Force of Nature by Jane Harper

Last year, I read Jane Harper’s debut novel, the thriller The Dry, which introduced Australian Federal Agent Aaron Falk. I LOVED it, so I jumped at the chance to read the second novel featuring Agent Harper, Force of Nature (thanks to Flatiron Books and NetGalley) prior to publication in return for my honest review.

In this second installment in the series, Aaron Falk and his partner Carmen are called to the Giralang Range, because a woman is missing. A corporate team building trip, with five men hiking in one direction and five women going another way goes awry. The two groups were supposed to meet up after three days in the wild, but something has gone wrong and only four women return.

The story follows the police, the search party, and Aaron as they investigate and look for the missing woman (or her corpse?). This progress is related in chapters alternating with the story of the trek as told by the other women who were on the trip. There was so much going on behind the scenes, with tons of secrets, corporate intrigue, grudges and jealousy, so there is a ton of material for Aaron to unravel.

LOTS of suspense, and vivid descriptions of gorgeous scenery and interesting characters. While The Dry focused more on Aaron’s own personal story, Force of Nature continues to reveal details about his past.

While there is violence, there is no gore. I love this writer and this series, and eagerly await the next one from Jane Harper. Five stars.

A Convenient Suspect: a Double Murder, a Flawed Investigation, and the Railroading of an Innocent Woman by Tammy Mal

What a sad story! I am something of a true crime junkie (my guilty pleasure) and was grateful to receive a copy of A Convenient Suspect from Chicago Review Press and NetGalley in exchange for this honest review.

Because I am a hard-core true crime junkie and a podcast aficionado (and don’t even get me started on my favorite true crime podcasts!), I have increasingly become aware of the many outrageous examples of prosecutorial misconduct and evidence tampering that have been brought to light by journalists, investigators, and just plain folks looking for truth and justice. Well, this book is another example of what seems to a case of settling on a suspect then tailoring the actions of the police and prosecutors to fit.

Here’s the situation: Shortly before Christmas in 1994, a young mother named Joann Katrinak and her three-month-old son, Alex, disappeared from their home in Catasauqua, Pennsylvania. Their bodies weren’t found for four months, when they were found in nearby woods. The police investigated for three years before arresting another young mother named Patricia Rorrer. Although Patricia was the ex-girlfriend of Joann’s husband, she had never met either Joann or Alex.

The prosecution’s theory was that Patricia brutally beat Joann, shot her and left her and her baby for dead in the woods, and Patricia Rorrer was quickly tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Fast-forward to Rorrer filing for FBI records under the Freedom of Information Act, and finding a document stating that hairs that were looked at by the FBI did not have a hair root. This was the critical piece of evidence used at Rorrer’s trial, and her attorney is working to re-examine what he sees as a totally flawed forensic investigation.

He is adamant that once state police started to focus on Rorrer as a potential suspect, they went to North Carolina where she was living and they obtained a sample of her hair to compare to the ones found at the scene. He asks a good question: “… whether the hairs that were actually tested were in fact hairs taken from the seatback or were they part of that general pile of hairs that were taken from Patricia Rorrer in North Carolina?”

In writing this book, Mal uses information that was not previously made public, gathered from more than 10,000 official documents, including Pennsylvania State Police reports, FBI Files, forensic lab results, and the 6,500-page trial transcript.

The case has been covered by the usual sources that have popularized true crimes, including People magazine, Dateline, and Investigation Discovery but none of them have the depth of this book. It was well done, and sufficiently provoked enough outrage in me to cause me to read further about this case. Yes, the deaths of Joann and Alex were very sad, but a thirst for resolution that results in a rushed conviction based on sloppy forensic work is not only sad, it’s unjust. The subtitle wraps it up nicely: A double murder, a flawed investigation, and the railroading of an innocent woman. I’m giving this one 5 stars — for its genre, it’s OUTSTANDING.

