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.)

Advertisements

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Don’t you LOVE it when you read a classic novel and it turns out to be AMAZING?  And you wonder what on earth took you so long to pick it up?  My first book for the RIP Challenge is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, a book that many of you have read and loved and one I have been meaning to read for quite some time.

517mee7CTTL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Romantic, that was the word I had tried to remember coming up in the lift.  Yes, of course.  Romantic.  That was what people would say.  It was all very sudden and romantic.  They suddenly decided to get married and there it was.  Such an adventure.  I smiled to myself as I hugged my knees on the window seat, thinking how wonderful it was, how happy I was going to be.  I was to marry the man I loved.  I was to be Mrs. de Winter.  It was foolish to go on having that pain in the pit of my stomach.

 

For those who haven’t read it, here’s the (very brief) synopsis from Goodreads:

The novel begins in Monte Carlo, where our heroine is swept off her feet by the dashing widower Maxim de Winter and his sudden proposal of marriage. Orphaned and working as a lady’s maid, she can barely believe her luck. It is only when they arrive at his massive country estate that she realizes how large a shadow his late wife will cast over their lives–presenting her with a lingering evil that threatens to destroy their marriage from beyond the grave.

When we first meet our heroine, we know that she is the wife of Maxim de Winter, and we know that something ominous has happened to their former home, Manderley.  It’s in the third chapter that we learn how the nameless second Mrs. de Winter came to be married to the much older, richer, and more sophisticated Maxim. From the get-go she is full of self-doubt and anxiety about her relationship with Maxim.  He is not exactly a reassuring figure, and we learn early on that he is tortured by something traumatic in his past having to do with this previous wife.  Mrs. Van Hopper, the lady our unnamed heroine serves before she marries Maxim, tells her that Rebecca drowned in a tragic boating accident a year before.

Once our heroine is at Manderley, she is adrift in the role of mistress of the manor. Echoes of Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife, are everywhere, from the rhododendrons outside and the treasured pieces assembled in the morning room to the rhythms of housekeeping and the daily routine.  Our poor heroine doesn’t even get a tour of the whole mansion from her new husband, nor does he give her any hint as to how to run the household.  Add to that the severe, malevolent head housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, who was unnervingly devoted to Rebecca and it’s no wonder our poor heroine is terrified of making the wrong move and feels that all the staff are laughing at her inexperience.

After a bit of a slow start (really just the part before she marries Maxim,) I devoured this book.  I loved how timeless it felt.  I loved the slowly building atmosphere of tension and suspense, from the opening dream sequence chapter to the momentous costume party and beyond.  I found our unnamed narrator to be incredibly sympathetic.  How many of us have been in love with someone who didn’t match our intensity, who continually disappointed us and left us wanting, but we were desperate to hang on to him, so we forgave and made excuses again and again?  I loved the plot twists that kept coming in the second half of the novel.  At one point my jaw literally dropped; I looked at my husband sitting next to me on the couch and said, “Oh my gosh! I didn’t see that coming!”  I absolutely loved the writing.  The dialogue sparkled and the detailed description of the house and the grounds made Manderley come alive.  I loved this description of the library when our heroine first sees it:

Whatever air came to this room, whether from the garden or from the sea, would lose its first freshness, becoming part of the unchanging room itself, one with the books, musty and never read, one with the scrolled ceiling, the dark paneling, the heavy curtains.

It was an ancient mossy smell, the smell of a silent church where services are seldom held, where rusty lichen grows upon the stones and ivy tendrils creep to the very windows.  A room for peace, a room for meditation.

Our heroine is not just a young, naive dunderhead, however; she continued to surprise me with her contemplative observations on life, such as this one when she meets Maxim’s grandmother, Beatrice, for the first time.

I thought how little we know about the feelings of old people.  Children we understand, their fears and hopes and make-believe.  I was a child yesterday.  I had not forgotten.  But Maxim’s grandmother, sitting there in her shawl with her poor blind eyes, what did she feel, what was she thinking?  Did she know that Beatrice was yawning and glancing at her watch?  Did she guess that we had come to visit her because we felt it right, it was a duty, so that when she got home afterwards Beatrice would be able to say, “Well, that clears my conscience for three months?”

I have deliberately avoided writing about anything that happens in the last half of the book because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it yet.  But Rebecca is an absolute gem.  It’s quite possibly the perfect book for chilly Autumn nights.  It’s an exciting, suspenseful mystery layered within a atmospheric, Gothic romance.  I am eager now to read more of Daphne du Maurier’s novels – I had no idea she’d written so many!  And when I publish this post I’m going to pop in the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock movie version with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.  I’m excited to see how it compares!

Have you read Rebecca or seen the film?  What is a classic novel that it seems everyone else has read but you?  What makes you choose to read a classic rather than a newer book?  Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders

Sometimes it’s nice to not have the weight of expectations behind an author’s newest work.  I’ve only read one book by George Saunders, his breakout short story collection Tenth of December.  (I loved that, by the way.)  So coming into his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, I didn’t have all the expectations that someone who’d read and loved his other three short story collections and novella might.  I just knew from reading December that he had the capability to make me cry and make me laugh and terrify me in the span of 300 pages.  I knew that he has one of the most inventive voices in modern fiction, as well as one of the most humane.97808129953431

I was only slightly aware of Bardo’s premise: President Abraham Lincoln, a year or so into the Civil War, distraught over the death of his beloved young son Willie, ventures to the crypt where he is laid to rest to visit his son’s body.  Various spirits, including Willie’s, talk and swirl around Lincoln. “Bardo” is a Buddhist term for the spiritual state between death and rebirth.  That’s all I knew going in.  When I type that it seems kind of weird and morbid and, frankly, kind of boring.  But knowing what a master Saunders is, I knew I wanted to give it a try.

I’m so glad I did.

It’s a difficult novel to describe.  The structure took a little while for me to settle into.  I wasn’t exactly sure who was speaking in the first chapter (turns out it’s two spirits in the graveyard,) and then the next few chapters chronicle a White House state dinner that President Lincoln and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln are having, while the country is at war and while Willie and his brother Todd are both lying in bed very ill.  These chapters are comprised of snippets of facts and first-hand accounts from people who were there or who wrote of the dinner.  Saunders uses this technique to give a framework to the novel and inform the casual student of history of what was happening in the country at the time.  It was disorienting at first but I grew to appreciate it as a way to ground the more fantastical, imaginative elements of the novel.

We meet many, many spirits while we are in the cemetery, including a drug-addicted, foul-mouthed couple who bemoan the fact that their children never visit them, a prodigious hunter who has had a change of heart and is atoning for his kills, and an anxious mother who is convinced that her husband can’t be trusted to raise her children. All of the spirits here are tethered to the world for some reason, and they don’t seem to understand that they are dead. Young people who linger are particularly in danger, for if they don’t move on to the next realm quickly, they become ghastly, gruesome vessels of anguish, chained to the cemetery forever.  Three spirits emerge as main characters:  Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins, and the Reverend Everly Thomas.  We get to know each of these spirits very well over the course of the book, and they valiantly work together to try and shepherd young Willie Lincoln to the next spiritual level before it’s too late.  In trying to help him they are also figuring out things about their own spiritual predicaments.

This book may hold the record for The Most Times Laila Cried While Reading.  I picked it up and put it down dozens of times in the first half just because I didn’t want to sob in the break room at work during lunch.  So it took me a week to read it.  But once I got into the second half of the book, it flew.  I couldn’t put it down.  I still sobbed, but I knew I could handle it, because it was going somewhere that felt… satisfying and authentic.  This is a book about a father learning to let go of his beloved child and simultaneously coming to a deeper understand of all the other parents losing beloved sons to the horrors of the Civil War.  It’s about how human beings contrive all sorts of ways to forget that all the people we hold most dear will one day die, and that one day we will too.  It’s about loving and letting go, and helping others along that difficult path.  It was bawdy, quirky, heartbreaking, and utterly astonishing in its agility and scope.  It’s one of those kinds of books that I like to say are “about everything.”  For me, it’s about life itself.   It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read.  George Saunders is full of compassion for his characters and for his readers, even though he may put us through the emotional wringer.  Don’t let my emotional state put you off reading this.  I’m a huge cry-baby!  I fully admit it!  I have a Goodreads shelf called “Sad But Worth It,” and Lincoln in the Bardo is definitely on that shelf.  Although it’s only March, I’m confident than this will be on my year-end Best Of list.

