Thursday, September 22, 2022

The Lioness by Chris Bohjalian: Reading Room Review

 


 

“Oh, I can’t speak for the dead. And I won’t speak for the missing. I can only tell you what I think happened. Others—the dead and the missing—would probably have their own versions. Blame, I can tell you firsthand, is every bit as subjective as truth”.

 

Powerful. The title of this book, The Lioness, encapsulates the content perfectly. The action, the characters, the outcomes are a gale-force wind, a weight bearing down on you that makes you gasp for air. Putting down this book once you start reading it is a gargantuan effort of separation from one of the most compelling reads you’ll encounter this year. It will own you, pure and simple. Many people find the thought of going to Africa, to the Serengeti, an irresistible pull. The magnificent sights of lions and leopards and elephants and giraffes and hippos and rhinos and wildebeests are a temptation of great reward. Walking among the wild, defying death, and feeling one with the earth. Who doesn’t want that? But, as author Chris Bohjalian will show you, too often what we imagine and what is real take us very different places. 

It's autumn 1964 and one of Hollywood’s most popular leading ladies, Katie Barstow, is a newlywed, having just married a man she’s known since childhood. In fact, David Hill is the best friend of Katie’s brother. Katie has generously invited seven of her close friends and family to go on a dream photo safari as part of her and David’s honeymoon. Meeting the couple to fly out of Paris are Katie’s brother and his wife, her best friend (also and actress) and her husband, her publicist, her agent, and a male actor friend of Katie’s. She’s paying for all of it, and it promises to be the trip of a lifetime. 

And, for a few days, it is all magical. The owner of Safari Adventures, Charlie Patton, makes sure of that. Employing the best of guides and porters and cooks ensures the guests will want for nothing. Even hot baths and ice are available, and knowing the land so well, Charlie and his guides are able to take the enthusiastic photo hunters where the different animals dwell. But, on the fourth day, after viewing some majestic giraffes drinking water, the camp is attacked by Russian mercenaries who take the guests hostage. It is over quickly, with a few of Patton’s crew killed in a bloody blast of gunfire, while the Hollywood guests are loaded into two different Land Rovers. A third group, consisting of guides and workers, are gathered and secured in a truck. Benjamin Kikwete, a porter, is one of those who is loaded into the truck and who becomes the tenth voice in the chorus of narrators, conveying the fates of his particular group. 

But, why did the Russian mercenaries take the tourists hostage? It’s a question they all are asking themselves, and the reader will speculate along with the characters. The answer to this burning question won’t be revealed until close to the end of the story. Without the information of just what the kidnappers want, it’s hard to know whether to risk trying to escape. And, really, is escape a choice? Even if the hostages could escape the mercenaries, they aren’t escaping to safety. It’s out of the frying pan into the fire. There are predators waiting in the trees and on the ground for a meal. Getting “eaten” is their worst nightmare. 

Each member of the Hollywood group, three women and six men, narrates their own current life and death situation, as well as giving background to their lives that brought them here. The chapters alternate from one character to another, with Benjamin Kikwete’s occasional chapters. The author was wise to give readers a list of these characters at the beginning of the book, with a name and brief description of who they are. That list is what helped me keep the characters straight at first, although I found it rather easy to differentiate them early on, as the author created distinct personalities and engaging back stories for each one. Readers are there to the very end with each character, those who lived and those who died. And, there’s no denying that some of those deaths are graphically brutal, and some will shock you more than others. There are no lingering after-life voices. When a character dies, so does their narration. 

The Hollywood group had “christened themselves the lions of Hollywood at Katie’s wedding,” and those reporting on them in the states used that moniker in their reports. Irony can be a bitch. Hollywood royalty doesn’t matter in the wilds of the Serengeti, and presumptions of grandeur fall on deaf ears as leopards and lions stalk their prey and hyenas circle. Each chapter begins with a snippet from a Hollywood gossip magazine, sometimes about someone in the group and sometimes about other well-known Hollywood stars of that time. These snippets serve to remind the reader just how trivial was the movie star life these nine tourists led compared to their now life and death struggle. Who was seen with whom, or what party one was invited to, that was nothing now. One narrator sums up what had become most important in their lives, “Just stay alive. See if, somehow, we might see the sun rise one more time.”

This book has been described as historical fiction and/or literary fiction, and the story does take place in a time of important historical changes in Africa. But, my preferred genre is mystery/crime, and I know a thriller when I read one. The Lioness is as suspenseful and chilling as any thriller I’ve come across. However, the historical elements of the time weaved into the story were well-placed and enriching. The unstable political climate in areas surrounding Tanzania and the Serengeti added another element of danger to the story and played into the Russian mercenaries’ disdain for their captives. For the group being held by these men there was the fear of being taken to the Congo where Westerners’ lives had no value and Russia was heavily invested in supporting the rebels. And, the setting of Tanzania itself is newly formed from Tanganyika and Zanzibar in East Africa. There’s also the change in the traditional safari that included hunting the animals for trophy heads and skins. The popular type of safari by this time was one in which photos, not heads, were taken. The leader of Katie’s safari, Charlie Patton, had himself been learning to adjust, as he once took the avid hunter and famous writer Ernest Hemingway on his forays. Another interesting item and variable affecting survival is a certain habit that both men and women engaged in during the 1960s, before warning labels were applied to its packaging. I’m sure it’s easy to ascertain what I’m talking about, but you might want to give it some thought as you’re reading through the Hollywood hostages’ accounts. 

If this book were a person, you would call it larger than life. To try and put that into descriptive words for a book, I still fall back on the jargon of another medium, one that is particularly appropriate for this book, with its Hollywood group. The Lioness has a big-screen impact, a cinematic story that encompasses a wide swath of heaven and earth, beauty and danger. Of course, the setting of the Serengeti is itself a sweeping panorama of the splendor of nature. The cast of characters is also epic, both in number and essence, with heroes and the easily defeated. Instead of the trip of a lifetime, they get the test of a lifetime. What is a person really made of when hope is but a flicker in the dark? It may not be something you want to find out. 

