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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It’s a Mystery: The Haunting of Maddy Clare, by Simone St. James

The Haunting of Maddy Clare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

England, in the aftermath of The Great War. Few soldiers who fought in France returned unscathed, and Alastair Gellis and Matthew Ryder are no exceptions. Deeply affected by their experiences in the killing fields of France, they have decided to make a study of death and the afterlife by researching and writing about spirit manifestations. Their current case involves trying to rid the Falmouth House barn of its angry, often violent ghost, that of a servant girl, Maddy, who hanged herself there several years ago. Because of some girlhood trauma, Maddy cannot abide men, so Alastair arranges to hire a female assistant. Sarah Piper ekes out a living as an employee of a temp agency, so when she’s sent to interview with Alastair, she cannot resist the chance for a bit of adventure, not realizing that much more will be required of her than simple transcription.

Simone St. James’s description of Sarah’s first encounter with Maddy is atmospheric and chilling, and she spins out this tale in an effective Gothic style. The ghost hunting team quickly recognizes that, before they can hope to calm Maddy and send her on her way, they must ferret out the source of her terrible rage. Interestingly, each of the three comes to encounter her in very different ways, and by comparing their experiences, they begin to tease out the truth. The author enlivens the remote country village setting with good period detail and an array of very English characters, ranging from the new owner of the manor house to the suspicious inn keeper to the surly churchyard sexton. Having recently read, enjoyed, and reviewed Bellman and Black, in which crows play a prominent and symbolic role, it was pleasantly surprising to me to encounter crows in this book as well, fulfilling an even more active function. Maddy’s ghostly behaviors are anything but trite, and while Sarah’s budding romance (I won’t say with whom) could easily have detracted from the book’s central theme, it was well integrated into the plot as a whole. Alastair, Matthew, Sarah, and Maddy herself emerge from their brief but intense relationship quite changed.

The Haunting of Maddy Clare is an impressive debut novel. If it has an outstanding flaw, it is that some of the characters telegraphed their implication in Maddy’s mystery. But the overlying ghost story maintained its appeal, and readers who enjoy modern Gothic will probably enjoy this book.

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Historical Fiction: Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, by Diana Gabaldon

my ranking: 3 of 5 stars

Outlander, the novel which introduced the world to romantic hero Jamie Fraser, was published nearly 25 years ago. I wonder if Diana Gabaldon even dreamed of the kind of success that her very first effort would spawn. I, like millions of other smitten readers, was instantly mesmerized by the story, which blends historical fiction with large doses of sci-fi and explicit love scenes. As the saga developed, it held me in thrall until book 4, The Drums of Autumn, when Jamie and Clair leave the British Isles to settle  in  the American colonies. Somehow, the romance and ambience of Scottish history and  Highland folklore failed to migrate when they did.  And as the Fraser family grew, so did the disorganization of the plots. By the time The Fiery Cross was published, I’d given up. But recently, when the opportunity for a free download of Written in My Own Heart’s Blood  (2013) dropped into my lap, I decided to give it a go.

That said, I’ve enjoyed parts of IMOHB very much. The only problem is that I found other parts so annoying that those are the ones that stick in my mind. There are problems with historical accuracy (few colonists had church weddings) , and too-heavy reliance on wild coincidence (someone tells General Washington what a great guy Jamie is and instantly makes him a General) . During a battle in New Jersey, all of the main characters encounter each other in the smoke and mayhem, and each experiences a miraculous escape from death under the worst possible circumstances. Jamie stumbles onto the scene of Claire’s field hospital just in time to witness her take a bullet. I find the time travel sequences fascinating because I think they are well thought out, but all this crazy adventure stuff has gone too far and for too many pages.  If I could make one of those Scottish noises here, I would!

Now that Outlander has become a mini-series, the popularity of all the books has soared once more, and promises to stretch well into the future. I admire and congratulate Ms. Gabaldon and marvel at the phenomenon she’s created, and I’m happy for all the readers who have loved each and every entry through the years. It’s rare to find a writer who has the skill to transport the reader to another place and time, and she has it in spades. Jamie and Claire rank high on my list of unforgettable characters, my all time favorite characters, and I  thank her for that as well.

Gothic Fiction: Bellman & Black, by Diane Setterfield

Years ago, offering career advice, my aunt Jean said you couldn’t go wrong providing food or funeral services, since we all need to eat and all have to die. Though I did not follow her words of wisdom, they came drifting back to me while reading Bellman & Black, Diane Setterfield’s second novel. This author is well known for her much praised The Thirteenth Tale, which I agree was spell binding, and many reviewers complain that this new book is nothing like the first. It is different for sure, but such an intricate and beautifully written novel deserves to be judged upon its own merits.

B&B chronicles the life of William Bellman, the disinherited  grandson of a wealthy English textile manufacturer. The novel opens with a vignette from his childhood, when, showing off for his buddies, Will thoughtlessly kills a rook with his slingshot. The boys examine the bird and are mesmerized by the subtle colors that shimmer within the blackness of its plumage, while the other rooks, generally so raucous, observe them in silence. A sense of guilt causes Will a troubled night. Because of this incident, however, he will grow up with a fine sense of color in all of its variations, and will serve him well when his uncle invites him to join the family business. Will rises to manager and then mill owner, marries and has several children, and life is good, until a series of deaths decimate his friends and destroy his family. Distraught and depressed, he decides to kill himself too, but is stopped by the presence of a mysterious stranger dressed entirely in black, who, in a very few words, inspires Will to start a new business, the production and sale of all things funeral related.

Bellman and Black, running only to 300 and some pages, is a great big chocolate trifle of a novel. Even the title has multiple layers of meaning. Even the rooks interject their own voices. The reader follows the wide parabola of Will’s life with a sense of helplessness, as the once sociable young man becomes an obsessive, ascetic workaholic, riddled with guilt and descending into a sort of living death. And while the trope of death is always present, the book is filled with metaphors that slip seamlessly and quietly into the narrative, most of them deriving, once you think about it, from that fateful introductory vignette. B&B’s ending, which some find tragic, is actually quite apt and beautiful, peaceful in its own way.

B&B owes allegiance to such authors as Dickens, Poe, and Charlotte Bronte, but it is definitely Ms. Setterfield’s own impressive creation. Read it thoughtfully, and you’ll never regard birds of the crow persuasion in the same light again.