Everyone in My Family has Killed Someone, by Benjamin Stephenson****

When life gets you down, it’s time to kick back and relax with a nice little book about multiple murders. Benjamin Stevenson’s nifty little mystery is just the ticket. This book is for sale now.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy.

Once in a while, a novelist will disarm his audience by speaking to them directly; this is known as breaking the fourth wall. Stevenson doesn’t just chip a corner of plaster; he comes in with a wrecking ball, because that’s just the kind of writer he is. The product is as funny as the title. Each chapter is devoted to a family member, and some of them get more than one.

The premise is this: narrator Ernest Cunningham is invited to a family reunion at an out of the way mountain lodge, a ski resort in the dead of winter. The event is timed to coincide with Ernest’s brother, Michael’s, release from prison, where he was sent for…well. You know. And as is true with all families, there’s all kinds of baggage, both literal and figurative; there are grudges, guilt, and oh yes, secrets. So many secrets!

The first body turns up in less than twenty-four hours. Is there a mass murderer at large, perhaps the one in the news dubbed “The Black Tongue?” If so, is s/he a Cunningham?

The whole story is told in a jocular, familiar tone, explaining to the reader what the rules are when writing a murder mystery. He assures us that he is a thoroughly reliable narrator, which immediately makes us wonder, because if so, why bring it up? Most narrators are reliable. So…?

I enjoy reading this thing, and am impressed at how well the author juggles a sizeable collection of characters. It doesn’t take me long to straighten out who everyone is, and this may be because we are apprised of who is annoyed with whom over what, fairly quickly. When he brings in reasons why certain people avoid each other, it helps me recall who they are.

There are two things I would change if I could. The book would be even funnier if he cut back on the side remarks to the reader long enough to let us forget he’s doing it; then, when it surfaced again, it would get more laughs. I note that toward the end, he tells us—in another side reference—that his editor has suggested he pare back some of the chatty parts, and that he isn’t going to do it. That makes me laugh too, because I have been harboring the same notion.

The other thing that I’d change is a detail that distracts me. The author refers early on, and then another time later, to a plot hole big enough to drive a truck through, but he never tells us what it is; possibly the detail that distracts me is the thing he refers to. Early on in the story—so probably not a spoiler—Ernest is badly injured, to the point where one of his hands isn’t usable. Yet throughout the story, when he could go to a hospital, he doesn’t do so, and he doesn’t even address the possibility. People come; people go. Yet there’s Ernest, with an oven mitt stuck over one hand to protect it, and nobody suggests he hop into town and have it looked at. Toward the end of the story there’s a general reference to the Cunningham stubbornness preventing family members from leaving the reunion, but it doesn’t hold water with me.

Nevertheless, this is a fun book. While I was reading it, I was reading several others, but this one became the go-to at lunchtime and whenever I had a spare minute, and so I recommend this book to those looking for a light, amusing read.

The Furies, by John Connolly*****

The Furies is #20 in the Charlie Parker detective series, by John Connolly. Several entries ago, Connolly began introducing supernatural elements so that each novel now is either a detective story laced with elements of horror, or else a true hybrid. Friends, nobody does this better than Connolly. Nobody.

My thanks go to Atria Books and Net Galley for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

This particular book is singular in that it is a pair of novellas in one volume, but they share the same characters, and flow so smoothly that I forget, at times, that it’s two different stories. Each of them has women that are either at risk of death or grave bodily harm, or that appear to be. The characters are brilliantly crafted; some are old favorites that Connolly’s faithful readers will recognize. We have Angel and Louis, not much, but enough to satisfy; the Fulci Brothers return, and these guys make me laugh out loud. (Notice that I don’t say that Connolly makes me laugh. I believe the characters enough that most of the time, my readerly relationship isn’t with the author, but with the characters themselves.) And we have some brand new baddies as well.

I won’t even tell you about all of the ne’er-do-wells that frequent these pages, because there are a host of them, but the most memorable and salient are Raum Buker, a career criminal, and Bobby Wadlin, an opportunistic slumlord who runs a boardinghouse for the formerly incarcerated. Let’s take a look at Raum:

“There are men who are born into this world blighted, men who are blighted by the world, and men who are intent upon blighting themselves and the world along with them. Raum Buker somehow contrived to be all three in one person, like a toxic, inverted deity….Raum became his own worst enemy by election, and decided by extension to become the worst enemy of a lot of other people, too….Gradually, like fecal matter flowing down a drain, gravity brought Raum to Portland. He kept company with men whom others avoided, and women who were too foolish, desperate, or worn down by abuse to make better life choices.”

Unfortunately for Raum, he has obtained, extralegally, of course, a rare coin that is also a supernatural talisman. It’s a bit like the ring that Bilbo Baggins and Gollum vie for in The Hobbit, but the coin is loose in modern society among humans during the pandemic.

Bobby Wadlin runs The Braycott Arms where Raum lives, along with some other questionable people. Wadlin is too lazy to be truly evil; he inherited this pile from his late daddy, and he rents rooms to former convicts because they are the least likely to make a fuss over repairs and such that most people expect from their rental lodgings. Wadlin sits behind the front desk during most of his waking hours and sometimes other hours, too, watching endless Westerns on his little television. When things start to go sideways, he turns to an herbal product that is named in the book, and as I read, I became sold on its anti-anxiety attributes and bought some for myself. It works, too! As long as it doesn’t turn me into Bobby Wadlin, I’ll be okay.

There are small but important ways in which Connolly’s skill sets him apart from other writers. An essential component is his timing. Less experienced and analytical authors might create an amusing character or situation, and it’s funny, and then it’s over. For others, they know they’ve struck gold, so then they beat it to death to where it’s stale and loses its magic. Connolly seems to know precisely at what point to bring back the humorous bits for maximum effect. He lets us forget all about that hysterical situation or person back there, earlier in the novel, and so when he brings it out again, the hilarity hits us right in the funny bone. There’s never a wasted word, with everything carefully measured and edited down for maximum effect.

If there is one area in which this author might improve, it’s in the way he writes female characters. When I finish a Parker novel, it’s always the men that I remember. Connolly demonstrates tremendous respect for women, but he doesn’t fully develop any of them. There it is, a challenge.

Nonetheless, The Furies is brilliant and entertaining, and I recommend it enthusiastically to you.  

Murder Book, by Thomas Perry*****

Harry Duncan is a former cop, now a private investigator. His ex-wife, Ellen, is the U.S. Attorney for the region, and she asks him to check out a small town that appears to have a racketeering problem. Is it serious enough to warrant the attention of the FBI? Harry agrees to explore the situation, which turns out to be far more serious than either of them imagined.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. This high octane thriller is for sale now.

Perry’s feet have hardly hit the ground in this tiny Indiana backwater before he discovers a protection racket. A local businesswoman is determined not to pay; how can a bar or restaurant pay $300 daily and still stay open? The profit margin just doesn’t allow for it. And the thugs know that. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Rather than give anything away, I’ll just say that there’s more to this than meets the eye in this tiny, out of the way burg.

Perry is king when it comes to details involving stealth and unobtrusive investigation. Whereas a cop cannot use the unorthodox (and okay, illegal) methods that Duncan employs, a consultant can and does, or at least, he can and does in this story.

And if one were to criticize this novel, that’s the soft spot—because almost nothing about this tale is realistic. It’s so much fun to read, though, that by the time I thought, “Wait a minute…” the rest of my thoughts shushed my inner cynic as if it were a noisy jerk in the back row at a movie theater.

Highly recommended.

On Spine of Death, by Tamara Berry****

The By the Book mystery series began earlier this year with Buried in a Good Book, and I knew right away the series was going to be a winner Author Tamara Berry is on a roll, with On Spine of Death, the second in the series, already on the shelves. Tess Harrow is our protagonist, and her teenaged daughter, Gertrude, helps more than she hinders, while also keeping us entertained.

The premise here is that while renovating and remodeling her late grandfather’s hardware store, multiple sets of human remains are unearthed. It’s hard enough to be accepted into a small town, but now half of its denizens are convinced that her granddad was a serial killer! Now Tess is on a mission to find out whose bones those are, and how they got there.

