photo: Book cover from the author's website, www.amandastevens.com
So I'm standing in Stop & Shop, where I buy many of my books these days--which is an issue I'll probably take up with my blog--when I saw this book. Quick to judge a book by its cover, literally and metaphorically, I saw the image of a seemingly-weeping stone angel, its wings drooped and its face under its right arm, its left arm hanging loosely over a cemetery mausoleum. The caption reads, "Every cemetery has a story. Every grave, its secrets." And Publishers Weekly said it was a "creepy, atmospheric tale." On the back, Heather Graham (I read this quote because I thought it was the super-sexy actress commenting, but alas...) said that the author "...has managed the difficult feat of combining charms and chills..." Now, I've been doing research about graveyards and gravestones for my novel, The Gravediggers. And I admit to a morbid fascination of this stuff. (For example, I can look at the front of a New England gravestone and tell you the approximate year of construction without looking at the dates. It's all in the skulls, angels or urns on the front, or the flat or rounded shoulders, or the rock used--thin black slate is much older...I can do the same with the backs of baseball cards, but I digress.) As this all had some slight bearing on The Gravediggers, I thought I'd see how someone else handled a few things I have to work with.
After buying it, I realized it was a Harlequin book, and I became slightly ashamed of myself. As I'd already spent the money--and as I've been sniffling with a sore throat and blocked ears the past few days--I thought I'd try it anyway, and I would breeze past the sultry scenes.
Much to my surprise--and bias--I have to say that it was a very good, quick, and, indeed, a chilly and atmospheric read. Most of it does take place in graveyards, which can get old pretty quick, but the author manages to describe the same things in different ways--or, in some cases, repeating creepy things to good effect. The doom and gloom never gets old. There is no actual bodice-ripping to speak of, thank God, and the romance is kept to a minimum--much of it one-sided until the end. The mysteries are mysterious enough, though the book focuses more on the atmosphere than on the mystery. It's solved very quickly, and perhaps abruptly, at the end, and the revelation probably won't surprise you. (I have to admit that I nailed the villain right away. But that's me.) The ending was satisfying for me despite this, and the author carefully and wisely ends it with an open door to the sequel--though in an author-intrusion/speaking to the reader way that was consistent throughout the book, and which I could have done without.
The characters are (mostly) believable, as are the plot points and situations. The main character, also the 1st person narrator, is a graveyard restorer (hence the title). This is apparently not a well-paying job, though there's obviously plenty of old graveyards in the south and in New England that need tending. I was always under the impression that local historical societies took care of this sort of thing themselves, but I suppose it's plausible that they may seek contract help. Since these societies are vastly underfunded with local tax dollars and count heavily on volunteers--even in the administration--I wonder if this part is very plausible, but whatever. You've got to get her in there. (I volunteer a tiny bit for a local historical society, and the woman in charge of it is a volunteer who goes into the office only on Mondays.) Of course, there aren't any symbologists, either, but Dan Brown got away with it. (And this book mentions that very term, and is heavy, but not dependent, on symbols, and secret societies, etc.) Anyway, the focus isn't on the main character's job, but is instead on her ability to see spirits--and the dangers they present. Her father had also had the gift (or curse) and was also a graveyard restorer, and he gave her a set of rules to live by, because otherwise the spirits will latch on to you, forever. As in, even after death. The Harlequin focus, if you will, is on how she throws all those rules away when the haunted and brooding police detective enters her life. The number one rule: Don't acknowledge the ghosts. Don't even look at them. If you do, they'll latch on to you. She never dates, either, because of how often she sees ghosts, and their haunted hosts. And, besides, who wants to date someone who smells like death all the time?
Of course, why someone who insists she needs to stay away from all these ghosts continues to take jobs working in cemeteries is never addressed. I mean, where else would you run into more ghosts than a cemetery? But, whatever, suspension of disbelief, and all that. The main character is likeable and the minor characters are passable (though not fleshed out and a little interchangeable), so if you're appreciably creeped out by Gothic things, and if you can remember your teenage and college years when you walked alone in graveyards at times, pick this up and read it. I'm going back to Stop & Shop to pick up the sequel now.
And, about buying books at Stop & Shop now that there's only one bookstore outlet in the state...