The California Garden Tour by Donald Olson

Olson CA Garden tour
“Garden Tourists” are a real thing. These are folks who plan their outings around locations such as Filoli, Sunnylands, and botanical gardens such as Southern California’s Huntington Gardens.

In The California Garden Tour, Donald Olson gives all the information a garden tourist needs to know about 50 outstanding public gardens in California, and thanks to Timber Press and NetGalley, I received an advance copy in exchange for my review.

This guidebook is amazing. It is arranged geographically, and includes maps and gorgeous photos, along with useful information such as hours, fees, parking, etc.

The geographic regions within Northern California include the East Bay, San Francisco/Peninsula, Sonoma, and Central & North Coasts. In Southern California, we have Los Angeles, Pasadena, Santa Barbara, Palm Springs, the South Coast, and San Diego.

In addition to being a lovely coffee table book, fun to browse, this would be a great gift for both garden tourists and anyone who appreciates plants! Great job! Five stars.

 

 

The Quantum Spy by David Ignatius

COVER Ignatius Quantum Spy.jpg

I remember a year or so ago when Justin Trudeau was asked a snarky question about quantum computing, and proceeded to explain it in language we could understand…and the whole concept of things being two things at once kind of blew my mind. “Things can be in two places at once. The coin is both heads and tails. The cat is alive and dead. A bit is zero and one. It’s only the act of observing these phenomena that collapses their ambiguous state. ” In The Quantum Spy, the race is on between the U.S. and China to build the first quantum computer.

It’s a great setup for David Ignatius of the Washington Post to entertain us with a 21st century spy thriller…and, thanks to W.W. Norton and NetGalley, I received a copy in exchange for this honest review.

Early on, we meet John Vandel, long-time CIA operative, who is wise to what it takes to survive in the Agency: “He wrote an eyes-only memo later that morning for the national security adviser to cover himself. The rest, he didn’t want to know. The Director was a former member of Congress. Letting the staff do the dirty work was a way of life.”

Some years ago, an Army Ranger named Harris Chang saved Vandel’s life in Iraq. When Vandel thanked him, Chang said “You would have done it for me,” to which Vandel replied “No fucking way.” This tells us quite a bit about both men, and as the story alternates locations including China, Singapore, Washington, D.C., Iraq and Seattle, we follow their efforts to beat China in the race for quantum computing superiority.

Chang goes to a quantum research lab that has been compromised by a suspected Chinese informant. There is a hunt for the mole who may have penetrated the highest levels of the Agency, and things hop around, with a bit of uncertainty that parallels the quantum state: there are leaks, but do the leaks expose real secrets, or are they false trails meant to deceive the Chinese? Chang finds that there is a thin line between loyalty and betrayal, as he follows the path of the investigation wherever it leads.

Sometimes techno-thrillers can be daunting, with details that are beyond the casual reader of spy novels. In this one, Ignatius has done a great job of combining a twisting plot with self-revelation that parallels the paradox of quantum computing. Chang is the model of a conflicted spy who has dealt with racism and bigotry his entire life, and who faces his own duality as he works to solve the puzzle surrounding the mole.

Spy novel fans, computer buffs, mystery lovers, and anyone who likes a plot with lots of twists and well-developed characters will love this one. Five stars.

I Found You by Lisa Jewell

COVER Jewell I found you

It’s been awhile since I read a book that I COULD NOT PUT DOWN.  Well, thanks to Lisa Jewell (and to Atria Books and NetGalley, for providing a copy of I Found You in exchange for my honest review), I had that lovely experience during the past 24 hours.

The weird thing is, I had read the blurb on this one and kind of set it aside for awhile, thinking it was just another woman-in-danger-England-Gone Girl-wannabe, and I have read quite enough of those in the past 6 months to last me awhile.

But once I dove in, I was hooked — and FAST. There are three things going on in this book: 20+ years ago, in a resort town on the coast, three teenagers had a vacation encounter. Back to today, we learn that the newlywed husband of a young woman named Lily (recently arrived from Ukraine) doesn’t come home one night – and seems to have disappeared. And then, the police tell Lily that her husband never existed. At the same time, in a small town, a single woman named Alice encounters a man on the beach who seems to have amnesia. Of course, the first guess is he must be Lily’s missing husband, right? Nope.

