Book Review: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

Title: Ninth House
Author: Leigh Bardugo
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: October 8, 2019
Length: 458 pages
Genre: Fantasy/horror
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Galaxy “Alex” Stern is the most unlikely member of Yale’s freshman class. Raised in the Los Angeles hinterlands by a hippie mom, Alex dropped out of school early and into a world of shady drug dealer boyfriends, dead-end jobs, and much, much worse. By age twenty, in fact, she is the sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved multiple homicide. Some might say she’s thrown her life away. But at her hospital bed, Alex is offered a second chance: to attend one of the world’s most elite universities on a full ride. What’s the catch, and why her?

Still searching for answers to this herself, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. These eight windowless “tombs” are well-known to be haunts of the future rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street and Hollywood’s biggest players. But their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive.

Ninth House was one of the biggest, buzziest releases of fall 2019. Author Leigh Bardugo is a wildly popular YA author, and with Ninth House, she ventures into adult fiction with a bang, getting hyped by the master, Stephen King, among other notables. 

Whoo boy, with praise like that, how can a mere human like me ever attempt to write a review?

Let’s give it a try.

In Ninth House, we’re plunged right into the action as Alex Stern hides out alone with a grave injury, contemplating what went wrong and what happens next. But what exactly happened, and what is this thing called Lethe that we see her thinking about? All will be revealed…

Alex arrives at Yale completely unprepared. She’s an impoverished high school dropout, a former drug user and dealer, and the sole survivor of a brutal mass murder. She’s offered a fresh start with a full scholarship to Yale, courtesy of Lethe House. 

Yale’s most famous exclusive society is Skull & Bones, but there are actually many more. In Ninth House, the Ancient Eight are bastions of the rich and famous and their up and coming offspring, and each house has its own connection to the arcane. The houses’ powers are what fuel their alumni’s fortunes and influence, and they each have distinctive rituals that keep their magic topped up and charged. Lethe, the ninth house, is not one of these. Rather, Lethe was founded as a watchdog — they’re the ones who monitor the rituals and make sure they keep within the bounds of the rules, preventing uncontrolled magic from escaping into the world, and keeping the Grays (ghosts) from crossing over from beyond the Veil.

While Lethe members don’t have magic themselves, they have access to a vast store of knowledge and materials that allows them to carry out the warding and protective functions that keep the houses’ rituals operating mostly within determined limits. Alex is different, though. She doesn’t need Lethe’s elixirs to see beyond — she’s been cursed all her life by her ability to see and interact with Grays. And now that she’s at Yale, she’s caught up in unprecedented Gray activity, as well as a murder on campus that could be unrelated… or it could be the key to a sinister plot that threatens the magical equilibrium.

Alex is a fabulous lead character. She’s edgy and wild, but has a past that torments her and secrets that she’s only now coming to terms with. She’s brave even when terrified, and despite being a loner, manages to make connections with her roommate and a fellow Lethe member in ways that support all the best elements of true female friendship. 

The magical systems are fascinating, but — a warning for the squeamish — do not read this book if you have a weak stomach! There are some pretty disgusting scenes, with copious amounts of blood, body parts, guts, and more. Ick — but it’s not gratuitous. The violence and horror completely serve the plot, and I normally don’t mind horror, but there were a few places that left me feeling like I needed to scrub my brain in order to remove some particularly unpleasant images.

I do have a few quibbles — chiefly, this book is so detail-heavy that unless you’re prepared to either take notes or read straight through (stock up on coffee!), there’s almost too much to keep track of. Each house has its powers, its players, its agenda, its rituals… and we really do need to be able to distinguish one from the other in order to follow Alex’s investigation and the conspiracy it reveals. None of this is a negative, but it does feel overwhelming to try to pick up the pieces of the plot again after taking a break to — I don’t know — maybe sleep or work or eat.

Do I recommend Ninth House? Absolutely! It’s a mesmerizing, engrossing read. But I do suggest picking a time to read it when you have time to dive in and really concentrate. 

Book Review: The Mother-In-Law by Sally Hepworth

 

A twisty, compelling novel about one woman’s complicated relationship with her mother-in-law that ends in murder…

From the moment Lucy met her husband’s mother, Diana, she was kept at arm’s length. Diana was exquisitely polite, and properly friendly, but Lucy knew that she was not what Diana envisioned. But who could fault Diana? She was a pillar of the community, an advocate for social justice who helped female refugees assimilate to their new country. Diana was happily married to Tom, and lived in wedded bliss for decades. Lucy wanted so much to please her new mother-in-law.

That was five years ago.

Now, Diana has been found dead, a suicide note near her body. Diana claims that she no longer wanted to live because of a battle with cancer.

