Category Archives: Suspense

My Wife is Missing by D.J. Palmer

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The devil again, perched upon his shoulder. He knew. The past was something Michael carried with him, even when he forgot it was there. His mind flashed on an image sourced from memory, one of blood and gruesome cuts to a body, of eyes open wide but seeing nothing. It wasn’t over. It would never be over.

Michael and Natalie are at a Times Square hotel with their kids, a short vacay from their life in Boston. When Nat had suggested it, Michael jumped at the chance. Healing was needed, not just for Natalie’s too-persistent insomnia, but for their marriage. She had been sure Michael was having an affair, despite his persistent denials. He is hoping she is ready to try patching things up. She sends him out for pizza for the family at a local emporium, but when he returns the family has vanished like a Manhattan parking spot. He does what one might do, but the detectives show him hotel video of Natalie and the kids making tracks. No alien abduction this time. His wife has done a runner. The question is why?

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D.J. Palmer – image from Amazon

The book follows two characters Michael, as he tries to figure out what is going on, and Natalie in two timelines, before leaving and after, on the run. So three threads to keep straight. Not a challenge.

Secrets abound. Michael has a large one from his past. Natalie has put together a theory, which reflects poorly on Michael and informs her desire to flee. And then there is the murder to consider.

Palmer give us plenty of fodder to munch on. What is that scar on Michael’s arm? Was it really from a bicycle accident when he was a kid? Why does Michael have no family other than Natalie and their kids? Whose long hair was it that Natalie found on his clothes one night? But the Michael we see seems a pretty decent, if flawed, guy, eager to get his family back, and Natalie has some issues. Her insomnia has become severe and persistent. Has her grip on reality suffered from this? Has she become paranoid?

We see in the looks back how Natalie came to think what she thinks. We do not get a lot from Michael’s history side until near the end.

The supporting cast is fun. A detective who is looking into the recent killing attaches himself to Michael when he goes looking for his family. We presume his intentions are less than benign, as he keeps ramping up his questioning. But Michael really wants to find his wife, and the access a detective has to otherwise unavailable resources makes it worth putting up with the guy being fixated on him as Suspect Zero. Natalie has a bff at work. A company investigator from her work spices things up briefly, and a young attractive sort at Natalie’s job passes on through for a while, is exposed to Natalie’s fears, and steps way back.

The tension builds and builds, as we keep hoping to find answers, but when we get them they arrive with a fresh set of questions. The pace sustains at frenetic, and there are severe twists aplenty, which make sense and are satisfying, however jolting.

I was not all that smitten with the leads here. Michael should not have been so secretive with Natalie about his past. And he should have been much more honest about other things as well. Natalie is ragged, which makes her concerns at least somewhat suspect. She may be right or she may be wrong, but it is a bit tough to get fully on board for her. It is possible she is suffering from paranoia., but just because you’re paranoid, that does not mean that they are not really out to get you.

This is only my second book by this author. One thing I preferred about The Perfect Daughter is that there is informational payload in that one about an unusual medical condition. My Wife is Missing is straight up thriller/mystery, payload-free as far as I could tell. It works fine as that, but I do prefer novels that add in some extra, educational material to give them a bit more heft.

This is a perfect beach read. It sustains a page-flipping pace while offering the sorts of twists and turns that make it a fun journey, without demanding to much deep thought. You may go missing for the few hours it will take to read My Wife is Missing, but we know that you are sure to be found.

He couldn’t be in any picture that risked going viral, and certainly couldn’t tell his in-laws why.

Review posted – May 20, 2022

Publication date – May 10, 2022

I received an ARE of My Wife is Missing from St. Martin’s Press in return for a fair review, and sticking around. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been, or soon will be, cross-posted on Goodreads. Stop by and say Hi!

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, other personal, Twitter, Instagram and FB pages

My review of Palmer’s 2021 novel, The Perfect Daughter

Items of Interest from the author
—–Soundcloud – audio excerpt – read by Karissa Vacker – 3:48

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Filed under Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller

Secret Identity by Alex Segura

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The comics business was messy—a slapdash sprint to meet immovable deadlines, a blur of pages flowing from production to editorial and back before being jettisoned out the door to the printer. Carmen loved it.

Miami was a city, too, Carmen knew—but New York was something else. A disease that bubbled and expanded and multiplied and morphed, like some kind of magical, mystical being that seemed from another world.

Carmen Valdez, late of Miami, is where she wants to be. She may not be exactly doing what she wants, but she is trying to get there. A New Yorker for the last year, Carmen is 28. She works at Triumph Comics, a third-tier publisher of such things, and is living the dream, if the dream is to be working as a secretary to a boss who cannot see past her gender, cannot even imagine a woman, let alone a Hispanic woman, actually writing stories for his press. But the stories are there, the ideas filling notebooks. She gives him some, but even if he bothers to read them, he dismisses the work out of hand. All she needs is a chance. And then one appears.

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Alex Segura – image from Comicsbeat

Harvey Stern is a junior editor there, young, friendly. They bond over a shared love of the medium (a love she had acquired from her father taking her out for father-daughter bonding that included the buying of comics). They are friendly without being quite friends. The house has a sudden need for a new character; Harvey is given the job of coming up with one, a female hero who will get a rise out of young male Triumph readers. Carmen sees her opportunity and offers to “help.” Their work together goes well. The story is mostly hers, of course, but Harvey has some skills. They produce a pretty good book. It does well. Problem is that no one other than she and Harvey knows the truth about how it came to be. Then Harvey suffers a BLAM! BLAM! leaving him with even less conscious corporeality than an invisible six-foot pooka. Guess who finds the body? And the noir gets dark.

