Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Friday, July 31, 2020

His & Hers by Alice Feeney

Flatiron Books, 308 pages, $27.99

Split narratives, unreliable narrator(s), red herrings, terrible people. Alice Feeney takes popular writing trends and gives us a much-tangled plot.

Anna Andrews is “Her” and her ex-husband DCI Jack Harper is “His.” They tell the story of their lost marriage, individual tragedies, and childhood traumas tying their past and present. It is more Anna’s story in the sense that her tale travels from her childhood with an abusive father to her present life as an alcoholic adult. But her chapters alternate with Jack’s and those of another individual, the killer.

It remains to be seen if the killer is Anna or Jack or someone else. Author Alice Feeney must have twisted herself in knots to avoid giving away the gender or motive for the murders. The murders are connected to women who were Anna’s companions when they were all teenagers. One of those companions is Jack’s younger sister, Zoe. The relationships are tangled and many, and their secrets are buried deep.

The first body found in the woods of Blackdown, England, is of Rachel, another one of those teenage friends. Only now, Rachel was an adult, a woman who had been having an affair with Jack. Jack and Anna are no longer married, so that's not a sticking point, but Jack still carries a torch for Anna. Anyway, the affair is meaningless. Until, of course, Rachel’s body is discovered just hours after she and Jack met for a little coochy-coochy in Jack’s car by the side of a forest, the forest in which Rachel’s body now lies.

Of course, of course, Jack should have recused himself from being the lead investigator, turning it over to his younger colleague, Priya Patel, a strange creature whose thought processes are never explicated, whose reactions seem overblown, and whose loyalty is a sad, sad thing. But at all costs, Jack does not want it known that he was involved. He barely wants it known that his ex-wife is one of the television reporters assigned to the case.

Author Feeney has filled a soup pot with a trendy selection of thriller and psychological elements and stirred it up. Whatever she shook out of the pot got put into the story. It wasn’t that I was confused about the story or narrative lines; rather, I was stunned by the number of elements. There were plenty of murders, hidden relationships, prior events fraught and freighted with reasons for hate, and people behaving badly.

When the killer was finally revealed, I was exhausted. I had a hard time accepting Anna’s innocence and culpability as a teenager. And that tumbled down the house of cards for me.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 368 pages, $16 (c2018)

Not a true mystery novel.

Would you want to know the date of your death, especially if you were very young? The four Gold children – Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon – pool their money and go to a fortune teller to hear when they will die. Before any of them have a chance to really live, they are already thinking of their deaths. After they hear the old woman prophesy, they soberly return home. None tell the others what they learned.

Then author Chloe Benjamin moves her novel forward in four parts, one for each of the children. A few years later, after their father has died unexpectedly young, we learn that Simon is prophesized to be the first to die. But will he? With the thought in mind that he may not have many years at all, he leaves school at about 15 years of age and runs away to San Francisco with Klara. Klara, about 17, has also decided she must begin her life as soon as possible. They leave the rest of the Golds back in New York City, older siblings Daniel and Varya and their mother, Gertie. The fortune teller has also doomed Klara to die young.

Strangely, although the premise is chilling, the thought behind the novel is very plain and elegant. What do you do if you believe you are at the mercy of fate? How do you live your life? Do you huddle in a corner and then laugh when the due date comes and goes. Then do you begin to live? What about those wasted years you spent huddled in that corner?

Similar scenarios have played out in many books, most of them science fiction, over the years. What about a nuclear apocalypse? A giant earthquake? A comet traveling to collide with Earth? But here is a book that asks what if instead of months or minutes, thought of your death loomed over you for years?

There are some strange events. They could be supernatural. On the other hand, they could be just lapses in attention, memory, analysis. Benjamin does not give you easy answers as each section unfolds.

We are left with a magic trick at the end. A cascade of nested cups lifts, one after the other, and what, we wonder, will lie at its center.

The way Benjamin writes each character’s yearning, fears, wonder, and love is worth reading.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The Girl from Widow Hills by Megan Miranda

Simon & Schuster, 336 pages, $26.99

Arden Maynor was six years old when she disappeared one night. Her mother frantically called 911. Arden’s shoe was caught in a storm drain. There was a huge rainstorm and the thought was that Arden had been swept away by the water into the drain. Her mother relentlessly urged people to keep looking for her, even though there was little hope for her survival. But, indeed, Sean Coleman, a 32-year-old father who had volunteered to help look, saw Arden’s little hand clutching onto another drain cover. He held onto her until a way could be cut into the pipe to save her. She became a miracle child.

In the real world, children miraculously saved from dire situations have dotted the news over the years. The media picks up anniversary stories of those children and their families. We viewers share in the victories and glow in the reflected happiness of the lives now lived in full. Those children and families belong to us, too, by virtue of our thoughts and prayers.

Don’t they?

Olivia Meyer is twenty-six years old and works in hospital administration in Central Valley. Her best friends are nurses Bennett and Elyse. She owns her own home on a remote street. Her closest next door neighbor sold her the house. He’s old and seems kindly. He watches out for her and she gets him groceries.

