The Life We Bury–Allen Eskens

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This is a perfect summer read.  Or a winter storm by the fireplace read.  Or a snappy fall afternoon read.  This is a great read from page one to the end.  Eskens layers a murder mystery, Vietnam, family drama, autism, guilt, romance, date rape, and cancer around a highly intriguing central character, Joe Talbert.

Joe is a college student who’s transferred from the local community college and works as a bouncer at night to pay the bills.  His mother is a bipolar alcoholic who lives less than an hour away with his autistic younger brother.  He’s never met his father.  When his professor assigns a biography assignment, Joe seeks a subject at the local nursing home.  When the director suggests Carl, a terminal cancer patient who’s been paroled from prison to die, Joe is intrigued and even more so when he learns Carl’s crime–the rape, murder, and attempted burning of his teenage neighbor.

As he works through Carl’s story, and the trial records that compose his supporting documents, his original conceptions about Carl, his cute neighbor, his brother, and the direction of his life are turned upside down.  Nothing is what it seems and what everyone else can see he turns away from.

The bubble on the cover says “compulsively suspenseful.”  Rarely do those blurbs accurately describe the book, but this one does.  Often, thrillers trade suspense for character development–plot over character.  Joe Talbert, however, is a memorable character who can push drunk guys out of a bar and cry at a production of The Glass Menagerie.  

There’s an adorable note to the reader at the end that asks for reviews or to share with others if you’ve enjoyed the book–support for a debut author.  I look forward to reading his subsequent work.

Finished 7/14/16

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The White Cottage Mystery–Margery Allingham

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I chose to read this novel because it’s by an author that J.K. Rowling highly recommends.  I loved the straightforward prose and plot of this novel.  Constable W.T. Challoner and his son Jerry investigate a murder of a neighbor hated by everyone by gunshot in a locked room at waist level that everyone heard, but no one saw.  Cue beautiful mysterious women, trips to Paris, and lots of misdirection.  Now you have a perfect British cozy.

W.T. is the consummate professional and Jerry the promising, but naive, pupil.  W.T. questions suspects for entire chapters, revealing key details of the murder, while Jerry listens, impressed and slightly confused at the method behind his father’s madness.  W.T. then questions Jerry about his impression of the interview and corrects his errors.

Add a romantic subplot or two, international intrigue between Challoner and the Parisian authorities, as well as a disabled husband in a wheelchair and an adorable young daughter and the ingredient list is nearly complete.  The last piece is an ethical dilemma–what to choose between what is right according to the law or according to our good sense.

The careful craft of a cozy is on excellent display in The White Cottage Mystery.  Even the title is a model.  Thank goodness, however, that when J.K. Rowling chose to delve into the cozy genre, she added greater complexity and layers to her mix.

Thanks to NetGalley and Bloombury for a review ebook.

 

The Good Neighbor–A.J. Banner

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Amazon suggested this novel, which I understood better once I saw that it’s published by Amazon. It’s a slim volume–just 194 pages–and it moves quickly.  Sarah writes children’s books and is married to a hunky dermatologist, Johnny.  They live in a small town on a court where the houses are the same to all but those who live there.  Sarah knows her neighbors, or thinks she does, until the night her neighbors’ home burns and takes down hers, as well.  Deeply unsettled, Sarah begins to question all of her assumptions–about her neighbors, about her husband, even about her own judgment.

As Sarah questions, she invites the reader to do so, as well, and to join her paranoia.  Who can we trust?  Can we trust Sarah, the narrator?

The story moves quickly and is successful at setting a paranoid, eerie tone.  The dialogue is realistic, but there were several times that I found myself noticing odd narrative constructions.  Banner has promise as a writer of thrillers, but is not yet a master.

Finished 3/31/16

In a Dark, Dark Wood–Ruth Ware

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Some plots are more equal than others and the plot to Ruth Ware’s debut novel is one.  Nora (Leonora) writes crime novels and lives alone in London.  She works from home and interacts with others primarily through email and text–and she prefers it.  She ventures outside several times a week to run, which she enjoys because of the sense of escape, of running away.  Ok, we got it.  She has issues, but what are they?

Ware begins with a familiar plot device–starting near the end.  Nora is in a hospital with wounds she cannot remember receiving.  Rather than wondering what happened to her, Nora’s first impulse is to wonder what she has done.  Curiosity piqued.

We get our first peek at Nora’s issues when Ware goes back to the near beginning.  Nora receives an email invitation to a hen party in Northumberland and wonders, why am I invited?  The hen is a woman she has not seen in ten years, since she was sixteen and left her hometown of Reading.  A quick email to a childhood friend who also lives in London, Nina, and a pact and, boom, they are both rsvp’ing to the hen party.

On the drive to the party, we find out that Nora fled Reading and her mother now lives in Australia with Nora’s stepfather, whom Nora does not seem to like much.  Nina is a tall, spiked-tongued, bronzed doctor with a Brazilian father.  Both Nora and Nina have mixed feelings about the hen, Clare, but are curious about the invite.  The party is in a modern glass-walled house in a deserted wood down a nearly unnavigable drive. The other guests include Clare’s university friends, Melanie, Tom (gay), and Flo (the maid of honor and hostess of the hen party).  Melanie is leaving her six-month-old for the first time.  Tom is a playwright.  Flo is too enthusiastic, and that enthusiasm continues to reveal itself suggesting mental instability supported by Melanie’s divulging that Flo had a breakdown at university and never finished.  Whatever her state, Flo is utterly devoted to Clare and pledged to give her the best hen party ever for the best hen ever.

Nora, claustrophobic almost on arriving, takes a run in the near-dark and encounters Clare as she comes back up the drive.  This gives Clare an opportunity to tell Nora that she is not invited to the wedding, at which Clare will wed Nora’s childhood sweetheart, James.  That is just the beginning of the weird.  There is no cell service at the house, which becomes creepier as dark falls and the inhabitants realize they are on view to whatever lurks in the woods. The guests take the edge off with tequila and begin to reveal bits of their stories and personalities.

Ware continues to move between the hospital, where Nora’s memory slowly returns, and the events of the hen party, which becomes creepier and creepier and includes a shotgun hung over the fireplace, a trip to the shooting range, and a night with a Ouija board.  Finally we learn that the party ended with the shooting of a midnight visitor.

I read the first half of the novel before bed and was seriously concerned that I would suffer nightmares as a consequence.  It was that good.  I finished in the morning, unable to put it down from waking until the last page.  As with other really good crime novels, I was uncertain whodunit until the end.  It was so good, I am considering re-reading it as an audible book to savor the drama enhanced by a good reader.

Finished 1/3/16

 

 

First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen–Charlie Lovett

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With a subtitle like that, would could go wrong?  Add an author who was an antiquarian book dealer and this reader is sold.

Lovett’s novel is lovely because it is a mystery, it is set in England, and it involves Jane Austen.  Sometimes the writing is a little clunky, particularly in the first and last chapters.  Love comes very quickly in the last chapter without much build-up.  The lovers meet in the first chapter with a stilted argument that could have taken place in any American sitcom.  The premise drew me in, however.  Sophie Collingwood has recently graduated from Oxford and, with the luxury allowed to those from affluent families (her family inherited a fairly large estate), she is trying to decide what to do with her life post-graduation and hanging around in Oxford until she decides.  She meets Eric Hall after overhearing an obnoxious remark about women and Jane Austen that he uttered in a pub and events move quickly from there, with Eric pursuing her across the countryside to her parent’s country home and provoking her father over dinner in a way no friend or family member would have dared, all capped by a midnight kiss in the garden that curls Sophie’s toes before he dashes off to France.

Between chapters about Sophie, Lovett interweaves chapters about Jane Austen and her relationship with the much, much older Mr. Mansfield, a clergyman who is staying in the gatehouse of the local earl’s estate.  Mr. Mansfield becomes Jane’s literary confidante and even hears her confession of a childhood sin that still haunts her and that ultimately becomes the motivation for writing Pride and Prejudice.

As Jane’s relationship with Mansfield and her confidence in her own writing grows, Sophie learns of the death of her beloved uncle, who taught her to love books, and moves into his London flat and begins working for one of his book dealer friends.  Intrigue begins when two customers ask her to find a second edition of an obscure volume of morality tales by a Reverend Mansfield.  One of the customers woos her in person while the other threatens her by phone and knows too many of her daily routine details for comfort.

The novel was a fun read and, for a P & P fan, a great excuse to read more about Darcy and Lizzie and to envision the countryside Austen saw.  The mystery kept the plot moving.  Overall, a nice weekend read.

Finished 11/23/15

The Woods–Harlan Coben (Audio)

I will not say the writing in this novel was at classic level, unless it is classic murder mystery prose.  These types of weaknesses become more apparent in audio, where you read at the narrator’s speed rather than letter your eyes fly over the words as you look for the next clue.

The premise was interesting, which was what led me to purchase this from Audible.  The son of Russian immigrants turned New Jersey prosecutor is in the midst of a difficult rape case when the decades-old disappearance/murder of his sister and three other summer campers resurfaces in the shape of a middle-aged man’s body found in an alley that seems to be one of the missing campers.

Paul Copeland, “Cope,” is a widower (his rich beautiful perfect wife died of cancer six years previously) with a young daughter.  His father is recently deceased and his last words, to find her, haunt Cope.  Fortunately, he has a saint for a sister-in-law and a jovial brother-in-law who help pick up the slack with his daughter when the overpaid nanny is unable to care for her.  He has a solid moral center, but he lied to investigators the summer his sister disappeared.  He left cabin guard duty to sneak into the woods and make love to his girlfriend.  He lied, of course, to protect her, but our hackles go up a little.  Lies from a prosecutor?

The Woods is full of stock characters, including Cope’s lead investigator, Muse, a middle-aged, single woman who wears practical shoes and, although reed thin, eats like a horse.   Cope’s teenage love is an alcoholic English professor with a doctorate in psychology whose students all post positive online reviews of her classes.  Her father, the owner of the summer camp, is a stock aged hippie, complete with vintage yellow VW Beetle.  And, yes, because Cope is the son of Russian immigrants, the KGB makes an appearance.

I cannot say with confidence that I would have listened to this book had I known the level of writing, which became distracting to the point that my husband and children were mocking it when they were in the car when I was listening to it.  The end was also disappointing–cliche and vague.  If you like a book that lets you make fun of it or you want a quick beach read, The Woods might suffice.

Finished 6/21/15

The Girl on the Train–Paula Hawkins (Audio)

I love procedural crime novels for their predictability, but once in awhile it is thrilling to find an author who can design a murder mystery that is truly suspenseful from page one to the end.  Paula Hawkins begins her novel mysteriously.  A woman is riding on a train.  We are not sure from where to where or why, but Hawkins shows us immediately into her heart.  She is an outsider who watches people from the train.  Hawkins slowly  reveals bits and pieces of Rachel’s story and then expands the lens to her ex-husband and his new family, their neighbors, and her roommate.  Even when the lens is expanded Hawkins slowly changes our view of Rachel. Eventually the narration rotates between Rachel, Anna (the second wife of Rachel’s ex), and Megan (Anna’s neighbor who had disappeared) and Hawkins destabilizes our trust in the narrative.  Who sees things closest to how they really are?  What are the women not telling us?  How can we triangulate their stories and reveal more than they intended?  Even Rachel does not trust her own narration as she struggles to regain a memory from a black out that niggles at the corners of her mind.

Hawkins populates her novel with red herrings and potential culprits.  At one point I suspected everyone except the lead detective investigating Megan’s disappearance.  Her cast of characters are complex.  Only Detective Riley seems drawn from the stock characters of the mystery genre.  These complex characters and the small twists in their stories are what contribute to Hawkins’ sustaining the thrill.  She takes us into the neuroses of the narrators and makes us feel strongly about them.  I cheered for Rachel even while suspecting her of murder.  Hawkins leads us to empathize with Anna, who is stalked by her husband’s ex-wife, and then to despise her as a judgmental hypocritical homewrecker.  She plays with our emotions so that we are not sure we can trust ourselves as readers.  Even after Hawkins reveals the guilty party, she continues to hold us in suspense until the bitter end.  I could not stop listening.

The Girl on the Train is reminiscent of Gone Girl and, although I love Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl cannot compare to the suspense of The Girl on the Train.  I eagerly await Paula Hawkins’ follow up novel.

Finished 6/14/15