The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffith

Publication: March 2019 (US)

Format: Library hardcover

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Reason I Chose It: I love Griffith’s Ruth Galloway mystery series, and two bloggers I follow loved it (FictionFan and Cleo.)

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book this engaging. I finished it in two days and felt like I really wanted to write about it while it was fresh. You may have noticed that I’ve been scarce around here for a little bit. I’m trying to figure out just exactly what I want my blog to look like. I feel like I need to shake things up. I’m really burned out on writing reviews. They’re not fun for me anymore, they’re more like homework that I want to avoid. I’ve got three finished books for the Classics Club that I’m going to try and write some mini-reviews for, but other than that I think my reviews are going on the back burner.

img_4034Anyway, back to the book. It’s told from the perspectives of three characters: divorced mom and English teacher Clare Cassidy; DS Harbinder Kaur, a detective of Indian descent who still lives at home with her parents at age 35, and Clare’s teenaged daughter Georgie, who loves books and writing but hides this talent from her mother. The setting is Talgarth High, a British high school with a so-so academic reputation and a haunted past. The novel opens with a story within the story, one that Clare teaches to her students regularly, “The Stranger,” by R.M. Holland, who long ago lived in the building where Clare now teaches. It’s a ghost story, a horror story, and it elicits chills from students year after year. Clare takes a break from discussing the story with some adult creative writing students to receive some awful news: her good friend and English department colleague Ella has been murdered. There’s a chilling detail: a line from the Holland story is found on a post-it note near her body. As the police seek the killer and suspect someone connected to the school, Clare turns to writing in her diary for comfort. Only one day she sees that an unknown person has written a message to her in her diary: “Hallo Clare. You don’t know me.”

I loved the Gothic atmosphere of this contemporary standalone British mystery. The ghost story within the story is genuinely spooky, and R.M. Holland’s life story adds another creepy element (his wife is said to have committed suicide in the building and supposedly haunts it.) The three main characters are strong and fully realized, each with secrets they keep from one another. Clare and Georgie’s mother-daughter relationship is very realistic, fraught with tension but fiercely loving all the same. DS Kaur and Clare at first are very suspicious of one another but grow into a nice mutual admiration. There are red herrings everywhere, especially after another person connected to the school is murdered. I genuinely had no clue who the killer was until very late in the book. An unexpected treat was Clare and Georgie’s sweet dog, Herbert. He plays a crucial role in the story and in their family, providing companionship and protection. This is also a book for book lovers: allusions to Harry Potter, Georgette Heyer, Shakespeare, and Wilkie Collins abound.

This was a smart page-turner, keeping me riveted and guessing until the very end. Great characters, atmosphere, and mystery. I’ve only read two other 5-star books so far this year, so I’m thrilled to add one more to the list. If you’ve never read Elly Griffiths before, this would be a the perfect place to start.

 

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The Lottery & Other Stories by Shirley Jackson and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (Classics Club books #8 and #9)

I read two books in the September and October that qualified for both the R.I.P Challenge and my Classics Club listkilling two birds with one stone. I had read Jane Eyre before but it had been since I was about 14 or 15 years old – long enough that it was almost like new to me. The Shirley Jackson had been on my TBR list for quite a while. I’d read her classic story “The Lottery” in high school as well, and was thoroughly chilled. I didn’t know what to expect from the rest of her stories. I’m happy to say that I enjoyed them and was surprised by both books.

51Uz5FayRhL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_First, impressions of Jane Eyre. It’s a classic, and deservedly so. I chose it for the R.I.P. Challenge because I remembered the Gothic feel and the mysterious person (or supernatural being?) who kept making scary things happen at Thornfield House. Turns out what I most remembered about the novel, the part where Jane is employed by Mr. Rochester at Thornfield, is only about a third of the book! I had somehow totally blocked out her horrible childhood, unwanted and unloved by her horrid aunt, Mrs. Reed, and her terrible experiences at the boarding school she was sent to. I also totally forgot about what happens when she is later forced to leave Thornfield. (I’m trying to be vague because I’m sure there are some who haven’t yet read this.) Therefore, the first and last thirds of the novel felt juuuust a smidge overly long. (St. John! Oh my goodness! What a pill!)

