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.

did not finish: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (audio)

gone girlI couldn’t do it, friends. This is a very well-known and much-loved novel of the last few years, and the word on the street is DON’T READ ANYTHING ABOUT IT before you read it! So I will say very little. Repeat: this is a spoiler-free, very short review.

There is a mystery. I did not read far enough to solve it. I am not very bothered by this. The reason I put it down so easily was: I didn’t like the characters. Possibly this is part of the trickiness of the book somehow; this book is famously tricky (I believe there is something about an unreliable narrator? but there are two narrators? I don’t know). But for me, the big failure was that I didn’t like these people so I couldn’t care about them enough to keep reading (listening) through the fact that they annoyed me very much. That’s all.

My audio version read by Julia Whelan and Kirby Heyborne was fine. They read the characters as obnoxious people, which seems to have been right on point, so I guess they did their jobs.

No rating; I only made it about 1/5 of the way through, so I’ll leave it at that.

book beginnings on Friday: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (audio)

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.

gone girl

Please don’t shoot me. I am not in love with Gone Girl at its beginning. (Deep breaths.) This book has received SUCH enthusiasm – not least from a good friend of mine – as well as critical acclaim, that I worry at my hesitations. But I own them.

Let’s begin at the beginning.

When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with.

Not much there; but let me say it was the second paragraph where I was first annoyed. So I called Liz and I said, Liz – how much time should I invest in this book that you loved and that I am thoroughly exasperated by? (This was 36 minutes in, via audiobook.) And she said, for stories with unreliable narrators I think you should hang in longer than average. Okay. I’m trying.

Maximum Shelf: The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

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 January 15, 2014.

weight of blood

“That Cheri Stoddard was found at all was the thing that set people on edge, even more so than the condition of her body.” So opens Laura McHugh’s delightfully and darkly disturbing debut novel, The Weight of Blood. The town of Henbane is agitated because it is so good at keepings its secrets–and bodies are so easy to hide in the twisted, wooded Ozark Mountains.

The story begins with the first-person perspective of 18-year-old Lucy Dane. Lucy has it pretty good: she has a reliable best friend, a loving relationship with her father, and neighbors who make up an extended family of sorts. And she’s just begun working in her uncle’s store, where she gets to rub elbows with the sexy Daniel. But Lucy is troubled by the disappearance of her sort-of friend Cheri, a developmentally disabled schoolmate whose freshly dead body was only recently discovered–a year after she went missing. She’s also still troubled by the unexplained disappearance of her mother, Lila, who walked out of the house carrying a handgun and nothing else when Lucy was a year old.

The perspective then shifts to that of Lila herself as a young woman, newcomer to the Danes’ hometown of Henbane. Henbane is almost a character unto itself, insular, suspicious and largely unmarked by passing time. For a fee, residents can avoid a “city burial” (embalmment and the involvement of the authorities) in favor of a private grave-digging service. And the local lawyer will advise you not to trust local police until you find out who’s related to whom. It is anything but a friendly destination for a damaged teenager like Lila, who immediately runs up against the Dane brothers: the older Crete, who runs several businesses including a farm and a store, and his little brother, Carl, who becomes her husband before she turns 19. Superstitions have her labeled a witch before she’s unpacked her few belongings.

Through Lila’s eyes, the reader will find out slightly more about her background than Lucy knows, but Lila works hard to remain a mystery to both the reader and Henbane locals, including Carl. The perspectives continue to alternate. While Lucy keeps the reader up to date on current goings-on, it is through Lila that we begin to learn the ugly secrets that Henbane keeps. Other characters, too, get occasional chapters told from their point of view (in omniscient third person; only Lila and Lucy get first-person treatment), and one of the strengths of The Weight of Blood is that its engaging, complex, fully wrought characters extend beyond its protagonists. Lucy’s best friend, Bess, and Bess’s mother, Gabby (who was, in turn, best friend to Lila); Carl and Crete; the love interest, Daniel; a surrogate grandmother; and a local drug dealer all get sensitive handling and character development. But it is the measured building of tension and the careful doling out of hints of evil that star, as Lucy’s coming-of-age experience brings the classic bildungsroman to meet the gritty thriller.

