Need to Know by Karen Cleveland

SPOILER ALERT: The basic premise (which is a surprise at several points) of Karen Cleveland’s Need to Know is laid out here; so if you want total surprise, stop reading! But I’m not giving away the BFD ending which is designed to be a real shocker, so if you don’t mind reading a plot outline, have at it!

I had read some of the hype about this book (optioned as a film with Charlize Theron, so my image of protagonist Vivian Miller was of Charlize), so I was pleased to get an advance copy of this book from Random House/Ballantine and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. As the story begins, we meet Vivian Miller (Charlize), a super-dedicated CIA counterintelligence analyst who has been working for years on a project that, if successful, will uncover the identities of people living in the U.S. as members of Russian sleeper cells. She has developed this system to identify the people who appear to be normal residents of the U.S., but who are actually working as Russian agents.

Vivian’s life has gotten complicated as she and her husband Matt and their four children live the lifestyle of a middle-class couple, complete with a big mortgage and some medical problems for one of their kids that guarantee they can’t just walk away from her job on a whim. One day, while she is online accessing the computer of someone she thinks may be a Russian operative, Vivian stumbles on a secret file that contains information about deep-cover agents in the U.S. As she scrolls through the photos of the agents assigned to the suspected handler, she is stunned to see her husband Matt’s photo. She is torn about what to do – if she turns him in, her job will be over, her kids will be devastated, and everything that matters to her will be gone. Should she confront Matt? Maybe tell her boss? Or tell her trusted friend who works with her on the special project, FBI Agent Omar?

She seems to be faced with impossible choices. She starts looking back at her entire relationship with Matt – how they “met cute,” fell in love, got married, had kids, lived together for a decade – is it possible she is wrong, her life’s work of developing a method to identify the sleeper agents a failure?

I really enjoyed the process of reading this, and it was pretty much all-engrossing. But it required a bit of willing suspension of disbelief, because this genius woman seemed to keep making some dumb decisions. But then, I’d think, “Who knows what I’d do in her situation?”

Good plotting, good character development, good escapist entertainment. More than a bit unsettling, TBH. Just like you sometimes find out the seemingly normal guy down the block is a serial killer, you might have a member of a sleeper cell in the neighborhood, coaching your kid’s soccer team. Four stars.

The Late Show by Michael Connelly

I’ve enjoyed many books by Michael Connelly, and when I learned his new book, The Late Show, was coming out, I looked forward to reading it. I didn’t know anything about the storyline, and I think perhaps I assumed it would be another in the long line of Connelly’s crime novels set in Los Angeles with a strong male protagonist (such as Harry Bosch or Mickey Haller).

But no! In the first paragraph, we learn that two police officers (“Ballard and Jenkins”) are working the night shift. We soon learn that Ballard is a female officer (at which point I thought, “OMG, is she the lead character here? A woman? AWESOME!!)

The way Connelly reveals Renee Ballard’s backstory, interweaving it with a complex police procedural full of the workings of the LAPD, is masterful. We learn that she is working nights (aka “the late show”) as a punishment for filing a sexual harassment suit against a former supervisor. She managed to keep her badge, but is clearly a black sheep in the squad room.

One night Renee catches two assignments that seem unrelated: the brutal beating of a prostitute left for dead in a parking lot and the killing of several people in a nightclub. Although typically the night shift turns all their cases over to the day shift, Ballard is determined not to give up these two cases. As the plot moves along, she chooses to go against both explicit orders and her partner’s wishes, working on both these cases during the day while still taking her regular shifts at night.

She is definitely a woman with a past that drove her to become a cop. After a fatal shooting, she notes there “…was something inside her she didn’t know she had. Something dark. Something scary.” As her investigations progress, she calls on sources she has developed, including navigating the intricacies of dealing with the media: “She knew a couple of things about how the murky lines between the media and law enforcement were negotiated. She knew there was little cooperation.”

She is advised that her job takes her “…into the bleakest side of the human soul…If you go into darkness, the darkness goes into you. You then have to decide what to do with it. How to keep yourself safe from it. How to keep it from hollowing you out.”

No spoilers here, just a STRONG recommendation for Connelly fans, anyone who likes a good mystery, appreciates police procedurals, or just enjoys a good story with a strong, interesting female character, to READ THIS BOOK. It is terrific! Five stars (only because I can’t give six)!

With gratitude to Little, Brown and Company and NetGalley, as I received a copy in exchange for my honest review.

 

UNSUB by Meg Gardiner

UNSUB by Meg Gardiner has gotten GREAT reviews, so when I started it and found my mind wandering, I put it aside for a couple of weeks and picked it up again.

I knew going in that the story involved a serial killer in the Bay Area with a catchy nickname, reminiscent of “The Zodiac Killer.” This time, the name is “The Prophet,” and this book is a dark, twisted thriller revolving around the apparent reappearance of a criminal who terrorized the Bay Area before disappearing a couple of decades ago.

Back in the initial hunt for The Prophet, Mack Hendrix was the lead police detective in the effort to stop the crime wave. His failure to do so has haunted him ever since. Now, his daughter Caitlin is also a police officer, whose focus has been narcotics. She looks to her father for help as she takes up the work of catching the killer whose victims bear the characteristics of The Prophet’s victims.

I suspect my lack of enthusiasm for this book is based on my own weird experiences. Living in Solano County in the Bay Area during the time of the Zodiac spree, I knew a man who was creepy. I saw a large flashlight in his car with clear red wrapping paper over the lens, held on with a rubber band. The Zodiac supposedly used a flashlight as he approached victims’ vehicles, possibly a large red flashlight to make people believe it was a police vehicle approaching. And as if that wasn’t enough, someone had tracked this guy’s schedule and he was always out sick or otherwise unaccounted for on the dates of the killings. I distanced myself from this creepy guy, but he contacted me by email in the year 2000 to tell me he had been “following” me online. So, yes, anything about the Zodiac brings up some less than positive feelings!

