Book of the Week: A Head Full of Ghosts – Paul Tremblay

As much as I love discovering a great book to take out to booksellers, I love it even more when they discover a book and bring it to me.

That’s the case with A Head Full of Ghosts. I paid attention when Joe Hill and Neil Gaiman’s editor called this book “The Shining meets The Yellow Wallpaper.” But I hadn’t read it before the galleys went out in the ABA White Box. Booksellers quickly picked up this stylish exercise in literary horror and started writing me almost immediately.

First in was a favorite and trusted correspondent, Karen Tallant at The Booksellers of Laurelwood in Memphis:

“As you know, I’m a fan of horror, and a terribly picky snob about what I see as an important and ill-treated arm of fiction….[ A Head Full of Ghosts] is a brilliant presentation of a psychic and psychological breakdown of the first order; something reminiscent of both William Peter Blatty and Shirley Jackson….

Is Marjorie schizophrenic or is she possessed? Dad, who falls back on his religious upbringing in the face of long-term unemployment and fear over what’s happening to his oldest child, calls in a local priest.  The priest, seemingly playing his own agenda, calls in a production company and the family ends up on a reality show called The Possession.

“And that’s the existential cherry-on-top: modern media and communications make this completely different from anything Blatty has given us.  There is no patriarchal hero coming in to rescue Marjorie. There is the damning indictment on a society too full of voyeurism and knowledge without wisdom. And there’s the persistent uncertainty of Marjorie’s true condition. Any way you choose to look at it, this child is imperiled by evil. I lost a full night’s sleep pondering the existential questions an information society imposes upon us all.”

And from Bill Carl now at Willow Books in Action, MA–a bookseller who is also an author:

[This] is the kind of scary novel that has more on its mind than just the scares. When a family believes their eldest daughter is possessed, they allow a reality TV show to document and air a program detailing their trauma. But is Marjorie actually possessed? Could she be seeking out attention or actually developing schizophrenia? As seen through the eyes of her eight-year-old sister, the answers aren’t always easy . . . even when the sister is an adult, looking back on her experience of watching her older sister fall apart and trying to make sense of what happened through the tropes of horror films and gothic literature. This meta aspect of the novel will appeal to many (as we have seen The Exorcist and we all understand its trappings), but Tremblay offers us even more. We see a family torn apart by forces beyond their control . . . whether they be supernatural or not. Can any family survive such an onslaught? The incredibly fast-paced and extremely creepy (without ever resorting to cheap gore) novel will appeal to many different readers, but especially those who love The Yellow Wallpaper or House of Leaves. It’s a spooky story, but with a tragic, heart-felt difference. What a book!”

A Head Full of Ghosts was soooooo good I had to keep going and it was completely worth it. I loved the blurry line between possession and mental illness. I loved the broken father, broken home theme that pulls on you throughout. That in itself is scarier than any of the Exorcism-style-spooks. This was such an interesting look at so many issues thrust right into the public eye and how impossible it is to deal with that. I want to say it was delightful, but I’m going to have to admit it was disturbing in the best way. Fantastic.”
— Brittany Jackson, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington, KY

No surprise that this is an Indie Next pick. It also caught the eye of reviewers. PW gave it the rare starred and boxed review; other advance review outlets also raved.

[Is] Marjorie really channeling a creature of supernatural evil, or is she just good at Internet research, which keeps her one step ahead of her gullible parents and doctors? …Tremblay paints a believable portrait of a family in extremis emotionally as it attempts to cope with the unthinkable, but at the same time he slyly suggests that in a culture where the wall between reality and acting has eroded, even the make-believe might seem credible. Whether psychological or supernatural, this is a work of deviously subtle horror.”
Publishers Weekly (starred, boxed review)

“When a teenager exhibits early signs of schizophrenia, her parents turn not to traditional psychiatry but to a Catholic priest determined to drive out demons and a sleazy reality TV show eager to get the whole fiasco on tape….[Y]et, instead of capturing the “truth,” an even more elaborate fiction began to play out, with deadly consequences. As the adult Merry’s memories clash with the televised version of events leading up to the climactic final episode of The Possession—it’s not spoiling too much to say that everything that could go wrong does—readers will begin to question if anyone in the house is truly sane. Tremblay expertly ratchets up the suspense until the tension is almost at its breaking point.”
Kirkus Reviews

A Head Full of Ghosts (9780062363237) by Paul Tremblay. $25.99 hardcover. 6/2/15 on sale.


