Call Your Daughter Home, by Deb Spera*****

Deb Spera is a force; small wonder that Call Your Daughter Home is the book that bloggers have been talking about. This barn burner of a debut goes on sale today.  My thanks go to Net Galley and Harlequin for the review copy.  It curled its fingers around me on page one, and by page ten I knew it wouldn’t let me go till it was done with me. It ended as powerfully as it began.

The year is 1924. Gertrude Pardee lives with her four little girls in a shack in the swamp in Third World conditions; they are nearly feral. A storm is coming, but Gert has a job to do. Her brutal ass hat of a husband lies dead in the swamp, dispatched by the bullet she blasted into his brainpan. As the storm bears down, she peels off her only dress and strides naked into the muck to deal with his corpse:

“Alligators feed once a week, and sometimes, if the prey is big enough, they don’t need to eat for almost a year. But I don’t know how long it takes a gator to eat big prey. Daddy never said nothing ‘bout that and I never asked.”

Our other two main characters are Retta, the first free woman in her family, and Annie, Retta’s employer. Retta cares for Mary, Gert’s youngest, when Gert is too sick and injured from the broken face she sustained the last time Alvin beat her; Retta’s husband Odell and her neighbors all tell her that it’s trouble to bring a white child into Shake Rag. “Don’t get messed up with that white family. No good can come of it,” and she knows it’s true. What if the girl dies? But Gert coaxed her into it, telling her it would be the Christian thing to do, and Retta is moved by this sick, helpless five year old. She assures everyone it’s just for three days.

Miss Annie is a Caucasian small businesswoman and wife of a farmer, yet she has trouble of her own; there’s some dark family baggage she’s been avoiding for a good, long while. As the storm bears down, evidence comes to light and she is forced to see it. Not one of us would want to be Miss Annie; believe it.

Spera weaves a captivating tale, and we see the world from the disparate points of view of all three women, each of them told alternately in a first person narrative, and we’re also told how they see each other. The setting is dead accurate, brooding and thick with dread, and it scaffolds the development of each character more capably than anything I have read recently.

It is Retta that tells us that as we give birth, we must call out to our child so that “whichever soul is at the gate will come through.” She called out to her girl as she birthed her, but now she is gone. In fact, each of these three women has lost a daughter, and this provides the central theme of the story.

Feminists and those that love Southern fiction have to get this book and read it. There’s nothing like it. Do it.

The Winter Sister, by Megan Collins****

Sylvie doesn’t want to go home. Sixteen years ago her sister Persephone was murdered, and her mother, a single parent, was undone by it. Sylvie’s built a new life for herself and would prefer not to revisit the old one, but her aunt calls and summons her. Sylvie’s mother is gravely ill and Aunt Jill says it is Sylvie’s turn to take care of her. Reluctantly, Sylvie packs and heads home to face her demons.

I was invited to read and review this compelling debut novel courtesy of Net Galley and Simon and Schuster. It will be available to the public tomorrow, February 5, 2019.

Persephone went on a date the night she was killed; she wasn’t permitted to date and so she had to sneak out. And right away my antennae twitch, because who doesn’t let their seventeen-year-old daughter date? The heck? She was a senior in high school, yet was reduced to climbing in and out of the bedroom window to avoid her mother’s anger. At fourteen, Sylvie was her confederate, leaving the window just a finger’s width ajar so that Persephone could return home undetected. But Sylvie had become increasingly ambivalent; Persephone came home with bruises with increasing frequency, asking her little sis to paint temporary tattoos to cover them up for her. Should Persephone be seeing Ben, the boy responsible for the bruises?  One night she decides not to leave the window open. That way it will be out in the open. Persephone will have to come in through the front door. She’ll be busted, but then the problem of the abusive boyfriend will be where it belongs, right on their mother’s plate.  Let the adult do the adult job, she figured. But that night, unable to sneak back in, Persephone instead returned to her boyfriend’s car, hopped in, and never came home.

Her body wasn’t found for three days.

The guilt of the thing followed Sylvie everywhere she went. She told no one. Their mother took to drink and locked herself away, refusing to respond to her daughter’s pleas on the other side of the door. Aunt Jill took Sylvie home with her when it became obvious that her mother had ceased to mother.

