The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

Shirley Jackson certainly knows how to do creepy well. I read her short novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle for last year’s RIP Challenge, so grabbing another book by her seemed very smart for this year’s!

The premise of the book is that there is a fellow, Dr. Montague, who is conducting some experiments at a place called Hill House. Basically, he’s heard some stories about the house being haunted and basically uninhabitable, and he’s hoping to make some notes on any phenomena he might come across. He takes on a couple of assistants, including Eleanor Vance, our protagonist. Eleanor and the others spend several nights in the house, observing some interesting things like something banging on doors, a very cold spot where no draft could come through, and the same or another something writing messages on walls. But even with all of the house’s oddities, Eleanor finds herself starting to really love the house… perhaps too much?

Because that’s what the book is really about. Eleanor has been essentially a shut-in for 11 years, taking care of her mother, and her sister doesn’t respect her, and Eleanor has no friends or self-confidence until she shows up at Hill House. And then she tries a little too hard to be BFF(aeae)s with everyone, and of course it doesn’t work quite that well, and so she makes friends with the only thing left to be friends with — the creepy house. Which goes about as well as you might expect.

I’ll admit I was hoping for something a little scarier when I picked this up, but I am perfectly content with the psychological creep factor — I certainly understand the feeling of being shut in and having no one to hang out with, though I hope that my friends who have to love me through the Internet would keep me from getting eaten by a haunted house. You would, right? Please?

Ahem. So Jackson hits the interpersonal relations right on the nose, with the “lets be best friends!” attitude of strangers living together that slowly erodes into a “lets avoid each other like the plague!” when the people realize they don’t actually like each other all that much, and with the clingy “wait let’s still be frieeeeends” Eleanor, and especially with the pitch-perfect passive-aggressive Theo. Jackson also nails the creepy-haunted-house bit with the banging on the walls and the spinning room and the “oh, that’s really creepy” moment between Eleanor and Theo. And THEN she offers up an excellent person going slowly and inexorably insane.

Basically I’m going to have to marry Shirley Jackson. Don’t tell Scott.

Recommendation: For those who like a bit of psychological creepiness in their cereal, and who don’t mind if that’s the only kind of creepiness. Not for those who are looking for people popping out from behind doors, wielding knives and severed heads.

Rating: 9/10
(RIP Challenge, A to Z Challenge, Support Your Local Library Challenge)

See also:
books i done read
Reading matters
things mean a lot
A Striped Armchair
Well-Mannered Frivolity

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain

Another Cain! I really like this guy’s work.

This book is more like The Postman Always Rings Twice than Mildred Pierce, because there’s more murder plotting, but it of course still has that don’t-trust-charismatic-people aspect to it. So good.

And the murder plotting here is EXCELLENT, because the murderer fellow, who is again offing a lust-object’s husband, is an insurance agent and he knows what has to be done to make a murder play out like an accident. So there is lots of planning and trickery and secrets.

But of course there are more secrets than just this planned murder, as our murderer discovers AFTER he’s done all this work, and those combined with the fact that he works with at least one good insurance agent who has totally figured out that there was a murder but can’t quite prove it make this novel wonderfully suspenseful.

The ending is great as well; it combines a few excellent surprising endings that I’ve read before and makes them more interesting. It’s just a good time all around!

Also, just a few pages into this book I realized that I had watched the movie version in my freshman English class, though I didn’t remember it terribly well because I’m pretty sure the noir voice-over aspect put me to sleep. Definitely a more gripping book.

Recommendation: Good for those who like suspense and slowly unveiled evil characters, and also those who would like tips on planning a perfect murder.

Rating: 9/10
(RIP Challenge, Support Your Local Library Challenge)

See also:
[your link here]

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain

I read Mildred Pierce for my book club a little while ago and loved it, so the fact that I had a couple other Cain works sitting in anthology form turned out to be an excellent thing.

Of course, The Postman Always Rings Twice isn’t really anything like Mildred Pierce. In Mildred, Cain writes a moderately creepy story about the power of especially charismatic people, while in Postman… no, wait, it’s still about the power of especially charismatic people. But here there be MURDERERS. That’s the difference. Not such a big one, really.

Postman is about a drifter fellow who very quickly falls in love (well, lust) with a married woman and just as quickly they are planning her husband’s death. They try once and fail, then try again and succeed, but of course murdering someone isn’t really something you can get away with so easily, especially when an insurance company is involved.

The trial bit is what I think I liked the best… my husband’s in law school so he’s always coming home with very strange hypothetical and real cases, but this one takes the cake, especially in the way the lawyer uses all sorts of lawyer-y tricks that baffle and confuse and amaze me in the end.

I also liked that the narrator turns out to be possibly unreliable (not even definitely unreliable, how cool is that), and also the way the whole ending plays out, from the betrayals to the justice.

But it is a short book (~100 pages), so really you should just go read it.

Recommendation: Not for people who love their characters, but definitely for people who love their plots. Also for budding lawyers who want some true genius to aspire to, but not for those who want to have, like, integrity.

Rating: 8/10
(RIP Challenge, Support Your Local Library Challenge)

See also:
[your link here]

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh

When I was in elementary school, I had a Spy Club. My two best friends (at the time) and I would go out into the neighborhood and write down what was going on, no matter how boring it was, and then we would meet in my room to discuss. I don’t know for certain, but I can only imagine that this was brought about by me reading Harriet the Spy.

As such, I have very fond memories of this book, in which one Harriet M. Welsch spies on people for fun, writing down everything she thinks about them from the mundane to the mean. Then, as these things go, Harriet’s notebook gets picked up by her schoolmates, who find out just what Harriet thinks about them (focusing on the mean things, of course) and completely shun her. Then, in my memory, Harriet does something nice and everyone is friends again.

