Category Archives: Book Reviews

Marie’s Reading: “All Grown Up” by Jami Attenberg

all grown upIn a series of connected vignettes, All Grown Up shares Andrea’s ongoing struggles with getting her life together and overcoming her childhood. It’s funny (often darkly so) and observant.  It’s sharp, too, and there’s a strain of melancholy and dissatisfaction that runs through it.  While everyone else seems to be moving forward with traditional life milestones, Andrea is 39 and the same person in the same place as she’s always been.

And is that really a problem?

I suppose you could call Andrea unlikeable, given how she can drive you a bit nuts with her selfishness and lack of motivation, but I liked her.  Andrea is funny and has rough edges. She comes across as a real human being with issues and flaws, but also with insight and desires and a sense of humor.  I like that she does what she wants, even if she regrets it or the situation turns out badly.  I can also identify with her sensualist tendencies (there are some great passages about food and the eating thereof in this book).

How does one measure success at being a “grown-up”?  How do you know when you are one?   Do those traditional milestones (marriage, home ownership, car ownership, boat ownership) really matter at all?  Maybe you know you’re a grown-up when you reach the point where you can be there for others even when it’s hard, create connections that matter to you, and when you can hold a sick baby’s hand.

I’m excited to read more of Attenberg’s work.  She’s witty and insightful and creates emotional  and truthful moments that pack a punch for how unexpectedly they creep up on you.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Girl Waits With Gun” by Amy Stewart

cover_girl_waits_with_gun_amy_stewartI’m a little late to the party on this one.  But I’m so glad I finally arrived!

Girl Waits With Gun is based on real people, and tells the story of one of the first female deputy sheriffs in the United States.  Her name was Constance Kopp, and she lived in Wyckoff, New Jersey.  One day when out in town with her sisters, Norma and Fleurette, a wealthy silk factory owner ran into their buggy with his car.  Constance’s attempts to get the silk man to pay a $50 repair bill swiftly snowball into a dangerous situation when the man refuses to pay up.  Throw in a gang, some gunplay, and a missing child, and then let Constance Kopp save the day.

This is the first in a series, and I’ve also just finished the second installment, Lady Cop Makes Trouble.  The second one builds on the first for sure, but it’s a great outing all on its own–Constance finds her job in jeopardy after a criminal escapes on her watch.  These mysteries are amusing and filled with great characters.  As mysteries both of these books are a nice blend of police work and the more amateur sleuth style, given how Constance is kind of in-between those two worlds.

The pace is quick and the writing is evocative. Stewart does a lot with just a few lines to bring a scene or setting to life.  These books are set in the 1910’s, and there’s just enough historical detail to add color and interest.  And the characters are very well-realized through the dialogue-driven stories.  Their relationships, particularly those between the Kopp sisters, are very well-drawn.  In Girl Waits With Gun we get Constance’s backstory, and that of her family, and learn how these sisters ended up on an isolated rural farm.

Constance is presented as no-nonsense and incredibly driven, and I like how matter-of-fact she is about her unorthodox (for her time) profession.  This real-life quote from Constance says it all:

“Some women prefer to stay at home and take care of the house. Let them. There are plenty who like that kind of work enough to do it. Others want something to do that will take them out among people and affairs. A woman should have the right to do any sort of work she wants to, provided she can do it.”

She’s good at what she does and she wants the opportunity to do her job.  That’s pretty much all there is to it.  I appreciate how Constance just gets on with things, and the story never gets bogged down with the social issues that it touches on.  These books are about Constance Kopp taking down criminals, and keeping you delightfully entertained while she does so.

If you want to learn more, Stewart’s website has some great background on the characters and on New Jersey/New York City in the 1910’s.  Check it out here.

And the third installment is due in September, so keep your eyes peeled this fall for Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions!

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Shutter Island” by Dennis Lehane

shutter_island_book_coverIn Dennis Lehane’s creepy and suspenseful Shutter Island, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his partner Chuck arrive on Shutter Island to find a missing inmate from Ashecliffe Asylum.  What seems like a routine investigation is swiftly put off the rails by the uneasy atmosphere at Ashecliffe, and all of the secrets the people in charge seem to be keeping.  Teddy has his own demons to work though at the same time, having recently lost his wife.

