Thursday, April 3, 2014

A Duty To The Dead by Charles Todd

Charles Todd is a pseudonym for an American mother/son writing team.  Todd writes two series, the Ian Rutledge series and the Bess Crawford series.  Bess Crawford is a British, World War I nurse, who has an inexplicable knack for getting caught up in murder mysteries.  A Duty To The Dead is the first novel in the Bess Crawford series; it is also the first Charles Todd novel that I've read.  Someone donated a paperback copy to the library recently that I borrowed and read after some initial confusion over whether it was the first or second in the series (because we all know I like to read a series in order!).  A promise made to a dying soldier is what leads to the mayhem as it were (although, really there isn't mayhem related to the mystery until a bit at the end), and when the smoke clears a family is left in shambles with hardly anyone left to pick up the pieces.

Bess promises a dying soldier named Arthur Graham that she will personally relay a message to his family: "Tell my brother Jonathan that I lied.  I did it for mother's sake.  But it has to be set right."  But Bess puts off the fulfillment of this promise until the ship she's working on is suddenly sunk by a mine on a routine voyage to pick up war wounded.  In the chaos that ensues after the initial explosion, Bess's arm is broken, and the injury is exacerbated in the evacuation of the sinking ship.  Sent home on leave while her arm heals, Bess takes the time to travel to Kent to finally deliver Arthur's message.

Upon her arrival, Bess is welcomed as a guest in the Graham family home.  When she delivers the message to Jonathan, both he and his mother claim to know not of what Arthur meant by the cryptic message.  But as Bess spends time with the family and in the nearby village, she realizes there's a skeleton in the family's closet that's related to the stepson packed off to an insane asylum.  Bess also witnesses a decidedly puzzling family dynamic between the two surviving brothers, their mother and their mother's cousin, Robert.  There is also the aforementioned third brother, Peregrine, the boys' father's eldest son and heir, who is a product of the father's first marriage, and whom his stepmother, the father's second wife, has always claimed is not right in the head.  He has been shut in a nearby asylum for over a decade following a mysterious and bloody murder.

Bess begins trying to figure out first the family relationships and history, including the dynamic between Peregrine and his brothers and their mother that despite a seemingly loving facade is rife with tension below the surface.  The family insists that Peregrine isn't right in the head, that he was not a bright child who struggled with his lessons, that he murdered a girl in cold blood, and that he remain shut in the asylum, cut off from the world and isolated from any visitors.  But what the family claims and indeed even the villagers reinforce does not square with Bess's experience of him while she nurses him through a sudden, serious bout with pneumonia at the family home after the asylum abruptly ejects him during his illness.  At the first sign of recovery, Peregrine is again packed off to the asylum.  But that is not where he stays.

After the family receives some "terrible news," Bess is pretty much unceremoniously packed off to the train station to depart back to London on the last evening train.  Upon her return to London, she soon discovers that Peregrine has escaped the asylum and taken refuge in her flat.  His escape being the unspecified "terrible news" that the Graham family had received.  Not only did he manage to abscond with Bess's London address, he also pilfered a pistol, escaped the asylum, and managed to make it to London.

Peregrine tells Bess that he doesn't deny murdering the housemaid, but he wants to remember why he did it so he can face the truth of what he is.  Using the pistol and some threats, he coerces a reluctant Bess into assisting in his quest to piece together his fragmented and fuzzy memory of the events of the night of the murder.  So Bess and Peregrine embark on a fact finding mission to dig up information on the maid's family, the police investigation, the speed with which he was packed off to the asylum on the same night as the murder, and the family secrets to which he was privy even as his slowly emerging, still fragmented memory of that night sheds light on the truth of what happened all those years ago.  Bess's instincts tell her that there is more to this mystery than meets the eye and all the circumstantial evidence they dig up seems to buoy this hunch.  As Bess gathers and analyzes the information, she begins to suspect that Peregrine was drugged, that the family separated and isolated him for fear that others might guess that what they claimed about him was not true, and that Mrs. Graham had an ulterior motive for discrediting Peregrine for fear that he might reveal some family secrets that would reflect rather poorly on her.  All of which leads Bess to suspect that the version of events disseminated by Mrs. Graham is in fact a cover for what really occurred that night.

