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A SHIMMER OF HUMMINGBIRDS by Steve Burrows (2017) … a birder murder mystery

Mystery Fictionshimmer

I am a stalker:  I pursue my favourite authors on their websites as I anxiously await news of their latest literary creations.  I enjoy stand-alone novels but there is a special place in my heart for books that come in a series – especially mystery series.  A reader can become invested in the lives of the characters by sharing their joy, misfortune, triumphs and disappointments.  This reader is thrilled when a new volume is released in a series – it’s like visiting with old friends.  And it is always a joy to find a new series that I plan to follow for as long as the author is willing to put pen to paper.

In 2014,  I came across A SIEGE OF BITTERNS by Steve Burrows and I knew I had a new series to follow.  Mr. Burrows has been very accommodating: a new installment every year – just what I like to see.  Bonus— if he continues to write these novels, I will know the collective noun for every bird species in the world.

The novels feature a newly appointed Detective Chief Inspector Dominic Jejeune in a Norfolk England police department.  Jejeune earned his position by being responsible for a successful mission, involving great daring and danger, that saved the life of someone of importance.  The reader is aware that Dominic’s passion is with the birds but he still manages to be a brilliant detective. Not everybody is on board with his appointment; he is young, Canadian, and low-key.   He also has a shady brother who is considered disreputable in the birder world and his misdeeds are slowly fed to us in spoonfuls.  Even if it seems like a stretch to build a murder series around the birding world, it absolutely is not.  Think about it.  The birders are generally ecologists without funds – they want to see the salt marshes and wetlands untouched for the birds, but other interests (big business, government, developers) are always intruding on the bird habitats.  We’re talking big money here so conflict is not uncommon.

In A SHIMMER OF HUMMINGBIRDS – the fourth book in the series  –  DCI Jejeune travels to Columbia in an attempt to assist his brother, while back in Norfolk a former nemesis  has eyes on his job.  Jejeune’s girlfriend, Lindy, may be in trouble but she is oblivious to the danger, and it might have something to do with someone in Dominic’s past.

At this point I would like to include a quote from the second book, A PITYING OF DOVES, because I think it accurately defines Jejeune’s character.  The following is an observation made by Sergeant Danny Maik (a main character) as Jejeune arrives at a crime scene. *THE BEAST is what Dominic has named his SUV.

“He had seen Jejeune arrive, watched him park the *Beast some way off and walk along the lane to where everyone was gathered.  He had seen him pause suddenly, freeze, not once, but twice, each time straining to listen to a sound coming from the marsh that stretched beyond the bridge.  Even at a time like this, thought Maik, with a suspect’s car precariously balanced between the lane and the marsh ten feet below, and the suspect himself who knew where, even now Inspector Jejeune takes the time to listen to a bird call.” p.170

I have made this text more about the series than about a single book but that’s okay.  It is a splendid series and all the entries are good.

A SHIMMER OF HUMMINGBIRDS by Steve Burrows (2017) Dundurn 368 pages

See also — A SIEGE OF BITTERNS (2014) A PITYING OF DOVES (2015) A CAST OF FALCONS (2016)

P.S.  The grey jay was mistakenly claimed as Canada’s national bird.   It is not.  Canada doesn’t have a national bird (yet)   

 

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LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb (2017)

Historical Fiction       World War 1 Fiction

last Paris

 

 

 

 

 

 

Defence of the Realm Act (DORA)  was approved by the British Government four days after the Beginning of World War 1.  It allowed the government to implement a wide range of laws and powers for the purpose of advancing the cause of an allied victory.  DORA allowed the officials to seize private property, control shipping and railroads, and implement measures to restrict food and beverage consumption. Any activities that might jeopardize the security of the nation were banned; flying kites , bonfires, speaking in a foreign language, and whistling among them.  DORA also enabled the government to censor newspapers – and censorship and propaganda are topics explored by the characters in this novel. 

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is another topic that is central to this novel although it was  known as shell shock at the time.  Related to the PTSD subject, is the different consideration given to officers (primarily upper class) vs. enlisted personnel (primarily working class) during this time.

