Tag Archives: family secrets

Time Travel Mysteries

The Secret Keeper: A Novel by Kate Morton (Atria Books, $26.99, 496 pages)

Every family has a secret or two.   It might be an escapade by great-aunt Sally that nobody wants to acknowledge for fear of losing social standing in the community.   On the other hand, it might be a secret so huge and shocking that it lays buried in the subconscious of the only witness to the event.

Author Kate Morton makes good use of poetic illusions and warped time as she slowly peels back the layers of a family history with Laurel Nicolson (a renowned actress), Vivien Jenkins (a lovely and wealthy socialite), and Dorothy Nicholson (the mother of Laurel, her sisters and her brother) at its center.   The tale switches back and forth between time periods, mostly World War II and 2011.   Although the reader is provided with ample notice of the time switches, there exists a vague sense of unease and confusion conveyed by Laurel and her sisters.

Perhaps the fact that this is a story with action locales in the English countryside and sea-shore, London, as well as a flashback to Australia adds to the sense of wondering and aimlessness felt by this reviewer.   The descriptions of the devastation wrought by the London bombings are no doubt accurate and they are terrifying.   Also, there were times when a look back at prior chapters was necessary to clarify character names and roles.   This mild discomfort was well worth enduring for the remarkable payoff Ms. Morton reveals at the conclusion of her saga.

Well recommended.

Far North: A Magnus Jonson Mystery by Michael Ridpath (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 384 pages)

Get ready for a strange adventure when you read Far North.   By strange I mean out of the ordinary in terms of setting and vocabulary.   The setting is Iceland and the time is post-2007 economic crash that basically ruined the economy of the country.   While the rampant cheating and leveraging engaged in by business and banking moguls all over the world caused great harm, it was devastating for this cold and wind-swept country of less than half a million residents.

Basically, the tale is an English style detective story displaced to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.   As such the reader is treated to a nice travelogue with multi-generational murders and Nordic style myths and sagas.   Time switches among several periods beginning with August 1934 and progresses in odd intervals toward the fall of 2009.   Main character/protagonist Magnus Jonson is a detective of Icelandic background whose home is Boston, Massachusetts.   Magnus is hiding from gangsters he has fingered in Boston as he attends the police academy in Iceland.

Conveniently, Magnus is the sort of detective that can’t help detecting, even when the case may not be his own assignment.   Along the way he coordinates with other detectives to make sense of revelations he has made.   Childhood traumas have a way of insidiously seeping into the actions of damaged adults.   That lesson is hammered home throughout the gripping tale.

Note to potential readers:  The complex naming system for people in Iceland may be confusing and the pronunciation of geographic names may be daunting.   Don’t let that get between you and an exhilarating chase to the end.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of The Secret Keeper: A Novel by Kate Morton, and more.

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10 Questions

This is the continuation of our interview with Nora McFarland, author of A Bad Day’s Work: A Lilly Hawkins Mystery.

6.  Ruta Arellano (RA):  The ending of Going to the Bad left Lilly in a state of closure with regard to family secrets.   Will there be future books featuring Lilly Hawkins, Rod and her newly-discovered cousin Jack?

There’s at least one more book I want very much to write.   Lilly needed to come to terms with some of her family baggage in order to move forward in her personal life.   Now that she’s done that, there’s a very important day in her future that I’d love to center a book around.   I won’t get into specifics, but that day is set up at the end of Going to the Bad.

7.  RA:  There are notable class distinctions among the various families whose lives and pasts intersect for Lilly in Going to the Bad.   Are they indicative of your take on Bakersfield?   Does the somewhat isolated location of Bakersfield foster those distinctions?

I believe those kinds of class distinctions exist everywhere in our society, but it’s true that things have gotten much worse in Bakersfield over the last five years.   California’s Central Valley has been especially hard hit by the recession and housing crisis.   Double digit unemployment is the norm there and in some cities it reaches as high as thirty percent.   The real estate market was insanely inflated so the correction has been very painful.   Almost everyone I know there has suffered in some way.   Several of my friends lost their homes and jobs.

8.  RA:  The dedication of the KJAY news team to cover events as they unfold is pronounced in Going to the Bad.   Is this because one of their own is at the center of the story?

