Book Review: “The Small Hand” by Susan Hill.

The Small Hand by Susan Hill is a ghost story but not the kind you would tell around the campfire to spook your friends. It is a story of sorrow and guilt, while touching on aspects of mental illness. The ghosts in the fiction of the piece are definitely real, but they are also skeletons in the closet for at least one character, and an impetus for self-harm.

Adam Snow is a book dealer who deals with rare and expensive books for private clients, searching across the globe for whatever those clients might be willing to pay for. During one trip to a client’s home, Adam stumbles upon an old, decrepit house in the woods. He feels drawn to the place, and then even more so when he feels a child’s hand gripping his. However, when he looks down he discovers that there’s no child there… at least not a living one, anyway.

Adam flees the property but the presence doesn’t always go away. Even when he travels to a monastery in France in search of a rare book for the aforementioned client, he feels the hand again when wandering the grounds. The “child” leads him to a pool of water, pulling stronger as they get nearer. It seems that every time he goes towards water, he has to fight the urge to fall in.

He ends up seeking the advice of his brother Hugo, who had a breakdown himself and almost died in a similar fashion. Hugo dismisses the idea of a ghost, trying to pass off Adam’s problems as simply a breakdown of his own. However, Adam’s search for answers leads him back to the house to discover some unsettling secrets about their past, which leads to a confrontation with Hugo and ultimately uncovering guilty secrets.

While the supernatural does exist in this story, Hill may be using the hand to represent the urge to harm one’s self. Some people may be able to let go of the hand for good, while some are not, which may lead to dire consequences for them and their loved ones.

On the surface, The Small Hand works as a spooky ghost story. However, the stock spookiness inherent in such stories is replaced by melancholy here. Instead of frightening us sometimes ghosts can sadden us, especially if they reflect what we detest in ourselves

Mini-book review: “Fever Dream” by Samanta Schweblin.

The title of Samanta Schweblin’s novel Fever Dream (translated form the Spanish by Megan McDowell) is apt for both the experience of the main character as well as the reader. A woman named Amanda slowly dies in a hospital room, carrying on a conversation with a young boy named David—or perhaps he is yet another hallucination as she relives her final moments. As he repeatedly tells her about various details in the story she tells, “that is not important.”

The story is told entirely through dialogue between the two characters, with most of the narration of previous events told from Amanda’s perspective. Throughout the conversation we learn the plot of the story—however it would do the book no justice to offer a summary here, as Schweblin manages to make the reader’s piecing together the plot part of the plot. The actual events aren’t as important as the understanding of the events, or at least to the extent in which Amanda tries to grasp their meaning right before she dies.

The book is best read in one sitting, and then if you can stomach the psychological trauma of the characters and depictions of poisoned children, re-read. It’s an unusual book and carries a lot of weight but isn’t undecipherable. The book feels like a dire thought experiment and should gain the respect of anybody who reads it, but it will most serve anybody who’s looking for something different.

Book review: “Running” by Cara Hoffman.

In the midst of a chaotic, violent and crime-laden world human relationships can still form, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worst, more often than not both. This happens in Cara Hoffman’s latest novel, Running. The story follows Birdie, Jasper and Milo, three young people called “runners”—people who board a train full of tourists, convince them to stay the Athens hotel they work for, then make sure they don’t leave once they see how decrepit the place really is while the person behind the desk takes their passports and other possessions to hold for them. As Birdie puts it in her description of the job, if any of their possessions go missing once they’ve surrendered them over, it’s their own fault. Occasionally they have run-ins with a young Irish man, Declan, who acts as a sort of leader to the group, although not because they need one but because they are too afraid of him to oppose him.

The story is told from different time periods in a non-sequential order, starting with Birdie returning to Athens and learning of Jasper’s death. It then switches back to when the two first met, and Jasper taking Birdie back to their hotel room where she meets his boyfriend Milo, an ex-boxer who is too sensitive to fit into society considering his masculine image. It alternates between these two time periods as well as Birdie as a preteen living with her uncle while she develops her obsession with fire and explosives and a time set into the future when Milo has moved to New York and is now a successful poet and teacher.

The narrative can get confusing at times and it only uses first person from Birdie’s perspective, which can get confusing and jarring if the reader isn’t paying attention. The multiple plots from different time periods in these characters’ lives do flow in a dramatic arc, which helps. The characters sometimes slip into caricatures of the type of people they are supposed to be (Milo’s student who he also lives with, a young African American woman from New York comes immediately to mind). Yet the gritty storytelling distracts from this enough that we still care what happens to each character next, such as when Birdie becomes pregnant or an Egyptian they befriended (and unbeknownst to him, betrayed) becomes the prime suspect in a terrorist attack that he likely didn’t commit.

There’s so many twists and turns this story takes that makes it hard to give too much away without spoiling the effect of the storytelling. Hoffman knows how to keep the reader’s interest throughout, despite the unorthodox shifts in narrative and sometimes weak characterizations. Running is definitely worth the read, but be warned that it isn’t for the faint of heart.