I like to approach all historical fiction as a history lesson by doing some research on the events that occur in the story.  I am not talking about anything intense – no that’s not me going over old records and volumes in some dusty attic – just some background on battles or even real people among the fictional characters.  This novel inspired me to learn a wee bit about the Defense of the Realm Act and now I know something more than I did last week. Yay! In 1984, when I was 25 years old, I spent some time in England and, I will admit, I enjoyed the occasional pint, but the strange hours for opening and closing the pubs baffled me.  These unfamiliar operating hours (closing 3:30p.m. – 6:00p.m. and again 11:00P.M.) were dictated in DORA  to curtail alcohol consumption, and not revised until 1988.

Now to the novel (it’s about time – I know).  The story is told in the epistolary form similar to THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL SOCIETY by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, or LETTERS FROM SKYE by Jessica Brockmole – an exception would be the limited narrative set in 1968.  In the year 1914 a core group of friends are preparing for war, but it’s a war they are sure will be over by Christmas.  Thomas is the dreamer with a love for literature, Will is popular with the ladies, Evie has been schooled since birth for the genteel life of teas and charities, and Alice is the modern woman –  and life is about to change in a big way for all of them.  The letters begin circulating in 1914 while best friends Will and Thomas are still on English soil.  The correspondence continues when the men are stationed in France (often heavily censored) with Evie writing to both Will (her brother) and Thomas (childhood friend and Will’s best buddy).  Evie also writes to her close friend, Alice.  The main characters in this novel are members of the privileged class with Thomas’s family owning a London Newspaper.  The issues of censorship and propaganda are explored when Evie starts writing an article for the newspaper ( my two cents worth believes the pieces were inflammatory  even with my 2017 sensibilities)  Love and loss are amplified by the presence of war but love still manages to blossom through shared words, thoughts, and ideas.  The novel also addresses the devastation caused by the Spanish flu during these years.

An emotional journey of love and loss set during the first World War.

Reporting from war zones is still a subject that creates debate.   It is essential to protect the men and woman who are in vulnerable situations but is it the job of the war correspondent to promote patriotism even if it involves embellishing the truth or omitting facts?

LAST CHRISTMAS IN PARIS      Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb         2017         HarperCollins

 

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NONE BUT THE DEAD by Lin Anderson (2016)

Scottish Island Fiction

none

Scottish islands – or really any islands – can provide the ideal setting for a murder/mystery/thriller novel, the remoteness and inaccessibility adding excitement and uncertainty to the overall suspense.  A brilliant storm can disconnect island inhabitants from the outside world by severing communication and prohibiting sea and air travel.  The local law enforcement officials may be dealing with a crisis, but sorry, reinforcements can’t reach you.  And, of course, they’re trapped on an island with the villain.  It is really sort of ideal in a world where just about everybody has a cell phone and are therefore “connected” at all times.  In most contemporary suspense novels there is usually a point in the climax where the protagonist is trying to elude some evil doer – they look  at their phone and – “oh no, no bars” or “damn, I forgot to charge it”, –  but someday we’ll have self-charging phones and network service everywhere.  What are writers going to do then?  Islands!  Yeah, just kidding.

NONE BUT THE DEAD is set on the island of Sanday – a real island in the Scottish Orkney Islands.  This novel gives mention to many historical landmarks that actually exist on this island.  I have read many books where the author has chosen to invent an island to provide a backdrop for evil, murder, and mayhem but this one is quite authentic.  

This is the twelve book in the “Rhona Macleod forensic scientist” series and I’ll admit right now that this is the first entry I have read.  Most of the series is set in Glasgow but the team is sent to Sanday when a construction project uncovers bones.  The owner of the project is converting an old schoolhouse into a home and he also finds strange fabric flowers in the attic.  The local historian takes one look at one of the flowers and becomes extremely distressed.  Vandalism at the dig site makes it apparent that someone doesn’t want the authorities digging into the past.  The police are already overwhelmed, but then a young girl goes missing and a huge storm hits the island.

The Orkney Islands (like the Shetland Islands) are north of Scotland and have a greater Scandinavian influence than the Hebrides.  The location made Sanday a good location for a military outpost during World War ll: the remains of the outpost figure in the story.

This novel has all the elements that make Scottish Island mysteries so effective and I was not disappointed.  The characters were fine but I wasn’t enthralled enough to be tempted by previous volumes.  There was also one coincidence in this novel that I found a little farfetched, but it is an excellent mystery/thriller especially for fans of Scottish Island books.

