A Solitude of Wolverines by Alice Henderson (2020)

Wildlife biologist and back-country enthusiast Dr. Alex Carter has been slowly suffocating at her office job in Boston, a city she reluctantly moved to to placate a demanding boyfriend. When she is offered a job living and working on a nature preserve in rural Montana, she jumps at the chance.

In just a matter of days she knows she has made the right choice. Being back in the mountains, with only the plants and animals to keep her company, is delightful; and her work tracking elusive wolverines to determine the health of the population is thrilling and meaningful.

The only drawback is the hostile welcome she has received from local hunters, ranchers, and other conservative neighbors who hate to see valuable land set aside as a nature preserve. When their verbal threats have no effect on Alex’s commitment to her research, things take a dark turn and suddenly she is being run off the road, threatened at her lodgings, and tracked in the woods.

The harder the locals try to run her off, the deeper Alex digs in her heels knowing that returning the mountain to the animals that need it to survive is what is best. As it turns out, the locals do not like being told no by anyone, especially a woman. Suddenly it is not only the animals who need to survive on the mountain, but Alex as well.

For a first novel, and a first book in a series, this was not bad but it was clumsy and awkward in several places. With some work, Alex Carter might really become a fantastic character: wildlife warrior and mystery solver extraordinaire.

An Unexpected Peril by Deanna Raybourn (2021)

Veronica Speedwell series #6

The daring and convention-defying Miss Veronica Speedwell has barely caught her breath since her last brush with death, detailed in A Murderous Relation, when she digs up yet another mystery that she feels compelled to investigate.

When an acquaintance of Veronica, a world-famous mountain climber and outspoken rule-breaker, dies while summiting a peak in a small European country, Veronica is sad but unsurprised. Climbing mountains is an inherently dangerous business, after all. When she stumbles across evidence that it might not have been an accidental fall but murder, Veronica enthusiastically jumps in to investigate.

Veronica’s lover and investigative partner, Stoker, urges caution and patience. After all, he argues, the woman died months earlier in another country and solving the murder — if there even was one — is for the authorities elsewhere.

Veronica cannot be stopped. While she claims it is in the pursuit of justice, in quieter moments Veronica must admit that the domestic life she is building with Stoker in London is suffocating and dull and not at all what she wants for herself. Breaking and entering; theft; and impersonating a member of the royal family are just what she needs to spice things up.

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware (2016)

Ruth Ware’s other novels reviewed on this site include: In the Dark, Dark Wood, One by One, Turn of the Key, The Lying Game, and The Death of Mrs. Westaway

Satellite image of the North Sea.

Following the success of her debut novel, In the Dark, Dark Wood, Ware’s second thriller was released with a great deal of publicity and an early spot on the best-seller’s list. However, while Ware has crafted a wonderful story, her story-telling skills are a bit shaky and — as a result — Woman in Cabin 10 never becomes as good a novel as it could have been.

The story centers on the experiences of Laura Blackfoot, a second-rate travel writer who has been given a chance to set sail on the maiden voyage of the luxury yacht the Aurora Borealis and write a piece about her trip. However, Laura (or Lo) is in a fragile mental state, shaken up by a burglary in her home the night before leaving for her trip.

Lo arrives on-board feeling like an under-prepared outsider. Still recovering from her attack, she seeks to manage her fear by drinking too much, passes out and is awakened in the middle of the night to hear what she is certain is a murder taking place next door in Cabin 10.

Her erratic behavior, her excessive drinking, and her lack of professionalism combine to make the staff and passengers of the ship disinclined to believe her. In fact, she soon learns that there are no passengers registered to Cabin 10 and the woman Lo is certain was killed may never have even existed.

Despite the fact that she has been warned away from pursuing her own investigation, Lo finds she cannot let it go; she cannot leave a mystery unsolved. Soon, Lo has turned all of her time and attention toward learning who the missing woman was and who — surely, it must be one of the small number of people aboard the ship? — murdered her. The deeper she digs, the more she finds strange things happening to her and before long she begins to wonder if her life is in danger as well.

My primary critique of The Woman in Cabin 10 is that the first-person narrator comes off rather like the heroine of a Young Adult novel. (Indeed, this was was same criticism I had for In the Dark, Dark Wood.) That said, Ware’s plot moved swiftly and her secondary characters are an nerve-wracking collection of possible murder suspects. Additionally, the setting of the luxury yacht adrift in the North Sea with a cast of reporters, millionaires, and staff was a excellent choice for a thriller.

Norwegian Fjords

Gathering Dark by Candice Fox (2021)

Dr. Blair Harbour was a wealthy and accomplished pediatric surgeon when she snapped, murdered her neighbor and her life ended. She spent ten miserable years in prison, losing her son, her career, her freedom and nearly her mind.

When she is released from prison, all she wants is to reestablish a relationship with her son but that turns out to be far more complicated than she imagined. Probation officers, child protective services, and a list of other government agencies do not find her fit to mother a child. So she is forced to live in a shitty apartment, work a terrible job, and settle for seeing her son once a week.

