Apparently the fall has resulted in a quite a list of spooky reads. I was not really amazed by any of them but two of three were fun in their own way.
1. “Sisterland” by Curtis Sittenfeld (Published in 2013) – I really liked Sittenfeld’s “Prep” so I was excited to read this book. I quickly learned that not all of Sittenfeld’s writing is created equal. This book took a fairly interesting concept and made it, amazingly, boring. Kate is a thirty-something stay at home mom living the picturesque suburban American life in St. Louis. Kate has spent her life trying to hide that she and her twin sister, Violet, both have “the sight” and can sometimes read the future. Kate’s appearance of a normal life quickly changes when, after a small earthquake, Violet is interviewed by the local news. She predicts that another more dangerous earthquake will be hitting the city on October 16th. And book then becomes a countdown to October 16th – will the earthquake happen? And if so, how bad will it be? But the book also jumps back to Kate’s childhood and her dating history. The writing gets confusing and I had a lot of trouble following the flow or lack thereof. But my main gripe was that Kate was just boring and predictably flawed. The ending crisis is exactly what you expect from almost the first page and that is just…well…lazy writing. Twins with mysterious foresight is in and of itself intriguing. The fact that Sittenfeld is able to make it dull is impressive in its own rite. And just unfortunate.
2. “This House is Haunted” by John Boyne (Published in 2013) – This book got creamed in the New York Times. But I enjoyed it. Set in Victorian England, Eliza finds herself lost and aimless after the death of her father. She is young but not beautiful and certainly not rich. On a whim and in a haze of grief, she decides to take post as a governess in a country home, Gaudlin Hall. When she arrives by train she is greeted at the door of the large home by the two children themselves. No one else is present in the home and Eliza quickly learns that she follows a long line of governesses (none lasted very long). Of course, it is a given that the house is haunted but the book is fun and as Eliza finds out why the house is haunted it is a nice mix of “Jane Eyre” and “Turn of the Screw.” Not written as well but still a good time for cold night reading.
3. ”Doctor Sleep” by Stephen King (Published in 2013)- One of my favorite reading memories is as a thirteen year old reading “The Shining” in the middle of the night and then being too scared to sleep. I think this is almost everyone’s experience with this book. I saw the movie a few years later and it was scary but nothing close to the book. When I read that King had written a sequel following Danny as an adult I knew I would be one of the many suckers who had to read it. Danny, like his father, has struggled with alcoholism. It quiets the shining but is quickly ruining his life. He wonders aimless until he ends up in a small town in New Hampshire working as a nurse’s aid at the local hospice center. Dan’s ability to shine helps him assist the dying in their transition into the next world. Since Dan’s first day in the town he has felt that he is where he is meant to be. He begins receiving telepathic messages from a young girl, Abra. Because of her abilities Abra’s life is in danger and Dan finds himself in the role of mentor for Abra. Everything ties up very nicely in this book but it was not really scary. There are vampire like people, eerie moments, etc. but there were really no moments that kept me up in the middle of the night. But it was still worth the read and I enjoyed it for what it was.
I am reading “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tart now so I think I am off the spooky theme. Though I guess I don’t know how it ends so we will see. Most importantly, Happy Thanksgiving fellow readers. Enjoy the people you love and I hope you find time for yourself and a good book.
“Trains and Lovers” by Alexander McCall Smith, Published in 2013.
This book is beautiful. It is the kind of book you end with a sigh and a happy heart.
It is a simple story. Four strangers, riding the train from Edinburgh to London. They are sitting two on each side of the coach, facing each other. And somehow a story starts. The simple “why are you going London?” turns into a story about a possible career in both art and love. Then everyone has a story, some outwardly expressed and some revisited internally. But all of the stories are about love and how it has brought them to this particular train, this particular path.
“Trains are everyday, prosaic things, but they can be involved in, be the agents of, so much else, including that part of our human life that for so many far outweighs any other—our need for love—to give it and to receive it in that familiar battle that all of us fight with loneliness.”
Trains can make us wistful. They take us away from something. They take us towards something else. They move on a set path that does not change. You can board trains in snow or rain or beautiful sunshine. Your lover can wave to you from the platform. You can see the people you love slowly disappear as the train pulls away. Trains rock back and forth, in a consoling manner as you watch the landscape change. Trains make us wistful for good reason. They are not unlike love really.
