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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Modern Lit: Into the Water, by Paula Hawkins

Into the Water
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The sleepy, remote little town of Beckford, England has a decidedly spooky history. The river that runs through it has what’s known as the drowning pool, which over the centuries has the site of a string of drownings, all women. As Into the Water opens, Jules Abbott is summoned following the death of her older sister Nel, to identify the body and to take care of Lena, her teenaged niece. Nel has been researching the  history of all the local women who died in the pool, starting with a young 17th century woman who drowned during the dunking test for witchcraft. There are many in Beckford who resent that work and who vow to keep the book from publication. The police believe, or say they believe, that Nel committed suicide, but Jules isn’t buying it. One of Nel’s supporters is Nicky, the elderly town mystic. Most view her as barmy, but when she tells Jules that most of the victims, recent and historical, have been wronged by the men in their lives, what she says resonates with Jules, who will come to rely more and more upon Nicky’s insights. Nicky may not have paranormal powers, but she’s certainly a good observer.

Into the Water has multiple narrators, and it is difficult to tell which are reliable. The star of the production is the town with its river; the theme is social justice, misogyny, and the misuse of power. Because there are several victims, there a several subplots, the most vivid being not Nel’s death but that of her daughter’s best friend who drowned only the month before. But all of the women’s stories are compelling in their own right;  the development of Jules’s thorny relationship with her niece is well presented, as is the denouement of her thorny relationship with her sister.  And over everything lies the aura of the strange, secretive town, not threatening, just peculiar. And it’s easy to allow oneself to be drawn into Nel’s conundrums. Into the Water is more psychological drama than suspenseful mystery.

Most of the critical reviews I’ve read compare Water with Girl on a Train, all opining that Water lacks the same brilliance. I prefer to judge books on their own merits, and that’s what I’ve done with my own review.

 

It’s a Mystery: A Pale Horse, by Charles Todd

A Pale Horse (Inspector Ian Rutledge, #10)A Pale Horse by Charles Todd

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him.” Apocalypse.

Charles Todd continues exploring the hideous ramifications of war in this tenth Ian Rutledge mystery.  Four years after the end of WWI, Rutledge still suffers symptoms of PTSD, which are debilitating even though he manages his flashbacks quite well. The most prominent among his  symptoms is the voice of Hamish, a soldier whom Rutledge unwillingly ordered executed for refusing to follow orders. Hamish functions as a sort of conscience and sounding board , giving readers insight into Rutledge’s thoughts and emotional struggles.

In spite of those struggles, Rutledge is a fine detective, doing  a credible job with Scotland Yard, no thanks to his superior, Chief Superintendent Bowles. Now he’s sent to Berkshire to assist in a War Department search for a missing operative, Gaylord Partridge (really!) Partridge has been residing in a tiny village among eight misfits, who reside in a cluster of cottages originally built for lepers, at the foot of the famous iron age White Horse of Uffington. Though he’s not been briefed, Rutledge strongly suspects that Partridge participated in some top secret mission during the war. Muddying the waters is the discovery, within the ruins of  Yorkshire’s Fountains Abbey, of a corpse wrapped in a hooded cloak, face covered with a gas mask. Though not a part of Rutledge’s assignment, that will prove to be the crucial piece of the puzzle.

Populated with an array of interesting characters, some quite complex and all very real,  and set in one of England’s most mysterious locales, A Pale Horse is a layer cake of secret upon secret, some interrelated and some discrete.  If it weren’t so tightly plotted, following this investigation might have been a bit confusing. As more murders and several arsons occur, Rutledge has an ever increasing abundance of connections to sort through while trying not to tread on the toes of the local police.

The Inspector Rutledge series has a prominent place among the more literary mysteries in the genre, and A Pale Horse definitely fits well into that place; it’s an intelligent, socially relevant novel with resonance in today’s world, where war, business, political secrets, and yes, PTSD,  play such  a large role.

It’s a Mystery: The Lost Book of the Grail, by Charlie Lovett

The Lost Book of the Grail

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve gotta say, rarely have I come across a book so expressly tailored to my own particular interests. Put together a collection of ancient manuscripts,  a medieval English cathedral, the long lost relics of a saint, a sacred spring, a mysterious code, King Arthur, the lore of the Holy Grail, and I’m hooked. Charlie Lovett has produced a cracking good tale set in Barchester, the fictional town invented by Anthony Trollope, with a suitably nerdy protagonist, Arthur Prescott, who teaches for a living but lives for the joys he discovers within the  all-but-deserted  cathedral library. He has his few close friends and an obsession with the Grail myth instilled by his grandfather, who believed the Grail is hidden somewhere within Barchester. Arthur’s existence is predictable and ordinary until an effervescent American scholar, Bethany Davis, breezes into his circumscribed world, charged with digitizing the contents of his beloved retreat. After a somewhat rocky beginning, they find common ground in their love of medieval history. Arthur is heartbroken when the dean announces that the manuscripts will have to be sold off to finance much needed cathedral repairs, and feels driven to find a way to save the beloved collection. Luckily, Bethany, a whiz of a researcher, throws herself into the quest, which plays out with

Although flashbacks can be annoying in a novel, author Lovett seamlessly blends them into the modern tale, via well researched sequences that vivify England’s tumultuous religious struggles while providing  grounding for the facts and legends that Arthur pursues. While some of his adventures contain humorous elements, others are more serious, as he searches not only for a “treasure” to save the library, but for something deeper in which to believe.

Engrossing, delightful, and heartening. And highly recommended.

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It’s A Mystery: The Girls in the Garden, by Lisa Jewell

IMG_1025
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lisa Jewell has written quite a few novels, but this was my introduction to her work, enticed by the idea of a contemporary mystery set in an English communal garden. As the book opens , Clare Wild is moving into a flat with her two daughters, all three reeling from losing their home to a fire set by their schizophrenic husband and father, now hospitalized. They are immediately intrigued by the spacious fenced garden set into the center of their neighborhood, and soon Grace and Pip are drawn into a clique of other girls who live nearby and regularly hang out there.

The first half of the novel focuses upon Grace and Pip’s struggles to adapt, and, while laying the groundwork for the second half, author Jewell displays her talent for creating credible characters, even while nothing momentous is occurring. The same skill is evident when the adults start to take center stage, when one of the girls is discovered, unconscious and bloody, in the otherwise deserted garden. Somebody knows something, and now the mystery is the focus. It seems a similar event occurred fifteen years earlier. Most of the residents now must wrestle with suspicions, secrets, and fears that have long been dormant.

The mystery is ultimately resolved, but a few loose ends remain that refuse to be tucked in. The Girls in the Garden is a satisfying mystery filled with fascinating characters, and much of its appeal lies in watching their actions, reactions, and choices. I’ll definitely be reading more of Lisa Jewell.

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