Tag Archives: mystery

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

I was happy with this simple, but witty little story of three Australian families. The first wife is struggling with her unfaithful husband, well, not quite unfaithful yet, but thinking about it. It’s who he’s been playing mind games with that has her completely in a dither, so it’s off to Mummy’s with her little boy to sort things out. Then there’s the widow who has never gotten over the tragic death of her teenage daughter. She’s the school secretary who everybody pussyfoots around in deference to her sensibilities. Finally there’s the -oh so perfect wife – who isn’t quite sure how or why she and her husband haven’t done the deed in like forever, or at least six months. Is she losing her appeal? After all, she’s given birth to three daughters who command a lot of her attention and he does travel a lot. Then she finds “the letter”!

These minor crisis were enough to keep my interest, but then, bang, half way through The Husband’s Secret, author Liane Moriarty pulls her first twist and my attention notches up a level or two. Of course, I expected this, after all, twists are this author’s trademark, and I remained open for the next surprise which braided these three lives together. While there is a satisfying resolution, this is not a happily ever after tale, just as life itself isn’t without its complications due to the numerous minute choices we make. An epilogue gives us the “what ifs” that we each can’t but wonder about our own lives.

An engaging, well written novel (even though I listened to the audio version, expertly performed by Caroline Lee who has read other books by this author). My only complaint is that I didn’t get to this book sooner.

Five Stars

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Wolf On A String by Benjamin Black

If you are looking for a murder mystery, there is one here in Wolf On A String by Benjamin Black, but it is incidental to the historical aspect of this fictionalized tale of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II from Prussia, told during a brief span during the winter of 1599/1600. Yes, there’s a brutal death when Rudolf’s current young paramour is discovered frozen with her throat slit. The one who discovers her body, Christian Stern, is charged with finding her killer (but not until after he is questioned and thrown into prison as a possible suspect). Luckily the traveling scholar from Regensburg is taken under the Emperor’s wing, especially since Rudolf had a recent dream and our young hero fits the premonition of Christ appearing on a starry night with the appropriate name to match. Without any power or authority, Christian’s quest is hampered especially since the court intrigue leaves him at a loss of whom to trust. As Dr Kroll, the father of the slaughtered Magdalena warns, if you don’t chose a side, one will be chosen for you. Since this is medieval times, it’s either Rome and the Pope, or Luther. Either way, everyone is dispensable, including the ruler who is eventually dethroned by his brother.

This book reflects the constant threats surrounding the city of Prague which forces its residents to make the most of each moment. The Gourmond Fryer spends his free time enjoying luscious meals while Christian’s appetite leans more towards the delights of the female gender of his acquaintance. Everyone imbibes their favorite beverage. The taciturn dwarf, Jesse Schenckel is a pet of sorts for The Emperor, reciprocating the hatred he sees in the eyes of the courtiers, slinking around and turning up unexpectedly at the most inopportune times.

As long as we are looking into the life of Rudolf II, The Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire was known for his amazing collection of fine art, (many of the chartered works he commissioned were lascivious), as well as the rare artifacts he coveted such as a grain of sand from the Garden of Eden and a unicorn’s horn. His love of the unusual extended to mechanical moving devices including scientific instruments (his collection of clocks was world renowned) and he provided support for the studies of natural philosophers including botanists and astronomers. In the book Christian is given a tour of the “cabinet of curiosities” which represented the three kingdoms of nature (Rudolf’s massive set of gems and minerals were studied by scholars) housed in the northern wing built in the Hradcany Castle for just this purpose. A lion and tiger, part of his menagerie of exotic animals, were allowed to roam the castle. The Emperor was also considered an intellectual devotee of the occult arts, especially alchemy, and due to these interests plus the learning which he supported, his “hobbies” were believed to have led to the scientific revolution as a part of the Renaissance.

Between our protagonist’s visits to the royal chambers is the machinations surrounding court life, the ruthless players moving to expand their own power at the expense of others, often using Christian’s favor for their own needs, with the truth being covertly hidden despite the open acknowledgment of each other’s secrets. While our young scholar had dreamed of becoming indispensable to the monarch, he begins to realize that life in Prague is not turning out quite as expected with his life being dictated by the whims of others instead of through his own talents. We know he survives the ordeal since this is a story narrated by an older version of himself reflecting back on the decisions of his youth.

As the story comes to a close, the author presents a note to the reader explaining which characters are total fabrications, which are parodies of real individuals, and which are well known personages from that time period. He shares the fate of Rudolf and his Chamberlain which occurs about twelve years past the date of this story – but hold off on reading these after thoughts if you don’t want to be exposed to the clues necessary to solve the mystery. As an aside, Rudolf’s life long quest to discover the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone was obviously never realized and his massive collections were dismantled or neglected after his reign was ended.

A quick read with some clever turns of a phrase along with some occasional excessively long sentences and a few new words to add to ones vocabulary. I learned a bit about the musical term wolf on a string – an unwanted howling sound caused by a certain vibration of a violin. You are welcome to make projections based on the “significance” of the title.

Of note is that the name Benjamin Black is a pseudonym for award winning author John Banville. After seeing a picture of the author I felt he looked a bit like the country western singer Johnnie Cash, also known as the “Man in Black”. Coincidence? Four stars.

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.

Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash

Sheriff Les from a rural Appalachian community has just a few weeks left before he takes an early retirement, more than ready to spend his time communing with the beauty of the mountains attempting to capture their loveliness with his paint brush.

Yet, a lot happens before the big day. Who knew that life in a small town was so full of adversity. From poaching, trespassing, theft, the cooking of meth, child endangerment, and bribery to an environmental disaster, all occurring over a one week period. The reader is exposed to this whirlwind of activity as Les attempts to tie up all the loose ends without hurting the townsfolk he feels compelled to protect.