Everything is going well. She is trying to extricate herself from a toxic relationship and seems to be succeeding. She has distanced herself from her toxic past. A phone call provides the conclusive touch: Her mother has died. A box of mishmashed things arrives as her last possessions. 

Then one night, Olivia’s worst nightmare occurs. Only it’s not a nightmare. She was sleepwalking, something she hadn’t done since she was a child, and tripped over a dead body in her front yard. Worse, with the arrival of the police, she realizes she knows the victim. He is Sean Coleman, her savior when she had another name, another life in Widow Hills far away. She had not seen or heard from him in the twenty years since. Why was he in her front yard late at night? Who killed him? Did she?

This is another thriller by author Megan Miranda (“The Last House Guest”). Olivia’s is the only viewpoint. Everyone else is suspect. Trust no one. No, wait, maybe trust him. Nah, he’s too angry. How about her? All of a sudden she’s too flaky. What about the handsome man who suddenly appears in town? Her former boyfriend? Nina, the cop who hates her neighbor, the old man? Yeah, what about the old man, hmm? He has a lot of guns.

There’s a TV movie in there somewhere, and it will be just as entertaining.

Monday, July 6, 2020

G. I. Confidential by Martin Limón

Soho Crime, 384 pages, $26.95

There are very few series which have gotten better along the way. The George Sueño and Ernie Bascom series set in 1970s Korea is one of the winners. Sueño and Bascom are CID investigators with an Army base outside of Seoul. “G. I. Confidential” is Martin Limón’s fourteenth book in the series, and he is still going strong.

Korea in the 1970s has no K-pop. It does have a dictatorship, however. There are no trendy Korean BBQs, except in Korea. And those are not trendy; they just are. There are no Kia cars in the U.S., but there are kimchi cabs in Seoul.

On average during the 1970s, there were about 40,000 soldiers stationed in South Korea. They ostensibly were keeping the peace between North and South Korea at the DMZ. The U.S. was also supporting a dictator, Park Chung-hee, who would rule with an iron fist until (spoiler alert) his assassination in 1979. However, at the time of “G. I. Confidential,” Park is very much alive.

Tensions with North Korea are high. The U.S. walks on eggshells to manage and/or sidestep the turbulent internal South Korean politics, and to run its own part of the DMZ. Into the reality of South Korea at the time (a nebulous sometime in the 1970s), Limón inserts his own dramatic inventions. 

Non-Koreans are robbing banks in Seoul. The descriptions given by witnesses of the first robbery identify the men as U. S. soldiers. They are carrying military weapons. They are driving a military vehicle — with identifying marks taped up. In the second robbery, someone is killed with a bullet. Although Sueño and Bascom were not originally assigned the robberies, they take the cases upon themselves — because the CID originally assigned idiots to investigate.

Sueño and Bascom have to consult with their scary friend, Mr. Kill of the Korean police. He speaks impeccable English, knows everybody, and hears everything almost before it happens. But Mr. Kill is hampered in solving the bank robberies because he is not American. The three investigators have a strong alliance developed over several books. There is no doubt the robbers will be caught. However.

Complicating matters is a case that seems to be about a relatively trivial matter, but looks are deceiving. A photograph has appeared in the alternate newspaper, the trashy “Overseas Observer.” That is, it is the alternative to the “The Stars and Stripes,” the official U.S. military newspaper. (As a sidenote, author Limón worked for “The Stars and Stripes” in Korea during the 70s.) The photo is of Caucasian women in a U. S. military truck, with the caption that they are being taken north to the ROK (Republic of Korea) headquarters at the DMZ for “entertainment.” Blustery head honchos want Sueño and Bascom to put a damper on the story before the news gets out stateside.

When Sueño and Bascom journey north, they discover a greater mystery than women being trucked up north. There is a subtle but definite tension between the ROK commander and the U.S. commander at the DMZ. Also, it is rumored the U. S. commander, Lt. General Abner Jennings Crabtree, has a few screws loose, and the only thing saving his bacon is his assistant, Screech Owl Tapia. There are rumors the ROK commander, Major General Bok Jung-nam, has a few lose screws himself. The only thing keeping him from exploding apparently is a mysterious woman, Estrella. Was she one of the women in the truck? Why does Crabtree seem to know her?

And who the heck is Katie Byrd Worthington and why is she sticking her nose into everything?

It turns out Katie Byrd Worthington is responsible for a lot of the scandalous material being published in the “Overseas Observer.” She is its reporter in Korea, and she already has given Sueño and Bascom publicity (of the bad sort) over the first bank robbery. She also has connections. She also has the goods on our heroes. She also helps them some. She is inescapable.

Add a killer to the general chaos. Someone is trying to kill either Sueño or Bascom, or both, or maybe Katie Byrd Worthington. There are a lot of things to keep the investigators and an intrepid reporter awake at night.

This is a tremendous mix of story elements, including one carry-over item from the other books. The story builds to a crescendo in which bombs boom and rifles erupt, an honest-to-goodness military engagement. You can’t get any more crescendo-y than that! The end story was so convincing that I had to Google some of the characters involved. It turns out the events at the end are just fiction, but wowee-wow-wow, what a stunner.

Gomapsumnida, Mr. Limón! MBTB stars and stripes for “G. I. Confidential”!

Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Guest List by Lucy Foley

William Morrow, 320 pages, $27.99

If you read my last “review,” you will know I was discouraged by yet another book about the bringing together —on an isolated island in a storm — of people with deep secrets from their youth. I did not finish that book. It is the exquisite nature of literary randomness that the next book I picked was about people with dark secrets from their past getting together — on an isolated island in a storm. But this time I finished the book.

Will Slater and Julia Keegan are getting married. They are successful people in their early thirties who look good together, have much in common, and are madly in love. Julia is a perfectionist so it is a miracle she found someone of whom she approves. They are enough into their individual lives that they can just enjoy the future together. Ruggedly handsome Will stars in a man-in-the-wllderness-against-the-elements reality television show. Julia has a trendy online style magazine.

For their wedding, they draw together their families and close friends to celebrate. From Will’s exclusive prep school come a bunch of rabble-rousers and from uni, his rugby mates. On Julia’s side are her fragile and beautiful younger half-sister, Julia’s neglectful mother and even more neglectful father, and her best friend, a man, Charlie. Will’s family are no more adoring or adorable than Julia’s; his father was the headmaster of Will's prestigious prep school.

While it is a celebration of Will and Julia’s wedding, it is also an opportunity for Charlie and his wife, Hannah, to rekindle the flame that has been dampened over the years by their two children. Only Julia pretty much spirits Charlie off for gossip and reminiscences right from the start.

The prep school mates are boisterous and border on being rude. Johnno, Will’s best man, also is one of the group. He has been the least successful of all the school chums. He is more unkempt and unfit than the others, with a brittle unhappiness.

Well, doesn’t this sound like a merry group?

Lucy Foley builds up the tension expertly. With chapters going back and forth throughout the weekend’s activities and through the viewpoints of several of the characters, she slowly introduces all the sad and sordid tales from the past. In the end, there is a body. In the end, there is a murderer. But that’s only in the end. The journey there is intense.

I didn’t think I wanted to take on this “reunion” tale after the last foray, but I’m glad I hung in there. I don’t think I had a choice. Lucy Foley saw to that.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

They Did Bad Things by Lauren A. Forry

Arcade Crimewise, 288 pages, $25.99

Oh, please no more college students get back together to solve a mystery that took place twenty, twenty-five, thirty, fifty years ago. Whatever.

I saw the recommendation that called it Agatha Christie-like. The scene was a lonely, ghostly mansion on an island, with no modern communication ability. That's for me, I said! Nope.

I blame my lack of interest on COVID-19. Why not?

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Atria, 496 pages, $17 (c2018)

“Once Upon a River” is a great title. Right away it informs you of the overall tenor of the book: like a fairytale. And there’s a river, the mighty, fabled, mythic Thames. The time period is a little amorphous but has the feel of the late 1800s in England. (It is "once upon a time," after all.)

The river flows past an ancient inn, The Swan. It is a gathering place for locals in a small rural area. The Swan is a storytelling inn. Locals gather to tell stories and hone their speaking skills. The same stories are told over and over, a detail refined here, an afterthought added there. Then one night the regulars are treated to an event that will provide sustenance for their storytelling for years to come.

It was a dark and stormy winter’s night. (Of course it was. This is a fairy tale, of sorts.) An ugly giant of a man bursts through the inn door. He is injured and would have crashed to the stone floor had not the regulars grabbed him. A strange doll was in his arms. In the hurry to tend to the man, it is a while before anyone notices that the “doll” is actually a little girl. She is dead. Her body is placed in an outside storage room. Now what can the storytellers make of that?

The inn is run by Margot and Joe with help of their good-natured son. Their other children are daughters, all of whom have left for their own hearth and home over the years. When the daughters come back to help at the inn on special occasions, the locals, not wishing to remember the long list of names, call them all Margot. Little Margots.

Rita Sunday is the closest the village has to a doctor. She was trained in medicine by the nuns at the orphanage in which she was raised. She is the locals’ midwife, bone-setter, herbalist, and, it seems, their psychologist as well. She is intentionally single and lives in a little cottage on the riverbank.

The injured man is eventually discovered to be Henry Daunt, a photographer from Oxford, down the river a bit. It is yet a little while more before pieces of his story can be put together. The most mysterious of all the mysterious events that night proves to be that Henry does not know who the little girl is.

When the little girl awakens — oh, yes, this is a fairy tale (maybe), remember — she does not talk and cannot assist in figuring out who she is. She appears to be four years old, the age Amelia Vaughan would be were she alive. Amelia was the beloved daughter of Mr. Vaughan (does he have a first name?) and his wife, Helena. She disappeared from her nursery room one night. A ransom note was received and the ransom paid, but Amelia was never seen again.

Not far away the estate of Robert Armstrong, his wife Bess, and their brood is tidily and happily managed. Except. Robin, the oldest child, once a wild boy and now an unsettled man, is a trouble to his parents. He is not really Robert’s son, as anyone with two eyes can tell. Robert is a black man, unusual for the time and place, and Bess is white. Speaking of eyes, Bess wears an eye patch because she has an unusual eye she prefers to keep hidden. Robin is her son, but much loved and claimed by Robert. Robin had a wife and couldn’t keep her. A pumpkin shell would have been better than where she wound up. It is said that she was so distraught that she killed both herself and their young daughter … who would be about four years old had she lived.

Lily White also lives down by the river. She regularly checks wooden posts stuck in the riverbank to measure how high the water has risen, scratches the chin of a keen-eyed sow in a nearby pen, collects money from a mysterious hidey-hole and puts it in another hidey-hole, cleans the parsonage for the quiet and well-mannered parson, and although she is old and her mother is dead, claims to have a sister who is about four years old.

Does the mysterious girl who was dead and is now alive belong with any of them?

Diane Setterfield crafts a wondrous story. Were she sitting in the inn by the fire, competing for best storyteller, she would be the clear winner.

There are many mysteries to be cleared up by the end of this book, and the stories wend their way like branches of a river to join together at the end in a rush of telling.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Running Out of Road by Daniel Friedman

Minotaur Books, 288 pages, $26.95

If talk of crime, philosophy, ethics, discrimination, and Machiavelli all crashed into each other, “Running Out of Road” would emerge from the collision. And it would be sublime.

There are not too many books — can’t think of one, actually ... not even close — in which the protagonist is an 89-year-old Jewish man, a retired detective from the Memphis police force, living in an assisted care facility with his wife of seventy years. He has been retired for decades, but a case he had in 1955 has come back to dog him. He can’t outrun the past even with his walker and legs in high gear.

Buck has dementia which is slowly diminishing his memory. He has to be told over and over again, each time newly traumatic for him, that his wife, Rose, has lymphoma and the prospects are grim. Also, while we’re talking about sad things, Buck and Rose’s only child, Brian, died a while ago. Buck has to be reminded of this as well. Their grandson, Brian’s son, William Tecumsah Schatz, is studying to pass the bar in New York, but he has traveled to Memphis to be with Rose for a little while. Buck dismissively calls William “Tequila.”

So Buck (née Baruch) Schatz, the retired detective, meets his moment of comeuppance in the form of Carlos Watkins, an NPR journalist. (“He sounded like the liberals on MSNBC.”) Carlos’ latest production is “American Justice,” in which he explores cases of potentially misbegotten justice. His latest focus is on Chester March, an 87-year-old man who is on death row and whose execution by lethal injection is only two months away. Chester has been preparing to die for thirty-five years. It was Buck who put him away.

William, the future lawyer, has advised his grandfather to stay away from Carlos and his radio program, but Buck would like his version of Chester’s case to be heard. Can this be a good thing for a man with dementia? It does appear that Buck has a pretty good recollection of Chester’s case ... maybe.

Let’s introduce a little timeline here. The present-day story with Buck and Carlos actually takes place in 2011. Buck originally arrested Chester for murdering his wife and a prostitute in 1955. I have given you all the information you need to do the math and discover there is a missing piece. Chester alleges he is innocent — are there any guilty men on any fictional death row? — and that Memphis Police Detective Buck Schatz beat a false confession out of him.

Ed Heffernan, Chester’s appeals attorney, has taken the case because he opposes the death penalty and not necessarily because he thinks Chester is innocent. Between William and Ed, we clearly hear author Friedman’s own lawyerly voice. (And probably what his personal opinion is about the death penalty.)

Carlos has been trying to interview Buck but because of William’s intervention, he has been unsuccessful. The episodes presented on NPR so far have been without Buck’s point of view. So Carlos’ audience has only heard Chester’s story. Chester is an articulate, educated white man, so he presents a very sympathetic character. Carlos and Chester have built a large audience of listeners. 

“Running Out of Road” is a combination of Buck’s first-person narrative and transcripts of Carlos’ broadcasts. Sections set in 2011 alternate with those set in 1955 and 1976 (aww, I’ve given away the missing piece), when Buck actually managed to put Chester away.

Underlying the story of the alleged crimes committed by Chester and Buck’s hunt for evidence of those crimes is the story of systemic, invidious, and appalling discrimination. Although Buck fought in WWII and was gravely injured, he is no better than … that Jew detective. He has to be smarter and bolder and more fearless than his non-Jewish, white colleagues. The KKK is still a powerful force in Memphis and so there is that factor as well. You would think that 1955 is far enough from the Civil War that white cotton landowners wouldn’t have a superior class standing. But they do. Chester’s family is one of them.

Most appalling is the diminishment of the eyewitness testimony of a woman who saw Chester drive off with the prostitute whose mangled body was discovered later. The eyewitness is black. The bottom line: It doesn’t matter what she saw.

Carlos, the NPR broadcaster, is black. What difference does that make in his drive to complete Chester’s story? It’s complicated. Black, white, Jewish. Latent prejudices. Overt prejudices. Friedman brings it all out but it doesn’t overwhelm the story, which still manages to come in at a neat 288 pages.

This book has layers and a succinct and compelling lawyerly overlay. Author Daniel Friedman has a law degree, after all. But mostly what Friedman does so very well is bring to life an ancient soul whose life is guttering out. With compassion, Friedman also sketches Rose, the valiant and loyal wife.  Friedman also uses wry humor well. 

