A Murderous Comfort or Murder, Most Foul?

Over the craziness of the past eighteen months, I’ve thought a lot about what I find comforting. I’ve shared some of those answers (here, here, here and here). But one thing has emerged as unexpectedly comforting. Murder. That’s right, cold blooded murder.

image credit: tvpassport.com

During lockdown I was bored and stressed (who wasn’t?) and I started randomly watching Murder, She Wrote. It felt like a sigh. It was exactly what my brain needed. For those who have never seen it, the TV series ran from 1984-1996. It stars Angela Lansbury as mystery novelist, Jessica Fletcher. Fletcher started writing mysteries for comfort herself, as a way to distract herself following the death of her husband. Her books became instant hits, and Fletcher became a worldwide bestselling author. She remains in her hometown of Cabot Cove, Maine, but travels extensively. And everywhere she goes, murder seems to follow. There are actually fan theories that Jessica Fletcher was the one whodunnit all along! I mean how else are we to account for the fact that people around her just seem to drop dead?

But kidding aside, watching a few episodes of the show got me thinking, and thinking got me googling. Angela Lansbury had played Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple in the 1980 film The Mirror Crack’d. The film flopped, and Lansbury was never asked to play Miss Marple again. However, it made the series producers think she’d be just right for the role of Jessica Fletcher. The two characters are very similar really. Both are older women (Fletcher is a widow and Miss Marple’s a spinster) who have a curious nature and a shrewd intelligence that helps them outwit both criminals and law enforcement officials. Both can latch on to a seemingly casual comment and use it to unravel a whole case.

image credit: agathachristie.com

That made me realize that I find Miss Marple very comforting too. So is it old lady detectives that I find soothing? Yes, but not just them. I started thinking about other mysteries I find comforting. Agatha Christie (not just Miss Marple), Murder, She Wrote, Midsomer Murders… Is it cozy mysteries that give me the comfort factor?

For those not aware, goodreads defines the genre as follows:

Cozies very rarely focus on sex, profanity or violence. The murders take place off stage, and are often relatively bloodless (e.g. poisoning), while sexual activity (if any) between characters is only ever gently implied and never directly addressed. The cozy mystery usually takes place in a small town or village. The small size of the setting makes it believable that all the suspects know each other. The amateur sleuth is usually a very likeable person who is able to get the community members to talk freely about each other. There is usually at least one very knowledgeable, nosy, yet reliable character in the book who is able to fill in all of the blanks, thus enabling the amateur sleuth to solve the case.

image credit: macmillanlibrary.com

Do the books and shows I’ve mentioned count as cozies? Yes and no. In the above examples, not all the sleuths are amateur. Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher are. But Inspector Poirot is a retired police officer. Not technically “on duty” but not an amateur either. In Midsomer Murders, a British TV series based on Caroline Graham’s Chief Inspector Barnaby series (which I haven’t read), the main character is the titular police detective. The setting of my comfort mysteries isn’t always a small town either. It is in Midsomer Murders, but Jessica Fletcher leaves Cabot Cove quite often. She’s solved crimes in big cities, remote islands, and everything in between. In some cases the suspects all know each other, but in some cases they don’t. They all have elements of the cozy dynamic though.

image credit: clearviewlibrary.org

I think most of us here can agree that murder is a very bad thing. (really, really hoping no one disagrees with that!) So why should watching a film or reading about murders being solved be soothing? Well, I think the importance lies in the being solved part of that sentence. Things on screen or on the page get pretty bad. An innocent (or not so innocent…) person(s) is murdered. People around them, usually the people the victim(s) trusted most, had reason to want them dead. Within the immediate pool of suspects and bystanders there are likely to be a number of secrets, lies and betrayals that will be uncovered. As a reader/viewer and armchair detective I don’t know who to trust. But from the first page, or the first image onscreen, I know it will all be uncovered. That’s not to say everyone will have a happy ending. But the case will be solved. I’ll know who was responsible, and why. It will make sense.

Over the last few years, I’ve felt like very few things make sense: the pandemic, civil unrest, ecological disasters… We can and should hold our lawmaker’s accountable. But we usually can’t look at any one person and say “it was all his fault.” Even in cases where there is a single perpetrator, we’re realizing that there are systems of circumstances that are involved in what they do. But a fictional mystery is comforting because it really is that simple. The killer did it. Maybe other people are culpable in some way too, or maybe not. Even if justice can’t completely be restored in these stories, something is usually set to rights at the end. There’s a sense of stability and a restoration of order.

