Friday, January 8, 2016

REVIEW | The Haunting of Maddy Clare by Simone St. James
The Haunting of Maddy Clare by Simone St. James
Publication Year:2012
Genre: Historical Mystery, Romance
Series: NA
Awards: RITA award for Best First Novel and Best Novel With Strong Romantic Elements (2013),  Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Crime Novel (2013)
Format: Audio from Library
Narrator:Pamela Garelick

WHY?: I think I just ran across it randomly in my Library's digital collection and it looked interesting. 

SYNOPSIS: Sarah Piper is alone in the world and trying to make ends meet by working as a temp in 1920s London, when she accepts a job with a young, eccentric ghost hunter.  They go investigate a possible manifestation inhabiting a barn at an old English estate and what they find there completely changes Sarah's life.

I absolutely adore a good genre mash-up so it is no surprise that I really enjoyed The Haunting of Maddy Clare.  It's a mix of mystery, ghost story and romance with a historical setting - Britain a few years after World War I - and it did a brilliant job incorporating all these disparate elements in a single story.  As you can see above it won awards both as a romance novel and as a crime novel.  It is alternately suspenseful, creepy, affirming and romantic. It was such a pleasant surprise for a book I had not heard of and just picked up on a whim.  Ain't it grand when whims lead you somewhere awesome?  

The main character, Sarah, starts off rather timid and cowed by life, eager to please and quickly enamored of and swayed by her employer, Alistair's, enthusiasm and good looks.  When things start to get difficult, she discovers that she has a previously unknown core of steel and she gains confidence.  Part of her growth is the discovery that she has a unique talent for connecting to the spiritual world. The unexpected arrival of  Alistair's usual assistant, Matthew, also gets her back up and she must stand up for herself or go back to her dreary lonely existence in London. The evolution of her character, from mouse to lioness, is very believable and I really connected with her as a character.  She's a strong lead for a cast of interesting characters.  Both Alistair and Matthew have their own demons and an air of mystery surrounding them from fighting in the First World War. Though they are very different in personality and in social background they are united by their shared war experiences and their obsession with the supernatural and life after death.  Sarah fits in with them more easily than might be expected as she carries her own trauma and a deep compassion for souls who may have been injured by life.

The plot balances between mystery and horror.  Maddy Clare showed up mysteriously several years ago at the house she now haunts.  She was muddy, bedraggled and not quite right in the head so the family, out of compassion, takes her in and gives her a job as a servant.  Despite their kindness, Maddy kills herself after about ten years in their service and now haunts the household with violent outbursts.  It becomes very clear to the three investigators that Maddy is a very troubled soul and even as she frightens and threatens them, they realize they must discover what happened to her to make her so angry.  It's an interesting mystery though not terribly hard to figure out and there are scenes that are truly very creepy.  The atmosphere created by the writing is one of unease and fright but I never turned against Maddy and like the protagonists, I wanted to see her get justice. 

The book does misstep a bit towards the end and stray into eye-rolling territory in order to create some suspense.  Sarah's surprise and horror when everything becomes clear is a little inauthentic as they seemed to have been having growing suspicions about what happened and by whom and they should have, as lots of evidence points that way.  And despite there being imminent and mortal danger with time being of the essence, Sarah seems to have the time to stop and explain it all, step by step, Poirot style to one of the secondary characters.  Essentially the climax is just a tad sloppily and inexpertly done but it didn't truly mar my overall enjoyment of the book.

Since the book won a couple of romance awards, I feel like I should also comment on that aspect of the book.  Simply put I liked it.  It was very slowly and believably developed and there was good chemistry between the characters in question.  While I enjoy the occasional romance novel where love is front and center, my favorite way to consume romance is as a secondary component to a strong plot and that is exactly what this book delivers.

I listened to the audio of the book and the reader is okay but she was the weakest part of the book for me. I do wish I had read rather than listened.  She particularly struggled with the masculine voices. Obviously it wasn't too annoying since I still really liked the book but it wasn't great.

FINAL VERDICT:  A creepy, suspenseful historical mystery with strong romance elements that handles this mash up of genres really well and has a believable heroine that is easy to get behind. I really enjoyed it!  3.5 out of 5 Stars!

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