Book Review: Just Like Home by Sarah Gailey

Title: Just Like Home
Author: Sarah Gailey
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: July 19, 2022
Print length: 352 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“Come home.” Vera’s mother called and Vera obeyed. In spite of their long estrangement, in spite of the memories — she’s come back to the home of a serial killer. Back to face the love she had for her father and the bodies he buried there.

Coming home is hard enough for Vera, and to make things worse, she and her mother aren’t alone. A parasitic artist has moved into the guest house out back, and is slowly stripping Vera’s childhood for spare parts. He insists that he isn’t the one leaving notes around the house in her father’s handwriting… but who else could it possibly be?

There are secrets yet undiscovered in the foundations of the notorious Crowder House. Vera must face them, and find out for herself just how deep the rot goes.

Sarah Gailey’s books are always a little bit out-there, full of surprises and strange situations and characters who take some time to truly “get.” Just Like Home, though, is the first book I’ve ready by them that I’d describe as flat-out creepy… and occasionally pretty gross. Still a great read though!

In Just Like Home, Vera returns to her family home after many years away, summoned by her dying mother Daphne to clean out the house in preparation for her death.

It was the house her father built, and she needed to treat it right.

Daphne is in terrible condition, unable to eat and living on lemonade alone, bedridden, oozing and menacing and strange. Vera and Daphne haven’t seen each other in over a decade, and there’s years-worth of animosity to unpack and tiptoe around.

“I think you have to know someone in order to truly love them, and you have to love someone in order to really hate them. There’s the thin hate we have for strangers. […] And then there’s the thick, true, smothering hate we have for those we know best. And that, Vera-baby, that’s what I had for you. That’s what bubbled up in me and stuck.

The house itself is disturbing, full of dark spaces that connect one to another. And why is the basement door, right next to Vera’s old bedroom door, always locked?

As the book reveals, Vera’s beloved father is the renowned serial killer Francis Crowder, who died in prison several years after his arrest and incarceration. The basement was his murder lair, where he’d chain up his victims and drain them of the “grease” that had built up inside them, turning them corrupt and evil from the inside out. Crowder House is an infamous location, popular with murder tourists and a string of artists who pay Daphne for access, trying to feed their artistic muses on the misery left behind in the house.

But when Vera returns, many of her memories center around Francis. He may have been a serial killer, but to Vera, he was her sole source of love, connection, and nurturing during her childhood. One of the more shocking aspects of Just Like Home is the carefully built portrayal of a daughter who loves everything about her father, even his most terrible deeds.

“I watched you eat up his love like a crab eating a seafloor corpse, one pinch at a time.”

The wording choices throughout the book emphasize the creepy, scary nature of Crowder House as well as how much Vera is not okay.

Vera could feel the question of who would speak next filling up the room like mustard gas in a trench.

At the beginning, she seems like a survivor, someone who’s lived through a horrific childhood but is more or less “normal”. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that Vera is not at all well-adjusted, that her worldview is absolutely dependent on the lessons she learned from her parents, and that her driving motivations and needs are not about moving forward or leaving the past behind her.

There was so much, she was sure, that he’d meant to teach her. Surely he’d seen something of himself in her, something that deserved to be loved and nurtured.

The horror elements become more explicit toward the end of the book, including a supernatural element that I was initially taken aback by, but ultimately found pretty darned cool, actually. The ending is twisted, and I’m not sure I totally get exactly what happened… but it was fascinating and disturbing to read, and I just couldn’t look away.

Just Like Home tells a story of twisted love and the power of home. It’s odd and scary and horrible in so many ways, yet utterly compelling too. If you enjoy chilling reads, check this one out.

Book Review: The House on Tradd Street by Karen White

Title: The House on Tradd Street
Author: Karen White
Narrator: Aimée Bruneau
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: 2008
Print length: 329 pages
Audio length: 13 hours, 10 minute
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Practical Melanie Middleton hates to admit she can see ghosts. But she’s going to have to accept it. An old man she recently met has died, leaving her his historic Tradd Street home, complete with housekeeper, dog, and a family of ghosts anxious to tell her their secrets.

