The Clockmaker’s Daughter, by Kate Morton***

TheClockmakersDaughterKate Morton is queen of the British historical mystery, and so I leapt at the chance to read and review The Clockmaker’s Daughter. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books. This book will be available October 9, 2018.

This story starts strong with a spellbinding first person narrative told by the woman whose spirit resides eternally at Birchwood Manor. She came here with Edward, a wellborn cad that “could make the very devil pray”, one that called her his muse. Edward seduced her, yes, but he would never have married her.

Elodie Winslow is an archivist in present-day London.  In the course of her duties, she runs across two pictures in a leather satchel. One is a photograph, quite old, and the other is a sketch of a house that seems familiar to her somehow. And so of course, faithful readers are cued right away to watch for a connection between Elodie, and the people, setting, and events that are introduced at the book’s beginning.

Find me a writer that can create more resonant settings in a British historical mystery; I dare you. For the first quarter of this novel, I was in it, steeping in the escapist paradise Morton provides, drinking in the several characters and narratives. But at the thirty percent mark, when yet another new thread, another new character—or is it an old character pretending to be a new character—is introduced, I find myself searching for a nice brick wall to smack my forehead against. It’s hard to get to know any of these characters with so many new ones added.

Usually with Morton’s books, the details and subsections are worth the reader’s careful attention because it all comes together so well at the end. Here, there’s excellent setting and a lot of secrets but not enough plot or character development, and so before the story is even halfway done I find myself eyeing the page numbers. How much longer…?

I also find myself wondering what story elements are classic, and which are simply overused. The old house with the secret doors?  I will never get tired of this element, especially when the writer is as capable as Morton. But bullies at a boarding school—meh. I am ready to be done with that one. And the sack of kittens to be drowned? I gave myself permission to skip a page, because it is. Not. Worth. It.

Many of Morton’s faithful fans will be pleased; her trademark style is unmistakable, and if that’s what you want, here it is. But a story this complex needs more legs to go with it, and less reliance on stale devices.

Am I done reading Morton? Not by a long shot. Every author has a story or two that isn’t magical. But when a story requires this much effort on the part of the reader, the payoff needs to be greater than it is here.

Recommended to diehard Kate Morton fans; even so, get it free or cheap, but don’t pay full jacket price this time.

The Unquiet Grave, by Sharyn McCrumb*****

theunquietgraveVoice, voice, voice; nobody writes like Sharyn McCrumb. Here her dry, dark humor combines with her expertise in Appalachian culture and above all, her deep respect for the working poor, and the result is a masterpiece of an historical mystery. Thanks to Net galley for the DRC, and to Atria for sending a hard copy galley and a finished copy of this excellent novel. However, had I paid full freight, I’d have come away happy. This book will be available to the public September 12, 2017.

Based upon the legend of the Greenbrier Ghost, our story is set in West Virginia in 1897. Zola Heaster is swept away by the handsome young blacksmith that comes to her tiny Appalachian farming community. Her story is told to us primarily in a first person narrative by her mother, Mary Jane. Magnetic physical attraction overwhelms any common sense Zona may possess—which isn’t much—so when the handsome stranger comes along, Zona tumbles:

“Zona was well nigh smirking at him—cat-in-the-cream-jug smug, she was. Well, Mr. Shue—the name fits the trade, I see—I am Miss Zona Heaster, a visitor to my cousin’s house, here. How do…Well before Edward ‘Call me Trout’ Shue came ambling along, with his possum grin and his storybook profile, we’d had trouble with Zona.”

Before we can draw breath, Zona is pregnant. It isn’t the first time, either, though the first was kept quiet, settled out of the area. As her mother wonders whether Trout will want to marry her, Zona brags,

“’He’d be lucky to have me.’ 
“’Well, Zona, it seems that he already has.’”

Mary Jane doesn’t like her daughter’s suitor, and a number of small but troubling things make her reluctant to see this wedding take place, even given the shotgun-wedding circumstances. We are disquieted, not by huge monstrous overt acts by Shue, but by the small hints that provide a deeper suspicion, a sense of foreboding. Part of McCrumb’s genius is in knowing when less is more.

Ultimately, Zona marries and moves away, and is little heard from. Too little. And here is the mother’s dilemma that most of us will recognize: how much should a mother pry? Will it make things better to follow our nose to the source of trouble; can we help? Or will our efforts only antagonize one or both of the newlyweds? And I love Zona’s father, the laconic Jacob who tells his wife that Zona has made the choice to marry, and she’s made the choice to stay there, so “Let her go, Mary Jane.”

