Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Lantern Men by Elly Griffiths: Reading Room Review

When your favorite series is as thrilling in book twelve as it was when it began, you know you have struck reading gold. The Lantern Men, #12 in the Ruth Galloway series, by Elly Griffiths is a book that both continues the great storytelling immersed in the mysterious, mythic salt marsh setting of Norfolk with its characters we’ve come to love and is a pivotal point of what the future holds. In other words, the murder mystery has its roots deliciously deep into the mythical connection of the Lantern Men of the marshes, and the always complicated relationships of characters sees some resolution. It is Ruth’s hour of deepest soul searching.

Change looms large in this new tale. Ruth has now been living with the American history scholar Frank and her daughter Kate in Cambridge for two years. Both Frank and Ruth are teaching at Oxford, and Ruth has rented out her house by the salt marshes in Norfolk. While she still sees her friends from Norfolk, she and Frank have carved out their own niche away from it. She is no longer the police expert engaged for cases that DCI Harry Nelson, Kate’s father, investigates for the North Norfolk Police Department. The most recent case she was not involved in was the serial murderer Ivor March, convicted of killing two women and suspected, especially by Nelson, of killing two more. It was Ruth’s former boss, Phil Trent, who was the forensic archeologist on call who dug up the bones in the garden of March’s girlfriend, the bones that proved to be two missing Norfolk women. But, a twist comes up in the Ivor March saga, that brings Ruth front and center again in her old police work. Nelson meets with March at March’s new prison accommodations, and March offers to reveal the location of the other two graves, but he will do so only if Dr. Ruth Galloway does the digging. Ruth feels as if she can’t refuse if it will mean that two more families will receive closure to their tormenting uncertainty. So, it’s back to her familiar stomping grounds to work with Nelson and his team, something she has missed since starting her new life.

The location that March gives to Ruth and Nelson is the garden of an abandoned pub, on the edge of the Cley Marshes. Ruth, who doesn’t know Ivor March, has wondered why he wanted her to do the dig. She doesn’t think she has any connection to him, but then she discovers that his ex-wife runs the writers and artists retreat, Grey Walls, where Ruth has just spent a week to finish her last book. The ex-wife, Crissy Martin, together with Ivor March’s current girlfriend and another former female resident at their retreat, are trying to get March out of jail, claiming he’s innocent. Ruth had heard of the Ivor March case and followed it, but she had no idea that the retreat in the fens was where March had lived with a group of men and women who all participated in different arts and the retreat in the early days of it. Ruth is further surprised that Crissy, whom she liked and even confided in, a rare thing for Ruth, during her week stay, is still connected to her ex-husband and the group of friends. However, only the gardener/artist John and Crissy remain to run the retreat now.

When the dig at the old pub reveals a surprise and the DNA evidence isn’t what Nelson had hoped, things really start to get complicated. Then, another young woman is found dead, and even Nelson has a nagging thought that March could be innocent, although that thought doesn’t linger long. And, of course, the mythic legends, which Nelson finds annoying and Ruth finds fascinating, rear their mysterious heads. This time it is the legend of the Lantern Men. Three of the men, including Ivor March, who had lived at Grey Walls had called themselves the Lantern Men, but contrary to the marsh legend of the Lantern Men leading people to their deaths, March claims that they saved young women who were lost. The dead women speak otherwise, but if March led the “Lantern Men,” is there now a copycat killer?

As with all the Ruth Galloway novels, readers are drawn to the whole cast of characters and their lives and relationships. The changes that Ruth has undergone in the two years since The Stone Circle, #11 in the series, carries over to other characters. Nelson is focusing on his two-year-old son George, but he misses Katie, his daughter with Ruth. DI Cloughie has left Norfolk and got his own patch at the Cambridgeshire CID, but he becomes involved in the Ivor March case, much to readers‘ delight. DI Judy Johnson is still in Norfolk and dealing with Tanya Fuller and her ambition to outshine Judy and everyone else. Of course, Judy has Cathbad, our favorite Druid to keep her calm and centered. A new member of the Norfolk Police is Tony Zhang, who promises to be a great replacement for Cloughie. Cathbad’s oldest child, Maddie, is gaining favor as a character, too, in her job as a journalist. Frank has achieved a major accomplishment in convincing Ruth to move to Cambridge, and he isn’t too pleased about her involvement in the Ivor March case and working with Nelson, but Ruth is still very much her own person. She’s changed where she lives, but there are limits to her compromises.

While I was reading The Lantern Men, I was leading a group discussion for a virtual book club on the first Ruth Galloway mystery, The Crossing Places. It was a fortuitous coincidence for me, as there are quite a few allusions to book one’s events and beginnings in The Lantern Men. The continuity was a serendipitous delight. And, reading both in such proximity allowed me to feel the full force of how much has changed and yet remained the same, especially the power of the salt marsh setting and its role in life and death. Elly Griffiths has given us another outstanding story in this world of which I cannot get enough.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Reading Our Way Through COVID-19

Waiting at the doctor's office, waiting at the DMV, waiting for your car's oil to be changed, waiting for pretty much anything is something readers have covered.  I had a dentist I used to go to who always ran on time.  It should have been great, right?  But, with no wait came no reading time while waiting.  I now have a dentist who runs late.  So, with the Coronavirus causing almost everything in our lives to be cancelled, we readers wait for it to be over doing what we do best.  We read.

I've had a great reading year so far, and I am now even in hopes of fitting in a few books I wasn't sure I'd get to, while I wait.  I thought I'd share the books that I've just finished and those I've got lined up for the next month.  And, if I have to wait longer for the return to some normalcy, I've got that covered, too.

Here are some books you might want to consider while you wait, too.  They are all 2020 books, and the last book is not a mystery/crime book, but The Carousels of Paris is a extraordinary book that will bring you much joy.  

I'm coming back to this blog post to add a resource that so many people already use, but because my reading doesn't include a lot of cozy mysteries (although that seems to be changing a bit), I'm not the best person to recommend cozies.  Lucky for me that I know who the best person to recommend and know all about the world of cozy mystery reading.  That person is, of course, Dru Ann Love, and here is the link to her blog Dru's Book Musings so you can get your cozy list there.

Now, for my reading list, which goes to the first part of May.





Sunday, March 15, 2020

Above the Bay of Angels by Rhys Bowen: Reading Room Review

I’m a steadfast fan of all Rhys Bowen’s books. Her Royal Spyness series featuring Lady Georgie never disappoints and keeps me laughing at its wit and clever characters. Rhys also writes amazing stand-alone historical mystery books, four so far, that have become favorites and equally successful as her series books, being nominated for and winning multiple awards. She brings a fresh look at historical details that send this reader down rabbit holes of fascinating learning. Oh, that all history could be learned like this. 

Rhys Bowen really did have me at hello in her new stand-alone, Above the Bay of Angels. That first riveting sentence that reads, “If Helen Barton hadn’t stepped in front of an omnibus, I might still be sweeping floors and lighting fires at an ostentatious house in St. John‘s Wood” told me how special this book was going to be. From the bizarre food dishes that Queen Victoria wanted her cooks to fix to the entourage she required to accompany her to the French Riviera, all these historical details give such a distinct flavor to the story. Described to readers as seen through the eyes of cook Helen Barton, aka Isabella Waverly, the events and people come alive through her enthusiastic reaction to them. 1896 is a fascinating period of history everywhere, as new inventions and new thinking was on a steady rise. Queen Victoria, who you might think would be set in her ways in the twilight of her reign, is the impetus for this story with her forward thinking of bringing women into her previously male-run kitchen. This historical setting combined with the suspense of Isabella assuming Helen’s identity and the fear of her getting caught is thrilling. Add a murder to the mix and Helen fighting to clear her name, and you have a page turner. 

Isabella Waverly has had a disappointing life, although its beginning was rather idyllic. She reaped the benefits of her father being born into the aristocracy and a kind, loving mother. But, the British aristocracy was not a fair game, and Isabella’s father had the bad fortune to be born the son of a second son, thus no inheritance. After some success in India in the Bengal Lancers and a return to England with a good position at the Savoy Hotel, Mr. Waverly develops a drinking problem, gets fired, and Mrs. Waverly dies. Isabella must leave school, which she loves, and go to work at age fifteen as a servant girl to support her father and younger sister. She ends up in the kitchen in a house of a woman who is a nightmare to Isabella’s soul, but she is stuck as the woman refuses to give her a reference to go elsewhere, even though Isabella’s work is excellent. On a day off, Isabella’s luck turns, and she is handed a letter by a dying woman for an appointment to interview for the position of under-cook at the royal palace . The appointment is for Helen Barton of Yorkshire, the dying woman, and the references have already been given and checked. Isabella grabs her chance for a better life, goes to the palace for the interview pretending to be Helen, and gets the position. 

The kitchen at the palace is a dream-come-true for Isabella, or Helen, as I will now refer to her. She has decided that becoming a Master Cook is her goal, and there's no better place to learn to do that than the royal kitchen. There’s just one other female cook in the large kitchen, and the male cooks aren’t exactly receptive, but through hard work and talent, Helen starts to earn their respect. After the pastry cook has an accident and must be off one day, Helen bakes scones for the Queen, who is delighted with them and then insists that Helen continue to work with the pastry cook. With the death of her father and her sister becoming engaged, Helen is finally out from under the burden of providing for anyone other than herself. The one dark moment comes when the real Helen’s brother shows up and threatens to spill the identity beans if he isn’t found a job with the royals, preferably with the Queen’s son, the Prince of Wales. In an encounter of great fortuity, Helen is able to ask the Prince of Wales to employ her “brother,” and Helen breathes a great sigh of relief, for the time being.

Helen is happy in her position and learning quickly, and she is not expecting the next great surprise. Queen Victoria has decided to leave the gloom and bad weather of a London February behind her and spend some time at the new hotel built for her in Nice, France, on the French Riviera. She always takes a large staff with her, as well as furniture and clothes and whatever else the Queen wants, such as the Highlander pipers, and Helen gets to be one of the cooking staff to go. She doesn’t even mind the boat trip and long, long train trip to get there. Helen never imagined that she would ever see such a place as Nice, and she is intrigued by everything, especially the cooking and baking of the French chefs, with whom the English chefs must share at kitchen at the great hotel. Helen is charmed by the warm, lively climate and its people, including the head French chef, a British transplant neighbor to the hotel, and the vendors of the food market. It’s all thrilling until a member of the royal party is found dead, and suspicion falls upon Helen, as she prepared his last meal. If she can’t clear her name, she stands to lose the job she loves and maybe more. 

Above the Bay of Angels is a clear choice for my favorites list of 2020 reads, as well as a having a place on my favorites through the years. I am sure that it will be an award winner because this stand-alone is a standout.