Tag Archives: murder

The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve

It happens! Not very often, but often enough. A plane crashes! Sometimes in your own “back yard”! I remember that midwinter’s night about nine years ago, bitterly cold and clear, when Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed in Clarence, NY, not even ten miles from my house, even closer to the Buffalo International Airport. Everyone knew someone affected, such as the cantor at the synagogue up the street, the wife of a professor at UB who was teaching a class I was taking at the Teacher Center on Asian Culture. We were discussing the Great Wall of China and I said that was on my bucket list, “what’s that,” he asked; awkwardly I realized my mistake as I explained the term, knowing it was too late for his wife to make such requests.

Pilot error! I thought about the pilots who didn’t realize how quickly those wings would ice up on a Buffalo winter’s evening or how important that they maintain control and not rely on the autopilot so as to avoid the danger of a stall. I thought of their families, their spouses and parents, their friends, and how they all suffered along with those of the other 47 on board (plus the older gentleman in the home where they crashed) on that fateful night just minutes from landing safely.

So when I picked up The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve, I was reading a scenario I had already mentally examined, yet living it through the eyes of fictional character Kathryn Lyons, whose husband was accused of committing suicide at the expense of the 103 passengers and crew on board the Heathrow to Boston flight. This is a heart wrenching tale, pulling the reader into the roller coaster of emotions which result from such a tragedy. Through a flashback of thoughts we are given the details of what appears to be the perfect marriage, yet there are little hints that something was somehow a little off kilter, just mildly, but in retrospect significant. In this way Kathryn starts to piece together the truth with the support of union rep Robert Hart who helps her navigate past the disruptions of the questioning reporters, the investigators from the Safety Board, and even the FBI, as well as assist her in creating enough semblance of normalcy to provide closure through a memorial service and the upcoming Christmas holidays. Kathryn can’t completely fall apart because she has her fifteen year old daughter Mattie to care for, although her grandmother Julie is there for support, just as she was when Kathryn’s parents tragically died.

Well written, full of angst despite some tender moments, and, while not altogether unexpected, there are a few twists and turns in the story that propels us through to the end. Paying attention to the little details might provide enough clues to answer some of the questions left after reading the open ended conclusion, especially since Shreve doesn’t let the plot drag on, but keeps it going just long enough to get the job done.

I would be remiss in not examining the life of the author, Anita Shreve, who died this past August at the age of 71 from a reoccurrence of breast cancer. Shreve, who grew up in Boston but spent her summers in Maine, believed that the focal point of any story should be the family home -“a house with any kind of age has dozens of stories to tell”. The particular residence in The Pilot’s Wife was an 1890s white-clapboard house with a mansard roof located on the coast of southern Maine reminiscent of the place where the author spent her summer vacations. Her love of this childhood spot extended to the sea, a setting which becomes like an additional character in the narrative. When Shreve overheard a conversation about a plane crash, she thought of her father, who was an airplane pilot, and couldn’t help imagining how she would feel if she were the pilot’s wife. That lead to this novel as well as the 2002 screenplay she wrote for the made for television movie.

Jack kept a lot of secrets from his wife, and ironically Shreve also had her share of secrets. Her husband Osborne, a childhood sweetheart she reconnected with in later years, confessed that she was so quiet about her personal life that even he didn’t know the names of two of her former three husbands. Perhaps the need for intimacy is why the author preferred to write her stories in longhand, feeling that it brought her closer to the subject matter than the use of an electronic device.

Her last book, The Stars Are Fire, which I recently read, takes place in the same relative locale in Maine with a vintage house and the sea also playing a major role in that story’s development. It is sad that there will be no further endeavors by this particular author whose name was thrust on to the public’s radar when The Pilot’s Wife was chosen for the Oprah Book Club in 1999.

A compelling read. Four stars.

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The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure

Imagine your worst nightmare . . . A monster is chasing you and no matter where you run it is right behind. You try to escape but random bystanders send the monster your way. Just when you think all is lost, a kindly man helps you hide. Panic stricken by the nearness of the monster who is destroying the world around, so close you can hear it breathe, you remain safe in your hiding spot until it finally gives up and slinks away.

