Review: The Plague Letters by V.L. Valentine


Title: The Plague Letters

Author: V.L. Valentine

Published: 1st April 2021, Viper

Status: Read April 2021 courtesy Viper/Netgalley

+++++++

 

My Thoughts:

 

The Plague Letters is a debut historical mystery from V.L. Valentine set in 1665 as the Bubonic Plague sweeps through London.

I came perilously close to DNF-ing The Plague Letters at about the 10% mark, though I can’t really articulate why, however since I make a point of reading at least 100 pages before giving up on a book, I persevered. It’s wasn’t a decision I regretted exactly but in the end I thought the story as a whole was lacking.

The premise of the mystery is strong. Among the victims bought to Reverend Symon Patrick’s churchyard for mass burial as the Plague spreads through his parish, is a young girl whose body is marked by more than the weeping buboes characteristic of the Black Death. Fresh bruises, cuts, inked lines, and strange circular burns mar her skin, while twine is wound tightly around her wrists and ankles. The Reverend notes the horror, but it’s not until more similarly violated body’s are discovered, that something is considered seriously amiss.

Suspicion falls on the members of the Society for the Prevention and Cure of Plague with which the Reverend is associated – physician Dr Alexander Burnett, surgeon Lodowick Mincy, apothecary William Boghurst, and Valentine Greatrakes, a mystic healer. Any of the men seems capable of the crime, every one a buffoon, occasionally a source for horrifying hilarity, they are uniformly arrogant, ambitious, and essentially amoral, all of whom display the casual indifference to human life common to medical men of the 17th century, (except where it may reflect on their status within society). This, however, is where the issue lies with the plot for me, though there are at least five suspects proved capable of committing these crimes, I believe there is an absence of specific clues that suggests a single guilty party. It’s certainly possible I overlooked something, but I experienced no feeling of vindication or surprise when the guilty party was revealed, one or the other of which I personally find necessary for a mystery novel.

Sadly few of the characters did little to engage me either. Symon seems to have very little agency in the novel. He is a weak man, who spends most of his time trying to be invisible, largely ignoring the plague and his parishioners, distracted by daydreams about the attentions of a married woman. Having little inner strength or courage, Symon is easily led, which is just as well for Penelope, who has rather more than you’d expect from a 17th century, young, orphaned, homeless girl.

Penelope is really the catalyst and driving force for the development of the plot. Though she’s rather an improbable character for the times, her remarkable intelligence, determination, and bravery ensures that the dead girls aren’t ignored. She wedges herself into Symon’s life, refusing to allow him to shirk his responsibility, and relentlessly pushes for someone to be held account. With her brazen attitude and surprise gifts, I found Penelope to be the strongest and most appealing character.

Where I think the author excels in The Plague Letters is in their vivid descriptions of London under siege from the plague. The imagery is at times disturbing, though accurate, of victims tormented by the deadly progression of the disease, and the desperate acts of the medical men to stop it, of bodies piled in ‘dead carts’ chased by hungry dogs down the street, of pits dug in churchyards, tended to by young boys, filling with layers of the dead sprinkled with caustic lime as the overburdened ground begins to rise. Between each chapter a map shows the spread of the disease through the city and the mounting death toll. All of this also invites comparisons to the current pandemic, which may be uncomfortable for some.

In the end, I’m not sure the strengths and weaknesses of The Plague Letters quite balance each other out, as historical fiction I might recommend it, as a mystery I’d not, so overall sadly, somewhat disappointing.

++++++

Available from Serpent’s Tail

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Review: Other People’s Houses by Kelli Hawkins

Title: Other People’s Houses

Author: Kelli Hawkins

Published: 3rd March 2021, HarperCollins Australia

Status: Read March 2021 courtesy HarperCollins

+++++++

My Thoughts:

Imagining the life that could have been as she wanders through ‘open houses’ on Sydney’s north shore every weekend is just one of the ways Kate Webb copes with the ‘incident’. So is drinking every night until she passes out. One afternoon, as she pockets a pebble for her collection of mementos, Kate overhears the estate agent talking about an exclusive listing. Walking through the front door of the ‘Harding House’, Kate loses herself in the fantasy of living in the large, beautifully appointed mansion, and for a heart stopping moment when she spies a photograph of the family that lives in the home, she imagines their teenage son is her own, sparking an obsession that soon spirals out of control.

