Ugh. Last time I could make jokes but this time digging out our driveway took three hours and I don’t want to talk about it except to say:
On the plus side, I did spend the not-shoveling part of the snowstorm with some great books!
The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan. This book about the women who worked at Oak Ridge during World War II reads like a novel. Since this is still within living memory, the author was able to interview lots of people, and to focus on a few individual stories. The first-person accounts really add an immersive layer to the history. In alternate chapters, the history and science behind the atomic bomb is explored. A nice introduction to the making of the atomic bomb, and also a great exploration of the women who had a hand in making it happen.
The Widow’s House by Carol Goodman. Very much my usual, and Goodman is very much in her wheelhouse with a novel about two writers who go back to their college town in upstate New York to work as caretakers for a former teacher. The teacher’s house has a tragic past, and lots of family secrets and maybe a ghost. Entertaining and enjoyable, and I’m just getting into the meat of it now.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. This book was all the rage when it was first published. Everyone was reading it and talking about it. It’s been on my TBR pile for years, and I just started it the other night. The first chapter was a promising, atmospheric, and mysterious beginning to a story about rival magicians in the late 19th century.
Ghost Road Blues by Jonathan Maberry. Yet another novel I’m reading in preparation for Horror month! I’ve loved all the short stories I’ve read by Maberry, so I decided to give this title a try. It’s about an ancient evil in a small town. If it spooks me, you’ll see it in October!
That was all I had time for before the shoveling began. And the watching of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, which is awesome and you should stop reading this right now and go watch it. Maybe this weekend I’ll have time for more books and Gently. After shoveling.
What was it I said I was looking for in a book? Interesting, complex characters. Lyrical or at least engaging writing. A quick pace. A good idea for a story. Add atmosphere, secrets, compelling twists, and a dark past to that list, and you’ve got The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman. It’s everything I wanted!
Jane Hudson, recently divorced, has returned to her private high school, Heart Lake, as the Latin teacher. A townie, she was a scholarship girl always desperate to prove herself. During her senior year of school, both of her roommates committed suicide. And now that Jane is back at the school, one of her students also attempts suicide. When pages of the journal she lost at school start appearing, and one girl dies, Jane is drawn into the present mystery and back into her memories of what happened to her friends Lucy and Deidre twenty years before.
The novel is divided into three parts–the first and third concern Jane in the present, and the middle section goes back to her teenage years, including her family background and the tragic events of her senior year. In the present she tries to solve the mystery of how and why her past is showing up again, and in the past we see the seeds of what is happening now. As past and present meet and more threads are drawn together, the narrative starts to shift within chapters as well as the story nears the climax. It’s a nice stylistic touch.
Heart Lake is practically a character on its own. It’s constantly referenced, the weather is described as it affects the lake, it’s been the silent witness to the secrets of generations of girls. The scenery, particularly the ice of the lake, is given lush description. You feel the cold, and can hear the ice cracking. Latin, the dead language of the title, is also key to the symbolism and clues, so pay attention to names!
The Lake of Dead Languages is a very intricately plotted book, filled with connections and secrets and bonds of secrecy and betrayal. There’s a strong element of the intensity of the parent-child bond (for good and for ill), as well as the intensity of friendship. All of the mysteries are solved in the end, and while you might call it early (as I did), it’s still an atmospheric and satisfying journey.
There’s so much going on in this book that there are lots of readalike ideas. The Secret History by Donna Tartt is an obvious one, with its literary style and story about a college classics clique with dark secrets. In that same vein, Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl (see here for blog post), or Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris, which is about a classics teacher at a boys’ school who finds himself upended by changes and a threat from the past.
Empire Falls by Richard Russo, for the stuck-in-a-small-town angle, as well as the family and community connections that last for generations, could also be a good choice. I’d also suggest Jennifer McMahon’s Dismantled, for the atmosphere, dark and intricate secrets, friendships a bit too close for comfort, and lake imagery.