Girl in Snow, by Danya Kukafka*****

GirlinSnow

“’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.

The Lying Game, by Ruth Ware****

TheLyingGameIsabel, Fatima, and Leah receive a text from Kate saying that she needs them. It’s been 17 years, and yet they answer in the only possible way:

“’I’m coming.’
“’I’m coming.’
“’I’m coming.’”

This one had me at hello. How many of us have a friend from childhood, adolescence, or the early years of our adulthood that could draw this response from us? I know I do, and although mine are from different times and places in my life, if I received that text I’d be on a plane, a train, or in the car. Thank you Net Galley and Gallery Books for the DRC, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. The book was published last week.

Our protagonist is Isa (“It’s to rhyme with nicer”), and as you might infer, this is British fiction. Isa leaves Owen, a good sport if ever there was one; grabs Freya the baby, who is breast-feeding; and hops on a train. And that baby will ramp up the stakes, mostly in subtle ways, over and over throughout the story.

Kate has called them because human bones have been found in the Reach. All of them immediately know what this means, although the reader does not.

We learn about the lying game played by the foursome during their years at school together. There are points given according to whether the lie is believed, whether the victim is new, and further byzantine details; but the big rule is that they must never lie to each other. The game revives itself at odd moments during their reunion, sometimes to lightened effect for the reader, but sometimes becoming sinister.

Throughout this well-crafted tale, Ware doles out bits and pieces of what is to come, and every time my experienced eye spots a sure-fire red herring, it turns out it isn’t. I read a lot of mysteries—probably too many—but this one is fresh and original conceptually, and it becomes more riveting as the characters are developed, adding layer after layer like papier-mâché. The ending completely surprises me, and yet is entirely consistent with the rest of the novel.

There are times when I am astounded at the risk-taking behaviors exhibited by the four as adults approaching middle age once they are together again; at times I step away and ask myself whether the doctor that Fatima is now would actually do this, and whether Isa, an attorney, wouldn’t show more caution. But the foursome persuades me—are there points for this, I wonder—and I am drawn back in before the curtain twitches. There’s never a time when I see that the Great and Powerful Oz is seen back there at the control panel; the magic holds. There are times I am astonished at the risks Isa takes with Freya, going for a swim in the Reach with her pals, leaving her defenseless baby alone, asleep, in that hideous, falling down shack, but it’s consistent with the girl she used to be, the girl that is awakened to a degree as she returns to the time and place in which she came of age.

The fifth star isn’t here because the foreshadowing is too heavy-handed at times, and threatens to become funny rather than scary, which is clearly not intended. But every time I see it veering toward the ridiculous, Ware pulls back again, and so the overdone moments are a blip on the radar.
Those that love Ruth Ware’s work, and those that love a good mystery—especially women—will want to read this book. You can get it now.

What I’m Reading

I’ve been experimenting with ways to share what is coming up next. Usually I put this on a different page, but then it also tends not to get seen, likely due to the absence of share buttons. Let me know what you think. Is it better to post it separately, or do you like it here?

 

Here are books I’ve finished reading, and as soon as a sane moment presents itself in my uncharacteristically busy domicile, you will see them reviewed here:

 This is what I am reading now; all are good, but some are outstanding. [Imaginary drum roll goes here.]

A Game of Ghosts, by John Connolly*****

AGameOfGhostsJohn Connolly writes two kinds of books. Some of them are good; some are damned good. This is one of the latter. It’s the fifteenth in the Charlie Parker series, and it marks a turning point; previously a thriller series with mystic overtones, it’s now a stew combining multiple genres. Connelly heats his cauldron and pours in a healthy dose of suspense, mixes in some detective fiction, and blends in horror and fantasy as well, along with a pinch of humor. The overall result is deliciously creepy, the kind of story that stays with me after I’ve read a dozen other less memorable books. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. The book is for sale now.

