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

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Marie’s Reading: “The Sundial” by Shirley Jackson

sundialThe Halloran family has gathered in their crumbling ancestral mansion for a funeral.  One morning Aunt Fanny has a vision wherein her long-dead father gives her the exact date of the end of the world.  If the Hallorans stay in their family manse, they will be the sole survivors and inheritors of a bright clean world.

As you read, you wonder why these people deserve it.

Given the subject, it seems odd to say that The Sundial is one of Shirley Jackson’s funnier novels.  It’s like You Can’t Take It With You with the apocalypse instead of the IRS.  Also, this family is full of rather mean people who hate one another rather than a kooky assortment of loving individuals.  Oh, and there’s also the probable murder and unsettling open ending. But really, it’s funny, in a character-based screwball comedy kind of way.

I had my pick of fantastically weird cover art for this one, and I chose my favorite because I think it reflects the core of the story: a dysfunctional family trapped together in an old house, bouncing off one another, and waiting for doomsday.  Jackson always did oppressive atmosphere very well, and it’s approaching Hill House levels at the Halloran mansion.  But, as I said, with some levity.  There is a note of discord about this one, where it maybe doesn’t quite know what it wants to be–but somehow all the pieces make a delightfully odd whole.

The Sundial reflects a lot of Shirley Jackson’s interest in the occult, from divination to doomsday to symbols.  And, as ever, her fascination with the intricacies of small-town life, from the villagers to the odd old family on the hill in their suffocating Gothic home.

Weird fiction fans, give this one a look!

–Marie

 

Marie’s Reading: “The Heavenly Table” by Donald Ray Pollock

Heavenly TableThe Heavenly Table is set in 1917 in and around a small town in Ohio.  One storyline concerns the Jewett brothers, the other a farmer named Ellsworth Fiddler.  The Jewett boys live a poor, hardscrabble life with their crazy father, Pearl.  Ellsworth lost his family savings in a swindle, and his son Eddie has taken to drinking and disappearing.  As the book goes on, these storylines grow and then intersect.

Along the way there are several more subplots and characters whose stories converge with those of the Jewetts or Ellsworth (or both), adding to the layered and well-populated feel of the story.

The Heavenly Table is atmospheric and vivid.  Engrossing, gritty and dark, and completely absorbing.  There’s a certain raw quality to Pollock’s writing, one that can be gory and gruesome.  There’s a lot of violence in this book, of many different kinds. And yet there’s also pathos and humor, and maybe even a kernel of goodness.

It’s got the feel of a Western, with all the outlaws and whores and soldiers and poor farmers.  But it’s the more the modern, nuanced kind, without too many good guys or lone heroes.  Interestingly, I noticed that one of the subject headings for this book is “Noir fiction.”  So-called “rural noir,” with lots of bleakness and darkness, is pretty in right now.  Sort of a descendant of Southern Gothic.

For readers of Daniel Woodrell, particularly Winter’s Bone.  I’d also suggest Black River by S.M. Hulse if you want something with a similar Western tone but not quite as violent or bleak.  Kings of the Earth or Finn by Jon Clinch might also be good.  Also, do try Pollock’s other books, Knockemstiff and Devil All the Time.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Revival: A Rural Noir” by Tim Seeley and Mike Norton

I was going to wait for Halloween to tell you about this one but I can’t because it’s too good and I want to talk about it now.

Revival

For one day in rural Wisconsin, the dead come back to life.  Now this small town has been quarantined by the government, the so-called “revivers” try to go back to some kind of “life,” and Officer Dana Cypress is put in charge of dealing with those who came back from the dead and the media attention that came with them.

Haunting, compelling, and gruesome where it needs to be, Revival works as a police procedural, as a horror story, and as the story of an isolated and struggling small town. It’s also a nice examination of life and death, and the complex relationship people have with both.

Full disclosure: I found out about Revival while eagerly gorging myself on the latest installment of Chew, which included a preview of the cross-over story that the creators of both comics put together.

chew-revival

From the crossover comic.  Gives you a sense of the spirit of the endeavor.

I can’t wait for the next installment of Revival.  You’ll be seeing this one again during Horror month.

–Marie

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

Marie’s Reading: “The Wonder Garden” by Lauren Acampora

wonder gardenI found out about The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora book during last month’s meeting of the Simply Books! book club at the library.  The reader’s description piqued my interest (quoted from our meeting minutes):

 This novel is made up of a series of linked stories set in an old-money suburb called Old Cranbury.  Each story focuses on the  various eccentricities of the rich and weird inhabitants.  It’s elegantly written, and Acampora manages to inhabit each character fully.

