Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm

A delicious, deceptively simple tale of art, crime, love and betrayal.

unbecoming

In the opening pages of Rebecca Scherm’s debut novel, Unbecoming, Julie from California is working in Paris at an antiques repair shop, polishing and replacing hinges, cleaning beadwork and resetting jewels. Except her name is really Grace, and she’s from Garland, Tennessee. Two young men are about to be paroled from prison in Garland, and Grace is nervous, because her name is not all she’s lying about. From this beginning, we follow Grace back in time: her unhappy home life, her great luck in being loved by a popular boy from a good family, her joy at being his mother’s daughter, her departure for college in New York City, her work in art appraisal and her ignominious retreat from all of the above. Only at the end of the novel do we learn how exactly Grace landed in Paris with a new name, a forged biography and a fear of her past.

Unbecoming is beguiling: a love story with twists and turns; the tale of an insecure, insufficiently loved girl from the wrong side of the tracks; a delightfully nuanced narrative about trust and trustworthiness. Grace is endearing and intriguing, although she is not all (or is more than) she seems. Layers of lies, longing and duplicity recall The Talented Mr. Ripley, another chilling masterpiece of dishonesty’s helpless acceleration. Scherm’s light, confident touch with pacing, suspense and characterization is pitch-perfect. Beware staying up all night to rush through this engrossing, enchanting debut.


This review originally ran in the January 27, 2015 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: 8 trillions.

Teaser Tuesdays: Suitcase City by Sterling Watson

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

suitcase

From just the first few pages:

They were the easy, pretty people who stopped in at the Cedar Key docks and ate in the restaurants and then sailed on to the next piña colada or planter’s punch. Teach called them the Whatever People. Whatever was an attitude, a place where people had enough time and money to let things happen to them, things that felt good.

These lines set up the backdrop of this book in several ways. We learn our geographical setting, as well as the class background of the protagonist, and his attitude towards others. I think that’s solid. And I like the concept of the Whatever People. Something about this idea reminds me of the Fitzgeralds, Scott and Zelda, always so aware of everyone’s class and of what they could afford to not care about.

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

book beginnings on Friday: The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson

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.

killing

Be excited about this one: a modern retelling of Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, and it is excellent! It begins:

“Hello, there,” she said.

I looked at the pale, freckled hand on the back of the empty bar seat next to me in the business class lounge at Heathrow Airport, then up into the stranger’s face.

“Do I know you?” I asked.

And there we have it. A plane replaces a train; and our protagonists are a man and a woman rather than two men. Let the fun begin.

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

The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue

A terrifying, enigmatic and ever-accelerating story about the power of imagination.

monsters

Jack Peter Keenan has always been an odd boy. Even before the accident three years ago, he was not exactly normal. Now almost 11 years old, he doesn’t go outside, ever. As Christmas approaches, there are strange happenings afoot: things that go bump in the night, apparitions in the snowy roadway, screams of people who aren’t there. Jack has begun drawing monsters. His parents, Holly and Tim, are increasingly worried.

Holly renews her relationship with the church; when she seeks answers, the local priest and his Japanese housekeeper pelt her with tales of shipwrecks and spirits. Tim resolves to work harder with his son. The parents of Jack’s one friend, Nick, take off for the holiday, leaving him to stay with the Keenans in their remote Maine beachside home, in the snow and bitter cold. As Jack’s drawings multiply and the howls outside grow louder, readers will wonder if he’s withdrawing, abandoning reality (and pulling Nick and the Keenans along with him), or if somehow his interior landscape is populating the outside world.

Multiple mysteries enliven the terror of The Boy Who Drew Monsters, which becomes ever more disturbing as the source of danger comes gradually into focus. In his sensitive, incisive treatment of Jack’s behavior and its effect on his family, Keith Donohue (The Stolen Child) explores the challenges of mental disorders, but suspense and a bright thread of terror evoke the very best of the horror genre. Just as a Maine winter chills the bones, this singular little boy provides a satisfyingly frightening story.


This review originally ran in the October 10, 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: 7 steps outside.

Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville

Two historical storylines, great evil, and an abiding mystery combine into one sinister and memorable fairy tale for the stout of heart.

gretel

As the title Gretel and the Dark suggests, Eliza Granville’s debut novel is a grim, spooky fairy tale. But keeping with the nature of any good fairy tale, there is another layer: it is also a meditation on historical good and evil, set both in Nazi Germany and fin de siècle Austria.

In 1899, a shockingly beautiful young woman is rescued off the street and delivered to the home of celebrated Viennese psychoanalyst Josef Breuer. She claims to have no identity, so the besotted Josef calls her Lilie, a name that will come to have greater significance than he originally intended. She is emaciated, bruised and beaten, hair shorn, with numbers inked on her arm. The story she tells is simply not possible: when questioned, Lilie tells Josef that she is not human but a machine, sent to kill a monster, whom she must find before he grows too large. She frightens him with her dreamy fantasies of how she’ll do it–“it doesn’t take long to kick someone to death”–but she casts an irresistible spell, and Josef (and his equally smitten gardener) is driven to puzzle out the truth of her history and the abuses she has experienced.

In the parallel plot, told in alternate chapters set several decades later, a little girl named Krysta pouts as the world around her changes. Her father works in a “zoo” during the days and can’t stop washing his hands at night; she is surrounded by unfriendly people, and retreats into her imagination to avoid the hazards and hatred she can’t understand. As her personal situation deteriorates and her circle of trusted acquaintances shrinks, Krysta hopes to save herself using the fairy tales on which she was raised–even, or especially, the nasty ones, with wolves, witches, beheadings and gore.

In precise balance and crafted in lovely, lyrical language, Gretel and the Dark is a masterpiece of fantasy, horror, childhood innocence and the evils of both our innermost imaginings and our shared history. Deliciously chilling and both fantastical and gravely real, with momentum building throughout, Granville’s extraordinary debut holds its crucial secrets to the last, adding suspense to its virtues. The connection between the not-entirely-likeable little Krysta and the enigmatic Lilie remains an open question until the final pages, and the power of imagination and storytelling is a prominent theme. This chilling, fantastical tale will simultaneously entertain and provoke serious contemplation on the depths of human depravity.


This review originally ran in the October 7, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 10 cherries.

Teaser Tuesdays: Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville

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

gretel

This is a delightful blend of dark, gloomy fairy tale, historical fiction, and horror. I don’t want to say anything more about it at this point, but I think I’ve found a real winner.

For now, enjoy these lines, which are a fine example of the emphasis placed on the importance of storytelling.

“When I make up stories I’ll write them down so they won’t disappear or be changed.”

Greet shrugs. “Then they won’t be proper stories, will they?”

Also, who doesn’t love a little girl who thinks this:

When I grow up I shall be a famous author like Carol Lewis or Elle Franken Baum, but the girls in my books will be explorers, they’ll fly planes and fight battles, not play down holes with white rabbits or dance along brick roads with a silly scarecrow and a man made out of metal.

Stay tuned. Gretel and the Dark looks like a star.

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

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.
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