mystery · review

Under the Harrow, by Flynn Berry

27246107Flynn Berry’s lightning fast and devastating novel, Under the Harrow, begins with Nora walking into the most horrific scene that anyone can blunder into. Nora is planning to spend the weekend at her sister’s house, only to walk in to find that her sister has been brutally murdered. The book never lets up after this shocking discovery and we ride along as a grief-stricken Nora tries to find out who did it.

Nora is, obviously, a wreck when the police start to ask her questions. But she is able to give the police a lead or two. She tells the lead detective about Rachel’s assault as a teenager and how they used to try to find out who did it. Maybe that man came back, she suggests. But then, Nora also sees red flags everywhere. While the police follow the evidence, Nora follows hunches and bits of memory. She asks the police to look into a local man she finds creepy. She leads them to a stalker’s hideout near Rachel’s house.

As she investigates on her own, Nora finds out that she didn’t know her sister as well as she thought she did. This is a brief book, but it is absolutely jam-packed with red herrings and twists. It’s truly astonishing how much Berry packs into this story. Not only is this book crammed with plot, but it’s also deft in its portrayal of the way grief can derail someone’s mind. Nora makes some bad decisions that are hard to witness; I wanted to yell into the book at her more than once. That said, Nora’s grief also makes her determined to make sure her sister’s killer is caught even when the police are ready to give up and wait for new evidence.

It’s not unusual for detectives to be under some kind of emotional duress in fiction. They might have a drinking problem or family pressures that keep them from being totally focused on the case. Some, like Jo Nesbø‘s Harry Hole, have emotional and physical baggage. But I’ve never see a mystery from the perspective of the relative of a murder victim. That perspective makes Under the Harrow one of the most effective murder tales I’ve ever encountered.

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literary fiction · review · short stories

The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories, by Teresa Solana

39857325Teresa Solana’s collection, The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories, is one that rewards readers who have a twisted sense of humor. Peter Bush’s translation preserves every twist of each story, as well as maintains Solana’s sly portraits of characters who are hilariously oblivious to what’s going on around them, ones who are more than willing to eliminate people for the slightest gain, and the ones who are just plain unlucky. I had more fun with this collection than I probably should have.

Some of the standout stories from this collection are:

“The Son-in-Law.” This story is one of my absolute favorites in the collection. In this story, an elderly mother calmly receives a pair of mossos (the Catalan term for the Barcelona police) in her apartment as they ask about her missing son-in-law. It isn’t long before the mother tips us readers in on what really happened to the man and were he can be found. I love this story because of the mother’s sheer gumption.

“Still Life No. 41.” This story made me laugh the most. It spins out a old joke about modern art—that no one really understands what they’re looking at—and turns it into the scandal of the art world. Here, a young director of a modern art museum laments how her career has been ruined by a mistake anyone could have made (according to her) involving a series of statues by an artist know for his high realism (including smells). After all, she thinks, who would turn down an extra statue by an artist in high demand?

“Happy Families.” The mansion in this story probably is cursed. It’s not just that it’s inhabited by two centuries of ghosts, it’s that everyone who comes into possession of the house is doomed to a short life and a bloody death. In other hands, this story could have been chilling and quintessentially Gothic. In Solana’s hands, however, we have a bunch of ghosts who are choosy about their post-life company. When the house changes hands and they catch wind of a murder plot, the ghosts leap into action.

“Connections.” The later two-thirds or so of The Prehistoric Serial Killer are a collection within a collection. These linked stories share characters that are peripheral in one story but become lead characters in another. The first story in this little series introduces a typically self-absorbed teenager who has the bad luck to witness a murder. In the next, we find out who was murdered and why. The stories after that edge further away from that murder to reveal other crimes. My favorite is the blackly funny story about a woman who commits murder after murder to get away from the one thing she hates the most: opera.

