A Suspenseful Humdinger

The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

My daughter borrowed this book from the library. I wasn’t going to read it because the last book I read by Ruth Ware, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, didn’t knock my socks off the way I hoped it would (which is not to say it was a bad book–to the contrary, I gave it four stars–but I had hoped for more).

But, long story short and as you’ve no doubt already guessed, I decided to read The Turn of they Key. And boy, am I glad I did.

Here’s a quick summary: Rowan Caine accepts a dream job as a live-in nanny at an isolated house deep in the Highlands of Scotland. The owners, a husband and wife team of architects, are desperate for a nanny who can start work as soon as possible. They have four daughters, three of whom are very young and live in the house, and one who only comes home from boarding school on breaks. Each of the girls presents her own particular set of challenges, and these are all made worse by the atmosphere of the “smart” house, which is outfitted with a complicated and highly invasive security system, lighting system, sound system, and every other system you can think of.

It is obvious early on that Rowan is hiding something. Likewise, it becomes clear that she’s not the only one harboring secrets. What made the four previous nannies abandon the position in the past year alone (one even leaving behind her belongings in her haste to get out), and why is there a malevolence in the house directed squarely at Rowan?

And, most importantly, why is Rowan in prison for the murder of one of the children?

This book is more of a modern-day Gothic than The Death of Mrs. Westaway. The house itself plays a huge role in the story. I read some passages with bated breath and others with a strong feeling of sympathy for the trials Rowan is experiencing at the hands of her new family. From sounds blaring out of the stereo system in the middle of the night to lights being on where Rowan knows she shut them off, to an extremely creepy garden on the property, the whole atmosphere of the story is one of dread and uneasy apprehension.

There are also red herrings aplenty, which I love in a mystery. Because Rowan has no idea where the hostility is coming from, (almost) everyone is a suspect. And the ending took me completely by surprise, which I also love. I feel like I should have seen it coming, which makes for fair play in a book like this one, and that made me enjoy it all the more.

The one thing I felt was a little off was the way in which the narrative is presented—that is, in the form of a letter (a very, very long letter) to a lawyer (barrister in the UK), begging him to take her case. As the reader learns almost immediately, Rowan is writing the letter from inside a women’s penitentiary. The letter format, I think, works best at the very end of the book, where the reader finds several letters written by other people that bring the story to a satisfying conclusion.

I would recommend this book to anyone who loves a good Gothic mystery tinged with more than a hint of psychological suspense.

It Could Happen to Anyone

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

My book club read this novel for our May meeting and I loved it. I never watched (and won’t watch) the HBO series based on the book, and I’m glad I didn’t. I formed a very clear picture of each character in my mind, and I wouldn’t want that to be distorted by HBO’s casting choices.

This is not a mystery, a thriller, a crime novel, or domestic suspense, but there are elements of all those subgenres. I would call it a book of suspense. You know there’s a dead body, but you don’t know who it is until the very end. Likewise, you know one of the characters is the killer, but you don’t find out that person’s identity until the end, either.

Big Little Lies tells the story of a group of kindergarten moms: how they feel about their spouses, themselves, each other, and of course, their kids. And not just how they feel about everyone else, but how they treat everyone else. There’s bullying going on in the school, and it mirrors the bullying going on among the parents—both men and women. Of course, (most of) the adult bullies are far more subtle than the kids, but their digs and barbs cut as deep as any physical wound. A particularly nasty petition drawn up by some of the parents circulates, and battle lines are drawn based on who signs and who doesn’t.

As the story unfolds, it is clear that something sinister has taken place at the school’s Trivia Night. The action in the story starts six months before the Trivia Night, and the suspense ratchets up as the clock ticks down to the night in question.

The three main characters in the book are Madeline, Jane, and Celeste. They form a friendship from an early chapter in the book and they couldn’t be more different. Madeline is fiesty and not afraid to give voice to her thoughts. Jane is the young mom, a newcomer to town. She’s quiet and hangs onto a deep-seated feeling of shame over a life-changing event that took place several years before the book starts. Celeste is beautiful and generous with her friendship and her money, but is hiding an ugly secret.

There are numerous secondary characters, all of whom are important to the story. In fact, readers learn a great deal about the main characters from their interactions with the secondary characters. There is even a cast of tertiary characters, and these are the ones who share their thoughts and opinions about the plot of the book. They’re fascinating and they reveal a lot about human nature.

The novel is an attention-getting and disturbing exploration of domestic violence, the abuse of women, bullying, the age-old and often-unspoken tug-of-war between working moms and stay-at-home moms, and the innermost thoughts of a group of mothers bound together by tragedy, circumstance, and the place they call home. It’s both easy and hard to read: easy in the sense that the book is written in plain language that leaves little room for doubt; hard in the sense that it addresses topics that are scary and difficult to discuss.

The author does an incredible job showing the waffling, back-and-forth thoughts that run through the mind of the abused wife in the book, and that serves as a tacit and sad-but-common explanation of some of the reasons behind Why Women Stay.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I will say that I was satisfied by it. I didn’t guess the person who died until just before the reader sees it happen, and I certainly did not guess the perpetrator.

In sum, this is a book about human behavior. Every society, every community, every school, has parents and kids like the ones in the story. There are good people and reprehensible ones (sometimes they’re the same person). It is a story of hope and hanging on.

I would recommend the book to anyone who likes psychological or domestic suspense with sharp, often witty, dialogue. If you have read it or watched the HBO show based on it, please let me know what you thought of it.

A Mystery of Old San Francisco

No Refuge from the Grave by Nancy Herriman

I have so missed Celia and Nick!

