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 an 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.