Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell

Shirley Jackson is brought back to life in a quietly disturbing tale worthy of its subject.

shirley

Author Shirley Jackson (“The Lottery”; The Haunting of Hill House; We Have Always Lived in the Castle) casts a long and chilling shadow. The psychological thriller Shirley, from Susan Scarf Merrell (A Member of the Family), follows in its namesake’s tradition.

Jackson and her husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, lived in small-town Vermont while she wrote and he taught at Bennington College in the 1960s. In this book, Fred and Rose Nemser, Merrell’s inventions, are newlyweds and move into the Hyman-Jackson home when Fred becomes a graduate student and teaching assistant. Rose, our 19-year-old narrator, is pregnant, recently rescued from a childhood of poverty and family dysfunction by her new husband; she is staggered by Shirley’s big house, big family and art. Stan takes Fred under his wing, tutoring him in both their profession and in marriage. Shirley’s mentorship of the malleable Rose is more complex.

Rose wants to write about Shirley; she wants to replace Shirley’s children in their mother’s heart; she wants to be Shirley. In her devotion, she can’t help wondering about the phone calls that go unanswered every night, and the female student who went missing so many years ago (whom Shirley and Stan so emphatically did not know). Naturally, not all of Rose’s overtures are welcome.

An apt tribute to Shirley Jackson herself, Merrell’s novel recalls Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Edgar Allan Poe. Jackson’s fans are the clear winners here; Shirley, Stan, Fred and Rose may not be so lucky.


This review originally ran in the July 29, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 letters.

book beginnings on Friday: Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

shirley

This is a new novel about Shirley Jackson, styled after that author’s own creepy-crawly work. It begins:

“You have green eyes,” she said. I handed her my end of the fitted sheet and she tucked the corners deftly together, folded again to make a smooth square, her knob-knuckled fingers making quick work of a task I’d never had to do. Bed-making I knew too well, but, oh, the luxury of a second set of sheets!

“No,” I said. “My eyes are blue.”

How’s that for a spooky beginning? Coupled with that cover – good stuff!

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

did not finish: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (audio)

gone girlI couldn’t do it, friends. This is a very well-known and much-loved novel of the last few years, and the word on the street is DON’T READ ANYTHING ABOUT IT before you read it! So I will say very little. Repeat: this is a spoiler-free, very short review.

There is a mystery. I did not read far enough to solve it. I am not very bothered by this. The reason I put it down so easily was: I didn’t like the characters. Possibly this is part of the trickiness of the book somehow; this book is famously tricky (I believe there is something about an unreliable narrator? but there are two narrators? I don’t know). But for me, the big failure was that I didn’t like these people so I couldn’t care about them enough to keep reading (listening) through the fact that they annoyed me very much. That’s all.

My audio version read by Julia Whelan and Kirby Heyborne was fine. They read the characters as obnoxious people, which seems to have been right on point, so I guess they did their jobs.

No rating; I only made it about 1/5 of the way through, so I’ll leave it at that.

book beginnings on Friday: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (audio)

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

gone girl

Please don’t shoot me. I am not in love with Gone Girl at its beginning. (Deep breaths.) This book has received SUCH enthusiasm – not least from a good friend of mine – as well as critical acclaim, that I worry at my hesitations. But I own them.

Let’s begin at the beginning.

When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with.

Not much there; but let me say it was the second paragraph where I was first annoyed. So I called Liz and I said, Liz – how much time should I invest in this book that you loved and that I am thoroughly exasperated by? (This was 36 minutes in, via audiobook.) And she said, for stories with unreliable narrators I think you should hang in longer than average. Okay. I’m trying.

Maximum Shelf: The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on January 15, 2014.


weight of blood

“That Cheri Stoddard was found at all was the thing that set people on edge, even more so than the condition of her body.” So opens Laura McHugh’s delightfully and darkly disturbing debut novel, The Weight of Blood. The town of Henbane is agitated because it is so good at keepings its secrets–and bodies are so easy to hide in the twisted, wooded Ozark Mountains.

The story begins with the first-person perspective of 18-year-old Lucy Dane. Lucy has it pretty good: she has a reliable best friend, a loving relationship with her father, and neighbors who make up an extended family of sorts. And she’s just begun working in her uncle’s store, where she gets to rub elbows with the sexy Daniel. But Lucy is troubled by the disappearance of her sort-of friend Cheri, a developmentally disabled schoolmate whose freshly dead body was only recently discovered–a year after she went missing. She’s also still troubled by the unexplained disappearance of her mother, Lila, who walked out of the house carrying a handgun and nothing else when Lucy was a year old.

The perspective then shifts to that of Lila herself as a young woman, newcomer to the Danes’ hometown of Henbane. Henbane is almost a character unto itself, insular, suspicious and largely unmarked by passing time. For a fee, residents can avoid a “city burial” (embalmment and the involvement of the authorities) in favor of a private grave-digging service. And the local lawyer will advise you not to trust local police until you find out who’s related to whom. It is anything but a friendly destination for a damaged teenager like Lila, who immediately runs up against the Dane brothers: the older Crete, who runs several businesses including a farm and a store, and his little brother, Carl, who becomes her husband before she turns 19. Superstitions have her labeled a witch before she’s unpacked her few belongings.

