Marie’s Reading: “Bitter Orange” by Claire Fuller

91Qzwi5HkMLThere’s a very old-fashioned feel to this psychological thriller.  In style and tone Bitter Orange reads a bit like Patricia Highsmith or Shirley Jackson.  The writing is elegant and the mystery a hook from the get-go.  The perfect book to curl up with on a December evening!

Frances Jellico, elderly and nearing death, recalls the summer of 1969 in an old country mansion in England.  That summer she was at Lyntons to study the garden’s architecture.  A couple named Cara and Peter have taken the rooms below hers.  Soon Frances befriends the young couple, only to find that there’s a lot more to both of them than they let on.

Fran, middle-aged and lonely and clearly with a lot of emotional baggage, is giddy to have friends.  Cara, strange and beautiful, finds an easy audience for her fantastic and romantic stories in Frances.  And Peter soon becomes the object of a crush.  I like how, as the story continues, it becomes clear that Fran is hiding something.  You begin to question exactly how reliable a narrator she is.

The back and forth of the narrative adds to the tension.  You’re aware as you’re reading that some sort of calamity is going to happen, and that Fran is actively hiding details.  It’s the bomb under the table sort of suspense.

Fuller’s writing is incredibly rich.  She sets a lovely scene, and her descriptions are wonderfully immersive and evocative.  There’s a touch of the Gothic here, too, with the dark and sinister secrets and things going bump in the night at Lyntons.

If you liked The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud for the narrator and tone, give this book a look!  The Talented Mr. Ripley fans might find a lot to like here, too, as well as those who liked The Haunting of Hill House.


My Year in Books

2017 My Books

Click the image above to go to my Year in Books, courtesy of GoodReads.

I had set a goal of 100 books to read in 2017, and I managed 104.  Not too shabby!

My favorite part of this summary is getting to see all of the different book covers all collected.  It’s a fun visual for the variety of titles I read in a given year.

Book Covers
A representative sample of my 2017 reading.

Some old favorites, some new, some TBR list, some nonfiction book club.  More or less my reading year.

As I mentioned in my Favorites of 2017 post, it’s been a pretty good year.  I’ve stuttered a bit here at the end, what with the holidays coming up.  There’s so much to do (and I fall asleep so early these days) that it’s tough to find time to curl up with a good book.  But I’m going to see out 2017 with Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl, Peter Straub’s Mr. X, and my non-fiction book club pick, The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction.


Marie’s Reading: “Pond” by Claire-Louise Bennett

PondPond is a collection of first-person stories, told by a woman who lives in a tiny cottage on the outskirts of a village.  Every piece is full of her observations, thoughts, and the detail (sometimes microscopic) of everyday life.

Slowly, page by page, phrase by multi-layered phrase, the narrator’s character is revealed.  She has secrets, she has perhaps something more than just odd habits.  The sense of time is confused, as are the other people the narrator talks about.  There’s a lot left for the reader to piece together and figure out about her.  At the end you’re left with an impression, a feeling, more than anything else.

The narrative voice and the style are wonderfully off-key, just slightly out of tune–the feeling really is one of being trapped inside the head of someone who’s alone way too much.  Or maybe trapped in a small room with that same person, and they will not stop talking at you.

Bennett does such strange and beautiful things with words.  It’s like poetry, almost.  You have to pay attention to every word.  This isn’t one to skim.  Here’s a quote, to give you an example of the voice and style:

“Look here, it’s perfectly obvious by now to anyone that my head is turned by imagined elsewheres and hardly at all by present circumstances–even so no one can know what trip is going on and on in anyone else’s mind and so, for that reason solely perhaps, the way I go about my business, such as it is, can be very confusing, bewildering, unaccountable–even, actually, offensive sometimes.”

Detailed, poetic, at times uncomfortable, Pond is a great choice if you enjoy reveling in language.

I was reminded of The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry while I was reading Pond, mostly because of the first-person, perhaps slightly unhinged narration.  The Divry book is more humorous in tone, though.  I also thought of The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, for the loneliness and anger in the narrative voice, though that one is a linear story.


