Review 1571: The Stranger Diaries

Here’s a final book for RIPXV!

I have been following Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway mysteries, which I enjoy, but Galloway’s homage to the gothic novel, The Stranger Diaries, is something else again. I thought it was a stand-alone, but Goodreads has it marked as Harbinder Kaur #1, so perhaps there will be more.

Clare Cassidy is a schoolteacher who is writing a book about R. M. Holland, a Victorian gothic writer whose home is now occupied by Clare’s school. He was also the author of a horror story called “The Stranger.”

When she arrives at school, Clare is horrified to discover that her friend Ella was murdered in her home. Later, when Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur comes to interview her, Clare learns that a piece of paper with “Hell is empty” was found with the body. Although Clare tells the police that the quote is from The Tempest, she does not say that it is also used in “The Stranger.” Another thing that Clare doesn’t tell police is that Ella had a one-night stand with Rick Lewis, their married department head.

Later, when Clare goes to check her diary to see what she wrote about Ella and Rick, she finds that someone has written a message in her diary. When the handwriting is compared to that of the note by the body, it is the same.

This tribute to gothic literature is atmospheric and truly scary at times. I thought it was terrific.

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Review 1570: The Body Lies

Here’s another book for RIPXV!

The Body Lies opens with the body of a woman lying in the cold. We don’t have any context for this scene for some time during the novel.

The unnamed narrator is pregnant when she is attacked by a complete stranger in the street. Three years later, when she is ready to return to work after a break for child care, she is still afraid, so she looks for a job outside the city. On the basis of her published novel, she is offered a job at a university in the north. Her husband Mark says he can’t leave his job immediately, so he comes to visit as often as he can.

The narrator’s inexperience results in her getting more and more work piled on her by her department head. But more worrisome is the contentious tone between some of the members of her MA creative writing class. In particular, Nicholas Palmer, who seems talented, takes an aggressive attitude toward Steven Haygarth, who opens his crime novel with a nude girl’s dead body.

The narrator finds herself unwittingly getting involved with Nicholas in a way she doesn’t want to be. Nicholas says he’s trying an experiment with fiction never tried before. She has no idea how it will affect her.

At first, I was a little impatient with the student compositions, especially Nicholas’s, even though I knew they would be important to the plot. However, this novel slowly becomes very suspenseful. I have liked all of Jo Baker’s books, and they’ve all been different from each other.

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Review 1569: The Seagull

Here’s another book for RIPXV!

Disgraced former superintendent John Brace is dying in prison, so he asks Vera Stanhope to visit him. He tells her he has information about the disappearance years ago of Robbie Marshall. He will tell her where Robbie’s body is if she will check in on his daughter, Patty Keane, a single mother with mental health problems.

Vera does, so Brace tells her he discovered Robbie dead one night and buried him in a culvert on St. Mary’s Island. When the police investigate the scene, they find two bodies in the culvert, a man and a woman.

The team’s investigations seem to indicate that the female may be Mary-Frances Lascuola, the mother of John Brace’s daughter, a junkie who vanished a few years before Robbie did. Then, Gary Keane, Patty’s ex-husband, is found dead. A common denominator that seems to link all of the people the team is investigating is the Seagull, once an upscale nightclub that burned down years ago. Another common link seems to be the Gang of Four, a group of wildlife buffs whose members were John Brace, Vera’s father Hector, Robbie Marshall, and a shadowy character known as the Prof.

This is another complex and interesting mystery by Cleeves. Her novels are always atmospheric with believable characters and difficult mysteries.

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Review 1558: Classics Club Spin Result! Kennilworth

Here’s another book for RIPXV!

Reading Kenilworth for the Classics Club Spin made me contemplate the question of how important it is in a historical novel to stick to the historical facts. Of course, historical novels are fiction, so by definition something is invented. And there have been really interesting historical novels where the author purposefully changed some facts to speculate on other outcomes. But do historical novels have the license, just for a more dramatic story, to change what actually happened?

Kenilworth is the novel that famously reawakened interest in the story of Amy Robsart’s death. Amy Robsart was the wife of Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, during the reign of Elizabeth I. Amy’s death is the classic mystery of did she fall or was she pushed? At the time of her death, the rumor in court was that Leicester colluded in her death because he believed he could then marry Elizabeth.