I’ve always been fascinated with Megan Abbott’s work and her ability to bring the tenets of noir to areas where you wouldn’t expect noir to exist—gymnastics, cheerleading, science, and so on. She crafts these narratives that are tense, fraught, and loaded with style outside of the typical noir settings. I remember reading Dare Me and just thinking, huh, wouldn’t it be cool to write a comic book noir? – from The Big Thrill interview

Segura had recently finished writing his Pete Fernandez Miami Mysteries, so has the chops to produce a pretty good whodunit. Carmen sees, in short order, that the police are not up to the task. She also knows that unless she can figure out why Harvey was killed, and by whom, she will never be able to get recognition for her work, or maybe sleep at night. Harvey is not the last person attacked by a mysterious villain.

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The Legendary Lynx – from the book – image from The Firewire Blog

Secret identities abound here. Carmen hides her true author self from the boss because of the sexism of the age. Everyone seems to have a secret. Harvey certainly does did. Are all the names that we are given really the characters’ true names? Might there be an alias or two creeping around, for dark purposes?

she had to become someone else to survive

Segura has been busy in the comic book industry for many years, working on Archie Comics, while living in Miami, then moving to New York to work for DC. He has written detective novels, and a Star Wars book, stand-alone mysteries, short stories, a crime podcast, and probably an encyclopedia. He is married with kids, and I imagine that he must sleep some…time. Maybe he is one of the characters he writes about and his secret power is eternal wakefulness. Captain Insomnia takes on every request for writerly product, and satisfies them all.

He has a particular soft spot for the 1970s in the comics industry, when the industry’s body was laid out on the street, bleeding money and readers. Who would come to its rescue?

Well the comic book industry was really struggling at that time after the glory years of the 50s and 60s. Comics were struggling. It wasn’t like today, where we have shows about Peacemaker or obscure characters – it was considered a dying industry. So I wanted to use her passion for the medium and contrast it with comics at its lowest point, and then show her fighting to control this one thing she loves. – from the Three Rooms Press interview

This was a time when comic books were sold only on newsstands or in small stores, before there were comic book conventions, before the steady drumbeat of blockbuster films based on comic book characters. There was plenty wrong with the industry at the time (there probably still is), with notorious cases of people stealing credit for the work of others. Some of those are noted here. In fact, there are many references made to well-known names in the comic book industry. I am sorry to say that most just slipped past me, as I am not the maven for such things that Segura and no doubt many readers of this book are. I can report, though, that not knowing all the references did not at all detract from my overall enjoyment, and recognizing the ones I did enhanced the fun. He even tosses in a nod to a character of his from another project, as that character’s story was set in the same time period.

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The Legendary Lynx – from the book – image from The Firewire Blog

There was plenty wrong with NYC at the time. I know. I remember. Fun City, originally a tossed-off line by a 1960s mayor facing multiple municipal crises (“It’s still a fun city.”) had not completed the shift to The Big Apple, itself a reconstitution of a city logo from the 1920s. The city, a political creation of the state, was starved by the state for the funds needed to provide the services it was required to offer, then was looked down on for that inability. It was a time when graffiti was ubiquitous, crime was up, and gentrification was beginning, as landlords were torching their properties to drive out residents so they could transform their buildings into co-ops. It was a time of white flight and a time when a local tabloid featured the infamous headline: Ford to City: Drop Dead, after NYC had turned to the federal government for aid. We get a taste with Carmen’s arrival.

the drab, claustrophobic walls of the Port Authority giving her the most honest first impression of New York she could expect. As she wandered the cavernous transport hub, a concrete behemoth at the tail end of the Lincoln Tunnel, she got a heavy dose of what she’d only imagined. A city in disrepair, boiled down into this one sprawling bus terminal. Leaky ceilings, shadowy conversations, blaring horns, and unidentifiable smells all coalesced into an unbridled fear that gripped Carmen as she stepped out into the New York sunlight.

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The Legendary Lynx – from the book – image from The Firewire Blog

Carmen’s mission is to solve the crime of course (When a man’s woman’s partner is killed he’s she’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.”), but it would not be a noir if Carmen did not have some personal struggles going on as she struggles to figure out whodunit. There are parental issues, which might not be quite noir-ish, but a dark episode from her past stalks her, which certainly is. And there are some romantic bits as well, which definitely fit. She may have been raised Catholic, but Carmen is no nun. All this serves to make for a rounded character, one we can cheer for. Part of that rounding involves some flaws as well, and not the sort we are used to in our primary investigators.

For example, did Carmen really believe that the boss would disbelieve her if she told him the truth about authorship of The Legendary Lynx? There is a scene in which Harvey gets weird and take off after a working-together session. Holy Tunnel Vision, Batman! No freaking out over that? And she lets Harvey take her notebooks, her primary and unbacked up material? Even the Daredevil wasn’t that blind. There was something else, of no real consequence, that really bothered me. There is a scene which entails Carmen walking from the East Side to the West Side of Manhattan without any mention of passing through Central Park, which is directly in the path, or walking around it. That just seemed odd, particularly coming from a guy who lives in New York. Not really a spoiler, just wanted to spare most folks this aside.
I used to live on the West side of Manhattan, for most of the 1970s, West 81st Street, then West 76th Street, and walked across the park to my grad school on the East Side. Walked back, too, so, speaking from experience. Like I said, no consequence.

One thing you will definitely enjoy is the inclusion in the book of seventeen pages from The Legendary Lynx. They presage events in the chapters that follow. It is a perfect addition to the book.

Music permeates, including nods to the venues of the day, The Village Vanguard, CBGBs, The Bottom Line, et al. Her roommate, Molly, is a musician, rubbing shoulders with rising stars, like Springsteen and Patti Smith.

Secret identity covers a fair bit of territory, an homage to a beloved industry in a dire time, a noir mystery, a look at the city where he now lives, when it was on its knees, while saluting the music of the time and the creators of the comic book industry, warts and all. And he tosses in a comic book for good measure. This is a fun read of the first order, even for those, like me, who may not be comic nerds. In producing this very entertaining novel, Alex Segura has revealed his true identity, at least for those who did not already know. Clearly, Seguro really arrived on this planet not in a Miami hospital ward, but probably somewhere in the Everglades, his ship originating in a galaxy far, far away. He may or may not be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but he clearly wields otherworldly power as a writer. POW!