While helping Daniel clean out an old trailer belonging to her uncle, Lucy discovers a clue: a lost item that she knows used to belong to Cheri, because Lucy gave it to her. Next, Bess overhears a reference that she shouldn’t have. With Daniel’s cautious support, Lucy begins to look into Cheri’s death, and the matter of where she spent that unaccounted-for year. But, of course, in a town this small, where everyone recognizes headlights and knows where a particular truck might be heading, investigations are dangerous. Like her mother before her, Lucy is told outright that it would be risky to go to the police for help. And as she probes the question of Cheri’s fate, and finds it apparently linked to her mother’s, Lucy will be disturbed at how close her inquiries lead her to home.

Carl and Crete, the Dane brothers, are heir not only to the off-the-books grave-digging business, the combined local grocery store and restaurant, and various secrets, but also to mental illness and corruption. As its title suggests, The Weight of Blood is concerned with the strength of our bonds to our family, and the tension between biological ties of blood and the families we choose for ourselves. In a remarkably convincing portrayal of young adulthood, Lucy allows McHugh to explore themes of loyalty: where it’s owed, and to what extremes.

The atmosphere McHugh evokes in this masterful debut is wonderfully spooky, exemplifying Southern noir with a backwoods mountain twist and a matter-of-fact willingness to bury its dead out back and walk away. Taut pacing, lively suspense and atmosphere are the strongest points of a novel that also has an engaging plot and beautifully built, sympathetic characters to its credit. For fans of dark, suspenseful, well-structured thrillers, The Weight of Blood is a delicious and nail-biting treat.

Rating: 7 baby possums.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with McHugh!

The Murder Code by Steve Mosby

A series of murders force a seasoned detective to reexamine his understanding of evil.

murder code

The Murder Code, British author Steve Mosby’s American debut, opens with the brutal but seemingly straightforward bludgeoning of a young woman on her way home from work. Detective Andrew Hicks immediately looks to her abusive ex, because he knows all murders are committed for reasons–bad reasons maybe, but reasons that make sense at the time to the killer. But when the bodies start piling up–clearly the work of the same hand or, more precisely, the same hammer–Hicks is forced to reconsider his theory. And when he receives a letter from the murderer, Hicks must confront everything he’s understood for years about the reasons people kill each other.

Story lines overlap and tangle tantalizingly in Mosby’s capable hands. The reader glimpses teasing flashes of various characters and their backgrounds before returning to Hicks’s increasingly troubled life. His pregnant wife knows there’s something Hicks isn’t telling her, but doesn’t know what, any more than the reader does. Something disturbing in his past threatens to resurface.

While other sympathetic characters are briefly sketched, Hicks is very much at the heart of this psychological thriller. Mosby expertly spools out and retracts details, keeping the reader breathless with anticipation as the body count rises and Hicks asks himself questions he thought he’d answered long ago. The Murder Code offers not only a surface-level mystery to be solved, but the deeper mystery of how the pieces fit together–and the central question of whether innate evil is real.

This review originally ran in the December 27, 2013 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 data points.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Murder Code by Steve Mosby

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

murder code

I wanted to share these few lines with you because they made me pause and wonder. The Murder Code is a thriller, and on the bloody side at that; but a line here and there hints at humanity, even romance.

Occasionally, it drives him to distraction, bu he also knows it is one of the things he would miss most about her if she was gone: that ultimately we love the rough edges of people more than the smooth surfaces.

And on the next page:

In such ways, he realises, do relationships grow over time. We begin by looking for perfection; we end up by loving flaws.

I found it remarkable that this author of hard-boiled gore also handles love so deftly. I’ve seen it done far less eloquently and realistically in this genre. And I had to stop and consider the truth of the statements.

Well done, Mosby. Stay tuned for my full review to come.

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

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell (audio)

typistThis book reminds me very much of Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, with similarities extending to the audio narration, as well. And considering how much I loved that book, and narration, this is a high compliment. They share a setting in New York City early in the 20th century (in this case, Prohibition era), a concentration on class differences, a slinky sensual tone, and an appreciation for the finer things in life. The final shared characteristic is a major plot twist late in the book, here subtly foreshadowed from early on. And that is where I struggle a little with this review: I don’t want to spoil the surprise for you, because it makes the book. Read on safely; I’ll be careful.

Meet Rose Baker, our narrator. She was raised in a Catholic orphanage and now works as a typist in a precinct office of the New York Police Department. The book opens with a discussion of the controversy surrounding young women working as typists at all, let alone in the “rough” environs Rose inhabits: she frequently witnesses and transcribes the confessions of murderers and rapists (gasp). That opening passage helps establish the setting, along with a following reference to the Volstead Act (which prohibited alcohol in the United States).

And now, meet Odalie Lazare, the “other typist.” There were already two typists besides Rose at the precinct, but Odalie is a different sort. Glamorous, seductive, and strangely well-off for someone who would work as a police department typist, Rose is bewitched from the first. The two become “bosom friends,” and Rose becomes… devoted? obsessed? It all depends upon your definitions, of course.

Suzanne Rindell’s construction and development of Rose Baker as an unreliable narrator is delicious. We know Rose for a great many pages as a sober, morally upright young lady and professional; she describes Odalie’s entrance into her life with a sense of foreboding, but with no clue as to what has happened between them. And then there is the first, very brief, reference to Rose’s doctor. Later, there is another flashing reference to the “incident.” Thus, our sober and reliable narrator is undermined, but just so swiftly and for just a moment – did we even see it at all? And I’m left, as the reader, wondering about this incident and why Rose needs a doctor; and then I’m back in Rose’s story, seeing her as the responsible character again. It is a masterful building of tension and questions; I ate it up.

One of the many strengths of this story is in its strong sense of time and place. Prohibition New York is colorful; one can hear and smell and taste its flavors. I will have to leave it to another, older reader to speak to its authenticity, but I am certainly convinced. The writing style, and Gretchen Mol’s reading style, contribute to the feel of an earlier time; sentences are a little long and formal, in a way that just creates more atmosphere.

Rindell’s fine sense of pacing, the doling out of detail and prolepsis, is adept. It is not everyday that I am this drawn in and enchanted by a story; I couldn’t wait to hear what would happen next; I was guessing and second-guessing. As a thriller, The Other Typist evoked some of Tana French’s best work (as here).

Although I was captivated by the swirling mists of speakeasies and Odalie’s wily ways as the femme fatale, I think my favorite part of this experience was the buildup to the big reveal, and the mystery left therein. The Other Typist was a pleasurable rush and romp, and has left me wanting more of Suzanne Rindell’s magic. Reader Gretchen Mol was perfect and not to be missed: do find this one on audio if you can.

Rating: 8 champagne cocktails.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I heard about this short story through the National Library of Medicine’s Traveling Exhibition Program (we will be hosting several exhibitions at the hospital library where I work). I hadn’t heard of it before, although clearly I should have! If you want to read it, too – and I recommend it – I found my copy online here.

It is a very quick read at 9 pages, during which our narrator keeps a secret diary. She suffers from nervous depression, or neurasthenia, or the usual woman-sickness as diagnosed in the 1890’s when this story was written; and her physician husband has prescribed bed rest. So she’s shut up in the top floor of a decaying old mansion, in what used to be a children’s nursery (she thinks) because it has bars on the windows; and it has terribly ugly yellow wallpaper. Now, she’s forbidden even the exertion of writing, but because she disobeys, we get to follow her descent into madness, by way of that wallpaper.

It is a chilling story, and let me tell you that I read it while camping alone in a remote valley in Colorado, in a tent with a yellow rain fly on it (in the rain) – but never fear, I’ve made it back with all the marbles I began with, I’m reasonably sure. No one has tried to make me stay in bed yet, at any rate.

It turns out that this is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s own story, to some extent: she was diagnosed similarly and given a similar “treatment”, but feeling herself slide downhill, disobeyed doctor’s orders, shook herself off, and got to work – writing, and living her own life. This turned out to be the healthier option for her, and it seems she lived a reasonably happy life thereafter. My copy (link above) came with a less-than-one-page piece called “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper,” in which she states that “it was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy.”

I learned more by going back to the NLM’s exhibition entitled The Literature of Prescription: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and “The Yellow Wall-Paper”, which I recommend and which also won’t take you but a few minutes.

Finally, I couldn’t resist sharing with you this related piece of art that I found while trolling the interwebs…

Lovely work, and of the images I found online that try to illustrate this story, it was my favorite.

Not only is the plot chilling, and the purpose behind the story important and sympathetic, but it is a well-crafted story too. I enjoyed it very much and am moved by the story behind the story. I’m lucky people like Charlotte Perkins Gilman were speaking up over 100 years ago, or I would never have been allowed to go camping alone in a valley in Colorado, yellow rain fly or no.

Rating: 9 disruptions of the pattern.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Koren Zailckas

This interview was published by Shelf Awareness here in an abridged format due to space constraints. This is the full interview.

Following Monday’s review of Mother, Mother, then, here’s the lovely Koren Zailckas!

Koren Zailckas: On Mothers

Koren Zailckas is the author of two memoirs, Smashed and Fury, and lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with her husband and three children. Mother, Mother is her first novel. She recently tweeted: “33 with 3 books and 3 kids. #birthdaysymmetry.”

Where did you get the idea for this distressing mother figure?

korenI really wanted to challenge the cultural assumption that all mothers are inherently selfless. We’re living in an era of baby-bump obsession, in a don’t-speak-badly-of-your-momma culture. Read an Angelina Jolie profile or watch TLC and you’d think women enter delivery rooms as laboring heffalumps and exit as Battista Salvi’s Madonna and Child. But the word “mother” isn’t synonymous with Mother Theresa, and having a child doesn’t make a woman a mom any more than owning a paintbrush makes her Frida Kahlo.

This idea that all mothers are naturally patient, forgiving and self-sacrificing isn’t just sappy-sweet, it’s callous. It’s dangerous. It discounts experiences by those of us who were raised by women whose genetics and early life traumas permanently altered their brains and made them incapable of empathy.

Here’s the sick truth: Some mothers aren’t naturals. I’d always suspected that as a kid, but I learned it for certain when I moved from Brooklyn to the Catskills. Last lambing season, I was in a New Paltz knitting supply shop, surrounded by beautiful, hand-dyed yarn, when the farmer clomped inside in rubber overalls and announced her sad morning. “The ewes gave birth last night,” she said, darkly. “And two of them just weren’t naturals. They left their newborns to freeze to death on the side of the barn.” Some mothers, no matter how well intentioned, just can’t see their kids as anything other than tools, hindrances or extensions of themselves. Other mothers can’t consider their children at all.

Mother, Mother’s Josephine Hurst isn’t just a critical or controlling mom. She’s a narcissistic mother, and she’s in good company. Loads of women–one out of ten Americans, according to new studies–have Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which many shrinks consider untreatable. Medication rarely helps. Therapy doesn’t do much either.

I hope Josephine will give shivers of recognition to anyone out who grew up with a narcissistic mother. I hope those readers will recognize her neediness, her manipulative nature, her grandiose sense of self-importance, her tendency to play favorites between her children and pit her family against one another, and I hope they seek some small comfort in it. Maybe that sounds crazy, but I really mean it. I hope Josephine puts a name–NPD–to longstanding patterns of maternal chaos. I hope some readers have a light-bulb “this is a syndrome!” moment. (You see: also in the narcissistic mother’s repertoire is “gaslighting.” They’re great at making their victims doubt themselves and question what’s real.)

As for those lucky folks who grew up with the mother of Mother’s Day Cards, I hope Mother, Mother gives them at least a glimmer of the fear that resides in the hearts of kids like Will Hurst. As humans, we are born utterly helpless–dependent on our mothers much longer than any other species on Earth. If mothers are our first teachers, then having a narcissistic mother teaches you that the world is a fucking terrifying place, where the rules change constantly and punishment is the only constant.

You wrote two memoirs before this novel. Was this your first try at fiction?

Yep, this was my first attempt at fiction. Mother, Mother brought me back to Smashed in that way. Smashed was my first prose. Before that, I’d only poetry and interoffice memos.

And how was it different?

mother motherFiction required a lot more restraint than memoir. By design, memoir is an exercise in over-sharing. You’re giving the reader way too much information to begin with, confiding things you wouldn’t tell to just the casual stranger while you’re waiting side-by-side for a bus: “Warm today, isn’t it?… Let me tell you about that time I staggered, drunk, lost and naked down the halls of a fraternity.” You wouldn’t do that. No emotionally healthy person would do that.

I think I gravitated to memoir because I had my fair share of damage. I grew up in a family a lot like the Hursts, where you weren’t allowed to express emotion, speak openly, talk about why your mom is a radically different person in public, talk about why Dad lives in another state for weeks and months at a time. You bottle all that stuff up over a long period of time and it eventually just explodes all over some poor, unsuspecting victim, no matter who they are, no matter how briefly you’ve happened to know them. I think, to begin with, I wrote Smashed and Fury because I was suffering from what Zbignew Herbert called “suffocation from formlessness.” I was smothering under the weight of all the memories I hadn’t put into words. When I was finally ready to name those experiences (addiction, anger over ongoing family dysfunction) the stories came out, fast, in reams.

In my memoirs, I’ve always tried to best to be as self-aware as I can. To own my shadows. To be ten-times harder on myself than I am on anyone else in the story. But no matter how you slice it, it’s still exhibitionistic. It’s still a bit like being a trench-coat flasher: “Here I am, all at once! Here are my stories! I know they’re flabby in some parts, but I can’t change them–they’re real!”

Maybe the cheap analogy would be: fiction feels like a strip tease. But it’s more than that. Fiction feels like real intimacy. Especially when it comes to psychological thrillers, suspense stuff. You reveal things slowly to the reader, over the course of your time together. Not every character has to be hyper self-aware all the time, owning every character flaw, aware of their deeper motivations. You can gently fold in a hint, here and there. Teaspoon of backstory. Foreshadowing, to taste.

I still find that really difficult from time to time. My husband’s pet name for me is “Spoiler Alert.” He always tells me I say way too much when I’m making movie or book recommendations. My brother-in-law will never forgive me for ruining the grand finale of The Sopranos for him.

I might well have told you how the Hursts end up in Mother, Mother’s first chapter were it not for my long-suffering editor. She probably has carpal tunnel from all the times she went back to the manuscript to slash out obvious clues.

Did you do research into Asperger’s syndrome in order to get it exactly as right as you got it? Did any other aspects of this novel require research?

I did a little bit of research. But mostly, I manifested Will’s Aspergers in a way I could relate to.

Will’s intense focus, his “Aspie interest,” is language. He’s like a collector of rare and precious objects, and in this case, those objects are unusual and arcane words. Autotonsorialist: one who cuts their own hair. Misodoctakleidist: someone who hates practicing piano. Awkwardness ensues whenever Will uses them in spoken conversation, but he just can’t help himself. He’s addicted.

Over the course of Mother, Mother, I think Will’s relationship to language changes. Words stop being a mode of connection. Instead, they become more like trophies, accolades. He trots them out to impress, intimidate or prove his worth. It’s a really narcissistic use of language. It worsens Will’s social functioning, heightens his loneliness and drives him deeper inside himself.

Aspergers? Maybe. The side effect of a dysfunctional family? Possibly. Or maybe, for Will, it really is a burgeoning writer thing. As a writer, you spend so much time alone, trying to think of funny and fresh ways to describe every day things. Then, when it’s time to go out into public, you forget that you don’t have to agonize over word choices. When you’re chatting about weather with your neighbors at the farm stand, you can just say, “It’s pouring.” People look at you funny when you go all Du Maurier and say, “Can you believe this lashing, pitiless rain?”

Two of your main characters share similar experiences but head in very different directions towards the end. Did they always go that way, or did you have to go along for the ride to learn the fates of your characters?

I think I knew from the first word that Violet and Will had very divergent ideas about their family. Any therapist will tell you, siblings can be raised by the exact same people and still have totally different mothers and fathers.

This is especially true in narcissistic families, where the narcissist picks one kid to be the golden child (the person who earns added prestige for the narcissist) and another to be the scapegoat (the person the narcissist projects her own negative self-image onto).

In the Hurst’s case, I think Will is quite genuine in his confusion over his sister. He doesn’t have any clue why Violet’s so angry. Her drug use, her rebelliousness… It seems really irrational to him, especially with his mother right there in his ear, telling him, “Your sister’s crazy.”

And for her part, Violet doesn’t understand why Will is so fearful and reserved. He seems to have his mother’s unconditional approval. Josephine’s love seems to come so naturally to him.

With that dynamic in place, I think I did go along for the ride. When I began, I didn’t quite know what would happen to Will or Violet.

Will, in particular, shocked the hell out of me. It was kind of thrilling to watch him unfold. Especially because he’s at this very pivotal year. He’s twelve when the book begins and really on the brink of adolescence. A transformation happens. One I never saw coming.

Transformations fascinate me, especially where psychology is concerned. That’s what everyone who’s hooked on psychology wants to know: How does change occur? How do good people turn evil? Or, how do kids grow up?

Can you tell me how there came to be humor in such a very dark book? How would you characterize your style of humor?

I suppose I’ve always had a touch of gallows humor. That self-lacerating, inverted kind. Also, a bit of that bone-dry, stuff-your-feelings, British humor too. (Maybe that’s why I married an Englishman.) Also factor in a little bit of defeatist attitude. I’ve always related to that George Bernard Shaw quote: “If you can’t get rid of the family skeleton, you might as well make it dance.”

I’m glad you think this book is funny. I think it’s really important for dark, scary books to be funny. Every few pages, I really wanted there to be at least a restorative chuckle, something to lighten the mood from jet-black to slate.

I think the biggest laughs in life are usually tinged with relief. They’re a kind of collective, hissing sigh: “Wheew, look at us, joking about this really delicate, uncomfortable, offensive topic! We’re really skating on thin ice here, aren’t we? But it’s fun! Hold my hand. Did that sound like a crack?”

Some of the creepiest ladies in the history of literature are also the funniest. Shirley Jackson is fucking hilarious. I wish she were still around today, if not only so her mommy-memoirs could be optioned for a self-starring reality show. Take Life Among the Savages… Beginning each morning with the very real fear that you will slip on a Matchbox car or doll’s broken arm and break your neck on the stairs is morbidly priceless.

In my experience, once you become a mother everything is doubly terrifying and laughable. It only seems natural to mix the two together. (Although, that could just be the sleep deprivation talking.)

The dual first-person perspectives are very unsettling (in a good way). How did you choose that format?

I think sheer panic drove me to tell the story from two perspectives. When I first started thinking about fiction, many years ago, I told Crown’s Molly Stern, “I’m going to write a first-person, one-perspective novel.” Just like that. All fresh-faced bravado. Molly wasn’t discouraging, but she reminded me just how tricky that is. It’s hard to keep the plot constantly pounding when you have just one protagonist.

Initially, with Mother, Mother, I thought (quite cowardly) that I’d hedge my bets between Will and Violet. I thought: double the characters, double the action. Never a dull moment. From there, it became a much more strategic, much more about how “family,” as a concept, is a bit like “car crash.” Everyone experiences it from a different perspective. So why not let the reader get two points of view on the Hursts?

Since you came from writing memoirs, I wonder how present you are in Mother, Mother. Did you have to fight putting yourself in this book, or was it a relief?

I think there are snippets of myself and my childhood all over this book. That said, the Hursts are a prime example of writing what you know, then taking it to a level that is psycho-extreme.

For instance, I always felt like my mom was a little possessive of me when I was a kid, and I tried to go to friend’s houses as opposed to bringing them home to mine, where my mom talked down to them and slated them behind their backs. I was in my thirties when I got a Facebook message from a woman I used to play with when I was seven. “I was sooo afraid of your mom!” She wrote. “She used to call us brats and hooligans. We were only allowed one juice box no matter how thirsty we were!” I think I sort of exorcised some of that in Mother, Mother, and took it to a scarier extreme. I mean, Josephine homeschools Will because she’s so keen to have him to herself.

I’ve been reading Eric Booth’s The Everyday Work of Art, and he has a great line about how the word “art” in its infancy was a word that meant “to put things together.” And the process of writing Mother, Mother really felt like that. Marrying personal experience to the psychological profile of narcissistic mothers. Piecing together recurring nightmares with irrational fears, Frankenstein-ing in ordinary scenes from a modern, American, family life.

You know, it was a relief. I feel like doctors should prescribe thriller-writing to anyone with anxiety or PTSD. You get to be in charge of your fear. And of course, you get to change the outcome. In real-life dysfunctional families, roles shift, but there’s not much change.

What have you read and loved lately?

This is really the golden age of women’s psychological fiction, and for the past few years I’ve been gobbling up everything by Tana French, Gillian Flynn, Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott, Kelly Braffet. It’s just too exciting to look away.

That said, I have three children under four, so I’ve also have Mo Willems on heavy rotation. That’s my life at the moment: Murder and The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog.

Don’t you just love how very funny she is? Thanks, Koren, for taking the time to share so much with us. I certainly enjoyed it!

This interview originally ran on June 26, 2013 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf: Mother, Mother by Koren Zailckas

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 June 26, 2013.

mother mother
Mother, Mother opens on a quiet Saturday morning in a small town north of New York City. A young boy wakes up with his mother standing over him, waiting to start their day. He is a little odd–we soon learn he’s been recently diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and epilepsy–and his mother seems to be wound a little tight, but she’s also concerned and loving. Next, the perspective shifts to that of his older sister, a rebellious teen who has just been placed in a local mental hospital. The father is cheating. The eldest daughter ran away with a boyfriend several years ago.

These are the perceptions presented in the first few pages of Koren Zailckas’s startling debut novel. Do you believe everything you’ve just read?

As the story of the Hurst family unfolds, the reader will learn to question every “fact” exhibited. The youngest child, Will, and the middle daughter, Violet, continue to trade off the first-person relating of their family drama. One is on the autism spectrum and the other is drug-addled; thus the reader has to parse not one unreliable narrator but two. Will both loves his mother and fears her, and is constantly struggling to determine what exactly it is she wants so that he can please her. He is home-schooled, because of the Asperger’s: Is this the cause or the effect of their unusually close relationship? Josephine, the titular mother, starts off coldly Stepford-like and quickly takes a turn toward chilling. Violet, who has been observing Sallekhana (a form of Jainist ritual starvation), recently took psychedelic morning glory seeds and came home to her family out of her mind, hallucinating and violent. Now Josephine is adamantly opposed to Violet coming home from the hospital, ostensibly because of the threat she poses to her little brother. The absent eldest daughter, Rose, remains ghostlike and disembodied for most of the book. Her past is enigmatic and her current location unknown–but unexpectedly, she writes to Violet in the hospital, after years of silence. And while their father, Douglas, is physically present, he has problems of his own that make him self-centered and ineffectual.

Much of Mother, Mother‘s mystery revolves around the night when Violet, in a haze induced by near starvation coupled with the psychedelic seeds, brandished a knife at her family, harming Will. A drunken Douglas drove her to the psych ward. But as it turns out, neither Will nor Violet has a clear memory of what happened on that night. Then Child Protective Services enters the scene, in the form of a case worker surprisingly sympathetic to Violet. This engages Josephine’s protective instincts, and the reader must struggle alongside CPS to discern the truth about where–or from whom–Will suffered his injuries. From the start, the reader is kept off-balance by Will and Violet’s constantly shifting, conflicting, inconsistent narratives. Josephine’s contributions, which come in dialogue form through Will or Violet’s observations, only serve to muddy the waters. From the start, the reader senses that something is amiss, but will have to puzzle for a time over which of these troubled characters to trust.

As the action unfolds, Violet remains institutionalized, but the details of the night in question begin to reveal themselves. Will and Violet both begin to regain their memories, but they continue to interpret those recollections in very different ways. Even as the source of the true evil begins to become clear, the reader is kept guessing as to everyone’s final fates until the closing pages, and the surprises keep coming until the very end.

Koren Zailckas is the bestselling author of two memoirs, Smashed and Fury. Her first attempt at fiction will not disappoint her fans, as she continues to exhibit a nuanced understanding of psychological drama, combined with a wry tone that brings surprising humor to such an unnerving story. Zailckas reveals and conceals fact and rumor in this complex tale with deliciously deceitful cleverness: readers should beware the seemingly straightforward narrative as told by Will and Violet. Take, for example, Will’s placement on the autistic spectrum. In some ways, it is very apt: his obsession with obscure, little-known vocabulary words will of course charm the booklover; but on the other hand, he is awfully good at reading emotions.

Mother, Mother is unsettling, even frightening, and perhaps what makes its atmosphere so successfully compelling is that it is so very domestic and ordinary. The Hursts not only appear outwardly normal, they may be our role models–the perfect family next door. What Zailckas has accomplished is most disturbing because it is so close to home.

Rating: 7 not-so-loving looks.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Zailckas!

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