Parker has a haunting past indeed; in the first book of this series, his wife and daughter Jennifer are murdered by a man that has come looking to kill Parker. Our hero sets out to find and kill the man that did it, and he succeeds; yet his thirst for stark, take-no-prisoners justice is not satisfied. Now the father of another daughter, Samantha, that lives with his ex, our current mystery finds Parker in a conversation with the girl’s uncle, who asks hard questions about Parker’s risky behavior. He wants to know why Parker keeps chasing bad guys now that his initial quest has been fulfilled. Why hunt down evil-doers when he might adopt a lifestyle more in line with the best interests of his still-living child? Parker responds,

“I do it because I’m afraid that if I don’t, nobody will. I do it because if I turn away, someone else might suffer the way I have. I do it because it’s an outlet for my anger. I do it for reasons that even I don’t understand. 
“But mostly,” said Parker, “I do it because I like it…
“We can’t leave these people to wander the world unchallenged.”

The premise here is that Parker is sent by FBI agent Ross, who he has agreed to work for under terms mostly his own, in search of Jaycob Ecklund, a man also employed by Ross who has vanished. Once Parker’s search for Ecklund commences we learn that the missing man was a ghostbuster of sorts, a man with a basement full of files on the paranormal. Many others are interested in Ecklund also, and the plot ramps up quickly and doesn’t relent until the last page is done.

The plot here is complex, and Connolly weaves in a host of characters, both living and dead. We have The Brethren, most of whom are alive yet already damned. We have Angel and Louis, a pair of characters that have appeared throughout the series that work with Parker; their darkly amusing banter helps lighten an otherwise almost unbearably intense plot. We have clairvoyants; we have The Brethren; the hollow men; we have a number of murder victims, before, during, and after their deaths; there is the Collector, who is tied to Parker like a falcon, and must always return to him.
And we have organized crime figures Phillip and his Mother, who abduct him in order to find out what Parker does and what he knows, in a civilized way, of course.

“There will be tea.”

Mother is the best villain this reviewer has seen in a long time.

The entire book is brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed. And although Connolly’s series is worth reading from the get-go, those that hop in without having read earlier books from this series will be able to follow and enjoy this shapeshifting mindbender of a novel just fine, but those that genuinely believe in ghosts may not want to read it at night.

Highly recommended to those that love excellent novels of suspense.

Summertime, and the Reading is Easy

On my radar for July and August:

Lockdown, by Laurie R. King*****

lockdownI am a big fan of Laurie R. King’s contemporary thrillers, and this one is no exception. Thank you to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the DRC, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. It’s for sale today, so now everyone can read it.

King’s feminist fiction is made more delicious by her careful attention to detail. There is NEVER a single moment in which the setting—which is primarily at Guadalupe Middle School—slips and shows the reader that the Great and Powerful Oz is really just a human behind a curtain. Her magic never falters. Every fine detail regarding school schedules, culture, and protocol is true to life. This reviewer spent a couple of decades teaching in a middle school not much different from King’s fictional one, and I have never seen any novelist get everything so completely right in using school as the main setting.

As the cover suggests, this story is centered around a school shooting in California that takes place on career day. This is ticklish business to say the very least, one that authors dared not approach for a long time. Now, with Columbine significantly in our rear-view mirror but with school shootings an increasing, ever-present concern, King works it like a pro. A large measure of her success has to do with the way she builds her characters. We have a complex blend, from the school administrator, Linda McDonald; to her spouse Gordon, who has secrets that must not be revealed; to Tio, the custodian, another man that holds his cards closely; to the kids, the kids, the kids. We have Mina, the perfect student who has worries all her own, to Chaco—my personal favorite—to a host of others. By the time we reach the climax, we feel as if we know each one of these people, and so it isn’t a story of violence in the broad sense, but the fates of real people that collide.

