Book Review: The Secret Place by Tana French

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Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Writing:**** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Tana French said in an interview: “You can be a perfectly healthy person without having kids or having a romantic relationship – you can live a full, happy, healthy life. I’m not sure you can do that without friends.”

Well, I’m not sure if I’d call the group of girls in The Secret Place healthy or happy, necessarily, but there’s no denying that their lives are full, full, full.

Full of each other: Holly, Julia, Selena, and Rebecca don’t care what anybody else thinks. They have each other, a stolen key to the door out of St. Kilda’s, and a vow to stay away from boys while together at school. The four girls consider their group a family, their lives at the prestigious Dublin boarding school the best they could imagine. A future without each other is not worth thinking about – the important things are now. here. together.

Full of magic: chilly nights in a moonlit cyprus grove on St Kilda’s grounds. Light bulbs that burn out when they will it. Something they all feel, four different ways: a balance that needs to be kept at all costs.

Full of secrets. Someone falls in love. Someone meddles. Someone else thinks she knows how to put things right. Someone can’t keep what she suspects to herself. The girls, in trying to keep each other safe, stop sharing everything.

* * * * * * * * * *

Last year, Chris Harper was found dead on the grounds, killed with a garden tool to the head. The groundskeeper they arrested after the fact didn’t do it, but with no other clues, the lead detectives moved on.

Then Holly Mackey goes to the police with a card off St. Kilda’s confessional post board, “The Secret Place.” Unlike the boob jobs and shoplifting on most cards to be found there, this one has a photo of Chris and the message “I know who killed him.”

This is detective Stephen Moran’s chance to get out of Cold Cases and into Murder. He knows Holly from when she was a witness in a case years ago. (I guess this was in French’s previous book, The Faithful Place, which I haven’t read.) Moran figures he can get the St. Kilda’s girls comfortable enough to talk to him, while the belligerent, insensitive, ultra-clever Antoinette Conway takes charge. Conway’s not easy or fun, but she could be his ticket into Murder. Dodging Mrs. McKenna’s iron rule over the students and reputation of St. Kilda’s, the two of them narrow their pool of interest down to eight girls. Two cliques: Holly’s friends and the bitch-princess Joanna Heffernan’s. While they originally suspect one of these girls as the confessional card maker, one excruciating day investigating and interrogating leads them to be sure that one of the eight girls is actually their murderer. No amount of Stephen’s charm or Conway’s doggedness will get the truth out easily, though, because these girls will lie to protect their own even when they don’t know the truth themselves.

* * * * * * * * * *

The Secret Place dragged me into its claustrophobic little world after around fifty pages, and was constantly on my mind. Police procedurals aren’t my usual jam at all, but I’d heard great things about Tana French, and this book in particular. Someone at a dinner party recommended The Secret Place during a conversation about how much we all loved boarding school books. Her suggestion was so spot on.

The novel’s timeline was spliced up interestingly: the detectives’ time on campus takes place over one single day, while alternating chapters lay out the whole year previous to their involvement. I’ll admit that whenever a sentence stated, so casually, “Chris Harper has X number of weeks to live,” I felt a little chill. Once the story hooked me, the St. Kilda’s girls, the Colm’s boys, even the hallowed halls seemed like my own personal acquaintances. Such a reminder of cruel fate seemed unfair.

 Unfairness is a prevailing theme, here. When a girl tries to do the right thing, or makes a difficult choice, things should work out for the best from then on. They are so loyal, the believe so hard, and the damned world just doesn’t reciprocate. I’m only just growing out of those convictions myself, and it’s painful. Tana French has done a wonderful job balancing between cold realism and sympathy in showing how teenage girls’ inner lives can’t protect them forever.

There were, of course, some things I didn’t understand. I haven’t read any of the other Dublin Murder Squad books, so the stuff about Holly’s past as a witness left me curious. Our main gang of girls – the four we live with for a year and more – develop some strange powers that may or may not be real, but we’re left hanging on the subject by the end. I liked the surreal touch of magic, myself, but I wonder if more specific crime readers might find it frustrating. Detective Moran’s easy repartee with young people didn’t quite match up with his calculating, almost desperate, interior monologue.

The detecting chapters that didn’t focus intensely on the girls or the school weren’t nearly so vivid as the chapters leading up to the murder, though I did love the alternating format as sometimes it let the reader know more than the characters, sometimes less. Sometimes I thought I knew something, only to learn one hundred pages on that I was very wrong indeed. You’ll never have a chance to get comfortable while reading this book, but you’ll want to stay in it for a long time anyway.

* * * * * * * * * *

This is the first book to grab me and not let me go since I finished The Raven Cycle while I was in Scotland. Tana French’s writing isn’t quite so sharp and lyrical as Maggie Stiefvater’s, but she has a similar grasp on the intense bonds of friendship, the lengths to which which teenagers are willing to go, the real magic of secrets and trust. This is definitely a book written for adults, but older teenagers still nursing a series-hangover after The Raven King might find some distraction in the dorm rooms and midnight grounds of St. Kilda’s.

I’ll finish now with a stanza from the Katherine Philips poem that hangs over Rebecca’s bed in their dorm room, because it is so appropriate:

“Why should we entertain a feare?

Love cares not how the world is turn’d.

If crowds of dangers should appeare,

Yet friendship can be unconcern’d.”

Near the end of the book, Detective Moran remembers that poem, but its meaning has chanced after they face three hundred pages of secrets and revelations:

“…That doesn’t mean nothing bad can happen, if you’ve got proper friends. It just means you can take whatever goes wrong, as long as you’ve got the. They matter more.” (p. 429)

So much bad happens in this story. But the sentiment proves true, and so we never fall into complete despair: they matter more. Intense? Yes. Unsustainable? Maybe. Who cares? The Secret Place reminded me how real and powerful even the smallest details can be when you’re young and your friends are your entire world. So even the wild overreactions and incomprehensible lies make sense. It’s all to protect something too rare and magical and important to let go without a fight.

Book Review: The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

Star Ratings:

Characters: ****

Character Development: ***

Plot: ***

Writing: ***

Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Age Range recommendation: 16+ (horror, sexual violence, math.)

The Supernatural Enhancements is a cryptograph mystery, a haunted house horror story, and a Southern Gothic as seen by Europeans. It’s made up of diary entries, transcribed conversations, letters, and more. If you like found footage stories and things that go bump batshit crazy in the night, check it out.

A. and Niamh come to Point Bless, Virginia not knowing what to expect at Axton House. A., our otherwise nameless protagonist from an unspecified European country, inherited the enormous, secluded mansion from a recently deceased distant cousin. Ambrose Wells and A. never met, but Wells died the same way his father did: plunging to his death out the window at the age of fifty in highly suspicious circumstances. Compared to other, older rumors about Axton House, a few odd window-tragedies are comfortably dull. The family that gave the estate its name, before Wells’ line bought it up much later, was known for inhumane cruelty, especially to the slaves who once lived on the plantation. Everyone in town knows the place is haunted. A. is a skeptic who “wants to believe” (he watches a lot of X-Files) and Niamh is mute but not without opinions, but the two of them will have to re-think their relationship with reality as they delve into the secrets hidden behind every door of Axton house, and every twist of the maze around it.

The ghost stuff is cool, of course, because I love ghost stories. Creaky floorboards, electrical disturbances, human shadows standing behind the shower curtain… what fun! Even more interesting, though, were the secret codes and hidden messages A. and Niamh find all over the place. Ambrose Wells belonged to some super-secret society of Rich Old-Fashioned Dudes Having Thrilling Global Adventures. Every year, on the Winter Solstice, they would meet at Axton House for some annual, esoteric observance. Since Niamh and A. don’t know what the meeting entails, they need to put the pieces of Ambrose Well’s haunted life together before the Solstice to find out if these are just old guys playing with a “bourgeois passtime” or desperate men on a dangerous mission.

There are codes and maps and cyphers and grids so complex they require mathematics. There’s a sinister maze in the backyard. There’s an enormously tall German butler with many secrets behind his respectable facade – I kid you not! Too many threads from different mysterious genres tied together in one tangle? Maybe. But I liked A. and Niamh enough to follow them, to be confused and frustrated with them, then rejoice whenever they figured something out. Of all the characters, these two major ones were probably the only fully fleshed-out persons to be found. But it didn’t really matter that various lawyers, businessmen, neighbors, and Oddly Wise Far Away Aunts Of Dubious Relation seemed built to further the story, sometimes. This is not a realistic tale by any means, so a Southern Gothic stereotype or an overly expositional old man (pipe included!) here and there seemed to fit right in.

I’d also like to mention that The Supernatural Enhancements is Edgar Cantero’s first book written originally in English. The dialogue and descriptions occasionally veered from cliché to slightly pretentious, but at no point did I have to think “well, I guess this is good enough for someone who doesn’t usually write in English.” It was just good enough, period. So well done there, Mr. Cantero. Especially given the pieced-together method of presentation, with all sorts of scholarly articles and even security footage transcriptions thrown in, he had to change voices an awful lot – frequently American ones in a region known for its eccentricities. Most of them were pretty well done.

My favorite voices, without a doubt, were our main characters’, though. A. and Niamh had an interesting relationship: he a twenty-something scholar with the sudden need to never work again, she a seventeen year old punk kid from Ireland with some roughness in her past and no voice to speak of it. Their conversations – her scribbling, him speaking – and even the looks they gave one another amongst all the weirdness were endearing. So who cares that I still don’t get how Aunt Liza fits into this picture? Or that the book’s denouement, while suitably horrifying, seemed to come out of nowhere and almost devalued some of the mystery that had been building up? I liked these kids and I liked solving the frightening mysteries of Axton House by their sides.

If I had to describe the style of Cantero’s book to someone, I guess I would call it a (slightly) less gimmicky House Of Leaves meets movies like The Skeleton Key and Paranormal Activity, if characters who wish they were in a Donna Tartt book visited Virginia. And yes, there were some Da Vinci Code / Angels and Demons elements too, with all the arcane spirituality and complex codes. I’m not sure if The Supernatural Enhancements was quite as good as House of Leaves, and it definitely can’t come close to Tartt’s genius, but it a disturbingly fun mix all the same, and terribly absorbing.

I compare the book to other stories only to try and place its style; there were original elements here that impressed me even despite the far fetched and sometimes gruesome details. Suspend your disbelief for an evening, turn on all the lights, and get lost in Axton House for a while.

Book Review: The Revelation of Louisa May by Michaela MacColl

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 11 and up (murder and strife but not much gore or sex.)

The Alcott home is weathering some rough times. There’s not enough money to support a family of four girls, so their “Marmee” must go away to work while her husband fiddles with his philosophical writing. Teenaged Louisa has to take charge of things in her mother’s absence, but she would rather be running full-pelt amongst the trees in Concord, talking with Henry David Thoreau, or writing her own stories. A fugitive slave arrives at the house of the passionate abolitionist family, so suddenly Louisa has another mouth to feed and too many secrets to keep. Secrets get mighty dangerous when a ruthless slave-catcher comes to town, looking to make life difficult for those involved in the underground railroad. Keeping her household together while protecting their hidden friend is difficult enough, so how can Louisa spare the energy to wrestle with her feelings for a visiting young man who has changed a lot since his absence? And how on earth will she have time to solve a murder in the midst of so many exhausting demands?

The Revelation of Louisa May is a “novel of intrigue and romance” starring Louisa May Alcott. Good old Louisa May, who wrote Little Women, lived in the town where I sell books, and put so many of my own feelings and failings into words.

“A quick temper, sharp tongue, and restless spirit were always getting her into scrapes, and her life was a series of ups and downs, which were both comic and pathetic.” (from Little Women. I feel ya’, Jo March, like so many angry girls who write.)

But I also adore Louisa’s status as Kick-Ass Single Lady.

“I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.”

Not only did Louisa never marry –though Jo eventually does in Good Wives she wrote encouraging other women to find contentment in single life. So I was puzzled to see the word “romance” on the cover of a book starring Louisa May Alcott. That word, I thought, would better apply to one of the “blood and thunder” stories she used to publish herself.

Fear not! Though there is a charming (and surprising) romantic entanglement in The Revelation Of Louisa May, nothing enormous happens that would change Ms. Alcott’s future as a self-supporting and entirely majestic lady of her own free will. So just put those worries straight out of your mind, ye acolytes of Alcott. Blood, thunder, and emotional moonlit chats make this story entertaining, but MacColl is enough of a historian to keep all the important details in line with what life was really like for the literary folks of Concord in the 1840s. Just with a little more murder, and some writerly speculation, thrown in.

In fact, the elements of intrigue and romance in this book felt more like sidelines to the rich portrayal of Concord Massachusetts in the age of the Transcendentalist philosophers. The plot sticks to the theme of MacColl’s previous novels about young women writers of the past, one about Emily Dickinson and one about the Bronte sisters, which places the literary heroines amidst SHOCKING MURDER and POSSIBLE HEARTBREAK and NECESSARY EAVESDROPPING. What fun! But historical fiction is tricky; an author needs to fit a solid fictional plot into the timeline of real peoples’ lives. When a novel is so focused on a single biographical subject, as this one is, things get even harder.

By making all the events surrounding this fictional mystery set up and resolve themselves in a fairly short period of time, Michaela MacColl is able to fit so many excellent details about her characters’ lives into the framework of an old fashioned who-the-actual-hell-has-done-it mystery. It’s not every story that has Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, and even Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wife as suspects, though. The careful interweaving of rumors and facts about these people into the story made me feel like I had fallen right into the past to see and hear them with my own eyes. (It may have helped that I was sitting on a bench on Walden Street as I read, but the descriptions and dialogue were vivid enough that I think they’d bring those famous fellows to life even if you’re not surrounded by their likenesses at all times.)

I wondered: how will Michaela MacColl give Louisa a mystery to solve and a romance to navigate when we already know so much about the Alcotts’ daily lives? (I know we might be a little overly obsessed with their every word and friendship in Concord, but lots of readers elsewhere admire the author just as much as her work.) Happily, there was a one document summer in which Marmee had to go away to work in New Hampshire, leaving teenaged Louisa to run the household basically on her own. I got to hear MacColl read from and talk about the book over this weekend, and she aptly pointed out that the first thing to do in a mystery for young readers is to “get rid of the parents,” so that unsupervised adventures might be possible. Abba (“Marmee”) would have been all too aware of any snooping and dashing about on her daughter’s part, but in her absence Louisa’s character is free to discover dead bodies and break into hotel rooms.

“What about Bronson Alcott??” I hear you philosophers cry. Well, he wasn’t exactly the most aware of parents. In fact, he was a pretty dreadful husband and father all around. Hugely influential in educational reforms, no doubt, and reportedly captivating when speaking to a room, but not a top notch dad. I think that Michaela MacColl did a respectable job of balancing Louisa’s admiration of her father’s ideals against her frustration at his inability to put the family’s security at a higher priority than his impractical notions. We can see that he’s not a lazy man; he chops wood and repairs their home and gardens for their vegetarian food. He just refuses to work for money, which might sound high-minded and impressive but actually made the Alcotts’ lives awfully difficult.

Much of the story’s tension actually builds around Louisa and Marmee’s anxiety about how to keep the family afloat. Most of Louisa May Alcott’s writing, including Little Women, was written with the rather mercenary goal to get paid ASAP. And I salute her for it, because she was so generous with her funds and made sure her family never suffered once she could afford to take care of them all. The moral bent of Little Women is absent in The Revelation of Louisa May, and we get to hang out with a heroine who knows what must be done and spends a good amount of introspective thought on the difference between ideals and necessity. I love Jo March intensely, but it’s nice to see Louisa as her own person sometimes, too.

Though there’s death and deception in this mystery story, it’s not wildly frightening or inappropriate. Even the romantic stuff is unusually clean for YA literature. I’d recommend The Revelation of Louisa May to readers 11 and up. If you’ve read and enjoyed Little Women, and understand about the underground railroad, there’s nothing here you can’t handle. Some background knowledge on what Emerson and Thoreau were thinking about will make their characters all the more interesting, but it’s not entirely necessary. The author’s note at the back of the book is incredibly helpful, and really rather fascinating. It was nice to see how an author of historical fiction chooses what to keep, what to change, and where truth is truly more compelling than fiction.

Each chapter begins with a little quote from Little Women that will have some connection to the events that follow. I liked this addition, and shall close my review with one of my favorites. I think it sums up the attitude of the book quite nicely:

” ‘I don’t think secrets agree with me, I feel rumpled up in my mind since you told me that,’ sad Jo rather ungratefully.”

Go pick up The Revelation of Louisa May if you’re into the Alcotts, like historical mysteries that aren’t too gory, or if you’ve ever wondered what those wacky Transcendentalists were like when they weren’t expounding on the glories of the woods. I liked this book and will probably read more of MacColl’s work, especially since she keeps choosing such complex and admirable young writers to feature as characters.

Book Review – Lockwood & Co #2: The Whispering Skull

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: ***** (5 stars)

Age range recommendation: 11 and up

It’s rare and exciting that I read more than one book in a series.  Series aren’t often my thing, and even when I do read a first book that sweeps me off my feet, the sequels tend to get lost at the bottom of a daunting pile of New Books I Need To Read.  That avalanche is real, it’s heavy, and it’s never ever ending.  But I was kinda-sorta on a little vacation this weekend (meaning I stayed home and ate cranberries and finally got to read in the daylight) so I said to myself, “Do something crazy an unexpected with your free time!  Break the rules!  Follow your heart to whatever terrifying destination awaits!”  I didn’t move from my reading chair, but I did pick up the second book in a series. 

Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co series is ghostly and scary and action-packed.  There’s a terrifying destination for ya’, without having to put on proper pants!  And The Whispering Skull is a sequel, so I can put a check-mark next to “unexpected”, too.

I read it because Halloween’s approaching, and Stroud writes some properly terrifying scares.  Bleeding walls, hungry rats: really not for the faint of heart.

I read it because I really enjoyed The Screaming Staircase last year, and wanted to hang out with Lockwood, Lucy, and George again.  You can read my review here.  The old-fashioned ghost-hunting subject mixed so well with the modern setting and characters in the first installment, while the young team’s mysterious adventure was tightly-plotted and tense.  Plus –huzzah! — the ending left room for development but was not an unbearable cliffhanger that left frayed seams and torn holes in the fabric of the plot.  More of that in kids’ series, please and thank you.

And I read it because the skull on the cover was staring at me from my shelf, whispering: “Read me. You know you want to fall back into a world where specters haunt the streets and psychic children carry swords.  It’s a rainy October afternoon and you’ve got nowhere to be until tomorrow.  Reeeeaad meeee.”  So I gave in and followed the skull’s advice.  Unlike Lucy and her friends, who end up seriously regretting an instance in which they follow the haunted cranium’s suggestions, I had a great time reading the book.  Didn’t even mind the goosebumps too much, though I did turn on lots of lights that evening…

The Whispering Skull introduces a new set of assignments for Lockwood & co, but also carries over some unsolved mysteries from the first book.  Clever readers would have no trouble starting with the second book, as long as they could throw themselves unreservedly into the setting of post-Problem modern London.  (The problem being ghosts, of course, the history of which is developed a little further in this second installment.)

Lucy, George, and the ever-dashing Lockwood made quite a name for their rag-tag agency after their adventure in Combe Carey Hall where, yes, the staircase was rather unhappily vocal.  They’ve been busy with new cases and a few mishaps.  When the bully Quill Kipps and his team of smug, snobby young agents from the well-established Fittes agency challenge Lockwood & co to a ghost-hunting competition, the rivalry between agencies takes on higher stakes than ever before.  Bruised pride and broken faces abound.  The trial: the next time they’re each working to solve the same haunting, whichever team defeats the spirits first and secures the case gets to humiliate the other team in print.

As luck would have it, Lockwood and Kipps find themselves called together quite soon.  An every-night graveyard job went badly awry when a definitely-haunted and probably-cursed mirror is stolen from the scene.  The mirror has an irresistible pull, but anyone who looks into it goes very mad and is quickly dead. The twisted individual who created the mirror centuries before was Dr. Bickerstaff: a man obsessed with finding out what lay beyond mortal perception, who was pleased as plasma to harm other people in his quest to find out.  With the mirror at large in London, the living are at risk.  Scotland Yard insists that Lockwood’s team work together with Kipps’ cronies to secure the mirror and keep Bickerstaff’s ghost from killing anyone else.  Racing against nefarious antique dealers, dangerously obsessed academics, and their horrid rivals, the young psychics will have to draw on all their sword skills and quick wits to find the mirror before calamity finds them.  (Lucy even has to do it in a cocktail dress and high heels!)  And if that weren’t enough to keep them on their toes, the haunted skull that George has been experimenting on since Lucy joined agency has started talking to her.  Only to her.  No one has been able to converse with spirits since the legendary founder of the Fittes agency, so very long ago.  So why is the rude and crafty skull trying to get Lucy’s attention?  Why is it trying to play on their fears and turn the three friends against one another?  And should they trust anything the skull tells them, if it might help solve the case even while it endangers their lives?

The Whispering Skull has all the trappings of a good episodic sequel.  The mystery in this book is new and self-contained, but bigger questions from the first book get embellished.  (I can only hope there will be a third book next year, so that I can continue my wild and crazy rule-breaking trend.)  Some of the things I didn’t like so much about The Screaming Staircase are even remedied in this installment.  For example, I thought that the antagonism between Kipps and Lockwood was too petty when the characters had their little standoff in book one.  The renewed strength and higher stakes of their rivalry made me really cheer for Lucy, George, and Lockwood to solve the case and wipe the smug looks off of their opponents’ pointy faces.  That is, I cheered for them when I wasn’t inwardly screaming, “Agghh just run!  There’s something horrible coming down the hall!”

Stroud’s writing continues to be mature and chilling.  These books are rather long for Middle-Grade adventures, topping out at over 400 pages.  What with the gruesome hauntings and complex plot, I still recommend Lockwood & Co to teenaged readers and even to adults looking for fast-paced supernatural thrills.  There’s no heavy romance in the series, yet – no time for making eyes at one another when you’re busy jabbing wraiths with swords – but the plot, action, and lively banter should stand up to older readers’ expectations very well.  Many middle school readers will surely love the books, as long as they’ve got an appetite for some quality horror but no appetite for their dinner just yet.  (Did I mention the rats?)

I’m getting seriously attached to Lockwood and his not-always-so-merry band of psychic swashbucklers.  All of the major characters had a chance to develop further in The Whispering Skull – even the skull himself.  Maybe it’s thanks to the haunted head’s spiteful meddling that we learn more about Lucy’s gift, about the extent of George’s curiosity, and about Lockwood’s dark secrets.  I wouldn’t thank the skull, myself, because honestly it’s an asshole.  But I’m really liking the chance to get to know these characters better.  This series deserves a whole hoard of eager followers.

Can you guess if I have any regret about reading the second book in a children’s series instead of making a few inches of progress against the Towers To Read?  None at all.  Lockwood & Co: The Whispering Skull has got me so ready to wander around in the dark on Halloween night.  I would feel a little better if Lockwood himself were around to provide back-up, but maybe I’ll stick some iron in my pockets and lavender in my purse, just to be safe.

Book Review: Jackaby by William Ritter

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: **** (4 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 + (some scares, but nothing wildly inappropriate)

A tenacious young Brit takes on a job as assistant to an awkward-but-brilliant private detective in 19th century New England. We’ve heard a similar story before. A supernatural menace is striking all over town, and the police are too closed-minded to accept the unbelievable and figure out how the macabre cases connect. We know how that is going to end. A clever and bored young lady finds herself swept away on adventures by an energetic man whose world is a lot bigger and more magical than what she had ever imagined before. That show’s been on since 1963. William Ritter has combined a bunch of rather recognizable themes; story lines; and characteristics into a novel which, without introducing anything terribly new, manages to be entertaining and atmospheric all the same.

When I started reading Jackaby, I was a little wary about just how Sherlockian the beginning was. Unorthodox detective gets a new assistant and they mislead the police in order to investigate a murder their own weird way. The police don’t like to admit that they need his help, but he knows better than they do. Tum de tum de tum. But then the mystery turned out to be grisly and saturated in folkloric horror. The dead man was a reporter, and the gaping, gory wound that killed him is worryingly short of blood. In the same apartment building, a man is tortured by the sounds of a woman weeping so bitterly it is driving him mad. No one else can hear the crying, but those of us who like our creepy Irish fairy-tales might recognize the Banshee’s ominous wail. Someone in the police force is hiding something important. And whatever creature has stalked the area around New Fiddleham for a while is now within the city’s limits, threatening to go on a rampage that will have many more people hearing their own death-songs soon enough. Jackaby and his new assistant have to keep their eyes open for clues in both the regular and spiritual worlds if they’re going to stop the mysterious murderer in time.

I liked the main characters, as recognizable as they seemed. Abigail Rook, our narrator, had run away from her stuffy home life to participate in a dig for dinosaur bones, only to find the work less exciting than she had hoped. Rather than slink home to her parents, she boarded a boat to America with no real plan. In need of a job, she answers an advertisement requiring an investigative services assistant. The ad specifies: “strong stomach preferred” and “do not stare at the frog.” And that’s how she comes to work with Jackaby. It should come as no surprise that Jackaby himself is the major show-stealer of the book, since it’s named after him and all. He’s gangly and peculiar, always sporting a giant coat with his pockets full of odd instruments. Jackaby is on a different wavelength than most other people, and he’s often lost in his own thoughts. This leads to some rather amusing outburst and misunderstandings. (His response, when asked if he’s just pulling someone’s leg, is that he hasn’t touched her leg. That sort of thing.)

He can also see the invisible world of supernatural creatures intermingling with our own, and that’s what makes him special. Jackaby is like the son of Sherlock Holmes (Conan Doyle’s original and the BBC series version combined) and the 11th Doctor.  (I haven’t seen very much Doctor Who, so apologies if I’m wrong about that.) It’s an over-used character type nowadays, one that I predict might get old soon enough. But there’s enough of a difference with the fantasy-as-science aspect of his abilities to keep me from rolling my eyes at the parallels, for now. Abigail even notes the similarities between him and the detective “who consults for Scotland Yard in those stories,” in a nod of recognition which I appreciated. Plus, it’s just too fun to watch frazzled men fail to explain the inexplicable to hardened policemen, while their harassed assistants/companions/friends try to make sense of the vigorous tirades.

A small-ish cast of minor characters, including a lovely ghost who shares Jackaby’s house and an ex-assistant who has been transformed into a “temporary waterfowl,” rounds out the story nicely. The police force contains a few men who break the skeptical brute model so common in these far-fetched detective stories. One young policeman, in particular, is remarkably understanding to Jackaby’s suspicions and catches Abigail’s interest right off the bat. (I was pleased to see that she didn’t fall for her eccentric employer after a day at his heels, which is so often the case when fictional ladies – usually written by men – meet such a figure.) Chief Inspector Marlowe isn’t a very inspired character: basically just a gruff-er Lestrade who doesn’t know how to behave when women faint. But there is an intimidating Commissioner to make procedures more tense, and even the bit-part jailer became memorable when he offers a bit of cake to the folks in custody. The judgmental women who keep rankling at Abigail’s life choices don’t add much to the story and come off as a half-hearted attempt to set Abigail apart from other women, which annoyed me. But, this being a mystery story, the characters who really matter are the detective duo and the various suspects. Abigail and Jackaby pulled their weight and kept me amused. And since the list of suspects/informants consisted of Banshees; small trolls; a mostly-invisible woman; a werewolf; and something even more horrifying, I was intrigued to find out how everyone fit into the deathly puzzle.

I also liked the setting: a fictional port town in snowy New England with plenty of ghosts and beasties hiding just out of sight. Jackaby’s office and lodging at 926 Augur Lane (oh, look, a street for supernatural detectives) had some nice little surprises hidden away. And I really appreciated the appearance of fairies, monsters, and spirits from various European traditions. Here’s hoping that if Jackaby gets a sequel (and I think it deserves one, though the mystery was solved to satisfaction by the end), we will meet some creatures from folklores in other parts of the globe, as well.

