Review 1606: Things in Jars

Best of Ten!
Imagine a combination of Victorian London, eccentric Dickensian characters, a ghost, a supernatural being of myth, hints of Jane Eyre, a lady detective, and a fascination with grotesqueries. If you can imagine that, you might go a little way toward a hint of this unusual novel.

Bridie Devine, the lady detective, has been summoned to a graveyard to examine a dead body found shackled in a crypt. On her way there, she meets a scantily clad ghost, a prizefighter named Ruby Doyle who claims to know her and follows her on her investigation.

But her real case comes when a baronet, Edward Berwick, hires her through a Doctor Harbin to find his daughter, who has been kidnapped. As she investigates, though, she learns the girl was kept alone in the west wing of the house, and there are rumors that she is some kind of unusual creature. Bridie begins to believe that the kidnappers, who probably include the girl’s nurse, mean to sell her to some freak show.

Bridie has had a difficult path in life that includes encounters when she was a girl with Gideon Eames, the sociopathic son of a man who rescued her from poverty. She thought he was dead but finds he is very much alive.

With an entourage that includes a seven-foot-tall bearded maid, Bridie braves dead bodies, attacks, and visits to a freak show as she pursues the child. We know from the beginning that the girl was taken by her nurse and Dr. Harbin, but more people who want to possess or sell this valuable child get involved.

Not quite at first but very soon I got so involved with this quirky novel that I dropped everything until I finished it. Bridie is an interesting, likable character, Ruby Doyle is endearing even though he is constantly hitching up his drawers, the novel was exciting at times. What’s not to love?

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Review 1572: Shadowplay

Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light dealt with a relationship in the life of the playwright John Millington Synge. Shadowplay deals with a period in the life of another Irish literary figure, Bram Stoker.

In a novel that shifts back and forth over a 30-year time period, Stoker goes to work as general manager for the Lyceum Theater in London, having been hired by Henry Irving, the greatest Shakespearean actor of his time. Stoker has taken what he believes is a part-time job that will allow him to work on his fiction, but he finds himself assuming responsibility for everything in the theater, an overwhelming position. Further, he has to cope with his employer’s extravagance and his occasional wild rages. Worse, Irving is dismissive of Stoker’s literary efforts. Nevertheless, they form a lasting friendship.

Also involved in the theater is the famous actress Ellen Terry. Shadowplay is primarily about the enduring relationship between these three. However, it reflects other events of its time, particularly Jack the Ripper and the trial of Oscar Wilde. It deals with Stoker’s struggles to earn a living as a writer, a feat he never accomplished. And it has a ghost.

Shadowplay, which I read for my Walter Scott project, was involving and interesting.

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Review 1543: The Bookshop

I decided to read The Bookshop after seeing the movie of the same name. The two are very similar, but the movie doesn’t convey the subtlety of the book, which is a little more remorseless.

Post World War I, the widow Florence Green decides to open a bookshop in her East Sussex village of Hardborough, which does not have one. For the premises, she purchases the Old House, which has been vacant for seven years and is in need of a lot of work. It is also rumored to be haunted.

Her aims seem worthy and harmless, but no sooner does she purchase the Old House than a local worthy, Mrs. Gamart, invites her to a party only to inform her that she, Mrs. Gamart, intended the Old House for an arts center. Florence has no idea who she’s dealing with when she asks Mrs. Gamart why then she didn’t buy the house any time in the past seven years and refuses to let it go.

This novel seems to be light fare, but it has some cynical observations about small-town gentry and betrayal. It is short, fully engaging, sparely and beautifully written, and sad.

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Review 1541: The Sun Down Motel

Best of Ten!
In 1982, 20-year-old Viv has run away from her home in Illinois to go to New York City. Out of money, she stops in Fell, New York, and takes a job on the night shift of the Sun Down Motel. Very soon, two things become certain—the motel is haunted, and a lot of girls get murdered in Fell.

In 2017, Carly finds out after her mother’s death that her mother had a sister who disappeared in 1982. Carly decides to travel to Fell, New York, to try to find out what happened to her. When she makes a trip to the Sun Down Motel to ask about Viv, she ends up taking a job on the night shift. Soon, she is investigating a series of women’s deaths beginning in 1979 and ending in 1982.

I don’t very often give five-star ratings in Goodreads and especially not for genre fiction, but this one is terrific. It’s wildly atmospheric, with its haunted old motel, and it has an ending that puts it a step higher than most of the genre. It has a compelling mystery and two exciting endings, one in each time period. A touch of romance doesn’t hurt it, either. I had great fun reading this book.

