Day 950: Arrowood

Cover for ArrowoodArden Arrowood has returned after many years to her dying home town of Keokuk, Iowa. She has inherited her grandparents’ house, a stately old home on the banks of the Mississippi. Although she has yearned for home, it is the place of her family’s greatest tragedy, the disappearance of her baby twin sisters when she was eight years old.

Arden has been a troubled young woman, and she is hoping to make a fresh start in her home town. But incidents keep pointing her back to the tragedy. She has been contacted by the site owner of Midwest Mysteries, for example, who thinks the man believed to have kidnapped the girls is innocent.

link to NetgalleyArden has also been hoping to reunite with Ben Ferris, her best friend as a child and her first boyfriend. She is surprised to find he has joined his father’s dentistry practice. But then again, she herself has failed to complete her graduate degree in history and has a secret reason for having quit school.

This novel is atmospheric and gripping. Although it is not difficult to figure out that one character is a bad guy, the solution to the mystery has a couple of twists. I was reminded when reading this book of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. Although I think Sharp Objects is the better novel, I enjoyed reading this one.

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Day 945: Literary Wives! How to Be a Good Wife

Cover for How to Be a Good WifeToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Ariel of One Little Library
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

My Review

Marta has stopped taking her medication. She has been on it for years, and the only other time she stopped, she suffered symptoms of severe depression. This time she keeps glimpsing a young blond girl. Although the girl doesn’t speak to her, she seems to be trying to tell her something.

Marta has been married to Hector for many years, and they have a grown son. Marta seems inordinately upset because their son has left home to go to college. Her marriage to Hector seems almost cartoonishly old-fashioned. Her mother-in-law gave her a book about being a good wife when she married Hector, a book that was out of date when she got it. But she has tried to follow it. Aside from behaving like a 50’s housewife, she has been set limits by Hector beyond which she is not allowed to drive. It is not safe, he claims.

The more we learn about Marta’s life, the more disturbing this novel seems. Are we to believe that Marta is descending into madness, or does it seem as if her memories of her past life are oddly murky and she’s finally remembering?

I’m not sure if we’re to believe that Marta is an unreliable narrator or not. Certainly, no one in the novel ultimately believes her, but I do. I found this novel chilling and completely compelling.

What does the book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

Caution: My answer to this question involves spoilers, so if you don’t want to know, stop reading now.

I don’t believe we can generalize at all from this novel, because Marta’s is a peculiar circumstance. If we believe her, then she was captured as a young girl and held captive by Hector for two years under the house. She eventually escaped, but he recaptured her, kept her drugged, and created false memories for her to convince her she was a different person. She has lived as a drugged captive, trying to please her husband and feeling love only for her son.

Again, this is a novel about power, and Hector holds all the power in this relationship. The only power Marta has is in subversive minor disobedience, like smoking and pretending to take her pills. Although Marta finally escapes, it is at a terrible cost, since no one believes her. Are we to believe there is really no record of her kidnapping or that they either didn’t look hard enough or she is delusional? I know what I believe, but you may not agree.

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Day 942: Siracusa

Cover for SiracusaNews flash! The Man Booker long list was announced today, and I have actually reviewed one of the books!

* * *

Siracusa is a sometimes shocking story about a disastrous vacation in Italy. Two couples, linked by a friendship between the husband of one and the wife of the other, vacation together with one couple’s pre-teen daughter. The trip this year has been planned by Taylor except for a detour to Siracusa, Sicily, planned by Lizzie. The story alternates among the points of view of the four adults.

Lizzie’s voice seems the most reliable, but all of the adults are unreliable narrators for one reason or another. Lizzie, a writer, is deluded. She is in love with her husband Michael and does not know he is unfaithful. Michael, a formerly famous playwright who has been working on the same novel for years, is a liar who likes power games. He has been cheating on Lizzie with a waitress named Kathy.

Finn is a restaurant owner who smokes too much and is serially unfaithful. His wife Taylor is snobbish and shallow, and she is so overprotective of their 10-year-old daughter Snow that she talks for her. At some point, Taylor begins making a play for Michael, whom both she and Snow adore.

At Siracusa, a tragic chain of events begin when Kathy appears as a surprise for Michael and begins trying to maneuver him out of his marriage. It isn’t until then that Michael realizes he wants to stay with Lizzie.

link to NetgalleyThis novel is complex and interesting, with a shocking conclusion. I was rather freaked out by one of the characters from early in the novel, and my impressions turned out to be right. From starting out to be a fairly mundane story of relationships, this novel works up quite a bit of suspense.

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Day 919: The Cellar

Cover for The CellarI have been reading and enjoying Minette Walters’ chilling thrillers and mysteries for years, ever since her spectacularly creepy novel, The Ice House. But The Cellar is something else again. Walters’ vision has become even darker with this short novel, about what happens when a person is abused for too long.

The Songolis are an African family living in England. One day their youngest son Abiola disappears, and it takes a while before the family notifies the police. This time is taken up with trying to hide evidence that 15-year-old Muna is a slave who sleeps in the cellar. The family presents Muna to the police as their daughter and tell them she has brain damage and cannot speak English.

Muna does speak English, though. She has learned it through watching television and listening to Abiola’s lessons with his English tutor. Her situation improves as the investigation goes on, because the Songolis are afraid to abuse her when a police officer may come to the door at any time. It is quite obvious that the police suspect the father, Ebuka, but for some time we do not learn what happened to Abiola.

