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 1203: The 1977 Club! The Honourable Schoolboy

Cover for The Honourable SchoolboyI actually read this novel before the 1977 Club was announced, but I was pleased to find that it was published in that year. I have a couple of other books I’m reviewing this week that I read especially for the club.

Here are my previous reviews of some other books published in 1977:

* * *

I wasn’t aware that there was a sequel to John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy until I picked up The Honourable Schoolboy and started reading it. It is truly a worthy successor.

In summarizing the plot, I have to give away a key point of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but a point revealed toward the beginning of the novel. In that novel, of course, George Smiley uncovered a mole for the Russians high up in British intelligence. Because of the mole’s position, as The Honourable Schoolboy begins, all of the service’s spy networks are compromised and must be dismantled.

With a small staff of personnel who were dismissed during his predecessor’s reign, Smiley must figure out a way to make the service viable again. He has the idea that they can look for intelligence in the lacunae of his predecessor’s work, that is, look for promising leads that were suppressed.

1977 club logoThey find one, payments by the Russians to an account in Hong Kong, first small ones but later very large. Since the “spook house” in Hong Kong has been closed, Smiley recalls a journalist, an “occasional” agent, Jerry Westerby, from retirement in Tuscany to investigate this lead. A tangled path leads him from a Chinese businessman in Hong Kong to the man’s former prostitute English mistress, a Mexican drug courier in Vientiane, and some ugly dealings.

It is always amazing to me that Le Carré can evoke as much excitement from a paper chase as from an action sequence. Once again, he is in top form with a taut thriller. This novel is set against a backdrop of Southeast Asia exploding into chaos with the end of the Vietnam War. Westerby’s investigations take him to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Phnom Penh, Vientiane, and Saigon.

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Day 1183: The Widow’s House

Cover for The Widow's HouseI haven’t read a creepy book in a while, and The Widow’s House is a good one. It is also a complex story where nothing is what it seems.

When she went away to college, Clare Martin moved away from her home in the Hudson Valley and hoped she would never return. She and her husband, Jess, moved to New York with aspirations to be writers, and ten years ago, Jess wrote a critically acclaimed novel. However, another one was not forthcoming, and for the past three years, Clare has been supporting them by taking editing work. They are badly in debt.

Jess suggests they move back into the country with the money from selling their loft apartment, leaving both of them time to write. He has a fancy to live in the same area where Clare grew up. When they go to look at houses, however, most of them are out of their price range.

Their realtor, Katrine Vanderberg, has an idea. Another writer is looking for a couple to occupy the caretaker’s house on his property. The rent would be free in exchange for some help around the property. The main house is River House, a beautiful but neglected octagonal mansion that is said to be haunted. The owner is Alden Montague, or Monty, the writer, who just happens to be the Martins’ old writing professor, and he is glad to have them.

Shortly before the move, Clare finds out that Jess turned down a teaching job at a college near their apartment, an opportunity that would have allowed them to stay in New York, without even discussing it with her. She is so upset by that, and what she thinks is his philandering, that she prepares to leave him soon after the move. But his behavior makes her change her mind.

The main house is supposedly haunted by a woman who had a child by the owner of the house. One stormy night she left the child on the doorstep of the house and drowned herself in the pond. The child was found dead. Clare was fascinated enough by this local story to have written about it in college, and now she decides to write a novel about it.

But almost upon her arrival in the house, she sees the woman standing near the pond and hears a baby crying at night. Clare has a history of psychic experiences and decides the house is haunted. When the caretaker’s cottage is destroyed in a flood, she and Jess move in with Monty.

Early in the novel I suspected gaslighting. I won’t say if I was right, but there are layers upon layers to this novel. It is a well written, suspenseful, spook fest. I had to keep reading it until late in the night once I got started.

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Day 1172: The Long Drop

Cover for The Long DropAlthough it too is set in Glasgow, The Long Drop is a departure from Denise Mina’s usual crime series. Instead, it is an account of the crimes and trial of Scotland’s first serial killer, Peter Manuel. In the 1950’s, Manuel was tried and found guilty of the murders of two families and a woman. Although he likely killed other women, a charge against him for the murder of another woman was found not proven.

The novel follows two paths—testimony about the events of a night following the murders in which Manuel met William Watt, a man whose family were Manuel’s victims and who almost certainly paid to have his wife killed, and the actual events. Pretty much everyone in the court is lying.

This novel is billed as a thriller, but it is more of a court procedural. Although it is interesting, it suffers from not having a single character you can feel sympathy for. The wild city of Glasgow in the 1950’s is very atmospheric, however.

