Review | A Door in the River, Inger Ash Wolfe

Inger Ash Wolfe’s A Door in the River is my first Hazel Micallef mystery, and at first I didn’t believe the person on Twitter who told me the series was disturbing. After all, I’ve read Stuart MacBride and Val McDermid, and at first glance, the mystery of a well-liked man being killed by a bee sting didn’t sound too horrific. The book doesn’t get quite as gruesome or horrific as MacBride and McDermid, but it does enter some pretty emotionally and psychologically intense territory.

The setting is Port Dundas, Ontario, and the heroine is a snappy, broody sixty-plus year old inspector who lives with her eighty eight year old mother. Hazel is sharp, has issues with authority, and is overall a great series character, but for me, it’s her mother who takes the spotlight. Cranky and a bit emo in this book, Hazel’s mother is hilarious and compelling, and I love seeing them interact with each other.

From a seemingly straightforward murder, Wolfe takes the mystery to a place that totally blindsided me. More than a surprise however, the story suddenly takes a much darker, more emotionally fraught tone, and the crime much more horrific.

A Door in the River is a good, solid mystery, and I like the surprise twist. It didn’t quite blow me away, and a few parts dragged, but Wolfe does pull at the heartstrings. His story is horrific, not because it’s gruesome or especially dark and twisty, but because the crime is horrible, and all too easily imagined in real life headlines.

It’s a good book, and worth reading particularly for Hazel and her mother.


Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | The Devil’s Cinema, Steve Lillebuen

Meet Mark Twitchell. Film maker, Star Wars geek… and a Dexter-obsessed killer. Steve Lillebuen’s The Devil’s Cinema is an absolute page-turner. We begin the book already with an idea of how the story ends. Or, if, like me, you didn’t know about Mark Twitchell, it should be easy enough to google his story. Yet reading The Devil’s Cinema was like reading a really action-packed thriller. I got sucked into Twitchell’s story, the horror of his kill room, the details of his film making dreams, and, above all, the excitement of police officers are they methodically find evidence to build their case.

I recently told someone about all the evidence against Twitchell, most notably the diary where he wrote S.K. Confessions (S.K. stands for serial killer, and is also a nice nod to writer Stephen King) and pretty much recorded all the details of his crime, making only minor changes to the names. When I later mentioned that this was a true story, the person I was talking to looked startled. She admitted that, the whole time she thought it was fiction, she kept thinking the writer was being lazy — how convenient would it be for the murderer to have written everything down? Yet it happened, and in another particularly interesting piece of evidence, Twitchell even left behind a sticky note with a Things to Do list, which included “kill room clean sweep.” One of the detectives on the case even admitted he was 50/50 on Twitchell as a viable suspect — the methodical mind who plotted the murder in S.K. Confessions could not be the same person who left behind so much evidence. That poor detective is teased for his 50/50 remark to this day. Seriously — you can’t make this up.

Part of the reason Twitchell’s story was so enthralling is that it hits so close to home. By all accounts, Twitchell seemed like a nice, harmless, geeky fanboy. He got giddy over winning costume competitions, and he dreamed about completing a 3D Star Wars fan film on a small budget. He does have his non-murderous dark side — he cheats on his wife and lies about having a full-time job. In fact, he has a chronic tendency to lie, even when there’s no need to. Lillebuen is fantastic at forming a complex, multi-faceted portrait, and you can almost feel like you know Twitchell.

I was creeped out that Twitchell used to lure his targets. He posed as a young woman and targeted single men. Have you ever tried online dating? Perhaps even at Plenty of Fish? It’s a free online dating site, perfect for people who want to try online dating out without having to pay eHarmony fees. Here’s the lesson: if someone you meet online wants to meet you at their garage — they won’t give you the street address, they tell you to take a circuitous route and park in the nearby woods and enter through the back door — don’t. Seriously creepy.

Lillebuen is a great storyteller, and I love that the book read more like a novel than a journalistic report. Lillebuen includes dialogue that sounds real, and in fact, he claims that they’re all as close to the original dialogue as actual witnesses remember. I also love how much of the material came from the Internet, with Twitchell’s Facebook updates and messages. His email exchanges with an American woman, Twitchell using a fake Dexter Morgan account, are chilling. The woman sounds like she really understands Twitchell and his fantasies, which is creepy on one hand, yet on the other hand, also sad when she distances herself from him later on.

