This is a novel I read about a year ago and I loved it – so why has it taken me so long to put this review to paper? That’s a great question, and the nearest I can come to an answer is to say that I just didn’t feel like I could do it justice. This is terrific crime novel featuring a current case and two cold cases but it is also so much more… Some readers will appreciate the trip down memory lane to the eighties, the clothes and music, it brings it back. Other readers might be anticipating the resolutions of the three main cases. But for me – well – I have to admit I just love the way the author nailed “the nature of memory” It doesn’t hurt to have a likable (though flawed) protagonist with a sense of humour that is pointed, yet considerate of the difficult subject material.
This is fiction although it was loosely based on a true crime that happened in another year.
In this imagined account of the summer of 1986, Oklahoma City is rocked by two tragedies. A botched burglary at a local movie theater ends with the murder of six young employees, and a few months later a young teenager disappears at a local fair. Neither crime is solved.
Wyatt was sixteen that summer and inexplicably he was the only survivor at the theater massacre. It changed him forever: he moved away, changed his name and never looked back.
Julianna is the sister of the missing teenager. Unlike Wyatt, she stayed in Oklahoma where she obsessively tried to unravel the mystery of her missing sibling. The evening her sister disappeared has never left her mind.
It is 26 years later in 2012 and Wyatt is a private investigator in Las Vegas. A friend asks him to take a case in Omaha (as a favour— double pay) and Wyatt grudgingly accepts. Oops! What the friend meant to say was Oklahoma, and soon Wyatt finds himself heading back to a place he has avoided for 26 years. And he starts to remember things about that summer. This is where the author is brilliant at showing how the five senses trigger memory – and this is a guy who doesn’t want to remember. As soon as he sees the city skyline his stomach clenches. The scent after the rain, the taste of the food, the sounds unique to this city; they generate the memories of that summer and he is soon asking himself why was I the only survivor?
But memories can be fickle companions and Julianne is not having much luck remembering the night her sister vanished. Until…
This is a tremendous story that is well told and meaningful. A true gem – and there must be folks who agree with me because it has won a few awards ( among them an Edgar.)
The Long and Far Away Gone, 2015, HarperCollins, 454 pages
“In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history, I send to every household of my peoples, both at home and overseas, this message, spoken with the same depth of feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself. For the second time in the lives of most of us, we are at war. ” — The opening lines of a speech given by King George Vl of England, on the day it was announced that England was at war with Germany. (September 3, 1939)
The 13th novel in the MAISIE DOBB’S series begins with Maisie rushing to the home of her dearest friend Priscillia, so they can listen to the Prime Minister’s announcement on the wireless: war has been declared. This is a time period the British often refer to as the “phoney war”, or Churchill’s term “the twilight war” where nothing much happens on land, involving the Allies, for about eight months – ( although the seas are a different matter). The children of London are evacuated to country homes and the adults of London must carry gas masks and adhere to strict blackout rules. The initial chaos contributes to the cases that Maisie must confront since the police force, and the bureaucrats are overburdened. Maisie is employed to investigate the murder of a man who was a Belgium refugee in the first war and she also attends to a little girl who is an evacuee with a mysterious background.
Fans of this series will remember that the first novel (MAISIE DOBBS, 2003) began in 1929 with Maisie, also a psychologist, opening her inquiry agency. Many of the early cases had seeds in the first war and many of the characters were physically or mentally wounded by that war. But there was also healing and new life. It is therefore terribly heartbreaking that many of the children that offered up hope throughout the series are now eligible to fight in the new war. And here is what separates a series from a stand-alone novel; the reader may become totally invested in the characters in a series. I thought the last book ( JOURNEY TO MUNICH, 2016) was the weakest in the entire collection but I still wanted more Maisie (and friends).
The author manages to convey an overall sense of incredulity among the older characters that there is – indeed – another war. And some acceptance. But the younger characters – meaning those who weren’t yet born during the 1st war or those who were too young to remember – often display a sense of excitement.
Overall I felt this was maybe not the best entry in this series – but it was good – and I will look forward to reading about the next chapter in Maisie’s life.
IN THIS GRAVE HOUR, a Maisie Dobbs Novel by Jacqueline Winspear, (2017), Harper Collins, 332 pages.
Scottish Crime Fiction
Scottish Island Fiction
This novel has so many of the elements that I love in a book that I was almost certain I was going to love it before I had even read a single page: I wasn’t disappointed. The main character is an oceanographer, working out of Edinburgh, named Cal McGill who has pioneered a program for using ocean currents, weather records, shipping documents, archives, wind speeds and a host of other information to explain the physical origin of items (or bodies and body parts) washing up on a shore. Where did the journey begin? He is also an eco-warrior attempting to bring attention to global warming and a loner who uses a bunch of anonymous beachcombers to feed him information.
Cal’s interest in the ocean was kindled in his youth when he discovered his grandfather had died during World War ll, after being washed overboard during a mission. He has an over-riding interest in discovering all the facts regarding this event. The small Scottish Island that had been home to this branch of his family for generations was abandoned after the war and many pieces of this puzzle just do not fit. This is my favourite plot line because I adore stories involving Scottish Islands. Peter May’s BLACK HOUSE trilogy is tremendous and I recommend it to any fans of this novel.
There is also a subplot featuring a young Indian girl exploited by a prostitution/pedophile ring. A third subplot revolves around the mystery of shoe clad feet coming ashore in strangely diverse locations.
.There is a secondary character – a policewoman named Helen Jamieson- and I hope I see her in future installments. Oh yes, there are already two more installments in this series…yippee.
So here it is in a nutshell.. a crime mystery, an interesting protagonist, and a Scottish Island. What is there not to love?
Published by Penguin Random House
This is the seventh book in Ann Cleeves’ delightful Shetland series featuring the dogged detecting skills of Jimmy Perez. I have been a fan of this series since the first book RAVEN BLACK appeared in 2007 and in some ways this book provides some closure from the first book. Magnus Tait, a lonely old man and a suspect in RAVEN BLACK is being buried in the first few pages. We learn that in the intervening years, he had developed some friendships and his last years were not as lonely. It is during his funeral that a landslide sweeps through the cemetery and a nearby croft and exposes the body of a well dressed lady. It is determined that she was murdered before the landslide so Jimmy Perez calls Chief Inspector Willow Reeves to head the investigation. This is a character that has appeared in the last few books and, up until this book, I never cared for her much. I found her irritating and also wrong a lot of the time but in this entry she seems more reasonable (but I don’t think she is a good match for Jimmy.) Jimmy is still grieving for his murdered girlfriend but he is at least open to the idea of a relationship. Well…he is…then he isn’t…then he is….you get the idea.
Sandy Wilson is another character that has been along since the first book . The once raw recruit has grown and is now a thoughtful contributor to the team. He is also in love and I wouldn’t be surprised if marriage is in his future.
In recent years this book series has been made into a television series – simply called SHETLAND. I have only just recently had a chance to see it and it is well worth watching just for the spectacular scenery. I love Douglas Henshall but I think he was miscast a Jimmy Perez. Jimmy had a shipwrecked Spaniard in his family tree and is always described as dark and Spanish looking.
I love these books because Cleeves does a wonderful job of describing life on the Islands. This book does a great job of describing the contradictions of privacy – the homes can be miles apart with vast expanses of land in between yet there is that small town element where everybody knows your business. Private but no privacy.
Good addition to a fabulous series.
*** After the third book this was called a trilogy – after the fourth book it was called a quartet – now it is just called a series. I mention this because in recent years I just fell in love will Peter May’s BLACK HOUSE TRILOGY….LOVED IT so I just want to remind Peter that there is no reason you have to stop a three just because you once called it a trilogy.***
COLD EARTH by Ann Cleeves 2016 Macmillon
This novel was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize in 2016 and, although it didn’t win, the nomination will give the novel oodles of exposure. It’s a historical thriller that is a little difficult to categorize but the author himself has said it’s “a novel about a crime rather than a crime novel” That sounds right. The multiple perspective format allows the reader to almost be the detective; taking in the information and sifting through the often contradictory evidence.
This is not a whodunnit since we learn almost immediately that the protagonist -a youth by the name of Roderick Macrae – had readily admitted to the killing of three people in his Scottish Highland crofting community in 1869. But why? Roddy’s advocate (lawyer) tasks him with writing an account of his life and the circumstances proceeding the murders along with details of the actual killings. The resulting narrative is a grim and gloomy representation of a life saturated with hopelessness where the churchy types embrace providence -” it is the will of God”- sort of thinking. The death of his mother and then the wrath of a bully-man add further darkness to an already bleak existence.
Roddy’s personal narrative accounts for over half of the novel but there are other perspectives to consider. The reader is privy to the court proceedings, newspaper stories, medical and coroner’s report, character assessments, and other cronicles. An expert on lunacy examines Roddy and gives testimony that might have been darkly funny if it hadn’t been so disturbing.
