October is the perfect month for reading gothics. Halloween is just around the corner, and who doesn’t want a deliciously shivery book? This month’s TBR Challenge was great fun, and coincidentally, both of us found ourselves venturing to the north of England for brooding, gothic-tinged reads. What books do you like for this time of year?
A Stitch in Time by Kelley Armstrong
Kelley Armstrong is primarily known as a writer of thrillers and suspense novels, so a timeslip paranormal with a distinctly gothic-y feel about it is something of a departure for her. A Stitch in Time set in and around an old manor house on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors, is an entertaining mash-up of time-travel and paranormal romance, and although I have a few reservations, they didn’t impact on my overall enjoyment of the story.
Thirty-eight-year-old Bronwyn Dale, a history professor at the University of Toronto, returns to England for the first time in twenty-three years in order to take possession of Thorne Manor, the house in which she spent many of her childhood summers, which has been bequeathed to her by her recently deceased aunt. The house holds many happy memories for Bronwyn, but unfortunately, her final memory of it is a horrific one. Aged fifteen, she witnessed the tragic death of her beloved Uncle Stan, who fell to his death from a balcony, and was so deeply traumatised by it that she hasn’t set foot in the place since.
It’s clear from the beginning, however, that this is only the barest of bones of the story of Bronwyn’s association with Thorne Manor. Ever since she was a small child, she was somehow able to slip back in time, where she met William Thorne, a boy her own age, and the son of the house. Every summer when Bronwyn visited, she spent as much time with William as she could, never thinking to conceal the truth of where she came from (as a young child it never occurred to her to do so), and William never questioning the truth of her assertion that she came from the future. After her parents’ divorce, she wasn’t able to visit for a decade, but when she was fifteen, she did go back – and her friendship with William started to become something more. But their burgeoning romance was shattered by the death of Bronwyn’s uncle who, she insisted, she had seen pushed to his death by a ghost – a veiled woman all in black. When Bronwyn was found, crying and screaming by her uncle’s body, babbling about ghosts and a boy from the past, she was whisked her away and effectively committed to a mental health facility where the doctors explained her stories as the hallucinations of a vivid imagination, and the boy she’d fallen in love with as nothing more than the desperately needed imaginary friend of an only child who’d spent her summers in an isolated country house.
Bronwyn never forgot William, even though she now accepts he – and the ghosts – were all in her head. But being back at the Manor brings back so many memories of William and their time together that she starts to wonder if it any of it had been real – a question answered when she awakens one morning to find herself in an unfamiliar bed beside an unfamiliar man with a very familiar voice.
I don’t want to give away too much about the plot, so I’ll just say that the mystery revolves around the ghosts Bronwyn sees both inside the house and out on the moors. The veiled woman appears to Bronwyn and lets her know that she wants her – Bronwyn – to find out who killed her – and with the help of the caretaker’s wife, who is something of an expert on local history and folklore, Bronwyn begins to untangle a one-hundred-and-seventy-year-old mystery about the deaths of two young women and a boy who disappeared on the moors. Or did they? And what, exactly, is William’s involvement in all this? In the present day, stories and rumours abound about the “Mad Lord of the Moors”, who is reputed to have killed a number of young women – and even in William’s day, it seems there was unsavoury gossip about him. Just how well does Bronwyn really know this man – once the the boy she’d loved, and now a man with secrets.
Ms. Armstrong does a great job of setting the scene in the first half of the book, and of giving us time to get to know Bronwyn and William and watch them falling in love all over again. Their romance is nicely done; their connection is strong right from the start, and it’s easy to believe that they’ve never forgotten each other and that their rekindled feelings are genuine.
There are some wonderfully creepy moments throughout the book, but they’re used sparingly to start with, which makes them all the more spooky when they do occur. Then in the last quarter of the book, the author turns everything upside down and makes us doubt – alongside Bronwyn – all the things we’ve worked out so far. And I didn’t guess the identity of the villain of the piece until the very last moment before the reveal.