There are tropes here that usually make me cranky. We’ve got the hot-for-sheriff trope, and the must-clear-my-name (or that of a loved one) trope, but it’s testament to Berry’s authorial chops that I don’t think about either of them much until the book is over. Her droll humor and nicely turned out characters keep the pages turning. This is a series that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that’s just what I need sometimes.

I recommend this clever little cozy mystery to anyone needing a break from the world around us, along with a good chuckle, and I look forward to the next in the series.

Back to the Garden, by Laurie R. King*****

Laurie R. King is best known for her Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes historical detective novels, but I have long preferred her contemporary mysteries. Back to the Garden is her latest of these, and it is excellent. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Our protagonist is Raquel Liang, a detective based in San Francisco. When a long-dead body is found in the garden of the Gardener Estate—a famous mansion and grounds that sound faintly reminiscent of Hearst Castle—Liang, who is working on a task force to find and identify victims of serial killer Michael Johnston, becomes involved in the case.

Rob Gardener is the heir to the estate, and he had clashed often and bitterly with his grandfather before his demise in the 1970s. Upon learning of his windfall, Gardener turned the manse into a commune, with murals on the walls of what were once imposing, grandiose rooms and vegetable gardens where more formal floral ones previously stood. Now the place is being restored, and as gardeners work to clear a thicket of overgrown hedge, a huge statue topples over, exposing the bones of someone long interred there.

Meanwhile, in a hospital in the big city, convicted serial murderer Michael Johnston lies dying. During the same period that the commune reigned, Johnston was spiriting girls and young women off so that he could murder them. Improved technology has provided a number of leads, but the window in which the cops can extract information from the old bastard is rapidly closing. Liang suspects that the body found on the estate, which dates back to the same time that Johnston was slaying women in the area, may be one of his, and so she makes frequent visits to learn as much about the place and its residents, past and present, as possible.

The intriguing bit about this mystery is that the members of the commune, other than Rob himself, didn’t use their birth names, and it makes them tricky to trace. With names like Meadow, Pig, and Daisy, they could be just about anybody. Is one of them the body beneath the statue?

King does a fine job of segueing from past to present and back again, and of juggling a moderately large number of characters. As I read, I never have to flip back to be reminded of who someone is. The reader should know, however, that this is not a thriller. It isn’t written in a way to grab you by the hair and make your pulse pound. The pace is a bit more laid back, but for some of us, that is a pleasure. I never lost interest, and I could read this thing while eating my lunch without gagging.

There’s a good deal of period nostalgia, and so I suspect that the greatest appeal will be to Boomers.

Highly recommended.

Upgrade, by Blake Crouch***-****

I loved Dark Matter, Crouch’s award-winning science fiction novel based on the notion of parallel universes. When I was invited by Net Galley and Random House Ballantine to read and review Upgrade, I jumped on it.

This is a story that hits the ground running. Logan is a scientist, and he’s also a husband and father. He leaves home one day in the normal fashion, and he never gets to go back home. He’s been kidnapped, more or less, by his own government; they plan to use him in experiments, but then he’s busted out of there by a badass ninja type that turns out to be his sister.

Surprise!

The pacing is swift and at times, the story is electrifying. However, the first half of the book is more interesting than the second half. My main criticism is the unhappy appearance of one of my least favorite tropes, the Bad Mommy. How has any living author missed the fact that this device has been done to death? Without this annoying feature, I would rate this book 4 to 4.5 stars.

As always when I read science fiction, I cannot tell you whether the science aspect of this novel is credible or entirely made up. I am a humanities animal through and through, so with every scientific explanation of a development in the plot, I just nod along. Okay. I believe that. Of course, I’d believe anything when it comes to scientific explanations. I have no idea how much is actual science, and how much is pseudo-, and I am okay with that. After all, it’s also fiction.

Crouch’s fans will likely appreciate this novel, and those without my own aversion to the trope mentioned above may very well like it, too. It’s for sale now.

