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.”


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.

All the Missing Girls, by Megan Miranda*****

allthemissinggirlsI was invited to read by Net Galley and Simon and Schuster in exchange for an honest review, and I am so glad I did. It’s a juicy read that kept me transfixed through most of my Memorial Day weekend. You can order your copy now and have it when it comes out June 28.

The format is unique and very effective. We start in the present and step back to the day before, and before that, and so on, because just as is usually true when a person is missing, the most important information is what took place right at the beginning; that’s the part that has the key, and so we receive it last. It creates an electric sense of suspense I haven’t seen elsewhere in a long, long time.

We start with Nicolette Farrell driving away from her job, fiancé, and life in Philadelphia back to her hometown of Cooley Ridge, North Carolina. She couldn’t wait to get away from there when high school was over, and she isn’t eager to go back. And here, I felt her pain, urban snob that I am. Why would anyone want to return to a podunk place like that once they’d tasted life in a cosmopolitan city? But she has little choice; her father is in assisted living, his faculties fading, and Nic’s brother Daniel says they will have to sell the house in order to continue paying for Dad’s care. But Dad won’t agree to sell, and it’s up to Nic to reel him in.

But Nicolette, it turns out, had plenty of very personal reasons for needing to leave Cooley Ridge. Dark, mysterious questions about the disappearance of her best friend, Corinne, have never been answered, and once she is back, another girl disappears, this one the girlfriend of Nic’s old high school flame.  It doesn’t look good.

But Nic knows more than she’s telling; lots of people do.

“We were a town full of fear, searching for answers. But we were also a town full of liars.”

It’s been ten years since Corinne vanished, and now it’s happened again. Daniel is worried about Nic staying alone in that house, because the woods where the girls have last been seen is right behind it, and she’s there alone. He urges her to stay with him and his wife, but she doesn’t like to intrude; her relationship with Daniel hasn’t been strong since that last terrible night following graduation, and so she stays put.

This riveting psychological thriller grabbed me by the front of my shirt and didn’t let go till it was over.  Tantalizing bit by bit, Miranda takes us back to Nicolette’s earlier days, and one clue after another unspools until we sit stunned and amazed at the end. Miranda is a writer of formidable talent, and frankly, I can’t wait to see what else she has in store for us.

You can order your copy now so you can have it as soon as possible; go online, by car, by train, bus, foot, or skateboard, but reserve this book. It comes out Tuesday, and you won’t want to miss it!

Depraved Heart, by Patricia Cornwell*****

depravedheartI’ve been reading Cornwell for over a decade. Her Scarpetta series is curiously addictive, a bit like curling up in my favorite chair with a furtive pint of gelato and maybe a ridiculous TV show or YouTube clip. But in thinking that way, I sell Cornwell short. She started out strong; floundered just for a short time; and now she is better than ever. And perhaps you are waiting for a disclaimer saying that I read it free, but in fact I did not. I’ve yet to see Cornwell’s work on Net Galley. The kindle version popped up as the deal-of-the-day for four bucks, and I grabbed it while I could.

It was worth it.

We open with Kay Scarpetta’s head in a really bad place. Those that follow her series will recall that the previous novel ended with her being shot in the leg with a harpoon by a villain we had believed to be dead. Scarpetta is fragile now, both physically—that leg will never be the same—and mentally. She jumps at shadows now. Unfortunately, not everything is in her head; as the story opens, Scarpetta’s niece, Lucy, is having her home ransacked by the FBI. At the same time, Scarpetta’s phone has been hacked—certainly a fear to which all of us can relate—and a creepy video clip of Lucy from long ago, including Lucy doing things that are illegal—is shown on Kay’s phone, beyond her control and without Lucy’s knowledge, while Scarpetta is working a crime scene. Once the clip is over it vanishes, leaving no record or proof that it occurred. Soon thereafter, a huge black helicopter follows Scarpetta and cop Pete Marino, a series regular, to the estate Lucy shares with her partner Janet and a small child in Janet’s custody.

Every mystery writer that is successful enough to have a long-running series is faced with credibility issues eventually. One character, whether gumshoe, cop, forensic pathologist, butcher, baker, or candlestick maker can only encounter a certain number of traumas in his or her lifespan before even the most enthusiastic readers will say, “Okay. Wait a minute. Are we getting captured and tossed into the trunk of a car again? Seriously?”

