Kate Racculia

In 2015, I picked up Bellweather Rhapsody, by Kate Racculia, to check it out for my high school book club. It had just won an Alex Award, which is given to 10 books each year that are written for adults but that have appeal for teens. My high school club had become sophisticated readers, and that year we were going almost exclusively for Alex Award books, since 18 out of our 23 members were seniors and the rest were juniors.

BRI never persuaded the club to choose the book; it always got high votes, but never made it to the final pick, and I always regretted that.

Recently, I was reminded of how much I liked it when I saw on the “What Should I Read Next?” Facebook page that Racculia had published a new book, Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts, in 2019. I put it on reserve for my Kindle at the library and awaited its arrival.

While I waited, I went back to Goodreads to review what I had thought of that first book. A brief description: Every year the Bellweather Hotel in upstate New York hosts a high school musical competition called “Statewide,” where music and performance students gather to display their skills. In 1997, twin high school seniors Alice and Bertram “Rabbit” Hatmaker have both qualified to attend. Rabbit plays bassoon in the orchestra, while his sister, an aspiring actress and singer, is in the chorus. Meanwhile (unrelated to the competition), Minnie Graves, who was a child attending a wedding in 1982 when she discovered the groom shot dead and the bride hanging from the light fixture in room 712, has returned for the weekend with her support dog, Augie, to attempt to face down her demons.

Alice is paired as a roommate (in that same room, of course!) with flute prodigy Jill, who also happens to be the daughter of the hated and feared Viola Fabian, sarcastic head of Statewide. Alice discovers Jill’s hanging body in their room on the first evening, but while she runs to get help, the body disappears. Viola dismisses it as an attention-seeking prank, but…if so, where is Jill? All in attendance will have plenty of time to find out, as the Bellweather is enveloped by the biggest snowstorm of the season, and no one is able to leave.

This book started out feeling like a cliché, if an enjoyable one:
The set-up was like a combination of The Shining (Stephen King) and Christie’s And Then There Were None
, and I had resigned myself to enjoying it for those familiarities, with perhaps a few modern twists. But there’s a whole lot more going on in this book than just a murder mystery. It’s a coming of age story, for both children and adults, compressed into a wild weekend in which the adults must re-examine what they’ve been told, what they’ve experienced, and what they remember longing for, and the children go through profound changes due to the catalysts provided by this weird music festival in a moldering old resort, while everyone (well, almost everyone—it is a murder mystery, after all!) comes out the other side changed. Parts are hilarious, parts are incredibly touching, and I loved the resolution for all the characters, who were sharp and quirky, and all of them unique.

TMTTG

Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts has a lot of the same things going for it. Racculia’s real gift is for creating memorable characters and making you care what happens to them, and in this book it’s Tuesday, Dex, and Dorry (and well, maybe Archie).

Tuesday Mooney has an unconventional job: She is what’s called a prospect researcher, which means she profiles wealthy people (for a Boston hospital) to see who best for the office fundraisers to hit up for donations. She has the skills of a private detective, but goes beyond those to assess property, analyze gossip, and also rely on her finely honed instincts to find information and connections. She is uniquely suited to this work, being a loner who prefers to be on the outside, noticing what the insiders will miss. She is a guarded person, whose best friend of 10 years has never even been to her apartment. Her austere reserve rises from a genuine and justified fear of having her heart broken.

She is among a dozen employees who have volunteered to work at the hospital’s “Auction for Hope,” to staff the sign-in tables, keep track of auction bids, and make herself generally useful. Tuesday always volunteers, because after learning absolutely everything she can about her subjects, these events are her only opportunity to interact with them in person. But she’s no fan-girl: She simply wants to weigh her assessment of their facts and figures against the reality of a first impression.

At this particular event, Tuesday manages to finagle a place on the guest list for her best friend, Dex Howard, a gay financier who longed to be in musical theater but settled for a large paycheck. Dex looks around for someone interesting to sit with, and meets eccentric billionaire Vincent Pryce, a collector of Edgar Allan Poe memorabilia, and his much younger wife, Lila. In the course of the evening, Pryce is outbid, stands up dramatically as if to challenge the person doing the bidding, and drops dead of a stroke. The Boston Herald headline the next day read PRYCE BIDS FAREWELL.

But his death is not the big news: Pryce has created an epic treasure hunt throughout Boston—clues inspired by Edgar Allan Poe—whose winner will inherit a share of Pryce’s wealth. Tuesday’s curiosity combined with her skills lead her and her oddball crew—Dex, her teenage neighbor Dorry, and the handsome heir to the Arches fortune she met at the benefit—into a complicated game that will make them face past tragedies, present shortcomings, and future hopes.

As I initially underestimated Bellweather Rhapsody, so did I have lesser expectations for this book. First of all, both the title and the cover art strongly suggested a middle-school novel, especially since many reviewers were comparing it to that old chestnut The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin. Although it was reminiscent, in some ways, of that book, the one it reminded me of more was The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict, the prequel to the Benedict Society series by Trenton Lee Stewart. I immediately thought of Tuesday as a more mature version of Nicholas—clever, introverted, and innovative. Her selection of her friends was likewise unexpected but key.

Steampunk_Goggles_11_1_by_AmbassadorMann

The supernatural element doesn’t actually merit the implications of the name of the book: Tuesday talks to only one ghost, that of her dead teenage friend Abby, and it’s a toss-up whether this is a real spirit contact or just a trauma reaction to her loss. (Her young friend Dorry longs to talk to ghosts, notably that of her deceased mother, and covets Pryce’s possession of Edgar Allan Poe’s goggles, said to allow one to see them.) But the plot is engaging, not just because of the mystery or the potential for ghosts but also as a result of what pursuing the treasure hunt reveals in each of the four main characters. The book shows what it’s like to be haunted, not by a spirit but by longings to express the person you have squashed down inside of you in the interests of practicality. It deals with the ethics, pleasures, and responsibilities of money, and what it’s like to have it/not have it. It enters in depth into the theme of friendship.  It’s a great mix of mystery, introspection, campy humor, and cultural references that shouldn’t work but does. I couldn’t put it down.

I see from Goodreads that Racculia wrote another book, her debut, back before Bellweather. It’s on my list.

Appeals: Eccentric, captivating, substantial characters; evocative world-building with some attention to detail (in both cases); a nice genre mix of mystery, ghosts, and human drama; and an engaging writing style.

 

Ninth House

I have been anticipating reading Ninth House, by Leigh Bardugo, for several reasons: Although I didn’t care for her Grisha series because it was so full of angsty teenage indecision, I absolutely loved the duology Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, particularly the latter. I felt like Bardugo had stepped up her style and discernment by a lot in the second series, and also, I can’t resist a “gang of thieves” story.

ninthhouseI’m really not sure why Ninth House has been identified as an adult, rather than a teen, book. Admittedly, it’s far too gory and explicit for younger teens, but I could definitely see some of my former book club members from the 10th-12th grade club enjoying this. After all, the philosophy in writing for children or teens is that they always want to read “up,” which is to say, they want to read about a protagonist who is a year or two older than they are. As a freshman at Yale, the Ninth House protagonist, Alex Stern, is just the right age to appeal to seniors in high school. I imagine many parents of said older teens would still quibble with me, because they feel their children should be protected from such graphic fare; and there is a part of me that thinks everyone should be protected from it! But as you learn from reading a lot of books, sometimes you need that stuff to make a point, to expose a wrong-doing, to create empathy in your reader. (Plus, of course, for dramatic effect in your adventure story.) There were certainly plenty of opportunities for that here!

Within the first few pages of this book, I seriously considered putting it down without finishing it. There is a scene early on in which a group of students from one of the magical “houses” at Yale performs a “prognostication” by reading the innards of a man who is still alive (although sedated), with his stomach cut open and pinned back; when they’re done, they stitch him up and send him off to hospital without another thought for his well-being. Also present at the ritual were a group of “Grays,” ghosts who gave off a really frightening vibe. The entire scene turned my stomach, and since I hadn’t as yet invested much into either the story, the scene, or the protagonist (and didn’t really want to encounter more of this), I thought about stopping. But surely all my friends—both personal and Goodreads-type—who were bowled over by this book couldn’t be wrong? So I kept reading.

Ultimately, I was glad I did. Although it took a long time to understand what was happening and also to bond with the main character, I eventually came to appreciate both the bizarre behind-the scenes action and the dogged, flawed, yet honorable Alex, who didn’t give up no matter what.

“Could she grasp the ugly truth of it all?
That magic wasn’t something
gilded and benign, just another
commodity that only
some people could afford?”

Some things I liked about the book:

It gives this Ivy League school an ulterior motive for existing that is both completely creepy and also believable. The concept of a university elite is nothing new, but the idea that they became that way by the practice of necromancy, portal magic, splanchomancy (the reading of entrails), therianthropy (basically, shape-shifting), glamours, and the like is certainly novel!

