The New Neighbors by Simon Lelic

 

I’d never heard of Simon Lelic before i got this book, although I now  know he has written some other thrillers. But his latest book The New Neighbors got a positive blurb on the cover from Tana French, and I figured if it’s good enough for Tana, it’s good enough for me.

The story revolves around a young couple named Jack and Syd who have recently been able to (at long last) buy a house in London. It came with all furnishings, including some weird stuff, but they felt terribly lucky to have been picked by the seller to be the buyers of his house, especially as they didn’t have enough money to afford such a big place.

Before long, they start to clear out some of the detritus left by the former owner, when Jack makes an unsettling discovery in the attic. Around the same time, Syd befriends a young girl from the neighborhood – a girl who is apparently being abused by her father – a fact that hits very close to home for Syd. Neither Jack nor Syd shares either of these factoids (the attic find and the abuse) with the other.

The story is told in alternating points of view, as Jack and Syd each write about what happened. There are twists and turns, and suspense as the book moves toward the big reveal – which I (as usual) did not see coming. This has “MOVIE” written all over it – not necessarily a bad thing. For fans of Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, or The Couple Next Door. Escapist entertainment. Well done, and even though  I doubt I will remember it in another month,  four stars (and thanks to Berkley Publishing Group and NetGalley for a copy in exchange for this honest review).

And I will probably pick up one or more of Mr. Lelic’s earlier books – pure entertainment!

The Secrets She Keeps by Michael Robotham

I am most familiar with Australian author Michael Robotham’s series of novels featuring protagonist Joe O’Loughlin, and I have recommended him to many people without hesitation. When I received a copy of his latest, The Secrets She Keeps, from Scribner and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review, I had no idea what the premise was, whether it was an O’Loughlin book, or something new and different. And it WAS different – for sure. This is the story of two women who are apparently pregnant at the same time. One of them, Agatha, works at a supermarket, isn’t married, and spends a lot of time and energy dreaming of the life she doesn’t have (especially the roles of wife and mother). She watches (and seriously at first her stalking really creeped me out) Meghan, a beautiful mother of two seemingly perfect children, wife to a good-looking television personality, whose pregnancy seems about as far along as Agatha’s own.

We learn that although everything LOOKS perfect. Meghan is restless in her marriage: “…sometimes I rake my memory to find moments that make me truly happy.” Told in the alternating points of view of these two women, a recurring theme of honesty and trust is voiced by Meghan early on: “Anyone who says that honesty is the best policy is living in la-la land. Either that or they have never been married or had children. Parents lie to their kids all the time—about sex, drugs, death, and a hundred other things. We lie to those we love to protect their feelings. We lie because that’s what love means, whereas unfettered honesty is cruel and the height of self-indulgence.”

Agatha is no less unsettled: “How can she ever understand my life? What it’s like to live in a cramped, claustrophobic tunnel that gets smaller and darker as each year passes.” Much of her viewpoint is revealed when she says to Meghan “I am an outlier. I am the incredible disappearing woman. I am childless. Less of a person. Not in the club. You take those things for granted.”

Agatha wants the life she thinks Meghan has. Meghan sees Agatha as a familiar face from her shopping trips and yoga class, but little does Meghan know that the ho-hum exchange she has with a store employee during her hurried afternoon shopping trip is about to change the course of her not-so-perfect life!

It’s quite the page-turner, as the characters of the women and their families are revealed in alternating chapters. I was somewhat skeptical about Mr. Robotham’s ability to write from the perspective of two different pregnant women, but he did it with his usual outstanding plot development and attention to details of the characters’ personalities. Never having been pregnant myself, lots of the feelings about pregnancy were unfamiliar – but the lines about childlessness really resonated. I take off one star just because I wasn’t wild about the ending, but I really did enjoy reading it (in pretty much one sitting – I was riveted). Four stars.

