“Catherine House” by Elisabeth Thomas

Catherine HouseHappy Halloween! Normally by now I’d have stocked up on bags of my favorite candies, hoping there would be a few fun-size bars left over after the last trick-or-treater had been served, but this year, the porch light will stay dark. (Currently, our plans call for watching “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special” on Amazon Prime.)

In honor of the holiday, here’s a review of a very creepy book. Catherine House is the story of an elite college that gives its students a free education, but asks a lot of them in return: they must pledge to stay on campus for three years, with little to no contact with the outside world. (The novel is set in the mid-90s, perhaps because it seems inevitable that a few students would manage to sneak in their smartphones if it took place today.) They must also leave the past behind: no family photos, and you’re not even supposed to tell people where you’re from.

Catherine is “a tiny, pioneeering, fanatically private place that by some miracle of chemistry produced some of the world’s best minds: prizewinning authors, artists and inventors, diplomats, senators, Supreme Court justices, two presidents of the United States.” Many of the students who come to Catherine are hoping to study plasm, a wonder compound which has the potential to change the world.

The novel’s protagonist, Ines, is a troubled young woman who comes to Catherine in an effort to run away from some past transgressions which are never explained in detail, but seem to include a mysterious death in which she fears she could be implicated. A decadent bad girl who would rather drink, have sexual adventures and sleep late than attend classes, Ines stands in stark contrast to her roommate Baby, an anxious and hard-working student who desperately wants to get into the competitive new materials concentration so she can work with plasm.

Catherine House covers all three of Ines’ years at the school, and while she manages to improve academically, she becomes increasingly suspicious of what’s really going on in the locked lab where the plasm studies are being carried out, especially after she flips through some old scrapbooks hidden in the back of the library and makes a shocking discovery about a former student.

The languid, moody atmosphere of the novel reminded me a little of the film “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” another dreamlike and disquieting story. Are the students at Catherine House there to receive an education… or are they merely serving as subjects in a dangerously ambitious experiment?

To fully buy into this world, you need to get used to Elisabeth Thomas’ florid, gothic prose, which can be a little much at times. But by the time I finished the book, I appreciated the power of her world-building, drawing readers into Catherine’s eerie, claustrophobic world.

“Float Plan” by Trish Doller

Float PlanI hadn’t intended to review Float Plan today—while I finished it several weeks ago, having received an advance copy via NetGalley, its on-sale date is March 2, 2021. But I didn’t get around to writing a new review this week, so I’m publishing this one three months earlier than I had planned. At least the book is already available for pre-order!

I live a couple blocks away from a marina, and early on during the pandemic, I found myself browsing online “boat for sale” ads. The idea of being able to just sail away from… everything was very tempting. Never mind the fact that I’ve never sailed a boat in my life (I’ve barely even sailed on a boat). I pretty quickly decided that it was (a) impractical and (b) very likely unaffordable, but my short-lived boat fantasies ensured that Float Plan immediately piqued my interest.

Anna, a 25-year-old waitress in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, has been devastated for the past several months, ever since her fiancé Ben killed himself. Ben was an avid sailor, and he and Anna had planned to sail around the Caribbean together, getting married along the way. On the day they were meant to leave, Anna sets off alone, headed for Bimini. Despite what she’d learned from Ben during their voyages, her lack of experience causes her to make some significant errors. So when she finally arrives in Bimini, she posts an ad on the marina’s bulletin board, looking to hire someone who can help her make the journey.

She winds up with Keane, an Irishman whose jobs as a crew member dried up when he lost part of his right leg in an accident (despite the fact that he’s adept at getting around with his prosthetic limb). Keane is an extremely good sailor, and he’s also very handsome, but Anna isn’t looking to get involved with anyone—she wants to follow the exact itinerary Ben had planned for them, no matter what. Eventually, of course, she learns that she has to make her own way in the world.

This is a very sweet story that takes Keane and Anna from island to island (I followed along on a map!), meeting people and having adventures along the way. Trish Doller has obviously explored all of the islands she writes about, and her descriptions are wonderfully vivid. After I finished Float Plan, I felt like I’d been on a little mini-vacation, and it was a lovely trip.

“Anxious People” by Fredrik Backman

Anxious PeopleA few months ago, I started taking advanced Swedish courses over Zoom. The classes are usually held in person at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis, far from my home in California. I grew up speaking Swedish, but I only visited Sweden during the summers; I was educated in the U.S., which meant that I never had any formal instruction on Swedish grammar. So now I’m finally learning about the past participle and different types of adverbs. (I’m the only non-Minnesotan student, which seems to indicate there wasn’t a huge, pent-up demand for high-level Swedish courses in other parts of the country.)

The class is currently reading a book by Annette Haaland, whose novels have yet to be released in English translation. Her series about a Stockholm pastor trying to tend to both her flock and her family has more in common with the gentle stories of Alexander McCall Smith than with the bloody crime novels that have come to define the Nordic noir genre. If I wanted to, I could easily fill this blog with reviews of Scandinavian crime fiction from January to December, since so much of it is being published here, but most of it is just too dark for me, especially now.

Folk med ångestThe next book my class will be reading is Fredrik Backman’s Folk med ångest, recently published in the U.S. as Anxious People. I had already started reading it in English before I learned I’d have to read it again in Swedish, but it’ll be interesting to see how I react to it the second time around. My feelings about it kept changing—sometimes it struck me as too slapsticky, too sentimental. “I felt like my heartstrings were being plucked a little too aggressively, and I began to resent it,” I wrote in my review of Backman’s Britt-Marie Was Here, and that happened here as well. But then the plot would take a surprising turn, or there would be a genuine laugh-out-loud moment.

Anxious People is not a crime novel, but it deals with the aftermath of a crime. A failed bank robber, on the lam after ineptly attempting to steal 6,500 Swedish kronor (the equivalent of about $735) from a cash-free bank, ends up at an open house in an apartment building in an unnamed town. Everyone inside is taken hostage. Chapters flashing back to the hostage situation are interspersed with ones in which a father-and-son police duo try to interview the often-hostile witnesses and figure out what happened to the robber, who disappeared without a trace after everyone else inside had finally been released.

At first, I found many of the characters intensely irritating—the way the witnesses sass the policemen seemed a little over-the-top (“God, could you be any more annoying?” one asks the cop who is interviewing her, while another witness refers to him as an “idiot” who is “about as sharp as a wet box of cornflakes”)—but the plot is never predictable, and frequently, I actually did find myself feeling rather moved even when it seemed a trifle too manipulative. Backman has spoken publicly about his own battles with depression and how the suicide of a close friend affected his life, and I don’t for a moment doubt his sincerity. Right now, we are a nation of anxious people, and there’s something comforting in reading about a group of people who wind up banding together in order to lift each other up.

“The Wife Stalker” by Liv Constantine and “Well Played” by Jen DeLuca

The Wife StalkerAt first, second and third glance, The Wife Stalker seems to have a lot in common with Liv Constantine’s debut novel, The Last Mrs. Parrish. A woman needs to fight for her (very rich) man when a younger, sexier model appears on the scene. However, the new gal has suspicious motives and a somewhat shady past. In Mrs. Parrish, the young woman was named Amber; here, she’s called Piper.

Twice widowed under somewhat mysterious circumstances, Piper has moved from California to Connecticut and changed her name (from the more-pedestrian Pamela). When she meets Leo, a handsome local lawyer, she is immediately smitten. If I may be permitted to quote myself, from my review of The Last Mrs. Parrish: “This is, of course, the kind of thriller where everyone has secrets—lots and lots of them. Amber thinks Daphne is just another pampered rich lady whom she can easily outsmart, but Daphne’s not going to go down without a fight…” Simply substitute “Piper” for “Amber” and “Joanna” for “Daphne.”

I probably would have enjoyed The Wife Stalker more if I hadn’t already read The Last Mrs. Parrish, and as an avenging heroine, Parrish‘s Daphne just seemed sharper and savvier than Joanna, who is a bit of a sad sack. The big twist seems extremely obvious in retrospect—like The Silent Patient, this is one of those books that made me go back and reread the beginning once I knew the full story—but I will admit that it came as a total surprise to me, so make of that what you will.

