Recent reads: Wintergirls, The Paying Guests

I’ve been wanting to read something by Laurie Halse Anderson for a while now. Not sure why I haven’t! I know that Speak is probably the one everyone reads but it wasn’t available as a library e-book at the time, which is how I usually get my reads these days. Wintergirls, published in 2009, was though. And it was, well, depressing. It is a story about an anorexic girl dealing with the death of her best friend, who also had an eating disorder of her own, they even had a competition of sorts, to see who could be skinnier.

Wintergirls hit me so hard. It was hard to read with some of its crossed out words. The chapter titles had me confused at first. And it was so ugly and disturbing and yet there was something about it that both pushed and pulled me. Perhaps it was the way Anderson got into her character’s head, bringing out this illness, the angst of teenaged life, such sadness. It was just a really painful read, both in the emotional and physical sense. And it’s so difficult to read this, knowing that this is happening out there. I knew someone who was hurting herself like this in university, but I never said anything, never did anything. I use the excuse that she wasn’t a close friend, but she was in my classes, around in the building, and it was such a small school, so I will always wonder if there was something I, or anyone, could have done? She died this year. We hadn’t been in contact since we graduated, so it was a shock to hear her name, and to hear of her death.



Young adult novels
Speak (1999)
Catalyst (2002)
Prom (2005)
Twisted (2007)
Wintergirls (2009)
The Impossible Knife of Memory (2014)

Historical novels
Fever, 1793 (2000)
Seeds of America series, also referred to as “Chains: Seeds of America” series or simply “Chains” series.
Chains (2008)
Forge (2010)
Ashes (Expected Publication: January 6, 2015)

Children’s books
Ndito Runs (1996)
Turkey Pox (1996)
No Time for Mother’s Day (2001)
The Big Cheese of Third Street (2002)
Thank You, Sarah! The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving (2002)
Independent Dames: What You Never Knew About the Women and Girls of the American Revolution (2008)
The Hair of Zoe Fleefenbacher Goes to School (2009)
Vet Volunteers series (Previously published by Pleasant Company under the title Wild at Heart)


The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters
I was very taken with the book from the beginning. The down on its luck family having to take in lodgers. Frances cooking, cleaning, mending, doing all the things a woman of her stature is not used to. The more modern, almost hip couple, especially when compared to her stodgy life. A breath of fresh air. A change. A refreshing change. I could feel the house, the 1920s London exuding throughout the pages. All the little things that happen in their daily lives – raking the ashes of the stove, visits from the baker’s man and the butcher’s boy, the dusting, rug- beating. Somehow all these mundane activities drew my attention. Mr Barber, being quite creepy, got on my nerves. Mrs Barber, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of, until Frances gets in on the act.

But the story wore on and I kept waiting for something to happen. And it does and, well, I don’t want to give away the plot, but it does becomes a mystery/suspenseful type of read.

I enjoyed the first third of the book the most. The middle dragged a bit and could probably have been shortened a bit as parts seemed a bit repetitive. Still it was great to read Sarah Waters again. She has a wonderful way with atmosphere and characters.


Tipping the Velvet, 1998
Affinity, 1999
Fingersmith, 2002
The Night Watch, 2006
The Little Stranger, 2009
The Paying Guests, 2014

The Little Stranger – halfway-ish

“They seem to pride themselves on living like the Brontës out there, cauterising their own wounds and what not…”

I am so behind! And on my first readalong too…

So we were supposed to have read at least half of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger by 11 September, and so I daringly started the book on that very day. It’s the 13th of September and I am almost (just almost!) halfway there.

And yes, things are finally happening!

That’s the thing about reading for RIP. There are high expectations. Of goosebumps and chills running down the spine while reading. But with this book, that didn’t happen for quite a while. And to be honest, it’s not all that creepy. At least not yet.

