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.

Watch Me Disappear, by Janelle Brown*****

WatchMeDisappear“…how can you ever really know the truth about another person? We all write our own narratives about the people we know and love…”

Billie Flanagan is living the good life in Northern California. Her husband, Jonathan, has a lucrative career that permits her to stay home, even though Olive is now in middle school. But one day she heads out on one of her favorite hiking trails, the Pacific Crest Trail in Desolation Wilderness, and she never returns. Search and Rescue crews find a single hiking boot and a cell phone far below the trail with its screen smashed. Her bank cards and checking remain untouched. Jonathan and Olive are forced to face the truth: Billie is never coming home again. They hold the funeral, and a year later, Jonathan sits down to write a memoir of his life with Billie. It is here that we join the family.

Many thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review in exchange for this honest review. The book will be available to the public July 11, 2107.

This psychological thriller starts with daughter Olive, who is in middle school, seldom a proud or happy time for any of us. But one day Billie appears to Olive in the hallway and tells her that she should be looking harder; she isn’t trying. Olive is convinced that her mother is still alive and trying to reach her. Eventually Jonathan starts to wonder as well. Neither of them is able to move on effectively without knowing the truth, yet there it is: they have no body and they have no proof of anything. As their journeys unfold, both externally and internally, Brown develops the hell out of both of these characters and through the memories both evoke in word and thought, she develops Billie best of all. An interesting side character named Harmony rounds things out nicely.

As each layer of each character is revealed—I was planning to say it’s like having three sets of Russian nesting dolls, but that’s not right; each has many more layers than that, more like onions–the reader’s viewpoint is forced to shift from one point of view to another, and so we wonder at various times about alternate possibilities. Could Billie really be alive somewhere? Did she just up and fucking leave them? She’s done that before. She is a runner. She has been known to drop people with no warning at all, just ghost them. It was a long time ago, but it’s true.

Or is she dead at the hands of…hmm, the ex-boyfriend that surfaces at the funeral? And we wonder whether maybe Jonathan, whose memories of Billie are not all as rosy as the ones we hear at the outset, did something to harm her. And then we wonder about Billie’s friend Harmony, who moves into Jonathan’s life rapidly enough to disturb Olive considerably. She’s so needy, so hungry for his attention; would she have offed Billie in order to have a crack at him? Many of these ideas are merely hinted at rather than voiced by the narrative, and this is part of what makes it so tasty. At first, I think my idea is original because I am so smart, but then I look back, as a reviewer has to do, and I can see it’s not really about my being smart (darn), but rather about very subtle foreshadowing. Brown uses lights and mirrors to get our minds moving in different directions, and the disorientation is, in its own twisted way, part of the rush.

A last note goes to the tangential but rarely-seen moment when a character muses about why it’s so hard to find an abortion clinic when you need one. This is the reverse side of a pet peeve of mine, the commonly used notion that every accidental pregnancy necessarily must end in childbirth, as if the year were 1950 or 1960 rather than the 21st century. I wonder whether Brown had to fight to keep that reference in her novel? One way or the other, this was going to be a five star review, but when I found that courageous little nugget, I wanted to shout for joy!

As to the end…I can’t tell you what happens of course, but I will tell you that this doesn’t end ambiguously. By the conclusion, the reader knows what happened to Billie.

When all is said and done, this is fiction that every feminist can embrace. If there is a heaven, Charlotte Perkins Gilman is looking down, and she is cheering.

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.

Ultimatum, by Anders de la Motte***

UltimatumFans of Swedish crime fiction rejoice; Ultimatum is available to the public today. Thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this honest review. Although it is the second in a series, I was able to follow along fine without having read the first in the series.

The story weaves together a cast of complex characters within the Swedish police intelligence network and organized crime. Frequent changes of point of view heighten the suspense, which grows to a screamingly tense climax.

