Review 1825: A Gingerbread House

Catriona McPherson, in her standalone novels anyway, is a master at creating creepy situations that eventually resolve into the making of warm communities. I guess that makes her the queen of gothic cozies. In A Gingerbread House, she’s hit it with another one.

Tash Dodd has discovered that her family’s transport business is involved in trafficking. She wants to take over the business and put things right, so instead of informing the police, she lodges her proof and presents her father with an ultimatum—retire or else. Then she goes into hiding to give him a week to think it over.

While she’s been away training to turn her business to greater good, she’s caught glimpses of some women just before their lives completely change. Someone is creating elaborate hoaxes to lure one lonely woman after another into a Victorian gingerbread-style house. The first is Ivy, an older woman who would like a friend but would settle for a cat. Instead, she meets Kate, who claims her twin sister looks just like Ivy. Please come to the house to meet her. Kate has a surprise in store for Ivy.

As usual, McPherson creates likable heroines—this time four of them—and there are friendly neighbors and a hint of a love interest. I enjoyed myself very much.

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Review 1820: The Drowning Kind

Jax’s sister Lex has been calling a lot lately. Jax knows that means Lex is off her meds and in one of her manic phases. So, Jax, who has been estranged from her sister, doesn’t answer the phone. Lex’s messages are cryptic and incomprehensible, something about measurements. Later, Jax’s aunt calls to tell her that Lex is dead, drowned in the spring-fed pool behind her house. Since Lex has spent much of her life in the pool, suicide is assumed.

Back in Vermont for the funeral, Jax finds the family home a wreck, filled with notes and other documents Lex collected about the history of the house. The house had been their grandmother’s, the place where the two sisters spent every summer. One reason Jax was angry was because the house was left to Lex, whom she believes everyone liked best. Jax decides to try to find out what happened to Lex, what Lex discovered. It all seems to center around the pool, which has a local reputation of being cursed. Several people have drowned in it.

In 1929, Ethel and Will Monroe take a romantic trip to a new hotel next to a spring-fed pool. The spring has a reputation for granting wishes and healing. Ethel has been trying to conceive, so she goes to the pool and says she will give anything to have a child.

Back in 2019, Jax finds wet footprints in the house and catches glimpses of something in the pool. She also figures out that Lex has been measuring its depth, although the girls have always been told it was bottomless.

In general, this is a nice, creepy story, although I felt that maybe it signaled the truth of the pool a little too early. Of course, that adds to the suspense, as the reader knows more than Jax does. Another good one for McMahon.

The Invited

Burntown

The Winter People

Review 1809: The Survivors

I haven’t read much by Australian writers, so when I noticed that Jane Harper seemed popular, I thought I’d give her a try. The Survivors is set in Tasmania, and I am attracted to books set on islands.

Kieran Elliott hasn’t returned to his small home town for 12 years, not since the storm. But his father has Alzheimer’s and his mother is trying to move them, so he has brought his partner Mia and their baby daughter back to the beach town in Tasmania to help with the move.

It is late in the season, and most of the summer people have gone home. One of Kieran’s high school friends, Olivia, has had a house mate for the summer, Bronte, and Olivia is glad that Bronte will soon be leaving, because there has been friction. Bronte has been working late at the local bar and restaurant, and after Kieran was there late with his friends, Bronte is found dead on the beach.

The storm years ago has been an elephant in the room, but it’s not until about page 75 that we find out Kieran had been in some sea caves that day and came out too late for the storm rise. His older brother Finn and Finn’s partner lost their lives in the storm trying to rescue Kieran. Some townspeople blame him for their deaths, including his own father.

Although this incident would appear to have nothing to do with Bronte’s death, we don’t learn until about page 120, as if it’s not important, that a girl disappeared on the day of the storm, Gabby, Olivia’s 14-year-old sister. When her backpack appeared in the surf, the police assumed she had drowned in the unprecedented storm surge.

Of course, Bronte’s death is related to Gabby’s disappearance.

I found a few things about the novel a little irritating. One is slight—that Harper remarks on the physical fitness of practically every male character. Maybe this is an Australian thing or maybe it’s supposed to reflect Kieran’s profession as a physiotherapist, but it seemed silly and unnecessary. Then there is a continuity problem—if Kieran’s rescuers died, how did he get rescued? There is no explanation of that. It also bothered me that Harper took so long to tell us what happened during the storm, as that delay didn’t seem to serve a purpose, and even more so that Gabby’s disappearance was treated like an afterthought.

Things get going slowly, but they seemed to be building to a satisfying and exciting conclusion, but no. Without giving away the ending, let me just say that the promised thriller ending sort of fizzles out. That being said, there are some interesting developments at the end of the novel, causing it to improve considerably.

I don’t mean to give this novel a bad review. It was interesting enough to keep me engaged; there are just ways in which it doesn’t quite deliver.

