Review 1386: Once Upon a River

Here we are with another novel that was difficult for me to rate. On the one hand, it is more fairy tale-like than is usually my taste. On the other hand, it kept my attention. Yet again, it presents us with a mystery that isn’t very difficult to solve.

In an inn along the Thames at an unspecified period in time, the patrons and owners occupy themselves with telling tales. One dark night, however, a tale comes right to the house. A man staggers in, all beaten and bloody, carrying what appears to be a puppet. It turns out to be a little girl, apparently dead. Indeed, when the local nurse, Rita, is summoned, she sees that the girl has dilated pupils and no pulse. But something doesn’t seem right, and the girl comes back to life.

She doesn’t speak, however, and no one knows who she is. The injured man, Henry Daunt, only saw her in the flood before he lost his boat.

Soon, there are several possible identities for the girl. Robert Armstrong finds a letter for his son, Robin, from a woman begging for help for her and his daughter. When Robert goes to her, she has just committed suicide and no one knows what happened to her four-year-old daughter, Alice. Lily White, the parson’s housekeeper, says the girl is her sister, Ann. Then the Vaughns claim her. Two years ago, their daughter, Amelia, was kidnapped. When they paid the ransom, the girl was not returned.

There are problems with all these stories. Robert Armstrong has never seen his grandchild, and his son, Robin, seems to be unsure whether the girl is Alice. Sadly, Robin is frequently up to no good. Lily is far too old, in her forties, to have a four-year-old sister. Finally, although Helena Vaughn is convinced the girl is Amelia, Anthony Vaughn, Rita can see, clearly doesn’t believe it.

Lots of secrets come out before we learn who the girl is, or rather, because I thought it was obvious, have it confirmed. In addition, there are lots of subplots, like a stolen pig, a runaway boy, a mysterious visitor, that all somehow related to the book’s central mystery.

The novel has some really rotten bad guys, as all fairy tales must have. It also has some very likable characters, in particular, Henry Daunt, Rita, and Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong. I think that readers who enjoy fairy tales will like this book and some others will, too.

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Review 1385: The Miniaturist

Best of Ten!
I so enjoyed The Miniaturist that I was only disappointed at knowing all its secrets, since I had first seen it televised on Masterpiece. Jessie Burton’s novel is set in the 17th century, and what a difference from the previous novel I read (Widdershins) also set in the 17th century. Burton’s novel evokes the bustling city of Amsterdam, ruled by commerce but also by a harsh Calvinism, a city where people are constantly watched for misbehavior.

Nella arrives from the country to take up residence with her new husband, Johannes Brandt, a wealthy merchant. Although she brings a good family name to the marriage, she brings nothing else, for her father was a poor businessman.

Nella isn’t warmly received. Johannes’s sister Marin is cold, and Johannes hasn’t bothered to be home. When, after a few days, Johannes hasn’t consummated the marriage and Marin continues with the housekeeping, Nella fears that she has no role in her new life.

Johannes’s marriage gift to her is a miniature copy of their house that she can furnish. Although Nella thinks he is treating her like a child, she eventually sends a note to a miniaturist asking for three items: a lute, because Marin will not allow her to play the ones in the house; a block of marzipan, because Marin disapproves of sugar; and a marriage cup, which Nella should have received from Johannes but did not. When the items arrive, they are exquisite, but she also receives things she did not order. And more arrive. They so closely match what is going on in the house that Nella first thinks the family is being spied upon, later that the items foretell the future.

This novel is really good. The story and characters are compelling. Life both within the claustrophobic household and the city is evocatively evoked. It has a delicate touch that reminds me very much of Tracy Chevalier’s The Girl with a Pearl Earring. And there is that tantalizing touch of the supernatural.

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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 1326: The Coffin Path

Cover for The Coffin PathIt’s 1674, and Mercy Booth helps her aging father work a sheep farm in remote northern England. She feels that at 28, she is beyond marriage, but she really only cares about the farm.

In early spring, she is out on the moor when she feels that someone is watching her with enmity. After that, strange things begin happening in the house. Three old coins disappear from her father’s drawer. She hears noises upstairs when no one seems to be there. She catches glimpses of a pale face. The home is believed to be cursed after the three prior inhabitants were all murdered, their mouths covered with those missing coins.

Early in spring the head shepherd hired Ellis Ferreby, a wandering shepherd. The novel is narrated by him in alternate chapters as he observes what is going on. He, too, has seen and heard strange things.

Also key to the story is Sam, the young son of Ambrose, the head shepherd, who lately lost his twin brother after a fall. He is a favorite of the house but begins to behave strangely.

