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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Almost Heaven: Near Death Experience, 19th Century Style

This is a true story about a woman by the name of Anna Mathewson, who was born in Coventry, CT in 1810. Anna grew up healthy and strong, but at the age of 24, things took a turn for the worse. Her health was described from that time on as delicate, and from 1841-44, Anna was confined to the house, often to her bed, unable to rise without assistance. Dr Norman Brigham attended Anna all this time, and finally, things grew so serious that often she could not speak. It was necessary to prescribe opiates for the pain (no diagnosis is provided in the record), and Anna herself claimed to be suffering “all the pains of death”. Death, she said, had “commenced at her extremities”, and when it reached her heart, she would fade away.

Apparently it did reach her heart, because on Tuesday, May 20, 1844, Anna’s spirit left her body and soared to heaven. The doors of heaven opened upon the “abode of the blessed”, and the most delightful singing was heard. Alas, Anna was welcomed but not permitted to enter. She was instructed to return to earth, and was given a divine mission, to “warn Christians to wake up, that the churches might be revived and sinners converted.” Only when her task was accomplished could she return to Paradise.

Imagine the reaction of her friends and family when Anna’s “corpse” sat up and spoke to them! There were even more surprises to come. Although Miss Mathewson had had difficulty speaking, and certainly had never sung, her voice suddenly “came to her and she would sing continuously for hours”. She told everyone that the angels were singing with her and she longed for all to hear them.

Mr. S. Bliss of nearby Tolland heard of this wondrous miracle, and decided to pay a visit. He published an account of his meeting in the Boston newspapers, fully corroborating the story. The rush was on. Seven hundred people descended upon little Coventry in seven days, and before all the excitement settled, more than 2000 made the pilgrimage. This in an era when travel was an arduous, lengthy process. One hardy and zealous soul trudged on foot 150 miles, “that he might see with his own eyes, and hear with his own ears” the woman who had been to heaven and back again.

[from The History of Tolland County, JR Cole]

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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Paranormal Fiction: Blythewood, by Carol Goodman

Blythewood (Blythewood, #1)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Carol Goodman’s novels generally take place at in educational settings near bodies of water, where female protagonists must face mysterious circumstances fraught with danger. Blythewood is no exception, but this time around, the book is aimed at a young adult audience. Intriguingly, the story’s catalyst takes place during the horrific fire at New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where Avaline Hall has sought employment after her mother’s early death. Amidst the terror, Avaline escapes death through the actions of a pair of strange males, one a beautiful winged creature and the other a malevolent man in an Inverness cape. Little wonder that she lands in a psychiatric ward, until her estranged grandmother takes her under wing. Suddenly, Avaline finds herself a student at the elite school, Blythewood on the Hudson, following in the footsteps of her mother, who although she was expelled, is something of a folk heroine. Reminiscent of the Harry Potter series, no?

Avaline’s experiences at Blythewood open her eyes to the paranormal world of magic, fairies, and evil that coexists within the forests that surround the campus. As she struggles to fit into the snooty student body, Avaline encounters both the caped man and the winged boy again, making new friends, falling in love, and discovering special powers that she never suspected she possessed. Most of all, she wants to learn why her mother left school in disgrace, and who her father is. The adolescent angst is true to the genre, but the story was well written, full of quirky characters, and compelling enough to hold my interest. Not sure, however, whether or not I’ll check out Ravenswood, the sequel.

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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 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.

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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