Sharon Bolton’s latest, The Pact, capitalizes on a theme we have seen before, in everything from I Know What You Did Last Summer, the teen thriller by Lois Duncan, to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. That doesn’t make it any less impactful, however—especially in the hands of a master of psychological fiction.
Five entitled young people and their one friend on a scholarship are spending their summer vacation (while awaiting their final A level marks that will determine their future at University) hanging out together, indulging themselves in drink, drugs, and indolence. The various effects of this provoke a dare game in which they all pile into a car in the wee hours of the morning and drive the wrong way between two ramps on a motorway (freeway). Each of them in turn has done it, with no real consequences but with some near misses, but when the final person’s nervous driving leads to tragedy, all the six can dwell on in that moment is how it will impact their futures should their wrongdoing come to light.
Amidst turmoil, hysteria, and guilt, accusations are made and fingers are pointed as they all seek a plan to protect themselves. Finally Megan, the scholarship girl, offers to take the fall—to claim she was driving by herself and that she alone was responsible. In return, she asks that when she is done serving her term in prison, each of the others will owe her a substantial favor. Caught up in the giddy relief that only one of them will suffer, the others all agree to her terms without questioning her motivation. They craft their story carefully, not realizing that outside circumstances will substantially affect the case against Megan; she ends up being sentenced to 20 years, instead of the three to five they expected.
Twenty years later, the others—Talitha, Felix, Xav, Amber, and Daniel—have all made significant achievements in their careers, as well as most of them accumulating spouses, children, and wealth. Meanwhile, Megan has served her full sentence and has suffered injuries while imprisoned that have left her physically and perhaps mentally damaged. Now comes the reckoning, the part where Megan gets to name her terms and the others must comply. As they each contemplate the guilt over having shunned and ignored her during her incarceration, the secret shame they feel at wishing she’d not been released, and the fear of the price she will exact, the tension builds.
Although the story is involving and well told—in both the present and the past—it is the character studies that make this book so compelling. Sharon Bolton is so good at creating unlikeable characters and then causing the reader to hope they get what they deserve while simultaneously pondering how he or she would have reacted in their place! As each of the five considers Megan’s admittedly outrageous requests and flails around crafting a response, you realize it’s just a matter of time until someone snaps. But that realization is far from the result of knowing who it will be, which is the trick that keeps you reading to the end.
Bolton has written another gem of a thriller that first defines and then shreds the concepts of friendship and loyalty in the face of unbearable tension. While it’s not my favorite of her books (because of the plot, less original than most), it’s definitely worth a fingernail-gnawing evening or three!
I don’t know how I have been a fantasy reader for so many years without discovering Robin Hobb. Someone mentioned her to me lately, and I went looking to find out more. I am now caught up in a prolonged pursuit of everything I have missed.
My first incursion was into the world of The Assassin’s Apprentice. Born on the wrong side of the blanket, the Bastard, as he was first called, was brought to the court of the Six Duchies by his maternal grandfather and dropped off to be raised by his father’s people. Turns out he was the illegitimate offspring of the King-in-Waiting, Chivalry, who was such an upright man that the humiliation felt by this revelation of his youthful misdeed caused him to abdicate his place in the succession for the throne. King Shrewd’s second son, Verity, became King-in-Waiting, while his third son (by a different mother) Regal fumed at the denial of what he saw as his rightful place.
But this story, while intimately tied up with all these royals, is about the Bastard, the Boy, finally and somewhat casually called FitzChivalry. Initially he plays no important role in the life of the kingdom; he is farmed out to the master of horse, Burrich, to raise, and Burrich thoroughly educates him in such skills as how to groom a horse and muck out his stall. During this sojourn as an invisible stable boy, Fitz discovers an affinity he accepts as a natural part of life, although others don’t seem to possess it—the Wit. He has the ability to bond with animals, to hear their thoughts and chime with their emotions. This is a talent that was once valued but at some point in history came to be regarded with abhorrence. But before Fitz becomes completely submersed in the life of the stables, it is suddenly decided that he will be called upon to take a more active part in the politics of the kingdom. He is summoned by King Shrewd and pledged to the royal family, and thus begins his training in scribing, weaponry, and the art of the assassin, the secret vocation for which he is apparently destined.
That is the trajectory established in book #1 of this trilogy. Book 2 shows Fitz completing difficult tasks in his new role, while acquiring a bonded partner in the abused wolf Nighteyes, and a potential life partner in the candlemaker, Molly, friend from his youthful forays down to the docks and now a serving girl to the new Queen-in-waiting. But the relentless decimation of the Six Duchies by the Red Raiders from the sea combined with the depredations of Regal on the kingdom while Verity is preoccupied with defending it by use of the Skill (a gift of mind communication and manipulation that is both seductive and draining of its user) put Fitz in a dangerous and exposed position that ultimately spells disaster for him. The third book sees him desperately seeking Verity, who has departed for the mountains on a quest to seek aid from legendary beings called Elderlings, leaving his court to be usurped by a triumphant Regal, who squanders its resources and leaves half the kingdom exposed and undefended. The success of Verity’s quest is highly doubtful, but Fitz, King Shrewd’s Fool, and the young queen, Kettricken, can see no alternative but to follow and aid him if it’s possible.
This summary, though seeming fairly detailed, leaves out about 80 percent of the tale Hobb spins in this trilogy, and is completely inadequate to convey the complexity of the world-building, the delineation of the charismatic and fully formed characters, and the emotions invoked by this involved and mesmerizing story. The trilogy held me captive, and although I read two other (unrelated) books after it, I was constantly pulled back to wonder about what happened next to Fitz, the Fool, Kettricken, Chade, Molly and Burrich, and all the rest. So as soon as I had finished those books, I lined up the next two trilogies—The Tawny Man, and the Fitz and the Fool series—on my Kindle, and started in. Since each book is between 600-700 pages, this may take me a while! But immersing myself in this world is a great way to pass a month of summer!
After reading and loving This Tender Land, by William Kent Krueger, I was excited to try out his mystery series featuring Cork O’Connor, since that book had met my expectations for good writing, good character development, and imagination. I wasn’t exactly disappointed by Iron Lake, the first in the series, but I wasn’t bowled over, either.
First of all, when I started reading I felt disoriented when I realized that we had come in halfway through O’Connor’s career, and at a low point. O’Connor had worked in Chicago as a cop while his wife, Jo, went through law school; after she was done, he moved her and the kids back to his home town of Aurora, Minnesota, where he had expectations of a better life for them all. His part-Irish, part-Anishinaabe heritage let him fit in as the town’s sheriff with both the whites and the tribe, whose reservation (and casino) border on the town; but when we enter the story, a catastrophe has resulted in a recall election that has kicked O’Connor out of office, and the aftermath of emotional mood swings (and drinking) has also caused his wife to push him out of the house. His wife is distant, his children live at home with her, and Cork is staying in the living quarters behind a drafty old hamburger stand willed to him by a native friend and mentor, who is also dead.
Despite his no longer being the sheriff, many of the townsfolk (especially those of Anishinaabe blood) still call on him when in need. Darla’s son Paul turns up missing after going out to do his paper route in the midst of a blizzard, and when, at her request, Cork goes to the last house on Paul’s route to see if he made it all the way through, he discovers one of the town’s prominent citizens shot through the head.
At this point, things started to go awry for me. The new sheriff isn’t painted as incompetent, exactly, but he plays by the book and isn’t really interested in above and beyond, so Cork takes it upon himself to keep investigating. While I liked the main character and enjoyed his initiative to a point, I felt that he didn’t have enough legitimate agency, even as the former sheriff, to get away with all that he subsequently does. And I found it decidedly weird how the sheriff kept reminding Cork that he was no longer sheriff…and then either directly solicited his help or let him get away with stuff that would be considered obstruction of justice, pollution of crime scenes, and rank interference. It didn’t seem like it would be consistent for even a lackadaisical sheriff to do this, and this one was not that bad.
I did like the tie-in to the Anishinaabe culture and the pervasive sense of place in Krueger’s writing, and hope that he keeps that up in future books. But I felt the mystery in this one was diffuse and kind of unsatisfying; by the time it gets pinned on the proper villain, so many lesser bad guys and red herrings had been trailed across my path that I almost didn’t care.
I also didn’t appreciate the double standard the author promotes in this book, although I realize it is somewhat a product of its time 20 years past: Cork is portrayed as paunchy and balding, but is still apparently hot stuff to the sexy local waitress, while his wife’s sister, Rose, who has lived with the family for 17 years and essentially kept the household afloat while both the parents worked, is dismissed as ineligible for a relationship because she is “heavy.” This despite being kind, sweet, helpful, and a great cook. C’mon, Krueger, cut it out with the fat-shaming of women. We’re not all perky blondes or voluptuous redheads, but we’re just as worthy of love as you paunchy balding men with hair growing out of your ears.
I didn’t love this book…but I liked it well enough (because of the writing and some of the characters) to try another in the series to see where it goes. Hopefully it will go there without quite so many clichés. I’ll keep you posted.
Fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series would probably enjoy this one too; they share in common a maverick leading man, wide open spaces beautifully described, and First Peoples details.
I just finished reading Michael Connelly’s latest, The Law of Innocence. This was a “Lincoln Lawyer” book featuring Mickey Haller, and the case he was attempting to defend was his own. A traffic stop turns into a fishing expedition when the cop sees something leaking from under Haller’s car, and when he pops the trunk it contains a dead body.
The body is that of a former client of Haller’s, and the evidence that he was killed in the trunk of the car while inside Mickey’s garage is pretty damning. Obviously (to the reader), Haller is being framed by someone, but by whom and for what purpose? Denied bail due to the machinations of a spiteful judge, Mickey has to muster his team and plan his defense while living in a cell inside Los Angeles’s Twin Towers Correctional Center, where he’s a potential target of inmates and jailers alike.
I enjoyed this mystery for a variety of reasons, including Connelly’s usual attention to detail as he presents the story from a Los Angeles resident’s viewpoint, including that of an inmate of Twin Towers. The distinction between a not-guilty verdict and proof of innocence was the quandary that drove the story, since Haller’s reputation and his future as a successful attorney is on the line if there is a shadow of a doubt about his culpability. He doesn’t just have to prove reasonable doubt—he needs everyone to know that someone else did this.
One reader commented that he liked the Haller novels better than the Bosch ones because the Haller ones were narrated in first person and therefore more compelling than the third-person Bosch. Weirdly, I usually have the opposite reaction to these. I don’t know whether it’s because I don’t identify with Haller as a person or if it’s just that I prefer police procedurals to legal drama, but I find the Bosch narratives much more involving. Also, whenever Bosch is featured as a character in the Haller books in his role as Mickey’s half-brother and an investigator on his behalf, it seems like Connelly suddenly doesn’t know how to write him—his presence is positively wooden. Maybe he’s attempting to show how Haller sees and reacts to him instead of putting him across with his usual personality? but it’s weird how unlike himself he is.
In general, this book is the usual entertaining crime thriller from Connelly. I have to say that I found it less than riveting until it gets to the trial, at which point the accelerating discoveries and the vituperative back-and-forth between prosecution and defense enliven things considerably. I wasn’t entirely happy with the ending, but I can see why Connelly went there. It will be interesting to read the next Lincoln Lawyer volume, whenever it comes along, to see how Mickey’s career is impacted, if at all, by the events of this one.
As for the “big controversy” over which people have declared they would never read Connelly again, I didn’t find it in the least unbelievable that someone who was trying to beat a murder rap would want to weed a Trump supporter from his jury. Since they seem unable to discern when he is lying to them, it seems logical that having someone on a jury who can’t distinguish lies from truth would be counter-productive. I didn’t view this as a huge political statement, but merely a way to point up the importance of honesty within our legal system. Of course, my politics apparently fall on the same side as Connelly’s….
The Fight for Power and The Will to Survive are books #2 and 3 in the trilogy that begins with The Rule of Three, by Eric Walters. I read and reviewed the first book here, and then solicited the other two books from the library, so I waited to read them until they became available. (I wasn’t going to spend money on them, even on Kindle.)
I decided to finish the trilogy, even though I was less than impressed with #1. Book #2 was more of the same—literally, since it begins in the middle of the scene in which the first one ended—and Book #3 repeats that process.
Again, I enjoyed the flying scenes and some of the ingenuity used by the survivors in achieving their goals, and again, I thought that what could have been a much more exciting tale of dystopia was rendered somewhat mundane by the laborious writing style. A couple of moral dilemmas gave some spice to both volumes, but ultimately the fate of everyone involved was pretty much foreseeable from space! You don’t want your dystopian fiction to be this predictable.
It’s not horrible by any means, and I think might even be quite enjoyable for a certain type of kid of about middle-school age, but this series is never going to be mentioned in the same breath with The Hunger Games, Legend, or even The Maze Runner, which I heartily disliked for its inconsistencies and ridiculous plot while admiring its ability to mobilize fans. If you just can’t resist any dystopian tale, check it out from the library like I did and save your dollars for better fiction.
I noticed this week that several teachers and students who are members of the “What should I read next?” page on Facebook have posted that school is already or is about to be finished for the year, and wanting suggestions for things to read over the summer. While lots of suggestions of popular bestsellers were made in return by all the readers there, some of these requestors are more specific in their wants. One said, “I like mysteries and thrillers, and would love to get socked into a good series, but there are so many out there, I don’t know where to start. Any suggestions?”
Since my mystery list is the longest amongst my genres, only given a contest for first place by fantasy, I put my Goodreads list of “mysteries read” into order by author so I could see those series I have faithfully pursued and make some suggestions, and since I was doing it there, I thought I’d do the same here, with a little bit of summary attached to each.
I will note that I tend to favor procedurals, lone detectives, and partnerships (many of them British), and none of these are light, cosy reads. Perhaps I’ll do a separate blog post including some of those, because everybody likes to read them once in a while; but for a steady diet of mystery, here are the ones I go back to with each new release, in alphabetical order by author:
SHARON J. BOLTON: A host of stand-alones, plus a short series with Detective Constable Lacey Flint, all good. Her stand-alones are more thriller than mystery, and are set in intriguing locations and have unusual plots. The series stars a young iconoclast risk-taker who gets too closely involved with her cases.
MICHAEL CONNELLY: The mystery master. If you haven’t read them, the Harry Bosch series starts with The Black Echo. Harry is a combination of dogged and intuitive that gets the job done, a loner with a commitment that goes above and beyond. If you like them, you can spend the entire summer…
ROBERT CRAIS: He has about five stand-alones and a series. The stand-alones are great, particularly The Two-Minute Rule and Demolition Angel. The series features a smart-aleck private detective named Elvis and his dead-serious and deadly war vet partner, Joe.
DEBORAH CROMBIE: A British duo, Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid. Gemma starts out working for Duncan, and then roles shift and change as the series progresses. Good writing, intricate plotting, and she makes each the lead in alternating books to keep it fresh. I really like these.
DICK FRANCIS: An oldie but goodie. Each book has some peripheral relation to horse-racing. They are a little “formula” and a little old-fashioned in terms of man-woman relationships, but they are some of the greatest escapist reading ever. (Don’t bother with his son’s continuation of the series. They’re not bad; but they’re not good.)
CAZ FREAR: A relatively new series starring a British rookie cop, Cat Kinsella, whose background keeps getting in the way of the job. There are three so far, and quite gripping.
The amazing TANA FRENCH: She has a loosely related Dublin Murder series, with a different protagonist starring in each one (my favorite is Faithful Place), and also several stand-alones. You have to like LOTS of detail and literary language. Quite immersive.
ROBERT GALBRAITH (shhh, it’s J. K. Rowling): The Cormoran Strike series is wonderfully weird, and Cormoran himself is a tough nut with a gooey center, especially when it comes to his new assistant, Robin Ellacott.
ELIZABETH GEORGE: The Inspector Lynley mysteries. He’s a British lord who some say is “slumming” as a cop, while his partner, Barbara Havers, is fiercely proletariat and dresses in clogs and sweatpants. The mysteries are intriguing.
ALEX GRECIAN: The Scotland Yard mysteries, detailing the beginning of forensics. Quite engaging, but sometimes dark.
JANE HARPER: Only a few books, but all solid. A couple of stand-alones, and a series featuring Federal Police Investigator Aaron Falk, set in the wilds of Australia.
CHARLAINE HARRIS: The Harper Connelly quartet. After being hit by lightning at age 16, Harper can tell you how your loved one died by standing on their grave. Yeah, I know…but they’re GOOD.
CYNTHIA HARROD-EAGLES: The Bill Slider mysteries. You have to like procedurals, and it’s a bonus if you “get” British humor. There’s also a lot about Bill’s personal life, which rounds out all the mystery stories. I like them a lot and laugh aloud frequently while sitting alone reading these.
CRAIG JOHNSON: Walt Longmire, Wyoming sheriff. They are like the show, if you have seen it, but the plots on the show went off-script fairly early, so the books are a different experience.
KATE MORTON: I love her books, but consider them more “puzzle” books than mysteries. They are not populated by detectives or police—they center around somebody on a quest to solve a weird thing in their past history. Quite detailed, and character-driven.
LOUISE PENNY: The inimitable Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of Three Pines and the Sûreté du Québec. Start at the beginning with Still Life, and keep going! She releases one every August, and I pre-order them all. Have French pastries on hand, you will need them.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of every mystery series I read—I follow several other historical series, as well as some featuring legal eagles in place of the detectives and private eyes, and some starring people with weird murder-related professions—but these are the most accessible, most immediately engaging, and hopefully with enough variety in their composition to give everyone an idea about an author they’d like to try. Please let me know what you think if you end up assaying one of these.
Sorry for the seeming stretch of inattention to this blog. I usually try to post at least once a week, and preferably two or three times, but there are occasions on which I can’t, for various reasons. One of the most distressing is when I get into a book slump—either the book I read isn’t deserving of a review, or it is, but I found it so offputting that I don’t want to give it the attention. Both of those happened to me during the past 10 days. First I read the sequel to a book I had reviewed here, and it was so much the same as the first and had so insignificant an impact that I decided not to talk about it. Then I picked up a book that had good language and description and all the elements of a gripping suspense story, but the contents were so unrealistic, melodramatic, and deeply disturbing that I chose not to give it the attention of a review, since I couldn’t recommend it but didn’t want to trash it. After that I started reading a book that had come highly recommended, but I couldn’t shake off the effects of the previous read to give it proper attention, so I put it aside and picked up something escapist (a Dick Francis mystery) to cleanse my palate.
Now I’m reading something that I will definitely want to highlight; but since it is the first book in a trilogy, I don’t know if I’ll want to do that after reading just one or wait for the impact of the entire series. So I’m writing this to say: I’m still here, I’m still reading, and I’ll be back in a short while with something to talk about!