Marie’s Reading: “The Shadow Land” by Elizabeth Kostova

shadow landKostova’s latest, The Shadow Land, is about an American woman named Alexandra who travels to Bulgaria to teach English.  On her first day there, she accidentally comes into possession of an urn filled with human ashes.  Inscribed on the urn is a name: Stoyan Lazarov.

Alexandra befriends a taxi driver named Bobby, and the two of them set off to return the ashes to Lazarov’s family.  From there they learn more and more about Lazarov, who was a violinist who spent some time in a prison camp in 1949, as well as his family.   They also find themselves embroiled in the current political scene in Bulgaria–and all the possible threat that could entail.

The narrative goes back and forth from focusing on Alexandra, who is still dealing with the death of her brother, to the stories of the people they meet, finally to Lazarov’s time in the labor camp.  It’s an extremely rich and layered book, one that gives you time to absorb the characters and their stories.  The examination of the prison camps and the dark background of Bulgarian politicians after the fall of communism is particularly heartbreaking.  Kostova’s author’s note at the end is worth a read for the background she gives.

Kostova’s writing is elegant and immersive, but never gets bogged down, even with all of the storylines going on.  Her word choice is perfect and each sentence is extremely well-crafted.  The scene she sets is the next best thing to a trip to Bulgaria.

The Shadow Land is an engrossing, absorbing story with a rich sense of place.  Give it a try if you’re in the mood for an enthralling read with lots of layers and a cast of fascinating characters.

–Marie

 

 

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Marie’s Reading: “Behind Her Eyes” by Sarah Pinborough

behind-her-eyesI assumed this thriller has a mind-blowing, unpredictable tweest.  The jacket copy asks you first thing: “Why is everyone talking about the ending of Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes?”

I love this kind of guessing game!  Uh, let’s see:

  • It was Earth all along
  • Turns out it’s man
  • It’s made of people
  • Nicole Kidman was the ghost the whole time
  • The entire novel was a dream
  • The entire novel was a paranoid delusion
  • The entire novel was a fantasy played out in a snowglobe
  • Identical twins
  • Christopher Walken is a robot
  • They’ve been dead the entire time
  • It’s the sled
  • He’s been dressing up like his dead mom
  • There are two killers
  • It was an Army test
  • It was aliens

Is there a prize if I guess correctly?

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough is an engaging and twisty thriller with plenty of psychological suspense and tension.  Pinborough has a background in writing horror and dark fantasy, and it really shows here.  The story involves Louise, a single mother in London.  One night she meets a guy named David in a bar, who confesses he’s married.  And then it turns out that David is Louise’s new boss, and they both find it difficult to deny their attraction.  On top of that, Louise becomes friends with Adele, David’s troubled and mysterious wife.

Louise gets dragged into the dysfunctional relationship between David and Adele, and she’s not sure which of them she can trust.  If she can trust either of them to be telling the truth about their backgrounds and pasts.

The narrative goes back and forth between Adele and Louise, and with Adele in particular, you’re never quite sure how much to believe.  As the book goes on, you’re drawn into an intense triangle between these characters–the friendship between Louise and Adele, the passionate affair between Louise and David, the mysterious and perhaps sinister marriage of David and Adele.  The plot is intricate, playing with past and present, with perceptions and secrets, until the final confrontation and shocker ending.

Yeah, about that ending.  I don’t want to spoil it, but I will tell you this, my fellow thriller and mystery fans: it’s definitely unpredictable.  Dirty pool.  So blatantly entirely impossible that you’d ever figure it out that this is all I could think of after finishing:

truman-capote

“You’ve all been so clever for so long you’ve forgotten to be humble!  You tricked and fooled your readers for years.  You’ve tortured us all with surprise endings that make no sense!”

My Lionel Twain-esque initial reaction aside, though, I did enjoy this novel immensely.  It’s well-engineered, it’s atmospheric, it’s twisty, and the cat-and-mouse aspect is great fun.  I liked the growing sense of dread and unease, and the crazily building tension.

