Category Archives: mysteries

Idaho

9780812994049_p0_v4_s192x300   Emily Ruskovich’s Idaho is a shattering and thought-provoking story, centered on a complicated collection of characters, connected by a mother’s murder of her own child.  Reading to discover the motive brings no satisfaction; Ruskovich is more interested in the inner workings of each mind, not just the killer.  Learning of Rustovich’s O’Henry award prompted me to read Idaho, but no surprise ending here.  The story weaves in and out of lives, backtracking, going into the future, dwelling on the present.  At times, the circular pattern is hard to follow as each character is slowly revealed.

The cast of characters meander in and out of the story, with flashbacks to the central focus, the murder of six year old May and her older sister June’s running away from the scene – never to be found. Later in the story, artist’s renderings of June’s appearance as she might be at different ages adds to the strangeness.

Jennie pleads guilty to cutting off May’s head with a hatchet while May sang in the back seat of their truck.  She begs for a death sentence, but is sent away to prison for life.  There she meets Elizabeth, a younger woman who has murdered her boyfriend and the neighbor who witnessed it.  Jennie attends poetry classes and takes notes for Elizabeth, who has been banned from class for her attack against another inmate.

May’s father, Wade, has inherited his family’s penchant for early onset dementia – all males seem to succumb in their fifties.  Ann, a music teacher at the local school, gives Wade piano lessons – his effort to focus his mind to strengthen his oncoming memory loss.  Before too long, Ann offers to marry Wade to care for him as he declines.

Almost as an aside, Elliot, an older boy with one leg from a horrible accident at the school, has the attention of both Ann and June, who has a secret crush. Rustovich connects his life as a tangent to the main action – another lesson in life’s struggles.

Are you keeping up?  Amazingly, Rustovich intertwines the lives of all the characters, although not until the end does her clever weaving become apparent.  The murder may be the focus but it is not the point.  Jennie’s sudden act may have been a moment of anger, but more likely an unthinking inexplainable move of frustration in the moment.  The author never really worries about the horrible act; the murder just makes no sense.

“Whatever brought that hatchet down was not a thought or an intention. No, the hatchet caught on the inertia of a feeling already gone.”

As Ann continues to discover more about the murder before Wade loses all memory, her pursuit of the truth seems to be a race with his decline.  Ultimately, he loses all memory and she is left with only Jennie as her source of information.  In the end, Ann creates a new life for the now elderly Jennie, and when the two wives eventually meet, it is not as dramatic as expected.

Their lives go on, despite the horrors – as does all life.  Maybe that was the point the author wanted to make.  The book is difficult to read, but full of thoughtful diversions leading back to how people cope.

 

 

 

The Widow’s House by Carol Goodman

9780062562623_p0_v2_s192x300   Whether or not you believe in ghosts, Carol Goodman’s Gothic mystery – The Widow’s House – might challenge your peace of mind.  The psychological suspense thriller is set in the Hudson Valley of New York with an unreliable narrator defying a host of chilling affronts.

When Claire and Jess Martin decide to move from their Brooklyn apartment to upstate New York near the farm where Claire grew up, they find the only affordable accommodations are as caretakers to an old crumbling mansion named Riven House belonging to their former college professor, also a writer.  Jess, having published his first book soon after graduating from college, has spent years looking for inspiration for his second, while Claire, an aspiring writer herself, abandoned her dreams to write to work as a copy editor to support them both.  When the money from Jess’s advance finally runs out, the Martins—now in their mid-thirties—are forced to move back upstate.

The house is clearly the Gothic replica of Thornfield Hall from Jane Eyre but soon takes on the characteristics of the Hitchcock setting in Gaslight or Shirley Jackson’s Hill House;  its history includes a series of tragedies and is thought haunted by the locals.  As Claire researches the house’s former occupants for her own novel, she is soon terrorized by their ghosts.

Goodman cleverly inserts doubt about Claire’s mental health, perhaps confirming the reader’s unwillingness to believe in the paranormal phenomenon appearing in the mist. Claire’s sanity is placed in question by revealing her nervous breakdown earlier, and her tendency to edit her own life, remaking it to something better and overlooking her traumas and losses of the past.  As people begin to die at Riven House,  Clare’s grip on reality becomes suspect, and the reader has to decide who to believe.

Like her other Gothic mystery romances, Goodman’s The Widow’s House combines  supernatural possibilities with the reality of human cruelty and misery.  In the end, you aren’t quite sure what the truth is, although Goodman provides a sane possibility. The captivating tale will haunt you and you will love every moment.

I am a fan of Goodman, having read all her novels from The Lake of Dead Languages to River Road.  As a bonus, Goodman offered a list of books that have inspired her in her notes at the end of the book.  You might look for one when you are in the mood for another chilling mystery.

