Bones will tell

I almost always feel sharply divided when reviewing one of Elly Griffiths’s Ruth Galloway books, because there is always much to like and also much to quibble about, and I sometimes feel nitpicky when I give in to the latter. And yet, that’s what a book reviewer does, if left feeling unsatisfied, irritated, or frustrated by a book. Her newest, The Lantern Men, is no exception to this split reaction.

The story in brief: Ruth has moved mountains in her personal life in order to distance herself from the father of her child, with whom she remains in love: She has moved away from her beloved Saltmarsh to Cambridge to take up a new job, she has moved herself and her daughter, Kate, in with her American lover, Frank, and she is no longer officially on call as Norfolk police’s consulting forensic archaeologist. That job she has left to her colleague, Phil, who has always craved the limelight that Ruth mostly shunned, and is quite thrilled with that position despite the inconvenience of having to pick up some of Ruth’s classes at the North Norfolk university since she has left.

It has been two years of escaping into these various refuges from her mostly inarticulate longing for DCI Harry Nelson, who does reciprocate Ruth’s feelings but who feels constrained to stay in his marriage, partly because of his respect and remaining affection for his wife and his desire to keep a good relationship with his two grown daughters, but mostly because of the surprise of a late-in-life child—George, who is now two years old. The fact that Nelson and Ruth share parentage of Kate continues to make their lives awkward, but everyone seems to have settled—if somewhat uneasily—into their place in this unorthodox extended family, with Nelson’s older daughters now embracing Kate as their sister and Kate, in turn, delighting in Baby George.

These are the circumstances when a convicted killer brings Ruth back into Nelson’s orbit. Ivor March is in prison for killing two women, whose bodies were found buried in his girlfriend’s garden and covered in his DNA; but Nelson has always been convinced that March was also responsible for the deaths of two other women, gone missing in the same time period and with an eerie similarity in both looks and circumstances to those he killed. Now March has offered to tell Nelson where the bodies are buried, but only if Ruth (rather than her colleague, Phil) will be the archaeologist who excavates the grave. He won’t give a reason, except to say that Ruth is a much superior archaeologist to Phil and will see things he wouldn’t.

As usual, the research into the legends behind the murders in this series is meticulously done; in this case, the legend of the Lantern Men, whose wandering lights on the Fen lure people to their deaths in the marsh, has been appropriated by three men who conceive of it as their duty or privilege to find people—specifically, tall blonde young women—lost on the marshes and rescue them. These men live, along with a couple of women with whom they are involved, at a retreat center for writers and artists and are themselves the instructors. The women they “save” end up staying with them for a time and then leave—or disappear, depending on perspective.

I had little fault to find with the cast of new characters whose intertwined relationships were so confusing to the police in terms of whose loyalty to suspect when it came to the murders. All of that was valid stuff for red herring material, and worked quite well. I also enjoyed, as per usual, the regular cast of officers and friends that surround both Ruth Galloway and Harry Nelson—officers Judy, Tanya, and Cloughie, and the eternally weird Cathbad—and the valid details of the police procedural.

What I did find poorly done was Ruth’s relationship with Frank. These two people have supposedly been living together for two years, and yet there is no closeness depicted. Ruth does remark at one point that she finds it endearing when Frank calls her “honey,” but the evidence, which is scant, about their interaction is that she holds him constantly at arm’s length, doesn’t confide in him about anything but the most surface of daily events, feels uneasy about depending on him too heavily when it comes to Kate, and basically seems almost blatantly uncomfortable with their situation. And Frank is such a cardboard character. We get one or two details about his American accent, the way he dresses, and how he helps around the house, and a few negative reactions when he discovers Ruth is seeing Nelson regularly again for work; but by and large Frank is barely a presence, let alone a major player, in this book.

I was hoping so hard that if something were to happen again between Nelson and Ruth, it would for once be something definitive—they would finally decide that, regardless of whom it would hurt, they would be together. But it was the same old thing, from a greater distance but otherwise identical, that we got in all the previous books: Ruth longs for a sign that Nelson still cares but feels guilty when he gives that to her, and ruminates on whether, if they were together, they could even stand to cohabit; Harry is even less articulate inside or outside of his mind, simply reacting with anger and jealousy at every manifestation of Ruth’s changed lifestyle and relationship with Frank. This has gotten so old that I am almost out of steam when it comes to hoping for a resolution. If it doesn’t happen in the next book, I’m out.

Apart from that big caveat, there were some small things in this book that just plain irritated me. One rule of writing: Never bring something up if it doesn’t have some kind of significance or result later on. In murder mysteries, of course, this means don’t show a gun early on if no one is going to use it later. But in this book it was more in small details that kept being dwelt upon but never explained. One example: Ivor March’s girlfriend, Chantal, is characterized as someone who always dresses inappropriately for every situation. The police drop by to see her at her home and she is attired as if she is on her way to a party, wearing a tight pink dress and heels, at 10:00 in the morning. At chance meetings she is wearing such outfits as a pencil skirt, white blouse and pumps, as if she is going to work, but she doesn’t (work). After three or four of these comments on her appearance, I expected that at some point someone would say, She dresses like this because…but no one ever does.

I also found the ultimate solution of the mystery to be rather flat, especially after all of the intricate hoopla. I don’t want to spoil anything, but there didn’t seem to be any more than a random motivation for the killer to do what the killer did…as if “I liked it” was sufficient justification. Maybe it is, in the case of a serial killer…but one would like to understand something about why a particular type of victim was chosen, or whether it was a peculiar synchronicity that put them in the killer’s path…something!

The cliffhanger at the end will probably carry me over to the next book, because I remain a sucker for finding out “what happened”…but if it doesn’t result in something more concrete, that will be the end for me of the saga of Ruth
and Harry.

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.

 

Glacial thrills

No matter where she takes you or what unlikely scenario into which she drops you, Sharon Bolton never disappoints. I first discovered her when I picked up one of her stand-alone novels from the new books shelf at the library a few years ago, and I haven’t missed one since. I equally enjoyed her four-book (and two-novella) series starring Detective Inspector Lacey Flint.

I recently received a notice from Goodreads that Bolton had published a new novel, but when I went to check out the e-book from the library, it was a three-week wait. Undeterred, I put it on hold and decided, while I waited, to reread the Lacey Flint foursome plus novellas. I managed to read books one and two and the first novella, but received book four while waiting for book three and didn’t want to go out of order, so I read something else. Then The Split, her new one, became available, so I enthusiastically jumped over to that.

splitThe story begins with Dr. Felicity Lloyd, a glaciologist (yes, there is such a thing) who has been living in Antarctica on the remote island of South Georgia for the past nine months. She is part of a research team there to study flow and the draining of lake waters as the precursor to the breakup or “calving” of glaciers. Although this research is the dream job of her career, Felicity has an additional reason for retreating to this forbidding landscape: Her ex-husband, Freddie, who abused her terribly while they were together, has written to tell her that he is out of prison and wants to see her. Although Felicity feels fairly secure at her post at the end of the world, cruise ships do arrive from time to time, and she watches their manifests scrupulously. When the Storm Queen faxes over a list of passengers with Freddie Lloyd’s name on page five, Felicity knows she has to take drastic action to escape him. She packs up and heads for a deserted mining town on the other side of the island. Freddie follows, but is foiled in his attempt to get to Felicity by a woman named Bamber, who confronts him, gun in hand…

At this point, we are transported back 10 months to Cambridge, England, where Felicity lives and works at the University, and where she has just received the offer to go to South Georgia. Only one impediment stands in the way of accepting the job: She has recently been attacked, but has no memory of who hurt her or why, and the University has mandated that she see a therapist. Unless she can convince the therapist to sign off on her good health, she will lose this amazing opportunity, which is also the perfect hiding place from her past. Dr. Joe Grant, her therapist, realizes she is trying to manipulate his diagnosis, and the better he gets to know her, the more troubling her problems become. Dr. Grant is, himself, recovering from the loss of a woman with whom he was working as part of his pro bono community service, while his mother, Delilah, a police officer, is pursuing the killer of two homeless women.

During the next six weeks red herrings abound, and ultimately you don’t know who to suspect of what, and why. Bolton does her usual good job of keeping her reader breathless with anticipation at each turn in the road, and provides the unexpected at every one. Fast-paced, well written, and exciting, this is a twisty thriller made even better by its vivid descriptions of its unusual landscapes and the careful delineation of each character. Sharon Bolton, as I discovered when I read her last published book—Dead Woman Walking—can get you to believe practically anything, no matter how unlikely, and The Split reinforces that assessment.

 

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.

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.

 

Unreliable

The book I read this week is a fairly classic example of a story told by an unreliable narrator. It is also written in epistolary form, which is to say in the form of a letter to another person. You might also view this book as an example of Victorian Gothic, although it takes place in 2017, because of the setting and some of the events.

