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

Friday, October 30, 2020

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

Little, Brown, 304 pages, $28

This is not a mystery.

Break my heart, why don’t you, Emma Donoghue from Ireland! “The Pull of the Stars” may be what you need at this extraordinary moment in time in our 2020 world. The book was rushed to publication a mere four months after Donoghue presented her first draft to her publishers. And that’s because of her subject matter.

“Dublin, 1918” are the first words on the flyleaf. World War I. Influenza. The mighty confluence of two deadly events. In 2020, we have influenza and the election from hell. I think we all can relate to the events portrayed in “The Pull of the Stars.”

If you are a fan of “Call the Midwife,” you might possibly like this book. It’s a bit grimmer than the TV show, but still a sympathetic look at mothers giving birth. There isn’t as much heart-warming, happy ending stuff in the book as in the series, but both highlight how giving birth is messy, fraught, and often glorious, even under the worst of circumstances.

Nurse Julia Powell has been elevated to the head nurse of her little room of pregnant women with the flu. That’s because medical staff are dropping right and left, themselves victims of the virus. The ones who remain are exhausted and spread thinly. In addition to grueling hours, Julia has a brother just returned from war, Tim. Tim is physically intact, thank goodness, but he is mute. It is not a physiological muteness. It is Tim’s brain shutting down that little part of him, because who knows what might come spewing out were he to begin to talk. He is not a big character in the book, but he carries his disability as a symbol for all the other soldiers returned from combat.

The hospital where Julia works has all kinds of cases, including a large “men’s fever” ward, but it is the little world where Julia helps the pregnant women who are ill that is the location of this book. If you are guessing the mortality rate might be higher there than on the regular maternity ward, you would be right. So there is sadness tipped into the mix. But with each life, death, birth, Donoghue tells us a little bit about what was going on in Ireland at the time. She also tells us a lot about humanity.

Bridie Sweeney is a volunteer. She is about twenty-two years old and looks small and poor. She doesn’t know her true age, and the story of that is eventually told. Bridie has the soul and personality of someone much larger. Sister Luke is the night nurse, and her character exists as a representative of the old ways of both nursing and the Catholic Church. Dr. Lynn is a Sinn Féin fighter who was imprisoned in England but released back to Ireland. She is despised by some of the others in the hospital, but it turns out she is a very good doctor.

Remarkably, the action takes place within just three days. After all is done, it will seem such a short period of time for so much to have happened.

Here is the strength of Donoghue as a writer in some of the personal touches she adds: Tim has a tame magpie; Julia memorializes the deaths on her shift by scratching a mark on the back of a silver watch; Bridie luxuriates in the hand lotion she is allowed to use at the hospital, while Julia can’t abide the smell; Groyne, an orderly who had been in the war, sings rude songs and talks to the corpses he is tasked with taking to the morgue. There is so much life bursting from Donoghue’s pages, even as the cacaphony of death tries to drown it out.

It’s a lovely book. It doesn’t seem as though it was rushed out. It’s a panacea — at least temporarily. It bears witness to how people of all walks of life are equal under Death's law. It tasks us with remembering love is precious, all the more so if it is fleeting.

Monday, October 26, 2020

The Searcher by Tana French

Viking, 464 pages, $27

Aren’t we all searchers for something? As usual, Tana French layers even her book titles with many meanings. (Not all book titles are chosen by the authors, so if I’ve made an erroneous assumption, then hooray for the editor.) The hero of the book, ex-Chicago police officer, Cal — does he have a last name, not that it matters — has settled in the small Irish village of Ardnakelty — I kept hearing “hark, naked lady” whenever I saw that name — to distance himself from a failed marriage, an adult daughter with whom he has difficulty relating, and a job as a police officer that was no longer satisfying. He is a searcher for something to put his life into perspective.

Cal becomes a searcher in another sense when a thirteen-year-old neighbor impinges on his peace. Trey has heard that Cal is ex-police. Trey’s nineteen-year-old brother, Brendan, has been missing for a month or two. Brendan’s family has not heard from him. His mother has had a hard life and she cares, but there is nothing she feels she can do to find him. It is Trey who, in the optimism of dawning adulthood, wants to find Brendan. And Trey has come in the awkward, rude manner of an almost feral child of the woods to ask Cal for help.

It’s not that Cal thinks it will be an easy task to find Brendan, but he does have some skills, if no longer the connections, to at least attempt a cursory search. When the easy attempts fail to turn up anything, he makes the serious choice to delve further. And that, in a nutshell, is Cal’s best and worst trait.

