The Night Child, by Anna Quinn****

TheNightChildAnna Quinn is a brave writer. This wrenching debut novel occupies a place in literature that has lain dormant for decades; kudos to Quinn for bringing dark business out into the light of day for a good airing. I received my review copy free and early thanks to Net Galley and Blackstone Publishers. It will be available to the public January 30, 2018.

Nora is a high school teacher and the mother of a small child; her marriage is coming undone. Her mental health is a little on the shaky side, and she’s seeing a therapist to help her understand a terrifying vision that came to her in her classroom. A “wild numinous” face, the disembodied face of a child, floats over her students’ desks one day after school, and Nora panics. This face represents the core of Nora’s story, and once the layers of her outer self are peeled away, it makes for a deeply absorbing read.

Quinn takes some time to lay her groundwork. The first part of the story is unremarkable, and I briefly considered abandoning it. Character development seems limited to marital issues and time spent in therapy, and Nora lacks depth and originality until about the thirty percent mark. I tell you this lest you abandon the story yourself. It’s worth the wait, because once the story takes wing, it is hypnotic.

It’s tempting to say this novel is the twenty-first century’s answer to Sybil, but that doesn’t do it justice. Nora’s struggle to find the self that is held beneath layers and layers of emotional scar tissue, to heal herself so that she can be a good mother to Fiona, is one that we carry with us long after the book is over. Those that face serious mental health issues themselves will see vindication. Those that have family members or other loved ones working to unify a personality fragmented by trauma may see themselves as Paul, who’s juggling his own needs, those of his daughter, his love for Nora, and the crushing burnout that comes of living with a partner facing all-absorbing mental illness over a lengthy period of time.

Recommended to those interested in reading about mental health issues through the approachable medium of literary fiction.

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.

Girl in Snow, by Danya Kukafka*****


“’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.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither, by Sara Baume*****

spillsimmerThis novel defies genre, and if you read it, I defy you to ever forget it. Thank you to Net Galley and to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the DRC. I received an advance copy free in exchange for a fair review, and I can tell you, this one’s a keeper, and it is for sale to the public today.

Our protagonist, who tells the whole story start to finish without any other significant characters apart from his memory of them, is “…not the kind of person who is able to do things.” He lives independently in a coastal village in England, subsisting on government aid, the rent paid by the tenants in the building his father left him, and the money he has tucked away, bit by bit, over the course of his fifty-seven years. There is black mold in his house, and plenty of grit and grime, but he is left alone and can fend for himself, eating from cans and frying sausages. His greatest fear is of children, because he was bullied as a child and is certain—correctly, perhaps—that if children were to see him now, they’d do the same. His loneliness is so intense that he has purchased picture frames and kept the inset photos of the models used to sell the frames. There they are in his living room, these strangers under glass. Faces to look at.

On one of his quiet trips to the neighborhood thrift store, he sees a sign offering a free dog; it’s to go to a home without small children or other pets. He thinks to himself that a terrier might help with his rat problem. As soon as he arrives, he hears the disparaging way the shelter employee refers to this dog, which would be put to sleep the following day if not adopted; the employee seems to think this might not be a bad plan, since the “little bugger” had nipped him. Our lonely man peeks in at the matted fur, the “maggot nose”, the missing eye, and he realizes he has found a kindred spirit.

The language with which the story is told reminds me of James Joyce in its luminous quality and word play, but is more accessible than Joyce, and friendlier toward its reader. Animal stories, which this partly is, are often overly sentimental, but the violins don’t wail at us here. It’s the story of One Eye, but it is also the story of our lonely man, whose history gradually unfolds as the story is told.

I cannot help but think that were this protagonist real, and were he in the USA instead of the UK, he would likely either be in prison or homeless.

I read a great deal, and the truth is, now that I am the same age as our protagonist, I forget more of the DRC’s I read than I remember. A few months after I’ve read them, most are a bit foggy. A year later, I may have to check my records to be sure I have even read this book or that one. But perhaps a dozen or so each year stand out in bold relief, stories that will make me tell friends and family, “Ohhh, you have to read that one!”

This is one of those.

I would qualify my recommendation to say that because of some of the terrible things that happen in our protagonist’s history, I would not offer this title to your precocious young reader without first reading it yourself. Also, of course, this might not prove a good choice to those that for personal or religious reasons, simply detest dogs.

Apart from these narrow confines, I recommend this book wholeheartedly to one and all. It’s absolutely matchless.

