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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Day 1216: The Broken Girls

Cover for The Broken GirlsMost of Simone St. James’s spooky novels have been set in the early 20th century, so The Broken Girls is a bit of a departure. Some of it is set in 1950, but the bulk is set in 2014.

Fiona Sheridan’s sister, Deb, was murdered 20 years ago and her body found on the grounds of what had been Idlewild Hall, a school for girls. Although Deb’s boyfriend, Tim Christopher, has long been in prison for the murder and Fiona believes he is guilty, something about the case still bothers her. This issue tends to raise tension between her and her boyfriend, Jamie Creel, a cop whose father investigated the murder.

When Fiona drives by Idlewild Hall near the anniversary of her sister’s death, she sees that development work is going on. A reporter, she pitches an idea to cover the local story, including rumors of a ghost on the property. But the body of a girl dressed in the uniform of the old school turns up in an old well, and Fiona begins trying to identify her.

In 1950, four girls are roommates at Idlewild Hall, a school for throw-away girls. Katie was sent away when she was raped by a neighbor boy. Cece is the bastard daughter of a wealthy man. Roberta witnessed her uncle’s attempted suicide and temporarily stopped speaking. Sonia is a refugee from post-war France.

All the girls in the school have periodic glimpses of the ghost of Mary Hand, and there are stories about her written inside the school textbooks. Everyone at the school, including the teachers, is afraid.

link to NetgalleyThe novel begins in the 1950’s with a girl fleeing someone on the school grounds. It takes us a while to figure out who and what from, and that’s a secret of the book.

The Broken Girls is another excellent spookfest from Simone St. James. She and Catriona McPherson are beginning to be my favorite authors for light, scary reading.

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Day 968: Lost Among the Living

Cover for Lost Among the LivingIt is three years after World War I. Jo Manders is working as a paid companion to her husband’s aunt, Dottie Forsyth, after her husband Alex disappeared during the war. Jo has been in a limbo of grief and practical concerns. Although he is assumed dead, Alex has not been declared dead, so Jo cannot receive a pension. Penniless, she was forced to take the job with Dottie, who is often unpleasant or rude.

Jo has been traveling with Dottie through Europe buying art from newly impoverished nobility. But now they are on their way to Dottie’s home, Wych Elm House, which has been closed for some time. Dottie’s son Martin is returning home from a hospital where he’s been treated since the war, and Dottie has summoned home her husband with the plan of finding Martin a wife.

On the first day at the house, Jo walks into a room and sees a young girl in gray and pearls. It takes her some time to realize she’s seen a ghost—Dottie’s mentally ill daughter Franny who died during the war by falling off the roof. Franny had hallucinations and claimed that a demon dog named Princer protected her. In the village, Jo hears that children claimed to have met Franny and Princer in the woods. On the same day that Franny died, the body of a man was found in the woods, torn to pieces.

As Franny keeps appearing to Jo, sometimes leaving things for her to find, Jo begins to believe that Franny was murdered. She also wonders about one of Dottie’s clients, a  mysterious Colonel Mabry, who seems to know something about Alex.

St. James just keeps getting better and better at her chosen combination of suspense, the supernatural, and romance. In this case, a little of the mystery was lessened because there was only one plausible romantic partner for Jo, but still, this is a very suspenseful, eerie novel.

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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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Day 889: An Inquiry into Love and Death

Cover for An Inquiry into Love and DeathFor light reading with a supernatural twist, I’m developing an affection for the novels of Simone St. James. Her romantic suspense novels are set in post-World War I England and feature spunky heroines who get embroiled in mystery, always with a supernatural element.

Jillian Leigh is an Oxford student in one of the few colleges for women. She is summoned away from her studies with news that her Uncle Toby has died. Her parents expect her to take care of his affairs, saying that her father is unable to leave his work in Paris.

Jillian hasn’t actually seen her uncle since her parents broke with him when she was 14, for reasons she does not know. The one thing she knows about him is embarrassing, that he worked as a ghost hunter. Other than that, she remembers him as a shy, quiet person who was kind to her.

She is appalled, however, to find she is expected to identify his body. He was staying in the seaside village of Rothewell, thought to be haunted by the ghost of a smuggler, when early one morning he fell off a cliff.

Jillian stays in the house where Toby lived, an isolated cottage nearest the activities of the purported ghost. Almost immediately, odd things begin happening. She finds things in odd places, a book in  the stove, for example. At night she hears what she thinks is a tree scratching her window, but in the daytime she sees there is no tree anywhere near it. Then Scotland Yard Inspector Drew Merriken arrives and tells her that Toby may have been murdered.

