It’s been a really long time since I was so riveted by a story that I made a conscious decision to stay up at night until I had finished it. I started Jennifer Hillier’s Little Secrets two days ago, and at bedtime tonight I was at 71 percent (Kindle). At 79 percent and 1:30 a.m., when I probably would have turned out the light on a normal reading night, I got back out of bed, made myself a snack (dinner was a long time back at 6:30 p.m.!), sat down in my chair and kept going. Luckily for me, as happens with Kindle books, the publisher had included a bunch of stuff at the end, including book club questions, author notes, and a preview for her next book, so I only had to read to 90 percent instead of 100. But I would cheerfully have gone that extra 10 percent, after the turns this book took in Part Three.
The book opens with that nightmare of all parents holding their child’s hand in a crowded place—for just one second, struggling to juggle packages and her cell phone, Marin let go of four-year-old Sebastian’s hand in Pike’s Peak Market in Seattle at the height of the Christmas rush. For a few seconds more, she felt him pressed up against her side and then, as she pulled her attention away from her phone and looked around, he was just gone. As is the initial expectation with any mom with a lost kid, she thinks the crowd will open and he’ll be standing there, turning in place, looking for her and panicking a little, and she can sweep him up and reassure him. But he’s not.
Six weeks later, the FBI tells Marin and her husband, Derek, that they have followed every lead and have turned up absolutely nothing new since day one, and that although the case will, of course, remain open, they will now turn their focus to the cases of other missing children. Marin’s response is to attempt suicide. Once she recovers some balance, she decides she will hire a private investigator to keep going with the case; Derek feels it’s a vain effort, so she allows him to believe she has let the P.I. go after a month, but instead she keeps Victoria on the job and, while seeking out some tenuous leads, one of Victoria’s employees spots Derek with a young art student with whom he is apparently having an affair.
Roused from her stupor of despair by a surprisingly strong flash of rage, Marin realizes that she has lost her son, but she’s not going to lose her husband, too; this girl is an enemy with a face, and Marin decides she’s going to fix this problem and keep intact what’s left of her family.
Jennifer Hillier’s author blurb on Goodreads says, “Jennifer Hillier imagines the worst about people and then writes about it.” Boy, does she ever! I kept thinking I was one step ahead and had figured something out, only to be shocked into a delighted exclamation as each secret revealed itself and led to five more. Nine times out of ten, I am disappointed by the latest book lauded for psychological suspense, but this one was definitely an exception. I’m hoping now that her other five books are also exceptional, because I’m headed right for the digital library for Kindle reservations (at 2:30 a.m.)!
I have been off the radar for a while because, when I bought the Sydney Rye mysteries, I bought them in an e-book omnibus of eight books, and I have spent the past two weeks reading all of them, which did a big favor to my Goodreads challenge for the year but didn’t do much for this blog!
They are specifically titled the Sydney Rye Mysteries (by Emily Kimelman), but after the first one, I have to disagree with that genre specification. Although in book #1 there is a dead guy whose killer must be discovered, and this puzzle leads to others within that volume, the subsequent books are not what I would characterize as mysteries. There aren’t specific crimes to solve, although there is a high level of criminality throughout; the books are much more like thrillers or suspense.
The events of the first book have awakened in Joy Humbolt, now rechristened Sydney Rye, a passion for justice, and her first step towards that, in book #2, is to go along with Detective Mulberry’s plan for her, which is to work with a Tai Chi and weapons master whose parallel expertise is teaching dogs to be fighting partners; Sydney and her dog Blue train with Merl and his dobermans, and turn into a couple of badasses practically unrecognizable to the friends and family of Joy Humbolt.
Subsequent to this training, Sydney basically looks around for injustices (or they arrive on her doorstep), from white slavery to organ harvesting, and goes after the people responsible, sometimes on her own but mostly aided by various people from her past, including Mulberry, her sometime romantic partner and computer hacker Dan, the aforementioned Merl, several imprisoned and abused women she rescued who decided they wanted to pass on the favor, and various well-met strangers along the way. And while there is a specific issue, bad guy or guys, and challenging task in each book, none of them could be characterized as mysteries. There are occasionally bigwigs behind the little guys who have to be discovered and ferreted out, but if you are wondering how to characterize these books, they have a greater resemblance to the Jack Reacher (Lee Child) franchise, for example, than to any traditional murder mystery series.
