Still in despair by our country’s current political environment and horrified by the catastrophes unfolding in Washington, D.C., I am seeking relief (or hiding) in various ways. I tried floating in a epsom salt float tank and loved it…more about that later. I am getting back into yoga and grateful to have so many good studio options in and near Evanston. Most of all, I am reading a lot and taking advantage of my EPL card.
In quick succession I enjoyed these three mysteries and a tear-jerker: The Dry by Jane Harper, a first-time novelist; The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware; and The Wonder by Emma Donoghue, author of the wonderful and highly acclaimed, Room; and A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman.
The Dry takes place in a section of Australia that has not seen any rainfall for two years. The land and everything on it is withering..cracking..dying. Crops won’t grow and livestock can’t survive. Financial ruin is everywhere. As the book opens, Aaron Falk, a federal agent, is en route to the funeral of his high school friend Luke. Aaron hasn’t been home in twenty years and is determined to spend as little time as possible in town, counting down the hours until he can leave without seeming rude. It seems Luke snapped due to the impending loss of his farm and shot his wife and young son, sparing only his infant daughter, before killing himself.
Twenty years ago Luke provided an alibi for Aaron when a young woman was reported missing. This mutual friend later turned up dead. Despite Luke’s insistence that Aaron and he were together, town gossip blamed Aaron for the death and effectively chased him and his father out of town. Luke’s father knows the boys lied and asks Aaron to stay in town a few extra days to see if Aaron can help clear Luke’s name. In addition to the unrelenting heat, the gossip and cliques within the community add their own type of oppressiveness, where the past is never really over and everyone seems to know everybody else’s business. The story builds logically bit by bit over the course of a week until its dramatic and combustible conclusion. The Dry is a fun read, perfect for a beach vacation or long flight.
The Woman in Cabin 10 is a psychological mystery. Lo, a travel writer, is under tremendous stress and possible PTSD due to a recent attack during a break-in at her home and later, an argument and possible split with her boyfriend. The timing of both events could not have been worse as she is scheduled to leave in two days on a highly anticipated press junket aboard a luxury yacht trip en route to see the Aurora Borealis. The break-in has left her unable to sleep without alcohol to blot out her nightmares. In her boozy haze the first night out to sea, Lo is convinced she hears and sees a woman being tossed overboard from the cabin next to hers. She notifies the ship’s staff, but the room is unoccupied and no one is unaccounted for among the ship’s staff or guests. The ship’s security officer politely but firmly dismisses her concerns and suspects she is hallucinating, imagining things because of her recent break-in, hung over or a combination of all of the above. To complicate things further, the WiFi on the ship is not working and Lo is unable to receive or to send emails. Is she going crazy? Paranoid? Is there a secret killer on the ship that only she sees? Combine fuzzy memories, a disoriented sense of time and personal space, and ample self-doubt for a toxic mix. Similar in some ways to The Girl on the Train, The Woman in Cabin 10 is a challenging whodunit with a surprise twist ending.
If you liked the tension and insular world of Room, I think you’ll enjoy The Wonder. Emma Donoghue has created another tight, restrictive environment, this time in 1859 Ireland. For the past four months, since her eleventh birthday, Anna has stopped eating save for a few teaspoons of water each day. A deeply religious young girl, Anna’s family and neighbors believe she is a living miracle in their midst. The local priest has doubts and wants to be certain Anna is a true miracle, so a group of townspeople hires two nurses to watch over Anna at all times for two weeks to determine if she is sneaking food or, as Anna maintains, living off of “manna from heaven.” One of the nurses is a young widow, trained by Florence Nightingale, and determined to uncover the scheme. Much to her surprise, Lib is charmed by Anna and believes her to be sincere, if not misguided.
Despite 24-hour surveillance, Lib and other nurse, Sister Michael, are unable to find hidden food or determine how Anna might be getting any sustenance. All outward physical signs show that Anna is slowly dying, yet no one — not her physician, her priest, her parents, her cousin who lives with them, or the other nurse, Sister Michael — is doing anything to actively save Anna from certain death. Why is the child willingly starving herself? And how can Lib save Anna before being run out of town, since Lib’s ‘by the book’ manner and irreligious approach have already provoked the ire of the local priest, the family doctor, and Anna’s parents. The Wonder is a story of love, commitment, and redemption. claustrophobic at times, the intensity builds as Anna deteriorates, but the end is nothing short of miraculous.
I know I’m late to the party about A Man Called Ove as it’s been in print since 2012, but better late than never. Ove is a curmudgeon. He is almost mean and very rigid, and he is determined to commit suicide to end his troubles. Thing is, his plans keep getting waylaid by the people around him…boisterous neighbors, a pushy cat, fainting commuters…there is no end to the interruptions! But little by little, his icy heart starts to thaw. This is his story. I loved this book — I laughed out loud more than once and was charmed to tears as the story of Ove’s life was slowly revealed. If you need a feel-good book to read or give, this is the one.