Historical Fiction: The Witch of Willow Hall, by Hester Fox

The Witch of Willow Hall
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The year is 1821. Boston’s prominent Montrose family has left town under a cloud of scandal, relocating to their stately “summer home” in New Oldham, a mill village in northern Massachusetts. Mrs. Montrose has been crushed by the shame of it all, but her husband is quite detached from everything but his new business venture. The three sisters make the move, but their brother remains behind, apparently oblivious to scandal. Their attempts to settle in to their new home is narrated by Lydia, the middle sister, who maintains a close bond with  Emeline, the youngest, but deeply resents  willful, Catherine, the eldest, whose behavior lies at the root of their problems. Lydia herself is quiet, studious, and sensitive. She has noticed with some trepidation that when she grows angry, strange things that she cannot explain occur; Mrs. Montrose, who is descended from a victim at the Salem Witch Trials, promises to explain all in due time.

From the moment she steps inside Willow Hall, Lydia feels a deep sense of foreboding, and the story she tells is romantic in some aspects, but deeply tragic in others. Having led a sheltered life, her viewpoint is that of a young adolescent, so the novel reads  like a coming of age tale for young adults. She is quite willing to grant legitimacy to  the supernatural events that occur around her, even though they make her fretful and fearful. Lydia’s emotions are amply described, but I did not find that they transferred to me as I read. The prose is competent, but here and there colored by anachronistic phrases (i.e. “I lost my cool” or I’m lousy at this”) that spoiled the mood. As for characters, they were types — the spoiled young heiress, the cad, the snide townspeople, the bored invalid aunt.  I was also puzzled by the book’s claim on the cover that  it takes place two centuries after Salem, when 1821 is only 130  years from the date of the trials.

I would recommend The Witch of Willow Hall to young adults rather than to readers looking for richer historical content.

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It’s a Mystery: The Colony, by F. G. Cottam

The Colony (The Colony, #1)
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s nothing like an enigmatic, unsolved mystery, especially a true one, to excite public (or private) interest. Hoping to inject new life into his ailing newspaper, fabulously wealthy media mogul Alexander McIntyre mounts an expedition to New Hope Island, planning  to get to the bottom of the abrupt disappearance of a fringe religious cult that settled there more than a hundred years ago.  McIntyre believes that aliens were involved (really!), but he  hires the best experts in the fields of archaeology, ufology, epidemiology, parapsychology,  and security, building them a state of the art base camp on the barren island, to uncover the truth, whatever it is.  He also sends his star reporter along, to file up to the minute reports on the team’s progress, thereby increasing circulation among spellbound readers.  But serious, unexplained problems arise from the moment the team sets foot on the island, not the least of which is that their communications center simply will not function, leaving them marooned in the presence of some very malevolent forces. Very soon, some of team are dead and gone — literally.

F. G. Cottam is skilled at combining the genres of thriller and paranormal, and The Colony is right up there when it comes to meeting his readers’ expectations. I would describe this one as disconcerting rather than horrifying, but subtlety is something I much prefer to graphic gore. What I particularly enjoyed was the in depth viewpoints provided by the various experts, and subplot  involving the young daughter of the team’s psychic and a maritime marine museum curator. Some of the characters were one dimensional, but others were more developed, depending upon their importance in the plot. When the deaths occurred, it would have been interesting to  know what became of their bodies, but perhaps that’s to be revealed in sequels to The Colony. Overall, this is a well presented paranormal mystery, but……

Evidently, this book was initially released only in a digital version. I acquired a print copy published somewhat later, by Ipso Books. Perhaps The Colony was spookier and more suspenseful than I found it to be. The reason I’m not certain is that my attention was constantly disrupted by what appear to be a very poorly edited text. Did you know that churches have “knaves”, photos can be “matt”, and punctuation can be omitted in very long sentences? My favorite gaffe is as follows: “They were helpless, no more any of them really he feared, than prey. (Bit of a weird sentence here, doesn’t really make sense.)”

