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Lost Immunity, Daniel Kalla (Simon & Schuster, 332 pages)
Scary, scarier, scariest. That describes the latest work from Vancouver physician Daniel Kalla. It takes place in Seattle a few years after the horrors of COVID-19, when there’s now an epidemic of meningitis that attacks children and young adults and the death rate is 50 per cent. There is a not-too-useful cocktail of drug treatments and no vaccine.
Kalla’s heroine is Seattle’s acting Chief Public Health Officer, Lisa Dyer, and while Kalla doesn’t usually spend many words on his characters, leaving plenty of space for disease, he does flesh out Dyer. Her boss/mentor is dying of cancer, her marriage is cracking and she’s a doctor who will do whatever it takes to save her community. When the first patients arrive – all attendees at a local Bible camp – and the dreaded diagnosis comes in, Dyer is on the hunt. As kids die, she discovers a vaccine that’s about to start the trial phase in Iceland. She bends every rule and takes every chance to get the trial moved to Seattle. With only 50,000 doses available and reluctant assistance from the vaccine’s doctors, she’s convinced this is the only way to avoid a lot of dead kids. But an experimental vaccine is just that – an experiment. Shortly after the first successful doses are administered, kids start to get sick. Then a youngster dies. The vaccine to save kids may end up killing them or is there another, even more frightening reason for the deaths?
Kalla ratchets up the suspense as a cover-up is exposed and Dyer sweats out the tension after she vaccinates her own beloved niece with the drug. In the midst of COVID-19, with millions praying for a dose of a vaccine that was just created, this is a truly scary scenario from a writer who knows his medical thriller lingo down to the final line. Kalla says he wanted this book to inform people about vaccines. It does and, in the case of this reader, gave me far more information that I want to know.
Find You First, Linwood Barclay (HarperCollins, 438 pages)
You are a fabulously wealthy tech millionaire surrounded by luxury and security. Then you discover you have a degenerative genetic disease and that there is no treatment. Then you discover that the disease affects 50 per cent of your offspring and you remember that back when you were struggling, you donated to a sperm bank for money. You decide to leave your millions to them and start a search only to discover that some of them are already dead – not from disease but murder.
That’s the premise of this latest work from Canada’s prolific bestseller Linwood Barclay and it’s a sizzling read. The initial premise is so good that you don’t at first notice that the family dynamics – ordinarily Barclay’s strong suit – falter in this book. The instant rapport between Miles Cookson, the billionaire, and his daughter Chloe feels fake and the reliance on wisecracks to cover pages gets tedious. That said, the mystery still works as we race to see why the Cookson heirs are being killed. It’s a perfect weekend read.
A Lethal Lesson, Iona Whishaw (Touchwood, 434 pages)
There are days when nothing suits a reader like a good old-fashioned classic cozy with a puzzle plot, a country setting and some nice slight characters. When that urge strikes, Iona Whishaw’s delightful B.C. series featuring Lane Winslow and, now, husband, Inspector Darling of the King’s Cove constabulary, are just the ticket. In the previous book, Lane and Darling found a dead body on their honeymoon. In Lethal Lesson, they’re back at home and find the local schoolteacher nearly dead in her ransacked home. Rose was about to leave her job and a replacement was already on hand. But now the replacement is missing. Just what foul play is at hand in the local school? Leave it to Lane to get herself hired as a substitute so she can assist Inspector Darling with his investigation.
As always with Whishaw, there are loads of red herrings and trails to nowhere. The denizens of King’s Cove are an eccentric lot that make for great background and lots of secrets. In this novel, most of the work is done by the police but Lane, as always, gets her due. A really good book in a terrific series.
You Will Remember Me, Hannah Mary McKinnon (Mira, 352 pages)
The amnesia plot is as old as fiction and plopping a man on a seashore with no memory goes back to the Greeks. That said, if it’s worked this long, there’s probably a reason why and You Will Remember Me proves it. It opens with a man on a beach, attired in nothing but a swimsuit and with no recollection of who he is or how he got there. Snippets of memory take him to a small town in Maine where Maya Scott’s stepbrother, Asher, has been missing for two years.
