Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier

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“Last night
I dreamt I went to Manderley
again.”

I cannot think of any other way to start this review than the above iconic line. I inherited my well-worn copy of this classic from a woman named Natalee, who printed her name neatly in the top right-hand corner of its first page and eventually donated it to the little second-hand shop where I happened upon it. Apt, I think, since Du Maurier’s exquisite gothic novel is as much about inheriting the remnants of another person’s life as it is, in her own words, a study in jealousy.

If I had read Rebecca as a much younger me, fresh in the throes of having just encountered the likes of Heathcliff and Mr Rochester (who first played host to the definitive “woman in the attic”), I would have considered it a romance, and indeed at first it may seem the quintessential love story: a young, naïve girl meets a brooding, handsome widower who promises marriage and comfort, a stark contrast to her bleak existence as an impoverished lady’s companion. But for older me, the dark turbulence that soon after clouds our young unnamed narrator and her haunted Maximilian de Winter holds much more interest than the notion of a happily-ever-after.  Once Maxim brings his timid bride home to his family estate, the imposing Manderley (as much a character as any of the flesh and blood personalities that inhabit the novel), it becomes evident that their new marriage will be ruled not by love, but by the memory of the deceased former Mrs de Winter, the titular Rebecca.

From beyond the grave, Rebecca exercises an uncanny control over the occupants of Manderley. From the intimidating, skull-faced housekeeper, Mrs Danvers – who makes no secret of her quiet animosity towards Maxim’s new wife, or her eerie obsession with his former – to a host of servants who remain loyal to the ways of their previous mistress; the very estate itself seems possessed of her. Her lingering presence feeds Maxim’s melancholy and at Manderley he is brusque and elusive – far removed from the intriguing man who wooed our narrator. She herself becomes haunted by the memory of Rebecca, and struggles not only with being made to feel like an impostor in her new home but with jealousy of Maxim’s perceived undying affections for Rebecca. Her insecurity runs deep and creates much of the delicious tension that pulses through the novel. Ultimately it is also Rebecca that finally determines the fate of these characters.

This is by far the most impressive aspect of the novel: how a woman, who never appears in anything but memories, often ambiguous, can wreck such influence and ruin on the lives of the living. And Du Maurier captures with aching precision this insidious presence on a young girl desperately in love with a man unable to let go of his past and the severe consequences for them both.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel from start to finish. It is an expertly crafted and nuanced tale of suspense, deceit and passion that left me tingling with a new appreciation for brilliantly written literature. I cannot recommend paying a visit to Manderley highly enough.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

wonderbanner.jpg“I’m just me. An ordinary kid.
But hey, if they want to give me a medal for being me, that’s okay. I’ll take it.
I didn’t destroy a Deathstar or anything like that, but I did just get through the fifth grade.
And that’s not easy, even if you’re not me.”

 
Deviating quite a bit from the heavy, serious fare I’ve been devouring lately, this melt-your-heart sweet and touching novel was just what I needed to lighten up an otherwise blue week. It’s an endearing, lighthearted read that had me in stitches as often as in tears.

August Pullman is, in his own words, just an ordinary kid. He loves Star Wars, science, his dog Daisy and lives with his older sister Via, his mom, and dad. And this year he will be starting middle school. All of which is perfectly ordinary, only Auggie has not been dealt the kindest hand. He was born with severe facial abnormalities and, at ten years old, he has become accustomed to curious stares and often rude comments. Navigating middle school will be as much a challenge as a new adventure.

I adored the characters in this book. It’s a quick read with short chapters, easy to breeze through on a lazy afternoon. We get to experience Auggie’s story through various perspectives, each distinct and wonderfully written. I usually balk at kid narrators, but Palacio’s cast is so relatable and compelling, it’s impossible not to be enchanted. From kind-hearted Summer, best friend Jack Will, unfortunately named but encouraging Principal Tushman, to class bully Julian – each character’s life is touched and changed by the courageous Auggie. I admired the spirit with which Auggie tackles whatever comes his way – he is often humorous, always honest. There are lessons to be learned, perceptions to be challenged and Auggie himself finds that while encountering jerks is inevitable, kindness and respect always win out in the end.

