A dark one
I just finished Jar of Hearts, by Jennifer Hillier, and it definitely lives up to that quote I used two books back about Hillier imagining the worst and then writing about it. Lest you should be taking the title seriously, based on that information, let me reassure you that there is not a jar filled with literal hearts—they are the cinnamon red-hot variety. But if you are a person, like the main character Georgina (nicknamed Geo), who associates tastes or smells with particular events from life and is thus permanently put off from ever enjoying them again, you will probably not be eating red-hot cinnamon candies any time soon. I will say up front that this book is not for the sensitive or squeamish. It is gritty, explicit, and dark. I have a fairly strong stomach when it comes to reading this kind of story and still found it challenging. So now that I have given you the “trigger warning”…
Jar of Hearts is ultimately about three friends: Angela Wong, the popular girl—cheerleader, guy magnet, gorgeous and charismatic; Geo Shaw, the otherwise engaging one whose light is slightly dimmed by keeping company with her best friend, Angela; and Kaiser Brody, who follows in Geo’s wake like a smitten puppy dog. This is who they were in high school; but when this story begins, Angela is 14 years dead, Geo is the star witness (and accused accessory), and Kaiser is the arresting officer of Calvin James, serial killer, Geo’s former boyfriend and the one being tried for Angela’s murder.
This is a book about friendship, obsession, jealousy, and death—but all the assumptions are out the window from the first page. No one is innocent among the interconnected friends and lovers whose actions doom one another to various fates, and although at least two of them would like events from the past to remain buried forever, the others will actively or passively guarantee that’s not going to happen.
The story’s pacing is designed to keep you looking for answers throughout its five parts, with clearly defined jumps from past to present and back again, and new elements to the story that have you second-guessing absolutely everything you know about everyone involved. It explores the question of nature vs. nurture, and highlights the theory of the deficiency of the underdeveloped teenage brain and the psychology behind ideas about compartmentalization and deflection. It is chilling, involving, and more than a little messed up. In other words, Jennifer Hillier delivers again.
It’s thriller time
I’m not usually an avid reader of thrillers, but after my extremely positive reaction to Jennifer Hillier’s Little Secrets, I wanted to see if she (and I) could repeat the experience, so I checked out Things We Do In the Dark. And although I didn’t love it quite as much (I liked the set-up and characters in Little Secrets better), it turned out to be a similarly riveting read with some fascinating characters, unexpected twists, and a great ending.
Things look bad for Paris Peralta. She’s been married to a wealthy, successful man more than 30 years her senior for just a few short years, and now he’s dead and she’s been accused of his murder. But as horrifying as this is to Paris (especially since she didn’t do it), it’s not the worst eventuality she is anticipating as a result of all the publicity surrounding Jimmy’s death. Paris has a past full of secrets she doesn’t want exposed, and there is one specific person who knows who she was and what she did. Paris thought she was safe from Ruby Reyes, who was serving a life sentence for committing a murder of her own, 25 years ago, but now Ruby is unexpectedly out of prison early and is all too ready to exploit her knowledge about Paris’s past to get what she wants. And she may not be the only person from back then who is a threat to Paris—having your picture on the cover of every magazine in town when you’re trying to maintain a low profile can be hazardous!
The minute I finished this, I went to the online library to put a hold on the e-book for Hillier’s Jar of Hearts. She has a new fan.
Secrets and twists
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.)!
Mysteries need another name
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 am a big fan of Peter Heller’s work. I have read all of his novels and haven’t disliked a one of them, although I do have favorites. So I was delighted to discover that he has a “new” book out (almost a year old, now).
The Guide has the trademark lyrical descriptions of nature that one expects from Heller. The theme is fly-fishing, and although I don’t fish and am not a fan of early morning activities, his narrative of the terrain was so lovely that it calmed my breathing as I read it, making me long for wide open spaces with the sound of flowing water in the background and the dawn vista of a still pool with mayflies rising and rings spreading outwards as the sun heats the surface and the fish rise to feed.
Although this book can certainly be read as a stand-alone, it is, in fact, a sequel to Heller’s book The River, in that the protagonist is Jack, a few years on from that tragic adventure. Although it enhanced the experience to know the back story referenced periodically throughout this book, it wasn’t such a direct continuation that anyone would feel the need to go back and review the previous story in order to feel caught up. It’s made plain that Jack has been damaged by an event in his past, and that he sees this term of employment as a guide at one of the most exclusive fishing resorts in the country as an escape from his everyday life, in which he suffers from silence and too much free time.
