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Books 73 & 74: Cold to the Touch and A Fair Maiden

Book 73: Cold to the Touch
Author: Frances Fyfield, 2009.
Genre: Contemporary. Psychological Thriller.
Other Details: Hardback. 242 pages.

Lawyer Sarah Fortune comes across her friend, Jess Hurly, in the semi-darkness of a cold London morning near to Smithfield Market. Jess is in some distress as she has been rejected by the mysterious man in her life and her career as a chef is floundering. She feels that all would be well if she could return to Pennyvale, the small sea-side village where she grew up. However, Jess is uncertain whether she will be welcome there given her estrangement from her mother and the circumstances of her leaving. Sarah is keen to take a break from London and so Jess suggests that she visit Pennyvale to test the waters for her. Once there Sarah quickly gets a sense of the community, finding some villagers welcoming and others wary. When Sarah suddenly finds she cannot contact Jess, she begins to be concerned. Then there is a shocking discovery at the local butcher shop.

As the cover art suggests Pennyvale's local butcher shop as well as Smithfield Market, the principle wholesale meat market in the UK, are important locations in the story. While reading it I seriously considered returning to vegetarianism!

As I found with The Art of Drowning, Fyfield delivered a complex and unusual plot with psychologically rich characterisations. I hadn't actually realised that this novel was the latest in a series featuring Sarah Fortune that dates back to 1989. It was not mentioned anywhere on the book jacket. That said, it did work fine as a stand-alone novel even if one aspect of Sarah's life mentioned almost in passing caught me by surprise. I didn't realise that it had been introduced in a previous novel. I intend to go back and read the earlier works in the series.

Book 74: A Fair Maiden: a novel of dark suspense.
Author: Joyce Carol Oates, 2010.
Genre: Contemporary. Psychological Thriller.
Other Details: Hardback. 231 pages.

This short novel's central character is 16- year-old Katya Spivak, who is working for the summer as a nanny for a well-off family in the posh seaside resort of Bayhead Harbor, New Jersey. On the opening page she meets debonair 68-year-old Marcus Kidder, a wealthy local author/illustrator of children's books. He comes from old money and refers dismissively of holiday visitors such as Katya's employers as 'Mayflies'.

He invites Katya to visit his beautiful home and she is soon entranced by the classical music and fine art he introduces her to. His life couldn't be more different to Katya's drab existence back home in South Jersey. When he asks her to serve as a model for a series of painting, she agrees though she soon becomes disturbed by subtle changes in their relationship.

Marcus' opening remark reminds Katya of something from a fairy tale though at sixteen she believes she is too old to believe in fairy tales. Yet there is a fairy tale theme running through this dark story as well as a touch of Lolita. Katya is very conscious of the effect she has on men of a certain age and subtly works this to her advantage. Yet she is unaware of Marcus' true agenda, which in many ways is more disturbing than the obvious.

I had a strong response to this novel, mainly triggered by memories of my own relationship with a powerful, rich older man when I was in my 20s. Even though I was not as young as Katya, I could appreciate the complexity of her feelings; her attraction to Marcus' sophistication and wealth coupled with her unease at his idealisation of her and his underlying agenda. It was a beautifully written work, especially in the rich descriptions of Marcus' privileged world. Oates manages to effectively convey a sense of foreboding from first to last page.
Tags: literary, modern lit, murder mystery, suspense, thriller
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