Good Old Bones

Cultures around the world honor their dead in myriad ways, but for me, there is nothing better than a good cemetery. Burial grounds have acquired a creepy reputation in folklore and movies—think Stephen King’s classic Pet Sematary, if you dare. However, consider the last time you actually visited a real cemetery. It was probably daytime, and you might have been sad, even distraught. You might have been reflective and grateful, alone or surrounded by family and friends. You were not haunted. (Probably.) I hope that your worries were diminished, as mine often are, by a glimpse of the awesome time scale of history.

My next novel, Soil and Ceremony, takes place partially in a cemetery, where our hero is a groundskeeper. If that sounds a bit grim, allow me to persuade you otherwise.

Cemeteries reflect our best selves: the desire to pay tribute to our dead, to remember. A loved one who was fully human and flawed can shed their complications on a marble headstone. We can ask our stonemason to carve Beloved Father, Brother, Husband or Cherished Aunt, Sister, Wife, Friend and display the truest, happiest facets of our lives.

I love the pared-down simplicity of a cemetery. Birth, death. In between, a complication we aren’t forced to examine. The earth itself, by providing soil and granite tombstones, offers us all a tiny slice of immortality.

In 19th century London, overcrowding and the temptation of profit led to the creation of the “Magnificent Seven,” private garden-style cemeteries. The earliest of these and my favorite, Kensal Green, was one of the inspirations for the fictional cemetery in Soil and Ceremony. Kensal Green has a non-consecrated section and a Dissenters Chapel that were in popular use by atheists, free thinkers, and others who didn’t conform to the Church of England.

1 - Kensal Green

Kensal Green Cemetery, London.

The renowned cemeteries in New Orleans, Louisiana, are filled with mini-mansions to house the deceased because the original water table was so high at the foot of the Mississippi River that underground burial wasn’t feasible. You may occupy the shelf within for some time, but eventually you join your ancestors in the pit below, politely creating room for a fresher occupant.

2 - St Louis No 1 New Orleans

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, New Orleans.

The lovely, historic cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York, is famous by its association with Washington Irving’s story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” It also hosts the mortal remains of Andrew Carnegie, a couple of Rockefellers, Brooke Astor, and three of Alexander Hamilton’s children. Sleepy Hollow and neighboring Tarrytown put on a wonderful, atmospheric public celebration in October every year, complete with lantern tours of the cemetery, reenactments of the Sleepy Hollow legend, and a lot of carved pumpkins.

3 - Sleepy Hollow NY

The author in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, New York.

A new personal favorite is the nondenominational Springdale Cemetery in Peoria, Illinois, where tens of thousands of people occupy a wooded, curving valley alongside the Illinois River. The community has been busy restoring their old Civil War monument to fallen soldiers, one of the first in the United States. This February, my family laid my father to rest in Springdale’s graceful mausoleum in a crypt of his own choosing. (“Feet toward the right!” he insisted, as we rolled our eyes.) It reassures me to have followed his wishes, as so many other families have done. Any of us can visit while we grieve, then look around and see the idyllic cemetery is a perfect type of place to spend an eternity.

4 - Hanwell London

Hanwell Cemetery, London.

This post originally appeared on the Tirgearr Publishing Blog.

Soil and Ceremony

Please meet my new book!!

Juno is powerful and bossy and witchy, and Benjamin would prefer to be left alone in his cemetery. She drags him into trouble, of course. 🖤

Book cover and quote

A history of loss and a terrible stammer have led gravedigger Benjamin Hood to a life of isolation.

When a rash of untimely deaths sweeps through his small English village, he cannot stand by in silence. To uncover the truth about the lives lost, he takes up a long-neglected role of responsibility among the townspeople.

As Benjamin questions the victims’ families, he finds that beautiful widow Juno Stephens has preceded him in each case. She makes no secret of her odd midnight ceremonies and dark powers of persuasion. The villagers are whispering about a woman bearing a lethal hex.

Is Juno the source of danger in the village, or a victim of it? Benjamin must resist her beguiling ways and decide if he can trust her…until another death sets his smoldering worries ablaze.


Their Lost Daughters

Their Lost Daughters (DI Jackman & DS Evans, #2)Their Lost Daughters by Joy Ellis

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Ugh. This book has two major structural problems:

1. Jackman and Evans (**minor SPOILERS**) have no personal growth as characters. They do their job and then the book is over. They barely even speak to one another, and then only about the details of the case. They’re both like detective-robots. Jackman’s only personal detail is that he likes his cozy house. Evans’s only characterization is that she loves her mum and had a friend, once, who was harassed by an old boss. I think I know the friend better than I know Marie herself.