 

R.I.P. Challenge: White Is For Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

My second pick for the R.I.P. Challenge is Helen Oyeyemi’s White Is For Witching, and I loved it.  I’m not sure I fully understood it, or even that it is a book than can be fully understood, but I’m okay with that.

6277227It’s the story of teenage twins, Miranda and Eliot, both about to graduate the British version of high school and embark on their lives as adults.  It’s also the story of a house in Dover, England, the house where the twins live with their father, Luc, who runs a bed and breakfast there.  And it is also the story of Ore, a young black woman adopted and raised by white parents, who meets Miranda at Cambridge.  It’s told from multiple perspectives, including one from the (malevolent) house itself.

One evening she pattered around inside me, sipping something strong that wedged colour into her cheeks, and she dragged all my windows open, putting her glass down to struggle with the stiffer latches.  I cried and cried for an hour or so, unable to bear the sound of my voice, so shrill and pleading, but unable to stop the will of the wind wheeling through me, cold in my insides.  That was the first and last time I’ve heard my own voice.  I suppose I am frightening.  But Anna Good couldn’t hear me.  When she closed me up again it was only because she was too cold.  Most nights she went with the moon, and when it was round she stayed in my biggest bedroom and wouldn’t answer the thing that asked her to let it out

(let you out from where?

let me out from the small, the hot, the take me out of the fire i am ready i am hard like the stones you ate, bitter like those husks)

Miranda suffers from a condition called pica, in which people compulsively eat non-food items; apparently all the women in her mother’s lineage suffered from it as well.  her favorite thing to eat is chalk.  She suffered from it even before her mother Lily’s death, but her mental and physical health take a dramatic turn for the worse after Lily dies. She can’t sleep.  Her brother and father are aware of her condition but are powerless to stop her from harming herself.  Eliot feels the full weight of responsibility for her, since Lily is gone and Luc is pretty much going through the motions of parenting.  After defending Miranda from a serious accusation of violence, the reader sees him sag under the pressure.51ggkdnfrdl

The duty to speak when Miri couldn’t, to make sense when she didn’t.  I checked that no one was around, then put my forehead to my locker and stood against it like a plank, with all my weight in my head.  I stood like that until I stopped feeling like breaking something.  Otherwise I could snap the Biros in my pocket, go into the nearest empty classroom and slam the chairs into the bookshelves, then what?  Go home and smash Lily’s camera?  Thank you, Lily, for leaving me in charge of someone I just can’t be responsible for.  She won’t forget or recover, she is inconsolable.

As the house divulges information about the women in Miranda’s family, it also describes terrifying acts it performs on guests at the B&B.  People who work there feel the evil presence. The house does not like that Miranda has gone away to school.  It does not like that Miranda has a special relationship with Ore.  Ore comes to visit her on a school break and strange and scary things happen to her as well. Miranda knows that something is very wrong, something that she is not strong enough to escape from.  The ending is sad, unsettling, and decidedly ambiguous, with a strong sense of magical realism.

I found myself more engaged with and moved by this novel than by the only other Oyeyemi book I’ve read, Boy, Snow, Bird, which I appreciated but didn’t love.  I will be seeking out the rest of Oyeyemi’s books for sure – she is a strikingly original author.  This is the quintessential October book, equal parts sad and creepy: a mystery, a ghost story, and a haunting love story all at once.  An excellent choice for my first R.I.P.!