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.

The Postman Always Rings Twice****

thepostmanalwaysringstwiceWell, they do say karma’s a bitch.

I fell heir to a first edition hard cover copy of this classic 1934 crime fiction. It’s too well worn to be a collector’s item, so instead of selling it, I decided to just enjoy holding a book in my hands that could have been held, hypothetically, by my great-grandparents. I think I enjoyed the crispy yellow pages and the old school print more than I enjoyed the story itself.  With wide margins and plenty of dialogue, it was a quick read, and before the weekend was over I’d finished it.

Our protagonist, Frank, is a drifter that does odd jobs and occasional crimes as he travels through Mexico and the Western USA; the story itself is set in California. He comes to an out-of-the-way place where a Greek immigrant and his wife run a small roadside restaurant. The owner is interested in expanding the business to include car repair, and hopes that a free meal and a bed for the night will lure Frank to stick around and work for him. Instead, Frank stays and finds a white-hot attraction to Cora, the owner’s wife. The two of them make love like cats in a pillowcase, snarling and biting and tearing at each other, and they like it so well that they decide to kill the Greek guy so they can do it together forever.

Those that don’t follow history may not know that at the time this story was published, U.S. xenophobia toward immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe was at its pinnacle. Jim Crow and the Klan had silenced any open dissent from African-Americans with a reign of terror, but it was somewhat commonplace for Caucasians, who were by far the largest group in terms of population and certainly in terms of power and money, to make nasty assumptions and references about people from Greece, Turkey, Italy, and the surrounding area.

So it’s within that context that Cora declares that although her husband Nick loves her and treats her really well, he repulses her because he’s “a little soft greasy guy with kinky hair”. He wants her to have his baby, and she doesn’t want to touch him. She’d hate to go back to turning tricks, but she would far prefer to be with fair, blonde-haired Frank than Nick Papadakis.

The story arc here is flawless, and I can see how it became a classic, but it has many aspects that haven’t aged well. There are nasty remarks about Mexicans; Cora urgently wants Frank to know that she’s white, even though her hair is dark. She isn’t “Mex”. And although I understand that some people do like rough sex, I had to take a deep breath when Frank became aroused and showed it by blacking Cora’s eye for her.

Right. So you see what I mean.

The way the story is plotted is ingenious, and the characters are consistent all the way through; the ending is brilliantly conceived and executed.

For me, though, one reading is enough.

The Girls, by Emma Cline*****

thegirlsThe Girls is a fictionalized account of the Manson Murders, a terrible killing spree that stunned the USA in the 1960s before any mass shootings had occurred, when Americans were still reeling from the assassinations of President Kennedy, his brother, Senator Robert Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King. Manson, a career criminal with a penchant for violence yet possessed of a strange sort of charisma, attracted a number of young women and girls into a cult of his own founding. Later they would commit a series of grisly murders in the hills outside Berkeley, and it is this cult and these crimes on which Cline’s story is based. Great thanks to Net Galley and Random House for the DRC. This book will be published June 14, 2016.

Evie is an only child of the middle class; she is well provided for, but her parents have split up and her presence is getting in the way of her mother’s love life. Evie needs her mother’s attention now that she has entered her teens and so she pushes the limits in small ways, then in larger ones. When it becomes clear that her mother just doesn’t want her around, Evie looks elsewhere and finds herself drawn to a feral-looking young woman named Suzanne, who has unsuccessfully tried to shoplift something from a nearby store. Before long, Evie is sleeping on a mattress at the rural commune where Suzanne lives, eating from the communal kitchen and being used sexually by the group’s charismatic leader, and then by a man in the music industry that Russell, the founder, wants to please in the hope of having his music published.  Russell dispenses hallucinogenic drugs freely to make the girls more compliant.

We know immediately that this place, the commune, is not a good place. When we find that the babies  born to young women that live there—in this era before Roe versus Wade gave women the right to choose—are segregated from their young mothers and the pitiful way they regress and attempt to attach themselves to various females in search of a mother or mother figure, that’s a huge tell. But when Evie arrives she doesn’t want to know these things, at least not yet. All Evie wants is to be with Suzanne.

The story’s success isn’t anchored so much in the story line, a story that’s been tapped by previous writers, but in the dead-accuracy of setting, both the details of the time and in every other respect as well, from home furnishings, to slang, to clothing, to the way women were regarded by men. The women’s movement hadn’t taken root yet. This reviewer grew up during this time, and every now and then some small period bit of minutiae sparks a memory. In fact, the whole story seems almost as if a shoebox of snapshots from pre-digital days had been spilled onto the floor, then arranged in order.

