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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Day 1056: The Owl Killers

Cover for The Owl KillersIn the 1321 village of Ulewic, England, a group of women have settled into a beguinage, a community of women who are committed to a life of celibacy and service but not one sanctified by the church. Some of them are from Belgium, and they are led by Servant Martha.

The village is experiencing dark days and some of the villagers are returning to a pre-Christian cult called the Owl Killers. When the beguinage takes in a leper and then the daughter of a lord, who has been raped, the villagers and the Owl Killers begin to turn against them.

Although this novel is atmospherically dark and seems well researched, I had a hard time sticking with it. This problem may have more to do with the fact that we were moving cross-country while I was reading it than with the book itself. But I frankly found few of the characters sympathetic. The village priest is so terrified that the truth of his affair with a man will come out that he is led into dastardly acts. Servant Martha seems completely blind to what is going on with some of the members of the beguinage. Beatrice is jealous and bitter. Osmana is sympathetic but one-dimensional.

I may try another Maitland novel at a better time. The novel blends a bit of the supernatural with a fairly straight historical narrative, which combination is interesting.

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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 898: An Adventure

Cover for An AdventureAn Adventure is the account by two English woman academics of a couple of supernatural events during a visit to Versailles, published under pseudonyms. The women had the first experience on August 10, 1901, and the second was experienced by one of the women alone the following year. The two women claimed not to have spoken together about the first event until three months later, when they agreed that the Petit Trianon, where the first event occurred, must be haunted. At that time, they decided to write down separate accounts of the incident.

The first section of the book is each woman’s account of the incident. On a visit to Paris, they went to Versailles and decided to stroll the grounds looking for the Petit Trianon, which was a favored place of Marie Antoinette. Although their accounts disagree in some respects, both women reported seeing the same landscape and layout of buildings and some of the same people dressed in antique costumes. One of the women saw a lady painting in a white dress. They also reported an oppressive atmosphere.

On a subsequent visit, “Frances Lamont” heard people speaking as if they were walking on a path nearby and music from the 18th century. Later, the women were unable to locate many of the places they had visited on the previous visits. These events led them to decide they had observed supernatural visits of Marie Antoinette and some of her servants and courtiers. They also learned that Petit Trianon was rumored to be haunted on August 10, which is the anniversary of a pivotal date in French revolutionary history.

The second section of the novel relates the discoveries that the women made. It describes the differences between the landscape of the area at the time of the event and in the 1780’s. It details the women’s research to explain the costumes of the people they saw and the events witnessed.

The final section of the book contains the women’s explanations of the events as a combination of memories in the mind of Marie Antoinette as she and her family were cooped up in a small room on the day of August 10, 1789.

The most interesting part of the book is the first section, containing the women’s accounts of the events. The section about their investigation is harder to follow and difficult to visualize. Subsequent reading I’ve done on the notorious event contained allegations that their sources validating some of the information they researched were questionable.

The final section seems much too suppositional for easy belief (if you can believe any of it) as well as repetitive, revisiting much of the information from the second section. Whether you believe something supernatural happened to these women or whether their memories were influenced in the time that elapsed after the event or even that they invented the whole (which does not seem to be a general assumption), this is a mildly interesting account that was controversial when published, even during a time that was credulous about the supernatural.

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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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