Here’s a passage from the book. Buck is mulling over what he could have done differently over the years, now that his beloved Rose is dying and he is running hard to avoid his grim future:

“[M]aybe I should have taken more risks. Started more gunfights. Maybe smoked more. It takes a lot of nails to pin a beast like me into a coffin, but I could have found my numbers. An extra half a pack a day, maybe, and I could have been dead thirty years ago.”

The book begins with Buck in a doctor’s office wondering who the doctor sitting across the desk is. His mind has drifted off while the doctor was talking.  Was the doctor talking about his dementia, his frailty, his smoking, his heart, his … oh, any number of things? But, no, he is being told, again, that Rose has cancer. And his heart breaks, again. Friedman continues to break Buck’s heart and ours throughout the book.

MBTB super-sized star!

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Mr. Flood's Last Resort by Jess Kidd

(Note: This book is also known as "The Hoarder.")
Washington Square Press, 352 pages, $16.99 (c2018)

“Mr. Flood's Last Resort” is set in London. Pish posh! I heard the entire book spoken with an Irish accent. Cathal Flood and Maud Drennan, the two main characters, would perhaps amend this description slightly, but I heard what I heard.

Speaking of hearing what one hears, Maud Drennan, a young woman working as a health care giver, sees dead saints. She talks to them, they walk with her, they play pranks on people, they deny her a look into anything helpful although they know, they know.

“Mr. Flood's Last Resort” is rife with missing girls. Something happened to Maud’s older sister when Maud was very young. That story haunts the book, with narrative nuggets strewn throughout until the end. Another girl who becomes a growing mystery is Marguerite Flood, perhaps a relative of Cathal Flood.

Ah, Cathal Flood. When Maud is sent to take care of him, he is an old man with hoarding habits. We are told that hoarding is often an offshoot of deep grief. What does Cathal Flood mourn? His wife died twenty-five years earlier. But did he murder her? It would have been so easy for him to have pushed her down the stairs, which is how she died. He is estranged from his adult son, Gideon — Dr. Flood, if you please — a pompous, idiotic, and shifty drama and theater lecturer. And what has happened to his daughter, Marguerite? If there had been such a daughter? He refuses to talk about any of his family.

The last young girl, Maggie Dunne, disappeared from a seaside town when she was fifteen, more than twenty-five years ago. Why was Cathal’s wife, Mary, obsessed with her? She collected newspaper clippings about her disappearance.

Cathal is a “retired artist, mechanical engineer and dealer in curiosities.”  He has closed off most of his four-story mansion with an impressively engineered wall of old “National Geographic” magazines. His truncated living area is filthy with litter, hoarded items, cats, a fox, and mostly a mundane accumulation of detritus. Maud is determined to clear the area so Cathal won’t be shuffled off to assisted living.

Maud’s landlady, the colorful, eccentric, and agoraphobic Renata, is convinced that Maud’s life is in danger while working at Bridlemere, Cathal’s mansion. The danger, Renata says, is Cathal is obviously a murderer, having done away with his wife and maybe the mysterious daughter, and he surely is aiming for Maud next. (Ominously, the saints won’t enter Bridlemere with Maud, although they travel most everywhere else with her.)

To emphasize how threatening Cathal might be, this is Maud talking about the disclaimer portion of her employment contract: “…if I had paid more attention I would have noted the words: council raid, booby traps, ingenious mechanisms, police caution.

Maud, Renata, and Sam Hebden, a young man Maud meets skulking around the mansion, have gathered together in an informal murder committee to solve any and all murders. This is a charming group. Renata unleashes her hidden forensic investigator (and her array of wigs) and Maud just hitches up her I'm-intrepid-don't-mess-with-me britches. 

Renata sums up the group’s remit: “… what does the old man have on his son, what does Gabriel want so badly from the house and what have the Floods to do with the disappearance of Maggie Dunne?” 

“Mr. Flood's Last Resort” is a delight. The revelations every time Cathal and Maud meet are a heady mix of sweetness, tension, sadness, and joy. 

Read this. After you have read it, wonder why there isn’t a follow-up book. I wonder why. Hope springs about someday holding that follow-up in my greedy little hands.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life, by Lulu Miller

Simon & Schuster, 240 pages, $26

When I first chose to read “Why Fish Don’t Exist,” I assumed it would not fit in the mystery category. In fact, the book doesn’t, but about halfway through the book, one appeared anyway.

“Why Fish Don’t Exist” is a biography of David Starr Jordan, a famous taxonomist in his day and the first president of Stanford University. It is also a memoir by Lulu Miller. The book is a fabulous jumble of then (early 1900s) and now; discursions on stars, fish, love, meaning, being, and chaos; and a coming of age of a person long past her teenage years. Lulu Miller slices-and-dices various stories. All that means is that you will have several intriguing storylines to follow.

The writerly thing that Lulu Miller does is she draws her story forward from a gentle rural beginning to a cosmological ending. Will the poor, farm-bound, intelligent but awkward lad manage to escape his destiny among cows and fields to sing with the stars he so admires? Will the boy who grew up so far inland that his first glimpse of the sea does not come until he is a man become the unlikely cataloguer of the creatures of the sea? Will the boy who once was open to everything become a man who despotically ruled what would become one of the premier educational institutions in the country? Will you love him or hate him, admire him or loathe him?