After reading a few of St. James’s novels, I have no doubt there will be a romance with the inspector, but her combination of ghost story and mystery is truly suspenseful. I found this to be another enjoyable romantic suspense novel.

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Day 850: The Other Side of Midnight

Cover for The Other Side of MidnightEllie Winter has been living a retired life since her mother’s death. Her mother was a psychic called The Fantastique who delivered messages from people’s loved ones, and she was particularly busy since the onset of World War I. But a few years ago, the New Society, a psychic research institute, called her a fake. Her mother died soon after, her career ruined. Ellie took up her work but refuses to contact the dead. Instead, she specializes in finding lost objects. The thing is, neither Ellie nor her mother are fakes.

To her surprise, Ellie is contacted by George Sutter, the brother of Gloria Sutter, who used to be her good friend until she was involved in the New Society fiasco. Gloria was also a psychic, and she and Ellie became friends because they understood one another. At least, that’s what Ellie thought.

Now George tells her that Gloria was murdered, but before she went to the meeting where she died, she left George a message that said, “Tell Ellie Winter to find me.” Ellie is surprised to learn that Gloria agreed to attend a séance at the home of her clients, something she would usually not agree to do. She is also surprised to find George involved, because Gloria split from him years ago. Ellie is under the impression that George works for the government, perhaps for MI5.

In her investigations, Ellie soon encounters James Hawley. She was attracted to him a few years ago when she met him on the flapper scene with Gloria, but he was involved in the New Society tests that disgraced her mother. One of the people Ellie wants to interview is a psychic named Ramona, whom he is supposed to observe that night. James tells Ellie that he always felt there was something wrong about the tests Ellie and her mother were subjected to, designed with input from Gloria.

Ramona is clearly a fake; Ellie can easily spot her tricks. But she has something interesting to say. The clients who had supposedly summoned Gloria to their house for a séance were not pleased to have Ramona and Fitzroy Todd arrive with her. Also, they were not set up for a séance. When Gloria went out into the garden, she was strangled. Soon, Ramona is dead, too, and Ellie has had a close encounter with the murderer.

Simone St. James dedicates this book to Mary Stewart. I don’t think many romantic suspense writers can top Stewart, but St. James seems a worthy successor. Although she is more interested in the supernatural than Stewart (only one of Stewart’s romantic suspense novels had a supernatural element, although there is that Merlin series), she creates an atmospheric setting, builds plenty of suspense, and keeps the romance secondary to the mystery. I have really enjoyed the two novels I’ve read by her so far.

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Day 772: The Haunting of Maddy Clare

Cover for The Haunting of Maddy ClareBest Book of the Week!
The Haunting of Maddy Clare has been on my reading list for a while. I’ve finally read it, and my first reaction is to immediately look for another book by Simone St. James. It’s not often I encounter a good ghost story. This one is really good.

It’s just after World War I, and Sarah Piper has been living a safe but impoverished and lonely life in London taking temporary secretarial jobs, when her agency sends her to Alastair Gellis. Gellis has an unusual request. He is a wealthy young man who can afford to turn his interests into employment, and his interest is in ghosts.

Alastair’s regular assistant is away, and he has been summoned to the site of a haunting. Sarah’s job is to assist him in recording evidence of a ghost.

Maddy and Alastair travel to Falmouth House and an interview with Mrs. Clare, an elderly woman. She explains that Maddy came to her doorstep years ago as a child. She had been beaten and was barely dressed and covered with mud. She could hardly speak. The Clares took her in and tried to find her people, with no success. She was obviously of the servant class, so they employed her as a maid. She was with them for several years, always frightened and never leaving the house. Then one day she hanged herself in the barn.

Maddy haunts the barn, and Mrs. Clare wants Alastair to get her to leave. She already tried an exorcism, with terrible results. But Mrs. Clare says that Maddy hated men, which is why she asked Alastair to bring a woman.

Sarah learns she is expected to go into the barn accompanied only by a wire recorder and a camera. She finds the experience terrifying. Although she does not see Maddy, Maddy plants images in her mind and asks Sarah to find someone. What she wants is not clear, but Sarah decides to continue.

Shortly thereafter, Alastair’s partner Matthew Ryder arrives. Although he is badly scarred from the war, Sarah is immediately attracted to him. Matthew, on the other hand, thinks Sarah is too fragile for the work and should be dismissed. In the meantime, Sarah has sensed a threatening presence in the village.

This novel drags you in from its first sentences. It also tells a deliciously creepy yet heart-rending story about why Maddy is haunting the barn. If you like ghost stories and enjoy some romance in  your historical fiction as well, you’ll like this novel.

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