Of course nothing is straight forward…and that is the point, I think. Extenuating circumstances — maybe —maybe not!
I found this to be a fascinating and rewarding novel.
HIS BLOODY PROJECT Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae… by Graeme Macrae Burnet Contraband Publishing (2015) 288 pages
SCOTTISH ISLAND FICTION
Whoever gossips to you will also gossip about you… Spanish Proverb
A secret is a kind of promise…it can also be a prison…Jennifer Lee Carrell
Shame is a soul eating emotion…C.Jung
Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead…Benjamin Franklin
While you were judging others, you left your closet open and a bunch of skeletons fell out…Unknown
Guilt is one side of a nasty triangle; the other two are shame and stigma. This grim coalition combines to inculpate women themselves of the crimes committed against them…Germain Greer
Gossip, rumour, secrets and judgements are a part of life in this community on the Island of Rothesay in Scotland during the 1980’s. Michael is a twelve-year-old boy who is just starting to understand the whispers and giggles when his Grandma and Ma exchange information in the kitchen. He knows it’s about other people but he is also picking up on some of things that are said – even if he occasionally needs to check out some of the words in the dictionary. His neighbour dances in her living room and he cannot help watching because, well gee, she does keep her curtains open. And girls seem to fascinate and disgust him in equal measure. His home is mostly happy until one night something happens, and suddenly everything is different. Why has everything changed at home? The behaviour of adults can be truly baffling in the best of times – and these are not the best of times. Gossip can be crippling, but silence can also have consequences.
This is a coming of age story but it is also much more; shame and fear of shame, action vs. inaction, and personal responsibility vs. group responsibility are also examined.
CLOSED DOORS is a fairly short novel but it left me with lots to think about.
CLOSED DOORS Lisa O’Donnell 2014 HarperCollins 246
Before I have my say on these two books, I would like to introduce three quotes that I believe to be relevant to today’s books.
All great changes are preceded by chaos. Deepak Chopra
Without a struggle there can be no progress. Frederick Douglas
Any change is resisted because bureaucrats have a vested interest in the chaos in which they exist. Richard Nixon
So I think I will be discussing change.
In 1350 England was a changed country. Between one-third and one-half of the population had been wiped out by the plague and the survivors were living in fear and accompanied by grief. The plague years had not been productive and many citizens were also starving to death. And the great manor houses had not been unaffected. Young Oswald was recalled from his situation in the monastery when the Lord of the manor, the heir, and the spare suddenly and quickly succumbed to the plaque. I am referring, of course, to his father and two older brothers. Oswald was probably not well suited for the job ahead of him – he had been in the monastery since the age of seven, and at 19 he had no practical training. England was still operating under the feudal system (fortunately the author explains that a little in the glossary) but all was not running smooth. So many people had died that the able bodied labourer had become quite precious. It was a matter of supply and demand. Laws had been in existence for centuries that bound the various levels of tenants, serfs etc. to the manor house and the wages were also set in stone. But fields needed to be harvested and if someone else was willing to pay more coin in the next county then the labourers might think about relocating. Lord and labourer would both be breaking the law but the number of sheriff’s men had also been reduced in the Plague years. Desperate times bring desperate measures and all that. And young Oswald had more problems…After finding a murdered girl he needed to find the culprit and deal with the priest that was telling everyone that “dog head’ creatures are doing the killing to avenge their sins.
Both these novels center on a murder and throughout the investigations Oswald is hampered by the superstitions and beliefs of those involved.He also needs to appease his narcissist mother and sour sister (although I think I would have been “sour” too if I had been a woman in those times.)
I enjoyed reading both these book for the insight into a difficult time and because I like a whodunnit.
PLAGUE LAND by S.D. Sykes (2014) Hodder & Stoughton 324 pages
THE BUTCHER BIRD by S.D. Sykes (2015) Hodder & Stoughton 336 pages
SCOTTISH ISLAND FICTION
I adore Scottish Island fiction and I was fortunate to find this novel at my local library. This is a dual-timeline story where both narratives center around a Scottish Island called Findnar (a fictional island) In the modern tale, the reader is introduced to young grad student named Freya Dane, who has just inherited an Island from her recently-deceased archeologist father. Freya had been estranged from her father for many years but she is also an archeologist and she is curious to learn more about his research – and maybe more about him.