Enough said. Despite all the annoying errors, The Colony was a pretty good story, sufficient to make me ignore my irritation to soldier on to the end. Properly published, it probably would have been even better.

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It’s a Mystery: Weycombe, by G. M. Malliet

Weycombe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jillian White is bored. When she and her aristocratic husband married and moved to a posh enclave in the village of Weycombe, she thought her life was perfect. Then she lost her job producing a crime series with the BBC, and with time hanging heavy on her hands, she realizes that, as an American, she doesn’t quite fit in. So when her near neighbor Anna is murdered, Jill decides that investigating this crime on her own will liven things up for her, distracting her from her loneliness and from dwelling on  the failing health of her marriage.

The mystery is recounted in first person by Jill, and it isn’t until about halfway through the book that it becomes clear that she’s an unreliable narrator. Shallow and self-centered, she has difficulty empathizing with others, operating from a false  sense of superiority and keeping everyone at arm’s length.  The story has its interesting segments, broken too often by rambling soliloquies about Jill’s innermost thoughts. Something about the brittleness of  her shell is distinctly off-putting; then again, it seems that the entire population of this village are like that. Given the meandering nature of the bulk of this book, the ending seems rushed and abrupt, but it did contain surprises, and Jill does attain her goals at  last.

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It’s a Mystery: The Ophelia Cut, by John Lescroart

The Ophelia Cut (Dismas Hardy, #14)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Ophelia Cut is a welcome addition to the Dismas Hardy series, which has recently laid somewhat dormant. I enjoy this series  because of the depth of the main characters, who grow and change with time, and who strive to maintain their integrity even in the most  trying of their personal conflicts and their legal cases. In Ophelia, Attorney Hardy faces one of his greatest  challenges both personally and professionally.  His niece and God-daughter,  Britney, has been raped, and twenty four hours later, her assailant is dead. The prime suspect is Britney’s father, Moses Malone, brother of Diz’s wife. Diz decides to represent Moses in a situation that could not be more fraught with ethical dilemmas. What father wouldn’t feel murderous toward the man who raped his daughter? The picture is complicated further by the fact that Mose has started drinking again, and Diz and their circle of friends/colleagues are worried that, while under the influence, he might betray a secret that would severely damage each and every one.

I don’t know another writer who can write courtroom drama as well as Lescroart.  The scenes are particularly effective in the audio version of the novel, in this case adroitly read by David Colacci. The tension builds slowly, chapter by chapter, and the reader, along with Mose’s family and friends, is never sure whether or not he is guilty, anticipating the verdict with as much trepidation as the they are. The novel could have ended at that point, but it didn’t, and the final scene is a shocker that I never saw coming. This is a book without a final resolution, leaving many of its ethical questions unresolved. Can revenge ever be justice? What is a lawyer’s obligation when he suspects his witness is lying? What if the prosecution failed to pursue alternative theories? And if you’re wondering what the title means, you’ll have to wonder till the final page.

Highly recommended, one of Lescroart’s absolute best. The followup novel should be really interesting.

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It’s a Mystery: The Widow’s House, by Carol Goodman

The Widow's House

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Books about books are always fun to read, and this one features three different writers, each working on their own novels. Thirty-something couple Clare and Jess leave behind their trendy loft in Brooklyn to relocate to the Hudson River Valley. Though Jess published a respectable debut novel, ten years later he hasn’t managed to complete a second. Clare would like to get back into writing, and they’re counting on this move to revitalize them professionally and as a couple. They find themselves taking on residence as caretakers at the River Road estate of a famed author who taught some classes while they were in college. It’s a happy reunion, and for a short while things go well, but from the get-go, Clare, who has always been sensitive to the paranormal, begins seeing apparitions of one of the mansion’s previous employees. Her husband encourages Clare to channel her experiences into a novel, telling her to use her imagination or her imagination will use her.

