TBR Challenge Update #10

I took October off for reading scary stuff for Horror Month and re-reading The Shining and IT and The War of the Worlds.  But I did manage to pick a few off the TBR list here and there!

Company of Liars by Karen Maitland.  I really liked The Owl Killers, so I wanted to come back to this one–I remember beginning it almost ten years ago and then never getting beyond the first chapter.  This is a loose retelling of The Canterbury Tales, set against the backdrop of the Black Plague in 1348.  I really enjoyed it!  The characters, each with a secret, are very distinct and well-drawn, and the atmosphere is great.

The Thing About December by Donal Ryan.  I went through a contemporary Irish fiction phase a few years ago, and added this one to my list.  I enjoyed it very much!  Johnsey, lives in rural Ireland, and he inherits the family farm after his parents’ deaths.  He’s a man who doesn’t quite fit in, and this makes for a melancholy read–it’s lyrical, though, with passages of beautiful writing and imagery.

Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions by Amy Stewart.  Why the shift to third-person narration in this third book?  One of the things I enjoyed best about the first two was being inside Constance’s head.  I really missed that in this novel.  I also missed the mystery element. But the story itself was fun, and ripped from the mid-1910’s headlines, with young women getting hauled into court on charges of “waywardness.”  As ever, funny and fun, with a nice pace and great characters.

I’ve managed to cross a few more off my list by beginning them and realizing that I’m no longer interested.  I’m in a bit of a fiction slump, but I’ve got some good nonfiction going: In the Great Green Room, a biography of Margaret Wise Brown, and Friends Divided, a new book about the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

–Marie

 

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Halloween Read: “Meddling Kids” by Edgar Cantero

Meddling kids

A crack team of animated teen detectives, The Blyton Summer Detective Club, solved their last case thirteen years ago.  Though they caught the culprit (a guy in a costume with an evil scheme), all four of the kids never forgot that terrifying night they spent in a haunted house.

Now young adults, the members of the detective club are not doing so well: Kerri is a bartender with a drinking problem, Andy (deemed too aggressive for the military) has escaped from prison and is on the run, Nate is in an asylum, and Peter has killed himself.  Andy is the one who decides the team has to get back together and revisit the scene of their last case, and put the true mystery to rest at all costs.  That way, she figures, they’ll all be able to move on with their lives.

And it turns out there’s a lot more than just a guy in a mask waiting for them at the haunted mansion.

It’s inventive, original, and funny, with truly creepy scenes, lots of monsters, a suspenseful climax, tons of action, and a great mystery.  It’s like Lovecraft blended with Scooby Doo!

If you like horror that doesn’t skimp on the comedy, give this a read this Halloween!

 

 

September Staff Picks

Wear-1

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth.  This apocalyptic novel is set nearly a thousand years ago.  It’s 1066 and the Normans have invaded England, and a Norman king sits on the throne.  A man named Buccmaster of Holland, an Anglo-Saxon, sees not only his village and family destroyed, but his entire way of life–his language, his gods, and his kings.  And he’s willing to fight for them.  Kingsnorth wrote this in what he calls a “shadow-tongue,” evocative of Old English.  It’s a compelling piece of historical fiction, based on the actual uprisings (and reprisals) that occurred after the Norman Conquest.
–Marie

Mrs. Roberto by Van Reid
This is the fourth book in Reid’s The Moosepath League series (the first is Cordelia Underwood, so begin with that one). The series transports the reader to a simpler and innocent time during the 1890s in Maine, telling the adventures of a trio of naive, bumbling gentleman who set up their own gentleman’s club (the Moosepath League) and make Tobias Walton their leader ( a person they have just met).
In this installment, the three comrades set out on a quest to save a woman who they think is in danger due to one of the gentlemen finding her card in his coat pocket.  They run across the rooftops, sleep out in the open with hobos and assist in putting out a fire while they attempt to find the elusive Mrs. Roberto.  Meanwhile, their leader and his valet are on a farm attempting to cure a melancholy pig.
–Mary

There Is No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love by psychologist Kelsey Crowe and illustrator Emily McDowell
This little book is for everyone paralyzed by the prospect of saying something to someone suffering a serious loss—and that’s most of us, isn’t it?
–Diane

On Living by Kelly Egan
Hospice chaplain Kelly Egan’s On Living recounts visits with the dying and their loved ones, sharing tender encounters and even her mistakes.
–Diane

Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life is by Dr. Jessica Nutik Zitter
Zitter, who practices both pulmonary/critical care and palliative care at UC San Francisco’s hospital. Her double-barreled approach to patient care equips Zitter to both do everything possible to save terminally ill patients and do everything possible to help terminally ill patients reject overly medicalized treatments for their illness. This is a tough book, but anyone who loved Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal will want to have a look at Extreme Measures.
–Diane

Glass Houses by Louise Penny
Louise Penny’s fans will find themselves once again in that charming Quebecois village of Three Pines, where this time Inspector Armand Gamache and his team must confront an evil that threatens the entire province. Penny’s still got it!
–Diane

Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan
Tells of two Catholic sisters from Ireland who settle in Boston in the 1940s and of the secret that drives them apart.  This is traditional storytelling done well.
–Diane

 

Marie’s Reading: “The Various Haunts of Men” by Susan Hill

various hauntsThe first in the Simon Serrailler trilogy, The Various Haunts of Men is about mysterious disappearances on a still more mysterious hill in a small English town.

