Reading: 2 Books, 2 Very Different Killers

In this post I discuss two novels featuring murderers made by childhoods spent with flawed mothers, both killing (or, trying to) in an effort at mercy. The first of these novels is by seasoned, treasured, much awarded author, Alice McDermott, and the second is a debut novel by Ali Land.

The Ninth Hour, Alice McDermott, Hardcover, 256pp, September 2017, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

In the early part of the twentieth century in the Irish Catholic community in Brooklyn, a man’s suicide leaves his pregnant wife to make a life alone for herself and her daughter, the as yet unborn Sally, around whom the remembered story is built. Sister St. Saviour comes upon the scene of the gas oven suicide and resultant fire and begins her efforts to live up to her chosen name, from trying to hide the cause of death so the dead husband might be buried in hallowed ground, to finding work at the convent for the pregnant widow, Annie, who ends up in the laundry room as assistant to curmudgeonly Sister Illuminata, who, along with the other nuns, helps raise Sally from an infant asleep in a basket in the laundry room to a young woman who thinks she hears the calling to serve as sister herself.

There is no question but that Alice McDermott is an author prodigiously gifted at vividly rendered miniatures, delicate, detailed captures of circumstance, character, reality, and emotion that coalesce into a panorama of the human heart. Too, her facility for prose bordering on poetry combined with sentences of such shocking accuracy and truth one nearly gasps with recognition, make for a reading experience akin to literary love-making. Listen:

 

While Annie and Sister Jeanne knelt, Sister St. Saviour blessed herself and considered the sin of her deception, slipping a suicide into hallowed ground. A man who had rejected his life, the love of this brokenhearted girl, the child coming to them in the summer. She said to God, who knew her thoughts, Hold it against me if You will. He could put this day on the side of the ledger where all her sins were listed: the hatred she felt for certain politicians, the money she stole from her own basket to give out as she pleased — to a girl with a raging clap, to the bruised wife of a drunk, to the mother of the thumb-sized infant she had wrapped in a clean handkerchief, baptized, and then buried in the convent garden. All the moments of how many days when her compassion failed, her patience failed, when her love for God’s people could not outrun the girlish alacrity of her scorn for their stupidity, their petty sins.

 

That is undeniably beautiful writing, possessed of a rhythm and music, a few sentences, sculpted into the story of a woman’s soul and life. By the same token, Alice McDermott can sketch with one short sentence everything we need know about a character, as she does about the less introspective, more rigid Sister Lucy:

 

All joy was thin ice to Sister Lucy.

 

That is laugh out loud funny. Especially if one has spent any time in one’s life with nuns. There are the Sister St. Saviour variety and the Sister Lucy variety and Alice McDermott limns both and the experience of the devoted Catholic life with expertise, sympathy, insight, and wisdom. In particular, especially in The Ninth Hour, she explores the conflict between the tenets of the faith as taught by the church, and the challenges of real life, where circumstances sometimes render the commands of the church impractical to impossible to cruel. Alice McDermott explores the compromises made by the faithful and the cost of believing, the burden of sacrifice, and the malleable nature of the definition of right and wrong, what, exactly — or more aptly, inexactly, defines sin.

I don’t want to spoil the plot, so I’ll only say characters struggle with that existential moment when murder becomes mercy and whether or not the act can ever be forgiven, excused, justified.

All of the qualities Alice McDermott brings to her work make it always worth reading, and The Ninth Hour is no different. However, I found its structure to be problematic. The time jumping as the narrator told a tale passed down through a few generations made it difficult to keep track of characters, who was what to whom when, and the perspective wavering between reverie and documentary was jarring for me. A mosaic is a beautiful thing, and I appreciate the technique, but I felt there was a lack of clarity in the voice because of the piecemeal way the story was told, by which I mean I think the framework made the through-line more difficult to follow than was necessary.

Good Me Bad Me, Ali Land, Hardcover, 338pp, January 2017, Penguin Books Ltd

From Alice McDermott and her Catholic milieu to debut novelist Ali Land and her adolescent mental health mise en scene is less a leap than one might think; this novel also deals with a child brought up in unusual circumstances who is faced with a moral quandary.

Let me begin by saying that the absence of a comma in the title of this novel near drove me to distraction. Then, about three-quarters of the way through reading the book, it came to me that perhaps the author insisted that the point of the story was that there was no clear delineation between the good me and the bad me and so to place a comma in the title would be a betrayal of the gist, the heart of the story. Maybe, maybe not or should I say maybe maybe not?  Whichever, I’m going with it.

Annie, 15, has been re-named Milly and placed with a foster family to be therapized before the trial of her serial killer, sexually abusive mother who Annie/Milly turned in for the murder of nine children to which she was witness. Milly’s foster family — psychiatrist dad Mike, overseeing her therapy, and his wife, Saskia, who turns out to have troubles of her own, and their mean girl daughter, Phoebe, who makes it her business to torture and bully Milly, about whose true identity she knows nothing when Annie/Milly arrives — need therapy of their own, plagued by problems Annie/Milly is likely to make worse with her presence.

This is a thriller, one of those page-turners where the past is presented in teasing drips and drabs, and the reader is given to fear along with Annie/Milly whether or not she can escape her mother’s influence, damage, and genetic contribution to who she is, who she might become, and whether any of this will be found out by those in her life.

This is a dark, twisted, creepy tale, compellingly written, very fast-moving, with what sounds a very authentic troubled-adolescent voice which one assumes can be credited to Ali Land’s work as a child and adolescent mental health nurse. Which, like the missing comma in the title, bothered me, because in a world which is currently so full of horrors, hatreds, and monsters, I worried and wondered just how much of the story could be all too real, based on abhorrent, abominable, tragic real-life stories Ali Land was exposed to as a mental health nurse.

So, there it is: a fast read but more than a little disturbing. If you, like me, are given nightmares by child-in-danger stories and ambiguous endings, this is not the novel for you. If you, on the other hand, are not sensitive to that sort of thing and enjoy nothing more than a fast, what’s next, bet I can guess, ohmygod read, this is the book for you.

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And there we have it my friends, my two latest reads which — as is so often the case — were somehow connected in theme, all without my knowledge or planning; they both happened to come up on my library hold-list at the same time.

I’m heading into non-fiction next, it’s been too long and the book was recommended by a trusted friend, so, when I return I will be talking about The Woman Who Smashed Codes, which I’m beginning as soon as I finish this, bake a cake, and make Sunday dinner for my mom and sister. So, those things are not going to take care of themselves, thus, here I am, going.

P.S. SELF-PROMOTION: I’ve jumped up 10,000+ spots in rankings at Amazon as reviewer to 21,927! [CLICK HERE]! Only last week I was 33,000-something! If you like my recounting of my book reading, and my respect for the art of writing and publishing, it would be great if you could LIKE my Amazon and GoodReads reviews. Too, liking books on Amazon helps the author, helps their numbers and rankings in the mysterious algorithm that is Amazon sales and promotions. So, help the literary world out. Like me. Like books. Now, really, here I am, going.

 

 

 

Reading: “Unforgivable Love” (and a forgivable absence)

Thanks to Glenda Burgess and Paula Garner, I’m back. What’s that? You didn’t notice I was gone? Well, I was, and I read quite a few books since last I book-blogged on September 17 — thirteen. While I didn’t write about them here, I did so on my GoodReads & Amazon accounts. (Click HERE for my Amazon Profile link, where all my reviews can be found.)

But, before I get to how Glenda and Paula brought me back from the depths, and my thoughts about my latest good-read, Unforgivable Love by Sophfronia Scott, I want to briefly discuss and link to my full reviews of the highlights from those I’ve read while not blogging.

First, the 5th installment in Susan Elia MacNeal’s Maggie Hope Mysteries, Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante. (Click HERE for my full review.) I love this series. I love Susan Elia MacNeal’s writing. I love the way she manages to weave history into compelling plots, using characters I have grown to love, and, too, skillfully addressing modern issues while remaining true to the World War 2 period during which Maggie lives. If you’ve not read these, please do, and start at #1. There are seven so far and while I have numbers 6 and 7, I’m rationing. Or, trying to.

Next one worth a look is Christodora by Tim Murphy which was recommended by Garth Greenwell, need I say more? Maybe a little. Hopping in time from the 1980’s at the beginning of the AIDS crisis to the 2000’s and the lives of those left, and, too, those who barely register the horror of the epidemic’s beginning or the strides made because of the work of those activists forged in fury from the struggle. Moving. Wrenching, even. (Click HERE for my full review.)

And, too, a five-star work of real brilliance, John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies. This book has it all. Beautiful prose, breathtaking sentences, incisive emotional landscaping, laugh out loud wit and subtle satire, and such intricate, page-turning plotting. It really is quite fantastic. (Click HERE for my full review.)

Finally, for a sweet, fast, heartwarming read, I recommend How To Find Love In A Bookshop, by Veronica Henry. A daughter inherits her father’s labor of love bookshop and from near ruin comes many a happy ending for nearly every character. You’ll feel like you’re part of the village in which it takes place, and you’ll smile. That’s more than enough nowadays, don’t you think? (Click HERE for my full review.)

So then, 400 words later, here I am, going on to the book I finished just last night.

Unforgivable Love; A Retelling of Dangerous Liaisons, Sophfronia Scott, Paperback, 528pp, September 2017, William Morrow Paperbacks

First, only fair to admit, I love unto the point of obsession all iterations of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, although I’ve not read the 1782 French original (and if you have, well, touch you) and lean rather more toward the 1999 re-telling,Cruel Intentions,  featuring Ryan Phillippe’s ass and his uncovering of the gay-sex between the characters played by Eric Mabius and Joshua Jackson.

