Day 1038: Truly Madly Guilty

Cover for Truly Madly GuiltyTruly Madly Guilty focuses around a suburban barbecue, during which something bad happens that literally everyone there blames themselves for. We don’t find out exactly what happened, though, until the end of the novel.

The novel follows two time streams. The first is a couple of months after the barbecue, when everyone is trying to process reactions to the event. Erika attends a talk that Clementine is giving about the event precisely because she has gaps in her memory. But she is unable to listen, because the whole thing upsets her too much.

Back on the day of the event, Erika and her husband Oliver have invited Clementine and her husband Sam over because they want to ask them something important, a favor. Erika and Clementine have been supposed best friends since school, but Erika is unaware how Clementine resents her. Years ago, Clementine only befriended Erika to please her mother, who felt sorry for Erika.

Erika and Oliver’s expansive neighbor Vid interferes with their plans. When he hears Clementine and Sam and their two little daughters are coming over, he invites everyone to his place for a barbecue.

Erika’s confusion results from her being so nervous that she takes an entire pill of a sedative that her doctor has told her to try half or a quarter of. Then she uncharacteristically drinks, causing problems with Oliver, whose parents are alcoholics.

This novel untangles the events of that evening while it explores the relationships between the two women and between them and their husbands. I don’t think it was the best or most suspenseful Moriarty I’ve read, but her novels are always eminently readable.

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Day 1032: Strangers in Company

Cover for Strangers in CompanyWhen I was in my teens, I loved reading Jane Aiken Hodge’s historical romantic suspense novels, so when a novel I hadn’t read became available on Netgalley, I thought I’d see if I still enjoyed her. Strangers in Company, unlike the Hodge novels I read when I was young, is set in the time it was written, the early 1970’s.

Marian Frenche married a famous rock star when she was very young, but he deserted her when he learned she was pregnant with twins. Now that the twins are 18, they have in turn deserted her to go live with their father. Mark Frenche has abruptly stopped paying support, so when a tour company contacts her with a job offer, she takes it. All she has to do is accompany Stella Marten on a tour of Greece. Her doctor thinks this is a good idea, because she has been feeling nervous lately, as if someone is watching her. She is warned that Stella may be difficult.

Stella certainly seems to have an uneven temper, but Marian finds they get along most of the time. But almost immediately, things begin to go wrong with the tour. The originally scheduled courier is injured, so they get a history teacher with no experience. On the first expedition, a Mrs. Hilton complains that someone was following her and a boulder nearly hits Marian.

Later, another member of the tour is almost run over by the tour bus, and Mrs. Hilton is killed in a fall. Two schoolteachers fall ill, and one is injured in a fall.

Stella is behaving oddly, too. When Marian finally gets her to confide in her, she is shocked at what she hears.

link to NetgalleyThe novel is set against the backdrop of a recent Greek revolution, during which the country apparently underwent a military coup. I was not really familiar with these events, but not very much was explained.

This novel is clearly an homage to some of the work of Mary Stewart. It has resemblances in its plot line to My Brother Michael, which Marian just happens to be reading. I still much prefer Stewart, but Strangers in Company made an enjoyable light read.

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Day 1029: The Fifth Petal

Cover for The Fifth PetalFans of Brunonia Barry will be happy to hear her novel is out. Like the others, this one is set in the vivid backdrop of Salem, Massachusetts, and features some familiar characters. It also harks back to the Salem Witch Trials. Although some of the characters appeared in her previous novels, it reads perfectly well as a stand-alone.

When Callie Cahill was five years old, her mother and two other young women were viciously murdered on Halloween. They had been performing a memorial ceremony for five of the women hanged during the Salem witch trials, to whom they were related. One woman who was supposed to attend the ceremony was missing.

Callie was present at the time, as was Rose Whelan, a noted historian who helped the young women research their ancestry and took them in. Rose saved Callie by hiding her, and when she was found the next morning, she had gripped her rosary so hard that she had a rose-shaped scar on her palm.

Callie was told by the nuns who raised her that Rose died, but when she learns Rose is alive, she returns to Salem. Rose has been mentally ill since the event, and she sometimes sleeps under the oak in Rafferty and Towner’s yard.

Rafferty was not in Salem at the time of the murders, but Rose has committed a crime, Salem thinks, and that awakens an interest in the old case. Rose was accosted by three boys, one of whom held a knife to her throat. Rose told the police after the original murders that they were committed by a banshee and she had taken the banshee inside herself. According to her, when the boy was threatening her, she let the banshee out. She shrieked, and the boy died.

Rafferty returns to the old murders to find clues, but evidence is missing. He thinks that finding the fourth woman related to the original witches will help him solve the case. Assuming that each woman, including Rose, makes a petal in the five-petal rose Rose was using as a symbol, he calls this woman the fifth petal. But she has vanished.

link to NetgalleyCallie’s memories of that night are returning, but they are patchy. And she has met an attractive man in Paul Whiting, the son of a wealthy family.

This Barry novel stands up well to the others, although The Lace Reader is still my favorite. Callie is an interesting heroine, and the mystery is a difficult one. It is nice to see more of Rafferty and Towner, as well as Zee, from The Map of True Places. The novel wrapped in the history of Salem quite nicely, and the town provides an atmospheric setting.

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Day 1018: The Beautiful Dead

Cover for The Beautiful DeadEve Singer is a crime reporter. Although her boss is horrible, Eve is desperate to keep her job, because she is supporting her father, who is deep in the grip of dementia.

Eve is on the way home from reporting on a murder when she hears a man approaching her. Sure she is going to be attacked in the dark street, by instinct she turns to him and asks him to walk her home. What she doesn’t know is that the murder she has just reported on, of a woman just feet away from a busy street, is the latest in a string of serial killings. The man who walks her home is the murderer.

The trust Eve shows him hypnotizes the murderer, so he begins calling her to lure her into cooperating with him. At first, she doesn’t and turns to the police, agreeing to keep some clues secret. But later, a fear for her job makes her broadcast details about the crimes that she promised to hide.

link to NetgalleyAfter the killer lures her and another news team to the death of one of her rivals, Eve gets a police bodyguard. But when the killer kidnaps her father, she realizes she is going to have to think like a serial killer.

Although The Beautiful Dead belongs with the usual dark thrillers that Bauer usually writes, she is experimenting with throwing in the lightest touch of romance and more likable secondary characters. This is a good move for Bauer, as it lightens up what would be an extremely dark book and gives her more to work with. I think I enjoyed this novel more than the last few as a result.

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Day 1006: The Vanishing

Cover for The VanishingJulia Bishop is a recent widow whose husband bilked people out of millions of dollars before killing himself. Now Julia finds herself in a difficult position. Her friends have all dropped her, assuming she knew what her husband was doing, and some of his victims have threatened to sue her.

Adrian Sinclair comes to her with a solution. He would like to hire her as a companion for his mother, who lives on a secluded estate near Lake Superior. She would disappear completely, and if she wanted to emerge later, he would provide her with a new identity. Julia accepts his offer and finds as an added attraction that his mother is Amaris Sinclair, the famous horror writer, long thought dead.

Julia feels at home at Havenwood from the moment of arriving, but something odd is going on. The figures in the paintings seem to move, and she hears childish singing in some of the rooms. Also, someone seems to have followed her there.

I read this book because it promised to be a page-turning ghost story, but I found myself disappointed. For one thing, Julia’s reactions to things seem all wrong. First, she accepts a plan to disappear without a trace from a man she’s never met before. Then, there’s a whole lot of chuckling going on, even at the most inopportune moments. I confess to having seldom heard anyone chuckle, and yet someone does so on almost every page. Julia is oddly undisturbed by the most fantastic occurrences.

The writing is hackneyed and the dialogue is downright dull. There is no sparkling wit in this novel. And let’s face it, the scary parts aren’t scary.

There are a couple of clever twists at the end of the novel, but the more I thought about the last one, the less sense it made. On the one hand, it seemed a master stroke, creating doubt about everything that came before. On the other hand, it was impossible.

I know that Webb’s first novel was very popular. Maybe it was better. I, for one, won’t be finding out.

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Day 978: Eileen

Cover for EileenJust by coincidence, I read Eileen before it ended up on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. So, unusually for me, I have already read a book on the list and can publish a review shortly after they announced it. Since I have only read one book on the 2015 short list so far for my project, this is really getting ahead of the curve for me.

* * *

Eileen is an astounding combination of character study and thriller. What is more astounding is that very little happens until the end of the novel, which still draws you along and builds suspense.

Eileen is an unhappy young woman who lives with her alcoholic, verbally abusive father in a suburb of Boston. She is deep in self-hatred and combines an ignorance of the world with a fascination with grotesque and ugly things. She is outwardly prudish but secretly obsessed with sex and bodily functions. All-in-all, she is deeply unpleasant, but we still manage to have some sympathy for her and understand how she got that way.

Eileen works at a prison for boys, where she has a crush on one of the guards. She spends a lot of her free time stalking him.

link to NetgalleyBut then she meets Rachel and becomes completely infatuated. She does not realize that Rachel is not the person she seems. Eileen’s occasional comments from many years later indicate that she has only a few days more in her hometown, and the suspense builds as we wonder why she left. One thing we know is that it involves Rachel.

This novel is a masterful character study of a deeply troubled person. She is all too human and believable.

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Day 950: Arrowood

Cover for ArrowoodArden Arrowood has returned after many years to her dying home town of Keokuk, Iowa. She has inherited her grandparents’ house, a stately old home on the banks of the Mississippi. Although she has yearned for home, it is the place of her family’s greatest tragedy, the disappearance of her baby twin sisters when she was eight years old.

Arden has been a troubled young woman, and she is hoping to make a fresh start in her home town. But incidents keep pointing her back to the tragedy. She has been contacted by the site owner of Midwest Mysteries, for example, who thinks the man believed to have kidnapped the girls is innocent.

link to NetgalleyArden has also been hoping to reunite with Ben Ferris, her best friend as a child and her first boyfriend. She is surprised to find he has joined his father’s dentistry practice. But then again, she herself has failed to complete her graduate degree in history and has a secret reason for having quit school.

This novel is atmospheric and gripping. Although it is not difficult to figure out that one character is a bad guy, the solution to the mystery has a couple of twists. I was reminded when reading this book of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. Although I think Sharp Objects is the better novel, I enjoyed reading this one.

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