Tag Archives: Mystery

“Ill Will” by Dan Chaon

Pages:  480

Published:  March 7, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Unique, dark, suspenseful psychological thriller that cycles back and forth in time focusing on 2 separate sets of murders.  In the 1970s, Dustin’s parents and aunt and uncle were brutally murdered while he and his cousins slept in a trailer in the driveway.  It was his and his cousin, Kate’s, testimony that landed Dustin’s foster brother, Randy in prison.  As a result of this traumatic event, Dustin became interested in studying the psychology of Satanic cults and violence expressed through them.  He developed his thesis around it, testified in many cases as an expert, and currently works as a therapist.  In present day, Dustin’s life starts unravelling as the delicate tendrils that were holding it together gradually give way.  His wife dies of cancer at the age of 43, his two sons have graduated from high school, and his foster brother Randy has been released from prison with the help of the Innocence Project working on his behalf.  In current day, Dustin is drawn into investing a possible homicide cluster of drunk college boys who were determined accidental drownings by the police.

The books chapters are narrated by various different characters (sometimes in the first person and sometimes in the third) and they deeply reflect the mindset of the characters.  The characters become more and more isolated from each, so the reader knows more about what is going on with them than they know what is going on with each other or in some cases themselves.

The chapters from Dustin’s mindset are particularly troubling.  His thoughts and sense of reality seem to be losing footing.  He takes up drinking and smoking.  His thoughts are repeating themselves.  He trails off not finishing thoughts or sentences.   He wonders if he’s in a fugue state.   His cousins and foster brother describe the young Dustin as trusting and gullible.  It seems without his wife as an anchor, he has become so again, particularly with regards to his patient Aqil.  Aqil is obsessed with the “murders” of drunk frat boys that have drown in waterways while intoxicated.  Dustin becomes drawn into “investigating” these incidences with Aqil, presenting himself to others as an investigator or writer.  He confides in Aqil so much that it seems there is a role reversal.  In fact, he knows very little about Aqil, but has become emotionally dependent upon him.  Dustin has trouble seeing what is right in front of him.  His son is getting deeper into drugs and pretends to go to a college he never enrolled in.  Dustin becomes an easy victim once again, trusting and gullible as always, without a strong sense of self.

This book brings up many questions.  What are memories composed of?  How reliable are our memories?  Can a fictionalized statement in the past be remembered as a truth?  What defines us?  Is it our perception of ourselves or how others perceive us?  How does grief shape our thoughts and mental stability?

This is a long, dark twisted mystery delving deep into the psychology of its characters.  At points it’s hard to read as the writing reflects the altered and distressed mental states of its characters.  It experiments with writing in chart format, chunking bits of information together in little boxes,  letting the reader grasp that it is not making coherent sense with the character.  I enjoyed the story and the writing, although it felt more difficult to get through because of it’s style.  I felt the quotations at the beginning of each chapter were perfect for setting the chapter up for it’s intended purpose and were very thought provoking in and of themselves.   The last chapter begins with this quote: “In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation.” – Sacheverell Sitwell, For Want of the Golden City.  

 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Wave tells Kate that she sacrificed them and that this is her reward.  What does she mean by that?
  2. What do you think happens to Aqil at the end of the novel?
  3. Who are the gibbeners and what do they represent in this novel?
  4. How is the self defined?  By those close to us or by ourself?  Why is Dustin so concerned that Rusty will change his son’s perception of him?
  5. How are these two sets of murders connected?
  6. How were Dustin’s parents and his Aunt and Uncle really killed and why?  Who is killing these boys and why?  What is Dustin’s role in each set of “murders”?
  7. Why do you think Dustin becomes wraps up in Aqil’s investigation?
  8. Why do you believe that Dustin’s reality is decomposing in this novel? What factors are contributing?
  9. Why does Wave stop speaking to Kate after Rusty’s trial?
  10. What is the meaning and importance of memories in this novel?
  11. Why doesn’t Dustin want to read the letter written to his wife that he finds in his son’s desk?
  12. Why is Dustin blind to his son’s heroin abuse?
  13. Discuss the meaning of the title?  Ill will toward whom?  From whom?  Why?

 

Ron Charles’ Review in The Washington Post

Review by Scott Bradfield in the Los Angeles Times

An Interview with Dan Chaon as conducted by The Millions

Dan Chaon’s website

“Nightbird” by Alice Hoffman

20971472

 

Pages:  208

Published:  March 10, 2015

 

 

 

 

Lovely, delicious, mystical, tender, coming-of age story by an author I’ve been wanting to read for a long time.  I listened to the audible version with my children on a road trip, and given it’s target audience, the plot is somewhat simplistic, so I still look forward to reading some of her more acclaimed adult novels.