If you like that kind of thing, however, with a legendary protagonist and a lot of exciting action with a positive conclusion for the downtrodden, then by all means broach the Sydney Rye books…just don’t think of them as mysteries!
By the way, the eight volumes aren’t the end of this series—numbers nine through 15 currently exist, and who knows (besides Emily Kimelman) if there will be more?
I can definitely be classified as a mystery reader, but most of the series I pursue are contemporary, with a preference for serious subjects and tending towards either character-driven or procedural themes. Every once in a while, however, I branch out to see what other mystery readers are discovering in such subgenres as Cozy, Historical, Noir, or Caper stories. I have occasionally taken a segue into legal mysteries, and I also enjoy a good thriller that may be related to mystery but not quite defined by that genre.
This week I tried out a couple of different subgenres, and I have to say that I am enjoying them enough to plan on continuing reading the series after this initial review is over.
The first book I read was A Curious Beginning, Deanna Raybourn’s series about lepidopterist Veronica Speedwell. It’s a historical, set in the Victorian era, and features an intrepid spinster who has never fit into a mold, and never intends to. Veronica travels the world in pursuit of scientific inquiry, makes her own living by selling rare specimens of butterflies, and occasionally has a discreet romantic dalliance.
As the story opens, she is wrapping up the affairs of the second of her two elderly adoptive aunts to pass on, and anticipates, now that she has surrendered their cottage and has no further ties to England, embarking on her most ambitious trip ever. Her plans are interrupted, however, when ruffians attempt to kidnap her right off the street in daylight, and she is saved by a sincere but somewhat enigmatic German baron, who tries to convince her that she is in danger and offers her a ride to London. She doesn’t really give credence to his warnings, but since that’s where she was headed anyway, she’s happy to take advantage of the free trip. Once there, he places her temporarily in the care of his friend Stoker, a taxidermist with hidden depths, vowing to return and reveal all. Unfortunately, before he can impart to Veronica the specifics of the plot against her, the baron is murdered, and she and Mr. Stoker are left to their own devices to figure out why someone wants Veronica dead and gone.
I was hooked on both this protagonist and her story within about 15 pages. Veronica is a progressive female determined to conduct herself on her own terms, and uses her considerable intellect paired with feminine guile to make her own way. One reviewer on Goodreads styled her as “a cool Nancy Drew for the turn of the century,” and that’s not a bad characterization! The story itself is sufficiently endowed with plenty of action and enough exciting twists to hold a reader’s interest, but the heart of its success is the witty banter carried on between Veronica and her initially unwilling partner, Stoker. The development of both of these characters is what kept me reading and led me to check out book #2 in the series as soon as I was finished with the first.
The second series on which I embarked is the Sydney Rye mysteries, by Emily Kimelman, beginning with Unleashed, although as the first book opens, Sydney is known by her original name, Joy Humbolt.
Joy has had an active 24 hours: First, she dumped her boyfriend, Marcus, a possessive schmuck who was fixated on the idea she was cheating on him (she wasn’t); then she lost her cool at work and took down a pastel-clad woman with bad hair in spectacular fashion for not understanding the difference between a macchiato and a frappuccino, for which she was fired; and finally, she went to the pound in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and adopted Blue, the largest dog on the premises. Two days later, she was the new owner of a dog-walking business on the Upper East Side, purchased from a friend of a friend, and 24 hours after that, she found herself embroiled in a murder mystery after golden retriever Toby (one of her dog-walking charges) led her to a dead body in an alley. This discovery would prove to be the true game-changer of Joy’s week, and possibly of her life.
