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.

Look For Me by Lisa Gardner

 I am a big fan of mysteries, and each year I read what seems like a ton of them – especially those featuring a “plucky heroine.” So I was pretty sure I had read Lisa Gardner before, but looking through goodreads and my blog, I see a bunch of Lisas (See, Wingate, Jewell) – but nothing by Lisa Gardner. So I am clearly a bit late to the party here, but thanks to Dutton and NetGalley, I just read Look for Me, Lisa’s latest (published 2018), AND  I just learned this is the TENTH novel featuring Detective D.D. Warren of the Boston Police Department. (Like I said, late to the party).

This latest in the series  all takes place in a dizzying span of a couple of days, and begins when Detective Warren is called to a homicide scene, where four members of a family have been savagely murdered. The fifth member of the family, a sixteen-year-old girl named Roxanna (or Roxy) is missing, along with the two family dogs.

Roxy is a likely suspect, or possibly she was out walking the dogs and narrowly escaped being the fifth victim, D.D. isn’t sure which. An Amber Alert goes out, and she and her team start an intense search for Roxy (and the dogs). They are joined in the hunt by Flora Dane, who was a crime victim featured in Gardner’s Find Her (#8 in the D.D. Warren series), and now is on a mission to avenge crimes (including burning a rapist to death) and provide support for survivors.

 Some of the chapters are told in the first person by Flora, gradually revealing her backstory and explaining the reason she is so hot to find Roxy (no real spoiler here, but Roxy has recently joined Flora’s online chat group, which is by invitation only – Sarah, who is one of Flora’s rescued victims and another member of the group, has befriended Roxy and invited her to join, so Flora has some insider info that D.D. needs). D.D. and Flora both are looking for justice, but it might come in different forms… 

There are also chapters that are essays written by Roxy’s little sister Lola, one of the murder victims. She wrote them as a series for a school assignment, and they gradually reveal some of the horror endured by the sisters during their time in foster care.

As a former foster parent, the stories of the children in foster care (and the system that “cares” for them) hit me pretty hard. And the suspense was terrific. I was seriously tempted to turn to the end to find out WTH had gone on, but I persisted J and am glad I stuck with it.

Good characterization, and the whole thing was chilling.  I’m still not sure how I have missed this series, and am also not sure if the others can stand alone or should have been read in order to fully appreciate them, but I am about to find out! And I will definitely look for future novels by Ms. Gardner. Anyone who likes a good suspenseful mystery/thriller without TOO much graphic violence and especially fans of plucky heroines and police procedurals (in this case, both!) will enjoy this. Five stars

 

Killing Pace by Douglas Schofield

Back in 2015, I read and reviewed Time of Departure by Douglas Schofield, so when (thanks to St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books  and NetGalley) I had the opportunity to read Schofield’s new novel, Killing Pace, in return for my honest review, I leapt at it.

Like Time of Departure, Killing Pace also features a female protagonist facing some crime-related challenges. Time of Departure was set in Florida, and while Killing Pace begins in Florida, it then moves back and forth between Sicily and Florida.

The first chapter is straightforward, and provided me with a good hook, as it described a woman named Lisa Green crawling bleeding and barefoot out of a car accident, completely confused. Not only does she not know where she is or how she got there, she doesn’t even remember who she is. In the next chapter, the woman begins to regain memory with flashes of remembrance related to Flight 103 (crashed over Lockerbie, Scotland), conversations with an older woman, and eating Nutella. She beats the crap out of the man who had been holding her captive and reports herself missing to the police. The next section, titled Sarah, describes the activities of a female Customs and Border Protection Office named Sarah Lockhart, and just as I was wondering if she was the woman in the car accident (despite the different name), the next section was back to Lisa. Because my reading was interrupted by a couple of weeks of personal chaos, I was a bit disoriented by the shifts among Lisa, Sarah, and yet another female character, Laura Pace – but in looking back over the book, I realize this was just me – Schofield did a great job weaving the sections together, and it all made sense.

The story becomes an international chase, involving not just Sarah’s efforts in Italy and Miami on behalf of the US Border Control, but expanding to include the Sicilian mafia, human trafficking (infants taken from Syrian refugees and made available for adoption to wealthy American couples, also known as “baby laundering”), and smuggling. There is also a tiny bit of romantic interest, which I would expect will be explored in the next Laura Pace novel (and I hope there will be one!). And I JUST realized the title is a play on words!!

There are several issues explored, including questions of trust, ethical behavior of government officials, and loyalty. Like Time of Departure, this novel requires some willing suspension of disbelief, but I read with the attitude of “just go along for the ride,” and I am glad I did. Following the two-week hiatus between when I started this book and yesterday when I picked it up again, I was hooked and spent the majority of the day yesterday reading it. I love mystery-thrillers than take over my whole day, and give this one four stars. I look forward to reading more from Mr. Schofield, whose experience as both a prosecutor and a defense attorney contributes to his ability to tell a story that hooks the reader.

 

 

The Wanted by Robert Crais

Let’s just get this out of the way: I have been a diehard fan of Robert Crais/Elvis Cole/Joe Pike for THIRTY YEARS. Seriously, when The Monkey’s Raincoat was published in 1987, I was working in a public library, grabbed it as soon as it came in, and was HOOKED. Since then, this has been one of the most reliable series in the mystery genre – consistent as in “OMG, <blank> has a new book coming out! YAY!” So I was happy to receive a copy of The Wanted from G.P.Putnam’s Sons and NetGalley in return for my honest review.