Marie’s Reading: “The Good House” by Ann Leary

good houseHildy Good is one of the top real estate brokers in her small town in Massachusetts.  She’s a respected businesswoman, and her family has lived in town for generations.  She’s even descended from one of the women accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials, a fact she plays up when showing new folks around town hoping to sell a house.

Hildy is also an alcoholic in recovery, though lately the definition of “recovery” has begun to slip for her.  Though she’ll be the first to tell you that there’s nothing wrong with enjoying some wine of an evening.  The story of Ann Leary’s The Good House involves Hildy becoming friends with a new woman in town, Rebecca, at the same time that she rekindles a relationship with a man she’s known for years.

The Good House is a dark piece of domestic character-centered fiction.  And it’s not a leisurely story.  There’s lots of drama and it’s very quick-paced.  But Hildy is just so compelling it’s hard to break away.  The descriptive, evocative writing helps to make you feel a connection to Hildy.  The first-person narration helps the connection as well, creating a character that feels real and truthful and sometimes pitiable and unlikable.

At its core this is a story of a woman working through alcoholism, her own angry, private struggle.  She’s lugging around a lot of baggage, and we’re witness to all of her cringe-worthy drunken episodes.  At least, those she can remember.  It’s due to Hildy’s alcoholism that the story takes its dark turn toward the end.

The Good House is also a story of a small New England town, and the way they are changing.  Many people in this area will recognize the gentrification of a beautiful coastal community, and the way townies whose families have lived somewhere for hundreds of years can no longer afford to live in their hometowns.  Hildy’s being a real estate agent was a good choice, in that it lends this extra dimension to the story.  Even though she’s a bred townie, she still cheerfully and competitively sells houses to rich people from away.  There’s a wonderful sense of place and community (both good and bad) in this novel.

Readalike possibilities: Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh, though darker and with more of a mystery element, might still appeal to those who enjoyed the darker side of The Good House.  It also shares the small-town New England setting. Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs might be a good choice, both for the narrator’s anger, unreliability, and the high drama. Last, Paula Hawkins’   The Girl on the Train could also work, particularly Rachel’s storyline.  There’s more violence and thriller aspects in that one, but it’s still very character- and relationship-centered.



Simply Books! March Meeting

Credit to Paul Shinn over at "Look What I Drawed."
Credit to Paul Shinn over at “Look What I Drawed.”

Simply Books!  turned three years old in March!  We’ve had just about the same core crew since the beginning.  Along the way we’ve picked up new members who each bring something unique to our table.  The Simply Books! crew, to a one, is friendly, intelligent, hilarious, warm, and, of course, well-read!

It really is an honor to facilitate this group.   It occurs to me that our members are always thanking me and saying how great the group is.  Which warms my heart, don’t get me wrong!  But they really should be thanking themselves.  It’s every member together that makes a book group fantastic.   Along with that certain “It” factor.  Whatever “It” is, Simply Books! has it in spades.

So thank you to every single member of Simply Books!  I look forward to the fourth Saturday of the month like you wouldn’t believe. Talking books with all of you is one of the highlights of my professional life.  Here’s to another three years!

All-righty then, on to the good stuff!  This month I’ve decided to keep intact the list that I send by email to group members.  Most of these descriptions are in their own words.  It gives you a nice idea of what we cover at a meeting.

Here’s the list for March 2014:

cherishedCherished: 21 Writers on Animals They Have Loved and Lost
A collection of essays about the loss of cherished pets.  Wonderful tone, poignant but joyous. A book for small doses, given the subject. But still, as you read, you’ll weep, laugh, and rejoice.

inthefallIn the Fall by Jeffrey Lent
A novel about a white Civil War veteran and his wife, an escaped slave, set in Vermont.  It’s a story that spans three generations and revolves around a family secret.  Very character-centered and character-driven, with lyrical and engrossing writing.  Every character feels real.

