Modern Lit: First Frost, by Sarah Addison Allenhile

First Frost (Waverley Family, #2)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First Frost is the sequel to Garden Spells, which introduced the Waverly women, who for generations have each possessed her own unusual talent. Garden Spells, which I read and reviewed back in 2008, was interesting enough, but for me stretched the bounds of credibility. First Frost, published last year, picks up the story of sisters Claire and Sydney, now settled into marriages, family life, and careers. While they find themselves generally happy and fulfilled, both women have a strong sense of unease. When a strange man shows up in town, the unease grows first into foreboding, and then into a full blown conflict of identity. Claire and Sydney each take comfort in the hope that, once the first frost of autumn occurs, they’ll be able to resolve their misgivings.

The strength of this book for me lies in its skillfully drawn characters. Claire and Sydney are intelligent, capable women who quite literally live and learn and grow from their experiences. Their husbands, daughters, and friends are equally genuine and appealing, especially Sydney’s daughter Bay who is in the throes of first love. The plot is well organized around the issue of identity, with descriptive passages that highlight the author’s skill with words. More restrained now are the hints of magic that flow through the story are more restrained than in the first book, and for me, work much better.

Although First Frost is not as outstanding as The Peach Keeper or The Sugar Queen, it’s certainly enjoyable and appealing.

It’s a Mystery: The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train 5 of 5 stars

Rear Window meets Gone Girl in The Girl on the Train, the debut novel of former journalist Paula Hawkins. Rachel Watkins is the eponymous girl, in actuality a 30-something divorcee still reeling from the breakup of her marriage, for which she takes the blame, all of it. Her ex, Tom, remarried instantly and now resides where he and Rachel lived with his new wife, Anna, and year old daughter. Rachel can’t stop herself from hounding them with tearful, demanding phone calls, most placed in the middle of the night. The novel’s plot revolves around what Rachel sees everyday on the train to London, which passes by the back gardens of her former house and neighborhood. A strong first clue to Rachel’s state of mind lies in the fantasy she spins out daily about a couple she observes having coffee each morning from the deck of one of the other houses. Another comes when it becomes apparent how much wine and gin she’s habitually drinking. Finally, we learn that Rachel is taking the train each day to preserve the illusion that she still has the job that she lost because of her drinking problem. One morning she sees the woman, Megan, kissing a man not her husband, and a few days later, Rachel’s shocked to learn that Megan has, as they say in the UK, gone missing. She offers information about that stolen kiss to the police, who consider her an unreliable witness, so she chooses to tell Megan’s husband, Scott.

Rachel is the protagonist in the story, as unreliable a narrator as ever conjured up in the pages of a book. As she becomes immersed in the mystery, she grows more and more unstable, and begins having vivid flashbacks to traumatic experiences that she doesn’t remember. Her point of view, mainly stream of consciousness, alternates with those of Megan and Anna, who are as grounded in denial as Rachel is. All three characters are profoundly disturbed, though at first it appears that Anna and Megan are more functional than Rachel. Tom and Scott, while having no narrator duties, show themselves to be abusive and manipulative. What makes The Girl on the Train so compelling is the remarkable way in which Paula Hawkins presents the interplay among the characters and the manner in which they tailor their perceptions and behaviors to suit their personal needs and self images. Sometimes we all delude ourselves, of course, but these characters have lost their own integrity and connection to reality. We never can tell quite what is lurking right under their facades. As their narratives come together during the latter chapters, the suspense becomes intense, more so because there hasn’t been a lot of warning (few telling slip ups here) and we aren’t quite sure how any of these people will react. Despite the dark, depressive atmosphere, which never really eases, there are glimmers of hope at the end, but this is no easy beach read.

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Great Nonfiction:New England Nation, by Bruce C. Daniels

New England Nation: The Country the Puritans Built
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ever wonder why America always has to “save the world”? Why the town meeting style of government has survived on the local level for 300 years? Why Americans are so intent upon personal independence? Why higher education is so important to us? And what about due process of law?
While world views and social standards have changed drastically since Plymouth was settled, our core values, those that show up time and again in protests, demonstrations, and speeches have remained the same. Historian Bruce Daniels explains how this came to be in his 232 page narrative, a witty, fluent explanation of how the Puritans thought and why they behaved as they did, for good or bad. It’s not always a flattering picture, but it is a comprehensible one. Worth checking out for any reader of American history and sociology.

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It’s a Mystery: The Fabric of Sin, by Phil Rickman

The Fabric of Sin (Merrily Watkins, #9)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s a mystery to me why Phil Rickman remains largely unknown in America, seeing as how he’s a very talented writer who combines the mystery, paranormal, and historical fiction genres like nobody else. His Merrily Watkins series, set in present day England, features a female vicar charged with being the “deliverance” (read “exorcism”) minister in her parish and its environs. Merrily has a daughter, a young teen in the earlier novels and a young woman in the latest, and a significant other, former rock legend Lol Turner, who play prominent roles in all her deliverance activities. Other colorful characters from the church and the village round out the cast. Rickman’s characters are always richly developed, whether they are pro-or-an-tagonists.

