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.

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.

Cold Fear, by Webb and Mann*****

“Christmas is special here. In Reykjavik, nothing bad ever happens at Christmas.”

Cold Fear is the second in the Finn thriller series. Last year authors Webb and Mann launched the first, Steel Fear, to widespread acclaim, and I loved it, too.  My thanks go to Random House Ballantine and Net Galley for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

Our protagonist, Finn, is a singular fellow. A Navy Seal (like one of our authors,) he is currently on the run, being sought for questioning regarding war crimes that took place in Yemen. He doesn’t think he is guilty, but he isn’t sure; a large chunk of his memory of that time has vanished, leaving him—and us—slightly off balance. But Finn is a survivor, and now, in Iceland, three members of his own team are here too; he thinks they may have the information that he needs to fill in the gaps he can’t access. There’s another more worrisome person, an assassin, looking for him as well.

Meanwhile, a woman has been found dead, face up under the ice. Suicide has been suggested, but that notion quickly falls apart. When her body disappears from the morgue, the police kick into overdrive. Iceland has almost no crime of any kind, let alone murder, and so immediately, they begin eyeing the Americans in their midst, including Finn.

Finn is a memorable character. He’s funny looking, like a cross between a Gecko and E.T., and yet, thanks to his training, he can merge seamlessly into a crowd and be invisible. His traumatic childhood haunts him, but the authors don’t beat us to death with this aspect of his personality. To my delight, he is burdened with none of the overused tropes used by lesser authors such as alcoholism. He is not on a mission to avenge the deaths of people in his personal life, and he doesn’t get kidnapped and thrown in the trunk of a car or van. Bad guys don’t try to harm his family—of which there is none, in any case—or his pets. He doesn’t get neurotic and bite his lip till he tastes blood, or bunch his fists up so tightly that he cuts his palms with his own fingernails. Feel me? I have quite a list of things I never want to see in a novel again. This happens, once one reads over a thousand novels in this genre, and for awhile I quit the genre entirely, thinking that there was nothing new left to read. Webb and Mann have proven me wrong, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

One last word about setting. Though Finn is a resonant protagonist, the setting is more important here than in most thrillers; that was the case in Steel Fear, which was set on the aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, and it’s true here, as well. The descriptions are resonant, but they don’t slow us down. This is a true thriller, with a pace that never flags.

I’m in this series for the duration. I also urge other women to ignore the promotions that boast that this is Alpha Male material. Last time I looked, I was an old lady school teacher, and I am all in. If you love a good thriller, I highly recommend both Finn books to you.

The It Girl, by Ruth Ware****

Ruth Ware’s novels are one more reason to look forward to summer. I’ve read four of her mysteries, and this is among my favorites. My thanks go to Net Galley and Gallery Press for the review copy. This book is for sale today.

Our protagonist is Hannah, and the setting is England with alternate time periods about ten years apart. In the past, we are in Oxford, where Hannah is a poor-girl-making-good. Today she works in a bookstore, is married to Will, whom she met in school, and she’s pregnant with their first child.

Hannah doesn’t graduate from Oxford; she is too traumatized by the murder of her roommate, who was also her best friend, and whom she found that night. The flashback scenes—not only the night of the murder, but the close friendships that she developed there, along with her relationship with Will, and an assortment of memories, some of them good ones—are so well depicted that I feel as if I am there with her. The group in which she travels consists of herself, Will—who was her roommate April’s boyfriend at the outset—along with Emily, Ryan, and Hugh. These last three aren’t as intimately developed, but that doesn’t matter much, because the two that count for the most in terms of her memories are Hannah herself and April. I feel as though I could pick either of them out of a crowd.

April comes from a ruling class family, and she tells other students that she has been admitted largely due to her family’s money. Eventually Hannah realizes that this isn’t entirely true; yes, her family is rich, and they’ve been generous with the school, but April is also a highly capable student and a diligent one. In fact, April seems to be very everything; today we might say that April is a lot, that she sometimes sucks all the air out of the room. She’s effusive, she’s generous, and she’s given to pulling pranks that are nasty enough to cross a line. Perhaps it’s true that opposites attract, because though Hannah is a more low-key person from a working class household, the two of them bond immediately, and Hannah considers her friendship with April more important than her attraction to Will.

The night April is murdered, Hannah and Hugh see a security guard leaving their building. He’s not supposed to be there, but he is a sleaze bucket, that guy, sometimes using his passkey to enter Hannah and April’s room, and who knows what he was doing this time? When April’s body is discovered, freshly killed, it doesn’t take long before Neville, the creepy security guard, to be arrested, convicted, and put away for life. (A note: there are a lot of Britishisms here that I had to look up. Apparently, a security guard is called a proctor, at least at Oxford.)

