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.

–Marie

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Marie’s Reading: “Quartet in Autumn” by Barbara Pym

quartet in autumnLetty, Marcia, Edwin, and Norman are low-level clerks who share an office in a very drab London in the 1970’s.  They’re all retirement-age, all very private, and all lonely and a bit strange.  The story follows the four of them through scenes of their lives outside of the office, and then, in the end, a move toward perhaps becoming more than simply workmates.

Pym’s satire is the gentle kind, rather than the acid kind–there are pointed barbs about the way the lonely elderly are treated by society, and about how the England of the 1970’s seemed like an alien place to those “born in Malvern in 1914 of middle-class English parents.”  Yet there’s real affection for these people, no matter their quirks or problems.  Pym writes with a lot of compassion.

Letty, the one from Malvern, is a tidy woman intent on education.  Edwin loves church to the point of obsession (he reads all sorts of newsletters and goes to everyone’s services).  Norman has lots of lofty plans which never quite materialize, as he finds himself keeping company with a brother-in-law he doesn’t like.  The only really sad, tragic member of the quartet is Marcia–she quietly goes around the bend after a mastectomy.

The pace is brisk, and goes from scene to scene, character to character.  It’s a very character-centered story, the focus always on these rather downtrodden office mates.  But it’s not a sad book–none of the four are really sad.  They’ve carved out their own happiness and their own little victories out of what their world has given them.  And the story ends on a very hopeful note.

Give this one a try if you’re after a gentle read that’s still smart and pointed, and is populated with affectionately rendered, interesting (if a touch eccentric) characters.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “The Various Haunts of Men” by Susan Hill

various hauntsThe first in the Simon Serrailler trilogy, The Various Haunts of Men is about mysterious disappearances on a still more mysterious hill in a small English town.

There’s very little Simon Serrailler for a Simon Serrailler book, but that’s okay–the rest of the cast is dynamic, involving, and interesting.  Freya Graffam, a detective who’s just transferred to the town of Lafferton from London, is a smart and dedicated cop and a wonderful investigator to follow.  You don’t even really miss Serrailler, even though you get intriguing glimpses of him (mostly through a love-struck Freya).

Hill’s writing is elegant.  It’s like watching a very high-brow police procedural.  Dark yet still compelling and appealing, with a building tension.  The narrative switches a lot between characters, giving a sense of the scope of the town and its people, as well as their connections.  It’s a nice mix of small-village story and crime.

One of the many POV’s in the book is a tape being narrated by the killer, and it’s very chilling and crazy.  The killer’s sections make a nice counterpoint to Graffam’s hunt.  And I have to give props to the one of the best killer motivations I’ve seen in a while, and very well-done reveal.  A real sucker-punch dark ending, too.

An engaging and intricately constructed bit of crime fiction, and a promising start to a series.  I’ll look forward to reading others, to see how Serrailler and his town are fleshed out.

If you’re a British mystery fan, and you like P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Kate Atkinson, and/or Elly Griffiths, you might want to give this a try!

–Marie

TBR Challenge 2017 Update #3

Today in the continuing saga of reading my way through my Goodreads To-Be-Read list:

She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor.  I’ve read lots of books about English history in my non-fiction group (see our list here), so I’m familiar with the women covered in this book (Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, and Margaret of Anjou).  But it was great to see their lives and stories explored in a more fleshed-out way, particularly in the specific context of female leadership in England.

The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland.  I like historical fiction that has a good sense of time and place, but doesn’t get bogged down in detail–there’s a sense of reality that comes from the period detail being in the background, the everyday.  Maitland pulls that off well here, I think.  I also liked the novel as a suspense story, one that played on the tensions between the village, the ancient Owl Men, and the Benguinage.  It’s enthralling and atmospheric with a rich cast of characters.  And now I want to learn more about Beguinages!

The Small Hand: A Ghost Story by Susan Hill.  I’m now officially doing a Susan Hill feature for Horror Month, so check back then!