The plot would have been a fairly typical murder mystery if it weren’t for the unearthly bent. Predictable, but the twists were exciting just the same, thanks to the spooky tension. It’s not all nerves and murder in this book, though. The dialogue and funny mishaps along the way kept things jolly enough, except in instances when characters find themselves battling for their lives in the winter darkness. I spent more time chuckling at witticisms while I read than I did in white-knuckled suspense.

I recommend Jackaby most fervently to members of particular fandoms who want more of the same: outlandish one-liners, magical gadgetry, and charged banter. I can’t help but wonder if Mr. Ritter had exactly that audience in mind when he was writing the book. For those of us who can’t keep up with SuperWhoLock enthusiasms, but still like a bit of magical weirdness in our Victorian mysteries, Jackaby is a quick and amusing read. Fans of Neil Gaiman’s story “A Study In Emerald” will see parallels here, too. Like I said before, there’s nothing incredibly new to be found here, but Jackaby is a satisfying addition to that genre. I’m interested to see if we get to revisit New Fiddleham anytime soon.

Similar books which I’ve reviewed:

The Quick by Lauren Owen

Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

Constable & Toop by Gareth P. Jones

The Haunting Of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding

Book Review: Girl Defective by Simmone Howell

click for img source

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (5 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 14 and up. (Drugs, sex, and rock’n’roll.)  Adults will really like this one, too.

I don’t understand old music, or teenage crushes, or Australia. These are not my areas of expertise. But Girl Defective got to me, even though it was about all of those mysterious things. Skylark Martin lives with her little brother Gully (short for Seagull – their mother liked birds) and Bill, her “analogue” Dad (who gets mopey when he drinks), in St. Kilda, where the summer is hot and things aren’t as simple as they seem. A dead girl, a wayward friend, sinister rockstar parties, and two boys looking for very different answers turn St. Kilda into the setting for an understated mystery that can never really be solved.

Sky “used to be such a sweet kid.” I feel bad for each and every teenager who has ever had to react to that loaded statement. She takes care of Gully, who has some social behavior issues and always sports a pig snout on his face to disguise his facial expressions. Gully wants to be a spy, and treats everyone he likes as though they were secret agents. Sky wants to be like her friend Nancy, a wildcard of a girl who is three or four years older and sometimes speaks as though she were living in a black and white movie, then at other times hooks up with famous musicians and looks right through her young friend. Sky wants to be like Nancy, and at times it seems like she might want to be with Nancy, too. And who could blame her? With her magnetic personality and crazy schemes, Nancy’s hard to resist. From the start of Howell’s new-ish YA novel, Sky is torn between the growing need to indulge in some misguided teenage shenanigans and her long standing duty to look after Gully and keep an eye on her dad, too. So when tragi-hot” Luke starts working for her father and plastering some girl’s face all over town, our candid narrator has a lot of trouble deciding what (or whom) she wants, let alone how she would even go about getting it.

Bill Martin owns a record shop that doesn’t get much business, and a great deal of the book’s action takes place amongst the vinyls and cardboard cutouts at the quirky shop. It’s the sort of place you can picture straight away. There used to be one in every major town, and now shops like these are getting rarer and rarer. Simmone Howell writes about Bill’s Wishing Well record shop so lovingly, with an eye for the silly details which make a place special. Since Sky and Gully’s mother left them to go become an experimental pop star in Japan, the record shop is sort of like another parent to them, and maybe the only reliable fixture in their lives. Descriptions of the regular customers were funny and a little sad; very true to life.

A good balance is struck in the retro vibe of Girl Defective. There’s a pleasure taken in remembering the vintage, but the narrator always keeps her head above the waves of nostalgia that keep her dad from really living in the moment. The internet plays a part in their adventures (in fact, a weird party-photo website is one of the creepier and more memorable details in the uncovering of weird circumstances), and most of the characters are able to separate their artistic interests from real life. Those that can not struggle to function in the real world. Gully’s not the only one living in a fantasy, but at least he has Sky to look after him.

As times get tough and the record store is threatened, Sky daydreams about ways to keep it afloat. She’s also started daydreaming about Luke an awful lot, even though he’s an interloper at the store and might keep her from getting the recognition she deserves for all that responsibility. And Mia Casey, Luke’s dead sister, also takes up a lot of space in her brain. The tragic circumstances of Mia’s death don’t sit entirely well with Sky. So while Agent Gully Martin investigates the ne’er-do-wells who through a brick through the shop’s window at the beginning of the book, Sky tries to put together some sort of explanation to ease her own concern. But finding answers is hard for Sky and Luke when Gully needs constant watching, Bill seems to be hiding something big, and unreliable Nancy keeps leading Sky into troublesome situations without helping her friend get back out of them again.

Gully might think he’s a secret agent, but there’s a reason the title doesn’t read “Girl Detective.” Most of the mysteries in this book go unsolved, or have unhappy answers like: people make mistakes and situations can be dangerous. Sky’s quest for Mia Casey is just a distraction, a way to keep her mind occupied. The real story, here, is about how Sky’s perception of her town changes. The dark underbelly of St. Kilda’s doesn’t resemble those Film Noir movies Nancy loves to quote. Nothing is black and white. The sometimes-hilarious and sometimes-distressing interactions between the Martin family and the people Sky meets are where the real plot can be found. I liked how certain characters seem all cool and tough but turn out to be hiding embarrassing depths of immaturity. I also liked how peoples’ reasons for lying, or pretending, or hiding sometimes ended up being entirely understandable. The creepy concerts, secret parties, and gross landlords were enough to keep this story under pressure. Nancy’s caprice and Gully’s eccentricity ensure that Sky’s year will be interesting.

I liked Girl Defective even though it ended without some personal growth instead of swift justice. It’s a good, realistic YA book that could easily be enjoyed by adults. Especially old rockers and people who have convinced themselves that the old days were better. Sky’s internal narration were spot-on for a teenage girl questioning everything she thought was obvious. The other major characters were fun, too, especially the predictably unpredictable ones. Very short chapters and a conversational writing style make Girl Defective the sort of book you can blow through in an afternoon. The plot might be a little slow for teen readers who want their mysteries to be explosive and the drama to be clearly defined, but I ended up enjoying the lifelike mess of experiences Sky goes through in St. Kilda’s. No one’s home town is normal, and nothing really makes sense when you’re just turning sixteen. At least Skylark has got some entertaining company and good tunes to get her through.

World Book Night: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Friends, cohorts, everyone-but-my-mortal-enemies, I invite you to celebrate World Book Night with me! By “celebrate World Book Night,” I here mean: I have twenty copies of a really excellent book that I’m giving out for free – do you want one?

 

World Book Night is an annual celebration of books and the joy of reading. On this night, volunteer book-givers wander around with special copies of certain popular books which they hand out for free. The goal is to get books into the hands of people who might not otherwise be avid readers.

source: wikipedia

April 23rd is also Shakespeare’s birthday. (Happy 450th, William. Here, have this book about spies.)

No spare cash to go to the bookstore? Not sure if a certain story is going to be worth your valuable time? Are you waiting for a sign to literally land in your lap, declaring “This is a book you will love and you should read it!” Here’s your sign. I’m handing out a book that I loved – a really fast read with great characters and a thrilling twist – and you don’t have to buy it or remember to return it or anything. Read it, spill coffee on it, lose it in your car somewhere. Whatever. Free books are pretty great, especially when the story’s as good as this one is.

Here’s why I LOVED Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein:

  • Kick-ass girls in WWII: one foul-mouthed and aristocratic Scottish spy, one brilliant and earnest English pilot. Both of them are utterly wonderful, and they’re even better when they’re together.

 

  • Best-friendships are better than romantic relationships. This is a book about two young people trusting one another even when they’re using code-names and flying under blackouts and suffering through Nazi interrogation. There’s no mushy nonsense about star-crossed love or waiting for one’s boyfriend to come home from the war. The fierce friendship between these girls, thrown together in desperate circumstances, is way more powerful than any sentimental entanglements which might happen on the sidelines.

 

  • Inventive story-telling. Code Name Verity begins with one girl’s written memories of how they met and got started in the military. She’s being held prisoner by the Nazis and, under torture and threats, is turning over bits of code and whatever information she can recall, as long as she can have time and paper to write them down. Her confessions take the form of a memoir, with a vivid voice and plenty of anger behind each word. (Also plenty of cursing-out the Nazis, which is well deserved.) But then it switches: after the backstory of their friendship and the drama of military training, the story moves moves forward to a really harrowing denouement. With all the secret missions and coded communications flying around, it’s really interesting to see various angles of the war: from life in England, to the bases, to prisons, to scenes behind enemy lines.

 

  • On that note: Unreliable narrators! Thrilling plot twists! This is the sort of book you’ll want to read a second time, if you haven’t ruined it with your tears or crumpled pages in suspense. There are false leads and hidden messages, double-agents double-crossing each other, cunning misdirections, and secrets everywhere. This is a spy novel, after all. The plot isn’t particularly complicated or difficult to follow – I get easily confused/frustrated by war thrillers but found Code Name Verity to be an easy read. It’s just that once you see how everything comes together in the end you’ll want to go through and see all the clever details working in action.

 

  • A complete story. ‘Cause I, for one, am damned tired of extended YA series. There’s technically a companion novel to Code Name Verity called Rose Under Fire, but this is a book you can read on its own. No slamming the covers shut in frustration after an enormous cliff-hanger ending. No trilogy set-up just to make as much money as possible. The book is exciting and upsetting and a fantastic piece of literature unto itself. So no worries even if you’re a slow reader or are reluctant to get into a book. This one will grab your attention and not leave you feeling cheated at the end.

Who will enjoy Code Name Verity?

  • Anyone who wonders if they’d have the courage to sacrifice their comfortable lives for scary, lonely missions in dangerous locations. (After reading the book, I don’t think I would.)
  • Anyone who has a best friend and knows how that bond can be stronger than patriotism or romance or fear.
  • Anyone who can appreciate a war story focused on the individuals involved as well as the bigger picture. The book features Englishmen, Scots, French resistance fighters, farmers, Nazi interrogators, turncoats, American radio presenters, nameless government officers, and a passel of tiny Glaswegian evacuees who made me laugh when I thought I would be holding my breath forever. You love some characters and despise some others, and then realize near the end that nearly everyone has a side you didn’t see. War turns everyone into an enigma, and this book gets that exactly right.
  • And anyone who likes the idea of young people flying planes, parachuting into war zones, sassing their interrogators, and cracking codes, all the while managing to find something hopeful in their surroundings and comrades. Basically, anyone who looks for something to hold on to in the worst of times.

So, do you want to read Code Name Verity? Do you live within a reasonable distance from me? Get in touch and I’ll try to get it to you tonight. I promise it’s good, and I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t appreciate the story and the characters. Anyway, it’s free. The worst that can happen is you might stay up a little too late, desperate to know what fate has in store for the heroines. Just know that while fate can be cruel and war always sucks, there are always brave people to celebrate. And I haven’t read about braver characters in a very long time.

Book Review of File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents by Lemony Snicket

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 8+

Some of you may not know this, but underneath all the fairytale infatuations and my ambitions of piracy, I’m a Voracious, Fervently Devoted admirer of Mr. Lemony Snicket’s life and work. (Actually, you all probably worked that one out for yourselves. I’ve been quite vocal about my enthusiasm for The Basic Eight and Why We Broke Up, penned by his “representative” Daniel Handler.) When I was slogging through the dreary days of middle-school, A Series Of Unfortunate Events instilled within me an appreciation for all sorts of gothic literature and a keen eye for mysterious circumstances. Those books were also largely responsible for my inherent distrust of adults. It’s the sort of series you can re-read time and time again; and I find that every time I return to it I recognize some wonderfully distressing references to literature and life which had flown right over my young head, despite the fact that I was tall and gangly for my age.

Nowadays I get to be that cryptic adult in the bookshop who recommends mysterious literary material to intrepid young browsers. How convenient for my secret plans that Lemony Snicket did not stop writing after his first series brought so many readers to the brink of despair. Who Could That Be At This Hour? and When Did You See Her Last? are high on my list of recommended reading. With those books on the shelf, I’m rarely at a loss for something thrilling and hilarious to sneak into the hands of a diminutive detective-to-be.

Snicket’s newer series, All The Wrong Questions, chronicles the earlier life of young Lemony: his baffling past as a volunteer in that secret society which loomed in the periphery of the Baudelaires’ lives. The books are written in a style inspired by noir detective fiction. Think hard-boiled private eyes on their own in a hostile world; enigmatic women and shady men in hats all triple-crossing our embittered hero as well as each other. There are cunning nods to the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett scattered everywhere, alongside a myriad of references to classic fiction and highly recommended kids’ books.

The series traces a big, complex mystery through a town called Stain’d-By-The-Sea, where commerce is rapidly dying and something nefarious lurks just out of sight by every corner, bakery, and rocking chair shop. Lemony Snicket and his chaperone – an amusingly inept adult member of the secret society – are meant to solve a mystery involving a stolen statue, a desperate young woman, an aging actress, and a coffee shop containing a player-piano rather than baristas. It’s hard to find answers, though, when everyone insists upon asking all the wrong questions. In the end, the children have to figure things out on their own while most adults waste time and, as usual, completely ignore common sense.

File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents is sort of a supplemental volume in the series. It takes place in Stain’d-By-The-Sea sometime during the course of Snicket’s investigations, but does not necessarily need to be read at one particular point in the series’ chronology. Rather than adding to the larger mystery, these thirteen suspicious incidents appear in a collection of reported cases and separate conclusions. Each short chapter stands on its own. Sub File One contains the thirteen mysteries themselves, relayed to us in Snicket’s distinctive voice. For those of us who loved the deadpan and ironic – though somewhat formulaic – humor in A Series Of Unfortunate Events, these new books are not a disappointment. (Aside from the obvious disappointments, like how justice and root beer floats aren’t served nearly as often as they should be.) Sub File B contains the conclusions. When you’re done reading the book, count the conclusions. There are more than thirteen. Suspicious indeed! Each self-contained whodunits is somewhere between five and twenty pages long; perfect for puzzling over a story or six before bed, or while waiting for one’s parent to finish swearing at the hardware store cashier.

