Tag Archives: mystery

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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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.

A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang

1918 was a difficult time in United States history. There was a war going on – The Great War – and more men were needed for the fight. With each draft calling on younger and younger boys to “enlist”, even eighteen year olds were in danger of being called to duty. Then there was the highly contagious Spanish Influenza which was killing people faster than the war. It seemed the young were more susceptible to its deadliness than the elderly. Hospitals couldn’t keep up with the demand and wards were filled to capacity with not enough personnel to properly care for their patients. Medicine also left much to be desired as antibiotics, such as penicillin, would not be discovered until 1928, readily available in 1942. Yet science wasn’t totally ignorant. Autopsies were useful in diagnosing cause of death with forensic science an up and coming field. All this and more is explored in A Beautiful Poison by Lydia Kang.

Allene Cutter, while celebrating her engagement to Andrew Smythe Biddle with a houseful of guests, is disconcerted when socialite Florence Waxworth collapses, falls down the stairs hitting her head and ends up in a literal “dead” heap. While everyone thinks it’s an accident caused by too much alcohol, Allene and her friends suspect arsenic as the cause. The distinctive smell of burnt almonds tips them off, especially since Jasper’s own parents committed suicide using that same substance. Jasper Jones works as a janitor at Bellevue Hospital and wants to check out the deceased “friend” to test their hypothesis. Through a convoluted series of events, the medical-wanna-be ends up an assistant to Forensics Chemist, Dr Gettler, in the hospital’s morgue. Unfortunately, since the police have determined Florence’s death accidental, he must secretly perform his own autopsy to confirm his suspicions.

Allene, from society’s upper crust, secretly has feelings for her former friend Jasper as well as for her childhood companion Birdie Dreyer, even though they have lost touch these last four years. Now that marriage looms, Allene wants to reconnect while she still can be somewhat independent. Her old friends aren’t sure they want to resume relations after being previously cut out of her life, yet their previous closeness is easily restored as they try to discover who is sending the little notes discovered near each of the increasing number of victims – all people who are known to them. Together they are determined to solve the mystery and stop the madness.

Each has their own obstacles to overcome. Birdie, despite her general feeling of malaise, maintains her focus on her younger sister Holly. Allene must deal with her upcoming marriage to Andrew who expresses his expectations for her behaviors which do not include the chemistry experiments she adores. He won’t even allow her to carry an electric lighter in her pocket, as this device is inappropriate for women. Jasper strives to make enough money to support himself and his sickly, alcoholic uncle plus save a little for medical school tuition.

There are several potential perpetrators of the crimes, but there are also a lot of misdirections, until the shocking truth is finally revealed. In between, the three eighteen year olds deal with their lot in life, often aggravated by the adults who don’t seem to understand (or care about) their needs and desires. The restrictions on females during the early 1900’s, before women were even allowed to vote, becomes a secondary focus as Allene and Birdie push the limits of their gender, determined to come up with solutions. While not everyone gets a happily ever after, the conclusion resolves most of the issues, with the bad guys getting their just desserts.

Each of the characters is selfishly wrapped up in themselves which make them less than likable, although they did, on occasion, have their honorable moments. The one nice guy, Ernie Fielding, was despised by everyone. There was also too much going on in the plot and while historically accurate, the various secondary crisis were overplayed when combined with the murders. I would have liked a simpler, cleaner plot without so many side issues.

Lydia Kang, a medical doctor, also coauthored Quackery, a book I recently read, with details about the radiation poisoning mentioned in this book. The use of radium in Clock Factories during this time period is also the subject of The Radium Girls by Kate Moore (another nonfiction book I am currently reading). The reviews for these books can be found on this blog, Gotta Read.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Lake Union Publishing for providing this ARC In exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.

As an aside, at one point in this book Allene goes to a location at Flatbush and Church in Brooklyn. When I was a child I lived around the corner from that very spot. I can picture the Dutch Reformed Church complete with a small graveyard on one corner, Garfields -a restaurant where my grandfather often ate his meals on another, and a drug store with a decent selection of paperbacks on the third, plus not far down Church, the RKO Kenmore movie theater where I saw musicals such as Gypsy, My Fair Lady, and The Music Man. I didn’t even need to cross a street as I lived right on that longish block. If I had stayed in that neighborhood I would have attended Erasmus High School (where my parents went to vote) and perhaps gone to Brooklyn College (my father’s alma mater). A shout out to grads from PS 249. Just a little walk down memory lane.

Too Sinful to Deny (Scoundrels and Sinners, Book 2) by Erica Ridley

Susan Stanton loves gossip, so much that when she overhears a juicy bit from a wife cuckolding her husband, she finds herself on the wrong side of The Ton, despite the truth to her words. Her mother’s attempt to marry her off to a morally questionable but well off gentlemen was destined to fail (see Too Wicked to Kiss) so she ends up confined to her room until further notice. Yet Susan was determined to attend The Frost Fair in celebration of the Thames freezing over, a rare occurrence. Who knew that despite her stealthy attempts to sneak out, she was discovered when she fell through the ice and drowned. Luckily she was rescued and brought back to life, but only to be banished from her beloved London – packed up and sent to the end of nowhere at Moonseed Manor in Bournemouth, to stay with her cousin Lady Beaune with the closest center of civilization the town of Bath.

The situation is even worse that Susan expected when there is no Lady Beaune to greet her and she is “welcomed” instead by her cousin’s creepy husband, Ollie. The town folks don’t cotton to her overtures of friendship, especially the owner of the dress shop who resents her popularity with the only decent men around including Gordon Forrester, the local magistrate. Susan’s only interest, though, is to find a way home again, if only she can discover a way to get to the closest town where her recognizable family name will provide the means of the necessary escape. Things are looking up when Forrester offers to accompany her to the upcoming Assembly in Bath, occurring in about two weeks, but Susan is not sure she can wait that long. It seems that there have been a series of recent deaths, and the lingering ghosts can’t rest until she does them each a favor. Seeing and hearing spirits seems to be a new but unwanted talent she has acquired after her near death experience and she’ll do anything to shut them up. Of course, these are ghosts of the recently departed, so who exactly is the murderer? There is a plethora of suspects which only a Bow Street Runner could untangle. Then there is the question of her missing cousin. Is she buried under that unmarked grave or is it that freshly dug mound of earth the resting place of some other hapless soul? Nobody’s talking.

Complicatiog her life is Ollie’s friend, Evan Bothwick, a devastatingly handsome rogue tinkering in the Pirate business and bent on making her his latest conquest. If only she could trust him, but she worries that he will not only keep her from escaping, but also steal her heart. Her focus is to keep her eye on the prize – someone from The Ton who loves London as much as she does, ready to marry a chaste and pure innocent, a dream threatened by Evan’s carefree ways.

Too Sinful to Deny, Book 2 in the Scoundrels and Sinners series, never seemed to end. While Erica Ridley tried to capture a sense of gothic all she exceeded in doing was to create a horrifying scenario filled with mean spiritedness and senseless violence which could not be compensated for by the rest of the trappings of a Regency Romance. The ghosts actually provided a bit of levity, if you can believe that. While the love interests had a somewhat decent sensibility, the townsfolk were a horrid unredeeming bunch who I’d just as soon not meet again. The only scene which brought a smile to my lips was when the heroine buys a seemingly endless round of drinks resulting in a packed bar with a tab she can never hope to pay unless her parents cough up her allowance.

If you are a fan of the Saw movies, this one is for you, but if you avoid fare such as chainsaw massacres, then find another book to read. Two and a half stars.

This ARC was provided by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.