Review 1544: Sealskin

Ever since I heard Joan Baez sing “Silkie,” I have been fascinated by stories of selkies. They don’t seem to feature very often, but a few years ago, I reviewed an intriguing one in The Sea House.

In Sealskin, Su Bristow explores the legend, in particular one about a man who finds a selkie and hides her sealskin so he can keep her. This novel is set in as realistic a way as you can get in a story about a selkie (except in The Sea House).

Donald is a misfit in his Scottish fishing village because of a skin disease. Although his uncle Hugh would like him to crew with him, he avoids going out on the fishing boat because of taunts from the crew. He spends most of his time avoiding the other villagers.

One night he goes crabbing and sees seals on a rocky ledge. They take off their skins and become young maidens and dance. Thinking of the value of the sealskin, Donald steals one, and when the maidens are frightened into donning their skins and swimming away, one cannot leave.

Donald captures the selkie and in a fit of madness, rapes her. When he takes her home to his mother, Bridie, she tells him he can’t send the girl back because she knows she is with child. Bridie tells him he must marry the girl, whom they name Mairhi, and pretend he met her months before in another village.

Mairhi cannot speak but shows she is very unhappy. Donald doesn’t want to marry her, despite his mother’s warnings, so he goes back to find her skin, but it is gone.

Although I have an objection to love stories that start with a rape—a technique that used to be used often in romance novels—Bristow handles this story of love and personal growth tremendously well. It’s a touching novel about consequences.

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Review 1542: Wild Fire

After a strange incident on the beach when kids taunted an autistic boy, that boy, Christopher, finds the nanny of another family hanged in an outbuilding on his family’s property. His parents, Daniel and Helena Fleming, have not found a welcome in the small village of Deltaness, especially since the previous owner hanged himself in the same outbuilding after they built their new house.

Jimmy Perez comes out to the scene and realizes immediately that the girl, Emma Shearer, was murdered, because there is nothing in the building she could have stood on to hang herself. She was the nanny for the Moncrieff children and had been with them since she was 17.

Jimmy summons the CSI team and his boss, Willow Reeves, to the scene. But when Willow arrives, she has news for him. She is pregnant, and he is the father. Jimmy, still confused by the death of his fianceé, Fran, has an unpredictable reaction.

Working on the case, the team has difficulty getting any sense of Emma. It is early established that she had a relationship with Daniel Fleming, but although he admits to having been obsessed with her, he claims they did not have an affair.

This was one of Cleeves’s difficult mysteries, especially as, although there are hints, the perpetrator is not very present in the book. Sadly, this is the last book in the Shetland series, but it’s possible that we’ll see more of Jimmy and Willow.

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Review 1536: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

I’m late to discover Maggie O’Farrell, but better late than never. I’ve read a few books by her now, and she just keeps getting better and better.

Iris Lockhart is contacted by a mental hospital, which wants to find out if she can offer a home to her great aunt, Esme, who has been incarcerated there for more than 60 years. The problem is that Iris has never heard of Esme and believes her grandmother to be an only child.

Her mother now lives in Australia and has never heard of Esme, either. When Iris tries to discuss Esme with her grandmother, Katherine, who is suffering from Alzheimers, she gets a fractured response that implies Esme is her sister. In particular, she says, “She wouldn’t let go of the baby.”

Through third-person narration from Iris’s point of view, Esme’s stream of consciousness memories, and Katherine’s more fractured ones, we learn how it came to pass that vibrant and unconventional Esme was abandoned in the hospital from the age of 16. Iris is shocked to learn that Esme was incarcerated for such outrages as insisting on keeping her hair long and dancing in her dead mother’s clothes. She learns that at the time women could be committed on the signature of one doctor.

This is a shattering, sad story about a girl whose life is stolen because she doesn’t fit in. It is spellbinding as it draws you along to learn Esme’s story. This is also fascinating tale about how sisterly love turns to jealousy and anger.

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Review 1505: Cold Earth

Jimmy Perez is attending the funeral of Magnus, an old man who was a recluse for years, when the hillside above the cemetery collapses in a landslide, taking out a cottage further down the hill. Jimmy thinks the cottage is unoccupied, but he goes to check. There he finds the body of a woman, apparently killed in the slide.

While Jimmy’s team struggles to identify the woman, the coroner lets them know that the woman was already dead inside the cottage. She was strangled. Jimmy must call in his boss, Willow Reeves, from the mainland. He finds he’s thinking of her more and more.

