Book review: Burntown

Burntown has been on my TBR (To Be Read) list since I heard about it. Already a big fan of The Winter People and The Night Sister, I knew Burntown would be worth the wait. I wasn’t wrong.

There is something that happens in a Jennifer McMahon book that I’ve yet to see replicated as well in others. She manages to marry mystery/thriller with the slightest paranormal in a way that seems totally natural. I’m not a fan of paranormal as a genre, but when it comes to McMahon, I’m all in.

Burntown begins with a scene from the past – a young boy watches while his mother is murdered. 

Then we jump forward. All grown up, Miles Sandeski has a family of his own. He makes things, builds things with his hands, including a machine based on Edison’s design to reach beyond the veil between life and death. Somehow, the machine works and he can hear his mother’s voice, which tells him her murderer – a man named Snake Eyes – is not gone. In fact, he’s watching Miles, waiting for another opportunity. The family is not safe, and then a flood sweeps in, washing away the Sandeski’s home. Miles and son Errol are gone. Miles’s wife survives for a short time, but then, it’s only their daughter, Eva. 

In an attempt to live some version of a cursed life in Burntown, the underbelly of Ashford, Vermont, Eva changes her name to Necco and lives in a car with her boyfriend. The murderer is now after her. The cycle continues. 

Though the main character is Necco, we also hear from two other women – Theo and Pru, who each have their own journey that intertwines with Necco’s. When these three finally team up, the pacing of the story quickens towards a resolution.

The Winter People continues to be my favorite of McMahon’s so far, but Burntown is special in a way that leaves me – if I’m being honest – a little jealous. McMahon is darn good. She knows how to craft a creepy story that’s totally bizarre and equally believable. Once the ball was rolling, I was locked in. We knew Snake Eyes was going to resurface. We knew the Edison machine was going to be important. We knew that Necco was going to succeed. BUT HOW? How does it all come together? 

You have to read Burntown to find out. 

Book review: Frankenstein

One of the perks of developing my own English class for our co-op is selecting works I love and think are important for young people to read. Out of 15 students, more than half dreaded reading Frankenstein. A few were neutral, which left a few who were actually eager to dive in and see what this novel was all about. I’m happy to report that I welcomed a group of converts into the Pro-Frankenstein Club. (Not everyone loved it, but many did!)

For the sole purpose of encouraging non-students to read Frankenstein, I decided to offer a short book review here. 

Often labeled the first work of Science Fiction, Frankenstein is a frame story that begins with letters from a ship captain, Robert Walton, to his sister, Margaret. Walton is terrifically lonely on his expedition to the Arctic and has no one (his equal) to share in the adventure. Just when he thinks he’ll be alone forever, a downtrodden man near death is found floating on an iceberg. Pulled aboard, Walton learns the man’s name: Victor Frankenstein. Once he’s strong enough, Victor tells Walton his tale.

Enter Frame Story Level I: Victor grew up in a perfect family, loving and generous. He had an interest in science, and though it wasn’t necessarily shepherded well by his parents, it wasn’t squashed either. During his teen years, he explored different areas of science, incorporated philosophy, and began to question what he may be capable of. One night, when he was 15 years old, he watched a storm brewing and saw lightning strike a tree and enflame it. This gave him a curious idea involving electricity.

Years later, his curious idea morphed into the desire to create a new species. Thus became the monster, but upon seeing what he’d created, Victor abandoned the creature and ran away in fear. Chaos ensues.

It’s important to know that readers experience a few more layers of storytelling, hearing more than just Victor’s side. Though the language isn’t modern, and it can be exhaustive at times, the themes and ideas explored in Frankenstein are well-worth the wrestling. Whether or not Mary Shelley knew of her own genius, I’m not sure, but she presents several important questions to readers that still apply today:
1) When does life begin?
2) What is our responsibility toward life?
3) What are the dangers of blind ambition?
4) How far should we go scientifically when lives are at stake?

If reading Frankenstein is too daunting, I highly encourage you to listen to Audible’s version narrated by Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey, the Beast from Beauty and Beast). You will not be disappointed. 

Book review: Magpie Murders

My experience with The Word is Murder was so delightful that I immediately investigated other Anthony Horowitz novels and selected a New York Times bestseller, Magpie Murders, to read next. As I hoped, it too was outstanding and I may have a new favorite author.

Magpie Murders is a double puzzle set up like a frame story (a story within a story). In the beginning, we hear from Susan Ryeland, a book editor who’s just been given novelist Alan Conway’s latest thriller. She has been editing Conway’s books for years, and though she doesn’t care for him much as a person, she enjoys editing his work because he is the best whodunit mystery writer of the time. He has mastered the cozy murder mystery in small English villages, an equation that people continue to love (myself included). His fictional detective, Atticus Pünd, is beloved by readers everywhere. So, Susan introduces readers to Conway’s latest novel with a slight warning, and we dive into Conway’s work. In other words, we step into the frame story. 

