Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Secret Staircase by Melanie Jackson Continues Pattern...

Sometimes I just have to try another... I had enjoyed the first book I read by Melanie Jackson, Portrait of a Gossip. Some of you may recall that I really didn't appreciate the first chapter of the next book Requiem at Christmas but still recommended it...but that first chapter business...bugged me...So... here I am saying the same thing.... forget that the first chapter is unique, the rest of the book is great... Well, don't forget it, you see my issue is with continuity of the character... If the tone and dialogue of the book had continued, the first chapter would fit, in my opinion.
But then I got curious as I was writing today, and found that many reviewers did not like the ending of this latest book, The Secret Staircase. Yes, it does leave you to assume what would be happening as opposed to completely describing everything, but I didn't have a problem with that since it closed out what was hanging and projected the future... Perhaps what the readers were actually saying was that they enjoyed the character, and wanted more, while I thought it was an appropriate way to close out the book of a new series...

So here I am reading a first chapter which apparently many enjoyed, while I was thinking it was far too much like a "frivolous yarn," the only words I can use, meaning, that the tone of the first chapter, in first person, didn't match the straight-forward story from then on... It was almost as if the character telling the story was the Grandmother, as she talked continuously with her stories of the past with run-on sentences, as opposed to the second chapter when the story appears with the main character as merely part of the book. But I'm sharing a little of this chapter...if you enjoy it...then you're good to go!