But the autopsy finds no cancer.
The autopsy does find traces of poison and suffocation.
Who could possibly want Diana dead?
Why was her will changed at the eleventh hour to disinherit both of her adult children and their spouses?

With Lucy’s secrets getting deeper and her relationship with her mother-in-law growing more complex as the pages turn, this new novel from Sally Hepworth is sure to add to her growing legion of fans.

The Mother-In-Law kept me guessing all the way to the end. What a ride!

Through chapters that alternate between the past and the present. we learn about Lucy’s highly charged relationship with her mother-in-law. Lucy’s mother died while Lucy was still young, and she’d hoped that Diana would be like a second mother to her — embracing, warm, someone to share love and secrets and confidences with. Diana is none of these things — a stiff, proper, upper class woman who seems more focused on the refugee women she helps than on her own children. And every time Lucy thinks they’ve finally made a connection, Diana’s coldness or insensitive comments push Lucy away one more time.

We also get chapters from Diana’s perspective, showing us the other side of the story. Diana would be no one’s definition of warm and cuddly, but by showing her background and her thoughts, we gain an understanding of why she behaves as she does, and how her internal thought processes run in very different lines that what’s obvious from the outside.

As the story opens, Lucy and her husband Ollie get the news that Diana is dead. While it initially appears to be a suicide, there is enough contradictory evidence at the scene to cast doubt on that assumption. Was it murder? If so, who would have a reason to want Diana dead? And why was Diana keeping so many secrets — about her health, and about her intentions for her fortune?

This book is completely absorbing and fascinating. Diana comes across as very unlikable at the start, but as we get to know her, we start to see how her core beliefs stem from the challenges and struggles she experienced as a young woman, and we see how her unwillingness to help her grown children comes not from being miserly, but from trying to get them to work for what they want. At the same time, I can easily imagine how painful it must have been for Lucy to constantly hope for a closeness that just wasn’t available to her, and the hurt she experienced as she perceived herself as being rebuffed and belittled time and time again.

I’ve read several other books by this author, all just as compelling and full of complex characters. The Mother-In-Law is a terrific read — highly recommended!

For more by this author, check out my reviews of:

The Things We Keep (my favorite!)
The Family Next Door
The Mother’s Promise
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The details:

Title: The Mother-In-Law
Author: Sally Hepworth
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: April 23, 2019
Length: 347 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Shelf Control #146: Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Bellweather Rhapsody
Author: Kate Racculia
Published: 2014
Length: 340 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Fifteen years ago, a murder-suicide in room 712 rocked the grand old Bellweather Hotel and the young bridesmaid who witnessed it, Minnie Graves. Now hundreds of high school musicians have gathered at the Bellweather for the annual Statewide festival; Minnie has returned to face her demons; and a blizzard is threatening to trap them all inside. When a young prodigy disappears from infamous room 712, the search for her entwines an eccentric cast of conductors and caretakers, teenagers on the verge and adults haunted by memories. This is a genre-bending page-turner, full of playful nods to pop-culture classics from The Shining to Agatha Christie to Glee.

How and when I got it:

I bought it, years ago!

Why I want to read it:

Somehow or another, I read a bookish friend’s gushing review of this book — I don’t remember who the friend was, or where I read it, but I know that after reading the recommendation, I ordered a copy for myself. I can’t imagine how a book can be reminiscent of both Glee and The Shining, but it sounds quirky and odd enough to appeal to me! Has anyone out there read this book? Any thoughts?

__________________________________

Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

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Shelf Control #141: Things Half in Shadow by Alan Finn

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Things Half in Shadow
Author: Alan Finn
Published: 2014
Length: 448 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Postbellum America makes for a haunting backdrop in this historical and supernatural tale of moonlit cemeteries, masked balls, cunning mediums, and terrifying secrets waiting to be unearthed by an intrepid crime reporter.

The year is 1869, and the Civil War haunts the city of Philadelphia like a stubborn ghost. Mothers in black continue to mourn their lost sons. Photographs of the dead adorn dim sitting rooms. Maimed and broken men roam the streets. One of those men is Edward Clark, who is still tormented by what he saw during the war. Also constantly in his thoughts is another, more distant tragedy–the murder of his mother at the hands of his father, the famed magician Magellan Holmes…a crime that Edward witnessed when he was only ten.

Now a crime reporter for one of the city’s largest newspapers, Edward is asked to use his knowledge of illusions and visual trickery to expose the influx of mediums that descended on Philadelphia in the wake of the war. His first target is Mrs. Lucy Collins, a young widow who uses old-fashioned sleight of hand to prey on grieving families. Soon, Edward and Lucy become entwined in the murder of Lenora Grimes Pastor, the city’s most highly regarded–and by all accounts, legitimate–medium, who dies mid-seance. With their reputations and livelihoods at risk, Edward and Lucy set out to find the real killer, and in the process unearth a terrifying hive of secrets that reaches well beyond Mrs. Pastor.

Blending historical detail with flights of fancy, Things Half in Shadow is a riveting thriller where Medium and The Sixth Sensemeet The Alienist–and where nothing is quite as it seems…

How and when I got it:

I picked this up at the library book sale two years ago. I’d never heard of it before, but once I read the back of the book, I just had to have it.

Why I want to read it:

So many great elements — seances, spiritualism, historical fiction, murder mystery — this book sounds like something I’ll really sink my teeth into! As for why I haven’t read it yet, well, blame the book sale: Each year, I come home with bags of books… and some just never make it up from the bottom of the pile.

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

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Take A Peek Book Review: The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

“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)

The Rules of Blackheath

Evelyn Hardcastle will be murdered at 11:00 p.m.
There are eight days, and eight witnesses for you to inhabit.
We will only let you escape once you tell us the name of the killer.
Understood? Then let’s begin…

***

Evelyn Hardcastle will die. Every day until Aiden Bishop can identify her killer and break the cycle. But every time the day begins again, Aiden wakes up in the body of a different guest. And some of his hosts are more helpful than others…

The most inventive debut of the year twists together a mystery of such unexpected creativity it will leave readers guessing until the very last page.

My Thoughts:

Man, this book. I DNF’d at 40%, then read so many rave reviews that I convinced myself to soldier on. What if I’m missing out? What if there’s a huge payoff? What if it gets tremendously better in the 2nd half?

Nope, should have trusted my gut on this one. I’ve seen it described as “Agatha Christie meets Quantum Leap” — and sure, why not. There’s definitely an Agatha Christie vibe to the set-up. The Hardcastles have invited an assortment of guests to their country estate for a party. Someone will be murdered at this party, and it’s up to our main character to solve the murder. But there’s a twist! The main character doesn’t know who he is or have any memory before waking up on the morning that the book begins. And it turns out that there’s a reason for this — the main character is doomed to inhabit each of eight different people (“hosts”), all of whom have some connection to the Hardcastle family, on a repeating loop. He has basically eight chances to solve the murder as the day repeats itself over and over again, or his memory will be wiped and he’ll start all over again.

There are quite a lot of clever bits in the story, and it would take an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the timelines and all the interlocking pieces of this puzzle. Still, it’s too complicated for its own good, and the fact that the main character doesn’t know himself means that we as readers don’t get to know him either. It all feels like an elaborate charade, and I always felt like a distant observer, rather than getting absorbed by the story or the cast of characters.

On a language note, there was a writing tic that bugged the heck out of me: the constant use of phrasing such as “he is stood…” or “it is sat” (as in, the book is sat on the table, or the girl is stood outside the door). What is that? Is that a UK English vs US English thing? I haven’t come across this before, and the repitition of this phrasing throughout the book made me batty.

Long story short: Yes, I finished the book. Yes, there’s an explanation for the time loop and the set-up, kind of, although the mechanics aren’t explained and the reasoning behind the situation seems pretty flimsy to me. Having never become invested in the characters, I just couldn’t care very much. 500+ pages is a loooong book for something that didn’t grab me. I’m still not sure what all the fuss is about.

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The details:

Title: The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
Author: Stuart Turton
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication date: September 18, 2018
Length: 512 pages
Genre: Murder mystery
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Shelf Control #103: Silent in the Grave

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: Silent in the Grave
Author: Deanna Raybourn
Published: 2006
Length: 435 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

“Let the wicked be ashamed, and let them be silent in the grave.”

These ominous words are the last threat that Sir Edward Grey receives from his killer. Before he can show them to Nicholas Brisbane, the private inquiry agent he has retained for his protection, he collapses and dies at his London home, in the presence of his wife, Julia, and a roomful of dinner guests.

Prepared to accept that Edward’s death was due to a long-standing physical infirmity, Julia is outraged when Brisbane visits and suggests that her husband was murdered. It is a reaction she comes to regret when she discovers damning evidence for herself, and realizes the truth.

Determined to bring the murderer to justice, Julia engages the enigmatic Brisbane to help her investigate Edward’s demise. Dismissing his warnings that the investigation will be difficult, if not impossible, Julia presses forward, following a trail of clues that lead her to even more unpleasant truths, and ever closer to a killer who waits expectantly for her arrival.

How and when I got it:

I bought the Kindle edition a couple of years ago after being introduced to some other of Deanna Raybourn’s works.

Why I want to read it:

The plot itself sounds really engaging — who doesn’t love a Victorian murder mystery? I’ve enjoyed the stand-alone novels I’ve read by this author, and am really enjoying her Veronica Speedwell stories too. The Lady Julia Grey series is quite well-known, and I think it’s about time that I give it a try.

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

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