Jack is taken on by the Kingfisher Lodge, on a pristine stretch of protected waters near the town of Crested Butte, Colorado, to replace a guide who left abruptly. The resort caters to the über-wealthy and the camera-shy celebrity, and provides an all-encompassing interlude of comfortable quarters, gourmet dining, camaraderie, and sport. His first assigned client is Allison K., a woman Jack vaguely recognizes as a hugely famous country western singer (he’s not really into music). She also turns out to be gifted at and dedicated to fly fishing, and the two share what’s described as an almost spiritual out-of-body state as they roam up and down the river, casting their lures.
But there’s something weird going on in this paradise, and soon Jack is nervous and on the defensive as minor violations of some resort rules result in some out-of-proportion reactions and repercussions. He and Allison begin first to speculate and then to research what they’ve been told, as anomalies crop up and their status becomes ever more perilous.
Although I enjoyed this book over all, there seemed to be a profound disconnect between the scene setting and the behind-the-scene activities. Heller’s other books certainly contain elements of mystery and suspense, but for some reason this one didn’t feel organic. For one thing, the “nature documentary” aspect of the book dominates for about 80 percent of the book, with only small hints and incidents thrown in here and there to increase the reader’s feelings of disquiet, and then all of a sudden, in the last 20 percent, it becomes all about the alter ego mystery of the story. Nature buffs will enjoy the setting and melodic language about fishing, while thrill seekers will get their payoff with the bizarre back story, but the genre blending that took place here needed a few more spins of the Kitchenaid to work properly. I was still fairly happy with the book, however, until I reached the last few pages. There are few things I dislike more than a book that shows the entire story, only to punt at the end by “telling what happened” after the significant events occur, instead of taking the reader directly through them, and that’s sort of what happened here.
Primarily as a result of that ending, I would have to recommend Heller’s other books over this one, although the prevailing narrative was the verbal equivalent of the glorious imagery experienced in the 1992 film A River Runs Through It; if you are susceptible to words that so graphically paint a picture, you will enjoy this book no matter what.
The Murder Rule, the latest book by Dervla McTiernan, departs from her mystery series starring Detective Cormac Reilly to stand alone. The supposed theme of the book is revenge, but it turns out to be more about misplaced trust.
Hannah Rokeby is a law student at the University of Maine, the self-sufficient daughter of a fragile and damaged single mother. Her father died before she was born, and she has no other relatives who acknowledge her; it’s always been just the two of them, with Hannah knowing from an early age that it will be her job to be the adult in the relationship. Her mother, Laura, has sought all her life to conquer her PTSD using the crutch of alcohol, and Hannah patiently stands by during her ups and downs and encourages her in a daily routine whose predictability helps to combat her volatility and maintain her sobriety.
That all changes during Hannah’s third year in law school. When Hannah was a teenager, she discovered and read Laura’s diary telling the story of the summer of 1994, when Laura found and then lost a boyfriend and was brutalized by his best friend, a man who has since been convicted of the rape and murder of a young mother. When Hannah discovers that a prisoners’ rights group called the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia is seeking to overturn the conviction of the man responsible for damaging her mother so thoroughly, she concocts a scheme to insert herself into the process, posing as an idealist who seeks to help them with their mission so as to undermine it and consign him permanently to prison. But as she maintains her disingenuous façade and digs deeper into the case history, disquieting details come to light that throw everything she knows into question.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, although there were some implausible bits, legally speaking, that might not happen in an American courtroom (McTiernan was an Irish lawyer for 12 years before turning to writing). Some readers have complained as well about the unlikeable protagonist, Hannah, and in general I prefer a sympathetic character, but in this book her cynicism and duplicitousness work perfectly to set up the story, as well as giving the character added depth. As events unfold, it becomes clear why Hannah is who she is, and enriches the story of her gradual awakening to different possibilities.
I don’t want to give away too many of the plot points here, since a big part of enjoying this book is arriving at them at the same time Hannah does, but the twists and turns as the story unfolds kept me reading enthusiastically from beginning to end. I was initially disappointed to discover that this wasn’t another of her Cormac Reilly series but, having read it, am duly impressed with her ability to write a compelling and entertaining stand-alone mystery/thriller outside of her proven formula.
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.