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Posts Tagged ‘Susan Hill’

museumMagic by Alice. Over the course of more than two dozen books, Alice Hoffman has created her own brand of magical realism, often tethering the fantastic to the everyday in lyrical, luminous prose. In her new novel The Museum of Extraordinary Things (Scribner, digital gallery), she takes a slightly different tack, telling of the outwardly weird who wish their lives more ordinary, the freakish fascinated by the more mundane. Coralie Sardie is the Human Mermaid in her father’s small Coney Island museum in early 20th-century New York. Born with webbing between her fingers, she hones her swimming skills in the Hudson River by night, then slips into a glass tank by day. Water is her element. For Russian immigrant photographer Eddie Cohen, it’s fire, from the flames that burned his boyhood home to the horrific blaze that consumes the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Eddie and Coralie, each yearning for a different life, meet over his search for a missing woman and her father’s obsession to create a river monster for his failing museum, overshadowed by the amusement park splendor of Dreamland.

The story’s rich in atmosphere and glittering details — the “living wonders” of the museum like an armless girl painted to resemble a monarch butterfly, the red-throat hummingbirds let out of their cages on leashes of string, an ancient tortoise who rocks himself to sleep. It’s also a dark valentine to an early New York, where the rich ride in carriages and the poor strive in factories. It ends with the actual conflagration of Dreamland, imagined with a terrible beauty. Magic by Alice.

lostlakeSarah Addison Allen writes a more gentle kind of magical realism than Hoffman. Lost Lake (St. Martin’s Press, paperback ARC) is a sweet tale of second chances among characters who are mildly quirky instead of wildly eccentric. Kate Pheris, a widow of one year, impulsively takes her 8-year-old daughter Devin to visit her great-aunt Eby’s south Georgia resort camp, Lost Lake, where she spent her 12th summer. But the cabins are mostly unoccupied now, and Eby is ready to sell the rundown resort to a local developer. Devin is enchanted by the lake and the mysterious Alligator Man only she can see, and Kate begins to reclaim her life from her manipulative mother-in-law. That her first love is still around and available adds to Lost Lake’s charms. Several old-timers are also reluctant to leave Lost Lake, including a retired teacher, her va-voom husband-hunting friend, and a socially awkward podiatrist with a yen for Eby’s French cook, mute and haunted. But my favorite character is bespectacled Devin in her pink tutu and neon green T-shirt, who still believes in magic.

poisonedLloyd Shepherd’s eerie The Poisoned Island (Washington Square Press, digital galley) is an historical mystery with a hint of horror. In 1812, the ship Solander arrives at London’s dock bearing botanical treasures from Otaheite, aka Tahiti. Soon after, sailors from the Solander begin turning up dead with blissful smiles on their murdered corpses. Charles Horton of the Thames River Police suspects the deaths are somehow connected to the Solander’s exotic cargo, which is destined for Kew Gardens under the supervision of Sir Joseph Banks of the Royal Society. Meanwhile, Sir Joseph’s librarian, Robert Hunter, is impressed by a breadfruit tree from the ship that is showing exponential growth and tries to get answers from his employer, who sowed wild oats as a young man visiting Otaheite 40 years ago. It all makes for a good yarn with a bounty of fascinating facts about botany, Tahiti and detection.

mist“Rain, rain all day, all evening, all night, pouring autumn rain.” So begins Susan Hill’s Victorian ghost story The Mist in the Mirror (Vintage, digital galley), appropriately moody and melancholy. Sir James Monmouth returns to the barely remembered England of his childhood after years of living in Africa and traveling in the Far East in the footsteps of the explorer Conrad Vane. Monmouth sets out to research Vane’s life and his own family history with plans to write a book, but is discouraged by odd events and persons. Seems Vane is not the hero he supposed. Indeed, he may be the very embodiment of evil. Is he behind Monmouth’s panic attacks and deteriorating health? And what of the strange apparition of the sad boy in rags? Is he warning Monmouth to keep away, or is he beckoning him onward?

starterhouseSchoolteacher Lacey and her lawyer husband Drew think they’ve found their dream home in Sonja Condit’s creepy Starter House (HarperCollins, digital galley), but dontcha know the charming Southern cottage is haunted? Locals call it the murder house because of its dark past, but Lacey, pregnant with her first child, isn’t bothered, even after encountering a neighbor boy called Drew, who becomes increasingly possessive of her time. At first she tries to amuse him with games and placate him with cookies, but Drew’s odd behavior escalates to the threatening. Coincidentally, Brad is representing a client in a custody case who has ties to the house. Things go bump in the night — and during the day. Shiver!