Well PlayedMeanwhile, over in Romancelandia, it’s time to catch up with the denizens of the Willow Creek, MD, renaissance faire, introduced in last year’s Well Met. That book really focused on all of the ins and outs of the faire, so Well Played assumes we already know our bucklers from our baldrics.

Well Met heroine Emily’s fellow tavern wench, Stacey, is the protagonist in this sequel. Unlike Emily, who arrived in Willow Creek to live with her sister after a bad break-up and found herself thrown into the unfamiliar world of the ren faire, Stacey lives for it, and has done so throughout her adult life. Her plans to move to New York were thwarted when her mother had a health crisis, and ever since, she’s been living over her parents’ garage and working in a dental office. The only excitement in her life is the faire, and her annual fling with hot musician Dex MacLean, the dumb but hunky guitarist for the Dueling Kilts, who spend the whole year performing on the ren faire circuit.

Dex and his band had already moved on to the next faire when Stacey, under the influence of too much merlot, sends him an email, telling him she misses him. The following morning, she regrets her impetuous decision, but to her surprise, she receives a long, heartfelt message in return. After exchanging a few more emails, Stacey realizes “I’d severely misjudged him, thinking he was just a fun piece of man candy for a couple weeks. No, Dex was the complete package: gorgeous as hell, but smart and sensitive at the same time. Why hadn’t he shown me this side of him when we were together?”

With this book, I had a fairly good idea of where the story was going, and it turns out I was right. You have to suspend your disbelief quite a bit to imagine that Stacey and Dex would be happy to exchange texts and emails for the better part of a year without ever talking on the phone or video-chatting. Once it’s finally time for the next Willow Creek faire, it’s pretty clear that Stacey’s going to be in for a surprise when the Dueling Kilts roll into town. But this is such a sweet and cozy series that I didn’t mind—there’s been so much unpredictability in the news so far this month that I’m perfectly content to snuggle up with a novel where I know everyone will enjoy a happily-ever-after.

“When She Was Good” by Michael Robotham

When She Was GoodMichael Robotham’s Good Girl, Bad Girl, an Edgar Best Novel award nominee, was a top-notch thriller, and fans will be pleased to hear that the sequel, When She Was Good, is out now. I use the word “sequel” advisedly, because this book does not really stand on its own. The first volume introduced us to Evie, a teenager with a mysterious past, but it left many unanswered questions at the end.

“It’s likely that Evie’s backstory will be parceled out in dribs and drabs in future books,” I wrote in my review, but nope, this one tells you everything! As I turned the final page, I felt grateful to the author for not leaving us hanging.

As in Good Girl, we follow two main characters: Evie, a troubled adolescent who seems to be the target of some extremely determined assassins, and Cyrus, a psychologist who works as a consultant for the Nottingham, England, police force. A few years ago, Evie survived a violent attack, and Cyrus has his own tragic backstory; his schizophrenic brother killed their parents and sisters, sparing Cyrus only because he wasn’t home at the time. In the first book, he bonded with Evie, even taking her in as a foster child, but her wild and unpredictable behavior landed her back in a secure children’s home. Cyrus assumes that at least she’ll be safe there, but that turns out not to be the case.

No one knows Evie’s real name, and even DNA tests and public appeals didn’t reveal anything about her identity. Why are some people so determined to kill her? Cyrus digs into her past, to the great consternation of the police, who want him to leave it alone. He doesn’t stop, and that puts a target on his back as well, as he learns that some very powerful people want to silence her for good. The problem is that the scale of the corruption he uncovers is so vast that even with proof, it’s hard for him to convince anyone to pay attention.

Considering some of the real-life crimes that have come to light in the U.K. involving prominent figures, When She Was Good is frighteningly plausible; it’s also quite a grim story, but I found both Cyrus and Evie to be well-rounded, complex and sympathetic characters, well worth spending time with.