Shadow Man by Alan Drew

Cover Drew Shadow Man

Talk about a grabber: the description for Alan Drew’s book Shadow Man starts out “What Dennis Lehane does for Boston, Alan Drew does for Southern California in this gritty thriller…” I thought “what a trifecta!” I’ve been a Dennis Lehane fan for many years, I grew up in Orange County, CA (I am a huge fan of the earlier books by T. Jefferson Parker that were also set in the OC), and thrillers are among my favorite genres. So I couldn’t WAIT to dive into this book! Unfortunately, my husband snagged my Kindle and was instantly hooked, so I had to wait a few days for my chance. Wow, was it worth the wait!

The protagonist is Ben Wade, a police detective who left the LAPD and moved back to the fictional town of Rancho Santa Elena, partly in a failed attempt to save his marriage to Rachel. (Note the town is fictional, but it PERFECTLY captures the Orange County I escaped some years ago.) Ben is a good guy and a loving father, but he clearly has some baggage: as Natasha, the medical examiner and potential romantic interest, points out: “she could see why Rachel left him. He was a room with a locked door, and a wife wanted access.” Ben works on two separate cases throughout the book, one involving a serial killer and the other a mysterious gun death of a teenage boy, whose body was found near the residential labor camp that provides labor for the remaining crops that haven’t yet been replaced by the suburban sprawl that is gobbling up Orange County. No spoilers ahead, but great plot development in both areas.

The setting is incredibly important to the story. As the book opens, the Santa Anna winds are blowing: “The morning had been heavy with gritty smog, the taste of leaded gas on the tongue… winds had burst into the coastal basin midmorning, dry gusts billowing off the desert in the east that electrified the air…” And anyone who has lived in Southern California will nod in agreement with Ben’s thought that there “…wasn’t any scientific evidence for this, but every cop knew something went haywire in people when the winds hit.”

Drew clearly knows the area, and I love the way he reveals what makes Rancho Santa Elena distinctly different from his previous life in LA: the town “… survived on being the opposite of L.A.—clean, organized, boring.” The essence of much of Orange County is due to the people who have moved there: They “…were afraid of the world; that’s why they moved here, to escape it. They believed master-planned order—straight streets, identical houses, brightly lit shopping centers—would keep them safe from the outside world.”

Along with the setting, the characters come alive with Drew’s outstanding descriptive skill: he notes a woman who is “Blonde of course, radiating the forced sexual brightness of plastic surgery and makeup.” (yes, I KNOW these people!) Not everyone is in the same class, including “…beach bums who lived in rotting wooden apartments and worked stocking grocery shelves so that they could ride the waves every day.” Sounds like my adopted hometown of Santa Cruz, which frequently reminds people of Orange County in the 60s.

Even further down the social ladder are the farmworkers who are an integral part of the story. Drew captures their situation and interweaves the immigration issue without being pedantic, always keeping the story moving while at the same time making the reader aware of the class distinctions that are such a strong characteristic of the area. Talking about the farmworkers, we learn that ICE “…harassed the camp every few months, sending a few people back over the border. A cynical game, really, since the owners of the fields didn’t want their people deported, but local immigration needed to look as if the were doing their job. So, a compromise: Haul a few away, get it in the newspapers to appease a certain type of vote, and then let more come in the replace the ones sent home.” Wow.

Ben’s investigations lead him toward two social issues:  the plight of the farmworkers and the effects of child abuse. As he ponders why the latter is often so well hidden, he reflects, “ “There were a few rumors among the teachers.” Jesus. What was the law worth if it was used to keep people quiet about what they all knew?”

I loved this book! It more than met my high expectations, with its compelling plot and relatable characters. But even more, it is the best kind of novel: one that truly entertains the reader while making us THINK. Ben Wade is a great character, and I hope Shadow Man is the first in a series.

For any refugees from behind the Orange Curtain, you will totally relate to Rancho Santa Elena, with lines like “Sigalert for an accident on the 22…everything backed up to the Crystal Cathedral” and the description of what seems to clearly be the Melrose Abbey Mortuary, which is “…crammed between a strip mall dotted with taquerias and a cement wall that separated the cemetery from the rush of the Santa Ana Freeway.” AWESOME!

