Christmas thriller

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.

The Good Sister

I read The Good Sister, by Sally Hepworth, on the recommen-dation of multiple people, although I held out for a while because it felt like one of those books about which excessive raving leads to inevitable disappointment. I am happy to say that wasn’t the case here.

In brief, there are two sisters (fraternal twins) in their late twenties: Rose, who is successful in her career as an interior designer and is happily married to Owen, but has recently endangered her relationship by becoming obsessed with having a baby; and Fern, a single librarian with a sensory processing disorder. The initial presentation is that Rose is the sister who has everything pretty much together, while Fern relies heavily upon Rose to guide her in life’s decisions and keep her on an even keel. Fern sticks to a rigid schedule of dining with Rose three nights a week, and otherwise carefully constructs her life to help her avoid all the many overwhelming situations with which she is unable to cope. This co-dependent relationship evolved from a difficult shared childhood with a narcissistic mother, and the sisters continue to fall naturally into the roles of protector and protected.

When Fern realizes that Rose is unable to have children, she reasons that this may be the one big thing she can do to pay Rose back for all her care and concern over the years. All she needs to do is find a father for the child. To anyone with traditional boundaries this would seem like a complicated issue, but to straightforward and literal Fern, it may be as easy as asking the first suitable male she encounters!

The point of view fluctuates between a direct narrative by Fern and the reading of entries of a daily journal that Rose is keeping at the suggestion of her therapist, whom she is seeing to help her with the tragedy of being unable to conceive. Through the agency of the journal, things are revealed about the two women’s past that will become particularly hazardous if a child is brought into the mix.

This book is billed as a thriller but, while it has aspects of mystery, suspense, and revelation to it that are definitely germane to the overall story and drive its action, the real reason to read this book is the co-protagonist sister, Fern, and her new friend, “Wally.” (I put his name in quotes because that’s what Fern calls him, due to his resemblance to the subject of the “Where’s Waldo” books.) Fern is a complex, nuanced character who interrogates the behavior of people around her and muses “out loud” about her own reactions to those behaviors. We are given the initial impression that Fern has been static in her routines, relationships, and accomplishments for a good long while; but as the story progresses so does Fern. Her forays into the unknown are a delight to witness, not the least of which is her relationship with Wally, who has issues of his own that may complement Fern better than she can believe.

I would categorize this as family or domestic drama more than suspense, although it is gripping in the end as issues resolve. But the best part of it is the wonderful characterization, the depiction of people who approach life differently, to be sure, but are in their own ways more together than the mundane “regular” folk can ever hope to be. I haven’t liked a character this well since Eleanor Oliphant.

Tangier melodrama

I just finished reading Tangerine, a novel of suspense by Christine Mangan, a first-time author, and I am struggling to put into words what I found compelling and also how the book ultimately failed in its task (for me, at least).

There was a lot of chatter in the blurbs about this being the next iteration of The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith, with Lucy understudying the role of Tom Ripley. But I think it is this central issue that caused the book, although somewhat engrossing, not to work for me. Ripley did all the things that he did because he was a sociopath. He presented, as did Lucy, as charmingly naive; but underneath it all, there was no empathy. He saw something he wanted, he saw what he would have to do to get it, he pondered the ways to achieve it, and then he took them on, however reprehensible and with whatever consequences. But in Tangerine, Lucy’s motivation is not so clear.

Lucy is obsessed with Alice—in love, she would probably say—and Alice, of higher caste and income than Lucy, has foolishly created a dream future for Lucy by carelessly promising that, after they graduate from Bennington, they will go together to Paris, possibly to stay, or perhaps traveling on to Spain and beyond. Lucy, in her obsession, takes this casual remark as a promise, one that she slowly comes to realize that Alice will fail to fulfill, once Alice becomes involved with other people and essentially abandons their one-on-one relationship. It is this failure of a dream that causes Lucy to become the ruthless driving force who alters Alice’s life; and it is only at that point in the book that she begins to resemble Mr. Ripley in her conscienceless manipulations.

