Marie’s Reading Thrillers: “Tips for Living” and “The Lying Game”

I always want to read thrillers and suspense in late winter.  It’s a great time of year to hunker down with books, and something about the cold and dark lends itself to darker stories.  I’ve been reading a lot of Minette Walters, as well as re-visiting Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad books.

Here are two thrillers that got me through some dark and snowy afternoons recently!

In Tips for Living, Nora has finally gotten her life back on track after her husband’s affair and their subsequent divorce.  But then her ex-husband and his new wife move into Nora’s adopted small town.  Shortly thereafter, the two are found murdered in their home.  Even worse, Nora is a sleepwalker suffering a relapse, and cannot remember her whereabouts on the night of the murders.  Nora has to clear her name while all the while wondering if, in fact, she did commit the crime.

As a bonus, I think anyone who lives in a small community with a large summer population will totally understand a lot of the snarkiness displayed in the newspaper article subplot of the book (the “Tips for Living” of the title).  There’s great small-town atmosphere, that sense of community that’s sometimes claustrophobic and insular.

Ruth Ware’s The Lying Game is less of a who-dun-it mystery than Tips for Living, and more of a thriller with many layers of deception.  It’s about four friends who have been hiding a secret for years, only to have it come back to bite them.  The scene-setting is great and the characters are interesting–Ware has a talent for atmosphere and dialogue.  If you like Paula Hawkins and S.J. Watson, you might like Ware’s books.

Though I enjoy whiling away winter afternoons with thrillers, I’m definitely looking forward to springtime and being able to read them with more sunshine and an open window!

–Marie

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Marie’s Reading: “The Cellar” by Minette Walters

CellarThough the blog doesn’t reflect it, I’ve been on a Minette Walters kick lately.  I like her unlikeable characters, and I like her feel for misdirection.  The Cellar is different than her other books, and it’s a dark, sad, creepy story.

A family of African immigrants brought along their slave, Muna, to England.  She has been with them since she was eight years old, when they stole her from an orphanage.  Muna is forced to live in the cellar, to cook and to clean, and to endure all manner of abuse from the Songali family.  And all this time, she’s been plotting her revenge.

There’s a slow, creepy build to this story.  At the start, one of the sons of the family has gone missing, which brings police to the door.  To cover Muna’s true place in the household, she’s finally given real clothes and a bedroom.  As the tale continues, you discover how much Muna knows and understands–from the fact she can speak English to the lengths she’ll go to to exact some vengeance on this family.

There’s no one to like in this novel, but you can certainly understand how tragic and twisted poor Muna is.  Even in the more grotesque moments, it’s hard to feel much but a sick pity for her.  This is one of those horror stories that unwinds the disturbing truths slowly, and stays with you for a while after reading it.

If you enjoy claustrophobic horror stories and tales of revenge, give this a look.  But if the winter darkness already has you in a funk, maybe put this one off until summertime!

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “The Perfect Nanny” by Leila Slimani

perfect nannyThis French thriller is a slim, quick read, but it packs an emotional punch.  The story is about a nanny named Louise, hired by a French couple to care for their two children.  Over time, and via flashback, it becomes clear that Louise is not as wonderful a find as her employers supposed.

This novel is quite understated and character-focused.  Readers who are tired of rote police procedurals and lots of heinous crime will likely find the style and tone refreshing.  The reader is also aware from the first page of both the crime and who did it, and the narrative does not focus on an investigation nor the gory details.  Instead, we get a glimpse into this family and into Louise’s life, and can intuit the reasons behind the tragedy that opens the book.  The story is compelling and unsettling, with lots of dark corners.

The Perfect Nanny has less to do with a crime and investigation than it does with motherhood and with caregiving, and how oppressive those roles can be even as they bring a lot of joy.  Slimani also examines the tensions of class.  Readers who enjoy intensely focused, character-centered novels should give this one a look!  I’d also suggest it to readers who enjoy old-school domestic thrillers.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer” by Sydney Padua

lovelace and babbageI loved The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.  It’s consistently charming, hilarious, smart, and incredibly informative.  What a great way to give Lovelace and Babbage a wonderful adventure and a happy ending.

Based on the very real friendship and partnership between Ada, Countess of Lovelace and Charles Babbage, this graphic novel takes place in a “pocket universe” where the two of them actually built the Difference Engine (Analytical Engine, if you want to be precise, but as Padua notes, Difference Engine sounds cooler).  Adventures and hijinx ensue, with tons of cameos from famous Victorians.

analytical_engine

Padua’s writing and art are both delightful, lively and entertaining.  The footnotes and endnotes are extensive and fourth-wall-breaking.  Padua does a great job of explaining and contextualizing the history of computer science and mathematics (and pocket universes). This book grew out of her webcomic, which you can find here.  Her site is great, chock-full of fun extras and an adventure that didn’t make it into the book.