But it’s a terrible mistake.

A secondary thread alternates with this one. The year is 1930; attorney James P.D. Gardner is consigned to a segregated insane asylum following a suicide attempt. His doctor is the young James Boozer, who has decided to try the new technique that involves talking to one’s patients. This device works wonderfully here because it provides Gardner the opportunity to discuss a particularly interesting case he tried many years prior, one that involved defending a white man accused of murdering his wife. The conversation flows organically, rather than as a monologue shoehorned into the prose. I am surprised at first to see McCrumb write dialogue for African-American men; I don’t think she has done this before, although I can’t swear to this.( I have been reading her work since the 90s and may have forgotten a few things along the way.) The dialogue between Gardner and Boozer is dignified and natural, and this is a relief; those that have read my reviews know that there have been others that failed in this regard. And just as the discussion starts to drone—intentional, since one of the two men yawns just at the moment I do—everything wakes up, and we learn about the trial of Trout Shue from a different vantage point.

Every aspect of this novel is done with the authority and mastery of Appalachian fiction for which McCrumb is legendary. The dialect is so resonant that I find myself using it in writing, speech, and even thought—just tiny snippets here and there—and then laughing at myself. And I cannot help wondering how much of it stewed its way into McCrumb’s own conversations while she was writing. You may find it in yours.

The result here is spellbinding, and the use of Appalachian legend, herbal medicine, and folklore makes it all the more mesmerizing. Again, skill and experience tell here. How many novels have I read in which an author’s research is shoehorned in to such a degree that it hijacks the plot? Not so here. The cultural tidbits are an integral part of Mary Jane’s personality, and there’s no teasing them apart. Instead of distracting as it might in less capable hands, the folklore develops character and setting, and ultimately contributes to the plot, when Zona’s ghost returns to let Mary Jane know that she has been murdered.

This is no-can-miss fiction, strongly recommended to those with a solid command of the English language and a love of great literature.

What I’m Reading

I’ve been experimenting with ways to share what is coming up next. Usually I put this on a different page, but then it also tends not to get seen, likely due to the absence of share buttons. Let me know what you think. Is it better to post it separately, or do you like it here?

 

Here are books I’ve finished reading, and as soon as a sane moment presents itself in my uncharacteristically busy domicile, you will see them reviewed here:

 This is what I am reading now; all are good, but some are outstanding. [Imaginary drum roll goes here.]

A Game of Ghosts, by John Connolly*****

AGameOfGhostsJohn Connolly writes two kinds of books. Some of them are good; some are damned good. This is one of the latter. It’s the fifteenth in the Charlie Parker series, and it marks a turning point; previously a thriller series with mystic overtones, it’s now a stew combining multiple genres. Connelly heats his cauldron and pours in a healthy dose of suspense, mixes in some detective fiction, and blends in horror and fantasy as well, along with a pinch of humor. The overall result is deliciously creepy, the kind of story that stays with me after I’ve read a dozen other less memorable books. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. The book is for sale now.

Parker has a haunting past indeed; in the first book of this series, his wife and daughter Jennifer are murdered by a man that has come looking to kill Parker. Our hero sets out to find and kill the man that did it, and he succeeds; yet his thirst for stark, take-no-prisoners justice is not satisfied. Now the father of another daughter, Samantha, that lives with his ex, our current mystery finds Parker in a conversation with the girl’s uncle, who asks hard questions about Parker’s risky behavior. He wants to know why Parker keeps chasing bad guys now that his initial quest has been fulfilled. Why hunt down evil-doers when he might adopt a lifestyle more in line with the best interests of his still-living child? Parker responds,

“I do it because I’m afraid that if I don’t, nobody will. I do it because if I turn away, someone else might suffer the way I have. I do it because it’s an outlet for my anger. I do it for reasons that even I don’t understand. 
“But mostly,” said Parker, “I do it because I like it…
“We can’t leave these people to wander the world unchallenged.”

The premise here is that Parker is sent by FBI agent Ross, who he has agreed to work for under terms mostly his own, in search of Jaycob Ecklund, a man also employed by Ross who has vanished. Once Parker’s search for Ecklund commences we learn that the missing man was a ghostbuster of sorts, a man with a basement full of files on the paranormal. Many others are interested in Ecklund also, and the plot ramps up quickly and doesn’t relent until the last page is done.