“You Had Me At Hola” by Alexis Daria

You Had Me At HolaLast weekend brought some truly disheartening news, and I desperately needed an escape in order to preserve my sanity. Thank goodness for You Had Me At Hola, a delightful romance set in the world of telenovelas, or rather a modern version of the popular Spanish-language soap operas—”Carmen in Charge,” a bilingual series on a Netflix-type streaming service. Up-and-coming actress Jasmine Lin learns right before shooting is due to begin that her original romantic lead broke his leg and has been replaced. Stepping into the role is Ashton Suarez, a dashingly handsome telenovela star in his late 30s.

Jasmine and Ashton are off to a rocky start when he accidentally spills coffee all over her right before their first table read. Once the cameras start rolling, Jasmine is puzzled by her co-star’s standoffishness; he never wants to hang out with the cast after hours, disappearing as soon as the director yells “cut.” In an attempt to improve their on-screen chemistry, Jasmine suggests that they run lines together. She soon finds herself attracted to Ashton, despite the fact that she had promised herself she would focus on her career, not her love life; right before “Carmen in Charge” started filming, Jasmine’s rock-star boyfriend dumped her, making her a tabloid fixture.

Ashton has a hard time keeping his eyes off the gorgeous Jasmine. But what would a good soap opera be without a Shocking Secret? There are things in Ashton’s past which he has been hiding from the world, and dating a paparazzi magnet like Jasmine could prove dangerous. “He knew how he came across—cold, aloof, reserved. It was a carefully crafted persona that made it easier to shut down intrusive reporters and impromptu interviews. If he kept people out, they didn’t look too deep, and therefore didn’t learn about his life.”

One of the things I enjoyed about You Had Me At Hola is the book’s exploration of consent, something of a hot topic in romance fiction these days. The “Carmen in Charge” production staff includes an intimacy coordinator, who choreographs love scenes so the actors will feel comfortable. A lot of local theaters here in the Bay Area have been employing intimacy coordinators for a while now (or, well, they used to; these days, the mere idea of actors kissing conjures up visions of viruses, not romance), and it’s nice to see the profession getting a prominent shout-out in this novel.

Along with the main story about Jasmine, her loving but sometimes overwhelming Puerto Rican family, Ashton, and the rest of the “Carmen in Charge” cast and crew, Alexis Daria drops in chapters which let us know what’s taking place on the show itself. You Had Me At Hola would actually make a fabulous TV series—half of each episode could be devoted to the behind-the-scenes material, and the other half would give us “Carmen in Charge.” Netflix, please give Daria a call!

“Miss Benson’s Beetle” by Rachel Joyce

Miss Benson's BeetleA few months ago, I cut out a Mutts comic strip depicting a dog and cat, both engrossed in books, with the caption “Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are.” One of the most unusual places I’ve “visited” this summer is the remote island of Grand Terre, New Caledonia, located in the South Pacific, about 750 miles east of Australia. Traveling from London to Grand Terre would be something of a challenge even in modern pre-pandemic times, but in 1950, it took weeks and weeks to get there.

It was a trip no single woman would want to undertake by herself, even one as solid and practical as Miss Margery Benson, a spinster in her late 40s. In the book’s first chapter, we learn her tragic backstory; when she was a child, all four of her brothers went off to fight in World War I, where they were all killed on the same day. Her grieving father committed suicide, and her mother slowly faded away, leaving Margery to be raised by her two strict aunts. The only passion in awkward young Margery’s life is beetles. After seeing a drawing of a golden beetle in a book belonging to her father, she became obsessed with them; after his death, she spends hours at the Natural History Museum studying specimens. She sees “silver beetles, black beetles, red, yellow, metallic blue, and green beetles; mottled beetles, hairy beetles, stippled, spotted, striped, burnished,” on and on, but no golden beetles.

