We Have Always Lived In The Castle – Shirley Jackson (1962)

I’ve always been a bit sniffy about the novella.  As recently as June this year in my review of Adam Mars-Jones’ “Box Hill” I said; “My main quibble comes with the novella form.  I end up feeling slightly short-changed”.  Could this be the book which has at last caused a change of heart?  Over 146 pages in the Penguin Classics paperback edition Shirley Jackson creates a superb, unsettling Gothic tale with an unreliable narrator and a series of beautifully written set-pieces which will forge this book forever in this reader’s memory.

I have never read American author Shirley Jackson (1916-65).  I know her career was established by short-stories and short form novels where a surface respectability hid tales of darkness.  In a superb opening we meet 18 year old Mary Katherine Blackwood (known as “Merricat”) negotiating her twice weekly trip into her local village as a kind of board game where her fate may be decided by a roll of the dice.  She perceives great hostility from those she encounters before returning to her sizeable family home now occupied only by her sister and an ailing uncle who do not leave the premises.  The veneer of respectability is tested when neighbours come to take tea in what is almost a parody of a familiar social situation.  We know something is very awry with this family and that the girls’ parents, brother and aunt all died on the same night within this house.  Merricat herself is happy with the unchanged world of isolation which has become the norm the last six years until a cousin comes to visit which makes things fall further out of kilter.

There’s a menace throughout which is stifling but that runs alongside Merricat’s often simplistic observations.  Even though none of the plot twists are surprising we end up with an extraordinary work where the lines between innocence and guilt are blurred, where the narrator continually disturbs and the horror story and fairy tale lay side by side without either becoming more than subtle.  I thoroughly enjoyed this and feel that I have discovered a writer who will continue to resonate strongly with me.  Length-wise it was perfect and I don’t think I have often said that about a novella before.

We Have Always Lived In The Castle was first published in 1962.  I read the 2009 Penguin Classics paperback edition which has an afterword by Joyce Carol Oates.

One For The Money – Janet Evanovich (1994) – A Murder They Wrote Review

imagesN8KPZ1YT

evanovich

Selected because I drew “Read A Book From A Female Point Of View” from the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge this is my first Janet Evanovich.  It is also her first book to feature Bounty Hunter Stephanie Plum – a series the author certainly decided to run with as there are now twenty-four novels together with four which fall out of the numbered sequence of the main series (at least the reader will know what order to read them in!).  Book #25 “Look Alive Twenty Five” is due in November 2018.

Back at book number 1 we meet an unemployed Stephanie persuaded by her mother to go for a filing job at her cousin Vinnie’s Bonding Company.  With that position unavailable Stephanie persuades her relative to take her on as a “skip tracer”, tracking FTA’s (individuals who have failed to appear at court).  At this point I thought I was going to be thrown by the complexities of the American legal system but here we get a somewhat hapless inexperienced but enthusiastic bounty hunter attempting to find her place in this dangerous environment.

Cousin Vinnie gives Stephanie a week to track and capture New Jersey’s currently Most Wanted, cop Joe Morelli who has gunned down a man in suspicious circumstances and gone on the run.  The potential pay-off for finding him will sort out Stephanie’s financial problems.

Her main difficulty is that she is clueless about how to proceed and this sets up much humour alongside the crime which is a good part of this series’ appeal and is the reason this author gets such good feedback from crime readers of both genders.  I was concerned, especially with the cover of this Penguin reprint that it might be fairly standard chick-lit with a gun and although Stephanie’s ineptitude does mean she has much in common with many light romantic fiction heroines the crime aspect is well done, actually really quite thrilling which gives the whole thing a different and very satisfying complexion.

I’ve never been a huge fan of first-person American crime fiction when that first person has been some macho action or hard-boiled detective but Stephanie’s point of view is irresistible as her attempts to convey crime noir falls apart as she gets herself into deeper and deeper scrapes.  I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this as much as I did. although I should have known this was Evanovich’s strength and that she really wins readers over.  I often see library borrowers bring back the one book they’ve tried and then check out an armful from the series.  I will certainly be interested in finding out how Stephanie gets on.  Don’t be put off by what might on the surface seem formulaic, this is a winner both in terms of commercial sales and critical acclaim (this first book won the Crime Writer’s Association John Creasey Award).  It all starts here……..

fourstars

One For The Money is published by Penguin Books in the UK.  Originally appearing in 1994 I read the 2004 paperback version.