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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Shelf Control #53: The Mercy of Thin Air

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Welcome to the newest weekly feature here at Bookshelf Fantasies… Shelf Control!

Shelf Control is all about the books we want to read — and already own! Consider this a variation of a Wishing & Waiting post… but looking at books already available, and in most cases, sitting right there on our shelves and e-readers.

Want to join in? See the guidelines and linky at the bottom of the post, and jump on board! Let’s take control of our shelves!

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My Shelf Control pick this week is:

mercy-of-thin-airTitle: The Mercy of Thin Air
Author: Ronlyn Domingue
Published: 2006
Length: 336 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

New Orleans, 1920s. Raziela Nolan is in the throes of a magnificent love affair when she dies in a tragic accident. In an instant, she leaves behind her one true love and her dream of becoming a doctor — but somehow, she still remains. Immediately after her death, Razi chooses to stay between — a realm that exists after life and before whatever lies beyond it.

From this remarkable vantage point, Razi narrates the stories of her lost love, Andrew, and the relationship of Amy and Scott, a couple whose house she haunts almost seventy-five years later. The Mercy of Thin Air entwines these two fateful and redemptive love stories that echo across three generations. From ambitious, forward-thinking Razi, who illegally slips birth control guides into library books; to hip Web designer Amy, who begins to fall off the edge of grief; to Eugenia, caught between since the Civil War, the characters in this wondrous novel sing with life. Evoking the power of love, memory, and time, The Mercy of Thin Air culminates in a startling finish that will leave readers breathless.

How I got it:

I bought it.

When I got it:

About two years ago, after a friend mentioned another book by this author.

Why I want to read it:

Ghost story, New Orleans, romance… plus a timeline that spans years and eras. Absolutely sets my pulse racing just thinking about it!

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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 below!
  • And if you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and have fun!

For more on why I’ve started Shelf Control, check out my introductory post here, or read all about my out-of-control book inventory, here.

And if you’d like to post a Shelf Control button on your own blog, here’s an image to download (with my gratitude, of course!):

Shelf Control

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Book Review: Out Of The Easy

Book Review: Out Of The Easy by Ruta Sepetys

Out of the Easy

In New Orleans in 1950, being the daughter of a prostitute is a guarantee that you’ll never amount to much. But 17-year-old Josie Moraine intends to change her fate. Raised more by the tough-but-loving brothel madam Willie than by her own careless mother, Josie is whip-smart and determined. A hard worker, Josie cleans the brothel each morning, brings Willie all the miscellaneous objects she finds along the way, then works in a bookshop alongside handsome Patrick before retiring to her small bedroom upstairs in the store.

Josie sailed through school, mostly friendless due to constant mocking and disdain about her mother, and is saving up for a college education, even though she realizes that the odds of actually attending college are not in her favor. Meanwhile, Josie knows everyone in the French Quarter and everyone seems to know her.

When two strangers enter Josie’s world, her life suddenly changes as she realizes that people can see the good in her and treat her with respect and kindness. But as Josie sets new goals for herself and starts planning an escape, her old life seems to hold her more and more tightly, and no matter how she struggles, she keeps getting sucked back down into the dirt and squalor of life in the Quarter.

The plot of Out of the Easy follows Josie’s fight to claim a new life for herself, as she deals with a murder investigation, abandonment, threats, and betrayal, extortion, loss, illicit propositions, and the glimmer of a chance at love.

That sounds like a lot, doesn’t it?

This is definitely not your typical young adult novel. Josie does not live in a world of black-and-white morals, and she doesn’t always make the best decisions. She’s dealing with the life she was dealt, and she really does pretty well for herself. How many seventeen-year-olds could live on their own, make their own way, deal with corruption every day without succumbing to it, and still dream of a better life?

The essence of life in the Quarter is sharply painted through the author’s descriptions of the sights, the smells, the sounds. There’s a grittiness and joy amidst the decadence and dirt, and the people in Josie’s world know how to live their lives to the fullest. Along the way, we meet servants, prostitutes, “information men”, and johns, and most are well-developed characters in their own right, making Josie’s world feel very lived in and real. Madam Willie is especially memorable, if a bit stereotypical, as the sharp-tongued, sharp-nailed businesswoman who scolds Josie yet loves her dearly and makes sure her destiny does not lie within the walls of a whorehouse.

Unfortunately, while I enjoyed the plot and the characters, the writing style got in the way quite a bit. For me, it came down to the old writing advice of “show, don’t tell” — and I felt that there was just too much “telling” going on in Out of the Easy. The sentence structure throughout was repetitive, with declarative sentences telling events in line after line:

I took a deep breath and stepped back. I started humming. Charlie stopped bucking. I continued humming and once again picked the towel up off the floor. I walked behind Charlie… I applied pressure to his forehead… I heard the key in the lock…

Those are lines from a page chosen at random, but I can literally open to any page and find the same pattern of noun/verb, noun/verb, noun/verb throughout the entire book. And yet, despite the focus on action sentences, much of the action happens “off-screen” or is resolved within a page or two. We find out through other characters’ conversations about a key development with Josie’s mother; we are introduced to a major threat to Josie — and then see it easily resolved within a chapter. Something about the writing style just left me feeling unsatisfied — it felt more like reading a journal about a set of events rather than being allowed to enter a fictional world and be swept away by it.

And yet, there are some lovely smaller moments. Early on, Josie goes to a rich-people’s party Uptown, and notices a table filled with family photos in sterling frames:

I stared at the pictures. If someone meant something to you, you put their photo in a silver frame and displayed it, like these. I had never seen anything like it. Willie didn’t have any framed photos. Neither did Mother.