Just open your mind to the idea that you’re in a psychological thriller that doesn’t play by the usual rules.  Once you get over the shock, it’s actually pretty refreshing!

–Marie

Not-so-Horrific Read: “The Night Sister” by Jennifer McMahon

Happy Halloween Week!  Here’s another Not-So-Horrific read for you to begin the count-down to the big day: The Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon.

Longtime readers of this blog might remember last year’s McMahon-binge.  Do read that post for my fangirling  discussion of the appeal of her novels.  McMahon’s latest, The Night Sister, has all the same twists and turns, intricate plotting, moody atmosphere and mounting tension of her other work.  What sets it apart is the presence of monsters.

night sister

Like The Winter People, The Night Sister has overt supernatural elements.  In her earlier books, there was always just a touch of that, a sort of glimmer around not-so-nice realities. All-too-human monsters hide behind magical facades. In this book, as with The Winter People, you’re not quite sure how real the supernatural elements are until pretty far into the story, which helps build the suspense.

This particular story centers on two sets of sisters a generation apart.  In one past narrative, Piper and Margot and their friend Amy are growing up around the Tower Motel, once a big tourist spot in rural Vermont.  By the time the three girls were kids, the Motel had fallen into serious disrepair.  One summer they uncovered a nasty secret that blew their friendships apart.  In the other past narrative, there’s another set of sisters, Sylvie and Rose, who grew up at the motel in the 1950’s, and who both have something to do with the mysterious secret of the motel, and of Amy’s background.  The third narrative is set in the present, where Amy is accused of murdering her entire family, and Margot and Piper try to uncover the truth.

Secrets abound in this story, and the suspense comes from the desire to find out what’s really going on at the Tower Motel.  As I mentioned, the paranormal is overt in The Night Sister, but it plays so well into the dark family story that it doesn’t feel too much like fantasy or horror.  Rather, it’s a story about sisters and friendships and family secrets, and when you stop to think about it, the old-world monsters aren’t all that monstrous (though there is some deftly written well-placed gore).

But still, this is a compelling, darkly atmospheric tale, creepy and absorbing with well-crafted characters and relationships.  If you like your monster stories with a fairy-tale kind of feel, give this a try.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading Two Haunted House Stories

…that aren’t.  Not really.

No spookiness or bumps in the night or bleak atmosphere or threat from beyond the grave.  These books are about spirits instead of ghosts, if I can make that distinction.  The spirits of both the living and the dead, and how they intersect, and how thin the boundary between the quick and the dead really is.

RoomsRooms by Lauren Oliver is about secrets and loss, death and change.  Heavy themes, but the book itself manages not to be.  At its heart it’s a story about family and connection.  After Richard Walker dies, his estranged family returns to their house.  Already in residence, though, are Alice and Sandra–two women who died in the house and are still there, spirits trapped within its walls.  Eventually the two worlds collide, but not in the way you might think.

This novel is compelling and intricately plotted with a pace that intensifies as you go along, but the real strength of this story is the cast of characters.  Their voices are memorable and finely tuned, and they never fail to come across as fully human.  They all have their secrets which bind them, and they all are desperate to free themselves, whether they’re living or dead.  There are some genuinely moving moments, and a sort of understated poignancy to the proceedings of this story.  If you like your ghost stories bittersweet and just as much about living as dying, give this one a try.

 

hundred year houseThe Hundred Year House by Rebecca Makkai is another tale of secrets, and of unlikely ghosts.  Spanning a century in a stately home that once housed an artists’ colony, the narrative moves backward from 1999 to 1900, all the while peeling back more layers of the story and letting secrets come to light.

The construction of this novel is wonderful and fresh (I’ve grown so used to bouncing back and forth in a timeline, it’s fun to see a backward one!), and I love Makkai’s quirky sort of tone, one-liners, and the way she presents imperfect relationships just as much here as I did in The Borrower.  This would be a sort of “out-of-left-field” suggestion for readers who like Kate Morton–you might enjoy Makkai’s take on unraveling secrets and exploring slightly…well, odd relationships.