Goodman’s List of Favorite Haunted House Stories:

  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • Turn of the Screw by Henry James
  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  • The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons
  • The Uninvited by Dorothy Macardle
  • The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Reviews of Other Carol Goodman Books:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sleepwalker

9780385542555_p0_v1_s192x300Chris Bohjalian’s The Sleepwalker had me reading until I found out whodunnit.  Unfortunately, I read until I went to bed – and then had trouble going to sleep.  I resisted googling “sleepwalking” – better not to now how factual the references were.

Bohjalian’s sleepwalker is a beautiful architect with an English professor husband and two  girls, one a college senior, the other nine years younger; she suffers from a sleepwalking condition that may have caused her death.  Her history reveals a night when she almost jumped off a bridge and another when she spray-painted the hydrangea in the front yard – remembering neither event.

When Annalee’s sleepwalking seems to be in remission, her husband leaves for an out of town conference, despite the possibility she might walk into the night without him nearby in bed.   The next morning, her daughter discovers her missing, and as the search continues, possible perpetrators emerge until finally the body is found – only to restart the investigation and the story in a different direction.

Throughout the plot, red herrings draw the reader into fake paths, highlighting character flaws and revealing salacious possibilities. Bohajlian builds the suspense with background on each of the suspects – the husband, of course; the detective who shared coffee and her condition; possible unknown lovers.  But I never guessed who really did it and how, despite the killer’s short ramblings of anonymous notes between the chapters. No spoilers here.

A fast-paced thriller with Bohjalian’s trademark surprise ending, The Sleepwalker is a mystery with Gothic tones and Alfred Hitchcock intrigue.

 

I Am Ready to Listen

My Audible credits are piling up, and I decided to use them all before I cancel my subscription.  Although my library is full of books I have yet to hear, I am not discouraged. Short British mysteries, Maggie Smith and Julia Child biographies have kept me company as I walk, but heavy plots requiring attention tend to collect moss – started, stopped, ignored, replaced by a library book in print.  Flanagan’s Road to the Deep North still lingers – waiting to be heard on a long flight with no escape.

Five credits – five books:

unknown   unknown-1   unknown  unknown-1  51v8phjbmql-_sl80_

  1. Joanna Kavenna called Ali Smith’s first in a four-part series – Autumn – “a beautiful, poignant symphony of memories, dreams and transient realities…” in her review for The Guardian.  A symphony?  A candidate for an audiobook.
  2. Recently published Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders has a cast of 166 voices, including David Sedaris.
  3. Since I am number 279 on the library wait list, John Grisham’s The Whistler is a good candidate, promising fast-paced thrills.
  4. Melk Wiking’s Little Book of Hygge looked like a quick way to get life-style advice when I skimmed it in the bookstore, especially coupled with Rinzler’s The Buddha Walks into a Bar (already on my iPod).
  5. Finally (possibly because I have been reading articles about challenging the brain to prevent Alzheimer’s lately), the last book is French Short Stories (in French, of course).

Now I am ready to cancel my subscription.  But wait, those clever marketers have offered me a reprieve – 90 days on hold, a pause instead of a stop.  If I have not listened to my last five books by Spring, I may have the courage to really cancel.

Lost in the Stacks

Mahesh Rao commentary on libraries in his New York Times essay “Lost in the Stacks,” reminded me of how libraries have nurtured my own love of reading.  My first memory of going to a library is linked to  holding my mother’s hand as we walked through the park to a tall building – an adventure to a new world.  Later in college I found comfort in hiding behind books in a remote carrell as I studied obscure passages.  Just like Rao, I inadvertently forgot to return a book or two, discovered years later in my own collection.

Librarians, more than authors, have always held my reverence.  Some are modestly taciturn, never revealing their wealth of information until asked.  Others, like Rao’s North London friend, are ready to share common interests and review my selections as I check out more books than I can carry.

library-cc-keka-e1302489395542

Trinity College Library, Dublin

Books about libraries draw me in.  Some of my favorites:

  • Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon with the Cemetery of Forgotten Books is a library for literary works no longer remembered by anyone. Daniel  finds mystery and adventure, as books salve the lingering pain of his mother’s death.
  • The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai connects a children’s librarian with questionable ties to the Russian mafia to a curious 10-year-old boy whose parents enroll him in an anti-gay class and strictly monitor his library material.
  • This Book is Overdue by Marilyn Johnson challenges the stereotype of librarians.  See my review – here
  • By Its Cover by Donna Leon uses a rare books collection in a prestigious Venice library as the setting for the twenty-third in her series of Guida Brunetti mysteries. My review – here.

 

 

Do you have a favorite book about libraries?

Related: