Modern Lit: Into the Water, by Paula Hawkins

Into the Water
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The sleepy, remote little town of Beckford, England has a decidedly spooky history. The river that runs through it has what’s known as the drowning pool, which over the centuries has the site of a string of drownings, all women. As Into the Water opens, Jules Abbott is summoned following the death of her older sister Nel, to identify the body and to take care of Lena, her teenaged niece. Nel has been researching the  history of all the local women who died in the pool, starting with a young 17th century woman who drowned during the dunking test for witchcraft. There are many in Beckford who resent that work and who vow to keep the book from publication. The police believe, or say they believe, that Nel committed suicide, but Jules isn’t buying it. One of Nel’s supporters is Nicky, the elderly town mystic. Most view her as barmy, but when she tells Jules that most of the victims, recent and historical, have been wronged by the men in their lives, what she says resonates with Jules, who will come to rely more and more upon Nicky’s insights. Nicky may not have paranormal powers, but she’s certainly a good observer.

Into the Water has multiple narrators, and it is difficult to tell which are reliable. The star of the production is the town with its river; the theme is social justice, misogyny, and the misuse of power. Because there are several victims, there a several subplots, the most vivid being not Nel’s death but that of her daughter’s best friend who drowned only the month before. But all of the women’s stories are compelling in their own right;  the development of Jules’s thorny relationship with her niece is well presented, as is the denouement of her thorny relationship with her sister.  And over everything lies the aura of the strange, secretive town, not threatening, just peculiar. And it’s easy to allow oneself to be drawn into Nel’s conundrums. Into the Water is more psychological drama than suspenseful mystery.

Most of the critical reviews I’ve read compare Water with Girl on a Train, all opining that Water lacks the same brilliance. I prefer to judge books on their own merits, and that’s what I’ve done with my own review.

 

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It’s a Mystery: A Pale Horse, by Charles Todd

A Pale Horse (Inspector Ian Rutledge, #10)A Pale Horse by Charles Todd

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him.” Apocalypse.

Charles Todd continues exploring the hideous ramifications of war in this tenth Ian Rutledge mystery.  Four years after the end of WWI, Rutledge still suffers symptoms of PTSD, which are debilitating even though he manages his flashbacks quite well. The most prominent among his  symptoms is the voice of Hamish, a soldier whom Rutledge unwillingly ordered executed for refusing to follow orders. Hamish functions as a sort of conscience and sounding board , giving readers insight into Rutledge’s thoughts and emotional struggles.

In spite of those struggles, Rutledge is a fine detective, doing  a credible job with Scotland Yard, no thanks to his superior, Chief Superintendent Bowles. Now he’s sent to Berkshire to assist in a War Department search for a missing operative, Gaylord Partridge (really!) Partridge has been residing in a tiny village among eight misfits, who reside in a cluster of cottages originally built for lepers, at the foot of the famous iron age White Horse of Uffington. Though he’s not been briefed, Rutledge strongly suspects that Partridge participated in some top secret mission during the war. Muddying the waters is the discovery, within the ruins of  Yorkshire’s Fountains Abbey, of a corpse wrapped in a hooded cloak, face covered with a gas mask. Though not a part of Rutledge’s assignment, that will prove to be the crucial piece of the puzzle.

Populated with an array of interesting characters, some quite complex and all very real,  and set in one of England’s most mysterious locales, A Pale Horse is a layer cake of secret upon secret, some interrelated and some discrete.  If it weren’t so tightly plotted, following this investigation might have been a bit confusing. As more murders and several arsons occur, Rutledge has an ever increasing abundance of connections to sort through while trying not to tread on the toes of the local police.

The Inspector Rutledge series has a prominent place among the more literary mysteries in the genre, and A Pale Horse definitely fits well into that place; it’s an intelligent, socially relevant novel with resonance in today’s world, where war, business, political secrets, and yes, PTSD,  play such  a large role.

