mystery fiction

All Shapes and Disguises by Lee-Anne Stack

Local Author Book Review #17: All Shapes and Disguises by Lee-Anne Stack

This is another in my occasional series called Local Author Book Reviews, featuring authors from the Greater Victoria (British Columbia) region whose books are included in the Greater Victoria Public Library’s Emerging Local Authors Collection.

Book Description:

Kate, Pearl and Colin are back for another wild adventure. Vacationing at her family’s remote cottage in northern Ontario, Kate rescues a stranger who’s been injured after losing a blueberry patch dispute with a bear. His captivating charm immerses them in a world of gold, murder, and real estate conspiracies. But is he the real deal? With night whispering its arrival, Kate is challenged to confront one of her greatest fears.

My review:

Kate O’Malley (first encountered in Clamming Up) is back, along with her friends Pearl and Colin. This time, the trio is vacationing in Kate’s family’s cabin (known as The Camp) on a lake near Timmins, in northern Ontario. This setting, clearly based on a real place known to and loved by the author, informs and illustrates the story. Even the mosquitoes and leeches are included, as well as bears, moose (there’s a really good scene with one of these), otters, and other wildlife.

Before the fun begins, though, a prologue shows the final moments of a woman’s life. The means of her death and the reasons for it constitute the mystery element of the book, one which emerges gradually amid activities such as fishing, swimming, and boating. Another character emerges as well—Ben Brodan, whom Kate rescues after he’s injured while eluding a mother bear. It turns out Ben was a friend of the deceased woman. As Kate and her friends help him out, they are drawn into a legal tangle involving gold, mining claims, property transactions, contracts, and shady enterprises. Kate and Ben are also drawn to one another, introducing an element of romance.

Even though it takes a while for the mystery to manifest, there is always something exciting going on. Kate and the others know how to enjoy themselves, whether they are fishing, cooking, playing board games, or imbibing an impressive array of beverages. (In fact, a complete menu for a stay at a rustic lakeside retreat may be derived from this book.)

The point of view and narrative voice is Kate’s, in short chapters with catchy titles. A few even shorter untitled chapters briefly show nameless persons carrying out sinister deeds. A couple of local eccentrics and an Ontario Provincial Police detective with the memorable name of Tuffanski round out the supporting cast.

The motives and methods are figured out after a number of harrowing situations and with the help of friends in the right places, a few lucky breaks, and some tech. The ending is satisfying. I recommend this book unreservedly to anyone looking for a realistic mystery with an upbeat style. The vicarious stay at The Camp is a bonus.

Blue rose

Compellingly Re-readable: Peter Straub’s “Blue Rose” Books

Not long ago, I unintentionally re-read Peter Straub’s book Koko yet again. It was published in 1988, followed in 1990 by Mystery and in 1993 by The Throat. The three are known collectively as the “Blue Rose Series.”

What is it about these books that has led me to re-read them?

They’re called a series, but they don’t quite line up. Two characters appear in two of the books, but not in all three. Primary characters in one of the books don’t exist at all in the others, or maybe they do, but with different names and personalities. One of the main characters is a writer, and the final book suggests the other two were written by him. Things like this make the reader say, “WTF?” and go looking for details they half-remember. And that’s often a reason to start reading the whole set all over again.

They’re all rooted in Straub’s childhood in Milwaukee. The tropical island in Mystery is called “Mill Walk.” Three characters in Koko go to a wintry Milwaukee and finally figure out who the killer is. And the main character of The Throat grows up in a city called Millhaven, and has a life-changing experience as a kid that’s pretty much the same as that of the main character of Mystery AND of a young Peter Straub in the real, actual Milwaukee.

This paragraph from near the beginning of The Throat describes that incident:

At that moment I died–the boy named Timothy Underhill, the seven-year-old me, died of shock and injury. He had a fractured skull, his pelvis and his right leg were shattered, and he died. Such a moment is not visible from a sidewalk. I have the memory of sensation, of being torn from my body by a giant, irresistible force and being accelerated into another, utterly different dimension. Of blazing light. What remains is the sense of leaving the self behind, all personality and character, everything merely personal. All of that was gone, and something else was left. I want to think that I was aware of April [his sister, who was killed] far ahead of me, sailing like a leaf through some vast dark cloudgate. There was an enormous, annihilating light, a bliss, an ecstasy you have to die to earn. Unreasoning terror surrounds it and engulfs this memory, if that’s what it is. I dream about it two or three times a week, a little more frequently than I dream about the man I killed face-to-face. The experience was entirely nonverbal and, in some basic way, profoundly inhuman. One of my clearest and strongest impressions is that living people are not supposed to know.

Even though I’ve read this many times, it still gives me shivers.

“Twisty” is an inadequate word to describe these books. They are long, six or seven hundred pages, and all three feature some pretty dark stuff, such as serial murders and vivid scenes from the Vietnam War. The violent and grisly elements aren’t ends in themselves; they’re more like intensifiers for the theme of how evil manifests in human beings.

Mystery (novel by Peter Straub) cover image

There are multiple villains in these books, and some are more villainous than others. Straub suggests that some people do horrible things for reasons beyond their control. They are victims as much as villains. Others choose to indulge their inner darkness, even when it’s within their capabilities to do otherwise. These are the real villains. In all three books, a complex and labyrinthine fictional trail brings the reader face to face with a truly evil human being. These books aren’t horror, but their effect is the same.

Then there’s Straub’s prose. Many scenes are set in unbeautiful or even terrible places, but his descriptions are vivid and detailed, like this one from Koko:

Far beneath in a wide valley, smokestacks pushed out grey clouds like wings that froze and hung in the black air. Small red fires burned and danced at the tops of columns, and red lights shone far down at the heads of trains that clanked slowly forward, showering sparks.

Another aspect of Straub’s Blue Rose books is that they shoulder aside many rules of writing. They’re full of scenes that really don’t contribute to the plot, and extra stuff about jazz music, sex tourism in Bangkok, the Gospel of Thomas, and other tangential topics. The names of two main characters differ by only one letter (and they are three-letter names). There are plenty of words that end in “-ly.” But these books are absorbing. I soaked right into them, and was happy to spend time there.

Do I recommend these books? Yes, but only to readers who like dark, slow burns with occasional violent jolts.

To quote a line from Mystery:

The world is half night–that was what he knew.

Constant Sister: a Sister Katherine medieval mystery by Gillian Bridge book cover

Local Author Book Review #14: Constant Sister: a Sister Katherine medieval mystery by Gillian Bridge

Despite the subtitle, this book is so much more than a whodunit in a medieval setting. Reading it is like watching the tiny, jewel-like pictures in an illuminated psalter come to life. It is a heartfelt story rooted in history, with a carefully structured plot and memorable characters. Readers familiar with London may recognize familiar place names with amazement at how different things were more than 800 years ago.

The story begins with the coronation of King Richard I (“the Lionheart”) and the riot and fire that followed attacks on Jewish people who attended the event. Sister Katherine nurses some of the victims of the fire in St. Bartholemew’s Hospital. Subsequent scenes introduce her brothers, Robert and William, and several other characters whose interactions create the central question of the story: who killed Master Simon?

As scenes unfold and interlock, leading to the answer to that question, the author’s knowledge of life in medieval England emerges and captivates. The characters represent a full range of social statuses and occupations, such as prosperous merchants, dutiful knights, busy clerks, dedicated religious, craftsmen, farmers and herders. Among them, Sister Katherine and her brothers (the elder a clerk, the younger a monk) play important roles in the final resolution. Women are not all subservient and uneducated, although their roles are more circumscribed than those of men. Details of architecture, clothing, food and drink, commerce, law, and agriculture are skillfully woven into the plot. A glossary at the end offers further information. I came away from the book with an increased knowledge of medieval life.

Parts of the book are set on the road between London and Colchester. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 8, in which one of the characters sets out on a ride to that town:

Robert rode carefully to avoid children who ran laughing after balls or willfully from the restraining arms of their mothers. As he entered the shadow of the ancient double gate with its raised portcullises, he was forced almost to a standstill by a flock of sheep on their last journey to the Shambles. Egged on by dogs and boys with sticks, they flowed around Sparrow’s legs, a moving sea of woolly foam. Then suddenly he was free. Ahead, crowded within the bars of Whitechapel were the workshops of glaziers and bell founders and, in the distance, the village of Whitechapel lay open to the fields. The rutted road was hard under Sparrow’s hooves; white clouds sailed overhead. He nodded to the gatekeeper as he passed the Bars and then smiled fiercely with pleasure as Sparrow tossed her head and snorted.

Aloud he remembered words from his childhood: “Hast thou given the horse strength? Hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?” He shouted out his response, “Yes,” and Sparrow picked up speed.

By the end of the book, most of the human dramas are resolved in a plausible and satisfying way, although not without a few tantalizing loose ends which make me wonder if a sequel is to follow. I certainly hope so.

My rating: 9 out of 10 stars (in my own rating system: 1 = abysmal, 2 = barely readable, 3 = mediocre, 4 = not bad, 5 = OK but not great, 6 = good but unremarkable, 7 = pretty good, 8 = really good, 9 = remarkable, 10 = superlative).

Constant Sister is published by Quadra Books and available on Amazon.