The Lioness is now on my list of favorite reads ever. I will be recommending it to everyone and being rather pushy about it. Oddly, it is the first Chris Bohjalian book I’ve read, and I can’t imagine why that is. I do know that it won’t be the last.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

The Case of the Disgraced Duke by Cathy Ace: Reading Room Review

 

I am so happy that there is a new WISE Enquiries mystery out. It’s been quite a wait for a book from one of my favorite series, but Cathy Ace makes it easy to jump right back into the charming, quirky Welsh setting of Awen-by-Wye in The Case of the Disgraced Duke.  She has put together a cast of characters for this series who are not easily forgotten, ones a reader are always eager to return to. And, while there are the four main characters of the WISE Enquiries Agency, there just as many supporting characters readers can’t get enough of. That is quite the accomplishment for an author. Of course, a good story and interesting setting are also needed, and check, check on those elements. There is always a case, or two, that requires the superpowers of the four women (and the Dowager Duchess Althea, who usually manages to get in on the action). 

The WISE women are a diverse group of private investigators who, despite their different backgrounds and skills, work brilliantly together. WISE is comprised of one Welsh woman named Carol, who is a whiz at culling information from the computer and assembling it for use; Irish Christine, who is a titled Irish aristocrat with a sharp mind and lots of helpful connections; Scottish Mavis, a retired nurse of wounded soldiers and the organized leader of the group; and English Annie, whose warm and unassuming nature can get almost anyone to open up to her. Those who underestimate these women, like the police and criminals, learn the foolishness of that mistake. 

There’s lots that seems to be happening in this new book, both personally for the women and work-wise for the agency, and the main focus is a problem at Chellingworth Hall. The WISE Agency has a close, like family, connection with the Duke and Duchess of Chellingworth, and the Dower Duchess. Their first case was for Henry Devereaux Twyst, the eighteenth Duke of Chellingworth, and it is through this case that the women came to the village of Anwen-by-Wye. They even have their offices in a converted barn on the Chellingworth estate, and Christine lives in an apartment in this barn. Mavis lives with Althea, the Dower Duchess, in the Dower House on the estate. So, the Chellingworths and the WISE women have become an intricate part of one another’s lives.

Henry is in a state, which isn’t unusual for him. His wife Stephanie is pregnant with their first child, and he’s far more nervous than she is. And, there’s a danger to the reputation of the Chellingworth legacy that has just been discovered. The thirteenth Duke of Chellingworth, Frederick, is rumored to have been an addict who killed two people on the estate without having faced consequences from the law, and Frederick is suspected of committing suicide to end his life. Both Henry and Stephanie are eager to investigate these rumors and, hopefully, put them to rest before the baby is born under a tarnished line. 

The WISE Agency is just the resource needed to uncover the truth about Frederick. However, at this time, Annie is off on an undercover assignment, Carol is spending every minute she can on a rush background check for a client, and Christine is still not completely recovered from her gunshot wound. This might be a problem for some investigators, but this group can double down like no other. A central command center is set up in the Chellingworth Hall library where books with information pertaining to the time of Duke Frederick are stored. Mavis is there to order the troops, Christine feels she’s up to this work and is there, Henry and Stephanie take an active part to protect their family reputation, Christine’s boyfriend Alexander and a friend of Stephanie’s join in, and there is always the Dower Duchess Althea in the thick of it. There will be a secret report, church records, and documents from a most unexpected source discovered in the search for the truth. 

As the major operation is taking place at Chellingworth Hall, Annie is off on a covert assignment to Swansea. Two sisters are worried about their elderly father who is involved with a much younger woman, who is also his carer. The sisters are aware of family possessions, such as their mother’s jewelry being sold off recently, and the carer/girlfriend of their father is blocking access to him. Annie poses as another carer come to the area looking for work, and she makes friends with the father's carer in a hotel bar. Annie is unsure whether the woman is taking advantage of the man, but she does know the woman is a heavy drinker. While on this case, Annie is also pondering her relationship with the pub owner in Awen-by-Wye. 

Carol is working furiously to get a thorough and rushed background check done for a client who is uncertain of the buyer for her hair salon business. Carol’s husband is out of town, and baby Alfred is not making it easy for her to work and get any sleep. She is stretched thin, and the last thing she needs is for her neighbor across the road to ask for help in a theft of jars of jam from her shop. Yet, Carol doesn’t like to turn a fellow villager down who needs help. 

It’s a mixed bag of results for the different cases in this story, but all the cases show just how dedicated and successful this WISE group is. All the results have long-reaching effects for the clients and I’m predicting for the investigators as well. Annie’s case will have a profound effect on her, and I am wondering what changes the next book will bring in her life. Christine and Carol are also poised for some major decision making, and Mavis is facing a scary situation for someone she loves. 

I thought that this new addition to the series was a brilliant one. The WISE women are settled into a successful business now, but they aren’t so settled personally. Cathy Ace has given readers a great story in The Case of the Disgraced Duke, and she has set up questions to be answered in the next story. These are not what you might consider traditional cliffhangers, but as is natural in life, a progression towards figuring out what’s important. Fans of this series are going to love this book, and readers just coming into the series will be spurred on, or back, to read the preceding books. Just please don’t keep us waiting for #6 so long this time, Ms. Ace.