Although this protagonist’s story is completely different from that of Veronica Speedwell, it is her character, combined with the vivid depiction of her environs and the details of her life that immediately grabbed my attention. Joy is, like Veronica, a bit edgy, a bit feisty, and with a similar tendency to refuse to tolerate bullshit. The way the amateur sleuth story details Joy’s discovery that she was meant to be a detective and to right wrongs is engaging, and the characters who surround her to either promote or foil her task are equally personable.
Although I can be a creature of habit in my reading tastes, I’m really glad that I stepped away from my usual preferences to try out these two original and absorbing series.
I love that word, and it’s not one that you often get the chance to use. But it perfectly describes the book Holding Smoke, by Elle Cosimano, which I reread this week after a six-year hiatus and discovered that I liked it every bit as well the second time as I did on first perusal (another good word).
I originally picked up the book back in 2016 because of its setting—juvenile hall. While I was in library school, I took a class that required racking up service hours as part of the grade, and a dozen of us started book-talking groups (like a book club, but each person reads their own choice of book) in seven of the living units there. My friend Lisa and I ran a group in one of the four maximum security units (which more closely resembled the set-up of this book), and we loved doing it so much that we ended up continuing for two years, long after both the class and library school were over.
Cosimano, whose father was a warden, really has the setting, the interpersonal relations and interactions, and the rhythms of the place down in this book. I felt like I was right back at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Detention Facility in Unit W, but with a new group of troubled kids.
The title of this blog post doesn’t entirely fit the vibe of the book, since part of the story qualifies as magical realism. The main character, John Conlan, nicknamed Smoke, is serving time in a long-term facility in Denver, Colorado, for two murders, and although one was self defense and the other was committed by someone else, no one believed any part of his account when it went up against the damning circumstantial evidence. During the course of the event, John died for a period of six minutes and then was brought back, and during that six minutes had an out-of-body experience that he discovers he is now able to replicate. So while the other inmates are locked up inside the concrete walls of the “Y,” John is able to pass through them and wander out in the world in spirit form, tied to his body by a sort of cable that seems to be fraying the more trips he takes.
He uses this ability to good purpose by checking in on the families or business partners or girlfriends of other inmates and reporting back on their status—are they okay? are they cheating me? are they cheating ON me? No one can figure out how Smoke is communicating with his outside sources to garner this information, but they’re willing to pay in favors for his services.
He doesn’t use this ability in his own interests until, in the course of observing a drug dealer’s transactions at a bar, he meets a waitress he calls Pink, who can see and hear him in his spirit form, and with her help he begins to explore the truth around who could have manipulated the situation to put him in prison. But someone has a vested interest in keeping him there and keeping him quiet, and suddenly his existence is perilous, as is everyone’s who helps him…
The scene-setting, the characters, the pacing of this story are all visceral and gripping, and I also appreciated the philosophical elements Cosimano brings to the characters. I had no trouble with the suspension of disbelief over Smoke’s abilities, and the author makes the whole thing palpable by setting up and exploring the rules of how those abilities work. There are quite a few twists, and an exciting ending I didn’t see coming. This is a good example of gritty fiction crossed with the paranormal that will appeal to a wide range of teen readers. Although I have enjoyed Cosimano’s other books (particularly the Finlay Donovan series), I think I would call Holding Smoke her best so far.
There are certainly authors to whom I have remained intensely loyal who have written one book I absolutely loved but have also written others that I didn’t. And because I read the book worth loving first, I kept them on my roster of excellent authors despite the downfalls and shortcomings of other works. So this week I decided that just because I had read two books by an author neither of which had particularly wowed me or stuck with me didn’t mean I should dismiss the author out of hand; that perhaps she was worth one more go.
The author to whom I refer is Diane Chamberlain. I first read her book The Dream Daughter, about which many people expressed doubts since time travel was not something they felt was appropriate to her oft-labeled “hometowns and heartstrings” style of writing. Since I love a good time travel book, however, this was prime motivation for me to read it, and I did enjoy it, although not as much in retrospect as my initial reaction might indicate. So I went on to choose another of her books, hoping to get the “traditional” Diane Chamberlain experience, and was vastly disappointed; I didn’t connect with (or even like) any of the characters, felt the narrative was lackadaisical and the plot deficient in sense, and decided, based on Cypress Point, that I wouldn’t read anything more written by her.
