Best of the Year: 2017

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2017 has been a stellar year for literature, and when I sat down to rate my top ten, I found myself stymied. Working up to it by offering the best of each genre seems more approachable, although still daunting. Most … Continue reading

Protocol, by Kathleen Valenti****

Protocol“It was all so clear. She’d been so stupid…Cue the flying monkeys.”

The Maggie O’Malley series has taken wing. Thanks go to Henery Press and Net Galley for the DRC, which I was invited to read free in exchange for this honest review. In a crowded field, Valenti stands apart. Her snappy wit and precise pacing combine to create a psychological thriller that’s funny as hell. I didn’t know it could be done until I saw it here.

Maggie’s career is off to a promising start when she is recruited to work as a researcher for a major pharmaceutical firm. It’s a perfect chance to make the world a better place, and the beefy salary lets her take care of herself and send desperately needed funds to save her ailing father’s restaurant. It seems too good to be true, and we know what that means.

She’s barely through the door when she receives a mysterious meeting reminder on her refurbished new-to-her cell phone. Who is this person, and why would she meet her? And then, quick as can be, she sees the woman she is supposedly about to meet, die. Since the meeting reminder vanishes from her phone once it’s played, and since the reminder itself isn’t sinister, the police brush her off…until it happens again. Eventually, of course, she herself becomes a suspect.

This is a page turner, and we look over Maggie’s shoulder all the way through, wondering whether this friend or that one is to be trusted. Which date is a godsend, and which one is a snake in the grass?

The most notable difference between this story and others is the way Valenti sets up what looks like an error either on the part of the author or stupidity on the part of the protagonist, and then on the back beat, we see exactly why that was there, and that she anticipated our reaction all along. She does it over and over, and it’s hilarious. I feel as if the author is speaking to me as I read, howling, “Gotcha again!” It’s zesty, brainy writing. Valenti is the new mystery writer to watch.

This book is for sale now, and I recommend it to those that love funny female sleuths.

The Blackbird Season, by Kate Moretti*****

theblackbird seasonBy now you’ve heard the buzz about Kate Moretti’s newest novel, and it’s true; this is one you shouldn’t miss. Lucky me, I read it free thanks to Net Galley and Atria Books. This book is for sale today.

Nate Winters is in big trouble. He’s the math teacher; he’s the coach; he’s everyone’s favorite guy in this small Pennsylvania town. “They all think he’s God. He’s like the God of Mt. Oanoke.”  He has charisma, and he makes you feel as if you are the only person in the world when his eyes latch onto you. But Nate has relied on his charm too heavily and pushed the envelope a bit too far, and now all hell is breaking loose.

Alecia, his wife, is miserable. She is home almost all of the time with their autistic preschooler. Gabe makes progress, but oh so slowly. Not the private tutor, not the special horse camp, nothing, nothing, nothing will get him ready for a mainstreamed kindergarten class. His mom has tried her hardest, and goodness knows she can’t take her eyes off him for a minute; he’s a danger to himself in no time at all, fearless, reckless, and without the filters that children usually develop. His communications skills are nowhere near that of other children his age. Poor Alecia is a nervous wreck, and his father screens the whole thing out by being gone, gone, gone.

I want to smack that man.

When the reporter turns up with a photograph of Nate embracing high school student Lucia Hamm, Alecia learns just how few boundaries Nate has honored. He has social media accounts, priding himself on knowing all of the social issues that his students are thinking about in class. He follows them. He meets them away from school, away from their families. And when Lucia goes missing, everyone wonders if Nate is behind it. The town is polarized between those that call Lucia “That poor girl” and those in Nate’s camp, who warn against undue haste. Alecia isn’t entirely sure what to think. Best thing to do, she figures, is to go back in the house with Gabe and close the door…and have Nate go elsewhere. Just for now.