In an article for Psychology Today, David Evans actually compares the way that murder mysteries work to the way that fairy tales work for children: “Several years ago, there was some very significant work that psychologists did, suggesting that the fairy tales children read have a very helpful effect on their emotional lives. The psychologists found that the fairy tales gave children a format that allowed them to deal with their fears and traumas and be less troubled by them.” He suggests that mysteries serve a similar function for adults. “Murder mysteries may give us hope by telling us stories that begin with evil events, but call forth the efforts of people who can rise to heroic heights and reassure us that, with great effort, evil can be overcome. We love murder mysteries because they are redemptive, they give us hope, and help us move from fear to reassurance.” Leaving aside the fact that I believe that fairy tales are appropriate for all ages (see here and here for more about that), and that fairy tales serve purposes other than just comforting children, I agree with what he’s saying.

There are certainly mysteries that don’t give comfort. If I want a mystery that will soothe me, I don’t look to writers like Gillian Flynn, Tana French or Stieg Larsson (in some cases, I’ll enjoy their work for other reasons, but comfort isn’t one of them.) But it’s nice to know that if I need to be soothed I can pick up an Agatha Christie novel, or turn on an episode of Murder, She Wrote.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Wish I Could Re-read For the First Time

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

August 24: Books I Wish I Could Read Again for the First Time

1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt– I wish I could read this again and not know what was coming. At the same time I’m really glad I read this for the first time when I did, because my high school English class was reading Crime and Punishment at the time. There are a lot of parallels and I appreciated the enriched experience in that way. I think it would hold up well to a reread though. I just wish I could recreate that experience of finding those parallels and getting excited.

2. Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier– Last year I reread this with a book club and I found myself really jealous of the members who were reading it for the first time and didn’t know what twists and turns lay ahead.

3. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie- The first time I read this I tried to read it as a detective and figure out whodunnit as I read. I wasn’t right, but I tried! I think I’d like the experience of reading it as more of a reader and going along with the story without trying to be two steps ahead.

4. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield– I remember staying up late into the night with this one, and feeling the thrill of surprise as the story unfolded. Those reading experiences are wonderful and rare.

5. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro– This one had a slowly building sense of dread as I realized what was happening. At the same time I kept hoping that I’d be proven wrong. That sense of building tension without a “reveal” (rather a gradual unfolding) is not something I encounter often.

6. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters -I read this book for the first time while I was on a train. At one point I got to a plot twist and I literally shouted, “Holy crap!” Out loud. It’s a rare book that makes me embarrass myself on public transportation.

7. The Other by Thomas Tryon- There was one twist in this book that I felt was really obvious. Once it was revealed, I felt like I was very smart, I’d figured the book out, and it was going to be disappointing. Little did I know there were other turns ahead! I think the initial twist as a sort of misdirection, so the reader wasn’t on the lookout anymore.

8. A Little Life by Hana Yanagihara- This one didn’t have any huge surprises in it, but I became so invested in these characters, for better or for worse (and often it was for worse.) I was legitimately worried about them it was a wonderful and stressful experience. I think it would hold up to rereads, though, because I know what’s coming for the characters and I can focus on other things without worrying about them so much. Just a note: I’m always hesitant to recommend this one without including a content warning, because some of the content is very difficult.

9. East of Eden by John Steinbeck -I honestly think I was too young for this the first time I read it. It’s on my to be reread list, and I think I’ll get a lot more out of it a second time, but I wish I was coming to it fresh.

Tag Tuesday: Amy’s Tea Book Tag

Today’s Top Ten Tuesday was

August 17: Favorite Places to Read

But I really only have about 3 preferred reading spaces. So I went with a Tag Tuesday instead. Annie’s Tea Book Tag seems made for me because I love books and I love tea. It was created by booktuber Amy at From A Dusty Bookshelf, but I can’t find the channel now. I discovered this tag on Zezee With Books.

DOUBLE BERGAMOT EARL GREY: A ROBUST, DEEP, INTELLECTUAL, AND FLAVOURFUL BOOK

The Quincunx by Charles Palliser is an interesting puzzle of a novel that feels thoughtful, but in a fun way. The plot is a Dickensian mystery involving a will, a hidden document, several unreliable narrators and a journey through 19th century England from the gentry to the poor, the provincial to the metropolitan, and back again. I think the words “robust” and “flavorful” made me think of it.
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TIM HORTON’S STEEPED: A BOOK YOU READ ON THE GO THAT YOU COME BACK TO AGAIN AND AGAIN

This is hard because usually books that I read “on the go” aren’t books that I return to again and again. One of the few exceptions is Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of A Common Reader. I think I read the bulk of these essays literally on the go: on public transportation and in waiting rooms and such. But I’ve returned to several of them several times since then.

MEYER LEMON: A TANGY, FAST-PACED READ; GONE BEFORE YOU’VE FULLY SAVOURED THE FLAVOUR

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty was a book I read in about two days. It kept me involved and guessing, though I’m not sure how much there really was to “savor.” It did pose an interesting moral dilemma for one of the characters though. I’m really not sure what I’d do in the same position.

CHAMOMILE LAVENDER: A RELAXING, CALMING LATE NIGHT READ

The Countess Below Stairs/ The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson (you might find it under either title) is a charming reverse Cinderella story.  It’s best read as a fairy tale (which in this case I mean in a soothing way, not a disturbing and subversive way!) It’s got madcap adventures and misadventures and a lot of charm.

LADY GREY: A SMOOTH, SUBTLE, CLASSIC BOOK; PERFECT FOR A SERENE WINTER MORNING

For some reason a winter morning suggests a mystery to me. I was thinking about doing a cozy mystery for this one (maybe that’s why I associate mystery with winter, the “cozy” suggests being curled up with a good book and a cup of tea on a winter’s morning!) but since it also says “classic” I was going to go with And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, since that’s an old favorite of mine. But then I decided on Murder on the Orient Express since that’s more winter-y.

ORANGE PEKOE: A POPULAR NOVEL THAT EVERYONE’S READ

I had a surprisingly difficult time with this one. Pretty much any book I think of, I’m sure someone could comment and say they haven’t read it! Also I didn’t want to do Harry Potter for a number of reasons. I’ll say The Hunger Games. As I said, there are people out there who haven’t read it, but it’s undeniably popular.

ENGLISH BREAKFAST: A BRITISH CLASSIC

Just one? For some reason I’m tempted to go with Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell. I guess I’d describe Gaskell as midway between Austen and Bronte with a bit of Dickens thrown in here and there. This is her final book and was never completely finished before Gaskell’s death in 1865. The ending was written by Frederick Greenwood. It was also made into a miniseries in 1999 that was pretty good.

CANADIAN BREAKFAST: A TITLE THAT TASTES A LITTLE LIKE ENGLISH BREAKFAST BUT READS LIKE THE NEW WORLD (AN EARLY CANADIAN OR AMERICAN WORK)

I almost did Anne for this (she’s like my Canadian BFF!) but I changed my mind and went for Emily of New Moon instead. She’s a bit darker in some ways, and less boundlessly optimistic, but I think I’m probably more like her than Anne (as much as I always love Anne!)

GREEN: A HEALTHY BOOK THAT FEEDS YOUR MIND

When I first read this, I stated trying to think of books about healthy food/exercise. Then I decided that was probably too literal (plus I couldn’t think of any!). I recently read a book in which Kate Bolick had an essay and that made me think back to her book Spinster: Making A Life of One’s Own. I think that book frames women’s choices (whatever they may be) in a really positive way. I wrote about it a bit here.

ICED TEA: A SWEET SUMMER TREAT, BREWED FOR THE LAZY BRIEF DAYS OF SUMMER

When I read the word “sweet” I immediately thought of Sarah Addison Allen. When I read “summer” I thought of Garden Spells, but The Sugar Queen is sweeter (and sugar themed) even though it’s set in winter.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books Set on Islands

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

This week’s topic was:

July 27: Books I’d Want With Me While Stranded On a Deserted Island

But since I did something similar recently, I decided to do books set on an island. To make it a little more challenging I decided not to use any obvious island books: so no Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe, Lord of the Flies, etc.

1. Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell– This was a childhood favorite about a 12 year old girl who lives alone on an island off the California coast for years. It’s loosely based on the true story of Juana Maria, the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island. There’s also a sequel called Zia, and I vaguely remember reading it, but have no memory of the actual content of that one.

2. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton – Is it strange that I don’t really think of this as taking place on an island? I guess the dinosaurs commend attention more than the location! But actually the fact that it takes place on an island is important because it’s means that a) it’s an isolated location (so the dinosaurs don’t threaten the rest of the world) and b) the characters can’t get away so easily.

3. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray – I said I wouldn’t count Lord of the Flies, and I didn’t but I will count this satire. It’s sort of an all female version of Lord of the Flies meets Lost meets America’s Next Top Model meets Pirates of the Caribbean.

4. Foe by JM Coetzee – This one is also strongly inspired by a book I wouldn’t allow on my list, in this case Robinson Crusoe. It’s about a woman who was supposedly on the island with “Cruso” she tells writer Danie Foe her story.

5. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie – Here’s another one that I don’t usually think of as being an “island book,” even though the island setting it pretty important to the plot.

6. Circe by Madeline Miller- A lot of the action of this novel takes place on Aiaia, the island where Circe has been banished by Zeus. But she makes the place a home, and it becomes sort of an extension of Circe’s powers as she uses things growing on the island to make spells.

