Empathy

This book made me cry three separate times, and I don’t do that. Ever.

The book is Just Life, by Neil Abramson, and is one of half a dozen that I bought recently from bookoutlet.com, which sells remaindered books for between $2.49 and $7.00, paperbacks and hardcovers alike, music to the ears of someone who reads as much as I do. The only downside to these prices (which, let’s face it, is also an upside) is that shipping is high unless you order $35 worth of merchandise, in which case it’s free. So when I notice a book or two that I want and they have, I scroll through the rest of what is on offer and pick up enough to get that free shipping. Just Life came in one of those mixed bags. I’d never heard of either it or its author, but the story sounded good.

JustLifeIt starts out like a dystopian suspense novel: It’s told in third person, but from the points of view of four major characters, one of whom is a veterinarian and proprietor of a no-kill animal shelter, in the Riverside borough of New York City, that is being zoned out of existence. Adding to her desperate attempts to save her shelter or find somewhere for her dogs to go is an additional disaster: There is some sort of virus, appearing only in that neighborhood, that is making children sick. One has just died, more are severely ill, and the virus, which was initially blamed on pigeons, is now felt to be the responsibility of dogs with rabies in Central Park.

Samantha, the vet, and anyone as familiar as she is with infectious viruses (her estranged father is a researcher) is frankly skeptical that this could be the cause, but she knows from experience how fear can work on the human mind, and worries that panic and ignorance will mandate a “QCK,” an acronym for quarantine-cull-kill.

The other major characters in the book—a city policeman (formerly a K9 cop) assigned by choice to this neighborhood, a homeless, damaged teenager with a special affinity for dogs, and an elderly Catholic priest suffering the onset of Alzheimer’s—personify the double entendre indicated by the title of the book: They are all attempting to live a just life, and part of that mandate is a concern for all creatures, not just for humans.

The other meaning of the title becomes clear as the back story reveals that there are no viruses in animals to which humans are ultimately resistant, and vice versa—that we are all “just life,” and equally susceptible. But local politicians and bureaucrats, including the governor (who is running for president and wants to act the hero) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) refuse to admit that proposition could be true, and the protagonists must mount a defense in a war against dogs.

In his afterword, Abramson writes about how he hoped to show the eternal battle between fear and compassion, and how achieving compassion in the face of fear is a daily struggle. The story line in Just Life emphasizes this battle and highlights the difference between those who love all life and those who prioritize humans. In the process it is suspenseful, moving, and eye-opening.

At one point in the book, someone asks Sam what she would do if someone came for her dogs. She remembered that in veterinary school one of her professors had made her class memorize a quote from William Ralph Inge:

“We have enslaved the rest of the animal creation, and have treated our distant cousins in fur and feathers so badly that beyond doubt, if they were able to formulate a religion, they would depict the Devil in human form.”

Anyone who is a dog person knows that the most badly treated of them will nonetheless forgive a human who shows them a little kindness. This book, for me, posed the question, What if we could all be so empathetic?

It was also a fast-paced, gripping story with both people and causes worthy of embracing, and an exciting ending that has you afraid to turn the final pages.

 

 

News re: my dog

GoodNewsAt the center of When Will There Be Good News, Kate Atkinson’s third Jackson Brodie novel, is a new character, Reggie. I enjoyed this book mainly because I so adored her. She is 16 (sweartogod), looks 12, acts 36, and is an old soul and a compassionate but completely pragmatic one. Best teenager in fiction for a while now.

While I found the multiple story lines of Dr. Joanna Hunter, whose family members were all inexplicably knifed to death in the middle of a field one day when she was a child, Joanna’s husband’s questionable business practices, Chief Inspector Louise Monroe’s domestic violence case, and the almost incidental appearance of Jackson Brodie (who is in-country  for personal reasons and yet by a twist of fate ends up plumped down in the middle of all of these mysteries) all to be interesting, it isn’t until they get connected by Reggie that things really get going, even though she, like Brodie, is involved almost despite herself. The brief period when Louise, Jackson, and Reggie are all in the same room at the same time is my favorite scene in the book.

