Marie’s Reading Thrillers: “Tips for Living” and “The Lying Game”

I always want to read thrillers and suspense in late winter.  It’s a great time of year to hunker down with books, and something about the cold and dark lends itself to darker stories.  I’ve been reading a lot of Minette Walters, as well as re-visiting Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad books.

Here are two thrillers that got me through some dark and snowy afternoons recently!

In Tips for Living, Nora has finally gotten her life back on track after her husband’s affair and their subsequent divorce.  But then her ex-husband and his new wife move into Nora’s adopted small town.  Shortly thereafter, the two are found murdered in their home.  Even worse, Nora is a sleepwalker suffering a relapse, and cannot remember her whereabouts on the night of the murders.  Nora has to clear her name while all the while wondering if, in fact, she did commit the crime.

As a bonus, I think anyone who lives in a small community with a large summer population will totally understand a lot of the snarkiness displayed in the newspaper article subplot of the book (the “Tips for Living” of the title).  There’s great small-town atmosphere, that sense of community that’s sometimes claustrophobic and insular.

Ruth Ware’s The Lying Game is less of a who-dun-it mystery than Tips for Living, and more of a thriller with many layers of deception.  It’s about four friends who have been hiding a secret for years, only to have it come back to bite them.  The scene-setting is great and the characters are interesting–Ware has a talent for atmosphere and dialogue.  If you like Paula Hawkins and S.J. Watson, you might like Ware’s books.

Though I enjoy whiling away winter afternoons with thrillers, I’m definitely looking forward to springtime and being able to read them with more sunshine and an open window!



Marie’s Reading: “Burntown” by Jennifer McMahon

BurntownJennifer McMahon’s latest, Burntown, feels like a return to her classic form after The Winter People  and The Night Sister.  It’s an intricate mystery with just the hint of the supernatural around the edges, filled with well-drawn characters and well-crafted scenes.  And the writing is compelling as ever.

This time, the supernatural comes in the form of speaking to the dead and having visions.  The reality of both, in the narrative, is taken as a matter of course–but the reader can decide how much the characters themselves inform what they believe they see and hear.

The story is this:  Eva’s father is professor named Miles, who as a child witnessed his mother’s murder.  He is an inventor who builds a machine which can supposedly allow people to talk to the dead, based on plans smuggled out of Thomas Edison’s laboratory.  One night there’s a terrible storm and flood, and only Eva and her mother escape alive.  But from there the two of them live on the streets.  Eva doesn’t remember anything about what happened to her father and her brother, Errol.  After her mother’s apparent suicide, Eva is left alone.  And then, in a series of violent ways, her mysterious past starts to catch up with her.

Two other characters’ paths cross with Eva’s eventually.  There’s Theo, a high school senior who has been selling drugs to please her girlfriend.  There’s also Pru, the overweight cafeteria worker at Theo’s school who has dreams of the circus.  Those are the primary players, but there’s a web of relationships in this Vermont town.  The intricacies of their relationships and the unexpected ways they all connect and influence each other is nicely done.

The setting, a down-on-its-heels mill town in Vermont (those on the street call it “Burntown”), feels very realistic if you’re familiar with broken-down mill towns in northern New England.  McMahon sets many of her novels in Vermont, and she’s got a gift for painting a picture of the landscapes and people, both good and bad.  There’s a very strong atmosphere and sense of place in her books.  In Burntown, you always have the feel of being in a ruin, in the underbelly.  Sometimes literally, as when the story focuses on a group of women who live under a bridge and claim to have visions.

I always enjoy the people in McMahon’s books, particularly their motivations.  She can craft characters who seem very real, whose desires and impulses and secrets ring true.  In this story I particularly enjoyed Pru, with her outsize fantasies and her happy ending.

The ending to Burntown, if not entirely happy, is at least hopeful.  It ends with a wonderful image that, to me, summed up the book very well.  The climax and reveal of the mystery wasn’t a huge twist or anything, but it rang true.  But then, this is more a story of the strange than it is a thriller, so it works.

If you’ve read and enjoyed McMahon’s books in the past, definitely check this out.   And I’m always reminded of Sarah Waters when I read McMahon’s work.  If you like Burntown, you might enjoy The Night Watch, for the intricate relationships between characters and the setting, London during the Blitz, as well as the compelling writing and great characters.


Not-So-Horrific-Horror: “Security” by Gina Wohlsdorf

Okay, that’s a lie.  It’s pretty horrific for a thriller.  I’m talking blood, slashers, more blood, chase scenes, Michael Myers costumes, and yet more blood.  But it’s not straight-up Horror so I’m putting in the Not-So-Horrific category.

It’s also a quick, compelling read, so you might even finish it before the big day tomorrow!


Manderley, an expensive luxury hotel, is in the final stages of preparation before its grand opening.  Several employees are inside the building.  There’s also an unexpected early guest–a knife-wielding murderer who takes out the employees one by one.  And all the while, a mysterious first-person narrator is watching everything on Manderley’s state of the art security system.

It’s a very complex book stylistically–the formatting of a page will sometimes reflect all of the many things going on in different cameras, to different characters.  Black humor and a love story play out against the gory backdrop.

Really, I’m not kidding you.  Gory.  Blood in the elevators, bodies in the bathtubs, bits  of employee strewn around various rooms.  But even so, the characters are wonderful and the story is so compelling you get past it.

