After being beaten nearly to death in a robbery, Toby heads to Ivy House, the old family manse, where his uncle Hugo is dying of brain cancer. Toby’s always considered himself a very fortunate guy, until the attack and his less than full recovery afterward. While he’s trying to heal at Ivy House as well as care for his uncle, a human skull is found in an elm tree on the property.
Of course a whole skeleton follows, which brings the detectives calling. Whose body is it? How did it get there? Toby, caring for Hugo and not having the greatest memory after the attack, tries to answer these questions as best he can–both for himself and for the detective who seems to have Toby on the list of suspects.
French’s writing is lavishly detailed and so finely wrought you want to savor every sentence. The story is atmospheric and compelling, and the characters are all well-developed and authentic. There’s still an element of crime fiction in this stand-alone, but it takes a backseat to a story of identity and family. It’s also fun to see the other side of the usual stories French writes, which focus on the detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad and their investigations. Here we’re with Toby the whole time as he tries to piece together his recollections and make sense of the present.
I really enjoyed the relationship between Toby and his cousins, Leon and Susanna. They grew up together, almost like siblings, and their bond is clear, in all its complexity and history. A lot of their relationship relies on memory now, and memory is a big theme in the novel–how people experience and thus remember things very differently, including relationships.
If you enjoyed French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, definitely check this one out–it’s not a crime novel, as I said, so you might miss that, but everything else great about French’s work is on display here. Fans of Gillian Flynn and Kate Atkinson who haven’t tried French yet certainly should as well.
There’s a very old-fashioned feel to this psychological thriller. In style and tone Bitter Orange reads a bit like Patricia Highsmith or Shirley Jackson. The writing is elegant and the mystery a hook from the get-go. The perfect book to curl up with on a December evening!
Frances Jellico, elderly and nearing death, recalls the summer of 1969 in an old country mansion in England. That summer she was at Lyntons to study the garden’s architecture. A couple named Cara and Peter have taken the rooms below hers. Soon Frances befriends the young couple, only to find that there’s a lot more to both of them than they let on.
Fran, middle-aged and lonely and clearly with a lot of emotional baggage, is giddy to have friends. Cara, strange and beautiful, finds an easy audience for her fantastic and romantic stories in Frances. And Peter soon becomes the object of a crush. I like how, as the story continues, it becomes clear that Fran is hiding something. You begin to question exactly how reliable a narrator she is.
The back and forth of the narrative adds to the tension. You’re aware as you’re reading that some sort of calamity is going to happen, and that Fran is actively hiding details. It’s the bomb under the table sort of suspense.
Fuller’s writing is incredibly rich. She sets a lovely scene, and her descriptions are wonderfully immersive and evocative. There’s a touch of the Gothic here, too, with the dark and sinister secrets and things going bump in the night at Lyntons.
If you liked The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud for the narrator and tone, give this book a look! The Talented Mr. Ripley fans might find a lot to like here, too, as well as those who liked The Haunting of Hill House.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
Dwight Garner, in his New York Times review of Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World, described her writing as being “like watching someone grin with a mouthful of blood.” That’s too perfect a description for me to top. This novel is about a young woman who decides she’s going to check out of society and hibernate for a year–and she does so with the help of dozens of different medications, planning to never spend more than a few hours at a time awake. The story follows that year, and fills in some background, all while showcasing Moshfegh’s compellingly disturbing style and black humor. She likes to get under the skin, and to get into the raw physicality of her descriptions. These characters aren’t likable at all, but they’re sure morbidly fascinating!
There’s something about this novel that reminds me of S.J. Perelman’s The Swiss Family Perelman and Westward Ha!. It might be the deadpan absurdity, or the quirky characters, or the witty and sometimes twisty turns of phrase. Probably all of that.
French Exit is about Frances, a wealthy woman in her sixties who is bankrupted after her husband’s death. She and her deadbeat adult son Malcolm decide to move to Paris to live in a friend’s apartment. They bring along their cat, Small Frank, and set out for Europe.
The characters are nuts in the best way, the way that recalls screwball 1930’s comedy. Frances is absurd and not very nice at all, a wealthy beauty who truly enjoys running from “one brightly burning disaster to the next.” Malcolm is next to useless, a sad and self-centered manchild who manages to evoke a little pity, given his parents. And the cat is not just a cat–he’s the vessel for Frances’ late husband’s soul. Once the family gets to Europe, even more oddballs are added to the mix as Frances plans her grand exit.
French Exit is a quick and entertaining novel full of sharp observations and wit, humor and depth, incredibly quirky characters and situations, and some surprising turns.
Today’s the big day, folks! Beautiful weather here in midcoast Maine for tricks’n’treats, and we have plenty of spooky stuff to watch and read here at the library.
Here’s the round-up of my favorite scary books for this year, Marie’s Favorite Scary Books Part VII: Fangs of the Horrible Clown (thank you, movie title generator!). And here’s a link to all of the Halloween and Horror Reading Lists.
Have a super spooky day and night, fellow Halloweenies! Enjoy this Over the Garden Wall clip to get you in the proper frame of mind for the day.
Is it ghosts? Or is it madness? Or maybe a little of both?
The Ghost Notebooks follows Nick and Hannah, a newly engaged couple at a crisis point in their lives and their relationship. Their careers are stagnating, and so is their bond. In hopes that a big change might help them out of their rut, they take jobs as caretakers for a house museum in upstate New York.
From the first, there’s something eerie and secretive about both the town and the house. The museum was the family home of a 19th century writer and philosopher who, it’s rumored, dabbled in spiritualism. As the days wear on in this remote and creepy new place, Hannah starts to unravel. She stops sleeping, hears voices at night, and becomes obsessed with researching the house and the writer. Nick can only stand by as something tragic happens.
While there’s some occult and spiritualist elements here, this is less a story about a haunting than it is about minds in crisis. Is Nick a reliable narrator? Is something nefarious going on? Or is everything seemingly supernatural simply the result of grief and trauma?
The narrative voice is often wry and funny, and there are a lot of humorous moments balanced against the heavy ones. If you enjoy just a maybe-sprinkling of ghosts around Halloween, or you’re fascinated by how human minds might create ghouls and goblins, give this one a look!
Fans of the trippy, menacing, and occult, take note of Slade House for this Halloween. It’s a haunted house story with a little something extra.
Down a little side street near a pub, there’s an old house called Slade House. However, it’s not there all the time, not anymore. Just once every nine years or so, when the brother and sister who live there invite someone inside. And then never let them leave.
I don’t want to give away too much of the intricate plot, but I will say that the story spans decades and tells the story of several of the “guests” of Slade House. It’s reality-bending and very creepy. And once you know what the stakes are, the constant uneasy and confusing atmosphere becomes threatening.
Slade House is compelling, intricate, and has a great atmosphere of danger and confusion. If you like haunted house stories with a twist, give this a look!