Into the Water, by Paula Hawkins

River with Wooden Mill House

James Stark (1794-1859) British

Hawkins hit a grand slam with her debut novel, The Girl on the Train. (See review: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2015/01/27/crossing-the-tracks-girl-on-the-train-by-paula-hawkins/) In my mind, Into the Water gets closer to a ground hit, runner to second. It’s interesting, it’s fun, it keeps your mind occupied. But it lacks the WOW of Hawkins’ first effort.

Into the Water opens in picturesque Beckford, England with the mysterious death of a local woman, she’s found floating in the pool which is the subject of her book in progress. “The Drowning Pool” is Nel Abbot’s exploration of the infamous river pool location of the deaths of many generations of “troublesome women.” These women died as a result of being sunk during a witchcraft trial, a suicide, a murder, a mystery.

The Duckingstool by Charles Stanley Reinhart

credit bettmann/getty images

No one quite knows what led Nel Into the Water. Not her daughter Lena. Not her estranged sister Jules. Not the close-mouthed Detective Inspector or the newly-arrived Detective Sergeant, or the high school principal, or her teacher, or the mother of the fifteen year old who committed suicide in the pool only weeks before. None of them know but they all take over the narrative long enough to tell you what they don’t know and why.

Of course, once Nel is dead, Jules her sister must come back to the Mill House, the place where bad things happened when the two were teens. Jules returns to help Lena, Nel’s daughter, during the investigation.

. . . I heard the water, and I smelled the earth, the earth in the shadow of the house, underneath the trees, in the places untouched by sunlight, the acrid stink of rotting leaves, and the smell transported me back in time.

I pushed the front door open, half expecting to hear my mother’s voice calling out to me from the kitchen. Without thinking, I knew that I’d have to shift the door with my hip, at the point where it sticks against the floor. I stepped into the hallway and closed the door behind me, my eyes struggling to focus in the gloom; I shivered at the sudden cold.

Jules contends with her own past trauma, a ghost or two, the mystery of the present, an understandably-cranky teenager and the town psychic who appears throughout Into the Water every few chapters to mutter glumly to herself much like the homeless lady who I encounter every few days wanting to draw my portrait as a mermaid.

Part of the problem for me may have been that I listened to the book on audible and into the water.jpgrather than one reader, there were multiple readers straining to milk the melodrama from each sentence of Into the Water. For example, “No one liked to think about the fact that the water in that river was infected with the blood and bile of persecuted women, unhappy women; they drank it every day.”

Truthfully, I kept waiting for Into the Water to — you know — get good! but instead it just seemed waterlogged with too many potential tributaries and red herrings. Forgive the water puns, I couldn’t resist.

Despite really trying, the ending just didn’t meet my expectations. It must be hard to have a really great debut novel because then everything thereafter is measured by the first. I wanted Into the Water to be my first great beach read of 2017, and it’s fine, but it’s not the book I wanted it to be.

MENU

If your book club does read Into the Water, and I would wager many will — it’s currently the #1 book in America and the screen rights have been purchased by the team behind La La Land —  the menu I would serve is inspired by the book.

Screwdrivers: OJ & Vodka

Watermelon Balls

Carr’s Water Crackers with Stilton cheese and Fig Jam

Cornichons (in a pickle — another pun)

Spaghetti Bolognese. Jules whips this up for Lena on a couple of occasions. I’ve never made it but it doesn’t look like a quick recipe. Leave plenty of time to develop flavor. Here’s the food.com version: http://www.food.com/recipe/traditional-spaghetti-bolognese-21242#activity-feed

MUSIC

Handel’s Water Music is appropriately titled but entirely too upbeat for this moody, dark atmosphere of Into the Water.

If you want to create a playlist, here are my suggestions:

Black Water, Doobie Brothers

Smoke on the Water, Deep Purple

The Hazards of Love 4 The Drowned, The Decemberists https://youtu.be/bRLSaBZV1Eo

There’s also a band called The Drowning Pool — I have no idea what they sound like but you could check them out.

Happy Reading!