I think this is one of those books that everyone needs to read at least once. It’s told with heart-warming empathy and sincerity, with the importance of friendship, family and compassion at its centre. I dare you to read this and not feel uplifted and inspired by Auggie’s story. He truly is an unforgettable, extraordinary middle schooler.

Recommended if you’re in the mood for a brave, feel-good read that will change your every perspective. Remember to keep those tissues handy.

Coconut by Kopano Matlwa

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“I do not know how to make it pretty. I do not know how to mask it. It is not a piece of literary genius. It is the story of our lives. It is our story, told in our own words as we feel it every day. It is boring. It is plain. It is overdone and definitely not newsworthy. But it is the story we have to tell.”

So reads the epilogue to this thought-provoking portrait of what it means to be young and black in modern South Africa. But the story that precedes it is not boring or plain in the least. It’s achingly familiar, candid and unforgettable.

The book is divided into two parts, each a snapshot of a Sunday in the lives of two very different young women, Ofilwe and Fikile. Interspersed are memories, instances and conversations that have shaped their view of the world and, more importantly, what they perceive to be their place in it. Matlwa writes frankly an intimately and her characters are vividly brought to life – no easy feat in a book just under 200 pages. I felt for the young Ofilwe – rich, pampered yet desperate to fit in with her white friends and being both included and excluded in the social circle she yearns to belong to. Fikile too, a waitress from the townships who knows hardship and lives a life the complete opposite of Ofilwe’s, wants to escape more than just poverty. Her words “I am not one of you, I want to tell them. Some day you will see me drive past here in a sleek air-conditioned car, and I will roll up my windows if you try to come near me, because I am not one of you. You are poor and black and I am rich and brown” encapsulates both their sentiments. Their crisis of self and views of society are challenged and changed throughout the novel and I think both girls and the reader come away thinking of the world around them a little differently.

This is a novel which describes a loss of culture and identity, the price of longing to be accepted and fit in, and the sting of racism sometimes subtle, often not. But it is also a captivating story of growing up and finding oneself. A grand and important coming-of-age told by an impressive young writer.

13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

“No one knows for certain how much impact they have on the lives of other people. Oftentimes, we have no clue. Yet we push it just the same.”

Fair warning, this post contains spoilers for both the book and Netflix series adaptation, as well as potentially triggering subject matter.

About a month ago I flipped through Netflix, selected a series entitled 13 Reasons Why and binge watched the entire thing in a day and a half. Afterwards, I switched off the television and I cried. Two weeks ago, I read the book that inspired the series in a single afternoon. I turned the final page and wept.

If you haven’t been following the internet storm around Jay Asher’s powerful YA novel and its television adaptation, it centres on 13 tapes recorded by 17-year-old Hannah Baker prior to her suicide. Each tape involves a specific person who Hannah feels played a role in her tragic decision, and as per her instruction, the tapes are passed from one person to the next. This very dark premise touches on themes of high school bullying, slut-shaming, rape, the meaning of consent and the tragedy of teen suicide. It never shies away from presenting its subject matter in the most raw, honest and straightforward way possible. This approach has also garnered more than its fair share of criticism. Do a quick Google search and you’ll find article after article debating whether the series glamorises suicide. For myself, reading about and watching a young girl silently sink deeper and deeper into what we know from the get-go is an inevitability, was nothing less than harrowing.

Because I have been a Hannah Baker.
I kept quiet while being severely bullied in school. I simply relented, never fought back. The shy, silent target. Easy.
I stood quietly while being sexually abused. I still often wonder whether he took my silence for some perverted form of agreement.
I sat silently on my bed while my mind conjured scenarios in which I would have taken my own life in an angry, vindictive manner. Because then they would finally see and hear what I couldn’t show or tell them.