Will Lulu Miller move past her obsession with the boy with the curly hair? Will she make her peace with chaos or will the darkness wrap tightly around her?

“Why Fish Don’t Exist,” and I hope you are convinced that the title is true by the time the book ends, is about a poetic yearning by both subject and author. There are wondrous asides, crafted by a person who is embedded in a science background. The part about Anna and Mary  sorry, no hints allowed  almost made me cry. 

And there is a brief but crucial murder mystery.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Strike Me Down by Mindy Mejia

Atria, 352 pages, $27

An accounting mystery. With accounting jibber-jabber. Big company, lots of money, rich people with no boundaries. Not my jam, I thought.

I actually like numbers. Numbers and science are my friends. I like $$ but have no deep desire to turn that into $$$$$. (I don’t even know any people with $$$$$.) I don’t watch all those money-grubbing shows on television. “Strike Me Down” didn’t sound like a book in which I’d find many sympathetic characters. These days, it’s all about the characters. And sympathy.

I read the book anyway.

The main character, a forensic accountant named Nora Trier, turned out to be fascinating. She has a pivotal backstory but it was on the book’s back burner. Nora is humorless and calculating, perhaps a bit of a stereotype for an accountant, but the characteristics serve her well in turning up malfeasance in the financial affairs of her clients.

The book, contrary to expectations, starts off with a bang. Fifty thousand people are chasing Nora Trier in a sports arena in downtown Minneapolis. What in all heck has she done to deserve that? The rest of the book is spent explaining how she got to that point.

Logan Russo may be fifty years old, but she is a super-star athlete. She has won kickboxing matches all over the world, co-owns a premier sporting brand, has opened a large number of gyms, and is slavishly followed by a massive number of people. She and her husband called their enterprise Strike. They are just about to hold a tournament to end all tournaments. At stake is twenty million dollars in prize money and the honor for one of the contestants to be the new face shown on all of Strike’s product packaging.

The only problem is the prize money is missing in action. Gregg Abbott, Logan’s husband, hires Nora’s forensic accounting company to track it down. Nora immediately recognizes Gregg as the man she slept with on an out-of-town trip. She did not know he was Logan’s husband, and she never saw him again. In a separate coincidence, Nora turns out to be one of Logan’s slavish followers. She takes classes from her at Strike’s flagship gym, just down the walkway from her office. (As a place of much snow and cold, downtown Minneapolis has eleven miles of walkways so people can navigate the inhospitable winter climate.) Awkward. In a real life situation, that would be enough to preclude an accountant from doing forensic work for a business. But this is fiction, so have at it!

Gregg thinks Logan has taken the money. Double awkward.

On the surface all the primary characters keep much too cool. I mean alabaster. Inside, apparently volcanic activity. There’s a lot of smoldering, jealousy, anger, and frustration, albeit you can’t see it. For a seething, sweaty, sexy book, there’s very little sex. There’s seething and sweat, though. It’s intense.

I finished the book because I was captivated by Nora’s character and backstory. As the primary on the case, she provided the outline for the investigation. But her minions did the backbreaking paper-shuffling and tracing, so the story wouldn’t be slowed down. I can’t say I feel the same sort of fascination for Logan. I was not ready to bow and scrape before her. Gregg? He was a sad man. Author Mindy Mejia is the mistress of innuendo and provocation, but mostly her characters were fleshless. On second thought, I mostly did like one of the secondary characters, Nora’s best friend at her agency, Corbett MacDermott. (In horror movies it doesn’t pay to be the best friend of the main character!)

Saturday, May 16, 2020

The End of October by Lawrence Wright

Knopf, 400 pages, $27.95

Just in case actually living through a pandemic isn’t enough suspense for you, Lawrence Wright, usually a writer of nonfiction, has issued a companion piece to our actual COVID-19 crisis. Yes, you can sit at home while isolating and read about a fictional pandemic that eerily mirrors our own … up to a certain point. With luck, most of his book will prove to be just fiction.

In “The End of October,” a virus has gotten loose in the world. The people in the book wonder about its origin. The world governments, too, think devious thoughts about each other. Was the virus concocted in a laboratory and either maliciously or accidentally let loose? The virus seems to be especially virulent. Good old Asia seems to be implicated. But Russians are mysteriously not falling victim to the virus as much as other countries, like the U.S., for example. Hmm.

Wright’s story starts in Indonesia, in an HIV camp. The medical personnel sent to help the camp have fallen silent. Dr. Henry Parsons of the CDC in the U.S. is sent to investigate. He thinks he will be away a couple of days from his loving home in Atlanta. But this is what he finds: The medical personnel are dead. Transmission is fast, and the already vulnerable people in the camp have caught what appears to be a highly lethal virus. 

Unfortunately, before he can be caught, a carrier of the disease — Henry’s cab driver — travels to the hajj in Saudi Arabia. And — bammo! — thousands of pilgrims are infected. Now everyone can blame Asians, Muslims, homosexuals, the W.H.O., Russians … wait! A lot of this sounds familiar. Here’s something else familiar: Medical facilities are overflowing, there’s a shortage (but maybe not as bad as we have it in real life) of PPEs, grocery store shelves are empty, and people get their guns out.