 

 

 

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Slade House, by David Mitchell

creepy stairs

Slade House is David Mitchell’s follow-up to the very successful The Bone Clocks (also reviewed on daeandwrite). I read Slade House in conjunction with fellow blogger “Run Bob, Run” (http://bobparksjohnson.blogspot.com). Bob has guest-blogged here on daeandwrite before; this time, I envisioned a point – counterpoint kind of thing but we may agree too much for that. Following, you’ll find Bob’s commentary in bold, mine in normal font.

“People are masks, with masks under those masks, and masks under those, and down you go.”  vintage mask

 This little insight from Sally Timms, an overweight, under-loved co-ed unaffectionately known to her mean-girl classmates as “Oink-oink” is as good a summary as any for this haunting little novel from David Mitchell. Slade House is not what it appears to be but in Mitchell’s world, nothing is. There isn’t much a fan of supernatural horror won’t recognize. There’s an old dark house, exotically connected twins, a mysterious seductress, a mischievous younger brother, even a long winding staircase with ghostly portraits hanging on the walls. There’s an old family curse that recurs periodically of course, and an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil whose resolution is never really sewed up. Mitchell’s story did not strike me as particularly ground breaking.  The engine that keeps these 237 pages turning is not the plot, but the characters who drift into Slade House. (I would say “drift in and out,” but nobody ever drifts back out.) 

Mitchell is the author of Cloud Atlas as well as The Bone Clocks and was recognized by Time magazine in 2007 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. From the three works with which I am familiar, the author is drawn to mystical treatments of reincarnation, whether in the Hindu sense of rebirth or the Bram Stokerish vampirism. He’s a mean yarn spinner. And while Slade House may not be particularly ground-breaking, the addition of Mitchell’s extension of life theme raises the level of writing.

I was immediately drawn in by Nathan, the autistic child whose social-climbing Mum is trying to juggle her ambitions as a classical pianist with the challenges of single parenthood in the ruthlessly classist society of London in 1979. Mitchell lets us see the world as Nathan sees it. Our attention leaps from one distracting detail to another. A flight of magpies. A yapping dog. A dead cat in an alley. Mum struggles to teach her boy the rainbow spectrum of polite conversation when he can only perceive black and white, good and bad, lying and telling the truth. Nathan is a compelling rendering of a child with Aspergers, and his all too brief appearance made me wish the author had allowed me to linger a little longer with him.

It is through Nathan’s eyes, and description, that we first see Slade House and its environs.

Slade Alley’s the narrowest alley I’ve ever seen, It slices between tow houses, then vanishes left after thirty paces or so. I can imagine a tramp living there in a cardboard box, but not a lord and lady.

“No doubt there’ll be a proper entrance on the far side,” says Mum. “Slade House is only the Grayers’ town residence. Their proper home’s in Cambridge.”

If I had 50p for every time Mum’s told me that, I’d now have 3.50. It’s cold and clammy in the alley like White Scar Cave in the Yorkshire Dales. Dad took me when I was ten. I find a dead cat lying on the ground at the first corner. It’s gray like dust on the moon. I know it’s dead because it’s a still as a dropped bag, and because big flies are drinking from its eyes. . . . It goes straight into the Top Five of the Most Beautiful Things I’ve Ever Seen.

Nathan was probably my favorite of the narrators also.

Gordon Edmonds, on the other hand, is a recently divorced, slightly balding police inspector with a bad attitude, a racist streak, and a barely restrained libido that leads him straight into the  bed of a beautiful young widow whose motives are infinitely less pure than his own.

slade houseIt is through Inspector Edmonds’ eyes that we get to experience more of the sensual experience of Slade House. He is served some divine meals by his hostess, Chloe Chetwynd, before he himself becomes dinner.

Jonah and Norah Grayer are the heirs and residents of Slade House, and they entertain plenty of other visitors: the psychiatrist with a secret, the team of collegiate ghost hunters, the weird little old man with an unbelievable story to tell, and Maggs, the forbidding landlady behind the bar of the Fox and Hounds pub who warns the nosey reporter not to stir up ancient history. It all has the creepy familiarity of a Hammer Films production from the 1960’s. There are perfect roles for Christopher Lee or Barbara Steele. Vincent Price might be a stretch, but Diana Rigg would be perfect as the willowy villain who keeps the slightly rusty gears of the plot turning.  

What is it about twins that make a horror tale more horrific? These two — who must feed off the souls of an “Engifted” human once every nine years — are particularly revolting, self-involved, and co-dependent. In Norah’s words:

Now I think of it, the Cote d’Azur could be the right sanctuary for Jonah to spend a few weeks after nine static years in his wounded body. The Riviera has no lack of privileged hosts whose hair Jonah could let down, and I would enjoy the sunshine on a host’s skin after five days of this absurd English weather. A moon-gray cat appears at Bombadil’s feet, meowing for food. “You’re not as hungry as we are,” I assure it. The wind slams down Slade Alley, flurrying sleet and leaves in its roiling coil. I . . . think of sandstorms at the Sayyid’s house in the Atlas Mountains. How the twentieth century hurtled away.

I wasn’t crazy about Slade House, but I’m not prepared to call it a lousy book. It’s just a familiar and vaguely predictable ghost story with interesting characters and a cliff hanger of an ending that promises more of the same from a future volume. It might be a nice diversion for your October Book Club meetings.

I thought it was a quick, interesting character study read. Spooky yes. But more serious themes are there: what are we making of this life? What is the point of it? How would you use unlimited time? Given the medical breakthroughs on the horizon, all of these issues may become more pressing.

FOOD

The menu? Well, a roast beef appears at one point, and there is a mysterious herb called banjax that only the most impolite of hosts would place on the buffet. A generous plate of hash brownies plays an important role. And if it isn’t giving away too much, the specialty of the house involves the careful preparation and consumption of souls. I’m not sure how Martha Stewart would translate any of this into finger food.

HA!! My menu would be taken from a dinner Chloe Chetwynd serves Inspector Edmonds.

Roast beef with “red wine, rosemary, mint, nutmeg, cinnamon, soy.”

Roasted vegetables including parsnips, potatoes, carrots, cubes of pumpkin.

Rioja

Tiramisu

Picture shows TV Presenter Charlie Luxton

Picture shows TV Presenter Charlie Luxton

Given the setting and tone of the novel I suggest consulting Gordon Ramsay’s recipe box. A nice Beef Wellington seems like an appropriately costumed entree, with honey glazed parsnips and carrots on the side for a come-hither touch of earthiness. There needs to be lots of booze, of course, Slade House is not the place to stay sober. Dry Sherry before, Burgundy during, a nice port after. A slightly cloying and  intriguingly complex trifle would finish off the meal perfectly. In the den, with candles burning around the cracking fireplace, Moroccan coffee with a wittily ironic drop of Fra Angelico to intrigue the weary tastebuds and arouse the curious guests. 

MUSIC

Music? Anything with a theremin. Or if you want to go Longhair, slip Mussorgsky onto the phonograph. Pictures at an Exhibition might seem a bit grand by the light of day, but once your guests have enough beef and liquor in them, they’ll fall right into your trap.

Also mentioned in Slade House: Philip Glass’ soundtrack for The Truman Show, “Novocaine for the Soul” by Eels, “Caught by the Fuzz” by Supergrass, “Hyperballad” by Bjork, “Safe from Harm” by Massive Attack. The films Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Exorcist make brief appearances and their scores would add the perfect creepy touch as well.

Thanks to Bob for reading and writing along with me!

Happy reading!

 

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Emma, A Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith

Emma

As much as I love Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet — and particularly Mr. Darcy — it may very well be, if I am quite honest, that I, myself, have more in common with Emma Woodhouse. Miss Austen’s Emma is — a “spoilt, self-deluded” (The Guardian), “altruistic, but self-absorbed” (Time), controlling, opinionated, and kind (Me) young woman living in a small rural community with her chronically-neurotic, hypochondriac father. I like Emma. And despite her penchant for getting in her own way, or perhaps because of it, I find Emma quite charming.

