The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian
Part crime thriller, part tragedy, part tender human story, author Chris Bohjalian weaves it all together in The Guest Room resulting in a compelling read on the fragility of one’s life. This is the story of Richard Chapman – a pretty nice family guy, financially successful and happily married, and, like the rest of us, a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, failings and virtues. Richard makes one thoughtless decision resulting in catastrophe and dissolution of his ‘normal’ life. Chapman’s family life is counterpoint to the lives of the two young Russian women, Alexandra and Sonja, hired to “entertain” at his brother’s bachelor party. The innocence of Chapman’s nine year old daughter and her fascination with Barbie dolls, colorful tights and dance classes mirrors the innocence of Alexandra before life takes a tragic turn and she becomes an expensive commodity in the world of sex trafficking. We watch in fascination and horror as Richard’s life unravels and Alexandra reveals more of what it takes to stay alive in the underworld. Murderous Russian thugs loom over the story like your worst nightmare – will Richard and Alexandra survive?
This is Bohjalian’s 18th novel, most of which have been New York Times Bestsellers. Three have been made into movies. He tackles difficult subjects head on. I wish I could say that use of women and children for sex slavery is a fictional creation, however sex trafficking is all too real. Human trafficking is a $150 billion dollar industry. About two million children every year are exploited in the global commercial sex trade. In The Guest Room, Bohjalian boldly explores the universal issues of morality, trust, redemption and human dignity.
Bohjalian is an author with heart, social conscience and a gifted pen. This is a quick read guaranteed to make you think and feel.
Delving into the rich prose and vivid atmosphere of Emma Cline's The Girls, it was quickly apparent this would be one of the best books of the summer, maybe the year. Since it tells the story of a Manson-esque cult in the 1960s, and I am not one for murders or cults, I went into this one a little unsure. But the reviews were so good and the book was everywhere, so I had to give it a try and I'm so glad I did. The story is told through flashbacks, and while Evie's present day life isn't quite fully fleshed out, the dips in and out of the past provide a grounding structure for the more erratic events of her early adolescence. More than once, you are struck by how young this character is, and how different a time it was. While a 14-year-old hitchhiking and hopping in a strange van seems unthinkable today (at least for a sheltered suburbanite like myself) Cline does an excellent job of rationalizing it and other loathsome life choices in Evie's mind, without dismissing the reader's assumed objections. The disturbing lifestyle of the cult is at once presented as normal and fantastical in Evie's eyes. After all, she doesn't know any better, perhaps this is how all hip, enlightened people live. Yes it dazzles her at every turn, even as the same details that charm Evie, nauseate the more knowing reader. It is almost as if Cline manages to do the atmospheric work of a movie soundtrack without the foreboding, stabby music all but screaming "no, no, fun out the front door, not up the stairs!"
In recommending this to a customer, I had some difficulty pinpointing the genre. Definitely coming of age, a bit of a mystery, a bit of a thriller, but we certainly wouldn't shelve it in either of those sections. I decided on literary thriller. And I really did thrill to the pitch perfect descriptions of adolescent insecurity, and how poignantly a young girl can viscerally keen for acceptance. It makes the character relatable even when you're thinking "how could anyone possibly go along with that." Like adult Evie wonders how far things could have gone were the circumstances of the past slightly altered, I wondered if I would really have been any smarter as a naive, underloved 14-year-old.
A truly transporting story. You'll feel the hot sticky summer nights even if you don't get to this one until the winter.
I’ve just finished reading Andrew Hurley’s The Loney , a terrific first novel — Costa Award Winning first novel, to be more exact — and it was a marvel of a gothic novel and quite an engaging read. The Loney is written in the format of a frame story; the novel “frames” one lengthy flashback in the central and unnamed character’s life within present day events. The flashback details a pilgrimage to a shrine located along a desolate stretch of coast in Lancastershire, England commonly referred to as “the loney". The pilgrimage, we learn, is undertaken annually by the young man together with his family and members of his parish, over the Easter holiday, its primary purpose being a visit to the shrine of Saint Anne in hopes of healing the central character’s younger brother of an ailment. Andrew, or Hanny, as the younger brother is called in the story has been mute since birth.
The main character’s flashback is triggered ever so deftly by the news of a landslide in an area of the Loney following a period of intense rainfall and flooding. The landslide reveals the remains of a baby, and so the story begins:
“If it had another name, I never knew, but the locals called it the Loney — that strange nowhere between the Wyre and the Lune where Hanny and I went every Easter time with Mummer, Farther, Mr. and Mrs. Belderboss and Father Wilfred, the parish priest…Dull and featureless it may have looked, but the Loney was a dangerous place. A wild and useless length of English coastline. A dead mouth of a bay that filled and emptied twice a day and made Coldbarrow — a desolate spit of land a mile off the coast — into an island.”
In his review of the book, Stephen King hails The Loney as an amazing piece of fiction while the Costa Award judges unanimously agreed that it is “about as close to the perfect first novel as you could get.” I have to agree wholeheartedly. Hurley’s writing channels Poe, for certain, and it is quite simply a tale well told. The novel bears no time or date stamp to speak of, I kept checking the copyright date to be certain that this was published in the United States in May, 2016.
I enjoyed the many references to Catholicism in the book, they are familiar to me yet portrayed here in a most unusual manner. There is the mysterious former parish priest Father Wilfred who dies under suspicious circumstances and his doting parishoners who are hesitant to embrace the younger, innovative, incoming pastor Father Bernard who views his mission to his church in quite a different manner than his predecessor. The numerous references to Catholic ritual and rite contribute to the gothic form of the novel. The subtle humor of the parishioners constantly referencing the manners of their former pastor are well placed throughout the novel.
Subtle subplots round out The Loney and make it a deeply satisfying novel. It is rare to read a novel that is so well crafted, often I feel engaged by various aspects of a novel but The Loney delivers on all fronts. I don’t want to give away the fine details of the plot but a great deal of mystery, supernatural elements and suspense unfold through the brilliant writing of Andrew Hurley. Don’t expect to be hit over the head with this one; the writing is so exceptional and the mood is nearly palpable but this is a novel that will leave several strings untied and conclusions to be drawn by the reader. I look forward to Andrew Hurley’s next book, I suspect he is able to write just about any form and brilliantly!
Sphinx is the debut novel of Anne Garreta, one of the few female authors to belong to the esteemed Oulipo. The Oulipo is an exclusive group of French writers known for writing outside of the box. Each member writes with a particular language constraint that readers would not expect. In the case of Sphinx, Garreta never lists the gender of either main character in the story. This is seen as an incredible feat in the French language due to its strong use of gender in everyday grammar.
Sphinx follows the story of an unnamed narrator and their american lover, A***. Through questionable circumstances, the narrator becomes a DJ at a club in Paris, eventually meeting A*** because they are a cabaret dancer. Appearing to have nothing in common, the two characters must actively work to mend their relationship stricken with judgement from passersby. Sphinx is a very atmospheric piece which delves into not only the ups and downs of a night out, but also that of a relationship. It conveys smokey nights on Paris streets, ennui, and the loss of a presence.
I had fun imagining different genders for the narrator and A*** throughout the novel. Due to its genderless nature each reader can take what they want from the story, molding it to fit their preferences. In times like these a statement like Sphinx is especially needed, which is why I felt it was important to share. When discussing the book with friends I accidentally referred to the narrator and A*** as “he and she” which only fueled my need to finish the book. We automatically perceive things as either masculine or feminine, and Sphinx is a major step in breaking that social construct down. The story is by no means anything special, or happy for that matter, but it is a very realistic one. It had the power to evoke emotions in me and helped to further the development of my personal identity. Regardless of gender, the Narrator and A*** are two individuals in love, and this is their story.
We agreed in the bookshop that the cover of the book “The Atomic Weight of Love” is beautiful with its images of many birds. Coupled with the unusual title, at a glance you wonder, “Is it about bird watching?…ornithology?…atomic bombs…? No, it is a debut novel by author Elizabeth J. Church about a young woman coming of age in the 1940s. We are introduced to Meridian, or Meri, who is an awkward teen at the start of the book, uninterested in what all of the other girls her age are fixating about; her obsession is the study of birds! Academically gifted and encouraged by her parents, she heads off to college to pursue the study of all things winged. She enters college as a biology major with the intention of continuing on for an advanced degree in ornithology. She stood out in the world of young men in her high level science classes at school.
What was entertaining about this book was the timespan, ranging from the World War II era through the next decades, as the culture in the country changed around Meri. The time period of submissive, proper women in the 1940s slowly morphed into a whole new world into the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Meri was far from a free spirit; she was, in fact, quite obedient. However, she had intellectual gifts and a passion for her studies. There was nothing stopping her from her educational and professional goals when she was in school, until, you guessed it; she fell in love and eloped. The journey continues with Meridian struggling between her husband’s expectations and what she had always wanted to be. Her struggle parallels with the social changes going on at the same time in the decades after the war.
The book leads us through her sacrifices and struggles, and her faithfulness and disloyalties. She tries so hard to make the right choices but often fumbles. She makes some unexpected decisions, some good and some bad; and she takes some big risks as she tries to find her way.
And what about the birds? Meri’s only comfort and foundation…the only time she feels like herself, is during her years-long observation of a family of crows who had an extraordinary community and support system, which is exactly what the troubled Meri does not have.
Enjoy the book!
Staff of Wellington Square Book Shop