Enter Jack Trenholm, a gorgeous writer obsessed with unsolved mysteries. He has reason to believe that diamonds from the Confederate Treasury are hidden in the house. So he turns the charm on with Melanie, only to discover he’s the smitten one…

It turns out Jack’s search has caught the attention of a malevolent ghost. Now, Jack and Melanie must unravel a mystery of passion, heartbreak, and even murder.

This contemporary novel might not have been an obvious choice for me, but since it was my book group’s pick for May, I felt compelled to give it a try. And while it held my attention, there were a few too many eye-rolling moments for me to feel that it was anything more than just an okay read.

In The House on Tradd Street, main character Melanie is a realtor who specializes in Charleston’s historical homes, although she secretly hates them with a passion. She may tell herself it’s because they’re all money pits, but in reality, as a woman who’s spent her whole life seeing and hearing ghosts, these old homes are just too fraught with supernatural encounters for her to ever be able to appreciate them.

As the book opens, a man she thinks is a potential seller ends up leaving her his beautiful but utterly decrepit home, as well a letter imploring her to find out the truth about his mother’s disappearance over 70 years earlier. The local gossip would have it that she ran off with another man, but her son never believed the story, and his dying wish is for his mother’s reputation to be cleared.

To complicate matters, a bestselling author who specializes in historical mysteries asks to partner with Melanie, offering to assist with the house restoration project in exchange for access to the house’s attic and stashes of old records. Stuck with an unwanted house and ghosts who don’t want to leave her alone, Melanie reluctantly agrees.

There are multiple mysteries to solve — what really happened to Louisa Vanderhorst? Are there really diamonds hidden somewhere in the house? What does the menacing spirit that haunts the house want from Melanie? And who will she choose in the evolving love triangle?

Sorry, that one’s not actually a mystery… it’s obvious from the start which way the love story piece of the plot is going. As is so much else of the novel, unfortunately.

The answer to Louisa’s disappearance is pretty clear from the get-go, with only the details needing to be spelled out. The writing makes it fairly obvious early on that the commonly accepted explanation isn’t the true answer. It’s amazing to me that anyone buys it, and it certainly takes Melanie long enough to clue into the truth.

I was caught up enough in the story to just go with it most of the time, and the investigation into the house’s mysteries includes some clever clues and interesting answers. Overall, though, the plot is on the hokey/cheesy side, and the book — written in 2008 — hasn’t aged particularly well.

Some of the datedness probably can’t be helped. If an author is going to include references to technology in a novel, chances are that it’ll feel out of date within a few years. Here, between mentioning her IPod and Blackberry and hanging up a call by “closing” her cell phone, as well as the office secretary handing Melanie a stack of message slips, it’s clear that the characters are not living in the same tech world as we are. Again, that’s not usually a problem for me, but maybe because these kind of things happen a lot in this book, it was distracting.

More problematic are some of the social/interpersonal descriptions that are not only dated, but also highly cringe-worthy. Jack, the main love interest, is such an alpha male, asserting his dominance in all sorts of irritating ways, including insisting on using a nickname for Melanie despite being asked repeatedly not too. I think his arrogance is supposed to make him sexy and roguish, but to me, he just comes off as an ass.

There’s also an awful moment where the main character mentions that she’s going to donate some of the proceeds of her inheritance to the Daughters of the Confederacy (because — spoiler!! — the diamonds were originally from Jefferson Davis, and his intent was apparently to use them to support war widows and orphans). I’m sorry, but I don’t care what the intent was… supporting anything connected to the Confederacy just is not a good look. Ick.

On top of this, Melanie is a bad friend. Her best friend is a historical preservation professor at the College of Charleston (convenient!), but in every single scene with her, Melanie thinks about how terribly she dresses or disparages her in other ways. It’s awful. Ick again.

