Margaret Atwood: Alias Grace

Plot summary

Grace Marks, the convicted murderess, has been hired out from prison to serve as a domestic servant in the home of the Governor of the penitentiary. A Committee of gentlemen and ladies from the Methodist church, led by the minister, hopes to have her pardoned and released. Grace cannot remember what happened on the day of the murders, and she exhibits symptoms of hysteria, so the minister hires Dr. Simon Jordan, a psychiatrist, to interview her, hoping he will find her to be a hysteric, and not a criminal. An arrangement is made so that Dr. Jordan will interview Grace during afternoons in the sewing room in the governor’s mansion.

Dr. Jordan tries to lead Grace into talking about her dreams and her memories, but she evades his suggestions, so he asks her to start at the beginning, and she proceeds to tell him the story of her life. Grace tells of early childhood in Ireland where her father was often drunk and her mother often pregnant and Grace had to take care of the younger children. She tells the doctor details of the filthy crowded conditions in the hold of the ship where her mother sickened and died. In Canada, because her father continued to spend his earnings on alcohol, she and the children nearly starved and with her mother gone, Grace’s father began abusing her and even at one point attempted to rape her. Dr. Jordan does listen but he feels impatience, viewing her early privations and abuse as irrelevant to the case.

As a serving girl, Grace tells the doctor, she met Mary Whitney, then her roommate and her only friend. Mary taught Grace how to act the role of a servant, and joked with her about the family’s upper class airs, when nobody else was listening. Giving motherly advice on how to stay out of trouble with young men, Mary told her “if there is a ring, there had better be a parson” (p. 165). Mary herself became pregnant by a son of the family and died from a botched abortion. Grace had helped Mary get home and into bed, but awoke the next morning to find Mary dead. Grace was troubled afterwards by the idea that she should have opened the window during the night when Mary died, to let her soul out (p. 178).

Grace continues to tell her story in vivid detail, making an effort to keep the doctor interested. He is aroused by Grace’s descriptions of James McDermott’s advances and Thomas Kinnear’s affair with Nancy Montgomery. The doctor’s landlady, whose drunken husband had by then left her, throws herself at him. She is not attractive to him and he turns her away. He gives her money so she can keep the house, thinking she will stop bothering him, but that only provokes her to try harder until she succeeds in seducing him.

A Spiritualist on the Committee has long since proposed that a Dr. DuPont, “Neuro-Hypnotist”, should put Grace in a trance and arouse her unconscious memory. Dr. Jordan, now mostly concerned with escaping the designs of his landlady, can no longer dissuade the Committee. It appears to all present, that after DuPont puts Grace to sleep, the voice of Mary Whitney takes over, gleefully telling everyone she haunted Grace because her soul was not freed when she died. She said she possessed Grace’s body on the day of the murders, and drove James McDermott to help her kill Montgomery and Kinnear. She says Grace does not remember because she did not know what happened. Dr. Jordan allows that there have been some scientific reports of a “double personality” phenomenon, but he evades the Committee’s request for his report and skips town, claiming his mother is ill. He promises to send them the report, but returning home, he promptly joins the Union Army. After he is wounded in the war, he forgets the entire case (and marries the rich young lady his mother has been pushing at him all along). Grace Marks eventually does get pardoned (as did the historical Grace), and according to the novel she changes her name and begins a new life in the United States.

(source: Wikipedia)


Philip Kerr: If The Dead Rise Not

Berlin, 1934: The Nazis have secured the 1936 Olympiad for the city but are facing foreign resistance. Hitler and Avery Brundage, the head of the U.S. Olympic Committee, have connived to soft-pedal Nazi anti- Semitism and convince America to participate. Bernie Gunther, now the house detective at an upscale Berlin hotel, is swept into this world of international corruption and dangerous double-dealing, caught between the warring factions of the Nazi apparatus.

Havana, 1954: Batista, aided by the CIA, has just seized power; Castro is in prison; and the American Mafia is quickly gaining a stranglehold on the city’s exploding gaming and prostitution industries. Bernie, who has been unceremoniously kicked out of Buenos Aires, has resurfaced in Cuba with a new life, seemingly one of routine and relative peace. But Bernie discovers that he truly cannot outrun the burden of his past: He soon collides with a vicious killer from his Berlin days, who is mysteriously murdered not long afterward-and an old lover, who may be the murderer.


Ian McEwan: Nutshell

Plot summary:

Nutshell by Ian McEwan is a modern retelling of William Shakespeare’s classic play Hamlet. However, in this adaptation, the role of Hamlet is essentially played by an in-utero child within Trudy’s (this version’s Gertrude) womb.

The novel begins with the narrator learning that Trudy and Claude (this version’s Claudius and the narrator’s uncle) plan to kill John, Trudy’s estranged husband and the narrator’s father. This causes the narrator to become furious. Even though the narrator has never met his father, he respects his intelligence. In this section of the book, the reader also learns that the narrator, while not quite born, is wiser than many full-grown people. He is able to make inferences about the outside world and the actions of other people through his knowledge of Trudy’s biological responses and his hearing.

The narrator is rather uncomfortable with Claude, as he has struck up an affair with Trudy. Eventually, the reader learns that Claude and Trudy intent to poison one of John’s smoothies with anti-freeze, plant items in his car to make the death look like a suicide, and wear his hat to the smoothie store as to make it look like John had bought the smoothie himself. Prior to the day of the murder, John brings one of his poet friends, and seemingly new girlfriend, to his home (which Trudy and Claude now live in). John informs Claude and Trudy that he knows about the affair and requests that they move out of his house so he can move back in. They refuse because they want to sell the multi-million-pound home after John is dead. Later, during Claude and Trudy’s sex, the narrator attempts to hang himself with his own umbilical cord.

The next day, John visits again. Claude and Trudy successfully poison his smoothie and trick him into drinking it. John leaves, and not long after, the police inform Trudy that John is dead. Initially Trudy shows a cold response to the news but later breaks down. Claude informs Trudy that they can either get rich together or be poor in separate prisons.

A Chief Inspector soon arrives to question the pair. They spin a story that John was depressed and how the death must have been a suicide. The Inspector plays along for a time until she reveals John’s gloves (which the murderers would hope explain to the police why no fingerprints appeared on the anti-freeze bottle). The Inspector tells them they he could not have worn the gloves, as they were full of spiders.

Claude and Trudy panic and attempt to leave the country. Just as they are about to leave the house, the narrator decides that he wants to be born. Claude initially wants to leave Trudy behind but is forced into helping with the birth. The narrator is born, the police arrive, and the novel ends.



Gail Honeyman: Eleanor Oliphant

Eleanor Oliphant has worked in the same office for the past nine years. After winning tickets to a local concert in the office lottery, Eleanor believed she met the love of her life, the musician Johnnie Lomond. She resolved to make a project out of winning him over, before ever meeting him. Engaging in a series of physical makeovers, Eleanor disrupts her established routine. She buys herself new clothing and cosmetics, as well as a new phone and computer to follow the musician’s Twitter account.

Then, one day after work, Eleanor and the office’s new IT guy Raymond came across an elderly man who had fallen over. They helped the old man, whose name they learned was Sammy, calling an ambulance and waiting with him until it arrived. Eleanor visited Sammy in the hospital and began to form a friendship with Raymond and Sammy.

Eleanor attended a party Sammy’s daughter Laura threw for Sammy and one that Sammy’s son Keith was having for his 40th birthday. Eleanor’s boss Bob offered her a promotion to office manager. As Eleanor grew closer to Raymond, she began meeting with him for lunch and discussing her life. She told him about her abusive ex-boyfriend and her complicated relationship with her mother, whom she calls Mummy. Eleanor’s weekly phone conversations with Mummy made Eleanor upset and feel undeserving of love. Sammy died unexpectedly of a coronary. Eleanor and Raymond attended his funeral, during which they both became emotional.

After many preparations to transform her appearance, Eleanor planned to go to Johnnie Lomond’s concert. She had high hopes for meeting the musician, but when she learned that he was the opposite of the ideal gentleman that she had envisioned him to be at the concert, she began drinking profusely. She blacked out and woke up naked on the floor under the table in her flat. She planned to kill herself, but she kept drinking vodka and blacking out until Raymond found her at her flat after a few days of her absence from work. He helped her take care of herself and start counseling.

Through many sessions with Dr. Maria Temple, Eleanor opened up about her experiences in foster care, her discomfort about keeping in contact with Mummy, and the memories of her childhood that she cannot fully remember. Eleanor spoke about the house fire that she survived when she was young. Eleanor’s mother had started the fire in an attempt to kill Eleanor and Eleanor’s little sister Marianne. However, both Mummy and Marianne ended up perishing in the fire, while Eleanor survived, causing her extreme guilt.

Returning to work, Eleanor received a warm welcome from the office. Raymond helped Eleanor research the details of the fire that she did not remember. She decided to continue therapy to come to terms with why she had been pretending that she had been speaking to Mummy for all those years that Mummy had actually been dead. She made plans with Raymond to see him again.


Deborah Levy: Hot Milk

Sofia, a young anthropologist, has spent much of her life trying to solve the mystery of her mother’s unexplainable illness. She’s frustrated with Rose and her constant complaints but utterly relieved to be called to abandon her own disappointing fledgling adult life. She and Rose travel to the searing, arid coast of southern Spain to see a famous consultant, Dr. Gomez—their very last chance—in the hope that he might cure Rose’s unpredictable limb paralysis, but Dr. Gomez has strange methods that seem to have little to do with physical medicine, and as the treatment progresses, Rose’s illness becomes increasingly baffling. Sofia’s role as detective—tracking Rose’s symptoms in an attempt to find the secret motivation for her pain—deepens as she discovers her own desires in this transient desert community.



Jon Nesbo: Blood on snow

It’s set in Oslo in the late 1970s. Olav is a fixer for Daniel Hoffmann, a drug trafficker who’s come up with an ingenious way of getting heroin into the city. The product travels from Afghanistan, through the Soviet Union, and crosses into Norway on a tiny island in the Arctic Ocean that’s shared by both countries but doesn’t have a particularly well-patrolled border. Hoffman’s henchman Olav is not numerically talented enough to be a dealer. Nor was he any good at pimping. He always felt sorry for the girls. Getaway driver? Rubbish at that too. So instead he does what he’s best at – putting a pistol up to someone and ending their existence. He shifts units, as he sees it.

When Hoffman finds out his wife has been cheating on him he decides not to kill the cuckold, but to get his wife ‘fixed’. Olav is the first man he calls. So our anti-hero sets up observation of Corina Hoffmann in order to work out the best way to kill her without being caught and without Hoffmann getting the jacket for murder. Trouble is, cat-like and full-breasted, she is a sensual woman and Olav falls in love with her. Instead of carrying out his mission, he kills the man who visits Corina during the day for bouts of rough sex.

While Hoffman’s not happy to hear it, Corina treats Olav like he’s a knight in shining armour and soon she’s hiding with him in his apartment. Not long after that, they are in bed together. Olav decides the only way for their love to last will be if he fixes Hoffmann and they flee to Paris together. The only problem is he has no money. So he pays a visit to The Fisherman, another Oslo crime lord who is Hoffmann’s enemy and therefore his own enemy too. Olav is set on a course that will see him hide in a coffin in a church crypt, trigger cocked not knowing who he can trust.

This is the tale of a hitman with a heart who, the minute he senses the redeeming power of love in his life, must make some difficult choices. His search for something good, after a life so bad, exposes his weaknesses as well. The story is driven by Olav’s character and Nesbo is, as ever, a perfect storyteller. The things that made Olav what he is – from his father’s brutality to his mother’s alcoholism and on to his own dyslexia – are peeled away and yet the narrative never misses a beat. We see our anti-hero discovering some hope of salvation, and we also see his world disintegrate. Can he live the dream and run away with Corina Hoffmann?


Isaac Asimov: The gods themselves

The Gods Themselves is a science fiction book by Isaac Asimov. Published in 1972, the book follows a handful of characters who must convince the world that Earth’s latest renewable energy source is killing the planet. If humanity doesn’t stop cultivating this source, the whole solar system will collapse. The book won numerous awards including the 1972 Nebula Award and the 1973 Hugo Award. Asimov is an internationally-bestselling author with an asteroid named after him. He once served as Vice President of Mensa International and President of the American Humanist Association. In his books, he often explores scientific questions from a historical perspective.

The Gods Themselves takes place in the early 22nd-century. Humanity has found a way to communicate with aliens in other worlds. We know there’s such a thing as a parallel universe, and humans have established relationships with leaders around the cosmos. Scientists in our world work very closely with aliens, and there’s no suggestion that the aliens want to hurt humans.

In the first part of the book, we’re introduced to a radiochemist called Frederick Hallam. Earth is recovering from ecological collapse, and scientists like Frederick are looking for ways to kickstart the planet again. One day, Frederick stumbles across a compound called plutonium 186. Plutonium 186 doesn’t exist on Earth, and so he doesn’t understand how it got there.

Frederick tests the compound and discovers that it generates cost-effective energy. If scientists harvest plutonium 186, they can generate limitless energy at a very low cost. He establishes an energy system, known as the “Pump,” between Earth and another universe which produces the compound. This universe, running parallel to our own, uses different physical laws and produces energy differently. Humans will never have an energy problem again, so long as they maintain the Pump.

Some scientists, however, doubt the Pump. They worry that aliens planted plutonium 186 into our universe for their own ends, to trick us into working with them. One such scientist is Peter Lamont. Peter spends years researching the Pump and arrives at a startling conclusion—the Pump is killing our universe. It generates unstable levels of nuclear forces around the sun and the entire Milky Way. If humans keep exploiting the Pump, they’ll destroy the sun and everything around it.