That evolution somehow didn’t ring true for me. I see the similarities—Tom + Dickie with Marge as the outsider, and Lucy + Alice with Tom (and John) as the problem third wheel—but for some reason, it just didn’t feel the same. Perhaps one flaw that caused the disconnect is that Alice is such a wishy-washy character with so much baggage that she doesn’t act as a sufficient foil to show Lucy’s true colors. Everything seems to be lovely; then there are a couple of red flags that Alice confronts with confusion because she’s so unsure of her own mental state that she halfway believes she imagines them; and then everything goes to hell. As one writer on Goodreads said of the two, they are “ghosts of far more fascinating characters found in a Daphne du Maurier or Shirley Jackson novel.” I tend to agree!

The author drew such a line between strong, decided Lucy and weak-willed Alice that at one point in this story I actually believed we were going to be subjected to a dissociative identity disorder type of thing, where Alice and Lucy turned out to be (two sides of) the same person. While I’m thankful that didn’t happen, if the author had the moxie to try to pull that off I would have given her respect. By contrast, the evolution of the two characters in the actual story just didn’t gel for me. The setting of Tangier, where the relationship reconnects and continues to the end, was a potent one, and some of the subsidiary characters, notably Youssef and, to a lesser extent, Aunt Maude, are compelling, but the central struggle seemed too diffuse—too much took place in the confines of each character’s mind and out of the other’s tangible presence for there to be true drama. There were great moments, scenes, but they didn’t connect enough to give me the story arc. Also, the author frustratingly introduces mysterious characters who show up at the door, deliver veiled threats, and never appear again. There’s nothing I dislike more than a red herring that flops around and doesn’t actually swim anywhere.

The most interesting part of the book, honestly, is its setting, which is telegraphed by the title. Tangier is portrayed vividly and tangibly, with description but also from the gut reactions of the characters themselves to its peculiar atmosphere. There is much made of the fact that some people, arriving in a place, instinctively recognize it as “home,” while others quickly realize that, no matter their inclination, the place will never be a good fit for them. I enjoyed all this scene-setting immensely, with its contrast between the hot, dry, dusty streets with the sun beating down that cause Lucy to revel, and Alice’s wistful memories of rolling hills of green, and winter by the fire at Bennington that contrast so forcefully with her present surroundings. Tangier, a bit lawless, innately spontaneous, a little dangerous, definitely furthers the ruthless actions taken within its confines. But a gripping setting is not enough to carry the action.

I can’t honestly pan this book; it’s fairly exciting in parts, and kept me reading to find out what happened. But if you have never read any of Highsmith’s Ripley books, I’d definitely give preference to those.

More Barclay

It turns out that my last read by this author, No Time for Goodbye, has a sequel, called No Safe House. So I decided to read that too, but while I was waiting on a copy from the library, I picked up his book Never Look Away. I think this one is my favorite so far, in terms of the drawn-out suspense.

It actually answered questions that came up when I read his more recently published Promise Falls series. It’s the back story of one of the protagonists from that series—David Harwood, the newspaper reporter. There are comments made in that series about the tragic events involving his wife that took place the last time he lived in Promise Falls, and this book tells that story.

David and Jan Harwood have been married about six years, and have a darling four-year-old boy, Ethan. But lately Jan seems to be struggling with depression. She isn’t able to articulate what’s wrong, so David encourages her to see the family doctor for a talk, and hopes for the best. They make plans for a little getaway one Saturday, taking their son Ethan to a new amusement park that has just opened. But shortly after they arrive, Jan takes her eyes off Ethan’s stroller for just a couple of minutes, and when she turns back, he’s gone. The parents split up to search the park and finally, when they have almost given up, David spots Ethan’s stroller, with a suspicious-looking man running away from it. He’s relieved to find Ethan unharmed—the kid apparently slept through the entire abduction!—and calls Jan’s cell to let her know everything is okay. David waits with Ethan just inside the park for Jan to meet up with them, but after standing there for a really long time, David starts to wonder—has he found Ethan only to lose his wife?

In the days that follow, David’s work life impinges upon his personal situation in such a way that the police start to look at him with suspicion in the matter of Jan’s disappearance and continuing absence. It’s up to David to figure out how he could have gotten his signals so crossed up and what, exactly, has happened to Jan…and why.

No Safe House takes us back to Cynthia (Bigge) Archer, whose family disappeared without a trace one night when she was a teenager. This book takes place six years after the end of No Time for Goodbye; Cynthia’s daughter Grace is now 14 years old, and is responding with typical teenage contrariness to Cynthia’s admittedly somewhat paranoid attempts to keep a tight hold on her schedule. After a particularly fraught interchange, Cynthia moves out of the house and into a sublet apartment to take a break from family life, leaving husband Terry, who’s a little less tightly wound, in charge of Grace. Grace takes advantage by telling her dad she’s going to the movies with a girlfriend and will get a ride home from the friend’s mom afterwards, but instead going out with Stuart, a former student of her father’s who is a couple of years older and exemplifies trouble on two feet. Later that night, there’s a panicky call from Grace to her dad: “I think I might have…done something.” And this sets off events that bring the family back in contact with the lawless Vince, who helped them out during their drama six years ago and suffered for it, and Vince’s stepdaughter Jane, who proves to be a tower of strength for Grace. Things escalate, as is typical of Barclay stories, and stay pretty exciting and perilous throughout. I enjoyed this follow-up even more than I did the first book.

I’m going to take a break now from mysteries to embrace some other genres, but I’m sure I’ll be back with Mr. Barclay someday soon.

Promise Falls

On the recommendation of my friend Patrice, who also enjoys mysteries, I checked out a few books by Linwood Barclay, whose writing I had yet to explore. It just so happened that a fairly recent trilogy by him was available through the library (e-books), so I first read Broken Promise, Far From True, and The Twenty-Three.

The structure of this trilogy seemed to me like an anomaly among mystery writers: Although many write series featuring the same detectives, most of the books in those series are self-contained; that is, a mystery is opened at the beginning of each book and solved by the end of that same volume. But this trilogy carried several complex situations over from book to book, so that small parts were solved in books one and two, but it took until book three to reach final resolution on all sides.

Additionally, instead of just one detective protagonist (or a team), these books feature three protagonists, each with a different profession and a separate agenda, although all of them are ultimately interested in solving the complex situation taking place in Promise Falls, an upstate New York town seemingly plagued by bad luck.

We are introduced to the town in Broken Promise by David Harwood, a “native son” who decides to move back from Boston and a decent (though stressful) career as a reporter, after the passing of his wife. He applies for and gets a job at the local newspaper, only to have the paper fold within a week of his returning home, and he and his son Ethan are stuck living with his parents until he can figure out some other way to support them. Then his cousin Marla, who suffered a recent devastating loss when her child was stillborn, turns up with a baby that is not her own. She claims the child was left with her by an “angel” who exhorted her to care for it; but when the child’s mother turns up murdered, all eyes are on the somewhat unstable Marla as the culprit. David puts aside his own concerns to focus on finding out the truth, but other strange events in town muddy the waters even further.

The second book, Far From True, features Cal Weaver, a private investigator who, subsequent to a major tragic event that takes several peoples’ lives, is hired by one of the deceased victims’ daughters to look into a break-in at his house. Cal discovers far more about a number of supposedly upstanding town citizens than he ever wanted to know; but how are their activities related to the break-in, and are they also connected somehow to the murders the local police are still trying to solve?

The third book’s narrative, The Twenty-Three, is primarily driven by Detective Barry Duckworth, the lead officer on almost every criminal case in Promise Falls. Right now he is feeling out of his depth, torn in five different directions, between the murders he has yet to solve, the new and ominous events that are piling up around the significant number 23, and the latest disaster that is sending a good portion of the town’s citizenry to the emergency room—and some to the morgue.

Although each of the books begins with a particular narrator and may feature more details about that person and his efforts, all three of the protagonists appear in each of the other books as well, and it’s a bouncing timeline that jumps from one crime scene to another, from one character to another (and not just the protagonists), from one interview to another, as the three pursue their separate agendas but also come into contact with one another—sometimes for an amicable exchange of information, other times as opponents or even suspects.

I enjoyed these books in a different way than with regular mysteries, since the cases took three books to solve; the pace is more leisurely and allows you to get to know the characters better (and also for the author to add characters without too much confusion as to who they are). At first I did have to pay close attention to the different story lines between David and Cal, because they are about the same age and share some of the same concerns and characteristics (intelligent, curious, fit, interested in some of the women with whom they interact); Barry Duckworth was much easier to keep separate, since he was the only policeman involved (initially), as well as being a decade (or two) older than the others, married, and described in different terms (a big gut owed to an irresistible sweet tooth, a sweaty suit and tie rather than casual dress, etc.). I liked having all the different perspectives from which to draw conclusions, and I also appreciated Barclay’s introduction of other colorful characters from the community, particularly the former (and hoping to be future) mayor, a genial sociopath who mucks up the works for all of the crime-solvers in his attempts to be both relevant and constantly in the public eye.

In the end, it was a lot to wrap up, even for a trilogy! Serial murders, sex scandals, opportunistic former mayors, a series of what amounted to terrorist attacks on the people of Promise Falls…and basically only two detectives and a couple of well-meaning amateurs working full-time on all of it. In the hands of a less skillful author this would have become a confusing mashup, but I feel like Barclay handles the multiple trains of thought well and keeps everything focused in the general direction he wants things to go. I saw one of the guilty parties coming, but only because our attention was so firmly directed towards someone else; but I was blindsided by the other one. A good conclusion, although Duckworth’s final situation left something to be desired—by him! Still, he knows he has cake in his future…

After completing the trilogy I decided to read a few more of Barclay’s books, which are for the most part stand-alone. One, Too Close to Home, harks back to a specific event in the history of a minor character from the later trilogy; Derek Cutter (father of cousin Marla’s baby in the trilogy) was just 17 when the family next door were all brutally murdered while he hid in their basement. Barry Duckworth has his eye on Derek as his prime suspect, and Derek’s father, Jim, has to do some quick work to figure out who else besides his son could have done the deed and, almost as important, why? Soon Jim has a potential culprit in his sights, but Jim’s wife, Ellen, thinks Jim is taking this opportunity to exact revenge on a former rival. Getting to the truth proves more complex than anyone expects.

The other, No Time for Goodbye, has a fascinating premise: One morning when she is 14 years old, Cynthia Bigge wakes up to discover that her entire family is missing from the house—her mother, father, and brother Trevor. The cars are both gone, and she initially assumes that they have left for work, school, or errands before she came downstairs. When they don’t return, however, the suspicion by the authorities is that they have left—and left her behind. There’s no note; no clothes or possessions are missing; there are no circumstances that overtly indicate a violent end; it’s completely baffling. Twenty-five years later, Cynthia and her husband and daughter are dealing with the trauma afresh, after Cynthia goes on one of those television documentary shows that tries to solve cold cases. Weird things start happening: A car lurks in the neighborhood and seems to follow Cynthia when she walks Grace to school; an anonymous phone call hints that the mystery should be abandoned; a strange artifact from the past appears inside the house. Cynthia’s husband, Terry, is trying his best to be supportive, but can’t help wondering if it’s all a figment of Cynthia’s anxious imagination—or worse, that she’s the source of all of it. Cynthia, determined to solve the mystery, hires a private investigator, and his actions soon send things out of control.