Despite Lillebuen’s insistence that he wants to give a lot of attention to the victim’s life, it’s really Twitchell’s character who shines here — Lillebuen presents a very human side to a murderer. Lillebuen is far from sympathetic towards Twitchell, but his relating of all the facts does humanize him, and make him real. In a weird way, Twitchell’s humanity makes his crime even more chilling. When Twitchell admits to his wife that he can’t feel empathy, when Twitchell himself realizes he meets all the checkbox characteristics of psychopathy, you almost feel sympathy, until you realize that despite his realization, he feels no strong compulsion to seek help.

When we think of serial killers, we imagine truly horrific, larger than life, monstrous figures whose minds we can’t even begin to understand. However, the Twitchell revealed in Devil’s Cinema appears a sad, almost pathetic, figure. He may dream of being the super efficient, Dexter Morgan-level serial killer in S.K. Confessions, but he just couldn’t pull it off as he’d planned. And his career, however horrific his crime, was cut off pretty quickly. His crime is monstrous, yet, given the level of his ambition, he failed as a monster. Devil’s Cinema humanizes Twitchell even as it deflates him — he is, ultimately, just a man.

Review | The Bellwether Revivals, Benjamin Wood

Ever read a book you love so much it takes you forever to write a review for it? A book so amazing that you realize whatever you can write just won’t give it justice. That’s how I felt after reading Jo Walton’s Among Others, and that’s why it took me weeks to figure out what to write about Benjamin Wood’s amazing debut novel The Bellwether Revivals

Publisher McClelland and Stewart calls the book “part Brideshead Revisited” — how could I resist? The parallels to Brideshead are clear — nursing home care worker Oscar Lowe is drawn to the Bellwethers, a wealthy family of academics. He falls in love with Iris Bellwether, a Cambridge student, and befriends her brother Eden and their group of friends. Cambridge in fact becomes almost a character itself in this novel — characters speak of it so lovingly, so knowledgeably, that it almost takes on the mystique of Brideshead. Like Oscar, we are attracted to this world where we don’t need to worry about putting food on the table; rather, we can spend hours debating philosophy and discussing literature. The novel is set in the early 2000s, but something about the way Wood writes makes the story feel like it was set in the past. Perhaps this insulated world Oscar inhabits with Iris, Eden and their friends insulates us as well, provides us as much of an escape as it does Oscar.

With the Brideshead comparison, I was expecting the book to be mostly about Oscar’s relationship with the Bellwethers, but the story takes a much darker turn. The very first chapter, “Prelude,” does give us an idea of the tragic outcome at the end — Eden Bellwether is “still breathing, but faintly,” there are other bodies around, and Oscar says, “It’s over now…We can’t go back and change it.” What happened? We don’t know, but we know the story won’t end well. I agree with this blog review that revealing the end in advance allows us to then focus on the nuances within the events. From a lovely tale of romance and privilege, we are introduced into a chilling story of psychopathy.

Much of Bellwether Revivals focuses on music, something hinted at by the prologue being called a “prelude.” When we are introduced to the Bellwethers, it’s because Oscar is drawn to a church where Eden is playing the organ. I love Wood’s description: “There was a fragility to this music, as if the organist wasn’t pressing down on the keys but hovering his fingers above them like a puppeteer.” I imagine thready, tentative notes, and almost ethereal melody with the power to cast spells.

Eden is a gifted musician, but more than that, he believes music has the power to heal. Literally. Many acknowledge the power of music to bring comfort and influence emotions, but Eden, influenced by the ideas of Johann Mattheson, believes music can actually, physically affect behaviour. He says Oscar entered the church not just because of a generic attraction to Eden’s music, but because the music was specifically designed to get someone to enter a church and sit down. It’s a disturbing notion, one we could easily dismiss as utter nonsense, yet it also offers an intriguing possibility of hope. What if music can do more than just comfort those with terminal illnesses? What if music can actually remove tumours, reverse Alzheimer’s? What if music can, literally, heal? Eden firmly believes it can, and that he can create such music.

