Marie’s Reading: “American Elsewhere” by Robert Jackson Bennett

american elsewhereIf you’re a fan of Stranger Things and/or Twin Peaks, you should give American Elsewhere a try!

Mona, a former cop, inherits a house in New Mexico after the death of her father.  Apparently the house belonged to Mona’s long-dead mother.  It’s in a tiny town called Wink.  Wink is a strange place that doesn’t appear on any map.  The people there are strange, as well.  The streets are all perfect and the houses are pretty, but no one goes out at night.

Lurking behind it all is a long-defunct laboratory and mysterious creatures that live in the canyons.  As the story goes on and Mona uncovers more and more about this mysterious town and its secrets, the more she finds herself in danger.  And more connected to Wink than she realizes.

The general creepiness of the atmosphere is great.  There’s always this sense of mystery and danger, and the style is very cinematic and evocative–in many places it really feels like a lost episode of Twin Peaks.  The tiny town with its secrets and seedy underbelly gets metaphysical in American Elsewhere, and the setting of the New Mexico desert adds an isolation and a strange beauty to the story.  And for all the weird fiction creepiness, this story is also about motherhood, family, and belonging.

If you like claustrophobic small-town horror with entertaining characters and a dash of alien/monster invasion, you might enjoy this!

–Marie

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Marie’s Reading: “The Death of Mrs. Westaway” by Ruth Ware

mrs westawayHal is down on her luck–in serious debt and unsure of where to turn.  So when a letter arrives telling her that she is the beneficiary of a will, she finds the opportunity difficult to pass up.  Never mind that the letter was clearly sent to the wrong person.  She’s never heard of a Mrs. Westaway, and there’s no way she’s a long-lost granddaughter.

But when Hal shows up in Cornwall at Trepassen House for the funeral, she finds a family with a lot of secrets and a lot of baggage–and more than a little of it just might have to do with her.  Uncovering the truth, however, might prove fatal.

I like how tight the writing and focus of the story are.  The narrative goes back and forth between Hal and entries in a diary that she finds, but we spend most of the time with Hal.  Her moral quandaries and her desire to finally learn the truth about herself are the driving forces of the narrative.  Her strong bond with her mother plays a huge role, as well.  All of the characters are interesting, and there’s a feeling of looming threat and mystery.  It’s a wonderfully atmospheric story, too–it’s always cold and raining or snowing in this book, lending a bleak and isolated kind of feel.

There are a couple of nods to Rebecca, which suit the atmosphere well.  That would actually be a good readalike for The Death of Mrs. Westaway, as would some of V.C. Andrews’ early work. There’s a wonderful classic feel to this book, even though the setting is contemporary.  If you enjoy Gothic tales of family secrets, old manor houses, and long-buried crimes, give this one a look!

–Marie

May Staff Picks!

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Every Note Played by Lisa Genova
This novel is about a renowned middle-aged concert pianist diagnosed with ALS (a.k.a. Lew Gehrig’s Disease).  The novel chronicles, in brutal detail, the devastation to his body—which his untouched mind witnesses with horror—and the effect of his illness on his relationships with his ex-wife  and estranged daughter.   Described as “the Oliver Sacks of fiction,” Lisa Genova is a neuroscientist interested in exploring the impact of neurological diseases on individuals’ lives.
–Diane

Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro
Maybe I’ve been looking in the wrong places, but my experience with contemporary “Christian fiction” is that although pleasant, few of these books grapple with the problems encountered by serious believers.  Maggie, the protagonist of Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon is no Hallmark-card Christian.  Despite her long-term marriage, she finds herself aching for a relationship with fellow poet James.  Maggie and James long for each other for years, exchanging e-mails and furtive phone calls and meeting at literature conferences.  Maggie’s struggle—and what it means not only for her marriage but also for her religious beliefs—burns at the center of this short, unusual novel.
–Diane

High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of An American Classic by Glenn Frankel
This book explores the making of the classic Western High Noon, and the toxic political environment that inspired its screenwriter, Carl Foreman.  Frankel takes a multi-faceted view, talking about the blacklist and the hearings before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Hollywood during its Golden Age and then its post-war years, biographical sketches of Gary Cooper, Carl Foreman, and other players, and then the story of the making of the film itself.  It’s fascinating reading on several levels.
–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Unbury Carol” by Josh Malerman

carolHappy Less-Than-Halfway to Halloween, everybody!  I couldn’t wait until October to share this one: a great mix of horror and Western called Unbury Carol.

In a town called Harrows on the dark and dangerous Trail, a woman named Carol lives with her husband.  Ever since she was a girl, Carol has suffered from a disorder without a name or treatment.  This disorder causes her to go into a coma every once in a while.  To the outside world she looks dead, but she’s still aware of things happening around her.  She usually wakes up in a couple of days.

