Modern Lit: First Frost, by Sarah Addison Allenhile

First Frost (Waverley Family, #2)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First Frost is the sequel to Garden Spells, which introduced the Waverly women, who for generations have each possessed her own unusual talent. Garden Spells, which I read and reviewed back in 2008, was interesting enough, but for me stretched the bounds of credibility. First Frost, published last year, picks up the story of sisters Claire and Sydney, now settled into marriages, family life, and careers. While they find themselves generally happy and fulfilled, both women have a strong sense of unease. When a strange man shows up in town, the unease grows first into foreboding, and then into a full blown conflict of identity. Claire and Sydney each take comfort in the hope that, once the first frost of autumn occurs, they’ll be able to resolve their misgivings.

The strength of this book for me lies in its skillfully drawn characters. Claire and Sydney are intelligent, capable women who quite literally live and learn and grow from their experiences. Their husbands, daughters, and friends are equally genuine and appealing, especially Sydney’s daughter Bay who is in the throes of first love. The plot is well organized around the issue of identity, with descriptive passages that highlight the author’s skill with words. More restrained now are the hints of magic that flow through the story are more restrained than in the first book, and for me, work much better.

Although First Frost is not as outstanding as The Peach Keeper or The Sugar Queen, it’s certainly enjoyable and appealing.

It’s a Mystery: The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train 5 of 5 stars

Rear Window meets Gone Girl in The Girl on the Train, the debut novel of former journalist Paula Hawkins. Rachel Watkins is the eponymous girl, in actuality a 30-something divorcee still reeling from the breakup of her marriage, for which she takes the blame, all of it. Her ex, Tom, remarried instantly and now resides where he and Rachel lived with his new wife, Anna, and year old daughter. Rachel can’t stop herself from hounding them with tearful, demanding phone calls, most placed in the middle of the night. The novel’s plot revolves around what Rachel sees everyday on the train to London, which passes by the back gardens of her former house and neighborhood. A strong first clue to Rachel’s state of mind lies in the fantasy she spins out daily about a couple she observes having coffee each morning from the deck of one of the other houses. Another comes when it becomes apparent how much wine and gin she’s habitually drinking. Finally, we learn that Rachel is taking the train each day to preserve the illusion that she still has the job that she lost because of her drinking problem. One morning she sees the woman, Megan, kissing a man not her husband, and a few days later, Rachel’s shocked to learn that Megan has, as they say in the UK, gone missing. She offers information about that stolen kiss to the police, who consider her an unreliable witness, so she chooses to tell Megan’s husband, Scott.

Rachel is the protagonist in the story, as unreliable a narrator as ever conjured up in the pages of a book. As she becomes immersed in the mystery, she grows more and more unstable, and begins having vivid flashbacks to traumatic experiences that she doesn’t remember. Her point of view, mainly stream of consciousness, alternates with those of Megan and Anna, who are as grounded in denial as Rachel is. All three characters are profoundly disturbed, though at first it appears that Anna and Megan are more functional than Rachel. Tom and Scott, while having no narrator duties, show themselves to be abusive and manipulative. What makes The Girl on the Train so compelling is the remarkable way in which Paula Hawkins presents the interplay among the characters and the manner in which they tailor their perceptions and behaviors to suit their personal needs and self images. Sometimes we all delude ourselves, of course, but these characters have lost their own integrity and connection to reality. We never can tell quite what is lurking right under their facades. As their narratives come together during the latter chapters, the suspense becomes intense, more so because there hasn’t been a lot of warning (few telling slip ups here) and we aren’t quite sure how any of these people will react. Despite the dark, depressive atmosphere, which never really eases, there are glimmers of hope at the end, but this is no easy beach read.

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It’s a Mystery: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Gone GirlFatal attraction, two ways

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nick and Amy approached their marriage in the same way most Americans do, by trying their hardest to please each other and submerging any personality traits or personal desires that might be viewed as negative. According to comedian Yakov Smirnoff, who also has a master’s degree in psychology, “Falling in love is a chemical reaction. But it wears off in a year. That’s why you need a strong line of communication… which includes laughter.” Like many couples, Nick and Amy never considered the possibility that the chemistry would change, and when it did, they checked out of their relationship without ever trying to adapt. This story is related by two supremely unreliable, self absorbed narrators, Nick and Amy themselves, who haven’t the faintest clue how to confront and resolve their problems. When they reach the end of the rope during their 5th year together, Nick plunges into a secret affair and Amy devises a diabolical way to teach her husband the lesson she believes he needs to learn.

The plot of Gone Girl is a like the one in the old movie, Fatal Attraction, but Amy is a much smarter avenger than the Glenn Close character. As in Fatal Attraction, Amy has ample reason for her fury against her lying, cheating husband, which is certainly justifiable, but she goes way over the top in the way she expresses it without ever recognizing her own role in their crash and burn. Throughout the first three quarters of Gone Girl, Amy is far and away the crazy one. Then the pathology deep in Nick’s character begins to assert itself, and by the denouement, many other people undeservedly become collateral damage in their catastrophe. This is a creepy, amoral couple who clearly deserve each other. Gillian Flynn handles all this mayhem with flair and elegance. Her presentation of Nick’s take on the marriage when juxtaposed with Amy’s makes the reader wonder if she’s talking about the same relationship; there is not a breath of honesty to be found. And the suspense, which at times is agonizing, never comes to an end , not even when the book does. What starts out slowly becomes un-put-downable. Noir fiction at its best.

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It’s a Mystery: Fruitful Bodies, by Morag Joss

Fruitful Bodies

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The posh Sulis Clinic is the setting for the third Sara Selkirk mystery, all of which take place in the ancient spa city of Bath, England. A renowned cellist, Sara  spots her former music teacher amongst the audience at one of her concerts, and is dismayed to discover that now elderly Prof. Cruikshank has become a down and out alcoholic. Sara arranges for treatment at the Sulis, and becomes drawn to its charismatic director, Dr. Golightly. How the murder of a Japanese scientist becomes entangled with the affairs of the medical clinic sets the plot into action, and when a second death occurs among its patients, Sara, as is her wont, can’t resist trying to assist Andrew, the Chief Inspector who is now her lover.

As a mystery, Fruitful Bodies is interesting enough, but Sara should realize by now that her attempts to be helpful are merely inept meddling. As usual, she stumbles upon a clue that happens to be valuable, and in doing so, puts her own life in danger. This is a trope much overworked by many mystery writers, and it might be refreshing if there were no serendipitous escape. I’d like to see more about her own career, and would also like to see both Sara and Andrew take a more mature route to establishing their relationship. As things stand, I don’t see how that can happen, and for now, it’s the historic setting and the competent prose that keep me returning to this series.

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It’s a Mystery: The False Friend, by Myra Goldberg

The False FriendThe False Friend by Myla Goldberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A few years back a book was published about “mean girls”, the queen bees of junior high who are granted the power to decide who’s cool and who’s decidedly not. When 30 year old Celia Durst, now living and working in Chicago, notices a VW bug on the street, memories of her BFF, Djuna, and her early death, come flooding over her. Accompanying the memories are an acute sense of guilt, for Celia feels responsible for that long ago death. She immediately books a flight home to upstate NY, where she hopes to atone for her actions by confessing to her parents and the friends from her junior high clique. But no one believes her; their memories of the incident don’t match Celia’s.

The False Friend is about a woman’s search for the truth about who she was and who she now is. Narrated from Celia’s point of view, her slow and painful discovery about the child she really was opens questions about the slippery nature of memory and the motives for and the ways in which we wallpaper over the flaws in our own personalities. Celia is the only truly vivid character in the book, though Djuna’s mother comes close. The others, including her too good to be true, all-American boyfriend and her clueless parents, are basically window dressing. Some of the scenes are disturbing, even chilling. Ms. Goldberg is spot on in her portrayal of the social life and behaviors of 11 year old school girls. When the story approaches its close, it comes in the form of an imperfect ending, as imperfect as life itself, and for that reason, it’s very real.

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Thriller: The Whisperer, by Donato Carrisi

The Whisperer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Italian screen writer Donato Carrisi enters the serial killer genre with his first novel, The Whisperer, which has won multiple, well deserved literary prizes and has been published in multiple languages. The angle in which he presents this case is a fresh one, in which two criminology specialists join local police to track down a killer who has murdered 5 young girls and appears to have abducted an 6th. The perpetrator knows much more about the police than they do about him, and he delights in tormenting them with severed arms, dolled up corpses, and dead end leads. This main theme is surrounded by multiple subplots which involve individual investigators on the team, each as compelling and important as the main plot, and just as surprising. As a result, the reader experiences pretty much what the investigators experience. Furthermore, we are never informed as to where these crimes are taking place, though the atmosphere is more European than American; it’s easy, therefore, to understand the fact that this type of evil is universal. This is a tough book to enjoy, because of its horrific chain of evidence, but the constant cycle of dashed hopes, uncertainty, and psychological discoveries make it impossible to abandon. It could easily be the stuff of nightmares, but the writing is controlled enough to avoid turning it into a slasher movie. I wish I could have read The Whisperer in the original Italian, because while the translation is competent enough, you can tell that the translator is not a native speaker of English, and I suspect that some of Carrisi’s polish is dulled in places.

Recommended for readers interested in mysteries that challenge the intellect as well as grab and hold one’s interest. Not an easy book to forget, on par with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

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It’s a Mystery: Five, A Novel, by Ursula Archer

Five: A Novel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A refinement of letterboxing, geocaching is a popular worldwide hobby that involves using GPS to hide and find small containers holding a logbook and, often, a small object that the finder can trade for another small object of equal value. The location coordinates are provided on a listing website, where finders can post about their hunt.

In Five, the caches contain human body parts. A geocacher, dubbed The Owner by the Salzburg police, dumps a body in a cow pasture, with a sequence of numbers tattooed on her feet. The investigative team, led by Beatrice Kaspary, soon figures out that the numbers are GPS coordinates, and, led by a rookie who’s into geocaching, they manage to make their first gruesome discovery. Along with a bloody hand, the killer provides a riddle, which when solved, will lead the cops to the next victim. And the next… DI Kaspary and her assistant, Florin Wessinger, will come to realize that the victims knew each other, but that’s all they have to go on.

Gritty and suspenseful, Five is a complex mystery with a flawed but personable protagonist. She and Florin make an efficient team, and there are some strong hints that their relationship will develop beyond the professional. When it becomes clear that The Owner is watching her, Beatrice begins to fear for the safety of her children. It’s possible for the reader to narrow down the roster of possible perpetrators, but I wasn’t certain till the end which of the two I suspected was guilty. An original premise with plenty to captivate and entertain those who open the covers of this thriller. It may also encourage some to take up a new hobby!

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