THE PLEASURES OF REVISITING AN OLD FRIEND: SKINNY DIP

One of the great pleasures in a reader’s life is rediscovering an old favorite, especially if it’s a book you haven’t read in a number of years.  If it’s been long enough, you can even reread a mystery and not remember all the plot details so you can encounter them anew (there are some mysteries that I am sure I would never remember all the plot details even if I just read them yesterday, such as The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle).  There are books I know I read and loved even if I don’t remember much about them, and while sometimes it’s risky to recommend something you don’t remember all that well, in the case of Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip, which I persuaded the Field Notes Book Group to read for September, I felt reasonably confident.

Rereading it has been one of those absolute pleasures.  I remembered the inciting incident of the plot, that this woman’s husband pushed her off a cruise ship, intending her to die, but she survived by grabbing hold of a marijuana bale and made it to shore.  There, I remembered, she decided she was going to mess with her husband’s head by haunting his home and his new girlfriend.

All of this was in fact part of the book, so I was remembering that part accurately. I also had a dim memory that it was a really funny, if warped book, and, having just reread it, I can attest that that, too, was accurate.

There was just so much I’d forgotten.  With Hiaasen at his best, the plot is a twisted coil, with several things going on at the same time, and all the characters a little off plumb.  There’s something Wodehousian about his use of coincidence and his interlacing of characters with very different agendas, and I mean that as a high compliment.

Here you have Joey, an heiress and a former champion swimmer, married to a total scumbag, Chaz.  They’ve been married two years, and Joey hasn’t figured out where Chaz makes his money, but trust me, it’s through some slimy fraudulent dealings with people who should not be messed around with.  Chaz, believing Joey’s caught on to what he’s actually doing, decides to kill her and pretend she committed suicide, forgetting Joey’s swimming talents, which save her life.

Joey is rescued by a classic Hiaasen character, Mick Stranahan, a former cop who’s been retired kind of against his wishes and who is now more or less a hermit, but still willing to help out a lady in distress and mess with someone as obnoxious as Chaz.  There’s also a quirky police officer investigating Joey’s disappearance (quirky in his choice of reptilian pets, at the least, and there’s a whole subplot about his snakes) who doesn’t think much of Chaz’ changing story.  Chaz has a girlfriend, Ricca, who he was seeing while he was still married to Joey, and his relationship with Ricca starts to go sideways after the “murder.”  Not to mention Red Hammernut (Dickensian character names, you’ll notice), the big bad guy, rich industrialist who’s poisoning the Everglades and using Chaz to cover his tracks.  And when Chaz seems to be losing it (thanks to Joey and her shenanigans), Hammernut calls on his extremely quirky muscle, Tool, to babysit the rapidly deteriorating Chaz.  

These are all great characters, not a stereotype in the bunch, made delightfully odd by their personalities and their quirks, and their interplay is both surprising and inevitable based on who they are and what they’ve already done.  

There is violence in this book (Tool is good at his job), but for the most part it’s so over the top you can’t really be freaked out by it.  There are points where you are sure that even Hiaasen can’t possibly make all this work out right, but he does.  Justice is served (if in a warped fashion), people get what they deserve, and the ending is quite satisfying.

If I’d been afraid I would be disappointed on revisiting this book, I’m delighted to report that wasn’t the case.  If you haven’t made Hiaasen’s acquaintance before, this is a great book to introduce you to his work.  I’m looking forward to discussing his humor, his characters and his plotting with the folks in the Field Notes Book Group, and wish you the pleasure of diving into Skinny Dip yourself.

THE PEOPLE YOU DON’T SEE: THE MAID

The Maid, by Nita Prose, is a different sort of mystery.  It’s not a procedural, because the main character isn’t in law enforcement but is a maid in a hotel where a murder takes place.  But it’s not a cozy, either, despite our protagonist’s humble job, because it’s darker than that.  It’s not the kind of mystery where you’re given the clues and have to work out the answer before the protagonists do (though you are given a number of clues and hints, there are things you don’t know and can’t guess because we’re seeing through the eyes of a character who doesn’t always observe things and usually can’t interpret the things she does observe).  It is, however, a satisfying mystery novel because you care about the main character and because the plot, with one or two small questionable points, is engrossing and keeps you guessing.

