“We all have stories, our lives unfolding along crooked lines, colliding in unexpected ways.”
The butterfly effect: how one tiny butterfly, flapping its tiny, thin, dust-covered, membranous wings can rustle up a hurricane on the other side of the world weeks later.
Just how do our actions affect those around us? Or even further, how do our actions ripple out and affect the world in ways bigger than we imagined?
A private plane with eleven passengers onboard takes flight. A media mogul owns the plane and along with his wife and two children, their guests include a financial manager in dire straits and his wife, an unsuccessful painter, and the crew.
Less than twenty minutes later, the plane nosedives into the ocean. There are only two survivors: the penniless painter Scott Burroughs and four-year-old J.J.—the sole survivor of the media mogul’s family.
“Everyone has their own path. The choices they’ve made. How any two people end up in the same place at the same time is a mystery. You get on an elevator with a dozen strangers. You ride a bus, wait in line for the bathroom. It happens every day. To try to predict the places we’ll go and the people we’ll meet would be pointless.”
Before the Fall is an intricate, multi-faceted novel. It is a thriller unraveling the threads to get to the bottom of an unfortunate tragedy—or was it a plot to assassinate someone aboard?
It’s a piece that’s very focused on the media-storm that occurs during high-profile cases and how news stories can alter public perception of an event or people involved in an event.
The book is also a very personal story of one man’s struggle not only with this tragedy and the search for the truth about what happened, but with life in general.
Before the crash, Scott doesn’t have a whole lot going for him. After the crash, people think he was sleeping with the media mogul’s wife, that he caused the crash, that even though he saved the kid and almost died himself, he was somehow a part of it, or at least knows more than he is letting on. He is a suspect, he is a hero, he is a villain.
The whole world wants a piece of him and all he wants now is to be left alone—and to take care of this kid, the kid who has no one, who he shares this bond with. No one else will ever understand them like they do each other.
There is this great divide between the internal and the external. What information should the world be privy to? What should be left unsaid? Do we, as the nosy general public, have the right to know anything and everything? Where do you draw the line between freedom of the press and privacy?
There is a character that is great to love to hate—Bill Cunningham—as the news anchorman who is digging his vicious little media hooks in where they really aren’t wanted, but where he knows he will get the best story (not to mention the highest ratings). Who cares about what is “news” and “truth” really? Aren’t we really here for salacious details? Outrageous claims?
When it comes down to the truth, the real truth, it’s honestly one of the most heartbreakingly real and gloriously visceral moments I’ve ever read on the page.
I could see this book happening—really see it. And that’s not an accident. Hawley is the producer and writer for the series Fargo, so he knows his way around the screen. I’d love to see a screen-adaptation of this book. It could be a real hit.
This book will make you think. It is also amazingly written. What more could you ask for?
“Life is a series of decisions and reactions. It is the things you do and the things that are done to you. And then it’s over.”
Get your copy of Before the Fall
Find out more about the author, Noah Hawley
Find out more about the publisher, Grand Central Publishing (Hachette)
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This is a book for deep winter, a cuddle-up-with-hot-cocoa kind of book, a keep-the-light-on-all-night kind of read. You don’t have to be a fan of Nordic noir or Scandinavian crime novels to get into this book. It has a truly unique and compelling story that honestly kept me guessing and kept the pages turning!
It is told from three alternating perspectives, with each one leaving off in such a way that you are almost forced to continue, compelled from one section into the next.
Peter is a police detective who is married to his job (though he can’t quite muster up that same type of commitment to people) who is called to the scene of a grisly murder—a woman had been horribly brutalized and left decapitated in famous clothing CEO and womanizer Jesper Orre’s house. No one knows who she is and Orre himself has gone missing, but the scene is uncannily similar to a crime committed some years ago.
Hanne consulted on that case and she is brought in to look at this one too. But Hanne has a secret to hide—she’s got early onset dementia and she doesn’t want anyone to know, especially Peter, with whom she shares a painful history.