I feel I must not be alone. “Emma” has ranked in the top five of girl’s names bestowed at Emma Gellerbirth in the United States since 2002. However, that is much more likely to the birth of Emma Geller Green on April 4, 2002, to Ross and Rachel of Friends. But where did they get the name? I ask you. (Friends-o-philes know that Monica chose the name first and Rachel stole it. But Monica must’ve gotten it from Miss Austen!)

As part of HarperCollins’ Austen Project, where modern writers have been tasked with rewriting Jane Austen’s novels, The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency author Alexander McCall Smith has rewritten Emma. This Emma, A Modern Retelling is the fourth of the Austen Project novels released, but only the second I’ve read. Eligible!, by Curtis Sittenfeld, is most recent and I loved it. In fact, my book club is reading Eligible! on my recommendation this month. Here’s the link to my review of Eligible! https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/07/17/eligible-by-curtis-sittenfeld/

Emma, The Modern Retelling, treads quite softly on Austen’s hallowed ground. Really, all minicooperthat Smith has changed significantly is the century. Emma herself, living alone with her father, is as recognizable as a beloved teddy bear. George Knightley is his same lovable self, though a bit reticent; Harriet Smith, Philip Elton, Jane Fairfax, Frank Churchill. All is so much the same, one is quite shocked when a MiniCooper appears. Even Emma’s slight of Miss Bates finds a modernish interpretation:

Then there was Miss Bates. Emma felt a sudden tug of conscience and told herself that she must make more of an effort with Miss Bates; she must give her a bit more of her time. It would be easy enough; all she had to do was to call on her now and then – Miss Bates was always in – and give her a present of those violet creams that she liked so much but obviously could no longer afford. Miss Bates, she assumed, divided her life between the violet-cream days – before she was an unsuccessful Lloyd’s Name – and the days in which violet creams were just a distant memory. Lloyd’s Names had suffered in many different ways – being deprived of violet creams was just one way in which financial disaster brought hardship. Poor Miss Bates – and there she was sitting next to James, who was being so kind to her, as he was to everybody, whatever his or her failings.

I enjoyed McCall Smith’s Emma . . . but not as much as I enjoy reading and rereading Miss Austen’s original. Indeed, at the conclusion of the “Modern Retelling,” I wondered what the point of it was? There were no updates to plot, character, setting and even the minor changes to things like occupation and schooling (and a sperm donor in lieu of illegitimacy) did not have any significant impact. In her review for the New York Times, Leah Price said:

Emma bookMcCall Smith’s “Emma,” in contrast, reads like a too literal translation. His reluctance to alter now anachronistic details ­forces him to spend pages explaining why, in an age of universal schooling, Emma would have a governess, and why, at a time when overscheduling afflicts even the erstwhile leisure class, she wouldn’t have a job.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/31/books/review/emma-a-modern-retelling-by-alexander-mccall-smith.html

Emma, A Modern Retelling, is an easy read, enjoyable. But unlike Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible! which gives Pride & Prejudice a true modernity, McCall Smith’s Emma doesn’t have much point.

For information on the other Austen rewrites: http://www.boroughpress.co.uk/?s=Austen+

MENUMM-sign-Rural-capital-etc

McCall Smith provides several menus from which to choose for your book club.

“Parma ham laid out on a plate with asparagus spears and quails’ eggs” served at Emma’s first memorable dinner party.

Melton Mowbray pies — which is, according Wikipedia, made from “uncured meat, grey in colour when cooked; the meat is chopped, rather than minced. The pie is made with a hand-formed crust, giving the pie a slightly irregular shape after baking. As the pies are baked free-standing, the sides bow outwards, rather than being vertical as with mould-baked pies.” Personally, I would skip those.

The Oak Tree Inn’s blackboard lunch menu of “potted shrimps, steak and kidney pie, sticky toffee pudding.”

And of course, the violet creams, Emma’s gift to Miss Bates. Available for order from Fortnum & Mason or on Amazon. Or if you are a courageous candy-maker, here’s a recipe link: http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/violet-creams.

MUSIC

Emma is playing Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies on the piano when George Knightley arrives for a visit with Mr. Woodhouse. Mr. Woodhouse describes the music — in one of my favorite lines in the book — as “the sort of thing a spider would play if spiders played the piano.”

She also plays Beethoven’s Fur Elise.

And Jane Fairfax is, of course, even more of a talented pianist. She is compared to Bach.

MOVIE CASTING

Emma — Felicity Jones might make a fine Emma. Or Emma Watson.

Harriet Smith — Imogene Poots

Jane Fairfax — Scarlett Byrne

George Knightley — Henry Cavill

Philip Elton — Alex Pettyfer

Frank Churchill — Sam Claflin

So there you have it. Read Emma one way or another.

Happy Reading!

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Thankful for: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

weddingIf there is a master of the novel in this 21st Century, by my reckoning it is McEwan. He of Atonement, Saturday, Amsterdam. And On Chesil Beach. On Chesil Beach, in 203 small pages, this tiny book deconstructs the first twenty-four hours of a marriage and traces the consequences of a great misunderstanding in the honeymoon bed. I believe it is a testament, ultimately, to the power of words, spoken and unspoken.

I love this book and have given it as a gift on occasion. It is a masterpiece.

They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy.

Florence and Edward arrive at a hotel in Dorset, England in 1962. cliff house hotelAccording to a postscript by the author, the hotel “just over a mile south of Abbotsbury, Dorset, occupying an elevated position in a field behind the beach parking lot — does not exist.”

How did they meet, and why were these lovers in a modern age so timid and innocent? They regarded themselves as too sophisticated to believe in destiny, but still, it remained a paradox to them that so momentous a meeting should have been accidental, so dependent on a hundred minor events and choices. What a terrifying possibility, that it might never have happened at all. And in the first rush of love, they often wondered at how nearly their paths had crossed during their early teens, when Edward descended occasionally from the remoteness of his squalid family home in the Chiltern Hills to visit Oxford. It was titillating to believe they must have brushed past each other at one of those famous, youthful city events, at St Giles’ Fair in the first week of September, or May Morning at dawn on the first of the month – a ridiculous and overrated ritual, they both agreed; or while renting a punt at the Cherwell Boat House – though Edward had only ever done it once; or, later in their teens, during illicit drinking at the Turl.

Florence is a virgin and admits she is a little scared. Edward, a bit more experienced, has been restraining himself from “self-abuse” for a week in order to prepare for his wedding night. This leads to a disaster. And even though Florence and Edward try to discuss the incident on the stone-filled Chesil Beach, their mutual lack of understanding undercuts their ability to resolve the situation.stony beach

Ian McEwan’s website actually has a 26 minute film version of the story with McEwan’s reading accompanying the visual images. http://www.ianmcewan.com/bib/books/chesil.html

MENU

McEwan provides the exact menu of the honeymoon dinner over which things begin to unravel for Florence and Edward.

A slice of melon decorated by a single glazed cherry

Roast beef

Soft-boiled vegetables

Potatoes of a bluish hue

A white wine from France — “it would not have crossed Edward’s mind to have ordered a red.”

I would serve honeydew melon slices wrapped in prosciutto, roast beef, roasted new potatoes and roasted brussels sprouts.

MUSIC

The top hits on British charts in 1962 included an amazing number of songs that fit the theme of this novel (and they are just some great songs anyway!):

I Can’t Stop Loving You, Ray Charles

The Locomotion, Little Eva

She’s Not You, Elvis Presley

Dream Baby, Roy Orbison

Stranger on the Shore, Mr. Acker Bilk (?)

The Young Ones, Cliff Richard

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do, Neil Sedaka

Twistin’ The Night Away, Sam Cooke

You Don’t Know Me, Ray Charles

The Party’s Over, Lonnie Donegan

The Wanderer, Dion

MOVIE CASTING

Edward: Jeremy Irvine (from War Horse)

Florence: Lily Cole

chesil beach
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