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Things We Do in the Dark by Jennifer Hillier: Reading Room Review

 

Jennifer Hillier is brilliant at showing the complexity of a human being. Not all good, not all bad is usually how a person’s character untangles. Of course, there are those people who are so good and nice and thoughtful, you cringe at your own comparison. And, there are people who are truly evil, some who are psychopaths or sociopaths and some who seem to defy diagnosis. Hillier’s focus on her main character is more on circumstance and related behavior, showing readers that given the right (or wrong) circumstances, everyone has a capacity to do, well, things they don’t want to see the light of day, maybe even those salt of the earth people. My favorite book by this author is still Jar of Hearts, because it was the first book that truly made me see someone who did something very bad in a new light. Things We Do in the Dark continues Jennifer Hillier’s keen insight into the psyche of people and their motivations. Sometimes in desperation a good girl must do something bad to get to a better place, and sometimes her secrets surface.

In a recent article in CrimeReads, author Jincy Willett explores that in her early mystery reading she read the Agatha Christies and older books that concentrated on the who-dun-it, and then after reading a Ruth Rendell, Jincy was never again satisfied with the focus on who. It was the “why” that was fascinating. Jennifer Hillier takes the why one step further and explores the universality of the why in any given person. You don’t have to be a villain to murder, and the reader looks inward to ask the question of applying that personally. Even an unreliable narrator can show us the mistake of judging a murderer too quickly. 

Paris Peralta comes home to Seattle early from a yoga conference, and the next thing she knows she’s waking up in her bathroom beside a blood-filled tub with her dead husband in it. In her hand is a straight razor with blood on it. Her husband, Jimmy Peralta, was thirty years her senior and had just made a huge come-back as a comedian via a streaming special. His assistant Zoe is screaming that Paris has killed Jimmy and the police are taking Paris into custody. Paris is scared that people will believe she killed Jimmy, whom she really loved, but she’s more scared that a past she’s worked hard to conceal will be revealed. She had signed a pre-nup with Jimmy, so will people really think she killed him for his money? Well, when the new will is found and Paris stands to inherit 47 million, her motive just went up by about 45 million. As if a murder charge and worrying about her past isn’t enough, Paris has a blackmailer intent on getting rich or telling the world what Paris did in her previous life. 

In Canada, Ruby Reyes, aka the “Ice Queen,” is about to be released from prison after serving twenty-five years for murdering her married lover. Drew Malcolm, an investigative journalist turned pod-caster was, for a short time, a roommate and close friend to Ruby’s daughter, Joey Reyes, who was abused and tormented as a child by her mother until Ruby was sent away for murder. Drew finds it appalling that Ruby will live free again, as he doesn’t believe that she will ever be anything but a self-centered monster who preys off people. So, Drew is committing his whole new podcast season to exposing the evils of Ruby Reyes. This means he will have to go back to a painful personal past where Ruby’s daughter died a horrific death.

These two storylines will come together in a twisty mesh of past and present. It is a fascinating reveal, but one that the reader will probably see coming. That’s okay, though, because the intensity and thrill of seeing how it all connects is full of little surprises. Things We Do in the Dark is indeed a dark tale and contains triggers of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Hillier was respectful of these triggers while writing the book and there are no graphic scenes, no gratuitous horrors. However, these abuses are central to the characters whose lives are formed around them. 

The dual story is told through the eyes of Paris and Drew and Joey, with flashbacks guiding the narrative. I enjoyed Paris’ descriptions of her and Jimmy’s relationship. It was a bright, sweet spot among so many sad, painful ones for Paris and other characters. Joey’s narrative was heartbreaking, but I loved the strength and pragmatism she brought to her story. She didn’t give up, but she didn’t sugar coat it. I came to appreciate Drew in the end, but there were times his judgmental thoughts and actions irritated me, especially his condescension toward Joey for her short-term career choice. It takes Drew a while to realize choices aren’t always black or white, right or wrong. Ruby is irredeemable, and readers know that from the get-go, but she is a perfect villain to despise. 

There are quite a few characters in this book, and Jennifer Hillier does an exceptional job of fleshing out both the major and minor players. No one felt flat or unnecessary. I think that’s quite an accomplishment with two story lines and two sets of characters. Even Jimmy, who died right off the bat, was given life through the flashbacks, and I have to admit, I really liked him with Paris. All the characters, both past and present, were well defined, so no confusing characters to undermine the story’s flow. 

Things We Do in the Dark is another thrilling Jennifer Hillier brand read, giving readers the expected story of a character with a shadow hanging over him/her. But, Hillier’s stories are never a repeat; each one is original. I thought this book was especially dark, but most crime/mystery readers are no stranger to those tales. The triggers I mentioned earlier might need to be considered by some before reading, but, as I noted, Hillier doesn’t get graphic with the abuse. I felt the ending was a bit rushed but not in a terribly frustrating way. I think those readers who are already fans of Jennifer Hillier’s exceptional writing will be well pleased, and those readers who are new to this author will want to read more of her books after this one.

Friday, September 2, 2022

Oh, To Have Time for Re-reads: Reading Room Repeats

So, sometimes I get nostalgic for books from the past.  Sue me.  I can't help it, and I get excited all over again about sharing the book with other readers (or non-readers, there's hope).  Yes, I'm working on two mystery/crime reviews for current reads, but I think Friday is a perfect day to open the vault of past special reads.  After all, it's the weekend, and we all know that weekends were made for reading, right?  So, having come across a list I posted eight years ago of reads that had stayed with me, I grabbed onto a few and read my past reviews of them.  One of those books is We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.  I reverently whisper the title to myself and let the years fall away to when that book was new to me.  I now feel duty-bound as a book advocate to share my review once again of this book that gobsmacked me so.  Oh, to have time to read it again.  


Reading Room Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

                                                              

Although this novel is assigned six parts to it, for me it is separated into two parts, before the big reveal and after. At first, I was bothered by the big reveal, and it annoyed me in the sense of having been tricked or snookered into believing that the book would be about one thing, and, then, a huge monkey-wrench (only the-already-have-read-it will truly appreciate that term) is tossed into the perceived story to come. That the reveal comes almost 100 pages into the book seemed particularly unsporting. However, after getting over my initial shock and disgruntlement, I began to realize what all the hullabaloo over this novel was about. There are quite simply important issues at hand in Rosemary Cooke's narrative of her life, her unusual early childhood and her confused state from age five to early adulthood. Unfortunately, so much cannot be related in this review unless I fill it with spoilers, which I try diligently to avoid in reviews.

