mystery reviews

Karin Slaughter Takes On Family And Other Gruesome Things In ‘Pretty Girls’

pretty girls

Karin Slaughter is legit. I say this having only read one of her huge Will Trent/Grant County series, Criminal, which didn’t totally blow me away. Where I did fall in love with that story was in its portrayal of women on the police force in the 1970’s, which Slaughter so intensely described it kept me up at nights, skipping the present-day, Will Trent sections of the book to get back those flashbacks of his mentor’s times on earlier, much meaner streets.

This means I was definitely a fan of Cop Town, Slaughter’s stand-alone novel focusing on women police in 1970’s Atlanta. And when Slaughter’s newest release, Pretty Girls, was announced as another stand alone, I was excited, just as Will Trent fans everywhere were dismayed.

In Pretty Girls, posh, confident Claire’s successful architect husband, Paul, is murdered in a robbery gone wrong. Immediately after his death, things stop making sense for Claire. She’s left in a stark, excessively large home she never wanted. A robbery takes place at Claire’s home during the funeral, and police and the FBI are a bit too interested in the case, a bit too attentive to Claire’s needs.

Meanwhile, Claire’s sister Lydia, estranged from the family, is revisiting old wounds as another young girl goes missing in the media. Where Claire is classy and sophisticated, Lydia is overweight and runs a pet-grooming service. As different as the sisters are, they both are haunted by the the memory of their third sister Julia, who went missing in their childhood.

The sisters’ stories alternate until they intertwine, as they come together to figure out just what the police could want from Claire, and who Paul really was.

The best part of this book, and maybe all thrillers for me, was its tense beginning. Claire, nervous and in mourning, realizes something isn’t right. But what, exactly? Everyone is acting strangely, the husband she relied on is dead, and she is left entirely on her own to discover his dark secrets. Like Stephen King’s A Good Marriage, the idea that you may not know the person you married, the person you sleep in bed next to each night, is terrifying.

There is quite a bit of gore, with some really ugly stuff presented. These scenes are brief, and play a role in explaining character development.

The story complicated itself as it progressed, and it began to lose a bit of steam for me, raising too many red flags of plausibility. I didn’t need that many twists for the book to be good. Despite feeling a bit bogged by the end, this is a finely-crafted thriller, with well-developed and realistic female characters confronting both family issues and much uglier, darker things. I know Will Trent fans are eagerly awaiting Slaughter’s next book in that series, but I’ll be eagerly awaiting her next stand-alone release.

Pretty Girls on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

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The Wonder Years Meets Law And Order: SVU In M.O. Walsh’s ‘My Sunshine Away’

my sunshine away

There were four suspects in the rape of Lindy Simpson, a crime that occurred directly on top of the sidewalk of Piney Creek Road, the same sidewalk our parents had once hopefully carved their initials into, years before, as residents of the first street in the Woodland Hills subdivision to have houses on each lot. It was a crime impossible during the daylight, when we neighborhood kids would have been tearing around in go-karts, coloring chalk figures on our driveways, or chasing snakes down into storm gutters. But, at night, the streets of Woodland Hills sat empty and quiet, except for the pleasure of frogs greeting the mosquitoes that rose in squadrons from the swamps behind our properties. –My Sunshine Away, M.O. Walsh

Imagine The Wonder Years, if you are old enough. All that innocent nostalgia for adolescence, ice cream dripping curbside and first loves blushing as they slam lockers in school corridors. Now imagine The Wonder Years merged with a Law and Order: SVU episode, and all its treachery lurking around each corner. Finally, plop this summer break-turned-nightmare down in a muggy Louisiana neighborhood, a place strangely unique in the United States, with its lush greenery and delicious food, and you’ll get an idea of M.O. Walsh’s My Sunshine Away.

The story focuses on the rape of Lindy Simpson, as it affected the town of Woodland Hills, Louisiana. We are told of Lindy’s rise amidst schoolyard friends and fall after the assault through the eyes of an unnamed narrator, looking back at his adolescence in Woodland Hills. Just one of a handful of Lindy’s followers, he worships her, lusts after her, and tries to track down her rapist. The narrator at times tested my tolerance–how much adolescent misunderstanding of love could I handle? Would I put the book down? Couldn’t this kid see how wounded Lindy was? But he couldn’t, and I didn’t. This is a story of growing up, with all the awkward moments, all the aches and pains, that entails.

As a debut novel, this one was highly praised, and M.O. Walsh’s prose is smart and striking. Each meditation on Louisiana, its people, its weather, and its food is clear and crisp, set with a voice so memorable it makes up for what were, for me, the book’s more icky moments. And the payoff is there, as we get to see this young, hungry, desperate boy grow up into something better. Despite its premise, this isn’t one to end on a bad note–I promise.

My Sunshine Away on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

In Jonathan Kellerman’s ‘The Murderer’s Daughter,’ A Victim’s Advocate Goes Vigilante

the murderer's daughter

Who can resist a novel with a title like The Murderer’s Daughter?

Not me.

Jonathan Kellerman’s newest release, The Murderer’s Daughter tells the story of survivor Grace. Grace grew up brilliant but fearful, passed from abusive (murderously so, hence the title) family to stereotypically unstable foster homes.

Now, a sought after therapist, considered a “victim whisperer” by those who need just such a soothsayer most, Grace’s dark childhood has caught up with her. A mysterious man seeks a session with her, intrigued by a little-known paper she wrote on families of criminals. Is he related to an offender himself? Does he look familiar?

Before Grace can find answers to any of these questions, the man loses his nerve and stumbles out of the session. Out of the session and right back into the grips of whatever violent element haunted his life.

There was a lot to love about The Murderer’s Daughter, and a lot I just wasn’t feeling. I appreciated Grace as a brilliant, independent, and manipulative woman, and the story of her upbringing interweaved with modern day was as intriguing as the mystery itself. As for the mystery, much of Grace’s investigation was done on the internet–while this may be realistic, it isn’t exactly the most thrilling way to reveal information to a reader.

In the age of Dexter, books with a bad seed turned to justice are all the rage: Chelsea Cain’s One Kick is my favorite thus far. If you love the vigilante justice of Dexter and the heady analysis of psychological thrillers, check out The Murderer’s Daughter.

The Murderer’s Daughter on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

When Good Genes Go Very, Very Bad: Franck Thilliez’s Bred to Kill

With Bred to Kill, the second English release from the Inspector Sharko series (the sequel to Syndrome E), Franck Thilliez carves a niche for himself by wrapping his thrillers in science, wielding biology as other writers utilize dark streets and shady characters.

In Elizabeth Little’s Dear Daughter, Socialite Turns Sleuth

Elizabeth Little’s Dear Daughter has all the thrills of a Gillian Flynn novel, dressed up with the glamour of a jaded Los Angeles socialite.

Review – One of Us by Tawni O’Dell

One of Us is haunted in all the right ways, with memories and rumors, psychic dogs channeling ghosts while very human monsters slip by undetected.

Review – Before I Go To Sleep by S. J. Watson

before i go to sleep

Imagine waking up in an unfamiliar bed. You vaguely recall going out with friends, assume you drank too much as the previous evening is blurry. You assume you went home with a guy you don’t know too well. Things are hazy. Looking up, you see a woman’s robe and slippers. An older woman’s robe and slippers. Looking over, you see an older man in the bed. You, being a twenty-something yourself, are confused. Did you somehow get picked up by an older, married man? Sliding quietly out of the bed and into the bathroom, the mirror image shocks you: the woman in the mirror isn’t the twenty-something you remember, but an older woman with an aged face you can’t recognized. You turn, and see pictures and notes on the bathroom wall. YOUR HUSBAND. BEN. The notes explain, plastered next to photos of you and the older guy from the bed. Photos of you both over a span of what must be decades–decades missing from your memory entirely.

He’s woken up now, this older man, and he’s standing in the bathroom door. You’ve never seen him before, you are sure. “I’m Ben,” he says. “I’m your husband. You had an accident. You don’t remember. But its okay.”

This is how each day begins for Before I Go To Sleep’s Christine, who has short term memory loss. She’s unable to form new memories the way most of us recall yesterday and three days ago–only her long term memories are deeply stored in her mind, sometimes hazy and sometimes bright and flashing, causing each day to be a shock of new realizations and old grasps at reality. All new memories formed wash away as she crawls into bed and falls asleep, causing the next morning to be a repeat of the jarring scene above, as she awakens confused. Each day is a puzzle for Christine, with acquaintances made strangers, routines unknown, and endless trust placed in those around her.

That trust, so crucial for her survival, as she awakes each day in bed with a stranger who walks her through their life together, begins to erode slowly when she gets a call from a Dr. Nash. He’s been seeing her secretly, he says, without her husband Ben’s approval. He recommended she keep a journal. The journal is hidden, and he tells her where to find it. In the front of the journal, Christine reads in her own handwriting: DON’T TRUST BEN.

And thus begins the mystery of Before I Go To Sleep, a puzzle where the entire plot has been erased with Christine’s short term memory. This is the worst type of unknown, a different sort of dread and fear–rather than not knowing who waits for her down a dark hallway, Christine is unable to remember her own motives for previous actions, or her own reasons for choosing to trust or distrust those in her life. She is unable to act as her own protector, holding those around her accountable for past events. She finds herself forced to take the word of her husband and her doctor about what she has said she wanted, or needed. She frantically writes in her journal, attempting to document everything each day, as she knows she won’t be able to remember it all clearly the next.

Before I Go To Sleep has been on my to-read list for years, as it was published in 2011 and I never got around to seeking it out. I happened upon it on a clearance shelf at a bookstore, and I’m glad I picked it up. I’m the type of person who always judges and calculates the mystery as its happening, and this was one I thought I had figured out towards the middle. I was ready to dismiss the book as too simple, with glaring hints everywhere about the plot’s outcome and an overly naive narrator. Luckily, there was a twist towards the end that I hadn’t expected, and it kept me interested and renewed my faith in the book. Thrillers like this are just the right level of easy to fall into, like a warm bath that isn’t too hot. Once you are in this book, you don’t want to get out again.

It is impossible not to compare this book, or really any short term memory psychological thriller, to the 2000 movie Memento (which was inspired by a short story, “Memento Mori.”) But there is non-fiction documenting short-term memory loss as well. Before I Go To Sleep‘s author S. J. Watson was influenced by Forever Today: A Memoir of Love and Amnesia by Deborah Wearing. Oliver Sacks discusses the case of an older man who believes himself to be a young sailor in his classic The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales. Sacks says of his work with this man, in “The Lost Mariner,” “I kept wondering, in this and later notes–unscientifically–about ‘a lost soul’, and how one might establish some continuity, some roots, for he was a man without roots, or rooted only in the remote past.” Sacks recommends his lost mariner keep a diary, just as Dr. Nash recommends to Christine in Before I Go To Sleep.

This type of mystery, which explores the weaknesses and faults of the human mind, is disorienting and a bit maddening. Presenting more than just an unreliable narrator, Before I Go To Sleep reminds us how delicate and frail our perception of the world is, and how easily that view can be shattered.

Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson on Amazon.com/Barnesandnoble.com/Indiebound.org

If you liked Before I Go To Sleep, put these books on your to-read list:

Review – The Burn Palace by Stephen Dobyns

the burn palace

The Burn Palace: A Novel by Stephen Dobyns is an enchanting kind of book, a pick-it-up-at-the-bookstore-because-the-dandelion-yellow-cover-calls-your-name kind of book, a read-the-glowing-blurb-from-Stephen-King-on-the-back-and-you’ve-gotta-get-it-now kind of book, a happy-to-curl-up-with-its-little-towns’-happenings-at-night kind of book, a baby-turns-snake-while-vicious-coyotes-prowl-oh-my! kind of book.

In The Burn Palace, small town life get weird. The quaint community of Brewster begins experiencing bizarre (and possibly supernatural?) occurrences: coyotes turn cruel, and a baby disappears from a bassinet leaving a snake in its place. Characteristics of small town life once considered quaint and sleepy become glaringly inefficient in a crisis, and Dobyns ensures we are privy to each town resident’s struggle to adapt to the odd on-goings and the hysteria surrounding the events.

Dobyns writes in a fantastical tone, boldly dropping into the second point-of-view (that’s right, you heard me) to include the reader as a sort of peeping tom, an unseen witness or incredibly private private investigator, and we are taken flying through the town and into residents’ homes at intimate times, checking out their thoughts as they tuck themselves into beds, asking us to try and put together the puzzle pieces while we also feel the tension bubbling up within the community like a pot ready to overflow.

The one thing (okay, maybe two things) glaringly absent here were a map and a character list. With such a focus on the layout of the town of Brewster, and such a wide array of characters included, I kept flipping back to the beginning of the book seeking an illustrated map of the town that just wasn’t there. Would it have been a bit too cheeky? I think Dobyns already took us there, and it would have felt just right. So many characters were introduced so quickly and briefly, that I had a hard time keeping them straight. I think a map and a list of characters, their relations, and professions at the beginning of the novel would have been a greatly utilized tool to help readers further envision and understand the town we were being invited into.

In many ways, The Burn Palace feels like a light tale when compared with some of the gritty and gruesome mysteries that are popular today. I have a lot of love for darker mysteries, but some can get so graphic that I wonder where authors have left to go. When we’ve all visited our darkest nightmares, where will we go for our thrills? The Burn Palace reminds me that the shock value doesn’t always need to be there for a great mystery. All you need is a great story, one that people would enjoy gathering around a campfire to hear, maybe. One that perhaps starts in a small town, maybe a town named Brewster, on a dark and windy night…

The Burn Palace on Amazon.com/Indiebound.org

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Review – The Salinger Contract by Adam Langer

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I was pleasantly surprised with The Salinger Contract.  This is a theme mystery, focusing on literature, and I’m always skeptical of theme mysteries (cat mystery novels, and now yoga mystery novels?  really?).  However, this book worked.  As I love books and I’m interested in writing, I appreciated the look into the life of the less glamorous authors out there.  The lives and livelihoods of average authors are made charming, if bleak, here. The Salinger Contract is a glimpse into the world of the starving artist, with a literary tilt.

The narrator is a one-time author and journalist, Adam Langer (yes, same as the author), who was forced to adapt to the life of a stay-at-home dad after the literary mag he writes for closes down.  The book is broken up into four parts:  1) Upon Signing, 2) Upon Submission, 3) Upon Acceptance, and 4) Upon Publication.  It is a tricky mystery to explain without giving too much away.  Langer seeks out a favorite author from his former life as a literary journalist, and an odd plot unfolds involving rich old men in limousines, secret and unknown classical mystery novels, guns, accents, theft, and sassy YA writers who lack manners but have huge followings.  What more could you ask for?

This is a very unique book – its pacing is uneven by design, as it goes from a very fast-paced recounting of events to a slower-paced status quo.  In many books that use this style of storytelling within a book, it feels like the present is just unnecessary filler taking up time until you get to the important flashbacks which seem to be the true meat of the story.  In The Salinger Contract, when action isn’t being recounted, we are getting to know Adam Langer.  With no opportunity and no glamour in his life, Adam Langer (narrator) comes across as charming rather than pathetic.  He seems to be an everyman just trying to make it through our tough financial times.

The writing here is clear and simple, and this book is a fast, light read – great for anyone who is craving a creative and fun mystery, or anyone who is big into reading and writing.  Although I don’t think I’d classify this as a cozy, it has a cozy feel – not a lot of grit or gore.

My only complaint is that quite a jump is taken at the end that left me raising an eyebrow.  You’ll know it when you get there, and you’ll also be like, “say whaaat?”

From “The Making Of” the novel on OpenRoadMedia.com, Langer explains:  “It came about through wanting to satirize the idea, so often repeated in interviews, that a book can change your life. It’s a cliché and so rarely true and so I wanted to write a book where that idea is literally true—a writer’s life depends on writing this book. I’ve also been fascinated by this idea of literary recluses—of people like B. Traven and J. D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon who disappear and how these stories develop around them. And I wanted to explore some very compelling reasons as to what would explain an author’s disappearance.”

The Salinger Contract on Amazon.com (release date September 17th)