Review | Transient Desires, by Donna Leon

TransientDesiresCoverDonna Leon’s Guido Brunetti mysteries have long been a go-to comfort series for me. I love the gentlemanly, sophisticated Guido, his loving wife Paola and her delicious home-cooked meals, his sharp mentee Signorina Elettra, and of course, his beautifully rich and vibrant world of Venice. Transient Desires struck me as a rather bleak addition to the series, though I admit I don’t know if that impression is due to the novel itself or to the overall bleakness of pandemic times.

In some ways, Transient Desires has many of the hallmarks of classic Brunetti mysteries. There’s the beginning of a relatively minor mystery (two young women, American tourists, are left with severe injuries at the entrance to an island hospital), which expands into a much broader treatise on social ills. One of the suspects, a young man seen with the tourists earlier than evening, is the son of a wealthy, powerful man, which means Brunetti needs to navigate the politics of social classes. The case also leads him to uncover a sex trafficking operation, and to work with a young man afraid of violence if his family learn of his sexuality. All of these are deeper social issues that entangle Brunetti and his colleagues, and, like other Brunetti mysteries, takes this story far beyond the question of the two initial victims.

There is also the usual wonderful deep dive into Venice and its various subcultures. There’s a thought-provoking scene where one of Brunetti’s colleagues, a senior detective, deliberately slips into her childhood accent to disarm a suspect, and make the suspect underestimate her intelligence. Brunetti himself, socially aware as he is, falls into the same trap, and, upon realizing his colleague’s roots, notes his own surprise at how ‘far’ she’s come. The detective notices Brunetti’s response, and calls him out on his deeply rooted prejudices, and this leads to a gratifying teachable moment for the commissario, as well as a fascinating glimpse into Venetian culture.

I think for me, the sense of bleakness comes mostly in the scenes featuring Brunetti’s family. I usually look forward to those scenes as little respites of joy, lightness, and love in the midst of all the mess the commissario has to deal with on a daily basis. But time passes in the Brunetti-verse, and the characters age as well. There’s still the old touches of lightness, as when Brunetti despairs of having to eat a takeout sandwich for lunch instead of Paola’s home cooking, and there’s still plenty of love and respect around the Brunetti family table. But daughter Chiara is a bit of a self-righteous teen now, who guilts her family for eating meat, and in one rather spoiled-brat moment, complains that her school is treating its students like slaves by not allowing them their phones in the classroom. The thoughtless comment leads to a teachable moment from Brunetti, who has his sex trafficking case in mind, and Chiara responds with rueful, self-aware wit that keeps things light and acknowledges her self-awareness without quite admitting her fault. Still, the remark in the first place seemed rather out of place — even taking into account teenagers’ exaggerations, it seems unlikely that a teen as socially aware as Chiara would refer to slavery so thoughtlessly, and so the scene seemed set up mostly for a link to Brunetti’s case, and cast a rather somber tone on an otherwise joyful family time.

More organic and yet also more somber is a scene when Paola asks Guido how he can stand to do his job with all the emotions it entails. He admits that it’s all he’s qualified for, which can be taken as a lighthearted deflection, but I can’t help reading some weariness into the reply. The conversation proceeds to a comment from Guido about his eventual retirement dream of a quiet life in the country, and Paola’s surprise at the admission. The conversation is brief, and relatively light, but there’s a sense of melancholy to it as well, and I can’t help wondering the mental and emotional toll all the years of Guido’s career has taken on him. This Guido is older than I remember, and more weighed down by his years of difficult work.

The mystery itself ends rather abruptly, with a bit of an action-packed final scene. The final paragraphs refer to other parties taking over the situation, and giving Guido a break, but the final line implies the events of the scene will cast a long shadow for Guido, and add to the weight already heavy on his shoulders.

Transient Desires is a beautiful, atmospheric read. It’s a bit slow at times, but as Leon’s readers have come to expect, it’s full of heart, and vibrant with the world of Venice. It’s also, to me at least, a somber reminder of the toll a job like Guido’s can take on someone, especially after so many years (30 books and counting!) of trying to navigate a complex, and increasingly messy, world.


Thank you to Publisher’s Group Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Lost Immunity, by Daniel Kalla

LostImmunityCoverYou’d think that the last book I’d want to read while still in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic is one about the next big outbreak. But here’s the wonderful appeal of genre fiction, and the reason I’ve been reading so much romance, mysteries and thrillers in the past year: you know how it’s going to end. You won’t know the specifics, and the best stories keep you on tenterhooks throughout, but you know that if you read a romance, the couple will end up together; if you read a mystery, the bad guy will be revealed by the end; and if you read a thriller, the situation will have a resolution.

And that’s why Lost Immunity, by doctor-author Daniel Kalla, is the perfect comfort read for these times. Unlike the current real world COVID-19 pandemic, where I can only wait my turn for the vaccine, and watch helplessly as new, more contagious variants appear, Kalla’s thriller gives me a chance to live vicariously through Seattle’s chief public health officer Lisa Dyer, who is at the forefront of stopping the pandemic in her fictional universe. 

Kalla’s story takes place post-COVID-19, when a meningitis outbreak at a Bible camp results in the deaths of teenagers, and reveals a deadly, highly contagious strain of the disease. Dyer responds swiftly, negotiating the rapid approval of a vaccine on the verge of Phase 4 testing in Iceland, where a similar pandemic had recently been recorded and contained, inoculating campers and their families, and setting up mass immunization clinics around Seattle. She deals with corporate bureaucracy and anti-vaxxers (apparently ‘vaccine hesitant’ is their preferred term), led by a naturopath with an autistic son and a nurse girlfriend working at one of Dyer’s clinics. And she also contends with her own anti-vax family, which becomes rather urgent when the contagion spreads to younger children and Dyer’s own six-year-old niece is endangered. 

