Results

In my previous post, I posed the question, “Can the setting of a story (a particular place or atmosphere) be a sufficiently appealing element to carry a book?” (Or something like that.) To research the experiment,
I read books by three of the authors recommended to the woman on the “What Should I Read Next?” Facebook page who requested “books that take place at the beach.”

Author #1 was Karen White, and I read her book The Sound of Glass. The title comes from the wind chimes constructed from pieces of polished beach glass that the original owner of the house depicted in the novel made and hung from the rafters all around.

soundofglassThe book is set in Beaufort, South Carolina, which the author classifies as part of the “Outer Banks” (although Wikipedia says those are “a string of peninsulas and barrier islands separating the Atlantic Ocean from mainland North Carolina”).  Suffice it to say, the setting is one of open beaches and also of protected swamplands characterized by flat-bottomed boats cruising above pluff mud, and trees covered in Spanish moss. Although there is a minor plot detail involving one of the protagonists’ fear of water, the setting doesn’t have a lot to do with the book, beyond providing evocative sound effects and scents unfamiliar to the one protagonist, who hails from Maine. Scene-setting mostly came down to that character, Merritt, complaining about the stifling heat. A lot.

The story in brief: Merritt’s husband died two years ago. She has recently discovered that his grandmother left him a house in South Carolina, and since he is dead, she inherits. She decides to upend her stagnant life in Maine to go live in it. Shortly after she arrives, so does her stepmother, who is a scant five years older than she is and has a 10-year-old son. The stepmother pleads poverty and asks to stay and Merritt reluctantly agrees, although her father’s marriage to this woman was the reason for her 12-year estrangement from him (he is also now deceased). The two begin to work out their relationship with one another, but it’s complicated by rather large secrets on both sides.

Someone on Goodreads described this book as “relationship melodrama,” and that about sums it up. The thing is, the bones of a good story are here: estranged family who find each other amidst personal crises. But Merritt (the buttoned-up Maine girl), and her counterpart, Loralee (the brash Southern blonde with the pancake makeup), are both such stereotypes that I found it hard to relate to them. Better than the two protagonists, I liked Loralee’s kid, Owen, and Merritt’s doctor/brother-in-law, Gibbes. They were less prone to both drama and cliché, and I think their characters show of what this author is capable if she would quit dropping into the easy channels dug by predecessors.

The secret Loralee is keeping is obvious to everyone but Merritt, but the way she goes about ingratiating herself and her son with her stepdaughter is pretty ingenious. If the story consisted solely of this plot, I think I would have liked it better. Instead, we had to do a whole convoluted study of Merritt’s damaged psyche and how it got that way, and although exposing some of the issues was a worthy goal, her protracted whinging was exhausting. And her ultimate secret, the one that connects grandmother with grandsons with widow, is patently ridiculous.

A comment on writing: When I am reading a book, I subconsciously give the reading the same tests that I give my own writing, one of which is not to use the same descriptive word twice on the same page (let alone in the same sentence), and yet that happens over and over again in this book. The author has the potential for good story-telling, with evocative images and powerful characters, but sloppy writing (uncorrected by her inattentive editors) and tendency to drop into cliché operated for me against enjoyment. I probably will not read any other books by Karen White.

The second author whose work I sought out was that of Elin Hilderbrand, a perennially popular name associated with “beach read” in the Facebook group. I scanned her list of offerings on Goodreads and selected a book that had uniformly higher marks, since some of the others swung wildly between two stars and five. The one I ended up reading was The Identicals.

identicalsI was immediately captivated by the slightly tongue-in-cheek comparison between Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard in the prologue, citing the benefits of each and the detriments of the other from the residents’ point of view. It was a great set-up for the story: While Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard may look to the rest of the world like similar places, to the natives they are worlds apart, even though that distance is a scant 11 miles. Similarly, while twins Tabitha and Harper are identical enough to fool others even at age 39, they are completely different in their life choices and affects.

The story in brief: Twins Tabitha and Harper have been estranged for many years, for various reasons. Harper lives on Nantucket near their father, Billy, while Tabitha assists in their mother’s previously successful but now waning design business/dress shop. Things suddenly get stirred up: Billy dies; Harper’s affair with his doctor becomes a common topic of island gossip; and Eleanor (their mother) falls and breaks her hip. Add to that mix Tabitha’s precocious and trouble-making 16-year-old daughter, Ainsley. Harper needs to cultivate a low profile, Tabitha needs to care for their mother in her recuperation but is at her wits’ end with both her teenager and her dress shop, and something needs to be done about Billy’s ramshackle house on Nantucket. All these circumstances combine to make the twins grudgingly reach out to one another for assistance (facilitated by Ainsley, who is dying of curiosity about their lack of relationship) for the first time in decades.

Part of the reason why this plot line works is that the author herself (in the guise of her various narrators) initially sets it up for derision by comparing the separation of the twins at age 17—one going with “Mommy” and one with “Billy” when their parents divorced—to the Hayley Mills/Lindsay Lohan Parent Trap plot. She then uses their wholly different upbringings—Harper’s on Nantucket as a laid-back, casual evolution into an underachieving adulthood, and Tabitha’s on Martha’s Vineyard (and in Boston) as an uptight, socially restrictive one with high expectations of her performance—as a parallel for the respective towns. It was cunningly written.

I also liked that although there were important elements of mistaken identity “hijinks” and romance in the book, the story was by no means restricted to those plot lines and in fact was much more about the obstacles to familial love and how to overcome them. The back stories were also credible, and gave the story depth. Based on this book, I would read another by Hilderbrand.

As far as the influence of setting, in addition to paralleling elements of the story it also made me wish for sea wind in my hair and a big bowl of clam chowder in front of me on the table. The atmosphere definitely both contributed to and influenced the plot.

For my third book, I chose Sunset Beach, by Mary Kay Andrews, an author appearing on the Facebook page and also mentioned to me as one fitting into the category by my friend Patrice.

The story in brief: Drue Campbell has just gone through her mother’s protracted illness and death when her estranged father, who left them 20 years ago, turns up with a proposition: Drue has inherited her grandparents’ ocean-front cottage in the same town where Brice Campbell has his lucrative personal injury law practice, and Brice thinks she should move into the cottage and take a job at his firm. Complicating the issue is his new wife and office manager, Wendy, who also happens to be Drue’s 8th-grade frenemy. Drue is down on her luck and can’t afford to say no, but she agrees with an ill grace and initially resents both the job and her father and “stepmother.” Then, she is arrested by the plight of one of Brice’s former clients, whose lawsuit over a suspicious death didn’t receive the attention it deserved, and decides to investigate.

sunsetbeachIn this book, Drue’s former hobby (kite-boarding) and her nightly walks on the beach and swims in the ocean from the venue of her derelict cottage do give a beachy atmosphere to the book. But I would definitely not call this one “just” a beach read. Although the opening scenes paint this as “relationship fiction” with the reuniting of Drue with her absentee father, the scenes between them are sometimes shallow, with Drue coming across like a snarky teenager. Brice himself is a bit of a cardboard cutout—bland and not particularly compelling—while Wendy (the new wife) is a cliché of a shrew. But the rest of the book—in which Drue starts out working as an information-taker over the phone for her father’s legal practice and ends up (after taking an interest in an old case with an unsatisfactory resolution) as a bull-headed private investigator—is much more compelling. While there are bits of romance and reconciliation here, the main story is the mystery and this is how I would recommend the book if I were to suggest it to someone. Based on this book, I would read another of Andrews’s, although it could have done with a little more depth in the relationships before switching to the mystery.

Of the three books, I would say that only Hilderbrand’s reinforced the theory that setting can be powerful enough to carry a story. Although the beach hotel culture does become fairly important in Andrews’s tale of betrayal and murder, both the other books could probably have been set anywhere without it feeling like something essential was removed from the plot. In Hilderbrand’s, plot and setting were intertwined, which is the ideal when setting is an issue.

As for my other premise, that people who like a “slow build” in pacing in one genre will enjoy the same in others, that will have to wait for another day and some reporting back from other readers!

 

Kate Racculia

In 2015, I picked up Bellweather Rhapsody, by Kate Racculia, to check it out for my high school book club. It had just won an Alex Award, which is given to 10 books each year that are written for adults but that have appeal for teens. My high school club had become sophisticated readers, and that year we were going almost exclusively for Alex Award books, since 18 out of our 23 members were seniors and the rest were juniors.

BRI never persuaded the club to choose the book; it always got high votes, but never made it to the final pick, and I always regretted that.

Recently, I was reminded of how much I liked it when I saw on the “What Should I Read Next?” Facebook page that Racculia had published a new book, Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts, in 2019. I put it on reserve for my Kindle at the library and awaited its arrival.

While I waited, I went back to Goodreads to review what I had thought of that first book. A brief description: Every year the Bellweather Hotel in upstate New York hosts a high school musical competition called “Statewide,” where music and performance students gather to display their skills. In 1997, twin high school seniors Alice and Bertram “Rabbit” Hatmaker have both qualified to attend. Rabbit plays bassoon in the orchestra, while his sister, an aspiring actress and singer, is in the chorus. Meanwhile (unrelated to the competition), Minnie Graves, who was a child attending a wedding in 1982 when she discovered the groom shot dead and the bride hanging from the light fixture in room 712, has returned for the weekend with her support dog, Augie, to attempt to face down her demons.

Alice is paired as a roommate (in that same room, of course!) with flute prodigy Jill, who also happens to be the daughter of the hated and feared Viola Fabian, sarcastic head of Statewide. Alice discovers Jill’s hanging body in their room on the first evening, but while she runs to get help, the body disappears. Viola dismisses it as an attention-seeking prank, but…if so, where is Jill? All in attendance will have plenty of time to find out, as the Bellweather is enveloped by the biggest snowstorm of the season, and no one is able to leave.

This book started out feeling like a cliché, if an enjoyable one:
The set-up was like a combination of The Shining (Stephen King) and Christie’s And Then There Were None
, and I had resigned myself to enjoying it for those familiarities, with perhaps a few modern twists. But there’s a whole lot more going on in this book than just a murder mystery. It’s a coming of age story, for both children and adults, compressed into a wild weekend in which the adults must re-examine what they’ve been told, what they’ve experienced, and what they remember longing for, and the children go through profound changes due to the catalysts provided by this weird music festival in a moldering old resort, while everyone (well, almost everyone—it is a murder mystery, after all!) comes out the other side changed. Parts are hilarious, parts are incredibly touching, and I loved the resolution for all the characters, who were sharp and quirky, and all of them unique.

TMTTG

Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts has a lot of the same things going for it. Racculia’s real gift is for creating memorable characters and making you care what happens to them, and in this book it’s Tuesday, Dex, and Dorry (and well, maybe Archie).

Tuesday Mooney has an unconventional job: She is what’s called a prospect researcher, which means she profiles wealthy people (for a Boston hospital) to see who best for the office fundraisers to hit up for donations. She has the skills of a private detective, but goes beyond those to assess property, analyze gossip, and also rely on her finely honed instincts to find information and connections. She is uniquely suited to this work, being a loner who prefers to be on the outside, noticing what the insiders will miss. She is a guarded person, whose best friend of 10 years has never even been to her apartment. Her austere reserve rises from a genuine and justified fear of having her heart broken.