Smith is a brilliant writer. He weaves the story of the train not just into the actual setting of the characters telling their stories but the trains play a part in each story as well. The stories are not scintillating or shocking or laced with suspenseful moments. They are sweet, charming stories. They are the stories of everyday lives that could be told on a train to a stranger, who can then nod and add their own story. Smith has the gentle touch of an old storyteller who knows what is important in life. And his wisdom makes his writing beautiful - “We live and breathe love. Loving someone is the good thing we do in our lives.”
“The Cuckoo’s Calling” by J.K. Rowling, Published in 2013
This book was an accident. I was walking around my library and saw it in the “New Books” section. I thought I remembered something about it and checked it out. When I got home I realized this was a book Rowling written under a pseudonym. I am new to Rowling and a bit unsure about this book.
Like all private detectives, Cormoran Strike is having a tough time. He is broke. He has been kicked out of the apartment he was sharing with his girlfriend. His father is a famous musician with whom he has no contact. And he is continually struggling with the pain from his amputated leg. One day the brother of the famous model Lula Landry walks into Strike’s office convinced his sister’s suicide three months prior was really a murder. Though Strike is not sure that his client is not a bit off his rocker, he needs the money and so he takes the job. Strike then spends a lot of time with the rich and famous trying to find out what really happened to Lula.
Rowling can write. She has a knack for conversation and cadence that I have not seen in a while. You can hear the characters talking and exactly what tone they are using. I found that impressive. The story was really not that inventive. I did love the characters, particularly Strike’s secretary, Robin, who is only meant to be a temp. She excited about working for a detective and has a lot of potential (because there will be future books).
The write up for this book says you have never met a private detective like Cormoran Strike. That is not true. You have met him if you have ever read a detective novel. That said, he is truly endearing and likeable (think Wallander meets Poirot meets Jane from Prime Suspect). He has boundary problems, he likes a few pints, he is hard to get close to but is struggling to get his life together. You know the type. It is a formula that works so I am not complaining.
What I will complain about is the length of this suspense novel. It is over 400 pages. And while I am not one to shirk at long books a suspense novel just by its very nature needs to be shorter than 400 pages or it just gets exhausting.
So the characters are fun. The story is pretty good. The length is silly. But hey I wouldn’t mind meeting Cormoran Strike again, or Rowling’s writing for that matter. Just maybe with a bit more editing.
Other reviews to check out:
- Review – The Cuckoo’s Calling (Cormoran Strike #1) (mumsibles.wordpress.com)
- Book Review: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (justrochelle.com)
- ♦ My Review ♦ The Cuckoo’s Calling ♦ by Robert Galbraith (J.K.Rowling) (swlothian.com)
“Longbourn” by Jo Baker. Published in 2013.
I do this to myself. I hear about a book and I think “I will not read that book about four angry single women who find love” or “I will not read this Jane Austen spin-off.” But then the New York Times Book review tells me that the book is good or a pleasant surprise and then, against all reason, I find myself in the middle of a book thinking “why did I do this?!!!”
“Longbourn” is about the servants in perhaps the best known household in British Literature, the Bennets. This new take on “Pride and Prejudice” is…well…pointless. It is mainly the story of Sarah, one of the housemaids, who has been in service since she was dumped on the Bennet’s doorstep as a young orphan. She spends her days washing the soiled linens worn by Jane and Lizzie Bennet, feeding the livestock, helping in the kitchen – all the while catching bits and pieces of the family conversations, heart breaks and scandals. Her life is lackluster and pointless until the day the new footman is hired. Need I really say more?
This has been called “The Upstairs/Downstairs of Pride and Prejudice” or the “Austen Downtown Abbey” but it is actually neither. This is really just all about the servants. And, while the reading is good and the story is fairly well executed (though a bit long in the middle), the fact that they are servants in the Bennett household seems to be a gimmick to sell the book. Baker throws the reader the occasional storyline from “Pride and Prejudice” but it is all really not needed. The story could hold its own and it is troubling that an author as famous as Baker couldn’t just have written the novel without riding the notoriety of the Austen spin-off. But sadly, she did. Of course, the gimmick is a good one. Case and point, I am now an owner of “Longbourn” in hardback. Curses.
*Mr. Darcy, of course.