Molly Gray, our protagonist, is a young, neuro-atypical woman who works as a maid in a fancy hotel.  She loves her job, and she’s good at it.  Nothing makes her happier than restoring a room to a state of perfect cleanliness.  She doesn’t complain about the state of the rooms she’s left to work on, she doesn’t complain (though she does notice) when other staff people laugh at her or call her a Roomba or a weirdo, or when the guests don’t notice her existence. She doesn’t have a sense that her job is low in status or that she should aspire to something better.  Her beloved grandmother, who raised her and who has died in the last few months, was a maid herself and instilled her simple values in Molly.

Molly is our narrator, so while we see what she sees, we can also see or guess at what those things mean, drawing different conclusions than she does.  Molly is frankly very naive when it comes to men, and there are a couple of occasions in the book where she interprets men’s behavior toward her as more affectionate and genuine than the men intend, and you cringe for her and hope she won’t get crushed when reality sets in (in one of those instances, a man takes advantage of her naivete and basically robs her).  She’s too willing to trust people in general, and that proves to be a problem.

When she discovers the dead body of a wealthy and important guest in his bed in the hotel, her life becomes complicated in the extreme.  Her friendship with the second wife of the deceased puts her in a dangerous position as the police naturally assume Giselle, the wife, had something to do with the man’s death.  The man in question seems to have been a real jerk, as far as Molly’s concerned, but of course she wants to do the right thing, as she understands the right thing.

She innocently tries to cooperate with the police and also protect her friends, or the people she believes to be her friends, but she goes from being a simple witness to a person of interest in the investigation, and even a suspect in the man’s murder.

The author does a great balancing job, staying entirely within Molly’s limited point of view but nonetheless giving us enough details that we can go beyond Molly’s conclusions and make our own guesses about what’s really going on.  She makes us care about Molly and makes her more than just her atypicality; we always realize that Molly has difficulties understanding and interpreting other people’s behavior, but we never feel pity for her or feel that she’s inadequate as a person or that she’s a symbol of what people on the spectrum are like.   

There are one or two spots in the story where I had to lean back and say, “Really?”  The police response, for instance, is almost stereotypical: it seems a mighty big jump to assume that Molly, of all people, was involved in a drug ring and murdered the VIP as a result of that, and Molly’s arrest struck me as the trope where the protagonist is hassled by the authorities to show how good and innocent the protagonist is (a trope I could do without, frankly).  Some of the characters are a little over the top, and not just because Molly sees them as “bad eggs,” but fortunately most of the important characters are more nuanced, and for the most part the plot works, keeps your interest and solves the actual murder in a way that makes sense and feels right, given everything we know about the characters.

It’s a quick read, and you find yourself rooting for Molly, hoping for her happy ending in a world that appreciates her.

OCTOGENARIAN WITCHES: THE WITCHES OF MOONSHYNE MANOR

While there’s a genre of fantasy/magic realism that involves modern day witches living and making magic in our world, they tend to focus on young women who are discovering their magic or dealing with romantic or other complications to their magic.  This is why I was so delighted to discover The Witches of Moonshyne Manor, by Bianca Marais: the main characters are six senior citizen witches.  In fact, they’re almost all in their 80’s.  It’s such a pleasure to read a book in which older people are not treated as if they’re tottering on the edge of the grave, but are having adventures of their own, getting into and out of danger, and living full and interesting lives.  These witches are well aware of their age: they suffer from aches and pains, from memory issues, from arthritis and other age-related issues.  However, they relish their years of experience and wisdom, and fight for their home and their sisterhood despite their flaws.  I want to grow up to be like these witches, and after you read this, you might very well feel the same.

One of the pleasures of the book (and there are many) is the breadth of the characters.  Yes, they’re all witches, they’ve all lived together (more or less) for decades, and most of them are around the same age.  However, their magic differs, their particular personalities are very different, and their approaches to their problems are widely different as well.  From Jezebel, whose magic is sexual attraction, to Ursula, whose power is precognition, to Queenie, who makes machinery of various sorts, to Ivy, whose connection is to plants, to Tabitha, who communicates through a raven named Widget, to Ruby, the missing and soon to be returning witch, each character is vivid in her loves and quirks and approaches to life, though they are all united in their connection to each other and to the house that has been their home for decades.

