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.

Best of 2016: Mystery

This category includes everything within the same zone: thrillers, suspense, detective fiction, crime fiction. If it’s related, I’m rating it here. I expected this to be my toughest call because I read so many books of this genre, but when I had a look at the original titles I’d seen this year, and then eliminated those crossover novels that had already been awarded as the best of some other genre on this site, it was down to three books. Unbelievable…but not at all mysterious.

MY TOP THREE:

 

Good Behavior, by Blake Crouch****

goodbehaviorcrouchLast spring I advance- read and reviewed the riveting sci fi thriller Dark Matter, which was my introduction to author Blake Crouch, who has already met with success as a screenwriter. When I saw that something else he had written was up for grabs at Net Galley, I landed on it eagerly. Thanks go to them as well as Thomas and Mercer at Amazon for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review.

Good Behavior consists of a trilogy of Letty Dobesh stories, along with a brief narrative that follows each one explaining how it was tweaked (pardon the pun) as it was adapted to television. Our protagonist herself is, in fact, a recovering meth addict, and there is only one activity that comes close to the rush she experiences when she uses it, and that’s crime. Not just the seamy survival type of theft; not just cleaning valuables out hotel rooms while the guests are off in tourist-land. A big theft with huge risk and a potentially tremendous payday provides the adrenaline rush Letty needs to stay clean, not forever, but for one more day.

Letty is a kick-ass character, a woman who’s been knocked down a million times and gotten back up a million and one. I love the way Crouch works her motivation. Actor-director Jodie Foster once commented that when men in the film industry want to reach the core of a character’s motivation, they reach every damn time for rape, and I’ve noticed that male authors do this with female protagonists a lot also. It’s a fascination they can’t seem to let go of. I am cheered to see that Crouch does something much different, with Letty’s main motivation being the need either to stay clean, or on bad days, the need to score. Behind the need to stay clean is the possibility of seeing her six year old son, Jacob, again. He is living in Oregon with his paternal grandparents; he’s in a stable, loving environment, and though Letty yearns to see him, she won’t let herself go there until she is convinced she can stay clean. But there are triggers out there in the everyday world that some of us could never have imagined:

“She could almost taste the smoke. Gasoline and plastic and household cleaners and Sharpies and sometimes apples. Oh yes, and nail polish.”

Around every corner, temptation calls to her. She can’t even get a pedicure without the fumes invoking a primal craving.

My hunch is that Letty will be with us a long time, and I am curious to see whether this child will remain six years old forever; grow up, but more slowly than real-time chronology; or be aged as if in real time. I can think of some hit mystery series that have been frozen in time to good effect. Crouch could keep Jacob small throughout the life of the series, and this might make more sense than having him grow up and be independent; on the other hand, this series is so full of surprises already that there’s no telling what will happen.

To see the first television episode, in which the protagonist’s name is different from the book:

https://www.goodbehavior.tntdrama.com/?sr=good%20behavior%20video

The first story involves a murder for hire. The second is a complicated rip-off of a billionaire who’s about to go to prison. The last and by far the best is a scheme to knock over a casino. The casino plot is proof positive that a relatively old concept (theft of a casino’s funds) can be made brand new in the right hands.

I believed Letty nearly all of the time; the only weak spot I see is when she considers dialing 911, a thing that former prisoners just never, ever do. No matter how big and ugly a situation gets, for someone who’s been in jail, and especially for those that have gone to a penitentiary, calling cops will only make it worse. Even if the caller is Caucasian, and even if she believes she can do so anonymously, cops are never desirable. They’re just not on the menu of choices anymore.

This is a super fast read, one that might make for a fantastic holiday weekend. There’s lots of dialogue, crisp and snappy. Best of all, it has just been released, and so you can get a copy now. If the turkey is dry and the marshmallows on your yams catch fire, Letty Dobesh can knock everything back into perspective for you.

Recommended to those that love dark humor and big surprises.

Titles You’ll See Here Soon

The last time I put up a preview page, it was in the midst of household chaos, and I made the post by way of apology for not having a review to put up. I was surprised by the positive feedback I got, and so today, even though I have recently posted a review and will have more soon, I thought I’d show you what’s next. There are some repeats from my last preview that I haven’t done yet, but I’m happy to say most of those are done. Here’s what you can look for between now and Thanksgiving, barring catastrophe:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Combustion, by Martin J Smith*****

combustionPaul Dwyer is dead, a floater that has only been found because his construction business diverted the water from the place where his body is dumped, and it dries up in the Southwestern desert heat, leaving his body exposed to the world.  I was lucky to be able to read this book early, thanks to an invitation from Net Galley and Diversion Publishing, in exchange for this honest review.  I am overjoyed to rate it five stars. I knew nothing at all about either Smith or Diversion, but it turned out to be a risk that worked out in my favor and the author’s.

Our detective is Ron Starke, a single man whose father has Alzheimer’s. The reader cannot help but warm to him as we see him appear in his father’s room, hamburgers in a paper bag, prepared to patiently have the same conversation with his dad that he had with him several times yesterday and most likely will have tomorrow too.

Shelby Dwyer, the victim’s widow, is a very wealthy woman now. She isn’t sorry that he’s gone, and neither is their teenage daughter Chloe. Dwyer was a violent, ugly man in private, regardless of the shine he demonstrated publicly. Naturally, Shelby is the chief suspect, a thing made more difficult by the fact that she was Starke’s girlfriend a decade ago, when they were in high school.  But it’s a small town, a tiny exurb of Los Angeles, and everyone really does know everyone, aside from Starke’s supervisor, Kerrigan, a recent transplant from the big city. To make matters even more awkward, Starke had been considered a shoo-in for the job Kerrigan now occupies, and Kerrigan knows it.

He has a feeling that his new boss is gunning for him.

The story is told from alternate points of view, and Smith creates whiplash tension by shifting between them at key points.  Character development is solid, and it makes me wonder about the possibility of a series emerging from this debut.

Shelby may be rich now, but she is in tremendous personal jeopardy. All of the lonely nights spent holed up in the study, cruising online for connections she can’t find at home, have led her to expose herself in a horrifying way. And as she is forced to confess to Chloe about the unwise things she has said to another visitor in a chat room, a person using the handle LoveSick, and despite the horror of the moment I had to smile, as the traditional tables are turned and 17 year old Chloe has to tell her mother that you should never, never provide a stranger with personal details.

Smith’s debut is hot as the desert sun, a page turner that will live in your head after the last page has turned. Those that know me are aware I finish an average of three titles weekly for review, and so months or even weeks later if I am contacted by the writer’s publicist, I sometimes have to flip back through my records to remind myself…wait, this what which book again? And this is especially true of mysteries, which no matter how unique, tend to share a certain sameness. But in this case, that didn’t happen. The settings are so resonant, the characters so well sculpted that I felt as if I were an unseen guest among them.

It’s for sale today, and I highly recommend that you read it.