This is the scenario the French faced during the Nazi Occupation of Paris. While the Jews were the focal point, nobody was safe from the atrocities. Charles Belfoure is able to capture the terror of the times in his novel The Paris Architect. Taking place in 1942, the altruistic man who is willing to hide the escaping Jews until he can get them to safety is wealthy patron, entrepreneur Auguste Manet. The hero who designs the ingenious hiding spots literally blended into the woodwork is the architect Lucien Bernard.

Unfortunately, our hero is a real bastard – bad tempered and egocentric, whose deeds are primarily motivated by his own interests. Even considerate acts are self serving, not for the benefit of the receiver, but for the fulfillment of the giver. Thus Lucien Bernard, a self proclaimed architectural prodigy, agrees to help design munitions buildings for the enemy, so as to have the satisfaction of seeing his work completed. He admires how quickly the Germans bring his blueprints to life with shifts covering 24 hours and threats of bodily harm pushing the workers to extremes.

While the Boche regime gave little renumeration to French workers, the ingenious redesigns creating hidey holes as temporary havens for fleeing Jews paid quite well at a time when money was scarce and the items to meet daily needs were even scarcer. Lucien, brought up by an antisemitic father, doesn’t exactly despise the Jews, he just doesn’t think they are worth the sacrifice. Too many French were gunned down for aiding the runaways, even if their only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet Lucien gets a thrill out of deceiving the Nazis who he does hate. In the end, it isn’t hard for Manet to convince Lucien to use his talents for the greater good, in return for the appropriate compensation for this potentially lethal deed as well as a promise of the chance to see his designs, albeit for the German cause, come to fruition.

Some readers object to the gruesomeness of the detailed torture techniques used by Schlegel, the sadistic leader of the Paris Gestapo, in his desperate efforts to please his superiors by pinpointing the location of Janusky, an overly rich man who flaunts his wealth by assisting fellow Jews escape, but I feel these horrific acts help the reader experience the atmosphere of terror which was a part of the Parisian’s daily lives during this time period.

However, I did not appreciate how the general population of France was represented, especially those in the French Resistance. I feel the author was mislead by paying too much credence to the writings of John-Paul Sartre as his reference source. Ultimately, It became difficult to root for those who didn’t appear to have any redeeming characteristics and while we are supposed to boo the Nazis, we should also want the French to be successful in defeating their enemy. Of course, we are mostly seeing the story through Lucien’s eyes so that could explain the dismal point of view.

This attitude also lead to stereotypical characters such as vain women, cheating husbands, and the assumption that all members of the French Resistance were Communists. There were only a few sympathetic characters, such as Hertzog, the supportive German boss who admired Lucien’s work, the brave Jesuit Priest who laughed in the face of torture, and the Jewish escapees who captured our sympathy through their bravery and kindness in the face of almost certain death.

Despite these flaws, the story itself, while not great literature, was still compelling. The frenzied trepidation of hiding while the enemy is at hand invades the reader’s mind. Every time the Nazis approach, the reader is sure someone will be hauled away. It does make one grip their seat. Despite the recent glut of novels centering around the French Occupation, Belfoure provides a different approach which is hard to resist. Four stars.

The Lying Game by Ruth Ware

When I think of The Lying Game by Ruth Ware I picture four fifteen year old school girls sitting in rocking chairs on the porch of an old sinking house in The Reach, a home in a tidal estuary located near the coastal village of Salten not far from the English Channel. What a life they had spending time together swimming, laughing, and joking, breaking the school rules until they were finally caught and expelled, although little did the supervising nun know the extent of their misdeeds. Of course to tell would be breaking the rules of The Lying Game, a fun way to put one over on people of authority.

Here it is seventeen years later when Kate texts her three former dorm mates, Thea, Isa, and Fatima, with three words – I need you, and off they all come, back to the scene of the “crime” to face up their youthful indiscretions. Unfortunately, they’re not quite sure exactly what really happened way back when. Yet that’s what they are about to find out as the story unfolds, told by Isa with flashbacks about their Sophomore year at Salten Academy, dwelling on the days they hung up out with each other and Luc, Kate’s half brother, while Kate’s father, an artist, drew what he saw, even if their attire was questionable, especially on those hot, skinny dipping days. This ultimately compounds their troubles, but it’s how they deal with these issues that will determine their future, for better or for worse, as details are revealed and the repercussions of the events which occurred that fateful summer are in danger of ruining their lives.