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Day 1146: Birdcage Walk

Cover for Birdcage WalkBest of Five!
Lizzy Fawkes has a close relationship with her mother, Julia, who has worked all her life for the rights of common men. She revolted against her family’s guidance, though, in the choice of her husband, John Diner Tredevant, a property developer. Julia thinks him too concerned with money, while he thinks Julia’s support of the French revolution is naive. Unfortunately, because Lizzy was so adamant to have John, or Diner as he prefers to be called, she cannot confide to her mother her occasional doubts, as Diner behaves in a controlling manner.

Readers already know that at the beginning of the novel, a man murdered a woman and buried her in the woods near the gorge of the Avon River. Diner is building his homes in Bristol overlooking that gorge, and we slowly come to fear that he may have murdered his first wife, Lucie.

link to NetgalleyWith the success of the revolution comes the threat of war with France, and buyers back out of their agreements to purchase Diner’s houses. Diner’s behavior becomes erratic.

This novel is a real page turner. It makes the fourth Dunmore novel I’ve read, each one better than the last. It builds up a lot of suspense as you wonder what Lizzie’s fate will be.

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Day 1124: The Ivy Tree

Cover for The Ivy TreeThe Ivy Tree is the first book I’m reading for R.I.P.

Mary Grey is a Canadian who has recently moved to Northumberland when she encounters Connor Winslow on the Roman Wall. Connor mistakes her for his long-lost cousin Annabelle and seems so angry to see her that Mary is frightened. She has some difficulty convincing him of his mistake.

Later, Connor’s half-sister Lisa locates Mary at her workplace in Newcastle. Connor and Lisa want Mary to impersonate Annabelle to help insure that Con will inherit the family farm, Whitescar, from his great-uncle Matthew, who is in poor health. If Mary as Annabelle inherits the farm, she will give it to Con in exchange for a small income that will save her from poverty.

Mary agrees to the job because it doesn’t seem as if it will hurt anyone. The only other interested party, Annabelle’s cousin Julie, views the farm simply as a holiday home. But the impersonation may turn out to be more difficult than anticiapted, for Annabelle had her secrets. And Mary has some, too.

I have long been a huge fan of Mary Stewart. Recently, I turned a friend on to her, and our discussions made me eager for a Stewart fix. The Ivy Tree is one of her best, particularly because, on reread, when you understand a secret of the plot, almost every scene in the novel turns out to have a double meaning.

Stewart is known for her convincing characters and her gorgeous descriptions of the setting. This novel is lush with descriptions of the plants and rural geography of Northumbria. It has a great plot and is truly suspenseful. If you have never read anything by Mary Stewart, I can’t recommend her highly enough, particularly those of her novels written before the 1980’s and her Merlin series.

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Day 1107: Conclave

Cover for ConclaveThe only book I’ve ever read featuring a papal conclave (except one of Maurice Druon’s Accursed Kings series books, which has one as a subplot) was Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons. That novel featured a series of bizarre murders. Robert Harris is skilled enough to generate the same level of suspense through secrets and activities that are much more likely.

As Dean of the College of Cardinals, it is Cardinal Lomeli’s job to conduct the conclave after the death of the Pope. Not only is Lomeli sincerely grieved at the Pope’s death, but he is also dedicated to doing his job well. He thinks the front-runners for the office will be Cardinal Tremblay, the Canadian Camerlengo; Cardinal Bellini, the Secretary of State; Adeyemi, the African Cardinal Major Penitentiary; and Cardinal Tedesco, the Patriarch of Venice.

Just before the cardinals are sequestered, a new cardinal appears, Vincent Benítez, newly appointed Archbishop of Baghdad. No one knows about the new appointment, but his credentials seem to be in order, and his appointment was kept secret because of the vulnerability of a Catholic cardinal in Iraq.

Another problem Archbishop Wozniak reports is that Cardinal Tremblay met with the late Pope just before the Pope died. Cardinal Wozniak tells Cardinal Lomeli the Pope confided to him that he had asked Cardinal Tremblay to resign from all his offices. Tremblay denies that this conversation took place and implies that the Pope was becoming unstable.

The suspense mounts as each vote fails to choose a candidate and secrets are revealed. Lomeli is dismayed to find himself becoming a viable candidate as others fall out of the running. He also finds indications that the late Pope was putting things in motion, months before his death, to affect the election.

Again, Harris has written a suspenseful and deeply interesting novel. The characters seem convincing—Cardinal Lomeli is extremely likable and all demonstrate human foibles without being caricatures. The ending is somewhat unbelievable, and although it is not really predictable, I was able to guess at something similar. That is a small caveat, though. All in all, Robert Harris is rapidly becoming one of my favorite genre writers.

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