A Timeless Feel to a Kidnapping

coatThe Girl in the Red Coat

by Kate Hamer

Newly single mom Beth has one constant, gnawing worry: that her dreamy eight-year-old daughter, Carmel, who has a tendency to wander off, will one day go missing.

And then one day, it happens: On a Saturday morning thick with fog, Beth takes Carmel to a local outdoor festival, they get separated in the crowd, and Carmel is gone.

Shattered, Beth sets herself on the grim and lonely mission to find her daughter, keeping on relentlessly even as the authorities tell her that Carmel may be gone for good.

Carmel, meanwhile, is on a strange and harrowing journey of her own—to a totally unexpected place that requires her to live by her wits, while trying desperately to keep in her head, at all times, a vision of her mother …

Via Goodreads

When I started this book I wondered if it would feel different from other books I’ve read about missing children. I hung in longer than I usually do to see if something would develop and it did – Carmel’s experience while kidnapped.

Carmel is a precocious child and, while at a book fair with her mother, openly talks about how she doesn’t know her grandparents. The man who takes her overhears and uses this information for his cover story. He is her grandfather and will take care of her since her mother was hit by a car.

None of this is what made me keep reading. It was after Carmel wakes up in America with her ‘grandfather’, his girlfriend and her two daughters. He is a traveling preacher and they live out of a shoddy caravan with little money. This felt like something out of time, especially once he has her use her healing hands at a church. I kept imagining an American West from over a hundred years ago, not modern day America with cars and cell phones.

It didn’t feel impossible that a preacher selected a girl who looked like a girl he used to use in services who has since mysteriously gone away. It didn’t feel impossible that she believed his statements about being her grandfather, her mother’s accident and death, her father wanting her to stay with her grandfather since he’s gotten remarried. These are all reasonable explanations, particularly to a child with little agency.

There was a supernatural element (or spiritual, depending on your point of view) in the book that wasn’t fully explored. Carmel sees and feels things when she heals people, sometimes. There may be a case that’s real. Beth learns that her own grandmother was into spiritualism and healing and other flighty things. I think I was invested in finding out if the healing is true because we’re following Carmel through this ordeal. It’s not like the narrator is a distant third person or it’s the grandfather’s story and he believes.

I appreciated the time jumps in Beth’s sections, labeled with the amount of time since Carmel went missing. This literary device helped ground Carmel’s sections that had no labels so we can follow her aging through her mother’s journey. It was a solid choice for the structure of the book.

Some Sneaky, Impressive Writing

raven_black_-_bookcoverRaven Black

(Shetland Island #1)

by Ann Cleeves

Raven Black begins on New Year’s Eve with a lonely outcast named Magnus Tait, who stays home waiting for visitors who never come. But the next morning the body of a murdered teenage girl is discovered nearby, and suspicion falls on Magnus. Inspector Jimmy Perez enters an investigative maze that leads deeper into the past of the Shetland Islands than anyone wants to go.

via Goodreads

 

 

There are definitely spoilers ahead as I want to talk about the various points of view in the book and that means revealing the killer.

Ann Cleeves uses a close third person point of view in Raven Black to circle around the mystery of the murder of Catherine Ross, a teenaged newcomer to Shetland.

Magnus Tait is the first perspective and he is a worrisome one. He knows he has trouble communicating sometimes and can make people feel uncomfortable by smiling at the wrong time. He is also very aware of pretty girls, including Catherine Ross whose black hair entrances him. Magnus has lived on Shetland his entire life.

Then Sally Henry, Catherine’s best friend and an islander, moves a bit back in time to recount how she and Catherine stumbled to Magnus’ house on New Year.

Fran Hunter, a mother who moved back to Shetland to raise her daughter close to her ex-husband, finds Catherine’s body at the bottom of the hill by Magnus’ house. Enter Inspector Jimmy Perez, a transplant from nearby Fair Isle.

While the general tone of the book remains the same with each chapter, the close third person allows the reader to get in the head of each character. Magnus is concerning and confused. Fran worries and tries to do her best. Perez struggles with his urge to be a policeman and his yearning to return home to more remote Fair Isle.

And Sally is unperturbed, which I have to say, I didn’t pick up on right away. She isn’t a wreck like one might expect, more in shock. Although, I just went back to Sally’s first chapter after Catherine’s murder and everything is there. (Yes, Sally is the killer.) It seems so obvious now.

“When Sally got in from school her mother told her about Catherine Ross, but rumours had been flying around Anderson High since midday and it was all anyone had been talking about on the bus. Sally pretended it was a surprise though.”

See, it’s right there! But Cleeves buries the lede in the following sentence.