The best series writers are able to forestall this in two ways that I have seen. The first and most critical is that more of the story is about character development—the protagonist’s, and sometimes those close to the protagonist, and so we are invested in the outcome of the problem because we care so much about our hero. And if a writer is really strong, as Cornwell is, she can make us care about the lives and problems of regular side characters also.

The second way longstanding series writers get away from repeating the classic or even trite gumshoe stand by scenarios, such as I’m-being-framed-and-must-prove-my-innocence, or The-bad-guys-have-threatened-to-harm-someone-in-my-family-if-I-don’t-follow-their-demands-so-I’m-going-to-catch-them, is by being totally bad ass writers. By this I mean that either they go ahead and use the stupid devices I just mentioned but they do it so well we don’t care, maybe don’t even realize they’ve done it till the story is over; or they find another way to ramp up the tension without employing those tired devices. Cornwell scores big in this department with Depraved Heart.

Rather than wondering about the threat of evil, possibly death, that may come from outside her nearest and dearest family—including people like Marino who she considers family—part of the threat appears to be coming from within it. So we have this stark psychological thriller; for example, given that Scarpetta’s husband Benton works for the FBI, isn’t it odd that he didn’t say anything about the bust on Lucy’s place? Isn’t it strange that he won’t answer her texts?  But then given how jumpy and shaky Kay Scarpetta is, and the fact that she is defying doctor’s orders in order to do the things she is doing, we also wonder…hey Kay, are you all right?

Maybe what she actually needs is a pile of meds and a good long nap.

So we have the suspense of fearing external threats; fearing treachery from somewhere within the family; and added fear that Kay has finally just straight-up lost it. And then there’s the fear that Kay is right to feel threatened, but that others will disbelieve her, and we see their skepticism.

I have to tell you, this is a fast read, partly because of the amount of dialogue but also because the pacing is electric!

By now, you probably already know whether you are a Scarpetta fan or not. If you are on the fence, this should pull you over onto the side of avid readers. If you have never read a book in the Scarpetta series, don’t start with this one. Get a copy of the first in the series, or as close to the first as you can get, and work your way forward, because a lot of the reader’s sense of urgency is spun from the bond we have already formed with the protagonist and those close to her in previous installments. It’s not a good series to enter from the middle.

But for Scarpetta fans, this is a must-read!

Trust No One, by Paul Cleave *****

trustnooneMany times my daughter has come upon me reading a book and asked, “How is it?” And almost every time I have said, “I don’t know. I haven’t read the end yet.” This is completely true for this one. And oh my my my, what an ending. No, stop worrying, I have no intention of giving away anything.

But I will thank Net Galley and Atria Books. I appreciate the opportunity to read a free DRC in exchange for this honest review.

You can purchase this book Tuesday, August 4, or you could save the hassle and order it now.

Above all…you don’t want to forget. If you forget this, you might be forgetting other things, too. That’s a slippery slope that nobody wants to slide down.

Jerry is just 49 years old, and he has Alzheimer’s. After the diagnosis, he starts a journal, partially with the idea of recording all the things he doesn’t want to forget so that he can come back and find them later. But fate has other ideas for our protagonist, and for his nom de plume, Henry Cutter–a cute play on the actual author’s name…or is it his pen name?

As we find ourselves gradually creeping down that long dark tunnel with poor Jerry, the journal becomes more and more confused. Is he a killer? If so, how many people has he killed? Why can’t he remember doing any of it?

But then, he can’t remember much of anything these days…

Trust No One is a brilliantly paced, tautly written piece of psychological fiction, and it is proof that, contrary to the old saying, not all stories have already been written. And the title answers his question, a very good question: who can he trust?

The problem here is that someone in Jerry’s position has to be able to trust someone. And as the plot moves further along, the reader can’t help wondering whether all of the characters in the story actually exist.

Those searching for an absorbing vacation read—or even one to curl up with at home, hunkered under the air conditioner or fan on a dog-hot day—can’t really ask for anything better than this. Cleave gives the reader every possible frisson in this impossibly complex, yet strangely accessible novel.

Highly recommended.

Giveaway: Black-Eyed Susans, by Julia Heaberlin

BlackEyedSusansThis giveaway ends Friday, July 31 at midnight! Thank you to my sponsors for permitting me to extend the deadline. Hot new psychological thriller won’t go for sale until August 21, but thanks to Net Galley and Ballantine, you have a shot at your very own advance copy! If you live in the continental USA and have a snail mail address to give me if you should win, then you are eligible.