In this latest installment, a single mother named Devon Cole comes to Elvis Cole because she is concerned about her teenage son, who suddenly has cash, which makes her suspect he might be dealing drugs. Devon’s mom reveals that her son Tyson has serious anxiety issues and has been failed to succeed at several schools, finally landing in an alternative school. His mom first notices he is wearing new shirts from Barney’s, an extremely expensive store. Tyson tells her that one of his friend’s parents runs a studio’s wardrobe department and got them a great deal.

After the shirts, Tyson acquires an Xbox and a new computer with three monitors. Elvis discovers hidden cash totaling tens of thousands of dollars, and a Rolex watch worth upwards of $20,000. So clearly he is up to SOMETHING. The truth is that he and two friends have been burglarizing the houses of rich folks, getting lots of cash and new clothes in return. As it turns out, the Rolex provides a clue for Elvis, as it is registered to a specific person, and with that clue, Elvis is off and running. But the happen to steal the wrong thing from the wrong house, and one of them is murdered.

The victim, who REALLY wants his property back, hires two killers named Harvey and Stems, who are frantically looking for Devon and his girlfriend. Elvis, determined to find Devon and the girl before the bad guys do, brings in Joe Pile and Jon Stone.

In addition to just absolutely loving Elvis, I love Robert Crais’s writing, including structure, setting, character and plotting. The structure is terrific, going between Elvis Cole and two hired killers, Harvey and Stems. Each time the story shifts to another character’s point of view, we get another clue. The various areas of Los Angeles are familiar, and well described as Elvis searches for the missing teens at places including “…celebutante clubs with a squad of paparazzi camped at the door…”He not only captures the vibe of Southern California, he is great at describing people: one potential witness is “a flea market regular, this older woman with sun-scorched skin and liver spots…” and Devon “…carried herself with so much tension she might have been wrapped with duct tape.” Elvis is his usual intuitive self: “…something about her bothered me, but I wasn’t sure what.”

Then there is the scene where Harvey and Stems are passing time in the car, discussing the movie Psycho while staking out a house, watching for Elvis: one guy’s take is “The message was women are powerless. Here’s this lunatic, he’s stabbing her, what did she do, the chick in the movie? Just stood there. So what’s being modeled? Whatever some guy does to a woman, they’re supposed to take it. That’s the message.”

The plot is complex, as the story races forward at a pace that kept me up til nearly dawn when I got to the final reveal that felt just right. Robert Crais is one of the very best mystery writers out there, and although there are recurring people and places in this series, this story can be read as a standalone. I had huge expectations for The Wanted, and it met (or exceeded) them all. Five stars!

 

Murder in Palm Beach by Bob Brink

Palm Beach is in the news quite a bit lately – you know, the Mar-a-Lago version of Palm Beach. Well, apparently, there is another side to this town, and it is the setting for Bob Brink’s Murder in Palm Beach, a work of what is sometimes called “faction.” It is a novel that is based on true events, in other words.

In this story, Mitt Hecher is not a model citizen and he was known to battle other individuals and even the police. He wasn’t a murderer, but with a corrupt judicial system and some local prosecutors wanting to make a name for themselves, there is a conviction of an innocent man.
The murder victim, Rodger Kriger, lives with his family in the “nice” part of PB. He was shot at home and died after 11 days in the hospital. As is often the case (I watched The Wire, so I know these things!), the cops and courts can’t be relied on to provide justice. All the police want is to solve the murder (get a conviction of SOMEONE) to boost their statistics and they don’t take time to be sure of the facts.

Mitt has a sick wife and a child, to add to his problems – as in, who can care for them with him in prison? TBH, I found this a bit depressing, and as it is/was apparently Mr. Brink’s debut novel, I don’t want to be too harsh. It just wasn’t my thing. Two stars, for effort. And thanks to BooksGoSocial and NetGalley for a copy in exchange for my honest review.

 

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan’s new book Manhattan Beach is a puzzle. I enjoyed reading it, and then felt less than positive about it…but now, a few weeks later, I realize I keep thinking about certain aspects of it, so I think that adds at least one star! The story begins in Brooklyn during the Depression, when we meet Anna Kerrigan. She is almost twelve years old and loves accompanying her father as he “does business.” It’s clear both her father and her mother are extremely influential in her view of the world: “Never part with a fact unless you’ve no choice. Her father’s voice in her ears.” And “Working with your hands meant taking orders—in her mother’s case, from Pearl Gratzky…” While accompanying her father on a particular visit, she views an interaction that leads her to understand there is some secret pact between her father and a man named Dexter Styles. Not long after, her father disappears, leaving Anna alone with her mother and sister.

Two major events as Anna is growing up: her father disappears and the country goes to war. She needs to work as she is the sole support of her mother and her beautiful sister (who is totally disabled). She begins working at the Navy Yard in Brooklyn where, suddenly, women are being allowed to do work that had always been men’s jobs. Egan does a great job using that environment to convey a great deal about her characters using descriptive language: ” Dunellen gave a drooping, corroded impression, like a freighter bone to rust after being too long at anchor.” Egan also shows the reader Anna’s unique personality and quirkiness: “She’d never been good at banter; it was like a skipping rope whose rhythm she couldn’t master enough to jump in with confidence.” But she DOES have the confidence to jump into being the first female diver, an incredibly dangerous job, repairing the ships that are critical to the War effort.