These books of Atkinson’s are so…perverse! Not in a sexual way, let me hasten to add, but in the sense that they are “contrary to the accepted or expected standard or practice.” You can’t actually call them mystery novels. I mean, there ARE mysteries, and many of them do get solved, but they are practically beside the point. The books are character studies, and there are few who are able to delineate a character as well as Kate Atkinson.

While I find these books frustrating in the way they meander off the beaten path and into prolonged ponderings about this or that (not to mention all the stream-of-consciousness literary references that keep popping up in Brodie’s dragonfly mind), the stories are always resurrected by the strength of the characters themselves.

TookDogBecause of that trait, I think I may have liked Started Early, Took My Dog the best so far of the Jackson Brodie books, although Jackson’s role in it is mostly ridiculous! The central mystery is set in Northern Yorkshire, where Jackson is trying to track down the birth parents of a client who was adopted in England at age two and then taken to New Zealand to grow up. But when Jackson discovers someone he thinks might have been the birth mother, a murder case from 1975 causes all kinds of people to come out of the woodwork to prevent the truth about police corruption and misbehavior from coming out.

The title of the book turns out to be a double entendre, since taking a dog away from his abusive master (literally beating the guy up after he takes out his ill temper on his dog by berating it and kicking it in the ribs) is one of Jackson’s more rational moments in the book.

In addition to the dog-napping (I always thought that should be nabbing, not napping), there is child-napping, and they are both accomplished by former police officers! Tracy Waterhouse, just retired from the force, working part-time as a mall security guard, and supposedly resigned to or even content with her single, childless existence, sees a prostitute dragging her small child through the shopping center while screaming at her, and snaps. She has money in her pocket intended for the Polish bloke remodeling her kitchen, but instead hands it off to Kelly Cross in exchange for her youngest child. Suddenly, Tracy has stepped from one side of the law to the other.

But IS Courtney the daughter of Kelly Cross? Tracy wonders. At first she thinks she’s simply being paranoid, but then she realizes that there are all sorts of people trying to “get in touch” who may have been sent to take Courtney back. Meanwhile, Jackson is, weirdly, encountering the same folks who are after Tracy, none of whom have either his quest or his best interests at heart.

Throw in other seemingly random characters whose histories and futures are tangled up somehow with these two, and things get truly confusing. It’s no wonder that the one piece of dialogue our Mr. Brodie repeats throughout the book is “I don’t understand.” It paints a pretty ineffectual picture of him as a private investigator, but certain leads to some interesting situations.

I liked this best mostly because of the characters of Tracy and Courtney. Tracy is large, awkward, stalwart, and ultimately heroic, while Courtney delights as only a truly quirky small child can. Between the two of them, they carry the story.

smalldog

“Dragon,” courtesy of KJ Allison

As with the other Jackson Brodie books, the point is less about the mysteries and more about human themes of loneliness, grief, and dysfunction. Practically every character (except the determinedly upbeat Judith) is damaged and in need of love and/or salvation. Even the minor characters—Tracy’s colleague Barry, the aging actress Tilly—bring pathos to the story. And yet there is also humor, especially in the way Jackson’s role seems that of a character in a French farce, doomed to make his entrance from stage left just as his quarry (or his explanation) is departing from stage right.

I really hope that Atkinson plans to reveal the answers to some major cliffhangers left dangling off the edge at the end of this one: Who is Courtney, really? What was Jackson up to before he took on this case? Who is the murderer of a rather significant character? And I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop with Louise, three books later. C’mon, Kate, resolution!

 

Novel Christmas

For those who appreciate a lengthier read, I have attempted to round up some novels with Christmas themes or settings and, in doing so, not make you doubt my good taste!