I can’t believe I’m only getting to this novel now.  I never saw the movie, either, so the ending remained unspoiled for me.  I enjoyed the dark, film noir feel of this, with the tortured war veteran and his dark past, his solitary nature, his desire for revenge.  He’s a great character, flawed yet remaining sympathetic.

The plotting of this novel is so intricate and so well-constructed.   I can’t out-do the Kirkus reviewer on this one: it’s a “lollapalooza of a corkscrew thriller.”  You start questioning your own sanity by midway through, and I mean that in the best possible way.  The twist is revealed in one of the best scenes I’ve read lately, where the stakes are high for everyone involved and the emotion of it all seems very real.

The setting is fantastic, both gritty and Gothic, perfect for the story.  Ashecliffe is depicted as a brutal relic from another century, and its maximum security isolation on an island is perfect.

Lots of diverse readalikes present themselves for this one, depending on what you enjoyed the most.  Noir and crime fiction from the 1950’s might really appeal to you, if you liked that aspect of the story.  The grittier the better. There’s also something very Gothic about the creepy atmosphere and sense of danger at the asylum.  You might enjoy John Harwood’s The Asylum (I talked about it here).  I also thought of The Boy Who Could See Demons while reading this, which you can read more about at this post.

If you want just a smidge more of the Nazi subplot, some aliens, and a ton of Sarah Paulsen, you might want to check out the second season of American Horror Story, which took place at an insane asylum in Massachusetts.  Here, I can show this clip on a family-friendly blog (trust me, the entire season is just as nuts as this, but in different ways).

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Behind Her Eyes” by Sarah Pinborough

behind-her-eyesI assumed this thriller has a mind-blowing, unpredictable tweest.  The jacket copy asks you first thing: “Why is everyone talking about the ending of Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes?”

I love this kind of guessing game!  Uh, let’s see:

  • It was Earth all along
  • Turns out it’s man
  • It’s made of people
  • Nicole Kidman was the ghost the whole time
  • The entire novel was a dream
  • The entire novel was a paranoid delusion
  • The entire novel was a fantasy played out in a snowglobe
  • Identical twins
  • Christopher Walken is a robot
  • They’ve been dead the entire time
  • It’s the sled
  • He’s been dressing up like his dead mom
  • There are two killers
  • It was an Army test
  • It was aliens

Is there a prize if I guess correctly?

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough is an engaging and twisty thriller with plenty of psychological suspense and tension.  Pinborough has a background in writing horror and dark fantasy, and it really shows here.  The story involves Louise, a single mother in London.  One night she meets a guy named David in a bar, who confesses he’s married.  And then it turns out that David is Louise’s new boss, and they both find it difficult to deny their attraction.  On top of that, Louise becomes friends with Adele, David’s troubled and mysterious wife.

Louise gets dragged into the dysfunctional relationship between David and Adele, and she’s not sure which of them she can trust.  If she can trust either of them to be telling the truth about their backgrounds and pasts.

The narrative goes back and forth between Adele and Louise, and with Adele in particular, you’re never quite sure how much to believe.  As the book goes on, you’re drawn into an intense triangle between these characters–the friendship between Louise and Adele, the passionate affair between Louise and David, the mysterious and perhaps sinister marriage of David and Adele.  The plot is intricate, playing with past and present, with perceptions and secrets, until the final confrontation and shocker ending.

Yeah, about that ending.  I don’t want to spoil it, but I will tell you this, my fellow thriller and mystery fans: it’s definitely unpredictable.  Dirty pool.  So blatantly entirely impossible that you’d ever figure it out that this is all I could think of after finishing:

truman-capote

“You’ve all been so clever for so long you’ve forgotten to be humble!  You tricked and fooled your readers for years.  You’ve tortured us all with surprise endings that make no sense!”

My Lionel Twain-esque initial reaction aside, though, I did enjoy this novel immensely.  It’s well-engineered, it’s atmospheric, it’s twisty, and the cat-and-mouse aspect is great fun.  I liked the growing sense of dread and unease, and the crazily building tension.

Just open your mind to the idea that you’re in a psychological thriller that doesn’t play by the usual rules.  Once you get over the shock, it’s actually pretty refreshing!

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Homesick for Another World: Stories” by Ottessa Moshfegh

homesickHere’s a collection of grotesques if ever there was one.