The story is told in alternating chapters, with twists and turns as the three stories veer toward and away from each other, leading up to a great conclusion.

Jewell does a great job keeping the reader guessing (or at least she kept ME guessing) until very near the end. Well-developed characters, a nifty plotline and good suspense. Five stars just because I had such a good time reading it!

 

 

The Big Heist by Anthony DeStefano

COVER Destefano The Big Heist

Early on in The Big Heist, it refers to “a crime that he and the rest of America would never forget.” Well, I had forgotten. But that’s the thing: this book assumes a lot of prior knowledge. It IS extremely comprehensive, and provides a rich history of this crime, the Mafia (particularly New York-based), and the bizarre role of the law enforcement community in the investigation. But I think those with more prior knowledge of the subject than I have might appreciate it a bit more (another star!)

For anyone who doesn’t remember the crime itself, suffice it to say that this crime was the basis of the movie Goodfellas and, using recent evidence from the 2015 trial of eighty-year-old Mafia don Vincent Asaro, tells the true story of his long-rumored role in the Lufthansa heist.

The book is divided into three sections. In the firs six chapters, the world of the New York Mafia is explored in depth, including the reach of the Five Families at the height of their power. The second section, chapters 7-12, looks at how this heist happened, and how the mastermind of the crime relied on accomplices who were not too bright, which resulted in a boatload of murders. The final section covers the famous betrayal of Asaro by Valenti at the trial (which resulted in a shocking acquittal).

It’s quite an accomplishment, and would be appreciated by true crime fans in general, organized crime story buffs, and anyone who is curious about the extent of the power held by the mob a few short decades ago. Four stars!

 

A Stranger In the House by Shari Lapena

COVER Lapena Stranger in the House.jpg

The new novel by Shari Lapena, author of The Couple Next Door, has gotten a lot of buzz, and I’m a big fan of psychological suspense, so I was happy to get an advance copy of A Stranger In the House (thanks to Penguin Group/Viking and NetGalley) in exchange for my honest review.

In the prologue, a woman named Karen is rushing to escape something, driving wildly across town, and runs headlong into a light pole. Her husband, Tom, comes home and finds the door unlocked, Karen’s car gone, but her purse and cell phone in the house. It doesn’t make sense to him, but he soon finds out Karen is in the hospital, suffering from amnesia.

They love in a comfy neighborhood: “People who live here are successful and settled; everyone’s a little bit smug.” There is a nosy neighbor who seems way too interested in everyone else’s business, and she is only too happy to talk to the two detectives who come around looking into a murder that happened right where Karen’s accident happened – in a part of town where people like her just don’t go.

There are lots of twists and turns to keep the reader glued to the story until the unexpected ending – but it might not be unexpected for everyone; I am notoriously bad at seeing these “unexpected” endings coming.

I wasn’t wild about Karen or Tom, but the plot kept me happy. It’s a clever, suspenseful thriller of the woman in peril genre, and will be appreciated by fans of Gone Girl, Girl on a Train, etc. I think I may not remember much about it in a few weeks, other than the “oh yeah, I liked that one” memory. I will recommend it to people, though, so it’s a solid four stars.

 

The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall

COVER Whittall Best Kind of People

I keep thinking about this book. Great story, memorable characters, kept me guessing (although most do – I’m horrible at figuring out the mystery in a mystery!) So, why do I have such mixed feelings about it?

