Two Girls Down, by Louisa Luna*****

TwoGirlsDownThis is a quick read and a fun one. I received my copy free and early in exchange for this honest review courtesy of Net Galley and Doubleday. It becomes available to the public tomorrow, January 9, 2018.

A frazzled mother in a small Pennsylvania town pops into a big-box store one afternoon, leaving her two elementary-aged girls in the car. They’re old enough not to wander off with some weirdo, and she’s just going to be a minute. When she comes back, they’re gone.

Our protagonists in equal measure are Cap, a former cop who’s left the force in disgrace, and Vega, an out-of-state PI brought in by the girls’ relatives. Vega seeks Cap out after the local cop shop refuses to work with her; sparks fly.

If you take the story apart and look at its elements, it is all old material and should be stale. We have the missing children; a single grieving female detective, a vigilante type with little to lose; a slightly-older, single-dad, lonely older male detective, all of which leads to romance, because heaven forbid we should ever have a competent female private eye without a sizzling chemical frisson to keep readers from feeling threatened by her competence. We have the single dad’s (also-competent) teenage daughter left alone for long periods of time, vulnerable to the forces of evil. And of course our female detective has to be diminutive, a tiny-firecracker type.  Even Vega’s love of firearms isn’t new; consider Kinsey Millhone and Stephanie Plum. And our female detective has to be a very light eater. God forbid she should chow down at dinner time; no, she pushes her food around and away.

The pieces of this thing have been done to death. And yet.

And yet, the whole of the story is so much more than the sum of its parts. A strong writer can take overdone elements and make them gleam, and that’s what Luna has done here.

The thing that makes it work is the element of surprise. When I am looking ahead, I can often see, in a broad sense, where we are going, but when I try to predict how we’ll get there, I see three possibilities, and Luna always comes up with a fourth at the most unexpected of times.  Vega’s “roofless rage” gives her a no-holds-barred, Dirty-Harry-Lite kind of approach; she’s never killed anyone, but if she’s always as off the wall as she is here, it’s a miracle. But the other miracle? The fact that I am wondering what she is like at other times demonstrates how well Luna has developed her characters. Cap is a well of timeworn chivalrous decency, but Vega wants to take the kind of people that would deliberately hurt a child and “put them in the fucking earth.”

Luna uses lots of crackling dialogue and a spare prose style that makes this book accessible to anyone that finished the eighth grade, and possibly some that didn’t. Although there’s no indication that this will become a series, one has to wonder if such a thing might happen.  My own preference would be to see Vega act independently of romantic entanglements, because she has the potential to be a feminist hero, and we need one of those right now.

One way or another, this is a read you won’t want to miss. Highly recommended.


The Disappeared, by Roger Scruton***

thedisappearedThe Disappeared was published in UK, and is now available to readers in the USA. Scruton shines a spot light on victims of domestic violence, trafficking, and rape. It’s a timely issue, and no one can read his story and walk away unmoved. Thanks go to Bloomsbury Reader for inviting me to read and review the DRC free in exchange for an honest review. This book is available to the public tomorrow, February 26.

The stories evolve around three women’s stories; we have Sharon, Muhibbah, and the reader is the third, with the narrative switching to the second person, a woman being abducted and raped on board a ship: “…you are nothing but female meat.”

The default for the second-person character is female, which I found gutsy and laudable. Unfortunately, positive treatment of women in this novel begins and ends here…and the second-person character is going to be raped right away.

Justin and Stephen are the two goodhearted men that are trying to assist Muhibbah and Sharon, both of whom are being cruelly abused at home. In each case, it is an immigrant that is doing the abusing. And here I winced.

On the one hand, I can see that Scruton is letting us know that the cultural mores of Islam should not be considered a legitimate excuse for domestic abuse. He clearly can’t do that without including a Muslim woman. Yet if we could have some positive depiction of a Muslim individual somewhere within the text to cut across the stereotype that is so widespread, and which this novel tends to embrace, it would make for better literature and a fairer accounting. Because not all Muslim families hurt their women. I have taught Muslim girls in Seattle that are well educated and whose parents permit them to choose what their futures will hold. Scruton’s depiction of only sneaky, violent, and abusive Muslims makes for a two dimensional telling, which is a shame, because his academic background and word-smithery indicate he is capable of better things.

