fiction

The Best Book I Read This Month: Even Dogs in the Wild by Ian Rankin

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The best book I read this month is the 20th installment in Ian Rankin’s John Rebus series: Even Dogs in the Wild. It’s my favorite in the series (so far).

I’d never read any Rebus books before last summer. The series was recommended to me when I mentioned that I was traveling to Edinburgh and that when I traveled, I liked to read books set in the place I was visiting. The Rebus recommendation was spot on.

Rebus is a Detective Inspector who lives and works in Edinburgh. He first appeared in Knots and Crosses way back in 1987. In the early books in the series, Rebus was not all that likable and felt pretty flat as a character. What I enjoyed most about reading those books was being in the city where the stories were set and seeing many of the story locations in person. For example, one of the Rebus books I read while in Edinburgh began with a murder in Mary King’s Close. I read those pages a couple days before my own scheduled guided tour of the close. Similarly, Rebus regularly walked up the Canongate and the Cowgate and through the Grassmarket—all places I walked while I was there. Reading about places I was seeing in person made my visit more meaningful and the stories more alive.

By Book 20, published in 2015, Rebus is retired. That, of course, doesn’t stop him from being involved in the latest case du jour. What set Even Dogs in the Wild apart, though, was the character growth. For the first time, Rebus seems to have grown. He felt like a real person, not a stock character. The same for his frenemy, Big Ger Cafferty, an aging mob boss. Both men show signs of change and vulnerability that they hadn’t shown before. It made for a refreshing and engaging read—enough so that I’m very much looking forward to reading the last two books (so far) in the series.

(All that said, you can read and understand Even Dogs in the Wild without having read the previous 19 books in the series.)

The Best Book I Read This Month: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

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The best book I read this month was a fantastic read that swept me away. Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale is lush, lyrical, and Romantic. Not hearts-and-flowers romantic, but Beethoven Romantic. Lord Byron Romantic. Mary Shelley Romantic. Full of emotion and passion and nature and imagination.

Set in the early years of Tsarist Russia (roughly the 1300s), The Bear and the Nightingale tells the story of Vasya, the daughter of a Russian nobleman, in a village on the edge of the wilderness. Vasya is a wild child, headstrong and independent, but devoted to her family and her village. She inherits her mother’s gift—a connection to the spirits that inhabit the land and the home. (Russian folklore says that every house is protected by a hearth spirit called a domovoi.)

Vasya’s personality and gift bring her into conflict with her stepmother, the village priest, and eventually the whole village. She becomes caught up in a struggle between supernatural forces, and it is in this struggle that she encounters the bear and the nightingale.

Arden’s narrative reads very much like a fairy tale, which is fitting because the story she tells is very much of that genre, but it’s not the simplistic fairy tales spun by Disney and company. This tale harkens back to the original Grimm’s tales—dark and earthy and violent.

Vasya’s story continues over two more books, but I don’t know if I’m going to read them. This story felt very full and complete and satisfying, just as it is. The idea of reading more feels like ordering a second dinner while being completely stuffed from the first one.

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.

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.