This novel is truly atmospheric, and although I had glimpses of its secrets, I could not figure everything out. I found myself interested in the characters and involved in what was happening to them. This is a real page-turner.

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Day 1227: Miss Seeton Flies High

Cover for Miss Seton Flies HighAgain, I requested Miss Seeton Flies High from Netgalley without realizing it is part of a series. In fact, “Hamilton Crane” is the pseudonym for the second writer of the series, the first being Heron Carvic. Miss Seeton Flies High is the 23rd book in the series.

If you are expecting a traditional mystery from this series, you’ll be surprised. Miss Seeton is a sort of cross between Miss Marple and a medium. Her forte is drawing surrealistic pictures that give the police clues about the crime in question, if they can figure them out.

Miss Seeton is asked about the kidnapping of a rich playboy and draws a picture of crazed sheep that leads the police instead to a pot-growing enterprise. Later, the retired art teacher receives a much-appreciated windfall. She uses it to take a short vacation in Glasonbury to research King Arthur for a local play. In Glastonbury, she meets a man who later becomes a victim.

This novel is set in the 1970’s and has a little bit of the 70’s atmosphere, especially with hippies and other New Agers in Glastonbury.

link to NetgalleyOf course, even the notion that the police would take Miss Seeton’s drawings seriously is ridiculous, let alone treat them as evidence. The reader has no hope of interpreting the drawings and guessing the perpetrator of the crime, since they are full of puns and not enough information about them is provided. Essentially, these novels are meant as spoofs of whodunnits. I’m sure they’re fun to write. I didn’t find the novel as much fun to read.

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Day 1217: A Footman for the Peacock

Cover for A Foot man for the PeacockA Footman for the Peacock is a strange little novel. The novel was controversial when it was first published during World War II, because it depicts an upper-class family that tries to avoid its civic duty during the war. But that activity seems almost incidental to the rest of the plot.

What is the plot? The narration flits around in time but centers on the Roundelay family. Their current configuration consists of Sir Edmund and Lady Evelyn and their household of two daughters, three elderly aunts, and three or four servants, including the retired and senile Nursie. When we finally seem to be settling somewhere, on the new Lady Evelyn’s growing acquaintance with the village and regional customs, we stay only long enough for her to hear an old running song, which Evelyn in her innocence takes to be about hunting. then we skip over to her daughter, Angela.

Angela seems to have a sensitivity to an upper-floor servant’s bedroom where the words “Heryn I dye, Thomas Picocke, 1792” are etched on a window pane. She makes an odd connection between this room and an unfriendly peacock in the grounds of the estate, which seems to be signalling Nazi bombers to destroy the house.

I guess I found this novel, which has a supernatural element, peculiar enough to be amusing, but it certainly has an unusual premise. I had more of a problem with the scattered narrative style, which took a long time to get somewhere. Ultimately, the novel becomes a story of class abuse and cruelty in the 18th century.

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Day 1070: Burntown

Cover for BurntownThe previous two books I’ve read by Jennifer McMahon were a weird combination of unusual but realistic life and the supernatural. Burntown features the supernatural less, but in some ways is more bizarre and in others verges on the precious.

When Miles Sandeski is a little boy, he sees a man wearing a chicken mask murder his mother. Despite his assurances to the police that the man was not his father, the police think his father did it. Later, his father takes his own life.

Miles’s father handed down an invention taken from Edison’s lab that allows people to talk to the dead. Miles uses it to talk to his mother and find out who killed her. Then he goes off to do something about it.

Years later, something dreadful happens at Miles’s house. His daughter Eve, now calling herself Necco, ends up living on the streets in their industrial home town of Ashford, Vermont. She doesn’t remember what happened, but her mother has told her that a flood washed away their home and killed her father. Her mother became a Fire Eater, ingesting a drug that brings visions of the future. But her mother has died, apparently jumping off a bridge.

Necco is camping out in a car with her boyfriend when her boyfriend is murdered. He has been looking into her past and promised to show her something the next day. The police think she murdered her boyfriend and are trying to find her. However, they don’t know who she is.

Theo is also running from someone. Her girlfriend Hannah talked her into selling drugs to the high school students. Theo did a big deal and then left her sachel at Necco’s place when some kids took her there to watch Necco breathe fire. The drug dealer is after her for his money, but in going back for her sachel, Theo may have seen the murderer.

link to NetgalleyAs Necco and Theo try to figure out what’s happening, they get help from unexpected places and make new friends. Although there is a certain amount of danger in this novel, it is far less eerie than the previous two novels. It depends more on strange characters and desolate urban settings than on its supernatural elements. I liked it well enough but felt it verged oddly toward being a feel-good novel full of eccentric characters at the conclusion.

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