Characters from All The Wrong Questions filter in and out of the short cases, because in a good noir piece the locals and strangers are just as responsible for a mysterious atmosphere as the shadowy setting itself. The frustrating Mitchum family fails to prevent crimes all over the place. Moxie puts her reporting skills to use and helps Snicket now and then. Dashiel Qwerty, the punk-rock librarian, seems to know just the right book for any occasion. Jake, at the diner, serves banana waffles right when they’re needed most. Even though Snicket’s character is just a kid when he narrates the book, his descriptions of people are as cynical and case-hardened as any full grown P.I. in a black and white feature.

“Think of something noble and true, like a librarian or a a good crisp apple or a sweater that doesn’t itch, and then think of the opposite, and that’s Stew Mitchum. He was a rat and a nuisance and many other troublesome words I knew, the sort of person who might dump a whole shaker on your head if you asked him to pass the salt.”

We also encounter a long list of new characters, as most mysteries require culprits; and victims; and red herrings; and wrong turns. I particularly liked Jackie, the young mechanic who is never referred to by a gendered pronoun (and – huzzah – this is not at all self-congratulatory), and two friends named Kevin and Florence who share pirate books and also possibly secrets. Some mysterious strangers remain mysterious. Some seemingly-benign individuals turn out to be quite sinister, and some suspicious figures are actually just trying to get on with their regular routine. I think Dashiel Qwerty articulates the general theme of the collection quite well in the very last mystery, entitled “Figure In Fog.”

” ‘Look at it this way, Snicket,’ Qwerty said as the fog kept rolling across the grass. ‘To a stranger in town, such as yourself, Stain’d-by-the-Sea is full of suspicious incidents. But to the people of Stain’d-by-the-Sea, you’re a suspicious incident yourself. You arrived out of the blue and live in a hotel suite with an adult who seems to be neither your parent nor your guardian. You ask a lot of questions about anything and everything, and anyone and everyone has questions about you. There are rumors you’re part of a secret organization. There are rumors you are in charge of an important investigation. But nobody really seems to have the foggiest notion what you’re up to.’ “

I think this is an interesting observation to apply to any mystery story, hard-boiled or otherwise. As usual, Lemony Snicket makes more astute observations while writing serialized children’s fiction than many writers for grown-ups do in their whole oeuvre. These solve-it-yourself stories are great fun and very accessible to young readers, of course. They remind me of the Meg Mackintosh mysteries I loved as a child, in which I would always try to figure out the solution before the big reveal. But though I’m no longer quite youthful enough to start an apprenticeship like Snicket’s, my age never once prevented me from appreciating every one of the Suspicious Incidents. The mysteries themselves might be fairly simplistic, but the sharp, dry humor in nearly each description and every line of dialogue has no age limit in its appeal.

I hope that Snicket’s fans of fewer years might follow this series by hunting down some noir detective fiction for themselves, with the assistance of their devoted local booksellers and vigilant librarians. As for myself, and any other nearly-adult readers returning to Mr. Snicket’s world with an air of nostalgia, there are plenty of subtle riddles and literary clues to mull over all morning as one’s oatmeal congeals and the newspaper goes unread. (Another reason to wish we were eating breakfast at Jake’s diner.)

File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents is a highly entertaining casebook, but it’s also a clever and worthwhile addition to the chronicles of Stain’d-by-the-Sea and the intricate world Lemony Snicket shares with us all. The plot might not be so detailed, and the ironic twists and turns might get repetitive after some time, but the formula works and the book concludes before it descends into a tiresome exercise. In a town where everyone has a trick up their sinister sleeves – where even sled races and pet lizards aren’t as wholesome as they might seem – we can trust young Lemony Snicket to doggedly pursue answers to whatever suspicious incidents waltz his way, even if those answers just unearth more questions and an awful lot of dry seaweed.

Book Review: The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

I read The Winter People a week ago, but was holding off on a review until I could let the story settle in my mind.  In the meantime, I actually got to meet Jennifer McMahon at a cocktail party in Boston. This means I had a chance to berate her with questions about the book over crudités and macarons.  Questions like “why the heck was that doll so sinister?” and “When do you think you’ll allow your young daughter to read your super creepy books?”.  She was so much fun to speak with; warm, kind, funny, and not at all unnerving despite the general tone of her fiction.  To be quite honest, I think The Winter People would only be getting 3 stars from me, had I sat down to write this review right after I closed the book.  But, after meeting Jennifer, I have a new appreciation for some of the little details which vexed me.  So bonus points for being delightful.

The Winter People is sort of a literary thriller, if I’m using that term correctly.  I don’t generally read much suspense fiction, preferring ancient-folklore-is-real-and-scary style horror to the find-them-before-its-too-late genre.  The Winter People had a good mix of both, though, not to mention a healthy dose of oh-crap-don’t-go-out-in-the-woods.  The novel’s events stem from  the tragic story of Sarah Harrison Shea, after her daughter disappears in the woods one winter in 1908.  Excerpts from Sarah’s secret diaries and her husband’s own experiences show how a mistake from the past can utterly ruin someone’s chance for future happiness, especially when that mistake involves betraying a pissed-off medicine woman and failing to appropriately dispose of her mystical belongings.  Oops.  Sarah’s friends and neighbors start to worry that she’s sinking into madness after Gertie is found dead, but there is someone scratching at the closet door and something killing animals in the snow.  Could it be that Sarah’s Auntie really taught her how to summon life back into the bodies of the dead when she was a child?  And how much misfortune must befall a devastated lady before we can forgive her for trying her hand at necromancy?  It should not come as a shock to any fans of supernatural mysteries that the price for tampering with natural fate is almost always much worse than the original tragedy.

Sarah’s dairy entries are revealed through a modern lens in The Winter People by way of two other personal encounters with whatever dreadful forces are at work in the woods of West Hall, Vermont.  Nineteen-year-old Ruthie and her sister Fawn live in Sarah Harrison Shea’s old farm house, and their mother has just gone missing.  Nothing to worry about; it’s not like they’re totally isolated, living near a stone circle called “The Devil’s Hand,” without computers, but with Fawn’s imaginary friends to keep them company!  Oh wait – yes they are, and I got very nervous right away for the girls’ wellbeing because I was immediately invested in their characters in a way which I couldn’t quite care about Sarah Harrison Shea.  Ruthie and Fawn are realistic and likable.  The elder sister’s valiant attempts to remain level-headed in times of crisis only made their eerie situation all the more urgent and uncanny, especially since things quickly escalated from the vaguely mysterious circumstances of their mother’s disappearance to a desperate hunt for answers underground, at gunpoint.