It’s a Mystery: Lie to Me, by J. T. Ellison

Lie to Me

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

After the first few chapters of Lie to Me, it impressed me strongly as Gone Girl redux, and it stayed that way for most of the book. Bestselling authors Ethan and Sutton Montclair live the writerly life in Tennessee, and to the outside world, theirs is the perfect marriage. Of course, all is not what it seems, and when Sutton takes off, leaving a note instructing her husband to give her some space, Ethan is unsure what to think or do. The plot thickens relatively quickly, the first half related from his point of view, and the second from Sutton’s. Once the press gets hold of the missing person angle, Ethan comes under suspicion. Someone, it seems, is trying to frame him, but for what? Most of the midsection of this novel drags somewhat, picks up eventually when Sutton relates her side of events, and from thereon, diverges from the Gone Girl trope with a series of surprising developments make it clear that all indeed is not what it seems. Both of the Montclairs have kept  secrets from one another, which combine to create complex and deadly situations for each of them. Even the denouement, however, borrows from other sources.

As characters, Ethan and Sutton are not particularly original or sympathetic, and it’s those in the supporting roles that ultimately add life to the story.

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Modern Lit: The Guest Room, by Chris Bohjalian

The Guest Room

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After a lifetime of devouring books, I have concluded that most of them are read and easily forgotten, but a few stick with you long after you’ve turned the last page. Chris Bohjalian has the distinction of having written two of the latter. The first is Skeletons at the Feast, about the horrors committed on the populace by Germans and Russians during the last months of WWII. I just finished reading the second yesterday, The Guest Room, which is about the horrors of international human trafficking, and have no doubt that it too will continue to haunt my memory for years to come.

A bachelor party (when did they stop calling them “stags”?) gone terribly wrong is the impetus for the story line, which plays out from the points of view of the host, Richard Chapman, and one of the young “exotic dancers”, Alexandra. They are both powerful characters. It is painful to read Alexandra’s graphic account of her brutal kidnapping and degradation, and the utter hopelessness of her ensuing life, and she is one of the most unforgettable protagonists I have ever encountered. It is less easy to feel sympathy for Richard, the urbane and savvy investment banker with a beautiful wife and child who simply watched his brother’s “party” decline into total debauchery and end in murder. But loss of control characterizes Richard’s situation as well as Alexandra’s, and as he struggles to cope with the many humiliations and complications he will have to suffer,  his deep shame and  his refusal to make excuses reveal him in essence as a good man who drank way too much and failed to put his foot on the brakes when he should have. His wife, Kristin, is also multi-dimensional, refraining from vengefulness despite her sickening sense of revulsion  and disbelief over her husband’s betrayal and the bloody desecration of their home. Melissa, their nine year old daughter, is the child Alexandra never had the chance to be; one of the few smiles provoked during the story came from Melissa’s fear that the men killed in her home were still present as ghosts.

This is a tightly plotted novel written with all the skill I’ve come to expect from Bohjalian’s prose. Surprises abound, and the book ends up at a place I never foresaw for it. It is not easy to read, but it is certainly gripping, and I finished it in a day. But the hopelessless that colors most of the chapters is somewhat mitigated at last.

Now I have to figure out what I want to do to help end human trafficking.

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It’s a Mystery: The Woman in Cabin Ten, by Ruth Ware

The Woman in Cabin 10

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Locked room mysteries have been popular over the years, and while The Woman in Cabin Ten takes place on a yacht, it follows classic locked room standards. Lo Blackwood is a journalist working for a travel magazine when she’s handed a plum assignment – to sail and report on the maiden voyage of luxury boutique cruise ship Northern Lights. Shortly before she’s due to depart, Lo’s apartment is broken into while she’s sleeping. Lo is no wonder woman. She’s been depressed and anxious for most of her life, and the break in (which is one of the novel’s more effective sequences) terrifies her, which, in fairness, is how most women would react. To pile on additional stress, she has a fight with her boyfriend hours before boarding ship. So when Lo overhears the sounds of a body being thrown overboard on her first night at sea, she reacts in a way that lands her in permanent panic mode.