There’s been a double murder at Pye Hall – first the housekeeper, then the master of the house. Atticus Pünd must untie all the strings to determine who is guilty. Conway’s novel follows a classic Agatha Christie model – a collection of interconnected characters, each with a sliver of a motive. The entire first half of the book is Conway’s novel.

However, just as Pünd has solved the mystery, the book ends unfinished. The last chapter is missing, and that’s when we snap back to Susan, the editor, who’s just been told that Alan Conway, the writer, is dead.

Thus begins the second murder to solve. Not only is Susan frazzled by not knowing who killed the fictional housekeeper and master of the house at Pye Hall, now she has to figure out what to do regarding her client’s untimely death. Susan uses what she’s learned from a career of editing murder mysteries to solve the crime of who killed Alan Conway and figure out what happened to his last chapter.

To be honest, Magpie Murders was a slow start, but that’s only because I didn’t fully appreciate what was going on. From the book summaries I’d read, I didn’t grasp the frame story aspect, so when we skip from Susan’s point of view to the various characters in Conway’s novel, I had to work a little harder to stay focused.

However, once the mystery was fully underway, I was hooked. It was brilliant, and once again Anthony Horowitz wowed me. 

If you are a fan of British mysteries, Agatha Christie, and the classic whodunit, you’ll love Magpie Murders

Medal No. 22

I signed up for the Santa Hustle Half Marathon in the Smokies back in the summer, not yet knowing that I would be running a half marathon in England in October. I’d already met my personal goal of running 20 races by the time I turned 40, so now it is just a matter of running races to run them and bring home another medal.

However, by mid-week, I was seriously considering not showing up on account of the dismal weather forecast.

Those temperatures, when combined with 100 percent chance of rain, felt like a big NO in my book. I don’t run in extreme weather conditions, namely the middle of summer when the heat and humidity make East Tennessee feel like an oven. (I go to the gym and do yoga in the summer.) 

By Saturday morning, I was still leaning towards no. The forecast never improved or even shifted. I polled friends on Instagram and the majority said HECK NO, don’t run. 

The yellow bracket represents the time during which I’d be running. The race started at 7:30 a.m.

A small few, maybe six or seven, said DO IT.  A few messaged me and reminded me that I’d probably regret it if I didn’t at least try. I wasn’t aiming for a perfect time anyway. I surrendered the fantasy of PRs – personal records – a long time ago. My only goal now is to finish in one piece, and I honestly believe this basic rule to listen to my body has kept me injury-free for the last decade. 

I wasn’t alone in the indecision or concern. The race’s Facebook page was busy with discussion about travel worries and racers deciding it was too risky to cross mountains and plateaus to get to Sevierville. A few petitioned the race organizers to reschedule, but if you have any experience with the racing community, you’d know that wasn’t going to happen.

In the end, I went for it. I drove to Sevierville Saturday night and slept at my parents’ house, who’d only moved to the area last week. (Their house is 11 miles from the start line.) When I left for the race at 6:15 a.m., the weather was exactly as predicted – 35 degrees and raining. I upped my positive-self-talk game: “Only two hours of running and then you can take a hot shower. No big deal.”

Attendance was noticeably down from the last time I ran the Santa Hustle two years ago, and it was a bare-bones set-up. No local cheerleading teams or bands, no extra volunteers in cheerful holiday garb to make the event festive. People huddled around outdoor space heaters or stayed indoors. When the race started (late) at 7:35 a.m., people were ready to get the dang thing over with.

The first four miles was uneventful weather-wise. The steady rain had lessened to a light mist, and, once warmed up, the temperature felt nice.

Around mile five, the sleet arrived and hung around for the next three or four miles, properly soaking my legs and feet. I took two missteps and landed directly in puddles.

At mile nine, the sleet morphed into fat, puffy snowflakes, which pelted me in the face for a steady 45 minutes. 

By mile 12, I was over it. Done. Soaked to the bone and freezing. By the time I could see the finish line, I could also see – do my eyes deceive me? – my parents parked on the roadside. I waved to them, and they waved back, and then I noticed my mother was recording the Stay-Puffed Marshmallow Woman running her direction. (The white Columbia jacket I bought for our U.K. trip was PERFECT for a long-distance run in wet weather!)

Despite the weather, the Santa Hustle 2018 was still not my worst race experience. The Oklahoma City Half in 2009 still reigns as the absolute worst. My time was a few minutes slower than normal, but I’m still within range of the last ten half marathons I’ve run. 

More than anything, I’m glad I did something hard when I was really tempted not to.