One night, she is at a nightclub and meets Dexter Styles, the man she visited with her father before he vanished. Anna’s life away from work leads her to begin to understand the reality of her father’s life and the reasons he might have been murdered (which is surely what happened, otherwise why would he have just gone away and she would never have heard from him?).

The story is historical fiction and also sort of a “noir thriller.” There is a ton of information about organized crime, the merchant marine and the clash of classes in New York, Thinking about it after the fact, I realize it was the ending/resolution that made me think I didn’t care for it. (Also perhaps my extremely high expectations based on all the hype). But the story of a young woman fighting to make it in a man’s world at a time of social turmoil is fascinating, and Egan does have an outstanding gift for character development. I’m grateful to Scribner and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of Manhattan Beach in exchange for my honest review. I first thought four stars, then it slipped to two and a half, but after a couple of weeks’ reflection, it is back to a solid four stars.

 

Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt

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Caroline Leavitt’s Cruel Beautiful World sounded like a good candidate for escapist reading…a story about sisters, seduction, family, secrets. What’s not to like, right? I am pretty sure I haven’t read anything by Leavitt before, so my expectation level was at zero, and I admit this one stayed in my TBR pile for a couple of months. But, since the official publication date isn’t til October, I guess I kept thinking I had plenty of time. Once I got into it, the story had me hooked, and I pretty much read nonstop til I was finished. Some might call this one Chick lit, or Soap Opera…but it is borderline thriller with family saga thrown in for good measure, and I admit I liked it way more than I expected I was going to.

There are three central characters, including Iris, who learned at an early age about the profound impact sadness could have on a family when her father abandoned the family to run off with a waitress. They never quite recovered, and Leavitt describes the emotions beautifully: “Iris saw how her mother suffered, how her sadness seeped through the walls, held there like a stain.” Iris yearned to be happily married, and had dreams of travel and adventure…but soon after she married, the marriage turned out not to be at all what she dreamed of, and she and her husband ended up living as friends for years. Just when it looked like Iris would be able to start enjoying her own life, she is asked to take in two young orphaned sisters, who are coming into the whole teenage experience in the 1960s and early 70s (which Leavitt incorporates into the story beautifully).

The crux of the story involves the impact of a somewhat impulsive decision made by 16-year-old Lucy, who runs away to another state to live off the land with an older guy. This decision makes sense to her at the time, but is devastating to both her older sister Charlotte and Iris, especially when Lucy’s guy refuses to allow her to have any contact with them. There is just the right amount of creepiness in the relationship between Lucy and her guy to make the reader suspect things aren’t going to turn out well…and the story is spooled out deftly, with mounting suspense and surprises along the way.

There are tons of things going on, with lots of secrets revealed, some suspense, and plenty of characters to meet along the way The ending was a tiny bit contrived, but made sense given the overall tone and Leavitt’s style. It’s not heavy literature, but it’s an engrossing story with lots of topics for discussion, so would be a good pick for a book club that isn’t into heavy lifting. With thanks to NetGalley and Algonquin for an advance reading copy in exchange for my honest review, I give this one four enthusiastic stars (it would be five if this were one of my favorite genres, and for many readers, it will definitely be a five-star read!).

The Twenty-three by Linwood Barclay

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I really enjoyed the first two novels in the Promise Falls Trilogy by Linwood Barclay, Broken Promise (2015) and Far From True (2016). There were some things left hanging at the end of the most recent one, so I was happy to have the opportunity to receive an advance copy in exchange with my honest review (thank you, NetGalley and Berkley Publishing!!)

As this story opens, it hasn’t been too long since the disastrous events of Far From True (including the fatal collapse of the drive-in theater screen). It’s now Memorial Day weekend, and on Saturday hundreds of people start showing up at the local hospital with what first looks like flu…then dozens die. It looks to many like the water supply is tainted, but the motive isn’t clear.

Familiar characters (to those who have read the prior novels in the series) crop up: Private investigator Cal Weaver, police Detective Barry Duckworth, former reporter David Harwood, and the somewhat sleazy former mayor, whose ownership of the local spring water bottling company puts him in line to profit from the disaster). There is also the return of “23,” which is seen in several places: bloody mannequins are found in car #23 of the ferris wheel at an abandoned amusement park, 23 squirrels are killed, a buse is set on fire and sent down the road with #23 painted on it…and it’s May 23rd.

In addition to the plague-like outbreak, a college student is found dead, and the death is reminiscent of the deaths of other women in town. Things start to add up, but there seem to be many possibilities for murderer and motive. Can’t say too much more without spoiling something for someone, but for fans of mystery, psychological suspense, and Linwood Barclay, this one is a good choice.

I appreciated the varied points of view, and while I am usually not a big fan of many short chapters, it seems to work well in this case. I expected complete resolution to EVERYTHING, being the third in a trilogy, but there may be room to tell more stories about the people and events in Promise Falls.