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Review 1540: The Uninhabited House

Miss Blake is an eccentric figure whose arrival is looked forward to by the clerks in Mr. Craven’s office, including Harry Patterson, the narrator. She only arrives when the tenants have unexpectedly left her niece’s house, which is all too often. For the house has a reputation.

Miss Blake and her ward Helena have been a charge on poor, kind-hearted Mr. Craven since the death of Robert Elmsdale, Helena’s father. Thought to be wealthy, he was found to be in considerable debt when he died. Now, the house in which he died is supposedly haunted. Mr. Craven doesn’t believe in ghosts and supposes someone is trying to keep the house from being occupied.

After a disastrous lawsuit resulting from the early vacancy of the house by a tenant, Miss Blake declares she will pay £50 to anyone who can solve the mystery of the house. Although Miss Blake has never paid any of Mr. Craven’s bills, Mr. Craven is so desperate to relinquish Miss Blake’s account that he vows to pay the money to anyone who can solve the mystery.

Patterson finds himself in need of money, because he has fallen in love with Helena Elmsdale. So, he volunteers to stay in the house and try to discover its secrets.

This is a joyful little novel despite its theme. Patterson tells the story with plenty of gentle, good-natured humor, and his affection for Mr. Craven is very clear. The mystery is perhaps not too confounding, but the book itself is a pleasure to read, with eccentric characters and lots of atmosphere. Is it a ghost story as well as a mystery? I’ll never tell.

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Review 1517: House of Glass

Clara is born with bones so fragile that as she grows, they can snap for the slightest reason. Her mother and stepfather keep her inside a home filled with padded corners until she is an adult. When they judge that she is finally able to come out, she is slightly misshapen through injuries that didn’t heal well.

Shaken after her mother’s death, Clara finds comfort in visiting Kew Gardens and learning about the plants. Her voracious curiosity tends her to spend a lot of time talking to the foreman of the glasshouse. Eventually, he offers her a job. A wealthy man wants to establish his own glasshouse to rival that of Kew. Will she take a job overseeing the planting and establishment of this garden?

Clara decides to take the job at Shadowbrook, where she is received by the housekeeper, Mrs. Bale. The owner of the house, Mr. Fox, is often away on business, and even when he is home he doesn’t like to be disturbed in his rooms on the upper floor.

Clara finds there are rumors in the village about the house and its former occupants, the Pettigrews. Mrs. Bale seems to be under some strain, and she eventually reports that the house is haunted by Vivenne Pettigrew. Clara doesn’t believe in ghosts and begins trying to learn about the Pettigrews. Those who are willing to talk about Vivienne seem to be describing a different person than she imagines from the few words spoken by those who knew her.

Ever since Fletcher’s marvelous Corrag, I have been waiting for her to write something as good. This novel comes very close. It starts out as a ghost story but goes much farther, exploring women’s role in pre-World War I society. It is atmospheric and wonderfully written, with an assertive and appealing heroine. I recommend it highly.

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Review 1377: Lincoln in the Bardo

The title Lincoln in the Bardo is the first tip-off that this book is unusual, for it refers to a Tibetan concept of immediate life after death. The novel is set in a graveyard after the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willy, and is narrated by a host of ghosts who don’t know they are dead and are clinging to their worldly concerns. It is also moved along by quotations, some real, some fictitious, by accounts of the time, letters, and historical accounts.

The ghosts in the graveyard are grotesqueries who physically manifest the obsessions they had in life. The two most important ghosts in the novel, for example, are Hans Vollman, who sports an enormous erect penis because he died before he could consummate his marriage; and Roger Bevins III, whose sensual nature is indicated by his multiple eyes, noses, and hands. Okay, this can be comic. It is certainly an amusing idea. But after a while, I began to miss the subtle humor that seems to have deserted us in recent years.

The thrust of the plot is that children aren’t meant to linger in the Bardo or terrible things happen to them. However, Lincoln arrives early in the novel to visit his son in his grief, and he says he will return. Vollman, Bevins, and their friend, the Reverend Everly Thomas, become determined to help Willy leave, and to do so they must get Lincoln to return to the tomb and release him.

This novel is wildly original. Aside from the characteristics I’ve mentioned, it is written more like a screenplay than a novel. It also resonates deeply in its themes of grief, Lincoln’s worries about the war, and the concerns of life affecting the afterlife. Still, I was repelled by how crude and crass it is at times. I also felt that the novel was much longer than it needed to be. You get the idea about the ghosts fairly quickly, but the supernatural chatter becomes boring after a while.