In The Fabric of Sin, the action is placed in the Duchy of Cornwall, the province of Prince Charles, who looms large in the background of this investigation. The Reverend Mrs. Watkins is called out to look into a frightening paranormal incident that took place at the Master House in remote Garway. The Duchy owns this ancient property, rumored to have been inhabited by none other than the Knights Templar, and wants to clear matters up so that its restoration can continue unencumbered. Merrily finds this easier said than done, since the church, the villagers, and the Duchy all have their own hidden agendas. As usual, Mr. Rickman incorporates authentic and vivid atmosphere, historical background, psychological suspense, and subtle supernatural elements to produce an engrossing set of mysteries and murders for Merrily to tackle. This is a series that never disappoints.

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It’s a Mystery: Fruitful Bodies, by Morag Joss

Fruitful Bodies

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The posh Sulis Clinic is the setting for the third Sara Selkirk mystery, all of which take place in the ancient spa city of Bath, England. A renowned cellist, Sara  spots her former music teacher amongst the audience at one of her concerts, and is dismayed to discover that now elderly Prof. Cruikshank has become a down and out alcoholic. Sara arranges for treatment at the Sulis, and becomes drawn to its charismatic director, Dr. Golightly. How the murder of a Japanese scientist becomes entangled with the affairs of the medical clinic sets the plot into action, and when a second death occurs among its patients, Sara, as is her wont, can’t resist trying to assist Andrew, the Chief Inspector who is now her lover.

As a mystery, Fruitful Bodies is interesting enough, but Sara should realize by now that her attempts to be helpful are merely inept meddling. As usual, she stumbles upon a clue that happens to be valuable, and in doing so, puts her own life in danger. This is a trope much overworked by many mystery writers, and it might be refreshing if there were no serendipitous escape. I’d like to see more about her own career, and would also like to see both Sara and Andrew take a more mature route to establishing their relationship. As things stand, I don’t see how that can happen, and for now, it’s the historic setting and the competent prose that keep me returning to this series.

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It’s a Mystery: The Black Country, by Alex Grecian

The Black Country (The Murder Squad #2)
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A little girl has discovered a human eyeball in a bird’s nest in the coal mining village of Blackhampton, where a local couple and their little son have disappeared. Baffled and alarmed, the local constable summons assistance from Scotland Yard, which assigns Inspector Walter Day and his sergeant, Nevil Hammersmith, to the case. They duo arrives by train in the midst of a blizzard, but the deepening white blanket can’t disguise the grit and grime of the village, where houses are actually sinking into the miles of mine shafts that snake about under the ground. After less than an hour in the pub, where a few of the taciturn villagers have gathered to meet the inspectors, they learn that Blackhampton is also riddled with superstitions and secrets. To make matters worse, a mysterious contagion has infected half of the townsfolk, so many that the church has been turned into a makeshift hospital. Add a couple of sinister American strangers to the mix, and Day and Hammersmith have their hands full.

Author Grecian injects his plot with authentic Victorian atmosphere, and enough menace and mystery to keep the pages turning at a rapid pace. As gritty as its setting, the book is marred only by a somewhat histrionic conclusion, but in the milieu of that village, it works well enough, especially because the characters are so richly developed.

You can’t beat a good English mystery!

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It’s a Mystery: After I’m Gone, by Laura Lippman

After I'm GoneAfter I’m Gone by Laura Lippman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After I’m Gone is Laura Lippman’s 20th novel, and her experience and finely developed skills sparkle in this seamless family saga that at its heart is a murder mystery. Set in Baltimore, the book opens in the 1960s with the whirlwind courtship of Felix Brewer and Bambi Gottschalk. Felix builds a shady but lucrative business involving strip clubs gambling, and while he loves Bambi and their three daughters, he suffers no guilt over his womanizing on the side. Bambi loves Felix, and is willing to live with his infidelities in order to enjoy the lavish life that he provides for her, which includes hobnobbing with Baltimore’s elite. The pivot point in their story occurs about a third of the way into the novel, when Felix goes on the lam to avoid a prison sentence. The rest of the book focuses on the lives of the five women he left in his wake – wife, daughters, and mistress, an exotic dancer with the professional name Julia Romeo. While the whereabouts of Felix are unknown, the real mystery emerges ten years later, when Julie vanishes, widely assumed to have joined her lover at his hideout. Until, that is, her body is discovered in Leakin Park in 2001.

Talented author Lippman has devised some winning characters, all imperfect, all too human, but all well developed and interesting. She is able to even-handedly make both wife and mistress strong and sympathetic, and even Felix and his complicit friends are not without their redeeming features. She knows the highs, lows, and in-betweens of relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, siblings and friends. And she can spin out the intricacies of a murder investigation with nary a red herring.

Beautifully composed, After I’m Gone stands out head and shoulders  in this very crowded genre.

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