This white-knuckle read treats issues of class, ethnicity and gender with the sensitivity one might expect from a master of the genre.  When I finish, it is replete with the satisfaction I receive at the end of Thanksgiving dinner—but this feast is one I don’t have to cook up myself, which makes it all the better. I’ve read 11 other books, mostly galleys, since I read Lockdown, and yet in my memory this one stands out as exceptionally strong fiction, the kind of book one wants to read a second time. And I know that when I do, some things will leap out from the pages brand new, because such a layered, intricate story is full of delightful niches and crannies that aren’t necessarily seen the first time through.

I wholeheartedly recommend this story to good people that love novels of suspense.  If it means you have to pay full freight—do it anyway. I would have.

Almost Missed You, by Jessica Strawser****

almostmissedyo“Fate, people liked to call it. But Violet pictured it as dominoes. Somehow, they’d been positioned perfectly. And at the end of the line was Finn.”

Thanks go to Net Galley and St Martin’s Press for the DRC for this intricately crafted novel, which I received free in exchange for an honest review. Unique and tightly woven, it’s sure to arrest your attention until the last page is turned. This book goes up for sale March 28, 2017.

Violet meets Finn while on vacation in Miami, and wild coincidences draw them together. They went to the same obscure, short-lived summer camp, and they’re both from Cincinnati. How crazy is that? And so when they come together again, it feels like something out of a fairy tale. They marry and have an adorable son they call Bear. Later they return to Miami as a little family.

Then Violet returns, warm and fulfilled, to the hotel room…and both Finn and Bear are gone, along with their luggage.

This is a story that speaks to every mother’s worst nightmare, the abduction of her child. Her baby! And Strawser plots it cleverly, so that the obvious answers are no longer feasible. Of course the police are called, but since there was no divorce, no restraining order, there’s only so much they can do. They have other cases as well. Meanwhile, Violet is both frantic and bewildered. She had thought they were so happy together; what on Earth happened here?

Our main characters are these two parents as well as their closest friends, Caitlin and George. George is a ruling class scion, and at the start of the book it seems as if this is overemphasized. At one point I enter it in my digital notes: put the trowel away already, we get it! But here I am mistaken, because the frequent references are here for a reason; that’s all I will say about that lest I ruin the end for you.

An endearing side character is Gram, the woman that raised Violet after her parents died. Older women tend to be stereotyped in novels; they are either background characters that emerge with cookies or chicken soup and then depart again to make way for the real characters, or they are the cause of all that is bad—shrews, harpies, abusers, enablers, nags. Gram has shrewd advice and insights. She’s not just a cardboard cutout.

The inner narratives, which alternate and in doing so build suspense, are where the strongest voices are found. The dialogue is nicely done, but not as effective as the narratives. And more than anything I have read recently, this book is driven by the plot. The ending is a humdinger.

Ordinarily I would call this a strong beach read, but mothers of tiny children might want to read it somewhere else. It’s a fine debut novel, and Strawser will be an author to watch in the future. Recommended to those that like strong fiction.

The Devil’s Country, by Harry Hunsicker****

thedevilscountryHarry Hunsicker is the former executive vice president of the Mystery Writers of America as well as a successful author. Reading this suspenseful and at times almost surreal tale makes it easy to understand why so many people want to read his work. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Thanks go to Net Galley and to Thomas and Mercer for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review. This book will be available to the public April 11, 2017.

Arlo Baines, a former Texas Ranger, is on the road when it all unfolds; he’s stopped at the tiny town of Piedra Springs, traveling from one place to another by Greyhound Bus, and he doesn’t intend to stay. He finds a place to get some food, sticks his nose in a copy of Gibbon, and tries to ignore everyone around him. Friendly conversation? Thank you, but no.

Unfortunately for him, there’s a woman with kids, and she’s in big trouble. Clad in an outfit that screams sister-wife, she is terrified, tells him she is pursued, and next thing he knows, she is dead. What happened to the children? Before he knows it, Baines is hip deep in the smoldering drama of the Sky of Zion, a cult that has deep tentacles into the local business and law enforcement establishments.