Kelvin was dead to begin with.
There is no doubt about that.
No, I can’t do it. I can’t plagiarize Dickens. It’s a great beginning for this story though…. Let’s try again.
My Grandma Mac once told me that a malicious faerie had christened me in my cradle, giving me both brains and insight. Not a bad combination, you might think, but you probably weren’t born into a family that was as, shall we say, salt of the earth as mine. In my birth family, beauty and good nature were coin of the realm. My parents were simple. Trusting. Gullible. Apt to see life in shades of rainbow pastels when really the situation was very black and white.
I was not that way. Not that I put too much weight on this particular matter now that I am grown and accept that beauty really is only skin deep and that insight and intelligence are useful to my chosen trade. But it had mattered very much when I was a child and certain most days that I was a changeling put on earth to look after my supposed parents.
This story is in part a cautionary tale as well as a fable, so there must be a moral. Perhaps blood will tell or you can run but not hide. In any event, the sins of the fathers being what they are, when my grandmother had run away from her family and married a traveling man that they objected to, she changed the course of Wendover familial events and destinies. Wild blood entered the line and poisoned it—this is what my grandma said not long before she died. At the time I had thought she was speaking of my grandfather, but now I think perhaps she meant something else as well.
I didn’t know Grandma’s traveling man, so this part of the tale is all second-hand telling, but I think it’s fairly accurate since my mother hadn’t the guile to lie about her father and Grandma Mac wouldn’t have bothered.
Grandma was the primary breadwinner and the steady influence in her children’s lives. Once in a great while, my fly-by-night grandpa would breeze into town, bringing presents for his wife and daughters. He would have a drink or two, watch a little television, and then, once Grandma was asleep or away at her job, he would tell my mother tall tales about this subverted destiny of the high and mighty Wendovers who had thought themselves too good for him, and how he had saved my grandmother from a terrible fate. My mom, being gullible, came to think of my grandma as an unhappy princess kidnapped by the king of gypsies who had fallen in love with her and saved her from her cruel family by marrying her. It was my mother’s favorite bedtime story, made more precious because her own mother would never speak of the Wendovers.
It was the extra-special secret she shared only with her mostly missing father. In turn, my mother told me the lost princess stories when I was a child. It was the only story she told me, and I came to think of myself as being lost too—a changeling, as I said. Or maybe cursed. Clearly I didn’t belong with my supposed birth family. They were fair and I was dark. My mother had sapphire blue eyes and I had nondescript gray. My parents were small and delicate, and I was tall and sturdy. Handsome, not pretty.
Nor did I belong in that small town, with its small minds and small tolerance for smart girls who acted up in Sunday school and refused to join the choir. I longed to see the ocean and maybe to travel to foreign lands. I spent a lot of time looking at National Geographic at the library and feeling I belonged somewhere else. Perhaps, given Grandma’s hostility and reluctance to accept her familial destiny, it was fair that her parents’ predictions of a disastrous marriage were proven true, and that she should give birth to two very pretty but empty-headed children, neither of whom sought to make up for this deficit by marrying someone brighter or more sensible than they. Instead the sisters married for what they thought was love and for happiness, and more or less achieved it, though in very different ways.
Fortunately, Holly and Emmett (my mom and dad preferred I use their first names) were both sweet tempered and easy going, so I was able to organize home as I liked and arranged for my education, in spite of their indifference to this matter. Grandma supported me in my desire for college saving every spare penny she could for my tuition, hoping I would in turn help her at the newspaper when I graduated. Which I did. I couldn’t do otherwise when she needed assistance and would never have it from her own children...
Her maiden name, Wendover, was almost never spoken of after he died, and when it did come up in her presence, it was never said with affection. Especially when she spoke of her father, whom I came to think of as a Victorian-style tyrant, before forgetting him entirely during the turmoil of my teen years. My parents didn’t understand me or my educational ambitions, but were proud of my accomplishments, and we would probably still be enjoying a comfortable if uncomprehending relationship had my dad not decided to take the advice of a friend and try to improve a new fuel-injection system that blew both my parents to bits on the first test-drive when I was only a year out of college. My Aunt Verena is dead now too. Kicked in the head by a riding horse she was trying to “return to the wild,” if you can believe it. She was survived by her husband, Zach, but as my grandma had pointed out, Zach— unlike my naïve father— was a stranger to both truth and shame. He was, in addition to being a liar who always got caught in the act and was often in jail, kind of ugly. I am speaking in the physical sense though his soul was also far from shiny. His red face was clean shaven but he had a neck beard that ran straight into the pelts on his chest and back. It stuck up out of his shirt and he often looked like he was peering at you out of some kind of tall grass. As a kid I found this creepy. Actually I still find it creepy.
I don’t see him anymore. Grandma Mac passed away two years ago, and since Verena and Zach had no children, I am all that is left of our little clan, the last descendant of the runaway princess and the gypsy king. That I possibly had kin somewhere else never occurred to me. The Wendover stories were largely forgotten in the daily grind of keeping the newspaper afloat, and somehow I had gotten the impression that Grandma was an only princess anyway, so there was no point imagining loving cousins somewhere in Maine.
But one day a letter appeared in my mailbox announcing that I was the heir to the Wendover estate, which included a large house on a tiny island and some two hundred and fifty thousand dollars in securities, bonds, and cash. The attorney and author of the letter, Harris Ladd, suggested that I should call his office when it was convenient and we could settle the details of the estate. I had taken over my grandmother’s job at the newspaper, which she had eventually been conned into buying once the first owner was bled dry and decided to retire to Arizona while he still had a shirt on his back. I was making little better than minimum wage for overtime labor while the swirling, sucking, almost bankrupt money pit of false hopes and shattered dreams swallowed most of the revenue it brought in on a good month— and more than that in a bad one— so it was convenient to call at once. After all, I needed a new car before winter and a mortgage if I was going to buy my apartment when it went condo and I was pretty sure I couldn’t get a conventional loan. The newspaper was hardly adequate collateral. These days the banks were like a school of fish. Ask for money and they scattered in terror. I didn’t really want to take on the debt anyway. Though I hated to admit it, since the paper had been my grandmother’s life work, it seemed to me that The Democrat wasn’t long for this world unless the town’s reading population tripled and the economy got a whole lot better and very quickly.
The mild-voiced Mr. Ladd suggested I visit as soon as was possible— the estate would pay, of course. Go to Maine? Just pack up and go? Could I do that? I sat at my desk in the empty office and pondered my options. It was 104 degrees and sultry. My only full time staff reporter was on vacation getting a face lift, and our only photographer had just broken his leg carrying shingles up to his ex-wife’s leaking roof. This was a mixed blessing. Jack of the broken leg and I had tried dating, but he had been too caught up in post-divorce sorrow to be a good companion. Until the divorce, Jack had been the possessor of a sunny temperament which he shared with everyone. After the split, his sun had dimmed and he turned largely inward. A year in, I hoped that an invitation to dinner meant that he was healing, but I had broken off the social connection when I saw which way the ill wind blew. Things were now a little awkward at the office, so a break from each other seemed a good thing...