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne.  I own this.  I have owned this for years.  I tried once again to get into it and once again I’ve failed.  At least I’ve now watched the movie “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.”  Which is kind of like saying, “I haven’t read the book but I’ve seen the Wishbone episode.”

Medieval Women by Eileen Power.  I think this was on my list because of the many books I’ve read for my nonfiction book group about the Middle Ages.  Not sure where I heard about it, but glad I picked it up!  It’s a collection of lectures Power gave about different aspects of women’s lives in the Middle Ages, including women’s roles and functions, and the gulf between the ideal and the lives of actual women.  Gives a lot of cultural and intellectual context to lots of books I’ve read, both fiction and nonfiction.

Full disclosure: I am technically still in the act of reading She-Wolves and The Small Hand, but I’m going to finish both so they count.

To see previous updates on this challenge, click here and here.  Or just click the TBR Challenge 2017 tag at the bottom of the post.

Next up is another classic I have read the first three pages of at least four times (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and an 800-pager called The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy.  But it’s “a brilliant, multifaceted chronicle of economic and social change” according to The New York Times.  So maybe it will go quickly?

To-Read List Currently Stands At: 823.

–Marie

 

Marie’s Reading: “Under the Harrow” by Flynn Berry

harrowHere’s a sentence that I’ve overused in the past year: “Girl on the Train fans, this one’s for you!”

This one’s creepier and darker than Girl on the Train, though.  Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry is the intricate and atmospheric story of Nora and Rachel, two sisters with a close but fraught relationship.  One night, on a visit to Rachel’s house in the countryside, Nora finds that her sister has been brutally murdered.  Nora is determined to uncover her sister’s killer, and this determination quickly turns to obsession.  By the time Nora’s behavior leads to suspicion falling on her, you’re not sure at all whether you can believe what she’s been telling you this whole time.

Nora, our narrator, is extremely unreliable, and you don’t know whether to root for her, dislike her, pity her, or a combination of the three by about two-thirds into the book.  By that point you’re not so sure about her sister, Rachel, either.

Berry doesn’t skimp on the descriptions of gore.  She evokes an atmosphere of constant cold and rain and unease.  It’s a wonderfully tense mystery, with a huge psychological element.  The narration, as I said, is skillfully done, and Nora pulls you in even as you’re not sure if you’re getting wrong-footed with her or by her.

Rosamund Lupton’s haunting thriller Sister would be the perfect readalike for Under the Harrow.  In that one, Beatrice attempts to solve her younger sister’s mysterious disappearance, and ends up uncovering more than she bargained for.  The classic Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier might also be a good choice, if you like uncertain narrators and heavy atmosphere.

–Marie

26 Books to Read in 2015: #2

For this challenge point I had to read: A book that was made into a movie.

Good thing there are only a handful of those.

With so many possibilities I kept it simple. I chose Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons.

cold-comfort-farm-673x1024
By far my favorite cover. I love the character descriptions.

I’ve been meaning to read it forever.  And I’m so glad I did!  It’s funny, it’s satirical, it’s charming, the characters have wonderful voices and dimension beyond their use as satirical vehicles, and the story itself is family/makeover story fun.

Cold Comfort Farm, first published in 1932, is about recently orphaned socialite Flora Poste, who finds herself living with her Starkadder cousins on the gloomy Cold Comfort Farm in Sussex.  The Starkadders are positively boiling over with doom, gloom, desperation, and the misery of the human condition.  Aunt Ada Doom, who “saw something nasty in the woodshed” when she was two, rules over them all.

The parodies of novelists like Thomas Hardy, and, farther back, the Brontes, are pitch-perfect, especially in those sections where the narration shifts to the Starkadders themselves (shifts aided in the edition I read by asterisks).  Spot-on word choice, a bleak atmosphere, the whole nine yards.  You can hear the wuthering.   And then in pops Flora with her energy and tidiness and desire to fix everything up neatly.