Ryan Phillippe’s ass

Eric Mabius and Joshua Jackson, in bed, being blackmailed by Ryan Phillippe in CRUEL INTENTIONS

Thus, when I read about this novel in People Magazine, its premise of Dangerous Liaisons re-told in 1940’s Harlem appealed to me, promising to be something I’d eagerly devour. Of course, I’ve been fooled before. Like a junkie, I read the book pages in any magazine I can get my hands on, and while I’m not a fan of People — and that sentence is another blog entirely — my sister subscribes and I tear out the book page and read all the quick-synopses, frequently suckered in by a good press-representative spin. All too often I then find myself starting one of these books and saying, WHAT THE HELL WERE THEY TALKING ABOUT/WHO PAID THEM OFF – THIS IS AWFUL!

Luckily, with Unforgivable Love, that was not the case.

Sophfronia Scott’s writing vividly brings to life a period, a Zeitgeist, a social milieu, and emotional landscapes with attention to detail in scene painting and the interiority of characters’ thoughts, all contributing to a portrait of a historical time, place, and people whose lives and behaviors resonate in the now.

The story is told in close-third, from the point-of-view of four main voices, Mae Malveaux, Val “Valiant” Jackson, Elizabeth Townsend, and Cecily Vaughn.

Mae Malveaux is the reincarnation in this tale of the original’s Marquise de Merteuil, a character who can easily come off as irredeemably loathsome and cruel. In this retelling, she is given a backstory which means to explain her cold as ice manipulations and calculated ruination of others, but, in the end, the author allows the character to remain unlikable, her malevolence grounded in her psychoses but never excused; the reader feels some empathy for her but not sympathy, which is as it should be. As one character says, “I don’t know what good can come of anything that woman does….Still,….she is family and so I pray for her.” What is refreshing in Sophronia Scott’s version is that Mae is not demonized for her embrace of her sexuality. Her easy carnality is not portrayed as a character flaw, as is so often the case when writing about women (or, people, but, mostly, women) and it is not that which leads to her ultimate downfall.

Val is the tale’s iteration of the original’s Vicomte de Valmont, and here he is far more sympathetic from the beginning than he is in other tellings of the tale. Despite his being an inveterate and unapologetic hound with a sketchy past and income from illegal sources, who uses and tosses aside women like chattel, he is early on imbued with a conscience and questioning of what it is he has done, is doing, and what it does to others. Though he plays at faith as a tool of seduction, it reaches him, touches him, and manages to change him by opening his mind to ways of thinking he’d not previously explored. More than any other character, Val arcs and grows.

There is a great deal of faith in the story, the church and its ministers play a role in the story, especially in the denouement, but there is nothing preachy or pontifical, rather, Christian faith and community are central to the lives of some of the characters.

The most faith-driven of the main characters is Elizabeth Townsend, who might have been a minister had her world been different and had she not been raised to cede control of her life to first her father, then her husband, Kyle, a civil rights lawyer who is largely absent from her life and the narrative as he is off fighting fights in the deep South. Val is challenged by Mae to seduce and corrupt the faithful and pious Elizabeth, she who has not ever fully explored nor embraced her own truth, her true desires — desires on all levels, ambition, emotion, and sexual. It is in pursuit of a victory in overcoming Elizabeth’s reluctance to live and feel that both Val and Elizabeth are permanently shaken, altered, brought to awarenesses that have the power to destroy them.

Mae also sics Val on her young relative, Cecily, whose sexuality and self-awareness are nascent but bubbling to the surface, craving release. Val aims to corrupt her, part of Mae’s plot of revenge against a past lover who considers Mae unfit to wed, and has managed to get the virginal Cecily pledged to him, enraging Mae.

With so many seductions and so much scheming, this could easily veer into cheesy-soap-opera territory, but it never does. The sex scenes are sensual, lusty without being vulgar (though I have NO trouble with vulgar, licentious sex scenes) and at 506 pages, this is a longish read but it moves quickly in relatively short chapters and, despite my familiarity with the framework of the plot, there was a great deal of tension and suspense as I read, waiting to see how the characters would end up and by what method.

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So, there you have it; four weeks and thirteen books later, I am back to blogging, and for that I am grateful to my Twitter friend and accomplished author and blogger, Glenda Burgess, as well as Twitter pal and accomplished author (I know a lot of accomplished authors on Twitter), Paula Garner, who both managed on one of my low-down-lonely-blues Saturday nights to raise me up and out of my funk with their lovely and kind praise of my writing about books, words which made me miss doing this blogging thing, words that made me think maybe I had something worthwhile to add to the discussion. So, thank-you Glenda and Paula.

And now, here I am going.