Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

In 1969, thirty-nine year old Frances Jellico is a sheltered woman-child unleashed to thebitter orange world after her mother’s death.  Naïve she might be, but Frances has had enough of an education to finagle a summer job surveying the garden and grounds of a run down English estate for an American buyer.

Lyntons, as it is known by, becomes a lonely home of sorts for Frances, but she finds out soon that she has housemates.  A younger couple is staying in the rooms directly below hers, and Frances finds a peephole under the floorboards of her bathroom that provides her first introduction to Peter and Cara.

Frances gets to know them properly soon after, and strangely enough, develops a closeness to the pair that seems harmless at first.  The three eat decadent meals, smoke, and drink their way through the contents of the wine cellar.  A discovery of a cache of vintage clothing and furniture livens up their drab lodgings.  And Frances has longings – for love, for excitement – that she never allowed herself during her caregiver days.  Unfortunately, the ideals she has projected on the couple are delusional, as Cara and Peter’s aura of rebellion and romance is far from perfect.

Bitter Orange is a slow burning study of a proverbial ugly duckling who finds acceptance amidst odd circumstances.  It’s a well-written book, but don’t expect quick page-turning.  Enjoy the prose, and the occasional startle, and the increasing unease that pervades each new chapter.

The Lyntons estate provides its own sense of haunting – a shattered grand estate reduced to near-ruin, the pocketbooks of a rich American the only thing to save it, and will that be enough?

If you’re looking for similar reads, I’d pair Bitter Orange with another book from about fifteen years ago – Half Broken Things by Morag Joss, or even The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, if you want a more extended feeling of dread.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

My Abandonment by Peter Rock

My AbandonmentThirteen year old Caroline lives with her father in the woods, specifically Forest Park in Portland, Oregon, in a makeshift house of sorts that most visitors don’t notice, and her father is fine with that.  Their contact with the outside world is limited – weekly excursions to the post office, the library, church, or ATM.  Their contact with other individuals is brief – her father has occasional interactions with other homeless people who reside in the park.

Caroline is not feral.  Her dad has raised her with a fairly strict regimen, one of woodcraft and homework.  An incomplete set of encyclopedias is her source of book learning, supplemented by library visits.  And Caroline is hyper aware of others’ presence – the signs of foot traffic, limited as it is, or litter left in the woods.  She takes pride in her invisibility to others.

It takes one slight mishap – a chance notice by a trail runner – for the authorities to discover their whereabouts, and Caroline and her father become wards of Social Services.  The agency finds the father work on a horse farm, and they live there in a small house on the property.

It’s not their lifestyle, or not her father’s at least, and father and daughter are soon gone again, wandering the deserted parts of rural Oregon for another personal outpost, without interference from outsiders or government.

One wonders about the father’s intent in My Abandonment.  Is he really acting in the best interests for his daughter, or is he delusional, a PTSD victim who fears the constraints of society?  Towards the end of the novel, the atmosphere becomes more hellish, as harsh winter weather endangers both of them.  And yet, the father plunges on, oblivious to doom or harm, an unnamed ideal the only thing driving him.

My Abandonment is told from Caroline’s perspective, that of a teenager naive to societal norms, yet able to survive in the wild without batting an eye.  Caroline lacks social skills, which becomes evident during her stay as a Social Services ward, but her life in the woods has not limited her sense of knowledge, usually learned through her dad, but often self-taught.

The author based this book on a real life occurrence of a father and daughter found living in the woods near Portland in 2004 who later disappeared, and this novel was the basis for the movie Leave No Trace; the movie certainly ends on a more positive note than the book.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

A Rule against Murder by Louise Penny

Inspector Armand Gamache and his wife take a much-needed anniversary vacation toRule against Murder the Manoir Bellechasse, a renowned inn located in remote Quebec.  They have been coming for years, and happily take whichever room is available.

This time, they will share their time with the Finney family, a moneyed clan of patricians whose dirt and insecurities far outweigh their bankbook.  At first, Armand and Reine-Marie are mildly intrigued by the Finneys, or Morrows, as we find out later, who as a collective can be charming.  But fissures are soon seen in the siblings’ interactions as they dig up earlier slights and bide their time until the unveiling of a memorial statue of their late father, a planned permanent fixture on the grounds of the inn.

The statue proves to be anything but permanent, as it topples and crushes a member of the family.  Gamache now is back at work again, plowing through the complexities of sibling rivalry as he and his closest associates try to uncover a murderer amid the forested wilds of the idyllic inn.

