Marie’s Reading: “American Elsewhere” by Robert Jackson Bennett

american elsewhereIf you’re a fan of Stranger Things and/or Twin Peaks, you should give American Elsewhere a try!

Mona, a former cop, inherits a house in New Mexico after the death of her father.  Apparently the house belonged to Mona’s long-dead mother.  It’s in a tiny town called Wink.  Wink is a strange place that doesn’t appear on any map.  The people there are strange, as well.  The streets are all perfect and the houses are pretty, but no one goes out at night.

Lurking behind it all is a long-defunct laboratory and mysterious creatures that live in the canyons.  As the story goes on and Mona uncovers more and more about this mysterious town and its secrets, the more she finds herself in danger.  And more connected to Wink than she realizes.

The general creepiness of the atmosphere is great.  There’s always this sense of mystery and danger, and the style is very cinematic and evocative–in many places it really feels like a lost episode of Twin Peaks.  The tiny town with its secrets and seedy underbelly gets metaphysical in American Elsewhere, and the setting of the New Mexico desert adds an isolation and a strange beauty to the story.  And for all the weird fiction creepiness, this story is also about motherhood, family, and belonging.

If you like claustrophobic small-town horror with entertaining characters and a dash of alien/monster invasion, you might enjoy this!

–Marie

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Marie’s Reading: “The Death of Mrs. Westaway” by Ruth Ware

mrs westawayHal is down on her luck–in serious debt and unsure of where to turn.  So when a letter arrives telling her that she is the beneficiary of a will, she finds the opportunity difficult to pass up.  Never mind that the letter was clearly sent to the wrong person.  She’s never heard of a Mrs. Westaway, and there’s no way she’s a long-lost granddaughter.

But when Hal shows up in Cornwall at Trepassen House for the funeral, she finds a family with a lot of secrets and a lot of baggage–and more than a little of it just might have to do with her.  Uncovering the truth, however, might prove fatal.

I like how tight the writing and focus of the story are.  The narrative goes back and forth between Hal and entries in a diary that she finds, but we spend most of the time with Hal.  Her moral quandaries and her desire to finally learn the truth about herself are the driving forces of the narrative.  Her strong bond with her mother plays a huge role, as well.  All of the characters are interesting, and there’s a feeling of looming threat and mystery.  It’s a wonderfully atmospheric story, too–it’s always cold and raining or snowing in this book, lending a bleak and isolated kind of feel.

There are a couple of nods to Rebecca, which suit the atmosphere well.  That would actually be a good readalike for The Death of Mrs. Westaway, as would some of V.C. Andrews’ early work. There’s a wonderful classic feel to this book, even though the setting is contemporary.  If you enjoy Gothic tales of family secrets, old manor houses, and long-buried crimes, give this one a look!

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Unbury Carol” by Josh Malerman

carolHappy Less-Than-Halfway to Halloween, everybody!  I couldn’t wait until October to share this one: a great mix of horror and Western called Unbury Carol.

In a town called Harrows on the dark and dangerous Trail, a woman named Carol lives with her husband.  Ever since she was a girl, Carol has suffered from a disorder without a name or treatment.  This disorder causes her to go into a coma every once in a while.  To the outside world she looks dead, but she’s still aware of things happening around her.  She usually wakes up in a couple of days.

But when Carol goes into her coma-state this time, her husband has nefarious plans.  Only one other person knows about her condition: her former lover and notorious outlaw James Moxie.  As Carol’s husband makes plans to bury her alive so that he can steal her fortune, Moxie sets out on the Trail to return to Harrows and save her.

This is such a rich book.  It’s atmospheric and vividly described, and the whole story has a sort of threatening darkness to it.  There’s menace on all sides–both Carol and Moxie find themselves in danger, and all the while there’s the suspense of wondering whether or not Moxie will make it to Carol in time.    There’s also a supernatural element in the form of an entity that calls itself Rot, which attaches itself to Moxie out on the trail as well as to Carol.

If you want to get in the Halloween spirit a little early, and your tastes run toward the suspenseful and slightly Gothic, give this one a look!

–Marie

 

 

Marie’s Reading: “The Cuckoo’s Calling” by Robert Galbraith

cuckoo's callingI’m late to the party here, but I’m glad I finally gave the Cormoran Strike books a try!  I just finished the first in the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling.

This novel introduces us to Cormoran Strike, a wounded veteran turned private detective.  He’s just broken up with is girlfriend and is living in his office, which he can already barely afford.  He’s also got a temporary secretary named Robin, whose services he also cannot afford.

Strike takes the case of Lula Landry, a supermodel who fell to her death from her balcony months earlier.  Her brother is convinced it was murder, and wants Strike to prove it.  Soon the detective and Robin are drawn into the world of celebrity and wealth, where digging up the truth turns out to be exceedingly difficult.

I love Galbraith’s use of language.  The names all have an almost Dickensian ring to them, and the descriptions are clever and evocative.  The settings are very richly described, too–the world-building of London and of Strike’s dingy little office are both great.  Given the subjects of fame and celebrity, there’s a lot of social commentary going on here as well, and it works as another level to the investigation.

