It’s a Mystery: The Evening Spider by Emily Arsenault

The Evening Spider

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One house, two women, two centuries. The Evening Spider opens with a traumatic experience for new mom Abby. She and her husband have recently moved into an antique house with their 5 month old daughter, Lucy. Like many new mothers, Abby feels like the proverbial fish out of water in her new role; having taken leave from teaching history, she finds herself home alone with the baby much of the time. One evening, troubled by some anomalies she’s noticed in Lucy’s room – its noisy, squeaky door that requires muscle to open, and an eerie shushing sound coming over the baby monitor each night- Abby spies a spider on the ceiling, and when she turns her back to kill it, Lucy takes a tumbles onto the floor. She develops a vivid round bruise on her face, one that her mother can’t explain to herself or to her husband. To calm herself, Abby begins researching the history of her new home and discovers a diary penned by one of its previous inhabitants.

Spool back to 1885: Frances Barnett, a would-be biologist feeling stifled by her new role as housewife and mother, experiences a profound sense of disquiet that causes her to question her ability to bond with her child. Her husband, Matthew, though not overtly critical, dismisses Frances’s scientific interests and seems to find her wanting as wife and mother. When Matthew takes on a sensational murder case, Frances becomes obsessed with its details, especially the forensic ones, to the extent that her sanity comes into question.

Part Gaslight-style mystery and part haunted house tale, The Evening Spider traces the struggles of these two women to come to terms with the commonplace but very daunting changes in their lives. Of the two stories, Frances’s is the more compelling, and depictions of the psychiatric practices of the time are quite chilling. Equally chilling, however, are Abby’s fears that she is being haunted by Frances, which are played out in a subtle yet convincing manner. Most intriguing are the ways in which each woman will discover the source of her trauma. Frances’s tale comes to a reasonably satisfying resolution, considering the times in which she lived. Abby’s is less conclusive, and I’m still trying to decide how things will turn out for her. What is most interesting is the way the author has depicted the truly awesome adjustments that all new mothers must make, particularly the emotional ones.

Recommended for readers who enjoy a mystery with a heavy infusion of the gothic and the psychological. Just don’t expect that all the ends will be neatly tied.

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It’s a Mystery: The Lake House, by Kate Morton

The Lake House

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Readers who enjoy historical fiction, gothic mystery, and family saga would do well to check out the works of Australian novelist Kate Morton, who knows how to combine these elements into an intriguing tale. The Lake House is set in Cornwall, at the family home of the wealthy Edevanes, who like most families, have their share of secrets. Nevertheless, life has rolled along along quite smoothly until in 1933, at their traditional Midsummer Eve party, two year old Theo Edevane vanishes without a trace. Decades later, disgraced detective Sadie Sparrow, on leave for leaking details about a 2003 missing child case to the press, stumbles upon the abandoned house while walking her grandfather’s dogs. Sadie has a secret of her own that led to her lapse of good judgment. The story leapfrogs between past and present, with Sadie putting her investigative prowess into finding out just what happened to Theo. The reader learns about the back story from chapters narrated by the reclusive Eleanor Edevane, now a successful writer of mysteries.

This is a lengthy novel that could do with some paring down. The descriptions are effectively evocative, but there are a few too many of them. With all the bouncing between time periods, it was easy to lose track of the many threads and to forget who some of the various characters are. But this is a mystery with many strengths as well. The historical sections bring alive the first three decades of the century, particularly those dealing with the First World War and its aftermath. Life among the leisured class is also portrayed, with all that it entailed for women; Alice is a decidedly forward thinking young woman. There are many well devised theories about what happened to Theo, which the Edevanes do not share with one another. Ultimately, the mystery is resolved only when Sadie tracks down the now eighty year old Alice, and the pair pools their talents to uncover the truth. For me, the ending demanded too much credulity, tying up the story in a neat but “Oh, puleeeze!” kind of way. But until that moment, The Lake House was a pleasure in spite of its flaws.