She is among a dozen employees who have volunteered to work at the hospital’s “Auction for Hope,” to staff the sign-in tables, keep track of auction bids, and make herself generally useful. Tuesday always volunteers, because after learning absolutely everything she can about her subjects, these events are her only opportunity to interact with them in person. But she’s no fan-girl: She simply wants to weigh her assessment of their facts and figures against the reality of a first impression.

At this particular event, Tuesday manages to finagle a place on the guest list for her best friend, Dex Howard, a gay financier who longed to be in musical theater but settled for a large paycheck. Dex looks around for someone interesting to sit with, and meets eccentric billionaire Vincent Pryce, a collector of Edgar Allan Poe memorabilia, and his much younger wife, Lila. In the course of the evening, Pryce is outbid, stands up dramatically as if to challenge the person doing the bidding, and drops dead of a stroke. The Boston Herald headline the next day read PRYCE BIDS FAREWELL.

But his death is not the big news: Pryce has created an epic treasure hunt throughout Boston—clues inspired by Edgar Allan Poe—whose winner will inherit a share of Pryce’s wealth. Tuesday’s curiosity combined with her skills lead her and her oddball crew—Dex, her teenage neighbor Dorry, and the handsome heir to the Arches fortune she met at the benefit—into a complicated game that will make them face past tragedies, present shortcomings, and future hopes.

As I initially underestimated Bellweather Rhapsody, so did I have lesser expectations for this book. First of all, both the title and the cover art strongly suggested a middle-school novel, especially since many reviewers were comparing it to that old chestnut The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin. Although it was reminiscent, in some ways, of that book, the one it reminded me of more was The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict, the prequel to the Benedict Society series by Trenton Lee Stewart. I immediately thought of Tuesday as a more mature version of Nicholas—clever, introverted, and innovative. Her selection of her friends was likewise unexpected but key.

Steampunk_Goggles_11_1_by_AmbassadorMann

The supernatural element doesn’t actually merit the implications of the name of the book: Tuesday talks to only one ghost, that of her dead teenage friend Abby, and it’s a toss-up whether this is a real spirit contact or just a trauma reaction to her loss. (Her young friend Dorry longs to talk to ghosts, notably that of her deceased mother, and covets Pryce’s possession of Edgar Allan Poe’s goggles, said to allow one to see them.) But the plot is engaging, not just because of the mystery or the potential for ghosts but also as a result of what pursuing the treasure hunt reveals in each of the four main characters. The book shows what it’s like to be haunted, not by a spirit but by longings to express the person you have squashed down inside of you in the interests of practicality. It deals with the ethics, pleasures, and responsibilities of money, and what it’s like to have it/not have it. It enters in depth into the theme of friendship.  It’s a great mix of mystery, introspection, campy humor, and cultural references that shouldn’t work but does. I couldn’t put it down.

I see from Goodreads that Racculia wrote another book, her debut, back before Bellweather. It’s on my list.

Appeals: Eccentric, captivating, substantial characters; evocative world-building with some attention to detail (in both cases); a nice genre mix of mystery, ghosts, and human drama; and an engaging writing style.

 

Laudable series

As I mentioned in my previous post, I recently spent some time re-reading the four books and two novellas Sharon Bolton wrote about Detective Constable Lacey Flint, who works for the London police, sometimes with a murder team, other times undercover and, in one book, as part of the River Police who patrol the Thames.

Lacey is an iconoclast, part of that subgenre of mystery characters known as loners. She attempts to be colorless and matter-of-fact, to keep her head down and fit into the team; but she has so many secrets of her own to keep that it’s a relief to be able to focus instead on the secrets of others, on the methods and madnesses of the serial killers she hunts. As a young, new, and inexperienced detective, Lacey is extraordinarily unlucky about attracting the attention of these criminals to herself. There is some sort of affinity between Lacey and her prey that causes some among her fellow officers to be over-whelmed by the suspicion that she herself is the criminal they are seeking.

nowuseemeIn the first book, Now You See Me, Lacey serves as a source for “her” team on the history of the Jack the Ripper killer, whose scenarios, methods, and exploits the murderer they are now seeking seems to be mimicking. What becomes clear as the team follows this killer further into the labyrinthine twists and turns of serial murder, however, is that the Ripper similarities are camouflage for something much more sinister, and that Lacey is at the center of the story. The rarity of this and the other books in the Lacey Flint series is that the mystery keeps unfolding in each, all the way to the last page.

deadscaredIn Dead Scared, Lacey’s sometime mentor and reluctant crush, Detective Inspector Mark Joesbury, asks her to go undercover as a student at Cambridge University to explore the inexplicable uptick of bizarre suicides on that campus. Given her fragility since the recent end of their last case, her boss, Dana Tulloch, and other members of the team are concerned that Lacey will be overwhelmed by the necessity of playing this vulnerable part. But Joesbury thinks she’s up to it, and she’s the obvious choice, given her youthful appearance, so she immerses herself in campus life and tries to discover more about the raft of lonely and insecure students who chose such unconventional methods of death. It’s an insane plot, fascinating (and misleading) to the last page, and full of peril for more than just Lacey.

likethisIn Like This, For Ever, titled Lost in the United States, Lacey is on leave from her job, and considering not returning to it. She hasn’t been able to process the jumble in her head created by her last case, and is spending most of her time obsessively working out and taking long late-night walks to exhaust her enough for sleep. I can’t say too much about the plot of this one, because it takes an unusual twist at about 85 percent that I don’t want to reveal, but it’s written with Bolton’s usual skill and panache. Because Lacey is on leave, she is not directly involved in most of the police investigation of a serial killer who is targeting young boys. But the usual crowd (Stenning, Anderson, Mizon, Tulloch, Joesbury) are all on hand, and Lacey inevitably gets drawn in by an unexpected personal involvement with a seemingly peripheral character, the boy next door. There’s lots of suspense, with multiple red herrings and a great resolution.