The things that set this mystery apart are its déjà vu settings, each rendered so well that I feel as if I have already been there; its impressive character development and allegory; and a credible ending that is surprising, yet doesn’t cheat the reader. I checked Moretti’s author blurb three times because I couldn’t believe she had not taught public high school; authors never get this right, but Moretti does. I admire her bang on facility for developing teen characters internally and externally, and for giving them voice.  Moretti has done good work before, but this book advances her work into the realm of literary mystery.

One word of warning: in order to heighten suspense, the point of view jumps between four characters, and it also jumps around in time. Those that ignore chapter headings are going to be confused. That’s why those headings are there.

The Blackbird Season is the perfect Halloween book, and teens will want to read it too—but read it yourself before dropping it onto the classroom shelf. It will doubtless excite controversy.

Highly recommended to those that love the genre and that relish good writing.

Biblio Mysteries, by Otto Penzler*****

 

“…Diaz realized he was stabbed by guilt at the thought that he’d just planted a bomb that would take the life of a man at his most vulnerable, doing something he loved and found comfort in: reading a book.” (Jeffrey Deaver)

 

BibliomysteriesOtto Penzler doesn’t mess around, and so when I saw this collection, I was all in. Many thanks go to Net Galley and Pegasus Books for the digital review copy, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. This title is now for sale.

All of the stories included here are themed around books; we have bookstores of course, and libraries, both public and private, magical and actual. All of them are copyrighted between 2011 and 2013. In addition to the excellent name of the editor here, some of whose other collections I have enjoyed, I saw three authors that I knew I wanted to read right away: John Connolly, Thomas H Cook, and Max Allan Collins. Sure enough, all three of their contributions were excellent; I have to admit Connolly’s was my favorite–featuring book characters that had come to life, which made me laugh out loud—but the quality was strong throughout. The very first story is by Jeffrey Deaver; I had never read his work before and it is excellent, so now I have a new author to follow. I confess I didn’t like the second story, which is by C.J. Box; I found his writing style curiously abrasive and I bailed. The third story likewise didn’t strike a chord. However, that still gives me 12 or 13 outstanding stories, and the collection is thick and juicy, like a terrific steak. Or tofu burger, depending on the reader’s tastes.

I can’t think of a more congenial collection than mysteries and books. For those that love the genre, this book is highly recommended.

Family Values, by GM Ford*****

“They were standing inside the door when I came out of the bathroom. Two of them. Matching gray suits, milling around like the owned the joint. Something about carrying a gun in one pocket and the power of the state in the other changes the way a person relates to the universe. For as long as I could remember, that particular sense of privilege has always pissed me off.”

FamilyValues

Leo Waterman is a solid citizen now, no longer the scruffy Seattle PI that he was when our series began. But now that he has a lovely home and a good woman—well, sometimes anyway—he also has more to defend, and is less fettered by economic constraints. Those that have loved this series from the get-go should go go go to their nearest book seller or favorite website and get get get this book. New readers can jump right in, but likely as not, you’ll want to go back and get the rest of the series once you’ve seen this one. Lucky me, I read it free thanks to Net Galley and Thomas and Mercer, but it’s worth the full jacket price. It is for sale now.

 

Leo returns from vacation to find Rebecca Duvall, the love of his life, on the bathroom floor with a needle in her arm. Her reputation has been damaged by a suggestion of corruption, but Leo knows this is no suicide attempt. Her job as medical examiner is on the line now, and so Leo enlists the help of his boisterous investigative squad to untangle the mystery of who wants Rebecca not only fired, but dead. Ford tells the story with the gut-busting edgy humor for which he is known. He takes a playful jab or two at gender fluidity; at times this part feels a little excessive, but that’s not where the story lingers. There are a million twists and turns as our impulsive PI goes where everyone tells him he should not:

“’ I went out to see Patricia Harrington today.’

“’Don’t fuck with those people, Leo.’”

There are some arrhythmia-worthy attack scenes, and the plot wholly original and free of formulaic gimmicks. The streets and alleys of Seattle and the hinterlands beyond are all rendered immediate and palpable. 