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Historical Fiction: Friends of the Wigwam, by John William Huelscamp

Friends of the Wigwam: A Civil War Story

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Friends of the Wigwam is the debut novel of Civil War historian John W. Heulskamp, who is particularly interested in forgotten heroes of that conflict. The first section of the book relates the formation the strong friendship of six young men and women, and follows their experience of the social and political friction that leads to the war’s outbreak. The fact that these characters are based upon real people increases the impact of this section, which is further enlivened by the appearance of such soon-to-be icons as Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, and Ulysses Grant. As the plot moves forward into the heat of battle, poignant in itself, knowing the backstory of the friends makes reading of their struggles even more so. Perhaps my favorite character is Jennie (Allie) Hodges, who fought as fiercely and courageously as any man and whose true gender was never discovered during the war years, and it’s great that her contributions are now being recognized.

Wigwam is a promising debut, but it is clear that Mr. Heulskamp is a novice at writing fiction. Many of the passages are overly descriptive, for instance, and his choice of words (quaint hands, stout uniform) sometimes baffling. But practice makes perfect, and with his skill at research and plotting, those are flaws that can be corrected.

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Historical Fiction: Fates and Traitors, by Jennifer Chiaverini

Fates and Traitors

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jennifer Chiaverini is making a name for herself as the author of novels about quilts, but I prefer her works about historical characters, among them Mary Todd Lincoln, Elizabeth Keckley, and Julia Grant. My favorite among the historicals is The Spymistress, which told the story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a truly courageous woman who managed to spy for the Union while living in the midst of Confederate Richmond.

Fates and Traitors, which is scheduled for publication in September, caught my interest because it features John Wilkes Booth and some of the important women in his life. The plot traces the trajectory of Booth’s decision to assassinate President Lincoln, from the points of view of his mother and sister, one of his sweethearts, and Mary Surratt, at whose home the conspirators met. Chiaverini makes use of the slender evidence available about Booth’s relationship with these women to flesh out the story line, which was a bit too romance-y for my liking, but she managed to make it interesting and factual enough to sustain my interest. There is nothing really new here, but it was edifying to read about Booth as a real person rather than the demon he is usually portrayed as being. The title, which is a bit clumsy, I think, refers to a vision Booth’s mother experienced when John was born, in which he was fated to become famous. Lucy Hale, thought by many to have been his fiancee, comes across as incredibly naive; while her family thinks Booth is a bounder, she remains blind to many signs that he was up to no good.

Fates and Traitors has not supplanted The Spymistress in my estimation, but it was an interesting and divergent picture of the Booth I’m accustomed to reading about. It left me with the impression that if he had been more respected as an actor, his life might have taken a far different course.

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Historical Fiction: The Light in the Ruins, by Chris Bohjalian

The Light in the Ruins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

1943, Florence. The Nazis are losing their grip on Italy, and the invasion of the Allies is immanent. The aristocratic Rosati family, led by patriarch Antonio, have two sons in the Italian army, and are hoping that the winds of war will pass peacefully over their estate, the Villa Chimera. But as the Nazis gear up for the invasion, they commandeer the villa and surrounding property, and much to the chagrin of the Rosati sons, their father takes the path of least resistance. No one is pleased when 18 year old Christina falls hard for one of the German lieutenants.

1955, Florence. The brutal murder of Francesca Rosati, a war widow who also lost her children, takes place, during which her throat is cut and her heart torn from her body. Only a few days later, her mother in law becomes a victim, her heart left in a box for the tourists to find on the Ponte Vecchio. The case is assigned to Investigator Serafina Bettine, who served as a partisan in the war and nearly died from severe burns during the final stand at Villa Chimera. From this point forward, The Light in the Ruins alternates between the two time periods, as Serafina attempts to track down and identify the serial killer.