7. The Magus by John Fowles– This is another book I don’t often think of as being on an island. In this case I think it would work in any isolated spot cut off from outside influence.

8. The Beach by Alex Garland – This one is also strongly inspired by Lord of the Flies, but since it’s not Lord of the Flies, it counts. I’m actually not the biggest fan of this book (just not really my taste), but it does fit the list…

9. Moloka’i by Alan Brennert- This book opens in Honolulu in the 1890’s and then moves to Kalaupapa, the leper colony on the island of Moloka’i. There’s a sequel, called Daughter of Moloka’i but once again this moves the action away from the island.

10. The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve – This is a dual timeline novel set on the island of Smuttynose in New Hampshire. One timeline is contemporary and one follows murders that happened in 1873

Honorary Mention

Anything by LM Montgomery– Most of her work is set on Prince Edward Island. I didn’t include any in the list because I couldn’t settle on just one.

Top Ten Tuesday: Snowy Books

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday: It’s late today, but it’s still Tuesday!:

December 8: Holiday/Seasonal Freebie (holiday books/covers/titles, wintry reads, snow on cover, cool color covers, takes place in cold settings, cozy scenes on cover, etc

Last year I listed books that were set during/about the December holidays. This year I’m just going for snow. Snow plays a significant part in all of these books. Maybe I’m just thinking snow because my upcoming book is very snowy (I had to get a bit of Shameless Self Promotion in there!)

1. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey– Jack and Mabel are a childless couple, struggling to make a home in 1920 Alaska; a brutal environment. In a rare moment of levity during the first snowfall of the season, they build a child out of snow. The next day the snow child is gone, but they discover a little girl, who calls herself Faina. Faina seems to survive alone in the Alaskan wilderness. They come to love her like their own child. This retells a fairy tale, but in a very elegant way. It feels very grounded in the realities of the Alaskan homestead.

2. Light on Snow by Anita Shreve– Twelve year old Nicky Dillon and her father discover an abandoned baby in the snowy woods near their home in New Hampshire. They rescue the baby and bring it to a nearby hospital. Then Nicky and her father, a grieving widower, settle in for a bleak Christmas. But as the snowflakes from the season’s first blizzard begin to fall, a young woman turns up at the house, claiming she wants to purchase a table from Nicky’s father (he builds furniture). It soon becomes clear to Nicky and her dad that this girl is the baby’s mother. She faints, and by the time she comes to, Nicky, her father and the girl are snowbound. Will Nicky’s dad turn the girl in to the police for abandoning her baby in the cold? Nicky soon becomes drawn to the girl, who she sees as an older sister/mother figure, creating a tense emotional situation for all three characters.

3. Whiteout by Ken Follett– Maybe not the best to read during a pandemic, this thriller is about what happens when a canister of a deadly virus goes missing from a Scottish research lab. The lab’s security director, and several people (all with something to gain or lose from the drug they’re creating to fight the virus) take shelter in a remote house during a Christmas Eve blizzard.

4. Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin– This story brings us to a slightly alternate version of the Belle Époque in New York City. In this version the city is bombarded by blizzards. One freezing night, a thief called Peter Lake, breaks into a mansion where meets and falls in love with a young woman who is dying of consumption. The harsh winter is a death sentence for her. But Peter will do whatever he has to, to change things.

5. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton– Ethan Frome is married to Zeena, a hypochondriac. Her marriage to Ethan is unhappy and both are bitter. When Zeena’s impoverished cousin, Mattie, moves in with them, Ethan falls in love. This book has a key scene involving sledding, so I’m counting it. (Also it’s set in a snowy Massachusetts winter)

6. Icebound by Dean Koontz– I read this one a long time ago, but I do remember snow and ice! It’s about a group of scientists (scientists seem to have bad luck with snow in thrillers!) in the Arctic. They find themselves stranded on an iceberg. A massive explosion is hours away (they’re blowing up the iceberg for sciencey reasons I think…) and if that wasn’t bad enough, one of them is a murderer. I know the plot is rather farfetched, but it’s just fun!

7. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie- Snow foils what should have been the perfect crime when an avalanche stops the Orient Express in it’s tracks- just before a passenger is found dead in his berth. There are 13 potential suspects on the train, and no one can get away, but all have seemingly perfect alibis. What’s a detective to do?

8. Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg– This one is also sort of hazy in my memory, but I remember that Smilla was half Inuit and she was raised in Greenland, where she became very intuitive about snow. As an adult, she works as a scientist who studies different types of snow. When her six year old neighbor dies from a fall of the roof of their apartment complex, the police think he had an accident while playing. But seeing the tracks that the child left in the snow on the roof, Smilla knows that isn’t what happened. She suspects murder, but the police don’t want to hear it. So Smilla investigates for herself.