NONE BUT THE DEAD by Lin Anderson (2016), MacMillan, 419 pages

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THE WAGES OF SIN by Kaite Welsh 2017

Historical Fiction                Mystery Fiction

wages                                                                                                                         Pulchritudinous: physically beautiful. (Merriam-Webster).  Wow! I don’t think I have ever come across this word before.  Apparently it was one of the many words that Richard Burton used to describe Elizabeth Taylor when he first met her.  It is also a word used by the heroine of this novel – in a sentence no less.  It sounds like a medical condition but it is actually derived from the Latin root word “pulcher” meaning beautiful.  My spell-check doesn’t even want to let me use it – so wow!  So I read this entire book and this is all I took away from it. No, just kidding.

This is actually a compelling, but grim,  first novel by a Scottish author named Kaite Welsh.  The narrative is  drenched in misery,  and centers on a female medical student at an Edinburgh university in 1892.  Sarah Gilchrist had been a London debutante from a wealthy family when a single night changed the course of her life.  She was raped by the son a of a Lord and the response from her family and society was to blame her entirely and to send her to a sanitorium to be treated for hysterics and melancholy.  After she was  released from the sanitorium , she was ostracized by her immediate family and forced to reside with an Aunt and Uncle in Edinburgh.

 She is one of a dozen female students admitted into medical school to the consternation of  – well – everyone.  She is determined to obtain her medical qualifications but she faces an uphill battle.  The Aunt and Uncle with whom she resides can barely hide their contempt for her unladylike obsession and she also receives opposition from the other female students.  Two nights a week she volunteers at a woman’s clinic in the poorest, and most downtrodden area of the city.  She administers to prostitutes, addicts, thieves, and runaways and begins to realize how grim life can be for a woman with few options in a male dominated world.  She has her “aha” moment when she realizes that their crummy life is worse than her crummy life. Eventually she discovers one of the prostitutes she had treated at the clinic, on the slab in her dissection class and she is sure the young lass has been murdered.  Sarah yearns to unravel the mystery surrounding this girl but she is hampered by restrictions too numerous to count until she finds an unlikely ally.

The author very successfully captures a sense of powerlessness  that would have defined a woman’s life in Scotland one-hundred and twenty-five years ago. The restrictive nature of women’s lives  comes through loud and (painfully) clear.  There are places in the world today where women live under conditions this prohibitive – or worse.  It is heartbreaking but it is something worth taking away from this novel – something to think about.

The Wages of Sin …by Kaite Welsh (2017) Pegasus Books 287 pages

 

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THE SINGING SANDS by Josephine Tey (1952)

Scottish Island Fiction     Mystery Fiction

singing sands

This is Josephine Tey’s last novel, discovered in her papers after her death, and published posthumously.  She is probably better know for her 1951 novel THE DAUGHTER OF TIME, a  book that has graced a number of top ten mystery novel lists in the past sixty-five years not to mention some required reading lists for college courses (a friend of mine took such a course).  I read that novel over thirty years ago and, although I don’t agree with all the conclusions set forth in that book, I think it did open my eyes to the way history is recorded.

 But back to THE SINGING SANDS.  This is the oldest book I’ve included in my “Scottish Island” series but I think it has a lot to offer to anyone who enjoys reading novels about Scottish Islands.  Only part of the book takes place on the fictional island of Cladda but the character has  lots to say about the effects of visiting the Island.  

The novel opens with Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard enduring the overnight train ride to the Scottish Highlands.  I say “enduring” because Inspector Grant is suffering from  nervous disorders, including claustrophobia, and the small, enclosed sleeper car is agonizing for him.  He departs from the train, after a sleepless night, only to catch the porter trying to wake another passenger;  it’s not going to happen – the man is dead.  Later Grant realizes that he has somehow obtained a newspaper belonging to the dead man and it has a wee poem scribbled in the margins. The poem intrigues him  – so much so that he begins to obsess about it when he is supposed to be enjoying rest and relaxation with his cousin’s family.  The poem leads him im many directions as he tries to discover more about the dead man on the train.

The mystery is intriguing but there are other angles of this book that are also interesting.  Mental health issues are served up 1951 style.  He is on sabatical on the orders of his physician yet it is actually painful when he berates himself for being so “weak.”  His boss is not a supportive man but fortunately his family are quite supportive.

He spends some time on a Scottish Island and fans of these islands will enjoy his reaction to his temporary residence. That’s all I will say.

An excellent novel- even after 65 years.

