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.