Kate is not a character to admire, she’s a drunk, and as such is self-serving and frequently reckless. However, it’s impossible to condemn her completely, her loss – referred to as the incident- is an unimaginable tragedy. Grief is a personal thing and while ten years mired in self-pity, anger and depression may seem excessive, when you know the full story, I dare you to judge her.

That said there is only the barest of justifications for Kate’s obsession with the Harding family – Pip, Brett and their son, Kingsley – though she is in such a state it’s not like she needs much. In theory her heart could be said to be in the right place, but her thinking is so disorganised that Kate triggers a hellish mess when she interferes. Hawkins builds the suspense as Kate blunders around, making the situation worse for herself, and the Harding’s.

To be honest I cared more about Kate’s fate than any one else’s, and it was mostly my investment in her emotional turmoil that kept me turning the pages. I didn’t find the major reveal to be a surprise, but the confrontation that followed was tense and the conclusion was satisfying.

Offering a compelling protagonist and an interesting storyline, I really enjoyed Other People’s Houses. This is a well-crafted crime fiction debut from Kelli Hawkins.

++++++

Available from HarperCollins Australia

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Review: The Silent Listener by Lyn Yeowart

 


Title: The Silent Listener

Author: Lyn Yeowart

Published: February 2021, Viking

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy PenguinRandomHouse Australia

++++++

My Thoughts:

The Silent Listener is a disquieting tale of a dysfunctional family, draped in tension and dread, from debut novelist, Lyn Yeowart.

Unfolding primarily from three perspectives over three time periods, The Silent Listener tells the story of the Henderson family. In 1943, Gwen is swept of her feet by George Henderson, who courts her with a singleminded determination. In 1960, their eleven-year-old daughter, Joy, is terrified of her father’s rages that regularly culminate in brutal beatings. In 1983, George is dying and Joy has returned to the family farm in rural Victoria with the goal of unmasking her father’s secrets.

Themes such as domestic violence, trauma, religious hypocrisy, mental illness, and poverty, makes for heartbreaking reading as George terrorises his family. Gwen’s dreams of a happy new life are quashed within days of her wedding. Her new husband’s charm is reserved for the townspeople who consider him an upright pillar of the community, ignoring the thick foundation Gwen applies to her face, arms and legs. Their children cower under their father’s control, their innocence slowly stripped with every brutal strike of the belt that leaves their bodies, and minds, bleeding and scarred.

Yeowart’s characters, both major and minor, are carefully crafted, though it is Joy who is the most compelling. Joy is a sensitive child, who seeks solace in God as she is instructed to, in her sister, Ruth, and words. A synesthete, words conjure vivid images for Joy, offering her an escape of sorts from the reality of her daily drudgery. It’s the disappearance of a young neighbour, nine-year-old Wendy Bascombe, and her older brother, Mark, that finally strips Joy completely of her innocence, and she finds secret ways to rebel.

With Joy’s return to Blackhunt, and George’s passing soon after, Yeowart creates another mystery that gives rise to some surprising twists and a shocking, pitiless conclusion. I’m not sure how I feel about the ending still, while it absolutely fits with the story, it’s sad and dispiriting.

Skilfully plotted, with vivid characters, and evocative writing, The Silent Listener is poignant, confronting, and gripping.

++++++

Available from PenguinRandomHouse Australia

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Review: The Second Son by Loraine Peck

Title: The Second Son

Author: Loraine Peck

Published: 4th January 2021, Text Publishing

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy Text/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

The Second Son is Loraine Peck’s impressive, thrilling crime fiction debut.

‘One. No friends. Two. No feelings. Three. No conscience. Only family. Everyone else is enemy.’

When Ivan Novak is shot dead in his driveway, his father, Milan is certain the leader of a rival Serbian gang is responsible and insists his younger son, Johnny exacts retribution. Johnny isn’t a killer and, not convinced the Serbs are responsible, is reluctant to perpetuate the war that began in Croatia on the streets of Sydney. Looking to deescalate the situation, Johnny develops a brilliant plan that he hopes will satisfy his father’s lust for revenge, and allow he, his wife, Amy, and son, Sasha, to finally escape his family’s stranglehold and start a new, legitimate life. But if the plan fails, Johnny risks losing everything.

Unfolding from the alternating perspectives of Johnny and Amy, The Second Son is an action-packed, (mostly) fast paced crime thriller that explores the themes of family, heritage, loyalty, revenge, and trauma.