I relate to Hannah’s nightmare. There was never anything glamorous or heroic about my thoughts. They were a sticky tar of shame and fear which I am infinitely grateful I never gave in to. I feel that I should add that what kept me going throughout those years was writing – for many people a refuge and a therapy – and reading about girls who went through the same things I did. I was still silent, but I was not alone after all and imagination kept the darkness at bay. Although, at 30, I am yet to tame it and I do note that speaking up and getting professional help would have helped me heal a lot more successfully. But I am here, and for now, that is enough.

When you read Jay Asher’s book, Hannah’s voice is initially angry, bitter and you may suspect that she made her decision out of spite. But as you continue – as she talks about having her reputation scandalized by rumour, being objectified and ridiculed, watching a girl get raped by her boyfriend’s best friend and being raped herself – there is an undeniable sadness and desperation, a longing to be heard and helped. In the Netflix series, her suicide is graphic, almost sickening because it seems so real. But it is in no way glamorous. In both adaptations the effect on her classmates is brutal; they are left with guilt as to their perceived part in her decision and forced to confront their own actions, which iterate the devastation felt by those left behind. It is never a pretty act.

And it is this, the controversy surrounding this story, the shame and silence of its characters, their failure to hear or see Hannah’s need, that makes this a book and series we should be watching and reading. Because Hannah’s story ends in tragedy, we need to pay more attention. Because she failed to get the help she so badly needed, we need to look deeper and listen closer. Because Hannah’s ordeal belongs to all of us – we have been her, or we are her now, or we have sensed her in the silence of someone close to us. And we need to be the person who asks “are you okay?”, and then we need to be the person who listens when the answer is “no”.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

americanahbanner.jpg“There was cement in her soul.
It had been there for a while, an early morning disease of fatigue, shapeless desires, brief imaginary glints of other lives she could be living, that over the months melded into a piercing homesickness.”

No one turns a phrase quite like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I fell in love with her writing when I read Half Of A Yellow Sun last year and this year I finally cracked open my long-owned copy of Americanah after the book was selected for the One Book, One New York campaign – a brilliant initiative, which I hope will spread to all cities, towns, continents – and joined in from half a world away.

Americanah centres on Ifemelu and Obinze, one-time lovers, who depart a Nigeria choked by the grip of military rule, and head to the United States and United Kingdom, respectively. Obinze is soon deported from the UK as an illegal immigrant, but Ifemelu remains in the States, finding love and carving out a life for herself before returning home to Nigeria, jaded and homesick. I rather wished that Obinze’s story would have had a bit more substance, as the chapters focussing on his life post-Ifemelu is rather sparse. But this is a small annoyance as Adichie brings Ifemelu’s story so brilliantly to life.

We see Ifemelu first as a poor college student living hand-to-mouth in a country so alien to her own, rudely awakened to what it means to be Black for the first time. Later, when she becomes a successful blogger, she refers to this in a post, saying:

“We all wish 
race was not an issue. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue, I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.”

And while she grapples with what race and racism entails – the novel’s central themes – she explores the intricacies of love, sex, body image and hair politics. I loved Ifemelu for her boldness and strength. She is often flawed and intensely human in her decision making and provocative in her opinions which makes her a very relatable protagonist. The novel is also uniquely interspersed with Ifemelu’s blog posts and I found her observations very insightful – read this novel, if only for those posts!

Life in the States grows and changes her and when she is once again on African soil and reunited with Obinze, changed by his own experiences, their love holds new and unexpected challenges. Theirs is a happy ending, but almost at the expense of their moral fibre and I wondered if a less world-weary Ifemelu and Obinze would have made different decisions.

Much more than a love story, this novel is one that educates as it entertains, with its characters delivering piercing social commentary. Adichie is blunt in her delivery, her writing is superb and time and again challenges the reader to ponder themes of identity and belonging.