Considering the family dynamic of the Finneys, one would suspect the killer as one of their own, but others, whether guests or inn workers, may have unknown grudges against certain family members.  As we get better acquainted with the family, it’s easy to understand why.

A Rule Against Murder, Penny’s fourth Three Pines novel, takes place largely outside of the quiet town, in a locale even more remote and tranquil, until darker things compromise its veneer of safety.  As with all of Louise Penny’s books in this series, it’s a page turner, albeit one with lots of literary references and culinary asides.  Penny also examines the human spirit in a fine way, managing to nudge out the good qualities in even the most damaged souls.

A Rule Against Murder comes in physical format and in ebook.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

 

Booker Prize Winning Fiction Books in the North Carolina Digital Library

The Booker Prize for Literature, formally known as the Man Booker Prize, is as highly prestigious in the United Kingdom as the Pulitzer Prize is here in the United States.  In recent years, eligibility for the Booker Prize has been extended beyond the UK, Ireland, and Commonwealth to any original English language novel.

By checking the lists of Booker Prize winning fiction books over the past five years, it appears that the North Carolina Digital Library carries these titles, often with multiple ebook copies.

2019 – Co-winners:  The Testaments by Margaret Atwood and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

2018 – Milkman by Anna Burns

2017 – Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

2016 – The Sellout by Paul Beatty

2015 – A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

There is also an International Booker Prize, formally the Man Booker International; here is a list of recent winners that you can find in the North Carolina Digital Library:

2019 – Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

2018 – Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

2017 – A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman

2016 – The Vegetarian by Han Kang

With our fiction readers in mind, we hope this list will provide you with a book or books of interest.  Please keep reading!

(William  Hicks, Information Services)

Short Fiction : Gems from the North Carolina Digital Library

As a reader, I’ll read fiction and nonfiction in approximately equal amounts.  And when I just have snippets of time to indulge, short stories are hard to beat.

The North Carolina Digital Library has you covered if your yen for fiction goes for the shorter works, and whittling down your search to short story specifics is easy – just click on the Subjects link on the upper left hand side, and then scroll down to the link for short stories, and you’re there.  You can sort by popularity, author, title, and more.

Here are some suggested titles to get you going.  Some of the authors you might recognize.  Included are collections by specific authors and some anthologies (collected works by different authors).   Genres include general fiction, westerns,  science fiction/fantasy, and mystery.  This list is not comprehensive, but a jumping off point for further reading adventures.

Dear Life by Alice Munro – winner of the Nobel Prize in 2013, Canadian writer  Munro continues honing her craft of the short story in this collection.

Ford County by John Grisham – proof that the writer of courtroom thrillers can try  his hand at shorter fiction, and succeed.

The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2019 edited by John Joseph Adams and Carmen Maria Machado – sometimes you might want to switch up your authors, and have your reading to be more…otherworldly.

Tenth of December by George Saunders – the acclaimed author in Lincoln in the Bardo shows his prowess in the short story form.

Unexpected Stories by Octavia Butler – two stories previously unpublished by the author of Kindred and Parable of the Sower.  Also, take a look at Bloodchild and Other Stories.

Law of the Desert Born by Louis L’Amour –  for those readers who like the Western genre – the king of them all shines in this collection.

For the Sake of the Game edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger – this anthology reimagines the world of Sherlock Holmes through the eyes of a variety of authors, who either stick to the Holmes/Watson script, or go off on their own tangents.

A People’s Future of the United States edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams – another collection of speculative fiction, with an emphasis on new visions for our country.

Verge by Lidia Yuknavitch – the author writes of children, outcasts, and the desperate in this startling collection.

Where the Light Falls : Selected Stories of Nancy Hale edited by Lauren Groff – mid-twentieth century writer Hale gets her due in these twenty five tales that showcase the talent of a writer who won several O. Henry awards in her time.

As I mentioned before, this is not a comprehensive list of short story collections, but a beginning point for lovers of short fiction.  All of these and more are part of the ebook collection of the North Carolina Digital Library, accessible through the Greensboro Public Library.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

The Good House by Ann Leary

The Good HouseHildy Good has lived in Wendover, a coastal town north of Boston, all her life.  As a real estate agent, she’s seen the area change, the formally affluent locals giving way to even richer outsiders, as new money and gentrification are slowly pushing out old families that can no afford their historical properties.

