Day 1013: Mystery in White

Cover for Mystery in WhiteI have made it a tradition the past few years to review a Dickens Christmas story at Christmas time. We moved in October, though, so I have not yet unearthed my collection of Dickens Christmas stories. Wanting to read something seasonal, I settled on Mystery in White, which is set on Christmas Eve and Day and is also a sort of ghost story, which fits my tradition.

A heavy snowfall halts a trainful of people on their way to various Christmas gatherings. They are sitting there wondering how long they’ll be stuck when an older man, Mr. Maltby, a psychic researcher, abruptly leaves the train to walk to another station.

This action inspires a group of young people to follow him. They are a brother and sister, David and Lydia Carrington; a chorus girl, Jessie Noyes; and a young clerk, Robert Thomson. The only passenger from their car who stays is a blowhard.

Shortly after leaving the train, the party loses Mr. Maltby’s path and gets into difficulties in the snow. Luckily, they eventually find a house, but it has been left in a strange condition. The front door is unlocked, water is on the boil, tea is prepared, but no one is in the house.

Feeling they have no choice but to take shelter, the four make themselves at home. Jessie has sprained her ankle and Mr. Thomson becomes very ill. Mr. Maltby soon appears with another man, and the blowhard shows up. Soon, some of the party begin to feel uncomfortable in the house. Mr. Maltby is certain that something unpleasant has happened there, and the party soon learns that there was a murder on the train.

I have recently read several John Bude mysteries from the same period, and I admit to preferring Farjeon. He spends a lot more time with his characters instead of creating elaborate puzzles. I found this novel a pleasant way to spend a chilly December evening.

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Day 1006: The Vanishing

Cover for The VanishingJulia Bishop is a recent widow whose husband bilked people out of millions of dollars before killing himself. Now Julia finds herself in a difficult position. Her friends have all dropped her, assuming she knew what her husband was doing, and some of his victims have threatened to sue her.

Adrian Sinclair comes to her with a solution. He would like to hire her as a companion for his mother, who lives on a secluded estate near Lake Superior. She would disappear completely, and if she wanted to emerge later, he would provide her with a new identity. Julia accepts his offer and finds as an added attraction that his mother is Amaris Sinclair, the famous horror writer, long thought dead.

Julia feels at home at Havenwood from the moment of arriving, but something odd is going on. The figures in the paintings seem to move, and she hears childish singing in some of the rooms. Also, someone seems to have followed her there.

I read this book because it promised to be a page-turning ghost story, but I found myself disappointed. For one thing, Julia’s reactions to things seem all wrong. First, she accepts a plan to disappear without a trace from a man she’s never met before. Then, there’s a whole lot of chuckling going on, even at the most inopportune moments. I confess to having seldom heard anyone chuckle, and yet someone does so on almost every page. Julia is oddly undisturbed by the most fantastic occurrences.

The writing is hackneyed and the dialogue is downright dull. There is no sparkling wit in this novel. And let’s face it, the scary parts aren’t scary.

There are a couple of clever twists at the end of the novel, but the more I thought about the last one, the less sense it made. On the one hand, it seemed a master stroke, creating doubt about everything that came before. On the other hand, it was impossible.

I know that Webb’s first novel was very popular. Maybe it was better. I, for one, won’t be finding out.

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Day 999: Beloved

Cover for BelovedOn some occasions after reading a novel, I find my thoughts about it are not clear. Did I enjoy it? Did I completely understand it? Did I think it was powerful or overpowering? This doesn’t happen very often, but these are my thoughts after reading Beloved.

The novel, when looked at straightforwardly, is a ghost story. Sethe escaped from slavery with her children, although the plan went wrong. Most of the other escaping slaves were killed or captured, including her husband, and Sethe had to come later, giving birth to her daughter Denver on the way.

These events happened 16 years ago, but shortly after Sethe made it across the Ohio River, Schoolteacher, the despotic overseer, came after her. To keep her children from being dragged back into slavery, Sethe decided to kill them. She was stopped, but not before she slit the throat of her daughter, Beloved. (Her name isn’t really Beloved, but that’s what’s on her tombstone; we don’t know her name.)

