The Best Book I Read This Month: Death in Cold Water by Patricia Skalka

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The best book I read this month was a mystery that swept me away: Death in Cold Water by Patricia Skalka. I read it in a single Sunday, abandoning my laundry and food prep plans so I could find out whodunit and why.

The book is, I belatedly discovered, the third in a series. I have since read the first two, and I think this third book is the best of the three. (There is a fourth book, but I haven’t gotten to it yet.)

The entire series is set in Door County, a peninsula near Green Bay, Wisconsin that is a popular summer vacation spot. (I’ve been. It’s charming and beautiful. The town of Sister Bay, in particular, reminds of Laguna Beach, CA, with all its art galleries.) The “detective” in the mystery series is Dave Cubiak, a transplanted Chicago cop now working as the Door County sheriff. Skalka does a nice job of balancing Cubiak’s struggle to start over after losing his wife and child (in events that predate the series) with his efforts to acclimate to his new job and surroundings.

In Death in Cold Water, Cubiak is tasked with solving the disappearance of the peninsula’s wealthiest resident. The victim’s connection to the Green Bay Packers leads to FBI involvement and a focus on terrorism, but Cubiak’s gut tells him something else is going on. The tale twists and turns, laying out details at just the right pace. When Cubiak does solve the mystery, it’s satisfying but by no means a happy ending.

The Best Book I Read This Month: A Brilliant Death by Robin Yocum

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The best book I read this month was so good that I was late to work one day so I could finish it. That book is A Brilliant Death by Robin Yocum.

As you might guess from the title, the book is a mystery. It revolves around a disappearance in 1953 and an apparent suicide in 1971. The story—told by the best friend of the young man who apparently died in 1971—recounts the story of that friendship and the friends’ quest to find out what happened in 1953, when the mother of one of the boys disappeared. The big town rumor is that she died by misadventure, but a few folks in town suspect otherwise—either escape to a better life or murder.

The voice and sense of place in the book is exceptional. It’s set in the real-life small town of Brilliant, Ohio, located across the Ohio River from West Virginia and about an hour’s drive from Pittsburgh, PA, and it’s a town that Yocum clearly knows well. His characters are just as well-drawn, although the main villain does seem a bit over the top at times.

The one part of the book that didn’t work for me was the prologue. I think it was completely unnecessary and a distraction from what the book was really about. I found out later that A Brilliant Death is part of a trilogy—each book centering on one of three cousins. (One of the cousins narrates this book.) The prologue explains the cousins’ family history. If you’re planning to read the whole trilogy (I’m not), the prologue is useful. But if, like me, you’re only reading this one book—skip it.

A Week in Scotland

 North Bridge connects Old Town and New Town in Edinburgh. The train station runs under the bridge. The buildings in the picture are on the New Town side.

North Bridge connects Old Town and New Town in Edinburgh. The train station runs under the bridge. The buildings in the picture are on the New Town side.

Twenty seven years ago, I did my study abroad in Stirling, Scotland. I’ve been wanting to go back for more than a decade. This year, it finally happened—I just spent a week in Edinburgh, with side trips to Falkirk and, of course, Stirling.

A lot has changed in the last twenty-seven years, and I forgot a bunch more, too. Like the fact that Edinburgh is almost all hills. Stirling, too, is a giant hill. Falkirk wasn’t exactly flat, either. On one day in particular, I climbed the equivalent of 18 flights of stairs. No wonder everyone looked so good in tights back in the day!

I stayed in the Old Town section of Edinburgh, in a hotel just down the street from the train station. Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace, the National Museum of Scotland—all were mere blocks away from my hotel. Across the bridge from my hotel was the New Town section of the city. But the name is really a misnomer—it’s not all that new. That part of the city dates back to the 1760s. I did some exploring there, too—especially Princes Street Gardens.

 The Kelpies

The Kelpies

I loved being surrounded by old buildings and old cobblestone streets, but my absolute favorite site that I saw was the Kelpies. The Kelpies are giant metallic horse-head statues. They’re in Falkirk, part of a giant park complex called The Helix. The statues honor the horses that used to pull boats through the Forth & Clyde Canal, which borders the park. They are amazing to see in photographs—and even more impressive in person. They’re the one thing I would love to go see again.

I’ve posted more pictures from my trip—castles, churches, and palaces—in the gallery here.

The Best Book I Read This Month: Never Caught by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

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The best book I read this month was another edition of “our Founding Fathers were jerks”—this time about George Washington. The book, Never Caught, tells the story of Ona Judge, a woman enslaved by the Washingtons who successfully escaped to freedom.

As history books go, this one was relatively short—about 200 pages, not counting the copious notes and acknowledgements at the end. It was an easy read, too, thanks to Dunbar’s plain-spoken style.

What is remarkable about Judge, beyond her escape from the home and control of the president of the United States, is the amount of information available about her—including her own words. We have very little record of any enslaved persons from that time period. But not only have George Washington’s records and letters referring to Judge, we also have two interviews that she gave later in her life. (If you get the paperback version of the book, it includes transcripts of those interviews. They are not included in the hardcover edition.) It was because of these sources that Dunbar was able to craft this narrative. And as many historians do, she filled in the gaps with conclusions and inferences based on available data.

Dunbar does not sugarcoat Judge’s experiences, either, whether those experiences were working for the Washingtons or trying to survive as a fugitive free woman. Sometimes, in an effort to emphasize the risks and dangers Judge faced, Dunbar gets repetitive. But that was a small price to pay for the story of such a strong, determined woman.