Book Review: A Simple Favor

“Your mother is a monster.”

December is a time for companionship of all sorts. Family, friends, significant others, pets, it doesn’t matter. Of course this season can also be extremely trying. So it’s important to do simple, loving things for yourself. Simple favors you might say. I found the book A Simple Favor shortly after I saw the movie by the same name. I adored the movie and had to hunt down the book. The book did not disappoint.

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Synopsis:  Brought together by their young sons, Stephanie and Emily quickly become best friends. Their afternoons are spent bonding over motherhood, work, and love. They tell each other everything, and are more than happy to help each other. One day Emily calls Stephanie to ask for a simple favor: pick up her son from school and she’ll pick him up from Stephanie’s house after work. Midnight comes and goes, a day passes, then two. Suddenly Stephanie wonders how much she knew about Emily, and how much she can rely on Emily’s husband to help. Motherhood is lonely, but now it just became deadly.

Thoughts: If you’ve seen the movie, don’t worry. The movie does the book justice, but the book is a dark and beautiful beast of its own. Even if you’ve seen the movie, you won’t see the ending coming. If you haven’t seen the movie? Read this review, read the book, then hunt down the movie.

A Simple Favor hits on hard topics. That’s what makes the book so fun, yet so disturbing. Normal people are involved in abnormal things. Death, suicide, incest, affairs, abuse. Somehow, the cast is convinced they’re normal, and yet they’re convinced that they’re anything but due to their involvement in these issues. These are hard and ugly issues, yet I felt the book handled them well. After all, as difficult as they are, these issues are deeply real problems.  The dark realism is what makes this book work. But it did lead to a few slow parts at the start. Thankfully the book picked up speed rather quickly once Emily vanished.

At the end of the book I was left wondering who the real victims were. How do we measure the value of life when we can so easily warp it, twist it, and create excuses for the inexcusable, convincing ourselves we’re sane? It’s an odd question to be pondering at the end of a domestic thriller, but weeks after I closed the book, I’m still thinking about it.

There’s no question about it though, life is valuable. How valuable it is, well, maybe that’s up to us. Or in the case of this novel, our dear narrators.

I’ve always been a sucker for unreliable narrators, and this book is a glorious study of them. I loved the narrators. They seemed like horrible people, but at the same time they were deeply relatable. Some were insecure, some thirsted for power and love, and others weren’t quite sure of what they wanted. Bell does a fantastic job of crafting characters that we know are wrong, but we can’t help but root for. There’s just enough redeeming or relatable qualities to each character. As the lines between reality and right and wrong blur for our narrators, those lines blur for the reader as well.

If you’re turned off by the idea of domestic thrillers, thinking them tame, this book will no doubt help you think differently of the genre. This is Bell’s first book, and I surely hope it’s not her last. I’ve found a new author to add to my favorites. I’ll be treating myself with re-reads of this book for many years to come.

TL;DR: If you’ve seen the movie, don’t worry. The book will still hold plenty of surprises for you. The book is a masterful dark domestic thriller, with twists galore. The characters are perhaps unlovable, and yet, they are deeply relatable. The pacing is a little slow out the gate, but when it picks up, the pace is breakneck and brilliant. Get your fuzzy blankets, your favorite hot beverage and treat yourself to A Simple Favor. You can thank me (and yourself) later.

Book Review: The Ribbajack and Other Curious Yarns

“Gentle reader, heed my plea, pray witness now this shocking tale…”

Apologies for the terribly belated book review. But have one last treat before the night ends. I’ve been a long time lover of Jacques, and it seems a disservice to his memory to not bring to light his little book of curious short stories. And while this Halloween night is creeping ever closer to its finish, there’s always time to pull out a delightfully unsettling story collection.

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Synopsis: From the mastermind behind the bestselling Redwall series, Brian Jacques invites us to explore a darker, creepier side of life with six short stories. Each story explores a different element of the human experience, each experience more bizarre than the last. Enhancing the mood is a short poem that preferences each story. Long time fans of Brian Jacques, and those who are new to his works will be able to see why Jacques is considered a master storyteller.

Thoughts: There is nothing like Jacques’ writing style. Despite the stories being dark, there is a warm, welcoming feeling to the stories. This is what made me devour the tales growing up. As an adult, I’m still in love with the collection.

While the horror aspect of the collection initially attracted me, it’s the twists and morals of the stories that have helped this set of stories dig its way into my heart. The welcoming writing style keeps you reading, and then something slightly unexpected happens then is built upon. Of course, it’s not Jacques if there’s only one twist. It’s the ultimate twist that leads to the moral. Yet this moral is hardly a slap on the wrist, and more of an invitation to think, to muse and mutter over what you just read, to walk a little more cautiously, or a little more bravely.

As for the stories themselves…”The Ribbajack” is by far my favorite. It’s the longest of the seven, and the darkest. Revenge tales are old hat at this point, but the revenge of the Ribbajack is unusual and fresh, despite the plot drawing from historical elements. The Ribbajack is a monster worthy of the Monster Hall of Fame.

I deeply appreciated “The Mystery of Huma D’Este”, and “The all Ireland Champion Versus the Nye Add”, although these stories didn’t seem quite as magical as they did to me when I was younger. Perhaps it’s because I re-read them so much as a kid that they’ve lost a bit of their appeal now that I’m older. After reading them so many times I’ve come to see how the twists are inevitable, not surprising.

“Rosie’s Pet” and “A Smile and a Wave” are oddly humorous. There’s something deeply childlike and relatable in each. The twists are predictable after reading them so many times, yet the enjoyment for me was enhanced, knowing what was coming. “Miggy Mags and the Malabar Sailor” must be mentioned with these two as well. The humanity and humor in this story is wonderful. Even though these stories are more lively than the others, there’s a seriousness and darkness to all three. When read together with the others in the collection, it makes sense how they would be included.

Overall this is a lovely set of stories, perfect for reading aloud around bonfires, or for hiding under the covers and reading by flashlight. Dark surprises, wicked humor, and a warm writing style make this short story collection an excellent pick.

TL;DR: Those familiar with Jacques’ works will no doubt delight in this collection. While it’s a step away from the Redwall and Castaways series, there’s no denying the enjoyment these seven tales give. If you’re new to the author, The Ribbajack and Other Curious Yarns is a brilliant introduction to him. Told in a unique style, these stories are twists on classic ideas and questions we sometimes dare not ask ourselves. If you’re into the darker and more curious things in life, then this is a book well worth investing in.