The reader also went into a bit more detail about the “eccentricities”–the artist who creates realistic-looking foamboard insects to cover a house in the neighborhood as part of an art installation, the father-to-be who has a mystical experience while building a tree house that leads him to a spirit quest.  I was hooked.

It’s Winesburg, Ohio for a new era.  A book of grotesques, just like that one, people who strive and want and are stuck in different ways.  But add the oppressive wealthy suburban aspect, the kind that demands conformity.  And then there’s the creative element, humor, and deft characterizations that Acampora brings to Old Cranbury.

Acampora delivers a lot of insight about society and what it’s like to be under scrutiny in one way or another.  To have your own little reality behind your windows, where you can create your own little world safe from prying eyes (like the woman in The Virginals, who, along with her husband, speaks, dresses, and decorates her period home as though it is forever 1740).

Each story blends humor and pathos, the everyday takes on a creative spin or is presented from a different angle, and the attention to detail is great.  These are small, intensely focused stories (none more so than the one where a real estate agent is stuck at an intersection, and starts to see it as a welcome break), reflecting the tightly narrow focus of the characters.

The Wonder Garden is darkly funny, populated with wonderful characters, and incisive in its depiction of the needs and preoccupations of moneyed suburbia.

If you enjoy this book, I’d suggest you try Rebecca Makkai’s work.  The quirkiness and pathos would be a good fit, particularly in The Hundred Year House.  As the reader from book club said, John Cheever would be a good choice, too–there’s that same bleakness and dark humor, some weirdness, and focus on the lives of middle-class suburbanites.  Try The Stories of John Cheever to dip a toe in.  Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell, about a lawyer’s wife in 1930’s Kansas City succumbing to boredom and loneliness, might be good as well, as would Sinclair Lewis’s work (Main Street or Babbitt).  I already mentioned Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, which might also appeal if you like the “book of grotesques” angle. If you want to go darker and more hopeless, you could try the disturbing but poignant Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock, which focuses on the sad, poor population of a small Midwestern town.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “The Good House” by Ann Leary

good houseHildy Good is one of the top real estate brokers in her small town in Massachusetts.  She’s a respected businesswoman, and her family has lived in town for generations.  She’s even descended from one of the women accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials, a fact she plays up when showing new folks around town hoping to sell a house.

Hildy is also an alcoholic in recovery, though lately the definition of “recovery” has begun to slip for her.  Though she’ll be the first to tell you that there’s nothing wrong with enjoying some wine of an evening.  The story of Ann Leary’s The Good House involves Hildy becoming friends with a new woman in town, Rebecca, at the same time that she rekindles a relationship with a man she’s known for years.

The Good House is a dark piece of domestic character-centered fiction.  And it’s not a leisurely story.  There’s lots of drama and it’s very quick-paced.  But Hildy is just so compelling it’s hard to break away.  The descriptive, evocative writing helps to make you feel a connection to Hildy.  The first-person narration helps the connection as well, creating a character that feels real and truthful and sometimes pitiable and unlikable.

At its core this is a story of a woman working through alcoholism, her own angry, private struggle.  She’s lugging around a lot of baggage, and we’re witness to all of her cringe-worthy drunken episodes.  At least, those she can remember.  It’s due to Hildy’s alcoholism that the story takes its dark turn toward the end.

The Good House is also a story of a small New England town, and the way they are changing.  Many people in this area will recognize the gentrification of a beautiful coastal community, and the way townies whose families have lived somewhere for hundreds of years can no longer afford to live in their hometowns.  Hildy’s being a real estate agent was a good choice, in that it lends this extra dimension to the story.  Even though she’s a bred townie, she still cheerfully and competitively sells houses to rich people from away.  There’s a wonderful sense of place and community (both good and bad) in this novel.

Readalike possibilities: Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh, though darker and with more of a mystery element, might still appeal to those who enjoyed the darker side of The Good House.  It also shares the small-town New England setting. Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs might be a good choice, both for the narrator’s anger, unreliability, and the high drama. Last, Paula Hawkins’   The Girl on the Train could also work, particularly Rachel’s storyline.  There’s more violence and thriller aspects in that one, but it’s still very character- and relationship-centered.

–Marie