2. The murderer (**BIGGER SPOILER**) never appears live on the page. Jackman and Evans never meet him or interact with him in any way. ???? Weird and unsatisfying.

The narration by Richard Armitage was superb. He created distinct voices for probably two dozen characters, and Evans’s voice in particular imparted more detail to her character than the author probably deserved.

Also, I’m growing tired of the (incorrect) trope that all abused children grow up to be adults who are irreparably broken, unfit for society, and possibly dangerous. There is a correlation to generational cycles of abuse, but it’s not an absolute truth as stated in this book. It is sad and wrong to pre-condemn mistreated children to that fate.

Three sprinkle cupcakes and an iPhone displaying Tana French's The Witch Elm in the Audible app

The Witch Elm

The Witch ElmThe Witch Elm by Tana French
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I made cupcakes for my neighbor but kept half of them because The Witch Elm needed fluffy, sugary sprinkles to pair with its twisty darkness. This is Tana French’s angle on our #MeToo moment. It’s amazing and horrifying. I have seen a few reviews complaining that Toby, the main character, isn’t “likeable.” You guys, here’s the thing:⁣
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The Beautiful Ones

The Beautiful OnesThe Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I adored this gem of a gentle romance. It reads like a grown-up YA with just the slightest touch of magic. Intricate characterization drives the story of three flawed people chasing love, revenge, and possession. The fictional city of Loisail and the mannered culture of its moneyed class (the beautiful ones of the title) has that taste of realism that is so hard to cook up. Reading felt like glimpsing a full world instead of simply scenes created for the purpose of the story.

I enjoyed the deliberate pacing, although others might not. My attention never wandered from Nina and Hector and Valérie. If I have one marginal critique, it’s that Hector wasn’t always totally convincing as a man who could earn the obsession of two beautiful, intelligent women. He was handsome and unique in his abilities, although he moped a lot. I did believe that both Nina and Valérie could love him, and I loved the book.

The Singularity Trap

The Singularity TrapThe Singularity Trap by Dennis E. Taylor

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Ay yi yi. This book managed to turn an alien invasion into bureaucratic drudgery. It’s nearly all talk, and a very large percentage of that talk is conference table discussion between careful CDC-type doctors and risk-averse military folks. For an alien invasion, there seem to be a lot of phone calls. My favorite character (which was a low bar) is the ship’s doctor, Charlie. He spends the whole book sort of faintly concerned. Imagine a furrowed brow. He sighs a lot, and he answers the phone when the alien calls him.

The threat of alien destruction is averted because the humans…ask nicely.

This book has a zillion sparkling ratings from other Goodreaders. Are you alien invaders?? I think some people are giving this author credit for his other books.

Hard pass. I should not have listened to this audiobook for 11.5 hours. It gets 1 star for the narration, which is excellent, and 1 star for the early parts where Ivan is turning into chrome.

Monsoon Mansion

Monsoon Mansion: A MemoirMonsoon Mansion: A Memoir by Cinelle Barnes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The upbringing related in this memoir of a childhood in the Philippines is so far outside my own experience that I can only shudder. The author’s parents are both neglectful, and the emotional and physical abuse inflicted by her mother is horrifying. I’m amazed that this account in hazy, dreamlike writing was wrought from such harsh memories.

Creative nonfiction is a strange arena. How much is creative and how much is nonfiction? Conversations relayed from when a person is five years old must be largely reconstructions. In this book, however, instances from two+ decades past are conveyed clearly, and the emotional impact feels honest.

I have two complaints, one about the writing, and the other about the content. The writing is sometimes overwrought and would more easily bear its meaning with simpler structure. The last line of the author’s note got me off to an eye-rolling start: “Reader, here is Monsoon Mansion, my otherworld.” Then, in the prologue:

“I twirled, dizzying and dizzying.

The melodramatic line break strains my patience.

In the content, some difficult scenes are elided. The elisions stand out because the whole book is full of terrible instances that no child should have to endure, so closing the curtain on some of them is odd. It’s not as if the author needs to protect her mother’s dignity, because that is long gone. At one point her mother is chasing her father with a knife, but the scene just cuts off. Later I cried through a scene of implied sexual molestation, but again it simply stops, and we’re left wondering if it was a nightmare. The author is entitled to her privacy, of course, but that’s not the contract with a memoir. A memoir usually promises some degree of brutal honesty, and I think some things were elided because they were too difficult.

I really look forward to reading this talented author’s next projects.