If you enjoy a blend of humor and history, and/or if you’re a Kate Beaton fan, you should give this a look!  Steampunk fans might find a lot to like, too.

invention of geek

–Marie

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marie’s Reading: “Three Graves Full” by Jamie Mason

three gravesWhile working on his property, landscapers uncover human remains in Jason Getty’s yard.  Jason is horrified, but also confused–neither of these bodies are the one that he buried himself.

Years before Jason committed a murder.  He never reported it, and he buried the man at the edge of his property.  He thought he’d covered for himself pretty well.  But now detectives are swarming, and Jason just knows they’re going to find the third grave eventually.  So he has to decide what to do before his crime is uncovered.

 

There’s also the mystery of the identities of the two bodies eventually found in Jason’s yard.   A team of detectives, Bayard and Watts (along with faithful dog Tessa), are working to figure out what happened to them and why.  Watts and Bayard were my favorite characters in the book–they both come across as dedicated, kind guys who are good at their jobs and have great instincts, as well as being great friends with each other.  Their interactions are great to read.

Jason is fascinating as well.  I like how Mason crafts his mindset.  It takes a while to discover how off-kilter he really is, and it’s a nice build.

Three Graves Full reminded me of a darkly comic “The Tell-Tale Heart,” with some police procedural thrown in.  It’s a fast-paced read with entertaining characters and really well-done action sequences.  If you like mysteries with a slightly different angle with lots of threads that come together at the end, you should give this one a try!

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors” by Dan Jones

templarsJones makes history so accessible and interesting, without sacrificing depth and scholarship.  His accounts are vivid and make great use of historical sources.  The Templars is about the order of the Templar Knights, including how the order was formed, their influence over the centuries, and the way they’ve been transformed into myth.

I went into this book knowing nothing about the Templars except that they existed.  The Knights Templar began as a group of knights dedicated to protecting Christians in Jerusalem, as well as the holy city itself.  They took vows of poverty and chastity, and lived lives similar to those of Cistercian monks.  However, they were also allowed to go into battle and to kill. In a very short period of time their power and money exploded.  When they finally fell out of favor, it was in spectacular and bloody fashion (short but not spoilered version: they ran afoul of the king of France, who did not trust the order…and was also in debt to them).

I have read several books about this era (about 1119 until about 1312), but always with a focus on England.  The Templars explains what was going on  in Jersualem and in Western Europe during the Crusades.  I especially enjoyed learning more about Spain and France during this period, and the capsule history of the city of Jerusalem was illuminating as well.  Again, after so many books from, say, Richard the Lionheart’s point of view, it was also fascinating to learn more about Saladin.

Jones finishes the book with a discussion of how pop culture has transformed the Knights Templar, and the way their legacy has shifted and turned to myth, which makes a nice bookend to the historical narrative.

If you enjoy narrative history and are interested in the Middle Ages, definitely try Jones’s work!  He also wrote the wonderful The Plantagenets and The Wars of the Roses.

–Marie

Cayla’s Reading: “The Women in the Castle” by Jessica Shattuck

women in the castleI’m drawn to World War II fiction, particularly centered around women. Therefore, the premise of the widow of one of the men who plotted to assassinate Hitler gathering other Resistance widows in her family castle post-war was irresistible. After finishing, and pondering over this book for about a week, I am still of mixed emotions.

Marianne von Lingenfels is a formidable, complex character. She is passionately idealistic to the point of being unable to see the human complexities of the people she encounters. To Marianne, you are either a Nazi or you are not, there is no grey area. The other widows and children she manages to pluck out of the post-war DP camps are not quite as black and white. Fragile, romantic Benita burns with her own quiet strength, yearning for a life she’ll never have. Stoic Ania harbors secrets darker than anyone might imagine. Their children struggle for any resemblance of normal childhood after losing their fathers and living through the horrors of war.

The book starts in 1945 and then jumps forward to 1950, and then 1991, with several flashbacks to during and before the war. At first, I thought the author should have lingered in 1945 a bit longer. I was fascinated by life for the widows in the castle, learning to live with each other and find meaning in their new lives.

But as the book went on, I realized the book isn’t so much historical fiction as it is a study in psychology and how each person handles tragedy. The plot in itself doesn’t really matter. It was, of course, an interesting look at post-war Germany, a perspective we don’t often get in fiction. We got to see insight into how German society put itself back together after such a terrible and divisive war. But it really is about the characters. Some find purpose and passion in reconstructing Germany. Some struggle to adapt, some try to forget, and some are trapped in regret and pain and cannot move on at all.

We also got to see how each of the grown children handled their lives after the war. Some want nothing to do with their histories, some study it, and all struggle with relationships and connections. Seeing each character at each point in time was really a remarkable study in human psychology. The events in the book didn’t feel like a nicely arranged plot, either. I actually had to check if they were based in reality, they had that certain random quality that made me think it had to be partly true. It turns out, the only true part is the assassination plot against Hitler. But, Shattuck is half-German and based a lot of the emotional content on her grandparents’ experience during the war.

All in all, I think I liked it, but it isn’t an easy book to read or to digest!

–Cayla