The Secret Staircase:
A Wendover House Mystery

By Melanie Jackson

Jackson is an excellent writer... Somehow I get the impression, though, she needs to keep her readers off balance. Starting with a down-home atmosphere in the first chapter, then a straight-forward narrative thereafter is initially startling. Then there's the cover and title which you later learn are totally different from the storyline. What it results in, for me, the reader, is that I cannot totally sink into her stories... It seems she's playing a game rather than wanting to entertain... I don't like it. A mystery is a favorite of mine. Most readers want to immediately start learning about what is going to happen, believing that what is presented right from the cover will be tips, hints we can follow... Not... Nevertheless... I did become involved beginning with Chapter 2...LOL...

“There is a writer named
 Livingston. He writes
 some kind of spy books.
 He’s from away.”
The attorney sounded
 disapproving. I wonder
 if it was a contempt of
 novels or for people
 who had the misfortune
 to be born elsewhere.
 “Benjamin Livingston?”
I asked, surprised and
 maybe just a little
 starstruck. He was
 one of my favorite
“And here is the house,” 
Mr. Ladd said, 
sounding awed and also, 
perhaps, just 
 a bit nervous. 
“I trust you’ll like it. 
It really is a historical gem.”

Even though Tess MacKay had 
never met her grandfather, it was exciting to learn that she now had a home on Little Goose Island, Maine. There were two other occupants, one a writer, a favorite known by her, Benjamin Livingston, and an invalid cared for by a live-in nurse. On the other hand, she had a home and  newspaper which was to be considered, even though she'd been worried about being able to financially keep it going... What had Tess puzzled most though was that the lawyer representing the estate seemed very concerned that she plan to stay and live at Wendover, remembering how he had paled when she told him she'd probably be selling the property...

“It’s said that Abercrombie Wendover bought his property from one of the local tribes who had a sort of hermit medicine man that lived alone on the island, and that they put conditions on his taking up residence here before they would sell.” “Conditions or curses?” I asked jokingly when his face remained long. “Well, a bit of both, I suppose. The legend has it that the three islands would be protected from invasion as long as there is a Wendover in residence on Little Goose. The owner can leave briefly, but a Wendover must reside here most of the time or on the next New Year’s Eve the whole island will be drowned in vicious waves and pulled down into the ocean. It will destroy all ships in the water and drive the fish away forever. It is believed that the island is slanted because of the storm caused when the Indian hermit tried to leave.”

Again with the assuming. I hadn’t agreed to stay the night, though I knew that I was going to do it. After all, I should spend one night in the old family home before I sold it. And I would sell it if a buyer could be found. I was seventy-five percent sure.

Discovering the inside of the home was what really got her to thinking. It was beautifully furnished in antiques and was a place that she soon began to feel at home. But, then, there were few modern accommodations and living with, for instance, oil lamps for lighting certainly wasn't something she wanted to get used to...

And later, when she was alone, the darkness seem to be smothering and the noises began to happen... Fortunately, the first ones were caused by Kelvin, who had been a resident of the house for years...But Tess wasn't thrilled when she found that he had come in through the basement, which supposedly didn't have an outside entrance... Nor was she happy when the noise continued even after Kelvin had started staying on her bed at night...while the noise continued...

This is a fun cozy mystery. There is enough of a mystery regarding the house that keeps suspense high--is it haunted, will it be destroyed, along with all three islands, if Tess doesn't remain to live there?

Then, too, there seems to be an attraction between Tess and Benjamin, at least when they are alone, that Tess decides she'd like to explore...and, with the closing of this book, should provide further entertainment as the series continues.

Even with my earlier comments, I thoroughly enjoyed the story especially when Kelvin easily accepted Tess as her friend....a cat always makes a home warmer and comforting... Still, it was fun to discover at least what caused the noise, even if the curse may continue into the future... I'll probably stick around to find out why her first chapters affect me so much...😎 And... do check it out!


Melanie has been writing her entire life. In fact, one of her earliest fond memories is receiving an IBM Selectric typewriter for her birthday. After publishing romance novels (Scottish historical and paranormal) for New York based publisher Dorchester Publishing from 1999 to 2010, Melanie chose to begin self-publishing cozy mysteries. Since then she has released the Chloe Boston, Butterscotch Jones, Wendover House, Kenneth Mayhew and Miss Henry Mystery series.Melanie Jackson is the award-winning author of more than 100 novels, novellas, anthologies and bundles published in multiple languages. She lives with her writer husband and her bossy cat in the Sonoma wine country. Besides gardening, she is involved with animal charities.

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