The modern chapters of The Winter People are full of action and investigation, while Sarah’s diary entries focus on a slow build of supernatural suspense and emotional disturbances.  In nearly all of my reading experiences, I’m more receptive to the latter sort of story.  Give me ancient curses and haunting visions, and I’ll be in my reading chair for the rest of the afternoon.  But I think that McMahon actually did a much better job bringing the characters and the story to life in Ruthie’s chapters of the book.  Naturally, the big concern was over Fawn’s safety as things rapidly progressed beyond the sisters’ control, but I also rather liked Ruthie’s UFO-spotting redneck boyfriend and even her exacting, slightly paranoid mother.  Maybe I knew that the Harrison Shea family was doomed from the start and gave up hope on a happy ending for them, but I was holding my breath for Fawn and Ruthie.  Whenever the little girl mentioned a creepy little fact she supposedly heard from her doll, and every time they discovered a new claustrophobic secret passageway in the house, I wanted to jump into the pages and help them get out of there ASAP.  There’s one scene in which Ruthie and her boyfriend honestly pry some boards off of a closet door which has been obviously barricaded from the outside to keep something in.  Ack!

The biggest flaw I found with The Winter People would have to lie in the minor characters who are meant to push the plot forward.  I couldn’t bring myself to care one way or another about the grieving artist who moved to Vermont and finds her fate intertwined with Ruthie’s and Sarah’s, despite the fact that I understood her importance to the mystery.  This book is as much a study of grief as it is a scary story, and this woman had lost her husband after he got tangled up in the supernatural draw of West Hall.  Her attempts to rediscover his last moments brought some important catalysts to the plot – and provided opportunities for exposition – but I just found her character to be a little too convenient.  The same goes for the baffling woman who holds the answers to some of Ruthie’s questions, a rich and possibly delusional lady who is also struggling with having a child taken away from her.  (McMahon writes a lot about lost children – several of her other novels seem to follow a similar theme.)  Sarah’s niece, who could have been really interesting given her fascination with mediums and the spiritualism of the early 20th century, also fell a little short of my expectations.  Of the three supernaturally-inclined ladies in the novel’s historical chapters, Auntie was the most intriguing, but even she wasn’t developed enough to be entirely believable as such an important character.  The superstitions behind the “sleepers” wasn’t explained in enough detail for my liking, but I tend to get overly enthusiastic about folklore and magical lore, and I don’t think that the book suffered too much for the vagueness of those details.  Maybe if Auntie had a bit more time in the spotlight, some of my questions would have been cleared up.  But I doubt many other readers will be bothered by the occasional lack of clarity, there. It’s really too bad that the minor characters fell flat, because the major characters were complex people with emotional depths which made their desperate – sometimes ill-advised – decisions stressful and compelling.

The little sensory details – like a girl-shaped figure in a blurry photograph or the sound of something scuttling around a dark room – amped up the tension in the book even when the plot itself threatened to fall into somewhat conventional patterns.  I really liked the way Jennifer McMahon could focus on how one small thing out of place can change the atmosphere entirely, and she carried those details from the historical chapters all the way to the modern, exciting conclusion.  As I reached the novel’s end I started to get really stressed out that things might not get resolved before I ran out of pages, but the ending was fairly satisfying if not a little hard to believe.  But, honestly, this is a book about grieving women raising the dead and terrified teenagers trying to put them back down again.  Suspend your disbelief for a while, especially if you like smart thrillers and can handle some chilling descriptions. Curl up with The Winter People and a blanket next time a snowstorm keeps you cooped up inside.

Archived Review: The Earth Hums In B Flat by Mari Strachan

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on April 16, 2013

 

Characters: *****(4 Stars)

Character Development: **** (4 Stars)


Plot: *** (3 Stars)


Writing: **** (4 Stars)


Overall: **** (4 Stars)


Age range recommendation: 16 +

I read this book in two sittings, so it’s clearly got plenty of excellent qualities. I love child-detective stories, especially when those intrepid youngsters are the protagonists of adult novels and, therefore, their deductions about the complex world around them can be completely off track, often to hilarious or poetically tragic results. Despite Gwenni’s tender age of twelve, The Earth Hums in B Flat is about a grown up mystery: yes, there’s a disappearance and death and useless police officers, but the real plot revolves around the little mysteries which flourish in silence to engulf families and entire towns. Our odd little heroine narrates the novel in first person, providing an endearing perspective on events which might be only depressing, rather than intriguing, if they were reported through a more down-to-earth point of view.

Gwenni’s home life is difficult with an unstable mother and a cruel sister; her best friend and she are growing apart as they disagree about the importance of boys vs. magic plans; and to top it all off the intimidating father of two children she takes care of has disappeared, pursued by a mysterious “black dog.” Mr. Ifan Evansdisappearance causes little ruptures in the every day order of Gwenni’s small Welsh town, and when she decides to take matters into her own hands like the detectives in her books, she uncovers more secrets than answers and learns that some stones are best left unturned. The Earth Hums in B Flat is an easy and delightful read, and I enjoyed watching Gwenni’s observations about human nature develop from naivety to somber comprehension without ever losing the innocent edge which make the betrayals of the real world even more poignant. It’s not an uplifting story, though, so while fans of The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie by Alan Bradley will enjoy the similar narrative style, don’t expect an up-front story where the murderer is evil and a clever child’s perseverance necessarily prevails. The family in The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie is dysfunctional in an amusing way; but the families in Gwenni’s town are just plain messed up. There are a few intriguing minor characters, and the setting – a Welsh-speaking village in the 1950s – is seamlessly described to create a unique stage for story’s events. Some elements of social awkwardness around language, war, and class are seamlessly woven into the small-town plot, placing the story in a wider context which should appeal to anyone with an interest in British cultural history.

While I found the writing to be captivating and the characters compelling, there were a few things about The Earth Hums In B Flat which left me feeling a little let down once I reached the novel’s end. Namely, the end of the novel itself. While I was prepared for a pessimistic ending – meaning, I knew that this was not the sort of mystery which would end with peace for the village, justice for all, and due credit going to the amateur detective – I can’t help but feel that Mari Strachan could have let Gwenni receive a little more credit for the hardships she experiences at the hands of her mother and the small minded town. Some characters were sympathetic and kind, especially her memorable grandmother and absurdly saint-like father, but many of the people who made her life difficult never really get their just deserts. Of course, this is how the world works: a child might be in the right, but those who were wrong might never admit or even realize their faults.

Life isn’t fair, and although the unfairness of this novel left me feeling unsatisfied, I can see that it was an important element in the book’s message. Strachan is honest about how ignored young people can feel, how adults never listen even when they should, and this is a point made time and time again in children’s books but not nearly enough in fiction aimed at adults. There’s nothing wildly inappropriate here, some domestic violence and intimated deviancy, but younger readers might be disappointed by The Earth Hums in B Flat because the plot is driven by subtle relationships rather than action, and the writing expects that readers would have passed the point in their lives when they thought like Gwenni does. We must be able to see where she’s mistaken in her judgement to understand the story’s full scope. I enjoyed this book – it was the perfect cure to a day of feeling generally unwell – and I’d recommend it to someone who wanted an absorbing and self-contained story, a mystery which doesn’t follow the patterns we’ve come to expect, and a reminder of how magical life can be when you’re young and how strange it is when life fails to meet your fantasized expectations.