Mecca, by Susan Straight*****

Susan Straight is a force to be reckoned with. I knew this after I finished reading I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots after it came out in 1992, and after I sought out, bought, and read everything else she’d written that was available. When I discovered that her new novel, Mecca, was available on Net Galley, I leapt on it. My thanks go to Net Galley and to Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Mecca, an ironic title if ever there was one, is a story of race, class, and gender, and the way that they play into the “Justice” system in California. Add a generous seasoning of climate change and its horrific effects in dry, dry Southern California, and a fistful of opioid addiction, and you have a heady mix indeed. But these are all well worn ground at this point, and this book is exceptional, not because it examines complex current events, but because of Straight’s facility in building visceral characters we care about, and launching them into this maelstrom in a way that makes it impossible to forget.

We begin with Johnny Frias, an American citizen of Latino heritage. As a rookie and while off duty, he kills a man that is raping and about to murder a woman named Bunny. He panics and gets rid of the body without reporting what’s happened. Frias is on the highway patrol, and he takes all sorts of racist crap all day every day. But his family relies on him, and when push comes to shove, he loves his home and takes pride in keeping it safe.

Ximena works as a maid at a hotel for women that have had plastic surgery. One day she is cleaning a room and finds a baby! What to do? She can’t call the authorities; she’d be blamed, jailed, deported, or who knows what. She does the best thing she can think of, and of course, there’s blowback anyway.

And when a young Black man, a good student with loads of promise that has never been in any trouble at school, or with the law, is killed because the cops see his phone fall out of the car and decide it’s a gun…?

I find this story interesting from the beginning, but it really kicks into gear in a big way at roughly the forty percent mark. From that point forward, it owns me.

As should be evident from what I’ve said so far, this story is loaded with triggers. You know what you can read, and what you can’t. For those of us that can: Straight’s gift is in her ability to tell these stories naturally, and to develop these characters so completely that they almost feel like family. It is through caring about her characters that we are drawn into the events that take place around them, and the things that happen to them.

This is a complex novel with many moving parts and connections. I read part of this using the audio version, which I checked out from Seattle Bibliocommons. But whereas the narrators do a fine job, I find it easier to keep track of the characters and threads when I can see it in print. If you are someone that can’t understand a story well until you’ve heard it, go for the audio, or best of all, get both.

Highly recommended.

When the Stars Go Dark, by Paula McClain***-****

I have never read Paula McClain’s work before, but a number of Goodreads friends expressed enthusiasm about her novels, so I decided to see what the excitement was about. I came away a little underwhelmed, but nevertheless, thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Our protagonist is Anna Hart, and she’s a missing persons detective in San Francisco. A tragedy has sent her running off to lick her wounds, and the bulk of the story is dark and brooding in tone. Then a missing persons case appears that bears striking similarity to one she was confronted with many years ago, and she becomes a dog on the hunt. There’s a bit of magical realism sprinkled in, things she “just knows” that help her solve the case.

Here is a note I wrote during the first half of the book, and it effectively sums up how I felt for most of the story:

“This is one of those stories where the first person narrator bobs and weaves, trying to tell us a few things while withholding all sorts of important, motivating events in her past. It’s getting tiresome, and I want her to just fucking spit it out so that we can move on.”

I suspect that if McClain had used a lighter hand with the veiled references, mentioning them less frequently and then returning to them later, I might have had a more charitable viewpoint.

As it stands, I wouldn’t call this a bad novel, just not a great one. If you are a fan of her earlier work, you may love this book just as much. But if you haven’t read McClain before and are about to lay down your money for just one book within this genre, I advise you to choose something else.

Fox Creek, by William Kent Krueger*****

I’d been in a reading slump, with most of my reading carrying an element of obligation; I love reviewing except when I don’t. Something had poked a hole in my reservoir of joyful discovery, and all the juice was leaking out. William Kent Krueger’s new entry in the Cork O’Connor series, Fox Creek, put a stop to all that. I found myself looking for extra openings in my day, craving the chance to bury myself in this absorbing mystery. I haven’t felt this great about a galley since last winter.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the invitation to read and review.