Strike is a fun character.  He’s very much the damaged PI type, with a difficult childhood, personal trauma, and relationship problems.  Yet he also comes across as a decent, intelligent, and generally kind man who is dogged in  his pursuit of the truth.  Robin, playing a Girl Friday kind of role, is also great–she’s torn between her disapproving fiance and her love of the excitement of solving a crime.  She proves herself very talented at sleuthing, too.  The partnership that builds between Strike and Robin is very nicely portrayed, and they make a great team.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is fun, compelling, and a great crime story filled with multiple layers and entertaining characters.  I’m looking forward to reading the rest!  If you like Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels, you might like these, too.

–Marie

P.S.
Robert Galbraith is J.K. Rowling. Just in case anyone hadn’t heard that yet.

 

Marie’s Reading: “The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey

snow childMabel and Jack are in their fifties, living on a homestead in Alaska in 1920.  Mabel is grieving a stillborn child, and she and her husband hope to make a new life for themselves.

One night, during an unaccustomed bout of fun, the couple build a child out of snow.  The next day, a mysterious little girl shows up on their homestead.  Mabel is convinced that the girl is the snow child come to life, to be a daughter for her.

The rest of The Snow Child follows Mabel and Jack throughout the years on their homestead, as their “snow child” Faina grows up.  They eventually learn the truth about her, but there still remains something otherworldly about the girl, even as she turns into a young woman.  Jack and Mabel also befriend the Bensons, another local homesteading family with three sons.  This is a very character-centered story, and very focused on the relationships between them.  Love is explored in all sorts of forms–romantic, parental, friendship, for the land and for home.  It’s very tender book.

Based on a Russian folktale (and this is made explicit in the novel), there’s a very strong element of the fairytale in the story.  The atmosphere is incredible, right from the get-go.  The Alaskan wilderness is vast and unforgiving, but not without its beauty.

The Snow Child  is a beautiful book, in its settings, characters, and exploration of grief, growth, and love.  If you liked The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro or Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, definitely give this one a look!

–Marie

 

Marie’s Reading: “The Sisters Brothers” by Patrick deWitt

sisters brothersEli and Charlie Sisters are known throughout the Oregon Territory as deadly killers.  They’re on a job for a man known as the Commodore.  The brothers are to hunt down and kill a gold prospector in California.  The story follows their mission, and the side adventures they have along the way.

The novel is narrated by Eli, who does not share his brother’s love of drinking and killing.  Eli does, however, really love his brother.  As the story goes on and he starts to grow a conscience about this particular mission, Eli begins to think that this life might not be for him anymore.  But how can he make a break and not lose his brother?

One of my favorite aspects of how deWitt tells this Western is in his characterization of the brothers, Eli in particular.  It’s when Eli’s character and story arc really clicks that the novel drew me in the most.  These two are hired guns, but there’s enough backstory to tell you  that Eli and Charlie came from pretty troubled circumstances.   There’s also a curious spareness, almost a flatness, to Eli’s narration–as the story went on, I began to read it as an unwillingness on his part to do too much self-examination.  You get the sense he doesn’t like what he’s become, doesn’t like his temper or his circumstances, but he doesn’t see a suitable way out.

Though it’s violent (sometimes intensely so), it’s also darkly funny, and the tone is never terribly intense.  There’s a wonderful sense of place, too–the West Coast in the early 1850’s comes through as an area full of danger, freedom, and promise.  The story is very fast-paced and compelling, and, as I said, Eli is a fascinating and complex narrator.

If you like Westerns with great characters, some moral quandaries, a nice setting, and plenty of shoot-outs, give this one a try!

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” by Winifred Watson

miss pettigrewA charming book with a delightful main character!  This screwball comedy from the 1930’s follows Miss Pettigrew as she’s swept up into the world of Delysia LaFosse, a nightclub singer.

Guinevere Pettigrew is a 40ish governess who desperately needs a new placement.  She shows up at an apartment in London expecting to find children to take care of.  Instead, she finds Delysia, an elegant young woman who needs to get a gentleman caller out of her apartment and enlists Miss Pettigrew’s help.  From there, it’s one adventure after another, with Miss Pettigrew swept up in the middle.

Over the course of a day in Miss LaFosse’s company, Miss Pettigrew blossoms.  She proves herself smart, loyal, good under pressure, and even might find a beau of her own.  Her progression is really fun to read–the  more she gets drawn in to the kind of world she’s only ever seen in movies, the more she finds she loves it.  This does not remain a fish out of water story for very long–it’s more like a fish finding the right water kind of story.

pettigrew illustrations
The illustrations are fun, too.

The friendship that develops between the women is great to read, too.  They complement each other nicely, and each has lessons to offer the other.  Miss Pettigrew and Miss LaFosse have an excellent rapport, and the way the day winds up for the both of them is sweet and fulfilling.

The dialogue is crisp and very 1930’s, along with the fast pace and lots of supporting characters popping in and out (in very dramatic, theatrical fashion, of course!).  Everything hinges on one misunderstanding, and you  hope that Miss Pettigrew will keep quiet about it and enjoy her day of really living.

While this book doesn’t share the satirical edge of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos, you might give that one a try if you enjoyed Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.  It was definitely in my head as I read this.  Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons could be another good readalike, for the humor and tone.

–Marie