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: “All Things Cease to Appear” by Elizabeth Brundage

all-things-cease-to-appear-1Quick one for today, post-gorgeous holiday weekend.  It’s a blend of suspense, mystery, ghost story, and family story told with rich prose and a haunting tone–All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage.

At the beginning of the story, George Clare finds his wife murdered in their old farmhouse in upstate New York.  He’s the immediate suspect, but his parents manage to bail him out, and the police can’t get enough evidence to bring a case against him.

From there, the story goes back in time to show the backstory of the Clares and the story of their marriage, and how the murder is just the latest crime in a string of them.  We also learn the story of the Hales, who owned the farm before the Clares moved in.  Soon the story shifts to more of a “how-dunnit” than a “who-dunnit,” blending with the story of a poor small town and the people who try to survive there.  There’s also just a hint of the supernatural, but just enough to add another dimension to the story and characters.

The sense of place and the atmosphere is wonderfully evocative–the whole book feels cold, a little desperate, a little bleak.  The intense moments sneak up on you.  This is a very rich, well-crafted story, with strong characters and a good dose of atmosphere.  The pace is slow, but the characters and the mystery keep the story going.

If you enjoy the Dublin Murder Squad books by Tana French, or the slightly-otherworldly intricate suspense of Jennifer McMahon, give this one a try!

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Don’t You Cry” by Mary Kubica

don't you cryDon’t You Cry by Mary Kubica is everything I want in a thriller.

I love thrillers.  I love the suspense, the just-this-side-of-credible motivations and reveals, the mystery element, the cliffhangers, the insanity, the secrets.

(Reading over that list just now I realize I’m also describing why I love Gothic fiction, too–just throw in some heavy atmosphere and deep sense of the uncanny to the above, and you’ve got Gothic!)

Anyway, Don’t You Cry is a great choice if you’re a fan of books like The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins or Her by Harriet Lane.  It’s got a fast pace, a great puzzle, and a really good reveal at the end.  It’s very cinematic, too–the writing is very scene- and plot-focused, almost like a crime show.  Actually, that describes the overall tone and feel of this novel pretty well: it’s like a TV drama.  There’s a very good dose of Crime Fiction in this particular book.

The story is told in two alternating voices.  There’s Quinn, who awakes one day to find that her reliable, kind roommate Esther has disappeared.  Quinn finds some mysterious letters among Esther’s possessions, and begins to try to unravel why Esther has gone missing.  The other story is told by Alex, a recent high school graduate who feels he’s wasting his young life in his small town taking care of his alcoholic father.  Then all of a sudden a mysterious young woman shows up in town, and Alex is immediately smitten.

For both Quinn and Alex events turn dark and sinister very quickly.  Only at the end do we see the connection between these storylines.  All the way through, though, there are themes that tie everything together beyond just the plot–Kubica puts a lot of emotional focus on the relationships between parents and children, and the theme of abandonment.   There’s a nice emotional buildup right alongside the intensifying plot buildup, which makes the ending more satisfying.

If you’re after a fast, compelling, and twisty thriller, give this one a try.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “The After Party” by Anton DiSclafani

after partyA tale of friendship among the power set in 1950’s Houston, The After Party by Anton DiSclafani is filled with the detail of everyday life, and the details of a dysfunctional friendship.

At the center of the story are Cece and Joan.  Joan is the golden girl, Cece her handmaiden (she describes herself as a “lady-in-waiting”).  They’ve been friends ever since they were tiny, and as the years pass, Cece remains almost obsessively devoted to Joan.  Joan is always the party girl, the one who runs away and keeps secrets, the one constantly flitting from man to man.  Cece is the one who cleans up the messes Joan leaves behind.

The writing is simple but evocative.  DiScalani’s great strengths are with atmosphere and characterization.  The plot, such that it is, is secondary to the exploration of a very specific time and society (upper-class Houston in 1957) and the people who live in it. The relationship between Cece and Joan is especially well-crafted–it’s utterly believable in its one-sidedness, in the way Cece needs Joan so terribly (or has convinced herself that she does), and in the way that she feels responsible for Joan’s behavior.  Watching Cece try to evolve, to try to come to terms with the secrets she uncovers, and to overcome her past, is the backbone of the book.

For Cece, the life of a young housewife and mother, which Joan finds so stifling, provides protection, security, and identity.  Her struggle when caught between her husband and Joan feels very real and immediate.  How much of her hard-earned life is Cece willing to put on the line for Joan?  Or lose entirely?

The After Party is a great novel to kick off your summer with–filled with dynamic characters and lush scenery, simple but clear and honest writing, and a plot that’s full of secrets but ultimately second-fiddle to the people and their relationships.

–Marie

October Simply Books! Meeting

Hi All!  Sorry for the delay in getting this up.   I couldn’t think of a way to tie in a Simply Books! update with Horror Month.  We’re not all that scary.

So here we are with another great list of books to share.  It’s as varied as ever, and we had some great conversations about this month’s reads.  I always like to share these books in our members’ words whenever I can (read: whenever I take good enough notes), so I’ve done that here.

Enjoy!

Read More »