As I said, this was mostly a quick read, and it held my attention — but the annoying and/or problematic and/or predictable aspects of the story keep this from being a great reading experience. There are more books in the series (presumably more stories about haunted houses), but I don’t intend to continue.

Book Review: A Stitch in Time by Kelley Armstrong

Title: A Stitch in Time
Author: Kelley Armstrong
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Publication date: October 31, 2020
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Time slip/ghost story
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Thorne Manor has always been haunted…and it has always haunted Bronwyn Dale. As a young girl, Bronwyn could pass through a time slip in her great-aunt’s house, where she visited William Thorne, a boy her own age, born two centuries earlier. After a family tragedy, the house was shuttered and Bronwyn was convinced that William existed only in her imagination.

Now, twenty years later Bronwyn inherits Thorne Manor. And when she returns, William is waiting.

William Thorne is no longer the boy she remembers. He’s a difficult and tempestuous man, his own life marred by tragedy and a scandal that had him retreating to self-imposed exile in his beloved moors. He’s also none too pleased with Bronwyn for abandoning him all those years ago.

As their friendship rekindles and sparks into something more, Bronwyn must also deal with ghosts in the present version of the house. Soon she realizes they are linked to William and the secret scandal that drove him back to Thorne Manor. To build a future, Bronwyn must confront the past. 

Who doesn’t love a good time-slip/haunted house/ghost story romance? I was ready to love this book from page 1.

At age 38, Bronwyn is an established history professor, a widow of eight years, and the new owner of Thorne Manor, the Yorkshire estate she’s just inherited from her great-aunt. Some of her happiest memories are from her summers at Thorne Manor, but also, some of her worst.

As a small child, Bronwyn finds a time slip, allowing her to travel back in time 200 years to play with William, a boy her age who lives in the house. At age five, her family chalks up her William experiences to having an imaginary friend. After an absence of ten years due to her parents’ divorce, Bronwyn returns at age 15, and once again slips back and forth in time. This time around, William is also 15, and their friendship begins to blossom into love. But a family tragedy occurs in Bronwyn’s time, and she leaves Thorne Manor, seemingly for good.

As the story opens, adult Bronwyn arrives back at the manor once more. She’s convinced herself that her time with William wasn’t real, so she’s startled by a vivid dream where she wakes up in his bed. Soon, she realizes that the time slips are real after all, and she is able to reconnect with William, who is now an adult as well.

William at first is angry and tries to send her away, believing she abandoned him all those years ago. As they spend time together, he’s able to understand why she disappeared from his life, and their reunion quickly becomes passionate as they fall back into the love that started so many years earlier.

There are complications. Bronwyn, in her own time, sees ghosts. She encounters three very distinct ghosts, and all seem to have messages for her. Are they trying to warn her or scare her away?

In William’s time, she learns that he’s retreated to his country home in part because of scandal and rumors. His younger sister has disappeared, his best friend’s wife has disappeared and is presumed dead, and his former fiancée is missing as well. Gossip depicts William as a murderous mad lord, luring victims to their death on the moors. Can any of this be true? Bronwyn doesn’t believe William is capable of murder, but clearly, someone killed the people who haunt her own time, and she’s determined to learn the truth and free the spirits of the dead.

Ah, what a fun, captivating read! Yes, a big suspension of disbelief is required, but that’s to be expected in a novel where the main plot hinges on slipping through time.

I loved that Bronwyn is a mature, professional woman with a clear head on her shoulders. She’s smart and reasonable, and has also suffered in her life. She understands love and loss, and while William was her first love, he wasn’t her only love. It’s also pretty cool to see her enjoy her time in William’s world not just as a romantic interlude, but as an amazing experience as an historian, learning all she can about daily life in that era from first-hand experience.

The mystery is really well constructed and kept me guessing. The author does such a skillful job of sprinkling clues and red herrings that my suspicions really were all over the place, and I definitely went down the wrong path in my mind. I was pleased with the resolution and how well the answers fit together with what we’d learned about the various characters.