The Death of An Heir by Phillip Jett

I admit, when it comes to my reading habits, my guilty pleasure is true crime. So a title like The Death of An Heir: Adolph Coors III and the Murder That Rocked an American Brewing Dynasty leaps out at me! That title turned out to be a spoiler for me, because I admit I had no awareness of this notorious crime – no idea that the CEO of the Coors family beer empire had been kidnapped and murdered at the age of 44 as he was on his way to work one morning in Golden, Colorado. (Of course, I was 12 when it happened, so I claim adolescence as my excuse!)

In the 1950s and 60s, the Coors name represented the dynasty that ruled over business and society in Colorado. Emerging stories about possible unionization of workers at the family business were seen as a threat by the patriarch, Adolph Coors, Jr., who drew a hard line against organized labor. His view was that the family had worked hard for what they had, so they could decide how to run the business and no one had a right to direct their activity. This led the authorities to suspect possible retaliation from one or more disgruntled workers when they began to investigate the disappearance of Adolph Coors III.

In February 1960, Adolph “Ad” Coors III, got into his car and left for work at the brewery, located twelve miles away. He saw a car stopped by a bridge, with the hood up, so he stopped to offer assistance. There he encountered a convicted murderer who had escaped from prison in California several years earlier, who thought if he made one big score by holding Ad for ransom, he would be set for life. Unfortunately, Ad was never seen alive again, and the search for his killer was exhaustive and included turf wars between the FBI and local law enforcement officials.

The search for Ad was the largest manhunt in the U.S. since the Lindbergh baby had been kidnapped. Everyone in the FBI up to and including the director J. Edgar Hoover worked on the attempt to locate the kidnapper(s?) and the victim. For months, Ad’s wife and four children waited and hoped for a miracle.

The Death of an Heir is a fascinating look at the incredibly detailed manhunt that resulted in the conviction of the kidnapper/murderer. The amount of tedious investigation that was required to be done manually before the Internet and the dedication of the FBI agents to “always get their man” is astonishing, although it turned out to be a Canadian officer who successfully located the suspect. The dislike between the federal and local authorities is emphasized by the way the showboat Colorado Sheriff (who later resigned in disgrace rather than be prosecuted on corruption charges) happily went to escort the suspect and escort him back to Colorado early one morning, only to be told that the suspect had been flown out of Canada in the dead of night by the FBI.

It’s an interesting story, particularly the detail on the manhunt and the impact of the tragedy on the family members, both in Ad’s immediate family and the larger Coors family empire. Very well researched and sourced, and an entertaining read. With thanks to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the advance copy in exchange for my honest review, I give this one four stars.

 

Fatal Deceptions by Joe Sharkey

WHAT?!?! Khalessi as a murder victim? Daenerys Targarian a wife whose husband cheats on her? OK, now that I have your attention, Joe Sharkey’s book Fatal Deceptions is a collection of three previously published true crime books, one of which has been made into a movie starring Emilia Clarke of Game of Thrones fame, set for 2017 release. And, thanks to Open Road Integrated Media and NetGalley, I received a copy in exchange for my honest review.

The first story, Above Suspicion, is the one that is “soon to be a major motion picture.” A well-written story, this is the true account of Mark Putnam, the only FBI agent ever to confess to murder. In his first posting, he was assigned to Pikeville, Kentucky, he was a real go-getter as he cultivated paid informants, broke up drug rings, and captured bank robbers. He was a rising star in the Bureau, but he became too close to one informant (played by Emilia Clarke). When she fell in love with the Bureau’s rising star, things spiraled so far out of control you could just FEEL the inevitable train wreck coming.