While it is a trilogy, each of the books works as a standalone, so don’t be hesitant to read this because you haven’t read the first two in the series. I don’t know how to give this one 4.5 stars, and it isn’t quite a 5-star for me (as a teacher I was sort of known as a tough grader!), so this one ends up at four stars…even though it’s really better than that.

Siracusa by Delia Ephron

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I’m a long-time fan of both Ephrons, Nora and Delia…and I had heard (read, actually) good things about this book: good summer read, revelatory about marriage, secrets, deceit, etc. So I had pretty high expectations as I dove in o his one.

And it really is a great story, told from alternative POVs by four adults who travel together to Italy (including the place where all hell breaks loose, Siracusa) one summer. You know right from the beginning that something has gone horribly wrong on the trip, but it takes awhile to get there, and I kept wondering what the disaster was, and who was involved. The two couples, both married, are Michael and Lizzie from New York and Finn and Taylor from Portland, Maine. Two other characters who figure in to the events in Siracusa are Finn and Taylor’s 10-year-old daughter Snow, and Michael’s mistress Kath who shows up unexpectedly. Ephron does a great job presenting the alternating chapters following the same events from the varying perspectives, and her wit and insightful observations are great fun.

Michael (the man with the mistress) is a writer whose play won a Pulitzer 15 years ago, and who seems to have been trying to recapture some success ever since (he is now 37). He’s kind of a pig, and truly a liar, and apparently a real charmer because both Lizzie and Taylor think he is amazing…and then Snow falls under his spell as well (OK, a bit creepy for sure). Lizzie is also a writer who has not had much success, but the two of them are firmly entrenched in the Manhattan literary scene (which Ephron delights in skewering here and there). Michael has told Kath that he will be leaving Lizzie to be with her, and Kath believes him, so she breaks into his computer, steals his passwords and uses his miles to fly to Italy to surprise him. She is a hostess at a restaurant Michael and Lizzie frequent and, like very other female in the book, has fallen under his spell, believing every word.

Finn owns a restaurant and has a thing for a lobsterwoman back in Maine, although his real desire is for Lizzie, ever since they had a fling some years back. Taylor is basically an icy bitch whose world revolves around Snow, her beautiful daughter who suffers from “extreme shyness syndrome.” Taylor is a pretentious snob and – well, I just couldn’t find anything to like about her.

The two couples interact during various meals and outings and it gets clearer each day that Taylor and Lizzie can’t stand each other, and Finn isn’t fond of Michael, calling him out on his lies (including, finally, his affair). Tension builds as the seemingly inevitable volcanic eruption that will occur when Lizzie realizes who Kath is and why she is there…but then one afternoon, Kath and Snow disappear. The resolution to what happens after that is one of those things I can’t even hint at without ruining something, so just leave it at this: it’s a breezy read, but has a lot of thought-provoking commentary on marriage, honesty, parenting, and secrecy. I am not sure “like” is the right word to use for how I feel about it, but I do recommend it.

Thanks to NetGalley and Blue Rider Press for offering a free copy in exchange for my honest review. Unfortunately, the digital file was unreadable and, while I got a polite response to an email requesting a new file, I never got it…disappointing, but I don’t mind buying a book that entertains me as much as this one did. Four stars.

 

The Trespasser by Tana French

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(#6, Dublin Murder Squad series)

Antoinette Conway, the (outwardly) tough detective fans of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad books met in The Secret Place (2014) is back, still on the Murder squad, but just barely. And she isn’t too happy: “I want to go home, go for a run stick something in the microwave and fry my brain with shite telly, and then get some sleep before I have to do it all over again.”

She’s now partnered with Stephen Moran, which seems to be working: “At first I didn’t like him—everyone else did, and I don’t trust people who everyone likes, plus he smiled too much.” She not only doesn’t get along with the rest of the squad, there is a (harassment filled) campaign among the other detectives to get rid of her. The story opens as a case that looks like a classic lovers’ quarrel gone wrong is handed to Conway and Moran and (as Tana French does so well) events begin to unfold that reveal there is LOTS more going on than meets the eye. Conway and Moran need to figure out whether this is possibly related to the campaign to oust her.

I love the way French captures the atmosphere: when they investigate a scene, “…somewhere across the river there could be shoeprints waiting for us, or cigarette butts with DNA on them – but it’s freezing and damp, a fine haze haloing the lamps, the kind of damp that soaks in and settles till you feel like your bones are colder than the air around you.”

The case involves the murder of Aislinn (“Ash-lynn”) Murray, who was until recently a very sheltered young woman. She came out of her shell in a big way, transformed into a woman who made men obsessed – and it ended with her murder. Along the way, Conway’s view of Aislinn evolves: “Anyone who turns herself into Barbie because that’s the only way she feels worthwhile needs a kick up the hole, but someone who does it for a revenge mission deserves a few points for determination.” And Moran calls Conway out on her attitude and relationship with the Squad: “…you’re so set on going down in flames, you’d make it happen even if the entire force loved you to bits. You’ll light your own bloody self on fire if you have to. And then you can pat yourself on the back and tell yourself you knew it all along. Congratulations.”

The interrogation scenes are amazing, and I can’t help liking Conway despite her prickly exterior. I’ve been thinking about this book for a couple of weeks now, trying to figure out why I liked it less than French’s previous books. Another reviewer said, “the magic of previous installments is missing,” and while I have no idea what that means, it sounds right!