“Memories of a Marriage” By Louis Begley, Published in 2013
I loved this look into the marital troubles of an upperclass New York socialite. It is hard to put my finger on exactly what I liked about this book. I am pretty sure it is what a lot of us love about reading the gossip magazines about celebrities – the train wreck is hard to not watch. And when the story is written by Louis Begley it will be a well told train wreck.
The narrator is a past his prime writer and widower, Phillip, who, while taking an intermission from the Opera one night, runs into his former acquaintance/one night stand, socialite Lucy de Bourgh. It is awkward, she is not really as interesting as she once was and neither are as young and shiny as they were in the 1950s when they first met. Phillip has not really seen Lucy since her husband, Thomas Snow, left her, fairly quickly remarried and passed away (run over by both a motor boat and the waterskier it was pulling). Lucy quickly catches on that Phillip may be less than thrilled to see her but invites him to her apartment for dinner later in the week. Phillip having no excuse that he thinks would be believeable finds himself at Lucy’s apartment where she begins to tell the tale of her woeful marriage to Thomas. Phillip finds himself drawn into the story, particularly Lucy’s narrative, enhanced by quite a few highballs, of how cruel and subversive Thomas was.
Phillip begins to dig into Lucy and Thomas’ marriage finding that there are always two sides to how a marriage goes terribly wrong. While he tries to figure out what truth is in the story-telling he also returns to the country home where he and his wife had spent many happy summers. The parallel between his fear that the story of his happy marriage will die with him is a beautiful background to the painful story of the de Bourgh-Snow alliance.
Begley’s study of relationships is an interesting one. We all have our versions of our bad relationships. The person who walks out on us must be evil, unforgivably cruel and callous. Of course we eventually come to the point of self-examination – wondering what we did wrong, how it could have been better or successful. Often this self-awareness is accompanied by ice cream, in pint sizes.
Quite differently, privileged Lucy is not bothered by any such self-revelation. She instead loses any of her carefree, energetic self to a bitter, angry determination to remain in her version of the truth. It is graceless and isolating. Luckily, Begley doesn’t leave her there though. He gives her a sympathetic edge so that while the reader loves to hate her, the reader also can’t help but hate that you kind of feel bad for her. That kind of complexity makes reading fascinating. Truth is overrated anyway.
I seem to have run into a theme, it was an accident I swear. The last three books I read have been about three girls and the things that make them grow up – always too quickly and harshly. They were all interesting in their own ways and though I am ready to leave the theme behind they are worth checking out (some more than others).
1. Cemetery Girl by David Bell (Published in 2011) – This was absolutely one of the most disturbing books I have ever read, it is just haunting. Tom and Abbey have a beautiful daughter, Caitlin. They are doting parents, middle class, educated, they have done everything right. When Caitlin is twelve years old she disappears while out walking the family dog. The next four years Tom and Abbey hope that Caitlin will return. But then Abbey decides to move on and have a memorial service with a gravestone engraved in Caitlin’s honor. Tom has refused to let go and is validated when he receives a call from the police that they think they have found Caitlin alive. And indeed it is Caitlin. Their lives then change again as they try to adjust to the return of their daughter. Of course the question becomes is it better to be a parent who has lost a child or a parent who finds his child but they are unrecognizable and extremely damaged. This book was painful. As a parent it ripped my heart out. It was well written and kept me engaged – but it is harshly realistic.
2. The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani (Published in 2013) – I am just going to say I don’t know what to make of this book. It is set in 1930s and begins with Thea, a fifteen year girl, driving with her father to a horse camp for young women from affluent families. It is clear from the outset that Thea has done something that has made her family send her away. The author drags out the mystery a bit longer than necessary especially because you can guess pretty early on what happened (I bet you can even guess what happened at least in part). Thea also continues to be victim to the adults around her making bad decisions. It is hard to hold her blameless because she is the narrator and seems like she is in control. But you have to remove yourself from the narrator and remind yourself that she is only 15 and really has no control over her life or what will happen next. I found this book creepy. And just when I felt like it was creepy enough it just got creepier. And I am unclear if that was the author’s intent. Out of the three this was my least favorite coming of age story.
3. Moloka’i by Alan Brennert (Published in 2004) – If you are keeping score out of the three this is the book to read. It was recommended by one of my favorite people and she was right – it is a great book. At the turn of the century Rachel is 6 years old and lives with her family in Hawaii. Her life is pretty typical until a sore on the back of her leg will not heal. Her mother immediately recognizes the signs of leprosy and is only able to hide Rachel’s illness for so long. Eventually, Rachel is sent to Kalaupapa, a quarantined leprosy settlement on the island of Moloka’i. What follows is the beautiful, tragic, touching story of Rachel’s life at the settlement. Rachel is an endearing character and the novel is well researched. Even better Brennert’s writing is really good and his passion for his topic is evident in the depth of the story.