This is my first giveaway ever, and I began it on the review page, but so far only 5 people have expressed interest, and only one has left the contact information necessary for me to notify the winner. That means that by entering your contact info–which I will not use for any other purpose but to notify you that you’ve won and get your address to the sponsors–you have an outstanding chance of winning. Just a few days, people! Come on in!

Black-Eyed Susans Giveaway; My Very First!

I am pumped about this! I was contacted by a rep from Net Galley and offered a copy of Ballantine’s hot new mystery for a blog giveaway, which I have not done before. I hope a lot of people will enter. If you’d like to be included in the drawing, which will occur at the end of this week in a totally random manner, please go down to the bottom of the page where it says “Leave a Reply”. Type in your name (or a pseudonym for now if you prefer) and an e-mail address where I can reach you. If you win, I will send a message to your e-mail, and at that point you need to give me a real name and snail mail address, which will be released only to the Net Galley rep.

I promise not to use your e-mail address for anything else. Actually, I don’t have an e-mail list to sell, and I don’t have anyone to sell it to. But if someone pops up and offers me great riches, I will turn them down…I promise!

This page will dominate my blog for the whole week. As a refresher, here’s the review again, and the attention-getting cover:

BlackEyedSusansTessa is the sole survivor of a group of young women who were left for dead in a mass grave, which was then planted with flowers. The Black-Eyed Susans became a metaphor for the trauma she experienced. This thriller, Heaberlin’s first following a highly respected career in journalism, is a great read with a few problems, most of which have to do with trying to cram too many details into a single novel. It was looking like 3.5 stars to me until it passed the halfway mark; then it hit its stride. Ultimately, the eloquent manner in which issues surrounding the death penalty were braided into the narrative won the final .5 star from this reviewer. And at this point, I have an obligation to tell you I read the book free, and to say thank you to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the DRC. The book will be available to the public August 11.

Tessa is an adult, a single parent, and it’s been twenty years since her abduction and attempted murder. There are memories she tries to bury, and there are other niggling details that she can’t make sense of. In a writing style somewhat reminiscent of Jodi Picoult, Heaberlin flashes us back and forth from Tessa’s adolescent memories to the present, a life in which her sole objective at first is to protect her own teenage daughter, Charlie, whom she is afraid may pay the ultimate price. Because Tessa’s stalker has been planting Black-Eyed Susans in her yard and various other places, and she is scared half to death.
Strange, threatening packages appear in the mail. And her best friend Lydia disappeared mysteriously not long after the trial. There are so many shadows, so many possible threats out there that her inclination is to retreat into her artist’s studio, and into her home. Don’t rock the boat.

The problem is that an innocent man is about to become one more victim of Texas’s capital punishment. Her supposed attacker, the supposed killer of the other Susans, waits on death row…and the clock is ticking. She knows he didn’t do it, and she’s been holding out. Once she decides to testify to his innocence, will she be believed? Can she get there in time?

A tremendous amount of research went into teenage trauma and its possible affects, and the capital punishment process (and the process of its defense) in Texas. Heaberlin has done her homework; if anything, she may have done a little too much, or tried to incorporate too much of her work into one novel. Somewhere around the 37 percent mark, I found myself not mystified, but confused. What were all these references to the OJ Simpson trial doing here? Who the hell is Jo? Is Lydia dead, moved away, or what? The suspense fell away while I stopped reading in irritation to go back over the book and try to discern what I had missed or forgotten.

However, just before the halfway mark, the author found her stride and everything came together. From that point till ninety percent, I was riveted. Portions of the text approached the level of literary fiction. I found myself questioning my earlier complaints, and went back and reread the passages I had marked earlier to see whether I had just been distracted, or in a snarky frame of mind. But no, the inconsistency is really there.

The supernatural bits about the other Susans being in her head, talking beyond the grave, may have turned up in the author’s research as a possible outcome of trauma, but they felt extraneous to me, as if they had been shoe-horned into the text. If I had been her editor, I would have cut them.

I was not entirely happy with the ending, which felt a bit contrived, but I was so deeply satisfied by what I had read up to that point that I didn’t feel let down.

My advice to the reader is this: if you are opposed to the death penalty and love a good thriller, get a copy of this novel. I think you’ll find it as satisfying as I did. You may want to flag pages where you have questions with sticky notes, or mark it digitally if you read it that way; later on it will all make sense.

And whatever you do, remember: there are no millionaires on death row. Not in Texas, and not in any other state that has capital punishment in the USA.