“She spent her life pretending to her mother. It had become a habit.”

And a couple of pages later, when Inspector Perez arrives to speak with Sally:

“‘Tell me about Catherine,’ he said. ‘What was she like?’”

Sally hadn’t been expecting that. She’d thought there’d be specific questions: When did you last see Catherine? Did she mention a row with anyone? How did she seem?

She hadn’t practiced the answer to this.”

It’s shocking to go back and realize what I missed. Because it seems so obvious now, I’m trying to figure out what made Sally’s reactions reasonable. By this point we know her relationship with her schoolteacher mother is fraught so ‘pretending’ with her mom isn’t strange. And expecting to be interviewed by the police about your best friend’s murder would probably cause you to think about what they’d ask you.

I find this technique, which is woven throughout the book, to be very impressive. I never expected the murderer to be one of the perspectives. Usually when a writer does that we learn who the killer is early on and the story is about the killer’s attempt to get away with it or do more bad things. I had a couple of ideas for the killer but never once considered Sally.

On the flip side, the reasons for Sally killed Catherine are a bit weak, but if I think about it as a real world event as opposed to a story, it’s just sad and scary. Sally had problems with Catherine even though she was her only friend. Sally was an outsider due to her mom teaching everyone she knew for years. In small, insular Shetland where everyone knows everyone’s business, making friends with a new arrival was the best she could do. But she didn’t like Catherine. Catherine wasn’t a nice person and when she laid into Sally about her crappy taste in men, Sally strangled her to shut her up.

From a storytelling point of view, Sally’s reasons felt small but murder does happen that way which makes this all feel very real, like it could happen.

So read Raven Black for some excellent writing – even if you now know the killer, it’s still very worth it – and read it to learn about the struggles of living in a small, insolated and insulated community.

You’ll Wish You’d Studied Chemistry

the-chemist-jacketThe Chemist

By Stephenie Meyer

She used to work for the U.S. government, but very few people ever knew that. An expert in her field, she was one of the darkest secrets of an agency so clandestine it doesn’t even have a name. And when they decided she was a liability, they came for her without warning.

Now, she rarely stays in the same place or uses the same name for long. They’ve killed the only other person she trusted, but something she knows still poses a threat. They want her dead, and soon.

When her former handler offers her a way out, she realizes it’s her only chance to erase the giant target on her back. But it means taking one last job for her ex-employers. To her horror, the information she acquires only makes her situation more dangerous.

Resolving to meet the threat head-on, she prepares for the toughest fight of her life but finds herself falling for a man who can only complicate her likelihood of survival. As she sees her choices being rapidly whittled down, she must apply her unique talents in ways she never dreamed of.

via Goodreads

 

I devoured this book.

It begins with a woman on the run and called back to a former government agency that tried to kill her. She is tired of running, having killed the three assassins sent to kill her, and takes a chance. Nothing goes well after that.

The pacing of the plot is engaging. The timeline is short so the lengthy book consists of meticulously detailed scenes showing Alex how she has learned to stay alive, how she works as an interrogator and how she learns to trust again through the twin brothers she meets.

The fight scenes were realistic enough, especially how people get hurt. Alex gets a good beating early one and her face is a wreck which informs some decisions. She is later able to use the injuries to her advantage; again, in line with the short timeline and having things pay off.

I like how Meyer got into the work Alex did as the Chemist – an interrogator known for causing pain through drugs – while deftly avoiding ridiculously complicated science. There are some spy books, or even sci-fi books, that delve into those sorts of details and with the right author it can be very enjoyable. Meyer referenced enough details to make Alex’s knowledge and work feasible.

Speaking of feasible, I guess it’s not a good spy novel without an insane conspiracy that goes all the way to the top. During the climactic fight scene, I actually forgot all about the man at the top because the squabbling down below was so engaging. The conspiracy was wrapped up fine. Conspiracies are difficult in general to make plausible and this one worked well enough. The man at the top had historical ties to some nasty stuff that Alex and her unlikely ally, in their separate agencies, both learned too much about so had to be eliminated. Ruthless bosses – they’re the worst, especially when they want to kill you for simply doing your job.

The love story woven in between the spy games is a bit unlikely since it’s based on an extremely understanding and forgiving man and love at first sight. It was a bit tiresome at times when Alex protests yet again that she has no adult communication skills due to her upbringing and isolated life. Trust issues due to living on the run from a hit seems like a great reason to have problems with relationships so the extra stuff wasn’t necessary.

I appreciated the epilogue which wrapped up the story with a happy ending while still maintaining the characters’ reality.

This is a super fun book if you like spy and thriller genres, and a strong female protagonist who isn’t afraid to show her intellect and skill.