Marie’s Reading: “Midnight Chicken” by Ella Risbridger


91RzlpsnrjLMidnight Chicken
began as a blog, where Risbridger used cooking, writing, and feeding herself and those she loved as a way to pull herself out of a depression.  Her recipes are the type of cooking you can do “a little bit drunk,” the cozy kind, the after-work kind.  It’s food that you can craft out of what you have in your pantry or fridge.

But this is more than a cookbook.  Recipes are included, of course, but it’s the writing style and the emotions that really pull you in.

Risbridger’s writing is so elegant and evocative, you feel that you’ve been pulled from a scene whenever you put the book down, and you remember the imagery as if you were there.  Her descriptions of London fog, of sitting at the table as a child and looking at next door’s chickens, it’s all so gorgeously rendered.

And then there’s the depiction of food!  I’ve read and enjoyed lots of food writers, bloggers, and cookbook authors, and Risbridger is truly my kitchen soulmate.

Elisa Cunningham’s art is perfect, too:

Aga-Kitchen_670

If you need even a little saving, as we all do sometimes, give this book a try.  You can also read Risbridger’s writing over at her blog, Eating With My Fingers, if you’re like me and wanted more of her work.

–Marie

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Marie’s Reading: “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens

9780735219090_p0_v10_s550x406In 1969, local golden boy Chase Andrews is found dead in the marsh outside Barkley Cove, North Carolina.  Immediately the locals suspect Kya Clark, who is known as the “Marsh Girl.”  As the investigation into Chase’s death occurs in the present, the narrative also explores Kya’s childhood and the experiences that led to her solitary life in the marsh.

Owens’ writing is so wonderfully evocative.  She writes of the North Carolina marshes and coast with such love and admiration for its beauty and creatures.  Even the human beings who inhabit it, set apart from the rest of the community, command a sort of respect and mystery.  There’s a great sense of the small-town and all of its characters and history, too.

Kya is a resourceful, tough person–you’d have to be, after being abandoned in the swamp as a very young kid.  But she finds beauty and hope and fulfillment in her solitary life.  Less solitary, of course, after she becomes friends with a local boy named Tate, who teaches her to read, and then later, when she becomes acquainted with Chase Andrews.  And from there, it’s a “did she or didn’t she” mystery as far as Kya’s role in Chase’s death.

There’s a real sense of magic to this story of a tough rural girl’s coming of age, and the lengths she’ll go to to keep herself safe. The stand-out part of the novel is the perfect sense of place and the depiction of Kya’s life out in the wild, where the crawdads sing.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “The Invited” by Jennifer McMahon

invitedHelen and Nate have decided to fulfill a dream–they’re going to build a house from the ground up with their own hands on a piece of land they’ve purchased in a tiny town in Vermont.  Soon they learn that their land once belonged to a woman named Hattie back in the early 1900’s.  Hattie was feared by the townspeople, so much so that they hanged her as a witch right on the property.

Helen, a history teacher, is fascinated by the story, and decides to learn more.  And the more she uncovers the more obsessed she becomes with Hattie and her secrets.  She even begins collecting objects for her house that are connected to Hattie, in hopes that she might conjure up some spirits.

The spirit of Hattie and her female relatives thread all through the story.  As one character puts it, there’s magic in their veins.  As always, though, McMahon has a pretty light touch with the supernatural and spooky elements–it’s there, but the focus really is on the all-too-human characters.  She populates this small Vermont town with recognizable people, both past and present.

McMahon’s writing is incredibly vivid, and very rich in detail.  You don’t want to miss a well-crafted sentence when you’re reading her books, and her scene-setting is amazing.  The mystery she crafts in The Invited is compelling, too, just as much as the spooky scenes out in the bog.

The Invited is a different kind of haunted house story.  If you liked The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, give this a look!

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “My Lovely Wife” by Samantha Downing

lovely wifeOur unnamed narrator and his beautiful wife, Millicent, have found a great way to spice up their 15-year marriage: they murder young women and then devise ways to get away with it.

The couple has a nice house in the Florida suburbs.  He’s a tennis pro, she’s a realtor.  They have a son and a daughter.  And both Millicent and her husband are stone cold in their own ways.  Yet, since we’re in the husband’s head the whole time and hearing the story from his point of view, his necessary charm and ease come across really well, and you see why he’s so good at his half of what he and his wife are up to.

I don’t want to give away too much of this plot, because so much depends on surprises and twists and turns.  I was enthralled the whole way through, and, as I said, the narrator is great–totally absorbing and convincing, and oh so charming, so good at appearing sympathetic.   And so twisted.

The dynamic of their marriage is a fascinating one to read about.  The husband projects so much onto Millicent, makes her into an almost other-worldly creature rather than a human woman, that you are left wondering what she’s really like.  It’s another nice, unsettling touch to an already unreliable narrator.

The pace of this thriller is fantastic.  It’s compelling all the way through, rockets through the last third, and the ending is a punch.  Downing keeps up the suspense and never bogs the story down.  Every detail is well-placed and the writing itself is very evocative, filled with mounting tension.  There’s some great family detail as well, though, and some well-placed black humor.  It’s not gory or explicit, either.

If you like Gillian Flynn’s books, give this one a try!

–Marie

Marie’s Reading More Than She Appears to Be!

I haven’t shared a book with you in over a month!  A shame, because I’ve been reading some good ones:

18611861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart
I’ve been telling everyone about this engaging and timely examination of the cultural moment in the United States just before the Civil War.  What was the political situation like?  How did people really feel about the pressing issues of the day?  I found a lot of parallels between 1861 and today, which is both comforting and frightening.  A really great read!