We also have Persephone, a young woman with a pet dog (named Ruth Bader Ginsburg), who wants to join the witches and help them (and be helped by them), bringing her magic tricks and her vast knowledge of social media (especially TikTok) to bear.  Persephone is not one of those too-good-to-be-true young people, who knows everything the older people need to know, nor is she just a placeholder to allow the witches (especially Queenie) to explain what’s going on (though she does serve that purpose, too).  She has an arc of her own, and plays a significant part in the resolution of the plot.

Ah, yes, the plot: the witches have a mortgage on their old and wonderful home, which has fallen into arrears.  The local men are working together to foreclose on the mortgage, destroy the house and replace it with a sort of amusement park called Men’s World. Queenie has made a deal to get the money from Charon, a very dangerous wizard, in exchange for a magical relic the group stole many years ago.  Only one small problem: none of the witches living in the house knows where the relic was hidden.  The one witch who did know, Ruby, is due to return to the household soon, before the date Charon comes to collect and before the final due date of the mortgage, but time is short, and everyone’s worried about how Ruby, who’s been gone for a long time and hasn’t been in contact with any of them in the interval, is going to react.

There’s a lot of backstory, but the author reveals it brilliantly, giving us just enough information at any time to keep us interested, but not dumping all of it at any point.  You’re always curious about what happened in the past, how these women got to this point, but you’re also always confident the author will give you what you need. There are twists and turns of the plot, but they work, and don’t come across as the author’s throwing in a twist just to show off.

It’s a fun read with wonderful characters, a well-constructed plot, and a very satisfying ending.  Read it for the fun of seeing older women depicted in all their complications and glories, magic or not.

WOMEN IN GREEK MYTHOLOGY, SEEN ANEW: PANDORA’S JAR

It should be no surprise to anyone that Natalie Haynes is really sharp when it comes to Greek mythology and especially the role of women in Greek mythology.  If you’ve read A Thousand Ships, her story of the aftermath of the Trojan War (and this month’s Field Notes Book Club selection), you know how good she is, how careful she is to take the stories we know and look behind them and past them to see the characters and the events in a unique way.  So it’s not a shock that her nonfiction book, Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths, is so detailed, so fascinating and so well-written.  What is surprising is how much she manages to tease out of the oldest sources of these stories, and how her insights turn the stories around.

You don’t have to be an expert in mythology to recognize some of the characters here.  Has anyone not heard about Pandora’s box, or used that as a shorthand for something that turns out to be much more horrible than you thought before you opened it?  Or Helen of Troy, the “face that launched a thousand ships,” to quote Marlowe – you don’t have to know much about The Iliad to know that Helen was the most beautiful woman in the world and her leaving her husband with a Trojan prince was the cause of the Trojan War.  And Medusa, the lady with snakes for hair who turns people into stone, is another of those characters everybody has some familiarity with, even if they don’t know her story (and if you’ve seen either version of Clash of the Titans, you’ve seen her, not to mention her having a brief appearance in the Percy Jackson series).  

But even if you’re quite familiar with the stories (as I consider myself to be, having read D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths when I was a kid, and having read any number of books of mythology since), Haynes can surprise you into looking at the assumptions built into the stories of the women in the myths.  Too often the versions of the stories which have come down to us through the centuries have been filtered through frankly misogynistic lenses, making Pandora, for instance, into the villain of the piece instead of an instrument of the gods who might not even have been the one who opened the jar (not a box, probably) that let out all the evil in the world. Once you compare the story of King Midas and Medusa, you start to wonder how the supposed impiety of Midas was punished so lightly while Medusa was turned into a monster and then beheaded for the crime of being raped by Poseidon.  There’s a lot of rape in the backstories here (poor Cassandra, for instance), and the book leads you to see how the shifting of the stories of women shows us how our culture has evolved in the direction of patriarchy.  Even women who have objectively done something terrible in the myths (Jocasta, the mother of Oedipus, or Clytemnestra, who killed her husband, or Medea, who killed her husband’s new fiancee, and – what is more terrifying – her own children with her husband) come through Haynes’ analysis as much more justifiable characters, not pure evil but people placed in impossible situations who responded in very human ways.