XmasHolyFor ’tis true, ’tis true that a plethora of Christmas tales exist, but whether you want to read any of them is the question. I have, therefore, found a few I would consider a bit more literary, and a bunch that are connected to some genre series, since much may be forgiven your favorite authors when they sell out, er, decide to delight you with a Christmas-related chapter.

First off, consider two short, sparkling comedies set at Christmas-time by Nancy Mitford, the writer later known for Love in a Cold Climate. Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie are Oscar Wilde-ish “great house” stories with a cast of ridiculous upper-crust characters rivaled only by those depicted by E. F. Benson and P. G. Wodehouse.

Next, there’s Wishin’ and Hopin’, a Christmas story by Wally Lamb, which focuses on a feisty parochial school boy named Felix Funicello—a distant cousin of the iconic Annette.

In a similar humorous vein, check out comedian Dave Barry’s The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog. Or, on a more sympathetic note, Frank McCourt’s Angela and the Baby Jesus, relating the story of when his mother Angela was six years old and felt sorry for the Baby Jesus, out in the cold in the Christmas crib at St. Joseph’s Church….

The Christmas Train, by David Baldacci, is not a book I have read, but it sounds like a perfect storm of circumstances guaranteed to be entertaining, landing a former journalist on a train over the Christmas holidays with his current girlfriend, his former love, and a sneak thief, all headed towards an avalanche in the midst of an historic blizzard.

Skipping Christmas, by John Grisham, follows the fate of Luther and Nora Krank, who decide that, just this once, they will forego the tree-trimming, the annual Christmas Eve bash, and the fruitcakes in favor of a Caribbean cruise.

XmasTreeOne of my personal favorites to re-read this time of year is Winter Solstice, by Rosamunde Pilcher. It is sentimental without being mawkish, and brings together an unusual cast of characters in an interesting situation bound to produce results.

Now we enter the realm of franchise genre fare with a nod to Christmas:

The Christmas Scorpion is a Jack Reacher story (e-book only) by Lee Child, in which Jack’s intention to spend the holidays in warm temperatures surrounded by the palm trees of California somehow lands him instead in the midst of a blizzard facing a threat from the world’s deadliest assassin.

There are many in the mystery category, from Agatha Christie to Murder Club to baked goods-filled cozies:

In Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, by Agatha Christie, a curmudgeonly father turns up dead after telling all four of his sons, home for Christmas, that he is cutting off their allowances and changing his will. Poirot suspends his own festivities to solve the murder.

James Patterson has a couple of entries: The 19th Christmas, a Women’s Murder Club book, and Merry Christmas, Alex Cross, starring his popular detective trying to make it back alive for the most sacred of family days.

Charlaine Harris’s unconventional pseudo-cozy series about housekeeper and body builder Lily Bard features Shakespeare’s Christmas, in which Lily solves a four-year-old kidnapping case while at home for her sister’s Christmas wedding.

In a similar manner (though with quite different affect!), Rhys Bowen’s Irish lass Molly Murphy attends an elegant house party at a mansion on the Hudson in The Ghost of Christmas Past, and tries to fathom the reappearance of a girl who disappeared 10 years ago.

XmasMistletoeAnne Perry, known for her historical fiction featuring the Pitts (Charlotte and Thomas) and the rather darker William Monk, has written 16 Victorian Christmas mysteries to date, the latest being A Christmas Revelation (2018).

Cozy mystery writer and baker Joanne Fluke has written at least four full-length books plus some short stories enticingly evoking Christmas cake, sugar cookies, plum pudding, candy canes, and gingerbread cookies, all with the word “Murder” appended.

And Ellen Byron continues her hijinks in Bayou country with Maggie Crozat in A Cajun Christmas Killing, complete with recipes.

In the Western genre, you can find A Colorado Christmas, by William W. and J. A. Johnstone, in which one family’s Christmas gathering turns into a gunslinging fight for survival, and A Lawman’s Christmas, by Linda Lael Miller, a combination of love story and western set in 1900s Blue River, Texas.

One writer of whom I am fond, in the “relationship fiction” category, is Jenny Colgan, and she has made the most of her Christmas opportunities. The only problem with them is, each and every one is a sequel to one of her other books, so without reading the first, you will be somewhat lost inside the Christmas special. She has written four “Christmas at” or “Christmas on” books to date, set in the previously detailed locales of Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop, the Cupcake Café, the Island, and the Little Beach Street Bakery. But if you want some enjoyable, lighthearted fare a step beyond a simple romance, you may want to read the first books and come back for the Christmas ones.

In straightforward and utterly enjoyable chick lit, we have Christmas Shopaholic, by Sophie Kinsella, an ode to shopping with a Christmas theme for her popular heroine, Becky Bloomwood Brandon.

XmasWreathAnd then we hit the high tower of paperbacks that is the romance genre. I’m not even going to try to name all the books written within the environs of romance series, I’ll just give you a list of authors, and if you see a familiar one, go look her up on Goodreads with the word “Christmas” appended to her name:

Mary Kay Andrews, Jennifer Chiaverini, Janet Dailey, Johanna Lindsey, Debbie Macomber, Fern Michaels, Linda Lael Miller, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Nancy Thayer, Sherryl Woods…and so on. There are PAGES of titles.

Finally, if you are a nonfiction kinda person, I’m tagging on a couple for you, too:

In I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas, comedian Lewis Black says humbug to everything that makes Christmas memorable, in his own engaging, curmudgeonly style.

In their quest to provide mathematical proof for the existence of Santa, the authors of The Indisputable Existence of Santa Claus: The Mathematics of Christmas, by Dr. Hannah Fry and Dr. Thomas Oléron Evans painstakingly analyze every activity, from wrapping presents to cooking a turkey to setting up a mathematically perfect Secret Santa. Lighthearted and diverting, with Christmassy diagrams, sketches and graphs, Markov chains, and matrices.

If you can’t find something to read and enjoy from THIS list, I wish you a slightly exasperated Joyous Yule, and hope to find you something non-holiday-related to read in the New Year!   —The Book Adept

YuleJoy

Cold cases

I was a little wary when starting to read Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson, because I read her book Life after Life and, while I admired it, didn’t enjoy it much. But I think, in Jackson Brodie, she has found an anchor around which she can wrap the chain of her storytelling to keep it stable.

16243._SY475_I will admit that it took me a while to get into this book and to understand what was going on; Brodie is a private investigator who has been invited for various reasons by family members or interested parties to look at three cold cases, the latest one already 10 years past, the oldest more than 30. Because Atkinson presents the case histories one at a time at the beginning of the book before ever mentioning Brodie’s name, profession, or involvement, the book initially seems disconnected by its three narratives, save for the fact that some crime has been committed in each. But having the case histories narrated by the people involved, rather than exclusively through the eyes of Brodie, makes the stories that much more powerful, and also allows us to encounter them as if we were standing in Brodie’s shadow, listening in and trying to make connections in the same moment he is.

I liked Jackson Brodie’s character, and the slow reveal of what his life is like and what kind of person he is. I also enjoyed the many and varied characters who took the lead in each of the histories, although I did have to scroll backwards on my Kindle a couple of times to remind myself of exactly who they were or how they were involved. Each of the mysteries consisted of equal parts frustration and intrigue, just enough so to keep me reading. But I don’t mind some complexity in a plot, if it serves the plot, which this absolutely did.

I have placed a hold on the next Jackson Brodie book at the library.

READERS’ ADVISORY NOTES: I think this book (and perhaps the rest, we shall see) would appeal to readers of such mystery icons as Ruth Rendell, Barbara Vine, and Patricia Highsmith. Perhaps also Tana French? Those writers produce dark, devious, complex mysteries in sophisticated language, and Atkinson nearly rivals them. And if you are a reader who enjoys Atkinson’s books but haven’t ventured back into the annals of these other writers, by all means do so!