Set in the western suburbs of Sydney, where the criminal underworld, often divided by ethnicity, competes for territory and illegal trade, Peck focuses on the animosity between the Serbs and Croats, their conflict imported from the Balkans civil war in the 1990’s. Milan Novak heads a gang of around 25, mostly family members, whose business involves drug trafficking, protection rackets, grand theft, armed robbery and money laundering, their territory abutting the Serbs, Italian, Asian and Bikie syndicates.

With his brother dead, Johnny is expected to step up and take his place as the second-in-command. Peck has given us a complex character, while his devotion to his wife and son are admirable, he is not exactly a good guy. He may not have a taste for killing, but he is not adverse to intimidation, or administering a beating, and his income is largely derived from illegal means. His relationship with his brutal father is complicated, and defying his orders seems impossible unless he can find an alternative. Peck cleverly plots a solution for Johnny, which I won’t share because it would spoil the surprise, but there is still great risk involved, especially in regards to keeping his marriage.

Johnny’s wife, Amy, has always turned a blind eye to the unsavoury elements of the family business, but when her safety and that of their son are threatened, she gives Johnny an ultimatum, demanding they move up north, far from the influence of her in-laws. Amy’s behaviour shows some naivety with regards to understanding the Novak family dynamic (though just enough nous to keep a dark secret), and she underestimates the danger her husband’s rivals presents. I liked her much more in the second half of the story, than the first.

In fact Amy was the cause of my only real issue with the novel as I found her perspective to be repetitive during the first half, which was a detriment to the pacing for me. The sag around the middle was soon forgotten though as Peck ups the stakes for both of her main protagonists, and the suspense drew me eagerly towards the conclusion.

There is quite a lot of violence in The Second Son but there are also flashes of humour. Peck’s writing is confident and engaging and I thought she showed a good understanding of both people, creating interesting, well-rounded characters, and setting, capturing a different aspect of Australian urban life.

The Second Son is an entertaining, tense and gritty crime novel, and I’m looking forward to the next instalment.

++++++

Available from Text Publishing

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Review: Crackenback by Lee Christine

Title: Crackenback

Author: Lee Christine

Published: 1st February 2021, Allen & Unwin

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy Allen & Unwin

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My Thoughts:

Crakenback follows Lee Christine’s bestselling debut, Charlotte’s Pass, featuring NSW Homicide Squad Detective Sergeant Pierce Ryder. It’s not necessary to have read the former however, as I found this story works very well as a stand-alone.

With the start of the ski season still a few weeks away, Golden Wattle Lodge proprietor Eva Bell is alone with her three year old, Poppy, when Jack Walker, bruised and bleeding, bursts through the door. Eva is terrified as he strips her of her phone and keys, irrationally convinced he has come for his daughter. Learning that Jack has instead come to protect them from a killer bent on revenge gives her only the smallest sense of relief.

Meanwhile DS Ryder and his small task force are searching for a new lead in the hunt for Gavin Hutton who is suspected of beating two men to death. Joined by Detective ‘Daisy’ Flowers, and new team member, Nerida Sterling, the investigation takes them from Sydney, south to Jervis Bay, north to the Central Coast and west to the Snowy Mountains, where their quarry is finally in sight.

Christine immediately captures the reader’s attention in Crackenback with a dramatic prologue, the relevance of which is revealed later in the story, but there’s plenty of action and tension to follow in this tightly plotted, exciting story.

I was as interested in the progress Ryder and his team were making in the search for their fugitive, as I was in Jack and Eva’s nervous wait for their attacker, though it quickly becomes clear they are one and the same. Both perspectives advance the plot and are neatly complimentary while building suspense. I thought the pacing of the story was very good, and I read it easily in one sitting.

Both Eva and Jack were appealing characters. I admired Eva’s determination to protect her daughter and her practical, sensible way of coping with the frightening situation she was thrust into. Jack has an interesting background, and he is obviously capable and resourceful. Though their relationship, which resulted in Poppy, was not much more than a one night stand, it’s obvious the pair are still attracted to each other, though Christine plays down the romance angle in favour of the action.

Unfortunately I hadn’t the opportunity to read Charlotte’s Pass so I’m not terribly familiar with Ryder, but I liked what I saw of him. It was his girlfriend Vanessa, who is also Eva’s sister, who had a larger role in that story. It seems likely to me that the third book will feature one of Ryder’s team.

While the main action takes place at the Lodge in Thredbo, and the deepening snow plays beautifully into the action, one of things I liked was the way in which Christine’s characters moved within the state of NSW. I was particularly delighted that my town of Taree even got a mention (though it wasn’t very flattering and, as far as I know, not true, given the Officer in Charge of our station is a woman).