At the heart of this story is Rosemary Cooke and her family, who experience the closest knit love of togetherness and the consuming grief of unexpected separations. As a loquacious child, Rosie's (Rosemary) father advised her to start in the middle of what she wanted to say, and so it is this very manner in which she proceeds to tell the story of her family from her perspective. It is only after she is in college that she begins to know and understand the perspectives of her other family members. So much is unspoken, too much that Rosie has had to fill in for herself, and not all of her version is accurate, due to missing information. Not to worry. Along with the great reveal are other reveals that plug the holes of faded and selective memory. Rosie might start in the middle, but the beginning and ending (up to a satisfactory point of ending) are disclosed, too. The title is well chosen, as the family is indeed completely beside themselves with a despondency that exists primarily because the deep voids of information are left unresolved for so long. I kept wanting to shout, just ask why or what happened. Alas, Rosie must take her own path (and sweet time) to lift herself out of the fog that encapsulates her.

Without giving anything away, because it is to important for each reader to discover the hidden beauty and ugliness of the tale for him/her self, I need to at least remark on the fact that this book will most likely make you want to know more about experimentation by scientific institutions on animals, past and present, and the unconscionable treatment of animals by the food industries. It doesn't preach about the wrongs, but you may want to after reading it. Several quotes from the book concerning this issue of animal treatment made an impression on me. " ... a number of states are considering laws that make the unauthorized photographing of what goes on in factory farms and slaughterhouses a felony." Unfortunately, I believe this legislation has already been enacted in some places. —“I’m unclear on the definition of person the courts have been using. Something that sieves out dolphins but lets corporations slide on through.” A thought provoking assessment. “No Utopia is Utopia for everyone.” Ain't that the truth.

So, Karen Joy Fowler, you have done yourself proud with this novel that touches our hearts and minds in a most profound way. Kudos to your excellent writing, which includes a richness of vocabulary last encountered by me in my earlier years of reading the apposite-worded Agatha Christie novels. I feel rather as if I sucked the pages of your story dry, in that I gleaned so much worth retaining. You, Ms. Fowler, have reached a level of distinction in your writing that demands attention, not to mention awards.

Monday, August 22, 2022

The Family Remains by Lisa Jewell: Reading Room Review

 

Do readers’ opinions influence authors? If you’re excited about there being a sequel to The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell, you can be glad that she listened to her readers who kept clamoring for the story from that book to be continued. Having just finished The Family Remains, I know how happy I am that those readers’ pleas fell on receptive ears. Learning what’s next for Henry and Lucy and Phin and Clemency so wonderfully completes the story that began for us three years ago. Surviving the house of horrors of their youth to become functioning, if scarred, adults and Lucy meeting her twenty-five-year-old daughter Libby was really only the beginning of how things turned out for the four. We’re left with quite a cliffhanger in The Upstairs Family that Phin has finally been located. How could readers not want to know more.

Libby’s boyfriend, journalist Miller Roe, has tracked down Phin’s location to Botswana, Africa, where Phin is a game reserve guide. Libby and Miller are preparing to fly to Botswana, with Henry insisting he tag along, when they receive word that Phin has left and disappeared into thin air again. So, the trip is off until Phin returns to Botswana or can be located elsewhere. But, Henry uses his devious sense of smart and finds a whiff of a scent leading him to Chicago. He tells no one else and leaves in the middle of the night so Lucy, who is temporarily living with her two young children at Henry’s flat, won’t find out he is chasing after Phin. It eventually takes Lucy’s son Marco and his tech savvy friend to break into Henry’s iPad and find where he’s gone.

The second storyline that coincides with the search for Henry and Phin is the discovery of human bones by a mudlarker. A plastic bag has washed ashore from the Thames River with the bones wrapped in an expensive towel, and DCI Samuel Owusu has been called to the scene. It’s obvious from the start of the investigation that it’s a woman who has been murdered, or that’s what evidence of a blow to the head/skull indicates. DCI Owusu is an excellent detective, and he follows the clues, as sparse as they initially are, to identifying the woman as one Birdie Dunlop-Evers, who twenty-five years ago lived at the Chelsea mansion where three adults were found dead from an apparent suicide pact. It was the same mansion from which the four teenagers—Henry, Lucy, Phin, and Clem—disappeared, leaving behind a ten-month old baby, named Serenity. Serenity became Libby when she was adopted, and Libby had received notice when she turned twenty-five that she had inherited this house. She has recently sold it for over seven million pounds, sharing the proceeds with Lucy and Henry. So, DCI Owusu starts trying to put the pieces together of what happened all those years ago when people died and people disappeared from 16 Cheyne Walk.

Then, there is a third storyline, which will, of course, eventually blend into the others, but it begins a couple of years earlier than the discovery of the bones and Henry taking off to Chicago. Rachel Gold makes stunning jewelry and is trying to get her business off the ground, with her father providing both moral and financial support when needed. She is working toward becoming independent of any assistance when she meets the man of her dreams, Michael Rimmer. After just a few months, Rachel marries this charming, successful, and attractive man looking forward to happily-ever-after. Trouble starts even before the honeymoon is over, and Rachel realizes the man she has married has a very dark side. When he shows her just what a monster he is, she leaves him and decides to wait out the two-year period to divorce him with no explanation required by law. Of course, he’s not through being a monster, and Rachel wonders if his previous wife Lucy had suffered, too. After a year’s separation, Rachel receives word that her husband has been found dead from stab wounds in his house in Antibes, France. 