I really enjoyed both of these books. The writing is engaging and entertaining, the plotting is smart and convoluted without being confusing, and the outcomes are nearly always unexpected. I would probably label his books thrillers rather than straight mystery, although there is an element of detecting going on throughout. But the pacing and the level of suspense (and the ultimate revelations) definitely qualify as thriller material. I’m happy I’ve been introduced to Linwood Barclay and will look forward to reading more.

A guilty secret

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!

Open ended

Writing a book review by basing it on this readers’ advisory concept may be unfair, in that it’s a sort of spoiler. If you plan or planned to read this book but decide not to because I reveal that the ending is somewhat inconclusive, then I apologize. But I mention it for the good reason that I usually avoid open-ended fiction like the plague, being a person who wants my stories resolved, if not tied up with a too-tidy bow—but I enjoyed the questions left by this one and applaud the author for ending it in the manner she chose.

The book I am talking about is Verity, by Colleen Hoover, and I have been under subtle pressure to read it for a long time. Most of the pressure came from my own mind, but some from friends who urged it on me. It is one of the five books continually discussed, lauded, and recommended as “best” on the “What Should I Read Next?” Facebook page of which I am a member. This week, I discovered that the e-book was actually available from the library, and I finally succumbed.

Too much hype is almost always off-putting, and I think I probably would have enjoyed this book a little more if I had come to it with fewer expectations. Fortunately, I had never previously read a description of it, so some semblance of surprise remained intact. I knew Colleen Hoover was a romance writer, and for some reason I expected this to be romantic historical fiction, so when I opened the book to the first line, I was shocked and somewhat taken aback, but also intrigued.

In case you know nothing about this book (which seems impossible but probably isn’t), it’s the story of a self-effacing young author, Lowen Ashleigh, who has had some critical success but is on the verge of financial disaster when she is asked to “collaborate on” (which turns out to be code for write) the last three books in a series by the well known and immensely popular writer Verity Crawford. Verity has been in a debilitating automobile accident and her condition is “uncertain” at the moment, according to her publishers. Lowen accepts the lucrative offer made by Verity’s husband, Jeremy, and travels down to the Crawford home to look through Verity’s notes to get an idea of how to proceed. Although she plans to be there for only a day, financial difficulties paired with the sheer volume of material to peruse (plus her undeniable attraction to Jeremy) causes her to stay a while. But the entire sojourn is made increasingly uncomfortable by the discovery of an autobiography written by Verity that reveals a horrifying side to the Crawfords’
tragic story.

On its face, this is a rather typical gothic plot: Our heroine, young and unsure of herself, is put into a situation where she craves the attention of a seemingly unavailable man who may actually be more receptive than she initially believes. An obstacle (this time in the form of a critically injured wife) presents itself, but there may be a way around it, resulting in the union of the star-crossed couple. Victoria Holt mastered this one many times over, back in the 1970s.

That’s not to say that this book is a cliché, only that it’s not as unique as some would paint it. There are several things that set it apart: the frank depiction of sexual activities, which was verboten in the gothic oeuvre; the extenuating circumstances that occurred before the current timeline in this disaster-prone family; and the sheer creepiness of the alternation between the protagonist’s and the author’s voices as we jump back and forth between the present-day narrative (Lowen) and the words of the autobiography (Verity). And there is also the dark quality of life in the Crawford domicile in this moment, which is not to be discounted.

The final difference is that in the gothic romance tradition, all is resolved by the end of the book. Not so here, where a crucial piece of information casts all certainty into doubt and the reader is left to ask, What the hell just happened?

In the past in this column, I have complained of authors who just couldn’t resist putting the fix on every single dangling detail of their plot, to the detriment of the book, as in my rant about the epilogue of Things You Save In A Fire. At the same time, I am a person who does in general like a clear resolution to a story; it doesn’t have to be absolute, but if something is left hanging, I want it to give the implication that there will be satisfaction at some point. But having read Verity, I will say that there is something incredibly effective about making your reader say “Whaaaat?” at the end, which is that it keeps them thinking about your book for days after!