Big Little Lies

Dead Point

Sharp Objects

Review 1802: White Dog

In this last of the Jack Irish novels, Linda has just left Jack for a position in London when he accepts a job from his ex-law-partner Drew. Sarah Longmore, an artist, has been accused of murdering her ex-lover Mickey Franklin. Sarah says she didn’t do it, but the prosecution has a witness placing her near the scene, and the murder weapon was a gun Mickey loaned her. Drew wants Jack to look for evidence that she is innocent.

Jack begins poking around but is unable to find out much except that three of Mickey’s former associates are missing. Against his own instincts, Jack and Sarah become lovers, but later when Jack goes to her studio to meet a witness, the building explodes, killing Sarah and badly injuring Jack.

Now that Jack’s client is dead, Jack is more determined than ever to find out who killed Mickey. The novel does not neglect Jack’s sidelines of learning cabinet making, hanging out with the old men Jack calls the Fitzroy Youth Club, and helping Harry Strang and Cam with horse-racing projects.

Again, Temple has produced a suspenseful and exciting novel in his Jack Irish series.

Bad Debts

Black Tide

Dead Point

Review 1797: The Historians

Like her previous two novels, Cecilia Ekbäck has set The Historians partially on the fictional Blackåsen Mountain, a stand-in for the Kirina Mine in far northern Sweden. This novel is set during World War II.

In Lapland, a Sami girl goes missing. She is not the only one. Near Blackåsen, a miner decides to find out what is going on in the secret mine, the one that is supposedly out of bounds. He hopes to find members of the Norwegian resistance there, so that he can help them against the Germans, Sweden being neutral. Later, he is found dead.

In Stockholm, Laura Dahlgren is approached by her best friend Britta’s Sami friend Andreas. He tells her Britta has disappeared, and he is worried. Britta and Laura were part of a group of special history students studying with Professor Lindahl at Uppsala University. After the others took up careers, Britta remained, working on her thesis. Laura thought Britta wanted to tell her something the last time she saw her, but she did not. Now not only is Britta missing, but so is her thesis.

Jens Regnell, the secretary of a government minister, is perplexed when the ministry archivist, Daniel Jonsson, asks about some phone calls to the Danish and Norwegian foreign ministers that were not logged. In fact, he doesn’t know how one could circumvent the logging. When he tries to find out about the calls, he is shut down and then Daniel is replaced, reported to be ill. Next thing he knows, Daniel is dead, a supposed suicide. Oh, and Jens receives in the mail a thesis by a student named Britta Hallberg.

This novel is genuinely thrilling, as Laura reconvenes the friends in her study group to find out what happened to Britta and what was in her thesis. I started out reading this novel when I had to take a break from reading another novel on my iPad because it needed a charge, but I ended up putting that one aside completely, even after my iPad charged, until I finished this one.

In the Month of the Midnight Sun

Wolf Winter

Warlight

Review 1786: The Unforeseen

Although I haven’t yet read Dorothy Macardle’s The Uninvited, the movie based on it remains one of my favorites for Halloween. I didn’t realize that The Unforeseen is not a sequel to it but a follow-up and that a few of the characters make a reappearance. So, I’m reading and reviewing out of order.

Virgilia Wilde cannot afford to live in the city while she is sending her daughter Nan to art school in London, so she buys a cottage in the wilds of Wicklow. There she enjoys herself rambling the countryside and working on a children’s book about birds. However, she begins having strange experiences. First, she thinks she is seeing ghosts—a shadow in the doorway when no one is there, a telegram being delivered when one isn’t. She fears she is losing her mind so consults Dr. Franks, a psychiatrist. But he thinks there is nothing wrong with her. He consults his son Perry, who is a doctor with an interest in parapsychology, and eventually they realize that Virgilia is having visions of the future.

In the meantime, Nan has a frightening encounter with a sculptor and decides to come home for the summer while she works on illustrations for a book. Virgilia doesn’t want Nan to know about her visions, but soon she has some frightening ones.

This is a good little thriller with a supernatural angle to it. It has convincing characters and beautiful descriptions of the Irish countryside, reflecting the relative peace of Ireland during World War II.

Dark Enchantment

The Uninhabited House

The Victorian Chaise-Longue

Review 1784: Death in Oslo

I began reading this Norwegian series after watching the Swedish TV show Modus that is based on it. I mentioned that connection before, but while reading this novel, I thought about it a lot.

Helen Bentley, the American president, disappears from her hotel room during a state visit to Norway. Adam Stubo isn’t involved in the case at first, but then FBI agent Warren Seifford requests Adam as a liaison. When Adam’s wife, Johanne Vik, hears this, she demands that he refuse to work with Warren even though she won’t explain why. Then she leaves home with her baby when Adam reports to work.