The problem is that, in the parallel universe, things aren’t much better. The aliens know that their own sun is dying, and streaming energy through the Pump keeps the atmosphere stable. Although they know that Earth might explode because of the energy exchange, they don’t care so long as their own universe stays intact.

Peter tells Earth-based governments to sever all ties with the Pump because it’s so dangerous, but no one listens to him. He then reaches out to the aliens in the parallel universe and asks them for help, but they tell him that he must end the Pump from his side. Peter, of course, doesn’t know the real reason why the aliens won’t shut down the Pump. Part one ends with Peter pondering Earth’s collapse.

Meanwhile, in part two, there’s at least one alien who feels bad for Earth. This alien is a female called Dua. She loves studying the different physical laws between the universes. During her studies, she discovers the problem with the Pump, and she’s outraged. She confronts her elders about it, but they tell her that they need the Pump more than they need Earth. Without the Pump, the alien species will fail, and they’ll lose their ability to procreate.

Dua doesn’t want her species to die out, but she knows that humans deserve to live. She finds two other aliens, Odeen and Tritt, who reluctantly agree to help her stop the Pump. They form a triad, which is an irreversible union between three alien bodies. They “merge” and form an entirely new body. They choose a scientist’s body, because they know that humans will listen to a scientist. They call the scientist Estwald, and they head for Earth.

When part two ends, part three begins on the Moon. The protagonist in this section is a scientist called Denison. He worked with Frederick, but he fled to the Moon when Frederick developed the Pump. He secretly prays that the Pump fails, because he’s a jealous character. In the meantime, while the Pump remains functional, he’s devising his own energy system to replace it.

One day, Denison discovers what’s happening to the sun. He realizes that the Pump will kill everyone on Earth. This is his one golden opportunity to destroy Frederick, and he knows he must find an alterative energy solution fast. He communicates with a second parallel universe, which has its own unique set of physical laws, and he makes a discovery—this universe will stabilize the Pump.

Denison shows everyone that he can harness this second parallel universe to take excess energy from the Pump and convert it into a harmless force. These actions won’t harm the second parallel universe. The aliens, Estwald, and the scientists on Earth are thrilled, and Frederick is discredited. It’s a happy ending for everyone.



Tom Sharpe: Riotous Assembly

Plot summary

Kommandant van Heerden, who has risen to Chief of Police of Piemburg through his family connection with a ‘hero’ of Boer republicanism rather than merit, is called out to deal with a strange murder case involving the eccentric British spinster, Miss Hazelstone. It appears that Miss Hazelstone has obliterated her black cook ‘Fivepence’ with a quadruple-barreled elephant gun. A paradoxical anglophile, van Heerden is initially willing to brush the incident under the carpet, until Miss Hazelstone reveals that she and the cook were former lovers sharing a penchant for transvestism and rubber fetishism.

In his panic to stop the truth getting out, van Heerden places Miss Hazelstone under house arrest, calling in all reinforcements available in order to quarantine the area and places his assistant, the profoundly stupid and bloodthirsty Konstabel Els, on guard, carrying the same elephant gun. The chaos that follows turns a potentially sensitive political scandal into a full-blown catastrophe, one that van Heerden, his deputy Lieutenant Verkramp and Els must resolve to uphold the ‘honour’ of Piemburg and apartheid.

(source: Wikipedia)


Aravind Adiga: The White Tiger

Plot summary

Balram Halwai narrates his life in a letter, written in seven consecutive nights and addressed to the Chinese PremierWen Jiabao. In his letter, Balram explains how he, the son of a puller, escaped a life of servitude to become a successful businessman, describing himself as an entrepreneur.

Balram was born in the rural village of Laxmangarh, where he lived with his grandmother, parents, brother and extended family. He is a smart child but is forced to leave school in order to help pay for his cousin’s dowry and begins to work in a teashop with his brother in Dhanbad. While working there he begins to learn about India’s government and economy from the customers’ conversations. Balram describes himself as a bad servant but a good listener and decides to become a driver.

After learning how to drive, Balram finds a job driving Ashok, the son of one of Laxmangarh’s landlords. He takes over the job of the main driver, from a small car to a heavy-luxury described Honda City. He stops sending money back to his family and disrespects his grandmother during a trip back to his village. Balram moves to New Delhi with Ashok and his wife Pinky Madam. Throughout their time in Delhi, Balram is exposed to extensive corruption, especially in the government. In Delhi, the contrast between the poor and the wealthy is made even more evident by their proximity to one another.

One night Pinky Madam takes the wheel from Balram, while drunk, hits something in the road and drives away; we are left to assume that she has killed a child. Ashok’s family puts pressure on Balram to confess that he had been driving alone. Ashok becomes increasingly involved in bribing government officials for the benefit of the family coal business. Balram then decides that killing Ashok will be the only way to escape India’s Rooster Coop. After bludgeoning Ashok with a bottle and stealing a large bribe, Balram moves to Bangalore, where he bribes the police in order to help start his own taxi business. Ashok too is portrayed to be trapped in the metaphorical Rooster Coop: his family controls what he does and society dictates how he acts. Just like Ashok, Balram pays off a family whose son one of his taxi drivers hit and killed. Balram explains that his own family was almost certainly killed by Ashok’s relatives as retribution for his murder. At the end of the novel, Balram rationalizes his actions and considers that his freedom is worth the lives of his family and of Ashok. And thus ends the letter to Jiabao, letting the reader think of the dark humour of the tale, as well as the idea of life as a trap introduced by the writer.

(source: wikipedia)


Angela Carter: The Bloody Chamber


In “The Bloody Chamber” the heroine, a young pianist, marries a rich Marquis who had three earlier wives. The heroine moves to the Marquis’ castle, where she loses her virginity and finds a collection of sadistic pornography. The Marquis then gets a business call and leaves, entrusting his keys to the heroine and only forbidding her from one room. He leaves and the heroine uses the forbidden key, which leads to a torture chamber containing the bodies of the Marquis’ three previous wives.

The heroine tells a young piano tuner what she saw and then the Marquis returns. The Marquis learns what the heroine did and prepares to behead her. Just as he swings his sword the heroine’s mother appears and shoots the Marquis. The heroine inherits the Marquis’ fortune and she, her mother, and the piano tuner live happily together.

Get the entire The Bloody Chamber LitChart as a printable PDF.
In “The Courtship of Mr Lyon,” Beauty’s father seeks refuge from a snowstorm at an empty mansion. On his way out he takes a white rose and then the lion-like Beastappears. The Beast makes Beauty come to dinner, where the Beast asks her to stay with him, promising that her father’s fortunes will be restored. Beauty agrees, and she spends the days alone and the nights talking with the Beast. When her father grows rich she leaves, promising to return before winter ends. Beauty forgets her promise and only returns when the Beast is dying. She finds him in his bed and kisses his hands, and he turns into a man.

In “The Tiger’s Bride” a Russian man gambles away his daughter to a mysterious nobleman called The Beast. The Beast’s valet takes the heroine to a mansion, where The Beast wants to see her naked. The heroine refuses and is put in a room with an automaton maid. The Beast then takes the heroine on a horse ride, where he disrobes and reveals himself as a tiger. The heroine takes off her own clothes in response. Later the heroine goes to the tiger’s room, where he licks her and her skin comes off as she transforms into a tiger.

In “Puss-in-Boots,” Figaro is a clever cat whose young, promiscuous master falls in love. His desire is the young, closely-guarded wife of Signor Panteleone. Figaro cleverly unites the two lovers and he himself falls for the woman’s tabby cat. Eventually the tabby trips Panteleone so he falls to his death, and Figaro’s master and the young woman have sex next to Panteleone’s body and then get married.

In “The Erl-King,” the heroine wanders into the woods and is seduced by the Erl-King, a mysterious figure who lives in harmony with nature and has many birds in cages. The heroine learns that the caged birds were once girls, and she strangles the Erl-King and sets the birds free.

In “The Snow Child,” a Count creates a girl out of his wishes, but she pricks herself on a rose thorn and dies. He then has sex with her body, melting it.

In “The Lady of the House of Love,” a young soldier is lured into the mansion of the Countess, a beautiful girl vampire. The Countess cuts herself on some glass as she prepares to seduce and kill the young man, and he kisses her wound, making her become mortal and die. He takes a rose from her and goes off to war.

In “The Werewolf” a child travels through the forest to visit her grandmother. She is attacked by a wolf and cuts off its hand. When she reaches her grandmother’s house she finds that her grandmother is missing a hand, so the neighbors kill the grandmother.

In “The Company of Wolves” a child goes to visit her grandmother and meets a handsome huntsman on the way. The huntsman gets to the grandmother’s house first, transforms into a wolf, and eats the grandmother. The child arrives and seduces the wolf before he can eat her.

Wolf-Alice” is a girl raised by wolves. Some nuns take her in but then give her to a werewolf Duke. The Duke is wounded by a bullet and then Wolf-Alice licks his wound, transforming him into a full human.