See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Hardcover, 328 pages
Published August 1st 2017 by Atlantic Monthly Press (first published March 28th 2017)
In this riveting debut novel, See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt recasts one of the most fascinating murder cases of all time into an intimate story of a volatile household and a family devoid of love.

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid: Someone’s killed Father. The brutal ax-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, leaves little evidence and many unanswered questions. While neighbors struggle to understand why anyone would want to harm the respected Bordens, those close to the family have a different tale to tell—of a father with an explosive temper; a spiteful stepmother; and two spinster sisters, with a bond even stronger than blood, desperate for their independence.

As the police search for clues, Emma comforts an increasingly distraught Lizzie whose memories of that morning flash in scattered fragments. Had she been in the barn or the pear arbor to escape the stifling heat of the house? When did she last speak to her stepmother? Were they really gone and would everything be better now? Shifting among the perspectives of the unreliable Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, and the enigmatic stranger Benjamin, the events of that fateful day are slowly revealed through a high-wire feat of storytelling.

Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done is a novel that has the advantage of having a truly titillating premise and a built-in fan base of readers who already know of Miss Lizzie Borden’s infamy:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one. 

If you’ve ever sung that “nursery rhyme” to yourself, you’re already at least a step ahead. See What I Have Done has its roots in the factual 1892 trial of Lizzie Borden–the characters are even based on and named for the real people who were in and out of the house on the fateful day of the murders. With those common facts out of the way, Schmidt rolls up her sleeves and dives into the task of reconstructing that fateful day and retelling the notorious story of Miss Lizzie Borden.

Let me start by first of all saying that the cover art and title of this novel are both phenomenal. In a bookstore setting (whether in person or online) I’d definitely reach for this book, even if just to see what it’s about!

With that out of the way, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also add that Schmidt has a true talent for finding her readers’ pressure points and picking at them consistently, a skill that sets a suspenseful novel apart from a predictable one. I can see this author’s method working for so many readers, pulling them in and making them feel immersed in these characters’ very thoughts. But, it didn’t work for me. In fact, there were times when this novel was an uphill struggle for me.

The one thing that will always stick out to me about this novel is Lizzie’s temperament. Throughout the novel it was eerily strange despite her obviously childlike temperament, menacing just below the surface in a way that was clearly deliberate on the author’s part. Whether she was not in her right mind in a vaguely sociopathic way or in a childlike way hinting at mental retardation I could not fully tell (though I’m leaning toward the latter), but it certainly functioned to add a little unpredictability and upheaval in the otherwise monotonous 19th century lives these characters seemed to lead.

However, there was something about the execution of this novel that really turned me off—possibly intentionally—but I definitely didn’t take to it the way I would have wanted to. Lizzie’s personality was like an itch under my skin, one I wanted to scratch until she was gone completely and long forgotten about. Instead of building suspense or anxiety, her twitchiness and oddities really just annoyed me to the point that I could no longer stand her. I wanted to be out of her head—away from her altogether at times—at any cost. Only, her chapters were by far the most interesting, as the others seemed to melt into the background for me as a reader. The characters’ voices didn’t pull me in; their actions didn’t interest me. So, that left me with Lizzie, and you can imagine the conundrum that left me in as a reader! 🙂 There was just too much of it. A titillating hint here and there is intriguing; 5 hints toward her psychological oddities per page, every page is annoying. That’s what created that itching sensation under my skin, the tap dancing on my reader Spidey senses.

The thing is, Sarah Schmidt’s ability to affect her reader in that way is a true gift, a skill that’s difficult to hone and display. So, just because it didn’t work for me personally doesn’t mean that I don’t see the cleverness and mental dexterity it took to execute that aspect of this novel, and for that I tip my hat off to her. I’d recommend this novel to lovers of The Village (2004) or of historical mysteries in general. There’s absolutely a fan base out here for Sarah Schmidt and See What I Have Done, and I look forward to giving her another shot the next time she hits the shelves. 3 stars ***

**I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Grove Atlantic, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.**

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Sarah  SchmidtSarah Schmidt is a Melbourne based writer who happens to work at a public library. See What I Have Done is her first novel.

Death Unmasked by Rick Sulik

Paperback, 2nd, 264 pages
Published December 1st 2015 by Christopher Matthews Publishing

I was given this book by the author in exchange for an honest review.

Firstly, let me state that Death Unmasked has a thrilling premise: What if we really could continue on in another life, meeting and interacting with the same people but in different forms and circumstances? Fun idea, the premise of which alone could make for an exhilarating read! I didn’t mind the idea and playing out of reincarnation here at all as others may have. But it didn’t necessarily deliver on the promise thrill that it offered on the back cover, so to speak.
This novel jumped into the story right out of the gate; no piddling around here. By the end of page two or three the action had begun. This novel is broken into three sections: the first of which depicts the Holocaustal genocide where Laura and Emil perish. This section, in itself, would have been a wonderful novella if it had been filled out more. Honestly, it could have stood alone as a brilliant work in itself had it had the fleshing out that it deserved. The second section follows these characters reincarnated, Emil being a police detective, and it all culminates in section three, where the star-crossed lovers are reunited.
However, I wasn’t sure of what exactly I was reading at the start; the setting wasn’t set properly at all. Why were they running? Who were they running from? Even, what year is it and where is this set? The term “ethnic cleansing” was used to explain why the village people had been rounded up, but never elaborated on. Was this fantasy—an imaginative ethnic cleansing in a faraway world—or an apocalyptic event? I had no idea, because the feeling of setting and locale was not properly built out, unfortunately. There was the violence of rape, beatings and genocide to start this one off, which didn’t bother me at all. I felt that that aspect of the novel actually made it more real, more 3-D, and that 3-dimensionalizing made the read far more real.
However, the dialogue did Death Unmasked no favors at all. For me, it definitely felt stilted, unnatural and forced. It didn’t flow well at all from the very beginning. And the littering of italicized thoughts didn’t help either because the thoughts weren’t realistic, particularly not under the circumstances that the characters were in. One wouldn’t—I don’t believe—rail on and on about the hate in the soldiers’ hearts and the injustices around them (in short, prophesizing and intellectualizing) while there is literally mass murder, the shooting of babies and raping of innocent women going on before one’s very eyes! No, you’d be looking for an exit, ready to fight, terrified, shocked! I found myself literally pulling back from the pages and thinking, “Who talks like that?!”
Do keep in mind that this one presented poetry and did so in a lovely way. The incorporation of poetry throughout—and the theme of dark poetry itself—gave Sulik’s work another layer for the reader to appreciate and tie the story together. The poems were dark and faintly macabre in a way that offered just enough theatrics and made the novel a stronger read. But, the author’s hand definitely showed throughout this one. The oft-italicized philosophical rants definitely should’ve been either cut down or better incorporated. And while the middle section was jam-packed with good information and thorough details that only an experienced cop—an author who was obviously of that world before becoming an author—would be able to accurately offer, there was little finesse to it, and it came out like info vomit that pulled me as a reader away from the story line at hand to wade through piles of information that were often stoically presented. The ending wasn’t my cup of tea, but I could see where he was going with it. The idea of star-crossed lovers is one that’s been done to death, so I wasn’t particularly impressed with the way that this one ended (me hating bow ties and all), and I wished that it had been done in a new way. Though, I will admit, the novel itself did attempt a new mold with a fresh and exciting premise.
Reincarnation, big-city detective work, crimes of past and present and karma all played a role in this one and, believe me, the idea of all of that could make for quite the thrilling read! But it needed a more steady and experienced hand to flesh it all out—this one could have easily stood up to another 200 pages and been fine if done well, making it more of an “epic” sort of read—and a different editor, one who knew how to better play the game of Red Light, Green Light. Stop the prophesizing word vomit here; go with more setting there, ect. So, while the idea and the plot line were wonderfully realized, that can never carry a read all the way on its own. In this novel, inexperience peeped around the edges at times and was glaringly obvious and annoying at others. If this wasn’t inexperience at play but the author’s true writing style on display, it needed to be more evident; it needed the deliberateness of a sure hand backed by a read that was complete (enter setting, better characterization, ect.). I give this one two stars. **

11/22/63 by Stephen King

11_22_63_Stephen King

 

Hardcover, 849 pages
Published November 8th 2011 by Scribner

Stephen King’s 11/22/63 was a behemoth of a work with more layers than a Chicagoan in December. The premise in itself was exhilarating, and the execution was near flawless. Another chef-d’oeuvre from Ole’ Uncle Stevie. This one was a novel that absolutely could not have been tackled by just anyone and may have fallen flat on its face if handled by a less experienced craftsman. The worlds on both sides of the time-travel line were utterly realistic, but where King really showed his masterful hand was with the threads throughout the novel that wove it all together, from the Yellow Card Man to the janitor’s father to JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald themselves. No character was superfluous, and despite the massive word count on this one, there wasn’t a single phrase that was either. Even characters who were fleeting left their mark, shocking me, tickling me, and provoking thought along the way.
The jargon that King used to color the various neighborhoods and scenes from Maine to Florida to Texas was deliciously realistic—he has a knack for that and it was on full display here—and I felt that I was fully immersed in the world that he painted. This one gave me goosebumps in more than one place and food for thought in several others. And, refreshingly, King resisted painting the 50s as a happy-go-lucky time of just sock-hops and poodle skirts and gave the 60s the gritty air that it deserved. He infused this glimpse at this time period with realistic strokes of segregation and poverty in his portrayal—truly showing us the world through King-colored glasses. 11/22/63 shifted voices between characters in an effortless way that’s hard to execute. From backwoods Maine lingo to deep Southern vernacular, the voices were masterfully done and the characters were all fully realized. There are biblical references and historical facts—and distortions of them that allowed for his own creative riff on the past—Gothic elements galore and grit. True, unflinching grit.
This one came full circle in various parts of the novel, not just in the end in that formulaic way that we are all oh-so-familiar with, showing how all of the pieces connected hand-in-hand to tell one larger story. Quite the narrative tool for building suspense and tension. I’ll admit that there were times when the full-circle aspect of this one hit me too squarely on the head, when it was too dead on, towards the end, and that pulled me out of the world briefly while I wrestled with my annoyance at being dowsed with that unnecessary, cold splash of water. But the sheer gravity of this novel and unimpeachable hand that resonated through to the very last page overrode those small annoyances. I resist giving this one 4 ½ stars to pay for that annoyance that I experienced, because the rest of the work was so masterfully done that it would honestly border on being petty. JIMLA! Five stars *****