 

LookerLooker by Laura Sims
Our narrator lives next door to a famous actress.  Our narrator has just been through a messy divorce and is sort of obsessed with the actress.  Our narrator is bonkers. Taut and disturbing, but not without some dark humor!  For fans of The Woman Upstairs, The Woman in the Window, and A Kind of Intimacy.

 

 

 

kitchenKitchen Yarns: Notes on Life, Love, and Food by Ann Hood
I really like what I think of as “cozy food writing.”  The kind where the author talks about their families and the people they cook for, the food they grew up with, and the dishes that strike an emotional cord for them.  Hood delivers all of this in Kitchen Yarns, alongside wonderful descriptions of food and cooking.

 

 

Not bad for a month’s work.  My apologies for not keeping up with blogging about them!

–Marie

 

 

Marie’s Reading: “All Systems Red” by Martha Wells

all systems redAll Systems Red tells the story of a semi-organic security bot protecting a group of humans who are exploring a planet.  The SecUnit, who calls itself a “Murderbot” (due to its own unfortunate backstory) has hacked its own system so that it can act independently and not suffer punishments.  Most of its independent action consists of watching hours and hours of soap operas on its entertainment feed and trying to avoid interactions with humans.  But when a mysterious force threatens the humans, Murderbot reluctantly goes to help save the day.

I loved the first-person voice of the Murderbot.  It is snarky and funny, but also touching in its discomfort and other-ness.  Over and over again the Murderbot insists it does not care, wants to be left alone, etc., and yet its actions speak to how much it values the humans it sees as its duty.  The fact that Murderbot changes over the course of the story and makes a big decision for itself at the end speaks to its true character.

Wells uses the Murderbot to discuss identity, consciousness, and the definition of humanity, all wrapped up in a neat sci-fi adventure story with a complex and interesting central character.  Her world-building is subtle and puts you right in the middle of the action, without a lot of exposition.

This novella is the first in The Murderbot Diaries series, and I’m really looking forward to the next one!

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Between, Georgia” by Joshilyn Jackson

between georgiaNonny is used to being in the middle.  Her birth mother was a Crabtree (low-class, prone to violence, owners of Dobermans and scary Alabama relatives), but she was adopted by the Fretts (solid middle-class, reined-in, icy types, prone to their own kind of violence).  The tiny town of Between is barely big enough for these two sparring clans.

When Nonny’s aunt is attacked by one of the Crabtree dogs, a whole new cycle of feuding is set off.  This time it could be deadly.  Nonny, herself in the middle of a divorce, finds herself back in Between (and in between) once again.

Whenever I’m in the mood for a novel with a solid story, a great sense of place, and robust characters, I go for Jackson’s work.  She writes relationships extremely well, particularly between women in a family–she has real insight into the dynamics of sisters, mothers and daughters, and grandmothers and their grandkids.

The Frett sisters, who raised Nonny, really are forces–stolid, judgmental but loyal Bernese, anxious and fretful Genny, and kind and artistic Stacia, the one who raised Nonny.  Stacia is deaf and blind, as well, adding another layer to her relationship to her family and her art.  Ona Crabtree, Nonny’s blood grandmother, comes across as damaged and brittle and not very nice, but she’s still got a basic humanity.  As becomes clear over the course of the story, these women have more in common than they like to believe.

The Southern setting is great as well.  It feels as though these characters, though recognizable small-town types, couldn’t live anywhere else.  And of course the town is a character all on its own, just as Southern as its people.  There’s a sort of earthy fierceness beneath a veneer of gentility that’s just so distinct to the South, along with a strong sense of family.  This story would be very different if set among we stoic, independent, chilly New Englanders, for instance.

This really is a novel to read for the characters and the setting.  The plots do all wrap up nicely and there are some revelations and tragedy, but I found the enjoyable storyline second to everything else.

If you’re after the same sort of read I was–one with great characters, a good story, and a strong setting, all told in laidback, very natural prose–give this one a look!

–Marie

 

Marie’s Reading: “Someone Like Me” by M.R. Carey

someon like meLiz Kendall has divorced her abusive husband, but that doesn’t stop him from launching one last attack–only this time, Liz fights back and wins.  However, in the moment, she feels as though someone else entered her body and controlled her actions.  She continues to have episodes where it’s almost as if a second consciousness has entered her mind, taking control of her body and driven mostly by rage.  Day by day Liz becomes more and more unsettled by what she thinks is a coping mechanism created by her own brain, but turns out to be a lot more sinister.

At the same time, a young girl named Fran is the survivor of a kidnapping.  It’s ten years after her trauma and she still has vivid hallucinations, including one of a fox companion named Lady Jinx who acts as her dearest friend and protector.  Along with hallucinations, Fran is missing a lot of memories.  Determined to uncover the truth about what happened to her and overcome her trauma, Fran decides to go digging into the story of her kidnapping and the man who did it.

Eventually Fran and Liz’s stories intersect.  Fran and Liz both go to the same psychologist, and then Fran becomes friends with Liz’s son Zac.  Soon enough it is clear that it’s up to Fran to save Liz and her family from the violent interloper who threatens them.

This is a poignant and unsettling book about the nature of self, the aftermath of domestic violence, mental illness, and the possibilities of parallel universes and different realities.  It’s also about love and loyalty and friendship.  Carey’s writing is vivid and compelling, and he’s got a real way with his characters’ voices.  This is a supernatural thriller, but one that’s firmly grounded in a story about family and love.

If you enjoyed Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts, you’ll probably like this one, too.  I’d also suggest Jennifer McMahon’s The Night Sisters or All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading “The Witch Elm” by Tana French

witch elmAfter 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.

–Marie