At first I found Above the Waterfall confusing before I figured out the narrative was a back and forth between the Sheriff and Becky Shytle, the Park Ranger. Each of the characters has some baggage which make them somewhat damaged. Unfortunately none of them are especially endearing which makes it difficult to be more than superficially concerned about the traumas they face. Becky is the most appealing of the bunch with her love of nature and poetic skill. Despite her childhood exposure to violence and unrealistic feelings of guilt, she is the one who trusts her instincts even when the evidence points to a forgone conclusion.

The ending (or lack of a conclusion) leaves an opportunity for further discourse in other novels as Ron Rash often has recurring characters intermingled throughout his novels about small town life in the Appalachia Mountains.

Three stars.

Suitors and Saboteurs by Cindy Anstey

Three families, linked by the childhood friendship of the mothers, have made it their practice to spend their summers together by hosting various “house parties” at each of their estates in Kent. This summer, one of the three has died over the winter months, but the tradition continues. There is the Chively family including daughter Imogene and son Percy plus a St John’s water dog, Jasper. The kindly Beeswanger’s have a daughter Emily along with younger daughters (Hardly) Harriet and Pauline. The third family, minus “Aunt Clara” consists of Mr. Tabard and his son Jake.

Emily and Imogene have just experienced their first “season” with The Ton. This summer, potential beau Ernest Steeple has been invited to join the party, bringing along his younger brother Benjamin. The steadfast Ernest has been taken with the quiet charm of the shy Imogene who’s headstrong father would like nothing better than to see his daughter wed to this eligible young suitor. However, it’s the charismatic Ben who makes an impression with his attentions to all the women, grabbed onto by a hopeful Emily who fancies herself in love. Imogene, by contrast, needs time to be sure that Ernest is the one for her. While she enjoys his company, she’s not sure if that quite qualifies as a love match.

Ernest’s goal is to ascertain if he can get Imogene to say yes to a marriage proposal. Ben, an apprentice architect, has a different sort of problem, he cannot draw a straight line. Normally this would not be an issue, but when building structures it is necessary to be able to accurately complete sketches. Imogene has the talent he lacks and her art work is full of the outdoors including the numerous ruins which are scattered throughout the countryside. Noting that Imogene is giving art lessons to Harriet, Ben confesses his need for her expertise as an instructor to help him hone his currently nonexistent skills. She happily agrees to be of assistance and the foursome spend the summer days whiling away the hours enjoying country life. Unfortunately, “accidents” keep occurring, each one becoming more dire. Somehow Ben seems to be the target of these continuing mishaps and since nobody could be that clumsy, sabotage is suspected. Yet who and why is someone trying to injure this young man? Answers need to be found and decisions made which will effect the future for everyone concerned.

While the premise for Suitors and Saboteurs by Cindy Anstey sounds promising the delivery left a lot to be desired. The mundane details (full of unnecessary minutia which doesn’t advance the plot) along with the stilted boring dialogue made reading this Regency Romance an interminable act of tedium, despite the occasional delivery of a few clever conversations thrown into the mix. About 100 pages too long, Anstey should have focused on the mystery eliminating irrelevant, nonessential points and needless repetition which bogged down the storyline. Please don’t compare this one to works by Jane Austen – not even close and an insult to a beloved author. We don’t want the intended audience of young adults who read this book to think that this is the best the genre has to offer.

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

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 Beautiful Mystery (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #8) by Louise Penny

Louise Penny is known for her murder mysteries, specifically those involving Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. The Beautiful Mystery is book number eight in the series and for faithful readers there are several disturbing events which could easily be upsetting for those who’ve developed a bond with the central characters. As a newcomer, however, I had no expectations, although I was able to catch the gist of who was who and what was what from the narrative. References to former books in the series filled in the blanks, peaking my curiosity to perhaps go back to the beginning, especially since the first book, Still Life, is sitting on my counter (with a varied bunch of other titles) waiting to be read.

However, this is the one my Book Club picked, so this is the one I’ll discuss.

While the mystery comprises the predominant role in the plot, the interactions between the key players are a major component of the story. Inspector Gamache and his assistant Jean Guy Beauvoir head to a remote Gilbertine monestery, Saint-Gilbert-Entre-Les-Louis on an Island in Quebec, to try to determine who killed Brother Matthieu, the choir director. Not just any choir director, but the man behind the CD of chants which took the world by storm. The once unheard of Cloister, now flush with enough cash to do some modernizations, became famous after their Gregorian Chants hit the top of the charts, upsetting the order of monks who willingly maintained a vow of silence. Which one of the hand selected two dozen monks would want to kill the rector who inspired such beauty? Even with the order of silence lifted, Gamache has a difficult time getting the monks to “talk”, but slowly he determines that appearances can be deceiving noticing that the calmness and serenity in this ancient order is somewhat of a facade.

Complicating matters is the arrival of Gamanche’s nemesis, Chief Superintendent Sylvain Francoeur, the head of the Surete de Quebec, who likes to play mind games, successfully instilling anger and doubt into the minds of his subordinates. Mocking the detectives’ lack of success, he holds back the autopsy report indicating the true murder weapon which puts a different slant on the dead body found in the Abbot’s private garden. The best lead evolves around a weathered vellum full of unusual neumes and nonsense phrases in Latin which the rector was clutching. These neumes, a precursor of musical notes, indicate a haunting melody different from the normal chants. Their significance is another part of the mystery which borders more on a psychological drama than an action packed plot. It’s not until the last few pages that events begin to quickly happen leaving the reader with more than a few questions and the urge to read Mystery #9, How the Light Gets In, to discover how Penny resolves the conflict between the main characters. Four stars.