If it got published, I’d be ghostwriting it. . . . I mean, I’d get a shot, and if it did well we’d reveal my involvement, but. . . .”
“You’d be anonymous at first? Like his secret partner?”
Carmen waited a beat, letting her mind skim over what she already knew to be true. She nodded at Molly, hoping her friend couldn’t see her resigned expression in the dark.
“Is that what you want?” Molly asked. “To live your dream—in secret?”
Carmen felt her stomach twist into a painful, aching knot.

Review posted – March 11, 2022

Publication date – March 15, 2022

I received an ARE of Secret Identity from, well, I can‘t tell you, in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating an e-galley copy.

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads. Stop by and say Hi!

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Crime Reads – SHOP TALK: ALEX SEGURA IS ALWAYS WRITING, EVEN WHEN HE’S NOT by Eli Cranor
Mostly on Segura’s process and insane productivity
—–The Big Thrill – Up Close: Alex Segura by April Snellings
—–Three Rooms Press – Stand Up Comix:> An Interview with Author Alex Segura

Item of Interest from the author
—–Segura’s Sub-stack

Items of Interest
—–When a man’s partner is killed…
—–pooka

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Reviews, Suspense, Thriller

The Book of Cold Cases by Simone St. James

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On the lawn, something moved across the surface of the grass. The touch of a footprint. Inside the house, one of the cupboard doors opened in the dark kitchen, groaning softly into the silence.
In a bedroom window a shape appeared, shadowy and indistinct. The blur, perhaps, of a face. A handprint touched the bedroom window, the palm pressing into the glass. For a second, it was there, pale and white, though there was no one to see.
The wind groaned in the eaves. The handprint faded. The figure moved back into the darkness. And the house was still once more.

“Being a girl is the best,” she said, “because no one ever believes you’d do something bad. People think you’ll do nothing, which means you can do anything. I’ll show you.”

1977 – Claire Lake, Oregon. Two men have been brutally murdered in separate incidents, roadside, no obvious motive. But a witness did see someone leaving the scene of one of the crimes. The description matches a local, a young woman generally regarded as odd. Beth Greer is standoffish, young, attractive, and rich. Parents both dead, Mom from an auto accident in a tree, Dad from a close encounter with fired round, in the kitchen. She has a taste for alcohol and keeping human connections ephemeral. When she is not out at bars and clubs, she is mostly at home, Greer House, not the happiest place on Earth. The bullets that did in the two randos just happen to match the one that laid Julian Greer out on the kitchen floor, a murder, BTW, that was never solved. You can see why the police might be a tad suspicious.

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Simone St. James – image from her site – credit: Lauren Perry

2017 – Shea Collins is 29, newly (ok, almost a year) divorced. Has worked reception in a doctor’s office in downtown Claire Lake for five years. But her real self is invested in her website, The Book of Cold Cases. Shea is a true crime blogger, been at it for ten years, is certainly up on local crime legends, so she notices when one walks into the office, Beth Greer, forty years after she was believed to be The Lady Killer of tabloid fame, forty years after she was acquitted of the murders, which were never solved. Most think she was guilty. Beth pursues Greer, who, to her great shock, agrees to be interviewed.

And the game is afoot. There are two timelines at work, contemporary and back-then. In the 2017 line, Shea interviews Beth at Greer House, even though the place creeps her out. The décor is from the era of Beth’s parents, which is off-putting enough, but there is clearly a lot more going on there. Objects move without obvious cause. A mysterious girl appears outside a window. Shea does not feel safe there, but the lure of getting the whole story from Beth is too much to resist so she keeps coming back. Also, she and Beth seem to be forming a friendship. Beth may or may not be a killer, but Shea likes her, is fascinated by her. In the earlier time, we follow Beth’s childhood, stretching back to 1960, as events that lead up to the killings are revealed, bit by bit.

The alternate perspectives, Shea’s in first person and Beth’s in third, are not evenly divided. We get more Shea than Beth (26 chapters to 18, if you must know), with a few Others tossed in. They do not alternate in a steady format, but streak at times for one or the other.

Shea has some dark visions from her own past she has had to deal with for the last twenty years. At age nine she was abducted, but managed to escape with her life. The next girl her abductor took was not so lucky. Helps explain why she takes the bus and is reluctant to get into cars. Helps explain why she is way security conscious. Also, helps explain why she is reluctant to date again.

“Do you know how many serial killers dated lonely women in their everyday lives? Some divorcée who just wants companionship from a nice man? She thinks she’s won the dating lottery, and meanwhile he’s out there on a Sunday afternoon, dumping bodies. And now we’re supposed to use internet apps, where someone’s picture might not even be real. People are lying about their faces.”

It took a long time after we met on Match for me to discover my now wife’s history of serial criminal activity, so I get that.

There are mysteries to be solved and in the best True Crime fashion, Shea, along with her sort-of partner-in-crime-solving, PI Michael De Vos, dig into each of the questions as they arise. Very cozy mystery style. There is even a retired detective who offers a bit of help, continuing the cozy format. Of course, there are other elements that make this less of a cozy, the supernatural, for one, and a little more on-screen violence than might fit in that format. In fact The Book of Cold Cases crosses many genre lines, could be gothic, thriller, horror, suspense, or mystery, with a bit of romance tossed in for good measure. This particular mix of genre-salad was not always the Simone St. James brand.