 

The Man

Twice in two weeks I was able to read the latest in a mystery series I have followed from the beginning. What a treat!

Robert Crais has been writing the saga of Hawaiian shirt-wearing Private Investigator Elvis Cole and his sidekick, the inimitable Joe Pike of granite mien and special (forces) skills, for 18 books now, occasionally interspersing them with a stand-alone thriller here and there. Although I have mostly preferred the stand-alones to the series, I never miss any of Crais’s books, because he tells a good story and because I like that they are set in Los Angeles.

dangermanThere’s no denying that this series, like any other long-running one based on the same people in the same city, has had its ups and downs. There have been books I couldn’t put down for 48 hours straight, and others I could barely make it through. I liked A Dangerous Man for the very reason that a few other people cited for disliking it—it was straightforward. There have been a few of these that got so complex and brought in so many extraneous people and details that it spoiled the lead, which for me is always the partnership between Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, and how they have developed such synchronicity.

The initial encounter in this one was, as I said, simple—nobody calling the office with a long and complex tale to be sorted. Joe Pike goes to the bank, and Isabelle (Izzy) Roland is the teller who waits on him. Her boss asks her to take an early lunch, so she leaves the bank only minutes after Joe, who is still on the street by his car. A couple of guys in an SUV pull over next to her on the curb; one gets out and engages her in conversation, and before she knows it, she’s being forced into the car and abducted. Joe spots the look of panic on her face, and does what Joe does—he follows, he outwits, and he rescues, wreaking a little havoc on the kidnappers in the process and then turning them over to the police.

From this point on, it does grow a little more complicated, because the power behind the kidnappers redoubles efforts to get hold of Isabelle. When she calls Joe in a panic because SUVs have been trolling her street and then disappears, Joe appoints himself her bodyguard and avenging angel, but at this point also decides it’s time to pull in both John Chen (medical examiner) to run some fingerprints, and friend Elvis to use his P.I. contacts and figure out why these people are so determined to get control of a 22-year-old bank teller with an old car, a falling-down house, and no apparent reason to be of interest to anyone in particular.

It’s a believable story, well told, and holds your interest start to finish. The question I was left with was, is “the dangerous man” of the title the person who is relentless in his pursuit of Izzy? or is it Pike himself? In a showdown, I know who I would pick.

READERS’ ADVISORY NOTES: This is a series you could suggest to a mystery lover who is a fan of Michael Connelly, the other guy who writes a series (Bosch) based in Los Angeles. Although Harry Bosch is a policeman and Elvis and Joe are private/independent, they share the characteristics of being mavericks who take direction from no one and who are relentlessly determined in pursuing their objectives. Because of the locale, the scene-setting is quite similar, and I have always wished the two authors would get their characters (neighbors in the Hollywood Hills) to meet up and collaborate! Also, either series might appeal to people who like noir fiction, as all of these detectives tend to be involved with the darker elements of their trade, and sometimes the books feel like an offshoot of 1940s Hollywood, a lá Walter Mosley or Duane Swierczynski.

 

Heist

I haven’t read a book by John Grisham for many years, and my reading was mostly restricted to his legal thrillers (not being a fan of baseball, his other main focus), which I enjoyed quite a lot, particularly A Time to Kill and Runaway Jury. Honestly, when it comes to those kinds of books, he is as much of a screenwriter as a novelist, because they are so aptly suited for the visual medium. I have enjoyed both reading and watching them.

caminoIn recent years, it seems like he has been trying to expand his repertoire (or soften his image?) to include other kinds of fiction—A Painted House, Playing for Pizza, Skipping Christmas, and this one I just finished, Camino Island. I’m not sure that these efforts have been entirely successful; while these books have all been pleasant, interesting, and well written, they don’t seem to me to have the snap of his legal dramas.