But, as sometimes happens, I had placed another of her titles for Kindle on hold at the library a while back, and it popped up as “available” just when I had finished something else and was at loose ends for the next, so I read it. I’m so glad I did, and can say that it may change my attitude about at least some of the rest of her inventory.
The book is Big Lies in a Small Town, and I must confess, first of all, that I was predisposed to like it, despite my previous experience, because this one was about art. As regular readers of this blog can attest, I have special collections on Goodreads of “books about art” and “books about reading,” and am always looking for another to add to those lists. I found one in this book, and also found it compelling for more reasons than just its theme.
First of all, this book also steps outside that “hometowns and heartstrings” narrative and into the realm of historical fiction, although I’m not sure how much of it is real and how much made up. The point is, it all could have happened, and its setting in a true-to-life context, especially including the financial situations and the state of race relations in a small southern town in the 1940s, made it particularly evocative.
The book has two main protagonists, one in 1940, the other in 2018, connected by a Work Progress Administration (WPA) mural painted after the Great Depression by one artist and restored almost 80 years later by another. Anna Dale is the artist from New Jersey who enters a WPA mural contest; she loses out to someone else for the mural she wished to paint in New Jersey, but is instead awarded a smaller project for the post office in Edenton, North Carolina. She takes a trip to scope out both the community and the placement of the mural, planning to stay only a few days to try to capture the flavor of the town and its people upon which she will base the mural but, being somewhat at loose ends in her life with no employment or attachments to prevent her, allows herself to be persuaded by the town’s “movers and shakers” to stay in town to execute the entire project. She soon realizes she is a fish out of water, a Yankee not used to dealing with the prejudices and ubiquitous racial undertones of a small Southern community. And to complicate matters, the town has its own artist who tried for the same assignment and lost out to Anna, so there are some people in town who are already predisposed to dislike her. Anna is determined to achieve her goal, but vastly underestimates the obstacles she faces.
Nearly 80 years later, in 2018, Morgan Christopher, who is in prison for three years for a crime she didn’t commit, is given an opportunity to curtail that sentence if she agrees to certain conditions: Jesse Jameson Williams, a prominent artist from Edenton, North Carolina, has died, and in his will he specifies that Morgan is to be offered the job of restoring a mural that will hang in the gallery containing his paintings and those of his protegés. Morgan is an artist but has no experience with the complex skills required for restoration, but she is desperate to leave prison, so she accepts and is paroled contingent upon her completing this project. In the process of working on the mural, she discovers disturbing design elements that pique her interest about the unknown fate of Anna Dale.
This story was masterfully plotted to keep the reader turning the pages. The perspective switches back and forth between past and present with a cliffhanger at the end of each chapter to make it irresistible, and Chamberlain is wonderfully cagey about how and when she reveals the plot points that connect all the players. I read it in two days, and when I say days I mean until 2:30 a.m. when I could no longer keep my eyes open. In addition to complex plots for both time periods, the narrative contains interesting technical information about the restoration process as well as fascinating personal details about life in the South after the Depression. It addresses such issues as mental illness, injustice, poverty, and racism, but incorporates those themes into its riveting and emotionally engaging story line without being preachy or didactic.
Can you tell that I liked the book?
Reading this made me immensely curious about the WPA mural program; here is a look at some of the artists who were defining American art “after the fall,” that is, after the Great Depression’s socioeconomic devastation, and here is an interesting contemporary speculation on whether anything similar to this project could ever again happen in the United States. Below is one mural, by artist Ben Shahn, entitled “The Meaning of Social Security.” It’s on a wall of the Wilbur J. Cohen Federal Building, in Washington, D.C.
A little “if-then” referral: If you read this and find that you enjoyed learning about the technical processes of restoration, another book you might enjoy is The Art Forger, by B. A. Shapiro, which also includes many fascinating technical details, although it is much less respectful of the original artist! My review is here.
