The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale


I was determined to finish this book before the end of Halloween which I have now done.  This is my bonus book to wrap up the RIP Challenge, which, along with everyone else, I thank Carl for hosting.  I’ve had fun reading all my spooky books and reading what everyone else thought of spooky books they read.  Lots of Shirley Jackson.  Lots of Wilkie Collins.  These are the books I read:

Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger
I’m Looking Through You, Jennifer Finney Boylan
The Seance, John Harwood
Silent in the Grave, Deanna Raybourn

and this one, my bonus one; and I liked Her Fearful Symmetry best.  Obviously.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is about Victorians and detectives and manor house mysteries.  I like all of these things, though murder mysteries tend to be dramatically more fun when they are fictional.  In its essentials, this book is about a three-year-old boy who gets taken from his bedroom and his throat slit – though as the author notes at the end, the search for the resolution to this mystery distances us from the child, rather than making us think about him.

As a person who appreciates detectives and their ability to solve mysteries, I wanted more triumphs for the eponymous Mr. Whicher!  In fact altogether more Mr. Whicher!  I liked it at the beginning when Kate Summerscale – good name, eh? – was telling us all about the clever things that Mr. Whicher did.  I was saddish after the Victorian public decided that they didn’t like Mr. Whicher after all, despite his being extremely clever.

I don’t like the Victorian public.  They’re jerks!  They turned on Oscar Wilde in similar fashion, like rabid wolves!  Despite his being extremely clever also.  I am going onward to read some stories and watch some TV about people who are clever, and people who talk fast.  I talk incredibly fast, and I like it when other people talk fast, and that’s why, despite the obvious flaws of both, I remain fond of The Gilmore Girls and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.  (But not West Wing – can anyone explain to me why The West Wing is in any way enjoyable?  I’ve found it so boring when I’ve seen it in the past!)

Other reviews of Mr. Whicher: an adventure in reading, things mean a lot, Farm Lane Books Blog, Savidge Reads, Stuck in a Book, Caribou’s Mom, my cozy book nook, A Book A Week, As Usual I Need More Bookshelves, Semicolon, The Bookling, Scribbles, Medieval Bookworm, Sandy Nawrot, Literary License, Lesa’s Book Critiques, Thoughts of Joy, Crime Scraps, A Writer’s Pen, 1 More Chapter, and let me know, won’t you, if I missed yours?

The Seance, John Harwood

I read this book mostly in bed over several nights, while the weather outside was obligingly turning into fall.  Although there are things about the cold weather that are miserable (mainly miserable for my hands and feet, which get very poor circulation as my blood is too busy keeping the rest of me warm like a furnace), they are all outweighed by the snuggly loveliness of cuddling down into your bed when it’s cold outside.

(It’s not cold outside yet, by the way – just coolish and lovely – but I am anticipating the necessity of getting out my cache of spare blankets and piling them on top of me at night.  I enjoy doing this, you know, the two nights a year it’s really cold in Louisiana.)


The Séance is a perfect book for the fall, and for the RIP Challenge.  Constance Langton inherits a state home from a distant relation, but the lawyer in charge of giving her the inheritance advises her to sell it straightaway and never go inside it.  As support for this bold claim (which would get me on the next train to see the place), he sends her a packet of papers relating to the house.  They tell the strange history of the house – riddled with tragedy and disappearances, the latest of which is the mysterious disappearance of an entire family from Wraxford Hall.

John Harwood succeeds brilliantly at creating the atmosphere of the spooky Gothic manor house.  The two characters, John Montague and Eleanor Unwin, who tell the history of Wraxford Hall, are initially outsiders to the Hall, looking in on it and wondering about its secrets.  As the story goes in, they (and we) are drawn more deeply into it and its frightening secrets.  It gets claustrophobic eventually, knowing all that you know about its past – you jump when the characters hear a noise.

The frame story, which follows Constance Langton as she tries to work out the secrets of the manor house, works less well.  It’s by far the least interesting thing about the book, but it takes up an unfortunate number of pages. I found Constance dull, and her backstory doesn’t play into the rest of the book, and all the time she was onscreen as it were with her half-hearted underdeveloped love interest subplot, I was going, Where’s Eleanor Unwin?  Why can’t she come back?  Less time with Constance would have meant more time with Eleanor Unwin and John Montague.  That would have been better.

I remember reading The Ghost Writer in England and thinking, Yes, okay, that was good, but think how much better it could have been.  And my response to The Séance is much the same.  They both had me on the edge of my seat while I was reading, but when they were done, the plots did not satisfy me.

