I’ve been a Shetland fan for the last few years and have watched all three seasons on Netflix (multiple times) but I’d never read any of Ann Cleeves’ novels.
I chose Thin Air (which is book five in the Shetland series and not on Canadian Netflix) mainly because it was available at my library, and it was in paperback. I like paperbacks best. They are lighter to read in bed.
The woman’s writing blew me away. Reading Ann Cleeves is like being wrapped in a silky merino wool blanket. I can see why there is a cue of holds for her novels. I couldn’t wait to snuggle down in my bed every night and immerse my mind in her comforting prose by the light of my pink salt lamp. I don’t know exactly what it is about her style that affects me so much. Perhaps, it’s the detail.
I’m going to assume that, like me, Ann Cleeves is quite visual. She paints pictures so true-to-life, I feel like I can see what she is seeing in her mind, and what our hero, Jimmy Perez, is seeing in his. As a detective, Perez is a keen observer. He’s not romantic and flowery, (though he’s certainly charming and loveable) but he’s genuinely interested and his mind is always spinning around the murder case. In this passage, he goes to London to speak with the victim’s mother:
She led him into a wide hallway. The walls had been painted a deep green and there were pictures everywhere. The art was unfamiliar. Some looked like prints of cave paintings, scratched images of animals and birds. Primitive, but also amazingly lifelike. There were photos of strange dwellings growing out of hillsides, a collage made from scraps of woven cloth and two large abstract oils. He would have liked to spend more time with them, but she’d already moved on and had settled on the windowsill in a room that seemed half-sitting room and half-study. There was a desk and the walls were hidden by bookshelves. In one corner an armchair was covered with a batik throw and next to it stood a coffee table made from animal hide. There was a glass on the table and Perez thought that she’d been sitting here when he’d phoned the night before. Now she was framed by the window, so she looked like a piece of art herself. The background was a small courtyard garden, where the sun had been trapped by a brick wall. In the corner stood a tree covered in pink blooms in a pot.
Naturally there is a murder. Two, in fact. And a tie that binds the victims. There is also sea, shifting fog, ferries, and stone cottages. And most importantly, a legendary ghost. Peery Lizzie. A ten-year-old girl who got lost in the fog and drowned in the flooding tide in the 1920s. Was it murder or an accident? Was Peery Lizzie lured to her death? And how is she connected to our recent victims? However she succumbed, it is the ghost of Peery Lizzie who helps our detectives unravel the murder.
Because no one ever really disappears into thin air. Do they?
This is no Throw Momma from the Train. These are high school kids in their senior year, messing with each other in ways only Eileen Cook can imagine. More psychological thriller than black comedy, it’s perhaps spawned by the 1951 Hitchcockian thriller Strangers on a Train—two strangers who agree to exchange murders so neither can be connected to the victim.
We could call this book “Strangers on a Plane.” Nicki, the charming British psychopath meets Kim Maher in the Vancouver airport when their London flight is delayed several hours. Kim is beginning a sixteen-day “Student Scholars for Change” program, along with several strangers and a boy named Connor who’s just dumped her. Kim is devastated, but she’s come along on the trip, regardless. From the outset, Connor is the boy you love to hate, as we watch him carry on with Miriam, his new love interest.
Written in first person and viewed entirely through Kim’s eyes, it’s feasible she might get drunk with a manipulative stranger and share her personal problems. She hasn’t connected with anyone else in the group. She’s lonely and vulnerable. She might even write a list of reasons, with Nicki’s prompting, called WHY I HATE CONNOR O’REILLY and cap it with AND WHY HE DESERVES TO DIE. And when, through a vodka haze, Kim hears Nicki’s tragic tale—parents divorced, an abusive alcoholic mother who won’t let her live with her father in Vancouver—she might even agree that Nicki’s mother deserves to die too.
The girls bond over their woeful stories, but it’s clear that the older, more worldly, Nicki is in control from the outset. She’s already goaded Kim into stealing a bottle of vodka from the duty-free shop. After the night of drinking and sharing on the plane, Kim awakens alone and hung over, wondering what happened. Nicki’s gone, but she’s got the list that details why Connor should die, along with her own list. Kim has drunkenly agreed that the concept of murdering for each other is pure genius though she’s stated she is no killer. Everyone contemplates killing a nasty ex, don’t they? Maybe even a mean, drunken mother? It was all just talk, wasn’t it?
After landing in Heathrow, the students find their rather dodgy lodgings in South Kensington. Part travelogue, with a scattering of historical references, Cook’s detailed, sensory descriptions of London and her tongue-in-cheek humour backdrop the text. Kim’s room is “like an attic you’d find in a Charlotte Bronte novel, one where you kept a crazy relative.” Little does Kim know that by the end of the novel, she’ll be questioning her own sanity.
Soon after arrival, the students pair off and Kim finds herself with Alex, a boy so nice, so innocent, I immediately suspect him of something heinous. Is he working with Nicki, a subtle plant? Kim finds the innocent, supportive, highly allergic Alex irresistible, and he’s appeared just at the right time. Distracted by Alex and the possibility of true love, Kim forgets about Nicki and their drunken hyperbolic rant on the plane until she glimpses her at the Tower of London. Though Kim charges after her, the ever-elusive Nicki slips into the crowd and disappears.
Then Connor makes a fatal error. At the chaotic South Kensington tube station, he confronts Kim about Alex. “If you’re dating him just to make me jealous, there’s no point.” The conversation ends in a flurry of obscenities and seconds later, someone jumps in front of the train. Kim sees the blue Nike sneaker. Connor. But did he jump or was he pushed? Why would he jump? Is it possible that Nicki murdered Connor? Pushed him in front of the train at the last second and disappeared into the chaos? Kim wrestles with the guilt of all the horrible things she’s said about him, and then the games begin.
“You owe me a murder,” states Nicki. What will it take for Kim to pay up?
Eileen Cook is a trickster. Nothing is what it seems. Unravelling the truth from the appearance of truth is one of her specialities. Cook won the John Spray Mystery Award for The Hanging Girl in 2018. Her psychological thrillers may feature teenage characters, but their actions are mature and calculated.
Injected with subtle wit, coloured by shades of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, You Owe Me a Murder, will keep you awake and guessing right until the end.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 2019
As reviewed in the Ottawa Review of Books, March 2019
The last few months I’ve been drafting a brand new book. It’s a paranormal murder mystery set on the British Columbia coast. In 2013-2014, I worked as a Relief Lighthouse Keeper for a year with the Canadian Coast Guard. I kept a journal and blogged my adventures here. Last summer, I went back to the Nootka Lightstation by Yuquot on the western shore of Vancouver Island to refresh my memory and take more photographs. This is the setting for Ghost Light.
Naturally, I’ve been digging into my old journals as I write and I came across this one. I’m so glad I took such detailed notes! Here, I explain a little of what lighthouse keepers do. Here’s where you can apply for a position as a Relief Keeper.
December 29, 2013: Lighthouse Keeping—Physical Rigours
When I say, I am a lighthouse keeper, most people are surprised. Unknowingly they smile. Do they still exist? How did you even think of doing that? Is there training? How did you get the job? I understand this fascination; asked many of the same questions myself, when my friend became a keeper a few years ago.
Romantic. Captivating. The Lighthouse. That fiery beacon by the misty sea is ingrained in our ancestral memory. If you’ve ever dreamed of living in a tower, stirring up a cauldron of chowder, or sipping tea as you scan the horizon for floundering ships, you know what I mean. But be forewarned. As merry as it seems, lighthouse life is not a dream.
In my late fifties, I wanted a new career, something different from my stressful, chaotic, sedentary high school teaching job, something that would allow me to think and write and create.
When the online job posting appeared at last, I applied and waited, interviewed and waited; and finally, was informed that if I passed the medical, I would be accepted as a candidate. Assistant lightkeeper. Entry level position: relief. Much like a teacher-on-call, I would fill in for someone going on leave. Variable times. Various locations along the coast. Yes please.
But, being a lighthouse keeper is demanding: physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Because stations are in remote locales, you must be in good health. If you’re on any kind of medication, you must remember to bring plenty with you. There’s no slipping out to the 24 hour pharmacy.
There are still twenty-seven staffed lighthouses on the B.C. coast, and each is unique. As a relief keeper, I travel between them, work with different Principal Keepers, and stay in different houses. Some are bungalows, some are two-storey, some are spare houses sparsely furnished; while others–especially if it’s a keeper’s residence—are cozy and comfortable. But, if you don’t like sleeping in different beds, this is not the job for you.
Though we don’t live in the light towers, we do climb inside them. Someone has to clean those windows and make sure everything is functioning as it should.
Tower Stairs at Lennard Island (near Tofino)
And we climb stairs, countless stairs, and cement steps, some ancient and uneven. We scramble up and down ramps, hike forested trails (whenever possible) and pick our way through rocks and boulders. It’s all hard on the hips and knees. I’m petite, so even getting in and out of the helicopter is a challenge for me.
Apart from doing a marine weather report every three hours, lightkeepers take care of the station, inside and out. Here’s just a sampling of work I’ve done in the last few months:
- Dipping diesel fuel tanks from atop a ladder.
- Helping to refuel domestic tanks.
- Dipping cisterns. Rainwater collects in a 5,000 gallon cistern in the basement and is filtered for drinking. Filters also must be changed.
- Scraping and painting buildings, decks, and walkways.
- Testing the fire pump and hoses, and checking fire extinguishers.
- Pumping up the zodiac and angling it down the high line
At one station, armed with trimmers and clippers, I battled English ivy, knowing full well that in weeks, it would be back, sucking the life out of every living thing in its path. Carving a space in the salal is a constant challenge.
Still, wearing personal protective equipment, we maneouvre and maintain self-propelled lawnmowers–my personal bane–weed-whackers, hedge-clippers, tractors, and pressure-washers. We are coastal caretakers.
Lifting. Besides packing in all of our own food–that’s a whole story in itself–when there is a grocery tender, lightkeepers unload boxes from the helicopter, deposit them in a trailer, and then carry them gleefully into the house.
You should be able to lift about fifty pounds. When I fell at the beginning of August and sprained my back, I had to stay off work until I was healed sufficiently; in fact, I had to see a Coast Guard doctor before returning to the job.
Not exactly sipping hot tea by the sea.
So, what do I love about being a lightkeeper? The adventure.
Carmanah Lightstation from the Air
Lift off in the helicopter! And cruising up the coast like a dragonfly.
Driving the tractor. (That’s all my gear)
Watching and recording whale sightings.
Eagles. Ravens. Seals and sea lions.
Clouds that are never the same twice.
The wind. Even the rain. Challenging my mind and body to perform.
Time to think and write and create.
Living deliberately, as Thoreau would say.
And especially those times when I do get to sip hot tea by the sea.
I had a wonderful time presenting a workshop at my local library last night. Libraries are just such positive, enriching places. They’re safe, they’re secure, they’re free! They offer knowledge, entertainment, companionship, a perfect environment for sparking creativity, and they’re ideal for introverts. I spend so much time visiting my local library, I was happy to give something back.
This was the first time I’d used Prezi and I’m surprised how easy it was. I just used the free version—there is an upgrade that gives many more features—but it worked fine. If I start doing more of these talks, I will upgrade and play with the other features. Here’s a photo of my main screen:
Each of the black circles has hidden wonders like photographs, text, and videos which can be embedded in the free version. If you have Internet access, you’re good to go.
“The Hero’s Journey” is one of my favourite topics. I’ve used it to plot my last three novels, so was able to share my personal experience; as well as, provide examples from well known books and films like Jaws, The Hunger Games, The Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, and Outlander.
I have adored Joseph Campbell since I stumbled upon The Power of Myth in 1990—it was a life-changer for me. But I really appreciate how Chris Vogler has adapted Campbell’s monomyth into a useful tool for writers. This is the book I recommend. Whenever I start a new writing project, I reread it, and characters and scenes pop into my mind. It’s become an inspirational power tool for me.
In this video, Chris Vogler describes how and why he wrote The Writer’s Journey, and encapsulates the journey.
I’m usually adept at multi-tasking. So far it hasn’t damaged my brain, lowered my IQ, or affected my work performance as documented by Forbes. I don’t think. It did, however, cause a glitch in my breakfast plan this morning. It happened something like this.
Rachael Herron emailed me and invited me to be a guest on her podcast and video show. I am thrilled! I met Rachael at SiWC where we shared a table (Herron and Hawkin) for the Author Signing Event and discovered we were kindred spirits—not just alphabetical authors. Rachael sent me a link to her latest youtube interview with Eve O. Schaub. You can find the show here. I thought, Hey this is perfect. I can sit and watch this while I eat breakfast. I can even have that manicure I’ve been putting off for days. My nails were looking like claws and I can’t type out my words with claws.
So, I put on the interview and started watching as I prepared my oatmeal. Now, I make the BEST oatmeal ever. It’s thick-cut flakes with almond milk and nuts and fresh blueberries. While the oatmeal was simmering, I heated up the kettle and got a bowl out for soaking my nails. Remember Madge and Palmolive? Soft on hands. You’re soaking in it.
No, I didn’t use Palmolive. I squeezed a little low-chem shampoo into the bowl and continued watching the interview. When the oatmeal was perfect, I scooped it out into — OH WHAT? Was that the bowl with the shampoo in it? Sure enough it was and there was no saving that oatmeal! So I cleaned everything up and kept watching the show. But I was starving!
Rather than start at the beginning with the oatmeal again, I decided to just stir up some way too expensive vegan yogurt with homemade granola and fresh blueberries. I squeezed some shampoo in the clean bowl and then — NO! I DIDN’T!
Yes. I did. I spooned the way too expensive vegan yogurt right into the shampoo!
Is it time for a mindfulness meditation retreat?
On my third attempt, I was able to get the yogurt concoction in the right bowl and the shampoo concoction in the other bowl AND watch the end of the interview! Phew!
I want to be clear that this was no senior moment. This was all about trying to do too many things at once. If you are guilty of multi-tasking—I think women do this much more than men—here’s an article that lists 12 ways to stop doing it.
Meanwhile, I’m eating a big bowl of rice and dahl as I write this. And so far, no soapy aftertaste!