As to those quibbles I mentioned… well, we don’t ever know why Bronwyn is able to see ghosts and travel through time, she just IS; and the ‘rules’ that apply to the time travel are pretty flimsy. For reasons that are never explained, it only goes one way and William isn’t able to travel to the twenty-first century. I liked William as a hero a great deal – he’s charming and sweet and a bit shy – but he’s also just a bit too good to be true and feels too modern in his outlook, especially when it comes to his having no problem with the woman he loves needing to be away for weeks and months at a time to pursue her career. The author does go some way to explaining William’s unconventionality, but it felt a bit contrived. And the reasons given as to why William and Bronwyn can’t be together in the long term don’t make much sense; it seemed like they were negotiating a long-distance relationship rather than talking about how to be together ‘across time’ and I didn’t really buy that whole ‘I can’t move to another country to be with him’ thing that was Bronwyn’s stumbling block, especially as her late husband had done exactly that.
But those things aside, I did enjoy the ghost story and the romance, and would certainly recommend A Stitch in Time to anyone looking for a hauntingly atmospheric, sexy and spooky read this Halloween season!
Grade: B Sensuality: Subtle
~ Caz Owens
Buy it at: Amazon or your local independent retailer
The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart
I love gothics, but most of my collection consists of old school books that I’ve read and reread several times over. Finding an unread gothic in the TBR proved a lot more difficult than anticipated. Thankfully, I remembered that I still had a couple of unread Mary Stewart novels. If you’re looking for a book with hidden secrets and a creepy old house, The Ivy Tree definitely hits that sweet spot.
The set-up will definitely catch one’s attention. Mary Grey has travelled from Canada to Northumberland, and while enjoying a day outing to Hadrian’s Wall, she gets accosted in the middle of nowhere by a brooding stranger. Mary soon learns that she bears a very uncanny resemblance to one long-missing Annabel Winslow. This resemblance could prove useful because the stranger turns out to be the missing woman’s distant cousin Con Winslow, who needs Annabel to reappear and earn him an inheritance.
Mary soon learns that Annabel’s much-loved grandfather is in failing health. After Annabel ran away and subsequently vanished, Con stayed on to run the family farm. However, it is his understanding that the property is still to go to Annabel. He cooks up a scheme for Mary to pose as Annabel, reunite with her grandfather and when he passes, claim the inheritance and split it with Con.
This sounds like an insane plan, but something about Mary’s lack of roots and desperate finances makes it believable that she would play along. While Mary justifies the deception by acknowledging how much work Con has done for the family, it’s obvious that she is not one of the good and utterly inoffensive heroines of later romances. I couldn’t condone her actions, but I rather liked her spirit.
Con and his half-sister Lisa prep Mary for her role and turn her loose among the Winslows. She does surprisingly well, and the book takes an intriguing turn as one tries to figure out the family dynamics in this most unusual household. Adding to the mix is the surprise visit of another cousin who also may have a claim to the estate. No one is entirely aboveboard in this book, so the characters do not fall easily into “the good guys vs. the bad guys,” though I did find many of them oddly likeable. The story has plenty of twists and turns, so I just sat back and enjoyed.
Speaking of twists, we learn that the missing Annabel had a forbidden love affair with a then-married neighbor. That neighbor is now widowed, has returned home to England, and is keen to see “Annabel.” The chemistry between these two is enough to make a reader wonder. In fact, a lot of things going on in this book will be enough to make a reader wonder. You will quickly see that Con isn’t the only one hiding a secret or several.
As always, Ms. Stewart does a marvelous job of creating a creepy, mysterious atmosphere. The story moves along, but one can never quite lose sight of the fact that secrets lurk in this house. If you enjoy gothics or simply romantic suspense in general, the pacing and plot twists in this one make it a winner.
Grade: A- Sensuality: Kisses
– Lynn Spencer