Do you have this problem with very atmospheric books?  Too much build-up, and not enough pay-off, so you feel let-down when it’s all over?

On a slightly different note, when you read a ghost story, do you insist upon its being an actual ghost (ghost/poltergeist/other occult event), in the end?  Or do you prefer there to have been a human being orchestrating everything?

I’m Looking Through You, Jennifer Finney Boylan


Heeheehee, this RIP Challenge is jolly good fun.  At this rate I will have read way too many spooky books before Halloween.  I should pace myself, except I can’t because The Girl in a Swing just came in at the library and I went and picked it up today and I really really really want to read it.

Jennifer Finney Boylan‘s I’m Looking Through You is all about how Jenny Boylan (Jenny! hooray! More people should be called Jenny!) grew up as a boy in a spooky old house, haunted by ghosts and writing under the wallpaper.  She writes with love (and some regret) about her family, and particularly about her sister Lydia, whom she hasn’t seen since she came out as a trans woman.  This is sadder than you might expect, and I was expecting it to be pretty sad.

It’s a quiet, gentle book (hm, as far as the RIP Challenge goes, I’ve now said “quiet” about two of two books – weird) that slides past the really dramatic moments in the story.  This is good for me, actually, as it lessens my usual concerns about memoir writers telling every detail of the often very sad and private episodes of their families’ lives.  We don’t see the crucial moments, but we do see the scenes that lead up to the crucial moments; it works surprisingly well, conveying a lot of emotion through these small, everyday scenes.  Without laying bare the darkest moments of the lives of each member of the family.  More than many I’ve read, this is a respectful memoir.

The haunted house is not very scary, but it is certainly atmospheric.

[My father] stripped off another swath of damp [wall]paper, then stood for a moment looking at the exposed bare plaster.  “Hey,” he said.  “What do you make of this?”

There on the plaster, at shoulder level, was a line written in fancy cursive script.

In this room in the year 1923 lived Dorothy Cummin, who was not of sound mind, and drowned.

…Next to the closet we found a face with an open mouth, long hair, and eyes filled with tears.  It looked a little like the translucent woman I had seen in the mirror.

My father got out his pack of L&Ms.  He stood there by the sad, knowing face of the girl on the wall for a while, smoking, and did not say a word.

Ms. Boylan’s own skepticism is palpable, even when she brings in a team of “ghostbusters” to check out the paranormal energy there – this is good because otherwise I’d be all, hm, this is v. hokey.  What’s not hokey at all, and indeed is very genuine, is the author’s description of being haunted by her certainty that she was a girl, and the inner ghosts that obviously still haunt her as an adult.

Plus, it’s a funny and enjoyable and readable book.  Like this:

“You know what the problem with kids today is?” my grandmother said all at once.

“What?” I asked.

“They don’t eat enough dirt!”

My sister and I looked at each other.

“Dirt?” asked Lydia.

“I said dirt,” said Gammie.  “When I was a girl, we ate dirt all the time!  Now nobody does!”

“Why would you eat dirt?” I asked.  “Is it good for you?”

Gammie looked amazed by my stupidity.  “Of course it’s not good for you!” she shouted.  “It’s DIRT!”

“Whoop?  Whoop whoop?” said Hilda Watson.  This sound, a kind of startled interjection, was the sound Hilda made when she suspected that a response was required of her, even if she did not necessarily know what had been asked.

“Can you turn up the heat?” said Aunt Nora.  “It’s freezing in here.”

“Did they eat dirt over there in Yorkshire?” my grandmother shouted.

Hilda, who had begun her life in a tiny village in England, near the border with Lancashire, looked astonished.  “We had pudding on some occasions,” she said, her dignity intact.

“I’M NOT TALKING ABOUT PUDDING,” shouted my grandmother.  The Dodge had a strange device that has since gone completely out of fashion – the stick shift on the steering column – and Gammie kicked us up into overdrive as the car sped through Bryn Mawr.  “I’m talking about dirt!”

“Oh dear,” said Nora.  “I’m so, so, so cold!”

“I know what you’re talking about,” said Hilda to my grandmother.  “I don’t wish to discuss it.”

My grandmother shook her head. “You’re a ton of fun, Hilda.”

“I’m so, so, so cold!”

“There’s no reason to be rude,” Hilda observed.

“You think this is rude?” said Gammie. “You wait.”

Tell me if you reviewed this too!  And thanks to Eva for the recommendation!

Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger


Well, fittingly enough, I read this on the first official day of the RIP IV Challenge.  I got an ARC from the lovely and obliging people at the Regal Literary Agency (thanks, y’all!  I was so, so pleased to have it!) on Monday, and read it all in one go yesterday evening.

In Her Fearful Symmetry, due for proper release at the end of this month, Elspeth Noblin dies and leaves her London flat to her twin nieces, daughters of her own estranged twin Edie.  They can have it on their twenty-first birthday, and must live in it for one year before they can sell it; their parents are not to be allowed in the flat.  Julia and Valentina very sensibly accept this offer (I am mildly hoping that my mother has a rich estranged London twin like this who can conveniently die soon and let me do this exact thing), and take up residence in the flat, which is just outside Highgate Cemetery.  The flat downstairs contains Elspeth’s lover, Robert, who is missing her terribly; the upstairs flat contains Martin, whose crippling OCD has caused his wife to leave; and the twins’ flat contains Elspeth’s possessions.  And her ghost.

For a ghost story, this one isn’t very spooky.  That isn’t a criticism!  It’s just that the aim of a ghost story tends to be to give you spine prickles, but that doesn’t seem to be the goal here.  Remember how Audrey Niffenegger wrote about time travel in a clinical, matter-of-fact sort of way?  Time travel was part of the characters’ lives, and they try to figure out the rules and deal with it as best they can in their everyday lives.  Some people deal with it perfectly sensibly, and other people do not manage quite so well.  The ghosty aspects of Her Fearful Symmetry are handled in a similar fashion – this isn’t what I expected, but I liked it.

I loved the theme of identity, creating yourself as an individual, that runs all through the book.  The central characters are so vivid (apart from Robert – what is Robert all about?  I couldn’t figure him out), and they all struggle to decide who they are apart from the significant people in their lives.  It was completely opposite to The Time Traveler’s Wife, how Henry and Clare create themselves as a couple, but equally intriguing.  I particularly liked the friendship that develops between Julia and Martin, who are both going through the same thing – trying to be healthy and sane as their main life person is tugged away from them.  Martin’s OCD was not quite on, as is often the case when book characters have OCD, but apart from that, Martin was generally a wonderful character.  Maybe my favorite character.

Except, maybe, for the graveyard.  Highgate Cemetery is a character in this novel: the people buried in it and the secrets that it keeps (and Robert knows) are all very much a part of the story.  I love the scenes set in the cemetery, and I wish we could have had a bit more of the cemetery people – maybe that would have helped explain who Robert was.  Highgate feels like a co-conspirator in the – let’s say, in the slightly sketchier events of the novel, and like a haven for the nicer moments.

Her Fearful Symmetry is much more me than The Time Traveler’s Wife – I mean with the ghosts and the graveyard and the sisters – and I thought I might like it better.  Right now I am not sure.  It is a quieter book than Time Traveler’s Wife.   I mean that it doesn’t have that same wrenching emotional pull, and it is more understated about all the things that happen.  They are so different it’s hard to compare.  Which is great!  On with more books by Audrey Niffenegger that will all be individual and different and wonderful!

Hey, and this book mentioned David Tennant!  The twins one time watch that episode of Doctor Who, “The Girl in the Fireplace” (he does have long fingers), with the horse, and the Doctor gets smashed and Rose says, “Oh look at what the cat dragged in – the Oncoming Storm”, and I love that line and I love that episode!  David Tennant, hooray!

I have some very spoilery things to say, but I won’t say them until after the book has been released.  I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun.  I advise you to trot out and buy this book promptly upon its release, because I enjoyed it a lot and will definitely be rereading it and, I expect, enjoying it more and more with successive rereadings.  I love a ghost story.  I loved this one.

Other reviews: Carl’s non-spoiler review & spoiler review, At Home with Books, Sophisticated Dorkiness, Books on the Brain, the book lady’s blog, Devourer of Books, 5 Minutes for Books, The Literate Housewife, S. Krishna’s Books, Yule Time Reading, let me know if you’ve reviewed this and I will add a link!

Yeah, so this is magic

Magic.  I should have done this, like, much sooner.  Except that I didn’t believe (despite ample evidence all through my blogroll to the contrary) that it was possibly possible that you could really truly genuinely say, “Excuse me, may I have a copy of that book, which I desperately desperately want, before it is released?” and then receive an actual copy of the book in the post.  BEFORE IT IS OUT.

And yet:

My ARC (yay!)