Top Ten Tuesday: Numbers In the Titles

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday

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October 1: Book Titles with Numbers In Them (You could really challenge yourself and do numbers 1-10 or just any numbers at all. Submitted by Emma @ Words and Peace)

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Three Blind Mice by Agatha Christie – I can’t remember if I read this one…

Tales of A Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume – Is this cheating because it’s “fourth” rather than “four”?

Five Children and It by E. Nesbit

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid- Haven’t read it yet but it’s on my TBR

Seven For A Secret by Lyndsay Faye– Also on my TBR. It’s a sequel to  The Gods of Gotham.

The Eight by Katherine Neville

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty– Never read this one but I’ve liked some of Moriarty’s other work so maybe I’ll put it on my TBR.

The Woman in Cabin Ten by Ruth Ware

 

 

Top Ten Tuesday: Cozy Winter Reads

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

December 4: Cozy/Wintry Reads (Make this prompt suit your current season if needs be.)

There’s nothing I love more than curling up under a blanket with a good book and some hot cocoa while the snow is falling outside. Here are my favorite cozy winter reads:

51lz9ueudjl-_ac_us218_1. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie- Hercule Poirot is on a train that is trapped by an avalanche, just before a passenger is found murdered. Poirot is on the case and the thirteen other passengers in the car are his only suspects. The only problem is that they all have both an excellent motive and an airtight alibi. Just an FYI, the recent film changes some elements of the ending, so even if you’ve seen that, you may still be surprised.

51mxt4oifll-_ac_us218_2. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden- Vasilisa grows up in a home in the Russian wilderness that’s snowed in each winter. She spends the season with her siblings listening to their nurse’s fairy tales. When her mother dies, her father brings a new wife home from Moscow. Vasilisa’s stepmother is religious and won’t allow the family to honor the household spirits as they always have. Though the family acquiesces to her wishes, Vasilisa suspects that this decision will have grave consequences in this re-imagined Russian fairy tale.

41d0oywr9zl-_ac_us218_3. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey- A childless couple in Alaska in 1920 indulge in a bit of silliness on the night of the first snowfall. They build a child out of snow. The next morning, the snow child is gone but Jack and Mabel start to catch glimpses of a little girl, running through the trees. This child seems to survive alone in the Alaskan wilderness. Is she their snow child come to life or are her origins more mundane? Jack and Mabel come to love this girl, whom they call Faina as if she were their own. But will they be able to care for her as they would a normal child?

51qgclwqxal-_ac_us218_4. Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin– This is kind of a love it or hate it book (though don’t judge it on it’s bizarre film adaptation!). In New York City at the turn of the 20th century, Peter Lake attempts to rob a mansion that he thinks is empty one cold, winter night. It’s not empty. Beverley Penn, the daughter of the house is there, dying of consumption. They fall into a love so powerful that Peter, an uneducated thief will embark on a quest to stop time, bring back the dead and cure disease. It’s full of symbolism and beautiful writing, but some readers will find it overlong and indulgent.

51c-asvgcil-_ac_us218_5. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield- I read this one snowy day, and I’ll always associate it with winter for that reason. Vida Winter (is the name a coincidence?!) is a reclusive author who has made up stories about her life, but hidden the truth of it. Now that she’s old and sick she hires biographer Margaret Lea to tell her true story. It’s a tale of gothic strangeness, and a ghost, a governess, twins, a topiary garden and a house fire.

 

218weryp6kl-_ac_us218_6. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton– The title character of this slim novel is a farmer burdened by a barren farm an a hypochondriac wife, Zeenia. When Zeenia’s cousin, Mattie visits, Ethan falls in love with the warm girl who is everything that his wife is not. But his attempts to escape with Mattie may doom them all to a cold life on Ethan’s unproductive land.

 

518ejevmohl-_ac_us218_7. The Woman in the Window by AJ Flinn- Anna Fox is an agoraphobic who spends her days in her Harlem townhouse drinking wine, watching old movies and spying on her neighbors. When she witnesses a  murder in one of the their houses, the police don’t believe her (she’s a drunk with a history of psychological issues). We learn more about the chilly roots of those issues, and the mysterious events of that happened in her neighbors house, as we read.

517vbd5d37l-_ac_us218_8. Still Life by Louise Penny– There’s been a murder in the tiny town of Three Pines, a rural village just south of Montreal. When Inspector Gamache and his team arrive, everyone assumes that middle aged artist Jane Neal was killed in a tragic hunting accident. But Inspector Gamache soon discovers that Three Pines is hiding some dark secrets. While the village seems cozy and the food is described as yummy, the murders would probably keep me from wanting to move to Three Pines.