I wrote five books set in 1920’s England, and while I loved writing them, I never intended to write about one period for the rest of my life. I wanted to flex my writing muscles and write something set in the USA—something that had two timelines, one of them contemporary. Creatively, I wanted a new goal and a new challenge while still writing a Simone St. James book. I got my wish! – from the Criminal Element interview

St James has stuck with that. Her first America-set thriller, The Broken Girls (2018), offers a split timeline, 1950/2014, the story centering on a deserted and reputedly haunted school for girls, and a journalist looking into the death of her sister twenty years before. The Sun Down Motel (2020) takes on a haunted establishment in upstate New York, splits between 1982 and 2017, and includes a 35-years-ago missing aunt, a niece eager to dig up the truth, and a slew of killings and disappearances that really need looking into. Keeping the string going, The Book of Cold Cases splits between 1977 and 2017, includes an amateur investigator (a blogger this time), some contemporary frights, some historical killings, and a haunted house. (I did ask her what she was planning to haunt next, but St. James declined to spill)

Strong primary characters can carry a book if the plot is well-thought out, and that would have been enough here. But St. James’ secondary characters were quite good, although we could have used even more of some of them. Detective Black, retired now, but involved in the 1977 investigations, was a strong presence. Shea’s PI, Michael De Vos, was off screen too much, as he was quite engaging when he was in view. I enjoyed the parallelism of relationships, Beth with Black and Shea with Michael.

Gripes – The only real blogging work we see Shea do (yes, there is a session or two noted, but only very much in passing) is on Beth’s case. Might have been a good thing to get a stronger, more fleshed out, look at how Shea has been spending her nights, which would have included a lot more on-line than live and in person investigations. Claire Lake, the town, did not feel strongly realized. This was more than made up for, however, by the seriously creepy haunted house, and the powerful presence of Beth Greer.

Lest you suspect there is some actual true crime in this true crime tale, I asked SSJ that question on her FB page, and she replied, “the cases in the book were all entirely fictional.” So you True Crime obsessives can stop looking for real-world sparks for this one. And as for ghosts in the real world, she has never had a spectral experience. St. James likes putting literary Easter eggs in her work, so keep an eye out for those.

Bottom line is that The Book of Cold Cases is a fun page-turner that delivers what it promises, murder mysteries, an intrepid investigator, some fascinating characters, a taste of the 70s, and a large dollop of the other-worldly. It is even a bit scary. I have a pretty high bar for such things, but there was one moment in which I got chills and the hair on my arms stood up at attention. That is one more than usually occurs, so, kudos. It sustains tension throughout, making you want to either blast through ASAP, or, my preferred approach, savor the fun in relatively low-dose portions night after night. In either case this is a fun, spooky, engaging read that is well worth your time, and should provide most readers with some chills.

some places hold you so that you can’t get free. They squeeze you like a fist.

Review posted – March 4, 2022

Publication date – March 15, 2022

I received an ARE of The Book of Cold Cases from Berkley in return for a fair review, and keeping quiet about a few things. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Simone St. James is the nom de plume of Simone Seguin, of Toronto. She worked for many years in TV, for a Canadian sports network, but not as a writer. She worked on budgets. She says she knows nothing about sports, despite the gig. It was only after she had had multiple novels published that she ditched budgeting to become a full-time writer. She had endured six years of rejections before her first book was published. The Book of Cold Cases is her eighth novel.

Interviews
—–Criminal Element – 2018 – Q&A with Simone St. James, Author of The Broken Girls for The Broken Girls by Angie Barry
—–The Inside Flap – 2020 – Ep. 98 How To Spy On People With Simone St. James by Dave Medicus, Andrew Dowd, and Laura Medicus – 1:36:48 – begins about 30:00 – to 58:00

Item of Interest from the author
—–Indigo – Sample – 1st four chapters

Music
—–George Thorogood – Bad to the Bone

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Filed under Fiction, Horror, Mystery, psycho killer, Reviews, Suspense, Thriller

Road of Bones by Christopher Golden

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It wasn’t the desolation or the darkness or even the climate that had persuaded him to invest in this trip. It was that name…Official maps referred to it as R504. It wasn’t much of a road. The pavement started at both ends but not long thereafter the pavement gave way to packed gravel…In many places, the road was barely wide enough for two cars to scrape the paint off each other as they passed. The landscape consisted of snow, skeletal trees, mountains, and the occasional guardrail, as well as settlements that were considered urban but many of which were made up of a few dozen buildings and the hardy souls who went along with them.

It seemed like these people lived in a haunted, frozen hell.
To them . . . it was just home.

The Russians have a thing for giving characters in novels, and, it appears, real-world things, multiple names. R504, for example, is also known as P504. (no idea, don’t ask). It is also known as Federal Highway R504 and The Kolyma Highway. Locals call it The Kolyma Route. Plenty? Da. Complete? Nyet. It is also known as The Road of Bones. Construction began in 1932, during the Stalin era, using labor camp inmates. It continued using gulag prisoners until 1953. Workers die during construction? Permafrost in Siberia makes digging holes problematic, so the bodies were laid to rest under and near the road. Just a few, only somewhere between 250,000 to one million. Any chance a mother lode like that might attract a ghost hunter?

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Christopher Golden – image from The Tufts Daily – photo by Shivohn Kacy Fleming

Not all the dead along the road were planted there due to construction. There are probably a million ways to die on the Road of Bones in winter. Run out of gas? You die. Flat tire? You die. Accident? You die. Vehicle breaks down for any reason? You die. Don’t go outside wearing glasses. They will get frozen to your face. Have a medical emergency that cannot wait three hours until you can get to the nearest ER? You die. And guys, don’t even think about stopping by the side of the road to pee. Bring a diaper or a container of some sort. Sounds fun. When are we leaving? (I love writing stories set in places where people shouldn’t live. Like WHY DO YOU LIVE THERE? – from the Dead Headspace interview)

Felix Teigland is a maker of documentaries. He has had some ups and downs in his career. He managed to build his own production company but he is still waiting for the breakout show that will keep him and his company above water for more than just now. He is a charmer and professional bullshitter, who means well, and has a rich imagination, producing a lot of interesting ideas, but far too often he is unable to make good on his promises. Felix needs a hit. But he needs a backer to fund it. Thus, his presence in this godforsaken land. He wants to take enough video, get enough of a story that he can persuade those with deep enough pockets to reach into them and toss enough rubles his way so that he can actually produce the project.