The narrative switches back and forth between Freya’s story and the story of Signy – a Pictish girl in 800A.D. The time period is significant because it was a time of conflict between the Vikings, the Picts, and the newly arrived Christian community. Signy’s entire family is slaughtered in a Viking raid and she taken in by the Christian community survivors. She also falls in love with an injured Viking youth left behind by the raiders. This story-line is interesting and I’m thinking that the appeal should be quite timely; especially since tv shows like “The Last Kingdom” and “Game of Thrones” have popularized hairy, tattooed men with swords, and clubs, and berserker warriors. Fun stuff.
Signy’s story is really quite interesting but I have to admit that I found Freya’s story dull . And her romance – yawn.
THE ISLAND HOUSE Atria Paperback 2012 448 pages
Historical Fiction Novel
This novel begins in 1914 as three American sisters are heading into a nearby town, from their rural farm, to pick up a few provisions. Suddenly a motor car, driven by a young factory owner, slams into the ladies’ pony cart, causing extensive damages and narrowly avoiding serious physical harm or death. This is the only form of transportation for these three women so elder sister Constance has the damages assessed and sends the bill to the factory owner. He ignores it. Constance decides to take the factory owner to court. At this point in the story the factory owner – a man by the name of Henry Kaufman – enlists his group of thugs to systematically harass, stalk, blackmail and endanger the three sisters. Not a nice guy.
One of the best aspects of this fiction novel is that it is based on the real life story of Constance Kopp – a woman who became America’s first female sheriff. The factory owner is pretty easy to dislike; he sees himself as an entitled man with his inherited wealth, and his treatment of all women and his employees is despicable. Of course these events took place one hundred years ago so things would be different now (we wish –think of affluenza teen in the U.S.A.)
This is a great book to read for fans of strong female characters. Don’t suggest to these ladies that they may improve their life by finding a man to marry them. They will do whatever they can to stay together. In their past we find that they would handle a problem “head-on” and find a solution, And yes they had problems (even secrets).
The ladies find assistance from the sheriff. He’s a good sort and not afraid to ruffle some feathers.
Throughout the story the woman have other difficulties as well, especially their dwindling cash reserves. They have recently realized that they can’t keep selling off packets of the farm or they will soon have nothing. Youngest sister Flaurette has some sewing talent but A paying job would sure help.
Perfect for fans of female fiction and historical fiction.
Possibly first of a series.
GIRL WAITS WITH GUN HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT PUBLISHING 2015 408 PAGES
I first encountered the novels of author Sara Donati Years ago when I was looking for something to bide me over until Diana Gabaldon came out with her next OUTLANDER novel. I loved the outlander novels and someone suggested I might enjoy INTO THE WILDERNESS (1998), as it too was a sweeping historical romance-adventure (without the time travel)set in America in the 18th century. I loved it enough to quickly read all six books in the series – often collectively referred to as “The Wilderness Series”.
In 2015 Donati published a new book called THE GILDED HOUR which she promises will be the first in a new series. This novel opens in 1883 and many of the protagonists are descendants of characters from her “Wilderness” series – a clever way to appeal to a built-in fan base.
The reader is introduced to the upper-middle-class, New York City home of elderly Aunt Quinlan. This eighty-something lady lives in the home with her nieces, who are both physicians. Aunt Quinlan was once Lily Bonner; conceived in the first Wilderness book and born in the second. The author should have included a family tree because there are characters from three different branches of the Bonner family. Fortunately, the motivated reader can access a family tree at thegildedhour.com. There is a noticeable lack of male relatives since the civil war was so thorough in cutting through the male population twenty years earlier. Photographs sit on the mantle – a sad reminder of the sons and nephews lost to war. The household is unusual for its time since it is a multi-racial home; and racism is an issue that the family must contend with everyday.
The actual phrase “the gilded hour” is used on the very last page of this novel, but I think it must also be a nod to a term coined by Mark Twain when he referred to the years 1870-1900 as the “Gilded Age”. Gilded on the outside but beneath the surface those years were characterised by crushing poverty, disease, prejudice, hunger, and horrible sanitation… Yet, the Vanderbilts could spend one million dollars on a single party.
I have made many references to Donati’s Wilderness novels but I need to be clear that the reader does not need to be familiar with those books to appreciate this one. This is the first of a series so some of the threads are left unresolved but there is one plotline that I felt should have been resolved in this book – my own opinion – but it just felt wrong. That is probably my main complaint but I think this novel is perfect for fans of historical-romance-adventure-fiction.
THE GILDED HOUR SARA DONATI 2015 BERKLEY 732 pages