Behind the Red Door, by Megan Collins**-***

I enjoyed Collins’s debut, The Winter Sister, and so when I was invited to read and review this second novel, I jumped on it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Have you ever had someone in your life that’s a hot mess and makes terrible decisions, one after another? This felt a little bit like that, at least during the periods when I believed the character; and I did, some of the time. But whereas The Winter Sister held together beautifully until the implausible ending—a common issue with mysteries and thrillers—this one is riddled with difficulties throughout.

Fern had a traumatic childhood. Her father used her to conduct cruel experiments, deliberately terrifying his daughter in a variety of ways so that he could write about her responses. Now she’s grown and gone, though not surprisingly plagued by serious mental health issues, but healing nonetheless, and he summons her home. He says he needs her. Against the advice of stable people in her adult life, Fern packs her bags and comes a-runnin’. Who knows? Maybe her daddy wants to say sorry; perhaps he is terminally ill and set on making amends.

Well, um, no.

Upon her return, three terrible things happen almost immediately. First of all, her father, Ted, has not changed a bit, and he only called her back because he’s moving and doesn’t have time to pack. He wants her to pack for his move. He doesn’t plan to help pack his own crap, and he doesn’t plan to pay her for her time. Plus, he still plays cruel tricks on her, just like bad old times.

On top of this, her best friend’s sadistic brother, Cooper, is still around, and he’s still not a real nice guy. She discovers this almost immediately firsthand.

And on a trip to the store, she runs across a book, a memoir written by Astrid Sullivan. Flash! Bang! She knows that face, doesn’t she? Did she know Astrid?  Now Astrid has been murdered, and Fern has been having dreams about her, which might be flashbacks. Has she buried memories of the murder? And…WHO would have DONE such a thing?  Nobody SHE knows would do a mean thing like that! Unless…naw.

Oh dear.

The story is told in alternate narratives, Fern’s and Astrid’s, courtesy of her memoir. This method does build a sense of dread, but it feels a little choppy in the telling.  In addition, I had difficulty believing the character’s motivation. I could see reflexively running home—I’ve known people that would do the same—but what I cannot understand is why, when she found out what Ted’s big emergency was, she didn’t toss her bag back in her car, say Buh-bye and good luck with the move, and hightail it home.

There’s a lot of extraneous business here; we have Fern’s mental health problems, and on top of it all, she’s pregnant. (Oh, good idea. A baby. What could possibly go wrong?)

I believe Collins has a great book in her, but this isn’t it. That’s okay; back to the drawing board. Life is long. But reader, as for you, I recommend you either pass this one up, or read it free or cheap.

You Are Not Alone, by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen****

I read this novel free and early, thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. It’s for sale now.

Shay Miller has watched a woman die, and now life will never be the same. She is alone in the big city, barely getting by like so many working class women. She is in love with her roommate but doesn’t rock the boat by propositioning him; she has no friends or family nearby. Then one terrible day, she is waiting for her subway when a sinister looking man turns in her direction. Imagine how glad she is to see Amanda, a normal-looking woman who’s also headed her way. But instead of providing the security Shay is hoping for, Amanda jumps onto the tracks in front of a moving train.

It happens so quickly!

Shay is the sort of person that relies on information to deal with stress. She has a little notebook, what she calls her “Data Book,” filled with all sorts of oddball statistics that she quotes from at the start of each chapter and throughout the novel. (Frankly, I could have lived without this feature, which began to feel like filler at times.) She deals with the stress of having witnessed a suicide by finding out every single detail she can about the late Amanda.

And this part is the hardest aspect for me to buy into. She’s haunted by what she saw; okay. Amanda looked a lot like Shay, which made her more fascinating to our protagonist. Fine. But the obsessive way she pursues information—even once she finds she has the dead woman’s necklace, which she had forgotten momentarily—doesn’t jibe with me. She goes to her apartment, visits the woman’s mom…huh. Go figure.

Now, once I quit rolling my eyes and allowed myself to buy this premise, things flowed a lot more smoothly. Cassandra and Jane, friends of Amanda’s, hold a memorial service for her, and it is by attending this event that Shay comes to know these two sisters. They are kind, they are solicitous, and they are caring. Before Shay knows it, they are her new best friends, and because she herself is a good person—if a little odd—it doesn’t occur to her that their motives might not be as benevolent as they pretend to be. They are the spiders, and she is the fly.