–Marie

Scary Movie Feature!, Coping with Horror, and Horror Burnout

It happened to me two years ago.  I can feel it happening to me now.  I want to read Calvin and Hobbes instead of Locke and Key.  I have to watch clips of Whose Line Is It Anyway? on YouTube after I binge on American Horror Story.  The gore.  The imagery.  The atmosphere.  I need kittens and rainbows and happy endings instead of minotaurs and thunderstorms and triumphant monsters who eat you AND your house.

It’s Horror Burnout.  It’s happening to me.  IT CAN HAPPEN TO YOU.

Only this year, I think I’m burned out by the pressure of trying to say smart-person things about scary stuff, not just reading so much scary stuff all at once.  Though I’m definitely exhibiting some symptoms of Book Overload as well.  On top of that, writing blog posts takes a while, and often they go through several drafts.  It’s hard to keep up.

Skeleton with Hourglass

Sigh.  Where DOES the time go, Skeleton?

If I was lazy, there’d be no problem.  If I was lazy, I’d do a post about the scary movie I watched last night.  I’d say, “Hey readers, last night I watched a scary movie.”

oculus

The story is about a woman who is convinced a supernatural entity that lives inside an old mirror is responsible for the death of her parents, and many others.  She’s all set to prove it with the reluctant aid of her brother, who has just been released from a mental institution.  From there we bounce back and forth in time never sure where we are or what’s going on, and then it’s the end and you’re looking through the DVD special features in case there’s a helpful featurette entitled: “What In Blazes Just Happened There?”

“You see what it wants you to see” says the poster.  Which, incidentally, isn’t much if you’re short-sighted with bad image quality on your TV screen.  Seriously, it was so dark I had no clue what was happening and had to rewind to see scary things.  And then, predictably, the scary things scared me.

You know, I might give my husband a lot of grief for spoiling the mood of my scary movies, but sometimes I’m glad he does.  I’m not very tough.  I like horror because I like the feeling of being scared and wrong-footed.  But sometimes I bite off more than I can chew.  Or watch more monsters than I can handle.  Or see too many spooky ghosts.  And then I have bad dreams.

My  husband knows this.  And he kindly helps me out by puncturing the mood whenever I’m watching a scary movie.  Like last night, when I was watching Oculus.  Husband acted as my own personal peanut gallery, as is his wont.

“How are the ghosts?” he’d ask on his way through the living room.   I’ve noticed he has to make a lot more trips than normal through the living room whenever I happen to be watching a movie.  “Are they spooky?”

“I don’t think it’s ghosts,” I’d reply.  “It’s a possessed mirror.  I think.  They’re not explaining it very well.”

The next time he came in he had another question.  “Is the mirror ghost still spooky?”

“It’s not a ghost!  I told you, it’s a demon.  Or something.  Like I said, it’s not clear.”

He watched the screen for a little bit.

“Is that the ghost?” he asked.

“No, that’s the crazy sister.  Who might or might not be crazy.”

“Is she a crazy ghost?”

“There aren’t any ghosts!”

“Well, don’t get too spooked by your mirror ghosts!”  And he left again.

The man is convinced all media I consume has spooky ghosts.   The reality is that only most of it does.  And they’re a heck of a lot less spooky when someone you love makes jokes at their expense.

Anyway, Oculus.  It’s scary if you’re freaked out by imagery like I am.  These folks really are great at setting a scary scene and showing you the freaky stuff at just the right time.  And the plot is intricate and a bit mind-bending, which is fun.  Keep your peanut gallery right handy by, though, especially if you watch this movie in the dark.  Or near a mirror.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Until You’re Mine” by Samantha Hayes

until you're mineI received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from Random House.

