September 19, 2006
It's not easy to review a book by someone you know, it turns out. I was looking forward to reading the latest YA novel by a former professor, Kathryn Reiss--Blackthorn Winter, a murder mystery that takes place in a small English village. It turns out that when you've studied writing with someone, you get attuned to things like voice, stylistic choices, and thematic tendencies, because you've listened to them talk about these very topics in an educational setting; you've listened to their advice and heard how they would attack a particular writing quandary or formulate a plot.
That's what kept happening to me as I read Blackthorn Winter. I kept thinking to myself, yes, this is a classic example of Kathryn Reiss's writing. A mystery in the present whose solution depends on clues from the past, a past that may be painful or half-forgotten but whose discovery is necessary for the mystery in the present to be solved. It's a classic and dependable plot structure, and certainly one that has worked for Reiss numerous times as well as for other mystery authors.
And the setting—a slightly odd, artsy English village, with many a hidden secret—that's a recipe for strange doings and colorful characters. When Juliana moves to Blackthorn from the U.S. with her mother and younger siblings, she discovers, of course, that not all is as it seems. When a school friend of her mother's is found murdered in the stream, the local troublemaking lout is blamed by one and all…but Juliana thinks there's something fishy about that. Only by coming to terms with troubling incidents in her own past, before she was adopted by her current family, can she gather the necessary clues to who the real murderer is. In the meantime, she gets to know a cast of characters with quaint names like Duncan, Celia, and Quent; follows various red herrings; and risks her new friendships in her quest for the truth.
This was an appealing mystery, with the exception of a few stylistic sour notes that stopped me in my tracks now and then. Most notably, I was distracted by the repetitive parenthetical explanations of the various "British-isms" used in the book. To me, these could have been inserted less conspicuously and profusely, or, preferably, just left out. But despite the minor issues I had with the writing, the pace picked up as the mystery unfolded, and the climax and ending were both satisfying. I ended up cheering for Juliana as she overcame internal and external obstacles to solve the puzzle of her own life story as well as the murder mystery.