Here’s the thing I like best about this story. Shay’s character has to be rock solid for it to work, and once we get past the stupid parts at the beginning, it is. I half expected her to be dumb as a box of rocks all the way through, but not so much. The way she is developed, neither too unrealistically savvy nor ultra-naïve, is admirable. There’s a thin path through the middle between these two extremes, and I wondered if she would be the dithering idiot that has to be saved by someone smarter, but that’s not how it shakes out. There are a couple of loose threads that are left dangling, but it’s the way Shay’s character is crafted that wins the day.

Those that enjoyed this authorial pair’s other books will like this one too; those in search of a good beach read or a fun weekend book should consider this one. All told, big fun, and delightfully original.

An Anonymous Girl, by Hendricks and Pekkanen*****

Come into my lair, said the spider to the fly.

Jessica Farris is under a lot of stress, and she has a head full of secrets that she is afraid could bury her. It’s a lot to carry around, especially at such a tender age. She’s constantly worried about money, and so when she sees an opportunity to make easy money by taking a psychological survey, she leaps on it. And at first, it seems too good to be true.

I was invited to read and review this hair-on-fire novel by Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. It’s for sale now.

The study involves morally ambiguous questions.  When is it acceptable to lie? When is it acceptable to know something that’s important to someone you care about, yet choose not to share that knowledge? At the outset, the study appears to be scholarly and philosophical. And when Dr. Shields, the study’s author, invites Jessica to participate in field work for additional compensation, she can’t believe her good luck.  But from there, things escalate, and before she knows it, Jessica is perched on the edge of the inferno, and Dr. Shields is inching up behind her with outstretched fingertips.

Just at the moment that I grow impatient with Jessica’s helplessness and naiveté, she clues in and tries to work out a game plan, but it’s an unfair contest, because Dr. Shields has so much more money and knowledge. It’s like watching a heavyweight and a Bantam weight in the ring together; all that the smaller, less powerful contender has on her side is agility.

The story is told using alternating narratives, primarily between Dr. Shields and Jessica with occasional input from Thomas, Dr. Shields’s husband.  The chapters are quick ones, and the pacing is accelerated to where I sometimes forgot to breathe.  Every time I think I see where the authors are headed, it turns out to be a red herring, and yet there are no gimmicks or unfair tricks used to deceive the reader. It’s all right there.

Highly recommended.

In Her Bones, by Kate Moretti****

InHerBonesMoretti’s mysteries are addictive, and when I found this galley in my email, I jumped it to the front of the queue. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for letting me read it free and early. You can buy it now.

Edie is an outcast, spurned by her friends when her mother Lilith is arrested as a serial killer. Since it is so rare for a serial murderer to be female, the press is everywhere; meanwhile, all Edie has left is her brother Dylan and later, his young family. Otherwise, the people to whom she feels most closely bonded don’t know Edie, don’t realize that she is watching them, obsessing over them in person and in cyberspace; they are the bereaved family members of Lilith’s victims. It gives me chills.

One day Edie takes her voyeuristic tendencies to the next level; when the man she’s been stalking is found dead, police immediately suspect Edie of being his killer. And as we read Edie’s narrative, which tells us some things but not everything, we wonder too: is Edie a lonely, isolated young woman searching for connection to another human being; or is she a chip off the old block, a stone cold killer just like her mama?

The first person narrative alternates with a third person study of Lilith, and so the voice switches from Edie’s very personal story to a clinical, dry report regarding her aberrant mother. (Let me tell you, whatever issues you may have with your own mother—she’s going to seem like the mother of the year once you’ve read this.)

