By: Jennifer McMahon
Publication Date: 4/25/2017
My Rating: 3 Stars
Ashford, Vermont, might look like your typical sleepy New England college town, but to the shadowy residents who live among the remains of its abandoned mills and factories, it’s known as “Burntown.”
Eva Sandeski, known as “Necco” on the street, has been a part of this underworld for years, ever since the night her father Miles drowned in a flood that left her and her mother Lily homeless. A respected professor, Miles was also an inventor of fantastic machines, including one so secret that the plans were said to have been stolen from Thomas Edison’s workshop. According to Lily, it’s this machine that got Miles murdered.
Necco has always written off this claim as the fevered imaginings of a woman consumed by grief. But when Lily dies under mysterious circumstances, and Necco’s boyfriend is murdered, she’s convinced her mother was telling the truth. Now, on the run from the man called “Snake Eyes,” Necco must rely on other Burntown outsiders to survive.
There are the “fire eaters,” mystical women living off the grid in a campsite on the river’s edge, practicing a kind of soothsaying inspired by powerful herbs called “the devil’s snuff”; there’s Theo, a high school senior who is scrambling to repay the money she owes a dangerous man; and then there’s Pru, the cafeteria lady with a secret life.
As the lives of these misfits intersect, and as the killer from the Sandeski family’s past draws ever closer, a story of edge-of-your-seat suspense begins to unfurl with classic Jennifer McMahon twists and surprises.
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From the author of The Night Sister and The Winter People comes — BURNTOWN. Where do you even begin trying to describe a book like this? It is one of a kind.
From eccentric, colorful, to quirky, and wacky . . . a cast of misfits. Mix in a crime, a murder, a family’s past, a stolen invention, mystery, suspense, and crossing heavily into the mystical, supernatural and paranormal world.
Jennifer McMahon takes readers on a wild, crazy ride with BURNTOWN —meeting every character and scene imaginable. My head is still spinning.
As the book starts out it grabbed me immediately. A great set up. However, shortly thereafter when all the crazy things begin, I knew this book was not for me; however, continued to read to discover how it would unfold. However, I found myself skipping over many parts.
The book is broken into parts: Before: Miles. Then After, alternating between Necco, Theo, Pru, and Fred. Then one year later with Necco.
Set in Braxton, Vermont, It is 1975 and Miles Sandeski a ten- year- old boy who has a creative mind and love to play Robin Hood is spying on his mom, Elizabeth Sandeski outdoors while she is in their backyard.
She seems to be more adventurous, and mysterious; dancing with her brass elephant charm bracelet. She is beautiful. Miles thinks of her as a Goddesses, like Aphrodite. She looks like a movie star. He does not like for her to smoke since it is bad for her, so he played a little trick with her cigarettes.
However, as she is smoking, lying in the sun. The unexpected happens. Some person comes from the shadows, in a circus mask like a rubber chicken from nowhere. He comes up behind her and draws a blade across her throat. Miles is stunned and has no clue what is happening.
Miles uses his bow and arrow and hits him. Then all of a sudden he is afraid the man will come after him. Until his experiment pops and scares the man off.
Soon the town is rattled by a murder- suicide. After Elizabeth was slain in the backyard of the family home, with Miles as witness, he goes to the neighbor and police was called. But the bloodstained clothing, a rubber chicken mask, and a kitchen knife were found in the trunk of the family car. An arrest was made for Mr. Sandeski.
Martin Sandeski ran an appliance and repair service company and was in a jazz band, Three Bags Full. Miles knew it was not his father who was the chicken man. His father is the man he loved and taught him so much. Appears Martin had told several of his friends, he believed his wife was having an affair. Shortly thereafter, Martin took his own life, hours after his arrest. He hung himself while in police custody.
They did not find the killer, and Miles goes and lives with his aunt. However, his dad left him a letter explaining where to find the plans he has hidden. As a boy, he spoke of these plans from Thomas Edison.
