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:
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!
The 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.
What was it I said I was looking for in a book? Interesting, complex characters. Lyrical or at least engaging writing. A quick pace. A good idea for a story. Add atmosphere, secrets, compelling twists, and a dark past to that list, and you’ve got The Lake of Dead Languages by Carol Goodman. It’s everything I wanted!
Jane Hudson, recently divorced, has returned to her private high school, Heart Lake, as the Latin teacher. A townie, she was a scholarship girl always desperate to prove herself. During her senior year of school, both of her roommates committed suicide. And now that Jane is back at the school, one of her students also attempts suicide. When pages of the journal she lost at school start appearing, and one girl dies, Jane is drawn into the present mystery and back into her memories of what happened to her friends Lucy and Deidre twenty years before.
The novel is divided into three parts–the first and third concern Jane in the present, and the middle section goes back to her teenage years, including her family background and the tragic events of her senior year. In the present she tries to solve the mystery of how and why her past is showing up again, and in the past we see the seeds of what is happening now. As past and present meet and more threads are drawn together, the narrative starts to shift within chapters as well as the story nears the climax. It’s a nice stylistic touch.
Heart Lake is practically a character on its own. It’s constantly referenced, the weather is described as it affects the lake, it’s been the silent witness to the secrets of generations of girls. The scenery, particularly the ice of the lake, is given lush description. You feel the cold, and can hear the ice cracking. Latin, the dead language of the title, is also key to the symbolism and clues, so pay attention to names!
The Lake of Dead Languages is a very intricately plotted book, filled with connections and secrets and bonds of secrecy and betrayal. There’s a strong element of the intensity of the parent-child bond (for good and for ill), as well as the intensity of friendship. All of the mysteries are solved in the end, and while you might call it early (as I did), it’s still an atmospheric and satisfying journey.
There’s so much going on in this book that there are lots of readalike ideas. The Secret History by Donna Tartt is an obvious one, with its literary style and story about a college classics clique with dark secrets. In that same vein, Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl (see here for blog post), or Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris, which is about a classics teacher at a boys’ school who finds himself upended by changes and a threat from the past.
Empire Falls by Richard Russo, for the stuck-in-a-small-town angle, as well as the family and community connections that last for generations, could also be a good choice. I’d also suggest Jennifer McMahon’s Dismantled, for the atmosphere, dark and intricate secrets, friendships a bit too close for comfort, and lake imagery.
Rose works as a typist in a shabby police precinct in 1920’s New York City. She’s made a lifetime of being plain and unremarkable, stiff and Victorian and out of place thanks to her upbringing by nuns in an orphanage. All this changes the second that the glamorous and mysterious Odalie joins the staff at the precinct as a typist.
It doesn’t take long for Rose to become obsessed with Odalie, nor for the two of them to become roommates. Soon Rose is pulled into Odalie’s world of speakeasies, dark secrets, and shady dealings.
Rindell spins out tension masterfully. Certain facts about Rose fall into place one by one–that we are in the future, that she is seeing a doctor who wants her to write these events down, and that Rose has done something for which she feels she must defend herself. All the hallmarks of an unreliable, unsettled (and unsettling) narrator. You also learn a lot about Odalie, and are uncovering clues and lies just as Rose does about her rather dark past.
What I like about Rose is that she’s unlikeable from the outset, more than simply just being plain and misunderstood. Because she’s so unreliable you have to read between the lines to decide whether she’s truly nuts or not. The epilogue raises a few questions and confusions about the story and the ending, such that you can decide for yourself what’s going on with stolen identities and personal obsessions and secrets. Rose is a wonderful, strange character at odds with her time and place, and it comes through in much of the narrative.
The atmosphere and sense of place are both incredible in this novel–1920’s New York comes alive. There’s more than one nod to works like The Good Soldier (is Rose crazy, or a betrayed person worthy of our sympathy?) and The Great Gatsby (Odalie is, in many ways, a female Jay Gatsby). The writing gets more intense and compelling the further into the story you go.
Right off the bat this reminded me of Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh in terms of the narrative style and our narrator’s personality. I also thought of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, and, of course, The Talented Mr. Ripley. I think The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters might also appeal to people who liked The Other Typist, if you particularly enjoy the atmosphere and relationship between Rose and Odalie. Give The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald a try (or a re-read!), too, if you enjoyed this book.
So I finished one of the novels I was excited to read when last we met. It’s the one called Her, about a woman named Nina who has a mysterious connection to a woman named Emma–a connection that could probably be called a grudge. From the start we know that Nina remembers Emma, but Emma does not remember Nina. We also realize quickly that Nina is not altogether quite right upstairs (she indulges in quite a bit of distanced psychological torture and gaslighting). Emma is simply overwhelmed by her current life circumstances, and in just the right place emotionally to fall into Nina’s traps.
Sounds good, right? Remember? I was all:
Her by Harriet Lane is a novel that eases along, sidling up to you, until it grabs you by the neck in the final few moments. You never reach a crescendo, nor are you desperate to keep turning pages. The reveal, when it comes, seems so small–but to Nina, it is huge. The ending is a flurry of panic and a moment of realization which puts the novel’s events into perspective.
Lane uses a dual narrative, going back and forth between Emma and Nina. But instead of a strictly linear narrative, you see events through the eyes of both characters. After finishing the book you get a sense of how this device really does help reinforce the novel’s ending as well as Nina’s actions. Nina and Emma have distinct voices and well-drawn concerns. When you’re in Emma’s world you feel her annoyances and her disappointments and she’s a lot more sympathetic than when you see her through Nina’s eyes. It’s a good device for getting characters across, along with their first-person voices.
In all, if you’re expecting a thriller in terms of pacing, your reaction to this novel might be more like this, as mine was initially:
But then, the more I thought about it, the more I recognized how insidious the plotting and character development is. You’re not watching a trainwreck or a roller-coaster, but rather a spider building a web. Her is a slow burn attached to an uncertain explosive.
I was reminded a lot of Patricia Highsmith’s early stories when I got to the end. Give those a try for a readalike. Liane Moriarty or Kate Morton might appeal as well, if you enjoy stories where there are secrets to be revealed and dark motivations to uncover. The recent The Girl on the Train, which I talked about here, might also appeal to those who enjoy the narrative voices and construction of Her.
Within the first few pages of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, we learn that our primary narrator regularly gets drunk on the train and has made up names and life stories for a couple whose house she watches out the window at a regular stop.
Yes, I thought to myself. Totally off her nut. This is going to be a great story! Yes!
I wasn’t wrong.
This year I’m reading Horns (which I’ll talk about later), and in the meantime I’ve been devouring the comic series Locke and Key. It’s six volumes of FANTASTIC. The plot is layered, the characters are fun, there’s terror and gore with sweetness to temper it. Most of all, it’s a story about a grieving family, and how they work to repair their lives and relationships with each other.
When the story opens, we learn that siblings Ty, Kinsey, and Bode Locke have lost their father in a violent way, at the hands of a former student. Their mother was also attacked, but survived. The grieving family moves to Massachusetts to live in the Locke family home. Soon enough, ghosts come to the surface along with memories and old grudges.
The Locke house is home to several magical keys, forged during the days of the American Revolution. Bode, the youngest of the kids, begins to find them and experiment with their powers. We come to find out that someone (or something) wants those keys and will stop at nothing to get them, and it’s up to the Locke children to save the day. If they can.
I confess, I’m only halfway through. I’m on volume three of a six-volume run. As I said, I’m devouring them. I love the story and the characters, and I always like plots where secrets are uncovered bit by bit with little clues along the way. And Rodriquez’s art is amazing, depicting the fantastic and the mundane with equal skill and deftness. I can’t wait to see how the story comes together.
Horror, for me, is largely a visual genre. I’m scared more by images than I am by text (I think my imagination won’t let me go some places that horror novels describe, so I need an artist or director to go there for me), so graphic novels are a surefire bet when I’m after a Halloween fright.
If you like Joe Hill’s other work, definitely give this a try!
ETA: I finished the series. I cried at the end. Thanks, Messrs. Hill and Rodriguez, it was a great ride.