Monday 30 July 2018

Tea and books on a sunny summer morning...

I’m enjoying a steaming cup of chai and a delicious Date Bar on this early morning, when the day is young and the air is still fresh and crisp.  It’s hard to believe that July is nearly over, so I’ve been ramping up my reading efforts in the hopes that I can get through my ever-growing pile of library books before I go back to work at the end of August.
As promised, I got through two adult novels this week, one for pleasure and one for my Friends’ book club, which meets tonight.  I wasn’t sure how I would feel about Ruth Ware’s latest book, The Death of Mrs Westaway, when I got notification that my hold had come into the library, as I didn’t really enjoy her last two books, The Lying Game, and The Woman in Cabin 10, so I picked it up to read with some hesitation.  But I think she’s found her niche in gothic novels because this was her best yet!  Borrowing heavily from Daphne Du Maurier’s classic, Rebecca, this novel tells the story of Harriet “Hal” Westaway, a young woman whose mother passed away when she was eighteen and who has been trying to make her own way in life for the past three years by taking over her mother’s stall on the pier, reading tarot cards and telling fortunes.  And she almost manages to stay ahead of the game, except that she’s gotten into debt with a loan shark who wants repayment NOW. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have the money, so when she gets threatening letters and a visit from an enforcer, she doesn’t quite know where to turn. Then a letter arrives from a solicitor informing her that her grandmother, Mrs Hester Westaway, has passed away and she, Harriet, has been named in the will as a beneficiary to her estate.  She is requested to come up to Trepassen House, the mansion where Mrs Westarway lived, for further instruction. Now Harriet knows her grandmother and grandfather passed away many years before, but fearing for her life has made the idea of pretending to be this woman’s granddaughter very appealing. If only she could wipe out her debt and start fresh, her life would be so different. So, scraping together her last few coins, she boards a train to Cornwall, where she manages to get to the funeral of this woman and to make it out to isolated Trepassen House to find out how she might benefit from this mistake.  What she finds, however, is anything but clear, and as she becomes more deeply embroiled in the family dynamics that make up the Westaway family, she begins to uncover decades’ old family secrets, which lead her to fear for her life in an entirely different way. I don’t want to give anything away, but I’ll just say that I couldn’t put this book down. It ticked off all the boxes for gothic novels, gloomy, isolated setting, family secrets, ghostly presence, damsel in distress, family curse… you get the idea. But while borrowing heavily from other novels, especially Rebecca, this novel still managed to feel fresh and original, and while the “past” in this book is just in the 1990s, the tone of the writing gives the actions from this period the sepia-soaked atmosphere of some long-ago time, faintly remembered by the living and mostly inhabited by the deceased.  It was suspenseful and complex and atmospheric, and the story, while farfetched, was not beyond the realm of possibility for this genre. I loved this book, and would highly recommend it to fans of gothic novels. (it was so interesting, I even went out and bought myself a deck of tarot cards - now I just have to learn to use them!)  
And my group tonight will be discussing Mystic River by Dennis Lehane.  If you haven’t read the book, perhaps this will sound familiar to you from the 2003 award-winning film adaptation.  I did not remember the details of this story, so I came at the book with an open mind, knowing only the basic plot and never having read anything by Lehane before.  In case you are unfamiliar with the plot, this story, set in Boston, is centered around three men who were friends when they were growing up in the Flats, the poorer part of Boston.  Jimmy and Sean spent one year hanging out together on Saturdays when they were eleven years old because their fathers worked together and were friends. David, the boy who never quite fit in, would sometimes tag along and ingratiate himself with the boys, but he was never really accepted.  One day, as they were messing around on the street, a car pulls up and the men inside, claiming to be cops, tell the boys to get in and they would bring them home. Only David gets in, and when he finally escapes four days later, he comes back a changed boy. Fast-forward nearly twenty-five years, and these boys have become men, but have not strayed too far from the neighbourhood.  Jimmy, out of prison after a two-year stint for theft, owns a successful convenience store and has three daughters and a wife. Sean has become a detective with the Boston Police Department and has an estranged wife and daughter. David has managed to hold down a job and a marriage, but he’s more the shell of a man than a fully present person. When David comes home one Saturday night with blood on his clothes, his wife Celeste knows something is wrong, but she can only get a half-hearted explanation from him about an attempted mugging gone wrong.  The next morning, Jimmy’s nineteen-year-old daughter, Katie, is found dead in the park, and an investigation is launched, involving Sean and his partner, Whitney Powers. Since David was one of the patrons at the bar where Katie and her friends went the night before, he is questioned, bringing the three friends back in touch after decades of estrangement. As more clues come to light, suspicions mount as to the extent of involvement of various characters in the story, and it is only in the final chapters that all is explained. This was a lengthy, detailed novel that was as much about the neighbourhood as the characters and their relationships.  It dealt fully with almost every character’s backstory, not just the three main characters, and this is something I have often longed for in other books, such as Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me.  But after awhile, the amount of detail became overwhelming and a bit exhausting, and I was happy to skim some of the more descriptive passages and just focus on the current story (this book read like a film, so it's not surprising that it was adapted into one).  Still, it was a good book, with a complex plot and realistic, flawed characters who were just trying to get by. I am curious to hear what my book club members thought of this book, and I am interested in watching the movie again after our discussion.
That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the day before we get those rainy days that are in the forecast for this week!
Bye for now…

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