INTERNATIONAL THRILLER AWARD-WINNING AUTHOR
On the surface, Ashford, Vermont, seems like a quaint New England college town, but to those who live among the shadowy remains of its abandoned mills and factories and beneath its towering steel bridges, it's known as Burntown.
Eva Sandeski, who goes by the name Necco on the street, has been a part of Burntown's underworld for years, ever since the night her father, Miles, drowned in a flood that left her and her mother, Lily, homeless.
Now, on the run from a man called Snake Eyes, Necco must rely on other Burntown outsiders to survive. 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 turns.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
JENNIFER McMAHON is the author of eight novels, including the New York Times best-sellers Promise Not to Tell and The Winter People. She graduated from Goddard College and studied poetry in the MFA Writing Program at Vermont College. She lives in Vermont with her partner, Drea, and their daughter, Zella.
Read an Excerpt
June 16, 1975
His mother glides across the flagstone patio slowly, hips and long legs working in time with the music, a kind of undulating dance that reminds Miles of the way tall grass moves just before a thunderstorm. She clutches a drink in her hand—a mint julep in a sweating glass with daisies painted on the side. Captain and Tennille sing from the tinny portable radio that rests on the table: Love, love will keep us together.
She hums as she dances her way to the aluminum-framed lounge chair. The brass elephant charm on her beaded bracelet swings, sniffing the air with its trunk. Miles loves the elephant bracelet. She won’t say where she got it, but she’s been wearing it for almost a month now.
In her white cotton dress and gold sandals, she looks like one of the goddesses from the book of Greek mythology Miles has been reading. Aphrodite maybe. Her toenails are painted a rich velvety plum, her skin is a summery bronze, and her light brown hair is highlighted with gold and feathered back from her face. She sits down in the chair, resting her glass on the little metal table beside it. She picks up the pack of Pall Malls and shakes out a cigarette.
Miles holds his breath and shifts uneasily in his hiding spot. He’s on his belly behind the rock garden, stretched out like a snake as he watches his mother across the yard.
She’d promised to quit. But she keeps cigarettes hidden in the bookcase, behind the huge, leather-bound classics no one in their house ever reads: Moby-Dick, David Copperfield.
Miles has told his mother about the movie they watched in health class—the images of the healthy, pink lungs and the dark, mottled smokers’ lungs. He hates to imagine that his mother’s lungs might look like the sooty inside of a chimney; worse still, he hates to think of her dying, which is what his health teacher, Mrs. Molette, says will happen if you smoke. Your lungs will become blackened. Diseased. They will not work anymore. They will not bring oxygen to your body. Without oxygen, you die.
“And I might get hit by a bus, too,” his mother had said when he repeated this. “Or struck by lightning. Or the brakes could go out on my car and I could go over a cliff.”
Miles has to admit that this last scenario seems possible, too. His mother drives an old MG convertible coupe that was a wedding present from her parents. It’s spotted with rust, and spends more time in the shop than out. Miles’s dad wants to trade it in for something more practical—a nice station wagon maybe, like all the other moms drive. Miles tries to imagine his mom behind the wheel of a station wagon, like Mrs. Brady on The Brady Bunch, but his mom is no Mrs. Brady. And his mom loves her old MG. She’s even named it. Isabella, she calls it, the name sounding musical. And sometimes, she’ll say she’s running to the store for milk and Frosted Flakes but then be gone for hours. Miles asks her where she goes and she says, “Just driving. Just me and Isabella and the open road.”
It seems like every week some new, impossibly expensive imported part breaks: a valve, a pump, a drum . . . things that, to Miles, sound more like body parts than car parts. But when a car part breaks, you take the car in to Chance’s garage and they order a new part and replace it. You can’t do that with blackened, cancer-filled lungs.
He has to find a way to stop her.
