Have You Heard

Post date: Wednesday, April 1, 2015 - 12:49am

Have You Heard About... The Dinner

… the civilized dinner between two families that slowly dissolves into violence and savagery? The Dinner by Herman Koch has received a good mix of positive and negative reviews and was named one of the Best Books of 2013, so of course I had to give it a try.

The first third of the book feels like a work of “slice of life” literary fiction, which I generally avoid. We know at the beginning that the characters are ultimately unlikeable, including the narrator who comes off as pompous, overbearing, and hypocritical. The story feels like it’s a satirical commentary on civilized society and privilege, played out in an elite restaurant between two brothers, who are dining together with their wives. But then we learn that two of the family’s teenage boys have committed a heinous act and slowly the layers of civility and privilege are excruciatingly peeled away. We start to understand what happened, what the implications are for each of the family members, and how far they will go to protect themselves and their sons’ futures.

This is a book built around discovery - slow, gradual reveals that paint a picture of a horribly dysfunctional family with a lot to lose. There aren’t any big plot twists, but in this case, it works. All of the reveals work together to draw the reader towards a horrible and inevitable conclusion. The facts are shocking, yet deep down, we feel like we “knew it all along.”

This novel is what you call a nasty piece of work – vicious, brutal, and chilling. It’s not a book meant for everyone, but if you enjoy dark, suspenseful fiction, give The Dinner a try. At the very least, it’ll give you a lot to think about after you finish.


Reviewed by Katie (staff)

Post date: Wednesday, March 25, 2015 - 12:04am

Have You Heard About... Catification

… the great things you can do to make your home better for your cat? Jackson Galaxy and Kate Benjamin got together to write Catification: Designing a Happy and Stylish Home for Your Cat (and You!) It starts with an introduction to the history and psychology of cats — what they need to be happy and why. The bulk of the book involves catification in action, with examples of how different people have modified their homes to be more cat friendly without sliding into “crazy cat person” territory.

Some of the catification examples come from the TV show My Cat from Hell, so they give good examples of how to avoid or solve serious problems. Many others were shared by viewers around the world, giving us a look at how real people have made their homes better for the cats they love. I’ll admit that when I first flipped through this book, I was mostly looking at the pretty pictures and dreaming of what I could do with tons of money, time, and/or carpentry skills (none of which I have). However, when I actually read through it, I discovered lots of great tips for simple projects and step-by-step instructions for more complex ones. Even a klutz like me can put a cushion or folded blanket in a large ceramic planter to make a cozy, attractive nest for my cat who likes to hide in plain sight!


Reviewed by Fran (staff)

Post date: Wednesday, March 18, 2015 - 12:37am

Have You Heard About... The Never List

… the woman who spent three years in the basement of an intelligent and ruthless psychopath? Thankfully, I’m talking about a fictional novel: The Never List by Koethi Zan. Sarah is a young woman in her early 30’s who spent three years in her abductor’s basement. Her best friend, Jennifer, was also captured and forced to live in the basement, but Jennifer never made it out. Sarah knows deep down that he murdered Jennifer, but no one has been able to prove it. Now, ten years later, Sarah’s captor is up for parole and she knows that in order to keep him behind bars, she needs to uncover his secret life and prove that he is a murderer in addition to a torturous psychopath.

Readers often talk about pacing when they describe the novels they’ve read: fast, leisurely, couldn’t put it down, etc. The Never List goes beyond that. It’s not action-packed or full of chase scenes, but the terror and revulsion that the story evokes is genuine. Sarah and Jennifer’s captor liked to academically study the effects of torture on the human body, both mentally and physically, so there’s a lot of stomach-churning content here. If it’s possible for a book to make you feel like you’ve just plummeted to the earth at 100 miles an hour, this is that book.

Readers have dubbed Koethi Zan as the next Gillian Flynn, and while I think it’s a bit too early to make those types of comparisons, this is a book that thrill-seeking readers do not want to miss. It’s truly unforgettable.


Reviewed by Katie (staff)

Post date: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 1:03am

Have You Heard About... Wickedly Dangerous

… Baba Yagas? They may have their roots in Russian folklore, but these witches are perfectly comfortable in the present-day United States. More than a name, “Baba Yaga” is now a title shared by several women around the world, including Barbara Yager, the heroine of Deborah Blake’s Wickedly Dangerous*. She may live in an Airstream RV rather than a hut with chicken legs, but she’s still a powerful magic user who doesn’t suffer fools lightly.