As a native, Hildy knows the town and its old timers thoroughly.  As a Good, she is considered with mild notoriety, as the family name dates back to the nearby Salem witch trials, and some think Hildy is psychically gifted by her ancestry.  Hildy knows better; her “gift” is a developed manner of reading people, which she attributes to a knowledge of basic human psychology.

In her years of real estate, Hildy has built up quite the drinking habit – so much that her daughters stage an intervention and send her off to rehab for a month.  When she returns, Hildy no longer drinks in public, and the convivial points of fellowship – the wine shared at parties, the Bloody Marys at house closings – are no longer hers.  Hildy is in a rut – a safer one, but still a rut.

Change comes in the person of Rebecca McAllister, a young mother of a family that purchases a property close by.  Her Boston-based husband Brian is loaded, to say the least, so buying a house out in the country is not a big deal, even if there’s lots of renovation involved.

Rebecca is an avid and practiced equestrian, and has an heightened talent of communication with a resident high-strung mare; the inclusion of a horse barn and fencing pretty much sells the McAllisters on the property.

Hildy takes to Rebecca in a big way, as she is an anomaly, one of the few rich outsiders who possesses an air of uniqueness.  The two become friends, despite a difference in age,  and Rebecca becomes privy to Hildy’s house parties – a quiet glass or two or bottle of wine.

Rebecca gets involved in a relationship that she shouldn’t, and Hildy eventually learns that her home drinking sessions are not as private as she would like.  A few calamities have to happen for both to reassess things – for Hildy, this means revaluating her friendship with the town handyman, and maybe climbing back on the wagon for good.

Ann Leary writes readable, quietly funny novels, usually set in New England, that poke fun at the privileged, whether the money is old or not.   She presents Hildy as a likeable character, a little crochety but open-minded about certain things, and an insider who manages to straddle two worlds at once – the old town of her upbringing, and the new influx of strangers that she brings in through her line of business.

I highly recommend The Good House.  The Greensboro Public Library has it available in ebook and audiobook format through the North Carolina Digital Library.  Leary’s other novel The Children is also available in audiobook.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Eden Mine by S. M. Hulse

Eden MineA young lady maimed physically and emotionally by a long ago tragedy meets latter-day repercussions head on when her brother is accused of an atrocity.

Just outside the dwindling town of Prospect, Montana, twenty-two year old paraplegic Jo Faber is adjusting to the fact of moving from her family land of nearly a hundred years.  Eminent domain will force her and her older brother Samuel to relocate in a month’s time.

Samuel is gone, nominally looking for work elsewhere, when the news comes that a courthouse bombing in a town some hundred and fifty miles distant also damaged a storefront church and critically injured the pastor’s young daughter.

Samuel is an easy suspect to the bombing.  His absence, and his associations with various extremist groups, however fleeting, have branded him as one quick to strike out against anything governmental.  After all, isn’t the government taking the family home right out from under them?

The big picture for his sister is far more complicated, as Jo spends her remaining time at the family farm fielding the FBI and the local sheriff, who thankfully is a family friend.  She tries to hold her own tentative life together as she paints, works part time for a dying gas station, and visits the crime scene.  Jo also forms a respectful relationship with Asa, the pastor of the damaged church, who has to juggle previous traumas along with holding a congregation together, and dealing with a daughter in a coma.

Together with her first novel, Black River, S. M. Hulse has proven herself a master at plumbing the depths of human emotions, particularly those scarred or distorted by previous hurts or violence.  In Eden Mine, we experience first hand the ache of a paraplegic, injured as a child, as she has to accept the guilt of her brother, a protective figure who brought her up, as he remains at large, the perpetrator of a domestic terrorist act.

After reading Black River five years ago, I was blown away, and wanted more.  But, if you read Hulse’s books, it’s obvious that she constructs fiction with a great deal of thought, and building quality takes time.  While Eden Mine can’t be compared to Black River, it’s a fine novel in its own right – well worth the wait.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

 

Kingdomtide by Rye Curtis

KingdomtideIn 1986, 72 year old Cloris Waltrip and her husband are on a vacation in Montana.  When en route to a cabin in the Bitterroot Mountains, the prop plane they are riding crashes and leaves Mr. Waltrip and the pilot dead and dying.  Dazed with shock, Cloris the proper Texas Methodist is soon promoted to grim survivalist, as she slogs her way back to civilization.