Perhaps it’s because I watched the Modus version of this book first, which made significant changes, but I found it much less plausible than I have Holt’s other books in the series. I have already noticed, though, that her character Johanne Vik tends to be a little hysterical at times, unlike the calm counterpart in the TV series.

First, I felt that Holt had little grasp of the way politics between the Norwegians and the Americans would play out. Most of the time, she just shows them spinning their wheels in power plays. She, or perhaps the translator, also gets things wrong about American speech. The mistake I can think of offhand has an American on the news call gas “petrol.” Americans don’t use that word. I would think the book was simply translated for a British audience except the word was used in a supposedly verbatim news report from the States. I also noticed a similar error when Warren’s thoughts are revealed.

The TV program has the President stashed in the closet of an abandoned building, but in the novel she is in an apartment basement and just happens to be found by the servant of the woman Johanne Vik goes to stay with. That coincidence is bad enough, but that they don’t immediately call the police is wholly unbelievable.

Finally, there’s the big climax. I don’t want to give too much away, but I have to say that since the person the president thinks is guilty isn’t, what happened to the danger that she was supposedly in? They handled this much better in Modus by having there be actual danger.

So, a bit disappointed here. I’m ahead of the series on the next book, so we’ll see if that makes a difference.

Punishment

The Final Murder

The Water’s Edge

Review 1780: Dead Point

Things haven’t been going well at the track for Jack Irish, Harry, and Cam. They just had to shoot a horse, which broke his leg just as he was winning a race. But that’s not the worst. The men’s friend Cynthia was returning from the track with the winnings for a syndicate they put together when she was robbed and brutally beaten. There are no leads, but they soon hear of another similar incident.

Jack’s involvement in these activities has been leading him to neglect a job for Cyril. One of Cyril’s clients wants him to find a man named Robbie Colbourne, who works as a bartender. Jack has barely started looking for him when he reads that the man was found dead of a drug overdose. However, the client asks to see Jack. He turns out to be an eminent judge who had an affair with Robbie, during which Robbie stole a compromising photo album. He hires Jack to find the album.

Peter Temple has written another great thriller, but he has also invented a rich life for his character, who surrounds himself with interesting people. He’s taking the “youth club,” a bunch of octogenarians, to the football, he’s installing a library, he’s advising his ex-partner on his love life, he might be getting back together with Linda. Temple likes his characters and makes working-class Melbourne come to life.

Bad Debts

Black Tide

Without Fail

Review 1769: The Man from St. Petersburg

Back in the days when Ken Follett and John Le Carré were the major names in the espionage genre, I used to read both and sometimes confuse them. However, at some point I realized that, of the two, Le Carré is really the master of the genre and the better writer, so I stopped reading Follett. When Pillars of the Earth came out, I read that and decided that historical fiction was not Follett’s genre (I know many would disagree), so I stopped reading him altogether. This is a long way of staying that I picked up The Man from St. Petersburg by mistake.

The premise is intriguing. It’s 1909, and Winston Churchill wants to avoid a war with Germany by making a pact with Russia. The czar wants Prince Aleksey Andreyevich Orlov to handle the negotiations, so Churchill wants Lord Walden, whose wife Lydia is Orlov’s aunt, to handle the British side. Back in Russia, the anarchists want a revolution, which they believe would be kicked off by a war, so they want the negotiations stopped. One of the anarchists, Feliks, must kill Orlov, and he goes to England to do so.

I thought that sounded interesting, but not too far in I felt like Follett was just putting his characters through their paces, making them do what he needed them to do. The diplomatic conversations lacked the subtlety they actually would have had. They just seemed crude and too direct. Finally, a major plot point that was supposed to be a surprise on about page 80 was too loudly telegraphed on page 10. I stopped reading about one third of the way into the book.

Code to Zero

Munich

The Revolution of Marina M.

Review 1748: Black Tide

I understand Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series is classified as hard-boiled crime, which is usually too much for me, but Temple’s writing is so effortless and funny and his characters so interesting that reading these books is a pleasure.

In this second book of the series, Jack is trying to help Des Connors, an old friend of his father. Des’s son Gary has borrowed all of Des’s savings and disappeared. Further, he has mortgaged Des’s house and not paid the bills. If Jack can’t find Gary, Des will be homeless and penniless.

Jack is also involved with his friends Harry and Cam in finding and betting on unlikely racehorses. While involved in this pursuit, they uncover serious cheating at the track.

One of the pleasures of this series besides its carefully constructed plots and punchy dialogue is the full life Temple has constructed for Jack. There is his bunch of elderly pals at the bar, who are obsessed with his dad’s old footie team, his woodworking apprenticeship under his severe teacher, Charlie, his disreputable clients, and his love life. This isn’t going so well as Linda Hillier has taken a job in Sydney.

As Jack looks for Gary, the plot becomes more and more tangled, and he keeps encountering dead bodies. These are really fun, exciting thrillers.

Bad Debts

Laura

In a Lonely Place