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review 2019-10-29 20:55
Review: The House in the Hills
The House in the Hills - Rowan Hanlon

I received a copy from Netgalley.

 

I love haunted house books and movies, and the premise of this book definitely sounded like something I would watch if it was a movie. Bright young couple Marc and Harmony moving into their first house – a gorgeous house in the Hollywood Hills, a prime piece of real estate…for an astoundingly cheap price.

 

However, this book sat on my Kindle for months on end until one Saturday morning at the hairdressers when I selected it at random.

 

Given the premise – anyone with half a brain would (or should) be saying what’s the catch? To be fair at first the wife, Harmony at least ponders that very question – why is it so cheap? However, her husband persuades her this is her dream house and a great opportunity for them. At first I quite liked Harmony as a character.

 

I can’t remember what the husband did for a living - she ran a popular food blog and was passionate about it. She seemed rather sensible and together. If a bit high strung and quick to judge. One of the first things we learn is there’s a guest house on the property. And comes with a tenant – a bubbly bright hot young actress. Who immediately rubs Harmony the wrong way by making a joke about promising not to sleep with her husband.

 

As the couple settle into the house and new routines before long Harmony is experiencing creepy feelings and strange things happening, all of which Marc tells her is her imagination. Arguments become more frequent. And Harmony finally learns the truth about what really happened in the house and why the price was so cheap. By this point my liking of the characters had dwindled to wanting to smack them. Harmony was bossy, snobby and wooden. The arguments were repetitive and the “spooky experiences” were just stupid.

 

The book was poorly written, and the characters became increasingly annoying. There were some parts that were just jaw droppingly ridiculous. The idea had potential, but the execution was just bad. Unimpressed with this one. Just didn’t like it at all.

 

Thank you to Netgalley and Reverberator Books/Weapenry Co-Op for approving my request to the view the title.

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review 2019-10-21 01:48
Behave by Robert Sapolsky
Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst - Robert M. Sapolsky

This brick of a book purports to be an interdisciplinary explanation of human behavior, drawing from biology, psychology, and sociology, and everything from primate studies to well-known works in various fields. It’s big, at 717 pages of actual text followed by references; it’s broad; and as such it’s a little bit simplistic. Even at this size, there’s not quite room to develop all of the material. The first half or so of the book is more focused on the “hard” science, beginning with how neurons communicate with each other, and working its way up through hormones, genes, brain development through childhood and adulthood and how this is affected by trauma, and the evolution of species. The second half is more focused on psychology: us vs. them dichotomies, moral decisionmaking, the causes of violence, and whether the criminal justice system really makes sense when all human behavior is ultimately driven by biology. (Sapolsky argues no, but I’m not so sure. Where would we be as a species, or as individuals, if we all just shrugged our shoulders and gave in to ideas of biological determinism?)

I certainly learned a lot from this book, which contains a ton of information presented in a way that is understandable to a non-scientist – though I struggled a bit with some of the early chapters. It provides a strong synthesis and framework for understanding information from biology and social sciences. That said, on the subjects that I did know something about, it seemed a little simplified. Fair enough; entire books have been written on subjects that comprise a single chapter here. As other reviewers have suggested, Sapolsky perhaps accepts too many psychological studies uncritically, without discussing psychology’s replication crisis, in which dozens of famous studies, when run again using the exact same methods and parameters, failed to produce the same headline-worthy results. That said, in general Sapolsky seems to take a fair approach to his material, presenting and evaluating multiple viewpoints in areas that have generated controversy. His writing is readable given the subject matter, and there’s a goofy-professor personality behind it that occasionally shines through. I wouldn’t take everything here as gospel – and I suppose we never should, since new scientific discoveries regularly require us to reevaluate what we thought was true – but the book did leave me a little more educated than I was before.