Ultimately the heart of the tale is revealed by Leo’s regard for Seattle’s homeless men and women, some of whom were once friends of his late father. It is them he turns to for extra eyes in a difficult situation:

 

They were great for stakeouts, as long as it was somewhere downtown. They could hang around all day and nobody paid them any mind because society has trained itself not to see the poor and the destitute. That way, we don’t have to think about how the richest society on earth allows so many of its citizens to live in the streets like stray dogs.

 

The snappy banter between Waterman and Seattle cops is always delightful.  It’s even better once we add a pair of fake UPS guys, some thugs known as the Delaney brothers, local ruling scions, and poor Rebecca as the straight character representing all that is sane and normal: “Oh Jesus…what now? Locusts?”  The narrative is fresh, funny, and entirely original, avoiding all of the formulaic foolishness that makes old lady schoolteachers like this reviewer peevish.

The ending will make you want to sing.

Altogether, this novel is an unmissable treat.

The Unquiet Grave, by Sharyn McCrumb*****

theunquietgraveVoice, voice, voice; nobody writes like Sharyn McCrumb. Here her dry, dark humor combines with her expertise in Appalachian culture and above all, her deep respect for the working poor, and the result is a masterpiece of an historical mystery. Thanks to Net galley for the DRC, and to Atria for sending a hard copy galley and a finished copy of this excellent novel. However, had I paid full freight, I’d have come away happy. This book will be available to the public September 12, 2017.

Based upon the legend of the Greenbrier Ghost, our story is set in West Virginia in 1897. Zola Heaster is swept away by the handsome young blacksmith that comes to her tiny Appalachian farming community. Her story is told to us primarily in a first person narrative by her mother, Mary Jane. Magnetic physical attraction overwhelms any common sense Zona may possess—which isn’t much—so when the handsome stranger comes along, Zona tumbles:

“Zona was well nigh smirking at him—cat-in-the-cream-jug smug, she was. Well, Mr. Shue—the name fits the trade, I see—I am Miss Zona Heaster, a visitor to my cousin’s house, here. How do…Well before Edward ‘Call me Trout’ Shue came ambling along, with his possum grin and his storybook profile, we’d had trouble with Zona.”

Before we can draw breath, Zona is pregnant. It isn’t the first time, either, though the first was kept quiet, settled out of the area. As her mother wonders whether Trout will want to marry her, Zona brags,

“’He’d be lucky to have me.’ 
“’Well, Zona, it seems that he already has.’”

Mary Jane doesn’t like her daughter’s suitor, and a number of small but troubling things make her reluctant to see this wedding take place, even given the shotgun-wedding circumstances. We are disquieted, not by huge monstrous overt acts by Shue, but by the small hints that provide a deeper suspicion, a sense of foreboding. Part of McCrumb’s genius is in knowing when less is more.

Ultimately, Zona marries and moves away, and is little heard from. Too little. And here is the mother’s dilemma that most of us will recognize: how much should a mother pry? Will it make things better to follow our nose to the source of trouble; can we help? Or will our efforts only antagonize one or both of the newlyweds? And I love Zona’s father, the laconic Jacob who tells his wife that Zona has made the choice to marry, and she’s made the choice to stay there, so “Let her go, Mary Jane.”

But it’s a terrible mistake.

A secondary thread alternates with this one. The year is 1930; attorney James P.D. Gardner is consigned to a segregated insane asylum following a suicide attempt. His doctor is the young James Boozer, who has decided to try the new technique that involves talking to one’s patients. This device works wonderfully here because it provides Gardner the opportunity to discuss a particularly interesting case he tried many years prior, one that involved defending a white man accused of murdering his wife. The conversation flows organically, rather than as a monologue shoehorned into the prose. I am surprised at first to see McCrumb write dialogue for African-American men; I don’t think she has done this before, although I can’t swear to this.( I have been reading her work since the 90s and may have forgotten a few things along the way.) The dialogue between Gardner and Boozer is dignified and natural, and this is a relief; those that have read my reviews know that there have been others that failed in this regard. And just as the discussion starts to drone—intentional, since one of the two men yawns just at the moment I do—everything wakes up, and we learn about the trial of Trout Shue from a different vantage point.

Every aspect of this novel is done with the authority and mastery of Appalachian fiction for which McCrumb is legendary. The dialect is so resonant that I find myself using it in writing, speech, and even thought—just tiny snippets here and there—and then laughing at myself. And I cannot help wondering how much of it stewed its way into McCrumb’s own conversations while she was writing. You may find it in yours.

The result here is spellbinding, and the use of Appalachian legend, herbal medicine, and folklore makes it all the more mesmerizing. Again, skill and experience tell here. How many novels have I read in which an author’s research is shoehorned in to such a degree that it hijacks the plot? Not so here. The cultural tidbits are an integral part of Mary Jane’s personality, and there’s no teasing them apart. Instead of distracting as it might in less capable hands, the folklore develops character and setting, and ultimately contributes to the plot, when Zona’s ghost returns to let Mary Jane know that she has been murdered.

This is no-can-miss fiction, strongly recommended to those with a solid command of the English language and a love of great literature.

Hunting Hour, by Margaret Mizushima***

HuntingHourThis book is the third in the Timber Creek mystery series. Thanks go to Crooked Lane Books and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received in advance of publication in exchange for an honest review. The book is for sale now.

Detective Mattie Cobb is investigating the murder of a junior high student with her K-9 partner Robo.  The stakes are raised when a second girl goes missing—the daughter of her boyfriend, Cole Walker.

The story is set in the Rocky Mountains of the USA. The story also features mental health issues, and for me, the extensive amount of therapy dialogue drags down the plot and also diminishes setting, which should have been stark and immediate but wasn’t, and other aspects of character development.

Those that read my reviews know I don’t shrink from posting a two star review when I think it’s warranted, and you may wonder why the third star is there if I didn’t like the book, which I didn’t. In fact, I bailed from it much earlier than usual.

The third star is present because I do think there’s an audience for this story, even though I am not part of it. Many cozy mystery fans prefer a more sedate pace. In addition, those that are going through a mental health ordeal of their own, perhaps one that is distracting enough that they can’t focus on fiction very well, may find a kindred spirit in these characters.

For so long, nobody was supposed to talk about mental health, and even today, when it’s not unusual to see a professional for issues with ADHD, anxiety, or depression, the harder-to-treat illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder remain fodder for stand-up comics, a few steps forward from the days when the “crazy” relative was locked in the attic or packed off somewhere while said to be visiting a relative in a distant location. So I think this book has a niche audience, and if that’s you, then this may be your book. You won’t need to have read the first two in the series to dive in here.

Robo, the German Shepherd that sniffs out crime and its victims, is the best part of the story.

For cozy mystery fans with an interest in mental health issues, this book is recommended.

Crime Scene, by Jonathan Kellerman and Jesse Kellerman***-****

crimesceneCrime Scene is the first in the Clay Edison series, written by a father and son team. Big thanks to Random House Ballantine for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review. I rate this mystery 3.5 stars.

Edison is a coroner’s investigator, and he finds himself drawn into an ugly, complicated murder, seduced by the lovely Tatiana, who I found myself disliking much earlier than the protagonist does. There’s the psychological component here that’s similar to the movies, where the audience yells, “Don’t go through that door” as the main character strolls obliviously forward; however, where the Kellermans take the story once Edison has wised up is interesting, original, and well played.

I enjoy the snappy banter that I associate with the elder Kellerman’s other novels, and there’s a hugely entertaining side character named Afton that I’d love to see again. The setting of the down-and-out neighborhood is resonant enough that I am convinced at least one of these men has actually spent time in such a place.