I followed through on my intention to read more young adult books by Elle Cosimano, by checking out her duology about Nearly Boswell. Yes, that’s her name, although she makes her friends call her Leigh, because she thinks a name like Nearly makes her stick out too much. Nearly is a girl who likes to operate below the radar for a variety of reasons, the primary one being that she has a special “gift” (or curse): If she touches someone, skin on skin, she can feel their emotions, and can usually tell whether they are lying or being truthful. Although this sounds useful, functionally it can be overwhelming, giving her a bunch of information she doesn’t really want to know. Other reasons include that she lives in a run-down trailer park with a mom who makes her living as an exotic dancer, and Nearly doesn’t want to give anyone more reasons for verbal target practice at her expense.
Nearly’s father left them five years ago, and (a pivotal plot point) Nearly reads the personal ads daily, searching for a message from him (since he communicated with her in that way once before). But what crops up instead are a bunch of weirdly worded clues that end up being the precursors to murder—all of people somehow associated with her life. Now she’s in a race to interpret or solve the clues to try to beat the murderer to the next victim, assisted by Reece, a new love interest who may not be someone she should trust.
This mystery is solved in the first book, but events begin to repeat themselves in book #2, as Nearly navigates her way through an internship at the town crime lab (although the clues appear as chemistry formulas rather than as personal ads) in a weirdly familiar way that just can’t be happening, given that the person most likely to be tormenting her is now locked away in prison. It also doesn’t help that Reece is working as an informant for the police and is involved with another girl as part of his undercover personna. When a skeleton is exhumed from the local golf course, Nearly has to wonder: Could it be her con man father buried there? or is it someone he murdered?
These are suspenseful reads, a little dark, and rather brilliantly plotted. Teens who enjoy the Naturals series by Jennifer Lynn Barnes would probably love them. The books are Nearly Gone, and Nearly Found.
I just read two delightful books in a planned series by young adult author Elle Cosimano, although these books are intended for adults. I checked out the first, Finlay Donovan is Killing It, based on a “best books” email from Goodreads; my brain kept nagging me that I should recognize the name of the author, but it wasn’t until I finished that book and the sequel and went looking for her on Goodreads that I realized she was the author of a wonderful YA book, part paranormal and part gritty realistic fiction, that I had read back in 2016. That book was Holding Smoke, and I had forgotten all about it but certainly remember it now, because it was one of my favorite books of that year, to the point where I raved about it and gave it five stars.
Her YA books seem to be similar in content (mystery/thrillers) but completely different in execution from these first two books for adults. The YA books are deadly serious, while the Finlay Donovan books are deadly but also funny, sort of a mashup of thriller, French farce, and relationship fiction. Those elements may sound incompatible, but Cosimano makes them work, and keeps you in both suspense and in stitches all the way through.
Finlay is a newly single mom; her husband, Stephen, left her and her two young children for his real estate agent, Theresa, and is now using his vastly greater income and resulting stability as a weapon to try to win custody of the kids. Meanwhile, Finlay, who is a novelist with a string of almost-successful romance/thrillers that have garnered small advances and insignificant royalties, is way behind with her latest manuscript, for which her agent and editor are both hounding her, and she has maxed-out credit cards and nothing coming in to cover the copious bills piling up on her porch. To top that off, her husband has just fired her nanny without telling her, and she’s late to a meeting with her agent due to a catastrophic incident with a pair of scissors that left her daughter, Delia, half bald with a bloody scratch on her head.
Absentmindedly stuffing the scissors and the bloody rag she used to stop the bleeding into her diaper bag, Finlay rushes the kids off to their father for a couple of hours so as to meet up with her agent for a late lunch at Panera, to discuss deadlines Finlay already knows she’s not going to be able to meet. A woman seated next to the two eavesdrops on their conversation about how to deal with a dastardly man and provide a safe haven for a nice woman (part of the plot of her latest book), catches a glimpse of the scissors and the blood-spotted diaper in Finlay’s bag, and jumps to a wrong conclusion. After taking a trip to the restroom, Finlay discovers a note left for her by the eavesdropper, offering $50K if Finlay the contract killer will “off” the woman’s husband.