But now, Sylvie has to go back. And she carries so much anger with her; how is it even possible that Ben, the boyfriend, was never arrested or charged? How is it possible that he is working—of all places—in the clinic where her mother goes to receive her chemo?

Collins’s narrative is deeply absorbing, with a component of the psychological thriller in that at times, I wonder whether she is reliable. Things are certainly not what they seem. The resolution is surprising, yet fair to the reader. It’s a clever plot with layered characters, and I look forward to seeing what Collins writes in the future.

Recommended to those that love the genre.

A Long Time Coming, by Aaron Elkin**

ALongTimeComingAaron Elkin has been writing mysteries for a long time, but he is new to me.  When I saw this title listed on Net Galley, I went to Goodreads and found that his work is well regarded by some of my friends; add to this his residence in my own Pacific Northwest, and I am ready to give his work a try. Thanks go to Net Galley and Thomas and Mercer for the DRC, which I received free of charge in exchange for this honest review.

The story starts well. Val Caruso is an art curator, and his personal life is a mess. He’s stone cold broke, and so when he is approached to do a job involving a stolen-but-found Renoir, his interest is piqued. An ancient Holocaust survivor claims ownership of a painting that has been sold to someone else, and Caruso is hired to help. I particularly enjoy the character of Esther, the domineering but charming friend that connects the two men; alas, we will soon leave her behind when we go to Milan.

At the outset the amount of art related information feels just about right to me. The book is sold as a popular read rather than a niche item for art aficionados, and I am cheered by this, since I have little to no interest in art. As we travel to Milan, however, the art lectures become oppressive. By the forty percent mark I find myself watching the page numbers roll by, oh so slowly, and cursing myself for having taken the galley. Brush strokes? Historical nature of paint color? Who the hell cares? The travelogue aspect of the book also starts well, but eventually the level of detail slooows this story to a crawl. I find myself cynically wondering whether this series is simply a ruse for the author to claim his globe-trotting expenses on his tax returns.

Elkin has a solid reputation built on an earlier series, and at some point I may give that one a whirl, but Val Caruso and I are done.

Find You in the Dark, by Nathan Ripley*****

Findyouinthedark4.5 rounded up. What a way to make a debut!  Ripley’s creepy new thriller will have you locking your windows and looking under the bed at night. Thanks go to Atria Books for the review copy, which I received free of charge. I didn’t ask for it, didn’t expect it, but once I flipped it open and began reading, there was no question that I would finish it. You’ll feel the same.

The story is told in the first person by Martin Reese, a wealthy entrepreneur who took early retirement. He explains to us that he is on the way home from one of his digs, and he has to get back in time to pick up his daughter, Kylie from swim practice. Martin regards himself as a family centered man, and so at first I assume this is true. Is the guy an archaeologist?  Is he a cop? He isn’t either of these. So the digs are…?

Alternately we read a second narrative, told in the third person, about Detective Sandra Whittal.  She’s nobody’s fool, and the anonymous calls she receives that lead her to the graves of women long presumed dead at the hands of serial killer Jason Shurn set off all sorts of bells and whistles. Whittal doesn’t think this caller is the clever public servant he claims to be. She regards him as a murderer in the making, a man building toward a killing spree of his own.

The pacing here is strong, building toward the can’t-stop-now climax, but it’s the tone, the phrasing of Martin’s narrative that is disquieting.  His conversational tone tells us that he genuinely considers himself to be one of the good guys, but there are little cues here and there that that make me lean in, because something is wrong, very wrong here. Martin tells us that his wife and daughter are his whole world, but he spends very little time in their company. He tells us that he is searching for Ellen’s missing sister, a presumed victim of the serial killer whose remains haven’t been found, but a dozen small signals tell us that he’s never going to stop doing this. As the story unfolds, the dread and tension increase without ever letting up.

