The Night Sister, by Jennifer McMahon

The Night SisterI made an agreement with my boss that we would switch off reading the books for the library book club, which definitely seemed like a great idea after my disastrous first outing with them. But then the next book up, this one, sounded actually pretty interesting and so I stole it from my boss so I could have a good book club experience.

The best-laid plans…

Except this time, it was the rest of the club (only half of whom even showed up) that hated the book, while I was like, wait, I thought it was pretty okay!

It could have been better, sure, but it was so squarely in my wheelhouse I couldn’t hate it when I tried. It’s got multiple points of view, multiple time period settings, interwoven plot lines, Big Mysteries, awesome lady protagonists, and a hint of the supernatural. It’s also a quasi-gothic novel, which is a genre of book that I seem to like more in theory than in the reading but I really like it in theory, so.

What actually happens in the novel: In the present day, a woman violently kills her family and herself, and her estranged childhood best friends, who are sisters, come together to figure out if it had anything to do with that Big Mysterious Thing that happened to them as children. In that childhood period, the Future Murdery Woman and the sisters hang out and navigate teenagerhood and also try to figure out the Big Mystery of the motel FMM’s family lives in. In the farther past, FMM’s mother navigates her own teenagerhood and also tries to figure out the Big Mystery of her sister, who she thinks might be a shapeshifting mare of the kind that her grandmother once warned her about.

It’s a fascinating novel, playing with genre and switching styles between the three time settings as the location setting stays the same — or rather deteriorates, as vacant motels are wont to do. There’s something cool to be seen in the fate of the motel through the generations and in how it is represented, first as a strongly gothic imposing presence and eventually just as a creepy sort of place. There’s a not-subtle nod to Hitchcock and Psycho included in the book as well, and he’s definitely a strong influence on the story.

Where it went wrong for the rest of the club and admittedly a little bit for me as well is the ending, which [SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH] takes what I expected to be either an ambiguous ending or a heavy metaphor about life and swerves to the completely literal, having those mares be real and having some of the characters actually be these shapeshifters. This revelation doesn’t quite fit with the tone of the rest of the novel and so is completely jarring, leaving me with a “Bwuh?” face and then a “Hmmph.” face as a finished it. But with some space between me and the book, I find that I kind of liked it as a “twist” ending. It reminded me a bit of another novel I read a few years ago, though I’m pretty sure there weren’t actual demons in that one? Man, I need to write more spoilers in my reviews so I can remember these books better.

That was a long spoiler tangent, sorry!

Anyway, I ended up liking the book more academically, for playing around with literary conventions, than for its entertainment value, as it is lacking a bit in the plot and character departments. My book clubbers would argue that it’s lacking completely in those departments, but I stayed intrigued the whole way through so I’ll give McMahon points for that. And I will definitely be putting her on my list of Authors Whose Best Works I Should Read Some Day, as she’s pretty prolific and has some apparently very good works to her name.

Recommendation: For those looking for a moderately spooky read and who like a novel that plays with convention and expectation.

The Secret Place, by Tana French

The Secret PlaceI wrote a little blurb about this book for a program called LibraryReads where librarians nerd out about the best books coming out every month, and it goes a little something like this:

“French has broken my heart yet again with her fifth novel, which examines the ways in which teenagers and adults can be wily, calculating, and backstabbing, even with their friends. The tension-filled flashback narratives, relating to a murder investigation in suburban Dublin, will keep you turning pages late into the night.”

And, I mean, seriously. If you’ve read any of Tana French’s other work, you probably don’t need me to tell you to GO READ THIS RIGHT NOW WHY ARE YOU NOT READING THIS RIGHT NOW, but just in case, I will tell you that this ranks right up there with Broken Harbour and a second reading of In the Woods as one of her best. Sooooo good, guys.

The story: Holly Mackey (of the Faithful Place Mackeys) shows up at our favorite police station with a Post Secret-style card from the Secret Place at her fancy-pants boarding school where kids can post anything they want anonymously with minimal oversight from the adult types. This card says that someone at her school knows who really killed a student who was found dead on the school’s campus a year before. Stephen Moran, to whom Holly entrusts the message, is a Cold Cases cop eager to make the Murder squad, and he jumps at the opportunity to work with the currently partner-less Antoinette Conway who headed up the case in the first place.

He thinks he knows what he’s getting into, but when he gets to the school he realizes he’s forgotten how ruthless and cunning teenagers can be, especially in an isolated boarding school. He’s also conveniently forgotten that the games these kids are playing are the same ones he should be playing at work, which is why he’s stuck in Cold Cases.

Interspersed with Moran’s story is the story of Holly and her friends starting a few months before the death of Chris Harper, during which they decided to skip over the pettiness of high school and stop caring what other people think, which is a great idea but really hard to implement when you spend your entire life with the same people. French drops in hints here and there about how Holly and her friends’ actions and the actions of other students will eventually lead to Chris’s death, but as always she keeps you wondering up to the end.