The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey, 1952, Random House, 246 pages

Post Script

I need to quickly add something because I forgot to include Inspector Grant’s theory on vanity;  “Vanity.  The first requisite in wrong doing.  The constant factor in the criminal mind.” p. 195

“When you say vanity, you are thinking of the kind that admires itself in mirrors and buys things to deck itself out in.  But that is merely personal conceit.  Real vanity is quite different.  A matter not of person but of personality.  Vanity says “I must have this because I am me”.  It is a frightening thing because it is incurable.  You can never convince Vanity that anyone else is of the slightest importance; he just doesn’t understand what you are talking about.  He will kill a person rather than be put to the inconvenience of doing a six months’ stretch”. p.200

Vanity – an interesting perspective.

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MAGPIE MURDERS by Anthony Horowitz (2016)

m murders

Mystery Fiction

“As far as I’m concerned, you can’t beat a good whodunnit: the twists and turns, the clues and the red herrings, and then, finally, the satisfaction of having everything explained to you in a way that makes you kick yourself because you hadn’t seen it from the start.” page 4

This is the quintessential quote about whodunnits and it expresses exactly how I feel.  They’re not just about reading; they’re a game, a puzzle, an experience. My adoration of whodunnits directed me to this novel because it promises, not one, but two whodunnits in a single book.  What could be better than that!  There has been a lot of buzz around this novel and it even made the list as one of Oprah’s favourites of the year.  That said, I typically don’t write about such “High profile” books, mostly because there are about a gazillion reviews out there already – do we really need another? No, yet here I go.

I’ll start by saying that I’ve never read an ANTHONY HOROWITZ book in my life until now,  but I am still a big fan of his.  But, how can that be?  Well, this talented man has written and/or created some of my favourite tv shows of all time. He wrote many of the scripts for the first year of “Poirot”, “Midsomer Murders” and “Foyles War.”  I am a Canadian but I  subscribe to a special channel so I can receive these  programs.  And isn’t it nice to watch a show where every single character does not look like a Barbie or a Ken Doll – yeah I’m talking about you American tv.  When you read this book you will notice that these shows are mentioned often.  The title of the book (within the book) is MAGPIE MURDERS but the publisher complains that it sounds too much like MIDSOMER MURDERS.  The novel even contains guest stars (yeah guest stars just like tv)  with Agatha Christie’s grandson making an appearance in a couple of the chapters.

The novel begins with Susan Ryeland, the editor of a small but successful publishing house, getting cozy with the intention of reading the first transcript of a novel from her most successful writer.  Then we are introduced to the novel – Magpie Murders – and the reader is transported to an English Village circa 1955, and an eccentric detective named Atticus Pünd.  This is classic English village mystery literature.  Just as the detective is about to gather his suspects and announce the murderer – the novel ends because the last chapters are missing.  And…the  second mystery begins.

This is certainly an homage to Dame Christie and the other writers of the golden age of mysteries.  A modern whodunnit in the old style – you know – no tracking people with cell phones or catching the murderer on cctv.  All the clues are there so just get comfortable and enjoy the experience- it really is a fun book.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, 2016, HarperCollins Publishers, 236 pages

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THE SECOND MRS. HOCKADAY by Susan Rivers (2017)

s

Historical Fiction

Mrs. Placidia Hockaday is barely a teenager when she comes to live with her new husband, Major Gryffith Hockaday, on his farm in rural South Carolina.  They spend two days and two nights together until the Major receives the news that he must immediately return to his regiment.  The American Civil war has already been raging for around two years when the Major leaves his inexperienced young bride in charge of his 300 acre farm, his young son, and the few slaves and workers still attached to the farm.  Two years later he returns.  The gossip mongers are anxious to share some news with him; during his absence his young wife conceived and bore a child.  Yet there is no evidence of a baby and she is unwilling to share any information with her husband or the authorities.

This novel is told through a series of letters, journal entries, and legal documents and the narrative that emerges is a harrowing tale of abuse, deprivation, loss and even some heroics.  The truth is unveiled  to the reader slowly until the full story is exposed – with its many tragedies and a few triumphs.  This book would never be classified as “a mystery”,  yet there is a profound mystery at its core that must be unravelled by the reader.

This novel highlights the strength of one woman, forced  to overcome an almost impossible situation.  It also broached the topic of future generations and how they are affected by the circumstances of a war.  I think an interesting thing about this novel for me was how I actually changed my mind about certain characters as the novel progressed.