A narrator always serves as a filter for her story, and if that story is told in first person, then the only person’s viewpoint we are able to discover is that of the storyteller. As readers, we generally believe that the narrator is truthful and is providing, as far as she is able, an accurate view of the story. But an unreliable narrator is one whose version of the story the reader comes to realize cannot be trusted; there is a point in the narration at which the reader discovers there are lies involved, a hidden agenda is revealed, or the nature of the narrator is discovered to be criminal, crazy, naive, pathological, or any other aberration that would call the person’s views into question. Motivations are revealed that cast doubt on the narrator’s veracity, and the reader has to decide whether the narrator is being willfully deceptive, or is just deceiving herself.

turnkeyWhatever the case, it takes a certain level of skill to write an unreliable narrator that readers will continue to follow even when they have discovered this deceptive nature. The protagonist in The Turn of the Key, by Ruth Ware, is one such character.

The book opens with a set of incomplete letters, each addressed to a solicitor, a Mr. Wrexham—impassioned pleas for him to listen to her story, to believe her, and to defend her. Rowan Caine is a nanny sitting in jail awaiting trial for the murder of one of her charges. She already has an attorney, but believes (with some justification) that he is one of the reasons she is behind bars, and is looking for someone who will hear her out instead of dismissing the (admittedly odd) details of her story as irrelevant. Eventually she manages to push through all her false starts and put the events down on paper for Mr. Wrexham.

It proves to be a disturbing and convoluted explanation, with multiple reveals as we discover that Rowan is not who she pretended to be, on at least two separate levels. It also furnishes plenty of questions about the motivations of the other characters, but once you realize that she has lied about some significant events, you are provided with many reasons to doubt her experiences.

The story’s gothic elements arise from the setting, which is an old Victorian mansion set in the wilds of Scotland that has been bought and massively but jarringly remodeled by a husband-and-wife team of architects. The front half of the house maintains its pristine Victorian façade and ornate interior, while the rear has been demolished and replaced with an über-modern structure of cement and glass that provides a jarring disconnect when moving from one part of the mansion to another. And it also turns out that when the mansion was stripped and refinished, certain secrets of its architecture remained unknown to the builders, while other aspects of the house are almost too well known through its surveillance app that provides a view and a microphone to almost every room.

Elincourt

The couple in question, Bill and Sandra Elincourt, have four children—a teenager, an eight-year-old, a five-year-old, and a toddler. They have gone through four nannies within the past year, and are looking for someone qualified, reliable, and without a surfeit of imagination or superstition to take responsibility while they are pursuing their busy careers. Enter Rowan Caine, beguiled by the generous salary, the beautiful house, and the apparently well-behaved children. But when the Elincourts take off for a few weeks of conventions and client meetings, things begin to disintegrate, starting with the behavior of the children and ending with a series of strange events that may or may not be related to the remote controls installed in the house.

This is a suspenseful story, with vivid description and a gripping, slightly ominous feel throughout. The story builds to its conclusion, which is both cryptic and satisfying. The only thing I am pondering is whether I loved or hated the ending. It’s plausible, it explains much, but the result it implies is vague enough that I had to read it a couple of times to decide what I thought and whether I believed it.

For readers who are looking for a thrill, who enjoy a tale with twists, and who embrace the ploy of an unreliable narrator, The Turn of the Key will satisfy.

 

 

 

Tangents

When is an author building appropriate back story for his characters, and when is he just going off on random tangents?

I thought about this question a lot while reading Since We Fell, by Dennis Lehane. Some of his books have been among my favorites, particularly Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, so I was pleased to discover there was a stand-alone I hadn’t yet read.

sincewefellThe first half of the book—maybe more than half—is dedicated to a meandering examination of the life and internal workings of Rachel Childs. Her beginnings are typical for smart and broken children—a difficult mother, an absent father, a lot of pressure to be perfect but on someone else’s terms. Most of this part of the book focuses on Rachel’s obsessive and ongoing quest to find out her father’s identity. Her mother refuses to tell her, and then dies; she tries hiring a private detective but the pickings are so slim that even he refuses to charge her for what little he can discover; and every clue seemingly leads to a dead end.

The book maintained my interest throughout this quest, but only because it said interesting things about Rachel herself. Then it takes a segué into career and family, as she develops her abilities as an on-air news reporter and, under the tuition of her new husband Sebastian, a producer and mentor, becomes known for reporting on dangerous situations in marginalized societies. This career leads to a crisis that triggers anxiety attacks and agoraphobia.