Highly recommended.

The Returned by Jason Mott

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“People and events of wonder and magic are the lifeblood of the world.”

Just about 300 pages into this beautifully written but ultimately disappointing novel, a mere 140 pages from the end, I decided to cut my losses (three weeks of reading time) and move on to other things.

I ached to love this book. It’s been sitting on my TBR for years and the premise sounds fantastic: all over the world the dead are returning to the living world, just the same as when they died, but touched by a certain oddness the “true living” can sense a mile away. The story centres on Arcadia, a small town nestled in the American Southern Bible Belt and mainly on an elderly couple, Harold and Lucille whose 8-year-old son, Jacob, returns to their lives 50 years after drowning. There are plenty of other interesting characters included in the plot: a priest longing to make contact with his 15-year-old high school sweetheart, no longer dead; a family who was brutally murdered several years before and whose return causes tension within the community; a still grieving husband whose sorrow turns to dangerous envy when he is unable to find his wife among the Returned. With the town mystified, new laws dictating that the Returned may not leave their homes and subsequent offenders arrested and placed in a prison camp of sorts, I was gearing up for a thrilling experience.

But while the characters grappled with their loved ones coming back from the dead, I grappled with finding meaning in the story. I just couldn’t relate. The plot moves at a painful crawl and at the time of my decision to abandon the book completely, I had spent plenty of pages patiently waiting for something worthwhile to happen. I found myself longing to connect with the people of that small town – both living and Returned – but the characters felt hollow and ultimately I simply didn’t care for them enough to continue. A quick Google search (I had several unanswered questions) told me everything I needed to know about how events finally play out, and I am quite happy that I left off where I did.

Nevertheless, I will be keeping an eye out for Jason Mott in the future. Although this debut did not appeal to me, I found his writing to be striking. His career as a poet certainly shines through in how he turns a phrase.

Not quite recommended, but worth a peek.

I have since discovered a Netflix series by the same name and somewhat similar plot and am now getting ready to plop down on the sofa, overindulge in snacks, and watch the heck out of it. Seems the returned dead is not quite done with me just yet.

The Three by Sarah Lotz

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“She holds the phone to her mouth and starts speaking.”

If you regularly dredge the depths of the internet searching for just the right sort of uncanny, you’ve probably stumbled upon or heard of Eric Heisserer’s quite genius The Dionaea House; a viral internet-told story that is brilliant not only for its disturbingly realistic seeming tale, but also its epistolary delivery – it is told through emails, blog posts and other correspondence by a set of characters linked in some way or another to the mysterious Dionaea House. Its setup is elaborate and definitely worth checking out. Now, not to digress too wildly from the title I should be reviewing: as soon as I finished the first chapter of South African author Sarah Lotz’s The Three, I knew I would devour the rest of the book and most likely love it – it has the same intricate, layered construct as that viral online story I enjoyed so much. And that same brand of subtle creep.

A fair bit of warning: if you require your book plots to be neatly stitched together with no loose ends, this book will most likely have you tearing your hair out in pure frustration. Though there is a bit of explanation for the story’s events towards the end, it’s still left up to the reader to decide whether what they’ve been told is true. Also, even though it is described as “horror”, I would rather categorise it as a creepy thriller. It delivers its scares in more of a chewing your fingernails to the quick, way, than genuine bolting for the door terror.

Its concept is compelling and imaginative. On what soon becomes known as Black Thursday, four passenger planes crash within hours of each other, on four different continents. There are only four known survivors – on American soil, a little boy named Bobby, in Europe a young girl by the name of Jessica, and in Japan, an American named Pamela May Donald (who dies shortly after the crash) and a Japanese boy, Hiro. The fourth plane plummets to its doom in the township Khayelitsha, in Cape Town, and in the resulting chaos, no one immediately suspects any survivors.  Not only are investigators and the general public flabbergasted by the fact that three children survived the horrific crashes, but when it is revealed that Pamela left a chilling cell phone recording in her final minutes hinting at the Japanese boy as a sinister, supernatural entity, the press and conspiracy theorists have a field day.