The other key aspect that makes this story strong is the character development. Evie doesn’t have to live in poverty among bad people, but she feels both angry at her mother and hemmed in by the conventional expectations of her family and friends. Her boundary-testing costs her the loyalty of her best friend, really her only friend, and so she casts about for a new set of peers. Her mother prefers the fiction that she is still visiting Connie, the friend that has disowned her, and this lie provides Evie with a lot of wiggle room on evenings when her mother is with her boyfriend and finds it convenient for Evie not to be home.

As for Evie, what has started out to be an adventure, a bold experiment in branching out from the middle class suburban life she’s always known, gradually begins to darken. But the worse things get, the more important it is to her to prove her fealty to Suzanne, to not be rejected a second time as she was with Connie. Hints are dropped that probably she ought to just go back where she came from before it’s too late, but she is determined not to hear them.  I want to grab her by the sleeve and get her out of there; Evie won’t budge. Once she is in trouble at home for the things she had done on behalf of the group, her desire to avoid her home and stay with Suzanne grows even stronger, which leads her into more trouble yet. Clues are dropped that something big is going to happen, something that our protagonist maybe should avoid, but she plunges forward anyway with the bullheaded determination peculiar to adolescence.

All told, Evie’s future doesn’t look good.

Readers among the Boomer generation will love this book for its striking accuracy; those that are younger will feel as if they have traveled to a time and place they have never seen before. One way or another, Cline’s masterful storytelling weaves a powerful spell that doesn’t let go until the last page is turned. Riveting, and highly recommended.

A Cold White Fear, by RJ Harlick***

acoldwhitefearMeg is alone with a 12 year old in her isolated cabin during a Canadian blizzard, when three escaped prisoners land on her doorstep, one of them injured. She helps dress the wound of the injured man, but then is held hostage, along with Jid, who is like a son to her, and her puppy. This mystery is the seventh in a series, but it was the first I had read, and it is easy to follow as a stand-alone thriller. Thank you to Net Galley and Dundurn Publishers for the DRC, and my apologies in being so tardy with my review. The book has been released and is available for purchase now.

Those that enjoyed The Shawshank Redemption or that are fans of Val McDermid’s mystery series will probably enjoy this story a great deal.

Each of us has a threshold of tolerance for how much terror and violence they can stand in a novel before it stops being entertaining and starts to be just scary and violent. That’s what happened to me here. Roughly eighty percent of this book is set in and near Meg’s cabin, with one aborted effort at escape after another; the writer wants us to also be worried about the puppy, and she played the card well, maybe too well for me. The small moments in which interesting tidbits of Algonquin culture are released, or in which one of the escapees does some small, compassionate deed are eclipsed by the sheer weight of the isolation and brutality present, and I finally got to where I could not stand it anymore around the 65 percent mark, and I skipped to the end and traced it back. That said, I also know that my own tolerance is lower than most. I watch very little television and few movies, and so a little goes a long way where I am concerned.

Harlick deserves a lot of credit for being able to spin a linear plot line with a limited setting, time span, and for most of the story with a limited number of characters. She never loses the reader’s interest or wanders off on a tangent; her facility with setting is good, and the tangibility of the place and people add to the terror experienced by the reader on behalf of the protagonist.

Scary-as-hell fiction from a series writer worth following in years to come.

All In, by Joel Goldman and Lisa Klink *****

all inThis one is 4.75 stars, rounded up. Thank you to Net Galley and to Thomas and Mercer for the DRC. This absorbing thriller will be available September 8 for purchase.

Cassie Ireland is an asset recovery specialist; she views herself as a modern-day Robin Hood whose job it is to steal back money, goods, or even really embarrassing videos from those that originally stole them. Her employer is a shadowy individual code-named Prometheus–a moniker chosen because Prometheus was the sneak thief of the gods. Ireland’s nimble, silent in her work, and careful in trusting others. She really can’t be played.

Her job here is to steal select items from the home safe of crooked-wealthy magnate Alan Kendrick. In order to gain access to his treasure trove, she must first make it past a sophisticated security system, to which she gains access by deceiving Kendrick’s wife, Gina. Once Cassie found her way into that safe, I stopped breathing until she was out again. I think my fingertips turned blue. But once she’s been in and out, things once more begin to unspool at a heart-pounding pace.

Jake Carter is a professional gambler, and he too has a grudge to settle with Alan Kendrick. He plans to beat him at poker; he’s fast, smart, and fair. Unfortunately, the last whale he took down has sent goons after him. They want the money he took from Theo at the table, and they also want him dead. Jake’s challenge is to go after Kendrick while dodging Theo’s assassins.