(….is that all i have to say?  i’ve never had an ARC before.  i feel really special but also really nervous.  i think all i have to do is review it, but i’m not positive.  uh…here, i’ll link back to Random House Readers Circle.  is that okay?  also, what do i do with the book now?  am i allowed to put it in the book sale?  it says “not for sale” on it.  does a used book sale count?  or  is it supposed to self-destruct?  will random house stop sending me presents and take away my RH inner circle decoder pin if i do this wrong?)

As far as thrillers go, Until You’re Mine by Samantha Hayes is very well-constructed.  I appreciated how there’s a great blend of suspense, mystery, and even a dash of horror.  The story centers on three characters: Claudia, a pregnant social worker desperate to have a child after many miscarriages; Zoe, her nanny, who may not be what she seems; and Lorraine, a detective investigating the recent murders of pregnant women in the area.  Not only have the women been murdered, but it appears that the killer attempted to take their babies.

To say too much more about the plot would be to give too much away.  Part of the fun of this kind of novel is coming up on the twists and turns yourself, and making of the clues what you will.  But I will say that the multiple storylines are very well-done.  I liked how Zoe and Claudia are both in the first person, but Lorraine is in third.  I felt it was a nice touch that gave a bit of distance with the character that needed it, and then the closeness with the characters that required it.  Plus, the first-person works quite well with characters who might or might not be unhinged.

Hayes really has written a novel that will appeal to fans of several genres.  Mystery fans and police procedural fans will like the fact that, if you pay attention, it’s totally possible to solve this crime with what you’re given right along with the detectives.  Horror fans might enjoy the mounting tension and the murders, as well as the psychological aspect of being closed in and isolated with someone who might want to kill you.  Thriller readers, this one should be right up your alley!  It’s twisty and turny and compelling, with a rather clever reveal at the end.

Gillian Flynn fans, this one is for you.  Right down to the creepy last scene and even creepier last line.  And if you enjoy this book, Hayes intends for it to be the first in a series starring the detectives, Lorraine and her husband.  So stay tuned!

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots” by Jessica Soffer

3.BookApricotsHeather, our archivist at the library, put me on to this one.  I’m glad I took her suggestion!

Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots by Jessica Soffer tells the story of Lorca, the emotionally neglected daughter of a chef, and Victoria, an Iraqi Jewish widow who used to own a restaurant.  Told in alternating chapters from both of their points of view, we uncover their secrets, desires, and fears as they come together to cook, and then as their relationship evolves into something much deeper.

This is a densely written novel with beautiful imagery.  The characters are heartbreakingly three-dimensional, and their relationships are complex.  Soffer’s depictions of love and grief are beautifully rendered.   Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots is a novel which relies on its characters, so definitely give this one a try if you enjoy character-driven literary fiction.  The descriptions are gorgeous, too–you can see the apartment, feel the floor beneath your feet, and, most important, smell and taste the food.

Food is how characters relate to one another in this novel.   A dish called masgouf (the national dish of Iraq) is very nearly a character on its own.  All those who love food, cooking, and the way it brings people together will enjoy that part of this novel.

Joanne Harris might be a good readalike for those who enjoyed this book (and vice versa–if you already like Joanne Harris you might like Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots).  Try Chocolat or Five Quarters of the Orange.  Both employ themes of food and family, and Harris has a dense and rewarding writing style.  Five Quarters of the Orange also deals with the complex relationship between mothers and daughters.   Khaled Hosseini might also be a good readalike choice–he has an eloquent style, and Afghanistan is vividly rendered.  His ability to provide a sense of place is wonderful, and his characters and their relationships are very well-drawn.  Try And the Mountains Echoed, his sweeping multi-generational story that follows a family and explores the ties that bind them together.  Though be warned Hosseini’s books contain more violence than these other suggestions.

Last, I’d suggest Muriel Barbery’s lovely novels as readalikes.  If the relationship between Violet and Lorca was your favorite part of Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, you might like the friendship that springs up between Renee and Paloma in The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  And if the food talk was what you responded to, try Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody, about a dying food critic trying to capture the memory of the perfect taste.

–Marie