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smallhandSusan Hill, who wrote the contemporary classic The Woman in Black, knows that a good ghost story lives in the shadows. The Small Hand and Dolly (Vintage, digital galley) are two stories that evoke candlelight and dusk even when the sun shines.

In the first tale, the narrator, an antiquarian bookseller, gets lost on a country road and chances on a derelict house. “I should have gone back,” he says several times as he describes the tree-lined lane and empty, overgrown garden, blanketed by ivy and creeping vines. But he has an urge to see more, and then, in hushed twilight, he feels a small hand grasp his fingers, and he returns the clasp as if he were a father holding his child’s small hand. “But I am not a father and the child was invisible.” Shiver. There’s more, of course, as the past impinges on the present, which is also the case with “Dolly,” in which a young girl’s long-ago destruction of a china doll reverberates through the years, tangibly haunting the innocent.

hauntedJohn Boyne is another writer familiar with the eerie eloquence of the 19th-century, and the shades of Bronte, Dickens, M.R. James and Henry James echo in This House is Haunted (Other Press, digital galley).

In 1867 England, 21-year-old narrator Eliza Caine impulsively answers an ad for a governess after her father’s sudden death leaves her alone in the world. She arrives  at spooky Gaudlin Hall in windswept Norfolk to find her new charges, precocious Isabelle and shy Eustace, without any apparent adult supervision since the sudden departure of their last governess. The local solicitor who pays the household expenses provides only vague answers to her questions, and the daily help does a disappearing act whenever Eliza’s around. She does learn, however, that she is one of a series of governesses, most of whom died while at Gaudlin Hall. And someone — or something — seems determined to drive Eliza away: the sensation of being strangled in her bed, the push at her back near an open window, the stone urn falling from the roof.  As Eliza learns more about the children’s absent parents and the family’s secrets, she becomes convinced that the house is haunted by a malignant spirit. Boyne artfully delivers standard gothic chills.

searlesJohn Searles’ Help for the Haunted (HarperCollins, digital galley and review copy) is a contemporary gothic, coming-of-age tale and ghost story told in a teasing non-linear narrative. Sylvie Mason, 14, is left in the distracted care of her older sister Rose after their parents are murdered on a snowy night. But she already knows the life of an outsider because her parents were demonologists who investigated the paranormal and provided “help for the haunted.”

Moving back and forth in time, Searles gradually reveals that Sylvie knows more about the circumstances of the murder and Rose’s whereabouts that night than she has let on to the police. Also, that the house’s basement is one scary place, that there’s a doll that’s possibly possessed, and that this is a family with more than one dark secret. The suspense mounts as  Searles deftly pieces together his psychological puzzle.

bellmanHere’s what I learned from Diane Setterfield’s rather puzzling Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story (Atria, paperback ARC; Nov. 5): Don’t mess with slingshots; rooks have long memories and are harbingers of doom; working at a mid-19th century English textile mill is tedious and poorly paid, unless you are the owner or his heir; and death is always in fashion because people need mourning clothes. I expected more mysterious magic from the author of The Thirteenth Tale.

Setterfield still writes beautifully, but I was never that interested in the story of William Bellman, who kills a rook with his slingshot when’s a boy and obliviously lives to regret it. Boy, does it take a procession of sudden deaths and subsequent funerals for William to figure out that the same black-garbed stranger keeps appearing at the cemetery and acting so familiar. Even as William works his way to the top of the mill’s management, he keeps losing those close to him. Finally, despairing that his beloved daughter Dora is dying from the fever, he shakes hands with the stranger. Soon after, he goes about setting up a new business — Bellman & Black — the London big-box store of mourning clothes and accessories. It flourishes under William’s obsessive care. Then the rooks come home to roost, so to speak, and the stranger returns a la Marley’s ghost. But by far the most haunting scene is still to come — Dora awestruck by a field of thousands of rooks taking flight. “She…forgets everything but the bliss of the shapes that paint themselves on the sky.. . To see it once is never to be without the feeling for the rest of your life.”

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I’m not ready to close the book on 2010, or any other year for that matter. Perusing others’ year-end best lists, I’m gratified to see many of my own favorites (Tana French’s Faithful Place, Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile, Emma Donoghue’s Room) and that President Obama is reading John le Carre and David Mitchell. But mostly I see all the books I’ve read but still haven’t written about, plus all the ones I want to read, including the lovely stack from Santa and friends.

 Just yesterday I finished Peter Robinson’s Bad Boy, which was very good, and came out six months ago. It’s the 19th in the Inspector Alan Banks series, which is hard to believe. Was In a Dry Season really 10 books back? I’d like to reread it if I can find my copy. I’m always looking for books lost in my own house, and while searching for them, I inevitably turn up others I’d like to reread — or never read in the first place. A constant chorus seems to emanate from the shelves and stacks: Pick me! I’m next! Over here!

I’m on vacation at my mom’s but can’t escape the books begging for attention. In fact, my bed is shoved up against a bookcase on one side, and I fall asleep — and wake up — eye-to-eye with a shelf of Maeve Binchy novels, a couple of Barbara Kingsolvers and some Tony Hillermans. All read and read again, still enticing. I turn my head, and the TBR stack of new volumes threatens to topple off the nightstand.

Susan Hill understands. The prolific British author, best known forThe Woman in Black — although I love her Simon Serrailler crime series — also loses books in her house. It’s why she wrote Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home. Looking for one elusive volume, she turned up a  dozen more she’d forgotten about. So, swearing off new books for the most part and curtailing her use of the internet, she decided to “repossess” her own books. She writes:

“A book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life.”

Her books also turn out to be a map of her own life, and her reading journey becomes a memoir. For fellow bibliophiles, the result is as hard to resist as the title — charming, anecdotal, opinionated. The temptation to quote is endless. “No matter what the genre, good writing tells.” And, “Ah here is Muriel Spark, sharp as a pencil, cool, stylish.”

She is talking about Sparks’ novels and stories, but Hill has led a literary life, and her descriptions of her encounters with older, famous writers are just as pointed. Edith Sitwell is haughty and terrifying, but the “small man with thinning hair and a melancholy mustache” who accidentally drops a book on her foot in the London Library offers “a small flurry of exclamations and apology and demur.” As she returns the book, she finds herself looking into the watery eyes of an elderly E.M. Forster. “He seemed slightly stooping and wholly unmemorable and I have remembered everything about him for nearly 50 years.”

She notes that knowing about a writer’s life is rarely necessary to appreciate their works but makes an exception, at least for herself, where Dickens and the Brontes are concerned. As for her own life, she has published books by other authors and found it an enjoyable sideline. She loves the feel and shape of books, the smell of them, the sound of pages being turned. She’ll put money on books — real books, printed and bound — being around as long as there are readers.

When I started this blog almost a year ago, I had the ambitious idea of giving away at least one of my old books for every new one I brought home. I would even chronicle this pruning of my collection in occasional posts, “Going, going, gone.” I think I did this twice before realizing the futility of my donating books or releasing them into the wild in any organized fashion. I always have a give-away box going, but it contains mostly recent acquisitions in which I’ve lost all interest. Rarely can I survey my shelves, stacks, piles, bins, carry-alls, table-tops, etc. and see a book I think I might not want to re-read — or get around to reading for the first time. Just reading Hill’s memoir has reminded me of at least half a hundred of which I already have copies.

So that’s my plan for 2011. Not to stop reading new books; I know my limits — as well as what’s on the horizon that looks wonderful. I’m already counting the months — eight — when the sequel to Lev Grossman’s  The Magicians is supposed to be published. But I am going to make a concerted effort to “repossess” the books I have, to indulge in the companionship of old friends, to acquaint myself with new-to-me volumes. I’ll let you know how it goes, and how often whimsy wins out over the call of the current. As soon as I get home later this week, I’ll probably start with Forster. Howards End is in the white wicker chest beneath the bedroom window. I think.

Open Book: I bought my copy of Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill (Profile Books) when it was published in the U.S. in early November. It moved to the top of my TBR stack about a week ago.

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