The second story was made into a movie (“Goodnight, Sweet Wife”) in the 1990s. Deadly Greed tells the story of Charles Stuart who called to report to the police that he and his wife, Carol, were in a car and had been robbed and shot by a black male on the streets of Boston. By the time police arrived, Carol was dead, and the baby, delivered at 7 months, died soon after. There was a media frenzy as politicians and police administrators jumped on the story. Charles, a really disgusting creep, then identified a suspect and the media frenzy continued. But the only killer was Charles himself. This story resonated with me for the parallels with stories about the police today who first identify a suspect and then gather their evidence to support that story. Ugh.

In the final story, Death Sentence the vice president of a Jersey City bank moved his mother, wife, and three teenage children into a nineteen-room mansion in Westfield, New Jersey. Then he lost his job and everything changed. So fearful of what this and the changing social mores as the 1960s became the 1970s would do to his children, his solution was to shoot the entire family then disappear, taking on a new identity.

Summing up, three well-written books in the true crime genre all in one package. By the time you finish these, your concerns about police may be deepened, and you will likely think something along the lines of “What the ^&*% was he thinking?”  Four stars.

 

The Blackbird Season by Kate Moretti

The opening of The Blackbird Season by Kate Moretti creeped me out, as it was designed to do: “The day the birds fell, I dealt the tower card.” Based on the title, you might infer the birds mentioned were blackbirds, yes? But no, we learn at the start of chapter 2 that “A month before Nate was fired, nearly a thousand starlings fell from the sky. Not fluttering to the earth like snowflakes, but plummeting, like quarter-pound raindrops.”

So I was already thinking maybe I was just not reading carefully enough (happens more with each passing year, but I went back to resolve my ornithological confusion). TBH at the end of this excellently written and paced mystery/thriller, I was still not clear on the whole bird thing. But a fun read!

Here is the basic premise: there is a small town in the east where the high school has a beloved high school teacher, who is also the baseball coach in a town where baseball means WAY more than either football or basketball. We are led to wonder about his possible involvement with the disappearance of a female student as we learn that Nate, the teacher/coach, “…always had a soft spot for her and those like her: the damaged, pretty girls.” When the police become involved, Nate is less than fully honest about his involvement with Lucia, the missing student. While being questioned, he “…had no way of knowing that this moment would become the linchpin, the moment that all the moments after would hinge upon. The papers would call him a murderer; …ex-friends, his gym buddies…would say, Nate was the last one to see her alive, right?”

Really nice way she reveals information about the four main characters who tell the story in alternating points of view: Nate, his wife Alecia (who is a frazzled stay-at-home mom to their autistic son and maybe is inclined to suspect Nate’s involvement; Lucia, the missing student: and Bridget, a co-worker and buddy of Ned who was part of the two-couple friendship with Nate and Alecia before her husband dies (and was the only character I REALLY liked). Not everyone in the story is likable or smart. In fact, Nate seems like quite a dolt and Alecia sure was quick to suspect her husband of possibly killing a student with whom she is sure he was having an “inappropriate relationship” and she was awfully bitchy to Bridget. I wanted to like her, but found her annoying as her frustration with Nate, their child, and the marriage in general kept moving her actions along.

Again, some great writing, as in this passage where we learn a great deal about both Lucia and Bridget: “Lucia tackled pain and death clinically, a biology lab discussion. As if Bridget’s hurt could be pulled apart like little frog’s legs, pinned back to the wax, sliced clean down the middle and simply exorcised.”
Okay, there are lots of clichés here, in the small town, star athletes, rocky marriage, beloved teacher, etc. But Kate Moretti is a GOOD writer and my only thought was some editing of the narrative about the woods/mill etc. might have helped. Overall, it’s a fairly quick read, and quite well written. I’ll definitely check out Kate Moretti’s other work, and I appreciate Atria Books and NetGalley for providing a copy in exchange for my honest review. Four 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.

 

Actual Malice by Breton Peace and Gary Condit

Cover Peace Actual Malice

Admittedly, the true crime genre is a guilty pleasure of mine. I also follow politics, so the whole sad, sordid Chandra Levy saga looked to be right up my alley, and eagerly anticipated reading Actual Malice by Breton Peace, published in fall, 2016. I appreciate receiving a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review – thanks to Ghost Mountain Press and NetGalley.

