Book review: The Saturday Night Ghost Club

The Saturday Night Ghost Club by Craig Davidson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Saturday Night Ghost Club is, more than anything, a story about growing up and making the transition away from childhood, leaving behind the magical and fantastic and trading them in for the everyday and mundane, and accepting that not everything in the world is good, that life can be arbitrary and unfair, but that the journey is still one filled with wonders and the love of others.

Jake Baker is a 12-year-old boy living with his parents in Niagara Falls, also known as “Cataract City” because of how it never changes, how its old buildings are left to stand as relics and skeletons instead of being torn down to be replaced with newer edifices. During the summer Jake becomes friends with the kids of a new family in town, the Yellowtails. Billy is quiet and rocksteady, while his older sister Dove is revealed to be grappling with unspecified mental issues that make her “larger than life.” She gets most of the best lines in the story as a result.

The core of the story revolves around Jake’s Uncle Calvin, a seemingly lovable eccentric who peddles strange wares at his store, The Occultarium. Calvin believes in ghosts and other sundry weird things, and shares stories of the macabre with Jake–who is afraid of nearly everything–culminating in the formation of The Saturday Night Ghost Club, in which a small group, led by Calvin, are given tours of local haunts.

As it becomes clearer than there is more to Uncle Calvin than meets the eye, the story turns from sweet to bittersweet, becoming a reminisce tinged with sadness, but with hope or at least the possibility of hope never far off.

Davidson writes with a kind of spare gentleness, the prose painting the scenes with quick metaphors; interjections from Jake–the story’s narrator–never feel like the voice of the writer intruding, but rather the earnest reflections of someone who has yearned to tell this story.

The villain of the piece, a budding young sociopath named Percy, feels somewhat stock and perhaps a bit unnecessary, but Davidson uses him to draw out the growth of Jake. It just seems like these kinds of stories about growing up must always have a Bully who is overcome.

Overall, though, this was a short but enjoyable ride, even without the “twist” at the end, a pleasant enough look at growing up in a town where tragedy can lay just a step away.

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Book review: Less


Less by Andrew Sean Greer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I do not read a lot of Pulitzer prize-winning novels. In fact, it would be accurate to say I’ve read none.

But the 2018 winner, Less, was on sale and I said to myself, “What price would I pay to read a Pulitzer-winning novel?” And the answer was, “Less!”


This is a funny novel and I mean that in both common definitions of the word. It is breezy and witty, but also a bit odd in how it follows the meandering world-spanning trip of not-quite-self-discovery that Arthur Less, a soon-to-be-50 novelist, undertakes shortly after the story begins. Quirky details are the norm here and the narrator—intruding occasionally to make it clear they are an actual person telling the story, and not an omniscient unknown presence—lovingly describes the hapless Less with both affection and concern as he blunders through France, Morocco, Germany and other locations. Cast in vivid relief in the background is the imminent marriage of his younger lover Freddy, who left Less abruptly.

Less’s trip is stuffed with incidental details, side stories and diversions that somehow always prove interesting, no matter how inconsequential they initially seem, largely thanks to Greer’s droll wit and use of metaphor. Metaphor in the hands of a bad author is like expecting a five year old to whip up a seven course meal, but here Greer wields it like a master chef. Or something like that (I may be a bad writer).

Perhaps the single funniest moment (minor spoiler) is someone telling Less he is a “bad gay,” underscoring just how little he seems to understand others—or even himself.

This story certainly won’t be for everyone. The writing, though funny, is dense and detailed, and speaks of a class and world that many will only ever see from a distance, if at all. But Greer buoys the prose so beautifully, it’s difficult to not recommend, anyway. If you’re looking for an amusing examination of befuddled middle age, Less will give you that—and a little more.

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Book review: Uncommon Type

Uncommon Type: Some StoriesUncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tom Hanks is a good writer and these are good stories.

Tom Hanks is also obsessed with typewriters. They inform the title of this collection, they pop up in many of these stories, and a typewriter takes center stage in several of them. Typewriters are the glue that binds everything together in Uncommon Type, and what a typewriter symbolizes reflects directly in many of the tales–a simple machine from a simpler time, a nostalgic callback, an evocation of memories both warm and bittersweet.

The first story actually defies all of this, though, and perhaps sets an inadvertently light tone for the remainder of the collection. “Three Exhausting Weeks” is just that–a story about friends that become more than friends, with the go-getter Anna driving the protagonist (and narrator) to exhaustion with her frenetic lifestyle over a stretch of just a few weeks. It’s breezy and funny and very unlike many of the other stories, which trade on sentimentality, a yearning for a simpler world and are often more character studies or mood pieces than fleshed-out stories.

This is not to say the more meditative stories are bad, but some of them never generate much heat, they just ramble along amiably and then end with a quick sign-off.

Another favorite, though, is the seemingly inevitable time travel story, “The Past Is Important to Us.” This seems much like a lot of the other tales, filled with lovely, warm people sharing wonderful times together, but it twists beautifully, in a way that I don’t feel is diminished even when the twist seems unavoidable.

“A Month on Greene Street” was another I enjoyed. A cynical single mother moves to a new neighborhood and thinks the worst of her likewise single next-door neighbor. For added flavor she also has occasional visions of the future. Hanks does some nice character-building here and the ending is both sweet and satisfying.

“A Month on Greene Street” also highlights both a strength and weakness of the stories. The women are complex, multilayered characters, but most of the men are much simpler, and less interesting as a result. I’m not sure if this is actually a fault of Hanks’ writing or if he just sees men as less interesting in general, but it was something that began to stand out as I read through more of the stories. One exception may be the newspaper columnist Hank Fiset, whose columns are interspersed throughout the book. His voice is clear, loud and colorful as he rambles on about the future of the paper he writes for and, of course, typewriters.

Overall, even when a story didn’t make my socks roll up and down, I was still entertained by the surprisingly sturdy wordcraft. As I mentioned at the top, Hanks is a good writer, and there are certain moods and technologies and emotions he is very fond of and obviously enjoys writing about. If you are up for some low-key character studies about mostly decent, but variably flawed people, Uncommon Type will serve you well. Jut don’t go in expecting explosions and car chases. There is bowling, though.

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Book review: Descent

DescentDescent by Tim Johnston
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I found Descent well-written in terms of the actual prose–it is even lyrical at times–but the characters are relentlessly grim and worse, uninteresting. The story tends to plod and nearly everyone talks the same way, with the exact same–and I do mean exact same–speech affectations.

This is a simple story. A family vacationing in the mountains and already beset with issues like an unfaithful husband, faces the tragic loss of their 18 year old daughter after she is abducted by a man high up on an isolated mountain road while she is running. Her younger brother, accompanying her on bike, is struck by the vehicle of the man and left at the side of the road, injured and unable to help. The next few years play out with the husband and son looking for the daughter while the wife voluntarily checks herself into a hospital (and mostly out of the story) because she can’t bear it.

This novel could also be called Grim Men Who Smoke and Talk Like Parrots because these guys are completely devoid of humor (the occasional “jokes” they make are greeted with all the delight of witnessing a stillbirth), smoke relentlessly (but always thoughtfully blowing the smoke away from the non-smokers) and go about their daily lives with jaws set tight, all the better to clench their cigarettes.

The author abruptly chooses to refer to Sean, the aforementioned son, as simply “the boy” partway through the story and at first I thought it was meant to be a metaphor for how the guy was simply not growing into a man. Indeed, by the time he is 18 he is still making foolish, impulsive decisions that imperil his safety. But then he suddenly becomes Sean again in one scene, then reverts back to “the boy” and eventually to Sean yet again, so instead of a metaphor the whole thing ends up feeling more like a continuity error.

And while Johnston does write elegant, if occasionally overwrought, prose when describing the mountain scenery or the bleakness of a small town or a farm scoured by the weather, the dialogue spoken by nearly every character goes well beyond literary license (that whole “people don’t talk like this in real life, but real life talk in a novel would be awful” thing) to the point of absurdity and worse, utter predictability. It almost starts to feel like self-parody.

An example exchange might go like this:

“I thought of something about life.”
“You thought of something about life?”
They both drew deep on their cigarettes, exhaling into the wind.


“There’s four ways to skin a cat.”
“What are they?”
“What are the four ways to skin a cat?”
He lit a cigarette and blew the smoke off to the side. “I’m not sure, really. I thought I knew.”


“That horse looks like it’s going to buck that man.”
“That horse looks like it’s going to buck that man?”
“I think so. I don’t know.” He lit another cigarette, tossing the stub of the last one on top of the other two hundred piled around his feet.

Also, while the men are off finding themselves on long, rambling road trips and getting into fights and drinking and smoking, the women in the story–few as they are–exist only as props and scenery and victims. The mother checks out early and returns only at the end, to no real effect, just another prop for the men to work with. The daughter, Caitlin, has some actual spark, but is kidnapped early and subjected to misery thereafter (there’s a pun there for people who have read a certain King novel of the same name).

Overall, I found the whole thing a bit shapeless. I’m all for a good family drama (the suspense here is definitely not the draw) but the characters aren’t that compelling, mainly because of the incredibly small set of emotions each has. They are so detached and wooden–even when supposedly acting out in passion–that you come to expect woodpeckers to alight on their heads and start going to town.

I suppose if you find the idea of watching the slow-motion lives of incredibly dour men play out while some out-of-left-field set of coincidences actually lead to the story wrapping up, you might find interest in this. I can’t say I regret reading Descent, exactly, but it was a ponderous thing.

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