Ms Blake writes an excellent modern-day fantasy/romance/mystery blend. Both Barbara and her gentleman of interest have complex histories that make them (and their mistakes) believable. Their romance mixes well with the magical action and mystery as they have to work together to find out who has been kidnapping local children. The author even manages to work in some environmental activism without getting overwhelming. Everything ties up neatly at the end, with future books in the series focusing on Baba Yagas in other areas.

* The series continues with Wickedly Wonderful.


Reviewed by Fran (staff)

Post date: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 - 1:03am

Have You Heard About... The Snowman

… the serial killer who leaves behind snowmen as a calling card?

The mystery behind Jo Nesbo’s novel, The Snowman, is pretty standard: police investigator Harry Hole stumbles across a series of gruesome murders and disappearances. Two things stand out about these crimes: the women all disappeared on the first snowfall of the year, spanning multiple decades, and there was a snowman present at each of the crime scenes. (Seriously, I had no idea a snowman could be so creepy.)

Harry Hole is a very flawed protagonist with self-destructive tendencies and a stubborn streak a mile wide, but he also has a rugged independence and a strong sense of justice, which comes in handy when everyone else has written off the case. He’s not exactly a likeable character, but he’s certainly compelling, and I found myself rooting heartily for him by the end of the novel.

Pacing is steady, and there are a lot of red herrings throughout, which I liked because it kept me from guessing what was going to happen next. And by the time the real solution presented itself, I was turning pages so fast I thought sparks would fly out from under my fingers. The story just seemed to become even more compelling the farther in I got.

Like most Nordic fiction, The Snowman is dark, bleak, and atmospheric, and with some top-notch writing to boot. I’m not generally a fan of mystery series, and I’ve never considered myself a fan of Nordic fiction, but this is a series I definitely plan on following.


Reviewed by Katie (staff)

Post date: Wednesday, February 25, 2015 - 1:25am

Have You Heard About... Nocturne

… the creatures that roam the night? No, not supernatural horrors, Nocturne: Creatures of the Night features real nocturnal animals. Traer Scott has put together a beautiful book with photographs of mammals, birds, amphibians, insects, and more. The selection ranges all over the world, from animals that are familiar to us in the Midwestern US (like raccoons and opossums) to those we have probably only seen in zoos or books (like snow leopards and capybaras).

The animals are shown against completely black backgrounds, emphasizing their connection with the night and making them absolutely stunning. Each animal’s entry includes a paragraph about it — where it lives, whether it is endangered, and other interesting facts. A few of the animals are technically crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) rather than nocturnal, and some are becoming nocturnal due to pressures from humans, but that doesn’t detract from the theme of the book or its beauty. The introduction and appendixes include some additional information about how the artist got the photos and about the effects humans are having on nocturnal animals.


Reviewed by Fran (staff)

Post date: Wednesday, February 18, 2015 - 1:05am

Have You Heard About... Mother, Mother

… the mother who makes Norma Bates look like a kind and gentle soul? Koren Zailckas’ stunning psychological thriller, Mother, Mother, revolves around Josephine Hurst, mother to three children and wife to a brilliant tech guru. On the outside, the family looks perfect. But within a short amount of time, Josephine’s older daughter runs away, her younger daughter turns to drugs and is eventually committed to a psychiatric hospital, and her only son has recently been diagnosed with autism and epilepsy. Josephine does everything in her power to keep her family’s image intact, but a visit from Child Protective Services threatens Josephine and her family’s secrets.

Josephine is never presented as anything other than a manipulative, narcissistic sociopath, but somehow, I always found myself surprised at how cruelly Josephine would control the other members of her family. When her oldest daughter, Rose, becomes pregnant, Josephine is horrified and tells her daughter that she will ruin her image as well as the family’s image if she goes through with the pregnancy, essentially driving Rose towards an abortion that she doesn’t really want. But several weeks after the abortion– well, without going into too much detail, let’s just say that Rose understands that Josephine will never forgive her for becoming pregnant in the first place.

I picked up this book expecting an interesting psychological thriller, but what I got was a psychological thriller that knocked my figurative socks off. The poisonous motherly love depicted in Mother, Mother rivaled the twisted marriage in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, which a month ago I would have said was impossible. But I was staggered by the time I closed this book and my immediate impulse was to flip it over and read it all over again. I can offer no higher praise than that.