When the team thinks they’ve identified the woman as the American owner of the cottage, they have another setback. She is at work in New York and has no idea who might be using her cottage. In any case, the dead woman was using her name when she crossed over to the island.

As usual with Cleeves, this was an interesting but difficult puzzle. I have to say that there was so little apparent connection between the victim and the murderer that it was almost cheating. Also, the novel seemed to conclude a little too quickly after the build-up at the end. Still, I enjoyed reading it.

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Review 1487: Strangers at the Gate

It seems too good to be true when Paddy Lamb returns from a job interview to report that he’s been offered a partnership at a firm in Simmerton. When his wife, Finnie, raises questions about where she is going to work and how far the commute is, he comes back with an offer of a lease on a cottage belonging to the firm’s owner and the promise of a job for her as a deacon at Simmerton Parish Church.

As soon as they arrive, things begin falling apart. Finnie can see that her help isn’t really needed at the parish church. Then, Finnie and Paddy are invited by Tuft Dudgeon, the wife of Paddy’s new boss, for dinner on the night they move in. They have a pleasant evening, and the two are walking home when Finnie realizes she left her bag. Something has been spooking her all day, so when she returns to the house and can’t raise the Dudgeons, she goes back to the kitchen. There she finds Lovatt and Tuft Dudgeon in a pool of blood, apparent suicides.

She is about to call the police when Paddy stops her, because in his past he was involved in minor criminal activity. The couple decides to wait and let someone discover the bodies, thinking that will happen shortly. But when Paddy arrives at work, he finds that someone has sent a fax saying they have left on vacation to Brazil. The only problem is that the fax was sent after Finnie saw the bodies. As Finnie and Paddy try to get someone to discover the bodies, the lies begin to pile up.

My first impression of this situation was that it was a silly one for McPherson, who usually writes good modern-day cozy thrillers. It was hard for me to believe that Finnie would agree to lie. She is a deacon, albeit an unconventional one, and she seems to take this seriously although with a light touch. However, if you can buy into the situation, it’s a fairly wild ride to the conclusion.

I really love McPherson’s thrillers, because they combine a creepy plot with a community of likable characters often featuring life in a small Scottish village. This one follows that pattern while providing loads of atmosphere in this isolated, dark village.

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Review 1460: The Story Keeper

Audrey Hart arrives on the Isle of Skye to take up a position as an assistant to a folklorist in 1857. She has fled her family because of a situation that occurred during her volunteer work and because her father doesn’t believe a girl of her upbringing should work. She has taken a job on Skye because her mother, who died when she was a child, loved it there.

Upon her arrival in Skye, Audrey notices a croft girl who appears to be ill. The local people believe she was taken by fairies. The Buchanans, her employers, aren’t interested in what happens to a girl of her class. The minister thinks even Miss Buchanan’s story-collecting activities encourage superstition.

Audrey is worried, because she hasn’t been able to get the locals to tell her any stories so can’t do her job. But then she begins hearing about other young girls who have disappeared. No one seems to want to listen to her ideas that the disappearances may be related, not even the kind nephew of Miss Buchanan, Alec. While all this is going on, Alec’s father is enclosing his land and evicting tenants.

This is an atmospheric novel that nicely blends the folklore of the area with more sinister themes. Although I almost immediately figured out what was going on, if not the motive, I enjoyed the journey. This is an entertaining historical suspense novel.

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Review 1427: Dandy Gilver and a Spot of Toil and Trouble

Dandy Gilver receives a note from an old school friend, Minnie Bewer, asking for her assistance, but when she and her partner Alec Osborne arrive at Castle Bewer, what exactly the family wants is more difficult to ascertain. Whatever it is, it revolves around a missing necklace they call the Cutthroat and the disappearance 30 years ago of Bluey Bewer’s father, Richard.

Minnie Bewer wants Dandy and Alec to safeguard the castle while the Bewers put on a play. Bluey wants them to search for the Cutthroat and assure inland revenue that it is not in their possession before death taxes are assessed on his father’s 100th birthday. Ottoline Bewer, Bluey’s mother, wants them to find the necklace. To do that, Dandy reckons they must find Richard. There is a lot to do, and it must be done during the disturbance of rehearsing and performing the play Macbeth.

As usual with this series, there are lots of red herrings and a lot of confusion. That usually derails me, but this time I realized almost immediately the truth of one facet of the story, and I was right. Once I had figured it out, a lot became obvious.

Still, the Dandy Gilver mysteries are always fun cozies. The first one was set at the end of World War I, and this one in 1934, so it’s been a long-developing series.

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Review 1359: Go to My Grave

Cover for Go to My GraveDonna Weaver and her mother have invested everything in The Breakers, a large house on the Galloway coast that they have made available as either a self-catered or fully catered vacation rental. Donna is excitedly awaiting their first guests, an anniversary party of cousins and their spouses, while her mother attends a hospitality convention.

When the guests arrive, however, it becomes clear that they have all been there before. Twenty-five years ago, they attended a 16th birthday party for Sasha, the man whose wife, Kim, has planned this trip.

The reactions of the guests when they recognize the house make it clear that they do not relish memories of this party. Then, shortly after they arrive, things begin appearing in the house that hearken back to that occasion. What is happening in the house? Is one of the guests trying to gaslight the others?

Occasionally, we see flashbacks to 1991, when a 14-year-old local girl named Carmen is invited to the party. When she arrives, she brings along her 12-year-old sister.

This novel is truly riveting, although the answer to what is happening seems a little too contrived. Although McPherson is known for her “cozy” thrillers, this one is probably more accurately described as a modern gothic thriller. The ending to it is a bizarre mixture of cozy and chilling. I didn’t know quite what to think of it, but the best term I can come up with is “morally challenged.” We are presented with an ambiguous conclusion to tone down the ending, but I know very well what I think happened.

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Review 1317: Dandy Gilver and the Unpleasantness in the Ballroom

Cover for Dandy Gilver and the Unpleasantness in the BallroomDandy Gilver fears that her summons to a house named Balmoral in Glasgow may prove to be a humdrum affair, but she is mourning her dog, Bunty, and feels a need to get out. When she and her partner, Alec Osborne, arrive, their doubts about their customers are confirmed, for Sir Percival and Lady Stott are vulgar nouveau riche. However, they fear that their spoiled daughter, Theresa, or Tweetie, is in danger.

Tweetie is taking part in a ballroom-dancing competition. She has begun receiving veiled threats that someone wishes her harm. The Stotts have urged her to quit the competition, but she is determined to continue. So, Dandy and Alec repair to the Locarno Ballroom to investigate. It seems that only Tweetie’s partner, Roly; her cousin, Jeanne; the pianist, Miss Thwaite; or another couple, Bert and Beryl, could have access to leave some of the messages. But what Dandy and Alec can’t figure out is why everyone around the ballroom seems so terrified. Shortly, they discover that there was a similar incident the year before that resulted in a death.

Although I am gaining enthusiasm for McPherson’s contemporary thrillers, my taste for the Dandy Gilver mystery series is losing momentum. I like Dandy and Alec but feel that perhaps this series gets a little too mired in red herrings, if that makes any sense.

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Review 1315: Dead Water

Cover for Dead WaterI was trying to read Ann Cleeves’s Shetland series in order, but somehow I made a mistake and skipped the one before Dead Water. That unfortunately makes me privy to a key plot point for the previous book but did not spoil this one.

Jimmy Perez is on compassionate leave for reasons that readers of the previous novel will know, so he does not immediately become involved when the Fiscal, Rhona Laing, finds a body aboard the yoal that she shares with a group of rowers. The body is that of Jerry Markham, a reporter who left the island years ago to work in London. He has returned to Shetland to see his parents, the owners of a hotel, and for some other reason. He seemed to be working on a story, but if that is true, his editor knows nothing about it.

The mainland office sends Willow Reeves to be in charge of the investigation, and she immediately thinks the Fiscal isn’t telling everything she knows. The crux of the matter seems to be Markham’s reasons for returning to Shetland.

Jimmy slowly gets drawn into the investigation, which soon finds that years ago Markham made an innocent young girl, Evie Watt, pregnant and refused to accept responsibility for it. Evie lost the child, and now she is on the verge of marriage to John Henderson, a pilot. Evie acknowledges that Markham tried to contact her but says she refused to speak to him.

The team follows several leads, including a dispute over green energy, until another body surfaces and brings their attention back to Evie. This time the victim is her fiancé. Do the murders have something to do with Evie, or is it a coincidence that the victims were her ex and current lovers?

Again, Cleeves creates a twisty and suspenseful mystery for Jimmy Perez to figure out. Her characters are convincing, and we are truly interested in their fates.

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