At this point Brian Delacroix, the private detective she hired to look into her father’s identity, comes back into her life. She realizes there was always a spark between them and begins to explore a relationship, and at that point I thought, Was the entire first half of the book only a build-up to get us to this pairing?

After this transition, the book’s purpose turns yet again, and becomes a Hitchcockian thriller with a secret. The first half of the book doesn’t telegraph this in any way, so the subsequent events are quite disconcerting, particularly when Rachel rather abruptly goes from a passive to an active player and turns into someone you’re not sure you believe was “in there” all this time. So if you can suspend disbelief enough to see the entire book as a character study of Rachel, then it works as a whole. If you are unable to do so, it falls apart into separate, interesting, but not necessarily well integrated parts that seem like they belong in at least two different books.

I always enjoy Lehane’s writing style—he reminds me of some of the classic mystery/thriller writers I read when younger, such as Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell. But while this book held my attention throughout, I couldn’t recommend it unreservedly to people looking for one of Lehane’s trademark psychological thrillers. There was both too much and too little to sustain a specific mood, and I focused more on the transitions than on the tale.

 

 

Empathy

This book made me cry three separate times, and I don’t do that. Ever.

The book is Just Life, by Neil Abramson, and is one of half a dozen that I bought recently from bookoutlet.com, which sells remaindered books for between $2.49 and $7.00, paperbacks and hardcovers alike, music to the ears of someone who reads as much as I do. The only downside to these prices (which, let’s face it, is also an upside) is that shipping is high unless you order $35 worth of merchandise, in which case it’s free. So when I notice a book or two that I want and they have, I scroll through the rest of what is on offer and pick up enough to get that free shipping. Just Life came in one of those mixed bags. I’d never heard of either it or its author, but the story sounded good.

JustLifeIt starts out like a dystopian suspense novel: It’s told in third person, but from the points of view of four major characters, one of whom is a veterinarian and proprietor of a no-kill animal shelter, in the Riverside borough of New York City, that is being zoned out of existence. Adding to her desperate attempts to save her shelter or find somewhere for her dogs to go is an additional disaster: There is some sort of virus, appearing only in that neighborhood, that is making children sick. One has just died, more are severely ill, and the virus, which was initially blamed on pigeons, is now felt to be the responsibility of dogs with rabies in Central Park.

Samantha, the vet, and anyone as familiar as she is with infectious viruses (her estranged father is a researcher) is frankly skeptical that this could be the cause, but she knows from experience how fear can work on the human mind, and worries that panic and ignorance will mandate a “QCK,” an acronym for quarantine-cull-kill.

The other major characters in the book—a city policeman (formerly a K9 cop) assigned by choice to this neighborhood, a homeless, damaged teenager with a special affinity for dogs, and an elderly Catholic priest suffering the onset of Alzheimer’s—personify the double entendre indicated by the title of the book: They are all attempting to live a just life, and part of that mandate is a concern for all creatures, not just for humans.

The other meaning of the title becomes clear as the back story reveals that there are no viruses in animals to which humans are ultimately resistant, and vice versa—that we are all “just life,” and equally susceptible. But local politicians and bureaucrats, including the governor (who is running for president and wants to act the hero) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) refuse to admit that proposition could be true, and the protagonists must mount a defense in a war against dogs.

In his afterword, Abramson writes about how he hoped to show the eternal battle between fear and compassion, and how achieving compassion in the face of fear is a daily struggle. The story line in Just Life emphasizes this battle and highlights the difference between those who love all life and those who prioritize humans. In the process it is suspenseful, moving, and eye-opening.

At one point in the book, someone asks Sam what she would do if someone came for her dogs. She remembered that in veterinary school one of her professors had made her class memorize a quote from William Ralph Inge:

“We have enslaved the rest of the animal creation, and have treated our distant cousins in fur and feathers so badly that beyond doubt, if they were able to formulate a religion, they would depict the Devil in human form.”

Anyone who is a dog person knows that the most badly treated of them will nonetheless forgive a human who shows them a little kindness. This book, for me, posed the question, What if we could all be so empathetic?

It was also a fast-paced, gripping story with both people and causes worthy of embracing, and an exciting ending that has you afraid to turn the final pages.

 

 

News re: my dog

GoodNewsAt the center of When Will There Be Good News, Kate Atkinson’s third Jackson Brodie novel, is a new character, Reggie. I enjoyed this book mainly because I so adored her. She is 16 (sweartogod), looks 12, acts 36, and is an old soul and a compassionate but completely pragmatic one. Best teenager in fiction for a while now.

While I found the multiple story lines of Dr. Joanna Hunter, whose family members were all inexplicably knifed to death in the middle of a field one day when she was a child, Joanna’s husband’s questionable business practices, Chief Inspector Louise Monroe’s domestic violence case, and the almost incidental appearance of Jackson Brodie (who is in-country  for personal reasons and yet by a twist of fate ends up plumped down in the middle of all of these mysteries) all to be interesting, it isn’t until they get connected by Reggie that things really get going, even though she, like Brodie, is involved almost despite herself. The brief period when Louise, Jackson, and Reggie are all in the same room at the same time is my favorite scene in the book.

These books of Atkinson’s are so…perverse! Not in a sexual way, let me hasten to add, but in the sense that they are “contrary to the accepted or expected standard or practice.” You can’t actually call them mystery novels. I mean, there ARE mysteries, and many of them do get solved, but they are practically beside the point. The books are character studies, and there are few who are able to delineate a character as well as Kate Atkinson.

While I find these books frustrating in the way they meander off the beaten path and into prolonged ponderings about this or that (not to mention all the stream-of-consciousness literary references that keep popping up in Brodie’s dragonfly mind), the stories are always resurrected by the strength of the characters themselves.

TookDogBecause of that trait, I think I may have liked Started Early, Took My Dog the best so far of the Jackson Brodie books, although Jackson’s role in it is mostly ridiculous! The central mystery is set in Northern Yorkshire, where Jackson is trying to track down the birth parents of a client who was adopted in England at age two and then taken to New Zealand to grow up. But when Jackson discovers someone he thinks might have been the birth mother, a murder case from 1975 causes all kinds of people to come out of the woodwork to prevent the truth about police corruption and misbehavior from coming out.

The title of the book turns out to be a double entendre, since taking a dog away from his abusive master (literally beating the guy up after he takes out his ill temper on his dog by berating it and kicking it in the ribs) is one of Jackson’s more rational moments in the book.

In addition to the dog-napping (I always thought that should be nabbing, not napping), there is child-napping, and they are both accomplished by former police officers! Tracy Waterhouse, just retired from the force, working part-time as a mall security guard, and supposedly resigned to or even content with her single, childless existence, sees a prostitute dragging her small child through the shopping center while screaming at her, and snaps. She has money in her pocket intended for the Polish bloke remodeling her kitchen, but instead hands it off to Kelly Cross in exchange for her youngest child. Suddenly, Tracy has stepped from one side of the law to the other.

But IS Courtney the daughter of Kelly Cross? Tracy wonders. At first she thinks she’s simply being paranoid, but then she realizes that there are all sorts of people trying to “get in touch” who may have been sent to take Courtney back. Meanwhile, Jackson is, weirdly, encountering the same folks who are after Tracy, none of whom have either his quest or his best interests at heart.

Throw in other seemingly random characters whose histories and futures are tangled up somehow with these two, and things get truly confusing. It’s no wonder that the one piece of dialogue our Mr. Brodie repeats throughout the book is “I don’t understand.” It paints a pretty ineffectual picture of him as a private investigator, but certain leads to some interesting situations.

I liked this best mostly because of the characters of Tracy and Courtney. Tracy is large, awkward, stalwart, and ultimately heroic, while Courtney delights as only a truly quirky small child can. Between the two of them, they carry the story.

smalldog

“Dragon,” courtesy of KJ Allison

As with the other Jackson Brodie books, the point is less about the mysteries and more about human themes of loneliness, grief, and dysfunction. Practically every character (except the determinedly upbeat Judith) is damaged and in need of love and/or salvation. Even the minor characters—Tracy’s colleague Barry, the aging actress Tilly—bring pathos to the story. And yet there is also humor, especially in the way Jackson’s role seems that of a character in a French farce, doomed to make his entrance from stage left just as his quarry (or his explanation) is departing from stage right.

I really hope that Atkinson plans to reveal the answers to some major cliffhangers left dangling off the edge at the end of this one: Who is Courtney, really? What was Jackson up to before he took on this case? Who is the murderer of a rather significant character? And I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop with Louise, three books later. C’mon, Kate, resolution!