The Invited, by Jennifer McMahon

Delicious! This book is straight-up fun. McMahon—a successful author, but new to me—takes an old school ghost story and drops it into a contemporary setting, while providing alternating glimpses of what happened in this same place long ago. My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. You can get this book Tuesday, April 30, 2019, and I don’t know how you can stand the suspense until then.

Helen and Nate are ready for rural life. Using recently inherited funds, they purchase a chunk of land in Vermont, quit their jobs, sell their Connecticut condo, and head for the hinterlands. They will build their own house. They will get chickens and sell eggs on the side. They will grow their own food and be almost self-sufficient. Just smell that fresh air! Oh, aren’t they adorable.

Meanwhile, Olive, who has recently lost her mother and whose father is unraveling, is channeling Wednesday Addams, lurking in trees nearby and wishing these new people gone. “I banish you,” she says quietly. No one hears; well, nobody alive does anyway.

Nate and Helen are hurt and perplexed by the local residents’ reception. Why is everyone so surly? Why are they looking at them side-eyed all the time?  Turns out the locals don’t want them upsetting Hattie’s ghost. Everybody knows that Hattie is in the bog that is part of Helen and Nate’s land. The last owner, an elderly man that fled to Florida and won’t talk about it, apart from advising the new owners to get out of there also, saw some things. Not everyone does, though. Hattie chooses who will see her, hear from her. And Hattie isn’t happy.

At first, Nate and Helen are oblivious. Their belongings disappear, but that turns out to be Olive, whom they will befriend. But the more Helen learns about Hattie—who reveals herself to Helen and Olive both—the more distracted she is by her. Time and money that should be directed toward the house and improvements to the new property are instead spent on deep research, and on carrying out Hattie’s wishes. It becomes an obsession; first she procures a hunk of wood from the tree on which Hattie was hanged, thinking it will be perfect to frame the doorway she and Nate are building. Hey, who wouldn’t want something like that in their new home? Next, she finds old bricks from the mill where Hattie’s daughter died. And Nate can see this is just nuts, and he tries to talk her out of it, but she won’t let him in. She is lying to him now. But Nate has an obsession of his own: he keeps seeing an albino deer that visits him, and then leads him into the swamp.

A man could get lost in there. Nate wouldn’t be the first.  

Olive is on a mission of her own. She wants to find the treasure that Hattie buried somewhere near the bog. She is sure it is there, and it was a project that she and her mother worked on together. She secretly hopes that if she can find the treasure, her mother will come home to her.

The mystery of where Olive’s mama has gone segues in and out of the ghost story, and the plotting is deft and surefooted, never slowing, never inconsistent, and relentlessly absorbing. Helen is obsessed with Hattie; Nate is obsessed with the deer; Olive is obsessed with the treasure and her mama; and I am obsessed with this story.

The typical way for a book like this to end would be with the discovery that some sketchy character has somehow created all of the events that seem otherworldly in order to profit materially or achieve revenge. Although I am impressed with McMahon as we near the climax, part of me is expecting this. But this writer doesn’t use tired plot points or tired characters, and she sure as hell doesn’t end this tale in a way that is trite or expected. I guessed one aspect of the ending, but by the time I saw it coming, we were closing in on it, and I can’t help but believe the author means me to see it just before it’s revealed. And this is a hallmark of an excellent thriller: there aren’t brand new characters or plot points tossed in at the end that make it impossible for the reader to have guessed what’s going on. McMahon is a champ, and her respect for her readership is evident in the way she spins the climax and conclusion.

The book’s last paragraph is masterful.

Highly recommended to those that enjoy a classic, well turned ghost story. As for me, I’ll be watching for this author in the future, and….oh hey. Did you hear something just now?

Best Mystery of 2018



Nora Bonesteel’s Christmas Past, by Sharyn McCrumb*****

norabonesteel I‘m a long-time fan of Sharyn McCrumb. Her ballad novels (and now a novella) are sure fire hits. This one is no exception.

We have parallel stories, and the setting is Christmas, of course. The story lines, one of Christmas present, which features Sheriff Arrowroot being ordered to drag an elderly man to jail on Christmas Eve, appears to have a dead-sure predictable ending, except that it doesn’t. That’s all I’m giving away in this case.

The more flavorful thread is Nora Bonesteel’s. The Bonesteel women have “the sight”. Those who have followed McCrumb’s novels already know that, but a reminder doesn’t hurt. Nora is asked out to solve a haunted manse issue for some new-comers. I found this part vastly amusing.

The setting, for those unfamiliar with McCrumb’s work, is in the Appalachian Mountains. It was one of her novels that taught me how to pronounce the word correctly (all soft “a”s). Her love of place comes through on the page, and as much as I love the Pacific Northwest where I have lived for most of my life, while I read this, a part of me positively yearned for the Smoky Mountains, which I only visited once as a (oh the shame) tourist. It’s a rare kind of engagement. You can say she casts a spell over the reader, if you wish.

Ah. But that leads us to the descriptor I read in Net Galley, the fine folks who connected me with her publisher so that I could read her work in advance. It is described there as a “Christian” novella. I confess it gave me pause. There are Christian novels, and there are Christian novels. Some are so heavy handed that they make terrible literature, from a critical viewpoint: we’re racing along, plot-wise, when someone announces that they should go to the Lord with their problem. A page and a half of long-winded prayer follows. Lather, rinse, repeat. I didn’t want to find myself stuck with a book like that, but a strong writer builds a bond of trust with her readers, and my sense was that McCrumb was unlikely to trash her own work in such a manner. I was correct, and the story is great. The single religious reference is central to the plot and is entirely consistent with the setting. Also, sometimes “Christian” is a sort of code to let the reader know there will be no profanity or sweaty sex scenes, and frankly, I was just as glad to be spared those.

To sum up, McCrumb is a master writer, a mystery champ, and a brilliant novelist whose work with Appalachian setting and tradition stands alone in an otherwise crowded field. Pick up a copy in November. You can enjoy it and then pass it around for family and friends to enjoy. The quirky humor and redolent, traditional setting are sure to please anyone who loves Christmas and a good read.