Ultimately, Cassie, Jake, Theo and Kendrick all land on the same enormous floating gambling casino. You can run…but only so far. You can hide, but sooner or later, you’ll be found. On the other hand, you can also turn your stalkers into your prey, if you’re cunning and well organized, and if you can gain the loyalty of others nearby. And then too, you might be able to grab a helicopter!

All In is fast, escapist fun. Ordinarily I would call this a four-star review. Four stars are my default for books that are anywhere from pretty good to really good, but that don’t meet the gold standard of five stars. My four star reviews are big houses with a lot of rooms. If I hate a book but concede that others are likely to enjoy it, I will go with four stars and explain what I didn’t like. I also give four star reviews to books like this one that I like a lot, but can’t see them as the very epitome of their genre. Five stars means excellence that is above and beyond ordinary work.

The tipping point here that knocked this up to five stars is the use of race and gender. Nobody wants to be preached at in the middle of a thriller, and Goldman and Klink don’t do that. Rather, it is by the assumptions that are inherent in their choice of protagonist (Ireland is African-American, female, smart as hell and way more fit than any gum shoe I can recall); the way the plot unfolds, with no helpless damsels waiting for great big men to come save them; and the way secondary characters are handled, the butler foremost among them. It reminded me a bit of Barbara Neely’s writing, and so I wanted to stand up and cheer.

Fall is coming, and whether you are still basking in the sun on weekends or huddled by a fire, it’s a great time to treat yourself to a tightly paced, accessible thriller by authors that show their respect for all people, especially the working class, in the way they sculpt their characters and plot. It looks like a winner to me.

Why not order it while you can?

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.

Killing Maine, by Mike Bond ***

killingmaineNote: Usually my blog is reserved for books I recommend, that merit 4 or 5 stars. Once in awhile I review a galley and find that my obligation to the author and publisher have bumped up against my blog policy. This is one of those times.

Killing Maine is a thriller, and like the one other book by this author that I’ve read, it’s a tale of grief, alienation, and grave concern regarding environmental degradation. Thank you once to Net Galley, then again to Mandevilla Press for the DRC. This novel can be purchased July 21.

The story starts out in high gear. Our protagonist, Pono Hawkins, has been called from his home in Hawaii to Maine. A man who saved his life during his years in military service has been jailed for a crime he didn’t commit. Pono has done time twice, and both times he was innocent. He’s been exonerated, and yet still has a criminal background that comes up when cops run him through the system. And as he talks about the ways in which America’s so-called justice system is broken, I hear him loud and clear.

From there, however, he takes the plot all over the place. There are three different women, and he falls madly in love with one named Abigail, but there is so little of substance about their first meeting that instead of engaging, I’m left scratching my head. Seriously?

Most of the plot, which takes wing when someone is shooting at him out in the frozen Maine hinterland, is built around the wind power industry, which is referred to here as the “Wind Mafia” and “Big Wind”. But instead of using it to move the plot forward, there is so much repetition that it seems to bog us down. He lays it on thickly enough that at the beginning I wonder what can be done about problems involving the use of wind energy and the environmental problems he tells us it creates. We have to have some form of energy other than fossil fuels, right? Coal is a bad solution. Hydroelectric power can only take us so far, especially with global warming causing some water sources to dry up, or nearly so. And so I am on board, and I am thinking about the problems with wind (politicians being corrupted by big businesses, be they wind or something else, seems like a given these days, and didn’t particularly move me), and wondering what alternatives we might have.

Bond uses the novel to address about half a dozen social and political issues—the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; lousy medical treatment of veterans; Agent Orange and Vietnam; and of course, environmental despoliation—and for ninety percent of the book, I am in complete agreement with him on all the issues he raises. How will a reviewer that disagrees with some or all of it see this novel?

Because when we come back around to Pono, the plot has so many holes in it. Pono doesn’t like Bucky, the man he has come to rescue, and Bucky will no longer see him when he drives to the jail to visit. The local heat is starting to harass him, and if he doesn’t leave the state soon, they’re going to tell him he can’t leave. Meanwhile, he is due in Fiji in a few weeks for a tsunami; he’s been hired to do a job there. And since there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of anything—the guy he doesn’t like that won’t see him; an old flame is one he’s decided not to rekindle—I can’t figure out why the protagonist wouldn’t just get on the plane and head for Fiji early. Surely he doesn’t genuinely believe that one man can derail the entire wind industry, along with the governor, senators, and other heavy-duty politicos, by himself and with the law hot on his trail.

Meanwhile, the writer continues to rail against “Big Wind” until I just want to throw up my hands and call it quits. And to be honest, were I not obligated to review the book, I probably would have just abandoned it at the point where the environmental concern turned into a diatribe. Enough, enough. I get it.