Teig was a fast talker, always with a scheme he would trumpet with unfettered enthusiasm—a feature documentary from a fourteen-year-old director out of Argentina, salvage rights to a Spanish galleon, a TV series about World War II comic book artists who were secretly spies, a mock-umentary in which the history of Scooby-Doo and his gang would be investigated as if they’d existed in real life.

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Here the broken landscape of Stalin’s Kolyma Highway is pictured. Without a rail link to the city, the highway remains the only major land route into & out of Yakutsk… – image and text from Weather.com – photo by Amos Chapple

And what a project it is. Life and Death on the Road of Bones. Surely there are ghost stories aplenty, not to mention compelling survival tales. Teig has a background in supernatural work, having labored for several years on a TV show called Ghost Sellers.

He had reason to want to find ghosts, but he’d never seen evidence of one, despite the show confirming twenty-seven “official” hauntings while he’d worked with them.

He is skeptical of such things, has doubts, but even more importantly, hopes. Maybe the ghosts he finds in Siberia will help him find the spirit he truly seeks.

The grieving kid who’d lived inside him for more than twenty years had always longed for proof of the supernatural.
Careful what you wish for, idiot.

Teig is joined in this insane adventure by Jack Prentiss, a bear of an American, complete with a beard that would be at home in Brooklyn or the Yukon, a beer belly, and an imposing frame. Teig owes Prentiss a considerable sum of money, which gives Jack a bit of incentive to help make sure this project succeeds. Prentiss may be Teig’s only friend.

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A view of Stalin’s “Road of Bones”, the route to Oymyakon (Oy-vey-myakon?, is pictured on a -50c evening – image from Weather.com. photo by Amos Chapple

You can probably leave your swimsuit at home. There are only five hours of daylight this time of year, and even when it is above the horizon, it remains hidden behind clouds. Get used to the darkness. The average daily temperature in Winter is -47F.

They begin in the port town of Magadan on the Sea of Okhotsk, heading to the community of Akhust, the coldest inhabited place on Earth. I did not find an actual Akhust in my Googling, so presume it is a made-up name, standing in for Oymyakon, a twenty hour drive according to Google directions. Teig’s journey is supposedly sixteen hours, so maybe it is somewhere between the two locations. Guess it depends on extant conditions.

They make a stop to pick up a twenty-something guide, Kaskil, an actual local. He will not be their last passenger. There is a lovely lady in distress, Nari, with “cherry black hair.” Vehicle broke down and she needs a lift. When they arrive in Akhust, the coldest place on Earth, the entire town of several hundred is abandoned. Only one inhabitant remains, Kaskil’s nine-year-old niece, Ariuna, in a catatonic state. Shock most likely.

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Oymyakon, Sakah Republic, Russia Avg. temperature of 3 coldest months: -47.0 F Coldest month: January (-53.3 F) – image from USA Today – photo by Zac Allan / Wikimedia Commons

And then there are the odd things they have been seeing in the woods as they drove along. Trees moving strangely, oversized beasts, of uncertain shape, a Siberian tiger, of very certain shape, among them. Teig has odd thoughts urging him to give in to the cold. Whatever had driven or lured the residents of Akhust from their homes was now coming for them. And the chase is on, an army of creatures, led by a very large, human-like shaman is in hot pursuit. But why? Check, please.

The story is told through alternating POVs, not including everyone, but more than a couple. This kept things fresh, while also giving us the characters’ backstories, and reasons to care about their fates, maybe some understanding of their motivations. The action is pretty much non-stop. It is not a long book, but you might be out of breath by the time you finish reading. Lots of peril, lots of fleeing, a fair bit of fighting back. And questions. Um…why? I understand that the victims of Stalin might be pissed, but at people with no role in their killing? Are the members of this spirit army Stalin’s reincarnated roadkill? There is a character Kaskil refers to as ghost he has actually seen, who prays over the frozen dead. Does she have a role in this? The animal-like nature of the pursuers suggests also a rebellion of the natural world against a feckless humanity. Wrong place, wrong time. Who are those guys? Or is it something else? So what is the deal? Why are these spirits-made-material so intent on catching our small company?

Gripes are minimal. While there were multiple POVs, they did not all succeed in generating much interest in the characters. One character’s deep religious feelings define a life in an interesting and unusual way. Teig’s tale is given the most ink, and creates the strongest bond. The others? Some.

This is a chilling, acti0n-filled horror story, and it succeeds very much at that level. There is a lot of creativity on display in portraying these dark forces. And enough nuance to make them less than one hundred percent evil. Sound, in particular, plays a role here, not just in the songs noted in the text, but in the way sound can get into your head.

I’m…always intrigued with the idea of turning the concept of monstrosity on its head, of looking at a conflict through the eyes of the character that we would normally presume to be evil or cruel. – from the Nightmare Magazine interview

You will want to dress warmly while reading this one. You may shudder along with the characters at the death-dealing cold they must face for the entirety of the tale, and add a quiver or three for the spirits on the warpath. Consider having at hand either a mug of something very warm to drink or a bottle of Stoli. A favorite pet on your lap might help as well, at least as long as they do not start to look at you funny.

Here in this little scattering of human structures they could still convince themselves they were in the world of people, but once they passed into the woods, it would have been impossible to pretend they had control or authority over anything. Hunters and herders went into those woods or up that mountain from Akhust, and when they did they were surrendering to the primal nature of the world. Akhust stood as a stark reminder of how small a thing it was to be a human being.