Iris believes her brother is a narcissist, as in actually has a psychological disorder and isn’t just being arrogant, and she turns to Oscar for help. To be honest, I thought her insistence on her brother’s psychopathy was a bit odd — it seemed a harmless enough belief, and I wasn’t sure why she was so determined to have her brother examined. I also didn’t really understand why Oscar was so willing to be involved. I found the romance between Iris and Oscar the weakest element in the story — I saw that he was attracted to her, but I didn’t really see how he became so devoted to her so quickly. I didn’t really see him in love, which bothers me mostly because he ends up having to go to such lengths to help her out in this story. That being said, it wasn’t enough to turn me off from the story, because all the other plot lines were so gripping.

As we learn more about Iris and Eden’s childhood, and as Eden takes his belief in music’s healing ability to even greater extremes, we begin to understand that Eden isn’t quite as harmless as we may have thought. One of the most fascinating characters in the novel is Dr. Herbert Crest, a psychologist who has studied Narcissistic Personality Disorder and who, losing his personal battle with cancer, is writing a book Delusions of Hope, about his failure to find an alternative cure for his condition. This makes him a prime candidate for Oscar to approach for help regarding Eden; perhaps Dr. Crest can expose Eden as a fraud. Or, perhaps, can Eden possibly prove Dr. Crest wrong?

Here’s the thing: Eden’s charisma affects even us. What if Eden isn’t a fraud? What if his music really can heal people? A rational part of my mind kept insisting that his ability couldn’t possibly be real, and yet another part of me couldn’t help but hope it was. As Dr. Crest says, “Hope is a form of madness. A benevolent one, sure, but madness all the same.” Yet it is a madness that we almost want to embrace. I’ve lost several loved ones to cancer, I also know others who have survived it, and I can’t even begin to describe how much I think cancer just really, really sucks. So when we have a character who might, conceivably, have the ability to cure cancer with music, well, it’s a seductive idea. Even within fiction, the tiniest, slimmest chance of a cure is offered, and yes, I want to believe in it. Eden, to me, had his controlling, arrogant moments, but I also wanted to believe he was a hero, that he did have this power, that, even in fiction, cancer could be conquered.

The potential of Eden’s power seduced me, and the reality of Eden’s megalomania devastated me. His desperation to have his power proven right, and to be viewed as a hero and a healer, leads to some truly horrifying acts. I think it’s because I was so sucked into this world that I was affected so completely. It was almost painful to be so disillusioned by Eden, not so much with regard to the veracity of his healing power, as with the realization that Eden is ultimately only after power.

I absolutely love Bellwether Revivals! A powerful, gripping story that seduces us much as the charismatic, frightening Eden Bellwether casts a spell over the people around him. In so many ways, Eden is a predator, and like any predator, he also has the ability to lure his victims. Bellwether is chilling because we realize how easy it is to be sucked in, indeed to want to be sucked in. For the reader, as for the characters, the return to reality is painful, but necessary. Difficult to believe this is a debut novel. Benjamin Wood is definitely an author to watch, and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Follow Benjamin Wood on Twitter: @bwoodauthor.

Review | A Room Full of Bones, Elly Griffiths

I’m always up for discovering a new mystery series, so when I heard of Elly Griffiths’ A Room Full of Bones, which features Ruth Galloway, a forensic archaeologist who solves mysteries, I was definitely interested. In Bones, a museum curator is found dead beside a coffin thought to contain the bones of medieval Bishop Augustine. I work in an art gallery, and I’ve always been fascinated by museums and artifacts, so I was excited to see how a forensic archaeologist would use her expertise to solve this mystery.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really see much mystery-solving from Ruth Galloway in this book. Bones is the first Galloway I’ve read but the fourth book in the series, and from this Eurocrime review, I see that Galloway is usually more involved in the actual case. However, I agree with the Eurocrime reviewer that the Galloway storyline in this book focused way too much on her personal life. It’s certainly realistic — as a single mother of a one year old, I can imagine that’ll take up most of her time. As well, I bet long-time fans of the series would be pleased to see so much character development. We learn not just about Galloway as a mother, but also about her complicated relationship with the baby’s father, D.I. Harry Nelson. To be honest, I really felt for Nelson’s wife Michele, and I did enjoy the scenes where she and Nelson struggle to make their relationship work. I also liked that, while Galloway clearly loves Nelson as the father of her baby, she doesn’t seem to be in love with him. I found that an interesting twist to the usual love triangle.