Ottessa Moshfegh’s collection of short stories, Homesick For Another World, presents a series of people who are each alienated and disconnected in their own ways.  Each of them are desperate for some kind of connection with the world or with another person.  The ways they go about forging these connections, however, are weird and damaging and dark.

Only one word comes to mind at first: Grim.  Grim grim grim.  After that comes bleak, I guess.  But there’s also dark humor and a sense of compassion.  The weird, unfulfilled, and misguided characters in these stories aren’t being mocked or gawked at.  Instead, they’re simply presented with all their flaws and desires, with a concise style.

Moshfegh has a real talent for delving into the darkness and coming up with something human.   These stories aren’t always easy to read, but they’re compelling in their strangeness and in their insight.  Each one has an ending or an image or an idea that will sit with you for days.

I loved Moshfegh’s novel Eileen, and you can read my post about it here.  What I said about that book applies to this collection, too: “This is a stark, bleak, sometimes ugly book, but it’s also compulsively readable and deeply affecting.”

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “The Sundial” by Shirley Jackson

sundialThe Halloran family has gathered in their crumbling ancestral mansion for a funeral.  One morning Aunt Fanny has a vision wherein her long-dead father gives her the exact date of the end of the world.  If the Hallorans stay in their family manse, they will be the sole survivors and inheritors of a bright clean world.

As you read, you wonder why these people deserve it.

Given the subject, it seems odd to say that The Sundial is one of Shirley Jackson’s funnier novels.  It’s like You Can’t Take It With You with the apocalypse instead of the IRS.  Also, this family is full of rather mean people who hate one another rather than a kooky assortment of loving individuals.  Oh, and there’s also the probable murder and unsettling open ending. But really, it’s funny, in a character-based screwball comedy kind of way.

I had my pick of fantastically weird cover art for this one, and I chose my favorite because I think it reflects the core of the story: a dysfunctional family trapped together in an old house, bouncing off one another, and waiting for doomsday.  Jackson always did oppressive atmosphere very well, and it’s approaching Hill House levels at the Halloran mansion.  But, as I said, with some levity.  There is a note of discord about this one, where it maybe doesn’t quite know what it wants to be–but somehow all the pieces make a delightfully odd whole.

The Sundial reflects a lot of Shirley Jackson’s interest in the occult, from divination to doomsday to symbols.  And, as ever, her fascination with the intricacies of small-town life, from the villagers to the odd old family on the hill in their suffocating Gothic home.

Weird fiction fans, give this one a look!

–Marie

 

Marie’s Reading: “The Hike” by Drew Magary

the-hikeBen is on a business trip in the Poconos, and he decides to go for a quick hike behind the inn where he’s staying.  That quick hike turns weird fast when Ben suddenly finds himself lost and alone, on a path he can’t stray from under penalty of death.  In this bizarre world there are giants, twin moons, an old lady in a lonely cottage, monsters, and a foul-mouthed crab named Crab.  Ben’s only goal is to stay alive and get home to his family.

It sounds trippy because it is.  But just roll with it!

The set-up is that of a fairy tale quest: Ben has to stay on his path and overcome obstacles in order to get back to his own world and family.  The tone and atmosphere are like a Twilight Zone episode (right down to the ending!), with its eerie weirdness and sense of danger.

It’s a fast-paced adventure with plenty of humor, but there’s also a poignancy to the quest.  Ben is a wonderful Everyman character, and it’s very easy to identify with him.  What parts of your life would you most like to have another chance at?  And how would you go about facing down your deepest fears?  And, most of all, how much would you be able to endure in order to stay on your path?  I imagine this book is one you would probably read very differently at different stages of your life.  Kind of like Gulliver’s Travels or Alice in Wonderland, or even The Odyssey.

The Hike is all about conquering your demons and following your path, whatever those might be.  It’s fun, hilarious, and touching.  And very, very weird.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae” by Graeme Macrae Burnet

bloody-project

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet is a deft blend of historical fiction, murder mystery, psychological fiction, and courtroom drama.  The writing is also complex and elegant all the way through (this novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize).

Set in the Scottish Highlands in 1869, the story is about Roderick Macrae, a young man who has brutally murdered three of his neighbors.  He does not deny his guilt in the slayings.  But the question is: is Roderick sane?  Or will he hang for his crime?  And what drove him to murder in the first place?