Watching Dyer in action, along with Nathan and Fiona from the vaccine development team, is comforting. They’re up against a scary disease, and working hard against time, but early clinical trials have proven the vaccine effective, and despite the urgency of the events, the reader never truly feels the outbreak is out of their control. Perhaps most comforting is that, unlike the current pandemic, Kalla sets his thriller up with a bad guy, someone intent on tampering with the vaccinations, and whose perspective we see in chapter interludes. The results of this bad guy’s plan becomes clear when some of the vaccinated teens fall ill with a really serious, potentially deadly, condition, and while doctors conclude it’s less a side effect than a random, unexpected occurrence (I forgot the technical term they used), the occurrence is still statistically relevant enough to jeopardize the plan for widespread vaccination.

The bad guy’s identity and motives are sadder than I expected, but their very existence is, to me, a comfort. It’s much easier to conceive of a bad guy being stopped than it is to control a worldwide pandemic, and while a similar situation playing out in real life would be terrifying and infuriating, Kalla’s thriller is comfortingly familiar.

I loved this book. Kalla’s writing is crisp, and his pacing brisk. He creates characters we care about: from Fiona the grieving widow, to Lisa’s husband genuinely trying to fix their troubled marriage, to Lisa’s mentor Angela who battled COVID-19 and is now battling cancer, and even to Lisa’s anti-vax sister, who is forced to reexamine her beliefs when her daughter is in danger. His story may be a bit too much, too soon for people on the frontlines of battling the COVID-19 pandemic. But at least for those of us fortunate enough to be able to work from home, and still waiting for a be-all, end-all COVID-19 solution that seems far too slow in coming, Lost Immunity is an entertaining and comforting alternate reality, where outbreaks can be contained, science wins over politics (the government is remarkably absent from this novel, which is unrealistic, but I personally didn’t mind), and where the villain is an individual / group of individuals rather than a virus we can neither see nor control.


Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an egalley of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Girls Are All So Nice Here, by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn

TheGirlsAreAllSoNiceHereCover“The girls are all so nice here,” Wesleyan University students write in their letters home to their families. And it’s certainly true for some of the girls, who do form lifelong friendships and look out for each other. But it’s certainly not the case for the novel‘s narrator Ambrosia “Amb” Wellington, whose desperation to escape her small town roots leads her to team up with Sloane “Sully” Sullivan, a cruel girl who plays with her classmates’ desires and weak points for her own amusement.

Their friendship’s schemes come to a head when Amb has a meet-cute with Kevin, the long-time boyfriend of Amb’s too-nice, too-trusting roommate Flora. Amb decides she and Kevin are better suited for each other, and Sully helps her plan how to win him for herself. Later in the novel, Amb reflects,

 Because it was never just about the boy. It was about the girl standing in the way of the boy. Maybe it had been about her the entire time. [66%]

Indeed, Amb’s fighting for Kevin has less to do with her actual attraction for the boy than with her desire to tear Flora down for being too perfect. The scheme goes horribly, tragically wrong. Fast forward to Amb and Sully’s ten-year college reunion, and an invitation to the reunion comes with the mysterious card in the mail that says “You need to come. We need to talk about what we did that night.” The novel is told in alternating chapters, from Amb’s time in college and her time at the ten-year reunion with her husband Adrian, both storylines coming to a head with a reckoning for what Amb and Sully did all those years before.

The Girls Are All So Nice Here is dark, and not in a gleeful, Gone Girl kind of way, where the horrible heroine is so charismatic that you can’t help but be drawn into her orbit. Rather, the novel just feels bleak, Amb’s downward spiral in college, from spite to cruelty to whatever lies beyond that, is hard to stomach. Her friendship with Sully is just plain toxic, and even though we’re in Amb’s head for pretty much the entire novel, it’s hard to truly feel sympathy for her.

That being said, it’s hard to wish for her to be punished either. The author sows just enough doubt throughout the novel that we don’t actually find out what happened until later in the book, and even then, it’s tough to know just how complicit Amb actually is in what happened. Her present-day struggles with her husband Adrian straddles an equally delicate line where she’s so miserable in her life that it’s hard to hate her, but Adrian’s also so nice and she’s treating him so shoddily that it’s hard to sympathize with her either.

I read the book pretty quickly. It’s a taut, exciting page turner, and the mysteries, with all the twists, turns, and revelations, kept me hooked from beginning to end. Flynn is a good writer, and there’s no doubt she crafted a really good thriller.

But the book is bleak. We do get a big reveal at the end, and a kind of justice, but by that point, all the major players are just so toxic and consumed by hatred that it’s hard to cheer them on, or feel any sort of release.

Amb’s roommate Flora is depicted as a too-sweet, too-nice person who wholeheartedly trusts people and considers Amb her best friend, despite all the crap Amb says and does behind her back. In a way, she is the nicest of the girls, and there are parts where the book seems to show us that Amb is wrong in her assessment of Flora. Despite her niceness, Flora is a regular girl, not some perfect paragon, and her kindness means something important to their other classmates. It’s what many of the other characters seem to believe, and certainly what I want to hold on to.

But ultimately, and to me, sadly, the book seems to embrace Amb and Sully’s more cynical outlook of the world. “She’ll have me to help her grow the armor she’ll need,” a character thinks about a baby girl at one point in the novel. “I’ll make damn sure she wears it.” It’s a heart-breaking sentiment to have to think about a three-month-old child, but that’s the point the book seems to hammer into us throughout, and the thought it leaves behind when we turn the final page.

It’s a good book. Just: take some time to care for yourself after reading it.


Thank you to Simon and Schuster Canada for an egalley of this book in exchange for an honest review.