Coupled with her own observations of the Graham family dynamics, Bess is horrified by the cold cruelty of the deliberate actions taken by Mrs. Graham to isolate and estrange Peregrine from his brothers and the outside world, to disenfranchise and divest him of his rightful inheritance, to discredit him in order to hide her own secrets, and to sacrifice him on the altar of the law and public opinion in order to save one of her own sons.  The consequences of Mrs. Graham's actions that long ago night, though long dormant in the intervening years, have come home to roost.  While justice may have been postponed and held at bay for a decade and half, it will take its price in blood upon the Graham family.

I have to admit, for me, the book was slow to start at first.  Yes, there was the action of the sinking of the ship, etc. at the beginning of the book, but the mystery didn't really get going until after Bess was finally in Kent with the Grahams.  It was the mystery of the slightly off family dynamics that subtly hint that the family hides a dark secret that drew me in initially.  And when Bess starts pursuing the mystery of the old murder in earnest because she believes an injustice was done rather than because she fears for her life is when the story really gets going.  While I enjoyed the book, I'm not sure the character of Bess really grabbed me enough to want to embark upon reading the series.  I do have the second one at home that I may or may not read.   Fans of historical fiction or historical mysteries will enjoy this book and the series.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

The Winter People is the newest release from Jennifer McMahon.  I think I've read one of her previous novels, but it wasn't reviewed here on the blog, and I don't remember which one it was.  This is one of those books of spooky strangeness in which you're not really sure what is happening in some parts of the book because the narrator isn't really sure what is happening.  I'll admit that things sure looked like they were going one way when instead they ended up a different way that was far worse.  Basically cold blooded vengeance visited upon a family by a person who helped raise the family's children pretty much spawned the events that happened in the present.  It was sad because the person took it out on the children--children who had no control over what the adults in the situation were doing.

Strange things happen in tiny West Hall, Vermont.  People die strange, gruesome deaths.  People vanish into thin air.  Livestock is murdered.  And the woods out by Devil's Hand are creepy, like mega creepy.  The surrounding mind bending forest hides a twisted evil that's the source of all the strange gruesomeness visited upon the town.  And it all dates back a hundred years or more to 1908.

In 1908, weeks after the mysterious death of her only daughter, Gertie, Sara Harrison Shea is gruesomely and brutally murdered.  In the weeks and years that follow, her relatives and the townsfolk are visited by death and tragedy one after the other.  Legend says that the spirit of Sara or someone dressed like her was seen visiting the deceased immediately preceding their deaths.  These mysterious deaths and disappearances continue for decades.

In present day West Hall, Ruthie's mother vanishes on New Year's day, leaving behind two daughters and no trace of where she might have gone or if she plans to return.  Ruthie's mother insists on living a life well off the grid and under the radar on the former Harrison Shea farm near the woods that surround the Devil's Hand.  Thus, Ruthie feels she cannot turn to the authorities in the wake of her mother's disappearance. Unbeknownst to Ruthie, the farm she now calls home was, in a previous life, the site of a heart rending tragedy that spawned some seriously twisted after shocks.

While searching for clues to her mother's whereabouts, Ruthie finds the published diary of Sara Harrison Shea as well as wallets belonging to a mysterious couple.  Unfortunately, Ruthie's bumbling search leads her to an unhinged woman named Candace with family ties to the Harrisons, and Candace is a woman who'll stop at nothing to regain custody of her son.

Katharine, a grieving mother and widow, comes to West Hall searching for answers: why did her husband, Gary, spend the day here the day he died?  Why did he lie about his plans that day?  And what happened to the camera bag he carried that day?  Katharine runs across a copy of Sara's published diary among Gary's things, and it leads her to Ruthie's mother and the Harrison Shea farm.  Little does Katharine know she's on a collision course with Ruthie and Candace.  All three women are searching for answers, and once their searches converge, it will lead all three into the the dark woods one cold night to a cave hidden under the Devil's Hand.

The story is told alternating between the present day events that also alternate perspectives between Ruthie and Katharine, and the events of 1908 told from both Sara's perspective and her husband, Martin.  Both parts are spooky, mysterious and terrifying.  But the truth of what happened that long ago winter is not what it seems and is far darker than anyone can imagine.  The effects of cold blooded vengeance have borne blood and death for the hundred years that followed.  This is the story of a town living unwittingly in the shadow of an unnatural danger and the family bound to a farm, determined to live as a buffer between the darkness that stalks the woods and the outside world.