Flora is a delight.  She’s a big believer in common sense and cannot abide a mess or untidiness of any sort, and her efforts to improve her country cousins one by one provide the best jokes in the book.  Her sensible responses to the madness around her are comedy gold.  Also, Flora’s not immune from authorial ribbing, either, what with her well-timed Jane Austen quotes.  She’s a lot like Anne of Green Gables in a lot of ways, the more I consider it.  So if you’ve always had a soft spot for Anne, you might like Flora as well.

As to the movie, it’s been years since I saw it and I confess I wasn’t watching very attentively.  With the book so fresh in my mind I think it’d be an enjoyable watch–particularly with the cast!  Kate Beckinsdale, Joanna Lumley, Stephen Fry (as the author Mybug, joy in the morning what a brilliant bit of casting!), Ian McKellan and Eileen Atkins are just among the top-billed cast members in John Schlesinger’s 1995 adaptation.  Click here to go to the movie’s page on the Internet Movie Database.  And here’s the New York Times review.

If you enjoy Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, and/or books by Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse,  and/or gentle satire with British sensibilities, pick up Cold Comfort Farm.  It’s a fun, charming book, perfect for when you’re after a “nice story” in the traditional mode.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “The House of Small Shadows” by Adam Nevill

small shadowsAdam Nevill’s wonderfully crafted, nightmarish horror-show The House of Small Shadows is one of the best Horror novels I’ve read in a while.  To the point of being too scared to sleep after I stayed up late reading it.

An antiques valuer named Catherine is sent to the Red House to catalog the collection of World War I veteran M.H. Mason, a taxidermist known for his dioramas of preserved rats enacting battle scenes from the Great War.  Mason’s niece, Edith, cares for the collection, which also includes child-sized marionettes and an intricate stage for them to perform on.

The more Catherine learns about Mason’s life and work, the more diabolical and mad it all seems.  There’s a darkness still lurking in the house, a mysterious secret that Catherine is drawn into and unable to avoid uncovering.  There’s a sense of something like destiny to the proceedings, an inevitability which adds to the stifling, uneasy atmosphere.

Add in Catherine’s traumatic childhood (lots of bullying and the mysterious disappearance of her best friend), as well as her recent mental breakdown, and it’s a perfect storm of madness at the Red House and the village of Magbar Wood.

Trauma, and the inability to cope with it, is threaded all the way through this novel.  Mason worked through his PTSD with his horrific dioramas, and Catherine still suffers from the mental and emotional consequences of her childhood.  The darkness lurking behind Mason’s work, and its sinister connection to her own past, makes her mental state even worse–to the point where the reader has no idea how much is real.

Horror is all about creating a pervasive sense of foreboding and unease, to instill a feeling of terror in the reader.  Nevill is extremely skilled at this.  The plotting is secondary to the images he crafts.  The taxidermy is creepy enough on its own, but the descriptions of the abandoned village, the puppets, the “cruelty plays,” the collections of photographs, and what’s hidden in the attic are all vivid and disturbing and make you feel as passive and swept-up in madness as Catherine is.  It’s compelling and well-paced, with the tension mounting as the story goes on.

The ending of the book descends into an intricately constructed bit of controlled chaos.  The uneasiness turns into terror as you try to decide what’s real and what isn’t, right down to the open ending.  You’re left shaken and wondering what just happened.

You might want to turn to classic horror for readalikes for this one.  Shirley Jackson was in my mind as I read–The Haunting of Hill House in particular.  The creepiness comes from uncertainty and mental instability, as well as an oppressive and menacing atmosphere, just as in The House of Small Shadows.  Richard Matheson’s Hell House, with its dark secrets and tension and sense of being trapped, might also appeal.  F.G. Cottam might be good to try as well–start with The House of Lost Souls, which involves a years-old crime and an enigmatic photographer.

Remember The House of Small Shadows for Horror Month, folks!  I’m rather certain it will play a role in the upcoming fourth installment of Marie’s Favorite Scary Books (title TBA).

–Marie