Following an embarrassing incident at the school where she’s taught for the past two decades, Margery abruptly walks off the job, determined to take the trust fund she inherited from her aunts and travel to New Caledonia, rumored habitat of the golden beetle. She advertises for an assistant to accompany her on the trip, and through a series of misadventures, she winds up with the distinctly unqualified Enid Pretty, a young, flighty, talkative woman who drives Margery bananas when they are stuck together in a tiny stateroom during their long voyage to Australia.

Eventually, however, the two women start to bond, but their relationship has its ups and downs; when they finally reach Australia, Enid at first decides to stay instead of continuing to New Caledonia. As she notes how quickly Enid has made new friends, Margery feels desperately lonely: “She thought of the group of women… and how easily they had sat together, as if they had no secrets. It occurred to Margery that something inside her was hurting, and the thing that was hurting was the knowledge that she would never be that kind of woman. She would always be on the outside.”

Of course, this isn’t the kind of novel which would allow the two women to be parted just before their adventure begins, and they do continue to New Caledonia, where they will face moments of grave danger and experience great joy. In addition, Margery will find out just what Enid is carrying in her ever-present valise, and the secret she tried to leave behind back in England.

This is a heartfelt and engaging novel, though there were a couple of plot twists I wasn’t crazy about. Mostly, Rachel Joyce’s wonderfully descriptive writing made me feel as though I was along for the ride, hiking up the mountains of Grand Terre, in search of the elusive golden beetle.

Miss Benson’s Beetle was published in the U.K. earlier this year. It will be available in November in the U.S. Thanks to Random House for the advance copy (via Netgalley)!

“Dead Land” by Sara Paretsky

Dead Land by Sara ParetskyI’ve been pretty clear lately about my pandemic-era preference for lighter, more escapist fare, and Sara Paretsky’s latest V.I. Warshawski novel, Dead Land, is definitely not feel-good entertainment. It deals with, among other issues, homelessness, mass shootings, corrupt civic officials, a Fox News-type media organization, and the Pinochet regime in Chile. But V.I. and I go back a long way. I will always welcome the opportunity to catch up with her.

V.I.’s goddaughter, Bernie, invites the private eye to accompany her to a meeting of a Chicago civic group. The council had helped sponsor the youth soccer team Bernie coached, and wanted the girls to put in an appearance following their final game of the season. Like all too many local community meetings, this one winds up in a shouting match when protestors get riled up about plans for the South Side lakefront.

Afterwards, as Bernie and V.I. are headed home, they hear a haunting song played on a toy piano. The musician turns out to be a homeless woman named Lydia Zamir, who was a well-known singer/songwriter until her lover was gunned down during an outdoor concert in Kansas. Before long, Zamir has disappeared, two of the people associated with the civic group have been murdered, and some of V.I.’s nearest and dearest are threatened. As the novel winds its way through almost 400 well-plotted pages, Zamir’s plight turns out to overlap with the lakeshore plans in some unexpected ways… and V.I., who is, as ever, in search of the truth, finds herself in the crosshairs of a murderer.

“You PIs are all alike,” a local police sergeant tells V.I. “You want some big drama that will get you headlines, but crime isn’t like that, especially not crime in Chicago.” Regular readers of Paretsky’s fiction know that’s not true—major white-collar conspiracies are out there just waiting to be uncovered by a particularly dogged detective. Dead Land is an epic achievement by one of the true greats of the genre.

“Big Lies in a Small Town” by Diane Chamberlain

Big Lies in a Small TownI’m a sucker for books in which someone in the present day is trying to solve a mystery from the past. Big Lies in a Small Town—a distressingly generic title; maybe it was supposed to remind people of Big Little Lies, which it resembles not at all—whips back and forth between 1940 and 2018, as a troubled young artist tries to figure out why she was chosen to restore an almost 80-year-old mural, and what became of the woman who originally created it.

Morgan Christopher is plucked out of prison (where she was serving time after taking the fall for a crime committed by her boyfriend) by a pair of women who tell her that she’s been selected to come to Edenton, North Carolina, and work on an enormous mural that’s been sitting in storage since 1940. Once it has been spruced up, it will be displayed in a brand-new museum devoted to the work of Jesse Jameson Williams, a well-known Black artist who recently died at the age of 95. In his will, he stipulated that Morgan has to do the job all by herself, and on a ridiculously tight deadline of just under two months. If the mural isn’t in place by August 5, his daughter—one of the women who got Morgan out of prison—will not be able to continue living in the family home.