The plot here is complex, and Connolly weaves in a host of characters, both living and dead. We have The Brethren, most of whom are alive yet already damned. We have Angel and Louis, a pair of characters that have appeared throughout the series that work with Parker; their darkly amusing banter helps lighten an otherwise almost unbearably intense plot. We have clairvoyants; we have The Brethren; the hollow men; we have a number of murder victims, before, during, and after their deaths; there is the Collector, who is tied to Parker like a falcon, and must always return to him.
And we have organized crime figures Phillip and his Mother, who abduct him in order to find out what Parker does and what he knows, in a civilized way, of course.

“There will be tea.”

Mother is the best villain this reviewer has seen in a long time.

The entire book is brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed. And although Connolly’s series is worth reading from the get-go, those that hop in without having read earlier books from this series will be able to follow and enjoy this shapeshifting mindbender of a novel just fine, but those that genuinely believe in ghosts may not want to read it at night.

Highly recommended to those that love excellent novels of suspense.

Rock of Ages, by Howard Owen ****

rockofagesRock of Ages, an intriguing novel by Howard Owen originally published in 2007, isn’t merely a mystery, but engaging fiction. I enjoyed everything except one small but noticeable problem near the end. Giant thanks to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media for allowing me a glimpse of the digital version in advance. It becomes available for purchase June 9.

Georgia is a respected professor for whom menopause and mounting personal losses—the death of her husband comes at almost the same time her aunt dies, and her parents are both gone—become so distracting that she abruptly takes a leave of absence. She has seen her father’s ghost sitting in the back of her classroom.

She takes time off and heads for the small town in North Carolina where her aunt had lived. When she arrives, her son Justin is there with his girlfriend, Leeza, who is pregnant.

The first half of the book is where the writer is at his best. The villain, “Pooh” Blackwell, is artfully portrayed. Georgia’s former teacher, Forsythia Crumpler, was also really well spun. I found myself talking to Georgia, making notes in my kindle asking her just what the heck she is doing, talking to her son and his honey that way. Does she want to be forever estranged?

Georgia’s misbehaviors are subtle enough at first that the reader is left wondering whether this is the author’s idea of appropriate parental behavior, or whether he is deliberately drawing a difficult protagonist. Turns out it’s the latter, and the way he develops her as the story progresses is terrific, at least until near the story’s conclusion.

So now let’s talk about the rape. What on earth makes the writer think that a woman of 52 years who has been through a good deal of trauma in her life, will think rape is not a very big deal? When she was “younger, a little more precious and fragile”, it would have been much worse.

Say what?

If the protagonist’s mental narrative had only said she was glad to be alive, I could roll with that, but he adds just enough other considerations to make me want to throw the book across the room. I speak as a woman that has never been sexually assaulted, but like most people, I know women that have. And research actually indicates that the more trauma one has been through after age 30, the harder one grieves, because all of the other losses are relived along with the new, fresh loss. Until this point, I had bonded to Georgia’s character, and she was practically tangible to me. When she began reflecting about the rape, the spell was broken and it was just the product of some clueless male’s bizarre imagination. It’s probably a bad idea for anyone to try to quantify a rape or decide where it falls on the progression of a character’s negative experiences, and all the moreso for a man to decide about a female character. One star fell off and this tirade jumped into my review. So there you have it.

The ending is otherwise not terribly imaginative, but also veers away from the trite, pat ending I thought I saw coming. Sadly, by that point I was too irritated to enjoy it.

The novel is billed as a mystery, and it surely includes two of them. We wonder about the ghost; it has made another appearance at the Rock of Ages, which is locally known to be haunted. We also wonder whether Pooh Blackwell killed Aunt Jenny for the deed to her house, or whether she drowned accidentally. But really, the main story here is Georgia’s inner struggle. The mystery takes a back seat, and it works well that way, apart from my earlier qualification.

The prequel to this story won acclaim, and I would love to read it if I can find a copy.

The series will be one to watch. Perhaps Owen will write Justin in as his next protagonist, and if so, I would love to read it.

Interesting work from an award-winning writer.

Dr. Sleep, by Stephen King *****

Dr.SleepFirst of all, let’s give credit to a writer well past the age of official retirement, who not only writes a bad-ass, award-winning sequel to The Shining, but calls it #2 in the series and is obviously planning at least one more volume. I am not the first to salute Stephen King for his outstanding writing and his unstoppable imagination, but I do so anyway.

Next, let me get this off my chest: I’ve heard more than one person inquire whether they “have to” read The Shining in order to read Dr. Sleep. My admittedly caustic reply here is that if you are willing to read 600 pages of a complex novel and not entirely understand the multiple references he makes to the original novel, then go right on ahead. If it weren’t a series, he would not name it #2. Get it? Go. Read. The Shining. First. Or fuggeddaboudit.

One thing that always strikes me when I read King’s horror novels is that though they deal with seriously spooky material, at their foundation is a bedrock sense of decency. In fact, maybe they work better that way, because they remind us that there is something really excellent in the human spirit that is worth defending.

In this case, we have a group of oldsters that look like senior citizens, to the casual human observer, but who are actually over a hundred years old, and who live off the “steam” emitted by the death of young people that have The Shine. It’s much better if the young folks die slowly and painfully; there’s more steam to breathe in. They call themselves The True Knot. They travel in motor homes, roaming the country much of the year in search of…uh…sustenance.

Abra is thirteen years old, and her family has known for a long time, in an uneasy, back-of-the-mind way, that she has special abilities. It all started when she was an infant, and it freaked them out, but they loved their little daughter, and her uncanny abilities included reading the responses of others. And so, as she grew toward adolescence, she let them think she had outgrown The Shining, because they wanted it to be true.

But things have changed. Abra’s Shine is so powerful that Rose, the leader of the True, can sense her far, far away. Rose wants Abra’s steam, and she intends to have it.

But it cuts both ways, because Abra knows that Rose and her evil cadre have killed children, and she wants them to see justice. Not cop justice; you can’t take something like this to criminal court, even if cops will believe your story. No, she wants, if you’ll pardon the pun, True justice. But to get it, she’s going to need help, and Tony–the “ghostie” boy who once helped young Danny Torrence through a very rough spell at The Overlook Hotel in Colorado–can hook her up with the man he assisted, now a middle-aged hospice worker in New England. Dan helps those who have to pass to the other side. He eases their suffering, and he lets them go. But now it is more urgent that he help Abra, to defend her from the True, and avenge the deaths of the children they have murdered.

And within this tale we have the ultimate question about mortality. If I were going to guess, I would say King has made his peace, at least to some degree, with death, and maybe he even used his own writing to work through it. Because most of us that aren’t convinced that Jesus  or some other supernatural deity is there to provide us with a whole second, even better life have a somewhat panicky response to the notion of our own death. It’s so damn final.

But in an oblique way, King reminds us that when we leave, we make room for someone else to be born. If science could unlock a cure for death, find a way for the Boomer generation (or another) to stick around forever, the population of the Earth would grow too large for the newbies to thrive.

I don’t mean to frighten King’s readers–and those considering reading him who have not yet done so–into thinking this novel is some hectoring lecture. It isn’t. It is a tautly paced thriller with supernatural components. Nobody receives this many awards as a fix or a fluke. He earned them all.

Yet for those of us on the downhill slope of middle age and beyond, the underlying message resonates: at some point, we have to get off the merry-go-round and give someone else a turn.

Once in awhile people ask me to name my favorite Stephen King novel. It has been impossible for a long time, and just got even harder! All I can say to you is that if you have read The Shining, you just can’t miss this one. I found mine in a used bookstore, and it was still a bit pricey for me, but as a source of recreation, I knew it would be a great investment…and I was correct.

Brilliant!

Heart-Shaped Box, by Joe Hill *****

In the spirit of October, I am using days when I have no newly released or about to be released books to cover creepy stories with ghosts, demons, or just really creepy people in them. I read Heart-Shaped Box a year ago, and it remains one of my favorite horror titles. It’s is an outstanding piece of work, and it also answers a question I held for a long time.

Okay, so here I start talking about the author’s father, heart-shapedboxSteve King, which is dreadful, because Hill is such a fine writer in his own right, and his style and King’s share nothing but the genre, and the assumption at the core of it, which is what I was idly reaching for, and not finding, for decades. It answers the question as to why I always took King for a good human being, long before his memoir was written. Before this, I would have guessed at his obvious distaste and anger toward domestic violence and objectification of women, for example. But Hill’s narration gives it to us in a nutshell, and he does it in this book:

Sympathy lies at the heart of horror.

Forehead slap! OF COURSE! Why didn’t I get that before now? Even as we read faster, flip those damn pages, we do it because we care about the protagonist, or at least about someone there in the story. We want the very best for them in the midst of all the horror. Ultimately, so does the writer.

As for this novel itself, the pacing and characterizations were splendid, flawless to my eye. I could have done without the brief part played by the snuff film, but one can skim through these parts and come out in time for the build up, climax, and resolution. There is tremendous originality even as the writer also draws upon tradition. Fascinating.

Hill has an edgy writing style, and he has guts. Long may he write!