King of Lies by John Hart

John Hart’s debut in the world of fiction is that most engrossing of rarities, a well-plotted mystery novel that is written in a beautifully poetic style…The King of Lies will mark the beginning of a long and stellar career. – Mark Childress, author of Crazy in Alabama

People apparently loved this book. There are three pages of positive reviews excerpted in the front of the book. That’s surely a good sign, right?

Personally, I feel sorta ho-hum about this book.

Jackson Workman Pickens, or ‘Work’ is a relatively successful lawyer in a Southern town. He’s unhappily married to Barbara.  He has a mentally ill sister, Jean. He’s generally well-liked. Then, one day, his famously successful lawyer father, Ezra, (who has been missing for eighteen months) turns up in the closet of a dilapidated mall- two bullet holes in his head. Naturally, Work is a suspect, but because he knows the system he is able to stay (mostly) one step ahead of the detective who is, convinced he is the murderer, hot on his trail.

In all fairness to Hart, I do think he is trying to do more with The King of Lies than unravel a mystery. Work is a complex guy: he’s genuinely decent and tries to do the right thing, even though he’s emotionally reticent. He’s been in love with another woman since he was 12, but he’s never been able to say the words to her…and he married someone else. He is estranged from his sister, but he’s fiercely protective of her. His relationship with his father was acrimonious and the whole Pickens family is plagued by secrets.

But for me- the book moved too slowly. I mean, it wasn’t a page turner in the sense that I couldn’t wait to know what was going to happen next. It was well-written (although he did use some of the same figurative language more than once…and that always bugs me) and Work was a good guy, but certain things niggled. Jean: barely coherent in one section, full of self-knowledge and insight by book’s end.

If you’re a fast and true mystery fan, you could certainly do worse than The King of Lies.

A Cold Dark Place by Gregg Olsen

Oh dear.

I picked up Gregg Olsen’s book A Cold Dark Place on a whim. It wasn’t on my to-read list; I hadn’t heard anything about it. I’ve been on a bit of a mystery-suspense thriller kick and this one sounded good.

When you’re talking about this kind of book, you don’t want to give too much away. I mean, generally speaking, suspense thrillers aren’t literary gems. I read them because they’re fun. Page turners filled with menace and heart-racing thrills.

A Cold Dark Place tells the story of Detective Emily Kenyon who is hot on the trail of a killer. A tornado has just swept through the town of Cherrystone, Washington. Kenyon has gone out to the home of a family no one has heard from since the storm. Their house is leveled, but a closer inspection of the premises turns up three dead bodies: dad, mom and a young boy. They’d all been murdered. The older son, Nick, is missing. Soon after Kenyon begins her investigation, her teenage daughter, Jenna, disappears. Jenna and Nick were friends, but Kenyon can only believe the worst.

This is only the beginning of a convoluted plot that involves convicted serial killer Dylan Walker, old cases that Kenyon was involved in, an adoption agency, a hateful relationship with her ex-husband, a creepy lawyer and an ex-partner who turns up at the end to help Kenyon.

The ending is wholly unbelievable (and, okay, sometimes that’s the case in this sort of book), but worse- the characters are shrill and annoying. Olsen was a true crime writer before he turned to fiction and maybe that’s why none of the book’s details seemed authentic. (I know, it seems ridiculous- but a true crime writer doesn’t have to fabricate anything.) In A Cold Dark Place what characters had for dinner seems like a tacked on detail rather than an investment in their character- and let’s face it, if you’re not rooting for someone in this kind of book, the denouement hardly matters.

Will the Vampire People Please Leave the Lobby by Allyson Beatrice

If you are already a member of fandom, Allyson Beatrice’s book Will the Vampire People Please Leave the Lobby? (WTVPPLTL) won’t actually tell you anything you don’t already know. For example, anyone who is a part of fandom (any fandom- not just the Jossverse) knows that there are hugely generous fans and, at the other end of the spectrum, asshats. Fandom folk know that the Internet can be scary and also scary fun.

Based on Beatrice’s own experiences in the Buffy/Angel/Firefly fandom, the book, with its coda ‘True Adventures in Cult Fandom’ isn’t a titillating who’s who tell-all. In fact, unless you were an original member of The Bronze Posting Board, you probably won’t know any of the people Beatrice mentions. (I wasn’t a member of The Bronze, having arrived late to the party…and I only recognized a couple names.)

WTVPPLTL
is essentially a series of essays that describe Beatrice’s various  adventures in fandom- like how she was once called upon to find a new home for Joss Whedon’s cat and how she and Tim Minear are great friends and how fandom raised enough money to bring someone to the States from Israel. Stories like these have limited appeal- unless you are part of the inner circle being discussed.