Book review: “Moshi Moshi” by Banana Yoshimoto.

Banana Yoshimoto’s novel Moshi Moshi (translated from the Japanese by Asa Yoneda) tells the story of a young woman struggling to move on with her life while she and her mother grieve over her father’s bizarre death. Yoshie’s father, a prominent local rock musician, was found dead in a car with another woman in what looks to be a murder-suicide (or possibly a double suicide, we never find out for sure). The exact nature of the father’s relationship is left as just as much a mystery to the reader as it is to Yoshie*, but the story isn’t really about his death as much as it affects those closest to him.

The story begins with Yoshie’s mother moving into her apartment in Shimokitazawa as she feels her late husband’s presence in their old home in Meguro. At first Yoshie is reluctant but they both needed each other’s support, not to mention a change of place. Over time the move helps both of them heal from the wound that was dealt to them both. Yoshie works in the bistro across the street, where she meets the manager of the club where her father often played. He frequents the bistro until the two of them start dating. She also gets a couple of visits from a mysterious woman whose first husband also nearly died when having an affair with the woman who killed Yoshie’s father. Throughout the book Yoshie also seeks information and finally solace from one of her father’s former band-mates.

The change that Yoshie’s life goes through is strongly tied to the sense of place, as exemplified by a passage in which she and her mother down an entire cake in the apartment:

I’d never dreamed that Mom and I could do anything as fun as gorging on an entire cake until our bellies ached. We weren’t being hysterical, or depressed. We’d just thought of something nice to do, and done it together. That kind of thing felt wrong in Meguro, but the new apartment somehow made it possible.

In Shimokitazawa Yoshie gets a job at a successful bistro, becoming more or less the owner’s apprentice. She loves her work and the area where she lives and enjoys that she’s seeing somebody. It all has the comfort of a normal adult life. Yet she still dreams of her father. She’s not repressing memories or feelings—she and her mother constantly have conversations about how they feel and memories of times the three of them had as a family. But Yoshie has trouble processing her feelings, and needs all the help she can get in order to work them out as best she can.

Moshi Moshi has a slice-of-life feel throughout the book. It has a plot and it flows well, but it sets itself up in ways that a reader may feel misleading. The death of Yoshie’s father and the visit from the woman whose husband also had an affair with the dead woman implies that this book could have been a mystery. Yoshie’s mother seeing the ghost around the old apartment and Yoshie’s recurring dreams suggest that it could have been a ghost story of some sort. But these end up becoming fact-of-life occurrences, adding to the story but not taking it over.

That is not to say the book is disjointed or jarring. The light atmosphere the book presents with its grim setup may seem conflicted at first, but it only serves to help make the point. Even when struck by the horrifying loss of a loved one, life moves on. We may need some help and a change of place to help it do so, but it moves on regardless.


*Or Yocchan. Characters in the book refer to her with both names. I’m sorry, in the limited time I had to do research before publishing this blog post I couldn’t find out if one is the common nickname of the other, or if there was some other reason why her names were interchangeable. Perhaps somebody could help me in the comments below?

Catching up on some reading, will resume regular reviews this week.

As regular readers may have noticed I didn’t get around to a book review last week, either. I had intentionally skipped the previous week’s review so I could try to get caught up on some other reading. I ended up also borrowing the fifth book of My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard. At over six hundred pages it was an undertaking, but that still isn’t something I have difficulty reading over a weekend. But other things came up and I wasn’t able to finish it until just a few minutes ago.

I’m not going to review Knausgaard’s book. It’s a large, intimidating work and besides,  I wouldn’t feel comfortable reviewing it until the sixth book comes out in English so I can read it anyway. It’s not six books in a series of novels but rather a novel so long that it’s split up into six books. I highly recommend it, but I won’t list my thoughts here… at least not yet, anyway.

I did borrow another book, Moshi Moshi by Banana Yoshimoto in order to review it tomorrow, or possibly Tuesday. I probably won’t get to read it until tomorrow. I still have all those back issues of magazines which I subscribe to that I haven’t read yet. I’m going to try to get at least some of those later today. Right now I want to try some fiction writing of my own, which I haven’t done in a while. I haven’t abandoned the centaur idea, but have settled on a form with which to tell that story. But today I’m going to just try a writing exercise in order to get back into the groove of things.

Book Review: “Universal Harvester” by John Darnielle

John Darnielle’s recent novel Universal Harvester does not belong to the mystery genre exactly, however it does raise a lot of questions that we hope for a big payoff at the end when we realize all of the missed clues scattered throughout the story. Or perhaps the book could leave us with more questions than answers but still be satisfying in the way that it does so while still hinting at its meaning. Sadly, despite the intriguing ideas and tone Universal Harvester follows through on neither promise.

Jeremy Heldt, in his early twenties, works at a video store in the late nineties and still lives with his father. Their mother died six years earlier in a car crash, and her loss still looms over the household. After a couple of customers returned tapes to the store complaining that they contained some home-recorded footage spliced into the videotape that they rented, he examines the footage. It turns out to be incomplete scenes that depict weird moments in a shed somewhere, including people underneath a tarp getting kicked by somebody whose face we never see and a woman whose head is covered in a hood being asked to do strange things such as standing on one leg.