While the premise showed potential, as a psychological thriller, this one is a little less than thrilling. There’s quite a bit of repetition along with a meandering plot and a climax that, while unexpected, isn’t really totally unpredictable. The reader could easily have figured out a lot of this stuff before the big reveal and the subsequent wrapping up of events, although there were some unanswered questions which didn’t have an adequate resolution. This is not a happily ever after sort of book, but we do get some closure, even if various actions didn’t seem to make sense or, at the very least, are a stretch. However, this book is a good character study on the effects of a guilty conscience as each girl tries to make peace with their dark secret, one which at the time sounded like their only viable option. Some editing might have made this a more exciting read.

Three stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Tales of India: Folktales from Bengal, Punjab, and Tamil Nadu Illustrated by Svabhu Kohl and Viplov Singh

Tales of India: Folktales from Bengal, Punjab, and Tamil Nadu consists of sixteen stories from the late 1800s through the early 1900s retold and illustrated by Svabhu Kohl and Viplov Singh. These public domain titles repeated over the years by the English and Native inhabitants of India, follow the traditional style we expect when reading old fairy tales. Full of magic, talking animals, evil doers, love, betrayal, kings and queens, kidnappings, rescues, and heroes who are able to overcome adversity through their cleverness, they are sure to delight the lovers of folk lore. With some colorful end pages consisting of a floral pattern alternating yellow, green, pink, orange, red, blue designs, which attractively gives off a sense of ease, the tone is set for the narratives the reader is about to experience.

There are three sections – Animal Tales, Outwitting and Outwitted, and Life and Death, with each story beginning with a “framed” illustration full of color and whimsy which provides an inkling of the subject matter of that particular tale. There are a variety of adventures lasting between three and ten pages including The Bengal story, The Brahman Girl Who Married A Tiger, featuring a young girl who is tricked into marrying a tiger and has to be rescued by her brothers; the Punjab folk lore, The King and the Robbers, which tells about a disguised king on a lark who joins a group of thieves and ends up raiding his own palace treasures, each individual contributing their unique special talent; and the Tamil Nadu tale, The Beggar and the Five Muffins, about a couple who are almost burned alive for the sake of an extra serving of dinner. This book would be the perfect addition to any collection of folk and fairy tales.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Days When Birds Come Back by Deborah Reed

Instant attraction! An overwhelming emotion which keeps cluttering the mind with questions such as “what should I say”, “should I do this”, “will I see them today”, “did I make a fool of myself”, etc. This unrequited obsession goes on and on, even if the other person is oblivious to the emotions they provoke, even if the words are never spoken or feelings ever revealed. Yet, there is a palpable connection which the reader can feel without any graphic sexual content. It’s the unspoken romance which keeps us engaged.

That’s how it us between June and Jameson in The Days When Birds Come Back by Deborah Reed, two lost souls whose past hurts have overwhelmed their lives, destroying relationships and making day to day interactions almost intolerable. Two souls caught up in the solace found in nature who are finally able to reveal their innermost traumas to each other without fear of judgement, because of a basic understanding of having been there in one form or another.

A romance of a simple touch or smile, or even a post card – but it’s enough.

June who formerly found relief at the bottom of a bottle turns to her “seven comforts, none of which were a drink”. Finding herself back home in rural Oregon by the coast where it all started, she needs someone to renovate her grandparents next door cottage so she can sell it. Enter Jameson (same as the whiskey) who is also returning to the “scene of the crime”, but he finds peace in this home where he now lives while he works, appreciating the ambience of the surrounding wildlife. June, just an eyesight away, keeps her distance, yet there is a nonverbal communication even before they find their commonality. In spite of their new found affinity, Jameson has a wife, Sarah Anne, waiting for him seven hours away back home with their new foster son. June’s ex is in Australia, sent away while she was in a drunken rage. And so the summer goes, from June to September as the house takes shape and it’s time to move on.

Told through introspections interspersed with dialogue we discover the secrets haunting the two thirty five year olds who have somehow found a way to share the formerly closeted details of their damaged lives. There’s no telling here, just a gentle leaning towards the truth. Not for those who like a narrative to explain what’s happening, in this one the reader must glean the facts and come to their own conclusions.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

And one more thing, I’ve included a poem by Emily Dickinson with a similar title for your perusal. If you think the two are related, fine, if not, enjoy anyway:

These are the Days When Birds Come Back
By Emily Dickinson

These are the days when Birds come back—
A very few—a Bird or two—
To take a backward look.