I’ve read a few unhappy reviews by online friends. but I like this book. It helps if you approach it as a mystery rather than a thriller; those in search of a grab-you-by-the-hair page-turner may not get what you’re looking for, but I wanted an interesting story with an original premise and a credible ending, and this is that. In addition, the third person case notes written by social workers and their ilk ring true to me. In fact, I made a wry note to myself, wondering whether Edie or Dylan might have been in one of my classes; I have never taught the children of a serial killer to my knowledge, yet the wanton neglect and lack of nurturance, even a simple effort to provide the basics eludes Lilith in a way that seems familiar. You think I am exaggerating? Not so much. There are terrific parents; there are indifferent parents; and there are, I am sad to say, more than a few Lilith Wades out there in the parent pool.

This is my third galley by this writer. Whereas I liked The Blackbird Season a little more than this one, mostly because of its amazing word smithery, I find this story more original and memorable than The Vanishing Year, which has the sort of denouement that makes me roll my eyes. Here Moretti pulls the ending together in a way that keeps me thinking about the characters rather than the author, and I sigh with appreciation when it’s done.

All told, it’s a solid mystery with a satisfying conclusion. Recommended to all that enjoy the genre.

Then She Was Gone, by Lisa Jewell****

ThenSheWasGone3.5 rounded up. Thanks to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC. This book is now for sale.

This is my third title by this author, and she is consistently strong. Our protagonist is Laurel, who is struggling. Her daughter Ellie–her favorite child—is missing. She’s been missing for years, and it hasn’t really gotten any easier.  Her marriage is over because Paul could move on, while Laurel could not; she is no longer close to their other two children, because all her thoughts and feelings went to the child that was missing.

Then one day she meets Floyd. He is warm and delightful, and his daughter Poppy, who seems too good to be true, calls to her.

I have read other reviews that suggest that the mystery here is easily solved. That’s true. But it hardly matters, because I wasn’t in this thing for the mystery. I was in it for the character. There are so many observations, small tidbits of mom-philosophy, some of which I didn’t know anybody shared with me. I have notes in my reader, where I usually ask questions or point to technical aspects of a story, that simply say, “I know, right?”

All of the characters in this story are Caucasian, and so I suspect that the main target audience is white mothers in their forties and beyond. I recommend this story to everyone in that demographic that enjoys women’s fiction.

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.

Summertime, and the Reading is Easy

On my radar for July and August:

The Perfect Stranger, by Megan Miranda*****

“To get blood out, you’d have to do a deep clean. With bleach.”

the-perfectstranger

Fans of Miranda’s may rejoice, and those that haven’t read her work will have to start now. This riveting psychological thriller may leave you jumping at strange noises and sleeping with the lights burning, but oh, it will be worth it! I read this book free and in advance, thanks to an invitation from Net Galley and Simon and Schuster, but it’s available to the public Tuesday, May 16, 2017, and you won’t want to miss it. It’s the perfect story for the time in which we live, with alienation, deception, fear, and misplaced trust looming large.

Leah Stevens has some boundary issues, and it’s lost her a position in journalism. Disgraced, she decides to leave town and start over in the Pennsylvania countryside. She gets a teaching job there. A former roommate, Emmy Grey, surfaces just in time to go along with her and split the rent on a house in the woods. It’s a terrific house, but there are noises at night.

Leah says there are cats under there, scratching, scratching.

They have hardly settled in before things start to go amiss. Strange events occur that leave her frightened. When the woman’s body is dredged from the lake, Leah realizes it’s been awhile since she has seen Emmy. They work different hours, but still…shouldn’t she have seen her by now? She’s late with her share of the rent.

Leah feels as if someone is watching her at night through the glass doors at the front of the house.

This spine-tingling journey keeps me guessing every step of the way. Every time I think I see a formula starting to unspool, Miranda does something different, something I didn’t see coming. And as Leah trusts her instincts to protect her, we see for ourselves just how bad her instincts really are. Ultimately, she decides to get out of the house and ends up at the end of the road, at “the last no-tell motel”.

The plot here is taut and original, but the success of the story hinges on character. Leah’s past transgressions are vague at the outset, and we readers can tell it’s a dark time that she doesn’t like to talk about. But as the lies and the layers of deceit are peeled away one by one, we realize just how poor her sense of boundaries really is. Leah is so believable that she’s almost corporeal; I want to grab her by the wrist, haul her into the kitchen and talk to her, but even if I were able to do that, she wouldn’t listen to me.  Her personality is divided, part savvy journalist, objective and focused; half overly trusting, vulnerable waif. Her capacity for self-preservation is more limited than she knows. Is she going to make it out of this thing in one piece?