That’s why, earlier today when she was out at the market, Miles stole his mother’s hidden pack of cigarettes. It was half-empty, with only ten cigarettes remaining. He took out two, and carefully worked half the tobacco out of the paper. Then, just as carefully, he replaced it with the two paper packets he’d made, each filled with black powder from his toy gun caps along with a pinch of sulfur from his chemistry set. Once the tobacco was placed back on top, they looked just like the other cigarettes. He wanted her to get a few good drags in before a small, stinking explosion would turn her off of smoking forever.
Ten cigarettes, two of which will explode. The chances she’s chosen one just now are one in five. Miles likes numbers, understands odds. Hunkering down, he watches as she lights up.
He’s wearing his Robin Hood costume: green corduroy pants that are a little too tight, tall cowboy boots, and one of his father’s brown work shirts with a tag that makes Miles’s neck itch, but he forces himself to be still, not to scratch. The shirt is cinched at the waist with a thick leather belt that holds his wooden sword. A quiver of arrows is on his back, and he holds his homemade bow in his hands. His father had helped him make the bow and arrows, had even made sharp metal arrowheads for them, reminding Miles that these were not toys and he needed to be careful. His mother wasn’t impressed: “Wonderful, Martin. And I suppose you’ll deal with it when he kills one of the neighborhood cats by accident?”
They argued, but in the end, Miles got to keep them.
His father loves the old Robin Hood movies, and he and Miles sometimes watch them together on the little TV in his dad’s workshop. But lately, his father’s been too busy. He’s an appliance repairman, and drives a white van with his name on the side: martin sandeski, appliance repair and service. His father also uses the van for hauling equipment for the jazz quartet he plays in, Three Bags Full. His dad likes to tell the story of how he once played the trumpet onstage down in New Orleans with Count Basie. Miles’s father is full of great stories. Stories of jazz legends he’s rubbed elbows with, or a producer he met at a little club in Albany, New York, who’s working on pulling some strings to get Three Bags Full a recording deal. And the best story of all: that his grandfather had worked for Thomas Edison, the guy who invented the lightbulb and movies and records. “He gave me some of Edison’s original plans,” Miles’s dad claimed. “Plans for a secret invention he was working on just before he died. They’re worth a fortune. A million dollars, easy.”
“What are the plans for?” Miles had asked once, when his dad had polished off a six-pack of Narragansett.
“A special sort of telephone. A telephone that does things no one would believe, impossible things.”
Miles’s mother had laughed. “Stop teasing the boy with your stories, Marty.” They were sitting in the living room with the TV on, but no one was paying attention.
His father had drained the rest of his can of Narragansett. “I’m not teasing, one day you’ll see.”
Miles’s mother had told him she didn’t believe the Edison plans existed (she’d certainly never set eyes on them), and even if they did, no way were they actually from the real Thomas Edison. “Honest to God, you can’t believe half of what your father tells you,” she’d said, blowing out a stream of smoke, crushing a cigarette butt into the heavy glass ashtray on the coffee table with a little too much force.
Now, Miles peers anxiously through a clump of tiger lilies, waiting for the bang from his mother’s cigarette.
He feels an odd combination of anticipation and guilt; though he knows he’s doing this for her own good, it seems like a cruel trick to play. His mother is so easily frightened; Miles and his father tease her with rubber snakes in the bathtub, plastic spiders in the butter dish—practical jokes that always make her scream. Then, when she realizes it’s a joke, she laughs so hard she becomes breathless. His mother is beautiful when she laughs, and there is something truly stunning about catching her in the moment her fear turns to blissful, almost hysterical, relief. It almost embarrasses him to catch her in these moments, like he’s seeing something he shouldn’t; it’s almost like walking into the bathroom without knocking and seeing her just getting out of the tub.
Suddenly, a shadow moves over the grass, crossing the yard and moving stealthily toward the patio.
Could his father be home early?
He’s supposed to be repairing a washing machine for Old Lady Mercier all the way across town. Then he was going to stop by the shop and work on an air conditioner a guy had dropped off.
No. This is not his father, nor is it a child from the neighborhood, or anyone else he recognizes.
It’s a man.