51zrrxlch9l-_ac_us218_9. The Loop by Nicholas Evans- In Hope, Montana, a Rocky Mountain ranching town, a pack of wolves has emerged and reawakened a tension that existed a century ago between humans and wolves. Helen Ross is an environmentalist who is sent to Hope to protect the wolves. Her mission brings her into conflict with Buck Calder, a brutal but charismatic rancher, as well as his son, Luke, with whom Helen begins an affair.

 

51laj9fuhcl-_ac_us218_10. A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick– In 1907 Wisconsin, 58 year old Ralph is waiting for his mail order bride to appear. He put out a classified ad, and is expecting his new wife at the station, but with Catherine Land gets off the train she’s not at all what he expected. She has plans to slowly poison Ralph and leave Wisconsin as a wealthy widow. But on Ralph’s snow bound estate, he reveals to Catherine that he’s a man with secrets and plans of his own.

 

 

Top Ten Tuesday: Books To Break A Slump

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

August 21: Books to Pull You Out of a Reading Slump

We’ve all had reading slumps. Those times when you’ve read several disappointments and you’re having trouble losing yourself in something new. Here are my suggestions to help get your reading rhythm back.

41wjujfmkyl-_ac_us218_1. Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman– Instead of trying to dive into another novel right away try this excellent book about books. Fadiman’s essays are short and easy to digest. It’s perfect for dipping into in small doses, and as a bonus, she might discuss a book you’ll want to tackle next.

 

 

51wdp-epb5l-_ac_us218_2. Up The Down Staircase by Bel Kauffman– This book about a first-year NYC high school teacher tells its story entirely via letters characters write to one another, memos, and papers found in desk drawers or in the trash. That format makes it a very quick read. You plan to just read one note that one student passed to another, but the next thing you know you’re halfway through the book.

 

51s4merpcjl-_ac_us218_3. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie– The plot here has been done many times: ten strangers are invited to an island where they’re killed one by one. But Agatha Christie does it better than anyone. It doesn’t take long before the reader is along for the ride, trying to figure out whodunnit as the cast of possible suspects dwindles. Once that happens it’s hard to let go!

 

51wyqwsukzl-_ac_us218_4. No Angel by Penny Vincenzi– A 700 pager might not seem like the thing to get you out of a reading slump, but this saga of a wealthy British family is the kind of thing that just sweeps you up with it. While you read it, you’re immersed in this soap opera-ish world. There’s not a lot of intellectual depth, but who cares?  It’s a fun way to break a slump!

 

31yhicomrpl-_ac_us218_5. Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson– This is 1930’s era chick lit that’s lighter than air. While in some ways I prefer the film because it has more emotional heft, the book is perfect for times when you want something so frothy that you can almost float along as you read.

 

 

51wn17e1xil-_ac_us218_6. Nuclear Family by Susanna Fogel– This novel consists of humorous letters sent to the main character by members of her eccentric family and friends over the course of several decades. Each letter is short and funny. It’s hard to put down when you start reading and see that the next letter is called “The Gerbil You Drowned in 1990 Would Like a Word With You”, “Your Intrauterine Device Has Some Thoughts on Your Love Life,” or “Your Uncle Figured a Mass E-mail Was the Best Way to Discuss His Sexuality.” Each one is only a page or two (the whole book is less than 200 pages) so it’s quite possible to read this in one sitting.

51bugqmhyql-_ac_us218_7. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon– This is one that just draws you in from page one and you get caught up in the atmosphere and romance and mystery. It opens with a young boy whose father is taking him to a place called The Cemetary of Forgotten Books, from that point the boy grows up and tries to discover who is destroying all the works of a favorite author. The setting of the story is so vivid that when you put it down the real world sort of comes as a surprise!

41x7kokbrol-_ac_us218_8. The Secret History by Donna Tartt– The main character of this book becomes sort of enthralled by a group of students at his college. Even though the reader has a sense that there’s something “off” about this clique we become engrossed in their concerns in the same way that the narrator does so that by the time things go off the rails, the reader is along for the ride.

 

51-xlyewull-_ac_us218_9. Crush by Richard Siken– I’m not usually a poetry reader. I mean there are poems and poets that I like but I’m not one to just dive into a book of poetry for hours. But that’s why it’s perfect for a reading slump! You can dip into it for a short time, read a full poem, and put it down (or continue if you choose!) and repeat as desired. It doesn’t require the commitment of a novel. I chose this one because Siken is one of my favorite contemporary poets, but if you have another favorite go for that!