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review 2019-07-20 04:40
Move over Murphy, it's Mary Shield's Law now
Worst Case Scenario - Helen Fitzgerald

When Mary decided to get her diploma [to become a Social Worker], she believed it would be her role to stand on bridges and stop people jumping off. Very soon after qualifying she realised she would never stand on bridges. She and everyone else were too busy catching casualties downstream. Except for sex offenders. If you saw a drowning sex offender being swept with the current you threw a large rock at him. Mary had done her best work in her first five years in the job. Those early cases were the ones she could recall, where she’d made the time and had an impact. She should have been forced to resign at the five-year mark. Every worker should.

 

Please let me get through today without killing a child, they’d all be thinking, as Mary had thought for the last thirty years. Please help me not ruin a child's life. She’d prayed each day that she’d get through it without fucking up, without turning out to be the bad guy after all. No-one in the office was expecting fame, riches, or even thanks, even though each worker would have made an excellent protagonist in It's a Wonderful Life. They all saved lives, all the time, but no-one ever noticed. Boy did people notice when it went wrong, though.

 

Mary Shields is a social worker/probation officer, and I can't imagine that there are many in either field that can't recognize themselves a little in those above quotations (I couldn't pick one). It's probably my (understandable) lack of knowledge about Scottish penology/jurisprudence, but I don't get exactly how her job works. She refers to herself as a social worker, and seems to work for a private employer, while she manages people on probation. It didn't impact the novel for me, it's just something I stumbled over a few times.

 

Before I go on, can I just ask something? Police procedurals and PI novels are never going away, but are we done with Forensic Scientists/CSI-types now and moving on to Probation/Parole Officers? Maybe it's just me, but I've gone my entire life without reading a book focused on/featuring a Probation Officer and now I've read two in the last month and a half. I'm all for it, if the books are as good as these two are, I should stress.

 

Anyway, Mary is going through several changes in her life -- including The Change. Her adult son has finished school and has found gainful enough employment that he has moved into his own place, her husband—a struggling artist for years is on the brink of making good, reliable money; and her own employment is getting the best of her—the schedule, the clients, the management—it's all too much and with Roddie about to have a reliable income, she's decided to give her notice once things become official for him. Having made that decision, she's being a little less careful than she should be with her clients. Instead of doing everything by the book and diplomatically, she's going to cut to the chase and do what she can to protect society from her clients and do what's right for the people around them (even if they don't want her to.)

 

The strategy sounds all well and good, but the execution could use a little work. Mary describes her role to one client as imagining the worst case scenario and then working to make sure it doesn't happen. Well, she couldn't imagine this scenario if she'd tried.

 

 

Things start to go wrong immediately, and to a degree she can't cope with.

The biggest example of this (but far from the only) is Liam Macdowall, her newest client. He was convicted of murdering his wife, and is on the verge of release. Not at all coincidentally, on the same day, his book is due to be published. It's a series of letters he wrote to his dead wife from prison, essentially exonerating himself and putting the blame for the problems on his life on her. He's become the poster child for Men's Rights Activists throughout the country and his release is the occasion for protests (not necessarily the non-violent kind) for feminist groups as well as his fellow MRAs. Mary lays down the law on the eve of his release, setting forth very strict guidelines and expectations for him. Which is begins openly defying within hours of his release.

 

Before Mary can do anything about it, thing after thing after thing go disastrously wrong—regarding Macdowall, but with other clients, too. I can't get into the details, but let's just say the best of the things that go wrong is that her own son begins dating Macdowall's oddly devoted daughter and sipping the MRA Kool-Aid. Everything that Mary tries to do to either fix the problems in her life, or just alleviate them, fails miserably. The only thing thing that doesn't blow up in her face is retreating home to her bed and streaming Sex and the City. Her life doesn't go from bad to worse just once or twice, but at every turn, she finds another level of worse for things to go to.

