In some novels the setting is a force to be dealt with, a hostile environment awash with poverty, disease and corruption. “The Fever Tree” is such a tale, a big brawling book by Jennifer McVeigh that’s reminiscent of an old-time classic featuring a young woman struggling to cope with existence in a place foreign to her, with a man she can’t, or won’t trust.
A hothouse flower, Frances Irvine has been used to a life of privilege in 1880s Great Britain. Though her mother passed away years ago, she and her father have adjusted and enjoy the finer things in life. All that changes when Mr. Irvine becomes ill. Dr. Edwin Matthews is called in, a distant relative that Frances finds rather dull who stayed with the Irvines for a time when he and Frances were children. There is little the physician can do to help Frances’ father. He dies leaving his daughter penniless because of his unwise investments.
Frances has a choice to make, move to Manchester and lose face serving as a maid for a surly aunt or accept a proposal from Dr. Matthews and follow him to South Africa. Neither avenue is particularly appealing, but Frances pins her hope on the doctor, hoping she will grow to love him, as he obviously loves her.
The engaged couple have little time together before Dr. Matthews is called back to South Africa to deal with a smallpox crisis leaving Frances to make the voyage on her own. The trip is perilous, physically and emotionally. A dashing man sweeps Frances off her feet. William Westbrook has interests in the diamond mines, and a dubious reputation, despite his charm. He urges Frances to marry him—a proposal that falls through, leaving her heartbroken. With no means to support herself Frances settles for Dr. Matthews.
Life in South Africa isn’t what she anticipates. The British society she imagined she’d be part of is replaced by a hardscrabble life in a remote locale. Her husband works tirelessly at a quarantine station to curb the spread of smallpox, a disease that threatens the native population, droves of underpaid South Africans cruelly dependent on the small wages they earn working the mines, while the British politicians and businessmen line their pockets with the profits.
There’s much to enjoy in this historical novel that delves into the injustices of diamond mining and the class distinctions between the British and the native population. “The Fever Tree” is entertaining, the plot moves along and is engaging, but at times Frances, who may be a victim of her times, comes off as spoiled and wishy-washy to the point of annoyance. It’s the hostile setting and history of South Africa that steal the show.
There’s plenty of action in “The Carrion Birds,” set in the Southwest in the late 1990s. Author Urban Waite doesn’t waste any time plunging readers into the fray, a drug dispute in the desert that ends in violence setting into motion a novel as riveting and lively as his first, “The Terror of Living.”
For 10 years, Ray Lamar, a former strong arm willing to do dirty work for cash, has lived up to a promise he made to himself — to cut ties with the seamy drug dealers he used to do business with. But when Memo, an old acquaintance, contacts him, promising a lucrative deal in which no one is supposed to get hurt, Ray can’t turn his back on easy money.
Honest work has been hard to come by, meager wages compared to what he can score on a drug heist. One last job, Ray thinks, will score big. He returns to Coronado where he once lived with his wife and infant son—a woman now dead and a boy with brain damage who’s cared for by Ray’s father.
Ray’s wife and son were victims of a car crash set up by the cartel to settle a score. At the time Ray’s cousin Tom was the town sheriff, but he was stripped of his badge because he shot and killed one of the drug cartel’s wives, narrowly avoiding a prison sentence. The cartel got even, and Ray split town, devastated by his personal loss.
A decade later, the deal in the desert goes south. Ray realizes Memo has tricked him, “They weren’t there for a simple shakedown. They were there to get rid of the competition.” Suddenly, Coronado finds itself immersed in a drug war, bodies stacking up like logs on a woodpile. Though Tom is a dishonored lawman, he feels it’s within his right to get involved in the investigation to help Sheriff Kelly, a young woman who served as his deputy, and now seems way in over her head.
Though there’s plenty of blood and guts in this thriller, the carnage isn’t overtly offensive. Waite’s book is fast-paced and interesting. He’s created a bad guy in Ray who isn’t all bad, and a good guy in Tom who’s far from lily-white. The complex characters, and continually shifting alliances, are stomach churning and make for a fast-paced read.
Amity & Sorrow by Peggy Riley
Guest review by Mindy Sansoucie, Missourian staff
Two sisters, Amity and Sorrow, cower in the backseat of a stolen car. A strip of white fabric binds their wrists together. Sorrow has tried to escape before. Their mother Amaranth drives, speeding them across the countryside and away from a dangerous man — their father.
Amaranth was the first of his 50 wives. Their farm was once a simple community in search of a natural lifestyle and a new faith. Over the years, the clan struggles to get by while their patriarch, known to all as “Husband” or “Father,” continues adding wives and having children. They become a polygamous cult as adept at hiding secrets as spinning skirts.
When Amaranth crashes the car into a tree after driving for days on end, she and her daughters are left to the mercy of an Oklahoma farmer with secrets of his own, mysteries knocking from behind the padlocked doors of his home.
Bradley farms and does only what is needed to get by in a failing economy. He grieves the loss of a wife who left him, runs a gas station on a desolate piece of Oklahoma land and pleads with his seeds to sprout. Bradley has already taken in one stray, Dust, an abandoned adolescent boy, and raised him as his own. Whether Bradley can find the compassion to open his doors once again, to Amaranth and her daughters, is one of the many questions that keep the pages flipping.
Amaranth slowly comes to recognize the world she left behind for “Husband.” Her daughters emerge into a new world of sights, sounds, tastes and touches once forbidden to them by their father, for “knowledge was power, but ignorance was holy. It kept them humble and pliable, docile and safe as milk cows.” Amity is a sponge, eagerly soaking up novels like “The Grapes of Wrath,” exploring the magic of a television set with rabbit ears, and experiencing her first crush.
The boy Dust has a pink scar across his back “like a wing removed” that fascinates Amity. She wonders if her hands can heal him. He brings her food from their station and “names each one as Adam did in Eden: Lay’s and Doritos, Sno Balls and Chocodiles, Cheetos and Fritos, Twinkies and pies.” She grabs a dark colored treat and gives him a “chocolate-gummed” smile.
While Amity explores with wide eyes, Sorrow grieves and plots ways to get back to the compound. She craves the attention of their congregation, but more so their father. He has assured her that she is a sightseeing oracle, that she will bring forward a lamb that will end the world, and that he is God. In Sorrow, Riley shows readers an ignorance that corrupts innocence and covers the world in “forbidden fields.” Yet, a thin thread of hope weaves through the fabric binding the sisters.
As a playwright turned novelist, Peggy Riley knows suspense. Her debut novel is told in alternating chapters, some drawn in horrific flashbacks of girls who “make Jesus” with boys in dark rooms, to a mother struggling to recover her lost daughters. Yet, Riley smartly lifts the heavy veil of despair with an often stunning and peaceful use of metaphoric language. Riley shows an unlikely family knitting themselves together while “grieving for the hope that was born and lost, grieving for the faith that turned to poison.” Riley’s characters seem predestined for doom, yet a hopeful sort of suspense drives the novel to its final pages.