51dxbewzuil-_ac_us218_10. Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery- Another way to break a slump is to revisit an old childhood favorite, whether it’s Anne or Harry Potter, or something else. There’s something that’s comforting and familiar about revisiting an old love, and as you read you can remind yourself what made you fall in love with books in the first place.

 

Top 10 Tuesday: Books That Surprised Me

For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:

March 13: Books That Surprised Me (in a good or bad way)

For this one, I initially interpreted it as being for books that I liked but didn’t think I would, or books that I thought I would love and didn’t. But then I thought it might be fun to look at books whose plots surprised me in some way.

61g8cli07xl-_ac_us218_1. The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone– I remember being terrified of this book as a kid. Grover tells the reader that there’s a monster at the end of the book, and to stop reading before you get there. So I would always slam the book shut before the end (hey, if Grover’s giving advice, I’m going to listen!). One day my mom sort of insisted that we keep reading. I was absolutely petrified, wondering why she refused to listen to Grover’s warnings. I still remember the utter surprise when the monster was revealed.

41swp08eytl-_ac_us218_2. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters– This actually has several twists and turns that I wasn’t anticipating. But the one I’m thinking of here comes about midway through the book. It made me rethink pretty much everything that I’d read until that point.  I mean, I was reading it on a train and I literally shouted “Holy Crap!” when this happened. But even if you somehow manage to see that one coming, the plot twists yet again…

51c-asvgcil-_ac_us218_3. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield- This twist was a triumph of misdirection. I was focused on the happenings in the English country house and the crazy antics of the family. But all the time there was something else happening in the background, that I didn’t notice until it was pointed out. It gave me that feeling like the hairs in on the back of my neck were standing up. I think it’s sort of what Freud called “uncanny.” He used the term to refer to the sense of something familiar and intimate that has been distorted or changed somehow to become threatening, or tempting, or unknown.

51hytcoi7l-_ac_us218_4. Atonement by Ian McEwan– I’m really glad that I read this book before I saw the movie. While the twist in the movie is an additional scene added on, in the book, it’s revealed through the narration at the closing. It seemed more surprising that way, but less like a “trick.” One thing I liked about this ending was that the story can stand on its own, without it. It’s not one of those things where the entire narrative hinges on a twist. But it does add an additional layer to things.

51s4merpcjl-_ac_us218_5. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie– I’m a big fan of this title actually because there’s a clue in it, regarding the whodunnit. It’s about people who come to an island party and are murdered one by one. It’s only when there are none left that the twist is revealed and we learn who the killer is. We get to know each of the characters before they’re murdered. We learn that they all have secrets and that there might be someone out there who wants any one of them dead. Learning that backstory is entertaining in itself. But once the bodies start piling up, we see these characters in a stressful situation, and that reveals even more about them.

41ufepph-wl-_ac_us218_6. Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier– This twist was one I sort of saw coming because I knew that there was something off with the Max/Rebecca marriage. But I liked the ambiguity regarding the execution. It complicates things for the reader because we’re not 100% sure what we want to see happen next. The Hitchcock film (which I’m a big fan of) left fewer moral gray areas for the protagonists. That was most likely intended to make audiences sympathize with them, but I like being a little unsure of what I wanted to see happen, and what would feel like justice.

61ugxeeqibl-_ac_us218_7. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro– This is another one that I’m very glad that I read before seeing the film. On film, the important information is revealed in the title cards at the very beginning, and a character explains it explicitly in the first 10-15 minutes. But in the book, it’s a slow, gradual realization. There’s no big “reveal.” Rather it starts off as a suspicion that leaves the reader hoping that s/he is wrong about what’s going on. There’s a sense of dread that builds as s/he realizes that s/he’s not.

41tynpkim4l-_ac_us218_8. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton– The action of this book takes place as a sort of extended flashback. The unnamed narrator is spending the winter in Starkfield where he sees a figure limping around town, and inquires about this “ruin of a man.” We learn that the man is the title character, that he had a bitter, suspicious, hypochondriac of a wife and that he fell in love with her cousin, Mattie. This dilemma is eventually resolved in a way that gives all three characters what they wanted but in such a way that they no longer want it.

51nzvigpebl-_ac_us218_9. The Last Time They Met by Anita Shreve- This book ties into Shreve’s other novel The Weight of Water in an interesting way, that the casual reader of either book may not guess. But it’s easy to read one and fully appreciate it without reading the other. This book is about two lovers who meet at a literary festival. Then the novel moves backward in time, showing us a time that they met previously, and then it moves backward again, showing us their initial meeting. From there we see how they became sort of cursed to meet at different points in life (rather than spend it together) and to primarily discuss the last time they met each time they see one another.