Waters takes a very gradual route, introducing us first to the Hundreds Hall (once “an absolute mansion”) and the fading Ayres family and Dr Faraday’s childhood connection to this landed gentry of a family (his mother was a nursemaid). He gets called to treat the Ayres’ maid who is supposedly suffering from a gastric ailment but learns she is afraid – of the house. This gets dismissed rather quickly and Dr Faraday begins to wheedle his way in with the Ayres (his boyhood self probably chuckling with delight every time he gets to have tea in the parlour with Mrs Ayres herself). The daughter Caroline is the strong one. The son Roderick was injured in the war and that is Faraday’s key into the Hall – he offers to give the limping Rod weekly treatments, purportedly for a paper he’s writing. The Ayres family is struggling with the upkeep of their estate, selling off land, making do with just one maid… ah the life of the not-doing-too-well.

Anyway, so somewhere before we hit the 100-page mark, the Ayres host a party with their new neighbours and the neighbours’ spoilt little girl gets mauled by the amiable dog Gyp.

Unexpected but not very creepy, you’re probably thinking.

And so it seemed, until Roderick confesses to Dr Faraday what he’s been experiencing lately, a malevolent thing that is trying to hurt him, playing tricks on him, and just truly hating hating him. He calls it an ‘infection’.

There are strange burn marks on the ceiling and the walls of Roderick’s room. And he’s been getting into all kinds of scrapes and bruises. Then that mysterious fire. Nobody quite understands it. Everyone thinks he’s just overstressed with the management of the failing estate, or perhaps it has to do with his war wounds.

It’s funny that I’m now at this point in the book where all seems nice and normal again. The doc and Caroline are inspecting the new housing being built on the grass-snake field, meeting the man with the half-cooked sausages for fingers. So I’m wondering what’s going to happen next.

Tipping the Velvet

“Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster? If you have, you will remember it. Some quirk of the Kentish coastline makes Whitstable natives – as they are properly called – the largest and juiciest, the savouriest yet the subtlest, oysters in the whole of England.”

Those first lines of Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet sucked me right in and never let me go.

We follow our narrator Nancy from her childhood as an oyster-girl in Whitstable to her new life in London where she follows – smitten – ‘masher’ or male impersonator Kitty Butler, and becomes a music hall star herself (… and more, but I won’t spoil it for you, but let’s just say that life is full of highs and lows and Nan’s is no different). It is a coming-of-age tale set in Victorian England, full of love (forbidden or otherwise) and bawdiness.

This book feeds and fills your senses. The sights and sounds and smells of Victorian England are all there. It starts from the briny world of Whitstable, where Nan slogs away as a child as an oyster-girl:

“Some people like their oysters raw; and for them your job is easiest, for you have merely to pick out a dozen natives from the barrel, swill the brine from them, and place them, with a piece of parsley or cress, upon a plate. But for those who took their oysters stewed, or fried – or baked, or scalloped, or put in a pie – my labours were more delicate. Then I must open each oyster, and beard it, and transfer it to Mother’s cooking-pot with all of its savoury flesh intact, and none of its liquor spilled or tainted.”

And moves to the rowdiness of the music halls:

“When we arrived, breathless and flustered but ready to sing, the air was thick with shouts and bellows and screams of laughter. The two roughs had hold of the comic singer by the ankles, and were holding him so that his head dangled over the flames of the footlights, in an attempt to set fire to his hair.”

Waters’ books aren’t just about the atmosphere of course. She creates these great whole characters who are so full of heart and are flawed. She doesn’t make life easy for them. They stumble, they fall, and might not really be able to really pick themselves up for a while. But that’s life. Her readers are given a similar experience, for she doesn’t hold their hands but lets them find their own way. (Buried in Print says it all so much better in her review of The Little Stranger).

A part of me wants to rush out and read every Sarah Waters book left (I have previously read Affinity and Fingersmith, which means that there’s still The Night Watch and The Little Stranger to be read), but the other part hesitates… there are only two more books left! Maybe I should wait until she publishes another one before I touch either of them. Then I will know that there are more out there waiting for me. What a quandary!