darktwistA Dark and Twisted Tide once again involves Lacey Flint in spite of herself. After her leave of absence, instead of working as a detective she has gone back to uniform as part of the river police, hoping to return gradually to the force, but quiet time is not in the cards. Only Lacey could be out swimming at high tide in the Thames River (a hobby she has taken up since moving onto a houseboat) and discover a body floating in the river wrapped carefully in white burial cloths. Soon it becomes obvious that she didn’t find it by accident, that once again someone is focused on her, trying to draw her in. Being Lacey, she lets herself be drawn. This one, I have to say, was a little weird in spots even for me—but I enjoyed it. I had two problems: First, I think it’s time for Bolton to take up a new story line with regard to Lacey—not every case can relate specifically to her! Second, the long-drawn-out non-courtship of Lacey and Detective Mark Joesbury can’t be prolonged beyond a point, and I think we just hit that barrier as readers. To quote my British friends, at least give us a little snogging!

The two novellas that Bolton wrote for this series exclusively as
e-books are equally compelling and mysterious. In the first, If Snow Hadn’t Fallen, something happens in Lacey’s neighborhood that weighs on her mind, because none of the explanations for it add up to what the killers attempted to convey. The second, Here Be Dragons, which falls at the end of the series, is a long-needed exposition of Mark Joesbury, detailing one of his undercover cases and leaving us, finally, with a cliffhanger regarding his relationship with Lacy. There have been two stand-alone books written and published since the #4.5 novella with the tease at the end; when, oh when, will we discover the outcome?

One of the things I like about this series is that Bolton has nicely combined two separate mystery subgenres. Her protagonist is a lone-wolf type, and we get all the fun that goes along with that; but the books are also pretty comprehensive police procedurals, detailing all the myriad ways in which the police go about solving a murder. This gives the lone-wolf concept a nice, solid background on which to rest.

These books are beautifully written, with a wealth of detailed description of the characters, the neighborhoods of London, and the beauties of the natural world that make themselves known even
along the dreariest parts of the river Thames. Both the characters
and the mysteries are sufficiently unique and well developed that
I would venture to say if you are a Tana French fan you would love these books.

They also remind me of Carol O’Connell’s series featuring Kathleen Mallory: Lacey Flint is likewise a damaged, somewhat amoral police detective who does everything according to her own instincts regardless of policy and logic, and gets “up people’s noses” even though she has no desire or intention to do so. I think Bolton has been wise, however, to vary her oeuvre with completely unrelated stand-alones; O’Connell’s Mallory has a distressing sameness from book to book as her series unfolds, and Bolton could fall into that trap with Lacey if she focused solely on her as a protagonist. That’s not to say I don’t want more of Lacy, because I do! But I will wait at the pleasure of Ms. Bolton and meanwhile enjoy everything else she has written, which is considerable.

 

Dystopian fantasy

I just finished the first two books in what I hope will be a longer series by Charlaine Harris, the author best known for her Sookie Stackhouse vampire books later immortalized as the TV show True Blood.

Harris has had a checquered history for me, with some of her books striking a major chord while others just struck out. I hated her cozy mystery series featuring Aurora Teagarden—I don’t know why, but I found the protagonist irritating and the plots excessively weird. I liked the vampire novels a lot for about the first five, and then they became increasingly silly and kind of desperate. I liked the Lily Bard mysteries that take place in Shakespeare, Arkansas, but they are grim and dark for recreational reading. The Midnight, Texas books are only okay, although I have a soft spot for the protagonist, psychic Manfred Bernardo. I tried a couple of her stand-alone novels from her early writing days but couldn’t get through them.

My favorites up until now have been a four-book series about Harper Connelly, a young woman who was struck by lightning as a teenager and survived it, only to discover that it had given her the power to know how people had died. She couldn’t see who killed them, but she could stand on her grave and reliably tell you if your wife accidentally drowned in the bathtub or if someone had pulled her under. Having no other skills that would earn her a living, she and her step-brother, Tolliver, team up (he acts as her manager) and hire her out to police departments and individuals who want or need to know cause of death. It’s an interesting lifestyle, to say the least, and the most enjoyable part of it is the sheer banality of their daily existence contrasted with the use of Harper’s particular gift. I have read the series three times.

EasyDeathI say they are my favorites up until now because they may have just been aced out by some “new” books I didn’t even know she was writing. The first Gunnie Rose book, An Easy Death, was published in October of 2018, and the second, A Longer Fall, came out this past January. There is a Goodreads note for a third one on the way, no date indicated.

Although I shouldn’t be surprised at the extent of Harris’s imagination (especially after the cast she developed for the Sookie Stackhouse novels), I was so taken with the concept for this book. Perhaps it is conditioning from all the dystopian teen fiction I have read during my 10-year career as a teen librarian, but I do love an alternate history, and this one really delivers.

The setting is the former United States, but one event—the assassination of Franklin Delano Roosevelt—has significantly altered the history of the country. Without Roosevelt’s guiding hand during the Great Depression, the crippled country fractures, and various states were either absorbed into surrounding countries, taken over by former rulers, or banded together to form small nations. The original 13 Colonies pledged fealty to the British Empire; a few of the “top” border states became part of Canada; the south-eastern states are now “Dixie” while Texas and Oklahoma and a few others formed “Texoma”; the “flyover” states remained “New” American territory; the rest of the southwest was annexed by Mexico; and the biggest surprise was California/the Pacific Northwest, which was taken over—by a combination of invitation, treaty, advantageous marriages, and magic—by the tsar Nicholas and the remains of the Holy Russian Empire, which is now its new name.

tsar_nicholas_ii_1898_by-a-a-pasetti-public-domain-via-wikimedia-commonsYes, magic is what I said: This dystopia is not only an alternate history, but also includes wizardry, mastered primarily by the Russians, who value it, and the British, who don’t, so many British wizards have migrated to the new HRE on the Pacific coast, inter-
mingling with their Russian counterparts to maintain the rule of the Romanovs. Readers of history will remember that the Romanovs had a fatal flaw in the male bloodline—hemophilia—and it is this flaw around which Harris has built this first story about Gunnie Rose.

It seems that only the blood of Rasputin (and his descendents) can keep Nicolai’s heir, Alexei, alive, and now that Rasputin is deceased, the hunt is on to find the descendents who can help the Russians maintain their hold. Two wizards travel to Lizbeth “Gunnie” Rose’s home in Texoma, seeking an illegitimate granddaughter rumored to live in the state, and hire Gunnie to protect them while they make their search. Gunnie Rose is between jobs and desperate for cash, so she packs up her arsenal and takes them up on their offer, despite her distrust of Russia and wizardry. But Gunnie is nothing if not brave, and she has ample opportunities to prove this as people intent on preventing the wizards’ mission keep trying to take them out.

longerfallThis series is pure delight, from the elaborate world-building to the laconic Western flavor of Texoma, and the characters are so alive they could step off the page. Harris has written this with just the amount of detail you crave, without drowning you in either description or explanation, and the pace of this mystery/adventure story is perfect. The minute I finished the first book, I jumped without hesitation into the second one.

The second book takes Gunnie Rose and the reader on a train trip into Dixie with a crew new to her, guarding a crate with mysterious contents and not even knowing its ultimate recipient. The mission is quite literally derailed, along with the train, and Gunnie is left, once again, with most of her crew dead or disabled, wondering what could be so important that the people who wanted the crate’s contents would kill that many people by blowing up the train to get it. When her former partner and lover, Eli the grigori wizard, shows up, she begins to winkle out some answers, but the truth is stranger than anyone could imagine.

What a fun and imaginative read. I hope she doesn’t take too long to produce the third volume.

(I loved the cover on this one, showing Gunnie Rose basically sulking because in Dixie she has to appear ladylike by wearing blouses and skirts and petticoats and stockings—and foregoing her gunbelt—in order to fit in. I greatly sympathized with her sigh of relief when she could finally resume the jeans and boots of her everyday wear.)

 

Journalism & crime

fairwarningOn May 26th, a surprise arrived via my Kindle. I had completely forgotten that I had pre-purchased Michael Connelly’s new novel, Fair Warning, to be delivered as soon as it was published, and suddenly there it was! I had another book mid-read, so I have just finished it.

Connelly leaves the world of Harry Bosch to hark back to gonzo journalist Jack McEvoy, the protagonist of two of his former books, The Poet and The Scarecrow. Although I read both of those books when they came out (I have to date read 34 of Connelly’s books!), it’s been such a long time that I toyed with the idea of revisiting them first before proceeding with the new one, but chose to forge ahead. Although there were a few references to the previous cases in this one, it essentially read like a stand-alone for those who hadn’t read them, so that was fine.

As well as being the title of the book, Fair Warning is the name of a non-profit consumer protection news website run by Myron Levin (which actually exists in real life). Jack is a reporter for this website, which feels like something of a come-down from his former hard-hitting crime beat for the L.A. Times (and his authorship of two best-selling books), but he is quick to point out that consumer reporting is a vital service to the public, especially in this age of accelerating scientific discovery, and that many major papers (the L.A. Times and others) pick up and run with his stories. Maybe he protests too much?

The beginning of this story, however, isn’t professional, it’s personal: Two homicide detectives show up at McEvoy’s door with the news that Tina Portrero, a woman with whom he had a fun, slightly drunken one-night stand (a year previous) has been brutally murdered, and he is a suspect. Jack cooperates to the extent that he provides a DNA sample in order to eliminate himself from their list of “people of interest”; but then, because of a curious mind and an eye for the anomalous detail, McEvoy gets ahead of the detectives on this crime and a bunch of related ones.

The method of the murder (which I won’t mention here) is so dramatic and so extreme that McEvoy researches it, and discovers that this method appears in widespread cases; then he notices that the murderer may have been using personal data shared by the victims themselves in a particular way, to select and hunt his targets.

At this point, McEvoy has ceased to think of himself as an accused murderer and started to see the potential for a really big story that involves solving the murders of a bunch of women, zeroing in on a serial killer, and even calling the government to account for lax practices in data protection. So he decides to reach out to his former lover, Rachel Walling, whose FBI profiling career he burned the last time they collaborated, to see if she can pull some strings for him.

Instead, Rachel jumps into the middle of his quest, perhaps to curry favor with and return to the FBI fold, helping Jack’s information stream but also setting up all kinds of conflicts of interest.

A big part of the story here is the moral quandaries in which the various characters find themselves. McEvoy does want to identify the killer and facilitate his capture; but he also wants to break his story, which means he can’t hand over all his information to the police until he “gets the scoop.” He and Rachel Walling have a chemistry between them that didn’t disappear with their falling-out years ago, so there is a motivation to perhaps rekindle that. In addition, Walling has been pursuing a necessary but boring job since she left the FBI, so the prospect of handing them a serial killer ignites her with the ambition to prove them wrong for firing her. A colleague of Jack’s at the website, who is added to the story by his editor, wants to make a name for herself without treading on Jack’s toes too much to do so; and Jack realizes that although he is the better researcher, she is the better writer, so he reluctantly acquiesces in her involvement but then keeps throwing her under the bus. And of course the police want to be the first, last, and final arbiters of what happens with this case, story scoop be damned. It makes for an interesting level of tension throughout the story.

