Claire Fuller’s ‘Bitter Orange’ Is A Haunting, Cerebral Tale of Isolation

bitter-orange-book-reviewThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Claire Fuller‘s eerie new novel Bitter Orange comprises a heady mix of isolation, paranoia, guilt, and a hint of gothic when a troubled couple and a lonely, middle-aged woman are hired to survey the grounds of a dilapidated estate called Lyntons in the English countryside. The novel begins 20 years after the summer of 1969 and the events of the novel’s main narrative. Frances Jellico, a bookish spinster, recalls this brief period from a hospital bed where she will soon die. The vicar who sits by her side knew Frances and the couple, Cara and Peter, during that time. He seeks answers to a question that develops early in the novel: Why did Frances do it?

From her attic room at Lyntons, Frances initially dives into her work. She spent years caring for her ailing mother after her father left. Her mother’s recent death gives her a newfound freedom. But when Frances meets Cara and Peter, she becomes enmeshed in their mysterious world. For Cara, Frances is a person with whom she can share the story of her past without the fear of Peter’s judgment. She is beautiful and close to nature as well as capricious and superstitious — an Irish woman from a Protestant family raised Catholic who believes she became pregnant through divine intervention. Frances listens closely to the story of how she met Peter and this holy child with fascination. She knows it cannot be true — that details of Cara’s story must be fabricated. But it enthralls her.

Peter, on the other hand, understands Frances as a practical woman and seems to be drawn to what he sees as stability. He asks her to keep an eye out for Cara who he suggests is mentally unable due to the loss of her baby. He resents her superstitions, her wild storytelling, and her desire for more than he can give. He will not divorce the wife who gets most of his money, so he and Cara are left in limbo, traveling from place to place.

Frances relishes the approval and attention she receives from both of them. But the cracks in the idyll they’ve made for themselves slowly expand, morphing their friendship into something subtly malignant. Fuller incorporates elements of suspense and mystery with the gothic dread that inherent to the English manor house. It is the house’s presence as its own character that drives the tension between the trio. Sinister objects, glimpses of faces in windows, and the air of decrepitude that surrounds them moves the narrative arch to its horrific ending.

A novel of this nature — one that rests upon the perspective of a potentially unreliable narrator as she attempts to remember and navigate the threads of a tenuous, complex relationship — would likely have fallen flat in the hands of a writer less in command of this story. Fuller uses the full scope of her ability in to weave a tale of betrayal, guilt, and the decay of paradise, in the process making it a story that fits squarely into the era it portrays while also acting as an outlier with its sinister overtones.

Just as they say the revolutionary summer of 1969 ended with the murder of Sharon Tate, so too does Frances Jellico’s brief, happy summer.

Family Secrets Unravel in Liz Nugent’s ‘Lying in Wait’

Lying-in-Wait-Liz-Nugent-ReviewThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Liz Nugent‘s latest novel Lying in Wait is a masterclass in dissecting the ripple effects of murder. In the fall of 1980, Annie Doyle is murdered by a wealthy Dublin couple. We know the how, the where, and the why early in the novel. These driving murder mystery elements play no role in this story. Instead of pursuing a breadcrumb narrative to and ending of truth and resolution, Nugent makes the reader an omniscient observer — presenting all the details of this sordid tale through the perspectives of three separate characters. In doing so, we, the voyeurs, must watch in horror as Annie’s death leads to a lifetime of poison and malice for all those who remain living.

Annie’s murderers — Andrew and Lydia Fitzsimmons — avoid suspicion by wielding their wealth and social status as a shield. Nobody would suspect an upstanding judge and his pretty, unassuming wife in the death of a junkie prostitute, but a few key details catch the attention of one astute detective and the Fitzsimmons 18-year-old son, Laurence. Lydia, incapable of empathizing with anyone outside her class feels little remorse over her role in the murder and attempts to shade over her crime as an unfortunate mishap that Annie was asking for by virtue of her status as a guttersnipe.