It’s difficult to describe my level of disappointment in this book. It was described asa true crime thriller that will take you through the backrooms of political gamesmanship, deception, and cover-up.” For me, not so much! Where to begin??

This book presents the reader with the story (or at least one view of the story) of 24-year-old Chandra Levy, a  constituent of Congressman Gary Condit of California’s Central Valley, and her disappearance in 2001 just as her internship with the federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington, D.C. came to an end. As the investigation into her disappearance unfolded, it was on the news 24/7 after Condit was revealed to be “involved” with Chandra. Good grief, it was on the news 24/7 and Condit came off looking suspiciously like a lecherous creep. I was hoping the book might reveal some backstory that would make the whole thing at least a tiny bit less creepy.

Alas, even though this book was co-authored by Condit himself and therefore clearly meant to present him in at least a slightly favorable light, he still comes off as a lecherous creep!

I did enjoy the parts of the book describing Condit’s role as a “blue dog Democrat” in the sort-of-sleazy world of California politics, as he worked closely with Assembly Speaker Willie Brown in a rapid rise to power. Condit was photogenic, charming, and ostensibly able to “work across the aisle.” Anyone with an interest in politics would find this interesting, and I did, although I kept being distracted by the gigantic need for an editor (example: when Condit’s chief of staff was described as “pouring over newspapers.” Ugh. Lots of errors like this that, to some of us, are visual fingernails on a blackboard!)

When he left California to take on the role of Representative in Washington, Condit was part of a coalition that delivered bipartisan victories during Clinton’s second term and sat on the House Intelligence Committee. It seemed like he had accomplished something that seems impossible in today’s political climate—genuine political independence from both sides of the aisle. Should have been golden, right? Well, no.

Despite all this promise, Condit seemed to have several red flags, including his relationship with his driver/bodyguard Vince Flammini, who comes across like a character from Goodfellas – or at least a wannabe in that vein. And as the Levy story is devoured by the media, stories of Condit’s womanizing emerge, contributing to the less-than-flattering picture of him.

So, overall, my four big takeaways from this book are:

  • Chandra Levy’s disappearance (and murder) is a sad tale, made even more so when you consider that the case was never solved.
  • Police often seem to find a suspect and then tailor their investigation to fit that storyline.
  • The media is an insatiable beast, especially when sex and politics are involved.
  • Men (including high-profile politicians) who can’t keep it in their pants say and do really stupid things.

Actual Malice is presented as a book that chronicles in vivid detail the heartache and intrigue behind the salacious, if fanciful, headlines that too often drive public debate and derail the serious business of our nation and its system of justice.” Really? To me, it comes across as almost a puff piece, sort of gliding over the facts that demonstrate that yes, Condit was a lecherous creep who betrayed his family as well as his constituents. I am actually surprised and a bit disappointed in myself as I admit that I expected more – even though Condit was co-author. Duh. What was I thinking?

I couldn’t resist — I knew that Condit has lost his bid for re-election and faded away, but I just had to look and see what became of him: according to the Washington Post, “Condit has written a book but allegedly can’t find a publisher. Soon after leaving politics, he invested in Baskin-Robbins ice cream franchises. The stores failed and prompted a breach-of-contract suit in which Condit was ordered to pay about $98,000. A source close to the Condit family says Gary has long since left the ice cream business.”

Like I said, sad. Two stars. I rarely give anything fewer than three, but this one was just awful in so many ways. Despite the effort of the two authors to present Condit in a positive light, I still felt like I need a shower.

 

 

The Perfect Stranger by Megan Miranda

cover Miranda PErfect Stranger

I first became aware of Megan Miranda’s storytelling skill when I read her previous novel All the Missing Girls, which was told BACKWARDS. Not an easy thing to pull off, but she did it in a 5-star fashion, so I was ready with high expectations when I received an advance copy of her latest book The Perfect Stranger in exchange for my honest review (thanks, Simon & Schuster and NetGalley!!)

