Book Review

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Genre: Thriller, Bildungsroman
Pages: 784
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

The Goldfinch follows thirteen-year-old Theo Decker, the son of a loving mother and reckless father. The young New-Yorker’s life is forever changed when he miraculously survives a terrible accident that kills his mother. Theo unwittingly steals a masterpiece from the museum where the tragedy occurred, and the captivating little painting provides a source of hope and comfort, as it reminds him of his mother. Theo is soon taken in by a wealthy friend, but he lives tormented by longing for the life he once had.

In adulthood, Theo’s stolen painting propels him deep into the art underworld, and he finds himself leading a double life as an antique dealer and as a con. He soon becomes entwined in a dangerous web of deceit, one that leaves him alienated and at risk of losing everything. Theo’s story is one of self-discovery, legacy, and the ways in which a single event can forever alter the course of our lives.

Thoughts

It goes without saying that Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is a real page-turner—as the title suggests, the story largely revolves around an (accidental) art theft. The plot is brilliantly weaved together, and the reader is plagued with the same anxieties as the protagonist when it comes to the stolen masterpiece. Theo is a thoroughly interesting character to follow, in that his life is tinged with loss and continual sorrows, and the reader witnesses first-hand how these trials change him from a hopeful boy to a cynical adult. Theo also meets a host of interesting characters throughout the novel—from Pippa, an impish musician who was also present during the bombing, to Hobie, a kindly antique store-owner turned father-figure, the book is certainly not lacking in personality.

The only fault I found in this book comes from the way it tended to drag on in places. Some plot points (such as the time Theo spends with Boris, his bedraggled, drug-addicted friend) felt unnecessarily drawn out and did little to advance the plot. The only purpose I could see this serving would be to make sudden plot advances all the more jarring for the reader—you are lulled into a false sense of security, only to have the rug immediately pulled out from under you as the plot thickens.

One of the things I found most memorable about The Goldfinch comes from the fact that the message of the story doesn’t become apparent until the end of the book. Throughout the novel, I found myself (worriedly) wondering if the plot was building towards any meaningful revelations, and was delighted to find that Tartt did an excellent job of tying the events of the novel to universally contemplated aspects of the human experience (you know, for those of us who can’t personally relate to Theo’s dabbling in art theft). Of the many themes expressed, there is a beautiful message about our loving art because of the ways that loved objects take on a life of their own, as well as serving to connect us to some greater beauty. The novel also tackles ideas such as whether or not to follow a heart that can’t be trusted, the times when bad actions can still lead to good outcomes, and challenging the notion of free will. In short, Tartt poses some of the great questions that we as humans should be contemplating without necessarily giving us the answers. Instead, she plants seeds of thought and leaves you as the reader to ponder the subject yourself and arrive at your own conclusions.

Overall, this book is a vastly entertaining story about a young boy placed in increasingly despairing circumstances. Beyond this, however, The Goldfinch will be especially loved by those looking for a revelatory piece dealing with topics such as legacy, love, fate, and beauty.

Book Review

Seven Lies by Elizabeth Kay

Publisher: Penguin Random House
Genre: Thriller/Suspense
Pages: 335
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 5/5 Stars

Summary

This novel follows best friends Jane and Marnie as they navigate adult life. The girls have been best friends since they were 12 and don’t know what a life without the other would look like. That is, until Marnie gets a boyfriend, Charles, whom Jane despises. When Marnie asks her if she likes him, Jane lies and says he is great. Jane’s one lie spirals into six more, each slightly worse than the last. Each one adds strain to a seemingly unbreakable friendship.
So when Charles dies, Jane is left wondering—if she didn’t tell that first lie, would he still be alive?

Thoughts

A lot can be said about the way in which a story is told, especially a retelling of events. Often, when we tell stories about ourselves, we subconsciously make ourselves seem better, or justified. Jane is the narrator of this story, meaning the recap of events we get is from her perspective. This allows the story to be extremely personal and unique, which I absolutely loved—it felt like sitting down with a friend and having them tell you a story. She wasn’t just telling the story, she was having a conversation with the reader. There were moments when she would directly address us to try and justify her actions. It made the story even more compelling and I found myself hanging on her every word. It forces the reader to look past the narrator and see her actions, good and bad, for what they are.

The story itself is extremely captivating. The narration style pulls you in, but the unfolding of events keeps you there. As each lie grows more intense, the reader is pulled further in until you are tearing through the pages to get to the end. While the things that take place seem impossible, they could happen to anyone; it makes us as readers contemplate the intentions behind our actions. We can often trick ourselves into thinking we are doing the right thing, but that doesn’t mean we’re fooling the people around us. Jane is the perfect character to remind us that even though we are the protagonist of our stories, that doesn’t make us perfect. It is often said that people will do anything for love, and Seven Lies reminds us that that includes platonic love, too.

Kay perfectly weaves suspense with heartfelt narration to create a novel that is sure to keep you on your toes. You never know what is around the corner and the end will leave you pondering this novel for days. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a new book. It will be in stores June 16 and is available for pre-order from Changing Hands Bookstore here.


Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC
in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.


Book Review

The Girl From Widow Hills by Megan Miranda

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Genre: Crime/Suspense
Pages: 321
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4.5/5 Stars

Summary

This novel follows Arden Maynor, now Olivia Meyer, on the 20th anniversary of the day she was found in the small town of Widow Hills. When Arden was six years old, she was sleepwalking and went missing for three days until she was found clinging to the bars of a storm drain.


After that, her life was never the same. Growing tired of the cameras in her face and the news constantly circling around her, she moved hundreds of miles away and changed her name to Oliva Meyer, hoping to start over. Which worked, for a while, until the 20th anniversary of the incident comes up, and everything Arden tried to bury comes bubbling to the surface.

Thoughts

This novel surprised me in many ways. I am a big fan of suspense/crime novels and because of that, I can be a bit critical of them. That being said, this novel delivered in every department necessary to make a good one. It had murder, mystery, a splash of romance, and a plot twist I never saw coming. Everything you think you know at the beginning of the novel is upended by the end, and I think I actually gasped at one point. The story truly whisks you away into the drama that seems to follow Arden everywhere.

Arden is a great example of an unreliable narrator, but somehow that made me trust her more. Being close to her as the reader brings the story closer—it allowed every twist and turn to be even more shocking as we found out things as they were revealed to her. The best stories are the ones that suck you in and make you a character, and this is one of those.

The only critique I have is that it starts a bit slow. The real action doesn’t occur until about a third of the way in. That being said, the characters are so interesting and mysterious that I was able to latch onto them immediately, and so, this didn’t prove to be too much of an issue.

If you’re in the market for a good suspense novel, The Girl from Widow Hills is sure to keep you on your toes. It will be in stores on June 23, 2020 and is available for pre-order from Changing Hands Bookstore here.


Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC
in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.

The Screw Keeps Turning

Hollywood horror movies have earned their place as the reigning champions of clichés and overdone tropes. Iconic stories like “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” have been recycled, re-imagined, and represented both with success and resounding box office failure (looking at you, 2017’s “The Mummy”). Right alongside our favorite monsters are the ghost stories—which happen to be a personal favorite of mine. In my opinion, it’s a little harder to make a good ghost story into a movie, because suspense is harder to portray successfully then a well-done CGI monster. Ghost stories have their moments, and just like our iconic monsters, there are some ghost stories that stand the test of time and earn their place among the great horror novels of history, and thus their place in cinema.

The Turn of the Screw is the type of ghost story you may not have known you’ve seen before. It has the creepy house with dodgy staff, a spotty history with unexplained deaths, and Hollywood’s favorite horror trope, creepy children. Not only is it a staple of Henry James’s work, but it has been made and remade into films for decades, some successful, and some, not so much.  At one point, James’s strange Gothic tale of a governess and her encounter with the supernatural was even transformed into an opera. Just like the works of Shelley and Stoker, ghost stories like The Turn of the Screw have their moments in the spotlight, and we need only wait for the right inspiration before they return to mainstream relevancy with a vengeance.