Contributing to my foreboding is the way Martin talks about and to his wife. Ellen suffers from anxiety and depression related to her sister’s death, but she functions in the real world, holding down a position of responsibility at a credit union. Though Martin tells us that everything he does is for her and Kylie, there are little cracks in the surface that show anger and resentment toward her. He doesn’t treat her as his equal; he is patronizing toward her, treating her and Kylie as if they are one another’s peers. Conversely, he confides an unusual amount to his fourteen-year-old daughter, and is the final arbiter of disagreements between his wife and daughter. I expect this sick dynamic to factor into the story’s denouement, but although his inattentiveness is a factor in some of the surprising results, the bizarre relationship isn’t fully addressed or resolved, and it is here that half of a star comes off.

This story is a page-turner. I read it quickly and if it hadn’t been quite so sinister, I would’ve torn through it in a weekend, but I gave myself an evening curfew where this book is concerned. I didn’t want it in my dreams. I didn’t even want it in my bedroom. As a younger woman, I am sure it wouldn’t have impacted me this way, so it may not disturb you quite as completely as it did me.

If you enjoy a book that conveys the emotional impact of Thomas Harris or Truman Capote, here you go. But plan to sleep with the light on while you’re reading it.

The Song and the Silence, by Yvette Johnson*****

TheSongandtheSilenceI was browsing the pages of Net Galley and ran across this gem of a memoir. Often when someone that isn’t famous gets an autobiography published by a major publisher, it’s a hint to the reader that the story will be riveting. Such is the case here; my many thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this honest review. You can order it now’ it comes out Tuesday, May 9.

It probably says a great deal, all by itself, that I had never heard of Booker Wright before this. I have a history degree and chose, at every possible opportunity, to take classes, both undergraduate and graduate level, that examined the Civil Rights Movement, right up until my retirement a few years ago. As a history teacher, I made a point of teaching about it even when it wasn’t part of my assigned curriculum, and I prided myself on reaching beyond what has become the standard list that most school children learned. I looked in nooks and crannies and did my best to pull down myths that cover up the heat and light of that critical time in American history, and I told my students that racism is an ongoing struggle, not something we can tidy away as a fait accompli.

But I had never heard of Booker.

Booker Wright, for those that (also) didn’t know, was the courageous Black Mississippian that stepped forward in 1965 and told his story on camera for documentary makers. He did it knowing that it was dangerous to do so, and knowing that it would probably cost him a very good job he’d had for 25 years. It was shown in a documentary that Johnson discusses, but if you want to see the clip of his remarks, here’s what he said. You may need to see it a couple of times, because he speaks rapidly and with an accent. Here is Booker, beginning with his well-known routine waiting tables at a swank local restaurant, and then saying more:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GM-zG…

So it was Booker and his new-to-me story that made me want to read the DRC. Johnson opens with information from that time, but as she begins sharing her own story, discussing not only Booker but her family’s story and in particular, her own alienation from her mother, who is Booker’s daughter, I waited for the oh-no feeling. Perhaps you’ve felt it too, when reading a biography; it’s the sensation we sometimes feel when it appears that a writer is using a famous subject in order to talk about themselves, instead. I’ve had that feeling several times since I’ve been reading and reviewing, and I have news: it never happened here. Johnson’s own story is an eloquent one, and it makes Booker’s story more relevant today as we see how this violent time and place has bled through to color the lives of its descendants.

The family’s history is one of silences, and each of those estrangements and sometimes even physical disappearance is rooted in America’s racist heritage. Johnson chronicles her own privileged upbringing, the daughter of a professional football player. She went to well-funded schools where she was usually the only African-American student in class. She responded to her mother’s angry mistrust of Caucasians by pretending to herself that race was not even worth noticing.

But as children, she and her sister had played a game in which they were both white girls. They practiced tossing their tresses over their shoulders. Imagine it.

Johnson is a strong writer, and her story is mesmerizing. I had initially expected an academic treatment, something fairly dry, when I saw the title. I chose this to be the book I was going to read at bedtime because it would not excite me, expecting it to be linear and to primarily deal with aspects of the Civil Rights movement and the Jim Crow South that, while terrible, would be things that I had heard many times before. I was soon disabused of this notion. But there came a point when this story was not only moving and fascinating, but also one I didn’t want to put down. I suspect it will do the same for you.