With an intriguing storyline, fast paced action, and strong characterisation, I thought Crackenback was a great book, and I’ll definitely be reading Christine Lee’s next.

++++++

Available from Allen & Unwin RRP AUD$29.99

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Review: Exit by Belinda Bauer

Title: Exit

Author: Belinda Bauer

Published: 2nd February 2021, Atlantic Monthly Press

Status: Read February 2021 courtesy Atlantic/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

Belinda Bauer’s Exit is a delightful, offbeat murder mystery novel.

“Felix Pink found the predictability comforting – even if the predictable outcome was death.”

Seventy-five year old Felix Pink is an ‘Exiteer’, a volunteer with a secret group that aids, but does not assist, terminally ill people to end their own lives. A minor breach in protocol by Felix’s new partner, Amanda, seems innocent enough until they discover that they have in fact witnessed the death of the wrong man.

What follows veers between tragedy and comedy as Felix tries to understand how such a mistake could have been made. It soon becomes clear that the Exiteer’s were set up, but by who, and why? The answer is far more complicated than one might expect, and I’m loathe to spoil the smart twists of the plot that implicates more than one person.

Felix is a charming protagonist, he lives with his dog Mabel, enjoys puzzles, and considers himself boring but steadfast. The loss of both his wife and son is his motivation for joining the Exiteers and he believes he is doing important work. When he realises a mistake has been made he is horrified, eager to protect his partner, the group, and make to amends.

There are several other characters of importance to the story including the Exiteer’s group leader, Geoffrey, Amanda, the family of the dead man, and the investigating officers, DCI Kirsty King and DC Calvin Bridge who astute readers may recognise from Bauer’s previous works.

This is a well crafted tale with a unique hook. Witty, clever and engaging, I really enjoyed Exit.

++++++

Available from Atlantic Monthly Press

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Review: The Stranger Times by C.K. McDonnell

 



Title: The Stranger Times

Author: C.K. McDonnell

Published: 14th January 2021, Bantam Press UK

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy Bantam Press/Netgalley

+++++++

My Thoughts:

The premise of Caimh McDonnell’s novel caught my attention because as a teenager I discovered a UK magazine called The Fortean Times, which reported on ‘weird news’ (and still does as far as I know) and went to great trouble and expense to have it imported by my local newsagent for a year or two.

“Publication seeks desperate human being with capability to form sentences, using the English language. No imbeciles, optimists or Simons need apply.”

Similarly, the titular ‘The Stranger Times’ is a weekly newspaper devoted to the weird and wonderful. When Hannah Willis, newly separated and desperate, answers an ad for a position at The Stranger Times she has no idea what it may entail, but she is not expecting to find a man threatening to throw himself off the roof, a wannabe reporter named Simon lurking by the entrance, and then for her new boss, Vince Bancroft, to set fire to his office and shoot himself in the foot during her interview. Still, Hannah needs a job and this is the only one on offer.

“We aren’t reporting the story as fact; we’re reporting the existence of the story as fact.”

Though Hannah doesn’t believe in the litany of the strange and implausible that The Stranger Times reports on that’s all about to change when, after Simon is found dead at the base of a construction tower, the staff of The Stranger Times becomes the target of a killer, who has a vicious beast at his command.

“Because, sweetheart, you ain’t never met a short-arsed slaphead quite like me.”

The Stranger Times is an entertaining urban fantasy novel. Set in Manchester, McDonnell introduces a shadow world that lurks amongst ours, where folk hide in plain sight. One of these folk has gone rogue, breaking a centuries old Accord, and the staff of The Stranger Times gets in the way of his plans for murder and mayhem. But no matter what happens, the paper still needs to go out.

The staff of The Stranger Times are an eccentric bunch, editor Vince Bancroft is a barely functioning alcoholic in a permanent bad temper, flatmates Ox and Reggie are feature writers, specialists in the supernatural and extraterrestrial, Stella is a teenage runaway, and pious Grace is the paper’s office manager. I loved their unique personality’s, and their group dynamic which is delightfully dysfunctional.

Though it gets off to a bit of a slow start I was quickly caught up in this witty, weird and wonderful romp full of magic, mystery and monsters. Read all about it in The Stranger Times!