And where is Henry? About half of the book is our world today, governments and health organizations struggling to contain and understand the virus. It’s full of realistic details, including appearances by real people doing their real jobs in a fictional setting. Real medical pioneers are honored in their mentioning. Henry navigates this real-world mirror, initially going from Indonesia to Saudi Arabia.

The second half of the book? Yikes! If you want to feel better about our current situation, Wright shows you how it could get so, so, so much worse. I don’t think Wright meant to release his book in the middle of a pandemic. I don’t think Wright means to make us feel worse or more helpless. If it’s of any consolation or interest, the fictional U.S. government seems to be almost as clueless and ineffective as our real one.

It is the second half of the book that takes us more into the personal lives of a couple of the main characters. This is where humanity lies. It is the heroic struggle of a few to survive. It is the bad of Henry’s past that drives him relentlessly to help mankind through the crisis. It is his love of the goodness in his present life that leads him to frame the philosophical question Why? and then to try to answer that. But make no mistake, the second half is not primarily about existential fumblings, it is about how the world, as individuals and as communities, answers a serious threat.

I found the crisis details absorbing, though mighty unsettling.

I read the book. I survived it. I even cautiously recommend it. We are a nation divided by people who read and listen to C-19 information and those who assiduously avoid it. I’m not certain this book qualifies as news you can use, but it is an insight into how difficult it is to dissect a virus and develop an effective fix. So maybe people of either inclination can read “End of October” with interest.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The Chestnut Man by Søren Sveistrup

Harper, 528 pages, $28.99 (c2019)
Translated from the Danish by Caroline Wright

Let’s see. Creepy nursery rhyme. Check. Man with eyes of different colors. Check. Copenhagen. Check. Bloody, grisly, grim, haunting murders. Um. Check, check, check. All the elements are there. Buckle up, buttercup!

Would "The Chestnut Man" be more appealing if you learned that the author, Søren Sveistrup, is the creator of the original version of “The Killing,” the Danish production that spawned the celebrated American version. According to Sofie Gråbøl, the star of the Danish series, there's an American version because Americans “for some reason cannot read subtitles, or they don’t want to.” I didn’t hear her say it, but I’m sure it was accompanied by a slyly humorous smile. Both series are worthy of bingeing, bingement, bingeitude, binge-watching. The television series is dark and grisly, and so is this book. Sveistrup has already shown us he can do heart-thumping and serious twisty-turny plot.

Naia Thulin is a smart detective. She is so smart she is angling for a way to move up from the Major Crimes Unit to NC3, the cyber crimes unit, after only nine months as a detective. She is especially eager to get out of the MCU when she is saddled with babysitting a bad boy, Mark Hess, who was kicked out of Europol as the Danish liaison and sent home to the Copenhagen squad to await review. Hess is the man with eyes of different colors. The rest of him, including his attitude, is equally as wonky. He is mostly uncommunicative, terse when he deigns to say something, and seems as though he is peering over the border into a parallel world, a better parallel world, because he sure as hell has no interest in the current one. 

It takes something big to get Hess’ interest. The murder of Laura Kjær fits the bill. She is a young mother who is tortured and left to die in an outdoor children’s playhouse near her home. A dangling “chestnut man” children’s toy is left at the scene. The prologue contains a grisly murder done several years in the past. In that, there are many chestnut creations populating a grim basement. What does the old incident have to do with the awful torture and murder of the young mother? Thulin and Hess are observant, intuitive, and smart, so they begin to tease out the clues and eliminate the dead-ends.

There are 500 pages in the English translation I read. Included is a lot of step-by-step scene setting. (“Their voices seep out under the door of the glass-partitioned room, and a few teenagers in slippers have stopped to watch.”) There are multiple victims, almost victims, and a victim-in-progress. There are red herrings, bad police practice, ambitious supervisors, and a taunting killer to waylay poor Thulin and Hess. Even after the killer is revealed, there is a lot of action and detection to do, probably constituting a novella all by itself. The novel’s heftiness is satisfying, even if there are some plot lines that are unnecessary but intriguing. I definitely got the feeling that Sveistrup was setting the groundwork for another television series. (“And in episodes nine and ten, the detectives chase down the real killer.”)

Spoiler alert: Hess is not an air-head. Another spoiler alert: As it is in so many Scandinavian mysteries, there is a social commentary element to “The Chestnut Man.” Third spoiler alert: Will we see a sequel? I hope so.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

The Long Call by Ann Cleeves

Minotaur Books, 384 pages, $26.99 (c2019)

I salute Ann Cleeves for beginning a new series and not resting on her laurels! This is not Vera. This is not Jimmy. This is Matthew Venn in North Devon, England.

Matthew is a cop, a detective in the North Devon constabulary. The body of a murdered man is found on the sandy strand close to where Matthew and his husband have their home. There are little towns and villages scattered throughout the area, and Cleeves makes use of their availability to set pieces of her story in them. 