Andrew, on the other hand, does not deal well with his crime. Who knew a history of angry outbursts would lead to him strangling a woman he hired to carry his baby so Lydia could finally have another child? On top of his business partner running away with the family money, the guilt becomes too much to bear. Meanwhile, Laurence is piecing together the events of that night and comes to the realization of what he believes to be solely Andrew’s crime. Their already strained relationship becomes further damaged as the mounting anxiety and disdain begin to seep into every aspect of their lives.

Fast forward to five years later. Andrew is dead. He made it only six weeks after the murder before having a heart attack. Laurence is still obese and subdued — resigned to covering up his father’s crime, which his mother now knows he’s aware of. Lydia — the darkest and most sinister character in Nugent’s story slowly reveals more about her past. Her killing blow to Annie’s head wasn’t her only act of violence, and that act has left her in a limbo between perpetual childhood and suffering motherhood. Even as Laurence makes attempts at living an independent life, Lydia’s relationship with him grows ever more toxic and dependent.

It seems like they’ve struck a hopeful balance when Laurence find work as a government employee and begins dating a mousy young woman named Bridget. It isn’t love, but Laurence is relatively content even though the shadow of Annie Doyle, and his obsession with her, still covers life like a veil. When he meets Gerry Doyle, the insidious notions of class and wealth passed on to him by Andrew and Lydia begin to recede. Gerry separated from his wife after Annie’s disappearance, blaming him for her broken life. When she was a teenager, Annie became pregnant. Gerry sent her to a mother and daughter home — a notorious institution run by the Catholic Church where women are renamed, forced to perform manual labor, and eventually give up their children. Unable to escape those years of her life, Annie fell into drug and alcohol abuse.

Annie family never stopped hoping for her return. Especially her sister, Karen — the ultimate link between past and future. But the cops never do much to investigate, and they’re told to simply move on. Karen marries young, and works in a dry cleaner until she’s discovered by a modeling scout who’s son was none other than the detective who had suspicions about Andrew Fitzsimmons five years prior. Through her, she learns that Annie is most certainly dead, which sends her on a mission to find the killer.

When Laurence meets her, past, present, and future are set in motion towards one of the most twisted endings to ever grace the pages of a thriller. Nugent paces each character’s narrative to a steady rhythm of dread, misplaced trust and rage. Laurence, Karen and Lydia inch closer and closer to each other, drawn inexorably towards a cataclysmic end.

But Nugent isn’t solely interested in the ways a murder can bend the course of events over time. Lying in Wait also bears the mark of Ireland’s troubled history of shaming women in the name of religion, fostering a culture of abuse by men and those in power, and the way undesirable members of society are subjugated into silence.  Annie, who falls prey to these forces, avenges the atrocities of her life in death.

Unfortunately, not all is redeemed, and in the end, we find the cycle has continued.

On Maureen Johnson’s “Truly Devious”

29589074This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Maureen Johnsonthe official “Queen of Teen,” is back and better than ever with her latest novel, Truly Devious. In what might be her finest book to date, this mystery combines the best components of YA fiction — an elite boarding school, murder, a beautifully relatable protagonist, and young love — to create a compulsively readable page-turner. Sometimes I exaggerate about good books, but believe me when I say you will not be able to put this one down until you’ve reached the end.

Johnson first showed off her mystery/crime-fighting chops in the Shades of London series, which begins with a return of Jack the Ripper in present-day London and follows a group of young people who are able to see ghosts. Each installment is brilliantly plotted and exhibits Johnson’s keen eye for detail as well as her ability to construct three dimensional characters. Her ability to shed light on the nuances of adolescence was always present in her work, but so many things about Truly Devious combine these elements and take Johnson’s storytelling to a whole new level.

In the beginning of the novel, Stephanie “Stevie” Bell has gained admittance to Ellingham Academy — a school built by a 1930s industrialist named Albert Ellingham who wanted to share his philosophy of education as a game with the rest of the world. Fifty students of all backgrounds are admitted each year tuition free to explore their niche interests with access to the school’s bottomless resources. There are inventors, artists, musicians, and gamers, but Stevie is different. Her obsession with the Ellingham affair and careful study of criminology is what got her into the school.