Sixteen years later, Sethe’s house in Cincinnati, referred to as 124, is haunted. Sethe lives there with Denver, her mother-in-law having died and her sons having left. Denver is a sulky, needy young woman who craves her mother’s attention, but that is all for the ghost of her baby.

The action begins when Paul D. arrives. Paul D. had been one of the young male slaves at Sweet Home, where Sethe was a slave. He has been wandering since the war. When he realizes the house is haunted, he drives the ghost out and lives with Sethe as her lover.

But Beloved comes back, now embodied as a girl the age she would have been if she’d lived. Denver and then Sethe become enslaved to her.

But is Beloved a ghost or just a young girl damaged by slavery? Someone in the text makes a reference to a lost girl enslaved since a child, and I think that’s who Beloved is meant to be. Denver and Sethe have just mistaken her from their own needs. There is only one chapter where we see things from Beloved’s point of view, and it is incoherent.

That is what I think, but I was confused because everyone else seems to take the novel as a straight ghost story and of course, an indictment of slavery. I finally ran across a reference to an article by an academic who believes the same thing, but I never found the original paper.

In any case, Beloved is an unusual work. It uses an unusual combination of storytelling techniques, some of which I enjoyed and some I did not. It is powerful, depicting emotions and events that we can barely comprehend. Did I like it? I don’t know. Does it make me think? Yes. Do I understand it? Not completely.

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Day 986: The Lost Boy

Cover for The Lost BoyI’ve been inconsistent in reading Camilla Läckberg’s Fjällbacka series, mostly because I realize they are not actually very well written. Läckberg still has trouble producing anything resembling snappy dialogue, and her writing is cliché-ridden. (At least her characters have stopped slapping their foreheads.) Still, she manages to come up with some fairly inventive plots, and her main characters, Patrik Hedström and his wife Erica Falck, are likable and appealing.

I liked The Lost Boy a little less than I have some of Läckberg’s other novels, even though it features ghosts, which is usually a plus. I think one reason is that a major plot point is telegraphed by the title. What is supposed to be a big surprise at the end was something I guessed very early on.

Nathalie has undergone some traumatic experience. We don’t know what it is, but it involves blood. She has fled with her son Sam to an island off Fjällbacka that is owned by her family. It is called Gräskär, but the locals call it Ghost Island.

Nathalie’s high school boyfriend Matte has also returned to the area. When he hears Nathalie is there, he takes a trip out to the island. Nathalie feels reassured by his presence, and they spend the night together. When she awakens, he is gone. A few days later, he’s found shot to death in his apartment.

Patrik is back to work after health problems and the funeral of Erica’s sister Anne’s baby. Erica is coping with newborn twins, Anne’s own children, and Anne’s depressed withdrawal.

In Denmark a woman is in hiding from her abusive husband. Slowly, the police discover possible links between Matte’s previous work for a women’s refuge and his murder. But then, why is a bag of cocaine in the trash outside his apartment?

link to NetgalleyAlso, there is a huge new spa soon opening in town. There is some sort of scam surrounding this project. Matte was the project economist and had some questions about the finances.

Again, I liked this novel more than I wanted to, especially as the lives of several of the regular characters seem to be descending into soap opera. Still, Läckberg hid the identity of the murderer from me until late in the novel.

This book has strong themes about the abuse of women. In fact, that has been a theme since early in the series, when Anne was married to an abusive husband, but it is even stronger here.

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Day 973: The Lie

Cover for The LieBest Book of the Week!
Helen Dunmore has this thing she does. I’ll be reading along, moderately interested, and then at the end of the novel she’ll do something that makes me realize the novel is much better than I first supposed. She does this again with The Lie.

Daniel Branwell has returned to his home town in Cornwall from World War I. A dying old lady took him in when he arrived home, and he cared for her until her death. He doesn’t want to mix much with other people, though. He is traumatized from the war and particularly by the death of his friend Frederick, who is haunting him.

As Daniel struggles to make a living, his memories alternate between those of the war and of his childhood friendship with Frederick. Although Daniel was bright and did well in class with an eidetic memory for poetry, he was forced to drop out of school at the age of 11. Frederick, as the son of a wealthy man, was being prepared for better things. Still, even as young men, when Frederick was home they were nearly inseparable.