In a book that promises mystery, intrigue, and laughs, we get everything we are promised as this crazy but nonetheless somewhat plausible story unfolds. The coincidences are epic, but I embraced them whole-heartedly as necessary to the continuation of the saga of Finlay, her errant nanny, Vero, and the love interest—a hot young bartender studying to be a lawyer who unwittingly gives Finlay a much-needed alibi when her bad decisions blow up on her.
I finished the book in two days, and couldn’t wait to grab the sequel, Finlay Donovan Knocks ‘Em Dead, which was, if possible, even more fun, bringing a plot so convoluted that only Finlay and Vero could figure it out…eventually. The third book, Finlay Donovan Jumps the Gun, is due out in 2023, and I can hardly wait. In the meantime, though, I am going back to explore Cosimano’s young adult novels to see if the others measure up to Holding Smoke. If so, there will be more raving to come.
I’ve been busy these past couple of weeks, starting a new quarter teaching at UCLA and also doing some Zoom classes on contour drawing for LAPL, and the mood has dictated that I don’t need to be reading stuff that challenges me, so I’ve been revisiting some books from the past (as evidenced from my last review). This week I went for mystery writer Robert Crais.
Crais has a series starring Elvis Cole, a private investigator in Los Angeles, and his buddy and business partner Joe Pike. Elvis is a deceptively happy-go-lucky, casual guy in a Hawaiian shirt, with a smart-alecky manner and a keen sense of how to cut through the extraneous to solve a missing persons case or whatever else his clients bring to his door. Joe Pike epitomizes the strong silent type, has all kinds of commando training and slinky stealth operations in his past, and retains unexpected clearance levels with the Department of Defense, considering that he was hounded off the police force in Los Angeles once upon a time. Given his splendid physique, the arrows tattooed on his biceps, and the smoldering look in his eye, not many people are willing (or able) to mess with Pike.
Crais has now written 19 books shared by these two partners (with the emphasis on Elvis Cole), plus a further seven featuring Pike as the lead. This series, like any other long-running one based on the same people in the same city, has had its ups and downs, but I generally enjoy anything Crais writes. An added bonus is the books’ Los Angeles setting, since I am familiar with most of the locales and landmarks, which is always fun.
A Dangerous Man is billed as an Elvis Cole/Joe Pike book, but it’s really mostly Pike, with Elvis in a supporting role. (Being #18 in the series, I imagine Crais was already migrating his thinking over to Joe as the new lead.) You can read an in-depth review of the book here, from when I originally read it.
Crais started a new series in 2013 featuring Scott James, a police officer, and his K-9 partner, Maggie, and wrote one follow-up book, but doesn’t seem to be pursuing it further than that.
He has also written several stand-alone books, and these are among my favorites. Hostage was made into a suspenseful and action-packed movie, starring Bruce Willis, and I keep hoping that someone in Hollywood will revisit his books and decide to make movies based on the other two, The Two-Minute Rule, and Demolition Angel, given their great story lines and compelling protagonists.
I re-read Demolition Angel this week, and it mostly held up to my initial enthusiastic reception (although the technology in the book has become increasingly dated, of course). This is the only book of Crais’s with a female lead (although he does feature strong female characters in other books), and Carol Starkey’s presence is palpable and painful. She is the survivor of a bomb detonation by which she lost her lover, who was also her partner on the bomb squad, and even three years later she is on the edge, constructed of equal parts gin, cigarettes, antacids, and insomnia. She is now working as a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department, and would like to get back to the bomb squad, but her therapist doesn’t hold out much hope of that, given her fragile and self-destructive state. Then the bomb squad rolls out on a report of a suspicious package at a strip mall and, after one of the bomb techs is blown up by its unexpected detonation, Carol Starkey is handed the case.
Starkey is terrified that either Homicide, ATF, or the FBI will take the case away from her, and determined to solve it herself before that can happen, which lends an urgency to the narrative. The components of the bomb itself suggest it was built by Mr. Red, an infamous shadowy character whose goal is to be on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list. An FBI agent named Pell does show up, but seems content to work with Carol, offering his long-running history with Mr. Red to support her case. Things escalate as Mr. Red himself engages with Starkey via a dark-web chat room, and Starkey begins to realize that this case may be much more complex than everyone else believes, and have less to do with Mr. Red than anyone imagined.
