Marie’s Reading: “Between, Georgia” by Joshilyn Jackson

between georgiaNonny is used to being in the middle.  Her birth mother was a Crabtree (low-class, prone to violence, owners of Dobermans and scary Alabama relatives), but she was adopted by the Fretts (solid middle-class, reined-in, icy types, prone to their own kind of violence).  The tiny town of Between is barely big enough for these two sparring clans.

When Nonny’s aunt is attacked by one of the Crabtree dogs, a whole new cycle of feuding is set off.  This time it could be deadly.  Nonny, herself in the middle of a divorce, finds herself back in Between (and in between) once again.

Whenever I’m in the mood for a novel with a solid story, a great sense of place, and robust characters, I go for Jackson’s work.  She writes relationships extremely well, particularly between women in a family–she has real insight into the dynamics of sisters, mothers and daughters, and grandmothers and their grandkids.

The Frett sisters, who raised Nonny, really are forces–stolid, judgmental but loyal Bernese, anxious and fretful Genny, and kind and artistic Stacia, the one who raised Nonny.  Stacia is deaf and blind, as well, adding another layer to her relationship to her family and her art.  Ona Crabtree, Nonny’s blood grandmother, comes across as damaged and brittle and not very nice, but she’s still got a basic humanity.  As becomes clear over the course of the story, these women have more in common than they like to believe.

The Southern setting is great as well.  It feels as though these characters, though recognizable small-town types, couldn’t live anywhere else.  And of course the town is a character all on its own, just as Southern as its people.  There’s a sort of earthy fierceness beneath a veneer of gentility that’s just so distinct to the South, along with a strong sense of family.  This story would be very different if set among we stoic, independent, chilly New Englanders, for instance.

This really is a novel to read for the characters and the setting.  The plots do all wrap up nicely and there are some revelations and tragedy, but I found the enjoyable storyline second to everything else.

If you’re after the same sort of read I was–one with great characters, a good story, and a strong setting, all told in laidback, very natural prose–give this one a look!

–Marie

 

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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

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

“A Head Full of Ghosts” by Paul Tremblay

Exorcism and possession story fans, have I got one for you this year.  Let me introduce you to A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay.
head full of ghostsWhen Merry was a little girl, her older sister was possessed by a demon–and her cash-strapped family made a reality-TV show about it.  In the present, Merry is the only surviving member of her family, and she’s agreed to let an author write a book about her.   And in a third narrative, there’s a horror blogger discussing the TV show and its impact and background.  What really happened to Merry’s sister?  And why is Merry the only one who made it out alive?

I’ll go ahead and say I absolutely loved this, especially the construction.  I love how Tremblay uses the blog narrative to train you to think in horror references, and then how he uses that to set up the reveal at the end.  If you’ve read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (and if you haven’t, do pick it up either before or after you read this one!) you’ll figure it out, but it’s great either way.  (Sorry. I guess I just sort of spoiled both books with that, but I enjoyed it anyway, and having some idea of what was going to happen didn’t lessen the emotional impact for me at all.)

A reviewer on Goodreads who didn’t like the book used the phrase “warmed over Shirley Jackson.”  I don’t think this is fair.  I’d say Tremblay took the chili that Shirley Jackson made and then made tamale pie with it.  He didn’t just microwave it and slop it down in front of you.  He added and mixed and spiced and topped until, while you can still taste the chili, there’s an entirely new dish.  I’d go so far as to say he even made his own topping from scratch, he didn’t use Jiffy mix.

Anyway, you see what I’m getting at.  Tremblay pays an homage while making the story his own.  And it’s a great story with wonderfully drawn characters, particularly Merry.  Horror, like Romance, is a genre where you have to care about the characters, at least a little.  The best Horror makes you care, so that the terrifying things that happen and the fight against darkness seems to be happening to you personally.  It’s a very visceral experience.  Tremblay succeeds in depicting a family in full break-down, and choosing to narrate through Merry’s eight-year-old eyes makes that storyline even sadder, more confusing, and scarier.  Is it mental illness, or a demon?  Is Merry remembering correctly?  How much did she create in order to make sense of her family falling apart?

It’s also jam-packed with frightening sequences, described in atmospheric, chilling detail.  Possession stories, like The Exorcist, always make a lot out of how scary a human being behaving in unnatural or unusual ways can be.

All three of the voices ring true, the imagery is genuinely creepy, and the story is an affecting mix of scary and melancholy, with enough jumps and twists and unsettling scenes to keep you on the edge of your seat.  A really wonderful blend of horror and psychological suspense, one of the best ones I read this year.

–Marie

P.S.
It’s October, the season to be a cheater-cheater-pumpkin-eater!  #5 complete, a book published this year.  Boom.

Marie’s Reading: “Dark Rooms” by Lili Anolik

dark roomsIn Dark Rooms, a young woman named Grace attempts to solve the murder of her younger sister, Nica–even though the police have already declared the case closed.  Grace, who has dropped out of college and survived a bout of drug addiction, grows increasingly obsessed with finding the real killer.  Along the way she uncovers uncomfortable truths about her family, her sister, and her own identity.

Not only is this a nicely constructed, tight thriller with some nice twists, it’s also a dark examination of sisterhood and family.  Anolik does really well with that part of the story, even more so than the mystery.  The relationships, twisted and desperate and narcissistic nearly to a one, are very convincingly drawn and lend a sense of emotional urgency to the plot and its twists and turns.

The setting, a boarding school in Hartford, Connecticut, is detailed and believable in all its claustrophobic glory.  A sense of threat and darkness hangs over this entire book, as well as an eerie unreality–helped along by a first-person narrator who is not entirely stable.

Literary fiction fans might like to try The Secret History by Donna Tartt or Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl.   Both of those novels are about little clubs of students at elite schools trying to solve (or being involved in) a crime.  They employ more literary devices and motifs than Dark Rooms, but could still be great readalikes.  Following down that same line, crime fans might also enjoy Tana French’s The Likeness. Mother, Mother by Koren Zailckas offers the same blend of crime and twisted family dynamics in a chilling atmosphere–that’s a great one to try if you enjoyed those aspects of Dark RoomsJoanne Harris’s Gentlemen and Players, an intricately plotted mystery set at an elite (and unraveling) boarding school, might also appeal.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Elizabeth Is Missing” by Emma Healey

Elizabeth is MissingNot since my Jennifer McMahon binge have I read such an un-put-down-able novel.  I read about it a while ago, but it was an encounter with a reader at the library that got me started on it.

A regular patron was in on Saturday morning.  She asked, “Have you read Elizabeth Is Missing?”

“No!” I replied, “But it’s on my list.”  And it has been.  I’d actually checked it out and had to return it unread (story of my life) earlier in the week.    “Is it good?”

But the patron just smiled coyly at me.  I pressed her.  “Is it really compelling?  Is it well-done?”

Nothing.  Just that smile.

“You’re not going to tell me anything, are you?” I asked.  And she scooped up her books without making eye contact and said, “Bye!”

Out the door she went.  I went immediately to the New Fiction shelf, snatched up Elizabeth Is Missing, and started reading it on my morning break.  I finished it in one weekend.

If it turns out that coy smile meant the patron hated it, I will be very sad.  Because Healey’s story is tightly constructed, believably narrated, and affecting in its depiction of a person’s slide into Alzheimer’s.

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“Help for the Haunted” by John Searles

We’ll ease into our Halloween celebration of Horror fiction with a book that falls into the Not-Quite-Horror category: Help for the Haunted by John Searles.

Help for the Haunted

It might be worthwhile to revisit what “Horror” actually means, since we’re devoting the month to it.  I discussed this last year, but just to recap:  When we talk about a horror novel, we’re talking about a story which is intended to frighten the reader.   There’s usually, but not always, a supernatural element.  Last week, while we were talking about H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, my husband summarized the genre like this:

“Normal person goes to place.  Sees spooky thing.  Discovers that ‘Oh no! The world is run by an evil chaotic force!’  The end.”

He thought he was kidding.

But he was absolutely correct.  That is exactly what the Horror genre boils down to.  And in the case of Help for the Haunted, that is not what’s going on.  There are certainly horror elements, as well as elements of suspense and a little bit of mystery, too.  It’s dark fiction, but it’s not a horror story.   The point is not to instill fear in the reader.  Instead, we want to see everyone saved, and the mystery solved.

Here’s the story:

Sylvie Mason’s parents have an unusual occupation—helping “haunted souls” find peace. After receiving a strange phone call one winter’s night, they leave the house and are later murdered in an old church in a horrifying act of violence.

A year later, Sylvie is living in the care of her older sister, who may be to blame for what happened to their parents. Now, the inquisitive teenager pursues the mystery, moving closer to the knowledge of what occurred that night—and to the truth about her family’s past and the secrets that have haunted them for years.  -Amazon

This novel is a great example of Dark Fiction.  The atmosphere is bleak and a bit ominous.  There’s suspense and a touch of violence.  Most important, there’s a hint of something, if not supernatural, then at least not quite right.   At the same time, there isn’t that core horror element of a supernatural threat, that “evil chaotic force” which turns the world upside-down.

Instead, it’s the people in this book who turn their own lives upside down.  The chaos is familial relationships, tensions between people with deep bonds, and the ugly truth of how far some will go to maintain the reality they’ve created for themselves.  Also, the heart of the story is Sylvie putting the pieces of her life back together, and trying to turn the world rightside-up again.  It’s that crucial difference that keeps this novel from being Horror.  In a Horror novel, the world generally does not get righted again.

If you want more Dark Fiction suggestions, you can take a look at the post I linked above from last year: Not-So-Horrific Horror.  Check out the Suggested Reading tab here on the blog, too–there are a couple of lists that might be promising.

And when you decide you’re ready to cross over to the side of full-on Horror, I’ll be here.  Waiting.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “The Painted Girls” by Cathy Marie Buchanan

painted girlsSet in Paris in the late 19th century, The Painted Girls tells the story of the Van Goethem sisters, Marie, Antoinette, and Charlotte.  The family is in dire straits after their father dies.  Their mother takes work as a laundress, but drinks up most of the profits.  It’s up to Marie and Antoinette to take care of themselves, each other, and Charlotte.  Marie becomes a dancer at the Paris Opera, while Antoinette takes a job at a theatre.  Eventually Marie winds up as a model for the artist Degas, and Antoinette falls in with a young man who is not as wonderful as he seems.  Through hardships, challenges, and betrayals of many kinds, Marie and Antoinette remain devoted to one another, leading eventually to a relatively happy ending.

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