I enjoyed The Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories very much—so much that I hope her other stories and novels are available in translation from Catalan. Solana never does the expected thing and isn’t afraid to play around with topics that others don’t see as fit for comedy. But then, I know I have a warped sense of humor. I would strongly recommend this collection for other readers who are also seeking stories that will make them laugh a little too hard at things they shouldn’t.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 4 September 2018.

historical fiction · metafiction · review

Atonement, by Ian McEwan

6867Novels that feature writers as protagonists almost always remind me of the fact that, when I read, I am essentially forcing myself to hallucinate based on inky squiggles on a piece of pulped tree. Reading is really weird when you think about it. And yet, I will still argue with every fiber of my being that stories hold truths. Ian McEwan’s Atonement is the most elegant expression of both the power of story to shape reality while also reminding us how powerful that story can be once it sinks its hooks into you.

Briony Tallis is the kind of character that I loved to hate. She’s incredibly selfish. She’s got control issues. She’s jealous of almost everyone in her family. Her desire to write just seems to make it all worse. The fact that she can’t control the living people around her the way she can the characters she creates frustrates her no end. Allowances might be made for her, given that she’s barely 13 years old when we meet her in the hot summer of 1935 at her family estate, but she has more power than any 13-year-old should. In her arrogance, she ruins two lives (possibly more).

The first half of Atonement tells the story of the bare handful of days that summer that changed everything. We see Briony putting the finishing touches on her dreadfully baroque novel, then getting annoyed with the lack of enthusiasm from the visiting cousins she’s pressed into service as actors. We also see her sister, Cecelia’s frustration with her place at home. She’s at the awkward age where she’s struggling to become an independent adult while her parents imagine that she will follow the path of marriage and motherhood. Meanwhile, Cecelia and an old family friend, Robbie, realize that they are in love with each other. As the reader, we have a broader view than any of the characters. We know what’s really going on in the scenes that Briony consistently misinterprets. Plus, Briony is telling us the story from much later and she is liberal with the hints that she does something terrible and unforgivable that summer. The tension is almost unbearable while I waited to find out what she did.

The last half of the book tells the story of what happened to Robbie just before the Dunkirk Evacuation and to Briony as she learns how to be a military nurse. Then there’s an extended epilogue that turns everything we’ve read on its head. To say anymore would ruin the effect of the book, so I’ll stop with the plot summary.

Atonement is the kind of book I absolutely adore. Not only are the characters so fully realized that I could see them in my head (although sneaky peeks at the imdb listing for the 2007 film didn’t hurt) and the setting so well drawn that I felt like I was wilting in the summer heat along with the characters, but it also plays around with story in ways that I just love. Because Briony, even as a child, is a writer, she is constantly thinking about the best way to tell a story. How should it end? What should the reader think and feel after reading that story? Ultimately, she wonders if a great story can overwrite the appalling thing she did. Through her story, she is asking us to forgive her, if we can.

I read this book is great big gulps over the course of one day. It is so well done, so masterfully constructed, that I completely agree with the hype that surrounds it. The critics are right about Atonement. Some readers may be annoyed with some of the more obvious writerly touches (echoes, very pointed letters, etc.), but those touches were catnip for me. I enjoyed the book so much I’m a little reluctant to return it to the library. I kind of want to put it on my shelf so that I can reread it whenever I like and see McEwan at work through fantastically awful Briony. Before I reread Atonement, however, I need to let the bruises on my heart heal first. This book packs a hell of a wallop.

historical fiction · metafiction · review

Mary B, by Katherine J. Chen

36505861Some readers are going to hate Katherine J. Chen’s Mary B: An Untold Story of Pride and Prejudice. Its premise isn’t unusual. It is a retelling of the classic novel, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. There are dozens of other retellings, prequels, and sequels. Choosing to tell the story from the perspective of middle daughter, Mary, isn’t that unusual either. What is radically different is what Chen does with the other beloved characters of Austen’s novel.

Readers familiar with Pride and Prejudice will remember Mary as the very plain, socially clueless, serious middle daughter. She’s been caught between the lovely and vivacious older sisters who find true love and the silly younger sisters who seem determined to annoy the bejeesus out of everyone in the county. So far, nothing is different in Mary B. She tells us her version of events while the plot of Pride and Prejudice spins on in the distance.

What is different is that, in this version of the story, Mary falls in love. More, she falls in love three times. She tells us this early on in the book, so I knew that at least the first two loves wouldn’t last. I expect that most readers, especially if they identify as a woman and who read Pride and Prejudice for fun, found that they identified with one of the sisters. I doubt that anyone but me ever identified with poor, unlovely Mary. So I was delighted to see how full Mary’s life became once she is released from the bounds of her original story. I also really enjoyed seeing the excerpts of Mary’s first novel, a hilariously overwrought Gothic novel in the vein of Ann Radcliffe.

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Mary Bennett, as portrayed by Talulah Riley in the 2005 film. (Image via the Jane Austen Wiki)

Mary B is not just an atypical love story. It’s also the story of how Mary grows as a person, from someone who is frequently slighted and bears grudges, to a fully fledged woman who refuses to let anyone limit her. Even when she falls in love with a man and he with her, she will not follow the dictates of society. I was very surprised by the direction Chen took in the end. Readers who hold Pride and Prejudice as sacred, as I said, will definitely not like this book. Readers with open minds will have a much better time with this book.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley and Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 24 July 2018.

literary fiction · review

Cluny Brown, by Margery Sharp

29893549If you were to ask any of Cluny’s family members what’s wrong with her, they would tell you that it’s because she doesn’t know her place. If you were to ask Cluny, she would probably agree. She hungers for experiences and isn’t afraid to do anything that seems like a good idea. In Margery Sharp’s short novel, Cluny Brown, we watch the charmingly innocent Cluny take on a challenge that might help her find her place after at last.

When we first meet Cluny, she’s living in London with her uncle. She’s an orphan, but she’s making the best of it. She’s a delightful naïf who sometimes reminds me of a less destructive Amelia Bedelia. The day that she decides to take a call meant for her uncle and goes off to tackle an emergency plumbing job puts an end to get dreamy days in the big city. Uncle Arn takes his sister-in-law’s advice and sends Cluny into service. Because it’s 1938 and servants are thin on the ground, it’s not hard for her to get a job as a maid at a Devonshire estate called Friars Carmel. The idea is that the strict discipline of service will help Cluny settle down.

At first, it appears to be working. Cluny isn’t afraid of hard work and the fact that the estate is understaffed seems to appeal to Cluny’s scattered brain since she has to do a bunch of different jobs in a day. She even managed to form an attachment to a local chemist. But then, Cluny will be Cluny and, after spending all this time with her, I had to cheer. The world would’ve been a duller place without Cluny’s essential Cluny-ness in it. Meanwhile, the book is filled out with a Polish writer in exile who also doesn’t seem to know his place, a lovelorn future lord of the manner, and other denizens of Friars Carmel and the village.

I’ve read two other Margery Sharp novels, The Nutmeg Tree and Britannia Mews, and this one is my second favorite. It’s not quite as funny or as satisfying as The Nutmeg Tree, but it’s much zippier than Britannia Mews. I had a few problems with Cluny Brown that kept it from being a complete winner for me. I found the pacing to be off in places. Some of the book is slow and there’s a logjam of events right at the end of the book that seemed to come out nowhere. Cluny herself does a lot to rescue the book, though. She’s well worth the price of entry.

historical fiction · review

The King’s Witch, by Tracy Borman

36619965Frances Gorges is a bright, forthright, intellectually curious woman. Unfortunately, she was born at a time when those characteristics were not seen as feminine virtues. Tracy Borman’s novel, The King’s Witch, opens in 1603 and continues over the next couple of years as Frances gets into several kinds of serious trouble at the Court of James I.

All Frances wants is to be able to learn more about herbal medicine and live at her family’s estate in Wiltshire. She definitely does not want to marry a man picked out by her social climbing uncle or go to court. But because she’s an unmarried woman, she is at her uncle’s beck and call. She only gets to pleasantly languish at the estate before she is summoned to be a lady of the bedchamber for Princess Elizabeth. Frances might have been able to turn this into a pleasant life for herself it it weren’t for that uncle and the paranoid, witch-obsessed King James—and if it weren’t for the fact that she fell in love with an up-and-coming lawyer, Tom Wintour.

