Tag Archive | popular fiction

I Let You Go – Clare Mackintosh

There have been a lot of books in the suspense thriller vein of late and I love them, especialllet you goy in the summer when I just want to give my brain a break from school.  Publishers always want to draw comparisons to Gone Girl, which is the book that perhaps kick-started this newest craze, but I think it’s better to let a book stand on its own bookish merits.

Clare Mackintosh’s novel I Let You Go is definitely top of the thriller heap. I couldn’t put this book down and galloped through it in just a couple of sittings.

In the book’s opening pages, a mother is walking home in the pouring rain with her young son. Just at the road across the street from their home, he lets go of her hand and runs across the street. Out of nowhere, a car comes barreling down the street and hits the boy. From this point on, I Let You Go is a grab-you-by-the-throat suspense thriller that follows Jenna Gray as she goes to the Welsh coast to escape the tragic death and the police detectives, Ray and Kate, who are trying to find the driver behind the wheel.

Jenna’s grief is palpable. “Everything has changed,” she muses. “The instant the car slid across the wet tarmac, my whole life changed.” She stays until she can’t anymore and then, packing only what will fit into her holdall, including a box of treasures from her life, she runs away.

Unable to resist, I open the box and pick up the uppermost photo: a Polaroid taken by a soft-spoken midwife on the day he was born. He is a tiny scrap of pink, barely visible beneath the white hospital blanket.

As a mom, it’s hard to imagine how Jenna will ever survive this tragedy, but survive she must. She finally settles in a tiny tourist town called Penfach, somewhere outside of Swansea. There she rents an isolated, dilapidated cottage and begins the arduous process of overcoming her grief.

In the meantime, Ray and Kate sift through the non-existent evidence, hoping for a break in the case. Mackintosh spent twelve years as a police officer and so these sections are authentic, but don’t weigh the narrative down with unnecessary police jargon. In addition, Ray and Kate – especially Ray – are given interesting personal lives, which add another dimension to the story.

It doesn’t always work, but it does here – Mackintosh pushes the story along and months pass. Jenna starts to make a life for herself; Ray and Kate are taken off the hit and run case because they’ve done all they can do and then all hell breaks loose in a totally WTF fashion. You’ll know what I mean when you get there and from that moment on, it is a breathless race to the book’s conclusion.

LOVED IT!

 

 

 

In a Dark, Dark Wood – Ruth Ware

Ruth Ware and I have lived parallel lives. I, too, have worked as a waitress, EAL teacher and  bookseller. Okay, I may have never been an official book publicist, but I could argue that I sell books all the time by talking about them here and in my classroom and on the radio. I have not, however, written a much-lauded “instant New York Times bestseller.” Crap.

Leonora (also known as Lee and Nora and Leo) is a reclusive and slightly odd mystery th9H5NVHJNwriter who lives in a small flat in London. One day she receives an email invitation to a weekend bridal shower (a “hen” night) for her once best friend, Clare. The invitation is puzzling to Nora because she hasn’t seen Clare in a decade and it seems as though they may have ended things on relatively awkward terms.

The invitation to the party starts Nora’s trip down memory lane, but it’s not a journey she takes willingly.

Clare had been my friend. My best friend, for a long time. And yet I’d run, without looking back, without even leaving a number. What kind of friend did that make me?

There’s only one other name Nora recognizes on the invite list: Nina da Souza. Nora reaches out and the two women make an “I’ll go if you go” pact. This is how they end up in the middle of the woods at a house that seems “as if it had been thrown down carelessly by a child tired of playing with some very minimalist bricks.” For someone used to living in close quarters in the middle of a huge city, Nora finds the location of Clare’s hen night “painfully exposed.” There’s a reason the place is called ‘The Glass House.’

The party’s host is Clare’s best friend from university, Flo. The other attendees are Melanie, a new mother and Tom, the token gay friend. When Nina and Nora arrive, Clare is not yet there. The whole event is awkward and fraught with tension.

Ware intersperses the hen night shenanigans with the aftermath of the weekend. Nora wakes up and “everything hurts. The light in my eyes, the pain in my head. There’s a stench of blood in my nostrils, and my hands are sticky with it.” There are police officers outside her hospital room door and someone is dead.

I enjoyed reading In a Dark, Dark Wood, but I sure wish people would stop comparing every psychological thriller/mystery to Gone Girl. This book is nothing like Gone Girl. That’s not a criticism, by the way. Ware doesn’t waste time with verbosity; this book moves along lickity split. Nora is a perfectly serviceable character, although not particularly endearing. There are plenty of creepy moments – as you’d expect in the fishbowl of a location.  The book has “blockbuster movie starring Reese Witherspoon (an early fan of the novel)” written all over it.

 

 

Lilac Girls – Martha Hall Kelly

Lilac Girls, the debut novel by Martha Hall Kelly,  is the first novel for my book club’s 2016-17 reading year. When it was chosen I can’t say that I was all that interested in reading it. We have all summer to read the book chosen for our first meeting of the new reading year, but I tend to like to read fast, snappy thrillers/mysteries in the summer – with the occasional YA or lit fic thrown into the mix. Also – not a tremendous fan of historical fiction. But I always read the book club selection because our get-togethers are a lot more fun when I’ve read the book. All this to say that I started this novel with a relatively negative attitude.

Lilac book jacketKelly’s novel tells the story of three very different women: New York socialite Caroline Ferriday, Polish teenager, Kasia Kuzmerick and German doctor Herta Oberheuser. It is 1939 and the one thing these women have in common is Adolf Hitler.

Caroline is 37 when the story opens. She’s a retired actress who volunteers at the French consulate. Kasia is just 16 when Germany invades Poland and changes her life forever. She is working as a courier for the underground resistance movement when she and her older sister, Zuzanna, and their mother are arrested and shipped off to Ravensbruck, a Nazi concentration camp for women. It is there that she encounters Herta, a young doctor who has taken a post at the camp because it is difficult for women in the medical field to find work.

The novel is told in three separate first person narratives and once the book gets going it’s almost impossible not to be carried along by the horrors of Ravensbruck and Kasia’s desperate attempts to survive. There’s also a little angsty love story between Caroline and famous French actor Paul Rodierre.  I read the first 200 pages in one sitting.

Caroline and Herta are real people, as Kelly explains in her notes. Kazia and her sister are

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Caroline Ferriday

“loosely based on Nina Iwanska and her physician sister, Krystyna, both operated on in the camps.”

It is almost impossible not to invest in these characters, and the sections concerning Kasia in Ravensbruck are particularly harrowing. There, she and her sister are among hundreds of women used as real-life guinea pigs (or “rabbits” as they are called) for the Ravensbruck doctors to experiment on. Herta’s participation in these horrific experiments,  crimes that are against every aspect of the Hippocratic oath, seal her fate as a villain.

The book is long and the ending seemed a little rushed to me and I could never figure out the title or the dumb book cover- which makes it seem like three girls are the best of friends. I also wasn’t fussy about Kasia and Herta’s showdown, but ultimately Lilac Girls was a good read.

How Not To Fall – Emily Foster

Remember when Fifty Shades of Grey was all the rage? Sure you do.  125 million people bought that piece of crap. (Okay, yes, I read it. But I did not read its sequels. I have standards, people.) Suddenly everyone was reading erotica – loud and proud or behind the more secretive screens of their e-readers.

I love a good smutty book, but the problem with smut is that no two readers will be alike when it comes to what turns them on. Perhaps E.L. James just got lucky. In fandom, which are the loins from which her books sprang, BDSM is as common as sex in the missionary position with the lights off. My objection to the Fifty Shades book(s) had nothing to do with the subject matter (I spent ten years in fandom; I’ve read it all) and everything to do with the quality of the prose and one-dimensional characterization. (It couldn’t be any other way, Edward/Christian and Bella/Anastasia are about as one-note as they come.)

27208942Enter How Not To Fall. Of course I’d seen this book at the book store, but I don’t think I even picked it up to read the blurb. Then I read a review – although I can’t remember where. The reviewer avoided comparisons with Fifty Shades, but did sing the book’s praises. Smart and hot – which is probably a pretty good combination. So, the next time I was at Indigo, I bought the book and now I’ve read it.

Annabelle (Annie) Coffey is a 22-year-old student at a university in Indiana. Dr. Charles Douglas is a 26-year-old postdoctoral fellow in Annie’s psychophysiology lab. He’s British and brilliant and “a dreamboat” and, technically, her teacher.  Annie’s been lusting after him for two years, but as her undergraduate degree draws to a close, she figures it’s about time to take matters into her own hands – so to speak. She tells her roommate and best friend, Margaret, that she is “going to ask Charles to have sex.” She asks, he declines, but Annie is convinced that she hasn’t misread the signals. She tells him

“The thing is, I think you and I have A Thing, and I know if I don’t at least put it on the table, I’ll always wonder ‘what if’ and so I’m just…putting it on the table, you know, and leaving it there. Like bread. For sharing.”

Turns out, Charles does reciprocate Annie’s feelings; he’s just too professional to act on them. So they make a deal – once all her research is in, once there is no possibility of a sex act compromising ethics – they’ll do it. Cue about 200 pages of smut.

Here’s what I really liked about How Not To Fall.

  1. Annie/Charles  Annie is self-deprecating and her narration is charming and often funny.

Am I a beauty queen? I am not. My nose has a great deal of character. My hair has some interesting ideas about its place in the world. My body is built more along the lines of a wristwatch than an hourglass – flat yet bendy. It works for me – I am my body’s biggest fangirl – but I recognize where it falls short of the culturally constructed ideal.

Charles is smart – like brilliant smart – but also kind and, as we learn gradually, a little bit damaged, too. Also, on the hotness scale – according to Annie “it is a mercy to the world that the man doesn’t try to look good.”

2.  The sex is well-written. That’s a big one for me. If I am going to read erotica, I want to read well-written erotica. And since How Not To Fall contains a lot of sex it might have easily gotten boring. You know – geesh, are they going to do it again? I didn’t skim. Actually, overall, the book is well-written.

3. Personally, I kinda loved the way the book ended – although it did break my heart a little. Apparently, there’s a sequel coming out next year. (I will probably read it: see #1.)

I did have a couple little things that irked me. Charles often sounded like a middle-aged man. He called Annie “Young Coffey” a lot. Like he was twenty years her senior rather than four. He also refers to her as “termagant,” a word I was not familiar with, so I had to look it up. It means a “harsh or overbearing woman.”  I couldn’t really make the connection. Also, I don’t have a foot fetish – clearly Charles does. Too much feet/toes for me. These are niggles, because overall, I enjoyed the book for all the reasons one might enjoy a book of this type.

So – if you are looking for a fun, smutty book to pack in your beach bag – give this one a go.

The Girls in the Garden – Lisa Jewell

Although I have hundreds of books waiting for me on my tbr shelf, I can’t seem to stop buying new books whenever I am at the bookstore, which is – let’s face it – often. There’s been all these suspense thrillers out there like I’m Thinking of Ending Things and The Widow and Twisted River  and The Crooked House which I seem to be drawn to like the proverbial moth to the flame. Maybe it’s because it’s summer and I just like to read something that’s fun, I dunno. But I have no trouble ignoring the huge catalogue of back-listed books I have waiting to be read and, instead, buy the shiny new books.

the-girls-in-the-garden-9781476792217_hrThe Girls in the Garden is one of those books. Although it turned out to be not the book I thought it would be, it was a great read nonetheless.

Clare has moved to a small enclave somewhere in urban London. Virginia Park is “formed in the space between a long row of small, flat-fronted Georgian cottages on Virginia Terrace and a majestic half-moon of  stucco-fronted mansions on Virginia Crescent, with a large Victorian apartment block at either end.” She and her children, eleven-year-old Pip and twelve-year-old Grace are recovering from a horrible incident involving Clare’s husband, Chris. (And again, what is it with book blurbs getting it wrong? The back cover says Pip is older, but she’s not.)

From the outside, Virginia Park seems like a miracle of a place. In the boundary formed by the buildings is a beautiful park which Pip describes in a letter to her father as being “like Narnia.”

…there are all these pathways and little tucked-away places. A secret garden which is hidden inside an old wall covered with ivy, like the one in the book. A rose garden which has bowers all the way around and benches in the middle. And then there’s a playground, too.

It’s a place of magic for the girls and a place for Clare to catch her breath. Except, of course, the magic is short-lived.

Adele also lives in Virginia Park with her husband, the handsome and slightly oily Leo, and their daughters Catkin, Fern and Willow. The girls are home-schooled and the family leads a slightly bohemian life. Soon, Clare and her girls are brought into the welcoming embrace of Adele’s family. (Okay, maybe the girls aren’t 100% welcoming; you know how kids are.)

Tyler, another pre-teen who lives in one of the flats and her best friend, Dylan, the beautiful thirteen-year-old boy who also lives at the park, round out the gang that Grace and Pip find themselves hanging around with.

The Girls in the Garden reads like a thriller. The novel begins with the discovery of Grace’s unconscious and bloody body being discovered by her sister in the rose garden and then backtracks to unspool the story, mainly from the point of view of Clare, Adele and Pip.

Jewell cleverly manipulates the reader into imagining a variety of very plausible scenarios before the story takes an unexpected (but not unbelievable) turn, ultimately making The Girls in the Garden less of a thriller and more of a domestic drama. But really, is there anything more thrilling than that? Isn’t it absolutely true that we never really know people, even those closest to us?

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

The Crooked House – Christobel Kent

I can certainly see why Christobel Kent’s novel The Crooked House has drawn comparisons with the British mystery Broadchurch. Like that story, Kent’s novel takes place in an isolated village (in this case, Saltleigh) and concerns a horrific crime which has rippled out into the community.