Hannah McKinnon was born in the U.K. and now makes her home in Oakville, Ont. This is her fifth book. Asher’s reappearance in his hometown revives stories of his teenaged romance with a girl who disappeared. Does his amnesia have anything to do with that? Then there’s the time he was “away” and it appears that he was living with a woman named Lily Reid. Lily watched “Jack” swim off and then disappear. The police think he’s dead. Is he Asher?
McKinnon weaves a lot of plot into the two missing men and their respective stories. I did find the story a bit predictable but the characters were engaging and McKinnon has a nice fluid style that makes for easy reading. If we were travelling, this would be a terrific airplane book but it’s still a nice weekend getaway to coastal Maine and McKinnon is a writer to remember.
Six Weeks To Live, Catherine McKenzie (Atria, 378 pages)
This suspenseful novel opens in Vancouver, with Jennifer Barnes facing the worst possible diagnosis. She has an inoperable brain tumour and the doctor’s prognosis is that she has six weeks to live. Jennifer is only 46, with three daughters and two grandsons. She’s also engaged in a bitter divorce from her husband of more than 20 years. She’d anticipated decades to live, not days, but she calls in her daughters and prepares for the worst. As she surveys the sheaf of documents from her doctor, one item stands out; 12 months ago, a blood test showed dangerously high levels of lead in her blood. Could her death be murder by cancer?
The story is told from the perspective of Jennifer and each of her daughters: Emily, a part-time medical student and full-time mother who is the organized sister, expected to “take care” of mom. Then there’s Aline, the scientist, smart and ambitious one who has distanced herself from her mother. Finally, there’s Miranda, who lives at home and is in search of adulthood. Various expensive startups haven’t worked out. Each daughter has plenty of doubts about Jennifer’s insistence on researching the lead. Particularly when Jennifer insists that it was a plot by the girls’ father when she held up his divorce. He wants to marry his much-younger girlfriend and Jennifer is adamant that she’ll only agree after a very large financial settlement.
Despite misgivings, each daughter has information to divulge and McKenzie builds the suspense using the four equally unreliable narrators. Along the way, Jennifer’s illness begins to take a toll both physical and psychological. I confess that I had some idea that there’d be a happy ending with the diagnosis turning out to be wrong. Spoiler: it isn’t. But just what did happen in that year before Jennifer’s impending death? The twist at the end doesn’t really work with the psychology of the novel but by then it doesn’t matter. The complexities of the family and four women make for a solid story about mothers, children and the sacrifices they’re called to make.
The Last Thing He Told Me, by Laura Dave (Simon & Schuster, 320 pages)
This is a light suspense novel from Dave, whose real specialty is relationship novels. As expected, the mystery here is secondary to the bond but it still works well enough to keep the pages turning.
Hannah Hall has a great life in Sausalito, Calif., with her new husband, Owen Michaels. Hannah is a highly successful woodworker, with a growing client list for her prized furniture. Owen is an executive with a new technology firm. The only sour note in their relationship is Owen’s 16-year-old daughter, Bailey, whose mother died years before. She is antagonistic to even the idea of a stepmother. Hannah keeps her distance but she knows Owen has hopes.
Then the world collapses. Hannah receives a note. Nothing but two words: “Protect her.” There’s no question that the note is from Owen and the reference is to Bailey. Hannah tries to reach Owen but there’s no answer on his phone. He has disappeared. Within days, the head of his tech firm is arrested and Hannah learns that the firm has been under investigation for months, seemingly for an immense fraud. Hannah is convinced that Owen couldn’t have been involved but it’s clear that many things she thought were true are lies. Nevertheless, she and Bailey, believing Owen innocent, go in search of the truth and to find their husband and father. The gradual trust and growth of the relationship between Hannah and Bailey, and their shared experiences and talents, are the best parts of this book. Worth reading for that alone.