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 Long Way Home, by Louise Penny

The Long Way Home (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #10)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Long Way Home is Louise Penny’s tenth Chief Inspector Gamache novel. The pace has changed in more than one way, for Armand has retired from heading the homicide unit of Quebec’s Surete, moving with wife Reine-Marie (I always smile at her name; in some sections of the US, she’d probably be called “Queenie”.) from Montreal to Three Pines, the picture-book village in which much of this series is set. Armand is struggling to recover from PTSD, and wants nothing more than peace, good food, and the company of family and friends. But if that were to happen, there would be no tenth novel….

One of the prequels to The Long Way Home, A Trick of the Light, ended with the separation of village artists Clara and Peter Morrow, because of Peter’s intense jealousy of Clara’s professional success. The couple agree to live apart for a year, then reunite to decide whether they have a future together. On the appointed day, however, Peter fails to show up, and after weeks of worry, Clara asks for Gamache’s advice. The good-hearted Armand cannot refuse, and offers to help Clara track her husband’s whereabouts. Peter’s trail, faint at first, turns out to encompass four European and two Canadian cities, before it abruptly ends. The worst is feared. Through a combination of well honed investigative skills and keen intuition, Gamache’s and Jean-Guy Beauvoir (now son-in-law and former second in command), manage to piece together seemingly unrelated details and bring the search to a suspenseful conclusion. No spoilers here.

In what has now become a trend in this series, author Penny takes her readers to some of Quebec’s provincial wonders, in this case the immense Manicouagan Crater, caused eons ago by the impact of an asteroid. The famous art colonies at Baie St. Paul and the mighty St. Laurence River are also given parts to play. As always, her elegant prose, psychological insight, and memorable characters, who by now seem real to me, add a strong literary component which raises her books above mere genre. Who wouldn’t love to know Gamache? And the characters that are specific to each mystery are just as complex and intriguing as the regulars. I’m hoping that in the next entry, we learn whether thirteen year old Bean is a boy or a girl.

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Modern Lit: First Frost, by Sarah Addison Allenhile

First Frost (Waverley Family, #2)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First Frost is the sequel to Garden Spells, which introduced the Waverly women, who for generations have each possessed her own unusual talent. Garden Spells, which I read and reviewed back in 2008, was interesting enough, but for me stretched the bounds of credibility. First Frost, published last year, picks up the story of sisters Claire and Sydney, now settled into marriages, family life, and careers. While they find themselves generally happy and fulfilled, both women have a strong sense of unease. When a strange man shows up in town, the unease grows first into foreboding, and then into a full blown conflict of identity. Claire and Sydney each take comfort in the hope that, once the first frost of autumn occurs, they’ll be able to resolve their misgivings.

The strength of this book for me lies in its skillfully drawn characters. Claire and Sydney are intelligent, capable women who quite literally live and learn and grow from their experiences. Their husbands, daughters, and friends are equally genuine and appealing, especially Sydney’s daughter Bay who is in the throes of first love. The plot is well organized around the issue of identity, with descriptive passages that highlight the author’s skill with words. More restrained now are the hints of magic that flow through the story are more restrained than in the first book, and for me, work much better.

Although First Frost is not as outstanding as The Peach Keeper or The Sugar Queen, it’s certainly enjoyable and appealing.

It’s a Mystery: The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train 5 of 5 stars

Rear Window meets Gone Girl in The Girl on the Train, the debut novel of former journalist Paula Hawkins. Rachel Watkins is the eponymous girl, in actuality a 30-something divorcee still reeling from the breakup of her marriage, for which she takes the blame, all of it. Her ex, Tom, remarried instantly and now resides where he and Rachel lived with his new wife, Anna, and year old daughter. Rachel can’t stop herself from hounding them with tearful, demanding phone calls, most placed in the middle of the night. The novel’s plot revolves around what Rachel sees everyday on the train to London, which passes by the back gardens of her former house and neighborhood. A strong first clue to Rachel’s state of mind lies in the fantasy she spins out daily about a couple she observes having coffee each morning from the deck of one of the other houses. Another comes when it becomes apparent how much wine and gin she’s habitually drinking. Finally, we learn that Rachel is taking the train each day to preserve the illusion that she still has the job that she lost because of her drinking problem. One morning she sees the woman, Megan, kissing a man not her husband, and a few days later, Rachel’s shocked to learn that Megan has, as they say in the UK, gone missing. She offers information about that stolen kiss to the police, who consider her an unreliable witness, so she chooses to tell Megan’s husband, Scott.

Rachel is the protagonist in the story, as unreliable a narrator as ever conjured up in the pages of a book. As she becomes immersed in the mystery, she grows more and more unstable, and begins having vivid flashbacks to traumatic experiences that she doesn’t remember. Her point of view, mainly stream of consciousness, alternates with those of Megan and Anna, who are as grounded in denial as Rachel is. All three characters are profoundly disturbed, though at first it appears that Anna and Megan are more functional than Rachel. Tom and Scott, while having no narrator duties, show themselves to be abusive and manipulative. What makes The Girl on the Train so compelling is the remarkable way in which Paula Hawkins presents the interplay among the characters and the manner in which they tailor their perceptions and behaviors to suit their personal needs and self images. Sometimes we all delude ourselves, of course, but these characters have lost their own integrity and connection to reality. We never can tell quite what is lurking right under their facades. As their narratives come together during the latter chapters, the suspense becomes intense, more so because there hasn’t been a lot of warning (few telling slip ups here) and we aren’t quite sure how any of these people will react. Despite the dark, depressive atmosphere, which never really eases, there are glimmers of hope at the end, but this is no easy beach read.

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