“Nightbird” is the story of a 12 year old girl who lives with her mother and her winged brother, a product of the “Fowler family curse.”   It is a story of friendships developed, fears overcome, pasts and futures colliding.  It has beautiful fantastical, mystical and magical elements.  It is infused with the beauty and the tastes of the Berkshires.  The message of the book is kind and loving.  I would recommend this book especially to girls aged 8-14.  images-2

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  How did Twig grow in this novel?
  2. Discuss the attire of Miss Larch and Julia.  Why do they dress this way and how does it relate to the story?
  3. Discuss the role of the ornithologist.  What clues does he give to Twig to help solve her mystery.
  4. Did you realize that Mr. Rose was the father right away?  What were the clues?
  5. Both Twig and her mother say they want to go back in time.  What do they each mean?
  6. In what ways to pasts, presents and futures collide in this novel?
  7. Discuss the two romances in the novel:  Agnes and the original Fowler who went off to war, Agate and James.  How are these romances similar?  How are they different?
  8. Discuss the role secrets play in the Nightbird.
  9. What role does fear play in the novel?  How is fear overcome?
  10. How is the play important to Sidwell?  What does it mean to Twig’s family?  How do you think Twig rewrites it?

Pink Apple Pie

Create a lovely pink apple pie with two different toppings, including a crumble-top variation. Best if shared with a friend. But isn’t everything?

Pastry Ingredients

1 1/2 cups flour
3/4 cup butter
1/4 cup sugar
4 1/2 tablespoons cold water

You can also use two premade 9-inch crusts bought at the market. Or see below for crumble-top variation.*

Filling Ingredients

6 to 8 medium apples
1 cup seedless strawberry jam
3 tablespoons seedless raspberry jam

Making the Pastry

Preheat oven to 375˚F. Butter a nine-inch pie plate.

Sift flour into bowl. Mix in butter (with your fingers!), smooshing it into flour. Add sugar and mix. Add cold water a little at a time (you may not need it all). Mix until it forms a dough.

Wrap dough in plastic wrap and chill in fridge for 20 minutes.

Remove dough from refrigerator. Let stand at room temperature for a few minutes if necessary until slightly softened.

Divide pastry into two balls and roll out with rolling pin. Put one crust into pie plate and form to the plate’s size. Save the second crust for the top of the pie.

Making the Filling

Peel, core, and slice apples. Mix in strawberry jam and place the apple/jam mixture in pastry in pie plate. Dollop with spoonfuls of raspberry jam.

Cover apple mixture with second pastry crust. Pinch crusts together with wet fingers around the sides.

Pierce top of pie with fork (you can make a design if you’d like) to release air as it bakes.

Bake for approximately 40 minutes at 375˚F.

*Variation: Crumble Topping

If using this topping, make half the pastry recipe above (3/4 cup flour, 6 tablespoons butter, 2 tablespoons sugar, 2 1/4 tablespoons cold water). This will make one crust. Fill the crust as above, then add topping.

1 cup flour
1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar

Mix the flour with cut-up butter (with your fingers!) until it forms crumbs. Add sugar and mix. Sprinkle on top of pie.

Bake for approximately 40 minutes at 375˚F.

Alice Hoffman’s Website

New York Times Review of “Nightbird”

“Ways to Disappear” by Idra Novey

 

25746685

 

 

Pages: 272

Published: February 9, 2016

 

 

 

“Ways to Disappear” is a humorous mystery novel whose protagonist is an American woman in Brazil, searching for the woman whose novels she translates into English.  The author utilizes hilarity, magical realism, stories within stories, imagery, and subtleties of word meaning to create her lovable, lyrical, beautiful novel.

Emma, the protagonist,  feels very close to her author, Beatriz Yagoda, through her works as well as her yearly visits with her.  Once she hears that Beatriz has disappeared, seeming into a tree with her suitcase and cigar, she immediately packs her bag and heads to Brazil, much to the chagrin of her boyfriend.  Brazil, and the exciting search for Beatriz, seem a separate and freer world for Emma, one where she is happier and more herself.

The events that ensue are hilarious.  The characters are interesting and perfectly described. I thought the subtext about the difference between American and Brazilian ways of life very accurate and entertaining.

I couldn’t help wondering while reading this novel if the author was a translator herself, which I realized at the end of reading, that she was.  Now I wonder how much of the novel has a root of truth versus fantasy of her own.