Connelly has pulled off a gripping, fast-paced tale whose interest level is enhanced by having a reporter, rather than a detective, at the helm. Some of the true-to-life details of data collection and (the lack of) government regulation are chilling, and he also fills in the reader on some aspects of operating on the dark web, as well as providing the usual details of his Los Angeles setting that are fun for those of us who live here and recognize them. I enjoyed this book, and it was a nice change from the Bosch litany.

And no, I have no idea why there is a black bird (a crow? a raven?) on the cover.

Procedural?

coldcoldI just finished reading The Cold Cold Ground, the first book in the “Detective Sean Duffy” series by Adrian McKinty. The book was published in 2012, and although I had never heard of it, it won a couple of fairly prestigious awards. A friend on Goodreads thought highly of it, so I decided to check it out. I love getting stuck into a good mystery series, especially when its setting and time period are a bit unusual.

This one takes place in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, at the height of “the Troubles,” which is to say when the country was a battleground for multiple nationalist groups on both sides of the Catholic / Protestant fence, against each other and also against the vilified British government. Sean Duffy is a police sergeant, a recent hire to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and a rare Catholic in a sea of Protestants. He doesn’t seem to hold his faith in particular esteem, but that fact doesn’t matter to the “Fenian” haters all around him, so he has a lot of proving of himself to do on two counts—being the new lad, and being an outsider.

Duffy doesn’t let it worry him overmuch, although he does do a daily check of the undercarriage of his car for bombs before he sets out each morning. It’s an odd period in history in which to set a police procedural because, with every street a potential hazard due to IEDs, gunmen, or just unemployed teenagers throwing cartons of milk and bricks at your car, it’s hard to concentrate on one particular crime. But Duffy does have a crime assigned to him, and it is itself an anomaly—it seems he may have a serial killer on his radar. He and his crew, nicely described and developed in the course of the novel, are investigating the deaths of at least two gay men who have been killed, mutilated, posed, and labeled by the murderer, as well as drawn to the police’s and media’s attention by a series of notes. Sean initially falls for the allure of the first serial case ever to crop up in Northern Ireland, but then begins to suspect there’s a deeper story that has little to do with a hatred of homosexuals and more to do with political undercurrents amongst all the players on scene.

The descriptions are first-rate, the characters compelling, and the action fast and violent, while the writing doesn’t suffer because of the pace. I enjoyed the story from beginning to end, but can’t help but note that this is not an ordinary police procedural. Although Duffy and his mates do a conscientious job of exploring all the clues (sometimes at great risk to themselves), the inferences Duffy then draws from them proceed mostly from his instincts and sometimes wild beliefs than they do from any evidence, which is sparse. The leaps of faith that he makes (and that the author apparently expects you to make along with him) are sometimes a mile (or would it be a kilometer?) too far. Add to that an ending in which Duffy steps far outside his persona as a policeman in order to obtain justice and this book doesn’t dwell very well within its subgenre. Nevertheless, it’s an engaging story, and based on it I would read another by McKinty.

 

Ninth House

I have been anticipating reading Ninth House, by Leigh Bardugo, for several reasons: Although I didn’t care for her Grisha series because it was so full of angsty teenage indecision, I absolutely loved the duology Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, particularly the latter. I felt like Bardugo had stepped up her style and discernment by a lot in the second series, and also, I can’t resist a “gang of thieves” story.

ninthhouseI’m really not sure why Ninth House has been identified as an adult, rather than a teen, book. Admittedly, it’s far too gory and explicit for younger teens, but I could definitely see some of my former book club members from the 10th-12th grade club enjoying this. After all, the philosophy in writing for children or teens is that they always want to read “up,” which is to say, they want to read about a protagonist who is a year or two older than they are. As a freshman at Yale, the Ninth House protagonist, Alex Stern, is just the right age to appeal to seniors in high school. I imagine many parents of said older teens would still quibble with me, because they feel their children should be protected from such graphic fare; and there is a part of me that thinks everyone should be protected from it! But as you learn from reading a lot of books, sometimes you need that stuff to make a point, to expose a wrong-doing, to create empathy in your reader. (Plus, of course, for dramatic effect in your adventure story.) There were certainly plenty of opportunities for that here!

Within the first few pages of this book, I seriously considered putting it down without finishing it. There is a scene early on in which a group of students from one of the magical “houses” at Yale performs a “prognostication” by reading the innards of a man who is still alive (although sedated), with his stomach cut open and pinned back; when they’re done, they stitch him up and send him off to hospital without another thought for his well-being. Also present at the ritual were a group of “Grays,” ghosts who gave off a really frightening vibe. The entire scene turned my stomach, and since I hadn’t as yet invested much into either the story, the scene, or the protagonist (and didn’t really want to encounter more of this), I thought about stopping. But surely all my friends—both personal and Goodreads-type—who were bowled over by this book couldn’t be wrong? So I kept reading.

Ultimately, I was glad I did. Although it took a long time to understand what was happening and also to bond with the main character, I eventually came to appreciate both the bizarre behind-the scenes action and the dogged, flawed, yet honorable Alex, who didn’t give up no matter what.

“Could she grasp the ugly truth of it all?
That magic wasn’t something
gilded and benign, just another
commodity that only
some people could afford?”

Some things I liked about the book:

It gives this Ivy League school an ulterior motive for existing that is both completely creepy and also believable. The concept of a university elite is nothing new, but the idea that they became that way by the practice of necromancy, portal magic, splanchomancy (the reading of entrails), therianthropy (basically, shape-shifting), glamours, and the like is certainly novel!

The funniest part of this is at the end of the book, in an appendix, where the author describes the eight occult houses, reveals in what talent or magic each is invested, and then names graduates (from the real world) who have benefited by being members of the houses during their careers at Yale.