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James I, c. 1606
(Image via Wikicommons)

Frances is highly intelligent, but she’s not really a match for the politically savvy men who are fighting for dominance in James’ court. She’s barely at court for a few months before she’s accused of being a witch. She survives that by the skin of her teeth, only to get caught up on the fringes of the Gunpowder Plot. During her travails in the Tower of London as an accused witch, Frances has only herself to look out for. But after that, she grows fonder of her charge and of the lawyer Tom. It isn’t just her anymore. In the middle of potential treason, how can a powerless woman save everyone she has come to love?

The more I read The King’s Witch, the more I enjoyed it. I was on the edge of my seat as I flipped the pages because I had to know what would happen to Frances and Tom. I already knew from the rhyme (“Remember, remember the fifth of November”) that the Gunpowder Plot would come to ruin. Given how paranoid James was about Catholic plots and the supernatural—and how ruthless Borman is with her characters—the ending of The King’s Witch could have gone either way.

And I’m not saying which way it went. Interested readers will just have to find out themselves.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 3 July 2018. 

historical fiction · review

Dear Mrs Bird, by A.J. Pearce

36373413Blessed be the meddlers—but only the fictional ones who can’t actually meddle in your life. Perhaps its just that they’re fictional and there’s no way that their particular brand of obtrusive wackiness will never actually touch my life, but I dearly love to read about characters who mean well but tend to sow havoc when they try to help. These were my thoughts when I read the adventures of Emmy Lake in A.J. Pearce’s delightfully funny novel, Dear Mrs Bird.

When we meet her, Emmy has not yet become aware of her meddler status. She seems content as a soldier’s fiancée, legal secretary, and volunteer dispatcher for London’s air raid fire service. But then, she gets what she thinks is a once in a lifetime job opportunity: a job as a junior at a Fleet Street magazine. Unfortunately, this is not the first step to becoming a Lady War Correspondent (there are a lot of very British capital letters in this book). Emmy’s brand new job is as an assistant to the very bombastic and very old-fashioned advice columnist, Mrs Bird, at Women’s Friend. Since there aren’t any other job prospects, Emmy stays put, even though Mrs Bird is absolutely horrible. It isn’t long before Emmy is tempted to unofficially expand her job duties. Mrs Bird has a long list of topics for letters that are Unacceptable. She refuses to write about anything to do with adultery, sex, the war, and any adjacent topics. When she does answer a reader’s letter, her advice is as brisk as a cold shower with vinegar. So, Emmy starts to answer the letters herself.

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A man and a woman share a bottle of wine on Christmas Day, 1940, in a London bomb shelter.
(Image via WW2Today)

Dear Mrs Bird follows Emmy as she continues her subterfuge and Do Her Bit during the worst months of the Blitz. The language of the novel is very much Keep Calm and Carry On. It’s hard to get a sense of what Emmy and her fellow Londoners really feel unless you’re fluent in understated British English. As the Blitz continues, however, it gets harder for Emmy, her friends, and family, start to lose their stiff upper lip, just a little. The sadness makes this book feel more real, giving us a small taste of what life might have been like when you didn’t know if you might get bombed out or killed by the Germans.

It’s only a taste though, and Dear Mrs Bird has wonderfully funny language, a romance subplot, hilarious characters, and plenty of period detail for the history buffs among us. I really enjoyed reading this book. It scratched an itch I didn’t know I had since I read Cold Comfort Farmby Stella Gibbons, in which another character who is convinced of the rightness of her actions turns a community on its head. Perhaps the thing I liked most about Dear Mrs Bird is its sweetness. What inspires Emmy to answer that first letter is a deep empathy for a writer who has no one else to turn to, who needs a sympathetic ear and a kind word of advice.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 3 July 2018.