The book is Jossverse specific only in the sense that those are the shows Beatrice was a fan of- I’m pretty certain that the same stories could be told in the Lost fandom…or Harry Potter. And Beatrice might alienate some of her readers with a statement made early on that she thinks that “academics obsessing over Buffy the Vampire Slayer, tying obscure cultural/socio/historical events to a tiny cult show is weird.” Still, she admits to having spent thousands of hours discussing the show with other fans. So- she is like the rest of us mortals after all.

The book is very conversational, sprinkled with expletives, and, no question, Beatrice is a clever woman who can turn a phrase. She makes a great case for explaining how fandom is family- for many people the only family they’ve got. I suppose some people will accuse Beatrice of thinking a lot of herself; I found her quite amusing- someone I might have been excited to cross paths with in her BNF days.

If I have one complaint it’s that the title is misleading in that there’s very little real chatter about the Jossverse. And as a Joss-starved fan, I would have loved hearing more about a fandom that is still, I think, pretty active. Even if the stuff I was hearing about took place back in the shows’ glory days.

The Deadly Space Between by Patricia Duncker

Here’s a funny thing: I liked this book, but I don’t have a freakin’ clue what it’s about. Well, I sort of know that it’s about a well-regarded artist Isobel (Iso) and her 18 year old son, Toby. When Iso takes a lover, the enigmatic Roehm, Toby’s life is thrown into a tailspin. But The Deadly Space Between is not a straight forward tale by any stretch.

First of all, only 15 years separate Iso and her son and their relationship is complicated and sexually charged. The story is narrated by Toby and it’s difficult to know how reliable his observations are: Are his memories exaggerated? Is Roehm as other-worldly as he seems?

Roehm is a mysterious character, that’s for sure. Seen through Toby’s eyes he is huge, white and powerful; much like the monolithic winterscapes his mother is currently painting. Roehm’s arrival unbalances Toby’s relationship with his mother- which is clearly too insular- and even though the only information we get about Roehm is skewed through Toby’s eyes, his mysterious presence is what propels the novel through to its strangely unsettling conclusion.

Innocents by Cathy Coote

Cathy Coote’s debut novel, Innocents, garnered some good press with its tale of a precocious 16 year old girl who pursues her 34 year old teacher.

My darling, the book begins, All of this is my fault. I  know you think your to blame for what happened. You’re wrong, my love. I’ve been guilty all along.

Coote’s wrote this book when she was 19, so I’m gonna take a wild guess and say that this book hits close to home. That’s not to say that it wasn’t without its merits- but likable characters isn’t one of them.

The story’s narrator is never identified and the novel takes the form of a long letter to her lover –  a letter which supposedly reveals all the ways in which she tricked him and bent him to her will, finally provoking an act which causes our ‘innocent’ narrator great distress.

Ultimately, it’s hard to believe that the man was so easily manipulated and that the girl was as devoid of genuine feeling as she claims to be.

The Chatham School Affair by Thomas H. Cook

I read my first Thomas H. Cook novel last year when I discovered, by accident, Breakheart Hill. I really liked that book; I liked The Chatham School Affair even  more.

I am not a mystery connoisseur by any stretch, although I admit that I’ve read a fair amount of suspense thrillers in my day. Cook belongs in another category altogether- sort of in the same way that King belongs in his own special category (and I mean that as a compliment because at the top of his game, there’s no one better than King.)

The Chatham School Affair
is a richly realized mystery which unfolds as the book’s narrator, an elderly lawyer named Henry Griswald, recalls the events which transpired the year he was 15. In 1926, Henry is a student at Chatham School where his father is the director. He’s an intelligent boy, given to daydreaming and reading rather than socializing with his peers. The arrival of the new art teacher, the beautiful and well-traveled Elizabeth Channing upends Henry’s world in ways impossible to relate without revealing important plot points. Suffice to say that this book is a wonderful examination of love found and lost, of regret and honour, of sacrifice. It’s also a great mystery with a kick-ass ending.

The Chatham School Affair
is not told at breakneck speed: the reader is expected to spend a little time with the characters…but it’s worth it. Cook’s writing is often lyrical – not all that common in ‘crime fiction.’ In fact,  I have a hard time with that label. Henry is a wonderful narrator, sympathetic even, but what I admired most of all about this book is how Cook walked that wonderful tightrope- never vilifying any character, allowing each of them their motivations and mistakes, their dreams and, ultimately, their fates.

Two thumbs up.

Can You Keep a Secret by Sophie Kinsella

I was a big fan of Sophie Kinsella’s book, Confessions of a Shopaholic. I just found the book funnier than hell. Sadly, I didn’t have the same experience with Can You Keep a Secret?