Stevie’s goal at Ellingham Academy is simple: solve the murder/kidnapping of Iris and Alice Ellingham, Albert’s wife and daughter, and student Dottie Epstein.

Like the Shades series weaves in and out of the streets of London, Truly Devious relies heavily on the landscape of Ellingham Academy. Situated on a mountain just outside of Burlington, Vermont, the school is isolated from society in an idyll that is perfect for the students’ pursuits. But a shroud of eeriness looms over the campus, which houses countless mysteries from the past, ones that Stevie is eager to examine.

Things take an unexpected turn, though, when Hayes — a handsome young actor who has recently found fame with his YouTube series — is found dead in an underground tunnel where key events of the Ellingham affair unfolded decades earlier in April 1936. The school community is rocked with shock and grief. Stevie sees Hayes’ body when it’s discovered by campus security, and she must finally reconcile the theories of studying crime with the reality of an untimely death.

What the police determine to be an accident soon appears like something slightly more sinister to Stevie. The circumstances surrounding Hayes’ death don’t quite add up, and she’s determined to figure out what, or who, was involved.

Investing herself in the Ellingham affair and Hayes’ death isolates Stevie from those around her. Johnson’s characterization of Stevie’s isolation and anxiety is masterful in its presentation. From the beginning, Stevie feels alien in her own family because her parents are devotees of a fictional senator who mirrors the racist and misogynistic idealogy of someone like Roy Moore. Instead of building the typical kind of familial tension into the storyline that we find in most YA novels, Johnson subtly creates a dynamic between Stevie and her parents that I found extremely moving.

Many teenagers and young adults disagree with their parents over politics and ideology. In Stevie’s case, she doesn’t understand her parents, and they don’t understand her, but they love each other deeply. The way her mom makes sure Stevie has her anxiety medication, and the way Stevie looks out for a cheap place to eat when her parents come to see her because she knows they don’t have much money shows a mutual simplicity of affection at the heart of a complicated relationship.

Stevie is also uncertain about whether she even belongs at Ellingham considering the nature of her interests, isolating her further.

To that end, Johnson builds a lot of heavy hitting material into the historical chapters of the novel. Albert Ellingham, the great benefactor, is clearly modeled after late 19th century, early 20th century titans of industry like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. His magnificent wealth is legendary, funding his many enterprises, but it is also the source of his greatest loss.

When his wife and daughter are kidnapped, ransom is demanded on three occasions, all of increasing amounts, which prompts his secretary to comment that the kidnappers will always want more. Excess and decadence are hallmarks of the Ellingham lifestyle. Johnson brilliantly underscores the Gatsby-esque nature of the household and the family’s privilege with the inclusion of anarchists as dark clouds over the Ellingham dream world.

There are so many layers to this book, combining all the great elements of a YA novel and a good mystery. I gushed with anticipation as I pieced together the tiny details that Johnson sprinkled throughout the plot like breadcrumbs.

Unfortunately, I’m going to assume book two of the series won’t be released until 2019 or 2020, and I might go crazy if I think about all the possibilities that could unfold. It felt like a loss having to turn the last page of this intoxicating story, and I can promise you that whatever comes next will be even more wild.

On “Holding” by Graham Norton

31364727One of my favorite pastimes on days when I cannot concentrate on anything or sleep more than a few hours is to watch The Graham Norton Showa slightly ostentatious, mildly campy chat show that features major Hollywood stars and musicians who go on to talk about their work. Graham Norton, the eponymous show’s host, has a knack for navigating the personalities that settle on his red couch for the evening—expertly pivoting between guests in order to make a cohesive, often hilarious, show.

So when I found out the same Graham Norton was turning his hand to fiction, I was surprised. The solitary act of writing fiction seemed like the antithesis of something Norton would do. But as he explains on the BBC Radio 4 broadcast, “Books and Authors,” he has always wanted to write a novel and seized the opportunity when it came along.

After already having written two acclaimed memoirs, So Me (2004) and The Life and Loves of a He Devil (2014), Norton strays from using autobiographical content in his debut novel, Holding, though he does return to his native land to tell the story.