Perhaps you will read it and see what I mean; or perhaps you will curse me for leading you down this path without a pretty conclusion. Either way, be prepared for an interval of wild energy, uneasiness, confusion, and dread, wondering about the sanity of anyone who would willingly stay in a situation permeated by those emotions, regardless of the incentive.

Significant relationships

I picked up The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne,
with the misconception that it would be a fantasy retelling of an obscure fairy tale. But although the author makes creative episodic use of the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name by revealing it gradually in chapter headings, the tale told here is all too real.

Helena Pelletier is revealed as a former “wild child,” one of those who has been raised in the wilderness outside of society, under no one’s influence but that of her parents. Even that statement is misleading; her mother played no real role (except that of passive housekeeper and provider of meals). Her Anishinaabe nickname, given to her by her part Native American father, was Little Shadow, and Helena became, as she grew, a miniature version of him, learning all he was inclined to teach her—including a basic disdain for her weak and ineffective mother. Under his tutelage she learned to track, trap, hunt, gather, and survive in the combination of forest and marshland in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where their cabin was situated.

The truth that she finally discovers at age 12 rocks her world and skews all her perceptions: Her father kidnapped her mother off the street when she was 14 years old, brought her to his cabin in the marsh, and held her prisoner. At age 16 she became pregnant and gave birth to Helena, who spent the next 12 years in ignorance and freedom, being raised by the victim and her captor.

The story is compellingly told in alternating chapters of present day and past tense. After eluding arrest for two years, Helena’s father spent 13 years in prison for his crimes. But now he has managed to escape, killing two guards and supposedly heading off into the heart of a wildlife refuge. But Helena, now in her late 20s and with a husband and two daughters of her own, knows him well enough to believe that this is misdirection to get the manhunt going in that area while her father will make his way to the land he knows best, part of which is now the site of Helena’s family home. She also believes that since no one knows him and his skills the way she does, she is the only one who can track him down.

Each revelation in the present day leads to a chapter about her life in the past, and as the book moves to its conclusion, the picture of what that was like grows deeper, broader, and more fascinating. This is a cat-and-mouse thriller full of suspense: Although we know from the outset that Helena’s father is “the bad guy,” the tension of seeing how her life plays out as she grows up and becomes self-aware enough to recognize him for who he is—a dangerous narcissist, a psychopath—gives agency to some truly compelling character development. The conflict experienced by Helena, who goes from idolizing her father to questioning his authority to the major revelation of his actions, followed by an uncomfortable and protracted adjustment to her new life in society, shows all the nuances of parent-child relationships and how they help and harm as children achieve adulthood. I’m so happy to finally have read a book this year that I can unequivocally endorse! Five stars from me.

One of the attractive parts of this story is the wealth of detail about the marshes and wetlands of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in which it is set; but I should also note that there is a fair bit of detail about the trapping and killing of animals for food that may disturb some readers. I am a vegetarian for compassionate reasons and managed to get through it, but some of it was more graphic than I would have liked.

Series, new to me

I tried a “new” series this week, whose first book came out in 1990. To Speak for the Dead is the first in Paul Levine’s Jake Lassiter novels and there are apparently 11 or 12 more. It was a free Kindle download a few weeks ago, so I added it and let it sit until I was between books and feeling restless for something different.

After trying and failing to read The 7.5 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle for book club (I may return to it later) and also striking out with three of the four books that preceded that, I was in the mood for a straightforward protagonist with a simple agenda. Jake Lassiter, attorney and former linebacker, seemed stable enough to qualify. I have been burned by courtroom dramas often enough that I tend to avoid them now in favor of more direct interactions with the case (i.e., police procedurals, detectives), but this one sounded intriguing.

