Day 1194: House. Tree. Person.

Cover for House. Tree. PersonI scented gaslighting very early on in Catriona McPherson’s newest cozy creepster, House. Tree. Person. That did not spoil my enjoyment.

Ali McGovern has a trauma in her past and hints of a nervous breakdown. Her family is in a precarious financial position, too, because her husband, Marco, used her successful salon to prop up his failing restaurant. So, they lost both. When Marco falsifies her credentials to get her a job at Howell Hall, a mental hospital, she goes along with it, thinking she won’t get the job. But she does.

She comes home after her first day at work to a different problem. Her fifteen-year-old son, Angelo, is implicated somehow in the discovery of a body on the grounds of an old abbey across the street from the McGovern’s flat. The police think he knows something about it. Marco seems to know what is going on, but neither Marco nor Angelo will tell her.

At work she meets a cheerful and supportive staff, but her boss, Dr. Ferris, finds fault with her slightest action. In a catatonic patient, Sylvia, Ali thinks she sees signs of consciousness. She also believes that something is going on with Julie, a teenage patient who claims she’s being held there against her will.

Catriona McPherson has become one of my favorite writers for suspenseful and spooky but light reading. Her characters are engaging, and she creates a strong sense of place in small-town Scotland. House. Tree. Person. is another page-turner from her.

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Day 1193: Pompeii

Cover for PompeiiI was just as short way into Pompeii when I realized I had read it before, probably when it first came out. Leave it to Robert Harris to make a page turner out of a story that everyone knows the end to.

The novel begins a mere two days before the horrendous eruption of Vesuvius. Marcus Attilius Primus is the newly arrived aquarius for the area—the engineer who is responsible for maintaining and operating the aqueduct that provides water to the towns along the bay. His predecessor mysteriously disappeared two weeks before. Soon after the beginning of the novel, Attilius discovers that the aqueduct has stopped running. He mounts an expedition to Vesuvius to try to find the break.

On the course of his urgent journey to repair the aqueduct, Attilius runs afoul of Numerius Popidus Ampliatus, a powerful citizen of Pompeii. He is also attracted to the man’s daughter, Corelia. When in his work on the aqueduct, Attilius figures out what is happening on the mountain, he has to avoid assassins sent by Ampliatus as he endeavors to rescue Corelia.

The novel also follows Pliny, who as admiral takes the fleet across the bay in an attempt to make observations and rescue people.

Harris has done his homework, and his descriptions of the eruption are terrifying. He must have had the time frame right, but my only quibble is that Attilius has to cover so much ground before he gets to Corelia, I can hardly imagine she would still be alive when he got there. This is another well written, suspenseful novel by Harris.

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Day 1058: The Second Life of Nick Mason

Cover for The Second Life of Nick MasonI’ve read and enjoyed several of Steve Hamilton’s Alex McKnight detective series, so I thought I’d give his new series a try. A big part of the appeal for me of the Alex McKnight books is their setting in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, whereas Nick Mason is set in Chicago. Another big difference, though, is that Nick Mason is a criminal.

Nick has been released from a 20-year sentence in prison after making a deal with Cole, a lifer who still controls much of Chicago’s underworld. Nick gets a fancy place to live, a car, and a job on paper, and all he has to do is whatever he is told.

Nick’s main reason for wanting out is Arianna, his nine-year-old daughter, but his ex-wife doesn’t want him to see her.

Slowly, Nick finds out that Cole wants him for very dirty jobs. He also finds out that he and his friends were set up and betrayed by the guy who talked them into doing the job that Nick has been serving time for.

This novel is a straight action thriller, but unlike, for example, the Jack Reacher series, Nick’s morals are not so clear-cut. Even though Hamilton has Mason going after drug dealers and dirty cops, I don’t think I can overlook this characteristic of the series. Although Hamilton somehow manages to make Mason a sympathetic character, I’ll take Alex McKnight any day.

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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 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 1026: Imperium

Cover for ImperiumBest Book of the Week!
One of the books on my Walter Scott prize list is the second in Robert Harris’s trilogy about Cicero, so I thought I’d start with this first book. The only other straightforward historical series about this period of Roman history that I’ve read is Colleen McCullough’s Master of Rome series about Julius Caesar. This series makes an interesting contrast.

The novel is narrated by Tiro, Cicero’s slave and amanuensis. Cicero is already in his 30’s when the novel begins with his decision to prosecute the corrupt governor of Sicily, Verres. Cicero is usually an advocate, but he sees in this case a way to further his ambitions to ultimately become consul.

Although corrupt governors are apparently not unusual, Verres has completely abused his authority, by even condemning to death without due process a Roman citizen or two, something that was unspeakable to the Romans. Still, as a policy the powerful aristocrats are behind him, including the renowned orator Hortensius, who is defending Verres. Cicero must take a trip to Sicily to collect evidence.

This novel is a really fine combination of a legal and political thriller. McCullough’s series was mostly positive on Julius Caesar and negative on Cicero, even faintly ridiculing him. Harris’s novel makes Cicero a complicated sympathetic character and Caesar a slippery conniver. If you are at all interested in this period, I highly recommend this novel. And for excellent plotting and writing, I recommend it if you are at all interested in historical fiction.

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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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