The Girl with No Past by Kathryn Croft

Firl With No Past Cover

 

After reading the premise of this book, and skimming a couple of reviews, I was so prepared to settle in for a nice binge read – I am a sucker for psychological thrillers (a la Gone Girl) and I went into it with an open mind and heart…and OK, maybe it was just me, maybe I was in a pre-holiday funk, or possibly my expectations were too high (I am itching for a book to CONSUME me, which happened just last week with Robert Crais’ new book – but, I digress). In any case, I suffered a bit of a letdown.

The protagonist, Leah Mills, had a really bad day about fourteen years ago, and she has lived basically as a fugitive since then. She lives a solitary life, isolated and keeping totally to herself except for a bit of an online existence, where she meets Julian…But, then she receives a letter from someone who apparently knows what happened. And, to make things worse, it looks like the person who wrote her wants to destroy the life she has created.

I admit I went back and forth between feeling like “yeah! This is great!” and “bleah.” Croft is a good writer, the pacing is good, the story flowed along, and the varied points of view didn’t distract as they can do when a story is told with multiple POVs. (Ps of V?)

I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers and am the first to admit I am not adept at figuring out the mystery early on – in fact, I am more often surprised to find “who done it” in a whodunit. But in this case, I figured it out early, so I suspect the plot may have been the problem for me. In addition to that expectations thing, pre-holiday funk, etc. Also, this was very similar to last summer’s The Lies We Tell, by Meg Carter, so possibly that made it feel like old terrain? Unclear…but the effect is that it was a bit of a disappointment for me.

Despite what may sound negative, I enjoyed the EXPERIENCE of reading this, and will definitely read other things by this author, who clearly has strong skills. I am grateful to NetGalley for providing me an advance copy of this book in exchange for my review. Three and a half stars (marked as four, as I think three is too low J).

 

 

 

 

Forty Thieves by Thomas Perry

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This fast-paced novel from Thomas Perry focuses on two couples: Sid and Ronnie (Veronica) Abel are married detectives, retired from LAPD and now working together in their own agency. Ed and Nicole Hoyt are married assassins who live in the San Fernando Valley and sell their services to anyone who will pay them. A year ago, a middle-aged research scientist from a private corporation was murdered, his body (with two bullet holes in the skull) only discovered when it clogged a storm drain on its way to the ocean. His employers hire the Abels to delve into the case after the LAPD has come up with nothing but dead ends.

There are some interesting questions floating around: the victim was African-American: was this racially motivated? Were industrial secrets involved (the corporation has some mysterious military contracts)? Was the victim’s divorce a factor? Why do people start shooting at the Abels as soon as they begin to dig in to the case? And who hired the Hoyts, anyway?And why?

Perry does a great job revealing important pieces of the puzzle as the story unfolds, and we learn more about the Abels, the Hoyts, diamond thieves and the LA storm drain system.

The end may require a slight bit of the reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief, and at one point I thought “hmm, is this written with the big screen in mind?” – and I have some ideas for casting the movie. The rapid growth of suburbia around LA and the varied locales throughout the Valley will make great locations for shooting the film J

The characters are well developed, and the Abels are prime candidates for another adventure. The writing is strong, the plot is tight (with some unexpected twists and turns), and the pace is fast. I really enjoyed this book (I had forgotten how much I enjoyed Perry’s work!) and look forward to the next in what I hope will be a series. Five stars. I appreciate the opportunity to read an advance copy from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Time of Departure by Douglas Schofield

Time of Departure

This book left me feeling surprised and totally schizo. Surprised because I started reading it without knowing anything about it other than that it was a thriller and the protagonist was a thirty-something female prosecutor named Claire Talbot in Florida. Beyond that, I had no expectations. The surprise came halfway through when a tectonic shift in the story happened, and a little schizo because my reaction to the story (and my experience reading it) was so positive for the first half and so “meh” for the second!

I loved the first half of it, as it has strong characters, interesting legal maneuverings (I am a sucker for well-drawn courtroom scenes, especially if the characters are strong and believable). The mystery about Claire’s new friend Marcus and why he knows seemingly everything about her, including things from many years ago, unfolds gradually and had me wondering WTH? As a retired policeman with way more information than he seemingly should have had about a string of disappearances in the area back in the 1970s, Marcus is portrayed as both a suspect and a love interest for Claire, despite the difference in their ages. Great chemistry between the two!!!