I can’t say more or I’ll ruin it for you, but this is the book you’re looking for, whether you are going to the beach or just need time to escape right here at home.

Just be sure to toss a blanket over those big glass doors before you settle in to read. Trust me.

Chaos, by Patricia Cornwell*****

chaos Patricia Cornwell has a publisher that doesn’t love bloggers, but her books kick ass. For this reason, this white-knuckle thriller was one of perhaps half a dozen books on my Christmas wish list for 2016. So here, in this spot where I traditionally thank the publisher and the site that facilitates them, I will instead thank Benjamin, his lovely wife Amie, and their baby boy. Between them, they gave me three delicious books, but this is the one I had to flip open as soon as the Christmas celebration was over; excuse me everyone, but I am off to bed with my box of Christmas candy and Patricia Cornwell. I am just now getting to the review, since DRCs get first priority, but I gobbled this book up before the New Year holiday.

Authors like Cornwell that write strong, long running thriller series have their work cut out for them. Whereas a debut novel and perhaps a few that follow can run along traditional lines, being trapped in a dark building with a killer on the premises somewhere; stuffed into the trunk of a vehicle (or the back seat with a gag and blindfold); held at gun point; family members kidnapped; it cannot go on forever. Eventually even the most faithful of readers is unwilling to buy into it anymore. Oh come on. No you didn’t.

The best of these writers—here I am thinking of Cornwell along with Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, James Lee Burke, GM Ford, and I know you are thinking of several more as you read this review—find a way to make the series deeper and richer through character development. There’s more inner narrative perhaps, and the tension is more of the psychological variety than constant action. And at this point in a series, the reader that really does want nonstop action will howl and toss down their book, but many others, myself among them, find myself more bonded to the character. And so it is with Kay Scarpetta, one of my favorite long running series protagonists.

This story is set in Boston, and at the outset, Kay is receiving some disturbing communications on her phone. The worst thing about them is that they play without her choosing to open them, and then they vanish, so she has no proof they were ever there. It doesn’t take long for her to conclude that the hack has been effected by nemesis Carrie Grethen, ex-lover of her beloved niece Lucy, whom she raised like a daughter and loves like no one else. Grethen has become Scarpetta’s Moriarty over the last several novels in this series. And Scarpetta wonders what these have to do with the young woman murdered in the park, a woman she spoke to briefly at an art exhibit and ran into later.

One of the things I love about this series is that Cornwell is unafraid to use her vocabulary. If someone out there doesn’t have the literacy level for it, let them stretch themselves to read this, or let them go away. In this era in which some writers are dumbing down their prose to meet the marketplace of American consumers with decreasing literacy levels, it’s a joy and a pleasure to find one that does not. The prose is richer, the descriptions more resonant than if she’d done otherwise.
As the story progresses, this psychological thriller takes on the contours of a nightmare in which everyone dear to Scarpetta—husband Benton, who’s with the FBI, Lucy, and Pete Marino—are all behaving in ways that make Scarpetta wonder whether they are deceiving her. Since every one of them has done so once before, the reader doesn’t regard Kay as paranoid, but rather fears for her.
Added into the picture is Kay’s sister Dorothy, who is Lucy’s mother. Kay and Dorothy hold a great deal of antagonism for one another, and an added twist is thrown in regarding sister Dorothy provides a huge surprise.

I note that cop Pete Marino, depicted in episodes gone by as a deeply flawed and disturbed individual, has been rehabilitated. Cornwell has tidied him up and Scarpetta has mostly forgiven his misdeeds of the past.

Should you pay full freight for this title? If you are a fan of the series and enjoyed the last one or two before this one, the answer is emphatically yes. Those new to the series might want to go for an earlier entry, as the series is much more fun when read in order. As of this writing, I also note that it’s available used online for less than five bucks, plus shipping charges. For others that are unsure, do remember that to develop character, Cornwell has to include a lot of details that have to do with the protagonist’s personal life. Some mystery readers just want the corpse, the puzzle, the guns, the action, and so if that describes you, see if you can read a sample before investing.