I read this for my Booker Prize project.

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Review 1376: A Harp in Lowndes Square

In a lonely attic, a neglected child sits and makes clothing for her doll out of old clothes. Everyone is out, surely, but she hears voices on the stairs. These voices belong to her two children, twenty years in the future.

Those children are twins, Vere and James, who have been taught by their mother that all time is simultaneous. The two do indeed experience flashes of visions and sounds from other times, events that occurred in the room years before.

Vere and James’s happy growing up, along with their sister, Lalage, is interrupted by the death of their father. The family is left in financial difficulties and must move from their suburban home to a small house in London. This brings their mother, Anne, back into the orbit of her own mother, the formidable Lady Vallant.

It is clear that, when she returns from visits to her mother, Anne appears to be more worn than usual. Anne’s children know that the two don’t get along and suspect that Lady Vallant harasses Anne. However, a chance remark reveals to them an aunt they didn’t know existed, Myra, who died when she was young.

Vere and James receive impressions of serious events that are not talked about. They begin trying to find out the secrets in their family’s past.

This novel is a ghost story but not in the sense of one meant to scare. It reflects Ferguson’s interest in houses and her sense that actions taken in a room stay in that room’s atmosphere. This idea also occupied A Footman for a Peacock, which I found considerably less likely than this novel, which is set during World War I.

I like a ghost story, but this novel has more going on than that. It’s a story of how family events can affect the lives of others who weren’t even alive when they happened. It’s a good character study of Vere, who cares deeply about a few people but is meticulous and reticent in nature. It is also about a chaste love affair with an older man—and his wife. I didn’t really understand the charms of that relationship, but I very much enjoyed this novel.

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Review 1375: Melmoth

Helen Franklin is an Englishwoman living in Prague who leads a willfully colorless and drab existence. She dresses and behaves as if she wants no one to notice her and makes a living translating brochures. In nine years in Prague, she has made only two friends, Karel and Thea, a couple.

Helen encounters Karel one night, looking ill. Thea was recently stricken by multiple sclerosis, and Helen assumes he is worried about her. He tells her the story of a manuscript he’s been given that documents sightings of Melmoth. In the legend of the novel, Melmoth (who seems in actuality to be based on a male character in an Irish Gothic novel) witnessed Christ arisen from the grave but denied it. In this novel, Melmoth is an evocatively described woman, a suggestion of tattered sheer silks, who is fated to witness man’s inhumanity. She appears to those who have entered the depths of despair and asks them to keep her company.

Through the manuscripts, we learn the stories of several people who have caused the sufferings of others and who have met Melmoth. Both Karel and Helen are immediately obsessed with this vision and imagine Melmoth stalking them.

The novel is tied together by the gradual exposure of Helen’s own crime, but the themes of the novel center around the history of man’s inhumanity and the importance and difficulty of witness.

This novel was certainly a departure from Perry’s The Essex Serpent, and I wasn’t sure how much I liked it. It has a deeply Gothic atmosphere, suitable for its setting in Prague, but I didn’t understand its characters’ fascination with Melmoth. Also, I had little sympathy for most of the characters whose crimes are related in the manuscript, even though I was sympathetic to Helen. Although this novel has more serious intentions, I have to say I preferred The Essex Serpent.

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Review 1345: The Invited

cover for The InvitedHelen and Nate bought a piece of acreage in the New Hampshire countryside and are building their dream house, doing most of the work themselves. What they don’t know, though, is that 90 years ago, Hattie Breckenridge was hanged on their land as a witch. Since then, the property is said to be haunted, especially the nearby bog.

Next door, 14-year-old Olive resents the newcomers. Her mother ran off a few months before, and her father, Dustin, has gone off the rails a bit. He keeps renovated rooms in their house but not finishing them, telling her that her mother will love the house when she returns. Olive has been searching the bog for Hattie’s treasure, rumored to be on the neighbor’s land, something her mother had been doing before she left. Olive thinks Helen and Nate will get in the way of her finding it, so she has been stealing things from their trailer and work site, hoping to drive them away.

link to NetgalleyHelen gets interested in the story of Hattie. After she and Nate incorporate an old beam from the tree on which Hattie was hanged into their house, Helen comes to believe that Hattie is trying to tell her something.

Jennifer McMahon is known for her spooky thrillers set in New Hampshire. This one is fairly good, even though some of her others have been scarier. Although you are led to wonder about Helen’s sanity, I didn’t really doubt that there would be a ghost. More is going on in this book than that, however.

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