Marie’s Reading: “The Invited” by Jennifer McMahon

invitedHelen and Nate have decided to fulfill a dream–they’re going to build a house from the ground up with their own hands on a piece of land they’ve purchased in a tiny town in Vermont.  Soon they learn that their land once belonged to a woman named Hattie back in the early 1900’s.  Hattie was feared by the townspeople, so much so that they hanged her as a witch right on the property.

Helen, a history teacher, is fascinated by the story, and decides to learn more.  And the more she uncovers the more obsessed she becomes with Hattie and her secrets.  She even begins collecting objects for her house that are connected to Hattie, in hopes that she might conjure up some spirits.

The spirit of Hattie and her female relatives thread all through the story.  As one character puts it, there’s magic in their veins.  As always, though, McMahon has a pretty light touch with the supernatural and spooky elements–it’s there, but the focus really is on the all-too-human characters.  She populates this small Vermont town with recognizable people, both past and present.

McMahon’s writing is incredibly vivid, and very rich in detail.  You don’t want to miss a well-crafted sentence when you’re reading her books, and her scene-setting is amazing.  The mystery she crafts in The Invited is compelling, too, just as much as the spooky scenes out in the bog.

The Invited is a different kind of haunted house story.  If you liked The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, give this a look!

–Marie

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Marie’s Reading “The Witch Elm” by Tana French

witch elmAfter being beaten nearly to death in a robbery, Toby heads to Ivy House, the old family manse, where his uncle Hugo is dying of brain cancer.  Toby’s always considered himself a very fortunate guy, until the attack and his less than full recovery afterward.  While he’s trying to heal at Ivy House as well as care for his uncle, a human skull is found in an elm tree on the property.

Of course a whole skeleton follows, which brings the detectives calling.  Whose body is it?  How did it get there?  Toby, caring for Hugo and not having the greatest memory after the attack, tries to answer these questions as best he can–both for himself and for the detective who seems to have Toby on the list of suspects.

French’s writing is lavishly detailed and so finely wrought you want to savor every sentence.  The story is atmospheric and compelling, and the characters are all well-developed and authentic.  There’s still an element of crime fiction in this stand-alone, but it takes a backseat to a story of identity and family.  It’s also fun to see the other side of the usual stories French writes, which focus on the detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad and their investigations. Here we’re with Toby the whole time as he tries to piece together his recollections and make sense of the present.

I really enjoyed the relationship between Toby and his cousins, Leon and Susanna.  They grew up together, almost like siblings, and their bond is clear, in all its complexity and history.  A lot of their relationship relies on memory now, and memory is a big theme in the novel–how people experience and thus remember things very differently, including relationships.

If you enjoyed French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, definitely check this one out–it’s not a crime novel, as I said, so you might miss that, but everything else great about French’s work is on display here.  Fans of Gillian Flynn and Kate Atkinson who haven’t tried French yet certainly should as well.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey

snow childMabel and Jack are in their fifties, living on a homestead in Alaska in 1920.  Mabel is grieving a stillborn child, and she and her husband hope to make a new life for themselves.

One night, during an unaccustomed bout of fun, the couple build a child out of snow.  The next day, a mysterious little girl shows up on their homestead.  Mabel is convinced that the girl is the snow child come to life, to be a daughter for her.

The rest of The Snow Child follows Mabel and Jack throughout the years on their homestead, as their “snow child” Faina grows up.  They eventually learn the truth about her, but there still remains something otherworldly about the girl, even as she turns into a young woman.  Jack and Mabel also befriend the Bensons, another local homesteading family with three sons.  This is a very character-centered story, and very focused on the relationships between them.  Love is explored in all sorts of forms–romantic, parental, friendship, for the land and for home.  It’s very tender book.

Based on a Russian folktale (and this is made explicit in the novel), there’s a very strong element of the fairytale in the story.  The atmosphere is incredible, right from the get-go.  The Alaskan wilderness is vast and unforgiving, but not without its beauty.

The Snow Child  is a beautiful book, in its settings, characters, and exploration of grief, growth, and love.  If you liked The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro or Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi, definitely give this one a look!

–Marie

 

Halloween Read: “You Should Have Left” by Daniel Kehlmann

you should have left

Claustrophobic and bizarre, and super creepy! Daniel Kehlmann’s You Should Have Left is a very tightly written and strange horror story.

Our narrator is a screenwriter with a bad case of writer’s block.  He’s spending a few days in a rented house in the mountains with this wife and daughter.  He’s keeping a notebook of ideas and false starts for his screenplay.  Soon, though, weird things start to happen.  Strange shadows appear.  Things he doesn’t remember writing end up in his notebook.  And, as is traditional, the locals are very weird about the house he’s rented and look at him funny when he’s in town.

The first-person format allows you to go crazy right along with our narrator.  What is actually going on?  Is this all actually happening?  Is he truly going crazy?  Or is he right, and the house is haunted?

That isn’t quite right.  It’s not the house that’s haunted.  It’s the place.  The very ground where the house is built is just one of those weird, off-kilter places where human beings don’t belong.  That idea is a striking one, and kind of reminds me of those creepily weird stories about missing people and staircases in the woods on Reddit.

Read this in one sitting in a quiet room to get the atmosphere and tension just right!

Marie’s Reading: “Caroline: Little House, Revisited” by Sarah Miller

carolineIn Caroline: Little House, Revisited, Sarah Miller retells the story of Little House on the Prairie through the eyes of Ma Ingalls.

There’s so much lush and rich detail in this novel!  And there are layers to that amount of detail beyond set dressing and atmosphere: Caroline’s world, like the world of so many women, was all bound up in the physical realities of her home and the hard work she did to feed and clothe her family.  The amount of time spent on the little details and movements really puts you into this time and place, and the struggles of a woman on the frontier in the 1870’s.

At first I thought there wasn’t enough introspection, but as the novel went on I realized that Caroline was the type of woman who felt she didn’t need or have time for that kind of thing.  There are small moments, here and there, and it ends up being more than enough and incredibly insightful.

The story follows Little House on the Prairie more or less beat for beat, with some background filled in here and there.   This story is about when the Ingalls family left Wisconsin to stake a claim in Indian Territory.   Pa, Ma, Mary, and Laura (who was only three at the time and would be the one to grow up to write the Little House books) set off in a covered wagon for Kansas, and then try to set up their claim.  The pace is much slower and a lot more character-focused than Little House on the Prairie, which makes sense, as we’re getting this story from the adult perspective rather than a child’s.

I appreciated learning more about what Caroline Ingalls’ early life was like, and how the poverty and want of those years really affected her.  She has a serious issue with “selfishness”–she thinks of herself as incredibly selfish, for some reason, and always takes care to correct her daughters when she feels they aren’t being self-sacrificing enough.  It’s a trait that shows up in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books a lot, and here you wonder why Caroline is like this.  Was it her childhood that made her that way?  Or just one of those things?  Either way, it makes her feel three-dimensional.

As a kid, when I read the Little House books, I always found Ma way too strict and on the mean side.  But as an adult, I understand her a lot better.  Miller’s take on this woman, both from real-life sources and the character Laura created in her books, feels true.  She comes across as a fully-fleshed person, with desires and flaws and full awareness of her powerful role as Ma.

If you have fond memories of the Little House books, love frontier narratives, or both, do give this a look!

–Marie

 

 

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