Review posted – January 21, 2022

Publication date – January 25, 2022

I received an ARE of Road of Bones from St. Martins in return for a fair review and some extra warm mittens. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Golden is a monster of an author who got started, and found success, very early. He has a gazillion publications to his credit, an encyclopedic host of teleplay credits from his years writing for Buffy with Joss Whedon, and plenty more. And then there are the comics. You may have heard of Hell Boy, among those. Here is a list of what he has published, from Fiction DB. I personally think he has elves, or more likely, goblins chained to computers in his basement helping him crank out such volume.

Interviews
—–Nightmare Magazine – Interview: Christopher Golden by Lisa Morton – January 2014 issue
—–Dead Headspace – Ep. 126 – Christopher Golden – video – 1:51:56 – this is a long, fun interview that covers a wide range of subjects. The part dealing specifically with The Road of Bones goes from about 1:20:00 to about 1:29:00

Items of Interest
—–Wiki on the Kolyma Highway. Yes, it is a real thing
—–Weather.com – Breathtaking Photos of the Coldest City in the World by Nicole Bonaccorso – March 25, 2021

Songs/Music
—–Prince – Purple Rain – chapter 8
—–Bruce Springstein – Drive All Night – chapter 12
—–Bruce – Western Heroes – chapter 12
—–Bruce – Rosalita – chapter 14
—–Bruce – Somewhere North of Nashville – chapter 15
—–Elmira Terkulova – Million Scarlet Roses – English version – chapter 8
—–Alla Pugacheva –Million Roses – Russian version – chapter 8

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Filed under Cli-Fi, Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Suspense, Thriller

The Fields by Erin Young

book cover

Never tell.
It was an oath she had broken first, many months later, the words heaved from her in sobs, her parents’ expressions frozen, Ethan stumbling from the room, his face ashen. The secret once shared—once detonated—had destroyed them. Not in the first blast, but slowly, inexorably. A sickness in the heart of their family. A poison that lived for years, quietly working in each of them.

It’s not heaven. It’s Iowa.
———-Ray Kinsella in Shoeless Joe

Damn, did he have that right. The Iowa of Erin Young’s The Fields is a hell of a lot closer to The Children of the Corn than it is to any Field of Dreams. After spending some time in Cedar Falls and it’s larger sibling, agro-urban-wasteland town, Waterloo, where the rust-belt meets the corn-belt, you might swear off dreaming altogether. Well, town might be down-playing it a bit. Between the two (both are real places) they total about 100,000 souls (not counting livestock), so maybe small cities rather than towns. Abba may have been on to something when they referred to Waterloo. (Couldn’t escape if I wanted to) Some truly can’t. One of those turns up dead in a cornfield.

If not for the University of Northern Iowa—where she’d majored in criminology—with its annual influx of students and money, Riley guessed Cedar Falls would have slumped into the same depression as Waterloo. There had been some brave attempts at regeneration in recent years—microbreweries sprouting on weed-covered lots, kayaks for hire on the Cedar River and an annual Pride festival, fulminated against by local churches. But they were fighting a strong downward pull.

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Erin Young, nom de plume for Robyn Young, showing off her Thriller-writer pose, or her “You expect me to believe that? Come on now.” face – image from her facebook pages

Riley Fisher is local, mid-thirties, single, grew up in Cedar Falls, her grandfather a former head of the Blackhawk County Sheriff’s Office. She knew early on that she wanted to follow in his footsteps. Now, after a detour or two along the way, she is head of investigations, to the consternation of others who had hoped for the promotion. The new-found body is in a field owned by the Zephyr Farms cooperative.

Cooperatives were how some smaller Iowa farms had been able to survive the relentless advances of Big Ag. By dominating the market in hybrid seeds, fertilizer and pesticides—the holy trinity of crop production—through aggressive trademarking, swallowing up the competition and tactical lobbying at the highest levels of government, giants like Agri-Co had come to control much of the nation’s agricultural wealth.

Been out there for days, been ripped at in an unusual way, was maggoty, ripe, and unsettling. No problems with an ID, though, once Sergeant Fisher arrives on the scene. Chloe Miller (nee Clark) was one of Riley’s besties two decades back, in high school. But they’d gone their separate ways. Seeing Chloe brings back a terrible time from Riley’s youth, a time that had derailed her life, a time she could never forget.

So, we are faced with two mysteries. What happened to Chloe in that field and why, and what is it about Chloe’s death that has brought Riley to such a state of emotional turmoil? Something happened back when they were still friends, something major. And the revived memories are not exactly a source of comfort. Both mysteries are peeled back like leaves on a lovely ear of you-of-what, bit by bit, the present-day crime via procedural investigation; the personal mystery through intermittent, mostly small recollections.

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Blackhawk County – Image from Lands of America

But wait, there’s more. The discovery of Chloe’s body is the spark that starts the action, but Young has a wider field of view in her sites. A writer of very successful (over two million sold) historical novels, she wanted to have a go at writing thrillers, finding inspiration in

an article she read about the menacing power of Big Agriculture. A decision to set the novel in Iowa, corn-capital of the world, led her to make a fascinating journey across the state – from chance encounters with cops and farmers, and an audience with a local mayor, to shooting Glocks and getting caught in supercell storms. – from her website

A voice is given to concerns about the darker implications of increasing concentration in the age of the agro-industrial complex.

A necessary evil, some called them. Progress, said more. But to those whose forefathers had farmed this land since the days of the first families from New York, Philadelphia, and Virginia, who’d settled here after the Black Hawk War when the Ioway had been driven west, these corporations were vultures, polluters and thieves.

(Entirely unlike the settlers who drove out the natives, I presume.) So, not exactly a tension-free relationship between local growers and the bigger side of the farming industry, personified here by the Agri-co corporation. We get a strong oppo position from an activist determined to head off even more governmental pro-corporation actions.

Companies like Agri-Co only care about profit, not the soil and water they infect with their chemicals, or the wildlife they destroy. Cancer rates are rising from pesticides, and, still, their political allies and lobbyists help them sow their poison.