A shorter, slighter man than his father. And this man wears yellow socks and black dress shoes that are too large for his feet, making an awkward flip-flop sound as he walks. His trousers are also too long, but have been rolled up. With each step, there is an absurdly bright flash of yellow from each ankle. But the oddest thing about this man is not his too-large shoes and yellow socks, or his quick determined walk toward Miles’s mother reclining on the patio.
Covering his face, his whole head in fact, is a rubber chicken mask. The mask is white, the beak yellow, the comb and wattles red.
Miles feels as if he’s somehow slipped into one of his Saturday morning cartoons. He watches as the Chicken Man approaches his mother from behind. She’s lying on the lawn chair, eyes closed, sunning herself; oblivious.
Up until now, Miles hadn’t noticed the man’s hands. He’s been keeping them tight to his sides, but now, in the right, Miles sees the bright glint of a blade.
Miles rises slightly and tucks one of his sharp arrows in the bow—his lucky arrow, the shaft painted black, the feathers red. He pulls back the string. The Chicken Man is directly behind her chair now, and he leans down to whisper something in her ear. Keeping her eyes closed, she laughs.
Then, in one swift motion, the Chicken Man draws the blade across her throat.
His mother’s eyes dart open, frantic and disbelieving. The blood pumps from her throat, soaking the chest of her white dress and dripping through the yellow nylon webbing of the chair and onto the flagstone patio. Instead of a scream, all Miles hears is one final resigned sigh.
The arrow flies from Miles’s bow, hitting the Chicken Man on the left side of his lower back, making him bellow. As Miles stands up on wobbly legs, the Chicken Man swivels his head and pulls the arrow out with a roaring cry. Then he looks right at Miles. Holding the knife in one hand, and the arrow in the other, he takes a step in Miles’s direction.
Miles is trying to get his legs to run when there’s a bright, explosive, sulfur-scented POP-POP! from the ashtray. The Chicken Man freezes, then takes off running back across the yard, rubber mask quivering, shoes flapping, socks glowing brighter than the sun.
Reading Group Guide
Guide written by Amy Clements
1. If you had access to Edison’s machine, who would you want to summon from the dead? What would you ask? Would you want to be warned about imminent danger, as Miles’s mother did, or would you rather not know what lies ahead?
2. Discuss the many faces of motherhood described in the novel. Did Lily’s protective instincts do more harm than good? How will Necco’s approach to parenting be different? Why was it hard for Theo to trust her mother?
3. Miles’s book, The Princess and the Elephant, describes the power of myths, legends, and symbols. Is his family haunted by a supernatural force, or did their enemy become stronger and more dangerous simply through storytelling?
4. “Fire is life,” the Fire Eaters say, and “fire is breath.” How is this demonstrated by the women of Ashford? What is special about the women’s wisdom possessed by the Fire Eaters?
5. What lies at the heart of Necco’s resilience? Do her memories sustain her, or do they burden her with fear and grief?
6. Was Hannah just using Theo, or is it possible that she had fallen in love? What made Hannah vulnerable to Jeremy’s control?
7. While Theo learns more and more about the nature of addiction, does she use her leverage wisely?
8. What does Errol’s story tell us about innocence? How was his perception of himself shaped by his male role models?
9. Pru’s circus celebrates superpower and beauty. If you joined her troupe, what would your performance be?
10. What does the novel say about the nature of love (including being loved by family)? What made Miles and Lily so devoted to each other, while Elizabeth and Martin (Miles’s parents) had a shaky marriage? Would Hermes and Necco’s relationship have survived?
11. What hopes and fears do Necco and Theo share? Have you experienced a friendship like theirs—one that sustained and healed you?
12. What gives Pru the confidence to recognize her strength, shedding her image as an outsider and finding true love with Mr. Marcelle?
13. What did you predict about the identity of Snake Eyes? How did you react when the truth was revealed?
14. In her acknowledgments, the author expresses gratitude to everyone she met while working at a homeless shelter in Portland. What does the novel reveal about homelessness, survival, and life in hiding?