I liked it pretty well. The main character is well developed and fun, with a bit of a rogue attitude but holding, at heart, a basically sound philosophy; and some of the side character “regulars” are likewise engaging (notably Granny Lassiter and the now-retired medical examiner, Dr. Charles Riggs). And there is quite a bit of leavening humor, which always helps. In this one, at least, the women were a bit one-dimensional (although I got a big kick out of Cindy, Lassiter’s receptionist), but I forgave that to a certain extent, because A. it’s the first book in the series, so we are meant to be focused on Jake Lassiter, and B. Levine wrote this in 1990, so the standards weren’t quite as high (although it would have been much more forgiveable had it been, say, the ’70s!).

There were some things that would flat-out never happen in a legal/court case, but Levine writes his Miami setting as if it is a place like no other, where rules are lax and meant to be stretched, and it’s easy to go along. The plot is a weird one, in that the man Lassiter represents, Dr. Robert Stanton, seems to be innocent of the crime of which he is accused in the civil case being tried when the book opens, but appears to be guilty of much worse as events unfold. It’s hard to be sure, though, with so much conflicting information and so many other dastardly people in the mix, and the whole book is an extended game of what John Lescroart, in his Dismas Hardy series which I have lately abandoned, calls “SODDIT,” or “Some Other Dude Did It.” But who? is the question we are meant to answer.

The book wraps up with an open-ended scene that is among the weirdest I’ve ever experienced in a so-called mystery, but it was just bizarre enough to work. I’m at least going to try the second book in the series before calling a halt.

2020 Faves

I don’t know if anyone is dying for a reprise of my favorite books of 2020. Since I am such an eclectic reader, I don’t always read the new stuff, or the popular stuff. Sometimes I discover something popular three years after everyone else already read it, as I did The Hate U Give this past January (it was released in 2017). Sometimes I find things that no one else has read that are unbelievably good, and I feel vindicated by my weird reading patterns when I am able to share it on my blog. But mostly I just read whatever takes my fancy, whenever it comes up and from whatever source, and readers of the blog have to put up with it.

Anyway, I thought I would do a short summary here of my favorite reads for the year, and since they are somewhat evenly populated between Young Adult and Adult books, I will divvy them up
that way.

YOUNG ADULT DISCOVERIES

Fantasy dominated here, as it commonly does, both because fantasy is big in YA and because I am a big fantasy fan. I discovered a stand-alone and two duologies this year, which was a nice break from the usual trilogy and I think worked better for the authors as well (so often the middle book is weak and the last book is rushed in those cases).

The first was The Hazel Wood and The Night Country, by Melissa Albert, and although I characterized them as fantasy, they are truthfully much closer to fairy tale. I say that advisedly with the caveat that this is not the determinedly nice Disney fairy tale, but a real, slightly horrifying portal story to a place that you may not, in the end, wish to visit! Both the story and the language are fantastic, in all senses of the word.

The stand-alone was Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik. The book borrows a couple of basic concepts from “Rumpelstiltskin,” turns them completely on their heads, and goes on with a story nothing like that mean little tale. There are actual faerie in this book, but they have more to do with the fey creatures of Celtic lore than with any prosaic fairy godmother. It is a beautifully complex, character-driven story about agency, empathy, self-determination, and family that held my attention from beginning to end.

The second duology was The Merciful Crow and The Faithless Hawk, by Margaret Owen, and these were true fantasy, with complex world-building (formal castes in society, each of which has its own magical properties), and a protagonist from the bottom-most caste. It’s a compelling adventure featuring good against evil, hunters and hunted, choices, chance, and character. Don’t let the fact that it’s billed as YA stop you from reading it—anyone who likes a good saga should do so!

I also discovered a bunch of YA mainstream/realistic fiction written by an author I previously knew only for her fantasy. Brigid Kemmerer has published three books based on the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” (and they are well done), but the books of hers I fell for this year were about typical teenagers with problems that needed to be solved and love lives that needed to be resolved. My favorite of the four was Letters to the Lost, but I also greatly enjoyed More Than We Can Tell, Thicker Than Water, and Call it What You Want.

These were my five-star Young Adult books for 2020.