Ross May and Jen Rafferty are his main assisting detectives. Ross is a newby and seen as a spy for the alcoholic, dysfunctional DCI of the station. Jen transferred from a bigger post because she was looking to escape an abusive marriage and bring her two children up in a better environment. She is a bit of a late-blooming wild child and hasn’t found her footing yet. As in her other series, Cleeves creates solid side characters with relatable stories.

The body turns out to belong to Simon Walden, an alcoholic homeless person who barged into a help center and, indeed, found help. Caroline Preece counseled him, introduced him to other aspects of facilities in North Devon, including the Woodyard community center, and gave him a room in her own home. She already had a roommate, Gaby Henry, who was wary of the arrangement. But Caroline owned the house, so there was very little Gaby felt she could say. Gaby, too, was involved in the community center as an art teacher.

In addition to counseling, Simon soon became involved as a cook at the cafe in the Woodyard. It turned out he had some talent as a chef. He got to know some of the other people who used the Woodyard, including some of the Downs syndrome group members.

So why was Simon murdered? Until he showed up, he was a stranger to the area. Slowly Matthew and his group draw out other interesting tidbits from Simon’s past, including some aspects that could explain why he was held in bad will. But did his past follow him to North Devon? Maybe. But that doesn’t explain why days later one of the women with Down’s Syndrome has disappeared. She was last seen at Woodyard, presumably catching the bus home, but she never arrived. Are these incidents related? Matthew and his team have only slender threads to tug in their investigation.

Here’s the spanner in the works: Jonathan Church, the director of the Woodyard Centre, is Matthew’s husband. These incidents and others that follow seem to revolve around the center. Is Jonathan a suspect? 

Cleeves again does what she does best. She creates a suspenseful atmosphere that lightly shrouds the story in dread but doesn’t overwhelm it. The people and their relationships beam through. They don’t get lost in bright but vacuous gimmickry or thudding scenes racing to the end. Why do we love Vera Stanhope? (And if you don’t know Vera, why not?) Why do we love Jimmy Perez? (Ditto.) Cleeves makes them human.

Matthew Venn has a sad background. His parents were ultra-religious and could not accept a gay son. (To Cleeves credit, Matthew’s sexuality really isn’t a big deal. Most characters acknowledge he is married to Jonathan, without judgment.) As the book begins, Matthew’s father has just died, and he is outside the church during the service. His appearance would not be welcome by the members of the sect or his (sigh) mother. This is a dynamite set-up. And Cleeves flows with it.

Aside: At one point, in my OCD way (not really), I was ready to castigate Cleeves for not showing photos to a victim to determine the criminal. Lo and behold, within a few pages, there were the photos being shown to the victim. She does detail!

When do I not love Ann Cleeves? MBTB star!

Saturday, May 2, 2020

The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin

Orbit, 448 pages, $28

Not a mystery.

If you’re from Staten Island, maybe don’t read this book. Just jokin’, y’all. Mostly.

N. K. Jemisin is still riding high off her award-winning Broken Earth series. It’s hard to pigeon-hole both that series and this book as “science fiction,” but they certainly aren’t of this world! Having said that, “The City We Became” is about New York City, as real as the real New York City, but with a parallel universe overlay. And squidgy, flaccid monsters. And people as themselves but also as the human manifestations of the boroughs of New York. I know, that’s a lot to absorb as a premise.

A strange force has launched an attack on New York City. It’s mostly a psychic attack, since regular people can’t see the wormy or feathery tendrils that burrow into their bodies, but the people-boroughs can. Most big cities in the world have periodic incarnations as people. Birth or rebirth, it’s called. Cities help each other with the rebirth. It’s not a frequent event, but it occurs to battle sublimation, degeneration, disintegration of the city. Not all cities survive the rebirth; e.g., Atlantis. (I know, whoa!, right?)

In the case of New York, there are five avatars for the five boroughs, plus one who represents all of New York City. The trick, of course, is to get all these newly awakened avatars together to defeat the enemy. Before becoming avatars, the people were mostly just ordinary people. Several are young or young-ish, one is old, a couple are white, one is Latinx, one is Lenape, one is black, one is a mash-up, some are cheerful or cheerful-ish, one is damn grumpy. Most are born and bred New Yorkers, but one — Manhattan — is newly arrived to the city. Moreover, Manhattan does not remember his original identity. The five + one are truly an agglomeration of those who comprise New York City.

Jemisin doesn’t just mix up the phenotypes, she mixes humor with drama with adventure with philosophizing with science with what I can only assume are insider New York observations. The story is pretty straightforward — for a jiggly storyline, that is — but Jemisin packs a whole lot into it. Even if you didn’t know, you probably would guess that she is a born and bred New Yorker herself. You’d be wrong. She was born in Iowa City. But she has lived in NYC off and on for many years.

Her books are inventive and out-of-the-box. Her main thesis in her latest works is that worlds are organisms. Life cannot be defined solely in human terms. Supernatural merely means above our understanding of how the universe works. “The City We Became” has an element of superhero as well. If you have seen “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” that would be good preparation for this book.

Sassy, saucy, serious, substantial, subway-ish, surprising, and ancient. You can’t go into reading this with expectations or preconceptions. It’s a “hell, yeah, girl” kind of book.

This is labeled as book one of a trilogy.