New Nonfiction: Stalin’s Daughter – Rosemary Sullivan

The broad strokes of Svetlana Stalin’s story are probably well known to many baby boomers who would have followed media coverage of her defection to the West and perhaps even read her best-selling memoir. But the details of her sad, remarkable life read like something from a T.C. Boyle novel: association with cultish group led by Frank Lloyd Wright’s widow, an arranged marriage, making and losing a fortune, and life spent as a wandering expat ending in poverty in rural Wisconsin. In the hands of the author of the wonderful Villa Air-Bel and with access to new archival material, this story comes vividly, if sadly, alive.

Review coverage is coming in the NYTBR, LA Times, Christian Science Monitor, WSJ and Washington Post. With three starred advance reviews, I expect that many more review outlets will also be covering the book.

“A biography of haunting fascination portrays its subject as a pawn of historical circumstance who tried valiantly to create her own life. Canadian biographer Sullivan’s previous works often took her into the complicated lives of women artists, and in this sympathetic biography of Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva (1926-2011), the author has illuminated another challenging, mercurial subject.… With great compassion, Sullivan reveals how both sides played her for their own purposes, yet she was a writer first and foremost, a passionate Russian soul who wanted a human connection yet could not quite find the way into the Western heart. The author manages suspense and intrigue at every turn.”
— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Stalin’s only daughter, lived an almost impossible life at the edges of 20th-century history…. Sullivan masterfully employs interviews, Alliluyeva’s own letters, and the contents of CIA, KGB, and Soviet archives to stitch together a coherent narrative of her fractured life… A head-spinning journey as Alliluyeva attempts to escape her father’s shadow without ever fully comprehending the man who cast it.”
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Sullivan draws on previously secret documents and interviews with Svetlana’s American daughter, her friends, and the CIA ‘handler’ who escorted her to the U.S. for riveting accounts of her complicated life.”
— Booklist (starred review)

“Svetlana Alliluyeva had a tragic life, one almost preordained when she was born to Joseph Stalin.  First, growing up under the Soviet dictator, then being almost a prisoner of the state after his death and then being used cynically after her defection.  The story of this woman’s quest to find some peace and joy in her life is both sad and informative, shedding a human light on the paranoia of the Cold War years and one can’t help but have sympathy for the little girl who could never escape the shadow of her infamous father.”
— Bill Cusumano, Square Books, Oxford, MS

Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva (9780062206107) by Rosemary Sullivan. $35.00 hardcover. 6/2/15 on sale.

New Fiction: The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty – Vendela Vida

Vida seems to me a literary writer on the verge of a much larger audience. She’s well known in the literary community and her last book, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, got this kind of praise from major outlets like the NYTBR:

Vida is a subtle writer whose voice is spare and authoritative, at times sounding like a less gothic Paul Bowles, and her third novel is further evidence that she can fashion characters as unpredictable as they are endearing.”

That certainly holds true for this fourth book—a novel that further extends her storytelling reach.

A woman travelling in Morocco has her backpack stolen and decides to let her identity disappear with it. She ends up joining a film production company as the stand in for a famous film star where she draws further from herself and into possibility. While using the structure of psychological suspense, this is ultimately a story about identity, free will, power, and a woman’s right to choose decide her path.

Vida is a founding editor of The Believer. Two of her novels have been NYT Notable Books and she is the winner of the Kate Chopin Award, given to a writer whose female protagonist chooses an unconventional path. She also co-wrote the film Away We Go and developed a Sundance Award-winning script for her novel Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name.

Review coverage scheduled so far includes the NYTBR, LA Times, SF Chronicle, Seattle Times, O, the Oprah Magazine, Vanity Fair, Vogue and Interview.

“Part glamorous travelogue, part slow-burn mystery, this full-bodied tale of a runaway is at once formally inventive and heartbreakingly familiar. Through her sumptuous descriptions of Morocco and the painfully real internal monologue of her second person narrator, Vendela Vida proves once and for all that wherever you go there you are– but that travel has the power to awaken new selves and heal primal wounds. (It’s also insanely funny.)”
— Lena Dunham

With her fourth novel, Vida returns to familiar themes of identity and recovery, concerns that are well suited to stories about traveling abroad….Written in the second person, the novel invites the reader to experience the protagonist’s separation firsthand. And as the woman’s situation becomes more complicated and her actions increasingly brazen, bits of her past are teased out. The result is an emotional and formally clever exploration of identity. Vida’s descriptive powers and restraint help to avoid the repetitive hammering of you that bogs down most second-person novels. Hard-boiled and inventive, the book takes a bold swing at mixing genres.”
— Publishers Weekly

“[A] wry, edgy, philosophical thriller, this love child of Albert Camus and Patricia Highsmith, this sly satire of Hollywood, this entertaining journey through the vast desert of identity and regret.”
—  Jess Walter

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty (9780062110916) Vendela Vida. $25.99 hardcover. 6/2/15 on sale.