Emma Corrigan is on a flight from Glasgow to London when the plane experiences some frightening turbulence. She turns to her seat-mate and divulges every single secret she has kept for the last twenty-something years.

I have no idea what NATO stands for.
My G-string is hurting me.
I weight 128 pounds. Not 118, like my boyfriend Connor, thinks.

As it turns out, the guy sitting next to her – Jack – is the American head of the company Emma works for. Of course, she doesn’t know that because she’s new to the company and Jack hasn’t been to the UK since his business partner died. What follows is a pretty predictable, though harmless enough, tale of Emma and Jack and how divulging her secrets changes her life in ways that are mostly good.

It’s fluff, people.

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert’s well-received book, Eat, Pray, Love tells the story of the author’s own search for meaning in the world. Personal meaning, that is. In order to find it, she takes a year off from her very successful writing career (she’d have to be successful, wouldn’t she) to spend four months in each: Italy (for pleasure), India (for prayer) and Indonesia (for balance).

This book is huge- practically every woman alive will have read it- or plans to- and don’t let my cynicism dissuade you. Gilbert is a wonderful writer. It’s hard to sustain the perfectly pitched conversational tone her book does and not be a skilled craftsman, but…

But, here’s the thing. Lots of people wish they could stop their hectic, horrible, messy, complicated, screwed up lives in order to find their deeper purpose; in order to mend their broken hearts and psyches, in order examine their place in the world, their connection to the people with whom they share the planet…and their relationship with a higher power (God, in Gilbert’s case, although she says “I could just as easily  use the words Jehovah, Allah, Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu or Zeus.”) Not everyone has the means. Plus, although Gilbert’s journey was preceded by a divorce, she has no children. Trust me, I’d love four child-free months in Italy, too.

That said, the book is so engaging that even though I didn’t internalize Gilbert’s search, I certainly enjoyed listening to her talk about hers.

Losing the Moon by Patti Callahan Henry

Patti Callahan Henry’s book snuck up on me. I wasn’t overly impressed with her writing when I started the book and I can’t say that I fell in love with the characters or the secondary story (of the main character’s quest to preserve an island off Georgia’s coast) and yet, I finished the book with a lump in my throat.

Amy is happily married to Phil. Her kids, Jack and Molly, are grown; Jack is actually away at college and Molly in her last year of high school. Her world, however, is about to be turned upside down when Jack invites her to the homecoming football game to meet his new girlfriend and her parents. Turns out, the girlfriend’s father, Nick, is Amy’s old college boyfriend. Suddenly Amy’s world turns upside down. Her feelings for Nick (and as it turns out, Nick’s feelings for her) are complicated because of the way their relationship ended. And as Amy starts to question her feelings for her husband and her role as wife and mother, she starts orbiting ever closer to the girl she once was and the way she felt about Nick.

A lot of what happens in Losing the Moon is predictable  (although Amy herself might use the word inevitable). The story tracks Amy’s feelings, but also Nick’s. While I wasn’t rooting for any particular outcome, I have to admit to feeling incredibly sorry for both Amy and Nick by the end of their story – even though Henry did a plausible job of explaining Amy’s choices.

I related to this book on quite a few levels- perhaps because I am around the same age as Amy. Her questions (as she cleans her house again) about her place in the world, about her dreams, about her role in her marriage all rang true to me. Is this what I wanted for my life? Who hasn’t asked that on occasion?

And of course Nick is a painful reminder of what she has left behind- not just the loss of his love, but the loss of her youth as well. A conversation she has with her daughter about the passage of time nearly had me bawling.

So, yeah, good book.

Your Blue-Eyed Boy by Helen Dunmore

Your Blue-Eyed Boy is my second novel by Helen Dunmore. I read her book With Your Crooked Heart a couple years back. Dunmore is a poet and although it’s not always the case, her skill with language translates beautifully to prose. She creates captivating and complicated characters, with interior lives that are filled with wreckage and hope.

Your Blue-Eyed Boy is, I think,  about ghosts. Simone is a District Judge, married to an unemployed architect, mother to two young sons. Her story is told by layering all the bits of her life: her childhood, her young adulthood and her married life. When the story starts Simone describes herself as being “in that stage of youngishness which seems as if it’ll go on forever”.

And then, out of the blue, Simone receives a letter from someone from her past. If you were to take the novel’s prologue at face value, you would think that this book was about blackmail. “There are things you should know about blackmail…” Simone says.

But Your Blue-Eyed Boy is not as simple as that. This is a novel about reconciling who you are now with who you were when. It’s easy enough to pretend that each section of your life is complete and separate, but this is a novel that asks us to question our past choices, our past loves and our place in the here and now.

It’s a gorgeous book that reads like a thriller.