Haunting Reads: An Inquiry Into Love and Death

inquiry

Autumn is my favorite season. While I miss the long days, I do love the excuse to curl up earlier in the evening with a good book. Summer here has lasted well into September in recent years and winter has started pretty early in November, making for a very short fall. This summer has been quite cool, so once the calendar rolled to September I jumped into seasonal reads with abandon.

Last year around this time, my book club read Simone St. James’ The Haunting of Maddy Clare. While I really liked the suspenseful ghost story featured, the main characters were really flat and not very appealing. Despite a lackluster first read, I decided to give St. James’ ghost stories another try with An Inquiry Into Love and Death. This time I was not disappointed.

Jillian Leigh is an usual woman for the 1920s- a dedicated female student at Oxford. One day she is called out of class and informed her estranged Uncle Toby, a professional ghost hunter, has died unexpectedly. Jillian is more put out than grief stricken when the solicitor explains she needs to go identify his body and collect his belongings from the small, coastal town of Rothewell.

Upon arrival, Jillian begins to suspect her uncle’s death might not have been an accidental fall and makes inquiries into what he was working on before he died. She is not the only one. Scotland Yard Inspector Drew Merriken is also in town with suspicions of his own about Toby’s death. Soon after her arrival, Jillian has reason to believe Walking John, the ghost her uncle was hunting, might be more than the imaginings of an eccentric man. Inspector Merriken most certainly thinks whatever is not right in Rothewell has a logical explanation. They both are about to be tested.

Lovecraft she is not, but St. James knows how to set a creepy scene and build suspense. More than a few times I stopped what I was doing and sat on edge waiting to find out what would happen next. The romance between Jillian and Drew had just the right amount of chemistry. It is part of the plot, but does not detract in any way from the eerie feeling of the tale. An Inquiry Into Love and Death is very much in the vein of dimestore novels, suspense movies, and radio programs (especially thanks to Rosalyn Landor’s narration) of the ’20s and ’30s- a ghost, buried secrets, and a budding romance. Pick this up for a fun, spooky read.

The Devil in the Details: Libba Bray’s The Diviners

the diviners

Though I am a fan of the YA genre, I have to admit I still underestimate it at times. The Diviners is the perfect case in point. With a busy week ahead of me not long ago I decided to put down a book I had been savoring to read something lighter that did not require as much attention… or so I thought. I picked up my copy of The Diviners from my “to-read” stack as a diversion, despite its length. Well, the joke was on me because I stayed up until the wee hours on a Sunday until I forced myself to put it down and go to bed. Repeat on Monday night. Tuesday night I put it down early- because I had finished it.

Evie O’Neill is forced to leave her hometown in Ohio after another unsettling incident with her powers, which allow her to read people just by touching an object. She is sent to live with her Uncle Will in the roaring New York City of the 1920s. Uncle Will is the curator of The Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult and is far more interested in research than the goings on of a teenage girl. His assistant, Jericho, is not so distracted and definitely keeps an eye on Evie. So too does Sam, a young thief who seems to have a preternatural ability to move around places unseen.

Reunited with her old pen pal from a former visit, seventeen year old Evie seeks out all the marvels of the big city she has heard so much about- from speakeasies to Vaudeville shows. Along the way she meets Theta, a showgirl, and her piano player brother, Henry. The unadulterated fun does not last long before Uncle Will cracks down on her wild behavior. At the same time, the police come to Uncle Will for help with a bizarre murder that turns out to be the first of many. With the use of her powers, Evie quickly discovers her uncle and the police are not after any ordinary madman. Naughty John is an evil she has never encountered.

At the same time Uptown, Memphis Campbell is a young man running numbers in Harlem. His position gives him some status in his neighborhood, but his past as a healer (used as a faith healer) still haunts him. Now his brother is showing signs of a gift as well and Memphis tries hard to protect him. Surrounded by influences like Langston Hughes, all he really wants is to focus on his poetry and writing. Still, something more pressing threatens him and his family. Unbeknownst to him, the evil Naughty John stalking the streets of Manhattan has his origins close to home.

Evie’s and Memphis’ stories eventually intersect. As they do the threads connecting Diviners (though they are not referred to collectively like that in the book) are woven more tightly. To say more would be to give away the end, but it does bode well for more cohesive sequels.

Personally, I loved the rich historical detail in this book. Chances are no one reading this was alive in the 1920s and Bray did a great job bringing New York of that decade to life. She did not just give a great sense of what Broadway must have looked like or talk about a Follies show, she also went into the day to day moments. So much of life today is driven by technology, having the operator used to make a call in the story or discussing how movie theaters were cooled before air conditioning units were widely available was very interesting to me.