In this meticulously researched book, the reader is transported back to nineteenth-century San Francisco, where nurse Celia Davies and Detective Nick Greaves pair up once again to solve a baffling string of crimes that include murder and arson.

When Celia Davies and an acquaintance stumble upon the dead body of a well-known loan shark on the front lawn of the acquaintance’s house, Celia is propelled into the investigation into the man’s murder and the mystery of what he was doing at that particular house on the night of his death.

Strangely, at the time of the man’s murder, Nick is investigating a fire that he is convinced was a case of arson, committed as part of an insurance fraud scheme. It just so happens that the insurance agent whom Nick suspects is the very same person who owns the house where the loan shark was found.

And when another body is discovered in the same neighborhood, the clues become even more confounding as Celia and Nick try to piece together the threads of a crime that goes deeper than anyone suspected.

Oh, and Celia’s husband is there to make life even more difficult…again.

This tale goes from the comfort and opulence of the places frequented by San Francisco’s wealthy and influential to the seedy areas of the city where money changes hands in the dark and nefarious deeds are part of everyday life.

The characters in this book are brilliantly drawn and play off each other’s strengths and weaknesses in a way that is engaging and kept me turning the pages. Celia is strong (and headstrong!) and brave, but she knows she’s going to need Nick’s help to get through this puzzle. And Nick—well, he knows he needs Celia’s help and insights, but his feelings for her make it difficult for him to be around her.

If you like historical novels with three-dimensional characters, witty and sharp dialogue, an ingenious mystery, and a perfect denouement, you will love this book. I highly recommend it. You don’t have to start at the beginning of the series, but if you do, that makes the reading experience even richer.

A Bewitching Read

Sister of Wales by Cynthia Raleigh

Yarrow Pickering is the proprietor of the Lanthorne Ordinary, an inn located in the small hamlet of Milthorpe, Connecticut, in the 17th century. She’s also a skilled and gifted healer, an herb woman, and a witch.

In this second book of the Lanthorne Ordinary series by Cynthia Raleigh, Yarrow finds a glass orb nestled in the sand along the beach not far from her home. Upon close examination of the object, Yarrow knows this orb is more than simply a glass bauble. Its center is glowing and it is wrapped in a tattered piece of fabric that had obviously belonged to someone at one time.

Yarrow’s discovery of the orb sets in motion a series of otherworldly events that have Yarrow concerned for her own safety, as well as that of her sister and the villagers of Milthorpe.

First, a villager is attacked by a beast no one seems to be able to identify. It’s too big to be a wolf…but what else can it be?

Then the injured villager and his wife go missing under suspicious and eerie circumstances: will either of them be seen again? Where did they go and why did they leave the village?

The arrival of an English ship in the harbor of Milthorpe is reason for excitement among the villagers, but at least one of the passengers seems to have business with Yarrow. Who is he and what information does he seek? Is he there for good or for evil?

I could go on, but I won’t because I want you to read this engaging and riveting story for yourself. I said this (among other good things) when I reviewed the first book in the Lanthorne Ordinary series, Summoning the Winds: I am not normally a reader of paranormal or supernatural fiction. But as with Summoning the Winds, I could not put this book down. Cynthia Raleigh is a masterful storyteller with an uncanny knack for description and setting. The reader feels Yarrow’s trepidation, unease, and fear as she faces the prospect of confronting the beast in the woods, as well as certain people in the village who may turn out to be friend or foe.

This story reaches back into the legends of Yarrow’s Welsh ancestors as she learns more about her mother’s legacy and her own responsibility as an herbal woman. The tale does not disappoint.

I would recommend this book to anyone who loves suspense, dark secrets, historical fiction, and a story that unfolds like a beautiful tapestry from the past. You need not be a lover of paranormal or supernatural fiction to love the story, which is lush with legend.

The Bee’s Knees

Aconite, Queen of Poisons by L.M. Jorden

This mystery featuring main character Dr. Josephine Reva is captivating enough, but knowing it is based on the real life of the author’s grandmother, the first female doctor in Brooklyn, NY, makes the story even more delightful.

It’s the Roaring 20s. The world is changing rapidly, and with those changes come disputes over everything from alcohol use to public health to a woman’s place in society. Enter Dr. Reva, a determined young woman who rose from a Little Italy orphanage under the tutelage of Mother Cabrini to become a medical doctor. She stands up for what she thinks, she is vocal in expressing her belief that the medical profession needs more female doctors, she’s whip-smart, and she’s an all-around spitfire. I liked her from the first page.

When a dead body is found not far from Dr. Reva’s home in Brooklyn, she arrives on the scene thinking she can provide medical help. She’s too late for that, but she realizes the victim is someone she knows. In fact, it’s someone she had just spoken with mere hours before his death.

It’s not long before the detective working the case fixes his sights on Dr. Reva, in part because the victim died from poisoning by a plant—and it just so happens Dr. Reva is a student of homeopathy and the use of plant derivatives to promote health and healing.

Things go downhill from there for Dr. Reva. She’s been framed, and she is forced to start asking questions and investigating on her own behalf before she ends up in prison. And when a second victim is found dead, the race is on to find the real killer before he or she can strike again.

This mystery was such a fun read. Not only did I love Dr. Reva, but I found that the secondary characters added rich layers of texture to the story, too. Reading about their relationships with the doctor lent insights into the doctor’s personality and gave me even more reasons to root for her.

The pacing was perfect. The action builds up steadily with the mounting number of suspects, and it was thrilling to read about the simultaneous exhilaration and danger of visiting speakeasies and poking around in some rather seedy places.

I would recommend this book to anyone who loves a strong female sleuth, mysteries set in the 1920s, and a terrific and unique whodunit.