Reviewed by Katie (staff)

Post date: Wednesday, February 11, 2015 - 1:33am

Have You Heard About... The Underground Girls of Kabul

… bacha posh, the practice of raising a daughter as a son in some parts of Afghanistan?  Jenny Nordberg does an incredible job of introducing the reader to this in The Underground Girls of Kabul.  Until recently, almost nothing was known of bacha posh in western Europe and the United States, but it has a long history in Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East.  It isn’t common, but many people know a family or know someone who knows a family who are raising a daughter as a son — bacha posh in Dari or alakaana in Pashto.

Ms Nordberg interviewed many parents, children, and teenagers and adults who used to be bacha posh.  They have many different reasons for changing a daughter into a son.  A son can run errands, bring in money to support the family, and protect his sisters.  A son gives his family and his mother status, a place in the community.  A woman who has only daughters may even raise one as a son to encourage her body to bring forth a real son next time.

In order to explain why and how families choose to have a bacha posh, Ms Nordberg covers a lot of the history and culture of Afghanistan and its many ethnic groups.  How can someone understand the difference between having a son or a daughter without understanding the gender roles of both children and adults?  To understand those roles, we also have to understand some of the historic, economic, and cultural reasons behind those roles.  Ms Nordberg does a beautiful job of explaining that, but she also helps us understand the people, the individuals involved — a woman who is afraid that she will lose her place within her family (possibly her entire community) if she only has daughters, a child who wants to be a girl but whose family can’t live without the income from her job as a boy, a teenager who was raised as a boy and is trying to resist becoming a woman, a mother who was bacha posh and wants one of her children to have that freedom herself, and many others.

Ms Nordberg’s fascinating introduction to bacha posh also helps us learn more about the incredible, intricate culture from which they come.


Reviewed by Fran (staff)

Post date: Wednesday, February 4, 2015 - 1:28am

Have You Heard About... Help for the Haunted

… the mysterious death of two renowned demonologists? With a premise like that, I instantly knew I had to read Help for the Haunted by John Searles, and boy, was I ever impressed. When it comes to “well-written” stories, whatever that vague term may mean, Help for the Haunted surpassed my wildest expectations.

The story follows Sylvie Mason, who is trying to come to grips with the sudden murder of her parents – two self-proclaimed demonologists who give lectures and assist spiritually-afflicted people. Sylvie is now under the care of her older sister, Rose, who proves to be a misguided and neglectful legal guardian with a secret she is determined to keep from Sylvie.

The story is firmly centered around the death of the Masons, with chapters alternating between the events leading up to their death and the secrets and the mysteries left behind in the wake of their murder. This seems to be a common narrative technique in modern psychological thrillers, where the story is told from either two points of view or two time periods until the very end, when everything comes crashing together in the final climax. It’s an effective device, and it pretty much ensures that the reader will be helpless to stop turning the pages.

In addition, Sylvie is one of the best young protagonists I’ve read about in a long time. She comes across as intelligent, determined, and genuinely affected by her parents’ death and the stigma surrounding her entire family without being melodramatic, whiny, or any of the other character flaws that plague teenage protagonists.

Although this book didn’t have as much of the supernatural elements as I would have preferred, I was thrilled to find another psychological suspense novel to add to my growing collection of fantastic titles. This one is a must read.


Reviewed by Katie (staff)

Post date: Wednesday, January 28, 2015 - 1:46am

Have You Heard About... The Mutts Diaries

… the sweet, silly, touching, and all-around adorable adventures of adopted cats and dogs? Patrick McDonnell has been writing the Mutts comic strip for many years now. One of his most recent collections is The Mutts Diaries. Rather than having all of the strips from a set period of time, this book gives us a selection of strips highlighting different characters. A few have multi-strip storylines, but the overall effect is more snapshots that give an overview of the character.

Of course, the stars of Mutts — Mooch and Earl — are the first two characters covered. However, lesser-known animals are also included to good effect, like Sour Puss, the crab, the guard dog, and several others. The humans show up in some strips, but like usual, they are not the focus. The various animals are clearly the stars of this show.

If you’re familiar with Mr. McDonnell’s lovely comic, The Mutts Diaries is a lovely chance to look back at some older strips. If you aren’t already reading it, this book is a great way to get to know the characters, general tone, and common themes. Either way, I can’t recommend it enough!


Reviewed by Fran (staff)