The story is set way up north in Minnesota, near the Canadian border, in the tiny community of Aurora. Cork, our protagonist, has left law enforcement and instead runs a diner, hiring himself out as a private investigator when the opportunity arises, which doesn’t happen often. When a man comes to the diner and asks Cork to help find his wife, Cork says he’ll think about it. Meanwhile, Dolores, the wife in question, is engaging in a sweat ritual out in the woods where the ancient and very wise Ojibwe healer Henry Meloux lives. It turns out that Cork’s would-be client is not her husband, and she doesn’t know him at all. He’s got a hidden agenda, alrighty, and he’s brought some rented thugs along to make his chore easier. Now there are two tasks: the first is to hide Dolores, and the second is to find out who these guys are and why they want her so much. Meanwhile, Cork’s wife, Rainy, guides Dolores deep into the woods near the Boundary Waters; Henry joins them. What follows is one of the most suspenseful stories I’ve read recently. I have a hunch that Cork will be okay, since killing him would also kill the series, but the others—Henry, Rainy, and Dolores—might make it out, or they might not.

I was about to say that this is character-based fiction, so well rounded are the main characters, but the setting is resonant and important to the characters and the plot. All told, this is the way a novel is supposed to work, with strong characters and settings that make the plot believable and urgent. And as always happens when I read Krueger, I also learn some things about the setting, and about Ojibwe culture and history. (His depiction of the art of disappearing and eluding pursuers reminds me a little bit of Thomas Perry’s Jane Whitefield series, but that’s all the two series have in common, apart from genre.)

This is the 18th book in the series. Can you dive in, right here right now?  Emphatically, yes! I began with the prequel to the series, which came out last year, and I loved it so much that I went to the library to check out the first book in the series—and then, I found it disappointing, because over the course of this long series, Krueger’s skill has increased, so the first book, Iron Lake, is decent, but nowhere near as brilliant as his more recent work. Now I look forward to more of this series, but always going forward, never back.

This riveting novel will be available to the public on August 23, 2022. If you love this genre, you should get this book and read it—or better still, preorder it right now. You won’t be sorry.

Buried in a Good Book, by Tamara Berry****-*****

4.5 rounded upward.

I’ve been enjoying Berry’s Eleanor Wilde series, which I read and reviewed from the first book forward; when I found this one, Buried in a Good Book, the start of a brand new series, I was all in. My thanks go to Net Galley and Poisoned Pen Press for the review copy.

I’m a bit skeptical of novels that feature the words book, library, reading, bookstore and such because obviously, potential buyers are likely to get all warm and fuzzy-feeling just seeing the title. It’s a soft landing, that’s for sure, marketing books and book-related topics to booklovers; and then I wonder if the author is just too lazy to take on something more challenging. But every time Berry embraces the obvious, it turns out to be with her tongue planted firmly in her cheek, and by the end of the book I am laughing out loud. That holds true for this one as well.

Tess Harrow is newly divorced, and her adolescent daughter, Gertrude is heartbroken, because her father has more or less ghosted on her. When an elderly relative dies and leaves his cabin and his hardware store to Tess, it seems like an omen. She’ll get her girl out of Seattle and the heartbreak she’s experienced there; get off the grid, more or less, and enjoy Nature. Yikes.

Be careful what you wish for!

The day is nearly over when they pull up to the cabin, a fixer if ever there was one; Tess knew it might be rugged, but she didn’t know that the lovely little pond out back would be fully stocked with body parts, too. And whereas some might be daunted by such an occurrence, she looks at all of it as excellent material for her next bestselling thriller.

This novel is different from the Ellie Wilde mysteries in that we are more than half into it before the author moves in for the laughs. Just as I conclude that this time Berry is playing it straight, something happens—no, I will NOT tell you what—and I am guffawing and snorting, neither of which is becoming while one is eating lunch, but it simply cannot be helped. Berry is a sly one, all right. My notes say, “I never knew metacognition could be so damn funny.”

I enjoy everything she does here, and the fact that it’s set in my own stomping grounds of Washington State makes me love it all the better. Recommended to any reader that is ready for a good story and a good laugh. It’s for sale now.