Set in a small Irish town called Duneen near the city of Cork, Holding explores the lives of those lifelong residents who, for one reason or another, find themselves stuck there. Sergeant PJ Collins—the town’s sole police officer—is overweight and has nothing else to do but dispense parking tickets. Brid Riordan, Duneen’s resident alcoholic, will not admit that she has a problem even though her family is slipping away from her. And Evelyn Ross—beautiful and composed—lives with her spinster sisters in their family estate, refusing to abandon each other after their parents’ untimely deaths.

When skeletal remains are discovered at a construction site on the old Burke farm, these three—and the entire town—are thrown into the past. Finally, PJ can put his skills to use; his time to shine. But the police lieutenant from Cork who supervises the case questions his competence, secretly referring to him as “Sergeant Sumo.”

They come to believe that the remains belong to Tommy Burke, a boy no one has seen or heard from in twenty-five years. For Brid and Evelyn, the reemergence of Tommy Burke dredges up painful memories. Right before Tommy disappeared, he had been engaged to Brid. He did not love her, which Brid knew, even then; he valued her family’s farmland. But she’s never been able to get past the idea of what her life could have been like with Tommy instead of her husband, Anthony, who looks at her with disgust more often than not.

Evelyn was in love with Tommy and believed he was in love with her as well. For twenty-five years she’s mourned a love that never got the chance to form. She’s lived a half-life instead. Just like Brid. Completely loveless.

Norton’s story hinges around the discovery of a body, but its primary function is to explore the psyches of Duneen’s residents. They wonder what life could have been if things had been different in their youths—if they had only had the chance to leave. If, perhaps, love had come easily for them.

One of Norton’s greatest strengths in Holding is the exploration of solitude as it relates to never attaining love. For his characters, love has been lost, stolen, killed, buried by circumstance, or, quite simply, never found in the first place.

It’s the exact opposite of what people would expect from the public persona Graham Norton puts forth, but this novel exhibits his keen ability to dissect the inner workings of human turmoil. Any reader who is fond of simple little mysteries will enjoy this book. Though Norton’s fans might be hard-pressed to find the entertainer’s personality displayed obviously, they will be able to find his humor in the slight details. It’s well worth a read.

On “Rum & Razors” by Donald Bain and Jessica Fletcher

51dtdeGWtwL__SX295_BO1,204,203,200_Another book in and no signs of stopping. The Donald Bain Murder, She Wrote series is the epitome of that coveted little genre that’s been pegged, in recent years, as the “cozy mystery” –that sweet combination of international travel, well furnished rooms, and warm, decadent meals. All of them present in this series.

The novels are light, quick reads that feature one of television’s most beloved characters, mystery writer Jessica Fletcher. From London to St. Thomas, we find her at the threshold of tragedy wherever she goes (a long running joke about Cabot Cove being the murder capital of the country would not be amiss), and treats everything with true dignity and respect. She’s also whip-smart and ready for adventure at the drop of a hat.

In Rum & Razors we see Jessica encounter a more complex moral conundrum than what Bain plotted in the first two novels of the series. In this book, Jessica has just finished another novel and is in need of a vacation. Her good friends from Cabot Cove, Walter and Laurie Marschalk, a travel writer and gourmet chef respectively, have opened a luxury inn on the island of St. Thomas.

What promises to be ten days of paradise immediately turns sour when Jessica realizes how much financial difficulty the Marschalks are in. When Walter ends up dead, there are more than a few individuals who could be responsible. At a travel writer’s conference in the hotel neighboring Lover’s Lagoon, Jessica learns just how unpopular Walter was with his colleagues; he was greedy, arrogant, and a notorious philanderer. One of his mistresses is even present during the entire debacle.

So who murdered Walter Marschalk? Was is the island senator with whom he struck a deal to purchase the environmentally protected land on which the inn sits? Was it the disgruntled employee he just fired? Was it the manager of the lagoon’s neighboring rival hotel? Or was it Walter’s lover and her boyfriend?