Burnet tells the story with the conceit that he is piecing together a narrative from materials related to the case that he found in an archive.  A nice framing device, but one that, for me, quickly was absorbed into the memoir which was supposedly written by Roderick.

Roderick’s story is gritty and bleak, given his time, place, and social status, and it’s clear from his personal narrative that there’s something off about him.  Yet you’re sucked into his story completely, and into his poor community and desolate household.  You know there’s something he’s not telling you, but at the same time you get a good picture of what his life and relationships (or lack thereof) were like.

Following Roderick’s account of the murders, there are accounts from the medical examiner, a criminologist, and then a courtroom transcript.  All of these following accounts allow for the reader to fill in the gaps in Roderick’s narrative, and to provide a clearer and more three-dimensional picture of the other characters.

For my money, the best parts of the book were the memoir written by Roderick, and the excerpt about the case written by the criminologist.  Both have the best atmosphere and voices in the book.  They also allow for the best presentation of the historical time, place, and mood.

If you enjoy historical fiction and/or historical murder mysteries, give this one a try!

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Life Among the Savages” by Shirley Jackson

lifeThe woman who brought us The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Lottery, all benchmarks of psychological horror, terror in the domestic, and repression in all its forms, was also extremely funny and wrote charming pieces about her children, like this collection called Life Among the Savages (1953).

No, really!

While it’s true that she pretty much just wrote this kind of “women’s magazine” stuff to pay the bills, it’s a testament to Shirley Jackson’s talent and range that she could write in such different genres.  Though it’s also fascinating to see how similar ideas and themes crop up across her work.  Houses with personality, for one.  A sense of the grotesque and shocking and supernatural in everyday things.  People, particularly girls and women, who are outsiders for whatever reason.  Here, all of the above are played for laughs instead of creeps.

On a personal level, I really identify with Jackson’s anthropormorphization of her household goods.  And her house itself.  Take this section, where she’s talking about moving into her old house in North Bennington, Vermont:

…we gave in to the old furniture and let things settle where they would.  An irritation persisted in one particular spot in the dining room, a spot which would hold neither table nor buffet and developed an alarming sag in the floor when I tried to put a radio there, until I found completely by accident that this place was used to a desk and would not be comfortable until I went out and found a spindly writing table and put a brass inkwell on it.

Houses, especially old ones, are alive, with feelings and energy and preferences.  Jackson gives that idea a sweet, homey spin in her magazine writing.  In her other work, this kind of idea turns into The Haunting of Hill House.

But there are so many funny episodes which Jackson brings such immediacy and life to.  A trip to the department store with a toy-gun-wielding son and a daughter toting around twelve invisible daughters of her own was one of my favorites.  Every anecdote is mined for the best possible mix of day-to-day family insanity, in a house with lots of fierce personalities.   It’s a revealing snapshot of what it was like to be a housewife and mother in the 1940’s and 1950’s, too, right down to the trip to the hospital to have her third child:

“Name?” the desk clerk said to me politely, her pencil poised.

“Name,” I said vaguely.  I remembered, and told her.

“Age?” she asked.  “Sex?  Occupation?”

“Writer,” I said.

“Housewife,” she said.

“Writer,” I said.

“I’ll just put down housewife,” she said.

–Marie

 

 

Marie’s Reading: “Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories That Scared Even Me”

Expect to see this one again next Halloween.  Alfred Hitchcock presents: Stories That Scared Even Me.

hitchcock

I picked this up on a whim because I’m a sucker for creepy short stories, particularly those from the 1950’s and 1960’s.  There’s a certain quality to mid-century tales of the macabre and grotesque which make them unique.  The matter-of-fact prose, maybe.  The atmosphere of the uncanny and foreboding, but without the Gothic touches.  Or maybe it’s the way they usually present the weird colliding with the everyday.  They’re suspenseful and play with your mind and expectations.

Men Without Bones had a weird Heart of Darkness vibe.  The creepy, icky melancholy of A Death in the Family by Miriam Allen deFord had me freaked out for a day after reading it.  Party Games was just…ugh, man.  Murder, adultery, aliens, evil kids, monsters, dimension-bending cameras that can send you to hell…this collection has a bit of everything.  Including the complete novella Out of the Deeps by John Wyndham.

If you’re after a short story collection to creep you out in small doses, this would be a good one to try.  Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson fans should have a look!

–Marie