But I do read it, and so we continue, and there is one scene that seems real and is wonderfully done, in the midst of all of this other stuff, and that is the farewell scene between Pono and his dying father, which is poignant and moving; entirely authentic. It’s hard to see what schism makes it possible to write that scene so well and yet have so many plot problems elsewhere.

Had I still been on board at the point where he speaks about Gone With the Wind as if it is historically accurate, and paints General Sherman, one of my own greatest heroes, as a man who went in and wrecked everything, using the whole thing as a misbegotten metaphor for Maine, I think I would have stepped back a bit. If a novelist wants to be accurate with his real-world facts, then get all of them straight. But the fact is, after about the first half of the book I wasn’t really on board.

Readers of Bond’s who have grown fond of his writing style may have a good time here. For me, it seemed like a good opportunity lost.

Long Way Down, by Michael Sears ***-****

longwaydownMichael Sears’ Wall Street spy thriller is an interesting and enjoyable read; 3.5 stars. Thank you to Putnam Adult Books, Above the Treeline, and Edelweiss books for the ARC. This book will become available in early February.

Jason has gone to prison for insider trading, and now he’s out. In reading this first person narrative, I learned a few basics about the capitalist market system, including the definition of an insider trade. In years gone by, I always told my students that there was never going to be a time when they felt they had accidentally gained too many (legal) skills or learned too much, and so I took that advice, Marxist though I am, and looked on with interest.

That said, the protagonist was only mildly sympathetic to me. The development of the character via his child, a first grader with autism (specifically Asperger’s Syndrome) made him more real and more likable. The writer injected just enough of this aspect of his character’s life to help shape his character, without permitting it to become a diversion. I was also very grateful that he didn’t take the cheap-way-out many mystery and thriller writers take, in having a bad guy kidnap, scare, or hurt the child. When the time came that it could be a threat, our affluent business consultant took his son and the nanny and flew them to the tropics, out of harm’s way.

And yet this is where an obstacle presented itself. Because he went to jail with a tidy sum salted away in an off-shore bank, our protagonist has far more money than many of us will ever see, even over the course of our lifespans. I was distracted by the number of coats he destroyed and then threw away, gave away, or just left lying somewhere. Cars, wardrobes…one can understand how anyone would do such a thing if his life was on the line; there’s surely no coat I’d die for. But it came to a head for me when the narration whined about the flight to Washington D.C. being too long, even for those in first class. I weep for you, I wanted to respond. Try flying from the West Coast to DC on the red-eye flight. Fly coach. Stand in the sun for six hours waiting for your part of the human chain to start marching and chanting; then repeat the red-eye flight home, and then go to work. Don’t snivvle over the hardship faced by first class passengers. And for heaven’s sake, don’t tell me about how the first class passengers look down their noses at business class.

It was telling that on his many airline flights, our fancy man never even mentioned flying coach as an option.

The story line follows our protagonist as he seeks to defend the man he’s working for when the latter is suspected of murder. All sorts of chase scenes, internet hacking, ducking into doorways, hiding, chasing, and fighting abound. And I have to say it kept my attention. The writer’s environmental concern is well integrated into the character’s narrative most of the time, but there is a scene at the end where it feels as if a public service announcement has been interjected. You’ll know it when you hit it.

Would I read more of Sears’s work? I most likely would, if I could find it at the library or used bookstore. I think he falls into the category of second-tier writers on my wish list: I would prefer to read his work to that of an unknown writer’s, but I also wouldn’t pay full jacket price for his work, or put it on my Mother’s Day wish list.

For those who enjoy a fictional romp among those with money and privilege, though, this will be a surefire hit.

The Director, by David Ignatius *****

Wow! That was a really fun ride. A great big thank you to the Goodreads First Reads program and the publisher for a free look-see.

Imagine, if you will, that the CIA has a new chief, and he’s a good guy who wants to do the right thing. How much chaos might this create?

I am, of course, not a fan of the CIA, so I have to play make-believe to enjoy the premise. My heroes are Marx and Engels; my teenager’s hero is Edward Snowden. And in this lovely bit of spy-craft by the experienced David Ignatius, the CIA wants to prevent another Snowden from occurring. See, the “moles” of yesteryear are no longer an issue, since the Soviet block fell apart and China is no longer red; now the issue is worms. In this story, there’s a really juicy one, and it’s “inside”. And I know I can’t quote a galley extensively, but the phrase “freedom addicts” made me squawk with laughter.

That’s it. That’s all I’m going to tell you. If this sounds as hilarious to you as it did to me, you really ought to go get your own copy. I haven’t had this much fun in a long time!