Also as always, French’s writing is perfect and amazing, and her characters are all completely believable and somehow sympathetic, even the ones who are kind of terrible people. In this book she throws in a new Gothic idea, that Holly and her friends have magical powers, and although I was like, no, of course they don’t, at first, by the end of the book I was ready to believe whatever French wanted me to believe. There’s really no arguing with her.

Now I just have to wait patiently for the next novel. That’s coming out soon, right? Please?

Recommendation: For all the people, but especially those who like a little Gothic mood in their crime procedural.

Rating: 10/10

In the Woods, by Tana French

In the WoodsIf you’ve been around this blog for a while, this title might sound a little familiar. Yes, indeed, this is the third time I’ve read this book, and the second and third time I’ve inflicted it on a book club (multi-tasking!). So I’m just going to skip the plot rehashing (previous blog posts linked below) and go straight into the thinky thoughts.

It was really fascinating to read this book a third time; I almost never re-read books and this may be the only book I’ve read three times in adulthood (well, maybe The Phantom Tollbooth?). In my first reading, my big takeaway from the novel was the insane, convoluted path the case took to the absolutely frustrating ending. Throw-the-book-across-the-room frustrating. Uggggh. In the second reading, I made a point of looking for all the hints and clues French left pointing toward said ending, and oh my goodness there were so many.

So I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this reading — what could possibly be left to interest me for 400-some pages? Lots, actually. This time around I found myself drawn to Rob Ryan’s constant refrain of “I’m a liar” and “I am not to be trusted” and noting the holes in his narrative. How did he really feel about Cassie? Why was he so set on remaining on this case? What the heck really happened in those woods all those years ago? My book-club-mates came up with some ideas for that last one that I hadn’t thought of through three entire readings, and that I would have dismissed out of hand after two of them, but now I am definitely wondering. Darn you, unreliable narrator!

The other thing I noticed more in this reading was French’s devotion to the setting. I wasn’t really versed in Gothic literature until well after reading this book the first time and maybe even after the second, so I kind of didn’t pay any attention to the fact that the Knocknaree woods are practically a character in their own right, hiding secret castles and spiriting away children and becoming an obsession for more than one otherwise-rational dude. At first, French’s attention to detail frustrated me a bit, as I was like, dude, I forgot how long this book is and book club is coming faster than I anticipated and let’s just get back to the horrifying murder, ‘kay? But then her gorgeous writing won me over and I was happy to let her words wash over me late, late into the night so that I could finish the book in time.

I warned one of my book clubs that they were all going to hate the ending, as there is absolutely no way to finish this book the first time and not want to punch one or more fictional characters right in the face, and at the meeting they were all like, you were SO right. But it’s a testament to the strength of French’s writing that half of them were excited to hear that there were more books to read and more ridiculous murders to solve (or not solve, as the case may be).

The fact that I was willing to read the book three times is also telling, although there is very little that would compel me to go for four. I actually liked this book better the second time around, when I could see all the awful coming and note how skillfully French made it impossible to see the first time, but on a third reading it became less of a fantastic story and more of a piece of literature to be broken down and analyzed and while it was a fascinating read, it just wasn’t as fun as I remembered. Luckily French continues to provide me new things to read, including this fall’s The Secret Place (which I am SO EXCITED about omg), so I can get back to having fun very soon!

Recommendation: For those who’ve bought a hard copy ready to be thrown across the room and those who love a great turn of phrase as much as a great plot twist.

Rating: 8/10 this time, but grudgingly.

A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick

A Reliable WifeA disclaimer — I read this for a book club and put it off so long that I literally finished the book in the parking lot of the restaurant where we had our book club meeting. So I may not have been paying the closest attention to the book or the ending and therefore I may have missed all the parts that made this book a beloved bestseller.

Because, yeah. I definitely do not get the appeal of this book. I will grant that the premise is interesting — a fella advertises for a reliable wife, procures a lady allegedly such and also allegedly willing to spend her life in Practically Canada, Wisconsin, but then it turns out that not only are these facts false, but both parties have some ulterior motives for this seemingly innocent transaction. I suppose I should mention that the book takes place in the early 20th century, so the whole advertising-for-a-wife thing is not as weird as it could be.

Part of the problem I have with this book is that the premise invites intrigue and mystery and perhaps some plot, but it’s one of those gothic novels that is more about how snow-covered Practically Canada is and how pretty flowers are and blah blah imagery blah. And yeah, sometimes I like me a gothic novel but this one was just not holding my interest at all.

And I think that’s probably because Goolrick goes for the twist, like, every chapter, and sometimes the twists are “twists,” like, yeah, saw that coming, and sometimes the twists are so completely outlandish that I’m like, “WHAT.” and I just have to go on with my day and not think about it because it will just make my head hurt. I mean, really, let’s make our twists actually consistent with the rest of the book, yes?