The story is told through the narrations of Lucy, Henry, Rachel and DCI Samuel Owusu. The short chapters where DCI Owusu updates the investigation into the death of Birdie are simply headed “Samuel” at the beginning of each chapter. I immensely enjoyed the “Samuel” chapters, as he is so good at connecting the dots and laying out the investigation for readers. Through Lucy’s narrative (and through Rachel’s, too), we get the picture of just how bleak an existence Lucy lived in France and how finally she is able to afford a house for her and Marco and Stella, her younger children. We also see how deep the relationship is between Lucy and Henry, how they work within their damaged psyches to be there for one another. Henry is a study in how a messed-up child still as an adult uses his artful skills of manipulation to get what he wants. We also see that Henry struggles to overcome his past of doing things he felt he had to and not wanting to be that person again. Rachel is a cautionary tale, reminding us that even an intelligent self-possessed woman can be duped and rush into bad decisions, although Rachel’s strength in dealing with a nightmare situation is admirable. Her close relationship with her father is heartwarming and, at times, heartbreaking. All through the book, family is at the forefront of what is most important, and it’s what has the reader rooting so enthusiastically for the happiness of these characters. 

The Family Remains was a solid favorite for me. I always love it when there is a myriad of threads that are brilliantly pulled together by the end. Lisa Jewell has proven time and time again what a master plotter and storyteller she is, and this book didn’t drop a stitch in its presentation of details that were necessary and moved the story forward. Sometimes an author creates such intriguing characters that readers are left to fret about at the end of a book, but Lisa Jewell gifted us with this sequel that gives us peace of mind. These characters, as all great characters do, became real, imperfect people whom we care about. Some say that The Family Remains can be read as a stand-alone, but oh how much more a reader will be in the characters and their outcomes if the full extent of their suffering from The Family Upstairs is known. The author does an excellent job of referring to crucial incidents, but I think you would be cheating yourself if you didn’t read both books. The invested emotion is so worth it. 

OK, Ms. Jewell, you have stretched my heart and mind to your will, and I was happy to go wherever you took me. I am irretrievably hooked on your books. I can hardly wait to see where you take me next.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Death in a Blackout (WPC Billie Harkness #1) by Jessica Ellicott: Reading Room Review

 

I read quite a bit of WWII fiction, especially mystery/crime, set in England, but most of it is set in London. Of course, London does have so many stories from which to draw of that infamous period of history, so I’m deeply interested in all that London has to offer on the theme. I enjoy learning about how the ordinary citizens of England lived and coped and did their bit in the war. Death in a Blackout by Jessica Ellicott has expanded my knowledge and interest beyond London to Hull, or Kingston on Hull, a northern port city at the confluence of the River Hull and the Humber Estuary. “With ninety per cent of its buildings damaged or destroyed, it was the second most bombed city in England during the war.” (Jessica Ellicott, Author Notes) I knew nothing about Hull’s WWII history going into reading Ellicott’s book, and now I’m in awe of their perseverance and dedication. Death in a Blackout features as the main character one of the newly recruited WPC who began working on the police force in Hull in 1940. Wilhemina/Billie Harkness is the second woman to be hired, as the scarcity of men paved the way for women to finally be admitted to the ranks. 

Billie Harkness arrives in Hull the afternoon of Hull’s first night air raid attack. She has come from the bucolic setting of Barton St. Gilles in Wiltshire at the invitation of her cousin after Billie’s mother meets with a tragic accident. Billie’s father, the rector of the local Anglican Church in St. Gilles, is a prisoner of war, and her brother is serving also, but at an unknown location. As Billie and her mother were still living at the rectory with the curate, who had assumed Rev. Harkness’ duties, Billie finds herself living alone in the house with the curate, a situation unacceptable to the town’s moral code. After a hasty and unromantic proposal of marriage from Ronald the curate, Billie takes the first train to Hull.

Lydia, the cousin, is delighted to have Billie visiting for as long as she wants, and Billie is stunned to discover Lydia living by herself in a thoroughly modern-styled house in an upscale housing community. Lydia wants to show Billie a hearty welcome by taking her to the movies and dinner in town that night. But, as the movie is playing, there are thunderous sounds and shaking, and an air attack is announced over the theater’s speakers. Too late to try to reach one of the city’s shelters, Billie and Lydia ride out the air raid in the theater. 

When the attack is over, they come out into a wide swath of destruction to the surrounding buildings. Billie notices the tea shop she had stopped in on the way to Lydia’s house had been hit, and upon further inspection, Billie comes upon the body of a young woman in the shop. It’s a customer whom Billie had seen in the café when stopping in for a cuppa earlier. The young woman is dead, but Billie notes that the building is still standing at the time and there’s nothing to suggest the woman has been killed by falling debris. Billie suspects foul play, but before the constable whose attention Billie has caught can investigate or search for any evidence, the café falls in on itself. 

Billie’s worries about what kind of work she can find in Hull are somewhat relieved when Lydia tells her that she can accompany her to the library where she works. Lydia knows the information resources center there can use volunteers to help sort out people’s questions they have in need of different services during the war. A mother comes into the library to inquire how she might locate her daughter Audrey, who has gone missing after the air raid. When Billie hears the daughter’s name, she wonders if the young woman she found dead in the café could be the missing daughter, as she had heard the young woman called Audrey. Lydia sends Billie to the police station to talk to the only woman constable in Hull about the possible identity of Mrs. Crewell’s daughter being the dead woman. Avis Crane is impressed with Billie in the connections she’s made in the missing daughter case and the dead woman, and Avis asks Billie to join the police force as the second WPC (Woman Police Constable), which Billie is thrilled to do.