He was not to share this with his Aunt Holly or anyone. He was passing down some special plans. His grandfather worked for Thomas Edison at his factory and plans were stolen. He told them where they were hidden. His dad left him instructions and plans to hold on to them and one day the Edison machine would change their lives, and possibly the entire world. A way to communicate with the dead?
Then he meets Lily. Her mother had died and her dad drank. Her brother Lloyd became close to Miles. She tells Miles she is gifted as well as her brother. She can see things.
Later they marry and have two a daughter— Eva. Soon this boy, Errol joins the family. Miles continues to carry this little charm elephant from his mom. Who had given it to her? Also, what had the killer whispered to her that last day that had made her smile?
He knows she should let it go, but he can’t. He needs to find the man who killed his mother. What if the dead could speak? What if he built the machine and it actually worked? He could find the answers. Miles became a professor. He was successful and talented.
Then there is the word of flood warnings. The chicken mask. The Chicken Man is dead because he killed him, didn't he? He decides to destroy everything in the workshop, even the machine. He had the plans to rebuild somewhere safe. From here we go to After. From here on out, the book completely changes.
Necco (Eva) has changed her name. Miles and Errol, dead from the flood. Lily and Eva (now Necco) are living as vagrants. From homeless to a camp with a group of women.
After the mother dies, Necco is running and being chased by an evil man called “Snake Eyes or Chicken Man”. He goes by many names. A bad man is looking for them, her mom says. A walking shadow, a black hole man. He has such power, he can do things, like fly. He can spy on you in our dreams. The Kind of Liars.
He was the one responsible for the Great Flood and all the terrible things. Even responsible for what happened to their grandparents, and Miles and Errol. He meant to drown them too. He is ever vigilant. He is sneaky. He can change his appearance from a businessman to a biker.
Was her mother trying to blame a mythical monster for all the bad things that had happened to them?
Necco has no memories of the flood. The very event that caused them to live on the streets. Under the bridge where the women did the snuff, saw visions, ate fire. Burntown. All this had broken her mother. The world was changing she said. One day he would find them. Her visions.
Not the typical sleepy New England college town for the dark residents who live among the remains of its abandoned mills and factories, it’s known as “Burntown.”
“ . . . the truth isn’t something you want to look in the face. Sometimes you’re better off not knowing.”
A girl fleeing a drug dealer, a fat woman, the circus, elephant, the strongman, birds, a doll, a ghost from her past, plus much more. . .
“The things that scare us the most, the things we think might hurt us . . . they’re the things that make us whole.”
The author mentions she worked years ago at a homeless shelter in Portland, Oregon and assume this is where she received her inspiration for the different stereotypes of homelessness and their stories.
Was disappointed Cassandra Campbell (my favorite narrator), was not narrating Burntown, as in McMahon past audiobooks. (Abby Craden) for this one. However, not sure I would be up to re-read (listen) to this one again anyway.
I am not a fan of supernatural, or paranormal. I do not mind a little magical realism sprinkled with some mystery and suspense; however, this was more than a little and "over the top." For those who enjoy this sort of thing may find entertaining. Not to say McMahon is not a skilled and talented writer. This one was just not for me. Not like any of her other books.
A special thank you to Doubleday and NetGalley for an early reading copy.
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About the Author
I was born in 1968 and grew up in my grandmother’s house in suburban Connecticut, where I was convinced a ghost named Virgil lived in the attic. I wrote my first short story in third grade. I graduated with a BA from Goddard College in 1991 and then studied poetry for a year in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College. A poem turned into a story, which turned into a novel, and I decided to take some time to think about whether I wanted to write poetry or fiction. After bouncing around the country, I wound up back in Vermont, living in a cabin with no electricity, running water, or phone with my partner, Drea, while we built our own house. Over the years, I have been a house painter, farm worker, paste-up artist, Easter Bunny, pizza delivery person, homeless shelter staff member, and counselor for adults and kids with mental illness — I quit my last real job in 2000 to work on writing full time. In 2004, I gave birth to our daughter, Zella. These days, we’re living in an old Victorian in Montpelier, Vermont. Some neighbors think it looks like the Addams family house, which brings me immense pleasure. Read More