house at seas endThe House at Sea’s End by Elly Griffiths
This is the third in the Ruth Galloway mystery series, and is absolutely delightful!  Ruth is a forensic archaeologist in Norfolk, England, who turns her expertise about bones into a turn for solving crimes.  Funny, with thin mystery plots that are secondary to the fantastic style and flawed (but always entertaining!) realism of the characters.  (this is a series you can join anywhere, but the first is “The Crossing Places” if you wanted to start there)

outsmarting catsOutsmarting Cats: How to Persuade the Felines in Your Life to Do What You Want by Wendy Christensen
This is a very informative and pretty much all-encompassing book about how to “train” the seemingly untrainable housecat.  A good read for cat owners, or anyone who would just like to know more about how a cat ticks.  A bit repetitive, but overall a good read.  The takeaway is: “Your cat does what it does because it works for it.”

siddharthaSiddhartha by Herman Hesse
A re-read (in the original German), and worth it!  Quite beautiful, with many wonderful moments.  It’s the story of a spiritual journey, with Buddhist sensibilities.  A simple tale, but lyrically told.

robert redfordRobert Redford: The Biography by Michael Feeney Callan
The authorized biography of Redford (and yes, there are pictures!).  The writing is pedestrian, but Redford’s life was quite amazing.  His energy, environmental interests, film work, and athleticism all really come through.  The one down side is that, as it’s an authorized biography, you don’t know what they’re leaving out.

willpower instinctThe Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It
Kelly McGonigal

This book was the culmination of McGonigal’s research as well as of her extremely popular 10-week class at Stanford.  It’s not wordy or fluffy, but rather very focused with a scientific and modern perspective on the nature of will-power.  It includes discussions of the myths of will-power, as well as about mindfulness.  Check out McGonigal’s TED talks for more.

formal feelingA Formal Feeling by Zibby O’Neil
A beautifully rendered story of coming to terms with grief.  Anne is a 16 year old girl who has recently lost her mother.  Her father has already remarried, and Anne is home from boarding school for the holidays.  The story revolves around Anne’s grieving process, and finally allowing herself to grieve.  It’s a sophisticated young adult story with writing to match, tactile and evocative and filled with symbolism and imagery.

tigersTigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussman
A novel about dysfunctional families, secrets, and coming of age, this story spans about twenty-five years and the stories of five different characters.  At the center of them all is a dangerous teenage sociopath and a crime he has committed, and through the points of view of the other characters his background and upbringing are brought to light.  Very evocative of upper-class New England in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

the woman upstairsThe Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
This novel centers on Nora, a schoolteacher in her thirties who considers herself a forgotten and overlooked “woman upstairs.”  She makes a connection with a student and his family, an obsessive connection which has disastrous
consequences.  Nora is a compelling narrator, one you identify with…until she crosses that line into insanity with a line or a thought.

crime and punishmentCrime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The classic novel of crime and its aftermath, as well as into the mind of a killer who seems perfectly normal.  The reader mentioned especially how the reader is drawn into the minutiae of the protagonist’s life, of how creepily everyday the narrative is, when all the while he is plotting a gruesome murder.

I realized only after I’d sent the email that I’d totally forgotten to include the book I shared!  Ooops.  It was Hild by Nicola Griffith, and if you click this link you can read my blog post.  I said pretty much all the same things.

If this post makes you curious about what Simply Books! is like in person, please come join us in a couple weeks!   Our next meeting is scheduled for Saturday, April 26th at 2pm, in the Jean Picker Room.


Marie’s Reading: “The Woman Upstairs” by Claire Messud

the woman upstairsNora Marie Eldridge is angry.  She’s not crazy, she assures us.  Just angry.  Really, really angry.  She’s a Woman Upstairs–a single woman of a certain age who feels her life has passed her by.  And then, wonderfully, magically, she meets a family whose members fill her every emotional need.  She loves each and every one of the Shahids–Reza, the boy who is one of her third-grade students; his brilliant professor father, Skandar; and then Sirena, Reza’s accomplished artist mother.

Nora finds herself pulled into their world (or perhaps she pulls herself in), and from there her life is entangled with those of the Shahids.  Nora’s story is one of obsessive love, the building up and loss of identity, and, above all, seething anger.

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