There’s very little Simon Serrailler for a Simon Serrailler book, but that’s okay–the rest of the cast is dynamic, involving, and interesting.  Freya Graffam, a detective who’s just transferred to the town of Lafferton from London, is a smart and dedicated cop and a wonderful investigator to follow.  You don’t even really miss Serrailler, even though you get intriguing glimpses of him (mostly through a love-struck Freya).

Hill’s writing is elegant.  It’s like watching a very high-brow police procedural.  Dark yet still compelling and appealing, with a building tension.  The narrative switches a lot between characters, giving a sense of the scope of the town and its people, as well as their connections.  It’s a nice mix of small-village story and crime.

One of the many POV’s in the book is a tape being narrated by the killer, and it’s very chilling and crazy.  The killer’s sections make a nice counterpoint to Graffam’s hunt.  And I have to give props to the one of the best killer motivations I’ve seen in a while, and very well-done reveal.  A real sucker-punch dark ending, too.

An engaging and intricately constructed bit of crime fiction, and a promising start to a series.  I’ll look forward to reading others, to see how Serrailler and his town are fleshed out.

If you’re a British mystery fan, and you like P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Kate Atkinson, and/or Elly Griffiths, you might want to give this a try!

–Marie

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.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Girl Waits With Gun” by Amy Stewart

cover_girl_waits_with_gun_amy_stewartI’m a little late to the party on this one.  But I’m so glad I finally arrived!

Girl Waits With Gun is based on real people, and tells the story of one of the first female deputy sheriffs in the United States.  Her name was Constance Kopp, and she lived in Wyckoff, New Jersey.  One day when out in town with her sisters, Norma and Fleurette, a wealthy silk factory owner ran into their buggy with his car.  Constance’s attempts to get the silk man to pay a $50 repair bill swiftly snowball into a dangerous situation when the man refuses to pay up.  Throw in a gang, some gunplay, and a missing child, and then let Constance Kopp save the day.

This is the first in a series, and I’ve also just finished the second installment, Lady Cop Makes Trouble.  The second one builds on the first for sure, but it’s a great outing all on its own–Constance finds her job in jeopardy after a criminal escapes on her watch.  These mysteries are amusing and filled with great characters.  As mysteries both of these books are a nice blend of police work and the more amateur sleuth style, given how Constance is kind of in-between those two worlds.

The pace is quick and the writing is evocative. Stewart does a lot with just a few lines to bring a scene or setting to life.  These books are set in the 1910’s, and there’s just enough historical detail to add color and interest.  And the characters are very well-realized through the dialogue-driven stories.  Their relationships, particularly those between the Kopp sisters, are very well-drawn.  In Girl Waits With Gun we get Constance’s backstory, and that of her family, and learn how these sisters ended up on an isolated rural farm.

Constance is presented as no-nonsense and incredibly driven, and I like how matter-of-fact she is about her unorthodox (for her time) profession.  This real-life quote from Constance says it all:

“Some women prefer to stay at home and take care of the house. Let them. There are plenty who like that kind of work enough to do it. Others want something to do that will take them out among people and affairs. A woman should have the right to do any sort of work she wants to, provided she can do it.”

She’s good at what she does and she wants the opportunity to do her job.  That’s pretty much all there is to it.  I appreciate how Constance just gets on with things, and the story never gets bogged down with the social issues that it touches on.  These books are about Constance Kopp taking down criminals, and keeping you delightfully entertained while she does so.

If you want to learn more, Stewart’s website has some great background on the characters and on New Jersey/New York City in the 1910’s.  Check it out here.

And the third installment is due in September, so keep your eyes peeled this fall for Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions!

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Shutter Island” by Dennis Lehane

shutter_island_book_coverIn Dennis Lehane’s creepy and suspenseful Shutter Island, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his partner Chuck arrive on Shutter Island to find a missing inmate from Ashecliffe Asylum.  What seems like a routine investigation is swiftly put off the rails by the uneasy atmosphere at Ashecliffe, and all of the secrets the people in charge seem to be keeping.  Teddy has his own demons to work though at the same time, having recently lost his wife.

I can’t believe I’m only getting to this novel now.  I never saw the movie, either, so the ending remained unspoiled for me.  I enjoyed the dark, film noir feel of this, with the tortured war veteran and his dark past, his solitary nature, his desire for revenge.  He’s a great character, flawed yet remaining sympathetic.

The plotting of this novel is so intricate and so well-constructed.   I can’t out-do the Kirkus reviewer on this one: it’s a “lollapalooza of a corkscrew thriller.”  You start questioning your own sanity by midway through, and I mean that in the best possible way.  The twist is revealed in one of the best scenes I’ve read lately, where the stakes are high for everyone involved and the emotion of it all seems very real.

The setting is fantastic, both gritty and Gothic, perfect for the story.  Ashecliffe is depicted as a brutal relic from another century, and its maximum security isolation on an island is perfect.

Lots of diverse readalikes present themselves for this one, depending on what you enjoyed the most.  Noir and crime fiction from the 1950’s might really appeal to you, if you liked that aspect of the story.  The grittier the better. There’s also something very Gothic about the creepy atmosphere and sense of danger at the asylum.  You might enjoy John Harwood’s The Asylum (I talked about it here).  I also thought of The Boy Who Could See Demons while reading this, which you can read more about at this post.

If you want just a smidge more of the Nazi subplot, some aliens, and a ton of Sarah Paulsen, you might want to check out the second season of American Horror Story, which took place at an insane asylum in Massachusetts.  Here, I can show this clip on a family-friendly blog (trust me, the entire season is just as nuts as this, but in different ways).

–Marie