Spoiler: that is totally not the case! Oh my goodness. I had completely blocked from my mind how terrible of a person Harriet is. When her notebook is revealed to everyone, her first stop is the stationery store (this is an old book) to get a new notebook for writing down even more vicious things than before. And what brings her back to her friends is lying. Lying! She gets told by her former nanny that little white lies are very important for getting along in society, and so she just tells everyone j/k, lol, she was totally lying about all of those things she said. And apparently the other students believe her, even though they’ve been reading Harriet’s mean screeds about other people in the school newspaper. Mmmmmmmmhmm.

So now, on the one hand, I feel very differently about Harriet. I’m even a little scandalized. But on the other hand, I have different fingers, and also I love this book a little more because it is so honest about how life tends to be. Granted, I’m not sure that Harriet would ever actually be accepted back into her old circles, but I can certainly believe that her friends would at least try to forgive her. I definitely see the Harriet of seven days after this book ends already getting in trouble again.

Recommendation: Perhaps this should be read by older kids, or at least ones mature enough not to take the ending as a license to lie all willy-nilly. Also good for adults who have a disposition toward schadenfreude.

Rating: 9/10
(Flashback Challenge)

See also:
Book Nut
Bermudaonion’s Weblog

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

Matilda, by Roald Dahl

Oh, Matilda. This was my first-ever Dahl book, and in fact the only one I’d read until reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory this January. Good thing I bought that boxed set, so I can catch up!

Anyway, I read this in fifth grade as part of the not-yet-awesome Project Plus gifted program in my elementary school, and it was pretty much the greatest thing we did all year, or at least the most memorable. What smart 11-year-old doesn’t wish for super powers beyond just being good at math and reading? Not me, that’s for sure. I tried for weeks to move pencils and whatnot off of desks before realizing that my life wasn’t quite crappy enough for making magic happen.

If you haven’t read Matilda, I highly recommend it — it’s the story of an incredibly precocious girl whose parents couldn’t care less about her, who ends up at a school with a terrible headmistress but a wonderful teacher who helps Matilda realize her potential, both in school and in a bit of magic.

Of course, if you have kids of your own you might want to keep this out of their hands for a while, because Matilda isn’t a little angel… she is very good at exacting revenge on those who make life difficult for her. At the very least, make sure that your peroxide and superglue are well hidden for several months after any nearby children read this book!

Recommendation: Excellent for precocious children, or former precocious children, or people who like to read about precocious children. Now precocious doesn’t look like a word anymore.

Rating: 10/10
(Flashback Challenge)

See also:
Book Nut

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

Death Note Vol. 5, by Tsugumi Ohba

Another one of these Death Note books… in this one things get rather more wonky than they have been previously, which is to say VERY WONKY.

Light gives up his Death Note (that thing that lets him kill criminals), and with it his memories of using said Note, which leaves him wondering if he could ever have been Kira — could he kill people in the name of justice? He thinks probably not. Mmhmm.

And he does it in a pretty strange fashion… he lets L (the guy trying to find Kira) see him locked up, with no one dying, then after he doesn’t remember anything anymore a third Kira starts killing people, so now L thinks maybe the power just gets passed around? And maybe Light was Kira but now he’s not? Which seems like not the right way to go about it, but okay. Also, L is a jerk and spends too much time testing people and eating cake and not enough actually solving crimes, so far as I can tell. What will the next book bring?

Recommendation: Um, well, you’ll want to start at the beginning. But I would definitely recommend this series to anyone who is intrigued by ethical dilemmas and doesn’t mind being very confused very often.

Rating: 7/10
(Support Your Local Library Challenge)

See also:
Rhinoa’s Ramblings

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie

Before we even get into the story here, let me tell you that I. Hate. Acid paper. My copy of this book is the 1974 movie tie-in edition, and although I thought they were done with this terrible paper by then, they were not. So now my copy of Murder on the Orient Express is technically two half-copies of Murder on the Orient Express. Sigh. I suppose that it could have been worse, that I could have lost a page without noticing and be missing 1 percent of the book — possibly an important 1 percent!

But there were no missing pages, and every page was delightfully intriguing. This book had been an option in a mystery novels class I took in undergrad, so though I read a different book from the list (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, another Christie novel with a crazy ending) I knew how this one ended. Even still, I was drawn in to the story and the odd detecting skills of M. Poirot.

The story starts off as a classic locked-room problem — a Mr. Ratchett is found dead in his compartment on the Orient Express train. The chain is in place on his side of the door, and the communicating door between his compartment and the woman’s next door is also locked. His cause of death is twelve stab wounds to the chest, of varying levels of severity. The doctor on board the train immediately presumes a crime of passion perpetrated by a woman, but the pipe cleaner left behind at the scene says perhaps a man. But the handkerchief also left behind says a woman. And while most of the stab wounds say right-handed person, one definitely says left-handed person. And, everyone on the train has an alibi for the presumed time of death. Poirot gets dragged into solving this impossible problem, and of course he does, because that’s sort of his job.

I greatly enjoyed finally reading this novel, which is similar to a Sherlock Holmes story but with better showing of clues to the reader. I felt like I could have solved this case myself even without knowing the final result, and I liked watching Poirot come to his realizations mostly along with me (he is a bit smarter than I, unfortunately). I also absolutely love the ending; not the solution bit, but the bit right after that.

Rating: 7/10
(RIP Challenge)

See also:
an adventure in reading

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.