Emma is Jesper Orre’s secret girlfriend and her side of the story is told from the past, slowly leading up to the present where Peter and Hanne are trying to solve the murder. She though they were in love, about to be married even, but when strange things start happening to her, she thinks Jesper is to blame—but who can she go to for help? Who would believe her, since their entire relationship was a secret?
You’ll have a sinking feeling in your stomach throughout the book—is she the girl in Jesper’s apartment? The only way to know for sure is to read on. . .
This book gave me that very satisfying moment where I had just enough clues and all of a sudden, everything clicked into place. I didn’t feel that the plot had been fed to me and I didn’t feel gypped, as though I hadn’t been given a chance to figure out what was going on.
There was a perfect balance of hints given where I probably could have figured it out sooner, if only I’d been paying attention! Sneaky author! These are my favorite types of books—the ones that make me crave to be smarter next time!
The bleak atmosphere and more intricate police procedural bits of the story that are commonly found in crime novels (especially Nordic ones) are really softened by the depth of character that Grebe reaches. Through the rotating chapters, the reader sees their internal worlds, like Peter and Hanne’s struggles that are going on outside of the investigation, and that turns them into 3D people rather than just characters on the page.
Emma is more of an enigma; I never knew quite what to expect with her, but I loved her independence and spirit in the face of her adversity. As time winds her toward the conclusion you find yourself hoping more and more that she is not the girl who is headless on the floor of Orre’s apartment.
I don't want to give the story away—but there are plenty of twists and a pretty shocking revelation in store. The book moves so quickly because of the shifting perspectives, but there are details you don't want to miss out on!
I really enjoyed the translation—I felt I was stalking the streets of Sweden and scarfing cardamom buns with the characters! (Not quite sure what those are, but they eat them like U.S. cops eat donuts!)
All in all, this is worth a read. In a sea of less than interesting thriller-types, this one will weather the storm. If you need to get out of the house after the Christmas hullaballoo (aka, get away from your family. . .) head on down to your local indie and pick this one up. But don’t say I didn’t warn you—you’ll be glued to the pages until you turn the last one.
Get your copy of The Ice Beneath Her (out 12/27)
Find out more about the author, Camilla Grebe
Find out more about the publisher, Ballantine Books (Penguin Random House)
I am a true crime buff—I listen to all the podcasts, read all the books, and know about all the cases I can get my itchy fingers on. Serial, you can bet I’ve listened to it—twice. Making a Murderer—yep, don’t even get me started on documentarian ethics. I’ve seen The People vs. OJ Simpson and the new shows on my own hometown murder, JonBenet Ramsey.
Yes, I know about Richard Ramirez aka the Night Stalker, how Ted Bundy stalked his victims pretending to have his arm in a sling, and all about John Wayne Gacy, who was inspiration for everyone from Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs to Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Twisty the Clown on the “Freakshow” season of American Horror Story.
I also know about the cases you’ve probably never heard of either. Ever heard of the Long Island serial killer? The vampire of Sacramento Richard Chase? How about Robert Hansen, the Butcher Baker? Don't google "death of Tim McLean" unless you're ready for a bizarre and horrifying murder on a bus in rural Canada. We're barely scratching the surface here.
I love Ann Rule, got way too into Zodiac theories with Robert Graysmith, and do what is probably considered a bit too much research on serial killers, strange murders, and crime. Sue me. I find the human condition interesting—and after all, the worst monsters are real. (Tagline via Sword and Scale, my favorite true crime pod.)
If you’re nodding your head, if you’re itching to join in, if you feel like this describes you, you’re in the right place. But interestingly, the book I’m about to describe is fiction. It’s not a true crime story at all, although it is set up to feel like one.