It’s not possible to describe how the big shift in the story happens without spoiling it, but it does become a bit fantastic, and veers close to a genre that is not my style. So, that may account for the fact that the second half of the book sort of lost me. I think that people who find the style up their alley would be mesmerized, and would easily award this five stars. I give it four because it was well-written, the suspense was good, the characters were well developed, the action was reasonable, and I had such a good time reading the first half. Good for thriller readers, and anyone for whom a big dose of willing suspension of disbelief is not an issue. (I TRIED to just go with it, but it got away from me a bit. I look forward to discussing it with other readers).

I appreciate the opportunity to read an advance copy from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. Four stars!

The Passenger by Lisa Lutz

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Lisa Lutz, author of the Spellman Series, has a new novel to be released in spring 2016, a thriller about a woman who goes on the run and makes a habit of changing identities as she goes. As the story opens, right away I learned a bit about the protagonist, Tanya Dubois, that made her intriguing: she finds her husband Frank dead, and ponders calling the police…but “then they’d start looking at me real carefully and I didn’t like people looking at me all that much.”

As things unfold, she goes on the run, and a pattern of changing identities emerges. I loved the way she described the process of moving into a new identity:”…now it felt like every time I wanted to try on an identity coat, it began to unravel the moment I slipped my arm into the sleeve.”

She has an interesting perspective, and while I liked lots about her, some things in her attitude were unsettling: “I would never forget what I had done, the mistakes I had made, the innocent and guilty people I’d left in my wake. But when I weighed my crime against the world, I still believed that I was owed a decent existence.”

Along the way, she meets a woman named Blue, who is pivotal in her life, especially when the two of them swap identities and Tanya goes to Wyoming and becomes a teacher (something in Blue’s past). We learn gradually that when Tanya was a teenager (original name Nora Glass), she was involved in a car crash that left a friend dead, and she was blamed for it, as other people identified her as the driver at fault.

Without giving too much away, Nora returns to confront the demons from her past (in particular the Oliver family) and find resolution to her questions about events (including the car crash) and people (including her mother).

I loved lots of things the characters said. For example, when asked what a dying person was like at the end, one of the main characters responds: “The way most people are at the end. Scared and full of regret. The way you are all the time.”

The author kept the action moving and the mystery unfolding – the book kept my interest and made me want to read more of her work. I have just downloaded her 2015 book, How to Start a Fire, and see it includes UC Santa Cruz in the storyline, which is one of the schools Lutz attended, and which is where I live.

I appreciate the opportunity to read an advance copy from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. Four stars (if possible, would give four and a half!)

The Lies We Tell by Meg Carter

The Lies We Tell by MEg Carter

In The Lies We Tell, two adult women (Jude and Katy) are shown in both present day and as their teenage selves in flashback. The story unspools to reveal the horrible thing that happened 24 years ago.

This psychological thriller alternates chapters between present day & 24 years ago, and this alternating is perhaps why it has been compared to Gone Girl (?). In any case, the story follows the VERY bizarre teenage friendship of Kate & Jude. Jude comes back, after 24 years seemingly determined to torment Kate and get revenge. The problem for Kate? She is clueless about what Jude is seeking revenge for!

Like Gone Girl, this is a psychological thriller, but The Lies We Tell seemed to have more of a single AHA! moment, where Gone Girl seemed to have several. I tend to get distracted by the linear events and am not great at solving mysteries as I read, but I had a solid theory about this one that proved partly correct.

This is one of those stories that is impossible to review without spoiling the story, so just suffice it to say that it is an entertaining read! I appreciate getting an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for my review.

Four Stars!

Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin

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I loved Ethan Canin’s book America, America so was predisposed to love this book…and while there is much to like, part of it left me feeling stupid (not something anyone particularly enjoys).

The book is about a family and focuses on Milo Andret, a tyrannical genius, his son Hans, and various others who live in their orbit (the wife/mother, the lover from years gone by, etc.).

The first half is all about Milo, and I struggled to either understand or care much about him. As author Pat Conroy describes Milo, he “…is a mathematical genius and one of the most maddening, compelling, appalling, and unforgettable characters I’ve encountered in American fiction.” Conroy goes on to summarize the book’s arc: “This is the story of a family that falls to pieces under the pressure of living with an abundantly gifted tyrant.”

Milo is just different from childhood, reminding me of high functioning children (and possibly adults) on the spectrum: “It wasn’t that he didn’t like other people…just couldn’t figure out what to say to anyone.” A significant life event is a schoolyard fight, and how he internalized his father’s advice: “…he’d learned something. As he’d felt himself giving in to the blows, he’d understood that he was entirely alone in the world.”