For fans of the series and of psychological thrillers, this book is highly recommended.

The Vanishing Year, by Kate Moretti****

thevanishingyear 3.5 stars, rounded up for this one. I received my copy from Atria Books and Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.  I am impressed most by the first half of the book, and particularly with regard to character, Kate Moretti is a rock star.

Our protagonist is Zoe Whitaker, and we learn that Zoe grew up as Hilary—with one “L”, and no political baggage—and then chose to adopt “Zoe”, the name on her birth certificate prior to her adoption. There’s a lot more mess here than there needs to be, the adopted-child angst, the guilt over having not given her mother Evelyn the funeral she deserved, and fear, fear, fear.

Moretti does a wonderful job of building suspense, and part of this is the vague but real tension, the constant shoulder-checking, wondering if someone has found her. It makes us wonder who, and it makes us wonder why. Bit by bit, she unspools tidbits of the past in the way you might expect someone that needs a friend and is learning to trust a new confidant might do.

Moretti’s main character is beautifully sculpted. Some novelists that withhold information to build tension hang onto so much that we don’t get to know our protagonist, but I was perched right on Zoe’s shoulder, or hanging out with her newly discarded friend Lydia, asking her why the heck Zoe is so passive. Is fear the only language Zoe knows? I felt close to Zoe, and I wanted her to tell me more.

Meanwhile, there’s the marriage. Henry Whitaker, an immensely wealthy man, sees Zoe across a crowd and homes in on her. Those familiar with the patterns common to abusive relationships know that this is a red flag; the guy whose gaze lights on a partner and from then on wants full possession of every move, every thought, and every minute. He makes a snap decision like lightning and then never lets up. And Henry has plenty of other red flags too, but he’s not a stereotypic abuser; Moretti is too cunning to permit any caricatures into her novel.

For the first half of this story, I relished the meaty ambiguity, not only in Zoe’s life but in what it represents. Yes, Henry is too possessive, too bossy, but on the other hand, this young woman that has never been known for her remarkable beauty or extraordinary talent has the Cinderella marriage without the stepsisters.

“I might be under someone’s thumb, but I have money now.”

Zoe has no living relatives to her knowledge, apart from the birth mom she hasn’t located and that may not want her when she does. She doesn’t have a degree, and is working at a florist’s shop in Manhattan when Henry finds her and whisks her away. He is devoted to her, provides her with every small thing her heart desires. She has a car and a driver, she has servants, she has clothes, jewels, and the whole nine yards. Everyone defers to her. There’s no restaurant that won’t make room for her at the front of the queue. Tickets to a sold out event? No problem.

It is easy for us to moralize from afar, we feminists with our principles, but economic want can shorten a woman’s life significantly. As this reviewer heads into retirement, I look at the lives of the women I knew when we were school girls, and no matter how clever or talented, their material well being seems tied, more than anything, to who they married and whether they remained married. Ask any woman over age 50 who’s looking for a job and watching those past-due notices land in her mailboxes, both electronic and physical, and many of those same women would be more than happy to let someone else tell them what to wear in exchange for such a well-padded safety net.

And so as Henry’s behavior escalates, I grow more entranced with the story’s Virginia Woolfish aspect, and I expect Moretti to take us up that mountain. How much is too much? At what point does one relinquish the guarantee, if there is one, of not only the basic requirements but luxuries one may quickly grow accustomed to, in exchange for breathing room, the dignity that comes with independence, self-respect, and with apologies to Woolf, possibly a room of one’s own?

But Moretti doesn’t go in that direction; at the last minute she tosses in a tremendous amount of new information that is original yet seriously far-fetched. Those that want a white-knuckle thriller with a female protagonist may be very happy here, but I was sad, left feeling as if the waiter had decided not to serve me and abandoned me after the hors d’oeuvres.

This title was released on October 4, and so if you are eager to see what all the buzz is about, get a copy, and then let me know what you think.

One way or another, Moretti will be a novelist to watch. The subtlety and nuance that escaped her as this novel progressed are still hers to be had, if she chooses to use them. I know I can’t wait to see what she publishes next.