But when Carol goes into her coma-state this time, her husband has nefarious plans.  Only one other person knows about her condition: her former lover and notorious outlaw James Moxie.  As Carol’s husband makes plans to bury her alive so that he can steal her fortune, Moxie sets out on the Trail to return to Harrows and save her.

This is such a rich book.  It’s atmospheric and vividly described, and the whole story has a sort of threatening darkness to it.  There’s menace on all sides–both Carol and Moxie find themselves in danger, and all the while there’s the suspense of wondering whether or not Moxie will make it to Carol in time.    There’s also a supernatural element in the form of an entity that calls itself Rot, which attaches itself to Moxie out on the trail as well as to Carol.

If you want to get in the Halloween spirit a little early, and your tastes run toward the suspenseful and slightly Gothic, give this one a look!

–Marie

 

 

Marie’s Reading: “The Cuckoo’s Calling” by Robert Galbraith

cuckoo's callingI’m late to the party here, but I’m glad I finally gave the Cormoran Strike books a try!  I just finished the first in the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling.

This novel introduces us to Cormoran Strike, a wounded veteran turned private detective.  He’s just broken up with is girlfriend and is living in his office, which he can already barely afford.  He’s also got a temporary secretary named Robin, whose services he also cannot afford.

Strike takes the case of Lula Landry, a supermodel who fell to her death from her balcony months earlier.  Her brother is convinced it was murder, and wants Strike to prove it.  Soon the detective and Robin are drawn into the world of celebrity and wealth, where digging up the truth turns out to be exceedingly difficult.

I love Galbraith’s use of language.  The names all have an almost Dickensian ring to them, and the descriptions are clever and evocative.  The settings are very richly described, too–the world-building of London and of Strike’s dingy little office are both great.  Given the subjects of fame and celebrity, there’s a lot of social commentary going on here as well, and it works as another level to the investigation.

Strike is a fun character.  He’s very much the damaged PI type, with a difficult childhood, personal trauma, and relationship problems.  Yet he also comes across as a decent, intelligent, and generally kind man who is dogged in  his pursuit of the truth.  Robin, playing a Girl Friday kind of role, is also great–she’s torn between her disapproving fiance and her love of the excitement of solving a crime.  She proves herself very talented at sleuthing, too.  The partnership that builds between Strike and Robin is very nicely portrayed, and they make a great team.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is fun, compelling, and a great crime story filled with multiple layers and entertaining characters.  I’m looking forward to reading the rest!  If you like Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels, you might like these, too.

–Marie

P.S.
Robert Galbraith is J.K. Rowling. Just in case anyone hadn’t heard that yet.

 

April Staff Picks

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An Unsuitable Attachment by Barbara Pym
I love Barbara Pym.  Her books are always so funny and charming, filled with great characters.  This particular book is about a group of people who all live in the same not-so-fashionable parish in London, who all wind up on a trip to Rome together.
–Marie

Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842
by Nathaniel Philbrick
This is the story of an amazing, incredible voyage of discovery that lasted for over three years, including science, exploration, hardships, lost men and ships, from the Antarctic to the cannibal islands of the South Pacific, to the treacherous mouth of Oregon’s Columbia River. The book, though, as well as the expedition itself, is marred by bickering and feuding amongst the crew and the leader of the expedition. The leader, crew, and scientists never got the recognition they deserved, because of the backbiting and counterclaims that accompanied the voyage. Philbrick tried to weave the stories of resentment into the book along with the astonishing accounts of discovery; perhaps it is a good reflection on the expedition in that the acrimony affects the achievement of a great story.
–Ken

Points North by Howard Frank Mosher
Like many of Mosher’s earlier works, these  short stories are set in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont—remote, rustic, and beautiful.  Mosher tenderly examines the lives of individuals—some living in isolation, some in small communities—as they struggle to connect with each other and with the natural world.  If you love the fiction of Wallace Stegner and Wendell Berry, as I do, you will love the work of Howard Frank Mosher.
–Diane

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore
Radium girls is about the girls (mostly teenagers) who worked in the radium dial painting factories unaware of the danger of this new magical material. The girls literally glowed when they left the factories in the evening due to the radium dust that settled over them. Unfortunately, years of exposure caused unexplained illness down the road and many of these girls died in their early 20s. In addition to their story, this is a tale about corporate greed and corruption as the factory first ignored the reports of these illnesses and then worked to cover up the cause. Ultimately the resulting lawsuit led to changes in worker’s rights and compensation. Radium Girls draws the reader into the victims suffering as they desperately seek relief from their symptoms and try to understand why they are ill.
–Mary

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