In the novel, Amy is a young bride who has run away from home for a marriage with Leicester that is secret because he is afraid for his position in court, having married without royal permission. Amy’s jilted fiancé, Tressalian, comes looking for her on behalf of her father, believing that Amy was seduced away from her home by Varney, Leicester’s master of horse.

Varney is the villain of this piece. He has Amy kept as a virtual prisoner, and eventually Amy has reason to fear for her life. So, she flees to Kenilworth, Leicester’s estate, where he is preparing to entertain Elizabeth and the court.

I fear that Scott has woven a romance with very little basis in fact, as he did with a Crusader-based novel I’ll be reviewing in a few months. First, in Kenilworth, Amy and Leicester are newly married when in fact they were married about 10 years. Next, their marriage was no secret; in fact, she was allowed to visit him in the Tower of London when he was imprisoned by Queen Mary as a relative of Lady Jane Grey. Did Leicester have a hand in her death? I read a novel a while back that posited that (it may have been Alison Weir’s The Marriage Game, but I’m not sure), but we’ll never know. More recently, historians are inclined to believe that she simply fell down the stairs. By the way, she was not being kept captive in a moldy old house but visiting friends.

So, that is a strongish negative for me, at least. I could accept a premise that Leicester ordered his wife’s death because we don’t know, but playing with the chronology of the marriage for drama’s sake (and to have a younger, dewier heroine) and making it a secret (as it was also in a movie I saw several years ago) is throwing in a bit too much fiction.

On the positive side, Scott’s descriptions of the Elizabethan court are vibrant and his attempts at Elizabethan dialogue are convincing. Also, if he was not distorting history I’d say that his plot is quite suspenseful. At the time of its publication, historians slammed The Talisman just because Scott created a fictional Plantagenet, even though he did much worse things historically in that book and in this one.

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Review 1556: Dark Enchantment

I was delighted to receive a review copy of Dark Enchantment from Tramp Press from their Recovered Voices series and decided to time my review for the season. This is especially felicitous because the movie from another Dorothy Macardle book, The Uninvited, has been my family’s go-to Halloween movie for years. This is another entry for RIPXV.

After three years of teaching, an occupation that Juliet Frith likens to drudgery, she is exhausted and unwell. Her employers, eager for her to leave because of newspaper stories about her mother, have summoned her father to take her away. Frith is an actor who can’t afford to support Juliet and doesn’t know what to do with her, but for now they are vacationing on the Côte d’Azur.

On a day trip to visit villages in the Alps Maritimes, Juliet is taken ill at an inn, so Frith makes arrangements for them to stay the entire week. Juliet improves rapidly and befriends the pregnant wife of the innkeeper, Martine, so Frith arranges for Juliet to stay there when he has to leave for a job. Juliet will be working half-time at the inn for the length of Martine’s pregnancy. It helps that Juliet has met Michael, studying trees in the nearby forest.

The lives of all the villagers are soon wrapped up in drama because of Terka, a beautiful Romany woman who is missing an eye. She has a reputation as a sorceress, and the villagers are terrified of her. Although Juliet thinks Terka is being treated unfairly, Martine’s husband René is foremost at trying to drive her out of the area, so she has turned her attentions to poor Martine as well as others. Things begin to get ugly.

This novel develops slowly at first, but it has appealing characters and kept my interest. Although the threat foretold for Juliet doesn’t really pan out, she becomes deeply involved in the fortunes of Martine and René. I enjoyed this light read very much.

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Review 1555: The Voices Beyond

I have been reading Johan Theorin’s novels for years, ever since I picked up The Darkest Room. The Voices Beyond is one of his atmospheric thrillers set on the Swedish island of Öland in the Baltic Sea. In the case of The Darkest Room, at least, there was also an element of the supernatural. This makes an appropriate book as we’re leading up to Halloween and is also an entry for RIPXV.

The novel begins in 1930, when Gerlof (who appears in all these books) is a young man helping out as a gravedigger. The man being buried is Edvard Kloss, of a family of wealthy farmers, and the rumor is that his two brothers killed him by toppling a wall on him. Also helping the burial that day is a teenager named Aron Fredh, rumored to be a bastard son of Edvard. When the coffin is put in the ground and they begin to cover it, everyone at the graveside hears three distinct raps, apparently coming from the coffin. The men haul the coffin back up and open it, but Edvard is definitely dead. However, his brother Gilbert falls over dead from the shock.