It all sounds kind of complicated and ridiculous, but the book moves along at a rapid clip and eventually you just go with it. At least Morgan, who was an art student but did not study conservation, is smart enough to realize that she’s incredibly unqualified for the job, and that ordinarily, properly restoring a mural that’s in pretty bad shape would take an entire team several months to do. You’d think a professional artist like Williams would have realized that an untrained young woman, even one with the best of intentions, might make a terrible hash out of an object he cared so deeply about.

Chapters about Morgan and her adventures in restoration alternate with flashbacks to 1940, when another young artist, Anna Camp, wins a competition and is sent to Edenton to paint—you guessed it—a mural, meant to hang in the local post office. Her mother, who was mentally ill, has just committed suicide, leaving Anna all alone in the world, so with nothing to lose, she packs up and heads South. Questions begin to arise: why was Anna’s mural never hung? How did it come into the possession of then-teenaged Williams, and why did he keep it hidden away for all those years? And how does Morgan, a white girl with a criminal record, fit into the picture? Will she finish the mural on time, allowing her benefactor to keep her cherished home?

In a two-page prologue, set in 1940, we also learn that there’s a dead body involved, but we don’t know anything about the victim besides the fact that he’s a white man. So I guess Big Lies can be loosely classified as a murder mystery, though the murder itself does not take place until about 2/3 of the way through the book. There are so many other interesting mysteries along the way, though, that even though I really wanted to learn all of the answers, I was also a little bit sorry when I turned the final page of the book. Sorry, but also satisfied.

“A Royal Affair” by Allison Montclair

A Royal AffairMy review of Allison Montclair’s novel The Right Sort of Man regularly gets clicks from people searching the web for “Who is Allison Montclair?” I still don’t know—this time, I asked my friend Janet, who published a guest post by the author on her blog, if she had any idea, and she said no. Janet is very plugged in to the mystery community, so if even she doesn’t know, Montclair’s identity is truly a Big Secret.

During the pandemic, however, being a pseudonymous author isn’t much of a hindrance; there are no book tours or mystery conferences taking place. The work stands on its own. A Royal Affair is a smart follow-up to The Right Sort of Man; it takes place almost immediately after the events of the first book, but this time, no client of The Right Sort Marriage Bureau winds up dead. That would be really hard for a new business to bounce back from. But former spy Iris Sparks and war widow Gwendolyn Bainbridge still encounter a dead body in the course of their work.

Gwen’s cousin Lady Matheson comes to the Right Sort office with a highly sensitive job opportunity for the pair. Young Princess Elizabeth is besotted with Prince Philip, whom she first met when she was only 13. The handsome Greek royal, whose family was exiled from the country when he was an infant, needs to be thoroughly vetted to make sure that there are no skeletons in his closet; the Royal Family has received an anonymous letter hinting at scandal in his family background. In an effort to avoid palace gossip, Lady Matheson wants Sparks and Bainbridge to figure out if there’s any truth to the accusations.

Gwen relies on her aristocratic connections, while her partner reluctantly reconnects with a former colleague from her war years. The plot gets rather convoluted. But I absolutely love the two main characters. We get a clearer glimpse into Sparks’ war past, while Bainbridge has managed to reach a sort of rapprochement with her mother-in-law, with whom she lives. After her husband’s death, Bainbridge was institutionalized due to her grief, and her in-laws managed to get custody of her only child, a young boy; her father-in-law doesn’t appear in this book, as he’s traveling, but he’s intent on enrolling little Ronnie in boarding school as soon as possible, something to which Gwen is adamantly opposed. I suspect that plot point will return with a vengeance in the third book (to be titled A Rogue’s Company, according to Montclair’s blog post). Once again, Montclair gives readers a fascinating glimpse into postwar London, and shows how the ghosts of World War II continue to haunt the survivors.