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.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

The Companion by Lesley Thomson: Reading Room Review


“By two o’clock in the morning, the storm had passed. The rain had stopped. The air was cleansed. A rational soul would easily attribute the constant dripping to water dropping from leaves, a creaking to an ancient bough that, battered by the tumult, would soon break. But this was the time when the ghosts roamed the honeysuckle-scented walks, lingered in the arbours and strolled around the fountain.”


Lesley Thomson has a way with words. That’s’ rather a simplistic statement for the mastery with which this author manipulates words into their most effective and spectacular use. But, saying that Thomson “has a way with words” is also absolutely spot-on. I like to think of her as the word whisperer. I could cite example after example from her new book The Companion, but I’ll suffice with one of my favorite phrases she uses, “an aural mirage.” Doesn’t that description thrill the word nerds amongst us and give the most apt description. Another example that made me giddy with glee shows how she turns the ordinary into something delightful to read, “so many occasional tables the name was ironic.” Of course, being a word artist needs a story artist to weave all those wonderful words and phrases into a captivating tale, and so how fortunate we readers are that Lesley Thomson is a masterful storyteller, too. Add intriguing, quirky characters and immersing settings, both of which elements I’ll mention again, and Bob’s your uncle, you have a book that you don’t want to stop reading but you don’t want to end.

The first book to feature characters Freddy Power and Toni Kemp was Death of a Mermaid. This first book brought Freddy Power back to Newhaven in Sussex, England after 22 years away. Toni and Freddy had grown up together as best friends, and now that Freddy seems to be staying in Newhaven, their friendship has been rekindled. Toni also had time away from Newhaven, as she served in the Met for some years. Death of a Mermaid was more Freddy’s story, but The Companion is more equally a story involving them both. Lots happened to Freddy in the first book that has resulted in her job as a fish monger, selling fresh fish from her van, and her living in her deceased mother’s house. Toni is settled in as a DI for the Sussex Police and is much respected for her detective skills, although she has a tiny little problem that surfaces when she’s stressed. 

The action is swift and dark from the beginning of The Companion. A father and his son go off to fly kites on a Saturday afternoon and are brutally murdered, with no witnesses or discernible motive. DI Toni Kemp is assigned the case, along with her right-hand man Malcolm and their younger team members Sheena and Harry. With a dearth of evidence and clues, the deaths of James Ritchie and his son Wilbur will not be an easy solve, and they also won’t be the last murders. Toni and her team must eventually face the possibility of a serial killer. 

Freddy, unlike Toni, has found her way back to religion, to the Catholic faith which the friends grew up with, as school and life were centered around it. In doing her fish mongering rounds, Freddy has met a resident of the impressive Blacklock House apartments, Rex Lomax, who is a retired, highly successful barrister. She has fallen into a pleasurable routine of taking Rex to church on Sundays. But, Rex announces that he has hired a “companion” to live with him, one Timothy Mew, who will take over the task of driving him to church. Disappointed, Freddy still has the interaction with the other quirky characters of Blacklock House in her delivery of fish to the residents, and it is through that she meets Timothy and his friend Martha, who owns a beauty shop and has more than one secret concerning a past and future murder victim. 

Timothy Mew takes the job of companion to Rex Lomax as a steppingstone to the entitled life he has always coveted and felt he deserved. He considers it more of a genteel position, one in which he will be on equal footing with Rex, and the perk of driving Rex’s new Jaguar sweetens the pot. The introduction to Blacklock House brings the story and the murders to the country house atmosphere that is so Agatha Christie-like. Christie’s multifarious cast of characters in such tales as And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express come to mind, as the reader meets the odd collection of residents in the once former grand Blacklock House. These quirky characters provide a myriad of suspects and secrets to be revealed. And, the name Blacklock House reminds us of Letitia Blacklock in Agatha Christie’s A Murder is Announced. There’s even a door that swings open as the lights go out in both Christie’s book and The Companion. Although there are quite a lot of characters in the story due to the residents of Blacklock House, Thomson has given them each a uniqueness that allowed me to easily assimilate them into the story and my memory. 

Lesley Thomson is the complete package in mystery/crime writing. I’ve already noted her outstanding skills at making language shine. And, the plots that twist and turn to keep readers on their toes are full of the high octane suspense that fuels our thirst for thrills. Aiding that suspense in its effectiveness is that creeping air of sinister called atmosphere. There are some large and favorite atmosphere inclusions in this tale. Thomson expertly employs flashing lightning, pelting rain, loss of electricity, and even a screaming peacock to give readers a full-on dark and stormy night. 

As this book is a police procedural as well as a country house murder story, the details of that aspect are important. The interviews conducted by Toni and her team, their research, and their gathering of evidence fascinated me. The use of social media by the victims is an interesting part of the police investigation into the murders. Clues to who these people were and how they might appear to a killer help broaden the story of how they came to be victims. The vulnerability of a person can too easily show through their posts on FaceBook. It’s an issue the author cleverly enfolds into the story, bringing the police procedural aspects into full contemporary form. 

While The Companion isn’t listed as the second in a series and can be read with complete enjoyment on its own, I can’t imagine the reader wouldn’t want to read Death of a Mermaid as well. Of course, you can absolutely read The Companion first. I am quite smitten with the characters of Freddy and Toni, so I do hope there will be more of them to come. I highly recommend anything Lesley Thomson writes, and it comes as no surprise to me that The Companion is a solid choice for my favorite reads list this year.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt: Reading Room Review


It seems that every so often a contemporary fiction book comes along that's not in my preferred mystery/crime genre, a book that touches my soul, connecting with me on a special level. Last year it was The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams. The year before it was The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes. Others over the years have included The Girls by Lori Lansens, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, Moloka'i by Alan Brennert, State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin, and Whirligig by Paul Fleischman. The one I just recently read is Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

One of the main characters is a favorite creature of mine, an octopus. Marcellus is a giant Pacific octopus living at Sowell Bay Aquarium in Washington state. Tova Sullivan is a widow who started working the night shift to tidy up the small aquarium. The inexplicable bond between Marcellus and Tova is the stuff of reading magic. The connections in the coastal town of Sowell Bay don’t stop at this magical one, but it is this particular bond that opens up Tova to life beyond grief and readers to a beautiful story. 

Tova is a widow of five years, but the loss of her son thirty years ago is what haunts her and defines her. She is retired and doesn’t need the money, but she does the nightly cleaning job at the aquarium to fill time, time which seems empty these days. Cameron’s mother walked out on him when he was eight and he’s never known his father. He is 30 years old and nothing in his life is settled, and he can be his own worst enemy. Both Tova and Cameron feel alone with their grief, but there are also some people who have been there as important support. Tova has her “Knit-Wits,” her group of several other women her age who get together once a month and on special occasions to share their lives. She also has the small grocery store owner, Ethan Mack, who watches out for her, although she doesn’t want to get too close to him. Cameron has his aunt, who took him in when his mother left and has his back when he needs her, and he has two long-time friends who are married to one another and care about what happens to Cameron. Marcellus was a juvenile rescue and then came to live at the aquarium after, but he dreams of being free and back in the ocean. He “can still taste the untamed currents of the cold open water.” A sixty-pound giant Pacific octopus, Marcellus seems a somewhat larger than that life force. 

The chapters are divided into the three main characters’ stories—Tova, Marcellus, and Cameron, told from their point of view. Tova’s and Marcellus’ stories blend quickly as they develop their special communication. Tova is heading into the “golden years” of her life, which means some changes she’s not looking forward to. But, in Tova’s telling, there is never the sense of bitterness or self-pity. She lives in the house her grandfather built on Puget Sound, and the ghosts of those who are now gone are more personal history to think on than maudlin memories. Tova likes to stay busy, and working at the aquarium at night affords her that, with the relaxing bonus of not needing to interact with people. 

Marcellus’ chapters start out with how many days into his four-year life span he’s lived, the first chapter being 1,299 days out of 1,460 days. Marcellus’ voice is my favorite, as his intelligence is underestimated by most humans, and you can hear his laugh at this in his witty, snarky thoughts. Marcellus shows his surprising agility and hidden cleverness when the people are absent from the aquarium at night, and I’ll leave that for readers to delightfully discover on their own. He’s a rascal, but he’s a loveable rascal. He shows us more than anyone that it’s not the number of days you have left but what you do with them that counts. 

Cameron’s story starts in California, where his aunt raised him after his mother abandoned him when he was eight. He has trouble holding a job and navigating a romantic relationship. He ends up in Sowell Bay to confront the man he thinks is his father, but the man seems an elusive character to find. Cameron has a chip on his shoulder for some time, but when he comes to work at the aquarium when Tova must take time off for an injury, his life changes in ways he’d never imagined. 

All the characters are some degree of lost in this book, including Marcellus. Or maybe, it would be more accurate to say they are stuck. That might sound like this story is a sad one and that the characters are hopeless, but that’s not at all true. The title of the book is Remarkably Bright Creatures, and I think it applies not only to intelligence but a bright, burning light inside each character that is still there, just waiting to shine. Being lost or stuck does not preclude positivity. In fact, in this story, the stubbornness of an inner core of hope compels the characters to not give up. 

This book was such an exceptional experience for me. The title of the book, Remarkably Bright Creatures, is such an apt one, as the story is so remarkable, too. As I’ve already noted, I read mostly mystery/crime, but I occasionally try to fit in a few other fiction books, too. And, really there is some mystery to Remarkably Bright Creatures, as Tova still searches for answers to her son Eric’s disappearance from a boat on the Sound so many years ago and Cameron is searching for the dad he never knew. What’s an unexpected turn is Marcellus in the role of an unusual detective in discovering answers to the past. Remarkably Bright Creatures has been described as unique and heartwarming, and it is indeed that. It is also fierce, holding on when so much has slipped away. Marcellus steals the show and our hearts, proving once again how much animals have to teach humans. Remarkably Bright Creatures takes us through the struggles with love, family, loneliness, change, trust, loss, hope, and second chances, with Marcellus as our guide. This book is Shelby Van Pelt’s debut, an astonishing fact. I can’t wait to see what else she has in store for readers.