Most surprisingly, Jessica has to confront the idea that it might have been her dear friend Laurie who committed the murder. The day after the heinous deed is done, Jessica intercepts divorce papers meant for Walter that had been initiated by Laurie just a few days before. Could she have murdered her husband? Jess can only remember how happy they seemed back in Cabot Cove…But when she thinks about it, Jessica realizes she didn’t really know the Marschalks that well at all.

When Jess’s good friend, Seth, arrives on the island, they make a last ditch effort to find Walter’s killer and exonerate the name of an innocent man caught in the cross hairs of greed.

I cannot recommend these books highly enough. They’re deftly plotted and fun to read–perfect for when you feel like taking a break from other books you might be reading. Better yet, if you’ve never seen the television show these books are based on, watch them ASAP. Angela Lansbury is absolutely timeless as Jessica Fletcher, and I can guarantee you will be binge watching for days.

“Manhattans and Murder” : My Summer’s Guilty Pleasure

Image result for manhattans and murderAs I mentioned in my review of Gin and Daggers, I am a devoted Murder, She Wrote fan due to years of watching the show with my mother. Donald Bain’s light-hearted “cozy mysteries,” as I like to call them, are perfect for laid back summer nights when I need a reprieve from heavier texts I’m working through. Right now, that happens to be Heather Ann Thompson’s comprehensive examination of the Attica Prison uprising of 1971, Blood in the Water–an absolute must read for anyone interested in prison reform (or history in general). It’s exceptionally well done.

When I was feeling overwhelmed by the content of that book, I would switch gears and crack open Bain’s second novel in the Murder, She Wrote series, Manhattans and Murder. Like it’s predecessor, it is just as readable and just as chock full of Jessica Fletcher charm.

Though I preferred Jessica’s sleuthing around Old London Town, her time spent in New York City turned out to be just as fun. Bain is fantastic at describing her meals. I love that. Whenever Jessica eats fancy meals and retreats into her thoughts, I relax. It’s a strange phenomenon, but one I relish nonetheless.

While I do think Bain has firm grasp on Jessica’s overall mannerisms and demeanor, his characterization of her can seem a little bit off at times. Sometimes it’s in her speech, or the way she reacts to events that transpire in the novel…But I have no doubt those kinks will get ironed out at the series progresses.

Next up on the guilty pleasure tour is…drum roll please…Rum and Razors! Jessica is faced with yet another murder when her trip to the Caribbean goes awry. Dun dun dun.

On “Gin & Daggers” by Jessica Fletcher and Donald Bain

Image result for gin & daggersOkay, so my foray into the never ending Murder, She Wrote series of novels co-authored by “Jessica Fletcher” and Donald Bain can be attributed to a steady diet of the hit 1980s television show starring Angela Lansbury. It continues to be my mother’s favorite show. Not just because Jessica was such a snappy dresser, and smart as a whip, of course. But also because Lansbury bears uncanny resemblance to my grandmother.

Our mutual television obsession turned into a budding literary obsession on my part. Because I nearly always feel obligated to get myself into as many book series as possible, I immediately picked up Gin & Daggers from the library when I found out there was a such a series based on the show.

It was so worth it. Gin & Daggers is a delight and the perfect way to pass time if you’re a fan of the show. Donald Bain does an admirable job transferring Jessica Fletcher into a character in a novel. For the most part, her dialogue, especially her responses to people. I can here the distinct moral rightness of the Lansbury brogue.

The first novel in the series concerns the murder of Jessica’s good friend and world famous mystery writer, Marjorie Ainsworth. When the suspicion falls on Jessica, she must explore the motives of the cast of characters present at Marjorie’s estate that night to clear her name.

Her quest for the real killer takes her all over London, with plenty of cozy stops at pubs to eat fine meals and drink port. It’s delightful. And it made me homesick to that beautiful city and its prickly people.

The bottom line here is, if you’re a fan of Murder, She Wrote, you’ll love these books. Seen all twelve seasons more than once? Try reading one of twenty-ish (?) novels written by Bain. Time well spent, my friends.