This was an excellent read, such an enjoyable ride!  I highly recommend it to everyone.images-2

brazildisappear

Discussion Questions:

  1. How would you describe the relationship between Miles and Emma?
  2. What is the reaction of Marcus and Raquel when Emma arrives?
  3. What differences in culture between Brazil and the United States are highlighted in the book?
  4. Why do you think that Beatriz uses characters from her novels when contacting Rocha?  What additional meaning does this lend her communications with him?
  5. Do you think that Raquel questioned her paternity prior to reading the manuscript on her mother’s computer?
  6. Do you believe that Beatriz is still alive at the end?
  7. The novel is preceded  with the following quote:  “For a time we became the same word.  It could not last.” by Edmond Jabes, Translated by Rosmarie Waldrop.   How does this relate to Indra Novey’s novel?

Idra Novey’s website

NPR’s review

“My Sunshine Away” by M. O. Walsh

 

22367526

 

 

Pages:  306

Published:  February 10, 2015

An NPR best book of the year, New York Times best-seller

 

 

“My Sunshine Away” is a coming-of-age mystery novel set in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  The narrator is a young boy who falls in love with his friend and neighbor, Lindy.  His love is persistent throughout the transformations of identity that Lindy undergoes in the aftermath of being raped.  This young boy is also dealing with other big issues:  divorced parents, a neglectful father, and the death of a sibling.

The mystery in this novel is who the rapist might be.  There are several unsettling characters in the book that are suspects.  The narrator himself briefly appears to be a suspect.  He is hiding something, but we do not know what.

I enjoyed the lush descriptions of Baton Rouge immensely:  the culture, the food, the people, the nature, the impact of Andrew and Katrina.  Some of the chapters that were about Baton Rouge could have been stand-alone short stories, and very good ones at that.

The book is written from adulthood, reminiscing back about 20 years, but he also spends time speaking of his current life:  adulthood, marriage, his wife’s pregnancy.  These adulthood chapters were less interesting to me.  I felt that there was a comparative lack of passion, or maybe even disingenuousness,  when the narrator was describing his adult life.   Yes, it was nice to have the complete picture of how everyone turned out, but it felt  unnecessary to me.   The narrator also inserts certain facts about children who have been raped, children who have grown up with divorced parents or suffered the death of a sibling, as well as facts about the foster system.  The facts felt instructive, yet were interesting.

I give this book:  3-stars , well 3.5.   It was well written, had great character development and dealt with some weighty coming-of-age issues.  Saying that, I did not feel deeply affected by it.  I would definitely categorize it more as a young adult read, and I think for the younger reader, it would be more pertinent and affective, more of a 4 star read.  I also think reading about a girl’s experience of rape, from the perspective of a prepubescent boy who is “in love” with her, only added distance to the horror of it.  Perhaps, to the male reader, it would be more meaningful.

images

crawfish-07

 

Baton Rouge, LA

 

 

 

 

crawfish & corn

 

 

“All I saw were drunk and sweaty people, sucking the heads off insects,”  says the narrator’s friend from Michigan

Spanish_moss_at_the_Mcbryde_Garden_in_hawaii

 

 

Spanish moss (with lice)

 

 

 

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  It seemed like there were no consequences to Bo Kearne’s behavior.  How do you think this affected him?
  2. Did you ever think while reading the novel that it could have been the narrator who committed the crime?  Why or why not?
  3. What were your thoughts about Lindy’s parents approaching potential suspects with the police?
  4. How does Lindy change after the rape?  Is it immediate or is there a delay?  How do you feel the “outing” of the rape affects her?
  5. What is the effect of group therapy on Lindy?
  6. Jason Landry is the “anchor” of his foster family.  What are your thoughts on foster families doing this with one of their foster children?
  7. What do you perceive as the abuses suffered by Jason and the other Landry foster children?
  8. How do you perceive the relationship of the narrator and his father?  What do you make of the father and his 18 year old girlfriend?
  9. Why do you think the narrator remains un-named throughout the novel?
  10. How does Lindy manifest the “rape trauma syndrome?
  11. Is the narrator really listening to Lindy during all those late night conversations?  Why or why not?  What is he hoping to hear from her?  How is he hoping the conversation will go?
  12. What do you make of Uncle Barry’s role in the novel?  Why do you think the narrator’s mother wanted to minimize his influence?
  13. What do you make of the narrator’s choice of wife?
  14. How does the narrator hope to raise his son?  What kind of father does he plan to be?
  15. How would you explain the meaning of the title?

 

M. O. Walsh’s website

Interview with M. O. Walsh published in Huffington Post

Disscussion Questions by Penguin Books