Those that are even a little squeamish may want to pass on this one. My threshold for explicit gore is at the level of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (not related to this book, but likely those considering this story will have read that one.) This one went past that, and over the top of my personal limit. I found myself skimming every time some graphically sadistic detail rose to the fore; I had hoped that once we were past the beginning and the discovery of the first murder, it would ease up, but I stuck it out all the way through and it didn’t. Another precaution goes out to those—most likely not a lot of people, but if this is you, you need to know—that have lost a loved one to drowning. Again, the description of the recovered body is very graphic and jarring enough that I had to disengage from the story until I was past it.

I would have liked to see less body shaming (“fat bastard” and so on), and more than one female in this large cast of characters who is in the story for some reason other than to nurture or assist the male characters.

That said, the male characters are well drawn, and the settings are well rendered. Those that aren’t upset by the level of detail to corpses, torture, injuries and personal bodily functions will likely enjoy this white-knuckle thriller.

I found one part of the denouement trite, but then I have read so many of these things that I am pickier than most.

 

If you want this book, you can buy it now.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, by Hannah Tinti*****

thetwelvelivesofs “Everything breaks if you hit it hard enough.”

What would you do to protect those you love the most? Tinti’s epic father-daughter tale has already drawn accolades far and wide. What can I add to it all? There are only so many ways to say that someone is a genius and that her work deserves the highest praise and honors. I received my copy free and in advance, courtesy of Net Galley and Random House, in exchange for this honest review, and I’ve spent the last month trying to decide what I can add to the discussion. Although 2017 is clearly an outstanding year for literature, this title stands head and shoulders above everything else I’ve seen. It will likely be the best fiction published this year.

Our two protagonists are Samuel Hawley and his daughter, Loo. The story is arranged with alternate points of view, and also moves from present tense to the past, when Lily, Loo’s mother, was alive. Hawley is a career criminal, a man that has robbed and killed as part of a business transaction, but his tenderness for his daughter and his wife keep us connected to him.

As a parent, though, Hawley is kind of a mess. He does his best, teaching his daughter useful tasks like how to file the serial number off of a weapon and how to use it, but at the same time, he keeps his criminal business quiet and low, and she is nearly grown before she realizes what he actually does for a living. The two of them move around the country frequently, and they have a routine that gets them gone in a hurry when it’s necessary, but as she gets older he takes her to the Massachusetts town where her maternal grandmother lives. And I have to say, Mabel Ridge, Lily’s mother, is one of the most arresting side characters I have seen in a very long time.

For Loo’s sake, Hawley works as a fisherman and sets down roots. His participation in the Greasy Pole event, a cherished local tradition, wins him a place in the community. But he’s left enemies in his wake, and Hawley is constantly alert to the threat others pose. Who’s in prison, and who’s out? Who’s alive, and who isn’t anymore? Sooner or later, someone he doesn’t want to see is bound to rock the life he has established for himself and his daughter.

This is the sort of literary fiction that lets the reader forget that it’s art, because it reads a lot like a thriller. There are scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny; my favorite involves a car thief named Charlie.

Samuel Hawley seems to me to be a character for our time. Fifty years ago, a novel like this would have been controversial—and it may still be, who knows? Great literature often is. But today with the stratospheric growth of the American prison population, many more members of the book buying public either have done time, know someone that has, or know someone that barely escaped having to do so. It’s no longer unthinkable that a person that has done some truly reprehensible things, may also be a human being.

One way or the other, you have to read this book. The buzz it’s created is only the beginning. If you read one novel this year, let this be it. It’s available now.

Skitter, by Ezekiel Boone****

skitter Skitter is the sequel to Boone’s monstrous horror novel, The Hatching. Mutant spiders are on the rampage, fulfilling the worst nightmares of every arachnophobe, and president Stephanie Pilgrim has to decide how to save the USA—if it isn’t too late. I received my copy free and in advance from Net Galley and Atria Books in exchange for this honest review; copies will be available to the public May 9, 2017. Don’t miss out.

