February 24, 2012

Picture the Dead: A Panoramic Review (Blog Tour)

"A ghost will find his way home.

Jennie Lovell's life is the very picture of love and loss. First she is orphaned and forced to live at the mercy of her stingy, indifferent relatives. Then her fiancé falls on the battlefield, leaving her heartbroken and alone. Jennie struggles to pick up the pieces of her shattered life, but is haunted by a mysterious figure that refuses to let her bury the past." (from Goodreads)

Picture the Dead by Adele Griffin, illustrations by Lisa Brown

One sentence sum-up: an absorbing Gothic mystery that immerses you in its pages.

My reaction: I really enjoyed Picture the Dead. I'd been having a bit of a reading slump and this book made me go, "Yes! This is the kind of writing and thoughtful plotting I've been looking for!" 

The heart of this book is not a romance, it's a mystery. Now, I was reading extremely carefully and actively trying to solve it (which included flipping back to previous pages and double-checking information...no, I am not above doing that!), so I actually was able to guess the important secrets. I felt pretty vindicated about that because I didn't used to be particularly good at figuring out mysteries! In the case of Picture the Dead, though, I think if you weren't trying very hard to piece everything together, you probably would be surprised by the ending.

I thought the characterization was quite distinctive overall, helped along by the portraits we are given in the illustrations. Jennie is a sympathetic heroine, naïve but fairly practical (except for the whole believing-in-ghosts thing) and sometimes even cynical. She doesn't show a lot of emotion outwardly but it's clear that she loved Will. I liked her inquisitive nature because it didn't seem forced on the reader. Some authors like to make their characters curious in an in-your-face kind of way, but Jennie wasn't like that; she was pretty clever in how she went about gathering information, rather than doing something stupid just to be "inquisitive." Even though her naïveté bothered me at times, she's genuinely a good person and I really wanted her to discover the truth. 

Quinn's entrance back into Jennie's life is really what sets the story going. He presents quite the fascinating character — apparently suffering from emotional trauma related to the war (he's got the whole wounded-with-a-tragic-past thing down cold) and very angsty. The awkward tension between him and Jennie from the beginning, coupled with her mourning of his brother, her fiancé, makes the whole situation feel very Gothic. 

Also, the aunt is really annoying in a funny kind of way; she's so ridiculous, so horrible and self-centered that she's almost one of those characters you love to hate. I wish we'd seen more of Toby and Will, to get a stronger sense of their personalities and their relationships with Jennie. We don't get any sense of closure with either of them, unfortunately. And Toby in particular didn't seem to really play much of a role in the story at all, despite the fact that Jennie was convinced from the start that he was "haunting" her.

There's a real coming-of-age at the end, which was gratifying to see. Spoilers, highlight to read: I like that Jennie finally takes a stand for herself at the end, becoming independent of her aunt and uncle and beginning to live her life on her own terms. Even though there's no romantic happily-ever-after, Jennie does in a sense get her happily-ever-after by escaping her family.

Best aspect: the mystery plot. It plays on an assumption a casual reader probably wouldn't think to question, and I love that it's crafted like that right from the start, rather than haphazardly thrown together as the story progresses. It's well-paced, the pieces gradually coming together, with a kind of creepy mood...you end up feeling like you can't trust anyone! Towards the end it does seem like it's getting dragged out, but I think that was partly just because I was frustrated because I wanted to know the truth.

The snippets we're shown of "photos" and letters also add a lot to the reading experience and flavour of the story, making it stand out and feel more real. The pictures really helped enhance the Southern Gothic atmosphere. I wasn't a fan of the illustration style at the beginning (and originally I thought there would actually be vintage photos, so I was a bit disappointed about that) but I grew to quite like the tritone effect. Interestingly, the art manages to convey both a historical and a modern feel in a way. I found that the illustrations were occasionally misleading, as they don't always match the text 100%, but a word to the wise: if you're anxious to solve the mystery, don't underestimate the importance of some of these "extras."

If I could change something...  The major thing that niggled at me with this book was the way the paranormal element was portrayed. It didn't really seem to fit with the rest of this historical, factually-based story. We aren't given any rules or limitations to the supernatural, and the uncertainty surrounding the hints of ghosts was frustrating for me. This might be more a matter of personal taste than the actual story, I don't know, but I thought using the supernatural to explain certain clues just seemed too easy. Spoilers, highlight to read: I wanted there to be a rational explanation for all the hints, that did not involve any actions on the part of spirits from the beyond. We never actually get to meet Will or Toby, so we're not at all privy to their intentions or motivations, and their existence is never actually proven. Rather, we have to take it on faith just like Jennie does — and I wasn't buying it.

This also contributed to an unsatisfying climactic scene, since there is a vague paranormal element involved that plays a crucial role. To me it felt like a cop-out, too convenient a solution after the big build-up. I really wish we'd had a bit more explanation here! I wanted to see Jennie play a more active part in saving herself. 

Just one more thing I want to mention: I like that it's different from many other YA books set in this time period because it takes place in the U.S. rather than England. However, I had trouble remembering that this was the setting and kept thinking the soldiers were fighting in WWI in Europe. Had to keep reminding myself that it was the American Civil War instead! A few more city names and war details might have helped ground me in the time and place a bit more (also, a map would have been nice).

Read if: you enjoy intelligent mysteries, twisted love triangles, photography mediums, Gothic atmosphere, and ghostly signs.


I take the print hungrily and resolve to add it to my collection once Uncle Henry is out at his office. Will looks so alive that I cannot believe he isn't anymore. I remember precisely the expression on his face when he used to kiss me, the way his eyes had searched mine, those lips on my skin, his fingers tracing the outline of my chin and neck, sketching my body. Even the memories can turn my insides molten.


Final verdict: 4 shooting stars. This is the second Adele Griffin book I've reviewed, and although I'm giving it the same rating as I did Tighter, in terms of the actual reading experience I preferred Picture the Dead.

Disclaimer: I received this book for review from the publisher.


  1. Wow, this is the third solid review I've read this week. I love the sound of the Gothic, historical mystery and I'm glad the mystery had you involved. I just hate it when the solution is obvious and you want to smack the characters upside their heads for being so oblivious. Definitely going to look this one up. Glad it got you out of your reading slump, Danya!

  2. I've been in a reading slump lately too so when a good book comes my way, I love it even more. I thought the mystery in this one was terrific and couldn't have predicted the ending. I loved the illustrations too; they add something more to the reading experience.

  3. This sounds fantastic! I'm a fan of gothic mysteries. Looking forward to reading this one, great review. :)

  4. This was definitely a pretty cool book. I really liked the illustrations and the scrapbook element... I think they added a lot to the reading experience. I do agree re: the supernatural element. It would have been more interesting if it were either full-fledged paranormal or full-fledged fact based.


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