After finishing the book, I read a few comments from people who were complaining that this is not actually a thriller. My response is “not only is it a thriller, it is a good one, and so much more!” Can’t wait for more from Alan Drew! (Neither can my husband.) Five enthusiastic stars!

NOTE: I appreciate that I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley and Random House in exchange for my honest review.

Rough Trade by Steve Jackson

cover jackson rough trade

Hmmm. Where to start with this one? I’ve often thought that, contrary to traditional theories, you frequently CAN tell a book by its cover – not so for Rough Trade by Steve Jackson.  A close-up of the face of the creepy perv – I mean bad guy – shown above dominates the cover along with the lurid subtitle: “ A shocking true story of prostitution, murder and redemption.” Frankly, its appearance is that of a trashy story that was rushed into print for maximum shock value. And that was totally not the case with the copy of this title that I received from Wild Blue Press and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Jackson includes an extensive foreword that provides insight into what makes him a different true-crime author. He tells us “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.” He establishes that the story of the murder of Anita Jones by itself was not enough to build a story around: “her short sad life could not carry a book.” But a fellow prostitute named Joanne Cordova, who had known Anita briefly, was “the flawed heroine seeking redemption.” Joanne Cordova was a former police officer whose life went to hell as she became a crack addict in Denver, during which time she encountered Robert Riggan, the murderer, and subsequently made the difficult choice to do the right thing and work with the police in search of justice for Anita. She did this even though it meant she would be labeled a snitch, thereby putting her own life in danger. (After all, she knew from personal experience as a police officer that “snitches end up in ditches.”)

Then there is the creepy perv – I mean murderer. Robert Riggan “was no Ted Bundy, whose good looks, charming ways and evil cunning has enthralled true crime readers through multiple books.” He was just a “scared, psychologically stunted” man whose horrific crime seemed all too common. It wasn’t until the story of his childhood emerged that the reader learns the reason for him becoming the person he was. As Jackson notes, “sometimes the monsters in our real-life nightmares are created in the homes and by the people who are supposed to represent safety to a child.” Riggan endured rape, incest and horrific abuse growing up. As a former foster parent who has seen and heard the horrors that are all too common for many children, this was heartbreaking. Jackson presents the details in a straightforward way, never sensationalizing them, yet painting a complete picture of the abuse that contributed to Riggan becoming a monster.

The discovery of  Anita’s body was serendipitous. It was only because a young couple driving to work in the mountains of Colorado just happened to catch a glimpse of what looked like a man dragging a body up a secluded trail as they drove past. They had a hard time believing what they were seeing, which turned out to be  Riggan, who was leaving behind a bloody, dying Anita Jones. He fled the scene as  they stopped, but their information and Joanne Cordova’s subsequent efforts resulted in his arrest and conviction.

The story of the crime and its aftermath includes the details of how Joanne Cordova’s choices took her from her life as an outstanding police officer to become a crack-addicted streetwalker.  As part of her life on the streets of Denver, she had herself submitted to violent sex with Riggan in exchange for drugs. When she became aware that her friend Anita had been murdered by that same guy, she had a terrible choice to make. Rather than opt to look the other way, keeping herself safe (which would result in Anita’s killer being free to continue his violent attacks on women), she realized that despite all her mistakes in life, “it is never too late to do the right thing.”  As she endured the humiliating, detailed exploration of her life during Riggan’s trial, she coped as she had learned to do, by putting on a virtual mask. Rather than crack, her mask was now held in place partly by “the pot and alcohol,” and despite the grueling odeal she went on to find her own personal redemption.

This isn’t great literature, nor is it intended to be. But it is well-written and researched, and includes an important  message about the possible results of childhood abuse and bad choices. In addition, it reminds us of  the redemption that can occur when someone does the right thing. Five stars (again, it isn’t 5-star “literature,” but it is definitely 5-star true crime).