Now, in the present day, a friend of Ryan’s that is also a journalist contacts Hannah. All of the students in their group have been overwhelmed by press requests since the murder, and usually, they avoid them like the plague, but Ryan thinks this pal of his is onto something. The friend, Durant, believes that Neville, who has died in prison, was innocent. Now Hannah is moving heaven and earth to find out whether her evidence has sent the wrong person to prison. But who might have done it? Not Hugh, since he entered with her that night; what about the others in their group, including her own husband?

I must confess that I have a bit of trouble accepting Hannah’s sense of mission, and the extent to which she pursues it. This man was not exactly a pillar of rectitude; today he might have been fired or even charged for his misbehavior toward the girls he was supposed to be protecting. And the fact is, he’s dead. He’s never coming back, no matter what Hannah’s amateur detective work reveals. Why upset the apple cart like this, especially when she considers her own husband might be implicated? But she is pregnant, and I know from experience that when our hormones are jumping, we can sometimes have over-the-top reactions. So okay. I guess.

The other thing that gives me pause is Will’s puppyish devotion. During the last half of the book, Hannah does something that I would think would be a marriage ender. That toothpaste is never going back into the tube. Why does Will come panting back to her? This one is harder to accept.

Nevertheless, I was riveted. By the forty percent mark it was impossible for me to read anything except this book until the last page was turned, and so I recommend it to you.

Unlikely Animals, by Annie Hartnett*****

There are indifferent writers; good writers; outstanding writers; and then there are writers like Hartnett, that leave me with my jaw dropped down to my knees, thinking that I like to write, and you probably do, too, but friend, neither one of us will ever write like this. Not ever.

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

Emma Starling is our protagonist, and she was born with healing powers in her hands. She went away to medical school, but was expelled for reasons that we don’t understand until later, and her healing touch is gone. She has quietly left school without telling a soul back home. She hasn’t even returned for a visit, but now she has been summoned unequivocally; her father is dying, and her mama wants her to come home. NOW.

There are enough points of view in this story to make your head spin. We have the graveyard crowd, for example, and since Everton, New Hampshire is such a tiny town, everybody knows everybody, dead or alive. When I first see that the dead are discussing the affairs of the living, I am dismayed, because the legendary Fannie Farmer has already done this in The Whole Town’s Talking. But soon it becomes obvious that this story isn’t derivative in the least; Hartnett takes this device and uses it in a different way, and it doesn’t dominate the story as Flagg’s does; these characters are there to provide a slightly more objective perspective than those that still live.

There are several points of view from among the living, too. And there are references throughout to the writings of Harold Baines, a naturalist instrumental in shaping the town and in particular, the iconic yet bizarre Corbin Park, which is open only to a chosen few. There are points of view offered from the critters as well; not all of the critters are real, however. And at the EXACT moment when I begin to think that the author should have pared this thing down, for heaven’s sake, because the organization appears to be all over the place, the narrative explains that “A good story doesn’t always follow an arrow, sometimes it meanders a little instead, so we hope you’ll excuse this tangent…It might seem unrelated, but sometimes a minor character doesn’t become important until later…The lives of the living often get tangled up in unexpected ways, especially in a town as small as ours, even when a ten-foot electrified fence splits it up.”

I howled, because it felt as if the author had read my mind!

An important plot point is the disappearance of Crystal Nash. Crystal was Emma’s best friend, and had lived with the Starling family as sort of an informal foster child. Crystal developed an addiction and disappeared; Emma and Crystal had had a falling out, and Emma tries not to think about her too much now. Clive, Emma’s father, seldom thinks about anybody else. He’s turned over every rock; slapped a poster on every telephone pole.

To say the least, it’s an interesting homecoming for Emma.

As if the many points of view don’t make for a complex enough story, Hartnett takes us back in time—sometimes just a few years, at other times, way back in the past—and I am awestruck at the way she pulls all of it together at the end, with no loose ends hanging. At the outset I had been sure that this story should have been streamlined, but at the end, when I look back to see what, if anything, could be cut without detracting from the story, there is nothing that’s superfluous. Not one thing. All of these odd bits and pieces are essential to the story she is telling; “meandering,” indeed.

Because I had fallen behind in my reading, I checked out the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and it is brilliantly performed. Usually a story this complicated doesn’t work for me as an audiobook, but this one is outstanding and not hard to follow (although I did go back over the DRC for some quotes.)  Mark Bramhall and Kirby Heyborne do an exceptional job as narrators.

This is undoubtedly one of the finest novels we’ll see in 2022. Highly recommended in whatever format makes your heart happy.