I still love Tana French, and will eagerly grab her next book, but this one gets four stars from me, along with thanks to NetGalley and Viking for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

Arrowood by Laura McHugh

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In her mid-20s, Arden Arrowood has inherited the family home on the banks of the Mississippi River in Keokuk, Iowa, where she lived as a child. When she was just eight years old, she was in the front yard of the elegant home, watching her twin sisters, Violet and Tabitha, who were almost two years old. She turned her back for just a moment, and the girls disappeared They were presumed to have been kidnapped based on Arden’s recollection of something she saw.

Described as a “gothic mystery,” the story is captivating from the start, and the characters are vividly drawn. Arden’s mother, who remarried a religious guy, “played the part of a pastor’s wife with the convincing zeal of a prescandal of Tammy Faye Bakker.” The setting is important as well, and I loved McHugh’s description: “…the dismal towns where we’d drifted after Keokuk. I’d look out my window at scrub brush or empty fields or a parking lot and find nothing large enough or strong enough to anchor me. Nothing outside but miles between me and the river and home.” And “It appeared to be a trend in Keokuk, and maybe in all the other small, dying towns across the heartland: churches taking over abandoned retail space. Jobs trickled out and God seeped in to fill the void.”
At the time she inherits the house, Arden’s life has fallen apart: She can’t finish her master’s thesis, and she is miserable after a breakup. She has held on to the hope that her sisters are still alive, and she can’t she can’t seem to move forward until she finds them. When she arrives in town, she is welcomed back by her old neighbor and first love, Ben Ferris, whose family seems to know more about the Arrowoods’ secrets than she realized. With the help of a young amateur investigator, Arden tracks down the man who was the prime suspect in the kidnapping. She eventually finds out the devastating truth in a mysterious story that examines the ways in which memories impact our lives.
Although I wasn’t wild about the resolution or the ending, I enjoyed the experience of reading this, and will look for future work from Ms. McHugh. Recommended for anyone who likes mysteries or psychological thrillers. Four stars, and thanks to Spiegel & Grau and NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

 

All These Perfect Strangers by Aoife Clifford

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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!

 

Don’t You Cry by Mary Kubica

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I’ve been a fan of Mary Kubica’s densely plotted novels, including Pretty Baby and The Good Girl (a big hit with  a book club I belong to) – so was looking forward to her latest effort, Don’t You Cry.

The story unfolds along two tracks: the first involves the mysterious disappearance of Quinn Collins’s roommate Esther. Quinn awakens one morning to the sound of Esther’s alarm, and then finds Esther’s window onto the fire escape open and no Esther. She later is startled to hear Esther’s phone ringing…clearly wherever Esther has gone, she has left her phone behind. Quinn begins to seek answers, but at first only questions emerge, as she finds out that Esther has a new name, has advertised for a new roommate, and has asked their super to change the locks on their shared apartment. The second track involves Alex Gallo, a smart kid who has been left behind in a town on Lake Michigan when everyone else left for college. He has a sucky job in a restaurant and a worse home life. He sees a woman come into the restaurant, and later he watches as she takes off most of her clothes and walks into the icy lake.At which point, I suspect most readers had thoughts similar to mine: “WTF?”

I love the way Kubica reveals her plot points, making her readers ponder the actions of her characters, with their motivations generally only revealed near the conclusion…in her books, things are NOT what they seem, and it is a fun ride to see how everything will come together, with disparate stories and people converging.

While this one is entertaining, for me it didn’t come up to the level of her prior books. Likely my expectations were a bit high, and I think her fans will enjoy it, and she will likely gain some new fans. I appreciate the opportunity to read an advance copy from NetGalley in exchange for my review…and I wish I could say more about the story itself, but I HATE it when a review spoils the story, so I won’t go there! Four stars.

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

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I’m a huge fan of Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley mystery series, often described as “literary mysteries.” So when a new (to me) author’s book is described as a literary mystery, I’m in! I was eager to read Susie Steiner’s Missing, Presumed, knowing nothing about her work or ability to deliver the kind of story I was craving: something with enough of a mystery to hold my interest, so I could settle in and lose myself in something written with skill and creativity.

For starters, I have to say that Steiner’s protagonist, Manon Bradshaw, reminded me a bit of 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, “Manon would determinedly fill the fridge, resolve to paint the cupboards…while the washing machine churned, resolve too to eat beetroot more and take up Zumba, only to have it all disappear in the suck and tow of the next tide.” I loved Manon’s keen observations: for example, on journalist Keeley Davis, she notes the woman “will no doubt be off to the Mail any day now, with her tight suit and that retro Nissan she drives, the automotive equivalent of a Prada handbag.” Manon’s luck at Internet dating hasn’t been great. She meets Alan Prenderghast, with whom she finds conversation comes easily…perhaps too much so, as when Manon blurts out to Alan “I sometimes think I don’t actually like anyone that much. That all I ever want is to be on my own. And then I can’t cope with it – with myself, just myself all the time, and it’s like I become the worst company of all – and there’s this awful realization that I need people, and it’s almost humiliating.” That’s some serious self-awareness!

The point is, Steiner is GREAT at developing her characters. Manon finds herself on a case that is bound to be high profile: Edith, the beautiful young daughter of a physician whose clients include nobility and royalty, has gone missing. The girl’s parents, Ian and Miriam, and her brother Rollo are desperate for a resolution to the mysterious disappearance.

Like Manon, Miriam is a strong woman whose unhappiness is revealed in a variety of ways, nearly always in relation to others. “Any confidence Miriam ever had in herself as a mother has been eroded, and what is that confidence built on anyway, she thinks now – the luck of one’s children? The DNA lottery? If they’re bright and successful, you congratulate yourself. If they fall by the wayside, the world judges you.”

The relationship with Ian is revealed gradually. Thinking of her husband, Miriam muses that he “has that curious inability that the upper classes have to wear casual clothes convincingly. She wonders if he emerged from his mother’s vagina in a sports jacket. “

She notes that the two of them “both prone to … thinking their way out of their predicaments, as if sheer force of intellect could control the random world.” Reflecting on their marriage, Miriam says, “It is a slog, marriage. How could she tell her daughter that without making it sound worse than it is? Built on hard work and tolerance, not some idea of perfection as Edith might have it.” Edith has a boyfriend, Will Carter, and “Miriam has had the thought in the past that Will Carters handsomeness is an emblem of Edith’s belief in perfection – or at least her belief in appearance. She hasn’t realized yet that looks count for nothing, that how things appear is nothing next to how they feel.”

As Manon investigates Edith’s disappearance, the story is revealed from multiple points of view, particularly those of Manon and Miriam. While it is somewhat a police procedural, the real strength of this book is in its writing style and character development. While it’s not up there with Elizabeth George’s better efforts, it is certainly well worth reading, especially for those who appreciate well developed female characters and an interesting plot without excessive violence and gore. I will definitely read whatever Susie Steiner comes up with next. Gratitude to NetGalley for an advance copy of Missing, Presumed in exchange for my honest review. Four stars!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the Clearing by Robert Dugoni

IN THE CLEARING DUGONI COVER

My Sister’s Grave, the first book in Robert Dugoni’s Tracy Crosswhite series, came out in late 2014. I loved it. I thought Tracy was a smart, strong woman with fierce determination (evidenced by her dogged pursuit of her sister’s murderer). In fall of 2015, the second book in the series, Her Final Breath, made me realize that Robert Dugoni has a real talent for crime fiction and – not to be sexist—for getting the somewhat rare male mystery author who really and truly gets his female characters RIGHT. So I was extremely happy to have the opportunity to review the third title in this series, In the Clearing (thanks, NetGalley!)

Once again, Tracy Crosswhite, a Seattle police detective, gets involved in a case outside her own jurisdiction when a former police academy classmate asks for a favor. Following their time in the academy, Jenny Almond’s law enforcement career took her back to Klickitat County, Washington, where she followed in the footsteps of her late father, who had retired as sheriff in that county. Forty years ago, he was a new deputy investigating the death of Native American female high school student, Kimi Kanasket. Kimi was a star student and a hard worker whose body was found in the Salmon River after one night when she never made it home from the diner where she worked evenings. The case was ruled a suicide, but Jenny’s father never really believed the story. He had investigated the death as a new investigating deputy but was told by a higher-up in the Sheriff’s office to leave it alone. He kept records which led Jenny to think this cold case is worth looking into, and she asks Tracy for help.

Along the way, Tracy uncovers some deeply buried secrets involving both the ruling elite of the small town and members of the local Native American community, including Kimi’s parents. It’s impossible to say much more without giving away secrets that would spoil the terrific plot, but suffice it to say that Dugoni has proven again that he can develop multiple characters well enough that the reader feels they KNOW them, both male and female, young and old. Additionally, he manages complex plotting seamlessly – not an easy task but one where he continues to shine.

While it isn’t necessary to read the prior books in the series, as this one can stand alone, but I highly recommend the entire series (and there are some things about Tracy that are revealed in the earlier books that are more fully developed in this latest one).

I give it five stars: it held my interest, kept me guessing, was well written, and offered some unique perspectives on tribal life and culture. Looking forward to the next in the series!

All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda

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I was slightly hesitant about this novel when I read it was a story told…backwards? I still recall the vivid impression the movie Memento had on me back in 2000, and I wondered how a novelist might pull off this kind of storytelling. But I wanted to give it a fair try, and OMG I am SO glad I did! First off, five stars for this gem!! Second, I REALLY don’t want to give things away, as this one is FULL of twists and turns and surprises that, if revealed, would lessen the impact on the reader…so no spoiler alert, but tiptoeing around many of the superb details…just trust me!

Nicolette Farrell’s best friend Corinne disappeared ten years before the story opens. At that time, there was an investigation centered on Nicolette, her brother Daniel, Corinne’s boyfriend Jackson, and Nicolette’s boyfriend Tyler. They all lived in Cooley Ridge, described as “an unassuming town tucked into the edge of the Smoky Mountains, the very definition of Small Town America, but without the charm.

After Corinne’s disappearance, Nicolette spent ten years in the Philadelphia area, She moved on with her life, finishing her education and becoming a school counselor. Less than confident, she says she is “a terrible counselor in terms of actual counseling. Said the wrong things, never had the right advice to give. But I excelled at listening…they spilled their collective adolescent guts in my office. On paper, I was an excellent counselor.“ Nic comes back to Cooley Ridge to help her brother Daniel (who has stayed in town, and is now married to a very pregnant Laura). Their father ‘s home needs to be readied for sale, as their father has had to move into Granite Pines, which anyone who has had a family member in such a place will recognize perfectly from Nic’s description: “There’s a Sunday brunch at Grand Pines that makes it family day. Go to church, then visit the family you’ve sent away. A day of penance. Eat your weight in sins. Guilt by omelet.“

Nic and Daniel have had a strange relationship, ever since their mother died when they were young: “This was how we always communicated. In the things we didn’t say. We had developed a habit after our mother got sick, fighting in the space between words about anything other than what we meant.” And “that was one of Daniels’ more impressive accomplishments: he had perfected the art of the passive-aggressive text message.”

Another central character is Nic’s old boyfriend Tyler, with whom she recognizes clearly there continues to be a strong bond, despite her recent engagement: “People were like Russian nesting dolls – versions stacked inside the latest edition. But they all still lived inside, unchanged, just out of sight.  “

Shortly after Nic arrives back in Cooley Ridge, a young woman named Annaliese (who lived next door to Nic’s family back when Corinne disappeared and may have had a connection to the incidents of that night) vanishes. Annaliese appears to have secrets she can’t wait to reveal…until she disappears, reminiscent of Corinne’s disappearance. It gets creepy when Nic goes out one night searching for Annaliese, and realizes “I was out here alone, in that empty gap of time when only the nocturnal and people craving the darkness roamed.

I have to say, I LOVE Nic’s voice throughout the book, especially in moments like this: “It wasn’t in church but in moments like this when I maybe believed in God or something like that. Some order o the chaos, some meaning. That we collide with the people we need, that we meet the ones who will love us, that there’s some underlying reason to everything.”

As Nic works to solve the mystery of Annaliese’s disappearance, we learn what REALLY happened the night Corinne disappeared, and tons of long-buried and current secrets (family and otherwise) emerge. The story begins on Day 15 and moves backward to Day 1, the day Annaliese went missing. There are complex relationships, amazing plotting, and outstanding character development. Despite my trepidation about the story being told backward and whether that might interfere with the mystery itself, I was totally impressed. Thanks to S & S / NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review. Again, five stars!

 

 

Saving Jason by Michael Sears

Saving Jason Sears cover

 

The first book in this series, Black Fridays, was released in 2012, and I have been recommending the author and the series ever since. The author and the protagonist, Jason Stafford, share the life experience of being Wall Street types, and the information about that whole complex way of life is interspersed throughout the series…but in a totally fitting way, not pedantic or overly technical…in other words, it just fits!

The other interesting aspect of the series is that Jason’s son is autistic. When I picked up the first one and read the cover blurbs I thought possibly that “Black Fridays” referred to Wall Street or financial events…but no, it refers to the fact that on certain days, the son (aka “”The Kid”) only wears certain colors. Lots of interesting stuff about autism, parenting a special needs child, etc. but again, just totally fits into the story.

So, right off, I love that there is learning going on, about finance and autism, while Sears totally entertains with his tight plotting, excellent pacing, and amazing character development. So, here we are, four years later, and he gives us the fourth in the series. Jason and The Kid are both here, and it is impossible to discuss plot much without spoiling things! If  you are like me, even when a reviewer announces “spoiler alert” there is that nearly impossible-to-resist urge to read ahead…I have no shame, I always sneaked a peek at gifts under the tree. So, sorry, no real plot reveal here…

In any case, this is a series, and there have been  some seriously significant events happen to main characters, so it may be best (or at least preferable) to begin with Black Fridays and read through the first three. But this one can definitely stand alone.

Michael Sears has real talent, and I am definitely a fan. I only gave this one four stars because I didn’t feel like I learned as much as from the prior ones, and there were some WTF? moments where I questioned the actions of a character, but if you like mysteries/thrillers with excellent character development, you will definitely want to add this one to your TBR list. Four stars, and thanks to NetGalley for an advance copy in return for my honest review.

Close Your Eyes by Michael Robotham

Close Your Eyes Robotham Cover

OMG. OMG. OMG.

I just finished an AMAZING book! Now that I have that out of the way, let’s talk about Close Your Eyes by Michael Robotham (wish I knew how to pronounce his last name), which is the 8th in the Joe O’Loughlin series…but truly, if you haven’t read any in the series, you should still read this. It will all make sense, and you will love it, and you will be entertained for hours on end…and at the end, you might be going “WHAT?!?!?!?! NOOOOOOOO!” But it’s OK because Michael Robotham is going to be one of your new favorite authors.

First off, you will SEE his characters. For example, the man whose “tight curls are starting to gray, clinging to his scalp like iron filings on a magnet.” And put the characters in relationships: “…the best of marriages can become like a {Pinter play, with long pauses, or characters finishing each other’s sentences or having no dialogue at all.”

See what I mean? And although his stories are fictional, they sometimes feel like they are absolutely about today’s news and newsmakers: a media personality who “likes to pick on particular groups…immigrants, Muslims…proves that his prejudices run wide and deep, even if his listeners come from the shallowest of gene pools.” And he can describe setting vividly, as when he takes us to the “nursing home. It is the smell I can never get used to—a combination of a male urinal and an RSPCA shelter.” Or see “…the edge of the horizon, a container ship barely seems to be moving, as though pinned between the sea and the sky like a drop of moisture trapped between two panes of glass.”

OK, so we have established that he writes REALLY well and that I love his writing. And I mentioned this is a series…which, if you haven’t read any (and you SHOULD HAVE, but might not have, since he is Australian and for some reason possible related to that geographical quirk, hasn’t become wildly popular in the US). The protagonist, Joe, is a forensic psychologist who has Parkinson’s. Which is just a tangential fragment of what makes him who he is and what he does, especially in relationship to his estranged wife and daughters. In this story, Joe is brought in to advise on a murder…that becomes a series of attacks/murders. And he uses his skills to ferret out the personality of the evil person or persons (don’t want to give anything away – I am not a spoiler alert! Kind of person, I prefer to just tell you that you should trust me, if you like mysteries, or psychological themes, or thrillers, or best of all a mystery that is a psychological thriller, you HAVE TO read this. Then go get Robotham’s other books. He is that good. If you need more encouragement, if you enjoyed Gone Girl, Girl on a Train, I Let You Go, or The Lies We Tell, you will like this…but even more, because it is SO well done.

Many thanks to NetGalley for an advance copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh

I Let You Go Mackintosh

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh

For starters, I loved this book, which I was surprised to learn is Clare Mackintosh’s debut novel (can’t wait for the next one!) Secondly, I need to word this carefully, so as not to give anything away…

There is a horrible hit-and-run accident, and a young boy is killed. The protagonist, Jenna Gray, devastated by the accident, moves to a remote cottage on the windswept Welsh coast, but she is seriously traumatized and can’t seem to escape her fears, her grief and her memories of the accident.

While Jenna is working through her fear and grief (among lots of great scenery, with vivid, well-developed characters all around), a parallel story develops as police Investigator Ray Stevens try to solve the mystery of the hit-and-run.

This really is an outstanding psychological thriller…like others who have commented on it, I was mesmerized. The plot is well done, and is hugely emotional

I really appreciated that this is a compelling story that doesn’t have to preach to emphasize for us the reality that lives can change in an instant.

Five stars, and thanks to NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

 

Far From True by Linwood Barclay

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Linwood Barclay books are fun reads! He has now written seven books set in the fictional upstate New York town of Promise Falls. (The first five, in order of publication, are Too Close to Home, Fear the Worst, Never Look Away, Trust Your Eyes, and A Tap on the Window. Broken Promise and this latest title (Far From True) are the first two books of what is his “Promise Falls Trilogy.” BTW, if you have not read Barclay before, start with one of his standalone novels, and read the trilogy when the 3rd book comes out (likely in about a year) – otherwise, if you are like me, you will have forgotten some of the backstory and key players.

This latest title begins with a freak accident at the local drive-in theater, which is slated to close soon. Before the closing, there is an explosion during a movie, the screen collapses, and several cars close to the screen are destroyed (along with the people inside). Fears of terrorism arise quickly, and everyone in town seems to be going crazy, except for Detective Barry Duckworth. Weirdly, there are several apparent pranks happening, that involved the number 23, and some are downright lethal. Lots of stuff goes on, none of which I can relate without spoiling something for someone…

Barclay is great at developing likable characters, and Far From True starts right in where the cliffhanger ending of the prior novel, Broken Promise, left off. The six titles Barclay has written that are set in or around Promise Falls don’t necessarily always involve the same characters, but some do repeat! While this is part of a trilogy, Barclay has also written standalone novels set in Promise Falls, and some of the characters from other titles show up here: Barry Duckworth, as noted above; the slimy ex-mayor, Randall Finley; Cal Weaver from A Tap on the Window; and David Harwood from Never Look Away and Broken Promise; and Derek Cutter from Too Close to Home. 

Because we know this is the second in a trilogy, don’t expect everything to be neatly resolved!! As was true in Broken Promise, the first title in the series, one major case gets solved in this book, but another one carries over. So, as noted above, best to read the Promise Falls books in order, and I highly recommend waiting to read them when the trilogy is complete. (Although I am perfectly happy to admit my memory is worse than most people, so you may do well reading this one and then happily going on about your life until a year from now, when book #3 comes out, and you will totally remember the people, their relationships, history, etc. That just isn’t me!)

I was very happy to get an advance copy of this from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. I have been a huge Barclay fan, and blocked out uninterrupted time for this one, expecting one of those “please-don’t-bother-me-I-cannot-put-this-book-down” reading experiences…but I found this one less irresistible than others he has written. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the story, the characters, and the twists that I didn’t see coming (but then, I usually don’t J).

So, if you are a Barclay fan, enjoy your return to Promise Falls. If you are new to this author, I recommend him with the caveat above about the time lapse between pieces of the trilogy. I will be happy when #3 comes out, but will likely need a refresher to fully appreciate it. (Disclosure: I re-read Broken Promise to get up to speed on the people and places in PF for this one. I found when I started it that it was apparent that there were things I was sort of expected to know, but I was clueless: that was all taken care of by re-reading book #1 in the trilogy.

Four stars. If I could give ½ stars, it would be 4.5!