++++++

Available from Bantam Press UK

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Review: The Lost Boys by Faye Kellerman

 

 

Title: The Lost Boys {Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus #26}

Author: Faye Kellerman

Published: 17th January 2021, William Morrow

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy William Morrow

++++++

My Thoughts:

I thought I’d missed no more than a handful of the Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus series but this is Kellerman’s 26th book featuring the couple and I’ve only read just over half, the last of which was book #22, Murder 101. Thankfully however this seems to matter little, aided in part because Kellerman ages her characters in real time.

In The Lost Boys, Decker and his partner Tyler are called in when a man disappears while on a field trip with a group from a local care home. In searching the woods nearby, a body is found in a shallow grave, but this man has lain there for at least a decade.

With his customary doggedness, Decker attacks both investigations. The missing man is his initial priority, with growing concerns that he has been targeted by because of his parent’s wealth. When blood is found at the home of a nurse that may be connected, Decker fears the worst, but despite his best efforts the case soon stalls. Unexpectedly Kellerman employs a cliffhanger of sorts in this instance, though the missing man is eventually located, the circumstance spawns another mystery.

In the second investigation, the remains prove to belong to one of three young college men who disappeared while on a camping trip. The damage to his skeleton suggests that he had been shot, and Decker wonders if he is looking for the bodies of his two companions, or if the two men may have killed the third and gone on the run. Investigating a ten year old cold case is a difficult task, but thorough police work results in an important break. In general I liked how this case played out, however one flaw I had difficulty overlooking was an emphasis on a shovel being out of place on a camping trip. Perhaps Faye has never been camping because I wouldn’t consider it at all strange that campers have a shovel, a digging implement is essential when there are no bathrooms.

While Decker is busy with police work, Rina is offering moral support to their foster son, Gabe whose biological mother has suddenly returned to the States with Gabe’s half siblings. It’s clear Terry is in trouble and Gabe is torn when she asks for his help, but it seems inevitable he will be drawn into the mess she has got herself into.

With this, and the unanswered questions of the first investigation, Kellerman has laid the foundation the next book in the series, though I think it’s clear that it’s end is creeping closer. Peter is seventy or thereabouts and is making plans for his retirement from the force, but there are hints, I think, that Tyler could take up the mantle.

Kellerman offers up two well paced, and involving mysteries in The Lost Boys, but as a fan it’s the opportunity to catch up with Peter, Rina and their family that I enjoy the most.

++++++

Available from William Morrow Books

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Review: Shelter by Catherine Jinks

Title: Shelter

Author: Catherine Jinks

Published: 5th January 2020, Text Publishing

Status: Read January 2021 courtesy Text/Netgalley

++++++

My Thoughts:

Shelter is a tense, twisty domestic thriller, from Australian author Catherine Jinks.

Meg knows all too well what it’s like to suffer at the hands of an abusive husband so she is willing to accept the risks of providing temporary shelter to a young mother and her two daughters on the run. Meg’s home, ‘The Bolthole’, is an isolated property in country NSW, and great care has been taken to ensure the family are impossible to trace, yet Nerine remains terrified that her husband will find them. Though Meg does her best to allay Nerine’s fears, and reassure five year old Ana and 22 month old Collette they are safe, some minor incidents stoke’s Meg’s own anxieties. She thinks it is more likely her own ex-husband has returned to intimidate her with regards to a recent inheritance, than Nerine’s husband having found her, but the real threat is closer to home than Meg can ever imagine.

Shelter isn’t an easy read, the themes and issues central to the novel, which includes generational trauma, domestic violence, psychological manipulation, and narcissism, are uncomfortable to explore, however I got caught up in this taut, well paced thriller which cleverly subverts reader’s expectations. Though the primary plot twist is not entirely unexpected, it shocks nevertheless, and Jinks left me feeling breathless as the level of menace and violence accelerated in its wake. In regards to the conclusion though I am somewhat torn, it’s reasonably realistic and as such fitting, but not very satisfying.

At times I found Meg to be a frustrating character, however her behaviour really is in keeping with someone who has been a long term victim of psychological abuse by a narcissistic partner. Even though she is physically free of her ex husband, Meg’s first instinct is always to appease someone who exhibits high emotion, or makes demands of her, so she reacts, rather than makes decisions. Nerine is convincing as a mother paranoid about the safety of herself and her children, and though she’s not particularly likeable, she is sympathetic in light of the story she presents. Jinks’s portrayal of the children, especially Ana, deserves special mention, as they are accurately represented with regards to age and circumstance.

I found Shelter to be dark and disturbing, yet utterly engrossing, but fair warning, it may be too much for readers sensitive to its themes.

++++++

Available from Text Publishing

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