The rest of the book follows the course of Lo’s attempts to convince the ship’s crew that a murder has taken place. This is a more difficult task than you might think, and the tension ratchets up even higher when she discovers that someone has been tampering with things in her cabin. Lo trusts none of her fellow passengers, and while no one believes her, she does begin to make some progress to eliminating possible suspects. The final third of the story takes place in a pitch black, locked room deep in the ship’s hold, where Lo has been taken prisoner because she now knows too much. Ruth Ware has realistically portrayed the effects of solitary confinement and sensory deprivation in these scenes. At times, the narrative cuts away to news reports about a woman who has disappeared from Northern Lights and is presumed dead. Will all become clear at the end? Will Lo survive?

Though Lo comes across as an unreliable narrative at times, and an emotional mess nearly all the time, you have to credit her with dogged perseverance, even though she fears, rightly enough, that her life is in danger. She also deserves credit for not allowing her psychological problems to destroy her integrity. Is she “likeable”? Many readers say not. To me, that doesn’t matter, because her story was compelling, and I dare say there are very many people out there who must deal with similar sorts of emotional issues.

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Paranormal Fiction: Blythewood, by Carol Goodman

Blythewood (Blythewood, #1)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Carol Goodman’s novels generally take place at in educational settings near bodies of water, where female protagonists must face mysterious circumstances fraught with danger. Blythewood is no exception, but this time around, the book is aimed at a young adult audience. Intriguingly, the story’s catalyst takes place during the horrific fire at New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where Avaline Hall has sought employment after her mother’s early death. Amidst the terror, Avaline escapes death through the actions of a pair of strange males, one a beautiful winged creature and the other a malevolent man in an Inverness cape. Little wonder that she lands in a psychiatric ward, until her estranged grandmother takes her under wing. Suddenly, Avaline finds herself a student at the elite school, Blythewood on the Hudson, following in the footsteps of her mother, who although she was expelled, is something of a folk heroine. Reminiscent of the Harry Potter series, no?

Avaline’s experiences at Blythewood open her eyes to the paranormal world of magic, fairies, and evil that coexists within the forests that surround the campus. As she struggles to fit into the snooty student body, Avaline encounters both the caped man and the winged boy again, making new friends, falling in love, and discovering special powers that she never suspected she possessed. Most of all, she wants to learn why her mother left school in disgrace, and who her father is. The adolescent angst is true to the genre, but the story was well written, full of quirky characters, and compelling enough to hold my interest. Not sure, however, whether or not I’ll check out Ravenswood, the sequel.

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It’s a Mystery: The Broken Teaglass, by Emily Arsenault

The Broken Teaglass
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Any author who can stimulate a reader’s interest in reading about her main characters reading the dictionary is pretty darned good, and that’s exactly what Emily Arsenault has accomplished in her debut novel, The Broken Teaglass. The narrator is a new college grad, Billy Webb, who is perplexed about where a philosophy major might find his place in the world. He grows even more perplexed when he finds himself accepting a job as editorial assistant at an iconic dictionary publishing house, which is quiet as a tomb. For folks who work with words, the staff is remarkably reclusive and laconic, but Billy manages to befriend another young assistant, Mona Minot. A large part of their work involves finding new words and defining new uses of old words, which requires much research in the company’s library of ten million word “citations”. In the process, they happen upon a series of “cits” written by a Dolores Beekmim, which when read together appear to form a confession to a nebulous yet disturbing crime. Under Mona’s prodding, Billy joins her in a painstaking search to discover who wrote the cits and committed what seems to have been murder, without tipping off their colleagues, who, after all, may have been involved in the crime.

As a mystery, the book is not particularly suspenseful, but along the way, the two protagonists reveal much about themselves, twining a coming of age thread into the mix. Essentially, all the characters are intelligent but socially inept versions of, well, nerds, partly due to the exacting and dry nature of their work as lexicographers. There are some scenes featuring Billy’s hippy neighbors, but their role in the story never becomes important. As much fun as following the mystery plot is learning about the nuts and bolts of dictionary writing – who gets to decide if new words are “real” and which of them should be included in upcoming revisions. The Broken Teaglass might not be your cup of tea if you’re looking for action and adventure, but for readers like me who love words, it makes for quirky and fascinating reading.

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