The narrative shifts smoothly back and forth between the past and the present, and Baines’s motivation is revealed. He is on the move because his wife and child were murdered by corrupt cops, who he then had killed. One particularly chilling scene, the one in which Baines is told to leave town, gives me shivers. In general, however, I find that the scenes taking place in the present are more gripping and resonant than those in the past.

Interesting side characters are Boone, a retired professor with a crease on his head and flip-flops that are falling apart; the local sheriff, Quang Marsh; journalist Hannah Byrnes; and the bad guys in Tom Mix-style hats, with the crease down the front. Setting is also strong here, and I can almost taste the dust in my mouth as Baines pursues his quest in this little town with quiet determination. Every time I make a prediction, something else—and something better—happens instead. In places, it’s laugh-out-loud funny!

Readers that love a good thriller and whose world view leans toward the left will find this a deeply satisfying read. Hunsicker kicks stereotypes to the curb and delivers a story unlike anyone else’s. I would love to see this become a series.

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 Fall of Lisa Bellow, by Susan Perabo****

thefalloflisabellowI was fortunate enough to score a DRC of this suspenseful novel from Simon and Schuster and Net Galley. It’s a book that defies the usual genre niches, and for this and many other reasons I enjoyed it immensely. It will be available to the public March 14, 2017.

The premise is that Meredith Oliver, a middle school student, is present when the local deli is robbed. She and her frenemy, Lisa Bellow, are ordered to get down on the floor. When it’s all over, Lisa has been kidnapped, but Meredith is still there, traumatized but otherwise unharmed.

There are two key components that make this story a strong one. The first is characterization. Both Meredith and her mother, Claire, are so carefully rendered that by the end of the book I felt as if I could predict what either of them would say in any given situation. The second is plot, and here Perabo’s expertise in her field—she is a professor of English as well as a novelist—shines through. She gives us just enough information to keep us taut and engaged, skillfully meting out a taste here, an additional nugget there, while leaving us with some of our original questions and posing new ones.

You see, Meredith is here, but she isn’t; at least not all of the time. She suffers from survivor’s remorse, to be certain, but a completely second life, one in which she and Lisa are together, is woven into the narrative, and it leaves us wondering whether Lisa’s abduction has perhaps been arranged by Claire or even by Meredith, or horror of horrors, the two of them as confederates.

Another compelling aspect of this novel is the family. Prior to the accident, Meredith and Claire constitute half of a cozy middle class family. Both parents are dentists, her father the kind of upbeat but slightly clueless guy that operates in the day-to-day, gliding happily along life’s surface. He’s not a deep thinker. Meredith’s older brother Evan, who she adores, is an athlete with a future, a baseball player being courted by any number of colleges, until the accident occurs in which one eye is lost. The doctor that attends him tells the family bluntly, “Imagine stepping on an ice cream cone.”

As Meredith winks in and out of the world around her, the family also is strained almost to the breaking point.

Meredith’s voice is so richly crafted that it will take the reader back to middle school. The wrenching emotions, the jockeying for social position, the depth of devotion and the dark, searing hate are so powerful that as I look back on my years as an eighth grade teacher, I am amazed that any of my students was able to learn anything. The social subtext is impossible to ignore, and it sends little flags out constantly in small ways; shifted body language, the choice as to whether to speak to someone in the halls, choosing who to befriend not only based on the friend’s qualities but on what it will mean about one’s other school relationships—all these things constitute a full time job. Meredith loves algebra, and I thank the author for crushing the stereotype that says girls don’t do that. Yet the rest of Meredith’s classes tend to pass in a fog that is dominated by the social interaction that’s anticipated both in the next class and in the hallway during passing time. The locker room is a nightmare waiting to happen, a Lord of the Flies with meaningful glances and flipped hair taking the place of spears and fire.

I won’t give away the end of this story because it would completely ruin it for you, but at the same time, I found myself both relieved and oddly let down by the denouement.

Recommended to those that love strong fiction.