She blames the current governor, up for re-election, for his role in this. Concern with big-Ag concentrating power at the expense of smaller producers and fouling the environment in the process finds an echo in another part of the country.

It was almost a year since Logan joined the department, moving with his folks from Flint. His father, niece, and nephew had been badly affected by the crisis there—when lead seeped into Flint’s water supply after city officials changed the system in an attempt to save money, then tried to cover up the devastating consequences.

It is clearly impossible to run from the national corporation-led degradation of our environment, or from pervasive public corruption.

Riley is an engaging lead, clever in the way we expect our fictional detectives to be. We also expect our lead to carry some personal baggage, challenges at the very least. Her beloved grandfather, Joe, has been in decline for quite a while, coherent and in possession of his memories on an increasingly part-time basis. Her brother Ethan is a bit of a disaster, divorced, a ne’er do well with some substance issues. Riley can usually count on Ethan to step back whenever she needs him to step up. Ethan’s daughter Maddie is a teenager, a decent sort, overall, in a tough situation, but, you know, a teenager, so offering the family their RDA of stress. And Riley still carries the weight of what happened all those years ago. Unfortunately, Riley is saddled with the addition to her team of Officer Cole, an asshole cop straight from central casting, toting the usual bigotries, inflated self-view, and presumptions, with an extra dose of jealousy. Thankfully, Riley’s other partner, Logan, is another good cop.

And then a second body turns up, (not in a field) also not discovered until well past passing, also in very nasty shape, also featuring some remarkable damage. Is there a serial killer on the loose?

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Abandoned meat-packing plant – image from sometimes-interesting.com

Thrillers have tropes like Ruffles have Ridges. Black SUVs put in an appearance. Are they good SUVs or bad SUVs? Ya gotta figure, when Riley spots a large poisonous snake on her property, (Chekov’s snake?) that it will rattle into play at some point. The question is how, when, to whom, and to what effect. News of a coming storm is another one. Usually this signals that the violent final resolution will occur against an atmospherically dramatic background. Young preps us with a mention of eight twisters having touched down in Iowa since April. Will one drop down into the mix here? Now, that would be a real twist. The upcoming Iowa State Fair is also noted, and gave me visions of snakes dropping on fair-goers, transported by a tornado, as everything is revealed in a climactic disaster scene. But Chekov surely does not have to take ownership of all these things. They could also just be foreshadowing images or external representations of the fear and turmoil Riley is experiencing, or the dangers she is facing. (But I sure do like that State Fairground snakenado notion).

So how does the historical novelist fare at the thriller genre? Young ticks off many of the usual boxes that make up the type. The author has to make good with the reader on explaining things at the end, the main things, anyway. Check. A ticking clock? “I’ve had the county attorney on the line already. Less than two months from the state fair and with the gubernatorial coming up? You know how vital this next budget is to the department. I want this case handled quickly. Efficiently.”, so, check. Our hero must face an increasingly perilous set of challenges, no escaping, victory can only be had by overcoming. What’s she gonna do when all those snakes start dropping out of the sky (Ok. I got carried away, again.) But yeah, Riley rolls, doing battle on multiple fronts. An element of suspense? Sure. Got that. Whodunit, why, and who’s next. An appealing hero? Sure. A reliable sidekick with an alternate skill set? Yep. Logan fills the bill. Plot twists? Of course. Red herrings? Bring your fishing pole. There are a few swimming about. Alternate POVs? The story is told in third person, but there is one first person POV that appears a few times. Cliffhangers? That is what made it tough to read only 20-30 pages a night of this book. An exciting climax? Yeah, for sure, even though I was really kinda hoping for the snakenado thing, even though I know it would have been really cool silly.

I quite enjoyed Young’s simple, but dark descriptions.

Waterloo was lifeless in the stagnant air. Smoke seeped from factory chimneys and the Cedar flowed sluggish and brown. Although the roads were clogged with trucks and trailers, there were few people about, just a few vagrants shambling along broken sidewalks, and cleaners and hospital workers trudging to or from shifts…It wasn’t long before she saw the old meatpacking plant on the outskirts of the city…Its twin smokestacks were dark fingers against the pallid sky, old bricks the color of rust. The bottom windows were boarded over, the ones higher up mostly shattered. A chain-link fence surrounded the site, bristling with barbed wire…stepping over heaps of rubbish, she found herself in a cavernous hall. Metal steps ascended to gantries that crisscrossed in between pillars and snaking pipes, conveyor belts and wheels. It all looked like some complex ride at the state fair, only made of metal and rust, fractured glass and hooks. She imagined the steers and hogs shuddering round, the iron spike of blood, steam from spilling guts. Parts of the gantries had collapsed. In places, the floor yawned into darkness.

A good book should teach you something about the world while delivering a good story. You will certainly get a sense of the perils of Big Ag, the history of how such concentration got started, and the impact it has had on the economy and the people of this area (presumed to be comparable in all farming states) You will learn a bit about the potential and potential dangers of genetic research for crops. And will learn some Ag lingo.

Good writing is good writing whether it is for historical novels set across the pond (well, across for us in the Western Hemisphere. For her, living in Brighton, the pond is right there.) or for a gritty thriller set in America’s heartland. Young has made the transition smoothly, with an engaging procedural-cum-political-thriller, featuring a strong lead, a diverse supporting cast, well-paced action, and plenty of mystery to keep one’s curiosity on high alert, all while offering a bit of information about the world, and highlighting very real issues concerning Big Agriculture. I am looking forward to the further fleshing out of Riley’s story and those of her supporting cast. Seeds have been planted. The soil is fertile.

The shoots are emerging for the Riley Fisher series, and look very promising. A bountiful annual harvest is forecast. Volume #2 will be set in Des Moines. I am betting that when she writes it, readers will come.