We do slowly learn that Muna was removed from an orphanage in Africa under false pretences when she was eight. Yetunde Songoli arrived with forged papers showing that she was Muna’s aunt. Ever since then, Muna has worked and slaved for the family. Physically abused by Yetunde and Abiola and sexually abused by Ebuka, she suspects she will soon also be sexually abused by the older son Olubayo. But with this dischord of Abiola’s disappearance already in their midst, Muna finds ways to create uncertainty within the family and drive them apart.

This novel is a difficult one to read. I can’t say more without giving too much away, but I can’t imagine a novel being much darker. I actually have to recommend one of Walters’ earlier novels if you haven’t read her yet. The Ice House is an excellent start.

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Day 915: Come to Harm

Cover for Come to HarmKeiko is a Japanese exchange student working on her doctorate who has accepted a grant from an association in Painchton, Scotland, near Edinburgh University. Her grant comes with a free flat that has even been stocked with food. Keiko is overwhelmed by everyone’s hospitality, particularly with their propensity for stuffing her with food, much of which she finds unappetizing.

Not everyone is welcoming, though. Her landlady Mrs. Poole is the proprietor of the butcher shop below Keiko’s flat. She is a recent widow, but her unfriendly behavior seems to indicate more than grief. She has two sons, Malcolm and Murray, and she certainly isn’t encouraging them to befriend Keiko. She also spends every morning cleaning the seldom-used slaughterhouse in the yard.

Early on, Keiko finds a note behind the radiator in her flat. It is clearly from a blackmailer, perhaps to the previous occupant of the flat. She also notices that several women have vanished from town. As Keiko tries to figure out what is going on in town, she also has quite a few misunderstandings with people through not understanding exactly what they’ve said.

I had a few problems with this novel that I haven’t had with other McPherson thrillers. For one thing, the reasoning behind the Painchton Trading Association’s grant to Keiko seems so flimsy that I had a hard time imagining even a child would believe it, let alone the entire town. The town committee seems to be up to something illegal, which lends to the atmosphere of the novel.

And then there is the resolution of the plot. First, Keiko’s suppositions run so berserk that I started to think the novel was an elaborate joke and that maybe I was reading an updated version of Northanger Abbey. But I won’t say whether I was right or not.

So, I wasn’t as happy with this novel as with others by McPherson, particularly as compared to the wonderful Quiet Neighbors. I thought it was obvious fairly early on that one character was dangerous, but Keiko doesn’t realize this until very late in the novel. Still, the novel is atmospheric and the ending is suspenseful, and parts of it are funny, so all that will probably keep most readers happy.

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Day 913: The Unforgotten

Cover for The UnforgottenA novel set in two time periods, The Unforgotten is a thriller and a mystery. But it is more than that—a story with deep-running themes offering its characters difficult choices.

In 1956 Cornwall, Betty Broadbent is an innocent, naive 15-year-old. She helps her unstable mother run a hotel and sometimes has to run it herself when her mother is in the throes of depression or alcoholism. The small fishing village has been invaded by reporters after the murders of several young women.

In 2006, Mary reads that the man who served time for the murders back in 1956 still insists he is innocent. Mary remembers him as the man her mother used to date and believes he is innocent. She thinks she knows who the actual killer is and is torn between telling what she knows and keeping a long-held secret. Although we don’t know why she is living under another name, we are soon sure that Mary is Betty.

This novel is about the painful choices two people must make under difficult circumstances. It is also about a sad and doomed love affair.

At first I thought that some of the dialogue and situations were unlikely, but I soon forgot those thoughts, driven forward by the sheer power of the story. It is one that has many more levels than first expected. This is a great first novel by Powell.

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Day 909: Big Little Lies

Cover for Big Little LiesBest Book of the Week!
From the very beginning of Big Little Lies, we’re aware that someone has been killed, but we don’t know who, or why, or by whom. Liane Moriarty’s novel artfully builds suspense as it draws you in to care about certain of the characters.

The action of the novel is centered around Pirriweee Public School, and it begins six months before school trivia night, when the death occurs.

Madeline Mackenzie is taking her five-year-old daughter Chloe to kindergarten orientation when she has a small accident. Jane, the younger single mother of Ziggy, helps her, and Madeline and her friend Celeste befriend her. Jane is moving to the area in a few months when Ziggy will be in kindergarten with Chloe and Celeste’s twin sons Max and Josh.

During the orientation, the kindergarten teacher notices that someone has been choking Amabella, so she brings this up in front of all the children and parents, asking Amabella to say who hurt her. Amabella doesn’t want to say but ultimately seems to indicate Ziggy. Ziggy states clearly that he didn’t hurt Amabella, so Jane believes him.

However, Renata, Amabella’s high-powered corporate mother, starts a campaign with some of the other mothers to ostracize Ziggy. This begins with not inviting him to Amabella’s birthday party. All of this behavior escalates, and for a while I thought it might be taking on a comic edge, like the school-based nonsense caused by helicopter parents in Where’d You Go, Bernadette? But underlying it all is the knowledge that someone will end up dead.

And the characters have their secrets. Madeline, whose husband Nathan deserted her with a newborn baby 14 years earlier, is upset because he and his new wife Bonnie seem to be winning her older daughter away from her. And Jane’s and Celeste’s even darker secrets come out later.

This novel is striking in its ingenuity and in how much Moriarty brings you to care for its characters. I was deeply involved from beginning to end. The conclusion was eminently satisfying. I’ll be looking for more books by Moriarty.

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