I hadn’t read anything by Zoe Whittall, although she has written award-winning “literary fiction”…but I liked the description of The Best Kind of People, and appreciate the chance to receive an advance copy from Random House and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Here’s the outline: the Woodbury family live a privileged life in an affluent suburb (named Avalon Hills, Connecticut…but think Greenwich). The patriarch, George, teaches science at the local prep school, and is regarded as a hero because he once stopped a gunman from shooting up the school. His wife, Joan, is a hardworking ER nurse, described as “…under five foot two with the practical haircut of every nurse on the trauma ward…blended into the faceless mass of small-town life.” They have two children: Sadie, a student at the school where George teaches, and Andrew, who is an attorney living with his partner in Manhattan (where he escaped the homophobic environment in Avalon Hills). Sadie has spent “…years she’d wished she could just get over the awkward, in-between feeling of being a teenaged girl, the feeling of being ugly in the body that is probably the most beautiful you will eve have.” The parents are described as “…the academic sort, floating brains in denial of the body.”

One night the quiet at their expansive home is broken when a police car pulls up and George is charged with sexual misconduct with girls from the prep school when he was a chaperone on a ski trip. —with students from his daughter’s school. Sadie, who has enjoyed status as a smart and popular high school senior, becomes a social outcast. Andrew returns home to support the family, and finds he has to confront unhappy memories. A men’s rights activist group gets involved and attempts to recruit Sadie for their cause. So there’s a lot going on!

I like the way the story demonstrates the way that “perfect” families in “perfect” towns aren’t always what they seem, and how fragile relationships can be, especially when unpleasant truths about relationships are revealed. There is a lot to ponder as Whittall explores issues of trust, love, and rape culture.

So, why the mixed feelings? I ABSOLUTELY HATED THE ENDING. And I mean the very ending…the final paragraph. But I still give it five stars because maybe it’s just me, and it was a good read and it made me think.

Justice Burning by Scott Pratt

COVER Pratt Justice Burning

A few years back, I read An Innocent Client by Scott Pratt, the first in the Joe Dillard series of legal thriller/mysteries. I haven’t read all eight titles in that series, but all the ones I have read were crisp, entertaining, and fun reads. So I was happy to get an advance copy of Justice Burning, a new title by Scott Pratt featuring new attorney Darren Street, from Thomas & Mercer and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

So (spoiler alert) I REALLY liked this book! The characters were vivid, the legal/criminal stuff was interesting, and I just kept reading til it was gone. BUT it turns out this is #2 in the Darren Street series (I must have been asleep or whatever, but I missed the first one, Justice Redeemed.

So Darren Street, like Scott Pratt in a previous lifetime, is an attorney in Tennessee. I’m not sure how much else they have in common, but Darren has recently had his law license reinstated after escaping from a maximum security prison where he spent two years for a crime he didn’t commit. In Justice Burning, he seems to be the target for unknown bad guys, who may or may not have something to do with things that went down in prison. Along the way, he suffers from PTSD, tries to deal with his ex-wife and son, loses a family member, and resolves to see justice (as he defines it) done.

As is my habit, I don’t do spoilers, so there’s not much I can say about the plot except that it was terrific fun. While reading it, there were several instances of me nearly shouting “NO!” and “OH!” and “AARRGGHH” to the point where my husband, ensconced in his recliner located right next to mine, grew a bit tired of asking “what’s wrong?” In the end, he decided he HAS to read this book!

I told him he really should read Justice Redeemed first…while Justice Burning stands alone just fine, there were some situations that had backstory in the first novel that I think might have been even more impactful if I had read the prior book first.

Either way, this one is highly recommended for those who like legal mystery/thrillers, smart down-to-earth protagonists who might sometimes bend the rules but still maintain their own moral compass, and a fast-moving plot with violence but not gore. Five stars.

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

COVER Zevin Young Jane Young

Being in a book club offers lots of positive experiences…for me, it frequently means I will read something I NEVER would have selected on my own! That was the case with Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry. Why wouldn’t I have picked it? For starters, there is that weird title. Then the blurb, letting me know it was about a loner who owns a struggling bookstore…well, those weren’t exactly grabbers for me. But I loved the book, and after pondering why, it came down to the fact that it was just FUN to read. It entertained me and it made me THINK.  So I was happy to receive a copy of Zevin’s new book Young Jane Young, from Algonquin Books and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Young Jane Young is the story of Aviva Grossman, a Congressional intern in Florida who has an affair with her boss and telling the story in her (supposed to be) anonymous blog. As is often the case, the guy is temporarily damaged by the scandal, but Aviva becomes notorious. Like Lewinsky, she is slut-shamed and her name becomes synonymous with the ick factor in politics in general.