Early this year, Universal Studios released The Turning, which is a modern take on Henry James’s novella. One of the brightest stars recognizable from the new adaptation would be Finn Wolfhard, from Netflix’s of Stranger Things, as Miles. Miles is one of the two children that are central to the plot of The Turn of the Screw, and Wolfhard accurately portrays his eerie childlike beauty as well as his somewhat unsettling nature. The young actor already has some clout with horror, even though Stranger Things errs more on the side of science-fiction, but the hype his casting creates certainly puts this iconic Henry James piece back on the map for an audience that might not otherwise be exposed to the 1898 classic.

…”The THeater of the mind [is]… so much more powerful than any screen…”

Now, in concerns to move adaptations, book lovers often must take them with a large grain of salt. Not only is the theater of the mind so much more powerful than any screen, some of the most defining traits of our favorite stories are the ways in which they are written. Henry James’ unique style of writing and the way in which he builds the tension in his novella are defining characteristics that have never been successfully translated to the big screen. This, coupled with the description “re-imagining” means that I went into this film trying to maintain an open mind and not be too harsh on how it might stray from the original story. I don’t intend to write any spoilers, especially since the national COVID-19 epidemic has closed theaters almost right in the middle of its run, but I left this film feeling quite underwhelmed. Not only does it miss the subtlety that makes The Turn of the Screw as iconic and masterful as it is, but many of the plot points are cheapened to produce a quick scare. I’m as much a fan of the jump scare as the next person, but when you associate a film with a book, you take on certain responsibilities to represent that story and what makes it so beloved for its readers. Far be it from me to hold Hollywood to that, especially since we have so many flops seeming to communicate that faith to the original work is the least of their worries.

Adaptations done right

But all is not lost. Just like we have these adaptations that fall short of our love for a certain story, sometimes we have one that rises to the occasion. A breakout hit on Netflix in the Fall of 2018 was The Haunting of Hill House. You might recognize the title from another master of the ghost story, Shirley Jackson. Even though it fell even more firmly under the category of “re-imagining,” I would venture to say this is one cinematic endeavor that did so successfully, albeit in a serial format rather than a feature-length movie. The series managed to capture the tell-tale gothic atmosphere that make most ghost stories successful, and took enough elements of the novel to pay homage to the original while also weaving a unique tale. The result was a series that honored Shirley Jackson’s work and created a beautiful, stand-alone story with rich characters, suspense, horror, and heart. After the award-winning success of their first season, Netflix announced a follow-up second season that would utilize the same actors, but tell the story of another haunted estate near and dear to a book lover’s heart. This second season will be called “The Haunting of Bly Manor,” which should be recognizable as the estate in which The Turn of the Screw takes place. Let’s just say that my hopes are considerably higher for this iteration of this incredible novella, if how much I loved the first season is any indication. While I expect the same treatment with the story that Hill House underwent, the attention paid to the spirit of the source material coupled with real creativity and good writing makes the giant leap between films like The Turning and what I expect The Haunting of Bly Manor will be. For that comparison, however, we will have to wait and see.

In the meantime, one can always content themselves with the original. The Turn of the Screw is a quick read, but lingers with you long after it is finished. The novella begins like the best of ghost stories—with a group of friends around a fire, exchanging scary stories. It is a secondhand account, passed down from the protagonist that experienced the event, a young governess commissioned to teach the orphans Miles and Flora at Bly Manor. We know what we are getting into from the beginning, but still, the suspense built from the unusual circumstances of her employment to the occurrences on the manor grounds draw the reader in and keeps them guessing, on the edge of their seat.

Was it all in her head? you can decide, come April 7th

Ambiguity is also a defining feature of The Turn of the Screw, leading us to wonder whether it was all in the governess’s head, or if she really was a victim of the ghosts of Bly Manor—and, isn’t that the best thing about ghost stories? We get to be scared and are still left to wonder if ghosts are real or if it’s all in our head. The Turn of the Screw is worth a read anytime of the year, not just during Halloween when we’re in the mood for scary stories. And if you are still curious about The Turning and would like to draw your own conclusions, you won’t be able to catch it in theaters, but you can still catch it on streaming services starting April 7, 2020.

If you are like me, and are sitting on pins and needles for the Netflix’s second season The Haunting of Bly Manor, you will be happy to know that production wrapped up filming in February and the show is set to premiere sometime in 2020. (I’m willing to wager around Fall, since that’s when most people are looking for their horror fix.) Until then…