The malevolence of Naughty John and the eerie feel of his character and actions throughout the book also drew me in. In contrast to the vibrancy of Evie’s Manhattan and Memphis’ Harlem, Naughty John is a darkness that clouds their youthful exuberance. It is drawn tension that crosses into the other narratives as well and builds at a great pace. I am as pragmatic as they come, but there were a couple times when regular household noises in the middle of the night prompted me to get up and look around just to be sure because the story had me on edge.

At almost 600 pages, Bray gets in a lot and it can sometimes feel drawn out. This is meant to be the first in a trilogy from what I understand, but it feels as though Bray is trying to cram a lot into the first volume. The changes in perspective are great at some moments while very frustrating at others. They are not short shifts in perspective, but long chapters between characters. There was also one twist at the very end with a character I thought might be coming, but was still disappointed when it did. I hope Bray has a good use for it in the rest of the series.

I felt Memphis’ character and the backdrop of the gangsters and Harlem Renaissance would have made a great stand alone sequel to really get into the scene. Maybe Bray was eager to make the characters connect in this book. With more issues being raised about the whitewashing of YA books, maybe it never even occurred to her editors to suggest a book about a young man in Harlem could be a standalone. That is all just conjecture though. It stands as it is and the character is one I do look forward to reading about in future novels. I hope she continues to give Harlem the same (or more) attention throughout the series.

All said, with a vivid historical setting and seriously spooky (sometimes downright scary) tones, this was an enjoyable read. If you enjoy historical fiction, light horror, and/or supernatural mysteries, pick this one up to lose yourself for a few hours in 1920s Manhattan.

Guide to a New Era: The Chaperone and the Jazz Age

While working at my local indie bookstore, I picked up the ARC (Advanced Reader’s Copy)for The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty several times before I finally decided to take it home. ‘Downton Fever’, as I call the sudden interest in WWI and the early 1920s, has made me leery of new books about the period. Don’t get me wrong, I love Downton Abbey and several books from and set in that era, but I am always suspicious of media fads.

I decided to take it with me to New York to read if I could not sleep on my flights. As it turned out, I tore through the first 45 pages before they announced boarding for my first flight. Moriarty is a top-notch storyteller and kept me reading through both flights and my layover. Instead of taking a nap in my down time once I arrived, I was compelled to finish The Chaperone.

Cora Carlisle is, for all appearances, an average housewife in Wichita, KS. As the story opens, Cora hears through local gossip Mrs. Brooks needs a chaperone to accompany her daughter, Louise, to New York City while she attends a summer dance school. The word on the street is Louise will be nothing short of a nightmare to the unlucky soul who accompanies her. Despite this warning, Cora contacts the Brooks family and is hired on the spot.

In 1922, most women would have been forced to use great persuasion to convince their husbands to allow such a trip. Cora has something on her husband which allows her to essentially tell him she is going. The secret is not immediately divulged, but if you are like me you will figure it out before it is revealed.

From the moment the train pulls away from the station, Louise proves to be as unmanageable as predicted. Interlaced with her misadventures on the train, pieces of Cora’s personal history are slowly revealed, allowing the reader a glimpse behind her perfect facade.

On arrival in New York both women (though 15, Louise can hardly be described as anything else) doggedly pursue their goals- Louise to make the touring dance troupe, Cora to investigate her past. Along the way, Cora finds her blind adherence to societal norms challenged by what she discovers in New York, especially from her ward. The government crack down on bootleggers suddenly has a very human face. Concern over immodest hemlines pales in comparison to revelations of a far more lasciviousness threat in her own backyard. Black and white morals become far more gray.

By the end of the trip, both are successful in their pursuits and change their lives in unforeseen ways.

Wisely, Moriarty does not end the book there. With a new outlook on life, Cora returns to Wichita, but with bold plans for her future. Through brief glimpses and allusions, rather than lengthy narrative, a complete life takes form. Moriarty does not deprive the reader though. The choice moments tell more of who Cora becomes then a drawn out story could.

There are no edge of your seat dramatic moments in The Chaperone. That is not to say there are not revelations, joy, and tragedy, but Moriarty allows them to play out naturally. It was this pace which caused me pause at the end, trying to decide if I really liked the book or was just entertained by it. Upon reflection, I have to say, I really enjoyed it. The Chaperone is a good example of historical fiction done right, compelling female narrative, and just great writing.