The 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!
Ben 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’s Reading: “His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae” by Graeme Macrae Burnet
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!
Happy New Year, all! I’m currently devouring several great titles which I hope to talk about soon here at the Readers Corner (the recent Man Booker nominee His Bloody Project is making me realize how much I miss good juicy murder mysteries!), but I’m not there yet.
So in the meantime, here at the start of a new reading year, let’s talk about 2017 Reading Challenges!
I’ve vowed to attempt to read 100 books again this year over on Goodreads (nearly made it in 2016, clocking in at 96!).
BookRiot is hosting their Read Harder Challenge for the third year running. The goal is to get you out of your reading comfort zone and to try new genres, authors, or themes.
For the waaaaaaay more ambitious than I am: 52 Weeks, 52 Books! Just like it says on the tin: read one book per week on a given theme. Said themes include a Harry Potter Re-Read, A Book with “Some” In the Title, and Feminist Sci-Fi Novel.
For readers who just wanna have fun: Modern Mrs. Darcy is pitching a 2017 Reading for Fun challenge. Click here to see the list.
Need more ideas? Tanya Patrice has you covered (alphabetically!) over at GirlXOXO.com. Click here to check out her master list of 2017 Reading Challenges!
Happy Reading! I’m not sure I’ll be joining a challenge given the Great Challenge Fail of 2015, but I might use a few of these lists for inspiration.
If nothing else, 2016 has at least been a good reading year. One of the best in recent memory, I’d say. I discovered new favorites (Helen Ellis) and rediscovered lots of old ones (Grady Hendrix, Donald Ray Pollock, and Shirley Jackson). Thanks to my book club I’ve read some outstanding nonfiction this year, too!
Here’s a link to my 2016 Reading Challenge over at Goodreads. In general I’m not a huge fan of reading challenges that are purely numbers-based, but I think it’s great to have a way to track my reading over the course of a year. Looking over my list from 2016, I see that I branched out a bit more into contemporary women writers. I’ve also dipped back into the historical fiction well, which used to be one of my favorites. I burned out on thrillers, but still love crime (thank you thank you for the new book this year, Tana French!).
I know we’ve still got more than a week to go before the year officially ends, but trust me when I tell you that it is highly unlikely that I’ll be able to finish anything before New Year’s. So below please find my list of favorite reads of 2016. Click the cover to go to the blog post for that book.
Happy holidays, folks!
The 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).
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.
…holiday in that the holidays are swiftly approaching and my cookie-laden brain can only handle Christmas specials, not that these are holiday books.
I’ve got a bookmark in quite a few titles right now, but nothing at the point where I can write about it. So here’s what’s on my coffee table/in my bookbag:
Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin (thank you NPR Book Concierge for alerting me to the existence of this new biography!)
Not so long as other lists in this category! Also, in looking over these titles, I realize I’ve made a rookie mistake in my reading choices. Winter is not the time for sad/upsetting/bleak/generally heavy reads. No wonder I’m dragging my feet and reaching for Bill Bryson and Terry Pratchett.
I’m going to go home to eat candy and watch National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. I’ll grapple with this list another day.
Expect to see this one again next Halloween. Alfred Hitchcock presents: Stories That Scared Even Me.
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!
Birds and cats, to be precise. My favorites!
The Lion in the Living Room: How Housecats Tamed Us and Took Over the World by Abigail Tucker focuses on the unlikely association between cats and humans. Housecats aren’t “domesticated” the way dogs and other animals are. Cats make a deliberate decision to stick with humans, and humans keep these fuzzy little hypercarnivores as cherished pets. This book discusses how, on an evolutionary and ecological level, how truly bizarre this is. It’s also a wonderful capsule biological history of the cat. It’s also extremely fun and extremely readable.
One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives by Bernd Heinrich is armchair bird-watching at its best. Heinrich is a fantastic nature writer, and the narrative is enlivened by his sketches of birds. He lives in a cabin in the Maine woods and interacts with his bird neighbors both as scientist and observer. One review I saw called Heinrich’s work “hands and knees” science, and that’s a great way to put it. But it’s also enjoyable because these birds really are Heinrich’s neighbors, the same way I feel about the chickadees, blue jays, cardinals, and goldfinches who are regular visitors to my backyard feeder (I am particularly partial to the chickadees).
I’ll be honest with you and say that I’m still in the middle of both of these books. But given how slowly I read even slim volumes of nonfiction like these, I thought it prudent to go ahead and share now.
Lo Blacklock is a reporter for a travel magazine, and she just got a great opportunity: she’s going to cover the maiden voyage of a small luxury cruise ship in Scandinavia. On the first night, however, Lo believes she witnesses the murder of the woman in cabin 10, the one next door to hers. When she informs security, she’s told that there isn’t anyone booked in cabin 10.
All the drunken uncertainty of The Girl on the Train along with all the intrigue of an Agatha Christie manor house murder, with some Patricia Highsmith stuff thrown in for fun. Lo is desperate to solve this bizarre mystery, because she’s positive that she spoke with a woman saying in cabin 10–and just as positive that she witnessed her murder. She finds herself stymied at every turn, and tries to pick out suspects from those on board the ship.
I shared this at Simply Books! on Saturday, and found myself unable to give any detail about the plot and overall feel except for the references I just gave above. One of the other members spoke up and asked, “If people aren’t familiar with the genre and don’t get all the references, is it still a good book?”
Ooops. I was quick to reply with a resounding “Yes!” Because The Woman in Cabin 10 is clever, has a fantastic setting, a main character who’s both flawed and enjoyable, and some great supporting cast members. I won’t spoil the climax and the ending, but I thought it was nicely done and left an eerie sort of chill.
As in many cases, I think I’ve just reached the point where I’m burned out on thrillers. They’ve become a game, almost, since I’ve read so many of them so close together. It’s spot the reference, spot the influence, spot the twist. (I mean come on though one of the characters in this book is straight-up reading a Highsmith novel at one point so those in on it know just where this story’s going…) For me, that’s always been part of the fun of thrillers. I love seeing all that in a novel because it adds layers to my reading experience. There have just been so. Many. Of. Them. I’m tapped out.
If your Thriller mojo is still working, though, definitely give this one a try! Ware’s work is twisty and smart, and she’s a deft hand with misdirection in her narrative. She’s also got a great feel for detailed settings and atmosphere.