The funniest part of this is at the end of the book, in an appendix, where the author describes the eight occult houses, reveals in what talent or magic each is invested, and then names graduates (from the real world) who have benefited by being members of the houses during their careers at Yale.

This is not just an amusing commentary, however, on how these students one-upped their futures by participating in magical solutions on the sly. As highlighted in the quote above, Alex comes to realize that magic, while theoretically accessible to whoever was trained or born to practice it, was in reality a tool of the rich and privileged that was sought after at the expense of the poor and defenseless. This is a huge theme of the book, and this is why the reader is able to bear with all the dark scenes, because they are so illustrative of our own contemporary world where billionaires are tripling their wealth during the pandemic while so-called “essential” workers are flogged back to their minimum-wage jobs, despite the danger, by the threat of unemployment. I don’t know if she intended it, but Bardugo here reveals the true “deep state” of influence,
bought and traded favors, and a deep disregard for anyone who gets
in the way.

Up against this mostly impenetrable and nearly unbeatable system of advancement is Galaxy “Alex” Stern, an underdog heroine if there ever was one. She is recruited (and given a full ride to Yale) to be a member of a secret society, Lethe, whose officers are trained to monitor the other eight houses for stepping over the line, and to report and penalize them when they do. Alex wants to use her special abilities for good, but quickly realizes that her job is mostly for show, and that there will be few consequences for any of these offenders, because to bring their activities out into the light would mean embarrassment for alumni, for administrators, and for Yale itself as an institution. What the people who recruited her don’t realize, however, is that first, Alex has abilities about which they (and at first she) are unaware, and that second, Alex has been conditioned by life as an almost constant victim to fight for herself and for other victims no matter how hard the going.

At its heart, Ninth House is a giant (and cleverly structured) mystery. There is a contemporary murder, there are disappearances of vital personnel, there is a string of dead girls from the past that may tie in, and Alex, despite discouragement from both her mentors and her opponents, is determined to solve it in order to bring justice for the have-nots that she sees as her equals.

But the book is not single-minded. There are also themes of friendship and (nonromantic) love, and a lot of social commentary. There is the gradual evolution, also, of the book’s characters as they confront issues and reflect upon their responses. One early-on thought from Alex that I loved was when she was pondering how easily things change from “normal” to not:

“You started sleeping until noon, skipped one class, one day of school, lost one job, then another, forgot the way that normal people did things. You lost the language of ordinary life.”

There were also, in amongst some fairly gruesome scenes that (if you are squeamish, you should be aware) include drug abuse, coercion, murder, rape, and the like, some inside jokes about college that I enjoyed, including some funny dormitory moments among roommates. One library-oriented joke, as noted by my Goodreads friend Lucky Little Cat, was, “I especially liked the special-collections library where occult search requests result in the delivery of either an avalanche of barely relevant books or one lonely pamphlet.’ Anybody who has been to college has encountered this result, with absolutely no occult assistance whatsoever!

Be aware that some readers have accused Bardugo of racism (because of a few comments on Alex’s Mexican origins), and of blatant sexism and misogyny in her portrayal of the rape scenes in the book (because they are pictured from the observer’s point of view rather than that of the victim’s). You will have to decide for yourself how you feel about these accusations.

Bottom line, apart from a rather confusing and disjointed few pages at the beginning, I found this to be a clever, nuanced read about white privilege (as symbolized by magic!) and the lengths to which people will go to cling to it. It also has both a protagonist and a secondary character that, while the book has a satisfactory ending, you are longing to follow into the sequel, which will hopefully be produced quickly.

 

Spooky YA

When placing a recent book order, I decided to catch up with some YA books that have been out for a few years, some so I could move further into the series, others just because I felt they were books I should have read in order to maintain “street cred” as an expert in young adult literature for my class at UCLA. One such book was City of Ghosts, by V. E. (Victoria) Schwab.

I was initially taken aback as I began to read, because all of Victoria’s other YA books are targeted more towards high school students, and
I had expected the same here. City of Ghosts is definitely a middle school offering—in fact, if a kid is a precocious reader, I think this could reach down into the upper levels of grade school—5th grade
for sure. But once I realized what I was reading, I settled in to enjoy this story.

CityofGhostsCassidy Blake died by falling into a river. She was saved from permanent death, however, by a ghost named Jacob, who snapped her out of it and in the process became somehow attached to her. Now he is her faithful invisible sidekick in her world, and because of her NDE (near-death experience), she is a regular guest in his world, which she has nicknamed “the Veil,” because when she enters the world of ghosts, it’s like pulling back a curtain and stepping through a window.