What happens after is told in a book-within-a-book style through a compilation of interviews with the children’s (dubbed by the international media as The Three) guardians, friends of the families, those who suspect alien involvement and religious fanatics who believe The Three to be harbingers of the Apocalypse. The characters, even the ones who only make an appearance once, are convincing and excellently written. Their stories are delivered through transcripts of Skype sessions, text messages, voice recordings and emails, and the effect is unnervingly real. You can just sense the paranoia seeping into this cast of characters’ everyday lives, as they’re not only hounded by the press and investigators seeking answers but especially once they begin suspecting that the zealots and theorists might be onto something. And dispersed between hints at the paranormal, lie the much more menacing accounts of those in power seeking to exploit the global fear caused by the crashes. To say any more would be to spoil a fantastically entertaining plot.

While there are not many jump-your-seat terrifying moments in this book, Lotz delivers some eerily ambiguous scenes with the subtlest of hands. If you’re looking for an addictive read, with a perfect blend of thrills and chills, this comes highly recommended.

Final Girls by Riley Sager

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“We were, for whatever reason, the lucky ones who survived when no one else had. Pretty girls covered in blood.”

Okay. I know that July is still a long way off, but I’ve been itching to write about this book ever since I finished reading a proof copy a few months ago. It is pure crime-junkie heroin, has been tipped as the ‘first great thriller of 2017’ by none other than the master himself, Stephen King, and it is absolutely worth all the hype already brewing online.

If this debut is anything to go by, I hope that we’ll be reading a lot more from Riley Sager in future. Her razor sharp writing carves a plot that will thrill even the most jaded of crime readers. College student, Quincy Carpenter, is found blood-soaked and traumatised at the scene of a forest cabin massacre that claimed the lives of her six friends. She is instantly dubbed a Final Girl by the tabloid vultures – a nickname first given to Lisa Milner several years before when she survived a sorority house rampage, and also to Samantha Boyd, another last-girl-standing following a horrific bloodbath. Despite the media fascination, the three girls never meet, but ten years later when Lisa is found with slit wrists, an apparent suicide, Samantha unexpectedly makes an appearance. Soon Quincy’s attempt at post-massacre normality is disrupted as the volatile Samantha forces herself deeper and deeper into her everyday life. Events spiral recklessly, the plot twists come fast and voracious, and you’ll be breathless and stunned at the end of it all. That final twist will knock your socks off.

This is seriously good reading – definitely one of the books I’ll be eagerly recommending to fellow bookworms this year. And, if you simply can’t wait until mid-year to get your hands on a copy, head over to Dead Good and feed that psychological thriller appetite with a first chapter extract.

We Were Liars by Emily Lockhart

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“We are liars. We are beautiful and privileged. We are cracked and broken.”

The second I finished this book, I had to flip back to the beginning and skim the pages front to back hunting for the subtle little clues that may hint at the shocking end twist – and they were rather unnerving when spotted. This novel is clever, the writing superb and, if her other books prove to be as addictive, Emily Lockhart may well be my new favourite YA author.

I’m not too keen to write about the plot of this novel, at the risk of revealing too much. I didn’t read any reviews prior to reading it myself, and I do think its haunting impact is so much greater going into it blind. This is certainly not your standard YA fare. Even though an obligatory teen-romance does play out beneath the summer sun, it is so central to the novel’s dark tragedy that a touch of sentimentality is easily forgiven. This is much more a story of family dynamics, loss, guilt and the sometimes misplaced passions and impatience of youth. Of coming of age, while traversing the ever changing terrain of relationships and coming to terms with life’s inherent traumas.