YouTube has a number of clips regarding this topic and the documentary Johnson helped create, but here is an NPR spot on cop violence, and it contains an interview of Johnson herself from when the project was released. It’s about 20 minutes long, and I found it useful once I had read the book; reading it before you do so would likely work just as well:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xxeh…

Johnson tells Booker’s story and her own in a way that looks like effortless synthesis, and the pace never slackens. For anyone with a post-high-school literacy level, an interest in civil rights in the USA, and a beating heart, this is a must-read. Do it.

Every Dead Thing, by John Connolly****

everydeadthing“Our ancestors were not wrong in their superstitions; there is reason to fear the dark.”

This is the first entry of the Charlie Parker series, and I recently read and reviewed the newest one, so it is interesting to go back and see how the series begins. Thank you to Net Galley and Atria Books for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for an honest review.

The story commences with flashbacks to the brutal murder and mutilation of Parker’s wife and daughter. I have to confess that it went over the top for me and at times was too grim to be an enjoyable read. This newly released edition begins with introductory notes by the author in which he acknowledges that many readers also felt this way, so I know I am not alone. Everyone has a threshold. But I went into the story knowing that I want to read this series and that although it will always remain gritty and violent, it won’t always be this harsh, so I moved on, and I am glad I did.

The fact is, Connolly is an outstanding writer.

Parker is a shipwreck of a human being, a former cop with a sorrowful heart and not much to lose. He is determined to find the psychopath that killed his wife and child, and it appears that the same killer has taken a woman named Catherine. Her phone records show numerous calls, shortly before her disappearance, to the tiny southern town where she was born and raised. He grabs his wallet and heads south with two terrifyingly competent assistants, Angel and Louis, guys that are shady but loyal, and strong as hell. They are also a couple, and this adds an interesting twist, not to mention crushing a stereotype. Actually, these two characters are my favorites in this story, and I especially enjoy the scene in the auto shop.

Another wonderful feature is the swamp witch in the bayou.

Some aspects of this novel seem a bit derivative, in particular the long cast of characters with unusual names seems a lot like James Lee Burke. Ed McBain, iconic author of the 87th Precinct series, has a prominent character named Fat Ollie, a name Connolly uses for one of his characters here.

But there’s no denying the lyrical quality to the work that is entirely Connolly’s own, and as I have already seen, it just gets better from here. The plotting is complex, tight, and intense. It’s a strong debut.

Those that love good mysteries that run on the gritty side will want to read this series. You can read them out of order; I started with the fourteenth and didn’t feel there were enough missing pieces to prevent my understanding the story line. On the other hand, there’s nobody out there that can write as fast as we can read, and so why not start at the top and run all the way through the series?

This re-released edition of Every Dead Thing is for sale now.

Flashpoint, by Lynn Hightower*****

flashpoint“Anybody talk to a doctor?”
“Guy came out of emergency and talked to the brother.”
“Hear what he said?”
“Just that they were very concerned with Mark’s condition, and were doing all they could.”
“Shit. Mark won’t make it then. They’re already hanging the crepe.”

Sonora Blair is one of the most kick-ass female detectives to hit the shelves in a very long time. Lucky me, I read it free, thanks to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media. The original publication date was 1995, and so the initial publishers must have dropped the ball big-time when it came to promotion, because I know this is the kind of story that resonates with large numbers of people, especially women. And I am glad to see it being resold by Open Road, because they know how to do the job right.

So back to Sonora. No wait, let’s go back to Hightower first. What a total bad-ass when it comes to setting! I loved seeing her enter the home where her children were asleep, and the explosion of naked Barbie doll parts in her daughter’s room. I loved the moment when her elderly dog had an accident in the living room, and she was so distracted by the hundred other things, personal and professional, all colliding at once, that it was not even the first thing she took care of once she found it.

So we have two interesting threads here. One is the problem. A killer out there has murdered a man by handcuffing him to the steering wheel of a vehicle and setting fire to it…and him. It’s grisly business, but Hightower doesn’t overwork the detail to where it triggers my “ick” button; in other words, although it’s terrible, it is never so terrible that I just don’t want to read it anymore. And the problem just becomes thornier and trickier the longer she works on it. Clues drop here and there, and the stakes go up.