Good, eh?  I like this cover best – the American cover is a little too bluey and generic for me (generic but not spare like my copy is), and the British cover is too, I don’t know – I like it better than the American one, but slightly less than mine.  See what you think:

American cover:

Her Fearful Symmetry - American

And the British one (I don’t like people on my book covers!):

Her Fearful Symmetry - British

A review is forthcoming.  I have completely spoiled myself for this book (it’s okay!  I like it that way!), and I am madly excited to see how the bare bones plot that I know about gets – er, I can’t think of a way to continue this metaphor without its being yucky.  What I mean is, I’m excited to see how she manages it with the characters and everything.  Until then, I will just let you know that this book is set in London near Highgate Cemetery, a place that is mainly of interest to me because of this Dorothy Parker gem:

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Buried all of his libretti;
Thought the matter over, then
Went and dug them up again.

That is a true story.  Dorothy Parker did not make this story up.  She did fail to mention the crucial point about this story, which is that Rossetti buried his poems WITH HIS DEAD WIFE in Highgate Cemetery, as a token of how sad he was that she had died.  They were his only copies.  It would have been quite a gesture had he not subsequently been like, Shit.  I wanted those, and obtained permission to exhume her body and get them back.  Oh, Rossetti, you wacky drug-addicted, wombat-obsessed grave-robber.  Apparently (so says Wikipedia), he had put his poems all up in her long red hair, and he had to root around in her hair to extract them again.


Thoughts on the covers?  Other good grave-robbing/cemetery anecdotes?

Okay okay okay okay

I cannot hold out any longer!  I know I was going to do the rereading thing, and not get any new books out of the library, but I cannot maintain in the face of everyone on my blogroll going on and on about the thousands of amazing spooky books they are thinking of reading, and having the pretty picture of the girl, and putting up covers of beautiful books all the time.  I AM ONLY HUMAN.


Eee, I’m excited.  I can totally read four spooky books by the end of October!  (she said optimistically)

Definitely I am going to read Her Fearful Symmetry.  I am extremely excited about Her Fearful Symmetry.  And then here are the others I am considering which I have culled from my own reading list and also from the lists of the rest of the everyone that is playing.

The Girl in a Swing, Richard Adams – I want to read this anyway because yes, it is that Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, the most badass story about rabbits anyone is ever going to write.  Apparently a young psychic porcelain dealer falls in love with a German woman, and at first they’re all with the smoochy love, and then he gradually begins to realize that Something Is Not Right.  I love stories where people realize that Something Is Not Right, and Richard Adams is, as we already know, a legend.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale – When I read the words “true crime” I make a face and back away a few paces.  But this, my friends, is Victorian true crime.  Catnip to Jenny.

The Seance, John Harwood – A ruined mansion in Britain; a packet of papers that might reveal a mystery; seances; candles – need I go on?

Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood – Okay, part of me is just using this challenge as an excuse to read Alias Grace although I said I wasn’t going to read it right now.  But I really really want to read it!  It’s a fictionalization of a true story about an accused murderess in Victorian times.  I mean it’s Victorian times, and I’ve just read one of Margaret Atwood’s tales and am itching to read another.

The Magicians, Lev Grossman – I don’t know if this is dark enough to count.  But it’s essentially about how some kids obsessed with what’s obviously Narnia (only they fictionalize that and call it Fillory) get to go to a magic school and learn magic and important life lessons.  And I think there’s a lot of darkness up in there too.  We shall see.

Let the Right One In, John Ajvide Lindqvist – About the spoooky little vampiiiiiires.  I hear about it everywhere!  I need to read it at last!

The Ask and the Answer, Patrick Ness – I WANT TO READ THIS SO MUCH OMIGOD.

The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins – Just because everyone else is reading it, and it’s been years since I have.  So I think the time is right for a good sound rereading.  And I might read The Moonstone too.   The Moonstone always makes me smile.

The Ghost Orchid, Carol Goodman – A writer goes to an artists’ retreat in a spooky Victorian mansion.  The mansion, it’s spooky and Victorian, and I think there’s some parallel storylines and such madness.  If I haven’t made it clear yet, I am ALL ABOUT spooky Victorian mansions.

The Unseen, Alexandra Sokoloff – Amazon called it a “serviceable thriller” – damned with faint praise if ever anything was, but I am still adding it to my list, because it’s about psychology professors going to check out a haunted house.  The last book I read along these same lines was amazing.

I’m Looking Through You, Jennifer Finney Boylan – a memoir about a transgendered woman growing up in a haunted house.  I think gender studies are fascinating, I love memoirs (sort of!  I have a tortured love-hate relationship with memoirs!), and I love haunted house stories!  It’s a match made in heaven.

Now that I’ve been totally peer-pressured into this, I am rather excited about it.