The dead woman is indeed identified as Audrey Chetwell, Mrs. Chetwell’s daughter. Audrey’s father is a powerful city councilor and wants his daughter’s death attributed to the air raid, and so it is. This doesn’t stop Billie from suspecting Audrey was murdered. Meeting up again, now that she is on the police force, with the constable whom she shared the body finding experience, she learns his name is Peter Upton, Special Constable. Before long, Billie and Peter will be investigating the death of Audrey Chetwell on the sly. The twists and turns the investigation takes will have the investigating duo and the reader wondering who is loyal to Britain’s fight against Germany and who is a traitor. The author is never unfair in her clever presentation of multiple possibilities for traitor and murderer; all the possibilities are plausible suspects. In an atmosphere of subterfuge from both sides, a war is an easy place to suspect the wrong person. And, of course, first you must learn to trust the people you’re working with, starting with Peter.

The story is told through the eyes of Billie and Peter, so we get two perspectives and character revelations. Billie is much more solidly developed, as her background is so informative of who she is and what she wants. Of course, the contrast between who Wilhemina was and who Billie is shows a giant leap of growth. Peter gets a good set-up of who he is, too, but his thoughts and motivations aren’t as clear as Billie’s yet. That Billie and Peter can come together as working partners is an important step for both them personally and the future of the police force. I think the author did well to include Lydia, who is easy-going and pivotal in Billie’s establishing a new life. Lydia is the breeze coming through the room when it gets too hot. 

Death in a Blackout was such a satisfying read for me, taking me places I hadn’t been before in one of my favorite time periods of history and learning parts of the WWII story in England I was wholly unfamiliar with. Jessica Ellicott has created a many-layered story with fascinating connections, filling in historical blank spots for me with a compelling narrative and characters who seemed to leap off the streets of history into the story. Showing once again that stories can powerfully relate the events of the past to us through the lives of those who lived them, making them more than just dates and names. The danger and suspense are palatable in Ellicott’s storytelling, and her research is evident throughout the flow of the story. I didn’t realize just what I was missing in my WWII reading, and I’m grateful to Jessica Ellicott for bringing it to my attention. I am so glad that the WPC Billie Harkness’ narrative will continue, and I’ll get to read more about this independent-minded, resourceful trailblazer.

Thanks to author Jessica Ellicott for sending me a copy of Death in a Blackout that I won on the Jungle Red Writers Blog.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

A Dish to Die For by Lucy Burdette: Reading Room Review

 

August is hot, and it has me wishing for the cool winds of fall replacing the cold blasts of air conditioning. However, August this year has redeemed itself with the arrival of new books from favorite authors, especially a favorite series set in one of my favorite places. That’s a lot of favorites, and Lucy Burdette’s Key West Food Critic Mysteries so deserve that word for so many reasons. A Dish to Die For is #12 in the series that features Hayley Snow as the food critic for Key Zest online magazine. How we’re already at a dozen books, I don’t know. Time does indeed fly when you’re having fun. Having visited Key West multiple times, each book has been a walk down memory lane, as I recognize street and restaurant names, but I’m always learning more about this wonderfully quirky island, too. It’s a delightful surprise to see what unexpected place another murder has occurred in this paradise of relaxation and five-o’clock-somewhere. 

Hayley Snow is taking an afternoon off to spend with her friend Eric at Boca Chica Beach, a “little stretch of seaweed, sand, and mangroves” beach on Geiger Key, about twelve miles up from Key West. Eric brings his dogs and Hayley brings her husband Nathan’s dog Ziggy to give the dogs a fun time of running loose on the beach. Ziggy manages to “unearth” a man’s body that had been covered with sand from the storm the previous night. When Hayley discovers Ziggy’s find, she doesn’t have to wait long for the body to be identified. A local bird watcher named Davis Jager happens along and recognizes the dead man as Gerald Garcia, or GG, a wealthy Key West landowner and developer. GG was an infamous figure in Key West, a man who followed in his father’s footsteps as a cheating husband and a land developer who cared nothing for the consequences of development on the land. So, plenty of people hated the man, but few would have had opportunity to off him on that beach, as his death occurred at night on a beach that was not officially a public one, while a big storm was brewing. It’s rather a locked-room mystery but on a deserted beach.

It's a given that Hayley will become involved in the investigation of G.G.’s death. Not only do Davis Jager and surprisingly Nathan pull her into it, but Hayley’s own job will pull her in, too. Having come across the original 1949 copy of the Key West Women’s Club Cookbook, Hayley is planning a Key Zine article on it and the historical connection of food and the island. Intimately involved in the 1949 cookbook project was G.G.’s grandmother and future mother. Hayley has also agreed to help her mother with the catering for G.G.’s memorial reception to be held at the Key West Women’s Club headquarters, a house that holds some very old secrets. 

As if Haley doesn’t have enough to juggle, Nathan’s estranged father, Chip, is in town to oversee the accreditation review for the Key West Police Department. Even Hayley, with her charm and temptings of tasty food, will have a tough job of bringing Nathan and Chip together. But oddly enough the two men do agree on something, that Hayley’s involvement in the Garcia investigation is helpful. In fact, the reserved Skip even compliments Hayley’s skills. 

Of course, fans of this series want reassurance that Miss Gloria, Hayley’s dearest friend and octogenarian neighbor on houseboat row in Key West, is in on the action. I’m delighted to disclose that Miss Gloria is front and center with Hayley in this investigation. Lucy Burdette has the same gift with characters as she does with setting. She brings them alive for readers to experience up close and personal. As a reader who has loved this series since its beginning, I think I can vouch for the many other fans who feel how much Hayley and Miss Gloria and Nathan and Janet and Sam and Lorenzo and Steve Torrence have all become like family. And, that’s just the start to a cast of characters who come in and out of the stories and Hayley’s life. I was pleased to see the addition of a female law enforcement character, Deputy Darcy Rogers of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department. I hope to see more of her in future stories. It was satisfying to meet Nathan’s father this time, as we had already met his mother, Helen. I wonder if there’s some more story to come for this divorced couple who helped shape Nathan. 