Short Take: In a Dark Wood – Joseph Luzzi

The title of this memoir derives from a line in the opening of The Divine Comedy: “In the middle of our life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood.” Luzzi’s dark wood opened the day his pregnant wife was critically injured in a car accident, delivered their daughter and passed away. Becoming a father and widower within hours might have been the recipe for a morbid or maudlin recollection of coming through grief.  Instead, as humans have done from the beginning of time, Luzzi turned to literature as a solace and a way to find meaning in the crucible of personal tragedy.

Luzzi will be interviewed on NPR’s Weekend Edition, June 7th. Reviews are scheduled in the New York Times Book Review, Boston Globe, New Yorker. Philadelphia Inquirer, Bookpage and Christian Science Monitor.

Luzzi’s story is intensely personal, but holds universal appeal for anyone who has experienced love and loss. As he grasps blindly for routes out of his personal underworld, both he and the reader discover that only a change of mind and heart can open the way to love and fulfillment.”
— Booklist

“Luzzi honestly grapples with profound questions about being a man and father in this very literary and very personal work.”
— Publishers Weekly

“A forthright chronicle of emergence from darkness.”
— Kirkus Reviews

In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love (9780062357519) by Joseph Luzzi. $25.99 hardcover. 6/2/15 on sale.

Publicity: Blues All Around Me – B.B. King

King passed away this last week so you might want to get this back into stock and on the tables. It got lovely reviews back in 1996 and was re-released with a new package in 2011.

“Charming…honest…transcendent…an eloquent autobiography…It reads like a warm and lengthy conversation with a close friend. Aficionados of the blues will find plenty to pique their interest, but the book truly shines because of the portrait it paints of a man who has made kindness and respect a lifelong philosophy.”
   — Billboard

“King tells his very American success story with the lyricism and leisurely pace of a born storyteller…with warmth and sincerity.”
   — Rolling Stone

Blues All Around Me: The Autobiography of B. B. King (9780062061034) by B.B. King. $15.99 trade paperback. Available. 16-page b&w photo insert

Publicity: Mislaid – Nell Zink

Yes, I did cover this but already but an impressive New Yorker profile is on the stands just as the book is landing. Check it out. I don’t think you want to miss this one.

“’Irreverent,’ that prose-friendly adjective, does not come close. White writers seldom laugh about race—or, for that matter, write about it. But Zink, who has the courage of her convictions and the buffer of the Atlantic Ocean, creates in Mislaid a high comedy of racial identity: ‘The Human Stain,’ backward, by David Sedaris. That makes the book a rarity on at least two fronts, because the shortage of smart new novels about race has nothing on the shortage of genuinely funny literary fiction. But Zink is a comic writer par excellence, one whose particular gift is the capacity to keep a perfectly straight face. ‘The Supreme Court had invalidated one segregation scheme after another, no matter how well it worked’: over and over, she deadpans her way through lines like that, not to mention through the entire antic setup of Mislaid.

“The result is a hoot, a lark—all those bird words. But it is also deadly smart. Zink writes about the big stuff: the travesty of American apartheid; the sexual, economic, and intellectual status of women; the ephemerality of desire and its enduring consequences. We think of being deadpan as playing it straight during comic episodes, but Zink stays deadpan through everything—through outlandishness, anger, injustice, grief. Both that voice and the stories Zink tells are so startling, so seemingly without antecedent, that she would seem like an outsider artist, if she did not betray so much casual erudition.”
—The New Yorker (read the complete profile here)

And more bookseller praise:

“Zink’s scalding critique of American culture is wrapped in beguiling prose that seduces the reader from the opening paragraph of this very funny novel. Lesbians sleep with gay men, white children become black and a family steeped in upper middle class mores ends up in the backwoods of Virginia in Zink’s world. Rarely has a novelist laid America so bare. For my money, this is a masterpiece.”
— Arsen Kashkashian, Boulder Book Store, Boulder CO

Mislaid (9780062364777) by Nell Zink. $26.99 hardcover. 5/19/15 on sale.

Publicity: The Swimmer – Joakim Zander

This debut espionage continues to sell well and is getting a new round of major publicity as we move into beach reading season: It will be covered in the NYTBR’s Summer Reads issue on May 31st and Nancy Pearl will discuss NPR’s Morning Edition at some point soon.

“Page-turning….This Swedish former lawyer’s hypnotic first book is already drawing comparisons to the work of famed spy novelist John le Carré.”
   — Entertainment Weekly

The Swimmer (9780062337245) by Joakim Zander. $27.99 hardcover. 2/10/15 on sale.