Jeremy, Stephanie (one of the customers) and Sarah Jane (the store’s owner) each try to unravel the mystery of these scenes. Sarah Jane finds the house in a neighboring town (the bulk of the story takes place in Nevada, Iowa) that she identifies from the videos. She meets the woman who lives in the house, Lisa Sample, who at first denies any knowledge of the videos but ultimately befriends Sarah.

We then get Lisa’s backstory, or rather her mother Irene’s, for a good portion of the book. We learn that she becomes disenfranchised with life with her family, having moved away from her familiar church. She gets sucked into a traveling religious sect (possibly a cult) and her husband and daughter search across the country to find her.

The book takes a slow, quiet place despite these strange happenings, giving it a sort of Twin Peaks feel. Amidst the main events of the story we see Jeremy’s father starting to date again and Jeremy’s struggle with future work prospects, not wanting to disappoint Sarah Jane. The book starts off in third person and remains that way for the bulk of it, but occasionally the narrator switches to first, revealing that we’re reading somebody’s attempt years later to piece together the story from multiple sources. Aside from the videotapes, this is the biggest mystery of the book: who is this stranger? How will we find out?

Unfortunately, the ending ties most of the story up too nicely and yet unevenly and the reveal of the narrator is disappointing. The ending is only unpredictable by just how predictable it is. The story up to that point is so intriguing that the end feels like a let-down. It works, it makes sense, but it shouldn’t have to. There’s also something about the narration of first person that really irritates me at the end but I can’t give away my gripe without giving away a major spoiler. (Likewise, one of the big questions of the book isn’t answered exactly but only hinted at—at least Darnielle leaves that one up to interpretation.)

This isn’t to say that Universal Harvester isn’t worth reading. Right up to the ending the book is intriguing and it isn’t exactly a “whodunnit” anyway. But I wish the payoff at the end had more of an impact than it had, in order to drive the themes of the book home more.


This is just a quick note at the end to say that I will be skipping next week’s book review. I have to catch up on too many other projects, including some other reading, that I’m going to take the time to work on those over the next few days and won’t have time to read a new book to review.

Book Review: “The Gardens of Consolation” by Parisa Reza.

Starting just after World War II and spanning over the course of twenty years, Parisa Reza’s The Gardens of Consolation (translated from the French by Adriana Hunter) ends with the military coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh (as it is spelled in the book). However, the book is not just a history lesson; instead, it focuses on three members of a family in Tehran and the changes of their world as seen through their eyes.

The book begins with nine-year-old Talla being led away from the only home she knew, an isolated village in the mountains. Her husband Sardar had just returned from working in Tehran for three years. After his exposure to the world he became convinced that his town was cursed and he convinced her to travel with him back to the city (specifically, the district of Shemiran). Even though they move to a more modern setting than what they were used to, they still live simply through agricultural means. They also have a hard time adjusting to modern life. Both are illiterate, and Talla in particular doesn’t understand technology well. For example, in one flash forward we see that when she is an older woman a television set is introduced to the household, and she doesn’t understand that the small people in the set aren’t real, resulting in her wishing them good night at the end of the day.

By contrast, their son Bahram is the first in the family to go to school and learn of the outside world. The narrative of the book skips ahead through various phases if him growing up, settling on a period of his life when he finally becomes politically active, supporting Mossadegh and nationalizing Iranian oil. Yet, while he has a passion for learning he seems to only become involved in political parties through peer pressure (although he ultimately chooses a party opposing that of one of his best friends), preferring to let life pass him by while he sits under a tree on his family’s property. We also follow him as he chases women; however, he sees them more of a goal to attain as objects of desire than as other people deserving his affection.

His parents are supportive but disapprove of his extracurricular activities, which come to a head twice: once, he nearly got himself killed by getting embroiled in an affair with the “wrong” woman during holy celebration. The second time he joined a protest supporting Mossadegh and nearly got himself killed in the riot that erupted. Finally the coup happened, and just as he was pressured to get into politics he was pressured to burn any evidence that he joined any political party. He convinces his friends, even the one who joined an opposing party, to do the same.

Meanwhile, his parents move on with their existence. Sardar becomes transfixed to the radio but Talla has no interest in the country’s politics. Sardar doesn’t believe that there’s a sea beyond Iran but just endless mountains, while Talla seems only interested in the world around them. Bahram doesn’t contradict his parents worldview. Instead, despite the political system crumbling around him, he still obsesses with his own love life, or rather, the lack thereof.

The Gardens of Consolation freely shifts in tone depending on which character it follows but rarely feels jarring. It references points in Iranian history from the particular time period in which it takes place, but focuses it through the lens of a family trying to simply live their life in a world that is increasingly becoming less familiar. It reminds us that while the world can undergo major changes at large, even the most basic societal units can retain their own identity.