I read the blurb of The Stroke of Winter by Wendy Webb in a publisher’s catalogue and was immediately intrigued; a renovation of a bed and breakfast gone awry due to a potential haunting? All taking place within a frozen lakeside tourist town? Sounds perfect! I wasn’t familiar with this author, but she appears to be a fan favourite, and I was delighted by this book for all the right reasons. It’s spooky yet cozy, and the plot rockets along with only the best kind of pauses (for food and romance). I’ll struggle to find any complaints with this one, because it was just what I needed to start off my new year of reading.

Plot Summary

Tess is renovating her old family home into a bed and breakfast, situated in the small, picturesque and historical town of Wharton. Normally a summer destination, Tess is fixated on changing her life and starting this new business, and she’s almost there, but needs to update and renovate a part of the house that’s been closed off for decades. She’s concerned there are animals that have burrowed away in that part of the house as she has started hearing scratching at night, but when the room is finally opened, she finds no animals, but a room in complete disarray, covered in empty wine bottles, old easels, and paint all over the walls. And once the doors are opened, even stranger things happen, including shadows of figures seen from the outside, otherworldly screams with unexplained origins, and heavy objects being moved and re-arranged while Tess is out. Her grandfather is the famous painter Sebastien Bell, whose paintings are now worth millions of dollars, and she believes she may have found previously undiscovered works of his in this room. In an attempt to keep this potential windfall quiet, she has to be very careful about who she lets in on this secret, but she’s also desperate to understand what she’s awoken in this old house.

My Thoughts

I did find this book creepy, the supernatural elements were well done, but Webb uses a few techniques to give us readers a ‘cozy’ feeling too. Although this book is clearly relying on the haunted house trope, it upends our expectations of what a haunted house should look like. Tess has worked hard to make this home cozy, and because it has been in her family for generations, she’s got lots of happy memories to rely on, which spill into the way us readers feel about it too. When we are first toured through the house, we are reminded of all the childhood adventures she went on, and the beauty of all its fireplaces and reading nooks, including the heart of the home, the big kitchen that everyone loves. And yet, atmosphere is where this book really shines, because although the house is clearly adored by most, the disruption of this opened studio irrevocably alters it, prompting the safe-haven to suddenly seem inhabitable. The conflict doesn’t just become determining what has changed, but reaching a resolution that will return the beloved house to its initial comfort, which softens the horror that some may feel at the suggestion of ghosts.

Another unique feature of this book is its focus on food. Tess is a chef and enjoys cooking for others, so when she does make a meal, the author goes into great detail about the preparation of it, in many cases, using three or four paragraphs to describe how Tess is preparing it. It’s an odd thing to include in a book about a haunted house BUT it really worked for me here. It offered a relaxing contrast to the unease of Tess’s discoveries, giving not only the characters, but the readers a soft respite from the stress of the haunting.

Geography not being my strong suit, I’ll admit to assuming this book was going to take place in Canada when I saw it was situated on the shores of Lake Superior. I handily forgot that Lake Superior is on the border of the U.S. and Canada, so there is quite a bit of shoreline in the U.S. too, which is where this book takes place. Still, being the lake lover I am, I enjoyed the descriptions of the setting, the place-making that focuses on the tight-knit community who bands together in the winter while the tourists are gone, etc. It brings to mind my cherished Muskoka and the way it transforms itself through the seasons.

It appears I was right that I wouldn’t find any complaints about The Stroke of Winter – I highly recommend this one, for lake lovers and land lubbers alike, anyone looking for a cozy scare.

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