ADULT FICTION

As YA selections were dominated by a particular genre, so were my books in Adult fiction, almost all of them falling in the mystery section. But before I give you that list, I will finish up with fairy tale by lauding an original adult story that engaged me from the first page and has stuck with me all year: Once Upon A River, by Diane Setterfield. The fairy tale quality is palpable but the archetypal nature of fairy tales doesn’t dominate the story, which is individual and unique. It is the story of three children and the impact of their disappearances (and possible reappearance) on the people close to them, as well as on the inhabitants of one small town beside the river Thames who are caught up by chance in the events that restore a child to life. But the story encompasses more than her fate: It gives extraordinary insight into the issues of life and death—how much they are worth, how they arrive, how they depart, and what is the best way to pursue them.

Another book I encountered in 2020 that didn’t fall into the mystery genre or belong to a series was the fascinating She Rides Shotgun, by Jordan Harper. This was a short, powerful book by a first-time author, a coming of age story set down in the middle of a dark thriller that bowled me over with its contradictory combination of evil deeds and poignant moments.

And the last stand-alone mainstream fiction novel I enjoyed enough to bestow five stars was Just Life, by Neil Abramson. The story showcases the eternal battle between fear and compassion, and involves a deadly virus and a dog shelter in a fast-paced, gripping narrative that takes over the lives of four people. It made me cry, three times.

Most of the mysteries I enjoyed this year came from a “stable” of staple authors I have developed over the decades and upon whom I rely for at least one good read per year. The first is Louise Penny, whose offering All the Devils Are Here in the ongoing Armand Gamache series is nuanced, perplexing, and utterly enjoyable, all the more so for being extracted from the usual Three Pines venue and transported to the magical city of Paris.

Sharon J. Bolton is a reliable source of both mystery and suspense, and she didn’t disappoint with The Split, a quirky story that takes place over the course of six weeks, in stuffy Cambridge, England, and remote Antarctica. Its main character, a glaciologist (she studies glaciers, and yes, it’s a thing) is in peril, and will go to the ends of the earth to escape it…but so, too, will her stalker, it seems. The Split is a twisty thriller abounding in misdirection, and definitely lives up to Bolton’s previous offerings.

Troubled Blood, by “Robert Galbraith,” aka J. K. Rowling, is my most recent favorite read, and is #5 in that author’s series about London private detective Cormoran Strike and his business partner, Robin Ellacott. It’s a police procedural with a lot of detail in service of both the mystery and the protagonists’ private lives, it’s 944 pages long, and I enjoyed every page.

Finally, this year i discovered two series that are new to me, completely different from one another but equally enjoyable.

The first is the Detective Constable Cat Kinsella series by Caz Frear, which currently encompasses three books. I read the first two earlier in the year and promptly put in a reserve at the library on the third (which had yet to be published at the time), and Shed No Tears just hit my Kindle a couple of days ago. They remind me a bit of Tana French, although not with the plethora of detail, and a bit of the abovementioned Sharon Bolton’s mystery series starring Lacey Flint. Cat is a nicely conflicted police officer who comes from a dodgy background and has to work hard to keep her personal and professional lives from impinging one upon the other, particularly when details of a case threaten to overlap the two. I anticipate continuing with this series of novels as quickly as Frear can turn them out.

The second, which is a mash-up of several genres, is Charlaine Harris’s new offering starring the body-guard/assassin Gunnie Rose. I read the first two books—An Easy Death and A Longer Fall—this year, and am eagerly anticipating #3, coming sometime in 2021 but not soon enough. The best description I can make of this series is a dystopian alternate history mystery with magic. If this leads you to want to know more, read my review, here.

These are the adult books I awarded five stars during 2020.

I hope you have enjoyed this survey of my year’s worth of best books. I am always happy to hear from any of you, and would love to know what you found most compelling this year. I think we all did a little extra reading as a result of more isolation than usual, and what better than to share our bounty with others?

Please comment, here or on Facebook, at https://www.facebook.com/thebookadept. Thanks for following my blog this year.