As humiliating as she finds her life as an ex-con, Blair keeps her head down, focused on getting her life in order so she can regain custody of her son. All of those careful plans come to an end when a former cell-mate shows up in Blair’s life and asks for help finding her missing teenager daughter. Even though she is forbidden from associating with former criminals as part of her parole, Blair decides she cannot turn the desperate woman away.

The two women grossly underestimated how difficult their task would be and soon the find themselves indebted to a very rich and very dangerous woman whose interest in the case makes no sense, but whose money and contacts are too useful to turn down. When their questions start getting them shot at and beat up, they decide to ask a fourth woman to join their rag-tag team of investigators. They turn to the only cop they can think of who might help them: the one who arrested Blair for murder.

Detective Jessica Sanchez has a lot of problems in her personal and professional life and she does not want anything to do with the bullshit these ladies are bringing to her. However, like Blair, Jessica finds it hard to say no, especially since evidence has come to light that might prove Blair was innocent of the murder charge all those years ago. As a twisted form of penance for (perhaps) wrongfully convicting Blair and having her child taken away, Jessica reluctantly agrees to help.

Is the missing girl innocent? Has she gotten mixed up with gangs and is now beyond help? Or is she hiding out because she knows something that powerful men want to keep secret? It seems very likely that everyone involved will die trying to solve this case.

The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves (1999)

Vera Stanhope Mystery #1

Inspired by how much I have liked Cleeves’ most recent series, including The Heron’s Cry, I picked this book up at the library. I admit to feeling a bit daunted by the fact that it runs 540 pages, but I wanted something to read that was not too demanding, given my busy work schedule.

The story follows three scientists who are living and working at a hostel in the mountains of northwest England. The women are there to conduct an environmental impact study of the area, to determine if plans to open a quarry nearby will be damaging to the local wildlife. The first night they arrive, the women are stunned to find the body of a local farmer in the barn, dead in an apparent suicide.

Unsettled to be so isolated after finding a body, the women get off to a rocky start and their relationship continues to deteriorate quickly, each woman keeping secrets, some darker than others. When one of the scientists is murdered while out doing her research, the local police arrive. Led by an unconventional and somewhat unlikable chief inspector Vera Stanhope, the police ask the remaining two women to stay at the hostel and keep working. They suspect that the murder is linked to someone who wants the quarry project to go forward, no matter what.

Love’s Executioner by Irvin Yalom (1989)

Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy

Irvin Yalom’s book does something that no textbook or psychological journal article would dare: it reveals therapy as messy, complicated, imprecise, frustrating, boring, and yet somehow still miraculous. Even though the world is indifferent, even though we are all alone, even though we risk every day losing the things we love the most — including our own lives — it is still an astonishing gift to be alive. Yalom’s therapy sessions remind us of the most profound truth of all: life is precious precisely because it is fleeting.

In the therapy room we see Yalom enraged at clients who refuse to stop lying to themselves and we also see him moved to tears by the exquisite insights they come to. While he cannot cure their heartache or loneliness or their fear of dying, he can be a present and willing witness to their pain and, in doing so, he can help lighten their burdens.

“The four givens in life are: the inevitability of death for us and those we love; the freedom we have to make our lives as we will; our ultimate aloneness; and finally the absence of meaning or sense to life. However grim these givens seem, they contain the seeds of wisdom and redemption. It is possible to confront the truths of existence and harness their power in the service of personal change and growth.”

Yalom is not apart from his clients, but deeply and loving with them since these “givens” apply to him as much as to them. He understands their fears because he has them too, but he knows that together they can transform these fears into energy that powers clients to change their lives for the better.

The Heron’s Cry by Ann Cleeves (2021)

Matthew Venn Book #2

In the follow-up to her novel, The Long Call, Ann Cleeves brings back Matthew Venn and his team of detectives from Devon (UK). After the chaos of their last big case, the detectives have still been settling back into their personal lives: the last case stirred up intense feelings, secrets, and dramas across the community and in their home lives as well.

As an blistering and unexpected heatwave bakes the small villages of Devon, the detectives have been momentarily lulled into a sort of torpor. When the calls arrives that a body has been found at an artist’s community near the coast, the team gathers (a bit hungover, perhaps…and maybe a touch too excited for some action) to find a local doctor stabbed to death in his daughter’s home.

The initial investigation finds the victim — Nigel — is a well-loved and widely respected doctor, who has focused his retirement on helping patients fight for the care they need from the NHS. Everyone interviewed is quick to point out how lovely he was, that no one would ever want to hurt such a man.

Soon enough, Matthew uncovers information that Nigel’s investigations into negligent NHS doctors and facilities upset several people in the region. The individual doctors all deny any anger toward Nigel — “he’s just doing his job…we all want patients to get better” — but under the surface the detectives sense fear and rage at the inquiries. In particular, Nigel’s investigation of two past suicides seems to have churned up some rather strong emotions.