This book is billed as a “heist” novel, but although the theft of five original manuscripts written by F. Scott Fitzgerald from Princeton University is detailed in the first part of the book, there isn’t much excitement surrounding it. The heist planning was interesting, but because it was all done undercover, so to speak, with distraction rather than direct action enabling the crew to pull it off, it wasn’t all that gripping.

Then there are not one but two abrupt shifts in the book—one to a bookstore owner and his history as a bookseller, and the other to a broke, blocked writer trying to figure out how she’s going to survive. These are initially confusing, until you realize that both these people are going to have some role in the further history of the heist.

Bruce Cable has a bookstore on Camino Island, in Florida, and the tracing of certain industry connections of his has led the insurance company to conclude that he may know something about the missing manuscripts that the company will be expected to pay out on if they aren’t located and returned to Princeton. The company hires an unnamed investigative entity who in turn hires Mercer Mann, a writer who had some success with her first novel, but is now blocked on her second and has just been let go from her teaching job. Mercer has ties to the island (her grandmother lived there and she visited every summer as a child), so the investigators feel it will seem natural for her to “infiltrate” by staying at her grandmother’s cottage, ostensibly to write, and inserting herself into the local literary scene at the bookstore. They hope that by doing so, she can discover whether there is any truth to the rumors about the manuscripts being linked to Bruce Cable.

I most enjoyed the evolution of the bookstore, with all the details involved; I hadn’t picked up this book specifically because it was about books and reading, but luck took me there, and I always like to hear about the set-up, philosophy, and day-to-day business practices of bookstores and their owners.

I least enjoyed the character Mercer (the young woman writer), who whined a lot about not being able to write but didn’t actually seem to be trying that hard amidst all her other distractions.

A little excitement comes back into the book when the FBI and the insurance company catch some of the thieves and it seems that Mercer’s rather flat-footed undercover work with Bruce Cable may actually lead to one or more of the stolen manuscripts being located. But the ending itself was rather a sterile wrap-up. I suppose everything was resolved adequately, but again, not particularly excitingly.

It was a pleasant read, but not a gripping one, and definitely not my favorite of Grisham’s.

I was somewhat embarrassed to discover that while I’ve been ignoring his recent adult works, I also apparently missed that he’s been writing a series for young teens about a 13-year-old lawyer, Theodore Boone. These sound like books I could promote to reluctant young male readers; I’ll have to read one and see!

 

A reach

I wish they were all like this…

midnightlineI started out by reading a large swathe of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, as one does when first enamored of a character, and then, after I grew bored with reading them one after another, I continued to dip in here and there whenever I was in the mood and/or there was a new book out. The one truth in picking up a Jack Reacher book is that you never know what to expect. Well…
let me revise that statement: One ALWAYS knows what to expect in terms of the character, because he’s a pretty reliable personality. But I have been both pleased and massively disappointed by the stories/events surrounding him from book to book, so although I approach the familiarity of the series with pleasure, I still have some uncertainty about whether or not this particular book in my hand will be a good read.

I liked The Midnight Line quite a lot. The premise (finding the owner of a precious West Point ring spotted in a pawn shop window) was a good one, and just quirky enough to be a typical Reacher quest. While there was violence committed in this book, it wasn’t nearly as vicious as it sometimes can be; it felt like Reacher stuck to his inner code of responding rather than initiating (which he has not done in several recent disquieting examples). I also enjoyed the “educational” aspects of this plot, including facts about the state of Wyoming, and the opioid epidemic and how it has played out in this country, particularly as it affects veterans. Reacher’s collaboration with a male partner (a former FBI agent turned private investigator) was refreshing, since it didn’t contain the now almost obligatory “hook-up” portrayed in many of the Reacher stories featuring a female lead. In fact, Child’s treatment of the female characters in this book (the FBI guy’s client, the local police detective, and the veteran owner of the ring) was respectful and their characters were well developed.