All of this tough coming of age stuff means it is time to read more books with adult characters – they have as much drama but without all of the hormones…or maybe I have that backwards.
I ended the summer with a lot of fast reads. Admittedly, they were all breezy and some were more enjoyable than others. But to be fair, some of them were read on the beach in Hilton Head and that might have made them even more enjoyable.
1. “The Other Typist” by Suzanne Rindell (Published in 2013) - This is set in 1920s New York. Rose is a typist at the local police precinct. She is plain and her life is simple. When Odalie is hired on as another typist, Rose becomes intrigued by her and they become fast friends. Odalie’s life is exciting and Rose finds herself very quickly sucked into it. But as time passes it seems that Odalie is not who she says she is and very quickly Rose’s life spins out of control. I was so interested in reading this book but it was truly beyond me. I would absolutely love it if someone else read this book and could explain it to me. I am serious – if you can please make a comment to this post. I finished it and thought “what just happened?”
2. “Reconstructing Amelia” by Kimberly McCreight (Published in 2013) – Kate has spent her life trying to balance being a single mother with a successful career as a litigator. Her teenaged daughter, Amelia, always made it seem that Kate was making it all work. Amelia was bright, pretty and seemed to tell her mother everything. So Kate is surprised when she receives a call from Amelia’s school that she is being suspended for plagiarizing. Kate immediately heads over to the school only to find that between the phone call and Kate arriving at the school Amelia has committed suicide by jumping off the school’s roof. As Kate deals with Amelia’s death she receives an anonymous text that merely says “she didn’t jump.” And from there Kate begins trying to piece together what really happened to Amelia. This book is fun but I was stunned by the writing at the end. It could only have been written by a mother (sorry guys) – it is beautiful and touching though a little out of sync with the rest of the book. This is a thriller with a bit of a predictability problem but that didn’t make it any less fun.
3. “Secrets of Eden” by Chris Bohjahian (Published in 2010) – The same day that Alice is baptized by Reverend Stephen Drew she is strangled by her husband, who then commits suicide. Rev. Drew, who knew that Alice’s husband was abusive, finds himself losing faith when he is suddenly visited by Heather, a best-selling author who writes about angels. Heather and Drew have an immediate connection – particularly since Heather’s mom was also killed by her father who then committed suicide. As the investigation of Alice’s murder takes place, it seems that her husband was shot from 2 feet away – making impossible that it is a suicide (you totally saw this coming didn’t you). And thus the investigation begins and everyone is a suspect. Okay this book is pretty good and does pull you in but I was unclear what the purpose of some of the characters were. Bohjahian addresses the issue of domestic violence in this kind of round about way that is not as poignant as it could be. I do love the way Bohjahian writes, I just have yet to be amazed by his books. But for some reason I am compelled to keep trying.
4. “A Half Forgotten Song” by Katherine Webb (Published in 2013) – Zach owns an art gallery in Bath, England but it is a failing art gallery and his wife has left him, taking his daughter to America. His publisher has called him and said that the book he is writing about the famous author Charles Aubrey must be completed in the next four months or they will go with another author. And so aimless and lonely Zach heads to a village on the Dorset coast where Aubrey spent his summers for many years to try to find a new angle for his book. There he meets Mitzy, an old, eccentric woman, who spent a short time as Aubrey’s muse when she was sixteen. As her story about her relationship with Aubrey unfolds Zach finds that Mitzy really is the story he was looking for. This sounds absolutely cheesy but it is definitely worth the read. I did not love Webb’s book “The Legacy” but in this book I feel like she has found a great story that showcases her writing well.
And so the summer ends and I am fine with that. It is time for beautiful leaves and pumpkin lattes and apple pies. Chilly nights and lots and lots of books. Happy Autumn my fellow readers.
Other reviews to check out:
- The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell (turnthepagereviews.com)
- Review: The Other Typist (bookingmama.net)
- Review: Reconstructing Amelia (bookchatter.net)
- Book Review: Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight (booksbythedozen12.wordpress.com)