The Ghosts of Belfast

Title: The Ghosts of Belfast
Author: Stuart Neville
Publisher: Soho Press, Inc.

I first read this book almost two years ago on my honeymoon, curled up in a tiny airport chair (the wedding diet was good not only for the wedding photos but also for fitting into absurd plastic chairs. Airports are the worst). My husband slept most of the way through our six-hour flight, but despite the un-honeymoon-like-subject matter, I couldn’t put this one down.

Quick summary: Gerry Fegan, the protagonist, is a former paramilitary contract killer in Ireland who, after years spent in prison for his crime and as a tentative peace has been formed between the various warring factions, sees dead people. More specifically, his dead victims–the ghosts of the people he murdered. He spends the novel avenging their deaths, while unraveling his own complicated emotions towards his community, former bosses, and new love interest.

Fegan is a man of few words, but the way Neville writes him makes me feel like I’m a fly on a wall in his head. Fegan feels really believable and, even though he though he is undisputedly the bad guy, I really felt emotionally attached to this character all the way to the end. Neville makes you care about what happens to him and Marie and Ellen (the mother/daughter he befriends). I think he accomplishes that by acknowlding Gerry’s flaws, but also showing the circumstances that led him to make the decisions he did and the behaviors that indicate real regret now, and by keeping the ensemble cast manageable. Sometimes authors get so excited about their complicated plot and cast of characters that you feel like you constantly need to check a map or list of characters just to remember who is who. I didn’t have any problem keeping up with this book.

The only criticism I have for this book is the ending. It felt a little cheap, emotionally, and was pretty much the only thing the entire book that “took me out” of the world, i.e., made me feel like the book wasn’t real (the ghosts I had no problems with, so this could be a me problem).

Let me know what you think!! Happy reading!!

 

John Dies At The End

Title: John Dies At The End
Author: David Wong
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

It says book club right in the title, so, like any book club, I think I can assume you’ve read it even if you’re only here for some alcohol & snacks. (My fave? Hard cider + snickerdoodles). I’m going to exercise that prerogative now, so skip to the next paragraph if you’re not interested in spoilers: I cannot figure out why the title is “John Dies At The End” when he, basically, is the only one that doesn’t. I suspect that there is some cool, meta reading of the novel that solves this problem for me but I don’t know what it is. I suspect neither David or John would be concerned about it. The two are the most blasé guys I’ve ever met – and yes, I did mean “met.” You can totally meet fictional characters. Let me live.

Anyway, for being an underachieving slacker, David (both the pen name of Jason Pargin, the author, and the name of the protagonist), has a lot of virtues: he’s good with dogs, he takes care of intoxicated friends, he’s respectful to women, and he shows up on time to work most of the time. On the other hand, he makes some dumb mistakes. Which leads me to one of my favorite things about this book: the characters (well, the human ones) feel so real. There aren’t any characters that don’t have any flaws.

This book essentially covers two separate but related stories: the first is John and David’s discovery of “soy sauce,” the monsters that come from it, and trip to Vegas – funny, fast-moving, unpredictable chaos. The second story is the best (at least in my opinion): the monsters re-appear, causing chaos and confusion, and John and David bumble their way towards saving the world (and the girl). If you’re feeling kind of “eh” on the first story, stick around for the second. It’s a fast read, and you won’t regret it.

You’ve probably already realized this, but just as a warning: this book is weird. It probably fits best in the “science fiction” category, but it has some horror flavoring and some of the segues more typical of literary fiction. The opening “riddle” is a good litmus test – if you find it intriguing, you are in for a treat. If you think it’s dumb, this may not be the book for you.

Let me know what you think – happy reading!

Help for the Haunted

Title: Help for the Haunted
Author: John Searles
Publisher: William Morrow (imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)

This book is not for the faint of heart. Rarely does a book actually creep me out – yet this one did. It follows the life of Sylvie, a young girl whose parents were recently murdered, as she tries to figure out what happened to them, learn how to live with her temperamental older sister Rose, and come to terms with her parents’ unusual and controversial careers.

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My favorite thing about this book was its subtlety – a lot of authors cannot include religious themes without coming across as judgmental and condemning regardless of whether they are pro or con. This book had a more subtle, nuanced approach which made it feel like a part of the story and not just a lecture the author felt morally compelled to include. It was also subtle with the paranormal — in my experience, books that try to flirt with the boundary of fantasy and reality often end up disappointing readers who expect a “Scooby-Doo” ending – aka, for all of the “magic” to be explained — by leaning too fantastical or disappointing readers who like to be surprised or out-witted by the author by leaning too realistic. Here, the ending was satisfying (although, again – CREEPY route to get there).

I am also frequently skeptical when authors use first-person with protagonists substantially different than themselves – here, a male author writing from the perspective of a female child. But Searles does a fantastic job. It felt realistic without being patronizing – there was nothing that felt out-of-character or “jarred” you out of the book’s reality. It’s easy to sympathize and fall in love with Sylvie, to understand her frustration at therapy, her reluctance to really rebel against her sister, and her waves of emotions about her parents. Without spoiling the story, there are two scenes that really hit home for me in capturing Sylvie: when she brings a homemade good-bye gift to Mr. Boshoff, her therapist, that shows how much she has been listening to what he has and hasn’t said about his own life, and when she offers candy to malicious trick-or-treaters who had only showed up to tease her about her (dead) parents.

If you want a happy story about sisterhood conquering all, this is not the book for you. But if you want an intriguing coming-of-age story, light some candles and dive right in! Happy reading!