I agree with some that the other characters’ impressions of Reacher (in panicky phone calls to colleagues and subordinates) as “Big Foot” and “The Hulk” and Child’s own descriptions of his turkey-sized hands and so on are probably a not-very-subtle swipe at the temerity of casting Tom Cruise in this role for the movies. Although Cruise has done his best to pull off the stone-faced confidence and world-weariness, there’s no denying that he can’t intimidate or make an impression compared to an almost-seven-foot specimen of honed Army manhood. I must confess that the Jack Reacher projected on my mind’s eye as I read bears more likeness to Alexander Skarsgård…

alexskars

 

Secrets

Although the title of Liane Moriarty’s book is The Husband’s Secret, many more secrets abound in this book about responsibility, guilt, culpability, and consequences.

secretThe initial secret is contained within a letter, addressed from Jean-Paul to his wife, Cecilia, to be opened only in the event of his death. She finds the letter in with some filed tax papers, and though she itches to open and read it, she reluctantly decides that this would be too great an invasion of her husband’s privacy. She admits to him that she found it, only to be somewhat stunned by the extremity of his reaction when he learns that the letter still exists—he thought it was lost or destroyed long ago. He tries to make light of it (he wrote it right after the birth of their first daughter, now a teenager, and claims it was in the emotional heat of the moment), and asks her not to read it and to give it back to him. But something happens that makes her no longer willing to respect that wish, and all the rest of the consequences of this tale about three families follow.

I had some initial trouble with how, exactly, these three stories would interlock; even though they lived in the same town, there were generational differences, outside influences, and a lot of time and space between some of the events, so the book was hard going for the first part. But after the secret is revealed and everything begins to tie in, I read with increasing fascination and momentum. Part of the fascination was that I did not expect that to be the secret. When you think about something that one spouse is keeping from another, your mind automatically goes to the usual stories: past infidelity, Johnny is not your son, I’m leaving you for the pool boy, etc. But this secret is BIG, and affects so many more people than just the wife to whom it is revealed that it makes the story extra compelling. And of course, the minor secrets people hold that either directly or indirectly impact their relationship with and reaction to the big secret further that suspense.

The particular ways in which all of the characters’ lives entwine one with another is the main appeal of this book, and bring you to various conclusions that are then offset by a catalogue of what-ifs in the epilogue: What if this had happened that way instead of this, what if this person hadn’t been in this place at that time, what if anyone had been able to show a little restraint at the proper moment, etc. That is the core of this book, those what-ifs, and they lead you to look at your own laundry list, past and future, and try to decide (about the events of the book and your own list) whether they are black, white, or gray.

Weirdly, although I thoroughly enjoyed the book, part of me would have preferred other stories to grow out of it. Because all three family dramas were sublimated to the central event, some felt incompletely told. The story of Will, Tess, and Felicity, for instance, had its own trajectory that I wish the author had either explored further here or turned into a separate novel. I really wanted to know what happened there! So far, no joy, but perhaps Moriarty will finish their story someday?

Parenthetically, I’ll say that I am not a fan of the “floofy” covers they put on Moriarty’s books. They definitely downplay the narrative.

 

 

Dark deeds

I am a big fan of the books of Sharon J. Bolton. A mystery-reading friend turned me on to her and (being a little obsessive in my reading methodology) I decided to start with her debut, Sacrifice, written in 2008, and work my way forward. Her protagonists are women in unusual professions and offbeat settings, and the books cross that line from mystery to thriller, almost to gothic. They are definitely dark, but also compelling enough that I have been undeterred by subject matter that might make me stop reading another writer’s book.

I like both her series, featuring Detective Constable Lacey Flint (yes, British), and her stand-alone novels, which encompass a far wider array of characters and situations, with settings from Dorset to the Scottish border to the Falkland Islands, and plots that range from mistaken identity to serial killers to something eerily reminiscent of Children of the Corn. They are uniformly well written, well plotted, and harrowing to various degrees.

craftsmanAfter having read her latest,
The Craftsman, I concluded that the name of the book should rather be reserved for its author. Bolton is truly a craftsman of storytelling, and her latest is even creepier than some of her former offerings, which I wasn’t sure was possible.

