Ghosts and echoes from Moscow to LA


Ghosts and echoes from Moscow to LA

DEBORAH STEINMAIR believes in spirits and believes they belong in books, along with mysteries, memories and shadows.


I LOVE ghosts in books. Ghosts, spirits, phantoms and manifestations are a popular literary device. The reader can judge for themselves whether the apparition is simply an imaginary friend in the tormented psyche of the main character. Like the clown in Shakespeare, ghosts can say anything and no rules apply to them. They can read everyone's mind.

Coincidentally, ahem, I read two books last week in which ghosts feature.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

Displeasure Island by Alice Bell is the second in a series about a gang of eccentric, clumsy amateur sleuths. This is my kind of whodunnit; with elements of the supernatural and quite a dash of humour.

Claire is an almost-middle-aged medium who (unlike many mediums) can really see and hear ghosts. Eternally by her side is her friend Sophie, who disappeared. Everyone thinks she's just missing but Claire knows she's dead because her ghost remains 17 forever. Sophie is angry and has a mean streak. She says exactly what she wants and she knows everything. Only Claire can hear her and it makes her look very odd, since she nods vehemently, swings her arms, sometimes seemingly speaks to herself, laughs out loud for no reason or gets angry.

In the first book, they solved a murder in an English mansion and now Claire, Sophie, the noble Sebastian and his non-binary nephew, the supercool Alex, have been thrown together again on an island teeming with ghosts. The ghost of a pirate captain asks Claire to investigate the theft of treasure aboard the wreck of the ship that landed him on the island hundreds of years ago. But then a murder is committed and she and her colourful friends are the main suspects.

There are moments that were too forcedly funny for me, when I would have preferred to lose myself in the storyline, but it's a highly entertaining and exciting read.

Displeasure Island by Claire Bell was published by Atlantic Books and costs R348 at Exclusive Books.

I devoured Listen for the Lie by Amy Tintera.

Lucy Chase was the prime suspect after her friend was killed in the woods one night. Savvy's blood was on her dress and under her nails. She can't remember anything about the evening. The murder weapon was never found and there was not enough evidence to convict her. Her marriage broke down and she left town and reinvented herself in Los Angeles. She has a life and an attractive, successful boyfriend when a podcaster digs up her past and turns her into a household name again.

The charismatic Ben Owens is determined to untangle the mystery. The story is told partly in chapters and partly in transcripts of podcasts, which run along smoothly, with interviews and dialogue.

Lucy's grandmother, her favourite person, turns 80 and persuades her to return to her hometown, where her name is on everyone's lips again. The consensus is that she is as guilty as sin. The jury isn't even out. Her grandmother is planning a big party and connives to have Lucy and the podcaster, Owens, meet. She likes him and believes he really wants to get at the truth, as does she. She agrees to talk to him.

Lucy's dark secret is also a ghost: Savvy is eternally by her side, speaking clearly in her head and sometimes manifesting in daylight. Savvy's words are mostly infuriating, incitement to murder. She has axes to grind. Lucy suspects she's losing her mind.

It's a pressure cooker of intrigue with quite a few suspects lining up. The reader keeps wondering until the end. I wasn't entirely happy with the denouement but I know how hard it is to remain unpredictable. A delightful reading experience, a mystery, a love story, a memorable ghost.

Listen for the Lie by Amy Tintera was published by Transworld and costs R350 at Exclusive Books.

I'm not sure I'm a fan of short stories, other than a handful of literary gems that are more loose thoughts or anecdotes. I prefer to immerse myself in the ups and downs of a set of characters in a particular milieu and see it through. With short stories, you have to accommodate a new set of characters, a new backdrop and data every time. Short story writers waste storylines — each could have become a novel. But some writers do it right; sometimes you pick up an anthology (thick as a doorstep) and are enticed. This is how it was with Table for Two by Amor Towles, who rose to fame with A Gentleman in Moscow.

The volume is divided into five short stories set in New York and a novella set in Los Angeles. The first short story begins in Russia. The protagonist is a simple, eternally optimistic man who makes the best of every situation. He truly found the key to happiness: gratitude. In the new communist dispensation, he became valuable in Moscow as a stander in queues and doer of favours. He is richly rewarded but gives away all his money. He and his stern wife end up in New York almost by accident and there he is overcome by joy when he comes across a soup kitchen. It reminded me of the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer, that master storyteller.

Timothy Touchett wanted to become an author but became the supporting actor in a shady hustle: he faked authors' signatures in the first editions of old books. You have to read for yourself what becomes of him.

A businessman meets an endearing bear of a man at the airport when his flight is delayed. They are forced to spend the night together in a hotel, where their phones are accidentally swapped, with nightmarish implications for the businessman.

The second husband of a New York social butterfly is hiding something. She suspects he's having an affair. She convinces her daughter to pursue him and she comes across a secret full of glitter and roller-skates in Central Park.

The novella is truly poignant. The main character, Evelyn Ross, made her debut in Towles's first novel, Rules of Civility, which I want to read immediately. Eve was on a train home to Indiana. Her parents were already waiting at the station when, on the spur of the moment, she changes her ticket and continues to Los Angeles. Here she reinvents herself. She is a tough cookie, way ahead of her time: a feminist in 1930s Hollywood, where studio bosses had no respect for women.

It is told from different perspectives. Eve leaves a mark on the lives of all kinds of stars and has-beens. The reader explores the underbelly of Hollywood in 1938. It's dark and fascinating.

Long live intrigues and riddles, ghosts and memories.

Table for Two by Amor Towles was published by Penguin Putnam and costs R675 at Exclusive Books.

What are we listening to?

The Righteous Brothers sing Unchained Melody:

♦ VWB ♦

BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you.

Speech Bubbles

To comment on this article, register (it's fast and free) or log in.

First read Vrye Weekblad's Comment Policy before commenting.