15. How does Burntown enhance your experience of Jennifer McMahon’s previous novels? What is unique about the way she blends ordinary life with extraordinary turns of fate?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I have read all of her books and have loved every one and this is another to add to my colection.
You wont be sorry if u buy it
It all happened because of the plans from Thomas Edison, these plans which had been passed down a few generations. Mile’s dad was an inventor and his father told Miles that these plans, from the famous inventor, were to remain a secret and that they would change his life. Miles watched a man in a chicken suit kill his mother. In his backyard, his mother was slayed right before his very eyes. His father became the prime suspect, for who could see who was actually wearing that chicken outfit and the police had a job to do. His father couldn’t take the pressure and soon Miles is without either parent. As Miles ages and has his own family, the plans get put to use, their identity still hidden but the results are far-reaching. These secret plans change the lives of many individuals, individuals who weren’t even aware that they existed. I had to reach for McMahon’s newest novel as I have been reading a few of her novels since I read The Winter People. Following her same style, this novel takes me on many roads and eventually these roads converge in the end. Some of the individuals in this novel were strange, their lives so different from my own, I was mesmerized by them. The women who snuffed the red potion, the girl the students call Fire Girl and the woman with the miniature circus, these individuals made this novel remarkable and enticing. I thought the novel moved quickly, I would get involved in one aspect of the story and soon, I would be reading about something else, this aspect just as fascinating as the last. I would say that the characters made this novel, they were such interesting and amusing people who were brought together to have their own needs met but also to put light on the past.
Wow!! What a read. I don’t even know how to classify this book. Horror, murder/suspense, supernatural…it’s all in one. I so enjoyed trying to guess what happens next….I was wrong every. single. time!! As a young boy, Miles witnesses his mother’s murder. His father then killed himself after being accused of the crime. Miles grows up, marries, becomes a professor at a college, has a child named Eva and builds a machine. The machine can talk to dead people. Miles wants to talk to his mother. There is a story which surround this machine. You need to read the book to find out. It is very intriguing! Then a flood happens and everything changes. Eva, or Necco, as she calls herself now, is a homeless, young girl living in an abandoned car. She has lost everyone, her dad and her brother in “the great flood” and her mom to suicide. But, is that what really occurred ? Her life begins to unravel as the knowledge about what happened starts to reveal itself. The story created around Eva is very uncommon. From the “great flood” to the homeless, fire-eating women, Eva becomes a strong, tough young girl living on the streets. Then she is accused of murder and everything changes once again. I don’t even know how to describe the suspense which runs throughout this book. Jennifer McMahon knows how to calmly build a story then completely change all expectations. Her characters are all completely different, strong and purposeful. This is a unique and non stop read. I received this novel from Netgalley for a honest review.
Eva's dad Miles makes all sorts of wonderful inventions. He has plans passed down from his dad that makes a machine that allows you to talk to the dead. Miles's mom was murdered and Miles worries that who murdered her will come after his family for the plans. Then one night a flood occurs. Eva and her Mom get away, Miles and Errol(Eva's brother) are killed. From the flood night on, Eva and her mom Lily are living as street people and trying to stay alive. Then Lily kills herself and Eva is all alone. Eva is living in an old car with her boyfriend Hermes when Hermes is murdered and Eva is a suspect. Yet again Eva is on the run from the murderer. So many secrets and mysteries surround Eva. It is an exciting book that keeps you guessing until the very end when Eva pieces everything together. Thank you to NetGalley and Doubleday Books for an ARC for an honest review.
