It’s always a treat to find a new series I like, and when the books are from a Canadian author it feels like an extra bonus. Enter the Birder Murder Mystery series, recommended to me by a birder friend some time ago.
Inspector Domenic Lejeune is too good at his job. So he sticks with policing when he’d rather be hiking across marsh and cliff in search of rare birds. A Canadian serving in the UK police force, he can at least enjoy the location of his new posting. Norfolk is prime birding country.
He only has to overcome the distrust of his fellow officers while solving a high-profile murder case. On the plus side, the deceased was an avid birder. Minus side: the birding community doesn’t trust him any more than his new co-workers do.
Nicely plotted, with a broad cast of characters and complications, A Siege of Bitterns is a satisfying read. It’s one of those omniscient point of view books that drops into multiple heads in the same scene, which always confuses me a bit. Maybe because of the omniscience, it feels like more of a thinking, or puzzle, sort of story instead of a heart one. My brain appreciated that. I’ll definitely be reading more in the series.
It was meant to be a smile, but Maik got some sense of the last sight a swimmer might see when a Great White Shark approached. [page 81]
Book 1 in the Birder Murder Mystery series, A Siege of Bitterns received the 2015 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel. You can find Canadian author Steve Burrows here: abirdermurder.com.
[Review copy from the public library. I read the print version, but the digital version is available to libraries through Hoopla Digital.]
At 50, Libby has lived with her
grandmother since childhood and is mourning Gram’s recent death. Her lifelong
dream is to own her own home, away from the tenement where she’s been raised. She
also longs to recreate Gram’s signature soup recipe—perhaps in hopes of
restoring the sense of home Gram provided.
Her friend, Sibyl, is about 10 years
younger and likes to think she’s found her security in spirituality and sensuality.
Sibyl is convinced she knows what Libby needs while having no understanding of
her friend’s grief.
Paige is a young woman working at the
Laird Mansion Museum in the next state, pushing to finish her research paper
before her baby arrives. She’s obsessed with finding a more personal side to
the now-deceased MDM Laird and with clearing his name of hints of scandal.
The Red Journal is a
carefully-imagined novel for the literary, even scholarly, reader who likes to
chew over a novel and tease out its depths. Libby and Sibyl are each searching
for sacred spaces in their own ways, and the heart of MDM Laird’s manor is
another sacred space.
The story begins with Libby and Sibyl en
route to visit the Laird Museum, and alternates this present with the recent
past leading up to the journey. I would have found it an easier read in a
linear timeline. Movement between multiple timelines is often done, and I’m not
sure why it didn’t work for me here. It might be the short distance back in
time, or the short duration of the “present” museum tour itself. Breaking the
tour into sections may highlight the journey to the heart of the manor, and
I’ve seen other readers commenting on enjoying the “dance” between timelines.
As well-written as each scene is, the
novel felt long to me. I don’t think we needed as much of Libby’s soup-making
and apartment-packing, Sibyl’s travels, or even as much depth in Paige’s
research. I wonder, in fact, if the story needed Sibyl’s point of view at all.
Possibly any key information in her scenes could have been introduced through
Libby’s observations. As with a good soup, condensing could have strengthened
the flavour, and readers would have still been able to observe two women’s very
different searches for sacred space.
The novel also includes journal excerpts,
perhaps to give readers extra clues to tease out the full story before Libby
discovers it herself.
Sibyl’s point of view scenes often share
rich memories of exotic travels, which will appeal to readers who love to
travel (and armchair travellers). Her mashup of various spiritual beliefs shows
its hollowness but might still sound appealing enough to lead seekers astray.
On the other side of belief, MDM Laird’s
Bible-based faith has a few mentions and there’s some reference to God as
“Father” near the end. The faith thread has enough hints for people who know
their Bibles—even MDM’s name, Moses David Melchizidek—but biblical literacy is
not a given for most mainstream readers.
I appreciated the chance to read about 40-
and 50-year-old protagonists, as well as the (fictional) historical character
MDM Laird’s exemplary relationships with the Native Americans he invited to
dwell on his estate. His focus on keeping their families together was a
refreshing counterpart to the true-life travesties imposed by both American and
Deb Elkink is a skilled, award-winning
author who writes at a deeper level than I can easily plumb. I’ve had to work
harder than I like to figure this one out, and I’m not sure I have it yet. I
think the concentric layout of the Laird Mansion Museum estate somehow connects
with the choice of narrative structure, circling back upon itself.
The Red Journal has a strong
sense of place, in the unfolding history of the land around the manor and in Sibyl’s
vividly-rendered exotic travelogues, which feel like the author has visited in
person. Although the characters sometimes frustrated me, I appreciated the
Deb Elkink has also written The Third
Grace (a novel) and Roots and Branches: The Symbolism of the Tree in the
Imagination of G.K. Chesterton (nonfiction). For more about the author and
her work, visit debelkink.com.
Nora Martin’s dream is to establish the Beacon of Hope residence as an alternative to prison or forced military service for young men who’ve been arrested. She has the government approval and the funding, but suddenly she may not have the farmhouse she leased from a church in rural Indiana.
The church assumed care of the property when its owner died. How could they have forgotten to notify the man’s heir? What else have the locals “forgotten” to mention? One thing’s sure, they know how to hold grudges.
Most of those grudges are aimed at Jake Schwartz, the farm’s heir, who arrives unexpectedly on leave from the military. Jake tells Nora and her FBI friend Alicia to stay out of his troubles, even when things escalate to violence.
How can Nora do that, when she’s in danger of losing her ministry? And how can she admit her attraction to Jake, when she takes her Mennonite pacifist beliefs seriously? For that matter, how did Jake, another Mennonite, end up in the Navy?
Burning Justice is set in the real town of French Lick, Indiana, and many of the settings sound like real places. Nora and Jake are both what I’d call expatriate Mennonites, keeping their faith but cut off from traditional communities. Jake, who looks to have compromised his beliefs, is more connected to God than Nora, who’s crushed by guilt over advice she gave in her previous career as a social worker.
Sometimes we are our own biggest obstacles in our walk toward God’s will. (Miriam, a young Mennonite mother, to Nora, Kindle location 2436)
For some reason, you seem to think that by clutching the steering wheel, you can change the direction of the road. (Jake to Nora, Kindle location 3100)
My only issue with this novel is the ending. It provides a satisfying fictional wrap-up, but in the real world I think the characters would be setting themselves up for trouble. I can’t give more details without giving spoilers, but I wouldn’t want an impressionable reader to follow this example.
Burning Justice is the first book in the Alicia Yu series. This is Nora’s story, but Alicia is an intriguing support character. I look forward to seeing what action she gets into in the next books: Glitter of Sorrow and Color of Money.
Helena Smrcek’s debut novel is a fast read laced with danger and romance and steeped in small-town secrets. For more about the author, visit her Goodreads page, and to read a sample chapter, visit her website. Burning Justice is currently free for Kobo. Amazon and the other online retailers will follow shortly.
Come and join the conversation … and maybe win a prize! Click the image to go to the event on my Facebook page for more information, or to sign up. When the party starts, there’ll be clear directions on how to join in. I just wish we could serve some real food!
Also… today’s the final day for the Heaven’s Prey blog chase. The chase posts will still be available tomorrow, but we draw for the free book tonight 🙂 Haven’t taken the chase yet? Click here to start running: