Book Review: SHIRLEY: A NOVEL by Susan Scarf Merrell

Shirley
Publisher: Blue Rider Press
Released: June 12, 2014
Source: Review copy from the publisher
Rating: ★★¾


Two imposing literary figures are at the center of this captivating novel: the celebrated Shirley Jackson, best known for her short story “The Lottery,” and her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, a literary critic and professor at Bennington College. When a young graduate student and his pregnant wife – Fred and Rose Nemser – move into Shirley and Stanley’s home in the fall of 1964, they are quickly cast under the magnetic spell of their brilliant and proudly unconventional hosts.

While Fred becomes preoccupied with his teaching schedule, Rose forms an unlikely, turbulent friendship with the troubled and unpredictable Shirley. Fascinated by the Hymans’ volatile marriage and inexplicably drawn to the darkly enigmatic author, Rose nonetheless senses something amiss – something to do with nightly unanswered phone calls and inscrutable accounts of a long-missing female student. Chillingly atmospheric and evocative of Jackson’s own classic stories, Shirley is an elegant thriller with one of America’s greatest horror writers at its heart.


SHIRLEY was a strange novel, probably because it wasn’t what I was expecting. Billed as a psychological thriller, this book ended up being more of a fictionalized biography of author Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House) told from the point of view of Rose Nemser. Young Rose and Fred Nemser are the house guests of Shirley and her husband Prof. Stanley Hymam beginning in the fall of 1964. Fred works for Stanley at Bennington College in Vermont, while Rose spends time with Shirley in the Hymans’ weird and wonderful home.

Rose is a naive 19-year old who quickly falls under Shirley’s spell. Rose becomes a part of the Hymans’ literary circle, though she struggles to fit in. As the months pass, the women form a close friendship, and Rose learns that all is not as it seems with Shirley and Stanley. The disappearance of a coed several years earlier makes Rose suspicious of her hosts, even though they claim not to have known her.

This book presented a compelling look at Shirley Jackson’s troubled personal life and how she was treated by townspeople and the literary world at the time. The part that fell flat for me was the mystery surrounding the missing student. Unfortunately, it didn’t amount to much. There was no jaw-dropping revelation that brought all the pieces together. The ending left me feeling ambivalent. I also thought that some scenes dragged on too long or were confusing, and I would lose interest. Though this book didn’t grab me, it did pique my interest in Shirley Jackson’s work.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Audiobook Review: BELLMAN AND BLACK by Diane Setterfield

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Format: Audio; 9 hrs, 40 mins
Narrator: Jack Davenport
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
Released: November 5, 2013
Source: Review copy from the Publisher

One moment in time can haunt you forever.

Caught up in a moment of boyhood competition, William Bellman recklessly aims his slingshot at a rook resting on a branch, killing the bird instantly. It is a small but cruel act, and is soon forgotten. By the time he is grown, with a wife and children of his own, William seems to have put the whole incident behind him. It was as if he never killed the thing at all. But rooks don’t forget . . .

Years later, when a stranger mysteriously enters William’s life, his fortunes begin to turn—and the terrible and unforeseen consequences of his past indiscretion take root. In a desperate bid to save the only precious thing he has left, he enters into a rather strange bargain, with an even stranger partner. Together, they found a decidedly macabre business.

And Bellman & Black is born.

———

BELLMAN & BLACK was a curious book, and not at all what I was expecting. It was a haunting tale, but not scary, and not a ghost story in the traditional sense.

This book follows the life of William Bellman, beginning when he kills a rook with his slingshot as a child. Even though he blocks out the memory of that day in his mind, his killing of the bird follows him throughout his life and shapes who he becomes, yet he doesn’t realize it. The book is packed with minute details of Bellman’s life as a successful businessman, and the plot dragged from time to time. What kept me going was the mystery surrounding “Black,” a stranger who continually pops up at the funerals of Bellman’s friends and family.

I thought the author missed a great opportunity with Bellman’s daughter Dora to create a strong female character in the book. I was so intrigued by Dora and her situation that I wished she had a bigger presence. Though, after reading the ending, I can understand why Bellman took center stage.

What did I like? BELLMAN & BLACK contained stunning Gothic imagery. Black. Rook. Cold. Death. Funeral. Mourning. Dark. (This was not a happy tale!) The author’s vivid descriptions of rooks were amazing.

While I enjoyed the first part of the book, in the end I felt like I missed the point. The story was weak, and it lacked the spookiness and suspense that I anticipated. I did enjoy the gorgeous imagery and prose.

I listened to the audiobook performed by Jack Davenport. The narration was well done, and I enjoyed the voices of the secondary characters as well as Bellman.

Rating: 2.75 Stars

Disclosure: I received a copy of this audiobook from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: THE BUTTERFLY SISTER by Amy Gail Hansen

butterflysister
Publisher: William Morrow
Released: August 6, 2013
Source: Borrowed from the Library

Eight months after dropping out of Tarble, an all-women’s college, twenty-two-year-old Ruby Rousseau is still haunted by the memories of her senior year-a year marred by an affair with her English professor and a deep depression that not only caused her to question her own sanity but prompted a failed suicide attempt.