Breakdown, by Jonathan Kellerman*****

BreakdownBreakdown is #31 in the Alex Delaware series, and Kellerman’s long-running series still has plenty of gas left in the tank. The premise this time is that six years ago, Delaware was called in to evaluate the parental fitness of a mother; custody issues have become his bread and butter, done on a case-by-case basis. The boy’s mother, Zelda, was an actress plagued by mental health issues, but seemed to be doing a competent job of raising Ovid. The actress’s psychiatrist wanted to be sure, so he called in Delaware to spend time with the child in question. Now things have gone downhill, and the psychologist that treated Zelda is dead. Zelda isn’t doing so well herself.

But the greater question for Delaware is…where is Ovid?

I received this galley in advance thanks to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine in exchange for an honest review. I rate the novel 4.5 stars and round it up. It’s a fast read, with lots of dialogue and a fair amount of action.

The most laudable aspect of this particular novel is the way it highlights the capricious, bureaucratic manner in which state and federal funds are disbursed to supposedly care for the mentally ill. Delaware is called to what is supposed to be a temporary facility where the mentally ill are kept just long enough to be evaluated as to their own capacity to care for themselves and live independently. The place that passed for a transitional medical setting was appalling; even worse, I suspect it may have been based on something close to the truth. A couple of decades of working with at-risk teens, combined with having loved ones that have struggled with mental health issues, has left your reviewer with a dim view of the care offered to those that cannot care for themselves. If there were such a thing as an award for mental health awareness in fiction, Kellerman would be a contender.

But let’s get back to the contours of the story itself. I appreciated the level of anticipation the author built without departing so far from reality as to breach believability. Whereas previous Alex Delaware novels sometimes strained the credulity of the reader—just how much gun play and tearing after bad guys does your average kiddy shrink do, even if his best buddy is a cop?—this one was much more realistic in terms of Delaware’s role, and the light jokes made by the protagonists about having invented enough ideas for a TV miniseries brought the credibility gap out into the open, gave us a chance to laugh along with the author and better yet, with his characters. Well played!

Brief mention of headaches and personal struggles with claustrophobia make Delaware a more tangible, less Olympian personality, and of course also provide us with some foreshadowing for things to come in future novels. This is one of the better aspects of a long-running series with a faithful readership, the ability to run a thread from one novel within the series forward into another one. He’s done it before, most notably with relationship issues, and done it well.

This book is available to the public February 2, 2016, and if you enjoy a good psychological mystery, you should get a copy and read it.

Monica’s Sister, by Earl Emerson *****

monicassisterAh, it’s good to be reading a Thomas Black story again. Black is back with his lovely wife, Kathy, a good-hearted woman who makes some interesting friends. One of them is Angela Bassman, a woman who shows up all the time like a bad penny, making ridiculous charges against anyone and everyone, and bragging about having so many friends in high places, having done such fantastic things, that one is left rolling one’s eyes. And so when Thomas hears Angela’s voice approaching his office, he does what any thinking human being would do: he leaps into the closet and shuts the door. Anything to avoid that woman!

The wheels of the story start moving, and things get more complicated. Angela, whose famous sister is the actress, Monica Pennington, hires Black to help her with what is supposed to be a simple task, but isn’t. He would like to back out, but he smells a rat. Despite the crazy nature of Angela’s claims, she is obviously being followed by someone. Strange things happen, and too many coincidences occur. Whether Angela is crazy or whether she isn’t, his detective’s intuition starts to quiver, and he becomes more entangled in her affairs than he had anticipated, especially when she falls to her death, and he sees it happen. Later, Pennington hires Black to find out why Angela killed herself. Because of course, that’s what happened…isn’t it?

Emerson, a Shamus winning author who sets his stories here in the misty Pacific Northwest, usually right here in Seattle, is one fine writer. Hundreds of interesting, free galleys come my way in a given year, but I wanted to read his story badly enough to put it on my wish list, and luckily, my spouse snapped it up and gave it to me for Mother’s Day. What a fantastic gift!

The overall tenor of the story begins as gut-bustingly funny, and then gradually darkens and becomes more suspenseful. By the story’s end, I was literally (yes, I do mean literally) sitting on the edge of my seat, putting off the family members that wanted my attention with a robotic “…just a sec. Just a sec. Yeah I know. Give me just a minute.”

Emerson also uses the occasion to talk a little bit about bipolar disorder, and the ways it can turn a person’s life upside down, but he does it in a way that prevents the book’s pace from hitching. It’s masterfully done!

If you like strong detective fiction, or fiction set in the Pacific Northwest, or both, you just can’t do any better than this book. Seriously recommended for just about everyone.