Aviva changes her name to the generic Jane Young, moves to Maine, and starts over, with her daughter in tow. She becomes a successful small-town business owner, raising her daughter to be a strong, confident young woman. Everything goes well until Jane runs for public office and finds that Google provides an indelible scarlet A. It seems that in social media, the past is never gone. Ruby finds out her mother isn’t the person she had always thought she was, and as she confronts the reality of the world, she needs to decide how much this matters.
The novel follows three generations (Aviva’s mother, Aviva and Ruby) and uses rotating points of view to tell their stories, along with that of the Congressman’s wife. The characters are terrific: Aviva’s mother Rachel is the first one we meet, and she tells us (as she is talking about how her best friend Roz and her new husband spend time together) “I don’t particularly want a husband. They’re a lot of work, but I don’t want to spend the rest of my life alone either, and it would be nice to have someone to go to classes with is what I’m saying.” Jane works hard on raising Ruby mindful of the lessons she absorbed from her own childhood: “I believed a mother must act like the woman she wanted here daughter to become.” And Ruby is just…amazing.

I loved how it entertained me with tons of humor, and made me think about how the world still wants to define women’s roles and possibilities. I’m kind of a political junkie, so that aspect of it appealed to me as well.

Sadly, double standards are still with us, and misogyny is rampant in politics and business. This is a fairly quick read, but anyone who cares about the issues will find the characters and their experiences rolling around in their brain long after the final chapter. Five stars. Hugely enjoyable, as was Fikry.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

COVER Ng Little Fires Everywhere

First off, I LOVED Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng, which told the story of a teenage girl from a Chinese-American family who commits suicide (not a spoiler; the first line of the book is “Lydia is dead.”). So I was pleased to receive an advance copy of Ms. Ng’s new book, Little Fires Everywhere, from Penguin Press and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

This book was SUCH a good read. At the start, we learn that “Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down. All spring the gossip had been about little Mirabelle McCullough—or, depending which side you were on, May Ling Chow…”. So we’re introduced right away to the gossipy planned community of Shaker Heights, the Richardson family, and a little girl with some confusion about her name.

A lifelong resident of Shaker Heights, Elena Richardson embodies the spirit of Shaker Heights: following the rules, behaving in acceptable ways, and guiding her family and (as much as possible) the community down the proper path. Her four children include Trip, the high-school golden boy athlete, Lexie, the star student bound for Yale who has a touch of the rebel in her relationship with her African-American boyfriend, Moody, the nerdy but lovable boy, and Izzy, the alleged firestarter. Into the mix come Mia and her daughter Pearl, a couple of vagabonds who who come to town and rent Elena’s inherited duplex. Mia is an artist who marches to her own drummer, and Pearl is a sensitive girl who instantly bonds with Moody (but has a mega crush on Trip).

Elena is so rigidly living her life that she can’t handle Mia and what she represents. “She had…done everything right and she had built a good life, the kind of life she wanted, the kind of life everyone wanted. Now here was this Mia, a completely different kind of woman leading a completly different, life, who seemed to make her own rules with no apologies.” The families become intertwined and involved with a co-worker of Mia’s, who left her infant at a fire station but has turned her life around and now wants her back, although Elena’s close friend and her husband are on the cusp of adopting little Mirabelle (or May Ling). The legal wrangling of the custody battle involves Elena’s husband, an attorney who represents the upper-middle-class couple who want to keep Mirabelle, and Elena makes it her mission in life to get into everyone’s business while she isn’t quite seeing what is going on with her own family. In the legal fight, Mia and Elena are on opposite sides, and there are strong feelings on the part of the adults and the children.

I loved this book. Highly recommended. Great characters, excellent look at cultural appropriation and the issues around mixed-race adoption, as well as a good plot that starts with the Richardson house burning down then goes back and tells the story of what led to that event. I was glued to the book from start to finish. Good for sharp YAs and book clubs. Five stars.

Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown

COVER Brown Watch Me Disappear

The three main characters in this terrific puzzle are Jonathan, his wife Billie, and their teenage daughter Billie. In the Prologue, we get a hint about Billie’s adventurous nature as she comments to Jonathan as they are watching Olive at the beach: “She’s going to need to grow a thicker skin or she’s going to spend her whole life being too afraid to try anything.”

In the novel, Billie has gone off hiking solo and has disappeared. As months go by, Jonathan is trying to cope with the mysterious loss when Olive begins having vivid dreams that have her convinced her mom is still alive. While Jonathan doesn’t actually wish her dead, he has an interest in having her declared legally dead in order to collect insurance money. It really isn’t possible to tell much about the story without spoiling it, but it is well crafted and kept me guessing until the end (although, admittedly, I am the worst at figuring things out in terms of mystery plotting). So I’ll just try to convey why the experience of reading this was so enjoyable, with some examples of Ms. Brown’s narrative skill.

Olive is revealed to be quite a sensitive teenager. She attends a pricey prep school in the Bay Area, and as she observes some girls who are a couple of years behind her in school, she “wishes she could tell these girls that things get easier, but in her experience they don’t…you just discover that there are even bigger, more complicated problems that you have to solve.”

I love the way Ms. Brown describes teenaged girls, saying they “…are like skittish forest creatures that dance away at your approach, snarl if you dare to confront them head-on. You need to wait, patiently, for them to come to you.”

Brown also captures the upper-middle-class soccer moms whose daughters attend Claremont Prep with Olive. As Jonathan takes on the after-school pickup duties following Billie’s exit, and is suddenly an available male, the”…Claremont Moms are circling. They flutter around Jonathan, a flock of predatory birds in lululemon and boyfriend jeans.”

Not a fast-paced action thriller by any means, but an unraveling story that was a pleasure to read. I appreciate having a copy made available by Random House/Spiegel & Grau and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. Four enthusiastic stars.

 

The Child by Fiona Barton

COVER Barton The Child

Fiona Barton’s prior book The Widow was a mystery told from the point of view of three characters, including crack reporter Kate Waters. I enjoyed it, and was pleased to receive an advance copy of Ms. Barton’s latest, The Child, from Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Similar in structure to The Widow,, The Child is told from the points of view of three main characters, this time all women:

  • Kate Waters is back as the intrepid journalist, looking for her next big story as she watches the newspaper business changing around her. “The tsunami of online news had washed her and those like her to a distant shore.”
  • Emma Simmonds is a young editor whose extreme anxiety about whether he past might catch up to her seems to be threatening the stability she has found in the married life she has created for herself. “He doesn’t know me really. I’ve made sure.”
  • Angela Irving has a mother’s intuition and her identity as a mother is shaded by the devastating loss she suffered 20+ years ago when her infant was stolen from the hospital right after its birth. “People say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…it doesn’t. It breaks your bones, leaving everything splintered and held together with grubby bandages and yellowing sticky tape…Fragile and exhausting to hold together. Sometimes you wish it had killed you.”

The plot centers around the grisly discovery of the skeleton of an infant, unearthed at a construction site. Each of the primary characters has a connection to the unfolding story of the “Building Site Baby,” and this propels the narrative.

The structure of the novel works well and the characters are well drawn. We learn so much about them as their individual searches for the meaning of this event occur. Emma, for example, has a husband who works at a University. Her view of his work environment? “University departments are like prides of lions, really. Lots of males preening and screwing around and hanging on to their superiority by their dewclaws.” (Having worked at a college, I LOVED this line!). Barton’s excellent descriptive skills are clear as Emma reminisces about a house where she lived as a child: “I can still smell that house; years of patchouli oil overlaid by grime, suffocating and musky like a hippie’s old afghan coat.”

 I’m one of those people who NEVER solves the mystery in advance, but even I could see this one coming, so it lost a star there. But that didn’t detract from the enjoyment I experienced as I read this book. I look forward to more from Ms. Barton. Four stars.