Cassie’s parents are ghost-hunters, of a sort. Nothing so crass as the people on TV who stumble around in dark houses trying to film ghosts as proof they exist—her father is an historian, while her mother enjoys the story aspect and is enthralled by old folk tales of ghosts and specters. Now, however, the two have been invited to host a TV show about the world’s most haunted places. The first filming site is the ancient city of Edinburgh, Scotland, which teems with restless phantoms. Cassie has no idea what she will confront in a city so steeped in haunted history.

The descriptive language, particularly Cassidy’s sensations inside and outside of “the Veil,” lent a lot to the power of the story. I had a bit of a hard time believing that while her parents were “inspecters,” they didn’t believe in Cassidy’s sidekick, or see that there was something going on with her. I know her dad was fixated on the historical and didn’t endorse the supernatural aspect, but it seems like her mother, so involved with the legends, could have been a little more receptive—or perceptive. Maybe that changes in the next books in the series?

The introduction of the ghost hunter Lara and the mysterious Findley added a lot to the story, as did Cassie’s encounters with both personal and historical aspects of “ghosthood.” The “villain” was a convincing choice as an avatar from several cultures, and yielded a satisfyingly scary climax to the story.

Some of the material here is familiar from other writers and other series, particularly the concept of the near-death experience providing a heightened sensitivity to ghosts, and the idea of people sending ghosts trapped in the “in-between” to their final rest by releasing them from their rote repetition of a particular moment in their life/death. The first concept is dealt with in greater depth in Maureen Johnson’s three high school paranormal mysteries, Shades of London, in which a girl first discovers her own ability to see ghosts, and then finds out that there is a coterie of secret ghost-fighting police, called the Shades, who want her to join up with them. The second is covered in the delightful five-book Lockwood & Co. series by Jonathan Stroud, set in an alternate universe where “the Problem” (ghosts everywhere) is out of control, and only children are able to see and fight them. Schwab’s account is by no means derivative—I only mention these other series because they could be a natural progression as the younger middle schoolers who enjoy City of Ghosts want older fare.

Since Schwab has written three series for older teens (The Archived, Monsters of Verity, and The Near Witch), you might think I would refer young people to those; but honestly, I didn’t enjoy any of them beyond a point. This is odd, because her adult books (the Shades of Magic series, and the Vicious books) are among my all-time favorites—to the point that I have re-read all of them several times. My experience with teenagers from my librarian days is that they feel likewise—they are tepid about her YA books, but madly enthusiastic about the ones she has written with adults in mind. And especially with the Shades of Magic books, she has provided for the attraction of that audience by creating two protagonists young enough to appeal to teens while complex enough to attract adults.

I find it so odd when one writer writes for two audiences with such different results, but I have encountered it numerous times. I love the adult mysteries of Elizabeth George, but practically panned her young adult paranormal series. It’s also interesting when someone writes under two names, and you read both of them as separate authors, come to completely different judgments about their work, and then discover that they are the same person, as happened to me with mystery writer Barbara Vine, who is also Ruth Rendell. While I like Rendell’s books, I find them a little dry, a little cold, and sometimes frankly off-putting, whereas Vine’s books are much more to my taste—softer, more intimate, less clinical.

If you are a young adult, you should certainly not take my word for it that Victoria Schwab’s YA books won’t be to your liking. There are so many YA books that I have loved while teens said “take it or leave it,” and so many others that I couldn’t stand but about which teens gush over how good they are. But I can tell you that my recommendations of her adult books have met with universal approval, and I look forward to the new one arriving this year in October—The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. That is one book for which I will put in an advance order.

There is currently another Cassidy Blake book to be read (Tunnel of Bones), shiveringly set this time in the catacombs of Paris, and a third book in the series is due out in 2021.

 

Books for Hallowe’en

I went looking for scary reads to feature here, but although I found some things I liked, I struck out when it came to true horror. My selections turned out to be more suitable for the original pagan festival of Samhain, which marks the end of the growing season and honors the dead.

First, because I was in the mood to read something I already knew I liked, I did a re-read of Charlaine Harris’s four-book series about Harper Connelly. Harper has a strange gift, bestowed upon her when she was struck by lightning and lived: She can find dead people, and she can tell you how they died. Traveling with her step-brother Tolliver as her manager, she roves around the country giving the living (and the dead) closure, and getting paid for it. The problem is, although she can see the circumstances surrounding their death, the murderer, if such there be, is never included in the vision.

