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Posts Tagged ‘Sarah Waters’

bookxmasBrowsing through the year-end “best” lists, mostly I see all the books I have not read. This is not unusual — I don’t read as much or as widely as when it was my job. Now I have the luxury of time and choice, including rereading older books. But I have spotted some of my new favorites on others’ lists: the provocative Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, the fantastic The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman, the latest crime novels from Tana French, Megan Abbott and Laura Lippman. Still, while I liked Anthony Doerr’s historical novel  All the Light We Cannot See, which is at the top of numerous lists, I didn’t love it, not the way I loved Ward Just’s American Romantic, for example, or Sadie Jones’ Fallout.

Reading is such a subjective pleasure. I enjoy recommending books I’ve enjoyed or I wouldn’t continue writing this blog (going on five years, folks), but I don’t expect everyone to like everything I like. How boring would that be? I am gratified, though, when a friend thanks me for giving her a copy of  The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, which she hadn’t heard of but liked a lot. It’s fun, too, to exchange a virtual high-five with another blogger over Sarah Waters’ atmospheric The Paying Guests.  I pore over book lists all the time in search of titles I might want to read. The year-end round-ups are icing on the cake.

luckyusSo, my TBR/Dear Santa list is long and getting longer. David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank with You (I’ve been crushing on Frank Bascombe since The Sportswriter). Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. Celeste Ng’s Everything I Want to Tell You. Mary Higgins Clark and Alafair Burke’s The Cinderella Murder. Already in hand are Michael Connelly’s Burning Room, Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress, Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May and the Bleeding Heart, Delia Sherman’s Young Woman in a Garden: Stories. And I’m about a third of the way through Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl because as much as I like her confessional essays, I can only take them in small doses.

This TBR list doesn’t include all the ARCs and digital galleys of books to be published in 2015. Yes, I’ll start summer reading this winter. Lucky me.

Which brings me to Amy Bloom’s wonderful whirligig of a novel, Lucky Us (Random House), which came out the end of July when I was learning to walk on my new hip. My digital galley expired long ago, so I checked it out of the library a couple weeks ago. It was on some best-of-summer lists, and it has one of my favorite covers of the year. But it’s Bloom’s picaresque tale of two half-sisters, Iris and Evie, during the Depression and World War II that makes it one of my 2014 favorites. The plot pops with surprises, the setting shifts from the Midwest to Hollywood to Brooklyn to wartime London, and the cast — the sisters, their con-man father and the flamboyant friends who become part of their makeshift family — is neon-colored. I think you’ll like it.

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When things go bump in the night at my place, it’s usually because a pet or a person has dislodged a stack of books. Just as well. “Haunted condo” doesn’t have the same ring as “haunted house.”

I like my haunted houses old, large and creepy, preferably in Britain, but a Southern mansion will do the trick. The ghosts may or may not be “real,” but someone will think they are. The past will impinge upon the present in unforseen ways. One of my favorite haunted houses is Manderley in Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, where spooky Mrs. Danvers asks the young narrator if she believes the dead return to watch the living.

So I had high hopes for the decaying Warwickshire mansion known as High Hundreds, the setting for Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. I generally like Waters’ books (Fingersmith), and this one was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and recommended by Stephen King, who knows something about scaring the daylights out of readers.

But The Little Stranger, in which narrator Dr. Faraday, becomes involved in the diminished lives of the Ayers family — widowed mother, World War II-injured son Roderick, spinster daughter Caroline — is all repressed psychological suspense, owing much to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. A friend who has read neither book found The Little Stranger “a well-written non-story.”  I agree. Hundreds itself is a fascinating haunted house, but the tale is ultimately dispiriting.

Waters’ novel, which came out last year, did send me back to re-read 2007’s  The Minotaur by Barbara Vine, a master of literary suspense whether writing under the Vine pseudonym or as Ruth Rendell.  Here the setting is 1960s Essex and the vine-covered (!) Lydstep Old Hall, home to the seriously dysfunctional Cosway family. The narrator, young Swedish nurse Kerstin, arrives admittedly like a Bronte heroine to be confronted by a selfish matriarch ruling over four daughters and a troubled genius son, John. Kerstin, who is there to help look after the supposedly schizophrenic John, soon decides that drugging John into a zombie-like state isn’t doing him any good. Meanwhile, a dashing, penniless artist has arrived in the neighborhood and doesn’t seem to care which Cosway sister he’ll seduce.

It’s all as complicated as the library labyrinth at the center of the house where John seeks refuge. Vine spins a teasing narrative threaded with clues and leading inexorably to a shocking climax. You know something horrible is bound to happen, but not how or to whom. Disturbing and haunting. 

Open Book: I received The Little Stranger (Penguin) as a Christmas gift and bought a paperback of The Minotaur (Knopf) after first reading a library copy.

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