THE EPIC FINALE: Marie’s Reading: “The Seance” by John Harwood

I’ve been on a Gothic novel kick lately, the more twisted and creepy the better!  John Harwood’s The Seance most definitely delivers on both.

The story begins in 1880’s London with Constance Langton, a young woman whose life has been marked by death and abandonment.  Living with her uncle and uncertain of her future (and even uncertain of her own history), Constance is  informed that she has inherited Wraxford Hall–a centuries-old estate where an entire family disappeared twenty years before.  The lawyer who brings her the news of her inheritance tells her that the Hall is an evil place with a very dark history, and that she should “sell the Hall unseen; burn it to the ground and plow the earth with salt…but never live there.”  From there, Constance must delve into the dark mysteries surrounding the Wraxford family and the tragedies that have surrounded the family and the Hall.

The story is very intricately plotted, filled with dark family secrets, mysteries, and, of course, ghosts.  Spiritualism plays a large role in the plot–a seance sets the  novel’s events in motion, and the history of the Wraxfords has an enormous amount to do with mesmerism.  The settings are extremely well-rendered, whether it’s a dark manor house in a thunderstorm or a busy London street.  There’s an excellent sense of historical time and place, as well–you’re completely and believably drawn into 19th century England.

I also enjoyed Constance as a character–she’s a very strong protagonist, and one feels drawn to her need to make sense of her past and to create an identity for herself.    Actually, all of the characters are very well-conceived.  They are clearly “stock” characters of the Gothic tradition (the madwoman, the handsome artist, the mysterious nobleman, the orphaned heroine, etc.), but Harwood makes them seem real, new, and easy to feel for.

The Seance is atmospheric and creepy, and quite compelling!  It’s the sort of story that pulls you in and keeps you reading as the suspense grows and the mysteries unravel.  I ended up reading it in two sittings, I found it so difficult to put down.   Readers who like Horror, Historical Fiction, and Suspense will all find something to enjoy in this novel.

Read-Alikes:
For those who enjoy the details about spiritualism as well as the historical setting, Affinity by Sarah Waters might be a good choice.   The Little Stranger, also by Waters, might also be good for those who like unreliable narrators, unresolved endings, and a truly creepy atmosphere.  Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden has a lot in common with The Seance, like deep family secrets and Victorian period detail, but the tone is not quite as dark.   Her more recent The Distant Hours might also be a good choice, with its castle setting, suspense, and a plot that revolves around unraveling deep family secrets.  The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield is also a good Gothic read, as is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.  Peter Ackroyd’s The Trial of Elizabeth Cree might appeal to readers who enjoy intricate stories and the atmospheric detail of Victorian London–it’s more of a grisly historical murder mystery than it is a Gothic novel.  Those after a real Victorian “sensation novel” might try Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.

–Marie

This was my very first post on the Readers Corner, way back on April 30th, 2011.  The re-post of it today, May 13, 2020, will be my last.  Thanks for letting me share books, jokes, stupid memes, and more books for nine years.  It’s been a joy.
–Marie

Reading from Home Rerun: Marie’s Reading: “The True Meaning of Smekday” by Adam Rex

Aliens have invaded Earth.  Only now it’s not Earth–it’s Smekland, named for the glorious and brave Boov leader, Captain Smek.  These aliens have kidnapped Gratuity “Tip” Tucci’s mom, and are relocating all humans to Florida.   So now Tip is on a quest to save her mom, along with her cat Pig and her unlikely new Boov friend, J. Lo.

I love Adam Rex, and I read his hilarious Fat Vampire, as well as his children’s book Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich before I picked up The True Meaning of Smekday.  Rex’s style of humor reminds me a lot of Christopher Moore, so if you’re a Moore fan, you should check out Rex’s work.  And this is a pretty good one to start with.  It’s funny, it’s touching, and it’s got fantastic illustrations.  It’s also got a lot to say about expansionism and colonization, but the points are made in such a way that kids won’t feel like they’re being preached at.

Adam Rex is a funny, funny guy with a great talent at character voices.  Tip is a wonderful protagonist, and her growing friendship with the Boov alien J.Lo is one of the highlights of the book.  I am also a big fan of mixing formats, so I loved the illustrations and comics throughout the book.  I also really liked how the narrative is supposed to be an essay that Tip is writing for inclusion in a time capsule.

If you’re after a fun, quick read with wonderful characters and a great sense of humor, give this book a try.  You can learn more about Smekday, Boovs, and read a bit of Tip’s essay at the website for the National Time Capsule Project.

–Marie

This post originally appeared on the blog on July 12, 2012

Reading from Home Rerun: Marie’s Reading: “The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street” by Susan Jane Gilman

This novel is what you’d get if you crossed  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn with Citizen Kane.  And added lots of delicious ice cream.

kaneI
“So sue me, darlings!”

Ice CreamThe Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street chronicles the rise to power of one Lillian Dunkle, who becomes one of the most formidable business owners in America with her franchise chain of ice cream stores in the middle part of the 20th century.  Lillian, born Malka, emigrated to New York with her family in 1913.  Not long afterward, she was crippled in a street accident and abandoned by her mother.   Afterward she is taken in by an Italian family with an ice cream business, setting her on the road to fame.

And infamy, as it turned out.  As the novel opens, Lillian is elderly and in some legal trouble, and she wants to set the record straight about her history, her troubles, and why she isn’t to blame for anything.  The story is nicely constructed in terms of callbacks and cohesion, so I won’t give away too much about the particulars.  Suffice it to say that she lives the American Dream.  Whether that’s a good thing or not is sort of open to question.

Here is my very favorite quote from the novel, edited for length:

 “Over fifty years of my life I have dedicated to ice cream. And truly, darlings, to the United States of America. With the cartoon characters and ‘fun flavors’ I’ve created, I have injected joy, whimsy, and sweetness into a brutal and treacherous world…And need I remind you, it was me, Lillian Dunkle, who helped advance the cure for polio…I have helped feed and transform America….

…And yet once, just once, I accidentally punch a small child on live television. And suddenly, that is all people care to know.”

That quote tells you all you need to know about the sort of narrator you’re dealing with here.  Personally, I liked Lillian Dunkle a lot, all her faults included.  She’s conniving, she’s ruthless, she’s jealous, she’s a drunk.  But she is also funny and savvy and supremely talented.  I have a soft spot for unreliable and unlikeable narrators when they’re done well, though, so your mileage on this might vary.

For instance, one review I noticed on Goodreads criticized Lillian’s characterization, saying something along the lines of “She’s every negative stereotype of women in power.”  While I can see the reviewer’s point, I disagree.  Lillian Dunkle is ANYBODY, in business or not, who is hungry for power, is tough and talented, and has no real regard for others.  Seriously, she bears a lot of resemblance to Charles Foster Kane--denied a childhood and unable to make many deep connections (her husband seems to be the exception, but even then there’s a narcissistic quality to her love for him), ruthless in her drive to get to the top, remorseless in the devices she uses.   You might not like her, but you at least understand her.  And she’s a heck of a lot of fun.

The tone of the book is very engaging.  Lillian talks at you and you can’t help but listen, darkly amused at some points and moved at others.  There’s a sweeping sort of quality to the story as well, since Lillian covers so much ground in her life in such a short time.  She goes back and forth, talking about her childhood and then coming back to the present, all with the feel of someone actually writing everything down as she thinks of it.

And the ice cream.  Oh, the descriptions of ice cream.  Be warned, you will want all manner of frozen treats after reading this novel.  I wasn’t expecting to learn so much about the history of ice cream manufacturing, but I did.  Gilman even includes some recommended titles at the end of the book.

For readalikes, definitely try A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith if you haven’t read it already.  While the setting, tone, and narrative voice are quite different, you’ll see lots of similarities as far as the depictions of New York and of the immigrant experience go.  Myla Goldberg’s fun, moving, and inventive Wickett’s Remedy, about an Irish shopgirl determined to get out of her Boston neighborhood, would also be a good choice.  If you like the style and don’t mind a time-jump to Shakespeare’s England, the extremely funny and strangely poignant The Late Mr. Shakespeare by Robert Nye could be a good choice.  The narrator of that one is remembering his time with Shakespeare from his tiny attic room, writing a chapter for every memento that he’s kept through the years.

If none of those titles grab your attention, you can do what I did: Settle in with a pint of your favorite ice cream (and a double gin and tonic) and watch Citizen Kane.  Trust me, darlings.  It’s as good a “readalike” experience for this book as any.

–Marie

This post originally appeared on the blog on August 22, 2014

Reading from Home Rerun: Marie’s Reading: “The Library of Unrequited Love” by Sophie Divry

untitled“To all those men and women who will always find a place for themselves in a library more easily than in society, I dedicate this entertainment.”

Sophie Divry’s dedication in her novella The Library of Unrequited Love says all you need to know about it.

One morning a librarian comes in to work to find that a patron has spent the night there.  In the minutes before the library opens, she talks to the person.  Well, monologues or rants might be more correct.  Either way, it’s a long narration with no section breaks or paragraphs, just the Geography Librarian talking at you.

In describing her life and her woes, the librarian comes across as tragic, hilarious, and maybe just a little unhinged, each by turn.  You get the sense that this is happening in real time.  You, the reader, are the patron who got stuck overnight in the library.  Sometimes you’re amused, sometimes you’re scared, sometimes you’re just quietly upset, sometimes you nod along with the librarian as she opens herself up, talking about everything from Napoleon to the Mayor to an inability to leave a pile of books on the floor to the young researcher she’s got a crush on.

At 93 pages The Library of Unrequited Love is the work of an evening, but you’ll want to go back and read it again.  It’s a fantastically quotable piece.  I share her love/hate relationship with Dewey’s system of classification.  Her depiction of Dewey categories as social classes is a thing of beauty. Her complicated relationship with library patrons is very well-drawn, as is her raging against the machine of local politics.  The librarian has a wonderful voice–Divry gets this woman across beautifully.  Even in translation from French the language flows nicely and the character comes through in all her glory.

A wonderful, quick little read for librarians and those who are fascinated by them.  Perhaps also a cautionary tale for library regulars.  After all, how often do you get to hear a librarian rant at you when she’s off the clock and there’s no one else to listen?

–Marie

This post originally appeared on the blog on June 15, 2015

Watching from Home Rerun: The Cabin in the Woods

The CPL Readers Corner is devoted to books and reading, but I’ve been known to bend the rules considerably during Horror Month.  I like to take a broader, more all-collection view of scary anyway.  You frighten reach more people that way.

Besides, movies are written.  This particular screenplay won a Bram Stoker Award.  So it counts.  And really, it’s less of a stretch than my post about The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror.

So let’s explore Drew Goddard’s 2012 movie, The Cabin in the Woods.

 

The Cabin in the Woods

 

Directed by Drew Goddard and written by Goddard and Joss Whedon, The Cabin in the Woods  tells the story of five teenagers who are spending a weekend in a secluded cabin in the woods.  Predictably, creepy things start to happen, and bodies start to pile up as the kids struggle for their lives against murderous ghosts.

The twist, though, is that they’re being watched.  Not just watched, monitored.  By Bradley Whitford!

bradley-whitford-at-event-of-the-cabin-in-the-woods-(2012)
Not just Bradley Whitford, of course.  Richard Jenkins helps.  I just really like Bradley Whitford.

Whitford plays a technician at the Facility.  The cabin in the woods, it turns out, is a part of this Facility, and every terrifying event is being carefully orchestrated.   Eventually it becomes the task of the surviving teens to uncover the exact nature of what the Facility is and the reasons for the terror.

In an interview with Total Film back in 2012, Joss Whedon described the movie as a “very loving hate letter” to the horror genre.  He went on to add that, while the movie is fun, it’s also meant to be a serious critique of modern horror.  In particular, he said:

“The things that I don’t like are kids acting like idiots, the devolution of the horror movie into torture porn and into a long series of sadistic comeuppances. Drew and I both felt that the pendulum had sung a little too far in that direction.”