His Bloody Project is a novel that I’m hard pressed to really categorize. It’s got elements of crime and horror, but isn’t really either of those things entirely. It is a bit epistolary, as it is told in letters, journal entries, and other documents. What I can say for sure is that it is a psychological riddle that leaves the reader at the center, putting together the statements and pieces to make up their own mind about what really happened.
Make no mistake. You know there was a crime, and you know who committed it, though for much of the book, the details are cast in shadow. This set up left me with this pit of dread in my stomach that just grew and grew—so effective! I knew that murder was coming, I just didn’t know exactly how it would happen.
About half the book is an account by convicted murderer Roderick Macrae of how it came to be that he did what he did. The other half is autopsy reports, some reports from criminal experts who interviewed him, the trial transcripts, news clippings, and other writings that round out the details of the mysterious case.
Not sure if this will be a spoiler for some people, but what the book doesn’t give you is solid answers: the, this is why he REALLY did it—we know for sure! But that’s what makes it so realistic, so true to life. Sometimes we can’t understand people’s true intentions, the “why” we are searching for.
Even more interesting is what I felt I was able to put together, based on all the information given, and how it was given. The book is set in 1869, a time when criminal psychiatry was not nearly as advanced as it is now. There are diagnoses that were simply not available to them because they didn’t exist yet. I recognized qualities in Roderick that make me suspect who he is, who is hiding inside him.
It is also set in rural Scotland, where there was a huge bias against the farming communities of the highlands—those people who were continuing to live in the old Scottish way rather than conforming to the English way of living (and speaking). Despite Roderick’s seeming high intelligence and eloquence in his diary, everyone is exceedingly biased against him and thought he was destined to become a criminal.
It was like being at a real trial—feeling the injustice of it all, sensing that I knew some truth about Roderick, his mind, and his situation that they weren’t quite understanding or getting to, feeling that I had all the pieces there and I somehow had to put them all together!
It’s no wonder this book made the shortlist for the Man Booker this year. I love a book that makes me think and put together the narrative myself. One that has me piecing together the elements like a detective.
In the end, did Roddy even have a chance? That’s the question I’m left wondering. I’d love to chat with anyone else who has read this one! Any thoughts on Roderick? Why he did it? Who he is? Come on, true crime buffs—you know you want a piece of your own mystery to solve!
Get your copy of His Bloody Project
Find out more about the author, Graeme Macrae Burnet
Find out more about the publisher, Contraband
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Recently, I had the great joy of being able to read not one, but two of Erik Therme's books and he even put up with me long enough to give us a peek behind the author's curtain—see below the review for a special author interview!
If you missed my review and interview with Erik on his book Resthaven click here.
Mortom centers around Andy who was surprised to learn he inherited his recently deceased cousin’s house and assets. He was never all that close to Craig and didn’t even attend the funeral, but who’s going to say no to some free stuff, right?
Craig’s unexpected death was deemed accidental, but things are already fishy when Andy and his sister Kate show up to the house and the first thing they find is a dead rat with a key and a secret message shoved in its mouth.
It seems that Craig is not quite finished with them yet—there’s a mysterious trail of clues that Andy will have to solve and follow if he wants to find out what Craig really left him. Kate thinks there is more going on: there’s a little girl next door and an angry old man who seem to hold one key to the puzzle, and Craig’s mom definitely knows more than she’s letting on.
Is it a conspiracy? Is the whole tiny town of Mortom out to get them? What’s with the trail of clues? Did Craig really leave some treasure at the end? Or is it something worse? And why did he leave it for Andy?
Andy focuses in on finding the clues—he’s convinced there’s something hidden at the end of this that is worth having, that Craig wouldn’t set up this elaborate scavenger hunt without there being something to win at the end.
But Kate isn’t so sure and although she isn’t feeling well, she starts doing some digging of her own, asking questions about Craig to his neighbors, to their aunt, and she starts to uncover something with much bigger repercussions than just the silly material gain that Andy was hoping for. Now, if only she could get Andy to pay attention!