This supernatural mystery is by turns spooky, terrifying, perplexing, suspenseful, twisted, and atmospheric.  Billed as a ghost story, and there are subtle elements of a ghost story, however, once the reader reaches the end of the story, it has morphed into something akin to the zombie genre with a twist.  While the ending isn't necessarily bleak--the events end up bringing Ruthie closer to her family despite the exposure of a long held family secret--but neither is it tied up too neatly.  There are a couple loose ends--just enough to wonder what the hell one character was thinking (not clearly apparently) and what the consequences of those ill thought out actions might be.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Art of Keeping of Secrets by Patti Callahan Henry

I finished this book earlier this week.  It's the fourth book by Patti Callahan Henry that I've read.  If you click here, here, and here, you can read the three previous novels that were reviewed on the blog.  I've now exhausted the Henry books available in the local library system.  I may request some of her others from outside the county, but I have a pile of books at home to read (or not read as the case may be) before I do that.  The novel has similar themes to the later novel, Coming Up For Air: relationships, mistaking controlling tendencies for love, keeping secrets from those we love, etc.  There were some parts of this novel that were hard for me to read because I was worried that things would go to hell in a hand-basket before they got better, but they didn't, and I was glad for that.

Annabelle has spent the last two years mourning the death of her husband, Knox, a pilot whose plane went down in flames in the isolated wilderness of Colorado and was never recovered.  She's finally reached a point where she's beginning to come to terms with her loss and her grief and with living a life without Knox.  Then the sheriff drops by with unexpected and life shattering news: Knox's plane has been discovered in the Colorado wilderness and in the burnt out shell of his plane were found the charred remains of two bodies.  Knox died with an identified woman.  The news throws Annabelle and her children off balance causing the fragile parts of their lives to shatter with the weight of the unknown: who was this woman?  Why did Knox lie when he said he was going alone on a hunting trip?  The obvious answers do not reconcile with the Knox that his wife, family and friends knew and loved, who was a man of unerring integrity and compassion, who had a deep sense of justice.

Annabelle is forced to ask difficult questions of herself and their friends, but no one has any clue who this woman might have been, and no one believes Knox would have an affair and lead a double life.  Annabelle's quest for answers leads to an impulsive trip to Newboro, North Carolina, where Knox landed his plane one last time to refuel before flying on to Colorado, and where it makes sense that he would have picked up  this mysterious, nameless female passenger.  Once in Newboro, chance leads Annabelle to Sofie, a twenty year old dolphin researcher.  Sofie and her mother, Liddy, once lived in Marsh Cove where Annabelle and Knox lived, but that was at least a decade ago.  Now Sofie leads a solitary life of secrets under a name different form the one she used in Marsh Cove, and her very safety depends upon the secrets she keeps.  Everyone in Newboro believes Sofie and Liddy came from Colorado, and there are other things, small lies that they told those in Newboro in order to cloak their true identities and previous lives, to prevent the dangerous man they've both been running from for all of Sofie's life from ever finding them.

Annabelle and her son, Jake's, arrival in Newboro searching for answers about the woman who died with Knox threatens the precarious safety Sofie's been hanging onto by her fingernails.  So accustomed to keeping secrets, Sofie refuses to answer Annabelle's and Jake's questions, and she won't tell them why.  This doesn't stop Annabelle from asking questions around town to piece together the puzzle of what her husband was or wasn't doing with Liddy.

There is also Sofie's boyfriend, Bedford, a man twice her age, whom she claims not to love as much as he loves her.  Yet despite this supposed deficit of feeling, Sofie's still desperate for his approval, his protection, and his love.  For all her mother's warnings about trusting no man--and Sofie hasn't--she neglected to educate her daughter on the far more insidious dangers of falling for a subtly controlling man who will isolate her from everyone, twist and hide the truth in order to manipulate her, and make sure she's beholden to him and no one else.  I feel as if I'm the only one who sees Bedford's controlling ways, his overreaction to Jake's attempts to befriend Sofie, and his overstepping of boundaries that he hides so well.  The interactions between Sofie and Bedford were hard to read--because she doesn't seem to see how controlling he is, because no one else says, hey, dude, don't you think you're overreacting a little bit, and because I was afraid the situation between Sofie and Bedford would descend into bodily harm, physical abuse and/or stalking before Sofie is able to extricate herself from the relationship.  Thankfully it doesn't come to this.

