Halloween Read: “The Ghost Notebooks” by Ben Dolnick

theghostnotebook

Is it ghosts?  Or is it madness?  Or maybe a little of both?

The Ghost Notebooks follows Nick and Hannah, a newly engaged couple at a crisis point in their lives and their relationship.  Their careers are stagnating, and so is their bond.  In hopes that a big change might help them out of their rut, they take jobs as caretakers for a house museum in upstate New York.

From the first, there’s something eerie and secretive about both the town and the house.  The museum was the family home of a 19th century writer and philosopher who, it’s rumored, dabbled in spiritualism.  As the days wear on in this remote and creepy new place, Hannah starts to unravel.  She stops sleeping, hears voices at night, and becomes obsessed with researching the house and the writer.  Nick can only stand by as something tragic happens.

While there’s some occult and spiritualist elements here, this is less a story about a haunting than it is about minds in crisis.  Is Nick a reliable narrator?  Is something nefarious going on?  Or is everything seemingly supernatural simply the result of grief and trauma?

The narrative voice is often wry and funny, and there are a lot of humorous moments balanced against the heavy ones.  If you enjoy just a maybe-sprinkling of ghosts around Halloween, or you’re fascinated by how human minds might create ghouls and goblins, give this one a look!

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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

Marie’s Reading: “The Other Typist” by Suzanne Rindell

the other typistRose 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.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Schroder” by Amity Gaige

schroderI’m back with Amity Gaige’s new novel, Schroder–just like I promised I would be!

Just hear Erik Kennedy out.  He has good reasons for taking his daughter on an unscheduled vacation.  He’s even got good reasons for fabricating his identity at age fourteen.   Over the course of his story, which he is writing from a correctional facility, he’ll tell you all about his childhood in East Germany, his love for his wife and daughter, and his fateful decision to become Erik Kennedy. Continue reading