That said, the first half of the story is better paced than the second, and there’s a racial component that appears well-intentioned but awkward.

This promising series is now available to the public, and is recommended to Kellerman’s fans.

Girl in Snow, by Danya Kukafka*****

GirlinSnow

“’You can only see fifty-nine percent of the moon from the earth’s surface. No matter where you go, in the entire world, you’ll only see the same face. That fifty-nine percent.’
“‘Why are you telling me this?’
“’I’m just saying. We know this fact, but it doesn’t stop us from staring.’”

Half a century ago, a young writer named Harper Lee took the literary world by storm with To Kill a Mockingbird, a story that centered itself on justice, on a child trying to do the right thing, and on a strange, misunderstood fellow named Boo Radley.

Today the literary world meets wunderkind Danya Kukafka. Get used to the name, because I suspect you’ll be seeing a lot of it. Her story also revolves around misunderstood characters with dark pasts, and a small town’s often misdirected quest to see justice done and safety restored.

Thank you Simon and Schuster and also Net Galley for inviting me to read and review in exchange for this honest review. I’ve read and reviewed a lot of galleys this summer, but right now this is the only one I want to talk about.

So back to our story. We have three narratives, all from unhappy characters, all of them watching, watching, watching. Our protagonist is Cameron Whitley, a troubled, “Tangled” adolescent that has spent his evenings secretly following a popular, attractive classmate named Lucinda. He watches her through the windows of her house. He stares at her in her bedroom, and he does other things, too. Cameron has a troubled past, his father gone now after a storm of controversy destroyed his reputation and left his family hanging in tatters. And now that Lucinda is dead, the investigators have to look hard at Cameron. We do, too. We can see that Cameron is grieving, but of course, people often grieve the people they have killed. Grief doesn’t always denote innocence.

“Cameron stood outside Maplewood Memorial and wondered how many bodies it held that did not belong to Lucinda. How many blue, unbending thumbs. How many jellied hearts.”

As the story proceeds, we hear a third person omniscient narrative of Cameron, though it doesn’t choose to tell us everything. Not yet. We also hear two alternate narratives, those of Jade, Cameron’s classmate, and of Russ, the cop that was Cameron’s father’s partner before things unraveled.

Jade is friendless and frustrated, an overweight teen with iffy social skills, unhappy in love. Her home life is disastrous, her alcoholic mother monstrously abusive. Jade could be out of that house in a New York minute if she’d out her mother, but instead she turns her anger toward herself. After all, she provokes her mother. The bruises, the cuts, the blackened eye all signs that she has pushed her mom too far.

And so, bereft of healthier peer relationships, Jade watches Cameron watch Lucinda. She doesn’t have to leave home to do it; she has a box seat, so to speak, at her bedroom window. Standing there and looking down on a good clear night, she can see Cameron sequestered behind the bushes or trees, and she can see Lucinda, who doesn’t seem to know what curtains and window blinds are for. Ultimately Jade befriends Cameron, who is frankly afraid to trust her. And he may be right.
Russ is the third main character whose narrative we follow. As a child, he always thought it would be awesome to carry a gun and put handcuffs on bad guys:

“He memorized the Mirandas…playing with a toy cop car on the back porch…Russ had a lisp as a kid. You have the wight to wemain siwent.”

So his dream has come true; why isn’t he a happier man? Again and again we see the ugly things Russ does and the ugly reasons he does them, but just as it appears he’s going to become a stereotypic character, Kukafka adds nuance and ambiguity, and we see that underneath that swinish exterior is the heart of…no, not a lion. He’s really not that great a guy. But we see his confusion, his dilemmas, the aspects of his “bruised yellow past” that motivate him. He isn’t a hero, but he is capable of loving, and of doing good. And he doesn’t want to frame a kid for Lucinda’s murder, especially not his partner’s kid. He wants to know the truth.