Alison used to be Esme and when she was fourteen her entire family was slaughtered. 748d3761900605840ce32be83a67d549Since that horrible night, Alison has flown under the radar. She lived first with her aunt in the south and then, after school, she moved to London where she worked in publishing, and where she met Paul. Paul is older, in his forties, and a professor. They had “Long, lazy conversations about books and movies and work, eating dinner at his big wooden table, or leaning against each other on his old sofa.” Alison likes him, so when he asks her to accompany him to Saltleigh to attend the wedding of a former girlfriend, she can’t seem to refuse even though she hasn’t been back since the crime.

Saltleigh is the same as Alison remembers.The smells, the colours, the landscape, and the memories of living there with her older brother, younger twin sisters, and her parents are palpable. On the first morning, while Paul sleeps on, Alison answers the memories and goes to her childhood home.

The house was boarded and derelict, weathered plywood splintered and graffitied at each window and the purple spikes of some plant sprouting above the lintel over the front door. The little enclosed yard behind where they had hidden and whispered and left secret messages. Thirteen years.

Despite the fact that she has spent the last thirteen years trying to forget, the memories have been triggered by coming back and she can do nothing but follow where they lead. What really happened that night?

The Crooked House was clearly a big hit in the UK. My version was covered with praise – a combination of praise from other authors, which is always suspect to me, and from the press.  Good Housekeeping said it “Demands to be read in one sitting.” I think that might actually be wise advice because although I did like this book (it’s clever, smart and well-written), I found it really disjointed. It shifts time periods all over the damn place and there are loads of characters and subplots (all relevant, mind you) to keep track of. If I managed to read without interruption, I easily settled into the book’s rhythms. but it definitely wasn’t a book you could pick up on the fly.

I think this book would make an excellent mini-series or movie. Get on that, would you, BBC!

The Interrogation – Thomas H. Cook

My love affair with Thomas H. Cook goes back several years when I stumbled upon his novel Breakheart Hill in a secondhand bookstore. Since then I have read several of his books including Instruments of Night, The Chatham School Affair, Places in the Dark, Evidence of Blood, The Fate of Katherine Carr, Master of the Delta, Red Leaves and The Cloud of Unknowing. Geesh, that’s a lot of books by one author!  In my reading life perhaps Stephen King is the only author I’ve read more of. (Yes, I am ending that sentence with a preposition; sue me.)

Cook is a prolific writer (he has over 30 novels to his credit) and has won many awards including the Edgar and the Crime Writers’ Association Duncan Laurie Award, yet you’d be lucky to find any of his novels on the shelves at your local bookstore – trust me, I look.  So how come he isn’t as well known as other authors writing in the same genre? Unless you’ve read him, or are a super mystery novel aficionado, you may have never even heard of him. How come? Ali Karim asked the same question for an article in January magazine.

I buy his books whenever I find them and I hang on to them, usually until I can replace the one I am about to read with a new one. I like to have one waiting in the wings for the next time I need a fix.

Albert Jay Smalls is an odd little man who lives in a drain pipe in a local park. He’s been 237180arrested for the murder of a little girl. The problem is there’s no evidence and no witnesses and so the police can only hold him for twelve hours before they have to cut him loose. Thomas Burke, the chief of police ( a man with his own troubles) sends  his two best interrogators into the room to get a confession from Smalls.

The Interrogation is the story of those two cops, Norman Cohen and Jack Pierce. Each man has a heart full of demons (Cohen is haunted by his experiences in war; Pierce’s young daughter was a murder victim), but they are tenacious and accomplished interrogators. Since the story is set in 1952 they have to rely on the evidence they gather the old-fashioned way: visiting crime scenes, talking to people, chasing leads. There’s no Google and everything takes time and time isn’t on their side.

As Cohen and Pierce question Smalls and try to follow a breadcrumb trail, the reader will try to determine Smalls’ guilt or innocence too. Make no mistake, Cook’s novels are mysteries and half the fun is trying to figure out whodunit, but that’s not the only thing Cook’s got going on.

As with every single Cook novel I’ve read – his characters are really dynamic. You believe them from the minute they open their mouths. They have complicated interior lives. His heroes are always men trying to do the right thing – even when they can’t. Minor characters, like garbage collector Eddie Lambrusco, are equally well-drawn. Cook can create empathy with just a few word as he does when we watch Eddie handle his father’s watch and thinks

a laborer’s timepiece with its chinks and scratches and slightly skewed hands that circled turgidly around the yellowing dial. After a lifetime, he thought, this.

There are a lot of father/child motifs in The Interrogation –  dads who are helpless to save their children; dads who do everything for them; dads estranged from their children. It’s a theme Cook visits often and yet he always seems to have fresh things to say about the topic.

And like with virtually every Cook novel (I almost said book there and then thought better of it) I’ve read, the story’s resolution will be a surprise. It won’t feel like a cheat, either…because with Cook the clues always exist.

If you like mysteries that are thoughtful, intelligent and well-written – try to get your hands on Thomas H. Cook. You will not be disappointed.