Eager to find Cloris, merlot-swigging Ranger Debra Lewis and coworker Claude formulate a search method of sorts, aided by Claude’s ragtag friend Pete.  Other help comes in the form of Steven Bloor, a higher-up in the forestry department, and his teenage daughter Jill, a troubled sort who goes through cigarettes the way Ranger Lewis drinks merlot.

Bloor is an enigma, a man of strange proclivities who is fascinated by Ranger Lewis.  He somewhat humors Lewis in her search, providing her with helicopter assistance and being a sounding board of sorts.  One  wonders, though, what Bloor’s motivations are.

Kingdomtide alternates between the two storylines – Cloris’s as she stumbles through a no man’s land of forest and mountain, helped by a mysterious benefactor who leaves her food and fire, and Ranger Lewis’s story, as she lives a post-divorce life in the backcountry  and keeps the wine industry in business.

Kingdomtide got some good reviews, and the premise and setting (survival trek, Montana mountains) were enough of a draw for my reading interests.  Cloris is entirely appealing, a proper lady of the Texas plains who ruminates on her past and constantly finds her viewpoint challenged.  She has to forgo her world of civilization in order to survive, but will Cloris want her old ways back if and when she returns to the land of conveniences?

Ranger Lewis is a hardened individual who lives her cynical existence in a flurry of profanity and merlot.  She is surprisingly tender-hearted, though, in that she genuinely cares about the whereabouts of Cloris, and is fairly even-tempered with her interactions with Claude and his crazy friend.  It is Jill, the daughter of the strange Bloor, who perhaps opens up Lewis more than anybody.

Kingdomtide is a rollicking profane read that will keep you going to the last page.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

 

Suicide Woods : Stories by Benjamin Percy

Suicide WoodsA pandemic.  House burglaries.  Suicide support groups – what do they all have in common?

All of these play a part in Suicide Woods, an unsettling collection of short fiction that at first glance appears to be horror, but turns out to be something more uncanny and speculative.

The author’s writing style is highly accessible; you’ll get drawn quickly into his eerie worlds.  What you won’t get are tidy endings; most of these end with an unearthly “what if?” cliff edge.

Some examples include:  “The Cold Boy”, in which a man’s nephew survives a near drowning, but has new extreme needs, “The Dummy”, a tale of a female wrestling enthusiast whose harasser makes the wrong move, with the wrong opponent, “The Balloon”, in which two survivors of a horrific plague have to pin their hopes on a barely floating mylar balloon, and “The Uncharted”, where an unknown corner of Alaska keeps its own secrets and eliminates those who dare to explore it.  And there are others…

I wasn’t sure what to make of Suicide Woods, and still don’t, after reading it.  As I mentioned before, horror seems to be the game here, but yet it isn’t entirely.  Some stories are fantastical (“Heart of a Bear”, “The Mud Man”) where others throw commentary on the horrors of the modern world (“Writs of Possession”).

Percy’s writing style is a plus – highly descriptive of the natural world, but not too much to burden the story line.  He also can ratchet a story up very quickly, with the turn of a phrase.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapeña

When the babysitter cancels, Anne and Marco Conti figure that they can still go to a The Couple Next Doordinner party next door, with the baby monitor in hand.  They’ll check on their infant daughter Cora every thirty minutes.  What can go wrong?

Everything, when Cora goes missing shortly after 12:30 am, and the couple enters the biggest nightmare of their lives.

From doting parents to negligent inebriates – the press will have a heyday with this one, as does the police, who begin grilling the couple shortly after the kidnapping.  Marco is stressed already with running a struggling software business.  Anne is in the middle of an extended postpartum depression; the disappearance of her child is enough to push her over the edge.

Anne’s rich parents enter the picture soon afterward, with the monetary leverage to deal with a kidnapper, should one come forth.  Their relationship with Anne is close – with Marco, it’s more of a strained tolerance.  He will forever be the outsider, an interloper who took their daughter’s affection.  It is Marco to whom they cast the most suspicion.

It turns out that nobody’s hands are clean, as this brisk thriller proceeds.

The Couple Next Door is not what I would call great fiction, but the book is certainly a page turner.  I easily got caught up in the intrigue, and while there are lots of standard elements in the book, it clips along nicely, and the ending got me off guard.  Plus, with plugs from Harlan Coben and Lisa Gardner… well, read the book.

(William Hicks, Information Services)