Interesting side characters are Russ’s wife, Ines, and Ines’s brother Ivan, the school custodian that is caught in the crosshairs of the investigation.

Ultimately, though, the story is about Cameron, and Kukafka’s electrifying prose makes my thoughts roll back and forth like a couple dozen tennis balls left on deck when the ship hits choppy seas. Poor Cameron! He didn’t do this…and then, whoa, Cameron is seriously creepy here. Maybe he actually did it. I spend much of my time trying to decipher how deeply troubled this lad is—those of us in education and other fields that work with teenagers would undoubtedly deem him an ‘at-risk’ child—and how far he has gone.

Is Cameron the Boo Radley of 2017, misunderstood and falsely vilified; or is he a Gary Gilmore, a John Wayne Gacy?

Clearly, I’m not going to tell you. That would ruin it for you. The one thing I will say is that the ending is not left ambiguous. This isn’t the sort of book you throw across the room when you’ve read the last page.

In addition, know that there is plenty of edgy material here. Those considering offering this book to a teen as summer reading may wish to read it themselves before passing it on. I would cheerfully have handed it to my own teens, but your standards and mine may differ.

If you can read this book free or at a reduced price, lucky you. If you have to pay full freight: do it. Do it. Do it. It’s for sale today.

The Lying Game, by Ruth Ware****

TheLyingGameIsabel, Fatima, and Leah receive a text from Kate saying that she needs them. It’s been 17 years, and yet they answer in the only possible way:

“’I’m coming.’
“’I’m coming.’
“’I’m coming.’”

This one had me at hello. How many of us have a friend from childhood, adolescence, or the early years of our adulthood that could draw this response from us? I know I do, and although mine are from different times and places in my life, if I received that text I’d be on a plane, a train, or in the car. Thank you Net Galley and Gallery Books for the DRC, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. The book was published last week.

Our protagonist is Isa (“It’s to rhyme with nicer”), and as you might infer, this is British fiction. Isa leaves Owen, a good sport if ever there was one; grabs Freya the baby, who is breast-feeding; and hops on a train. And that baby will ramp up the stakes, mostly in subtle ways, over and over throughout the story.

Kate has called them because human bones have been found in the Reach. All of them immediately know what this means, although the reader does not.

We learn about the lying game played by the foursome during their years at school together. There are points given according to whether the lie is believed, whether the victim is new, and further byzantine details; but the big rule is that they must never lie to each other. The game revives itself at odd moments during their reunion, sometimes to lightened effect for the reader, but sometimes becoming sinister.

Throughout this well-crafted tale, Ware doles out bits and pieces of what is to come, and every time my experienced eye spots a sure-fire red herring, it turns out it isn’t. I read a lot of mysteries—probably too many—but this one is fresh and original conceptually, and it becomes more riveting as the characters are developed, adding layer after layer like papier-mâché. The ending completely surprises me, and yet is entirely consistent with the rest of the novel.

There are times when I am astounded at the risk-taking behaviors exhibited by the four as adults approaching middle age once they are together again; at times I step away and ask myself whether the doctor that Fatima is now would actually do this, and whether Isa, an attorney, wouldn’t show more caution. But the foursome persuades me—are there points for this, I wonder—and I am drawn back in before the curtain twitches. There’s never a time when I see that the Great and Powerful Oz is seen back there at the control panel; the magic holds. There are times I am astonished at the risks Isa takes with Freya, going for a swim in the Reach with her pals, leaving her defenseless baby alone, asleep, in that hideous, falling down shack, but it’s consistent with the girl she used to be, the girl that is awakened to a degree as she returns to the time and place in which she came of age.

The fifth star isn’t here because the foreshadowing is too heavy-handed at times, and threatens to become funny rather than scary, which is clearly not intended. But every time I see it veering toward the ridiculous, Ware pulls back again, and so the overdone moments are a blip on the radar.
Those that love Ruth Ware’s work, and those that love a good mystery—especially women—will want to read this book. You can get it now.