All of the Goodman books that I’ve read and enjoyed involve women academics, writing, water, and the paranormal, but no two have been alike. The Widow’s House is an amalgam of the gothic, the mystery, and the supernatural, and the story depends equally upon each of those elements. The weather and the river mists add to the ambience of the bucolic setting, as do the local history and folklore that are so prevalent in the region to this day (where the Headless Horseman and Rip van Winkle got started!) The tension builds incrementally as strange things keep occurring, and grows so strong that Clare doesn’t know whom to trust or what to believe. The same can been said for the reader, at least those who enjoy a well crafted ghost story.

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Nonfiction Worth Reading: Pox Americana, by Elizabeth E. Fenn

Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a museum interpreter, I’ve long related aspects of the story of George Washington and his dogged determination to win the Revolutionary War. Then a friend loaned me her copy of Pox Americana, and now I’ve learned about yet another obstacle that Washington had to vanquish alongside the British forces. I knew that smallpox afflicted the American population for a couple of centuries, but not to the extent that, between 1775 and 1782, it was as deadly as one of the black plague outbreaks that so famously devastated Europe.

Pox Americana is an eye opener. It opens with a description, complete with photos, of the course that smallpox takes, from early exposure to its horrific outbreak to its most frequent outcome, the death of the sufferer. The photos were explicit enough to prompt me to put the book aside for a few days to get over a bout of nausea over what they showed. The narrative provides the history of the inoculation efforts that were opposed by so many, and, once it became evident to Washington that his forces in 1775 Boston were likely to be annihilated by the disease, the process which he went through in order to formulate a plan to save the army as well as the general populace. “Taking the smallpox” via inoculation was no walk in the park. Evidence that British military leaders attempted to employ germ warfare against the American side (Europeans had greater immunity to smallpox due to centuries of exposure) is also examined. Of course, it wasn’t only Caucasian Americans that were susceptible, and the second half of the book follows the spread of the disease to such distant places as Mexico and the Pacific coast. There is also evidence that Native Americans were subjected to germ warfare by the American ruling class.

Pox Americana is not a pleasant book, but it is a well researched study, one that provides new information about a little known crisis in a competent, readable style and format. Without Washington’s foresight, our national anthem might yet be God Save the Queen.

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It’s a Mystery: Raven Black, by Ann Cleeves

Raven Black (Shetland Island, #1)
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ever since experiencing a fascinating visit to Scotland’s Iona and Staffa Islands a few years back, I became interested in other islands in the region. Books set in the British Isles always appeal to me, and I regularly troll the new book release lists looking for new titles and/or authors. In the case of Raven Black, it was the author’s name (Henry VIII’s fourth wife)  that hooked me. Also, the names Shetland and Fair Isle have long been familiar to me as an avid knitter, so I just had to give Ann Cleeves’  Shetland series a try.

Like another popular novel series set in Scotland, Raven Black is a book involving outlanders. The first one we meet is Fran Hunter, who, following her divorce,  relocated to Shetland from London so her daughter could have contact with her father, a prominent island native.  She is struggling to find a niche in the small, literally insular, community where most families have lived for generations. Not surprisingly, it’s the sort of place where everybody knows everybody else and everybody else’s secrets, things not shared with outsiders. When she discovers the strangled body of another newcomer, high school student Catherine Ross, Fran will quickly learn what many of those secrets are.

Detective Jimmy Perez, called in from nearby Fair Isle, is the next incomer on the scene. Nearly everyone he interviews throws suspicion on an elderly local man, who was implicated but not accused in the disappearance of another young girl eight years earlier. Perez, being familiar with the way of life, resists jumping to conclusions, always observing, listening, reading between the lines.

This is a tautly plotted mystery  full of local atmosphere, tradition, and  complex characters.  Perez slowly teases out the conflicts and resentments that underlie community relationships, and he finds no dearth of suspects as well as an abundance of clues. But clues are not evidence, and not until the killer makes another move, during the biggest folkloric festival of the year, do his theories crystallize. There’s plenty of local color and attitude from start to finish, and none of the many clues are tells. The surprising  and satisfactory ending left me eagerly anticipating the sequel, White Nights.

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