The astute reader will intuit early on in Annabelle's arrival in Newboro from the cryptic clues given by Sofie that the reason for the other woman's presence on Knox's plane is not adulterous.  The lies Sofie and Liddy told about their past and the assumption of new names made it obvious to me why the two women were running and why Knox aided and abetted their secrets and their running.  Nevertheless, it was suspenseful to see just how the story would shake out.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Driftwood Summer by Patti Callahan Henry

So in the last review I had lots of opinions, mostly because I think that book really chapped my ass.  I also have opinions regarding this book, specifically about the two younger sisters who spend about half the book being insufferable, self-centered wenches.  (That's right.  I said it.)  Driftwood Summer is the third book by Patti Callahan Henry that I've read and reviewed on the blog.  You can read the other reviews here and here.  I've become a fan of her books.  This one has family drama--specifically prickly, resentful sisterly relationship drama.

Riley's mother takes a tumble down the staircase of the family home and breaks several bones in the process.  As a result Riley's sisters, Maisie and Adalee, must come home to assist with their mother's convalescence as well as the huge, week long bicentennial celebration of the cottage that houses the family owned bookstore.  There's much more riding on this celebration than the family's letting on to the public: Riley's counting on the revenue from the festivities to turn around the business's floundering finances and pay down some debts.  There is also the secret of her mother's illness that she's been ordered by her mother to keep from her sisters until the festivities are over.

Of course, neither Maisie nor Adalee are pleased to be back in town--neither woman planned on staying longer than the weekend of the big party that culminates the week of special events commemorating the anniversary.  Nevertheless, Maisie reluctantly flies in early from California, and Adalee puts her summer plans on hold.  Now that all three sisters are finally in the same town at the same time for the first time in six years, childhood differences, conflicts, resentments, tensions and betrayals repeatedly threaten to bubble to the surface.  Most exasperating (okay, really, outraged, because I was a little outraged and perturbed about this one) are the tensions and resentments at the root of the estrangement between Riley and Maisie that date back to the summer Maisie stole Riley's best friend, Mack, the only man Riley ever loved.

Both Maisie and Adalee are selfish, self-absorbed, self-centered women who refuse to see past the inconveniences caused to their lives by familial duties, obligations, and so called sisterly betrayals (because how dare family crises demand their attention at this very inconvenient time).  Maisie especially is a piece of work.  She's held a grudge against Riley for tattling on her about a broken curfew; the consequences of which torpedoed the summer romance between Maisie and Mack--this is the 'monumental' betrayal for which Maisie can never forgive Riley.  Never mind that Maisie deliberately pursued Mack that summer despite the full knowledge that he was her sister's best friend and that Riley harbored a long unrequited love for him--this is the betrayal for which Riley has difficulty forgiving Maisie.  But whatever Maisie wants Maisie gets, especially when it comes to men, and she doesn't let a little thing like a wife or a fiancee stand between her and whatever man she wants--no matter if the fiancee is her best friend.

When Mack and his parents return to town for the bookstore's anniversary celebrations, Maisie thinks she finally has her one chance to make things work between her and Mack.  While Riley's determined to keep her old feelings for Mack buried lest she's heartbroken again by his interest in nothing more than a friendship with her.  In fact, due to the scars of that long ago summer, Riley, in all the years since, has expected nothing more than friendship from any man in her life.

Though the main drama is between Maisie and Riley, there is also sub-plot drama involving the youngest sister, Adalee, and her loser boyfriend.  And there is also a sub-plot involving the paternity of Riley's twelve year old son--a secret Riley has kept since the boy's conception.  There are wisps of dysfunction referred to involving the sisters' parents: their mother is a controlling, dramatic, social drunk; their father was largely absent from their childhoods due to his job; and there are a couple of  incidences during their childhood that speak to a parental indifference or neglect at its worst or absent-mindedness at its best.  However, these references are never fully explored.

This is a story of mending relationships, of letting go what could have been, of taking a hard look inside oneself at one's faults, and of moving past the fear that has been crippling one's life for the better part of a decade.  At its heart is family and the bonds between these three sisters that are mended after so many years of estrangement.  For all the frustration Maisie incites with her self-centeredness, in the end she redeems herself by finally opening her eyes to the dysfunctional dynamics at work in her own life.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Siege by Stephen White

I told you I've been reading.  I had about three reviews backlogged and waiting to be typed up and posted of which this review of The Siege by Stephen White is the second.  I don't normally read books like this... and by books like this, I mean, high stakes thrillers that feel generic.  I put this book in the same category as the conspiracy theory/intrigue/black ops/historical-discovery-of-global-importance-that-will-shatter-all-our-notions-of-history/religion/life-as-we-know-it thrillers that star spies or other former elite special forces operators.  Not that there's anything wrong with those books, they just usually aren't my bag of tea when it comes to reading, and so I tend to shy away from them.  So why I read this one, I don't know except that it's been on my reading list forever, and I thought there must be some reason why I put it there, so why don't I give it a shot because I'm sure it'll be a quick read.  Well.  I read the first 100 pages and then I skipped a section.  Then I checked back in with the story and skimmed a few pages before I skipped another section.  And then I settled in to read the remainder of the novel because goshdarnit I wanted to know who's causing all this trouble and why because, as is repeatedly shared throughout the story, this troublemaker isn't the average troublemaker causing trouble for the average reasons (which usually means just for kicks).