Through Lila’s eyes, the reader will find out slightly more about her background than Lucy knows, but Lila works hard to remain a mystery to both the reader and Henbane locals, including Carl. The perspectives continue to alternate. While Lucy keeps the reader up to date on current goings-on, it is through Lila that we begin to learn the ugly secrets that Henbane keeps. Other characters, too, get occasional chapters told from their point of view (in omniscient third person; only Lila and Lucy get first-person treatment), and one of the strengths of The Weight of Blood is that its engaging, complex, fully wrought characters extend beyond its protagonists. Lucy’s best friend, Bess, and Bess’s mother, Gabby (who was, in turn, best friend to Lila); Carl and Crete; the love interest, Daniel; a surrogate grandmother; and a local drug dealer all get sensitive handling and character development. But it is the measured building of tension and the careful doling out of hints of evil that star, as Lucy’s coming-of-age experience brings the classic bildungsroman to meet the gritty thriller.

While helping Daniel clean out an old trailer belonging to her uncle, Lucy discovers a clue: a lost item that she knows used to belong to Cheri, because Lucy gave it to her. Next, Bess overhears a reference that she shouldn’t have. With Daniel’s cautious support, Lucy begins to look into Cheri’s death, and the matter of where she spent that unaccounted-for year. But, of course, in a town this small, where everyone recognizes headlights and knows where a particular truck might be heading, investigations are dangerous. Like her mother before her, Lucy is told outright that it would be risky to go to the police for help. And as she probes the question of Cheri’s fate, and finds it apparently linked to her mother’s, Lucy will be disturbed at how close her inquiries lead her to home.

Carl and Crete, the Dane brothers, are heir not only to the off-the-books grave-digging business, the combined local grocery store and restaurant, and various secrets, but also to mental illness and corruption. As its title suggests, The Weight of Blood is concerned with the strength of our bonds to our family, and the tension between biological ties of blood and the families we choose for ourselves. In a remarkably convincing portrayal of young adulthood, Lucy allows McHugh to explore themes of loyalty: where it’s owed, and to what extremes.

The atmosphere McHugh evokes in this masterful debut is wonderfully spooky, exemplifying Southern noir with a backwoods mountain twist and a matter-of-fact willingness to bury its dead out back and walk away. Taut pacing, lively suspense and atmosphere are the strongest points of a novel that also has an engaging plot and beautifully built, sympathetic characters to its credit. For fans of dark, suspenseful, well-structured thrillers, The Weight of Blood is a delicious and nail-biting treat.


Rating: 7 baby possums.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with McHugh!

The Murder Code by Steve Mosby

A series of murders force a seasoned detective to reexamine his understanding of evil.

murder code

The Murder Code, British author Steve Mosby’s American debut, opens with the brutal but seemingly straightforward bludgeoning of a young woman on her way home from work. Detective Andrew Hicks immediately looks to her abusive ex, because he knows all murders are committed for reasons–bad reasons maybe, but reasons that make sense at the time to the killer. But when the bodies start piling up–clearly the work of the same hand or, more precisely, the same hammer–Hicks is forced to reconsider his theory. And when he receives a letter from the murderer, Hicks must confront everything he’s understood for years about the reasons people kill each other.

Story lines overlap and tangle tantalizingly in Mosby’s capable hands. The reader glimpses teasing flashes of various characters and their backgrounds before returning to Hicks’s increasingly troubled life. His pregnant wife knows there’s something Hicks isn’t telling her, but doesn’t know what, any more than the reader does. Something disturbing in his past threatens to resurface.

While other sympathetic characters are briefly sketched, Hicks is very much at the heart of this psychological thriller. Mosby expertly spools out and retracts details, keeping the reader breathless with anticipation as the body count rises and Hicks asks himself questions he thought he’d answered long ago. The Murder Code offers not only a surface-level mystery to be solved, but the deeper mystery of how the pieces fit together–and the central question of whether innate evil is real.


This review originally ran in the December 27, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 data points.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Murder Code by Steve Mosby

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

murder code

I wanted to share these few lines with you because they made me pause and wonder. The Murder Code is a thriller, and on the bloody side at that; but a line here and there hints at humanity, even romance.

Occasionally, it drives him to distraction, bu he also knows it is one of the things he would miss most about her if she was gone: that ultimately we love the rough edges of people more than the smooth surfaces.

And on the next page:

In such ways, he realises, do relationships grow over time. We begin by looking for perfection; we end up by loving flaws.

I found it remarkable that this author of hard-boiled gore also handles love so deftly. I’ve seen it done far less eloquently and realistically in this genre. And I had to stop and consider the truth of the statements.

Well done, Mosby. Stay tuned for my full review to come.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

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