This is not just an amusing commentary, however, on how these students one-upped their futures by participating in magical solutions on the sly. As highlighted in the quote above, Alex comes to realize that magic, while theoretically accessible to whoever was trained or born to practice it, was in reality a tool of the rich and privileged that was sought after at the expense of the poor and defenseless. This is a huge theme of the book, and this is why the reader is able to bear with all the dark scenes, because they are so illustrative of our own contemporary world where billionaires are tripling their wealth during the pandemic while so-called “essential” workers are flogged back to their minimum-wage jobs, despite the danger, by the threat of unemployment. I don’t know if she intended it, but Bardugo here reveals the true “deep state” of influence,
bought and traded favors, and a deep disregard for anyone who gets
in the way.

Up against this mostly impenetrable and nearly unbeatable system of advancement is Galaxy “Alex” Stern, an underdog heroine if there ever was one. She is recruited (and given a full ride to Yale) to be a member of a secret society, Lethe, whose officers are trained to monitor the other eight houses for stepping over the line, and to report and penalize them when they do. Alex wants to use her special abilities for good, but quickly realizes that her job is mostly for show, and that there will be few consequences for any of these offenders, because to bring their activities out into the light would mean embarrassment for alumni, for administrators, and for Yale itself as an institution. What the people who recruited her don’t realize, however, is that first, Alex has abilities about which they (and at first she) are unaware, and that second, Alex has been conditioned by life as an almost constant victim to fight for herself and for other victims no matter how hard the going.

At its heart, Ninth House is a giant (and cleverly structured) mystery. There is a contemporary murder, there are disappearances of vital personnel, there is a string of dead girls from the past that may tie in, and Alex, despite discouragement from both her mentors and her opponents, is determined to solve it in order to bring justice for the have-nots that she sees as her equals.

But the book is not single-minded. There are also themes of friendship and (nonromantic) love, and a lot of social commentary. There is the gradual evolution, also, of the book’s characters as they confront issues and reflect upon their responses. One early-on thought from Alex that I loved was when she was pondering how easily things change from “normal” to not:

“You started sleeping until noon, skipped one class, one day of school, lost one job, then another, forgot the way that normal people did things. You lost the language of ordinary life.”

There were also, in amongst some fairly gruesome scenes that (if you are squeamish, you should be aware) include drug abuse, coercion, murder, rape, and the like, some inside jokes about college that I enjoyed, including some funny dormitory moments among roommates. One library-oriented joke, as noted by my Goodreads friend Lucky Little Cat, was, “I especially liked the special-collections library where occult search requests result in the delivery of either an avalanche of barely relevant books or one lonely pamphlet.’ Anybody who has been to college has encountered this result, with absolutely no occult assistance whatsoever!

Be aware that some readers have accused Bardugo of racism (because of a few comments on Alex’s Mexican origins), and of blatant sexism and misogyny in her portrayal of the rape scenes in the book (because they are pictured from the observer’s point of view rather than that of the victim’s). You will have to decide for yourself how you feel about these accusations.

Bottom line, apart from a rather confusing and disjointed few pages at the beginning, I found this to be a clever, nuanced read about white privilege (as symbolized by magic!) and the lengths to which people will go to cling to it. It also has both a protagonist and a secondary character that, while the book has a satisfactory ending, you are longing to follow into the sequel, which will hopefully be produced quickly.

 

Expansive Paris

I am an unabashed Francophile. I have been to Paris twice, and to the French countryside once for a painting vacation, and aspire to return there at any opportunity. I have mentioned here before that I am attracted to any book with France (particularly Paris) as its setting, and have reviewed a few worth reading. I was therefore excited to discover The Paris Key, by Juliet Blackwell, and to realize that it combines multiple elements that appeal to me in a story.

pariskeyI ended up liking it a lot, but for complicated reasons. Although I expected to like it for the same reason that I have enjoyed, for instance, the books of Jenny Colgan—because the main character realized something about herself that made her elect to drastically change her lifestyle—that aspect of it wasn’t nearly as powerful as it could have been.

What I loved is the gradual exploration throughout the text not just of Paris as a city, but also of the French as a culture, a people, and a lifestyle. The author really got it that the daily priorities in France are completely different from those in America, that it’s a slower, more reflective, less frenetic, more contemplative lifestyle, valuing family, friends, and physical, visceral experiences such as cooking, eating, walking, sleeping, over the career, business, and industriousness focused on by Americans, the infernal “what you do for a living” that seems to take precedence over everything.

There is a moment when the protagonist, Genevieve, gets it too,
when the attractive Irishman Killian invites her to continue on to another destination after they have been out and about together for a while. Her first impulse is to say “I should get back,” and then she realizes: For what reason am I rushing back? I have no deadline, the work will still be there, I can be solitary later, this is an experience that I should embrace, and she does. It was in these moments that the book had weight.

The other thing that I enjoyed was learning more about the unusual vocation of locksmith, especially as expressed in a city as old as Paris, where the locks can vary from ancient to modern, and the duties of the locksmith include repairing and refreshing the old locks as well as installing new ones. It gave a glimpse into buildings with architectural details beautifully described by the author, and that loving attention to detail was a big feature for me.

Additionally, the temptation of the locksmith, to go anywhere simply because she is able, was tantalizing. The main character shared an addiction with me, which is to get to know people by observing the surroundings they choose to create for themselves—perusing their bookshelves, noting their choices of furniture, fixtures, and accessories, and rounding out what you perceive of them by seeing their “native habitat.” In other words, indulging a penchant
for nosiness!

The story itself was eclipsed for me by these other elements. Genevieve is a fairly typical heroine whose emotions have been locked up (yes, there is a lot of symbolism of this kind, some of it overwhelmingly obvious or even trite) by various childhood and adult events or traumas, who needs to work them out and open herself up to life (wince with the lock-and-key metaphors again!). Likewise, there is a mystery she desires to solve about her mother’s past that no one will openly reveal to her, so she must go digging through the possessions left by her Uncle Dave (the deceased locksmith from whom she is taking over the business) and also try to access memories from her Aunt Pasquale (who suffers from Alzheimer’s and is therefore an unreliable witness). The “mystery” becomes all too clear to the reader long before Genevieve herself suspects, which I found a bit unbelievable. And finally, as I have objected to in other reviews, this author had a bit of that compulsion to wrap things up too tidily at the end that I sometimes find grating. This wasn’t as bad as some, but there were issues and encounters that could have been let lie while closure was still provided.

I did appreciate the colorful characters Blackwell created to populate the quaint and insular Paris neighborhood, although a few were a bit stereotypically French—that is, overly vivacious, grumpy, and so on. But over all, this book and its slice of Paris life amply satisfied my fixation, and was a pleasant enough story along with it that it proved to be an enjoyable read.

keysIt brought a favorite book to mind because of the locksmith theme, although the story, characters, setting, and the very locks themselves couldn’t be more different. That book is The Lock Artist, by Steve Hamilton. The similarity is in the feature of the seasoned locksman who takes a novice under his wing and teaches him or her a rare and intricate trade. If you’re in the mood for a thriller with some truly unusual elements to it, including some psychological content, a lot of law-breaking, and some romance, pick up Hamilton’s book. As I summarized it on Goodreads, “Lock-picking, low-lifes, and love!”

One last title

When I dialed up Los Angeles Public Library’s catalog and looked at their e-book selection for Brigid Kemmerer, I found one more book that wasn’t included in either the Elementals, the contemporary fiction, or the Cursebreakers. It was a stand-alone and it was available, so I downloaded it.

thickwaterThicker Than Water is an anomaly, in that it starts out like a contemporary, turns into a murder mystery, and then makes a shift into the weird.

Thomas Bellweather is in trouble, with pretty much no one to whom he can turn. A few weeks ago, he and his mom moved to the town of Garretts Mill so that his mom could make a happy second marriage with her boyfriend, Stan. But two weeks after the wedding his mother has been murdered, and he’s left alone with his brand-new step-dad in a town full of strangers…many of whom believe that he was the killer. There’s not enough proof to lock him up, but there’s plenty to make every cop in town suspect him. Three of those cops, brothers, have a little sister named Charlotte who seems to be the only person interested in finding out the truth and, at least tentatively, extending a hand of friendship to him. But every time the two of them try to get together to work things out, mishaps turn into drama, and Thomas is deeper in trouble. Then, while looking through boxes of his mother’s things in the garage, Thomas makes a strange discovery about her past that turns everything he knows upside down. What, if anything, does this have to do with what’s happening today?

This book was immediately both frustrating and gripping. All the people in town who dedicate themselves to keeping Thomas and Charlotte apart, thereby delaying the vital information they need to discover to keep Thomas out of jail, was crazy-making, as was Charlotte’s alternating stance between trust and fear of Thomas. But what was weird to me was the pacing. The fact that the two protagonists are constantly being separated meant that the story line dragged behind where it “should” have been for a large part of the book, but then…

Since I was reading the book on my Kindle, I paid attention to the “percentage” of book finished. When something super significant happened, I glanced to the bottom of the screen and saw that the book was already at 81 percent, but this book was billed as a stand-alone. Hmmm, I thought: For me to get what I need from this story, we shouldn’t be at more than 65 percent at this point! (the voice of experience speaking) And sure enough, although everything was sufficiently revealed to solve the initial mystery, I was left with so many questions!

I can’t detail them here, because it would completely ruin the book for anyone reading this review, but I will say that I think Brigid Kemmerer owes us a sequel. These characters deserve more closure, and more exposure! The twist at the end needs further exploration and explanation! C’mon, what do you say?

 

Dogged persistence

It’s been a while between posts because instead of dropping the witchy mystery series by Shawn McGuire that I was reading, I kept going and am now on book #9. I’m not even going to bother to list the titles, because they are all a variation on the word “secrets” with another word plugged in front of it.

JustifiedIt’s not that it’s the best (or even close to the best) mystery series I have ever read, but there is a certain satisfaction to be had in pursuing a series from the first book to the last (if this is the last—there will probably be more), and also a certain inertia. Once you get going, the characters and setting are already familiar, and if you have invested in them at all, you just kinda want to know what happened. So I have been following the exploits of Sheriff Jayne O’Shea, her employee / boyfriend / business partner (in their bed & breakfast called Pine Time) Tripp, and her extended “family” that includes her mom, dad, and sister, her deputy, Reed, and the whole cast of characters from the part-Wiccan, part-circus folk, part-psychic, and altogether unusual town of Whispering Pines.

I will say that this town must hold a record for “small town in Wisconsin with the most murders in a 15-month period,” which is the time that is roughly spanned by the nine volumes. The series also gets credit for some of the most unusual ways to die, from ricin poisoning to hypothermia. And there is, of course, the entertainment value of the kitchen witches and green witches and psychics and ex-nuns in town who are either secretly counter-cursing one another or trying to hold the line with positive thoughts, milk baths, and herbal teas, or holding bake-offs of their deliciously described food. If it weren’t for the high murder quotient and the below-freezing temperatures for a large part of the year, a reader might actually want to go there!

I’m halfway through the last, and I promise to get back to reading and reviewing new material soon!

I’ve also been having some fun painting some of my reader friends. Here is Michael, who read Tai-Pan as I suggested, and is now on to the sequel, Gai-Jin.

MBohnet