An unnamed, faceless assailant has taken hostage the children of some of the most powerful and influential people in America (and woe betide the families who have no information of enough interest to the assailant for him to strike a deal with them for their children's lives).  Holed up in the tomb of a secret society on the campus of Yale University (talk about a public relations nightmare), the assailant's had the upper hand in this rodeo for days before anyone ever knew there was a rodeo.  The building that is ground zero is a literal stone fortress; it's windowless with limited access points that make it impossible for the authorities to gather intelligence about what's going on inside the building, who's inside the building, and what it looks like inside the building.  Bypassing the hostage negotiators, the perpetrator deals directly with the families of the hostages, thus he doesn't act like the typical hostage taker nor are his demands or his endgame typical.

One by one the perpetrator releases hostages throughout a days long ordeal.  The students' fates are determined by their parents' willingness to acquiesce to the demands of the man who holds them hostage, and these demands essentially ask the parents to prioritize their children's safety over the security of the nation and the lives of millions of American citizens.  Most chillingly, the perpetrator demonstrates an ability to remain several steps ahead of the FBI, to adhere unerringly to his master plan, and to manipulate the authorities to his advantage.

On the ground in New Haven, Connecticut, are FBI special agent Christopher Poe, a damaged, perpetually grieving man, who heads the counterterrorism unit; Sam Purdy, a suspended police detective from Colorado, who's been talked into being the eyes and ears for the family of one of the students taken hostage; and Deirdre Drake, Poe's married lover and the woman who's helped him survive these long years since the tragedy that took his family, is a gifted intelligence analyst for the CIA with a knack for making prescient analyses gleaned from the data she studies.  These three form an uneasy alliance and conduct their own clandestine, off grid, under the radar, unofficial, unsanctioned investigation.  Several layers removed from the tensions, conflicts and emotions of the official investigation headquartered adjacent to ground zero, the distance will prove vital in the analysis of the correct pathology of the perpetrator and his endgame.  This intelligence is gleaned by what the perpetrator chooses to reveal of himself to the public and to the authorities through the videos he uploads to the internet, through the words he feeds his hostages to regurgitate to the hostage negotiators, and through the means by which he chooses to murder some hostages in cold blood on live TV while allowing others to live.  

At its core this is a story of epic terrorism on a scale of epic, near impossible, proportions.  While it's often a tragic, gut wrenching story in regards to the hostages, it is infuriating and frustrating in regards to the fact that the nameless, faceless, diabolical antagonists are always--always--ALWAYS--one step ahead of the authorities seeking to thwart their plans, rescue the hostages, and bring the perpetrators to justice.  As a result the FBI and the local law enforcement agencies look just this side of incompetent.  THIS IS WHY I DITCHED THE FOLLOWING, people: because the serial killer and his followers were always, usually, several steps ahead of the FBI--like THEY HAD MOLES IN THE FBI AND THE LOCAL LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES.  Anyway, as you can see I'm still bitter about that TV show.  Getting back to The Siege: the antagonists know the FBI's playbook for situations such as these and have meticulously planned for every possible contingency (because these people don't play and they're not your average troublemakers, okay?).  Meanwhile, the local police department and the FBI are basically left twiddling their thumbs, hog tied and looking powerless and incompetent.  There is also the sense that there are intentional references to events occurring earlier in the story as well as to elements, entities and acronyms that are integral to the plot but which are never fully expounded or elaborated upon.  Of course, I could have missed these explanations when I skipped those two sections, but I'm not going back now to skim them on the off chance that I find the answers (because by now I'm a little over this even though I still want to know how it ends and who did it).  While the perpetrator's identity and motives are revealed at the very end, he nonetheless remains basically nameless and faceless because for the entire story he remains hidden from the FBI and the reader.  Ultimately, this is an unsatisfying, 'happy' ending--the perpetrator is caught only because he wishes to be caught, and his motives essentially boil down to revenge and an ensuing need to 'teach America a lesson' at the deliberate, purposeful expense of innocent civilian lives.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie