I had a slow reading month in October, but November is already off to a whirlwind start with a thrillerthon weekend.
I missed out on Lapena's wildly popular The Couple Next Door, so when sent copies of both of these just in time for Halloween, I figured I'd dive in and here is your double-hitter review.
The Couple Next Door begins with a bad parenting decision that only gets worse: when Anne and Marco's babysitter cancels last minute, they decide to attend their next door neighbor's dinner party anyway, bringing along a baby monitor and checking in every half hour, but leaving baby at home. Not good.
Of course, when they finally arrive home for the night, they find they front door unlocked and the baby missing. What follows is a tangled web of lies, deceits, and unsteady foundations that come crumbling down around the family and everyone they are connected to.
While the pacing might be quick enough to keep a reader turning pages, the writing is so simplistic and (sorry to say) boring that it was hard to imagine someone actually tearing through the pages of a book like this actually caring about the characters.
Have thrillers really come to this? That all that matters is finding the twist, the whodunnit, that crucial unmasking-the-murderer, I-would-have-gotten-away-with-it-if-it-weren't-for-you-meddling-kids scene?
When books can't deliver on style, I find myself just scanning the pages and drifting off. I'll probably solve the mystery, but who cares? If you aren't invested in the people, in their story, what's the point of figuring out who took the baby?
This book was so easy to read. 308 pages and it probably took me less than two hours to read. There just wasn't any substance, no sentences you wanted to stop and read again, no interesting turns of phrase, no indication at all that the author was in fact interested in writing. It's all just plot device spewed out on the page.
And if you want to talk about that ending, feel free to send me a note. Because I have some thoughts.
All that said, there was a germ of an interesting idea here, so I didn't want to give up.
A Stranger in the House follows Karen, who, while driving erratically in a bad part of town, causes a car accident that gives her amnesia. When it turns out that her car is connected to a grisly murder scene nearby, all the lies connected with her past and present start to come uncovered. And perhaps she's not the only one with a few secrets.
I fell into the story of this one a lot more naturally, though the writing definitely had not improved. There are a lot of similar elements: a husband and wife at odds over a criminal situation they are involved in, neighbors who know more than they let on, and a familiar homicide detective makes an appearance.
But I just don't think a somewhat interesting plot can make up for tedious and uninspired writing. Aren't we here for the writing? Or does that not matter anymore? I guess I'm honestly interested to know what people consider "good."
For example, in these books, even as it switches between the different character's perspectives, there is no differentiation in the writing. It feels as though the only reason for the change is because that specific character knew something we needed to know, so they got the floor. It is so stilted.
And as far as the plot of A Stranger in the House goes, I have three words: gunshot residue test. That's all I'm saying.
I can't exactly recommend these books. But there are plenty of people who loved them. If you are looking for a fast, brainless, twisty, whodunnit sort of read, one where you don't have to do a lot of thinking or puzzling, this will totally be your jam. If you have higher aspirations for crime books, we'll have to keep looking.
My thanks to Pamela Dorman Books/Viking for my copies of these books.
Get your copies:
The Couple Next Door
A Stranger in the House
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Find out more about the publisher, Pamela Dorman Books (Viking, PRH)
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Cute pumpkin carving templates sent by Viking. What a cool idea!
Having (somehow) not picked up Fiona Barton's debut The Widow last year despite the fervent admiration that went around for it, I jumped at the chance to read her second book early. When I finished after two intense sittings, I scrambled to the book store and quickly devoured her first as well!
I do enjoy reading thrillers, but generally I feel let down by them by the time I finish. The plots tend to be too predictably easy to solve—my personal rule is that if I've figured out the "twist" within 50 pages, it isn't a very strong narrative. (The downfall of the rule being that I have to read the whole book to find out if I'm right or not!) But Barton's books felt very different from that model of storytelling.
The characters are just as crucial as the plot, or perhaps even more so, and while this may seem like a small detail or even an obvious statement, I feel that it is something that is lacking from a lot of thrillers on the market. There is a lot of care put into these characters—you get to know them and through them you feel the story more than just read it.
For me, that is what makes a story. It isn't just the straight telling of a narrative, it is how the characters lead you to their story, through their eyes, and through them you fall into the story and find yourself truly caring about what happens.
The Child centers around the skeleton of an unidentified infant that is uncovered at a construction site in London. There are four alternating perspectives that swap between each chapter:
Kate, an intrepid reporter, takes an interest in the case and starts writing about it and asking questions.
Angela reads the articles and is certain the skeleton is her first born child, who was stolen right out of her hospital room decades earlier.
Emma sees the articles too and she is completely shaken, fearing some deep-buried secret from her past may be coming back to haunt her.
And Jude, Emma's mother, who only recently came back into her daughter's life after throwing her out when she was sixteen.
Kate's digging will uncover the connections between these women, the past, and the secrets they've hidden from each other and themselves.
There are a few recurring characters in Barton's books, but it isn't really a series; the story isn't about the reporter, Kate, and her dogged search for the truth, though both books include her and she is integral in both. Each book instead felt very much like its own entity.
Similarly, both books alternate perspectives of characters, but while temporal fluctuation between the past and the present was a crucial factor in The Widow, The Child often marks the how the same time passes for each character—a different but very effective technique that kept me turning the pages!
By no means are these characters perfect—they are flawed, sometimes even despicable—but they are human and their mistakes make them real and relatable.
By the time I got to the conclusion of The Child, I realized I'd been holding my breath a lot, waiting to see what would happen—I was really emotionally invested in these characters! That's what good writing will do and it's worth running out to get Barton's books to see what I mean.
This post is part of The Child's release blog tour! Thank you for inviting me to be a part of this, Berkley Publishing!
You can visit Fiona Barton online at fionabartonauthor.com and on Twitter @figbarton. Join the conversation using #TheChild.
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Find out more about Berkley Publishing (Penguin Random House)
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I always say California is going to fall into the ocean someday. Those fault lines, man. You are just living in denial if you don’t think that entire state is one minuscule step away from a shattering natural disaster. But there they go, building their skyscrapers and freeway systems like it’s no big deal.
Shaker has a powerful, cinematic setup of an enormous earthquake crippling Los Angeles. Enough to put you off going to the beach for a while, or at least rethink your dreams of a glamorous Hollywood life.
Enter Roy Cooper—a New York hitman, quick, reliable, and good at his job, sent to LA to clean up some loose ends. He’s never been on a plane and wants to get in and out quickly, unless he might be able to catch a Dodgers game; he loves baseball and his favorite pitcher is about to break a record.
But then, right after he completes the job, everything goes to hell in a hand basket. He intervenes as a few gangbangers attack an older man in an alley and the whole thing gets recorded by a bystander and goes viral, making him look like a hero.
His anonymity goes out the window—the last thing any hitman wants—and it places him just a few blocks from the crime scene of his hit, which they will surely discover is connected sooner or later, since the bangers stole his gun and used it to kill the old man.
And that wasn’t just any old man, he was the favorite candidate in the upcoming mayoral election and now that he’s dead, the current mayor is being accused of killing off his competition. And why isn’t he doing more about fixing up the city after the quakes, by the way?
The gangbangers have a witness, Roy, and they need to find him and get rid of him. But he’s looking for them too. He knows his employers are not going to be happy about his face plastered all over the news.
LAPD detective Kelly Maguire has been bumped from the gang division due to abuse of an African American rapist/murderer she was interrogating. But she’s onto something with the city’s new hero and something isn’t quite right. And there’s someone more sinister looking for Roy, someone from his past, someone who thought he was dead.
While Roy is definitely the central focal point of this story, all of the characters are attached to him, mostly through those few moments in the alley, whether that’s how they come to know him, or that’s how they come to find him.
It seems that everyone in this book is a shaker—on some form of unsteady ground, the earth splitting beneath their feet and they need to act, to choose one way or the other.
The fact that the earth is literally shaking beneath their feet and causing extra chaos is like an externalization of how these characters' lives are falling to pieces.
I really loved how each character was really humanized--the book gets into each of their heads alternatively and shows how things are not black and white. Ray may be a hitman, but he is a person, and he is a lot more than what is revealed on the surface. Kelly has a lot of anger issues and the city may now see her as a racist pig, but there is a whole 'nother life bubbling beneath her bones, and she is really good at her job. She wants to make a difference.
I didn't really know what I was getting into with this book, but it is a tightly written, cinematic, fast-paced novel, and I definitely expect more great work from Scott Frank in the future. He has already shown us what he can do with the screen, since he wrote the screenplays for Get Shorty and Out of Sight, among others. I would love to see what an adaptation of this would look like. . .
Get your copy of Shaker
Find out more about the author, Scott Frank
Find out more about the publisher, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard (Knopf Doubleday, Penguin Random House)
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Cruel Mercy is my first foray into the Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy series following the burly, fiercely determined, and strongly moral Scotsman (of which this book is the sixth).
I was a little apprehensive to dive blindly into a series following a character I had not yet read anything about—I imagined attempting to read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince without having the faintest idea of what a Muggle was, or a Dumbledore, or what expecto patronum meant, or barely even knowing that Harry Potter was the one with the glasses and the unlikely scar on his head shaped like a weather phenomenon.
Fortunately, the only thing I felt after being glued to the pages of Cruel Mercy, was that I needed to find the other books in this series as quickly as possible!
While you’ll definitely be missing out on some important character building—I couldn’t help but feel that Pharoah, McAvoy’s boss, and Roisin, his wife, are extremely important characters who do more than occasionally call on the phone in the previous installments--Cruel Mercy does an excellent job of working as a standalone novel while introducing new readers to a vivacious, intelligent, and rugged detective in a fish-out-of-water situation.
McAvoy is sent across the pond to New York City to investigate the disappearance of his wife’s brother, and a lot is resting on the investigation since the two people he was last seen with, an up-and-coming Irish boxer and his promoter are attacked in an apparent mob hit in the woods upstate.
There is a tangled web of lies, mob secrets, and long hushed-up mysterious deaths and disappearances that don’t seem connected at all until McAvoy starts digging deeper than is wanted by everyone involved.
The U.S. authorities are deep in the pockets of the rival mob groups and have their own aims in sight, including keeping McAvoy in the dark. But it only takes one black sheep, or one solitary figure who wants to see justice done. . .
The plot of this book is so complex and completely bursting with very realistic details about the city, the organizations involved, and the potential corruption, that it definitely was one of the most realistic crime fiction books I have ever read. Things are not black and white, there is not just a cast of four or five characters, it isn’t always about a serial killer with multiple personality disorder.
David Mark’s book shows a full spectrum of ideas, I learned about the underground boxing world, mob factions and families, corruption in police departments, and seeing the U.S. through the eyes of a foreigner (always an enlightening experience).
It is definitely a dark book, especially in flashbacks where we eventually realize there may be no hope of escape or release for the characters therein, but I think, in the end, it is a redemptive one and one that reflects on the struggles of our own times.
We do not live in times that are black and white, we live in the murkiest grey. Whether it seems easy to label people one way or the other, it is not—just look at our most current election cycle, people being branded one thing or the other, it is so easy in these times of instant media.
I think it is important, maybe more important than ever to read fiction that speaks truths.
We need to delve into what makes us uncomfortable about not having things strictly separated into right and wrong, true and false, black and white. And sometimes, fiction speaks truer than fact. Sometimes the light at coming full circle in a story helps you hold onto what really matters.
And now, a special interview with author David Mark!
Shelf Stalker: First, a few warmup questions. What are you currently reading?
David Mark: As ever, I’m reading several books at once. I sometimes wish I had more eyes. Am loving The North Water by Ian Maguire, and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. I tend to leave books in different rooms of the house and read whatever I’m nearest.
SS: Who are your top three authors and why do they inspire you?
DM: John Connolly, because he has shown how to keep an ongoing series fresh and relevant. Sebastian Faulks, because his use of language is so beautiful it makes me want to kill him out of jealousy. And Hilary Mantel, as she is Hilary Mantel.
SS: If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
DM: I would quite like to be invisible, but as a novelist who spends most of his life in a darkened room, I’ve kind of already got my wish. So I think I would opt for some sort of mind-reading powers. I’d love to know what on earth people are thinking, or if indeed they actually are. Characters in novels have to have some degree of consistency and causality to their actions. Sadly, real life is not so obliging.
SS: Though this book could definitely be read as a standalone, it could be some readers’ first foray into the series—as it was mine, though I think I’ll go back and start from the beginning now. You’ve got me hooked! For readers who might not be familiar with the McAvoy series, what are a few important (or interesting) things to know about this Scottish detective and his past experiences before diving in?
DM: I’m pleased to hear that it works for newcomers as well as seasoned McAvoy fans. That was the idea. I would rather new readers approached it without knowing too much of what has come before but here’s some of the basics. Aector McAvoy is a sergeant on the Major Incident Team in Hull, Yorkshire. He’s a huge Scotsman with a tendency to blush and knock things over and who looks like he would be more at home holding a claymore and wearing a kilt in a bygone age. His life revolves around his wife and children, whom he adores, and his boss, Trish, who is a little bit in love with him. He’s brave, but doesn’t really believe he’s any type of hero, and while clever, he knows he’s not a genius. He follows the evidence wherever it goes, which is why he has so many scars. He doesn’t like upsetting people, and if he hits you hard enough there is a good chance your head will come off.
SS: This is the first McAvoy book set in the United States, or anywhere overseas for that matter. What was the motivation to take Aector so far away from his comfort zone?
DM: I know that McAvoy is synonymous with Hull and I don’t intend for that to change but I felt the time was right to remove a few of his comforts. Without his wife, Roisin, and his boss, he is never quite as sure of himself or whether he is on the right path. Given that there are some real moral ambiguities in this story, I thought that would be an interesting dynamic. I had planned to write a very different kind of New York novel. I had in mind something that was very Ed McBain or a Manhattan version of David Simon. But it occurred to me that to do those kind of stories justice, I would need to write with an authentic voice. I would need to write from the perspective of somebody who knows those streets and given that I had never been to America before, that just seemed absurd. So I decided that the "stranger in a strange land" concept might be a better fit. I wanted the reader to experience New York through the eyes of a blundering outsider, and that is definitely a voice I can find within myself.
SS: While reading this book, I really felt like I had a good picture and feel of that crazy city that never sleeps and the places described. I heard you were able to visit NYC while doing research for the book. Can you share some of that experience? What are some of the most striking differences from your hometown?
DM: There is an air of madness to New York. It’s not just one city—it seems like several different places all crunched together. The result is this patchwork of disparate cultures and influences. And yet it fits together to form this one homogenous entity that is inherently New York. People identify as New Yorkers before they identify as Americans. In that regard, it’s not dissimilar to my usual setting. People in Yorkshire say they are from the North. That’s the bit they’re proud of. In almost every other aspect, it’s a whole new world. If people in Hull were given access to the kind of foodstuffs that Manhattan has to offer, the whole of the UK would sink inside six months thanks to increased bodymass.
In terms of how I researched the book, I’m not 100 percent sure I can remember. There was a lot of drinking! But it would be fair to say that I don’t feel able to write about a place until I have experienced it and there was no way I could write the book without at least breathing in the New York air. So in essence it was a case of coming up with some good ideas for locations and trying to find a real place that worked. If I needed an old church and a boxing gym and two Irish bars, it was a case of looking at a lot of websites and coming up with a shortlist of places that might be right. It was important to me that I didn’t just pick places at random. Certain characters would only visit certain locations and live in certain types of place. There has to be a truth to your fiction. Characters need to behave like real people. Eventually I had a good long list of places that the characters would be likely to visit and where I would enjoy taking McAvoy and I booked myself and my partner a three-day break. We stayed in the hotel that would eventually become McAvoy’s hotel room and dined and drank in the restaurants and bars where he spends his time. We stood shivering outside the police precinct where the New York detective who becomes his ally would have worked. It is such a city of contradictions. It seems to be at once incredibly affluent and utterly destitute and proof of both can be glimpsed in the same panorama.
SS: Might you also talk a bit about your writing process? Your daily process while you are writing as well as what is it like to write a series—keeping all those plot threads straight! Wow!
DM: I’m very lucky that I have the kind of mind that is perfectly suited to writing fiction and which is horribly ill-suited to everything else. I take notes now and again and sometimes find scraps of paper with random words and aide-memoirs scribbled upon them but by and large I think of my skull like one of those candyfloss machines. I just swirl a stick around in there and ideas stick to it. The story I’m living and breathing then squats there in my head and pushes everything else out. Sometimes I look at the clock and I’ve lost a day and I realize I haven’t been to the bathroom since dawn. I write a chapter a day, no matter what. I’m at my desk by 9 am, drinking coffee and grinding my teeth. It’s delightfully masochistic. I kind of enjoy the agony of it, which sounds very pretentious for a writer of dark thrillers! As soon as it’s done, my brain just kind of flatlines for a bit. Then it starts preparing for the next project. Two years later, when the book is in people’s hands, I’ve largely forgotten what it was about. Sorry!
SS: What is essential to writing good crime fiction? Do you stick to some sort of formula or do you break all the rules? Do you read a lot of crime fiction or thrillers as well?
DM: I read everything I can get my hands on. I love thrillers and psychological fiction but it is rather difficult to read them for pleasure now that it’s my day job. It’s hard not to read with an air of comparing the market. I don’t really take any notice of rules, either in the writing process or in life. Actually, I do have one—if the novelist has mentioned the make and model of a car by the end of the first paragraph, the book isn’t for me. And for God’s sake, don’t start off with a dream. For me, it’s just a case of meeting interesting people and twisting preconceptions on their head. Listen to the radio a lot. People who phone DJs are particularly inspiring—they always seem like the sort of person who could be a killer or the killed. Listen to your inner voice. When some dullard is telling you about their tedious problems, think of ways to kill them, and why. It’s less risky than actually doing it. And you think I’m joking.
SS: Do you have plans for many more adventures with McAvoy and company? Where might he travel next?
DM: I’ve just got back from Iceland, and some of the next book will happen there. My American publishers still haven’t made an offer for that one yet so if you want to read it, start bombarding them with demands.
SS: Thank you so much for your time! I so enjoyed reading the book and look forward to more mysteries and crimes to solve with Aector!
DM: Thank you. If you ever come to Hull, I’ll show you around.
Get your copy of Cruel Mercy or the other DS Aector books
Find out more about David Mark
Find out more about the publisher, Blue Rider Press (Penguin Random House)
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A month into the new year, I’m still looking back. Though I read over 100 books last year, I didn’t quite squeeze in everything I wanted to. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still satisfied with my numbers. A great year. When you consider that most of the population didn’t even crack the cover of one book. . . well, I know the people reading this are the exception to that sad statistic!
I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking back, as I’ve spent this January in a fierce re-read of the Harry Potter series with my boyfriend, who never had the joy of reading these magical books. How sweet, how beautiful to delve back into this world, like spending time with an old friend who you know so much about, but still has some surprises up their sleeve.
Harry Potter represents childhood and growing up for so many of us. Maybe those books were the first escape you ever learned, the first fiction you ever clung to outside of your own reality. I know the magic was strong for me.
It has definitely been a way to escape this month, into a place that is familiar, but where evil seems insurmountable and yet the light finds cracks, however small, to break through. That’s something then, when the real world outside seems only worse every day, in a way that I can’t really affect change.
Following Harry, Ron, Hermione, and all the others on their journey to their final battle has put me in mind about so many things. About my younger self and how I saw the story then: my anger and disbelief as some characters passed from its pages, my triumphant realization of figuring out things before the trio, my reveling in their magical moments, and the wistful loss when I’d shut the book and come back to myself, realizing that magic wasn’t real at all.
Books preserve things. Perhaps not so dissimilar to Riddle’s diary, books keep a record of the moments they encounter, the readers that inhabit them. While a piece of my younger self might be embedded in these books, being revealed to the light for the first time in many years, I’m preserving a new piece of myself and the current turmoil around me in the pages for the next time they awaken.
With all that in mind, I decided to do a short round-up of my top ten books of last year, though the time for top lists has been out of vogue for some weeks now. That doesn’t mean that these books are any less good than they were when everyone else was being more timely about top lists, nor that they shouldn’t be picked up and read this year.
It's also sort of a year in review for me and for this blog, as I started it at about the end of January last year.
Weirdly, I didn’t do reviews for some of these books and so plan to cover them more fully as their paperback dates approach. If I did review them, the link is there, so click away if they sound intriguing to you. I’ve also listed the dates they are due to come out in paperback, for your wallet, and perhaps so this list still seems relevant.
Of course, I still have a list of books from last year sitting in a tall stack beside my bed (it’s just sitting there, haunting me every day, threatening to crush me in my sleep) and a lot of them look like potential top books: Hagseed, Thus Bad Begins, Barkskins, The Mandibles. . . Ah, well. Another year, another stack! And next Tuesday, four more books coming out that I want to get. . .
This list is in no particular order, though it may, psychologically, be in some sort of order.
The Girls—Emma Cline
I knew this one was instantly in my top 10 the moment I began it. I read it first in March when the second (or third or fourth?) wave of advance copies were making rounds and then read it again in June when it came out. Gosh, this book really gets it. This coming-of-age story centers on a girl who wishes to become more, but finds she is stunted by society, the time period of the 1960s, her situation, and even the supposed friends she surrounds herself by. Well, how are you supposed to know when you are only 14 and experiencing life for the first time? But what happened then freezes Evie—she is more of an antihero than a portrait of perfect girlhood advancing into womanhood. Rippling sentences, superb characters, this is an excellent debut. (May 9, 2017)
Imagine Me Gone—Adam Haslett
I did not know when I was struck by this incredibly simple but ingenious cover that the book therein would be one of my favorites of the year. Yes, I admit it freely: I do sometimes buy books solely based on design alone. I’m definitely a sucker for a well-designed book—but I think publishers know that. (Three of the books on this list [though not this one] were by Mendelsund, and he’s no newb.) Haslett’s book is an intensely character involved miasma of truly thought-provoking writing. He’s dealing with heavy-hitting topics in a very internal way, depicting a mind under siege, a conflicted family, and people that effortlessly come off the pages. Not to be missed. (February 21, 2017)
An epic, sprawling, incredibly ambitious debut, this is one that will truly envelop you. For African American fiction, it was Whitehead’s Underground Railroad that got all the 2016 attention, and while that was excellent, Gyasi’s work definitely wins out in my book. The book is almost set more as interconnecting short shorts that follow one family as it branches out down the lines of slavery. Beginning with two sisters, who never even knew they were related, every other chapter tells of the next generation of one side or the other. One side tells a story of Africa, while the other side tells a story of American slavery and the two intermingle heartbreakingly, heartwarmingly, and with such exquisite storytelling, I can’t imagine what will come from Gyasi next, I can only tell you that I will read it immediately and love it. (May 2, 2017)
The Crow Girl—Erik Axl Sund
Crime fiction hitting my top list! Truly a surprise. Though I do like to muck around with crime fiction/suspense/thrillers/mystery books, generally I find them disappointing, over-plotted, too generic, and I solve them much too easily. This book, actually 3 books when it was originally published, is none of those things. Sprawling and epic, this book has an extremely realistic characters and a complex and uber-dark plot that I found way more interesting than even The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series that so captivated the world. Scandi-noir is on the rise again, but be warned, it does not hold back. This book may scar you. (June 27, 2017)
The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial—Maggie Nelson
I don’t read a whole lot of nonfiction (so sue me) but I try to branch out a bit here and there. This book is astonishing, incredible, and completely worth reading in every way. Nelson writes about the resolution of the murder of her aunt, Jane, and how she coped with finally finding out what really happened after growing up with a horrible mystery in her family. As a devotee of crime fiction, I was like GIVE IT HERE, but this book also has so much more to offer—an insistence on relating to why our society is so obsessed with crime and continues to be, in increasing numbers. A personal story filled with indelibly gorgeous writing, only the way Nelson could do it. Find it immediately. (April 5, 2016, paperback original)
Mongrels—Stephen Graham Jones
This guy. He somehow pumps out these literary lowbrow horror genius masterpieces and this one is no exception. A werewolf coming-of-age tale? Bet you didn’t see that coming. Werewolves have never been explained quite like this, but honestly, if they’ve made it this far in modern society, it seems like Jones has their number. One of the most original writers I have ever read, he never ceases to surprise in the most honest (and sometimes gory) ways. (January 24, 2017)
Before the Fall—Noah Hawley
A small private plane loads up, takes off, and less than 20 minutes later, crashes into the ocean, leaving only two survivors, a four-year-old boy, and a struggling artist who wasn’t really supposed to be there anyway. What this book encapsulates is the unraveling of what happened on that plane: was it an accident? A planned hit on a high-powered business man? Murder over love? What went on in the cabin of that plane and how it captivates a nation, pushing in on the private lives of the two survivors is the main thrust of the story, casting the artist in the light of hero and villain as the people around him try to create a sensational story. Does what happened even matter to the media? Or the world? Brilliantly written as well. I’d love to see a movie version of this. (June 6, 2017)
I didn’t read as much poetry this past year as I usually do, but this collection is standout for sure. Her use of the page and white space gives the reader time to really think about her use of the language, while the denser parts force the reader onward, reading through the difficulty even without grasping the meaning of every line and every word. It seems almost omniscient at times and at others, hopeful in a heartbreaking way. (No paperback date available)
The Fat Artist and Other Stories—Benjamin Hale
I love reading short story collections. I think they lay bare writers in a way that novels do not; there is no place to hide in the condensed space of a short story. While a lot of good collections came out this year, I’ve chosen this one for my top list. The stories within are consistently great and even challenging, showing a wide range of creativity, character work, and writing styles. Hale mixes humor and darkness and absurd situations. I particularly adored the title story, where a failing experimental artist makes himself the main exhibit. (May 30, 2017)
All Things Cease to Appear—Elizabeth Brundage
This book was a quiet wonder. Simply brilliant and sneakingly dark, set against a stark wintry, country landscape, it tells the story of a murder backwards. We already know who gets murdered from the first chapter but not the murderer’s identity, and then the story rewinds to the beginning. A beautiful, haunting story of more than one broken family with so many more repercussions than just whodunit, this one left me breathless. (February 7, 2017)
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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Finally, here's what we've all been waiting for: End of Watch. If you are interested in reading my reviews of the other two books in the Bill Hodges trilogy, click the links: Mr. Mercedes or Finders Keepers.
What a way to end it—Mr. King, you keep us guessing until the end, don't you?
Maybe it's that he can't help himself, or maybe it's because he knows where to go to really scare us, or perhaps those are the same thing. Whatever the reason, this is one writer who isn't afraid to look under all the darkened beds, open all the scary closets, and let out anything that might be hiding there.
In this final chapter of the Bill Hodges trilogy, we are again confronted by Brady Hartsfield, the Mercedes Killer himself. His act of violence at the City Center that cold morning continues to haunt those affected by it. And Brady's victims are not just the ones he put in wheelchairs or otherwise crippled, they include the Finders Keepers team, especially Bill Hodges, who can't quite seem to let it go, though Brady is now incapable of even wiping himself let alone creating bombs or steering a car into a crowd of people. Hodges has been worried, though, that the monster is still in there, waiting dormant until everyone has dropped their guard. And then he'll strike.
It's not so crazy, because the nurses say that some strange things happen in Room 217—things they can't explain, like the blinds bouncing up and down, or the IV bag swinging all by itself, things that make them afraid to venture near Hartsfield. And we know nothing good resides in Room 217.
End of Watch is a much more internal book than the first two in the series. It deals with lonely people and how the depths of our minds can be a lonely place. But it also brings us back to a world King is familiar with, a world with supernatural leanings. As foreshadowed at the end of Finders Keepers, Brady appears innocuous and brain-dead (a gork, as the nurses at the Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic would say) but somehow, he is capable of a form of psychokinesis. And if he has it his way, he's going to use that power to hurt people in the way he likes best: getting them to hurt themselves. No one will ever suspect a gork like him. It will be easy.
Although the book is still crime fiction, as the other two in the series, King doesn't feel the need to stay within the boundaries of genre. He pulls the reader back under the umbrella of the paranormal so easily, we almost wonder, what if this is possible? What if it could happen?
Beyond the narrative, I think King is thinking about bigger themes and how they are at play in our world—that's right: the world that you and I live in. Though End of Watch falls back on familiar territory for King in a supernatural sense, it also hits really close to home with some of the themes. The largest of these is technology and how it can be used for good or evil. The cyber world is the playground for this book, and Brady is the worst cyber-bully you've ever seen. The book ruminates, tragically and to great effect, how easy it can be to tear someone's defenses down, how we all live with insecurities and fears that if exploited can lead us down a dark path.
And King is also thinking about the proliferation of social media and how it spreads quickly and is so influential over our lives. We don't even consider how often we log on and check in, making posts and status updates. In this internal internet world we've created, sometimes we are our own worst enemies. Even suicide can be contagious. The internet can show us worlds of horror and we never even have to leave our rooms. And that is not fiction.
Hodges is old, and he's not getting any younger, but though his body is beginning to fail him, his mind is as limber as ever, as shown in End of Watch. It's easy to see him as a foil for King himself, who keeps on keeping on, writing book after great book at a rate that most authors wouldn't dream of achieving. Hodges and King also share other characteristics—Hodges turns 70 in the book, and King's 70th birthday will be next year. Though the book is far from autobiographical, I think King has put a bit of himself in his main character, and it proves that there's fight left in him yet, Don't discount the King—I think he's got plenty more stories to share.
Get your copies of the Bill Hodges Trilogy
End of Watch
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Here's part 2 of my weekend with King: Finders Keepers.
As a wise man once wrote, "It's the oldest law in history: finders-keepers." (Stephen King wrote that! You are a true Constant Reader if you know what book it's from.)
Wow. I read a wide variety of old and new books, debut novels, non-fiction, short stories, works by famous authors, works by nobodys, you name it, I've tried it or it's on the list. I also get a lot of advance readers, so I often take a chance on books that I probably wouldn't buy for myself. But there is nothing like coming back to a good writer, and a damn good book, to remind yourself why reading is so, so sweet.
Ever since I devoured Mr. Mercedes, I knew I would be biting at the bit to get this one. That book is definitely different, though it is a kissing cousin to the horror novels that made King into a household name. Finders Keepers carries on in that tradition, with elements of crime fiction, mystery, thriller, and of course, horror. I go into the first book here if you're interested. King continues on with Finders Keepers, showing us that he's one old dog that not only still has new tricks, he's also got space left in his backyard for plenty more dead bodies.
I really enjoyed the way this story twines around Mr. Mercedes, using some of the same characters in unexpected ways, proving that lightning may not strike the exact same place twice, but it can get damn near close. It gets into another family who was affected by the Mercedes Killer's murderous rampage in the car that gave him his namesake. And because main character Pete's dad was badly hurt at the City Center massacre, Pete ends up stealing something that isn't his and climbing down the rabbithole. Only this rabbit's got fangs (think Monty Python, right?) and he's coming back for what's his.
And of course. old Det. Ret. Hodges is back, and he's even better than before, with his own private-eye sort of business. He, Holly, and the Happy Slapper (you'll have to dive in to figure out what that is) have a good thing going, and Hodges is good at what he does.
But at the same time, Finders Keepers is very much it's own story. The moments of crossover give it body, make it reside in a world that exists, one that's getting scarier and more real all the time. It's a bit similar to what he did with Desperation and The Regulators, only here it's more interconnected, and more successful, in my opinion.
We so often think of books and movies as one-offs, like they exist in some vacuum-sealed space where nothing else can touch them. The movie only contains what you see on the screen, and when it's over, that's all there is. Here, the world already exists, this book is just showing you another slice of it. But don't writers do this all the time, you say? Like with crime fiction series that follow that one hard-boiled, defiant, cop/inspector/detective who always goes through hell but gets the guy in the end? Well, yes, that's true. But this is NOT that. That shit don't mean shit.
I would say that Hodges—who fills the broken cop/inspector/detective shoes—isn't even a main character at this rodeo. He stops by for a visit, and don't get me wrong: he is crucial, but the story isn't about him. It's about another person who inhabits the same world as him. It reminds the reader that this world is real, it's our world--we just live in a different corner of it from these people and we are here living our own stories oblivious even to the stories that our own neighbors are living.
And here's where it really gets scary. Remember how in my Mr. Mercedes review I made such a big deal about how the book is outside of the realm of King's other books because, among other reasons, it lacks any sort of supernatural leaning? Well I have news for you. And it's waiting for you in Room 217.
Oh, yes, it's back, though you'll have to read for yourself to find out how and who's residing there now. King can't seem to help himself; it's like he's haunted or stuck there, waiting, with the woman in the bathtub always on the edge of lifting herself up and throttling his neck. But you gotta keep writing, in the meantime, don't stop for nothing, Stevie boy! It's good to write with her fingers almost around your throat. . .
We'll have to wait to see what emerges since the Room 217 plot point is a sure set-up for book 3, but if we learned anything from The Shining, it's that nothing good ever resides in Room 217.
Here's to #3, Mr. King. We'll be waiting for you, and for Brady Hartsfield as well.
Get your copies of the Bill Hodges Trilogy
End of Watch
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To celebrate the release of End of Watch this week, I've decided to do a few throwback posts, one on each book in the trilogy! First up: Mr. Mercedes.
This book from the King of horror is an altogether new kind of devil, which is truly saying something when you've written over 50 books, all of them bestsellers, most of them adapted for the screen or television. Mr. Mercedes is more of a crime thriller than the chilling horror most people expect when they pick up a book with those big, full caps that prominently declare: Stephen Was Here.
I am an advocate of erasing the altogether untrue bias against horror as a stereotypically stomach-turning and poorly written genre, and I think King's books show that horror is truly for everyone. It is the only genre that gets such a strong reaction—whether negative or positive—from basically everyone, and that means there is something in fear that resonates with us as humans. King is beyond a single shadow of a lurking doubt the most well-known modern day author in the world and he writes horror, so how can anyone say that horror is only a fringe genre read by a small following?
What King has always astutely tapped into is our predilection for overcoming what we're afraid of, even if we never knew we were afraid of it. (I think we can pretty easily assign him the blame for all of our nightmares about clowns.) The story of man-against-fear is the oldest classic there is, and we all go through it, on some level, almost on a daily basis. First day of school. Having to give a presentation. Standing up to your boss. Reading about Jack Torrance and how he battles his own internal demons as well as the all-too-real demons at the Overlook lets readers know that we too can overcome the demons in our lives. Horror gives us faith, and how can we go on without some hope that our struggles will end?
Mr. Mercedes has no supernatural leanings or psychological mind-bending, unlike the bulk of King's work. It resides resolutely in the world of the real—our world, the world that you and I currently live and breathe in. And that is what makes it all the more terrifying. The first clue is that the narrative is set in an unnamed Midwestern city. It's not Derry, it's not Castle Rock, it's not very specific at all, though some hints are dropped that it might be in Ohio. King also lets us know that the characters in this book don't live in the same world as George Bannerman, Ace Merrill, and (thank the lord) Pennywise the Clown. King makes this clear because there aren't any characters from his other books (correct me if I missed one, though). And not only that, but when he references his own work, it is to the movie adaptations, rather than the Easter eggs that he tends to devilishly drop in his other books.
Here's an example:
". . .five police cars were parked in the yard, two drawn up nose-to-nose behind the car's back bumper, as if the cops expected the big gray sedan to start up by itself, like that old Plymouth in the horror movie, and make a run for it" (60).
And, about the mask found in the killer car compared to Christine:
" 'Creepy as hell. You ever see that TV movie about the clown in the sewer?' Hodges shook his head. Later—only weeks before his retirement—he bought a DVD copy of the film, and Pete was right. The mask-face was very close to the face of Pennywise, the clown in the movie" (62).
King goes to great lengths to state similarities to the movies of his books rather than the books themselves, taking us out of Kinglandia and leaving us on our own Planet Earth, where movie versions of his world exist. This tells us that this is not the world that he created, that scary place that interweaves throughout his other novels and stories. The place we are always a little relieved we can just shut the cover on when it gets really bad. This is the REAL world, and in our world, someone like the Mercedes Killer could exist. If that doesn't make your skin creep up and your eyes dart around, paranoid about every slightly suspicious looking character, I don't know what will.
Not that King is necessarily looking to expand his readership, but this novel expands beyond the realm of horror and serves as a good toe-dipping spot for people who believe the stigma associated with horror. Hey, if I liked Mr. Mercedes, maybe I'll try The Shining. And once they see how amazing King is as a storyteller and as a writer, maybe they'll try Joe Hill, Dan Simmons, Peter Straub, Adam Nevill, Dean Koontz, Ramsey Campbell, Stephen Graham Jones, or even classics like Poe and Lovecraft. I maintain that horror is for everyone.
And for content, Mr. Mercedes, of course, delivers. The aged Det-Ret Kermit William Hodges is a brilliant character and not just because he is an intelligent man. He is no longer aging, he's just old, and he is out of the game. But Hodges isn't done yet, and his comeback in this book is King's way of saying that he isn't finished yet either. I mean, the man has published at least one and usually two books a year for many years—and 2016 isn't going to be an exception. He is far from done, and I don't think anyone is complaining.
King is a genius at what I'll dub exhibitionistic foreshadowing, where he gives away crucial details—usually about someone's imminent death—well before they happen. This is an amazing technique that stirs the dread in your stomach to almost unbearable levels. I don't want to know all the intimate details about this guy right before he dies a brutal death! I don't want to know what an amazing person he was and about his loving family that will soon be in mourning! Oh, but I so do, because that makes him real, and that makes his death matter, makes me feel his death. And it is oh, so good.
This is taken to a whole 'nother level here, because the reader is privy to not only Hodges' movements and thoughts but also to the killer's. By the second section, we know who he is, where he lives, what he does for a living, and we are learning what he's planning. Not that revealing the villain early is a new technique, but it is one that has to be handled intelligently and just plain old gently, like a buzzing wasps' nest tucked in a high place. Too easily, the reader can get bored, because we know too much, but King holds onto the high tension by making his characters fallible. In other words, they are real people because they make mistakes, they get angry, they have to alter their plans. Plus, we all know that King is not afraid to let bad things happen to his characters, so he kept me guessing all the way to the end, and he even digs the hook in that much deeper on the last page.
I don't want to give away too much more, but suffice it to say that Constant Readers will thoroughly approve (and probably already have if they devoured it the way I did). Also, lovers of crime/detective/mystery/thriller writers like Jo Nesbo, Stieg Larsson, Gillian Flynn, Tana French and the rest will love this book, and I hope they'll give it—and horror in general—a chance. But most importantly, Mr. Mercedes proves that the old dog still has new tricks and he's using them, so be warned. There's no stopping the King.
Get your copies of the Bill Hodges Trilogy
End of Watch
Find out more about Stephen King
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Find out more about the publisher, Scribner (Simon and Schuster)
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Assistant editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.