Carol Starkey is a truly great character, and the scene-setting all over Los Angeles is both accurate and entertaining. I was fascinated by the procedural parts of the book, and also enjoyed the interpersonal relations with her team, the ATF agent, and the bomber/serial killer. Reading this after revisiting one of the series books showed me how much Crais has to offer when he is building a story from scratch, rather than relying on the formula of the Cole/Pike team. I wish he would write more stand-alones like this one.
It’s that time of year when all the people in the Facebook group “What Should I Read Next?” are asking for Christmas- or holiday-themed books. The presumption, of course, is that these will be cozy, feel-good, Hallmark-type stories to foster that precise experience of flannel pajamas and plucked heartstrings by the fire. But who’s to say that a Christmas story can’t be perilous and full of drama?
On the recommendation of Ivy-the-Librarian (one of my colleagues also on FB), I picked up the Libby (OverDrive ebook app) global Big Library Read community book for the month of November, Five Total Strangers, by Natalie D. Richards. It’s categorized as Young Adult, although it should properly be New Adult, since all the characters but the main protagonist are college students. Mira, however, is 18 and still a senior in high school, so I guess that was the determiner. Honestly, though, this book could be enjoyed by anyone who likes a heart-pounding suspenseful ride.
“Ride” is used literally in this case: The back story is that Mira, who has been living in California with her father while going to an arts-based high school, is returning to her mom’s in Pittsburgh for Christmas. While she usually gives herself a lead of three or four days before the holiday to travel, this year she pushed it to the last minute and is flying in on Christmas Eve morning. Unfortunately, due to the onset of a record-breaking snowstorm, she arrives in Newark to discover that her connecting flight has been cancelled and the airlines are sending passengers to local hotels until the skies clear. But Mira is determined to make it home for Christmas with her mom—it’s the first year they will be without her Aunt Phoebe, her mother’s twin sister who passed away a year ago from cancer, and Mira knows that her mother will need support to get through it. So when her seatmate on the flight into Newark says she is renting a car with three other friends and will be happy to drop Mira off in Pittsburgh, Mira jumps at the chance to be a part of the ride-along with Harper, Brecken, Josh, and Kayla.
Harper seems to be a reassuringly mature and well organized person, as well as friendly to and protective of Mira, so Mira feels confident climbing into the SUV with her and her friends. What she shortly learns, however, is that none of the others knows each other—they met at the airport and agreed to share the rental car—and now she is living out any parents’ worst nightmare, your child in a car with four strangers. Who knows what could happen?
In fact, more disasters and drama occur than one could imagine, even in these adverse circumstances. Above and beyond the tension created by the truly terrible weather and the constant driving hazards it presents is the gradual realization that someone in the car is actively trying to sabotage the trip, making such essentials as cell phones and maps disappear just when they are needed the most. But why? This is essentially a locked-room (in a car) mystery, and the ramp-up of stress is palpable. I especially identified with Mira’s conflicting feelings as she went from being determined to make it home to be with her mom to realizing that perhaps her own safety was going to have to take precedence over a picture-perfect Christmas, could she but bring herself to run screaming from the car.
I had some basic caveats as the story progressed: There is too much speculation with no progress or resolution on at least one character, while another is left too vague, considering a role as a major actor in the plot. I was also a bit irritated by some of the too-pat coincidences. But overall, the suspense is well maintained, the red herrings are effective, the breathless quality keeps amping up throughout, and you are poised to let out a tension-generated shriek should a housemate tap you on the shoulder or a pet jump in your lap at a pregnant moment.
If you want a book with a Christmas vibe but without the hearts and flowers, Five Total Strangers is definitely a Yule tale with a different effect! Because this is the Libby book for November, most larger libraries have unlimited copies of the e-book available for remote checkout. Access it, curl up with your cocoa, and prepare to be traumatized.