The first portion of the book is dedicated to bringing the reader up to speed so that those that didn’t read the first book can jump right in. The pacing feels a little slow, and I am thumbing my reader impatiently, wanting to find out what happens next. There is a fair amount of time discovering and discussing cold egg sacks versus warm, throbbing, glowing ones, but the emphasis is there for a reason, and it also makes for a more accessible read to a wider audience. At the 34% mark the ground work is done—so to speak—and the story breaks loose and really flies. The scene in Japan is particularly arresting.

So…imagine a bag of nice, warm spider eggs roughly the size of a bus; think of it as a “giant packet of doom in the corner”. It might hatch at any moment, and although the spiders may kill you, there’s a chance they may not. They spare some people to use as incubators for the next generation to come.

Let me just ask: how is your stomach doing right now? Are you feeling okay?

 

“Somebody gets bitten and then, what, five hours later they’re opening up and spilling out spiders like a bag of frozen peas?”

 

After The Hatching came out, I suddenly began noticing the spiders that came into the bedroom at night. It was uncanny how one turned up right after my spouse had fallen asleep, every single night. The spider would start in a far corner of the room—nothing to worry about here, ma’am, just minding my own business—and then gradually either circle to where it was directly overhead, or make its way to a location above the very center of the king sized bed, start a nice web, and commence to rappel doooown. I had never been that aware of them before, but now they seemed ominous. What the hell? Every night? Before he knew it, my spouse, who is nimbler than I, found himself drafted into spider-bombing the attic.

So yes, there is risk in reading this mesmerizing horror tale, but on the other hand, how can you not?

Ultimately, everything that can go wrong on Earth, does. There are mutant spiders from the South Pacific to Scotland, from Asia to Michigan. Quarantine zones fail. Hospitals fail. Other nations have tried everything, including using nuclear weapons on their own soil. And ultimately the president and her advisers wonder whether it is time to break out the Spanish Protocol.

I won’t tell you more than this; you need the book itself, either to take with you on vacation, or to make you feel better about the fact that you can’t go anywhere this year. Afterward, you’ll look at every little spider web in your living space with suspicion, and you’ll know it’s time for spring cleaning…right away!

Silence, by Anthony Quinn*****

silenceSilence is the third in the Inspector Celcius Daly series, but I read it alone and didn’t realize I had missed anything until I got online and looked. I received my copy free from Net Galley and Open Road Media in exchange for this honest review. It’s been for sale for almost a year and I apologize for my tardiness; the book had been out for several months before I received my DRC, and so I kept setting this review aside in order to write about stories that were about to be published immediately.  None of this should keep you from rushing out to order a copy; as you can see I rated it five stars, and I am picky these days.

I am immediately drawn to this book because of the setting; it takes place in Northern Ireland during the Troubles of the 1970s. Although I am impatient with the trite expression used by the journalist in the story—“sectarian violence”—I find the setting resonant and the characters credible. The entire thing is wholly original, but it’s complex, so it’s not something you can read while you’re trying to do something else.

Our protagonist is the Inspector Daly, a lonely man with kind intentions and deteriorating mental health. We have a dead man in the priest’s hotel room, but then we learn the dead man isn’t Father Walsh. If that’s not Father Walsh, where has he gotten to, and who is our victim? Last is our villain, Daniel Hegarty, an IRA man captured and turned by the Special Branch.

I particularly appreciate the moment with the sheep.

The field of mysteries, thrillers, and others of this ilk are thick with mechanisms that make me want to throw things. I think everyone that’s read many books in this genre has a private list. I am simply ecstatic to find that no one here is trying to solve the mystery either because they themselves are framed for something they didn’t do, or because a loved one has been threatened; no one in our tale is kidnapped, blindfolded, gagged, and tossed into the trunk—er, boot—of a car.  It’s refreshing.

Of course, to get a five star rating takes more than just a lack of irritating features. The setting, in the dark, in the muck, and sweating past police checkpoints, is both visceral and at times, scary. It’s the sort of story that makes a reader snuggle under the covers and be grateful for a safe, warm place to lie down. The characters are not always lovable, but they are entirely believable. That’s what counts with me. And the ending is a complete surprise, yet also makes sense.

For those that like literate, complex mysteries, it’s hard to beat. Highly recommended.

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.