I don’t know what it is about this series that sets it apart for me, but I enjoy it more than any of Harris’s other series (which I also like). The combination of what Harper Connelly does and how she does it, combined with the poignant story of her hard life and the partnership with her “brother,” Tolliver, just pulls me in.

gravesight          gravesurprise

I hesitated on where to “store” this series on my “shelves” on Goodreads, however, because despite the fact that it contains paranormal activity and is occasionally pretty spooky, the books read more like mystery stories than anything else; once Harper discovers the cause of death, the next natural step is for the relatives and friends of the deceased (and the police) to want to know how, why, and who, if murder is the answer. So I put the series under paranormal AND mystery, and then decided against horror, even though there is some creep factor. Definitely worth a read, however. The four books are Grave Sight, Grave Surprise, An Ice Cold Grave, and Grave Secret.

icecold          gravesecret

The next thing I picked up to connect with Hallowe’en was John Searles’s book, Help for the Haunted. The premise for this one sounded intriguing, and at first I thought it would be a good, spooky tale. The set-up of a couple who “helps” haunted souls was interesting, particularly because the author doesn’t go into much initial detail about exactly how they help, so I was left wanting more. The back-and-forth of the story from before to after the couple’s death, all told from the viewpoint of their youngest daughter, Sylvie, was puzzling, and the device of an unreliable narrator (because she was young and naive) and an unreliable secondary character (Sylvie’s volatile sister Rose, whose actions and viewpoints couldn’t be trusted) kept things suspended in “what if?” for quite a while.

helphauntWhen I first started reading it,
I got a feeling not unlike reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson. Not to say that this anywhere equals the brilliance of that book, but just that you find yourself inside this family with people who seem normal but aren’t, and people who seem crazy but aren’t, and you keep reading because you want to find out what’s true.

Ultimately, this author left important revelations for way too long, spinning out the story with a few seemingly supernatural events here and there to string the reader along, but ultimately I became bored with all the back-and-forth that led nowhere. Once Sylvie determined that she would figure out who killed her parents, no matter what, and sought out such pivotal characters as her uncle, the man who wrote a not-entirely-flattering biography of her parents, and the man she initially suspected of their murder, things finally began to pick up again…only to mean virtually nothing in the face of a completely implausible, albeit surprising, ending.

This book could have been so much more—the characters of Sylvie and Abigail were particularly intriguing, and there were so many ways the author could have chosen to taken it…but he didn’t. I can’t say I liked it, but I can’t condemn it as wholly bad either. A good effort that ultimately disappointed. And I couldn’t even shelve it in “horror.” More gothic and paranormal than anything, with a small modicum of suspense.

B&BMy final choice was Diane Setterfield’s book, Bellman & Black. This book has been on my “to read” list for awhile; I had previously read and greatly enjoyed The Thirteenth Tale by this author, and knew that even if this wasn’t the ultimate in horror, it would at least be intelligent, well written and well plotted. The jacket copy telling us “rooks never forget” sounded ominously Edgar Allan Poe-ish…

I am loving this book…but you couldn’t account it as horror by any stretch (at least not so far), although parts are foreboding, haunting, and mysterious. It has the same old-fashioned fairy-tale-retelling feel as a strange and fanciful book by Tom McNeal called Far, Far Away that I read a few years back with my high school book club.

Because I took so many days to read Help for the Haunted, I wasn’t able to finish Bellman & Black in time to review it for today’s post, so that will wait for a day or two—I still have about half the book to go.
But I feel pretty confident that Setterfield will not disappoint, and that it’s sufficiently ghost-filled to make for satisfying reading on All Hallows Eve.

In the spirit of the holiday and the theme of Bellman & Black, here are a pair of rooks, styled after Odin’s corvids Huginn and Muninn. Happy Hallowe’en, and Blessed Samhain to you!

Rooks

Fresh look: old book

Another entry for this occasional feature, looking back to favorite reads…

Louise Marley has written historical fiction, speculative fiction, and science fiction. I have two favorites:

glassharmThe Glass Harmonica has two protagonists in two different time periods, both of whom play the instrument (based on glass cups) invented by Benjamin Franklin (one in 1761 right after Franklin invented it, and one who is a classical musician in 2018), and it is a lovely combination of historical fiction and ghost story.

 

irustanThe Terrorists of Irustan is set in the future on another planet, giving it a science fiction classification, but the society on Irustan mirrors the claustrophobic restrictions imposed on women in conservative religious middle eastern countries today. The main character, Zahra, is a medicant and a subversive, hiding feminist heroism behind her silk veil, and her co-conspirator, Jing-Li, is perpetuating a fraud that could mean death were it discovered. The story is gripping, real, and relevant, a Handmaid’s Tale sort of dystopia.