This is a book that keeps on twisting! Once you think you’ve figured it out, there’s another twist, another surprise waiting around the corner.
I was interested in the polar opposition between Andy and Kate: Andy is so focused in on the small details, on following this trail of clues that he just can’t wrap his head around the bigger picture. Kate, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about some silly scavenger hunt, but winds up getting sucked into the town of Mortom and her family’s past in a way she never expected.
Craig is really an enigma throughout the book; I got a sense that he wanted to create this larger-than-life mysterious persona that would almost haunt Andy. But though you will find out the truth behind what drives Craig, I’m not sure we ever find out who Craig truly is.
Creepy old houses in small towns where everyone seems to be watching, jaunts through graveyards at midnight, and scavenger hunts with seemingly no end—this is a speedy read with a lot to unpack!
And now for a continuation of my interview with author Erik Therme!
Shelf Stalker: What is your favorite under-appreciated novel?
Erik Therme: Bridge Daughter, by Jim Nelson. I don’t know how this book hasn’t sold a million copies. It’s a beautiful, haunting tale of an alternate America, where first-born children are carriers of their parents’ “real” children. I don’t want to say more for fear of spoiling anything, but it’s one of the most original tales I’ve read in a long time.
SS: If you had a superpower, what would it be?
ET: I could always relate to Spider-Man, as he’s just a geeky kid with real life problems. And what’s the best way to escape problems? Walking away on ceilings and walls. Ha!
SS: Any story behind the origin of this book? Any relatives leaving you cryptic messages with their estates?
ET: The town of Mortom is based on Farmington, Iowa, where my father grew up, and where I spent many summers of my childhood. The original draft was heavily influenced by Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and went through numerous drafts before it became what it is today. As of right now, I haven’t heard about any estates from deceased relatives, but I also haven't checked my mailbox today . . .
SS: Andy is so completely obsessed with solving the puzzles, the materialistic side of it all, and is so intent that there is something at the end of it for him that he isn’t able to see the bigger picture. On the other hand, Kate isn’t really interested in the puzzle at all. Once she gets involved, it’s in the human element, piecing together the people surrounding their cousin and his death. Their focus is so different and they constantly clash throughout the book. Is this just sibling rivalry? Gender commentary? What were your thoughts on developing these characters?
ET: The main intent for the constant arguing (between Andy and Kate) was to show that Andy is so fixated on solving the riddle that he has no regard for anything—or anyone—around him. In retrospect, I probably should have scaled the bickering down a bit, as some readers have commented it felt unnecessary and bogged down the story.
SS: What was the most difficult scene to write?
ET: I always struggle writing “action” scenes. The finale in Mortom took a fair amount of tweaking before I was satisfied, and it took me forever to write the dog scene in Resthaven. One of the golden rules of writing is “show—don’t tell,” but whenever I write action-heavy scenes, it always feels like forced description, and I’m never fully satisfied with the end result.
SS: In this book (and Resthaven too) there are definite blurred lines about who the “bad guy” is. There are multiple characters who do bad things, make bad decisions, and don’t seem to have the best motives, including the main character, Andy. What was your thought behind creating characters in shades of grey?
ET: There’s no question I love blurring the lines between right and wrong. I think it’s because I don’t believe anyone is inherently good or evil, and I’m endlessly fascinated by people’s motivations and the choices they make. Life is complicated and messy, and even the best of us have dark moments. Do the ends justify the means? Do two wrongs make a right? These are the types of questions that drive my characters to do what they do.
SS: And finally, are you working on anything new currently?
ET: My third novel, Roam, is going through the editing process and will be released in February 2017. The story follows a young man who believes he’s being haunted by his dead father, and the only way he can redeem himself is by “saving” someone else. It’s a very character-driven story and very different from Mortom and Resthaven. Readers can follow me on Amazon to be notified when the book is released.
Get your copies of Resthaven and Mortom
Find out more about the author, Erik Therme
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Assistant editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.