It’s always difficult when someone who works in news becomes a part of the story.   I like to believe that the KJAY news team would be just as dedicated, regardless of Lilly’s connection.   Where the real difference lies is in the rules Lilly breaks in her pursuit of the truth.   She trespasses, steals, and lies in order to discover who shot her uncle.   No decent journalist would ever do anything like that.   It would be unethical and could even give those that the journalist is trying to expose a weapon to discredit the investigation.

9.  RA:  Lilly has size 10 feet.   Why have you provided her with them?   Is this a metaphor for her earthy, grounded attitude?

I originally intended it as a quirky character trait, but in later drafts of the first book I began to think of it as a metaphor for Lilly’s awkward social skills.   At one point Uncle Bud looks down at her big feet and says that the family always hoped she’d grow into them, but it doesn’t look like she did.

In later books, as Lilly matured, I started to see her big feet as an asset.   She can kick in doors and be tougher because she’s got these giant boots.   It you want to take the metaphor a step further you could say that she’s taken what was once a weakness and made herself stronger.

10.  RA:  On a personal note – Did you encounter Chris Curle at CNN, who has a personality that’s bigger than life?

I didn’t, but my husband Jeff Ofgang did.   He worked with Chris and her husband Don Farmer back when CNN was in its old building on Techwood Avenue.

Thank you to author Nora McFarland!   You can see the first part of this interview here:

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/the-authors-perspective-5/

Joseph Arellano

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Building a Mystery

The Swimming Pool by Holly LeCraw (Anchor; $15.00; 320 pages)

“I will never get enough of you.   I will never have enough.   I will never have enough.”

Author Holly LeCraw has produced something quite distinctive in this, her debut, a male romance novel.   It’s a romance novel, told from a male’s perspective (and from the perspective of the woman he pursues), about a young man who wants something he cannot have – his late father’s mistress.

Jed McClatchy leaves his big city job to join his harried married sister Callie in Cape Cod.   There he happens to encounter one Marcella di Pavarese Atkinson, who seven years earlier had an affair with Jed’s dad.   As a teenager, Jed was attracted to Marcella from the moment he spotted her in a sexy swim suit at an adult pool party.   Now he finds the very same swim suit stored in the attic of his late parents’ home.

Jed is attracted to Marcella physically, while emotionally and psychologically he’s tied to her in a desperate search for answers…  It seems that after Jed’s father, Cecil, promised Marcella that he would leave his wife Betsy for her, Betsy was found brutally murdered.   And then soon after Cecil died under mysterious circumstances.   Was Marcella involved in these events?   If not, what exactly did she know about this cataclysmic time?

“He was furious, again, that he could not stop wanting her.”

Subconsciously, Jed must wonder (as does the reader) whether he wants Marcella because she’s the one thing his very important father was never allowed to possess; or perhaps it is because she was the dangerous woman who was involved in eliminating her only competition, Jed’s straight-laced mother.   At any rate, this is a very powerful story of obsession – a young man’s obsession with love, lust and the need to solve a family mystery.

“Marcella was trying hard not to tell him that she felt the cooling late-summer days ticking by like she was a condemned woman.   Every night she could physically feel that the sun was setting earlier, the world darkening in response to their looming separateness.   She was having trouble sleeping.   Her life was broken and she did not know how to fix it.”

LeCraw has a fine, calm and sophisticated style that becomes more engaging the farther one is into the telling.   If there’s a weakness here, it’s that making one’s way through the slow opening pages takes a bit of persistence.   (I put the book down after a few dozen pages, but I came to feel well-rewarded once I resumed the read.)   LeCraw’s strength is that the sexual scenes strike just the right balance – they do not simply drop down from the sky, nor are they included for mere titillation.

It’s a bit disorienting to find a debut novel that is truly one of a kind (sui generis) in tone and nature, but this is precisely what LeCraw has delivered here.   Let’s hope for more to come.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. The Swimming Pool will be released in a trade paperback version on April 19, 2011.   “A fearless novel full of fresh insights and casually elegant writing…”   Atlanta Magazine


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Over Under Sideways Down

Fragile: A Novel by Lisa Unger (Shaye Areheart Books, August 2010)

“The sins of a family always fall on the daughter.”   P.F. Sloan

“She already knew the hard edges of the world, knew that life disappointed and that most people’s dreams never did come true.”   Lisa Unger

This one is a stunner.   In Fragile, author Lisa Unger tells the story of four fragile lives that are joined together by events separated by twenty years.   Unger’s genius is in plotting the story so that the reader never knows what’s coming next.

The story starts with a look-in at what appears to be a crime being committed, although the facts are not clear.   What is clear is that a young woman, Charlene, has gone missing.   She intended to run away from her sleepy community, The Hollows, in New York State in order to make music in Manhattan.   But she’s suddenly fallen off the face of the earth.

The residents of The Hollows, including the young woman’s mother and her boyfriend Ricky’s parents, are forced to revisit their memories of a high school girl named Sarah who disappeared two decades earlier.   She was found dead, mutilated; a crime to which a male classmate confessed.   But the young man who said he killed her was troubled and perhaps mentally unstable.   He went on to spend years in state prison, before he died by his own hand.

With this background we fear that Charlene has been abducted or murdered by the evil force or forces that killed Sarah.   Charlene’s mother was a classmate of Sarah’s, as was Ricky’s mother, Maggie, and his police detective father.   These adults are all keeping secrets about their lives both now and at the time that Sarah was killed.

Others in the community also know things about the events surrounding the past crime, but they’re not talking.   The residents of The Hollows become frozen with the fear that they are reliving a nightmare and decide to hide rather than speak.   With little information to go on, the local police force begins to suspect Ricky’s involvement in Charlene’s disappearance.   Charlene did, after all, stand him up on the night she left home and had informed her friends about another boyfriend in New York City.

As the tale proceeds, we see that there are no perfect families in The Hollows.   The parents criticize their children for doing the very things they did when they were young, and this simply piques the desire of the young to escape as soon as they can.   The current mystery, the apparent crime that surrounds the disappearance of Charlene, will only be solved by confessions.   Because there may very well be links between what may have happened to Charlene and what happened “twenty years time ago” to Sarah.

“As  she told them all about her buried memory, she felt an awe at how all their separate lives were twisted and tangled, growing over and around one another…  And how the connections between them were as terribly fragile as they were indelible.”

There will be no hints here – no spoiler alerts needed – as to the fates of Charlene and Ricky, except to note that Unger convinces us that everything in life is so well-connected (if hardly explainable).   The past is, indeed, prelude.   This is a read that will stay with you.

Unique, stunning.   Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Fragile was released on August 3, 2010.

 

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To the Manor Worn

Grace Under Pressure by Julie Hyzy (Berkley Prime Crime Mystery)

Veteran mystery writer Julie Hyzy moves to a new locale with this her first book in a new series titled Manor House Mysteries.   The setting for these tales is Marshfield Manor.   This stately southern home is more than just the setting for a mystery, it is a character in itself.   It is the centerpiece of a somewhat down-at-the-heels southern estate owned by the elderly billionaire, Bennett Marshfield.   The home is a mystery reader’s delight with a hidden staircase and a secret room.   The estate also includes a hotel, tea room and abundant grounds.   They, too, play parts in the story.

Grace Wheaton, the new assistant curator whose dream it has been to be part of Marshfield Manor, has been a visitor to the mansion since her childhood.   Little  did she think that being a curator would entail murder, extortion and secrets from her own family’s past.   The staff at Marshfield includes a highly opinionated, though thoroughly capable executive assistant named Frances and an earnest, well-trained head of security named Terrence Carr.

When the elderly head curator is brutally murdered, a series of demand letters for money comes to light.   Grace must prove herself trustworthy to Bennett Marshfield if she is to become the next head curator.   The story is quite engaging if not quite intellectually challenging.   Rather than a romance-based mystery, this is the story of several generations whose ability to trust each other comes into question.  

Author Hyzy provides a classic summer vacation read in Grace Under Pressure.   It is a perfect in flight read.   Recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A copy of this book was provided by the publisher, and the cover of this book is exemplary!

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