Despite the focus on Galloway’s personal life, there is a pretty interesting mystery in Bones. Galloway does discover a shocking fact about the bishop from the bones, and her expertise is eventually key to solving the curator’s death. I was disappointed that these pivotal elements appeared mostly in passing and I was somewhat disappointed at the way that mystery was resolved.

That being said, there are a couple of other mysteries in Bones — another character’s death and Nelson himself contracting a mysterious disease. These are both interesting puzzles, and I love the cast of secondary characters that we get to meet. The Smith family members are particularly quirky, and I like how the they reminded me a bit of Agatha Christie’s mysteries. We have all these complex characters, each potentially with his or her own motivations to commit a crime.

A blurb at the back of the novel calls Griffiths’ books “atmospheric,” and definitely, Bones contains an element of the gothic. I like that Griffiths never really confirms whether an incident is supernatural or whether it can be explained by science. For one plot twist in particular, Galloway’s friend Cathbad, a Druid, offers a supernatural explanation and drug-induced hallucinogenic solution, yet later on, someone else gives a more prosaic, perfectly rational explanation. This ambiguity adds to the atmosphere. While I found the potentially supernatural elements odd, I never really was sucked deep enough into the story to find them genuinely creepy. Even when someone received a snake that Cathbad says was a curse, I really just thought of it as a snake, despite Griffiths’ ambiguous treatment. That being said, I did have a horrible nightmare the first night I read this book. Perhaps my subconscious was more afraid than I realized.

A Room Full of Bones is a pretty good mystery. I was expecting a bit more of the historical mystery and I would have liked to see a bit more of the forensic archaeologist side of Ruth Galloway, but her personal life does make for an interesting story. I liked learning about the relationships between the characters, and I like how Griffiths made them seem real.

Review | Curiosity, Joan Thomas

Joan Thomas’ Curiosity relates the love story between two historical figures, Mary Anning and Henry de la Beche. Mary, a cabinet maker’s daughter who sells curiosities by the seashore unearths the intact skeleton of a prehistoric creature. This was almost half a century before Darwin published On the Origin of Species so Mary’s town still finds it difficult to believe the idea of a creature that existed pre-humanity. They are absolutely certain that creatures have always existed in their current form, and so are uncertain about how to deal with her discovery.

Mary meets and falls in love with Henry de la Beche, the son of gentry and a military college dropout who now enjoys sketching bird skeletons. I like that their attraction is primarily intellectual — both are very interested in exploring cutting edge scientific theories. Mary wants to escape her social limitations as a poor woman and the idea that all the education she needs is in the Bible, and Henry wants to escape the empty life of socializing that his wife finds satisfactory. They find this escape in each other, and yet can’t be together, not only because of Henry’s marriage but also because of the wide gulf between their social classes.

Thomas writes well; she keeps the old-fashioned language consistent throughout and in doing so, keeps us as readers firmly within the mindset of the novel. Her choice of Lyme Regis as a setting is also a smart move — it has as much atmosphere and romance here as it did for Austen in Persuasion.

While ostensibly a love story, the romance doesn’t really kick in until about halfway through the novel. Most of the book’s focus was on Mary’s scientific discovery and her and Henry’s struggle for intellectual freedom. I like how Thomas expanded her focus to much more than just a romance; even before they met, Mary and Henry’s intellectual compatibility and shared passion are evident. The romantic tension is therefore mostly external, and it’s just a matter of whether circumstances allow them to be together or not. As such, the wider story arc about scientific curiosity was more interesting.

Curiosity is a good book, very well-written, yet it didn’t really grab me. To be honest, I’m not sure why. It ticked off all the boxes of a good book — interesting characters, relationships complicated by circumstance, consistent, solid writing — but I mostly just found it unexceptional. It was okay, it was solid, but it wasn’t great. In this case, I’m not sure if it’s the mood I was in when I was reading it, or if the narrative pace just felt too constant. If you’re interested in historical, scientific romance with a touch of social commentary, this book may be worth checking out.