In this one, the protagonist is an apparently troubled journalist named Leah Stevens, who has moved to a small town in western Pennsylvania to escape and start over. She picks up and takes off with her friend Emmy, becoming a high school teacher while Emmy works odd jobs under the table…or does she??? In fact, did Emmy really exist at all? When Leah reports her missing and the police come to investigate, there is no record of her existence anywhere, either currently or in the past when Leah and Emmy were college roommates. The reader is taken on a twisted ride while Leah tries to find Emmy while hiding her own past (the details of which are rolled out slowly, revealing the reason for Leah’s rush out of Boston and into Pennsylvania.

As the details of her past are revealed, we learn there was a restraining order against Leah and a threatened lawsuit for her actions in a story she wrote in Boston. Leah is just settling in to her new life when someone beats the crap out of a woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to Leah, and then Emmy disappears.  Leah desperately wants to find Emmy, and becomes deeply entangled with the lead detective working on Emmy’s disappearance. She tries to cooperate, but the is no trace of Emmy, not even a digital footprint. At this point the reader may wonder if Emmy ever existed, or whether Leah might have dissociative identity disorder.

The possibility of a split personality is revealed as Leah tells the reader “I was an adolescent when I first started to see myself as two people…I was both walking down the hall and watching myself walk down the hall.” Speaking of a female student, she said she ”…held herself as if she knew it. She must’ve thought there were certain rules that still applied. “

Leah’s struggles become more clear as she continues ”…then you learn. Your backbone was all false bravado. An act that was highly cultivated, taught and expected of girls now. The spunk that was appreciated and rewarded. Talk back to the professor to show your grit.” Leah has learned that for her young student “…danger had not yet made itself apparent, but it was everywhere, whether she wanted to believe it or not.” 

That is part of what makes this so GOOD: this is not just a mystery/thriller (although it definitely is a good example of that genre) – it is also a critique of how women fit in (or not) and learn to make their way in the world, whether it is essential to follow the rules, and the importance of learning about trust.

Leah’s struggle to reclaim her good name, find Emmy and figure out who, if anyone, she can trust makes this an interesting and exciting book. Five stars. And I look forward to Megan Miranda’s future work!

 

Almost Missed You by Jessica Strawser

cover-strawser-almost-missed-you

This sounded like just the thing for an escape from reality: a story about a couple who “met cute,” got married and had a child, went on their first vacation as a family, and then…the husband and pre-school-age boy disappear completely! I  thought it had “beach read” written all over it – not a bad thing! Also, the fact that Lisa Scottoline and Chris Bohjalian (a couple of authors I enjoy) had glowing things to say about it increased my interest, so I was pleased to receive an advance copy of Almost Missed You from St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

We first encounter Violet and Finn, the married couple who are referred to by their friends as “meant to be,” meeting on a beach in the Carolinas. Although they had an instant connection, they didn’t actually meet F2F for some time. In the interim, Finn had a fiancée and Violet was restlessly single. Finn apparently still thinks about Violet and their brief encounter, and of course they end up together. Violet is happy as can be when they head out on their first vacation as a family…and then she finds herself in her worst nightmare. (The revelation of Violet’s dawning realization of the disappearance of her husband and child is particularly well done).

Other characters impact the story, particularly Caitlin, who has been friends with Finn forever, and who comes to be Violet’s BFF. She plays a critical role in the events that happen both before and after Finn and Violet get together.

The full story is told through alternating viewpoints of Finn, Violet and Caitlin, and has strong themes of marital betrayal, the role of fate in a relationship, secrets (both those kept and those revealed), and the relationship between a mother and her child.

Given that Ms. Strawser’s day job is Editorial Director of Writer’s Digest magazine, expectations are high for this, her first novel. For a beach read, it’s a five star (not literary fiction, but extremely entertaining, and well written).

 

The Cutaway by Christina Kovac

cover-kovac-the-cutaway

The Cutaway by Christina Kovac is described as being “perfect for fans of Paula Hawkins and Gillian Flynn,” so as a fan of those two books, I was happy to receive an advance copy from Atria Books and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

I tend to enjoy books about the inner workings of media when they are written by someone with actual real world experience – and Ms. Kovac has seventeen years of experience in broadcast news, so I figured this was drawn for stories and people with whom she had worked in the past, and for me it rang true.

The story is set in Washington, D.C., and includes elements from news, politics and crime as it follows Virginia Knightly, a TV news producer, who receives an unsettling notice about a young attorney who is missing. The woman was last seen leaving a fancy restaurant after a domestic dispute, and Virginia finds herself investigating the disappearance on her own as her skeptical colleagues aren’t on board with her suspicions.

The pace is fast, the characters well-drawn, and the corruption among the police, the politicians and the press are pervasive…and creepy as we enter into an era marked with unsettling links between business and government following the recent election.

Described as a “psychological thriller,” it will appeal to fans of stories such as Big Little Lies, Gone Girl, Girl on a Train and Missing, Presumed.

My husband found a few details that, for him, disturbed the flow of the narrative – things along the lines of  “wait, if she had lost her wallet, how did she…” so I felt I couldn’t give it five stars, but those didn’t really bother me, and I hope this is the first in a series of stories involving Virginia Knightly!

Four stars.

All These Perfect Strangers by Aoife Clifford

COVER ALL THESE PERFECT STRANGERS

All These Perfect Strangers by Aoife Clifford grabbed me for two reasons: first there was the teaser I read: “This is about three deaths. Actually more, if you go back far enough. I say deaths, but perhaps all of them were murders. It’s a grey area. Murder, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. So let’s just call them deaths and say I was involved. This story could be told a hundred different ways.” And second, the author’s name (one which in my ignorance I had never ever heard or see before, and I had no clue how to pronounce it, and I just HAD to know…sort of like T. Coraghessan Boyle, you know?)

This is one of what seems like a dozen books I have read recently that involve a young woman, a mysterious death/disappearance, a slowly revealed history of said character/town/whatever (in this case, University), and a possibly unreliable narrator. In this one, we have Penelope (Pen) Sheppard, who goes away to University, where she hopes to begin a new life. Within six months, three of her new friends are dead. She goes back home, and we learn she is the victim of a violent trauma and is once again a pariah in her hometown (as she felt she was before she left for school). She goes to her shrink to get his signature or whatever it takes to approve funds (I think; I am a bit unclear on why she was unburdening herself in this way, but was too caught up in the story to go back and try to understand motivations – I wanted to know what was going to HAPPEN!) She has to tell her story to her shrink and to the police, and it is revealed in both narrative and diary form.

We learn both about her backstory (why was she such a pariah in her hometown? What happened back there, anyway?) and about a prowler on campus attacking students and rival drug-dealing students. And there are the requisite (in a story set largely at a University) naive young people determined to do whatever it takes to fit in (I had just re-read Donna Tartt’s Secret History, and saw some similarities). Yikes! Parentheses gone wild!

The plotting is complex, and there are some fascinating characters. But Pen was the best: although she may or may not be unreliable as a narrator, she was honest in her diary…I think. Possibly not so much with those to whom she was telling her story. Mystery!

Like the aforementioned Secret History, this book dives into questions of morality and justice, with foggy lines between right and wrong. I didn’t see the end coming, and I don’t really know how I feel about it. As noted by others, the story feels a bit unfinished. If Clifford is planning a sequel, I think many readers would be happy to read it. Oh, and BTW, her name is pronounced “eee-fuh”! Thanks to NetGalley for an advance copy of All These Perfect Strangers, four stars!