As the heatwave burns on, more bodies turn up: some murdered, some possibly suicides. Frantic to stop the killer, the team spins in circles trying to find out what is going on: is this about the NHS investigations? The suicides? Money? Love? The more motives they uncover, the further way the killer seems.

The night the scorching heat finally and dramatically comes to a stormy end, the murderer and their motives are revealed.

The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear (2019)

The Maisie Dobbs Series, book #15 (many of this series have been reviewed on this site, they can all be found under #winspear)

the american agent

Our story opens in London during the terrifying months of Germany’s Blitzkrieg, when by day the British went about their lives, refusing to give in to fear… but by night, most huddled in shelters while their city was ravaged by bombs. Some, like our indefatigable, gritty, brave heroine Maisie Dobbs, spends those nights not inside a shelter but on the streets of London driving an ambulance to carry the wounded to hospitals and the dead to the morgue.

Under these intense circumstances, Maisie — already rather extended between her work as an investigator and her ambulance driving — is approached to investigate the murder of a American woman living in London as a war correspondent. She is asked to tread very carefully during her investigation, given the woman’s citizenship and the fact that her family is very wealthy, very powerful and are very, very outspoken against helping the UK fight the Nazi’s.

Maisie agrees to help and dives into the life of Catherine Saxon; a woman quickly revealed to have been smart, brave, vivacious, and well-liked. Her career was on the rise — she had caught the eye of Edward R. Murrow — and she had a budding romance with a RAF pilot. At first glance, Catherine’s murder appears to be motivated by her reporting which was published widely in America and was explicitly trying to win American’s over; to urge their government to come to the aid of the Brits. Her work seemed to have touched a nerve among American Isolationists, most notably her father. Could her father have ordered her murder? Or was she working on a piece about the American Ambassador, who is rumored to be a Nazi sympathizer, and that led to her murder?

Working in close contact with an American spy, a man who Maisie cannot help but feel attracted to, she must quietly try to bring Catherine’s murderer to justice while not upsetting the delicate diplomacy between the UK and America, all the while meeting resistance from Catherine’s father. Meanwhile, bombs rain down nightly on Maisie and millions of others in England and a German invasion seems closer every day.

Her only respite from the bombings and the case are her retreats to the country to visit her foster daughter, her parents, and close friends. But she knows she cannot permanently retreat there for if they are to have a future, to have freedom, then she — and all of those working for the war effort — must keep on fighting as long as they can.

This series never fails to thrill and inform and deeply move readers. Winspear captures the time in history in accurate and terrifying detail, and she has crafted on of my favorite all-time book characters in Maisie Dobbs; a woman wounded but never, ever defeated.

State of Terror by Louise Penny & Hilary Clinton (2021)

Ellen Adams (a thinly veiled Hilary Clinton) is a brilliant and successful media mogul who has been asked to take up the post of US Secretary of State to help repair the damage done by the terrifyingly inept and negligent former president (a thinly veiled Donald Trump.) She agrees to the job even though she knows the new President and his cabinet have their doubts about her abilities.

Just days into her new position, three terrorist attacks rock Europe and Ellen is called on to collect any intelligence information the US may have that can help determine who placed the bombs and why. What she finds instead is evidence that the former administration may have willingly helped terrorist groups. Knowing that she cannot trust anyone with this information until she knows just who is involved in these acts of treason, she gathers a few trusted colleagues and quietly begins investigating on her own.

What she uncovers is a horrifying plot to denote bombs across the world, including in America. She must try to solve the puzzle of who is behind the plot and how to stop them, all while secretly investigating her fellow White House staffers.

While State of Terror was readable and fun, political thrillers are definitely not to my taste. Overall, there is a bit too much Hilary Clinton and not enough Louise Penny in the story. However, I did really like the main character Ellen and I would be willing to follow her on more adventures, especially if Penny could take more of a hand in shaping her.

A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins (2021)

After her first two books, The Girl on the Train (which was good, but over-hyped) and Into the Water (which was excellent,) Paula Hawkins’ third book is a disappointing addition to the collection. While it has the all of elements a good psychological thriller, the individuals parts are too clunky and muddled to weave together into one cohesive story.

Set in London, A Slow Fire Burning tells the story of five individuals whose traumatic and grief-filled lives intersect during a police investigation of two deaths: one of an older woman that was suspicious but ruled accidental, and the other of a young man stabbed to death. Four of the five characters had the opportunity to kill the young man and the motive to end his life. The fifth is a neighbor who is connected to the victims and knows all of the suspects.

Each narrator tells the readers their particular heart-wrenching story and reveals bits and pieces of their relationships with the two dead people. Back and and forth the narration shifts between the five, helping us understand their motivations and laying breadcrumbs for us to follow as we try to determine who is the real killer.

However, in execution none of the elements of this book work and overall effect is story with no urgency, told by a cast of uneven and unlikable characters, which I had to force myself to finish. Read Into the Water, a far superior book that showcases Hawkins talents far better.