518ktztx7ol-_ac_us218_10. The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty– This book is about a woman who finds a letter for her husband, that instructs her to open it only upon his death. It reveals something that has the potential to destroy their family and their lives. Except she finds it and opens it while her husband is very much alive. The first surprise is the nature of her husband’s revelation. I think that I was expecting him to tell her about an affair or something. But what he confesses in the letter doesn’t just affect their lives, but the lives of several other people too. It left me asking myself what I would do in that situation and unsure of the answer. Then, once everything is resolved at the end, the author gives some information that reframes everything that’s happened.

Top Ten Tuesday: Unique Book Titles

For The Broke and The Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesday

October 24: Top Ten Unique Book Titles: For this one I decided to go with titles that stood out and were very appropriate for the story they told. Oh, and actually there are only 9 this time!

41uffqdrfll-_ac_us218_1. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver– I liked that this almost seemed like a phone message or a note. It’s a conversation that happens many times in the book. But it’s not enough, and it’s not the conversation that needs to happen. We’re ultimately left wondering if things would have been different if that needed conversation had happened.

 

51s4merpcjl-_ac_us218_2. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie– The title here comes from a framed nursery rhyme in the bedrooms of the eight guests of Mr. Owen, on a remote island off the coast of England. As the guests start to die off, we’re left wondering whodunit, and making guesses by process of elimination. It’s only when there are no suspects left that the true killer is revealed.

 

51avlw-rakl-_ac_us218_3. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie– This book about the experience of Ifemelu, a Nigerian, who moves to the US to study. The title refers to a word that is used in Nigeria, meaning someone who pretends to have been Americanized or has been Americanized. It’s a word that deals with American identity from the outside; what a foreign culture perceives “Americanization” to be.  And the novel itself deals with Ifemelu’s discovery of what it means to be a person of color in the United States, and how race goes from something that wasn’t on her radar in Nigeria, to being a construct that she has to navigate on a constant basis.

51e1m-kbfkl-_ac_us218_4. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan– Goon squads were originally groups of thugs would beat up workers who tried to unionize. Later the word “goon” came to refer to any violent thug. This novel is really interconnected short stories that shift back and forth in time from the 1960s to the near future, as the characters are sent in different directions by life. So what is the “goon” here? Time? Life? Yes, to both I think.  The characters in the book that find happiness, do so in ways that were unintended, and the happiness is usually limited; an illustration of the goonish nature of things.

5180ubrqqzl-_ac_us218_5. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson– Merricat Blackwood and her sister Constance live in their family’s house with their uncle Julian, following the murder of their entire family, for which Constance was acquitted six years earlier. They’re the beginning of a local legend; the mysterious, slightly witchy sisters living forever in their “castle”. The secret they keep is about the true nature of the Blackwood family’s murder.

 

6. Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan– This book deals with a group of American tourists travelling from China to Myanmar. The story is told by the tour guide, Bibi Chen, who dies before the trip takes place and watches over the group as they travel. They’re kidnapped by the Karen people who believe that a teenage member of the tour group is their savior. The book is as absurd as the actions of the title suggests. It deals with the notion that well intentioned deeds can be so misguided that they might cause harm and vice versa.

41oieugca5l-_ac_us218_7. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey– This title also comes from a nursery rhyme.  We’re told that the narrator’s grandmother recited it to him. “One flew East, One flew West, One flew over the cuckoo’s nest.” The novel is set in a mental hospital in the early 1960’s; a time  when the Civil Rights movement was gaining traction, and changes were being made to the practice of psychiatry and psychology. There was a movement toward less institutional facilities, but the characters in the book are in a very traditional hospital. The “one” in the title who “flew over the cuckoo’s nest” is the one that doesn’t do pick a clear direction like the other two. The suggestion that the patients at the hospital are those who flew over the cuckoo’s nest, and were called crazy for not conforming.

51sb1fc4xl-_ac_us218_8. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer- This published in 2005. In some ways the US was still recovering from the horrors of 9/11. The nine year old protagonist, who lost his father in the World Trade Center, uses the words “extremely” and “incredibly” quite a bit in his narration. The words can certainly be seen as a witness’ description of the attacks, but the absence of a loved one to whom you felt close is also “loud”.

51rvjiougpl-_ac_us218_9. A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray– This title references a line in the book, but as a phrases it pretty much sums up the themes of the the book (which begins a trilogy). The main character, Gemma Doyle is a Victorian girl sent to boarding school, where she happens upon a secret society. Her daily life is structured and dictated but the secret society offers her power that Victorian England doesn’t. That power has the potential to be both great and terrible depending on who is using it and for what purpose.