Don’t be surprised if you find yourself looking for plays by Euripedes.  Haynes uses his plays often to show other facets of these female characters, and you’re going to want to investigate her claim that he wrote women better than most playwrights in any era.

The other thing I want to mention about this book is that Haynes, in addition to being erudite and an excellent writer, is funny.  Throughout the book, no matter how dark the things she’s discussing, she manages to find a pun or a lighthearted reference (yes, she chooses not to make the obvious “turning to stone” sexual reference in her discussion of Medusa, but she specifically TELLS us that she’s not going to do it).  At one point, talking about Agamemnon’s return home and Clytemnestra’s welcome of him, discussing Agamemnon’s apparent cluelessness, Haynes wonders if Agamemnon has ever met his wife before this event. This is unexpected if you’ve read A Thousand Ships, in which the only humor is in the letters Penelope sends to Odysseus over the course of the booi, but clearly Haynes wears her erudition lightly and doesn’t feel she has to be totally serious all the time to prove she knows her stuff.  

The book is one you can read chapter by chapter; each chapter discusses a different woman’s story.  Each chapter is entertaining and thought-provoking, and by the end of the book the accumulated information and insights give you a deep picture of the major women in Greek mythology and what they really mean to modern people.  It’s a great read, and if it sends you to the original sources, so much the better.

COMING HOME: A PRAYER FOR THE CROWN-SHY

Sometimes you just hit on the perfect book to read right now.  Becky Chambers’ new book, A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, happened to be that book for me this week, possibly this year.

It’s the sequel to A Psalm for the Wild-Built, and this is one of those sequels where you really are better off reading the books in order (and why shouldn’t you?  Neither one is very long, and both are warm and charming), so you know who Sibling Dex, the tea monk, and Mosscap, the robot, are, and why all the people they encounter react so strongly to seeing Mosscap.

Sibling Dex is a nonbinary monk, one of the most gentle characters I’ve come across in fiction in recent years.  Their job is to drive around their world in a person-propelled cart, stop in different villages and places and let people come in and drink the tea Dex makes and talk to Dex, not as a therapist, not as a confessor, but as a fellow human being who listens and cares.

Mosscap is a robot.  A long time ago, all the robots left the humans who built them and exploited them.  The robots went elsewhere and set up their own civilization and the humans learned how to live without the help of robots, which turned out to be a good thing for humans.  Mosscap reveals itself to Dex, and to the world of humans, with a seemingly simple question: what do you need?

The first book introduced the characters and the setting and started them on their way.  This book takes them into the world of Panga, where people have the opportunity to meet and interact with Mosscap and with Dex as Mosscap’s – guide? Friend? Helper?   To some people, Mosscap is a celebrity, or as close as you can get to a celebrity in this culture which doesn’t have the same mass media fixation as ours.  To some people, Mosscap is a symbol of bad times in the past which we want to forget or get over.  Those people, I hasten to add, react by ignoring Mosscap, not by taking any violent action against it (there is no violence in this book whatsoever, which is a major point in its favor).

Mosscap has a unique curiosity about the whole world of humans.  As it looks at both the natural world and the human constructions with wonder and delight, we the readers get to see the world through its eyes, as does Dex.  It is a wonderful place, a place where I, for one, would love to live, between the low technology and the social organizations (Dex’s family is intensely complicated but there’s lots of love and connection among the members).  

I don’t think there’s going to be another book in this series, because the ending of this book feels right and settled as if there’s not much more to say, but I also think if  Becky Chambers wants to write more about Dex and Mosscap, I would be delighted to pick up the next book.

If you’re in the mood for a gentle, optimistic novel about an alternate society and a world healing from the kinds of mistakes we’ve made in this one, I recommend A Psalm for the Wild-Built and A Prayer for the Crown-Shy.  You won’t regret it.

HOW TO BE MORE SANE: I DIDN’T DO THE THING TODAY

The book, I Didn’t Do the Thing Today, by Madeleine Dore, has the subtitle of Letting Go of Productivity Guilt, but really the subtitle could be along the lines of “Not Stressing Yourself to the Breaking Point.  It’s a deep, good-hearted advice book, full of thought provoking ideas that challenge our cultural focus on getting more and more done in less and less time.  Instead of providing you with life hacks that could get you through your to-do list faster, it provides you with questions about whether you really need all the things on the to-do list, and, more importantly, whether you should judge yourself on the basis of how much of that to-do list you managed to accomplish in a day or a week.  Speaking as someone whose daily journal entries tend to revolve around beating myself up for what I didn’t get done, I found this book refreshing and powerful.

It’s not a quick read (so maybe it wasn’t the best thing for me to be reading during the Adult Summer Reading Game, when the emphasis is on page count, an unanticipated issue with the game which I’ll try to fix for the next time). It’s the sort of book you read slowly and carefully, and put down frequently to contemplate the ideas that are being presented.  It’s not that the language or the thoughts are complicated or difficult to understand.  Quite the contrary; Dore writes simply and clearly and frequently quotes people she’s interviewed about these issues in an interesting way.  I found I had to read it slowly and stop frequently to think about it because I was surprisingly resistant to the ideas involved.  Think of your life as something other than a collection of achievements?  Think about time differently?  Slow down? Change expectations?  Consider limitations as a good thing rather than bad?  These are all ideas in the book, and all things that are counter-cultural in the best way.

Even if you’re not someone who reads how-to books and especially doesn’t read self-help books, you’ll probably find something to love in this one.  It’s the equivalent of having a conversation with an incredibly kind and generous friend who happens to have thought a lot about the big questions and is willing to point you in a direction you might not have considered before, without pushing you in any way.

Will reading this book change your life?  Maybe.  Dore would never make that kind of claim (she’s too modest and open minded for that), but I definitely feel I look at my life and the world around me differently as a result of reading this book, and it might do the same thing for you.  Check it out.

A SERIAL KILLER’S HAUNTED HOUSE: JUST LIKE HOME

It makes perfect sense that Sarah Gailey would follow up her brilliant book, The Echo Wife (which I not only persuaded the Field Notes Book Group to read but have pushed into the hands of lots of people as a wonderful read), with something very different.  Her newest book, Just Like Home, is every bit as enthralling and creepy (if not more creepy, at least on the surface) as The Echo Wife, but instead of taking us into a near future where cloning of humans is possible, it sets us in the present, as a young woman goes back, for the first time in years, to the family home where her mother is dying, and where her father tortured and killed several people years earlier.  

This is the kind of book where the main character, in the first chapter, can wonder about something she buried under the front steps and my first thought was that it was either a body or a body part.  It is, in fact, the kind of book that I devour like candy, and I read it in a day because I really couldn’t put it down.

Vera has a complicated relationship with her mother, who is dying from some unspecified but clearly draining disease (which looks like some kind of late stage cancer).  She also has a complicated relationship with her late father, who died of pneumonia in prison some years ago.  Her mother, who called her home, has set up her bed in what used to be the dining room, a room which seems always shrouded in a semi-darkness no matter what the light conditions outside are.  We learn right away that Vera’s mother threw her out of the house when Vera was 17 (eventually we will learn the reasons for it), and that Vera dreads her mother’s anger and hatefulness, and in the first encounter between Vera and her dying mother, the latter tells her to stop referring to her as “mother.”  Talk about unresolved issues!

Vera’s father, Francis, built the house himself, and his presence pervades it.  Vera misses him terribly, and feels guilty for having had no contact with him between his arrest and his death. Gradually, oh so gradually, we get flashbacks where we see what Vera knew about her father and when she knew it.   She is not an uncomplicated character herself (nor did I expect anything less from Gailey).

To make this sojourn more awkward still, Vera’s mother has been making ends meet by renting out the shed on the property to people who are still fascinated by what Francis did, artists and mediums and true crime savants, and the more significant parts of the house itself (the basement, for instance) are preserved as if it were a museum in which Francis’ widow just happens to live. The man living on the property now is a creepy artist, the son of an author whose True Crime book about Francis made the writer rich, made his reputation, and, in so doing, destroyed not only the Crowder family’s reputation but also any possibility that Vera Crowder could ever live a normal life. She carries a not unreasonable grudge against the father, but his artist son, James, is thoroughly hateful and creepy in his own way.

The past will not rest.  Vera starts finding bits of her father’s writings about her in unusual places, pages obviously cut from his missing journal, though James denies doing anything of the sort and Vera’s mother couldn’t physically do it.  Things move around in her room, and she hears noises that couldn’t have come from anything in the house.  Is it James or is there something worse going on?

This is a haunted house story par excellence.  The house itself is kind of strange, and Vera’s experiences are classic hauntings (with the ever present question of whether she’s hallucinating or the victim of a vicious interloper who wants the house himself lurking in the background).  Gailey builds suspense in multiple directions: what’s going on with the house?  What’s James’ real agenda?  What did Francis actually do?  Why is Vera’s mother so angry with her so often and yet occasionally tender towards her?  

But it’s more than a haunted house story (even as it ticks off all the boxes that make a great one).  The heart of the book is Vera and her relationship with her parents, especially her father. Vera’s memories give us an unusual look at a person who was, quite frankly, seriously mentally ill, but who also clearly loved her.  He’s not your typical serial killer, if there is such a thing, and Vera’s love for him and guilt about her role in his arrest have made her who she is today (that’s not necessarily a good thing).  

There’s some gore in the book, but for a novel about the daughter of a serial killer, I found it less violent and gross than most of Jo Nesbo’s works.  It’s very suspenseful and unsettling; everything makes sense in the end (a horrible kind of sense), and it’s a hell of a ride.   If you liked The Echo Wife, you’ll like this.  If you like a good haunted house story, or a good psychological thriller, you’ll like this.  If you like really well written horror, what are you waiting for?  Put this one on your To Be Read list immediately!

HYBRID WORLD: THE DAUGHTER OF DOCTOR MOREAU

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s latest book, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau, is a fascinating take on the only H.G. Wells classic novel that has never really gotten its due in popular culture (unlike, say, The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, or The Invisible Man).  By taking the basic elements of the original and moving them to the Yucatan peninsula in the late 19th century, she’s created not just a meditation on things science shouldn’t do and the line between humans and animals, but also an examination of class, colonialism and feminism.

Carlota Moreau, one of the two protagonists of the book, has grown up on her father’s isolated estate in the wilds of the Yucatan peninsula.  Her father, whom she looks up to practically as a god, is totally dedicated to his scientific research involving the creation of human-animal hybrids.  She has no other biological family, but she’s close to Lupe and Cachito, both of whom are hybrids, whom she treats as brother and sister.   She has little contact with other human beings, as her father keeps her away from society, on the grounds that she’s been very sick when she was younger and she needs to keep herself calm and unemotional or else the sickness will return.

The plot really starts when Montgomery Laughton, the other protagonist, takes a job as Doctor Moreau’s majordomo.  He’s a broken soul, a man struggling with alcoholism and depression, whose life has been pretty much a wreck.  He’s shocked at first to meet the hybrids, and he’s entranced by Carlota when he first encounters her, but over time he comes to find the world at the estate to his liking, and to treat the hybrids as normal human beings. His past romantic experiences have made him very wary of beautiful young women like Carlota, and the two of them butt heads (not literally) fairly often, without there being real antagonism between them.

Moreau’s in trouble.  Actually, he’s in debt, deeply in debt, to the Lizalde family, who are financing his experiments.  He may be focusing on pure science and the ultimate benefit to mankind of the discoveries he’s making, but the Lizaldes want him to create a race of obedient hard-working creatures who won’t give them the kind of trouble the natives do.  Hernando Lizalde thinks of the Indians, many of whom are in rebellion against the colonial powers, as little more than animals themselves, to be worked till they drop and hunted down if they try to escape.

Meanwhile, the hybrids are suffering: they weren’t built perfectly, and are in constant pain that supposedly can only be treated by the medicines only Dr. Moreau can give them. They want freedom, especially Lupe, but they’re afraid they won’t survive without the medicine, and of course Moreau doesn’t want to give that away and give up his control over the hybrids. 

When Eduardo Lizalde shows up at the estate with his cousin, and falls for Carlota, you just know there’s going to be trouble.  Not from Moreau, who hopes that his daughter’s marrying Eduardo will guarantee him funding for his work, but from Montgomery, who doesn’t like young Eduardo and especially doesn’t like his interest in Carlota, and also from Eduardo’s cousin who doesn’t like Carlota’s background and thinks she would be a terrible match for Eduardo. They discover the existence of the hybrids and are horrified by them, though Eduardo comes close to promising to give Carlota the estate if she marries him.

From the outset we know that Carlota isn’t Dr. Moreau’s legitimate daughter.  His wife died in childbirth with his first child.  She and everyone around her assume that she’s the daughter of some woman who had an affair with Moreau after his wife died, but there’s more going on than Moreau lets on.

The explosive situation, with the hybrids and Moreau’s dependence on Lizalde and the Indian rebellion in the background, does in fact explode, and both Carlota and Montgomery are tested beyond anything they ever expected.  The book has a slow, long fuse, but once it ignites, it moves fast and becomes a book you can’t put down.  You care about the characters, hybrid and human, and at a certain point you start to wonder if it’s possible for this to end well, or even on a slightly positive note (spoiler alert: it does).

A compelling read, an excellent take on an underrated classic, and the kind of book which would prompt one of our librarians (hi, Sarah) to say, “Good for her!”, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau is well worth checking out.

ALGORITHMS AND SECRETS AND AFFAIRS OF THE HEART: THE VERIFIERS

One of the pleasures of running book groups is getting to put together selections of books for the group to read for the following month.  One of the drawbacks of running book groups is that sometimes the group doesn’t pick the book you wish they would.  That happened this month: I offered the Field of Mystery Group the book The Verifiers, by Jane Pek, and they didn’t choose it.  So I ended up reading it myself, and what a fun read it was.

Start with the premise: our main character, Claudia, is working for an agency that checks out the backgrounds of people on dating services.  If you’re matched up with someone through an online service and you feel there’s something iffy about the person, you would go to this agency, the Verifiers, and they would investigate whether the person is what they pretend to be online.  Isn’t that a great premise for a mystery?  Think of all the ways in which people lie and what might be behind the deceits.

But it gets better, and part of that is because of Claudia, our protagonist.  Claudia has secrets of her own, not terrible ones, but ones that loom fairly large when she considers her family.  She’s not looking for a nice Chinese boyfriend, as her mother wants: she’s gay and she hasn’t outed herself ro her traditional (if quirky) family.  She left the corporate job her older brother got for her through his connections, and instead is working for this agency, where secrecy and confidentiality are bywords, and where she is not making the kind of money her brother hoped she would.  Her family – mother, sister and brother – is a big part of her life, whether she likes it or not, and she’s aware that she’s lying to them pretty much all the time.

Claudia has a degree in English, and she is a major fan of mysteries, especially a (fictitious) series starring one Inspector Yuan, to which she refers frequently over the course of the book. She delights in the idea that she’s following in the footsteps of this Inspector Yuan (and for the record, based on what she mentions about those books, I would absolutely read the whole series), and bases her (sometimes less than great) decisions on what he would do in the circumstances.

The plot begins when a young woman comes to the agency to find out why a particular date started ghosting her, and then asks the agency to look into the background of another person who dated her but who seemed to be hiding something.  Of course the second person IS hiding something, as Claudia quickly discovers, but the first date, the one the client never even met, is more interesting still.  Claudia is much more fascinated with this case than either of her bosses are (always a red flag), and when they discover that the client died suddenly, an apparent suicide, the bosses want to close the files, but Claudia is really hooked and, true to her deep genre knowledge, wants to find out if this was really a suicide. 

One thing leads to another, and Claudia finds herself investigating that suspicious death and some other odd things that are going on in the online dating industry, including the use of bots pretending to be potential suitors.  Despite the discouragement from her bosses, she persists in digging deeper and deeper into the question of who that client was (and of course, the client wasn’t exactly who she pretended to be), what the client was really doing, and who caused the client’s death.  All the while, Claudia is also dealing with her family’s demands on her, and the general complications of living and working in New York City.

The book is fast moving, the mystery is original, the characters are believable if slightly off, and all in all, it was great fun to read. I couldn’t put it down, and I devoutly hope that the hint at the end of the book that there might be more to come is a promise.  I’d be delighted to read more of Claudia’s exploits if they’re as entertaining as these.

Check it out if you’re in the mood for a mystery that’s not gory or excessively violent, that pulls you right in with a wonderful character with a great voice and keeps you going to the very end.

THE MURDER MYSTERY JANE AUSTEN COULD HAVE WRITTEN

I suppose nobody but the most devoted Jane Austen fan would think, “Hey, you know what would be a really good idea?  If Jane Austen turned her attention to a murder mystery, set in a big country house where only a limited number of characters could have committed the crime!”  However, obviously Claudia Gray, the author of The Murder of Mr. Wickham, is such a devoted Jane Austen fan, and the literary world wins as a result.  The book is a great fun read, especially if you are a Jane Austenite, both as a continuation of the lives of the characters in her books and even as a murder mystery.  It’s more a cozy mystery than a gory one, so if you’re one of those people who steers away from mysteries because of the gore and violence, this is a good safe read.  And if you’re at all curious about what might have happened after the happily ever afters of Austen’s books, this is the book for you. 

The setup is that Emma Knightley, formerly Emma Woodhouse (protagonist, of course, of the book Emma), sets up a house party along with her husband, inviting several couples to come and stay with them for a weekend.  The guests are not only the main characters from Austen’s other books (the Darcys, the Wentworths, the Brandons, the Bertrams) but also the offspring of those families, in the persons of Jonathan Darcy (a young man who’s probably on the autism spectrum) and Juliet Tilney, daughter of the protagonists in Northanger Abbey and a young woman with energy and imagination.  Mr. Knightley, less social than his wife, thinks it’s a bad idea from the outset, and he’s proven right when, among all the other welcome guests, an unwelcome guest shows up: Mr. Wickham.

Anyone who’s read or seen Pride and Prejudice knows what kind of a man Wickham was there: a plausible scoundrel who had no principles to speak of and who was willing to take advantage of any woman who might take his fancy.  His marriage to Lydia Bennet, Elizabeth’s youngest and flightiest sister, has not made much of an improvement on him since the end of Pride and Prejudice, and now he’s rich through his promotion of some kind of investment scheme that has drawn in and potentially ruined a number of the other guests in the house party.  If he hasn’t actually snared them in his scheme, he’s in the process of blackmailing them and taking advantage of their family members.  He is, in short, the kind of person almost everyone at the house has reason to want to see dead, but when his dead body is found, everyone is shocked and appalled, and Jonathan and Juliet, regardless of proprieties and without the consent of the adults around them, start investigating to find out who the murderer is, even if it turns out to be Elizabeth or Fitzwilliam Darcy.

As a reader of Jane Austen and a reader of mysteries, I had particular pleasure in this book.  Gray does a great job of imagining how these various characters would have continued in their lives, giving each couple a stress point and letting them respond to the unusual circumstances of this story.  The tensions between Elizabeth and Darcy, and those between Anne and Captain Wentworth, are especially well done, because those two couples seemed, at the ends of their respective books, to be the most destined for happiness, and I didn’t want to see either couple break up, no matter how serious the issues between them. 

Jonathan Darcy is well-drawn, too.  In this era, he would have been seen as “peculiar” rather than neurologically atypical, and people tend to react to him as if there’s something wrong with his quirks, which probably would have been the case (his parents’ wealth has shielded him somewhat from the effects of his behaviors), and Juliet’s first reaction to him is as reasonable as her later warming to him and seeing past his tics and oddities to his intelligence and heart.  While Gray doesn’t go as far as Austen would have in the circumstances (there’s no engagement at the end of the book), it seems pretty likely these two, who are well matched, will end up together and that hope is more than sufficient to make this a happy ending for them.

The solution to the mystery makes sense, and the author gives enough of the characters good motives and suspicious behaviors during the period when Wickham was killed that I wasn’t quite sure who could have done it, and the characters were lovable enough that I didn’t want any of them to be hanged for killing someone as odious as Wickham.  

Do you have to be a Jane Austen aficionado to enjoy this book?  No.  The characters and their current circumstances are so clearly drawn here that you can enjoy the story without having read any of the books in which they were first introduced.  Of course, it’s more fun if you do have a prior acquaintance with the characters, but it’s not necessary, and this book may spur you to read their origin stories if you haven’t.

A charming, fun read with excellent characters, a great sense of atmosphere and a mystery that has a few surprises in store: The Murder of Mr. Wickham is a great way to spend a few summer evenings.