The central modus operandi of the killer in this one is something I wasn’t sure I could persist in reading about, it horrifies me so much. If it’s not your worst nightmare, it will be after you read this.

The character of WPC Florence Lovelady, a green but smart and enterprising 22 years old in 1969, immediately engaged me, particularly her trials with smoothing it over and dumbing it down in order to operate as a policewoman in those misogynistic times (not that things are leaps and bounds better today…). The setting—
the bleak beauty of northern England—was likewise captivating.
And the mystery was topnotch, wandering as it did from past to present and infecting the reader with certainties and doubts in almost equal measure.

In 1969, three teenagers have gone missing (one at a time, over a period of months) from the small town of Sabden. There is speculation each time one disappears that they could be runaways, out there in the world somewhere doing just fine; but after the third disappearance, the police (and particularly newbie Lovelady) are starting to think otherwise. Detailed to follow up on the claims of some children who swear they heard a voice coming from a recent grave, Florence makes a horrifying discovery that starts her on a chase that will make her career…and change her forever.

In 1999, the death of the imprisoned serial killer brings Assistant Commissioner Lovelady back to town, in company with her son, to attend the funeral. But subsequent events suggest that what she thought was buried in 1969 with the confession of Larry Glassbrook may just emerge from the grave to haunt her.

This is apparently the first of a trilogy, with the next book not due out until October of 2020. I don’t know if I can wait…

 

Big Little Lies

I hadn’t previously read anything by Liane Moriarty, although several librarian friends had recommended her to me, so I decided to start with Big Little Lies, since the TV series stars some of my favorite actors and I’d like to have read the book before embarking on that.

biglittleliesI didn’t know anything about the book, except that it’s classified by some as “women’s fiction,” a category title I have always found insulting. Joyce Saricks, readers’ advisory guru, defines women’s fiction as consisting of “books written primarily by women for women, that feature female characters, and that address the issues women face in their professional and domestic lives.” I find the descriptor “women’s fiction” to be dismissive and ghettoizing. When men were the primary writers of fiction, it was all just fiction, whether literary, mainstream, or genre-based. Why do we need to use condescending terminology that puts female writers in a “less than” category?

It is true that the three main protagonists of Big Little Lies are women with issues (some of them dark): Madeline, Celeste, and Jane. It’s also true that this is primarily a book about white privileged people whose children attend private school. But it’s ultimately a story of parents acting badly, and it features the real lives of children, teens, friends, husbands, wives, second wives, and exes. And the interplay between all these characters, primary and secondary, is smart and witty, making the book completely engaging.

It’s also suspenseful, given that the pivotal moment (which is mentioned at the beginning and then built up to in timed chapters) is a death at the annual Pirriwee Public School Trivia Night, an annual fund-raising event. You know what happens, but not to whom, nor how, nor why. There are small glimpses fed to you in the guise of gossip shared with an unknown interviewer by various secondary characters at intervals throughout the book, which lend further tension as some get it entirely wrong and others come perilously close to guessing secrets they’re not supposed to know.

I loved the way Moriarty sets up the story—the countdown to the trivia contest, the fragments of gossip and commentary, the glimpses into all the lives involved in the broader story. But I particularly loved the entire array of characters, both main and secondary. This is a quintessential example of a character-driven plot, and although its stated theme is suspense, the real content of the book lies in understanding every woman portrayed here. The character development is fresh, intuitive and nuanced, and doesn’t stop with the first few moments of set-up on their personalities, but portrays complex, flawed people with real issues. Moriarty is equally good at capturing the quirks and personalities of all the children involved, and she seasons serious interactions with moments of humor and even hilarity.

I didn’t figure out the climactic moment ahead of time, and honestly spent the second half of the book hoping passionately that she wouldn’t kill off any of the people in which I had invested so thoroughly!

I have put three more books by Moriarty on hold at the library.