These are the days when skies resume
The old—old sophestries of June—
A blue and gold mistake.

Oh fraud that cannot cheat the Bee—
Almost thy plausibility
Induces my belief.

Till ranks of seeds their witness bear—
And softly thro’ the altered air
Hurries a timid leaf.

Oh Sacrament of summer days,
Oh Last Communion in the Haze—
Permit a child to join.

Thy sacred emblems to partake—
They consecrated bread to take
And thine immortal wine!

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

Since The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton is a murder mystery of sorts, it’s difficult to summarize without resorting to spoilers. Suffice it to say that daughter Laurel Nicolson witnessed her mother Dorothy murder a man when she was sixteen and now that her elderly mom is on her death bed, the sixty plus year old daughter decides this is her last chance to discover the truth. Her brother Geoffrey, a babe in his mother’s arms, was celebrating his second birthday, so he only has a vague feeling that something untoward happened on that date. Now, fifty years later, Laurel decides it’s finally time to clue him in so they can work together to figure out the details of their mom’s past.

Moving back and forth through time, from the present (2011) to the strife of wartime London (1941) to life as part of a loving family with five children (1961) and various years in between, the plot unfolds giving us bits and pieces of the tale – like a giant jig saw puzzle which has just enough blank spaces so that the big picture remains unrecognizable. Unfortunately, it takes way too many pages to discover the truth, and not until the disconcerting ending does the story finally come together.

While there are some obscure clues at the beginning of the book, by the time their relevance is revealed we’ve forgotten the details. With a slow start which doesn’t pick up until much later in the narration, I feel the main problem is the characterizations. The self absorbed Dolly is just plain unlikeable and at times her actions are despicable. She’s not the only one portrayed in a bad light. Laurel, a famous actress, is not a warm and fuzzy figure, even if the reader is sympathetic to her quest. Her numerous siblings are one dimensional, although the quirky Geoffrey has been fleshed out a bit. While the main focus was developing the convoluted plot (there’s a lot of tragedy along the way providing some sort of logical explanation for the evolving action), I felt more time should have been spent providing some depth to the secondary personalities. In my mind, any book over four hundred pages needs to justify the extra length and despite the surprise ending, this one fell short.

Four stars (just barely and only because of the “twist”) but it could have been so much better with a little tweaking.

The Hunger by Alma Katsu

Everybody has a secret, but when someone’s past interfere with the lives of others, it’s no longer a secret, it’s a crime. Then to make it all more interesting, add in a twist of the bizarre – perhaps a freak of nature, perhaps a supernatural phenomena, perhaps a curse perpetuated on all mankind hidden away until the right time to strike.

When would such an evil manifest itself? Just look at the hidden endangerments of our past, such as out in the wilderness of the California Trail from 1946-47 where travel was already fraught with jeopardy from the varieties of both human nature and the elements. Take a true story such as, The Donner Party, which already has a tendency to make the reader squeamish, then come up with an alternate explanation for the tragedy which took the lives of half the pioneers heading west through the treacherous Hastings Cutoff and the Sierra Nevada, made even more deadly by the brutal winter, and add in an evil lurking along the trail.

The Hunger by Alma Katsu intertwines historical facts with a fictional explanation to create an aberrant account depicting the lives of a group of travelers heading to California. Put ninety people (young and old, haves and have nots, families and loners) together and there’s bound to be trouble, even without a danger lurking in the background. Warning: don’t get too attached to any of the individual members of this trip, even the ones who sense what is happening, because their chances of survival are minimal.

At first I thought this was just another take on the Donner Party catastrophe, but then I began to realize this particular quirky tale was perhaps a bit more. The breezy style of the author rounded out the personalities of the numerous characters, adding extra details and motivations via letters or backstories from an earlier time. Although I knew the foregone conclusion, the author was able to put a different slant on the saga to keep me guessing right up to the end. My major complaint was the difficulty I had keeping track of all the names and identities of everyone in the story, which could have been easily solved by a brief annotated list or family tree of all the participants in the caravan. It need not be stated that the unanticipated shortage of supplies, along with an enemy with a voracious appetite, leant itself to a title indicating the need for food.

Four stars and a thank you to Edelweiss and Putnam Sons for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.