Marie’s Reading “The Witch Elm” by Tana French

witch elmAfter being beaten nearly to death in a robbery, Toby heads to Ivy House, the old family manse, where his uncle Hugo is dying of brain cancer.  Toby’s always considered himself a very fortunate guy, until the attack and his less than full recovery afterward.  While he’s trying to heal at Ivy House as well as care for his uncle, a human skull is found in an elm tree on the property.

Of course a whole skeleton follows, which brings the detectives calling.  Whose body is it?  How did it get there?  Toby, caring for Hugo and not having the greatest memory after the attack, tries to answer these questions as best he can–both for himself and for the detective who seems to have Toby on the list of suspects.

French’s writing is lavishly detailed and so finely wrought you want to savor every sentence.  The story is atmospheric and compelling, and the characters are all well-developed and authentic.  There’s still an element of crime fiction in this stand-alone, but it takes a backseat to a story of identity and family.  It’s also fun to see the other side of the usual stories French writes, which focus on the detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad and their investigations. Here we’re with Toby the whole time as he tries to piece together his recollections and make sense of the present.

I really enjoyed the relationship between Toby and his cousins, Leon and Susanna.  They grew up together, almost like siblings, and their bond is clear, in all its complexity and history.  A lot of their relationship relies on memory now, and memory is a big theme in the novel–how people experience and thus remember things very differently, including relationships.

If you enjoyed French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, definitely check this one out–it’s not a crime novel, as I said, so you might miss that, but everything else great about French’s work is on display here.  Fans of Gillian Flynn and Kate Atkinson who haven’t tried French yet certainly should as well.

–Marie

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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: “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).

–Marie

Marie’s Favorite Reads of 2015

2015 was a tough reading year for me, in terms of favorite books.  In years past I’ve always had a few stand-outs, books I loved and devoured and then went off in search of more like them.  This year, not so much.

The sole honor in that category goes to Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, which I discovered and adored this past year.  French rekindled my love of Crime fiction, and I’ve been gravitating more and more toward that genre after spending quite a long time in Horror and Thriller/Suspense.  So the first in the series, In The Woods, is at the tip-top of my favorite reads list.

This past year has been tough in terms of getting out of my reading comfort zone as well.  Thanks to the lovely nonfiction reading group I belong to, I’ve been guaranteed to read at least one nonfiction title a month for the past year and a half.  I’m still really slow about it, though.  For some reason I never tear through nonfiction as I do a novel, despite the fact that we’ve read some great ones in that group.  You can check out our reading list here.  Though I loved them all, I starred my particular favorites.

All that said, here’s the pretty short list of my faves from 2015.  These aren’t necessarily books published in the past year, just ones I read.  Clicking on the title will take you to the blog post I wrote about the book.  Enjoy!

Marie’s Favorite Books of 2015

In the Woods

florence gordon

eileen

browsings

head full of ghosts

Chew

Tune in next time for the post where I’ll admit defeat on the Reading Challenge.   Happy reading!

–Marie

 

26 Books to Read in 2015: # 16

#16 is: A book you learned about because of this challenge.

Does it count if I learned about this book specifically because I was doing a search on NoveList in order to fulfill this challenge point?  And does it still count if I didn’t so much learn about this book but was rather reminded of its existence because of this challenge?

Why am I asking when I’ve already decided that it does?

shining girls

I knew of this one, of course.  The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes was published back in 2013, where it kept coming up on a lot of readalike lists and blogs, and was quite well-reviewed.

It’s a really great readalike for Tana French (Dublin Murder Squad) in terms of literary style.  Great turns of phrase, beautiful descriptions (even in the goriest places), and a lyrical style really elevate this thriller.

As does the intriguingly original plot: in 1931, Harper Curtis finds a time-travel portal in a nondescript Chicago house.  He also finds the names of women scrawled on the wall in an upstairs room–in his own handwriting.  From there Harper feels compelled by destiny to find each of these women wherever they are in time, and murder them.

(Aside: My husband made a good point: does it really count as a serial killer if the murders are non-linear?  Something to ponder.)

But Kirby, a young woman attacked in the early 1990’s, survives.  And she sets out to find the killer, using her internship at a Chicago newspaper to hunt for clues.

Chicago is practically a character in this novel, so great is the sense of place in every time period.  Though the snapshots are sometimes brief, Beukes still manages to create a perfect sense of time and location with three-dimensional characters.  The feel of The Shining Girls is gritty and realistic, even with the sci-fi elements.

If you stay alert for the intricate plotting and shifting perspectives, you’ll be rewarded with an immersive, compelling, sometimes disturbing blend of thriller and crime.

–Marie

 

 

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: “In the Woods” by Tana French

In the WoodsActually, I just read that one first.  I couldn’t stop there.   As soon as I was done I needed more Dublin Murder Squad.  So now I’m reading The Likeness.  And then I’ll move on down the line until I’ve read them all!

I’m just sorry I hadn’t read these when I wrote that post about Crime Fiction for the Maine Crime Writers.  In The Woods would most definitely have been on my suggestion list.  The first in the series, it’s about a team of detectives trying to solve the murder of a young girl, even as one of the detectives tries to simultaneously solve a mystery from his own past.

Tana French’s police procedurals are compelling, atmospheric, and stylistically complex.  They’re moody pieces of crime fiction, rather than mysteries–some mysteries never get solved in her books, loose ends are left dangling.  I’d also classify the Dublin Murder Squad books as psychological suspense.  French delivers that delicious blend of mystery and suspense and atmosphere that makes crime fiction the fabulous genre that it is.

I also love French’s unflinching and honest depiction of Ireland and the Irish, of the society and its tensions.  Her Ireland is not sentimental.  It’s an Ireland full of a sense of history (recent and not), and a sense of national identity.  She gives a lot of evocative attention to the beauty of the landscape and the weather, but also pays attention to the undercurrents of society, government, and community.

If you enjoy character-driven fiction with an absorbing sense of place, believable and unique character voices, and well-constructed mysteries, do give the Dublin Murder Squad a try.  You also might like French’s work if you enjoy Kate Atkinson, S.J. Bolton, or Gillian Flynn.  While every Dublin Murder Squad novel features a different narrator and a new situation, the world is steadily built and characters grow as the books go on.  So do start with In The Woods and then go on from there.

When I’m done, though.  Don’t sneak the later ones out from under me. I’m warning you. I’m the librarian.  I’ll know.

–Marie