A Clockwork Murder by Steve Jackson

 

COVER Jackson Clockwork Murder

Another dive into true crime…and having read and reviewed Steve Jackson’s Rough Trade, I anticipated a well-written exploration of something creepy In fact, I recall being surprised by the quality of Rough Trade (reviewed at https://littorallibrarian.wordpress.com/2017/04/13/rough-trade-by-steve-jackson/). So I was happy to receive an advance copy of Mr. Jackson’s “A Clockwork Murder” from Wild Blue Press and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Jackson’s approach differs from that of many TC authors, as he explained in the foreword to Rough Trade: “It’s not the blood and gore, or sexual titillation, I’m looking for…I’m interested in the psychology and “ripple effect” of violent crime, and the back stories of the human beings involved: killers, victims, law enforcement, those involved in the justice system, and the community.”

And wow, does he have a lot of material to work with in this exploration of two of the creepiest murderers ever, George Woldt and Lucas Salmon. These two friends shared a fascination with the movie A Clockwork Orange (hence the title), a movie from the 19070s that explores the theme of violence and ‘ultra-violence’, as it follows the actions of some guys who take joy in terrorizing others. Seen as an extreme example to those who are outcasts and do not feel self-empowered, it often reinforces the idea that people can do whatever they please, without regard to the repercussions. 

These two weirdos met as teenagers. In high school, Woldt didn’t really stand out, being just another somewhat troubled teenager in a rough high school. He possessed the skill to be a charmer, especially face-to-face with females, although behind their backs he was known for saying they were all bitches good for only one thing: sex. Known for the screaming matches he would get into with his Korean mother, he was widely regarded by friends and associates as someone obsessed with very strange ideas fantasies, including the desire to commit rape and assault…which most saw who knew him saw as bluster. At one point he was married to Becky, who “tried to get him to go to counseling to deal with his anger, but he wouldn’t. Instead, she learned to do what he said or suffer the consequences. He was a master manipulator…”

Lucas Salmon was also an odd guy, although from a more traditional family. Lucas was seen by many to be the victim of George’s control, and he “…envied George Woldt and wanted to be like him—have sex with women and not care what other people thought of him. And he especially wanted George to quit teasing him about being a virgin.”

The book goes into gruesome detail about the night these two finally made their long-discussed fantasy come true, as they randomly chose a woman (a beautiful young athlete named Jacine), abducted her (in view of numerous witnesses), raped and tortured her, and murdered her, leaving her corpse under a van in a school parking lot. Being complete lunatics, they kept the bloody knife and the victim’s bloody sweatshirt in the car they used for the crime, parking it in front of their apartment (which they shared with George’s wife Bonnie) until the police showed up shortly after the witnesses had called in the license plate number of the car.

I kept shaking my head at the crazy that leapt off every page. These two were bad enough, but Bonnie was also wacko: “Bonnie said she couldn’t understand why her husband didn’t come to her if he wanted to rape someone. She would have been more than willing to act out the fantasy…Bonnie had pouted that she thought she was prettier than Jacine and complained, “Why her and not me?”” Holy hell.

There is a boatload of detail about the trials and the effect of the crime on the victim’s families, particularly Jacine’s mother and stepfather. There was so much that completely reinforced my already negative view of our system of “justice,” in this case emphasizing the way the system focuses on the plight of those on trial and ignores the victim(s). The reliance on “expert witnesses” was another source for my disgust, as various psychologists and psychiatrists trotted out theories and justifications, including “dependent personality disorder” for Lucas and the truly mind-boggling idea that as he was raping Jacine, George actually had the mindset that HE was the victim of sexual assault! (yeah, I told you – crazy).

It is possibly the most horrific crime book I’ve read, partly due to the fact that the two perpetrators were totally matter-of-fact about the way they picked their victim completely at random (so perhaps it COULD happen to anyone), and how they confessed in great detail, down to the fact of their high-fiving one another after Jacine was finally dead. Ugh.

Lots to ponder here, about the judicial system, death penalty, whether it is right for defense attorneys to do ANYTHING to avoid conviction, the rights of victims, etc.

 

As I said about Rough Trade, this isn’t literature, nor is it meant to be. What it IS is quality True Crime, well written and researched. It’s definitely five star true crime, but be warned — it is HORRIFIC.

Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner

cover Steiner Persons Unknown

Last year, I read and reviewed Steiner’s Missing, Presumed, her previous detective story featuring Manon Bradshaw (four stars). In that review I expressed my fondness for novels by Tana French and Kate Atkinson, and noted “I have to say that Steiner’s protagonist, Manon Bradshaw, reminded me a bit of Elizabeth George’s Barbara Havers of the Lynley series. Like Barbara, she is a no-longer young woman who has an interesting and successful career – but she is dissatisfied with her situation, and she REALLY wants to be in a relationship. She is 39, and trying to get her life in order, “ Well, here we are again!

As Persons Unknown opens, Detective Manon Bradshaw has sort of given up on that whole finding a relationship thing, and has transferred back to Cambridgeshire where she is living with her sister Ellie, Ellie’s toddler son Solly, and Fly Dent, the twelve-year-old boy Manon has adopted. She hopes that moving away from London will provide Fly with a fresh start, where he won’t be routinely stopped and frisked by police who see only his skin color. Fly is a “…tall black youth with his hood up? He might as well wear a sign saying “Arrest me now,”” Oh, and she is five months pregnant (spoiler alert) via donor and has abandoned the search for a life partner!

What she really wants is the elusive dream of work-life balance, so she transfers to the routine, stable (and boring?) cold case group, and is determined to be a good mom to Fly and the new baby. Manon feared that the move would beneficial for Fly and she tells herself this is just what they all need.

A stabbing victim is found, and he turns out to be someone well known to Manon’s sister Ellie: he is Solly’s birth father who is a banker from London, who just happens to be worth millions. Manon finds herself trying to work on the case, although she is prohibited from doing so officially when it begins to move ever closer to her home and family.

The writing is terrific. As was the case with Missing, Presumed, I love some of the minor characters, and their wry humor. This trait is revealed in Birdie, who becomes important to the investigation: “When you’re young you think happiness might be some kind of perpetual state of orgasm, but later, once the joints go, you realize it can be simulated with some cheese and a cracker.”

But I especially love Manon. As she looks at her middle-aged self, she realizes she “…is becoming invisible, pushing her trolley up and down the aisles of Waitrose toward oblivion, picking up some grapefruit-scented all-purpose spray on her way there.”

And especially this: “What would she think of herself, what would the world think, if she were to hurl her haggard self at Mark Talbot…or pinch the bottom of a younger man next to the photocopier in the office; to deny, as men do, the aging of her flesh? Why can’t she, as men do, say” Yes, I am potbellied, wrinkly-bottomed, shortsighted, but I will make a play for that twenty-eight-year-old nevertheless? Why should she hide her desires inside the acceptable consumption of table lamps and Boden cardigans and heritage tomatoes as if this is compensation, when what she wants is callous and vivid?”

Wow!  THIS is a character we know, with real emotions and life situations. Steiner does a great job with the people and the plot, although it did fall apart a tiny bit for me at the end. It was five stars right up until the last part, although when thinking how it might have otherwise ended that would have been preferable, I can’t come up with anything. But, four stars and thanks to Random House and NetGalley!

 

Every Last Lie by Mary Kubica

Cover Kubica Every Last Lie

Mary, Mary, Mary. Were you cruising toward summer? Basking in the glory of the good reviews of The Good Girl or Pretty Baby?? Whatever the reason, I could hardly WAIT to settle in with the advance copy of your latest, Every Last Lie (which I was happy to receive from Harlequin/Park Row Books & NetGalley in exchange for my honest review), and I emerged disappointed..

This is a standalone suspense/mystery thriller, and like many recent domestic psychological thrillers, it is told from alternating perspectives of main characters: in this case a young married couple, Nick and Clara Solberg. Their tragedy is flat out smack in our faces (actually jarring) right at the beginning to the novel.

A few days after Clara has given birth to their son, Nick takes their precocious 4-year-old daughter Maisie to her ballet lessons, phoning Clara on the way to ask what kind of takeout food she’d like him to pick up. Nick never makes it home as he and Maisie are in a terrible car crash that leaves him dead while Maisie escapes with just a scratch.

As if the overwhelming grief of losing her husband isn’t enough, Clara begins to believe that it wasn’t an accident as the police have determined, but that he was murdered. Clara goes through various suspects trying to determine who it was that ran them off the road causing Nick’s death. She basically covers all the bases including friends, family, co-workers – you name it, Clara is at one time or another sure that several people must be the criminal.

So, the story is a fast read and as usual Kubica does a great job developing the characters into people we KNOW and care about, and moving the action along with events as well as dialogue. The problem for me was there were several red herrings, and the story was building and building toward the big reveal, than it just didn’t work for me.

The way the story is told, with Clara’s post-crash chapters alternating with Nick’s pre-crash chapters works well, and the reader cycles through pity, sympathy, etc. along with the characters.

I think Kubica’s fans will love this, and I would recommend it selectively to a certain type of reader. I can only give it three stars, and I have thought for hours about whether it was just that my expectations were too high. I concluded that wasn’t the case, and while I am still a Kubica fan, I hope that in her next book she returns to the terrific level of thriller writing her fans expect.

Three stars.

The Cuban Affair by Nelson DeMille

CoverDeMille Cuban Affair

Seventeen years ago, someone whose opinions on books NEVER matched mine recommended Lion’s Game by Nelson DeMille, and I LOVED it. Since then, I’ve grabbed every new DeMille book and been puzzled by the inconsistency: for example, Night Fall was terrific. The Panther? Not so much. And don’t even get me started on Radiant Angel. I kept thinking, “what happened?”

But I can’t quite give up on any author who has provided me with so many hours of entertainment, so I had a positive attitude when I received an advance copy of DeMille’s latest, The Cuban Affair, in return for my honest review (thanks, Simon & Schuster and NetGalley!)

Having thought quite a bit about why I had been so disappointed reading some of his recent books (was it him? Was it me?), I had concluded that the John Corey character was the problem. In the earlier books, he was witty and could be charming. In the more recent books, his wisecracking had become constant, and was more annoying than entertaining, and it seemed to have become his dominant characteristic, to the point where it came across as somewhat cartoonish. So, I was pleased to read that the latest book was introducing a new protagonist, Daniel Graham MacCormick (aka “Mac”). A native of Maine, Mac has seen two tours of Afghanistan and left a career on Wall Street out of boredom and moved to Key West, Florida where he owns a boat that is chartered for fishing, romantic cruises, parties, etc. Mac doesn’t accept every charter request of his boat, so when he is approached by a smooth attorney from Miami who wants to charter his boat for a ten-day fishing derby to Cuba, he initially turns it down.

Once the offer is explained further by the attorney and the plan includes a beautiful Cuban-American woman, AND the fee becomes multiple millions, Mac decides to accept and the adventure begins. Along the way, there are shady characters, guns, booze, sex, crooked police, jealous boyfriends, a chase through swamp and jungle, and a tour group comprised mainly of academics and pseudo-academics (sort of a classic “educational” travel group). Without giving anything away, I suspect we will encounter Mac again for more adventures.

The story is pure entertainment, and DeMille has clearly done his research into Cuban-American relations and politics in the South Florida area. This allows him to explore the passionate feelings of Cuban-Americans and the conditions in contemporary Cuba just as relations between the US and Cuba were being re-established.

The pace is good, and the writing is crisp and entertaining, re-establishing DeMille as one of my favorite thriller writers. A friend who is unable to participate in his usual level of physical activity due to recent open-heart surgery BEGGED me for a book he could get lost in – one that would totally hold his interest. This one met the criteria, so I give The Cuban Affair a solid four stars.