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.

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.

Almost Missed You, by Jessica Strawser****

almostmissedyo“Fate, people liked to call it. But Violet pictured it as dominoes. Somehow, they’d been positioned perfectly. And at the end of the line was Finn.”

Thanks go to Net Galley and St Martin’s Press for the DRC for this intricately crafted novel, which I received free in exchange for an honest review. Unique and tightly woven, it’s sure to arrest your attention until the last page is turned. This book goes up for sale March 28, 2017.

Violet meets Finn while on vacation in Miami, and wild coincidences draw them together. They went to the same obscure, short-lived summer camp, and they’re both from Cincinnati. How crazy is that? And so when they come together again, it feels like something out of a fairy tale. They marry and have an adorable son they call Bear. Later they return to Miami as a little family.

Then Violet returns, warm and fulfilled, to the hotel room…and both Finn and Bear are gone, along with their luggage.

This is a story that speaks to every mother’s worst nightmare, the abduction of her child. Her baby! And Strawser plots it cleverly, so that the obvious answers are no longer feasible. Of course the police are called, but since there was no divorce, no restraining order, there’s only so much they can do. They have other cases as well. Meanwhile, Violet is both frantic and bewildered. She had thought they were so happy together; what on Earth happened here?

Our main characters are these two parents as well as their closest friends, Caitlin and George. George is a ruling class scion, and at the start of the book it seems as if this is overemphasized. At one point I enter it in my digital notes: put the trowel away already, we get it! But here I am mistaken, because the frequent references are here for a reason; that’s all I will say about that lest I ruin the end for you.

An endearing side character is Gram, the woman that raised Violet after her parents died. Older women tend to be stereotyped in novels; they are either background characters that emerge with cookies or chicken soup and then depart again to make way for the real characters, or they are the cause of all that is bad—shrews, harpies, abusers, enablers, nags. Gram has shrewd advice and insights. She’s not just a cardboard cutout.

The inner narratives, which alternate and in doing so build suspense, are where the strongest voices are found. The dialogue is nicely done, but not as effective as the narratives. And more than anything I have read recently, this book is driven by the plot. The ending is a humdinger.

Ordinarily I would call this a strong beach read, but mothers of tiny children might want to read it somewhere else. It’s a fine debut novel, and Strawser will be an author to watch in the future. Recommended to those that like strong fiction.

Fidelity, by Jan Fedarcyk***-****

fidelityRetired FBI agent Jan Fedarcyk makes her debut with this intense spy novel, and it is bound to keep the reader guessing and turning pages deep into the night. Thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received for review purposes. I rate this story with 3.5 stars and round it upward.

The selling point for the new reader of what is destined to become the Kay Malloy series, is that the author has spent 25 years in the FBI and knows what she’s talking about. Though she reminds the reader that a lot of the FBI agent’s job is done at a desk sifting through endless forms to fill out and reports to write and not much of what we see on TV, we also know that she can spot an implausible situation a mile away and not go there or do that.

So the initial question that came to me was whether someone that’s worked for the Feds for a quarter century still has enough imagination left to write interesting fiction, and now I can tell you straight up that Fedarcyk does, and she can, and she did. I like the level of complexity, which is literate without being impossible to follow. The reader will want to give her story full attention; nobody can watch television and read this book during the ads. It’s well paced and the suspense is built in a masterful manner.

Characterization comes up a little short, and I can imagine that this will be her key focus in writing future books in the series. Kay is so darn perfect, and I never feel I know her deeply, despite the discussion of her past and how she is motivated by it. We see her tempted to use her position for a very small, somewhat justifiable personal reason briefly, but she is nonetheless something of a cardboard hero all the way through. Likewise, the Russian spies are big, blocky bad guys, thugs that drink Vodka. The spy novel tradition has been honored, but I would like to see more layers to these characters as we move forward. The ending, while it surprises me to some extent, is not one that the reader had a reasonable chance of guessing, but to some extent that’s true of a lot of espionage thrillers.  What might be really cool would be to see an espionage version of Kay’s own Moriarty come into play.

As is always the case for me when I read espionage thrillers, police procedurals, and other novels that involve heroic cops, I have to construct a mental barricade between what I see in real life and what I am willing to believe when I read fiction. One of Fedarcyk’s characters snorts in derision about the time when people were willing to die for Marxism, and I have news: some of us still would. But for a fun ride, I am delighted to suspend reality and buy the premise until the book is done.

One area where I struggled—and to be honest, I don’t know whether anyone else will or not—was with two characters, first Luis, whose last name isn’t used very much, and then Torres, whose first name doesn’t get used much either. This reviewer has taught more than one student named Luis Torres, so this may factor into my confusion about 75% of the way through the story when I realize that these have to be two separate people, but for awhile I am convinced that Uncle Luis Torres has mentored her into the field, and so when the story arc is near its peak, I have to go back and reread some of the novel to be certain I knew who is who. Luis is the uncle; Torres is the agent and mentor; they’re two separate guys.

All told, this is a promising start to what is sure to be an engaging series. The world needs to see more strong women in fiction, and so I welcome Kay Malloy and look forward to seeing future installments. A fine debut, and it’s for sale now.