The central part of the novel slows, and here the plot drags when the writer tries to do too much with a single story. Justin lapses into philosophical musing, which would perhaps work for mainstream fiction or romance genres, but not as much for a suspenseful, missing-woman mystery or thriller. The character worries about the environment, and a lot of detail is given to wind farms and solar panels that not only fails to move the plot forward, but brings all action to a halt. He loses himself in heavy metal music, and several pages are suddenly devoted to hard rock. What? Why? Scruton is by trade a philosopher above all else, but to write a strong thriller, the message has to be driven home through story only. A drifting inner narrative in the midst of what has been action, action, and more action leaves the reader feeling cheated.

Toward the end of the novel, the pace quickens once more, and ultimately the three narratives are braided together at the story’s end in a way that is masterful.

Spoiler: don’t read past this point if you want the ending to be a complete surprise.

I find myself perturbed at the gender stereotypes that seem to belong to another era. Women here are either victims, sex objects, or both. The only female professional is one that steps in as a bureaucrat and foils the rescue effort one of our two male heroes is attempting. In addition, I found myself wondering why neither man can use his position and authority to lend comfort and aid without either becoming sexually involved with the girl or woman he is trying to help, or wanting to do so. The 16 year old girl that can’t get over her crush on the older male teacher and immediately drops her clothes for him despite his reticence sounds like something out of a men’s magazine. No, no, and no.

Scruton is an experienced writer, and is eloquent in painting a portrait of abused women hidden in plain view in the major urban centers of Western, developed nations. If he can cut across stereotypes and introduce greater complexity as he develops his characters, the next novel will be even better.

Rock of Ages, by Howard Owen ****

rockofagesRock of Ages, an intriguing novel by Howard Owen originally published in 2007, isn’t merely a mystery, but engaging fiction. I enjoyed everything except one small but noticeable problem near the end. Giant thanks to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media for allowing me a glimpse of the digital version in advance. It becomes available for purchase June 9.

Georgia is a respected professor for whom menopause and mounting personal losses—the death of her husband comes at almost the same time her aunt dies, and her parents are both gone—become so distracting that she abruptly takes a leave of absence. She has seen her father’s ghost sitting in the back of her classroom.

She takes time off and heads for the small town in North Carolina where her aunt had lived. When she arrives, her son Justin is there with his girlfriend, Leeza, who is pregnant.

The first half of the book is where the writer is at his best. The villain, “Pooh” Blackwell, is artfully portrayed. Georgia’s former teacher, Forsythia Crumpler, was also really well spun. I found myself talking to Georgia, making notes in my kindle asking her just what the heck she is doing, talking to her son and his honey that way. Does she want to be forever estranged?

Georgia’s misbehaviors are subtle enough at first that the reader is left wondering whether this is the author’s idea of appropriate parental behavior, or whether he is deliberately drawing a difficult protagonist. Turns out it’s the latter, and the way he develops her as the story progresses is terrific, at least until near the story’s conclusion.

So now let’s talk about the rape. What on earth makes the writer think that a woman of 52 years who has been through a good deal of trauma in her life, will think rape is not a very big deal? When she was “younger, a little more precious and fragile”, it would have been much worse.

Say what?

If the protagonist’s mental narrative had only said she was glad to be alive, I could roll with that, but he adds just enough other considerations to make me want to throw the book across the room. I speak as a woman that has never been sexually assaulted, but like most people, I know women that have. And research actually indicates that the more trauma one has been through after age 30, the harder one grieves, because all of the other losses are relived along with the new, fresh loss. Until this point, I had bonded to Georgia’s character, and she was practically tangible to me. When she began reflecting about the rape, the spell was broken and it was just the product of some clueless male’s bizarre imagination. It’s probably a bad idea for anyone to try to quantify a rape or decide where it falls on the progression of a character’s negative experiences, and all the moreso for a man to decide about a female character. One star fell off and this tirade jumped into my review. So there you have it.

The ending is otherwise not terribly imaginative, but also veers away from the trite, pat ending I thought I saw coming. Sadly, by that point I was too irritated to enjoy it.

The novel is billed as a mystery, and it surely includes two of them. We wonder about the ghost; it has made another appearance at the Rock of Ages, which is locally known to be haunted. We also wonder whether Pooh Blackwell killed Aunt Jenny for the deed to her house, or whether she drowned accidentally. But really, the main story here is Georgia’s inner struggle. The mystery takes a back seat, and it works well that way, apart from my earlier qualification.

The prequel to this story won acclaim, and I would love to read it if I can find a copy.

The series will be one to watch. Perhaps Owen will write Justin in as his next protagonist, and if so, I would love to read it.

Interesting work from an award-winning writer.