I was also let down by the characters, none of whom I liked or really cared about at all. There were a few moments in the story that might have been touching or sad or even just interesting had I felt like I had any connection to the characters involved, but instead I was just left baffled by their actions.

Yet somehow I managed not to hate this book as so many in my book club did. I suppose I’ve read enough gothic novels to know to appreciate the descriptions and recurring themes, and an undergraduate English class could certainly have a field day analyzing the way the characters keep mimicking each other throughout the story. The book’s got its merits certainly, but strictly on the basis of sitting down and enjoying a good read? This is not that book.

Recommendation: For fans of the gothic and maybe book clubs (like mine) whose members like to complain about things?

Rating: 4/10

Who Slashed Celanire’s Throat?, by Maryse Condé (13 May — 18 May)

Note to Mary: If the next book recommended by you that I read has even one person dying in it, I’m going to consider this a trend.

To everyone else: Remember how I read this book and I was all, “suddenly everyone and his sister wants to kill someone else”? Well, even if they had, there still wouldn’t be as many deaths as happen in this book! But, luckily, these deaths aren’t quite so graphic as Zola’s.

Basically what happens in this book is that there’s a missionary called Celanire who shows up at a village in Africa conveniently soon (practically immediately after) the death of the man she was meant to work for, so she gets his job of running a home for “half-castes” — basically biracial children whose parent(s) don’t want that transgression running around underfoot. Celanire does awesome things with the home and also starts empowering women and also starts making moves on pretty much every sentient being in the town. There’s more to Celanire than meets the eye, which we find out in bits and pieces as we follow her from the Ivory Coast to Guadeloupe to Peru on her quest to set right some old wrongs.

It’s not really a page-turner, as they say, but Condé kept me interested in the book’s big questions: Who is this Celanire? Who slashed her throat, and why? What kind of person would allow that to happen? Just how exactly does karma feel when it comes back to bite you? How much weird shit can Celanire get away with?

Rating: 8/10
(Support Your Local Library Challenge, Orbis Terrarum Challenge: Guadeloupe)

Audiobook Round-up

I got back last night from a week-long camping trip in Alabama, which was awesome. Less awesome is all the internet catching-up I have to do!

Because of the twelve-hour drive, I decided to collect a bunch of audiobooks from the library’s fancy-pants online trove of such things. Scott loves them, but I’d never given them a real try. Now I have, and… well. I was right — I can’t focus on an audiobook to save my life. So. No ratings (or even decent reviews) for these until I read them proper, but here’s the list of things I listened to in the car last week.

Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits, by Dave Barry (22 March)
This is a 1988 collection of Barry’s columns, which shows in all his talk about Reagan as president! I like Barry, so I enjoyed listening to this hour-long book while I tried to stay awake (we left home at 6am!). Bonus points for having John Ritter as a narrator.

More of Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits, by Dave Barry (22 March)
I can’t seem to find this listed anywhere but fancy-pants online troves of audiobooks, so this is possibly audiobook-only. Unsure. Anyway, this is the 1996 collection of awesome columns. Still entertaining. Still narrated by John Ritter. Still capable of keeping me awake, if not listening properly.

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde (28 March — 29 March)
I knew the general idea going in, of course — Dorian Gray has a painting that ages while he stays young. That turns out to be a gross over-simplification of this novel, which deals with heavy themes of morality and ethics and deception. Gray likes his painting at the beginning, but as it ages and the bad things he’s done show up in it he comes to loathe it. And his loathing of it has him doing even more bad things that show up in it. And all the while he has an angel-friend telling him how good he is, and a devil-friend spouting off ridiculous (even to him) notions of how the world works. I definitely enjoyed this book, but I will have to go back and read it to pick up on the hour or two I missed of it!

(Support Your Local Library Challenge)

The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield (25 October — 29 October)

One last book for the RIP Challenge before it ends! This one was on my original list, but I didn’t think it was going to make it here in time for Hallowe’en. Luckily, it did, and I quite enjoyed it, though I thought it was going to be more scary than gothic. Alas.

The Thirteenth Tale is two stories — the main story is that of Vida Winter, a prolific author à la Stephen King or Jodi Picoult, who is dying and wants to tell someone her true life story. The second is that of Margaret Lea, the woman Vida chooses to be her biographer, who is slowly coming to terms with the secret of her twin lost at birth.

The secondary plotline I don’t care for much, but Vida Winter’s tale is incredibly engaging. Born into an incredibly dysfunctional family, she learns to cope with a lot of insanity and hide a few dozen secrets in the process.

I recommend this book for Vida’s story alone; even though I figured out the twist halfway through I still didn’t know how they’d pull it off. Well told, Setterfield.

Rating: 7/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2006, RIP Challenge)