The epistolary novel was common until the beginning of the 20th century but there has been a resurgence in its popularity.  Some novels that come to mind –

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer (2008)

Letters From Skye by Jesssica Brockmole (2013)

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet (2015)

The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers Algonquin Books (2017)

 

 

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THE CHALK PIT … by Elly Griffiths (2017)

Dr. Ruththe chalk pit Galloway Mystery  #9

 

 

 

This is the ninth entry in the Dr. Ruth Galloway mysteries and it is an impressive and multifaceted novel.   We were introduced to Ruth, a forensic archeologist, in THE CROSSING PLACES (2009) where she helped the police solve a very perplexing case involving a missing child.  Many of the characters, from that first entry, are still a part of Ruth’s world.  As an expert on bones, she is frequently asked to assist the police and she often works with DCI Harry Nelson.  They have a complicated relationship – — COMPLICATED!

When bones are found in an underground work site, Ruth is enlisted to determine their age.  She is horrified to report that the bones look as if they have been boiled  and they appear to be modern.  The investigation reveals a network of tunnels under the town – perhaps the remnants of old chalk mines.

At the same time, the police have a missing persons case involving a homeless lady but few people take notice until a new case develops where a middle class mother disappears after her school run.  Suddenly it’s big news.  The themes of underground societies and the plight of the homeless are consistent throughout the novel.

Ruth has some personal issues as well but I won’t discuss them here because it would be a spoiler for readers who want to start the series at book 1 (Crossing Places).  I always like to read a series in order, but of course , that is a personal choice.  The novel ends with some startling information about one of the characters.

THE CHALK PIT by Elly Griffiths (2017) Houghton Mifflin Harcourt  358 pages

Elly Griffiths has a second series known as the Stephens and Mephesto Mysteries.  The third book is available in the U.K. but here (in Canada) we have to wait until September.

 

 

 

 

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June 5, 2017 · 1:35 pm

IN FARLEIGH FIELD … by Rhys Bowen (2017)

in farleigh field     Mystery Fiction                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   I have been a Rhys Bowen fan for years and I  await each installment of her two current series with eager anticipation.  The “Molly Murphy” mysteries feature a capable and enterprising young woman – an Irish immigrant with an unfortunate past – rebuilding her  life in early twentieth century New York City.  There have been 16 installments in this series, with a new adventure available later this year.  It is always nice to have something to anticipate.

 The “Royal Spyness” mysteries  are set in England between the wars, and feature a young lady who is 35th in line to the throne.  Lady Georgiana  is dirt poor but rich with connections and usually finds herself performing some favour or another to stay in the good graces of her royal family.  In the background, her cousin Edward is courting a certain Mrs. Simpson.  There are nine books and counting in this more lighthearted series.

As soon as I heard that Rhys Bowen had a new novel coming out I knew I had to read it.   I am happy to report that I was not disappointed.  This is a World War ll era novel with great characters (and in my opinion Rhys Bowen writes great characters)

 Farleigh Place is the stately English manor of Lord Westerham, his wife, and five daughters.  England is at war with Germany and half the estate has been commandeered by the British army; meanwhile the family learns to live in more reduced circumstances.  Middle daughter Pamela has a position at Bletchley Park, although her family thinks she is doing secretarial work.  Another daughter, Margot, is living in Paris and refusing to return home to England.  Ben is the son of the village vicar, and Pamela’s childhood friend.  (of course he is secretly in love with her)  A recent accident has kept him from enlisting but he does undercover work for the government and receives a lot of flack for not doing his part.  Another childhood friend – dashing flying ace Jeremy Prescott- has joined the RAF.

One day, as youngest daughter Phoebe is crossing the estate on her pony, she comes across a battered body in soldier’s clothing.  He has fallen from the sky due to a failed parachute.  This sets off  an inquiry with lots of  questions and Ben is tasked with discretely finding some answers.

 Each daughter has her own story.  This is where I always admire Rhys Bowen; I think she is great at writing characters that the reader can care about.  And she excels at writing women with good minds and strong personalities.  This novel has been promoted as a “stand alone” but I , for one, would love to see it become a series.  I feel the author has only scratched to surface with these characters.

IN FARLEIGH FIELD is a novel about WW ll with great characters and an exciting plot;  espionage, secrets and alliances of all kind are all explored in this excellent book.

The reader may want to read THE REMAINS OF THE DAY by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989) as a companion book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE LONG AND FARAWAY GONE by Lou Berney (2015)

the long and faraway gone

Crime Fiction

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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