There is much to be admired in this novel, in its evocation of times past, of the idyllic Italian countryside, and in its depiction of the brutality and horrors of wartime. Its characters are finely drawn, especially those of Serafina, Christina, and the German commander, Decher. All of the characters struggle over painful moral dilemmas; should Antonio be accommodating the Nazi occupiers? Should Italian art treasures be shipped off the Germany without resistance? What role should civilians play, or pay, in wartime? It is in the plotting of what is essentially a murder mystery that the book fails to deliver. What ought to be a gripping serial killer investigation falls short in the suspense department, even though it’s difficult to guess who the perpetrator might be.

At its best, the work of Chris Bojalian is mesmerizing, and in sections, The Light in the Ruins lives up to that standard. As a mystery, however, it is far from compelling.

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It’s a Mystery: The Book of Speculation, by Erika Swyler

The Book of SpeculationCarnival

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Narrator Simon Watson is a  librarian/curator living alone in his dilapidated family house on the cliffs of Long Island sound. Before his birth, Simon’s mother was a carnival “mermaid”, who drowned in Long Island sound when he was 7. Her death cast an emotional pall over Simon, which he’s never quite shaken off. His younger sister, Enola, left home to join the circus as a fortune teller, following, in a sense, in her mother’s footsteps. As the book opens, Simon is about to be laid off from work. At loose ends, he receives a fragile antique manuscript in the mail, from a distant book dealer who bought the book on speculation. Simon throws himself into reading what turns out to be an intriguing management journal that belonged to the flamboyant owner of an 18th century traveling show, Peabody’s Portable Magic and Miracles. In short order, he begins making disturbing connections between the show’s history and that of his family. Drowning, it seems, was a longstanding tradition among his mother’s female ancestors, who were also show people. Now Enola seems set on the same tragic path, and Simon is desperate to save her.

Erika Swyler deftly mingles past and present in The Book of Speculation, her debut novel. As Simon’s research uncovers new facts, she takes readers back and forth between the modern story and characters and those who worked in Peabody’s show. This is a plot driven book, which is not to say that characterization suffers. The imagery is rich and powerful, built around water, magical symbolism, archetypes, the uses of language, the uses of illusion. Key words are freighted with meaning, some in double or even triple entendre. Names (Enola, Watson, Doyle, Evangeline)  carry their own portents. Past is as important as present. The Tarot structures both stories, in a way that can be viewed as mystical or simply psychological; meaning is left open for the reader to interpret, as is the enigmatic final chapter. It is the sense of impending deadline that drives the reader on; this novel has the power to enchant.

Historical Fiction: The Yanks are Starving, by Glen Craney

The Yanks Are Starving: A Novel of the Bonus Army

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Great Depression. My mother grew up during the hardscrabble 1930’s, and told tales about what life was like. The fears from that decade never left her. I don’t recall her ever telling us about the Bonus Army, however, and reading The Yanks Are Starving was my first exposure to a shameful incident in America’s 20th century history. Many of the “doughboys” who fought in WWI were unemployed during the Depression. They were each entitled to “bonus pay” for their military service, but their certificates would not mature until 1945. Impoverished and desperate, the soldiers banded together to march on Washington to demand immediate payment. The Bonus Army was was lead by former army sergeant Walter W. Waters, who is one of the main characters in Glen Craney’s novel.

The book opens before the first world war, and in alternating chapters, introduces Waters and seven other characters, many of whom became household names. Among them are Black Jack Pershing, Herbert “Bert” Hoover, and Douglas MacArthur. It was fun reading about their lives before they became major players. As America enters the war, these characters converge, their battlefield experiences nothing short of heart-stopping. Similarly, their post-war lives are followed, until the Depression forces them to band together once again. It seems likely that the story of the Bonus Army was suppressed because no one wanted to remember the violence perpetrated upon them by their own government in their own capitol city.

Glen Craney has taken the facts of their lives to shape strong and memorable characters. He relates their story with vivid realism, particularly through dialog, and it is clear that he knows his history. Good historical novels like this one, well composed and founded upon sound research, provide enjoyable but valuable ways of learning about our not-so-distant past.