Daniel meets Frederick’s sister Felicia, now a widow with a young daughter. Their mutual grief brings them together, and they begin spending time with each other, he helping her around the house or both of them visiting the sites of his adventures with Frederick.

But Daniel has told a lie about something. Because of it, he is aware he’s being misunderstood by the village.

This is a powerful novel that I may not have looked for were it not for my Walter Scott Prize project. Although I have not enjoyed all of the short listed books, this one sneaked up on me.

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Day 962: The Red Queen

Cover for The Red QueenThe Red Queen is a novel split in two. The first half is a narrative written by the ghost of an actual 18th century Korean princess, Lady Hyegyŏng. The second half follows a modern British academic, Dr. Barbara Halliwell.

“Lady Hong” relates her difficult life as the girl chosen at the age of nine to be the bride of Crown Prince Sado. This role is already a perilous one, and she and her parents are terrified. It is made more terrifying, though, by the fraught relations between Prince Sado and his demanding father King Yŏngjo.

When it slowly becomes apparent that Prince Sado is mentally disturbed and somewhat dangerous, his wife’s life becomes even more one of stress and fear. The princess’s story eventually builds to the climax of her husband’s horrible death.

The Crown Princess’s story is interrupted occasionally by the comments of her ghost, who provides an acrid note informed by writings of thinkers like Voltaire and Freud. Obviously, this ghost has been doing a little reading since she died. I found these interjections odd, but they did little to disturb the flow of what was a fascinating story.

Then I got to Barbara’s half of the book. Barbara has received the princess’s memoirs anonymously and takes them along with her on a trip to an academic conference in South Korea. The ghost makes clear that she sees Barbara as a host whose purpose is to extend her legacy. Barbara is fascinated by the memoir and goes to visit some of the settings of the princess’s life, but she is also engaging in an affair with a famous Dutch sociologist who is the keynote speaker for the conference.

Here is where I thought the narrative broke down. Despite the occasional presence of the ghost and some similarities of taste and experience between Barbara and the ghost, I felt that there was only a flimsy connection between the two halves of the novel. And I wasn’t really interested in Barbara and her fascination with Jan Van Jost.

Additionally, the second half is narrated by some sort of pixie-like guardian angels who have no apparent role. What’s wrong with third-person limited? She’s writing in that anyway with an occasional lapse into second person plural. This seems like a pointless device that becomes even more wink-wink when Drabble introduces herself as a minor character. So, with a little sleight-of-hand, the novel becomes postmodern, but it does not contain any of the cleverness of technique and approach of other postmodern novels I’ve read. This novel is introduced as a tragicomedy, but I didn’t find it comic. Whimsical, perhaps, ironic, certainly.

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Day 960: Silence for the Dead

Cover for Silence for the DeadKitty Weekes has been living a catch-as-catch-can life ever since she fled from her abusive father four years before. To support herself and hide from her father, she has taken on several different identities the past years. Now she has forged credentials as a nurse to get herself a job at Portis House, an asylum on the coast of England.

When Kitty arrives at the isolated mansion, separated from the village by a bridge, Matron sees through her right away. But the hospital is understaffed, so Matron keeps Kitty on probation. The mansion was once beautiful but now it is forbidding, with sealed off areas that are crumbling. The patients are all ex-servicemen suffering from shell shock, depression, and other conditions related to the war. The routines of the place seem unnecessarily severe and the budget too limited. Then there is the mysterious Patient 16, whom only a few people are allowed to see.

Kitty soon finds herself working harder and longer hours than she was contracted for. But she also feels something is wrong. There are certain places around the house that don’t feel right. One night she sees a bare-chested man walking around when all the patients are accounted for. Another time when she is outside the house, she sees a unknown woman and when she goes to investigate, is knocked down.

Then she meets Patient 16 and is shocked to find he is Jack Yates, a hero of the war. Some information she gains from a previous nurse makes her wonder what happened to the family that owned the house, who simply vanished. When she and Jack begin exchanging information, they realize something strange is going on.

Silence for the Dead is another supernatural suspense novel from Simone St. James. It is quite good at developing an atmosphere of foreboding. Kitty is a plucky heroine, and this is another enjoyable light read from St. James.

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