Reading List by Jennie for October through December
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
This was my annual “spooky Halloween read.” I have a hard time judging it, having spoiled myself on the twist long ago. I find it hard to believe that this twist wouldn’t have been obvious even if I hadn’t known, but who can say? For the uninitiated: the story is narrated by Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood, who lives with her older sister Constance and her Uncle Julian in an isolated mansion. Some years before, the entire Blackwood family was poisoned at dinner except for Merricat and Constance. Uncle Julian was the only survivor, though he bears heavy physical and mental scars. Constance was put on trial and acquitted. Now the Blackwood family is hated and feared by the people in the small adjacent town. Their solitary life is interrupted by a sinister visitor. I won’t say this was a pleasant read – most of the characters are hateful, or at least unlikable, and Merricat’s mind is not a restful place to be. But it was very compelling, and beautifully written. I’m giving it an A-.
Girl Gone Mad by Avery Bishop
I feel like an unusual number of the suspense novels I’ve been reading have plots that harken back to the main character’s school years and Dark Events that happened there. This is another one. In middle school, Emily Bennett was part of a clique called the Harpies. The group disbanded after they took their bullying of a new schoolmate, Grace, too far. In the present day (the story flips back and forth between the past and the present), an erstwhile Harpy commits suicide, and a series of events make Emily suspect that not everything is as it seems. Is Emily paranoid? Has long-buried guilt gotten the better of her? This was thinly characterized, and I have to think about what it means (if anything) that there are so many depictions of adolescent female cruelty out there. (FWIW, I agree that adolescent girls can be uniquely awful, but I feel like that awfulness is sometimes exaggerated in media, at the expense of more nuanced portrayals.) On the other hand, the book was very readable, and the (predictably batshit) twists at the end were entertaining. My grade is a B.
Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh
I first became aware of Brosh through her webcomic Hyperbole and a Half, which she turned into an excellent book in 2013. She kind of disappeared from public for a while, due to severe depression. So I was really happy to hear that she would be publishing another book, both because she’s a hilarious and incisive writer and because I hoped it meant that she was doing better mentally. This is another collection of essays, illustrated in Brosh’s distinctive style (even if you don’t know her you’ve probably seen her bug-eyed, pink-dressed self-depiction somewhere online – I see it used in avatars frequently). The subjects here are often heavy – for instance, Brosh’s writing about her sister’s suicide is heartbreaking. But she is also so funny and unabashedly but relatably WEIRD that even in the midst of the sadness and pain I was laughing out loud. The third chapter, dealing with her neighbor’s aggressive child, was my favorite; it starts: “My neighbor’s 5-year-old is a social juggernaut. I can’t leave my apartment unless I figure out how to deal with her. She gets up at 5 in the morning and hangs out directly in front of my door like a bridge troll – all who wish to pass must answer her riddles, and the only riddle she knows is Do you want to see my room?” I am not exaggerating when I say I laughed *so* hard at this story. (The second chapter, about Brosh’s childhood adventures sneaking into her neighbor’s house, is available in its entirety on Brosh’s blog.) I loved this book so much and my grade for it is a straight A.
Girls of Brackenhill by Kate Moretti
This Amazon First Read was a bit different than the other suspense novels I’ve read over the past couple of years, for all that it features a familiar theme: woman confronts her past and tries to to dig up the truth about mysterious and shocking events that occurred when she was a teenager. In this case, the heroine returns to Brackenhill, the strange castle she and her sister used to spend their summers at, after getting news that her aunt has been killed in a car accident. Hannah is now responsible for care decisions about her uncle, who is terminally ill and in a coma. She left Brackenhill abruptly one summer 17 years before, after her older sister disappeared, never to be seen again. But Julia wasn’t the only girl who met a troubled end at Brackenhill, and the way that the deaths and disappearances are linked forms the heart of the novel. What made this book feel a bit different was that it has faintly supernatural overtones and a generally gothic vibe, which gave it sort of a spooky, downbeat feel. I feel ambivalent about the final twist, which posits a possible, horrifying solution to the central mystery, but leaves it to the reader to decide if it really happened that way. My grade was a B.
Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres
I felt like I recognized the title and cover of this book; it was first published in 2005 and I think it was everywhere for a while. I finally picked it up; I enjoy a good memoir about people raised by religious nuts. The author’s family weren’t quite as nutty as I expected – her parents are terrible by her account and definitely her mother especially is very religious, but not to the fanatical degree that I’ve read about in some other memoirs. The book focuses mostly on Scheeres’ teenage years in rural Indiana. Her older siblings have all moved out, and it’s just Julia and her parents and her two brothers, David and Jerome, who are both adopted and Black. Jerome is very bad news and secretly abusive towards Julia; she hates him. But David and Julia are sort of twins – almost the same age, they became intensely close after his adoption at age three. That closeness is challenged by high school, Julia’s desire to fit in, and the racism that David experiences from their peers (as well as from their own parents; they treat David and Jerome very differently from the way they treat Julia). Eventually David, and then Julia, are shipped off to a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic. This memoir was fairly absorbing but I didn’t always like Julia; David is so much more sympathetic (he died in a car accident at age 20; perhaps Scheeres idealizes him somewhat for that reason), and I found myself more interested in his travails than Julia’s teenage angst. I gave this a B.
Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers
I’d never read Sayers, but when I saw that the first Lord Peter Wimsey mystery was on sale, I snapped it up. The mystery here, featuring a unidentified dead body in the bathtub of a man who claims he doesn’t know the deceased, was not terribly compelling to me, though the resolution is clever. I didn’t care for Wimsey that much at first; he has a sort of upper-class British twit persona that I found off-putting. But it became clear that he has hidden depths; he suffers from what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder from his experiences in World War I. I don’t doubt that future books will develop his character further, but I’m not sure if I want to continue; there are several other mystery series I’m already behind on that I find more compelling. My grade for Whose Body? is a low B.
This Secret Thing by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen
Another Amazon First Read. It was okay. Norah Ramsey is a single mother raising her daughter in an affluent suburb; as the novel begins she is arrested for running a prostitution ring. I thought the book would focus on Norah, but she barely appears in the book. Instead we are given the perspectives of Norah’s daughter, Norah’s neighbor, the neighbor’s daughter, a cop working the case, and Norah’s estranged mother. Every single character has a secret they are grappling with, and these secrets are revealed in the course of the story. This made for a book that held my interest, because I wanted to know what everyone’s deal was. But…the resolutions by and large are anti-climatic, and none of the characters are that interesting otherwise. The ending is pat. I gave it a B-.
Old Christmas by Washington Irving
So I’ve tried for the past few years to do a “Christmas read” the way I do a Halloween read. So far, the first year, reading A Christmas Carol, was the most successful. Last year I read The Chimes, which was just okay and honestly a little weird? This year I picked an essay by Washington Irving, who I haven’t read much of (my familiarity may be limited to reading Rip Van Winkle in middle school). This is a pretty short piece that I unfortunately found VERY boring. Irving’s writing style is pretty old-fashioned, and the first part of the story seems to just be general musings on Christmas, its meaning and traditions. I really found it hard to even pay attention to this part. The latter part of the book describes a visit to an English country manor in which Irving had an opportunity to view English Christmas traditions up close. This was more readable because it wasn’t just blah blah blah inside Irving’s head but other characters and actual action (albeit mild). Apparently Irving and his writing are somewhat responsible for promulgating Christmas traditions in the US, and for that I am grateful. I’m still giving this a C, though.
Accused: British Witches Throughout History by Willow Winsham
I saw this on sale somewhere and the concept intrigued me. The book is a chapter by chapter examination of various witch cases in Britain, 11 in all, from Alice Kyteler in 1324 to Helen Duncan in 1944. (The latter being the last person charged under the Witchcraft Act of 1735; she was essentially charged for being a fake medium.) Many of the cases feature details that those of us who’ve read about witchcraft accusations are familiar with: an unpleasant woman, usually older, usually without many resources and not well liked by the people around her. Some of the “witches” were executed, but some of them surprisingly escaped that fate (or in some cases the historical record is unclear). I wanted to like this book better than I did, but the examination of the cases felt superficial and didn’t really hold my interest. Also, I felt like the chapters were weirdly organized; they would start with the story of the accusations and the eventual verdict, then go back and fill in what biographical details the author could find about the accused. It took some tension out of each story to know halfway through the chapter whether the accused witch was executed, and then have to read about where she was born and who she married. My grade was a C+.