Watching the movie you certainly get the critique.  There’s an entire sequence, for example, where a drawn-out “series of sadistic comeuppances” are happening on the monitor at the Facility, with a scene being played right in front of it, the technicians largely oblivious.  Modern horror inundates us with graphic violence and jump scares, and I’ll go ahead and state my opinion that that is LAZY.  Lazy lazy LAZY.  It’s much more difficult to write a movie that tells a nuanced suspenseful tale of terror, or even one that uses violence in a non-gratuitous way.  So moviemakers don’t.  It’s a discredit both to movies and to horror as a genre.  I agree with Drew and Joss–the pendulum has swung way too far in the lazy torture-porn direction in horror movies, so it’s unspeakably refreshing to happen upon a movie like this every once in a while.

So I’m biased when I say I loved The Cabin in the Woods.  The gore is there, but there’s a point, whether it’s in-universe or authorial critique.  I thought it was clever and scary and endlessly entertaining, with a great cast and a well-told, genuinely creepy story.  I like movies and books that are kind of a thumbed-nose to genre, and this screenplay fits the bill with its mix of comedy, horror, and satire.

You can feel the attention and affection that went into this movie with every frame.  The monsters are lovingly crafted, the sets and the way they’re shot are a joy to see.  The screenplay is a delightful mix of humor and horror, chock-full of references and homages.  And the ending is pitch-perfect.   If you’re after a little something different this Halloween, you should give The Cabin in the Woods a try.

Cabin in the Woods Dance

Here’s the trailer, see if it appeals!  Keep in mind, though, R-rated horror movie, so ye be warned.

This post originally appeared on the blog on October 10, 2014.

 

Reading from Home Rerun: Marie’s Reading: “The First Book of Calamity Leek” by Paula Lichtarowicz

calamity leekThe First Book of Calamity Leek  by Paula Lichtarowicz opens with an attempted escape.

Truly, one of the girls who live in the Garden, protected by their dear Mother and Aunty, has tried to scale the Wall and get Outside.  Her cryptic words, when Calamity and her Sisters find her: “No Injuns.”

Thus we’re pulled headlong into the world of Calamity Leek.  She tells us all about Mother, who has rescued them from Outside, and Aunty, who is training them to be Weapons to go to war against the demonmales who dominate the world.  All of their knowledge of the world comes from Aunty’s Appendix and Showreel, which she shows them at regular intervals.  Calamity is treasured here, close to Aunty, loves her Sisters, and she believes in the divinity of Mother, and in their sacred mission.

Soon enough we learn that Calamity is telling us of a time gone by–in the present, she’s in an Outside hospital and has lost everything she’s known.  The book is the story of how she ended up there, and what happened to the Garden.

Calamity is a joy to follow.  She’s smart and brave and sure and proud, and completely loyal.  What’s heartbreaking is how these wonderful things about her have been used and abused by Aunty.  Calamity is strong, and she loves fiercely, but she’s also brainwashed.  It’s a heartbreaking combination.  Her voice and language are at once foreign and familiar, fitting for a girl who’s grown up in isolation.

References abound in this book, all springing from Aunty’s delusions and background (she’s a disfigured former actress).   A lot is left up to the reader to piece together, since we get the story from Calamity’s limited point of view.  It’s a bit of a puzzle, but easy enough to figure out when you’re on the outside looking in.

One blurb on the back of this book called it a mash-up of Margaret Atwood and Roald Dahl, and I was trying to figure out where the Dahl came from.  I’ve just now figured it out: all of the adults in this book are either completely insane and abusive or completely useless.  They’re tyrannical or they misunderstand.   It’s the kids making sense of their own world and beating the odds, and through the elevated craziness of Aunty and Mother’s little garden, it’s possible to see how completely off-kilter the adult world is, particularly to  children.

The First Book of Calamity Leek  is original, creative, and poignant.  It’s also funny and smart, chock-full of references and creative use of language.  I’ll go ahead and say this has been one of my favorite reads of the year so far.

For readalikes, I’d suggest Room by Emma Donoghue.  The story is narrated by a young boy who has grown up in the small room where his mother has been held captive.  It’s much more serious in tone and deals with consequences in the real world more deeply, but it also uses a unique point of view to deal with hard issues in a sideways sort of way.

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan might also appeal, for those who love how tough Calamity is.  The main character there is a wounded young woman who might have killed a police officer, and is put into a detention center called the Panopticon.  You can read my blog post about it here.

–Marie

This post originally appeared on the blog on May 3, 2016

Reading from Home Rerun: Marie’s Reading: “Dear Committee Members” by Julie Schumacher

dear committeeI love the concept of this novel: a tale told in epistolary fashion, but not just any epistles.  These are letters of recommendation from a snarky, arrogant, and fed-up English professor, tired of how many of these letters he’s made to write for students and colleagues.

Many of the letters are one-off jokes, but mostly they carry through the story of Professor Jason Fitger, trying to assist the budding career of a student of his.  Fitger believes this student to be a genius (his novel is a reworking of Bartleby the Scrivener,  set in a 1960’s brothel), but nobody else seems to agree.  As the letters go on, we learn more and more about Fitger and his background and relationships, as well as his failed writing career.  The tone and wonderful voice in these letters, coupled with what we learn about Fitger, helps to round him out and turn the book into a nice little character study.

I was surprised to find myself touched at the end.  There’s a lot of heart to this novel which, on the surface, appears to just be a long joke about academia and one arrogant dude writing hilarious passive-aggressive letters.  But the last few letters go deeper into real emotions and motivations after a dramatic event, and it’s wonderful how well it works.  This book is witty, character-driven, and has a nice dose of satire.  And, as I said, Fitger’s voice is incredibly well-done–you laugh even as you realize you probably wouldn’t like him very much if you met him.  And you even begin to understand him a bit.

A fun novel with plenty to entertain humor fans, teachers, and anyone who’s ever had to write an LOR.   If you like this one, you might want to pick up The Lecturer’s Tale, James Hynes’ novel about a professor at a Midwestern university who discovers he has magic powers after having his finger re-attached after an accident.  Nicholson Baker’s slightly meta The Anthologist would also be a good choice–it’s about a failed poet trying to write the introduction to an anthology.  The character is fun and you learn about him in a similar way as you do Fitger.  If you enjoyed Fitger’s character voice, you might get a kick out of Ignatius Riley, the unlikeable star of the wonderfully funny A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.

ETA: I was telling my husband about this post, as he also read this book, and he asked, “What about Book for a readalike?  That one is also funny and an academic satire.”  Husband is right.  I should put the guy on the Readers Corner payroll.  Book: A Novel by Robert Grudin also has a separate story playing out in the footnotes, to hilarious and metafictional effect.  Give that one a try as well!

–Marie

This post originally appeared on the blog on November 18, 2014

Reading from Home Rerun: Marie’s Reading: “Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way Through Great Books” by Cara Nicoletti ; illustrations by Marion Bolognesi

VoraciousIsn’t it great when you find an author who’s a kindred spirit?  Cara Nicoletti is the same age as me, loves food, loves to read, and loves to write about both.  After reading her book Voracious (as well as her blog, Yummy Books), I  feel like we’d be friends.

Nicoletti’s work is charming, warm, funny, and intelligent.  She’s an astute reader who clearly has a lot of passion and a depth and breadth of reading behind her.  She’s just the type of person you’d want to talk about books with as you cook a meal together.  Her book grew out of her blog, which in turn grew out of her book/cooking club.  Really, what an utterly amazing idea, a literary supper club.  I wish I’d thought of it.  (My idea was to read and drink my way through Tequila Mockingbird.  Nicoletti’s idea is a lot classier.)

As I mentioned, Nicoletti and I are the same age, so I got a real kick out of hearing what books she liked when she was a kid.  That was my favorite section of her book, and I enjoyed the piece about Little House in the Big Woods in particular.  In looking over her blog I got embarrassingly excited when I saw “Stacey’s EmergencyBrown Butter Pecan Brownies.    Along with everything else we’ve got in common, we felt the same way about the Babysitters Club.  This is one paragraph among many that made me laugh:

Recently, on a particularly overwhelming day, I impulse-bought Babysitter’s Club Book #43: “Stacey’s Emergency” at a used book store. The dilemma in the book is this: Stacey loves chocolate, but Stacey has diabetes so she cannot eat chocolate. Ignoring her diagnosis, Stacey steals Ring Dings from Claudia’s house and stuffs them in her purse, she eats chocolate bars in the privacy of her bedroom, foams like a rabid animal while making fudge at a babysitting job, and (ROCK BOTTOM), even shoves M&M’s in her mouth in the bathroom of a commuter train. Eventually, Stacey gets really really sick because, you know, cause and effect.

“Charming” is the word I keep coming back to when I think about Voracious.  I was charmed, by the sheer passion, by the fun, by the love of reading, by the love of food.

Howards End Is On the Landing: A Year of Reading From Home by Susan Hill, My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss, Classics for Pleasure by Michael Dirda, and the lovely lyrical novel Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots by Jessica Soffer would all be wonderful choices, both for tone and content, to pick up after Voracious.  Or after an afternoon of reading Nicoletti’s blog.

–Marie

This post originally appeared on the blog on September 28, 2015

Reading from Home Rerun: Marie’s Reading: “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” by Marisha Pessl

Special Topics in Calamity Physics is one of those novels that asks you to think, to go back over the Introduction once you’ve finished, to look for new clues and new meanings in chapter headings and lines of dialogue.

It’s the sort of novel that immerses the reader in a world of eccentric academics, esoteric reading material, and Big Ideas.

It’s the kind of novel that features a narrator with such a strong voice that your speech patterns and writing style are influenced for days after you finish it.

The story is a simple one: Blue Van Meer lives with her father, a brilliant professor.  They move from town to town as her dad switches teaching jobs.  Finally they land in North Carolina, and Blue begins her senior year of high school at the elite St. Gallway School.  Soon enough, the brilliant but lonely Blue falls in with a group of students called the Blue Bloods, who meet every weekend at the home of Hannah Schneider, one of their teachers.  For a while it’s all very Dead Poets Society…until two deaths occur and Blue finds herself having to unravel a very complicated mystery.

I find myself at a bit of a loss to describe this novel.  It’s part coming of age, part high school drama novel, part experimental, part satire, part mystery.  A fun and heady mix, to be sure, filled with allusion and playful prose.

There’s some fun playing with form, as well–Blue, influenced by her brilliant father, offers sketched “visual aids” and many parenthetical citations to aid in her storytelling.   There’s even a Final Exam at the end that serves as an epilogue.  We’re pretty much on our own to fill in the blanks of the story and figure things out.

I will say that at some points the narrative really drags.   This is not a novel with a clear story arc, suspense, or any real resolution.  This is, instead, a novel that explores the character and influences of Blue Van Meer.  Luckily for us she’s a fun character to read, and there are truly some great one-liners and turns of phrase.

Lastly, I’ll say that I love the father-daughter relationship that makes up the true emotional core of this story.  The sweet moments between Gareth and Blue really are lovely, and make a great counterpoint to the deadpan intellectualism and shallow relationships of the rest of the characters.

Readalikes:

I was immediately reminded of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History as soon as I read the description of this book.  If you enjoy the set-up of Calamity Physics, then it might be worth a look.   The Secret History also features an elite group of students involved in mysterious deaths, and is also a mix of satire and mystery with plenty of literary allusion thrown in.  Think a slightly Gothic Dead Poets Society.

I also thought of Rebecca Makai’s The Borrower as I was reading.  Blue reminded me a bit of the ever so slightly revolutionary librarian narrator of that novel.  It’s another story of slightly eccentric characters in a weird situation (in this instance a pseudo-kidnapping and road-trip), with a touching relationship at its center–but this time it’s between a young boy and the librarian.  (Here’s a link to my review of The Borrower)

If you enjoy the overall tone, bookish references, and the clever playing with format, you might try Book: A Novel by Robert Grudin. It’s a satiric look at college life and publishing, particularly about professors and career academics, with a murder mystery thrown in just for fun.  Oh, and at one point there is an entirely separate story playing out in the footnotes.  It’s a fun, quirky read with a unique style and many, many allusions.

Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters (also subtitled as A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable, which gives you a good idea of the playing with form aspect of the novel) is a lot of fun for those who like wordplay and satire, as well coming of age stories wherein young people must solve problems and fight for expression.

–Marie

This post originally appeared on the blog on January 28, 2012