The other thread is Blair’s personal life, and the problems she faces in dealing with home and work. It sounds like a tired old song when I put it that way, but like any really skillful writing, it sounds brand new when the author rubs her own brand of English on it and sends it spinning.

After having read several hundred mystery, crime fiction, police procedural, and thriller novels—okay, if I had starting keeping track sooner, I know it would be well over a thousand—there are a handful of devices that are so frequently used that my eyes auto-roll when I see them utilized. I was watching for them. But Blair never gets tossed into the trunk of anybody’s car; she never gets the phone call saying the killer has her kids; there is never a moment when we realize she has been framed for the killing herself, and has to solve it to save her own butt. I’m not saying a great writer can’t get away with any of those; there are some Grand Masters out there that have done it and before my eyes could make the full roll, they were glued back to the page. But once someone reaches into that worn, soiled bag of tricks, it becomes a lot harder to engage me, and I was delighted that Blair never went there.

Her facility with setting is consistently brilliant throughout the book.

One tiny odd bit: for the first chapter or two, I was convinced that Blair was African-American. When she turned up blonde later, I had to mentally reinvent her. It didn’t take long though, because I was riveted and had to get back to the story.

For fans of outstanding detective fiction, this is a must-read. Order it now for yourself, or as a gift for someone you know will love it.

Pop Goes the Weasel, by M.J. Arlidge***

popgoestheweaselPop Goes the Weasel is the second in a detective series featuring Helen Grace. Thank you to Net Galley and Random House-Penguin for the DRC. The title goes up for sale October 6.

Arlidge is an experienced, confident writer. The opening of the book is among the best openers I have seen for quite awhile:

“The fog crept in from the sea, suffocating the city. It descended like an invading army, consuming landmarks, choking out the moonlight, rendering Southampton a strange and unnerving place.”

The tone is thus set for a grisly murder mystery, the perfect mood for an October read.

The premise here is that someone is murdering men that seek the services of prostitutes, and their slayer doesn’t merely kill the men, but eviscerates them without the courtesy of killing them first. Well, this may not be exactly evisceration: they aren’t removing their digestive tracts, but rather their hearts. And while I read that description before requesting this DRC, I should have dwelt on it a moment or two longer, because this particular story really passed my “ick” threshold, and it was my own fault for not being more careful in reading the promotional description.

That said, although it was a bit much for me, it probably won’t be for you, not if you watch a lot of cop shows on television or view a lot of adrenaline-pumping movies that feature violence. That said, I would also steer away anyone who has recently had a death in the family. The descriptions of the cadavers were so explicit that you may find your mind making leaps you didn’t count on.

Grace’s situation is linked to things that happened in Arlidge’s first in the series, and they are referred to often. You may be better off reading these in order. I didn’t read the first, and although I was able to keep up just fine in terms of following plot and character motivation, I felt a little as if I were a guest at someone else’s family dinner. There were so many little undercurrents that referred to Grace’s earlier experiences, as well as those of Charlie, another cop who’d been in the previous story as well, that I felt a bit left out. I also had difficulty, for the first half of the story, keeping Helen and Charlie distinct from one another, and this part I chalk up to the author’s failure to adequately describe each of them. Whether it is the first or tenth in a series, the author has an obligation to provide a clear picture of the protagonist as well as other important characters. That didn’t happen here. Eventually I understood the motivations of each, as well as a good deal of Helen Grace’s internal characteristics, but I never was able to form enough of a mental picture of their appearances to make a mental movie. At times, I felt as if the explicit gore and sex were substitutions for character development. The plot itself was a trifle formulaic.

For those that read the first in the series and enjoyed it, this second in the series is bound to please. It is to those readers that I recommend this mystery.

Serpents Rising, by David A. Poulsen ****

serpents risingWhat fun to get in on the first mystery novel of a planned series! Poulsen is an experienced writer, and he knows how to set the hook to reel readers in. I was immediately engaged as I read the initial chapters.

Thank you, Net Galley and Dundurn Press, for the advance peek!