Sixty years later, Gerlof is a retired sea captain staying for the summer in his cottage on the beach in Stevnik. One night when he is sleeping in the boathouse, he is awakened by a terrified boy, Jonas Kloss. Jonas tells him that he was floating on a rubber dinghy when a large ghost ship nearly ran him over. He saved himself by grabbing a dangling rope and was able to get aboard. There he saw dead sailors on the deck and a young man chasing another sailor with an ax. Up in the wheelhouse was an old man. Jonas thinks he has seen the young man before.

Gerlof helps Jonas figure out that the young man sold him movie tickets the year before, so they are able to identify him as Pecka. Although Gerlof asks the boy not to tell anyone this, Jonas confides in his Uncle Kent. Soon Pecka is dead.

Intermittently, we learn the story of Aron Fredh, whose stepfather Sven reportedly took him away to America in 1930, and they were never heard from again. But Sven, a dedicated socialist, actually took him to the Soviet Union, where they lived a brutal life and Aron managed to survive the Great Purge.

Eventually, Gerlof realizes that the old man is Aron Fredh, pursuing some kind of vendetta against the Klosses. But how to find him?

Theorin does something really interesting with these characters that I don’t want to reveal. Let me just say that everything is not what it seems.

Although none of Theorin’s books has been quite as memorable as The Darkest Room, they have all been good, and I think this one is more memorable than the last couple.

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Review 1551: The Grey Woman

Here’s another book for RIPXV.

This novel opens with an unnamed narrator, a traveler in Germany, who meets a pale woman known as The Grey Woman. When he asks for her story, she gives him a letter she wrote to her daughter. This letter contains her story.

As a young girl in 1778, Anna Scherer is very beautiful. A miller’s daughter, she is invited to visit a school friend in Karlsruhe, where she stays with the Rupprechts. She is a shy girl, but she makes a conquest of her social better, a Frenchman named Monsieur de la Tourelle. She is pushed by Frau Rupprecht into receiving him and accepting his gifts, and the next thing she knows, she is engaged to marry him even though he makes her feel uncomfortable.

After their marriage, de la Tourelle takes her to his castle in the Vosges Mountains, where she feels that the servants spy on her. He makes her cut all ties to her family and tries to control her every movement, not allowing her even to go for a walk. The saving grace is Amante, the servant he hired to be her lady’s maid.

Aside from being a stern and controlling husband, de la Tourelle has a fearsome secret, which Anna and her maid discover by accident.

This novel is typical of the gothic genre that was popular in its time, except that it is much more believable than most that I have read, not including any supernatural elements. I took it to be one of Gaskell’s earlier works, and it may have been, because it was published the year of her death, in 1865. It is very short, easy reading, although the antique-sounding dialogue is a bit cumbersome. Luckily, there’s not much of it.

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Review 1549: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter

Readers Imbibing Peril XV was just announced for books in September and October, and just by coincidence, here is my first entry.

Theodora Goss must really like Victorian and earlier monster stories. In The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, she brings together characters inspired from Robert Louis Stevenson, H. G. Wells, Mary Shelley, and Bram Stoker, adding in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Nathaniel Hawthorne for good measure.

Mary Jekyll’s mother has just died, and Mary has been left in near poverty. While going through her father’s papers, she finds that her mother was paying monthly sums for the support of Hyde. Thinking that if Mr. Hyde was alive, he might be responsible for the series of grizzly Jack the Ripper murders, she goes to Sherlock Holmes to find out how she might investigate and claim the reward for solving the case.

Dr. Watson comes with her to the address on the invoices to what turns out to be a home for fallen women. There they find, not Mr. Hyde, but a teenage girl named Diana Hyde, who calls her sister.

When Mary and Diana continue to investigate their father’s papers, they take up with Beatrice Rappachini, whose father changed her to breathe poison; Catherine Moreau, half woman, half panther; and Justine Frankenstein. They all begin working with Holmes and Watson to try to solve the killings.

At first, this seemed like a fun book for light reading. It was written in a jaunty style, with characters interrupting as Catherine writes their story, and it seemed entertaining and clever. By 50 pages in, I felt I had figured out everything important, just not the details. By 100 pages in, the story was beginning to flag. The characters didn’t have discernible personalities. It struck me that Holmes, for example, is described as being full of himself when he hasn’t behaved that way.

I finally stopped about halfway through, because I still had 200 pages to read and I wasn’t enjoying myself. What had started out seeming a clever idea got old and was too over the top.

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