"Up top, where the college was, where people went to work every day at the paper mill, that was Ashford. But down here under the bridge where the women did the snuff, saw visions, and ate fire, this was Burntown." In 1975, Miles Sandeski saw a man wearing a chicken mask cut his mother's throat as she lounged in the backyard. Although Miles knew it wasn't him, his father was accused of the murder and hung himself. Now Miles has a family, his wife, Lily, and son and daughter, Errol and Eva. Miles also has the secret plans of an invention design by Thomas Edison that were given to him by his father. It is for a machine that will allow people to communication with the dead. Miles builds the machine, uses it once, and then keeps it covered up in his shop. Years later the machine warns them of danger. A flood destroys their home, Miles and Errol are dead, and Lily and Eva (now known as Necco) have run away to safety, living with a group of homeless women. These women are where Lily joins a mystical group of women who call themselves "fire eaters" and snort a red powder they call "the devil's snuff" which is supposed to give them visions. When Lily later throws herself off a bridge, Necco (Eva) leaves the group and lives in an abandoned car with Hermes, her boyfriend. When another murder happens, Necco realizes that she is being pursued and targeted by an evil man her mom called "Snake Eyes." Along with Necco and the Sandeski's story, Burntown follows the narrative of two others women: Theo, a high school senior and Pru, the cafeteria lady with a secret life. The lives of these three characters eventually unite into one storyline. In Burntown, McMahon presents a satisfying story with a substantial plot. The story is intriguing with several mysteries/questions that need answers along with a sense of danger that follows all of our characters as they try to find the answers. But there is also an underlying sense of wonder and fascination in several scenes of the novel that are almost magical. Adding to the narrative are the many secrets - things aren't always what they seem in the plot and people - and mystical elements. The characters are well-defined and developed. Several of the characters brought to life on the pages are memorable and made reading even more imperative. Once I started, I simply could not stop reading Burntown. McMahon is one of my go-to authors for exceptional writing combined with a compelling plot. I was totally engrossed from beginning to end. Burntown by Jennifer McMahon is a very highly recommended supernatural mystery/thriller. Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday.
When I first saw this book offered on Net Galley, I didn't even read the description. I saw the name Jennifer McMahon and bam, I hit request. I have read several of this author's books and I have never been disappointed. While I can say this one was certainly different than others that I have read, it did not disappoint. There was most certainly a lot of action going on in this book. At first, while the author was putting out the puzzle pieces it was a little slow. You can't just throw out the pieces, you have to make sure that they are all right side up. Then you have to put all the straight edges in a certain pile. Then you can start putting the puzzle together. That's when this book started taking off. And boy, did it take off. The knapsack, the knitting needles, the money, snake eyes, wow I'm getting goose pimples thinking about it. I do have to say, the circus part, that was strange when I first started reading it. It was still strange after I figured it out, but I guess it would take someone strange to get into the car with these girls. And, while first starting to read this, I thought that I had read it so fast that I had missed something with the flood. That is one thing about e-books, it's harder to go back and find something. However, I did discover that, no, I did not miss something. The book was Necco talking. With all this being said, I hope that this little hints are just enough to intrigue, not give out spoilers. Because, this is an awesome read from an awesome author who has never failed to disappoint me. Like I said, I just saw the name and said "yes"! Huge thanks to Doubleday Books for approving my request and to Net Galley for providing me with a free e-galley in exchange for an honest unbiased review.
Yes, definitely yes. It started sudden, and the events gut-punched you when you least expected. It was impossible to stop up to the 30% mark, and even then only because I had to wake up early the next morning. It was unputdownable. It's been a while since I've last read a mystery novel that drew me in so much. It wasn't the fact that I didn't see the end coming; the actual "mystery", if you paid attention throughout the novel, was fairly easy to guess. But the first three quarters of the book were so written as to keep you guessing. Just when you think the events will calm for a bit and let you catch your breath after the last plot twist, a new change of situation arises and how can you stop reading just then? You can't. I cared so much about the characters and their fate that I kept reading till the very end, even to just read the confirmation of my suspicions. I liked how the characters were created with one exception - the bad guy. After all he'd done I was expecting more cruelty on his part in the end, not the mopey, gushy, touchy-feely man. But I can overlook this because the rest of the book was a thrill to read! This book made me miss mystery and crime novels. I received an advanced free e-book copy of the book from the publisher via Net Galley. All thoughts expressed here are my own.