I’d classify this as a cozy mystery, and it’s the first such book I’ve read that was written by a man. I enjoy a limited number of this sub-genre. I dislike seeing everyday people (housewives, caterers, hoteliers) “outsmart” the professionals, and I avoid like the plague any cozy mystery with (*shudder!*) recipes! For those, I use a cookbook. And Poulsen doesn’t do either of those annoying things listed above; so far so good.

His reason for wanting to get to the bottom of his wife’s death by arson is a strong one, not all that new, (the cops suspected him for a long time, and he misses his wife), but old devices like these can still work if the writer is skillful enough to make them seem new. In the beginning, it worked for me.

Equally if not even more engaging is the help he provides his friend Cobb, a private detective being paid to search for a missing teenager with a history of drug abuse. The characters of Jay and Zoe were almost tangible. I used to teach kids of this age, and Poulsen made them so believable that I felt as if I knew them.

That said, the first half of the book is better than the second half. Some of the details in the resolution strained credibility, and the second half also saw a couple of seen-it-many-times plot devices that didn’t look new; they made me groan and mutter, “Oh come on, not that again!”

But you’ll note there are four stars there. It’s a good book, despite the occasional momentary mutter on my part. When the second Cullen and Cobb mystery comes out, it will be on my to-read list.

I was pleased that the author did not add a sickening amount of gore, or add elements that would leave me with a leaden gut for the next two days. Some authors feel that in order to gain the attention of an increasingly easily distracted audience, they have to dig up every horrible possibility and traumatize us. Not so here (or in anything I would label “cozy”). If your “ick” factor keeps you away from Stephen King, you can read this one.

For a fun, relatively quick read to curl up with over the weekend or take to the beach, get a copy of this book. If you are a mystery fan, I think you’ll like it!

A Dancer in the Dust: A Novel, by Thomas H. Cook *****

a dancer in the dustA Dancer in the Dust is a multifaceted novel. It is a love story, the doomed love of Ray Campbell, a risk assessor from the United States for Martine Aubert, an African woman of Belgian descent. Martine lives in, and loves, the country of her birth, a fictitiously independent nation called Lubanda. And it is a story of paternalism, and of how much easier it is to place someone else in a risky position rather than oneself. It is also a story that raises thought-provoking social issues.
My thanks go to the publisher and the first reads program for the chance to read this free. It is beautifully written, but it is also one that starts with a man grieving, and by chance it arrived in the mail when I was grieving a younger family member who died very unexpectedly. Every time I picked the book up, the clouds formed, and so I took what I would generally consider to be an unconscionably long time reading it. For awhile, the words just couldn’t sink in.
When I got my wits about me, it occurred to me that I ought to find out whether Lubanda was a real place or not, lest I make an ass of myself while reviewing it. Sure enough, Lubanda, though not really an independent nation, exists in east-central Africa as a subsection of Tanzania. Cook makes it larger and more populous than it is in real life for the purpose of his fictional vehicle. And when you are as painterly and skillful with words as Cook is, you can pretty much do what you need to in order to tell your story.
So we rejoin Campbell as he sets out on his return trip to Lubanda. He left there after Martine was killed, returned to New York City, but the death of a man known to both Ray and Martine sets his wheels back in motion. Seso, whom Campbell considered a friend, has turned up dead, murdered, in New York City. Campbell has weighed risks and taken the safer course all of his life, and in turn, he has been left with nothing and no one. He is finally ready to toss all of his chips on the table in hopes of at least winning redemption, and so he sets out in search of Seso’s killer.
“Actually, we have plenty of opportunities to do the right thing…It’s taking back the wrong thing we can’t do.”
Martine had died because she would not do what the Western aid providers think she should do, a program the government bought into lock, stock and barrel. She had tried to explain in logical terms why their plan for her country was wrong, but no one was listening. Nation after nation had become a “funhouse mirror into hell” because of Western policies: Uganda, Kenya, Congo, and the list continues. Patrice Lumumba embraced modern ideas and methods, but ultimately died when he defied his keepers.
In setting out to find out what happened to Seso and why, Campbell is looking to trace back the thread. Cook’s account is brutal and searing, but it is too well told, too compelling, and raises too many thorny social issues that bear examining to be set aside. Read it for Africa; read it for the mystery it unravels; or read it for social justice. But get the book, and read it now!