the least of Pilgrim’s concerns.

On the other side of the world, years ago, a young boy watched his father’s beheading at the hands of the Saudi Arabian government. That boy has grown up to become a mujahid and go to war in Afghanistan against the Soviets, and has now taken on a false Lebanese identity while hatching a grand plan to take down the “far enemy,” the Western world as embodied by the United States. This unnamed man is nicknamed “the Saracen,” as our narrator is called Pilgrim, and the central plot of I Am Pilgrim is the buildup to their final standoff.

A retired chief of the most secret intelligence agency in the United States, Pilgrim is called in by the President himself after three bodies with various nationalities are found, scorched and disintegrating, in a grave of quicklime in a deserted village in the Afghani desert. The Saracen has been hard at work for decades. No crude airplane hijackings for him: the destruction of the Western world will require brilliance, finesse and absolutely thorough preparation. With his test run in the desert complete, he’s ready for the biggest scheme of all. And as good at his job as Pilgrim is, the Saracen is his match.

The coincidence of Pilgrim’s presence in the N.Y.C. hotel room will ease his transition back to full-time work on a seemingly unrelated assignment, and he reenters the underground world easily enough. Disguised as just another FBI agent, he’s sent to Turkey, ostensibly to investigate the suspicious death of a young American billionaire there. In reality, he’s hunting the Saracen. One of the many successes of I Am Pilgrim is that within 600-plus pages of mysteries within mysteries, a plethora of subplots all link together smoothly. In seeking the Saracen, Pilgrim hopes for no less than to save the world, but he is also concerned with his cover mysteries, including the death of the American billionaire in Turkey–despite local investigators having ruled it accidental, and having tried to close the case–and the murder of the still-anonymous woman in the shabby hotel in New York.

Within this elaborately plotted thriller of international espionage, Hayes inserts a charmingly detailed past and personal story for Pilgrim and his supporting characters, including Detective Ben Bradley and the U.S. director of national intelligence, who is nicknamed the Whisperer. (Hayes has a fondness for aliases.) Pilgrim’s childhood, Bradley’s heroism and modesty, and the Whisperer’s rise through the ranks of secret government agencies are realistic and enthralling. I Am Pilgrim not only circumnavigates the globe but also reveals an appreciation for and study of fine art, and references world history in building its background. In these ways, whimsy and realism are advanced in parallel by the rich context, strong characters and framing elements Hayes employs.

This debut novel is lengthy, but uses every line to full effect; the page count is necessary to pursue the involved and involving story Hayes has planned. Fully wrought characters and an ambitious, but impeccably designed plot are unfurled at a breakneck pace; the reader’s only problem will be finding time to race through I Am Pilgrim in as few sittings as possible.


Rating: 8 doses.

Come back for my interview with Hayes later this week!

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