Review: The Orphan of Cemetery Hill, Hester Fox

Review: The Orphan of Cemetery Hill, Hester FoxThe Orphan of Cemetery Hill by Hester Fox
Published by Graydon House ISBN: 1525804571
on September 15, 2020
Genres: Fantasy/Science Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 337
Format: E-Book, eBook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
three-half-stars

The dead won’t bother you if you don’t give them permission.

Boston, 1844.

Tabby has a peculiar gift: she can communicate with the recently departed. It makes her special, but it also makes her dangerous.

As an orphaned child, she fled with her sister, Alice, from their charlatan aunt Bellefonte, who wanted only to exploit Tabby’s gift so she could profit from the recent craze for seances.

Now a young woman and tragically separated from Alice, Tabby works with her adopted father, Eli, the kind caretaker of a large Boston cemetery. When a series of macabre grave robberies begins to plague the city, Tabby is ensnared in a deadly plot by the perpetrators, known only as the “Resurrection Men.”

In the end, Tabby’s gift will either save both her and the cemetery—or bring about her own destruction.

I wanted to read this book for two reasons:

  1. I had just finished Hester Fox’s newest book, A Lullaby for Witches, and there was an excerpt of this book at the end. I liked the first chapter.
  2. It is set in Boston, one of my favorite places.

After reading two of Hester Fox’s books (and having started a third), I feel secure in saying Fox is at her best in setting the scene. She evokes gothic New England settings with the practiced hand of the historian she is. The inspiration for Cemetery Hill is the Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in Boston’s North End. The North End is one of my favorite areas of Boston. Fox brings 19th-century Boston to life, but in my case, she didn’t have to work too hard since I had seen many of the places in the novel.

Characterization is more of a challenge. I found Tabby to be naive—especially for someone who has had to live by her wits for so long. I didn’t understand why she was so interested in Caleb. I didn’t like him at all, and it didn’t say much about her taste in men that she was that interested in him. He never seemed able to make up his mind what he wanted, and I suppose that’s realistic enough—real people have that problem. More problematic was that Fox didn’t seem to know if he was a decent guy or not, so he just came off to me as confusing. The lead characters just didn’t strike me as real in the way the characters in A Lullaby for Witches did. I don’t have to like characters in order to enjoy a book. Wuthering Heights is my favorite book, and I hate all the characters. I suppose something I have discovered about myself is that if a writer can take me to a place, I enjoy the reading experience, and Hester Fox can certainly take a reader to a place.

This paragraph contains a slightly spoilery detail. The sinister plot at the heart of the book didn’t ring true. I found it easier to believe Tabby was clairvoyant than that the villains in this novel were interested in using her ability to reanimate the dead. Why? What were they hoping to accomplish? That question was never clearly answered. I get why people would want to contact the dead, but I didn’t understand their Frankenstein-like pursuit of reanimation.

Those quibbles aside, I still believe the book is worth 3.5 stars. Why? I really enjoyed the setting, and I found Fox’s evocation of 1850s Boston fascinating. Though the lead characters didn’t interest me, I did like Eli and Tabby’s sister Alice. The book is escapist fun for any reader who likes gothic stories in a New England setting.

three-half-stars

Review: A Lullaby for Witches, Hester Fox

Review: A Lullaby for Witches, Hester FoxA Lullaby for Witches by Hester Fox
Published by Graydon House on February 1, 2022
Genres: Fantasy/Science Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 352
Format: E-Book, eBook
Source: Library
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This post contains affiliate links you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.

Goodreads
four-half-stars


Two women. A history of witchcraft. And a deep-rooted female power that sings out across the centuries.

Once there was a young woman from a well-to-do New England family who never quite fit with the drawing rooms and parlors of her kin. Called instead to the tangled woods and wild cliffs surrounding her family’s estate, Margaret Harlowe grew both stranger and more beautiful as she cultivated her uncanny power. Soon, whispers of “witch” dogged her footsteps, and Margaret’s power began to wind itself with the tendrils of something darker.

One hundred and fifty years later, Augusta Podos takes a dream job at Harlowe House, the historic home of a wealthy New England family that has been turned into a small museum in Tynemouth, Massachusetts. When Augusta stumbles across an oblique reference to a daughter of the Harlowes who has nearly been expunged from the historical record, the mystery is too intriguing to ignore. But as she digs deeper, something sinister unfurls from its sleep, a dark power that binds one woman to the other across lines of blood and time. If Augusta can’t resist its allure, everything she knows and loves—including her very life—could be lost forever.

I enjoy a good witch book, and this was a pretty good witch book. As a bonus, it’s set in my current home state of Massachusetts in the fictional town of Tynemouth, somewhere on the North Shore (my best guess, based on its proximity to the real cities of Salem and Boston). Parts of Margaret’s story seemed stilted, I think in part because of the author’s choice to bring her into the present to reflect on her growing power in several italicized sections. The Margaret sections set entirely in the past rang true. I am not sure how else Fox might have accomplished her storyline, but those passages always took me out of the story for a minute. However, I kept turning the pages, wanting to know what would happen. Some of my questions remained unsatisfied, but I’m afraid they’re spoilers. If you highlight the text that follows this paragraph, you’ll see my spoiler questions, but if you don’t want the story spoiled, you can keep reading the paragraph that follows the spoilers section.

Spoilers!

  1. I never found out exactly how Augusta and Margaret were related. I worked on the assumption that she’d be a direct descendant until Margaret was killed before her child could be born. After that, I didn’t know how Augusta could be related to Margaret. 
  2. I also wanted to know more about Augusta’s family history. Fox teased several times that there were some big reveals buried in the boxes of mementos of her father, and Augusta sifts through them a few times, even finding Margaret’s comb and a family tree with the name Montrose, the maiden name of Margaret’s mother. “Bishop” was also on the family tree, and Bridget Bishop was executed during the Salem Witch Trials. Fox wouldn’t be the first writer to use Bridget Bishop as a real witch, if that’s the case—Deborah Harkness makes her protagonist in A Discovery of Witches a descendant of Bridget Bishop and a real witch.
  3. What exactly happened to Margaret? Did she vanish? Is she still out there, lurking? 

I understand some character names from Fox’s other books appear in this book as well, but this was my first book by Hester Fox. I liked it enough that it will not be my last. She reminds me a bit of Brunonia Barry in how she captures Massachusetts’s witchy history, and I really liked the idea that Augusta worked in a museum—the former home of a prominent family. There is a hint of Barry’s characterization from The Lace Reader and A Map of True Places in this book. I will always have a soft spot for Brunonia Barry because I won a trip to Salem, MA in connection with her book A Map of True Places, and I’m convinced it was a sort of beginning that led to our moving to MA two years later. I will also always have a soft spot for Salem, and truthfully, I’d love to live on the North Shore one day.

I really enjoyed Fox’s comment in her acknowledgments, offering “thanks and admiration” to “the many museum workers and volunteers who are actively decolonizing the field and making museums more equitable places, both for the audiences they serve and in the stories they tell.” This idea plays out in the novel in how Augusta and her co-workers work to remember the stories of the women of Tynemouth. For far too long, the stories of so many people have been forgotten, and this is especially true of women and people of color. Fox tried to include both in this novel. She was more successful in capturing the women, but I appreciated watching Augusta try to uncover forgotten stories for her exhibit.

four-half-stars