The narrator is revealed slowly over the course of the story.  As the story unfolds and you learn more about the narrator and his background, as well as his present circumstances, you realize how elegant and original the “twist” is.

Enjoy, and see you tomorrow, pals!  I’m putting candy out again this year, so come on down to the library!





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’s Reading: “Under the Harrow” by Flynn Berry

harrowHere’s a sentence that I’ve overused in the past year: “Girl on the Train fans, this one’s for you!”

This one’s creepier and darker than Girl on the Train, though.  Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry is the intricate and atmospheric story of Nora and Rachel, two sisters with a close but fraught relationship.  One night, on a visit to Rachel’s house in the countryside, Nora finds that her sister has been brutally murdered.  Nora is determined to uncover her sister’s killer, and this determination quickly turns to obsession.  By the time Nora’s behavior leads to suspicion falling on her, you’re not sure at all whether you can believe what she’s been telling you this whole time.

Nora, our narrator, is extremely unreliable, and you don’t know whether to root for her, dislike her, pity her, or a combination of the three by about two-thirds into the book.  By that point you’re not so sure about her sister, Rachel, either.

Berry doesn’t skimp on the descriptions of gore.  She evokes an atmosphere of constant cold and rain and unease.  It’s a wonderfully tense mystery, with a huge psychological element.  The narration, as I said, is skillfully done, and Nora pulls you in even as you’re not sure if you’re getting wrong-footed with her or by her.

Rosamund Lupton’s haunting thriller Sister would be the perfect readalike for Under the Harrow.  In that one, Beatrice attempts to solve her younger sister’s mysterious disappearance, and ends up uncovering more than she bargained for.  The classic Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier might also be a good choice, if you like uncertain narrators and heavy atmosphere.



Marie’s Reading: “Case Histories” by Kate Atkinson

case historiesCase Histories is the first in Kate Atkinson’s crime series starring private investigator Jackson Brodie.  In this first outing, Jackson becomes entangled in three old cases–a little girl who vanished from her yard, a young woman who was murdered while working at her father’s office, and another young woman who allegedly murdered her husband with an axe.  One by one these cases are resurrected, and Jackson finds himself following the interwoven threads of all three.

The plotting is intricate, with lots of characters and several story threads all going at once.  By the end every one of those threads has been tied up neatly, and it’s fun to watch them all fall into place.  The pacing is leisurely, so it never quite reaches the crescendo of a suspense novel or even a mystery, but it’s still compelling all the way through.  With her light touch and sense of humor, Atkinson also manages to make this novel seem like a light one–even though it deals with very heavy crimes, emotions, and dysfunction, nothing ever feels bleak or too dark.

The characters, and the wealth of personality and backstory Atkinson gives them, were all enjoyable.  Jackson is a great PI–an ex-soldier and ex-policeman with a heart of gold.  He’s got a tragic past and a rough present, complete with ex-wife and shared custody of a daughter.  In all, he’s got a very kind and capable sort of vibe–he reminds me a little of a nicer, less manipulative, softer-edged Mackey from the Dublin Murder Squad books.  At one point in the novel another character accuses Jackson of “becoming a woman.”  Which, while not very nice or politically correct, does get the character across.

I’d offer these as a read-alike to those who enjoy the Dublin Murder Squad series by Tana French.  The first is In The Woods. French’s work is darker and more disturbing, with a lot more of a psychological suspense bent, but the Jackson Brodie books still deliver a nice blend of police procedural, crime, and character-driven story.  You might also enjoy Christine Falls by Benjamin Black, the first in a series about Quirke, a pathologist in 1950’s Dublin, or Deborah Crombie’s mystery series starring Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and Sergeant Gemma James (the first is A Share in Death).



Surprise Smekday!

With the 26 Books to Read in 2015 Challenge taking up a lot of my time, I haven’t done my Surprise Smekday Meme in a while.  I’ve just been letting books fall by the wayside (or kicking them to the curb) without even acknowledging that I’ve given them a try.  In case you’re new or can’t remember the last Smekday or just have no idea what I’m talking about, click here.

Jamie Kornegay’s novel Soil, though, deserves a mention.  It’s been on my coffee table for over a month.  It was briefly on my nightstand.  It rode around in my bookbag for a few days.  I kept telling it, “Soon!  Right after my book club book is done” or “Soon, I promise, but I need to get another zombie story in for my Halloween prep!” and “Sorry I only had time for a page, I need to leave for work!”

This book has been patient and uncomplaining.  It’s so forgiving that it immediately pulls me in whenever I do get a chance to pick it up, with its evocative writing that grips you from the get-go, its haunting atmosphere even two chapters in, and a story all about a descent into madness and paranoia.

soilI heard about this book last month on NPR’s All Things Considered, and it sounded great.  It is great.  The sense of place, the setup, the main character.  All of it is shaping up to be a wonderful book.  The story is about a man, abandoned by his wife and son after becoming obsessed over agricultural improvements, finds a dead body on his property.  Already paranoid, he assumes he’s being framed for murder.  So instead of calling the authorities, he decides to get rid of the body himself.

Sorry, Soil.  I really do like you and I think this is a real shame and I really really promise I’ll check you out again.  Sometime.  Later.  Not sure when.

If this description appeals to you, do give Soil a try and give it the attention it deserves.  I failed this poor novel badly.