I enjoyed the languid accounts of summers past and present, and devoured the darker turns which are revealed slowly and kept me eagerly turning the pages – perfect pacing! Lockhart’s writing is sophisticated and vividly beautiful, several passages left me with those delicious language-nerd goosebumps only exceptional writing can achieve:

“Welcome to my skull.
A truck is rolling over the bones of my neck and head. The vertebrae break, the brains pop and ooze. A thousand flashlights shine in my eyes. The world tilts.”

“He cried like a man, not like a boy. Not like he was frustrated or hadn’t gotten his way, but like life was bitter. Like his wounds couldn’t be healed.”

“One day when no one else was around, I went into the craft room at the back of the ground floor. I touched Gran’s collection of fabrics, the shiny bright buttons, the coloured threads. My head and shoulders melted first, followed by my hips and knees. Before long I was a puddle, soaking into the pretty cotton prints. I drenched the quilt she never finished, rusted the metal parts of her sewing machine. I was pure liquid loss.”

Exquisite.

If you’re a reader who likes your YA to veer into more serious territory, this needs to be on your shelf. Dog days in this novel are bittersweet with the sting of private drama, and chances are that not a single character or event will be quite what you initially suspect.

Black Eyed Susan by Julia Heaberlin

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From Part 1:
“My mother she killed me,
My father he ate me,
My sister gathered together my bones,
Tied them in a silken handkerchief,
Laid them beneath the juniper-tree,
Kywitt, kywitt, what a beautiful bird I am!
– Tessie, age 10, reading aloud to her grandfather from ‘The Juniper Tree’, 1988”

Whenever I see a phrase such as “Thriller of the year” slapped on a book cover, I feel a tiny pang of sympathy for the story that needs to fulfil such a promise. Those exact words are stamped in the top left corner of my copy of Black Eyed Susans, and even though it’s a sure-fire way to tease out my inner book critic, this book not only lived up to every expectation, but I now count myself a Julia Heaberlin fan for life.

Tessa Cartwright is a Black-Eyed Susan, the clever nickname given by the media to the victims of a sadistic serial killer. As a 16-year-old, she was found dumped in a shallow grave – the ground covered in a spread of black and yellow flowers – with the unidentified bodies of three other girls. Alive. Her testimony helped put away the Black-Eyed Susans killer, even though she remembered very little as to his identity. But now, nearly two decades after her ordeal, the case has been reopened, the faceless Susans’ bones will be dug up and subjected to modern forensics.  And, chillingly, someone has planted a patch of yellow petaled flowers beneath Tessa’s bedroom window. Either it is a cruel gag by a serial killer fanatic, or an innocent man is on death row for the crimes of a killer that’s still on the loose.

I loved this book. It has all those little aspects that makes for a great thriller. Pitch-perfect writing. Seamless suspense. Taut plotting that kept me engaged and itching to discover the who, what and why. The points of view alternate between teenaged Tessa, post-attack and preparing to testify, and present day Tessa, a single, overprotective mother and artist. Present and past intertwine perfectly as adult Tessa tries to unravel her monster’s true identity. I certainly did not guess at who the killer was until just before the reveal – and it was completely unexpected!

One of the book’s most engrossing aspects, were the scattering of minor characters – lawyers, forensic scientists and activists and their pro/con views on the death penalty, which is a major plot line as it becomes increasingly clear that an innocent man may be executed.  The modern forensics used to identify the unknown Susans was fascinating and excellently researched – the descriptions and methods delighted my inner CSI nerd. There is also a nod to the O.J. Simpson case, which teenaged Tessa follows during the preparation for her own trial. I thought the inclusion of that bit of American true- crime history was quite clever, as it ties in well with the justice system’s reasoning in Tessa’s case and their initial conviction of the Black-Eyed Susans killer.

With this book, Julia Heaberlin certainly has conjured an elegant and sinister thriller that entertains and chills, and creeps into your subconscious just like a tangle of black-eyed Susans. Highly recommended.