A true mathematical genius. Milo lives for a time while a student at Berkeley in a below-street-level basement apartment, which he sees as “a filthy fishless aquarium. Yet at the same time there was an aspect to the outlook that was akin to the maple and beech forest of his childhood. The sense of a constrained world that nonetheless suggested a borderless one.”

Milo’s field of study is topology (something with which I am NOT familiar) and “…he understood at the same time the radical difficulty of what he was attempting. The weight of discipline required to unlearn the world and refabricate it from principles.” Okay, start of feeling stupid here…

Admittedly, lots of the description was way over my head, for example “…he’d been…asked to produce a fully rotated rendering of a Steiner surface, which was formed by the smoothed union of 3 hyperbolic paraboloids.” And “…he didn’t see the object he was drawing but the entire array of space instead – all things that were the object and all things that were not the object – with equal emphasis. It was symptomatic of something he’d noticed in himself since childhood – an inability to take normal heed of his senses, the way other people did as they instinctually navigated a course of being. In this was, it was like mathematics itself: the supremacy of axiom of experience. He wondered why others didn’t see this.” So I get that he is an isolated freakish genius, but his behavior toward others is appalling, so I didn’t really care that much what he was doing or saying.

After a couple of hundred pages of Milo’s studies, career rise and fall, and descent into a dark place, I really didn’t care what happened to him – I was just tired of the way his total narcissism affected his family. But then, the story switched to his son, Hans, and his experiences. Well, guess what? Hans is another genius and while not as wacky as his father, just as puzzling.

This book is filled with great language, and the stories of the main characters are affecting and unsettling (as well-drawn characters are: we CARE about them). And I have no doubt that for someone who understands what the hell Milo is blathering about, this book would be gold. I am glad I read it, and while I know several people to whom I will recommend it, it definitely isn’t the thing for either of my book clubs.

Four stars just for being Ethan Canin and for making me think. I appreciate the opportunity to read an advance copy of this in exchange for my review.

The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian

guest room

The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian

Let’s get it out of the way: I loved this book. It is somewhat a thriller, and somewhat about family/relationships combined with social issues. I’m a sucker for that stuff (e.g. Jodi Picoult when she is on her game)

So, the premise is that this successful hedge fund guy (Richard) lives in a nice big house in the suburbs with his wife Kristin and daughter Melissa. Richard has a brother (Phillip) who is about to be married, and Richard offers to hold the bachelor party at his house while Kristin and Melissa visit Kristin’s mother in the city. Phillip is one of those guys who skate on the ethical edge, and has a history of less-than-above-board dealings, but Richard is hoping that he is about to settle down into the kind of postcard-perfect life that Richard and his family enjoy. The party happens, and goes horribly wrong, ending up with two dead guys in the house (the watchdogs for the “female entertainment” hired by Phillip’s friend Spencer). The ensuing drama involves blackmail, more murder, sex slavery…quite a change for the Norman Rockwell family!

I loved the description of the phone call that brought the news of the mess at the party to Kristin: she “knew the odds are far higher that a call to a landline – to any line – at 3 in the morning is the ringtone of calamity. That call is the raven.” As Kristin hears the phone ring in her mother’s bedroom, she thinks about her mother’s reaction to bad news that may involve her family: “She would hear the verbal balancing act: urgency mixed like gin amid the tonic of consideration.”

Another important character is Alexandra, a young woman from Armenia by way of Moscow who was part of the evening’s “entertainment,” and has only been in the US for three weeks at the time of the party. She lived a life in Moscow full of movies and TV (The Bachelor was a favorite), and is “managed” by a series of men: the “truth is I usually felt safer with the men who paid for me than I did with…the guys who “protected us.”” Alexandra’s story unfolds in chapters alternating with the story of Richard and his family, and we learn gradually about her life following a horrific Armenian earthquake and her being recruited to Moscow to fulfill her dreams of being a ballerina.

Bohjalian includes some subtle humor, for example as Richard deals with job loss, blackmail, dealing with his sleazy brother and his wife’s (understandable) horrified reaction to the party, he muses about his parents, who had “retired to Fort Lauderdale…everyone was between the age of sixty and embalmed.” He spirals down, and “he wanted everything to be the way it had been seven days ago.”

The ending is something I totally did not see coming!!!! Any comments about the story will be spoilers, so I will just leave it at this: if you like a fast-paced, well-written story that will make you think and feel, both during the reading and afterward, grab this book! I plan to suggest it for one of my book clubs…I think there is lots of potential for interesting discussion.

I appreciate receiving an advance copy of this book in exchange for my unbiased review. Five stars!