 

I've never talked about Christopher Buckley on this site, which is a crying shame (if only because I'd like to link to the posts demonstrate this point), but I haven't read anything by him since I started here. I've been reading him since the late Eighties and love his approach to satire. The problem with all of his novels (with one exception) is that the last 5-10% seems to get away from him—like a fully-loaded shopping cart speeding down a hill. No brakes and only gravity and momentum exercising any control over what happens to it, while the wheels are close to falling off. I mention this only because I kept thinking of Buckley's endings while reading this. There are two significant differences—the out-of-control part set in around the 25% mark and somehow (I wish I could understand how) Fitzgerald pulled it off. I do think in the last 15 pages or so, the wheels got a little wobbly, but while things felt out-of-control, Fitzgerald kept things going exactly where she intended.

 

While I don't understand fully how Fitzgerald kept things from spiraling out of control in the novel (not Mary's life) is the character of Mary Shields. She's just fantastic. She's funny (usually unintentionally); earnest but jaded; angry at so much of what's going on around her; fully aware that she's a mess (and not getting better); yet she pushes on in her Sisyphean tasks to the best of her ability. Her life is a car wreck, and we are invited to rubberneck as we drive by. When we read:


...she didn't want to kill [Macdowall's MRA publisher], as this would mean losing the moral high ground.


we actually understand her frame of mind. She's a woman whose life is crumbling around her and she's doing all she can to hold it together for just a few more days until she can retire.

 

We don't get to spend enough time with other characters to get a strong sense of them—this is all about Mary and the disaster that is her professional, personal, and family life. I liked the portrayal of almost everyone else in the book, I just wish the style of the novel allowed Fitzgerald to develop them more fully. Particularly the MRAs—I felt that their depiction was rather shallow and lacked nuance, making them rather cartoon-y. Sure, you could argue that she's just being accurate and MRAs are cartoon-y, but I'd like to see a bit more subtlety in their portrayal. But on the whole, things are moving so fast, and Mary bounces from one calamity to another so rapidly that there's no time to develop anyone else.

 

There's a lot about this book that I'm not sure about, and a significant part of me wants to rate it lower. But I can't largely because of Mary Shields. I've never read anything or anyone like her. This is definitely a Gestalt kind of novel—various parts of it may not make a lot of sense; or may be good, but not great. But the whole of the novel is definitely greater than the sum of its parts—when you take all the parts that may not be that stellar and combine them the way that Fitzgerald did—and with Mary at the core—it works, it all really works.

 

Insane, fun, insanely fun—and probably a little closer to reality than any one is ready to admit. I have a number of family members and friends in the social work/probation/parole fields—and I'm probably going to insist that most of them read this while I encourage all of you to do the same. I can virtually promise that you won't read anything like this anytime soon.


Source: irresponsiblereader.com/2019/07/19/worst-case-scenario-by-helen-fitzgerald-move-over-murphy-its-mary-shields-law-now
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text 2019-04-14 17:00
Review: When I Cast Your Shadow
When I Cast Your Shadow: A Novel - Sarah Porter

I received a copy from Netgalley.

 

If I could give this book 0 or minus starts I would, it was really that bad.

 

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book I have actively hated so much. I’m all for diving into dark fiction every now and then but this book was one of the worst, most absurd things I have ever read. It made no sense whatsoever.

 

Normally I would just say to hell with it if I don’t like it and DNF, which made it all the more irritating because even though I hated the story and loathed the characters, I wondered if A) it would get any better or B) I would be able to work out what the fuck was going on.

 

Unfortunately, neither of these things happened.

 

The premise was what caught my attention, I’ve read a previous book by the same author, which was a little weird, but I liked it. As I said, I do like dark fiction every now and then. So why not try it? The story follows New York based teenage twins Everett and Ruby whose eldest brother Dashiell died recently of an overdose.

 

Ruby was completely besotted with Dashiell to something boarding on reverence. (I’m half convinced there was something else going on there as well.) They were both totally obsessed with each other. Ruby was completely blind to Dashiell’s flaws. He was an addict, charming and manipulative and could convince her to do anything, long after he’d been thrown out of the house. The father was a workaholic, their mother left years ago. Ruby was an idiot. A sycophantic moron who couldn’t see the danger around them. Her brother Everett was possibly the only remotely likeable character in this. The more straightforward, sensible of the pair.

 

Something seems to allow Dashiell to come back from the dead in a spirit form where he can possess a body if he murders it and can live in it’s skin. At least that was my understanding. So naturally Ruby is the first person he goes to. Which is squicky enough in itself. Yet when Everett notices something off about Ruby and when she’s not possessed she tells him Dash came back he thinks she’s lot the plot. And before long Dashiell has convinced Everett whilst possessing Ruby that he could possess him instead. He can have one or the other.

 

And does some pretty vile things whilst wearing Everett – including visiting his old girlfriend whilst in Everett’s body and getting her into bed. She doesn’t know Everett is possessed, of course. Which is pretty much rape – she consented to Everett, not Dashiell. If she doesn’t know Dashiell is the one riding the front she gets no say in that. And that’s pretty fucking disgusting.

 

On top of all this there’s some of sort Land of the Dead plot where other ghosts are walking around, and Dashiell has pissed off the Big Bad who runs the show. And comes after him for revenge.

 

The whole thing was bizarre, twisted. Way too many characters, all of whom had no personality and were just pretty horrible people. It was beyond fucked up and just an awful, awful novel. Nothing made sense and it was pretty much one of the worst things I have ever read.

 

Thank you to Netgalley and MacMillan-Tor/Forge for approving my request to view the title.

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review 2019-01-29 18:45
THE WORST IS YET TO COME by S. P. Miskowski
The Worst is Yet to Come - S.P. Miskowski

 

Small town living-it's just the best, right? There's none of that violence you hear about in big cities and the people are friendlier too or so we've all heard. Unfortunately, none of that applies to Skillute.

 

A couple and their young daughter move to Skillute for exactly the reasons listed above. But Skillute is a dying town, and as it turns out? The people are really not that friendly. Especially, if like the Davis family, you're coming from liberal-town USA. It's not only the politics of the situation that keep the Davis family isolated though, it's Skillute itself.

 

When the Davis' daughter, Tasha, finally makes friends with a new classmate, Briar, her parents are excited, yet fearful. Briar isn't all they had hoped for -being from a broken family and all. But Tasha and Briar's friendship soon becomes more solid, with their secrets being the thread that stitches them together. What are their secrets? What is wrong with Skillute? You'll have to read this to find out!

 

Over the last few years, I've forgotten how much I enjoyed the work of S.P. Miskowski. She writes a quiet kind of horror which is the kind I prefer these days. The town of Skillute reminds me in some ways of Charles L. Grant's Oxrun Station. The history of Skillute can be found in a few of Miskowski's other books, (THE SKILLUTE CYCLE), but it's not necessary to read them to "get" this one. They all take place in different time periods so that the history of Skillute unfolds in front of you, mostly through the eyes of its women.

 

There are ghosts in this town, there are witches and there are spirits as of yet undefined. Not everything is spelled out for you like a game of Scrabble. Some things you have to figure out for yourself. I enjoy that. I feel that the author respects me enough to trust me to see where she's going. To see the meaning-to see the inevitable end. And boy, that end?! I suspect it's going to raise some hackles out there! It didn't raise mine though: for me, it ended on a perfect note.

 

I loved this tale of small town life, the supernatural, and most of all: the people. The characters here came alive and while none of them were perfect, they all came across as real to me and as such? I felt for them. Maybe you could let yourself feel for them too?

 

My highest recommendation!

 

Available February 22, but you can pre-order here: THE WORST IS YET TO COME

 

*Thank you to S. P. Miskowski for providing a free e-ARC with no strings attached. I freely chose to read and review this book honestly.*

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