Lucy Burdette has created a series that never drags. It is always fresh, introducing new characters alongside the favorites and great stories that find different parts of fascinating Key West to explore. Yet, there is always that comforting familiarity with characters and places, too, that feels so like coming home. A Dish to Die For is everything I’ve come to expect in a story from this series, and it might just be my new favorite. I loved all the history of the Key West Women’s Club brought out through the vintage cookbook, and the twist of the resolution was perfect. The food was delectably described to make my mouth water, pointing to more restaurants to try. Oh, and the mention of the Key Lime Cake at Firefly’s was a bonus I didn’t expect. Thank you, Lucy. Readers, don’t forget the recipes in the back of the book. I’m looking at the Party Sandwiches to fix first. So how about that? A Dish to Die For is rewarding from start to after finish.

I received an advanced copy of this book from Crooked Lane Publishers.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

In Place of Fear by Catriona McPherson: Reading Room Review

 

In Place of Fear by Catriona McPherson had me reading about a topic I didn’t even realize I wanted to read about, the NHS, or National Health Service, of the United Kingdom. I’ve heard how fantastic it is for those I know in the UK to obtain health care without worrying about what it costs. And, in reading this book, I discovered what it was like in its infancy. The disbelief of the UK’s citizens that their healthcare was free took some convincing. Those of us who are ardent fans of Catriona McPherson, and in particular her stand-alones, will experience a different kind of story in this book. In her previous stand-alones, the creepy factor has been fully engaged, but in this tale, the sinister is disguised as business as usual. And, of course, the cleverness is as evident as it always is in a book from McPherson.

The main character of the story is an “almoner,” whose job it is to get people signed up, to start a file for them where their health problems could be on record and their care could be better coordinated. Of course, paperwork and getting people signed up was only the beginning. Her job included providing nutritional information, pre-natal and post-natal care, ensuring people had proper housing, visiting patients in their homes to assess needs, and keeping the doctors she worked with apprised of her findings. She first, of course, had to convince those who couldn’t afford healthcare that it was free. So, readers will enjoy a well-researched piece of history told through the story of this almoner who is on the front lines of the NHS’s inception. However, this is Catriona McPherson, and readers will also get a first-rate crime/mystery as well.

Life is looking up for newly appointed Medical Welfare Almoner Helen (Nelly) Crowther in Edinburgh. Her new appointment means that she won’t have to follow her mother Greet and other women in her community to work in the bottling factory. Nelly’s father works in the slaughterhouse, and the family barely gets by. Their apartment houses Nelly and her husband, Nelly’s little sister, and Nelly’s parents. It’s a poor existence and one hard to climb out of, but Nelly was noticed by Mrs. Simpson at an early age and came under her tutelage. So, Nelly can work doing something she is passionate about. Greet is adamantly against Nelly taking the job, as there is that odd notion of not rising above one’s station prevalent in their community, and Greet objects to her working with two male doctors. Also, Greet thinks Nelly should be concentrating on getting pregnant and having babies, the normal course of their lives.

Nelly has been married two years to her school-days sweetheart Sandy when the story opens. Sandy had been a POW during the recently ended war and they were married when he returned home. He works as a street cleaner because he says he can’t stand to work indoors. There are problems between Nelly and Sandy, but with the new job has come a house of their own, so Nelly is hopeful that being out from her parents’ watch will solve her marital troubles. However, the move to their own home has a most inauspicious beginning. Nelly discovers the body of a young woman in the yard’s Anderson shelter, the lifeless form clothed only in a dirty hospital gown. The doctor declares it a suicide, but Nelly has seen the body up close and is convinced that death was at the hands of another. Thus starts Nelly’s personal investigation and vow to discover who the young woman was and how she died. 

One of the overriding themes in the book is women’s health, especially having or not having babies and the care for both. Choices were mostly in the hands of men what happened there, and it couldn’t be a timelier theme. Nelly is the outlier in 1948, loving her job and the independence that came with it. Through Nelly’s cases she works, McPherson does a great job of taking us into the lives of the underprivileged (impoverished) Edinburgh women in the years after WWII. And, the marked distinction between the poor and the rich is all too evident in how lives are lived and problems are handled. The lines of social class are just beginning to blur after the war, and Nelly represents that force of change that is coming. She isn’t content to conform to the traditions of her poor community of repeating one’s parents’ lives. She wants something of her own and isn’t afraid to fight for it. She has a voice and uses it. By the end of the story, readers will understand just how unconventional Nelly is for her times.

In Place of Fear is an historical fiction murder mystery, but I think that even in the murder mystery part, the historical takes precedence. Well, it’s probably more accurate to say the two aspects of the story depend on one another. What happens to the victim and the coverup afterwards is a part of women’s history, what it was, what we were able to change for the better, and the threats that still exist to women’s health. I enjoyed the mystery, as it had me guessing until the end, and I always enjoy being proved wrong about who I think the villain is, and, of course, if not for the investigation into the woman’s death, the unsavory history would not have been uncovered. But, for me, the history in the mystery and the history in the rest of the story is what was so powerful. 

A quick word about the Scottish dialect used in the dialogue. I enjoyed it because I love hearing people talk who are from Scotland, like Catriona McPherson. I think there was just enough though, as a whole book of it might have been distracting instead of enriching. I’m familiar with a lot of the words, so I only looked up a few. There is a handy glossary at the back of the book if you’re not familiar or you can’t understand the word through context clues. I think the choice of characters whose conversations use the dialect, Nelly and Sandy and Greet and others in their social circle, adds to the authenticity of their street cred and brings the readers into their world.

Catriona McPherson has given us yet another fascinating narrative in which to immerse ourselves, continuing her brilliance in unique storytelling. Thanks to NetGalley and Hatchette Book Group for an advanced reader’s copy of In Place of Fear.


Sunday, July 24, 2022

The Island by Adrian McKinty: Reading Room Review

 


"She could feel herself sinking.  She was so thirsty.  Everything ached.  She was sitting crossed-legged on the ground.  A blood trail was making it way toward her through the dust.  She tried to breathe.  Breathing hurt.  Her ribs hurt.  The air was thick."