I was terribly impressed, however, with how spunky Jane herself was, right from the get-go. She was no shrinking violet but instead a girl and later a young woman who stood up for herself even when it got her into trouble. I admired that. One early exchange between Jane and her aunt particularly impressed me:

“Don’t talk to me about her, John: I told you not to go near her; she is not worthy of notice; I do not choose that either you or your sisters should associate with her.”

Here, leaning over the banister, I cried out suddenly, and without at all deliberating on my words, –

“They are not fit to associate with me!”

And since I reread this for the R.I.P. Challenge, I thought I would offer a creepy passage from the book:

Good God! What a cry!

The night – its silence – its rest, was rent in twain by a savage, a sharp, a shrilly sound that ran from end to end of Thornfield Hall.

My pulse stopped: my heart stood still; my stretched arm was paralysed. The cry died, and was not renewed. Indeed, whatever being uttered that fearful shriek could not soon repeat it: not the widest-winged condor on the Andes could, twice in succession, send out such a yell from the cloud shrouding his eyrie. The thing delivering such utterance must rest ere it could repeat the effort.

All in all, a very enjoyable, romantic, insightful classic novel that I would recommend to everyone, and a perfect choice for autumn reading.                       ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Shirley Jackson has become one of my favorite authors over the last few years. I’ve read The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Bird’s Nest, Hangsaman, and The Sundial. I just have the rest of her short stories, one more novel, and her nonfiction still to read. The Lottery and Other Stories was the only story collection published in Jackson’s lifetime (1949.) Many of these stories are not scary or Gothic in feel like some of her longer fiction. But they are unsettling, often depicting people new in town, people in unfamiliar surroundings, people who don’t quite have a firm hold on reality.89723

There were a few stories that also dealt with racism and “otherness” quite overtly. One of these that impressed me was “After You, My Dear Alphonse.” The title refers to a silly phrase that two young boys, Johnny and his friend Boyd, keep saying to one another as a game. Johnny brings Boyd home for lunch after they’ve been playing outside. Right away, as soon as she sees that Boyd is black, Johnny’s mother Mrs. Wilson starts making assumptions. She scolds Johnny for making Boyd carry in a load of wood, but Johnny responds, “Why shouldn’t he carry the wood, Mother? It’s his wood. We got it at his place.” Then when she serves the boys stewed tomatoes, Johnny tells her he doesn’t want any and that Boyd doesn’t eat them either. Instantly Mrs. Wilson says, “Just because you don’t like them, don’t say that about Boyd. Boyd will eat anything.” She goes on to explain that Boyd wants to grow up to be big and strong so he can work hard, presuming that he will have to work in some sort of manual labor. The assumptions keep piling up, and it becomes almost comical how Boyd thwarts Mrs. Wilson’s expectations at every turn.

 “Sure,” Johnny said. “Boyd’s father works in a factory.”

“There, you see?” Mrs. Wilson said. “And he certainly has to be strong to do that – all that lifting and carrying at a factory.”

“Boyd’s father doesn’t have to,” Johnny said.  “He’s a foreman.”

Mrs.Wilson felt defeated. “What does your mother do, Boyd?”

“My mother?” Boyd was surprised. “She takes care of us kids.”

“Oh. She doesn’t work then?”

“Why should she?” Johnny said through a mouthful of eggs. “You don’t work.”

In the end Mrs. Wilson tries to reinstate her percieved cultural dominance by trying to make Boyd take something he doesn’t want and very politely refuses. Johnny and Boyd leave and go back to playing, shaking their heads at the “screwyness” of mothers. I thought this story was a brilliant depiction of the ways in which racism can show up very subtly – Mrs. Wilson is enlightened enough to have Boyd share a lunch table with her son, but she persists in making assumptions about what Boyd’s life and future will be like. Her growing annoyance at being shown her mistakes portrays that she’s not as enlightened as she might like to think. It’s interesting how relevant this story feels – the insidiousness of subtle racism shows up often in modern life.

As with any collection some stories are better than others. But overall this was a very good read with hardly any clunkers. Jackson skewers conventional mid 20th-century American society with insight and wit, making her reader question the nature of both identity and personal agency. Many of her characters are taken out of familiar places and situations and have to deal with the frightening and confusing consequences. I think I expected a certain kind of story when I approached this collection – stories more in the vein of Hill House or Castle. Instead I was pleasantly surprised to find that Jackson’s range extended even wider than I had imagined.                  ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Have you read either one of these? If not, do they intrigue you?  

 

The Bird’s Nest by Shirley Jackson (20 Books of Summer #16/Classics Club #7)

The Bird’s Nest is the Shirley Jackson’s third novel, published in 1954, and it is just as quirky and oddball as you might expect if you’ve ever read her before. It’s the fifth one I’ve read by her so far and it is my least favorite, but still it is more thought-provoking and entertaining than many novels published today. Jackson has a way of describing human relationships and the human mind that is deliciously off-kilter and insightful. In this tale of a young woman’s deepening mental illness Jackson explores what it means to download (1)be human and how trauma can affect the mind.

Elizabeth Richmond had a corner of an office on the third floor; it was the section of the museum closest , as it were, to the surface, that section where correspondence with the large world outside was carried on freely, where least shelter was offered to cringing scholarly souls. At Elizabeth’s desk on the highest floor of the building, in the most western corner of the office, she sat daily answering letters offering the museum collections of pressed flowers, or old sea-chests brought back from Cathay. It is not proven that Elizabeth’s person equilibrium was set off balance by the slant of the office floor, nor could it be proven that if was Elizabeth who pushed the building off its foundations, but it is undeniable that the began to slip at about the same time.

Living with her aunt Morgen and working in a hum-drum job at a museum, Elizabeth starts experiencing perplexing and frightening symptoms, like losing gaps of time and horrendous headaches and backaches. She also starts receiving threatening notes at the museum. Her aunt takes her to a doctor, who recommends a psychiatrist, Dr. Wright. Dr. Wright suggests hypnosis to try and get at the root of the problem, as “Miss R” (the doctor’s initial name for Elizabeth) insists there’s nothing wrong with her. When he puts her under hypnosis for the first time, Dr. Wright sees something that leaves him shaken:

…I wonder, though, how I ever thought her handsome. Because she was not, I saw, at all handsome, and as I watched her in horror, the smile upon her soft lips coarsened, and became sensual and gross, her eyelids fluttered in an attempt to open, her hands twisted together violently, and she laughed, evilly and roughly, throwing her head back and shouting, and I, seeing a devil’s mask where a moment before I had seen Miss R.’s soft face, thought only, it cannot be Miss R.; this is not she.

Little by little the hypnosis starts revealing that Elizabeth’s personality has split into four distinct personas: Elizabeth, Betsy, Beth, and Bess. There is a hinted trauma in Elizabeth’s past involving her mother, which Dr. Wright thinks is perhaps the origin of her mental illness. One section of the book is narrated by Betsy, who is the most lively and interesting personality. She takes off for New York City trying to find her mother. This was one of my favorite parts of the book because I had no clue where the story was going, and Betsy experiencing total freedom and control of the other personalities was entertaining, like a naive child out in the world for the first time.

I won’t spoil any more of the plot but I’ll just mention that Dr. Wright himself occupies a large share of the book, and he’s really not the most interesting character. He likes to hear himself talk and Jackson gives him too much of the book’s real estate. He’s not malevolent but instead self-important and irritating. Betsy aptly calls him “Dr. Wrong.”

If you’ve never read Jackson before I wouldn’t start with this one. It could use a bit of editing and Jackson honed her craft as she wrote more, becoming better at characterization and narrative drive. However, if you are already a Jackson fan and want to read everything she’s written, you will probably enjoy this, if for nothing else than to see the ways in which her skills developed over time. It is a strange exploration of identity and I liked it.

Elizabeth spoke very slowly, feeling her way. “What he’s going to have when he’s through is a new Elizabeth Richmond, with her mind. She will think and eat and hear and walk and take baths. Not me. I’ll maybe be a part of her, but I won’t know it – she will.”

“I don’t get it,” said Morgen.

“Well,” said Elizabeth, “when she does all the thinking and knowing, won’t I be… dead?”

“Oh, now, look,” said Morgen, and then sat helplessly, facing the definition of annihilation.

(This is the 16th book from my 20 Books of Summer list and the 7th book from my Classics Club list. I know that today – Labor Day in the U.S. – marks the official end to 20 Books of Summer, but I have one more review to post. Expect my thoughts on George Saunders’s short story collection CivilWarLand in Decline sometime later this week.)

R.I.P. XIII – It’s almost time!

twitter-avatar-2Since it’s almost September, it’s time to post about my sign-up for the annual R.I.P. Challenge! This will be my third time participating in this VERY low-pressure “challenge.” You all know me, I don’t do so well with challenges that have very strict rules! So I encourage you, if you enjoy reading books or stories (or watching movies) that are creepy, thrilling, mysterious, supernatural, suspenseful, spooky, Gothic, or anything resembling those words, to sign up for the challenge!

You can find the details here.

The challenge starts Sept. 1 and runs through October 31.

There are different levels of participation. I’ll be choosing Peril the Second (Read two books of any length that fits within the R.I.P. definition.)

I’m not 100% sure what I’ll be reading yet, but strong contenders are a reread of Jane Eyre, which I’ve been meaning to read again for years now, and a short story collection by Shirley Jackson – either Dark Tales or The Lottery and Other Stories, both of which I own. But something else might catch my eye in the next few weeks.

Will you participate in the R.I.P. Challenge? 

 

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (Classics Club #1)

A sense of purpose, strange and sweet to him, carried him along in an irresistible current. Merely in gazing out the window, he felt a new coordination of mind and eye. He began to realize what he intended to so. He was on his way to do a murder which not only would fulfill a desire of years, but would benefit a friend. It made Bruno very happy to do things for his friends. And his victim deserved her fate. Think of all the other good guys he would save from ever knowing her! The realization of his importance dazzled his mind, and for a long moment he felt completely and happily drunk. 

51eqhnR+VGL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_My first pick from my Classics Club list was a good one. Patricia Highsmith’s debut novel Strangers on a Train was a creepy, tense, psychological read. I had watched the Hitchcock film for the first time a few months ago, and wasn’t quite impressed. I found it overly long and lacking in star charisma. The book was better in my opinion, because it gives the reader a more revealing look into the minds of both its main characters, Charles Bruno and Guy Haines. Tension builds slowly as both men become more and more unhinged.

Guy and Bruno meet on a train to Metcalf, TX, where Guy’s mother lives. Bruno is on his way to meet his own mother in Sante Fe. Bruno is pushy and lonely, fueled by alcohol, and convinces Guy to dine with him in his private drawing room. There he regales Guy with tales of how unfairly he’s treated by his father, who controls the purse-strings and disapproves of Bruno’s gadabout, lazy ways. Guy humors and observes him, and when Bruno tells him he’s committed a robbery, Guy believes him.

Bruno could be violent. He could be insane, too. Despair, Guy thought, not insanity. The desperate boredom of the wealthy, that he often spoke of to Anne. It tended to destroy rather than create. And it could lead to crime as easily as privation.

51YICz8X2yL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Bruno gets Guy to open up about his own troubles, the fact that he’s trying to get his unfaithful wife Miriam to divorce him (partly so he can move on with his girlfriend, Anne, which he doesn’t tell Bruno at the time.) So Bruno offers what he considers an unbeatable idea: Bruno will murder Miriam and Guy can return the favor by murdering his father. They just met on the train, after all, so there will be nothing to connect them to one another in the investigations. A foolproof plan, right?

I don’t want to spoil any of the developments in case you’ve neither seen the movie nor read the book. As the two men’s lives become more entangled and things go awry, Highsmith does an excellent job conveying the deteriorating mental conditions of both men. Bruno is practically in love with Guy, hounding him for attention and friendship. Guy is repelled by Bruno and wants nothing to do with him but can’t seem to be able to tell Anne or the police what’s going on. At one point Bruno sends him letters detailing how Guy should carry out the murder of his father. Then he burns them, thinking no one would believe him. I exasperatedly wrote in my notes, “IDIOT!” But of course, if he had gone to the police, the novel would have ended at about 130 pages. Bruno keeps tightening the screws on Guy until he becomes a sleepless, depressed mess, and then…

Despite the ingenious plot device at the beginning, I wouldn’t say this was a plot-driven novel. It’s more of an interior, psychological character study of two men – one with an alcohol problem and deep-seated mental problems that reveal themselves over time and one who is seemingly “normal” but is slowly driven mad by guilt and secrets and perhaps his own unacknowledged rage.  It reminded me in a way of the standalone novels I’ve read by Ruth Rendell, one of my favorite mystery writers. She has a way of making unlikable and possibly deranged characters at the very least understandable. Highsmith wasn’t quite there yet, in my opinion, with this debut novel, but the quality of the writing and the depth of the main characters elevate it to four stars in my eyes. Can anyone really be capable of murder, as Bruno believes?

Have you read this or seen the film? Have you read any other of Patricia Highsmith’s novels?

Dead Scared by S.J. Bolton (Lacey Flint series #2)

Jesus, what was I thinking? I had no idea how to be an undercover officer. SO10 trained its officers rigorously. The programme was tough and not everyone who applied made it through. Whilst it wasn’t unusual for run-of-the-mill detectives to go undercover, they were rarely sent into situations that lasted any amount of time. Besides, I’d joined the Met to work on serious crimes against women. If I spent the next few months off the grid, I could miss the chance to transfer to one of the specialist units. Why had I agreed?

Like I needed the answer to that one. I was doing it for Joesbury.

13120860Here is a mystery series on which I have become good and hooked. S.J. Bolton knows how to write a page-turner. Dead Scared is set in the academic world of Cambridge, where an alarming trend of grisly apparent suicides and suicide attempts has set the University on edge. Most of the victims are attractive young women, and DC Lacey Flint is recruited to pose undercover as a student. The police think that perhaps someone is encouraging these vulnerable young women to end their lives, perhaps on an online chat room. What Flint uncovers is much darker than she ever imagined.

As with the first in the series, Now You See Me, Bolton includes some nice misdirection; I was sure that a certain character, to whom Lacey feels attracted, had something to do with the deaths. There is also an interesting secondary character, a professor named Dr. Evie Oliver, head of student counseling, who forms a bond with Lacey and is the only person on campus who knows that she is a detective. She’s treated some of the young women involved and feels a great interest in the investigation.  While Lacey is trying to settle into the routines of academic life, including a frightening episode of hazing (which actually disturbed me a great deal) involving a bucket of water on a cold night, Dr. Oliver is dealing with creepy things going on in her university-owned home. Pinecones (which hold significance for her) being left in a neat line in her driveway and in a pile on her dining room table, a wind-up “bone-man” going off in an upstairs closet, threatening message left in the steam of her bathroom mirror. But the police, for various reasons, don’t seem to exactly believe her. Things get scary for Lacey as well, as she deals with her feelings of inadequacy in the academic environment and starts having some vivid, terrifying dreams that feel all too real.

There is a tremendous sense of menace throughout this novel. While reading at night, I had to put the book down in a few places and wait to read it the next day in the safety and bright lights of my workplace break room! And I will warn you, the apparent suicides and attempts are very dark and gruesome. I normally don’t really go for stuff like that, but this series is so well-written and the relationship between the two main detectives, Lacey and DI Mark Joesbury, is so full of complicated and repressed attraction that I can’t help but be drawn in. I would say that if you’d not read the first in the series, you could still jump in with this one and be fine; there’s just enough allusion to the backstory that you’d feel up to speed and the plot is so engrossing you wouldn’t care. If you like British mysteries and can tolerate darker plot lines, I recommend you give these a try.

Be Buried in the Rain by Barbara Michaels

I read a lot of Barbara Michaels and Victoria Holt in high school; both are authors who wrote Gothic style novels, the former more contemporary and the latter historical fiction.  For this year’s RIP Challenge (it’s November 1 – I’m sliding in with this review just a day late!) I chose Michaels’ 1985 novel, Be Buried in the Rain.  I chose it because I didn’t think I’d read it back in the day, and frankly, because it was short.  I also wanted some mind candy.

140455I got what I came for!  It starts off with an unsettling event – a local driver finding two skeletons in the middle of the road, dressed in moldy clothing from someone’s attic – one dressed as a woman, and a much smaller set of bones belonging to a baby.  Then we meet our heroine, medical student Julie Newcomb, the granddaughter of a mean old matriarch named Martha.  Martha has had a series of strokes and needs constant care but refuses to leave Maidenwood, the family home in Virginia that’s seen much better days. Julie’s mother persuades her to stay with her for the summer, relieving the live-in nurse, Shirley Johnson, during the afternoons and evenings.  Martha’s horrible, and Julie only agreed to take the job out of guilt and the fact that her cousin Matt, a state senator, is paying her.  She has nothing but bad memories of the few years she lived at Maidenwood as a child when her mother was trying to rebuild her life after a divorce.

There’s a remote possibility that the remains might be related to a very early British settlement connected to Jamestown, and, coincidentally, Julie’s former flame, archaeologist Alan Petranek, is the one Matt called in to dig on the property in search of more evidence!  Alan, honestly, is a non-entity.  He’s supposed to be handsome, tan, an Indiana Jones type, but he’s kind of insufferable if you ask me.  There was a beef between Julie and Alan from back in the day, so they trade barbs in the beginning, but then all too quickly the old attraction begins to flare up.  It’s all pretty chaste, which is probably why it made for good reading in high school.

51QYxQl9fyL._SX308_BO1,204,203,200_So there’s the mystery of the bones – who disinterred them?  Where did they come from? How old are they and who are they?  Is there really evidence of a historical British settlement?  There’s also a lot of family drama between Julie and Martha.  Julie starts having flashbacks of repressed traumatic memories from her childhood years spent at Maidenwood.  As Julie starts to dig deeper into the mystery, helping Alan and his grad student team, spooky and threatening things start happening to her.  She adopts a dog, a stray mutt she christens Elvis, and he’s a fun addition to the story.  (There’s even an incident in which Elvis himself becomes the target of an unknown would-be assassin.) Could the super-strictly religious housekeeper and her husband be behind the threats? Could it be the son of the nurse?  Or could Alan himself be behind some of the hijinks?  Everyone seems to be a suspect at some point. There’s a lot of small-town Southern family secrecy and gossip.  Julie herself is a likable character, feisty and strong in ways that I wasn’t sure a 23 year-old student would realistically be.  But I enjoyed her and rooted for her to slay her inner demons, stand up to Martha, and solve the mystery.

This was a good choice for an atmospheric, gently spooky Fall read.  The very last page introduces a supernatural element that was alluded to but not explicitly portrayed in the rest of the novel, which makes for a fun new way to reconsider what’s happened.  If you’ve never read Barbara Michaels before and you want some light, Gothic entertainment, give this one a try.

(Note:  Barbara Michaels is pen name for Barbara Mertz, who also wrote under the pseudonym Elizabeth Peters – she wrote the Amelia Peabody mystery series.  Mertz was an Egyptologist!)  You can read more about her here.)