Toward the end of the story, it’s significant that Josie does at that point finally have a few cherished photos in frames of their own. It’s a small moment, one presented without much fuss, but it gives a hint at the power of the story and the writer’s ability to create emotions and impact out of a few low-key details.

Overall, I enjoyed Out of the Easy and have no hesitation about recommending it. Still, I felt that there was a certain momentum lacking in the story and in the depth of the characters. I found the setting unusual and interesting, and the characters are a memorable and flavorful bunch, but there was something in the writing that kept me at a distance from the heart of the story throughout the book — so that ultimately, although I was interested, I walked away feeling unsatisfied. I suppose I expected more; what I got was fine, but it just wasn’t as strong or as deep as I’d hoped.

Thursday Quotables: Out of the Easy

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Welcome back to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

If you’d like to participate, it’s really simple:

  • Follow Bookshelf Fantasies, if you please!
  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now.
  • Link up via the linky below (look for the cute froggy face).
  • Make sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com).
  • Have fun!

This week’s Thursday Quotable:

We walked up St. Peter to Royal, back toward the shop. Neither of us spoke. We moved through the afterbirth of celebration, kicking cans and cups out of the way, stepping over pieces of costumes that had been abandoned through the course of the evening. Jesse grabbed a string of milky glass beads hanging from a doorway. He handed them to me, and I put them over my head. The day had a peace about it, like Christmas, when the world stops and gives permission to pause. All over the city, Orleanians were at rest, asleep in their makeup, beads in their beds.

In case you ever wondered what New Orleans was like the morning after Mardi Gras…

Source:  Out of the Easy
Author: Ruta Sepetys
Philomel Books, 2013

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

Link up, or share your quote of the week in the comments.

Wishlist Wednesday

Welcome to Wishlist Wednesday!

The concept is to post about one book from our wish lists that we can’t wait to read. Want to play? Here’s how:

  • Follow Pen to Paper as host of the meme.
  • Do a post about one book from your wishlist and why you want to read it.
  • Add your blog to the linky at the bottom of the post at Pen to Paper.
  • Put a link back to Pen to Paper somewhere in your post.
  • Visit the other blogs and enjoy!

My Wishlist Wednesday book is:

 The Mercy of Thin Air

The Mercy of Thin Air by Ronlyn Domingue

From Goodreads:

New Orleans, 1920s. Raziela Nolan is in the throes of a magnificent love affair when she dies in a tragic accident. In an instant, she leaves behind her one true love and her dream of becoming a doctor — but somehow, she still remains. Immediately after her death, Razi chooses to stay between — a realm that exists after life and before whatever lies beyond it.

From this remarkable vantage point, Razi narrates the stories of her lost love, Andrew, and the relationship of Amy and Scott, a couple whose house she haunts almost seventy-five years later. The Mercy of Thin Air entwines these two fateful and redemptive love stories that echo across three generations. From ambitious, forward-thinking Razi, who illegally slips birth control guides into library books; to hip Web designer Amy, who begins to fall off the edge of grief; to Eugenia, caught between since the Civil War, the characters in this wondrous novel sing with life. Evoking the power of love, memory, and time, The Mercy of Thin Air culminates in a startling finish that will leave readers breathless.

Why do I want to read this?

Okay, I just heard of this book a few days ago, when I found out that I won a different book by this author in a giveaway (yay, me!). I feel like I’m on a roll with picking Wishlist Wednesday books with a New Orleans connection (like my selection a few weeks ago, Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys). A multi-generational story featuring ghosts, New Orleans, modern love, and the Civil War — count me in! I can’t wait to get my hands on this one.

Quick note to Wishlist Wednesday bloggers: Come on back to Bookshelf Fantasies for Flashback Friday! Join me in celebrating the older gems hidden away on our bookshelves. See the introductory post for more details, and come back this Friday to add your flashback favorites!

Wishlist Wednesday

Welcome to Wishlist Wednesday!

The concept is to post about one book from our wish lists that we can’t wait to read. Want to play? Here’s how:

  • Follow Pen to Paper as host of the meme.
  • Do a post about one book from your wishlist and why you want to read it.
  • Add your blog to the linky at the bottom of the post at Pen to Paper.
  • Put a link back to Pen to Paper somewhere in your post.
  • Visit the other blogs and enjoy!

My Wishlist Wednesday book is:

Out of The Easy

Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys

From Amazon:

It’s 1950 and the French Quarter of New Orleans simmers with secrets. Known among locals as the daughter of a brothel prostitute, Josie Moraine wants more out of life than the Big Easy has to offer. She devises a plan get out, but a mysterious death in the Quarter leaves Josie tangled in an investigation that will challenge her allegiance to her mother, her conscience, and Willie Woodley, the brusque madam on Conti Street.

Josie is caught between the dream of an elite college and a clandestine underworld. New Orleans lures her in her quest for truth, dangling temptation at every turn, and escalating to the ultimate test.

With characters as captivating as those in her internationally bestselling novel Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys skillfully creates a rich story of secrets, lies, and the haunting reminder that decisions can shape our destiny.

Why do I want to read this?

I’ve come across a few reviews of this new YA release recently — all raves. The New Orleans setting sounds wonderful. I like that the book is set in 1950; so much of the New Orleans fiction that I’ve read has been set in the 18th or 19th century. I’m interested in seeing what life in mid-20th century New Orleans would have been like for a young woman, particularly one growing up in such difficult circumstances. Out of the Easy sounds like a terrific mix of mystery, scandal, and coming-of-age tale. Yet another book that I can’t wait to read!

Quick note to Wishlist Wednesday bloggers: Come on back to Bookshelf Fantasies for Flashback Friday! Join me in celebrating the older gems hidden away on our bookshelves. See the introductory post for more details, and come back this Friday to add your flashback favorites!