The search is almost just background noise for what Tana French does best: create characters with depth, sorrow, goodness, confusion, and a need to know more about themselves. It is through the many detours French takes that we learn more about Cal, what brought him to Ireland, and most majestically, the land Cal settles into and its inhabitants. It is an alien world and Cal, rightly, steps gingerly into his role as a stranger in a strange land.

This is another strength Tana French brings to the writing table: She can inhabit any psyche, male or female, young or old, American or Irish, and make them sound authentic. In this case, the bodies are a middle-aged American, an ancient Irish neighbor man, a rural-loving middle-aged woman, a teenager, a good-intentioned but dim bulb of a young man, and in a minor but spotlighted part, a nosy storekeeper. Look to the characters and they will tell you a story.

Although the story is a third-person narrative, all roads lead out from Cal. It is his story and yet it is not. It is also the story of a small village, of its secrets, joys, mysteries, eccentricities. I rejoice to read French’s interpretation of life, even though I found “The Searcher” dragging in some spots. I pushed myself through those spots to savor what I knew would be French’s signature twistiness at the end.

P.S. I am confounded by why this book would be the #1 bestseller in the “Witch & Wizard Thrillers” section on Amazon.

Monday, October 19, 2020

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

Pamela Dorman Books, 368 pages, $26

I can’t remember the last time I read a book and immediately wanted to read it again. I did not want to be parted from the members of the Thursday Murder Club.

Retirement villages are not just for old fogies anymore, especially the luxurious, cozy retirement village of Coopers Chase, England. Yes, “The Thursday Murder Club” is indeed a cozy. But it’s one with a bite and wit and compassion and all sorts of good things.

Mostly the book is told in the third person, but some of it is through a diary written by the newest member of the Club, Joyce. The old stalwarts are Elizabeth, Ron, and Ibrahim. The group was begun by Elizabeth and another resident, Penny, but as is the way with all things, Penny is getting ready to say her final goodbye to the world. Penny lies comatose in a nearby care facility attached to the more active retirement community where the other members live. Penny was a DCI when she was at home. Naughty copper, she copied her old unsolved case files, and she and Elizabeth got in the habit of trying to solve them. After Penny suffered a series of strokes, Joyce was asked to join the group.

The members bring unusual skills and interests to the group. Ibrahim was a psychiatrist. Joyce was a nurse. Ron did a little of this and a little of that, some of which may have crossed over the line. You know, THAT line. And Ron, too, may be fading out a little in the upstairs department. Elizabeth is the true mystery. There are many broad hints that she was MI6 and “solved” problems for them, in the most genteel and diplomatic way, of course.

The members, who are also maybe friends, are happy with their hobby and are totally and utterly prepared for the day when someone drops dead on their own patch. Actually, the first person — squeal, yes, there is more than one dead body — was a part owner of the village development and he dropped dead in his own home a little piece away.

Oh, the dead bodies! Oh, the delightful (and poignant) secrets! Oh, the characters so dear you want to squish their cheeks.

The most outstanding feature of this novel is the humor. Mostly I smiled, but once I guffawed. (I didn’t even know I could guffaw.) Here are some tamer examples.

The group is introducing themselves to PC Donna De Freitas. Donna is trying desperately to get into her precinct’s Murder Unit, but so far the only things to come her way are community safety talks, purse snatchings and tea orders from the Murder Unit.

Ibrahim has asked Donna to guess his age:

'Eighty?’ she ventures. 

She sees the wind depart Ibrahim’s sails. ‘Yes, spot-on, but I look younger. I look about seventy-four. Everyone agrees.’

Are you friends, Donna asks the group:

‘Friends?’ Elizabeth seems amused. ‘Oh, we’re not friends, dear.’ 

Ron is chuckling. ‘Christ, love, no, we’re not friends. Do you need a top-up, Liz?' 

Elizabeth nods and Ron pours. They are on a second bottle. It is twelve fifteen. 

Ibrahim agrees. ‘I don’t think friends is the word. We wouldn’t choose to socialize; we have very different interests. I like Ron, I suppose, but he can be very difficult.’ 

Ron nods. ‘I’m very difficult.’

As a last introduction to the community:

There are currently around three hundred residents. You can’t move here until you’re over sixty-five, and the Waitrose delivery vans clink with wine and repeat prescriptions every time they pass over the cattle grid.

“The Thursday Murder Club” is a delightful introduction to what I hope is a long series for Mr. Osman.

MBTB star!

Monday, October 12, 2020

An Inconvenient Woman by Stéphanie Buelens

Scarlet, 312 pages, $25.95

“An Inconvenient Woman” is short enough to be gobbled up quickly, but the slow rolling out of secrets will make you linger a little while. Author Stéphanie Buelens is a winner with her debut novel.

Claire Fontaine is a private tutor of French in California. Buelens immediately makes you aware that Claire is a sad person whose daughter, Melody, has died. Then you meet Simon Miller, her ex-husband and stepfather of Melody. He is about to re-marry. His fiancée, too, has a daughter, and this is what sets Claire off.

Simon had Claire hospitalized for mental incapacitation once after Melody died. Claire blames Simon for her death. No, that’s not completely accurate; Claire mostly blames herself for Melody’s death, that she did not listen to what Melody tried to tell her about Simon.

What about Simon.

Simon has hired a sin-eater, Sloan Wilson. Sloan’s father was a cop, then Sloan was a cop. Now that she is no longer a cop — full story towards the end of the book — she hires herself out as a “fix-it” person. You have a problem? Sloan will remedy it. Simon’s problem is, of course, Claire. Claire’s interference is ratcheting up; she has taken to painting “child molester” on Simon’s car, writing him nasty letters, and threatening him.

When we hear Simon’s version of the story as told to Sloan, it creates a wedge of doubt about Claire’s insistence that Simon is an evil person. Sloan agrees to accept Simon as a client, and so she begins to insinuate herself in Claire’s life.

Sloan tails Claire to her French lessons. (There is an odd assortment of language clients, and I found their characterizations very interesting.) She gets to know the young woman Claire is mentoring: someone who was homeless and on the streets, but who managed to get off the streets and get a job. Using that woman, Destiny, Sloan determines to trap Claire when her threats escalate into action.

The narrative moves between Claire and Sloan in the first person. Buelens keeps their voices enough different, although they have many points of congruence. For instance, the underlying stories about their fathers are intense. Buelens builds tension with some of the French clients as well. The resolution of each problem gives us a better understanding of Claire and more of an ability to tell if she is a reliable narrator or is deceiving herself.

There are no car chases, no stupidly going down to the dark basement, no prolonged dredging through computer files. It is a psychological thriller and also a work of detection, as we follow Sloan through the process of digging out Claire’s, Destiny’s, and Simon’s stories.

“An Inconvenient Woman” displays the meaning of the title in many ways. It is a “light” read, with no disrespect intended to the author. Rather, Buelens makes her story float along without manicured scenery or pop-out-of-the-closet moments, but it is tied still to substance and feeling in a deep way.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

Tordotcom, 160 pages, $17.99 (c2018)

“Artificial Condition” is the second novella in Martha Wells’ wonderfully creative, very human Murderbot series. It’s a science fiction book fit for royalty. 

Here’s an aside. Novella is a short Italian story. Just kidding, but not really. The term's history goes back a few centuries. Currently, the term “novella” has grown increasingly popular to indicate a book of about 200 pages. I love the definition by one dictionary: “a short novel or a long short story.” Clear? So I made my own definition, clarified by the ever-cautious word “about.” I remember when 200 pages would have qualified as an actual novel.  “Artificial Condition” is 160 pages, so it qualifies. And it is a pretty perfectly paced 160 pages.

Murderbot is self-named. It is a robot with organic components and is a designated SecUnit, a security unit, with a disengaged regulator. A self-disengaged regulator. It named itself and freed itself. Until recently, it was a rogue unit who pretended it wasn’t and took on independent protection contracts. Then it met a group of people who became its protectors, crew, and friends, although the concept of “friends” was not exactly in its wheelhouse. "Friends" is a work in progress.

As this story picks up, Murderbot has snuck away from its crew/friends and is on a mission to a mining colony on a faraway moon to determine if it really did murder a bunch of humans it should have been protecting there. That's Murderbot's back story. It knows it did something bad but its non-organic memory has been erased. Probably it is its organic memory that retains a whiff of something awful.

It has the fortuitous and charming help of a sentient transport ship, ART. Murderbot hitches a ride, and they watch soap operas together to better understand humans. ART helps Murderbot to blend in as a human in order to do its research into the mining deaths.

In order to get into the section of the moon Murderbot needs to see, it must acquire a work permit. It does that by hiring itself out to a group of young (my assumption) people who have been cheated out of proprietary research by a corporation. These innocents want the data that belong to them, but they know there may be danger going up against a big corp. They hire Murderbot. Or, rather, Murderbot allows itself to be hired, thus acquiring the desired work permit. Win-win. Until the big corp tries to murder the little innocents.

ART and Murderbot make a clever and engaging team, as they try to help the innocents and learn what happened to Murderbot on that moon long ago.

I beg you. Please read this series. I will say “you’re welcome” in advance.