And then a mysterious paisley print suitcase arrives, bearing Ruby’s name and address on the tag. When Ruby tries to return the luggage to its rightful owner, Beth Richards, her dorm mate at Tarble, she learns that Beth disappeared two days earlier, and the suitcase is the only tangible evidence as to her whereabouts.

Consumed by the mystery of the missing girl and the contents of the luggage-a tattered copy of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, the book on which Ruby based her senior thesis, and which she believes instigated her madness-she sets out to uncover the truth, not only about Beth Richards’s past but also her own. In doing so, Ruby is forced to reexamine the people from her past: the professor who whisked her away to New Orleans and then shattered her heart and the ghosts of dead women writers who beckoned her to join their illustrious group. And when Ruby’s storyline converges with Beth’s in a way she never imagined, she returns to the one place she swore she never would: her alma mater.

———

THE BUTTERFLY SISTER had a strong beginning, but somewhere around the half-way point, the story derailed and had trouble recovering. The book presents an intriguing mystery. The suitcase of a missing woman is delivered to Ruby Rousseau, and it turns out the two lived in the same dorm at Tarble College. Ruby is still shattered by the fact that an affair with her married English professor ended badly, with Ruby being dumped and then trying to kill herself. In the suitcase, Ruby finds clues to what may have happened to the missing woman, and she’s compelled to return to Tarble and face her demons.

I enjoyed the first half of the book as the story alternated between present day and a year ago during her affair with Mark, her English professor. Mark was the charming, smart, and handsome older man, and young, naive Ruby fell for him hard, even though he was married. I think part of it was Ruby trying to fill a void in her life, though it was still a dumb move. During a romantic getaway to New Orleans, some strange things start happening to Ruby, like seeing the ghosts of dead writers following her. The Gothic elements were nice and creepy, and I only wish they had been a bigger part of the story. In present day, Ruby is searching for the link between what happened to her and Beth Richard’s disappearance.

The second half of the book didn’t live up to the first. Some of what happened was downright unbelievable, like the reason behind Beth’s disappearance and how it happened. I also thought it was unlikely that a college professor could get away with such unethical conduct with students as long as Mark did. I wasn’t happy that the women characters were so unstable and for the most part, unlikable. THE BUTTERFLY SISTER had its memorable moments and surprising twists, though overall it was just an okay read.

Rating: 2¾ Stars

Book Review: SKELETON LETTERS by Laura Childs

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Series: A Scrapbooking Mystery, #9
Publisher: Berkley
Released: October 4, 2011
Source: Review copy from publisher

New York Times bestselling author Laura Childs sends her scrappy sleuths into New Orleans’ French Quarter.

Is nothing sacred? The last thing Carmela Bertrand and her friend Ava expected to bear witness to in St. Tristan’s Church was a crime. But now a beloved member of their scrapbooking circle lies lifeless next to a smashed statue of St. Sebastien-and a mysterious hooded figure has absconded with an antique crucifix.

As Carmela and Ava are drawn deeper into New Orleans’ French Quarter in search of the missing crucifix, they may need the help of more than a few patron saints. Because this is one killer they don’t want to cross…

———

SKELETON LETTERS is the ninth book in Laura Childs’ A Scrapbooking Mystery series. The book started out strong by setting up an intriguing mystery. Carmela Bertrand, the owner of a scrapbooking shop, and her best friend Ava witness the murder of their friend Bryle by someone hidden under a monk’s robe inside St. Tristan’s Church. The murderer also stole a priceless religious artifact uncovered in an archeological dig on church grounds. Because Bryle was their friend, Carmela and Ava start doing some digging of their own to uncover the guilty party.

After reading the first couple of chapters, I had very high hopes for the story, but in the end it was just okay. There were some parts of this book that worked for me, and others that didn’t. The characters were fun, and I loved the friendship between Carmela and Ava. I have not read the previous books, but right away I felt like I was up to speed on the whos and whats of the series. I adore books set in New Orleans, and the author did a great job bringing the city to life. I especially loved hearing about the New Orleans cuisine!

As far as drawbacks go, there were a couple of things that I struggled with. I thought the pacing of the story was slow at times. Part of the reason was that there were scenes that veered off from the murder mystery, like calligraphy classes, event planning, etc. I love the interesting and sometimes quirky occupations in cozy mysteries, but I want the story to stay focused on the mystery. I don’t want to give away spoilers, so I’ll just say that I thought the ending was strange, as in who the murderer was and why. It left me scratching my head!

I’d say SKELETON LETTERS was a 2.75 out of 5 star read for me. I think those who have read the previous books in the series or are hardcore scrapbookers may appreciate it more than I did. I would like to know the history between Carmela and her ex-husband Shamus, so I plan to check out the earlier books. The first three books are available in one volume under the title DEATH BY DESIGN.

Rating: 2¾ Stars

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.