The Best Book I Read This Month: The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry

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The best book I read this month was a historical mystery, my favorite genre. The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry is set in Edinburgh in 1847, and it’s as much about the history of medicine as it is about murder. The story centers around the household of Dr. James Simpson, who popularized the use of chloroform as an anaesthetic; the mystery around the deaths of a prostitute and a housemaid. The “detectives” are Simpson’s apprentice, Will Raven, and housemaid, Sarah Fisher.

I loved many things about this book, but the giddiest thrill came from recognizing so many of the street names and locations from my visit to Edinburgh this past fall. Knowing I’d walked along some of the same streets as the characters gave special life to the setting and the story. (And speaks of a city that preserves its past instead of destroying it.)

The writing, too, was pitch perfect—the language reflective of the mid-19th century setting of the story, not just in the dialogue but in the descriptions, as well. The characters—Raven and Sarah, in particular—are complex and not caricatures. If this becomes a series, I look forward to seeing how their partnership develops.

The plotting and mystery were also well done. This was not a typical serial killer mystery, and I liked that the murders were not so straightforward. I also found the killer’s comeuppance especially creative. (The foreshadowing for what happens to the killer is very subtly done, but it works.)

My hope is that this becomes the first in a series, because Parry—in reality, a husband and wife team—has the goods when it comes to writing engaging mysteries and I wouldn’t mind spending more time hanging out in the Simpson household.

Let's Not Do That Again

Is it just me, or has 2018 felt like it was 36,500 days long? The news cycle alone aged me exponentially. But the universe decided the news cycle wasn’t enough. It needed to throw even more at me. And by more, I mean major life changes.

Miss Penny. She was found as a stray in Texas and brought to a rescue up here.

Miss Penny. She was found as a stray in Texas and brought to a rescue up here.

I knew going into this year that I wanted to move house, visit Scotland, and attend a writing conference. I managed to achieve all three, and one more: a new dog. I’d been toying with the idea of getting a sister for Duncan for a while, but it never quite happened. We had one meet-and-greet at the end of 2017, but it didn’t go as well as I’d hoped it would. Wouldn’t you know it? Right about the time I was ready to put my house on the market, the new dog came into our lives. Her name is Penny. She adopted me right away, and she’s settled in very well. And don’t let her 7-lb size fool you. What she lacks in size, she makes up for in personality. She’s had a remarkable effect on Duncan. He’s come out of his shell—he’s showing his curiosity, wagging his tail and asking for affection, and begging for food, none of which he’d done before. He still isn’t sure what to make of her, and her attempts to engage him in play are met with dumb stares, but they generally get along well and I’m glad she’s joined our little family.

Penny came to live with us the week my old house was listed, and whoo boy, that whole “move house” thing pushed me to my limits. My now-old house sold quickly. It was under contract a week after it listed. Then a week before closing, the deal fell apart—thanks to someone in my buyer’s life who tanked his credit. Thankfully, my purchase was not dependent on my sale so I was still able to buy my new place, but that closing too almost didn’t happen, thanks to an HOA Management Company that didn’t answer phones or respond to emails and a mix-up in dates in my employment confirmation.

My old car, a 2001 RAV4. I still miss it.

My old car, a 2001 RAV4. I still miss it.

In the middle of all this, my car broke down. It happened the Friday of Memorial Day Weekend, so I didn’t get the verdict from the mechanic until the following week. The first words out of his mouth were, “If you were thinking about buying a new car, now is the time.” The thing is, I hadn’t been thinking about it. My car was 17 years old, so I knew I would have to replace it sooner rather than later. But I was counting on “sooner” being next year.

When my mechanic added up the cost of the needed repairs, I realized he was right. It wasn’t worth it to put $7000 into my old car only to keep it running for what could be a few months or a year, at most. So, it was goodbye to my faithful steed and hello to new (to me) wheels.

A week after my car situation was sorted, my computer died. I was mid-email at work when the screen went kerflooey. Then the computer kept trying to restart but could never quite make it. Neither was an encouraging sign. I rushed the laptop to the repair shop. They narrowed down the problem (the motherboard) and said they could fix it, if they could find the proper part.

And that was the rub. They couldn’t find the part. Not even the original manufacturer (Apple) had any. So The Summer of the New Car became The Summer of the New Computer, too.

The new house. The lower level (and garage) are mine. The upper level is a separate unit.

The new house. The lower level (and garage) are mine. The upper level is a separate unit.

Now back to the house. The move itself went off without a hitch. We settled in the new place quickly. The neighbors are friendly. The subdivision is very walkable. It has a duck pond and a little park. I’m walking distance from a variety of restaurants, a Trader Joe’s, and a Half Price Books. (In case you never see or hear from me again, you now know where to look for me.) I have a long list of changes to make this place truly mine—everything from hanging wall art to replacing the floors—and my goal for 2019 is to make a dent in that list.

Meanwhile, I still had ownership of my old place, and traffic was incredibly slow. I left for Scotland at the end of September with no prospective offers in sight. One very lowball offer came in while I was traveling, because why wouldn’t it? Another, even lower, offer came in after I got home. Both of those offers were so low that I would have ended up paying the buyer to take the house. I said “No thanks” to both. Then in early October, I got an offer I could live with. I quickly accepted it, and we agreed on a closing date of Halloween.

Instead of closing on Halloween, though, we got a series of requests for extensions. This went on for two weeks. Finally, on November 15th, the sale closed—with one hitch. The paperwork was all signed, but the funds transfer didn’t come through. Late the next morning, the money arrived and I was, at last, the proud and relieved owner of only one house.

That was about the time I was ready to collapse with relief, but I still had a monster of a project to deal with at work and a new employee to train, so it wasn’t really until this past week that I could truly exhale. Now, after a few cups of tea to unwind after the roller coaster of 2018, all I want for 2019 is a nice boring year.

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.