But, I digress. Lisa Gardiner has done a masterful job of plotting and character development showing both Caitlin’s strengths as a police officer and her softer, more human side. I expect we will see a string of stories featuring this feisty young woman. The ending was a bit abrupt, so that knocked off a star. The creepy factor almost knocked off another one, but the “it’s not you, it’s me” thing isn’t something I like to bring into my reviews. Thanks to Penguin Group/Dutton and NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for my review. Three and a half stars, will show up as four.

Tell Me No Lies by Lynn Chandler Willis

cover-willis-tell-me-no-lies

Tell Me No Lies: An Ava Logan Mystery by Lynn Chandler Willis is described as “Mystery Thriller General Fiction (Adult)” Knowing that, I settled in for what I hoped would be enough to take my mind off politics :). And, to just get it out of the way, I really really enjoyed this book. The author’s background includes ownership of a small-town newspaper (like her protagonist Ava Logan), and work in television, both of which may have contributed to the way the writing flows nicely while providing a rich visual portrait of both characters and environment.

Another thing to get out of the way is to clarify that it isn’t really possible to say much about the book without spoiling it. Now, about that: I am an avid mystery reader who generally doesn’t figure things out ahead of time, which is fine by me. I prefer being surprised (but only in reading, never in real life!) But there was a mention early on of something about the character that turned out to be the villain that made me say “hmmmm.” So, perhaps other readers may find the ending was telegraphed early on – but I was actually still somewhat surprised AND it didn’t lessen my enjoyment.

So, here is what I CAN say: the protagonist, Ava Logan, is a single mother to amazing children who live deep in Appalachia (and the setting turns out to be a significant aspect of the book’s appeal, as Willis uses both the natural beauty of the region and the appalling poverty to move her story along. Ava’s past is referenced (she tells us “…I had always been the girl with the mom in prison”).

Ava has made a good life for herself and is the publisher of the local newspaper. In her role as publisher/writer, she encounters some stories related to the upcoming local election about a rash of ginseng thieves (really? Who knew? Well, not me). Then on a day when Ava is watching a toddler belonging to her friend (another single mom), the friend is murdered and Ava finds herself in the middle of that case, the thievery, and a side plot about her multiple male friends, who are both prominent in the town.

When I write it down it sounds so cliché and like it might not be that much fun to read, but seriously, you just need to trust me. If you enjoy a clever mystery, mostly likeable characters (including a “plucky heroine”), you will like this.

With thanks to Henery Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy in exchange for my honest review, I give it four stars. Only negative for me was the fact that the clue to the mystery may have been too obvious which I know turns off some mystery readers. Again, for me, that was not an issue and I will definitely recommend this one.

Lie In Plain Sight by Maggie Barbieri

Lie In Plain Sight Barbieri cover

How did I miss this series? Maggie Barbieri has written two novels featuring Maeve Conlon: Once Upon a Lie and Lies That Bind. All I can figure is there was an unfortunate subconscious reminder of OJ’s girlfriend that blinded me to Ms. Barbieri’s work 🙂 But now she is back with further adventures for Maeve in Lie in Plain Sight.

Maeve is a single mother in upstate New York (Maggie herself lives in the Hudson Valley), and she works her ass off with her bakery, a business that supports her and her two daughters. Apparently, the older daughter was more present in the first two novels; in this third installment, she is away at college and makes occasional appearances…plus she is a constant reminder to Maeve and the younger daughter that getting into college is important, you need to be out there getting credit for activities that will look good on your resume, etc. But to Maeve, it appears that her younger daughter is somewhat less than sensational. Maeve’s own mother died when Maeve was very young, so the whole mother-daughter thing is fraught with tension in ways both subtle and overt. And to add to the complex family dynamic, there is Maeve’s ex husband as well as her newly-discovered half sister, and her cop boyfriend.

As if things aren’t complicated enough, Maeve hires a fellow single mother, Trish Dvorak,  after running into her at college night at the high school (where both their daughters are at the picking-a-college stage) and being impressed by Trish’s honesty about having a daughter who is not exceptional (refreshing honesty, Maeve thinks!) Shortly after Trish begins work at the bakery, she is out on a delivery when the high school phones with the message that the woman’s daughter Taylor is sick and asking to go home. To her surprise, Maeve finds out that Trish has listed her as an emergency contact, and the school nurse encourages Maeve to give the necessary permission (Taylor is, after all, almost 18 and has her own car). Maeve is hesitant, but harried, and agrees…then word comes that Taylor has disappeared, and the mystery begins.

Of course Maeve feels responsible, and guilty: “Guilt for some things – but not others – took hold of her sometimes and wouldn’t let go, shaking her to the core. This was one of those things.” She is compelled to try to unravel the mysterious disappearance. Along the way, there is a creepy soccer coach, some earnest (maybe TOO earnest?) high school boys raising money for a mission to help needy people, and the asshat rich guy who just happens to be the sperm donor for Taylor, but who has never apparently been responsible for any of her needs.

Maeve discovers, among these intertwined relationships, that the small town of Farringville has a lot more to hide than most small towns. And that people aren’t always what they seem: …”someone Maeve now knew was completely out of his mind, someone who pretended by day that he was nice, helpful, but who by night and any other time he felt like it was capable of horrible, evil things. Someone who hid his true identity in plain sight.”

The story more than held my interest, I loved Maeve’s honesty and wit, and I plan to go back and read the first two in this series, even though I will know in advance some of Maeve’s life events  that will unfold in those two books. Five stars for this one!