Wow! This one blasted me out of my seat. It is one of the most suspenseful, unrelentingly terrifying reads I’ve experienced in some time. I found myself between gasping and holding my breath as the characters and action raced from page to page. I thought Adrian McKinty’s The Chain from last year was such an originally unexpected tale, and it is, but now I have to say The Island surpasses that. One would think that McKinty had a box labeled, “Bizarre Hair-Raisers,” but you might be surprised that the idea for The Island is rooted in the author’s own experience, or as he puts it, “a sort of Deliverance moment” on a remote Australian island. However, there is a tragic twist of the Baxter family outing, a "Sliding Doors" moment of what Adrian McKinty’s might have been. 

It has been one year since twenty-four year old Heather Baxter left the small Northwestern community where she grew up to marry Tom, a widowed forty-something orthopedic surgeon from Seattle. They, along with his two children, have come to Australia for a vacation. Well, Tom is there for a medical convention as the keynote speaker and his family is there for fun, or so Heather hopes. But, it’s hard to impress and keep a teenager and an twelve-year-old interested for long, especially since they are far from Heather’s biggest fans. The first part of the trip isn’t too bad, with visits to Sydney and Uluru, but now they are in Melbourne, site of the medical convention, and checked into a house at the beach. The kids are bored and in full moping mode. And, truth be told, Heather was hoping for the hotel, where room service and restaurants were handy.

While taking a drive outside of the city, down the Mornington Peninsula to see if they can spot any native Australian wildlife, Tom gets fed up with the kids complaining about the failure to see anything. So, when they stop at a roadside stand for lunch and two men, Matt and Jacko, from a private island suggest they take their ferry over to the island if they want to see koalas and lots of other wildlife, it does sound appealing. Olivia and Owen are finally excited and are adamant that their father must take them to Dutch Island. Tom gives in and agrees to go. Another couple, Hans and Petra, hears their conversation with the two men and want to join the excursion. So, after negotiating a rather steep price for the trip, both cars load up onto the ferry in high hopes of some unspoiled Australian habitat and the animals dwelling there. 

Matt cautions the visitors not to go far, not to go anywhere close to the farm in the middle of the island, and to be back in forty-five minutes to catch the ferry back across the bay As the families drove off in opposite directions to explore, I had the same urge as I do watching one of those scenes in a horror movie where the person decides to go down the stairs to the dark, scary basement to check out creepy noises. I wanted to shout, “Don’t go there! Turn around and go back to safety.” The feeling I got in the pit of my stomach was the dread of an ominous outcome. It turns out that feeling was well justified. There’s a good reason this island is not open to visitors, and you might be hearing strains of dueling banjos as you learn why. 

Disappointment is again the fare of the day when there are no animals to see as the family drives around the island. Realizing that it’s time to get back to the ferry, Tom turns around and speeds up the Porsche SUV so they won’t be late, and that’s when the accident happens that will lead them into a living nightmare of survival of the fittest and most clever. As the afternoon fades, the O’Neill clan is out to hunt the Baxters down, and the disadvantages the Seattle family face are many. No phone reception, no water, no knowledge of the island, deadly sharks in the waters, and no one knows where they are. And, when Heather and the children must separate from Tom, it’s nightmare upon nightmare for Heather, trying to keep the three of them alive while Olivia and Owen don’t trust her. There is one advantage Heather and the kids have, and that is the place where Heather grew up was an isolated island in Puget Sound, so she does have some survival skills. Heather proves herself quite impressive in taking charge. However, the odds are not good, with the family clan consisting of about twenty headed by the very scary Ma (take Annie Wilkes from Misery and multiply 20 times), and it is their island they live on every day, in a house with water and food and weapons. Oh, and vehicles. The O’Neills have those and the Baxters no longer do. 

The chase is on, and a savage chase it is. My description of the story ends here, as readers need to discover the rest of this story as it terrifyingly unfolds for themselves. However, the brilliantly developed characters deserve a mention. Adrian McKinty strips the soul bare in all the characters. It is absolutely all left on the ground. As in The Chain, who you are when it is all on the line is who you are. Of course, survival on an island inhabited by barbaric, murderous, crazy people would tend to reveal what those trying to survive are made of. Secrets and masks are the first casualties of the hunt. Heather has never seemed to be anything particularly special or had loads of ambition, although through her memories we see glimpses of dreams. She isn’t the person who would be voted “most likely to survive a manhunt on an isolated island,” and, yet, she rises to the occasion with clear, logical thinking and surprising physical grit. Whether she can hold on and protect the kids is always in danger, so readers might be afraid to like her too much, but she is the most likeable. Tom, her doctor husband, is a little less admirable, but he too will be worn down to what matters most to him. The kids probably make the biggest transition, as their spoiled and bitter natures must change if they are to survive. They are not the best of companions to have in a contest of survival. We know nothing about Hans and Petra going in, but we learn much about their relationship and their strengths as the story plays out. The bad bunch, the family clan members, are detestable, but, damn, McKinty does make them uniquely so. The reader will keep hoping that one of them isn’t as bad as the rest, and, well, you’ll just have to see if that hope is granted fulfillment or dashed into the rocks. The overall point here is that Adrian McKinty is kick-ass at character development. 

The Island is the quintessential thriller with more suspense and shock and intensity than you can imagine right now. Don’t be surprised if you feel the heat of the Australian summer sun beating on your neck, find yourself thirsting uncontrollably for a drink of water, or suddenly hear your stomach growl in anticipation of a meal. Adrian McKinty’s writing will immerse the reader into a sensory experience of empathy, with the fear being a palatable taste in the mouth. This story is a gauntlet of terror, and the readers can only hope there is an end and survival at that end. I am looking forward to the Hulu streaming program of The Island, and as usual, I’m so glad I read the book first. This story deserves the experience of readers’ imaginations before it is imagined for them.