William and Bronwyn have great chemistry and mutual respect. I love that even when they’re trying to figure out what a future together might look like, Bronwyn never considers giving up her own world to live in his. She values her career, her independence, and her friends and family — she’ll spend as much time with William as she can, but she won’t make him her entire world. And to his credit, he doesn’t ask that of her.

I did find the time-slipping a little too easy. Bronwyn can basically slip back and forth at will, so that it starts to feel practically ordinary. If William has a busy day ahead, she’ll plan to pop back home to take care of her kitten and return for dinner. It starts to sound as if she’s just going down the road, rather than jumping back and forth across centuries.

Also, I had to laugh that Bronwyn has her smartphone with her when she time-slips, and that William just accepts that she can take photos and play music with her bizarre little device. And, the fact that William has apparently added to his fortune by investing based on what he learned about the future from 15-year-old Bronwyn… ummm, okay.

Still, I will freely admit that my secretly-a-sucker-for-a-good-romance heart really enjoyed the love story, and I got very caught up in the ghosts and murder mystery too.

A Stitch in Time is, plain and simple, a sweep-you-up kind of romantic tale, with great gothic elements to make it so much more.

I’ve never read any books by this author before now, but I understand that she’s a prolific urban fantasy writer and that A Stitch in Time was a big departure for her. Well done! Goodreads lists this book as the first of two, which confuses me a little because the story has a very satisfactory ending.

Still, if the story of Thorne Manor, William and Bronwyn, and time slips continues? I’ll be there for it.

Take A Peek Book Review: The Agony House by Cherie Priest

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Denise Farber has just moved back to New Orleans with her mom and step-dad. They left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and have finally returned, wagering the last of their family’s money on fixing up an old, rundown house and converting it to a bed and breakfast. Nothing seems to work around the place, which doesn’t seem too weird to Denise. The unexplained noises are a little more out of the ordinary, but again, nothing too unusual. But when floors collapse, deadly objects rain down, and she hears creepy voices, it’s clear to Denise that something more sinister lurks hidden here. Answers may lie in an old comic book Denise finds concealed in the attic: the lost, final project of a famous artist who disappeared in the 1950s. Denise isn’t budging from her new home, so she must unravel the mystery-on the pages and off-if she and her family are to survive…

My Thoughts:

Similarly to her work in the terrific I Am Princess X, in The Agony House author Cherie Priest tells a gripping story with comic book illustrations mixed in to tell a piece of the tale. When Denise discovers the hidden comic book in the creepy attic of her new house (which she bluntly refers to as a “craphole” at all times), the book seems to be a clue to the unexplainable events happening to the family as they try to make the old place livable once again.

Denise is a great main character — clearly very smart, devoted to her family, but unhappy with being dragged away from her friends back in Houston and forced to live in this awful house. As she settles in and gets to know some of the teens in her neighborhood, we get a picture of the devastation left by the Storm (as they refer to it), even after so many years. The book deals with issues around economic hardship, gentrification, and privilege, not in a preachy way, but by showing the struggles and resentments of the characters and the new understandings they need to reach in order to get along. The social lessons here feel organic and important to the story, and I appreciated seeing the characters come to terms with one another in all sorts of interesting ways.

I’d place The Agony House somewhere between middle grade and young adult fiction. The main characters are high school seniors, but the events and the narrative would be fine for younger readers, middle school or above, so long as they’re okay with ghosts and spookiness. I really enjoyed the comic book pages and how they relate to the main story, and thought it was all very cleverly put together. As an adult reader, I saw the plot resolution twist coming pretty early on, but that didn’t lessen the satisfaction of seeing it all work out, and I think it’ll be a great surprise for readers in the target audience.

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The details:

Title: The Agony House
Author: Cherie Priest
Illustrator: Tara O’Connor
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Publication date: September 25, 2018
Length: 272 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Library

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