The lifeblood of rural America was being drained, leaving husks of cities, where poverty and crime rushed in to fill the void. It was a legacy all too visible in the boarded-up factories and processing plants that loomed like broken tombs around the city, haunted by vagrants and hookers, and cruised nightly by the squad cars of Waterloo PD.

Review posted – January 14, 2022

Publication date – January 25, 2022

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads.

I received an ARE of The Fields from Flatiron in return for a review that was not too horribly corny. Well, I tried, ok. Thanks, too to NetGalley for facilitating.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Erin Young and Robin Young personal,
FB, and Twitter pages

Items of Interest
—–Ruffles have Ridges
—–Master Class – Masterclass: What is the Thriller genre?
—–A bit of silliness
—–Reedsy Blog- Chekhov’s Gun: Don’t Shoot Your Story In the Foot
—–Crop Prophet – Corn production by state
Corn Production Rankings: 2020
Rank State Production (M bu)
1 Iowa 2296.2
2 Illinois 2131.2
3 Nebraska 1790.1
4 Minnesota 1441.9
5 Indiana 981.8
6 Kansas 766.5
7 South Dakota 729.0
8 Ohio 564.3
9 Missouri 560.9
10 Wisconsin 516.8
11 Michigan 306.5

Items of Interest from the author
Young has a few items coming up for publication soon, one in CrimeReads on her research trip to Iowa, and another in The Big Thrill Magazine. There is also an interview upcoming on Jeff Rutherford’s Reading and Writing podcast

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Filed under Action-Adventure, Cops, Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Thriller

A Thousand Steps by T. Jefferson Parker

book cover
1968 was certainly an interesting time. Laguna Beach was an interesting place, an artist colony and tourist destination of about 13,000 residents, and, these days anyway, about six million visitors a year for a current local population of a bit over 20,000. So, even with a temporal discount it had to have been a lot back then too. T. Jefferson Parker lived there for a stretch. It inspired his first, very successful, novel, Laguna Heat, so he knows the territory into which he places his young hero.

Sixteen-year-old Matt Anthony is a hard-working, pretty decent kid. Holds down a paper route for money, building muscle and character on his Schwinn Heavy-Duti bike. Single mom, Julie, holds down a crappy job at a Jolly Roger restaurant. (Might be better named Davey Jones’ Locker?) His older brother, Kyle, is a short-timer in ‘Nam, terrified that something will happen to him in his remaining weeks. Their father, Bruce, a former cop, has been mostly out of the picture for years, but maintains occasional contact. Mom has issues with substances, which are dramatically available in southern Orange County, and her issues are growing more alarming. Matt’s body is going through some changes, which is always a joyous experience. And then his sister, Jasmine, a recent High School graduate, gorgeous, straight-A student, in-crowd, rebellious toward the usual authorities, goes poof! Stayed out overnight (not alarming in itself) but has remained MIA and the local fuzz are uninterested.

I was fourteen-years old in 1968 so I experienced the strange, beguiling world of Laguna Beach as a very impressionable, wide-eyed, wonder-struck boy. When it came time to create a hero/protagonist for A Thousand Steps, I just aged myself—that fourteen-year old boy—into a sixteen-year old on the cusp of getting his driver’s license, and let him take off in his mother’s hippie van! – from the Mark Gottlieb interview

Bill Furlong personifies that disinterest, a large officer, with an interest in Julie for things other than possession of illegal substances. Brigit Darnell is the good cop, young, a mom, willing to listen to Matt. It may or may not matter. He knows his sister. Does not accept that she had simply run off. And one more piece. Bonnie Stratmeyer, 18, missing two months, posters proclaiming the fact up all around, has just been found at the bottom of the stairs at the Thousand Steps Beach. (Last time Parker actually went up, or down, or both, he counted 224, but the number changes with each attempt. It’s 219 in the book.) Bonnie had not taken the usual route down. Thus Matt’s panic about Jazz.

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T. Jefferson Parker – image from Laguna Beach Independent – photo by Rita Parker

The thousand steps of the title is a notable waterfront location, but it might also be what Matt sets himself to take on, in the absence of official interest. The plot is Matt continuing to search for his missing sister, continuing to turn up clues, continuing to pester the cops to do their job, while trying to cope with chaos at home, and while coming of age, physically, socially, and emotionally. Although it may be less of a journey for Matt than other teens. He is a pretty grounded kid. And then there is the local color. A holding pen of new agers, con-men, regular crooks, a biker gang, drug dealers, drug abusers, and feckless teens. There are enough shady goings on here to blot out the California sun.

Mystic Arts World is a bookstore/head-shop/local institution that offers classes on meditation, among other things. Johnny Grail, the owner, is a bit of a local legend, a slippery sort, well able to keep a step or two ahead of the police, (who are desperate to catch him holding or doing anything illegal) to the delight of area residents. The whole New Age thing was not particularly popular with the constabulary. Go figure. But despite their clear prejudice, they actually may have something. Johnny is about as clean as a public crash pad.

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Mystic Arts World (1967-1970), a head shop in Laguna Beach, was ground zero for psychedelic culture in southern California during the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was there that a loosely organized group of artists interested in alternative culture, mystical experience and the transformation of society, “The Mystic Artists”, congregated and exhibited their art. Their artistic expression ranged from Beat assemblage to figuration to psychedelic art. – image and text from The Brotherhood of Eternal Love site

Local color extends to the presence of Timothy Leary, offering lectures at the MAW, and a Swami who has attracted a bit of a following. He offers increasing levels of instruction to his followers. Some reside at his compound, a former seminary. Matt and his brother used to play there when they were kids and it was unused.

The town hosts an annual tableaux vivants, i.e. classic paintings brought to life with people dressed up as characters in the works, and sets made to bring the paintings to life. A few characters in the novel are in it. Matt likes this. He is a budding artist and draws a passel of scenes from his experiences to help police in their frail attempts to look for his sister, and address other crimes. He is particularly fond of the work of Edward Hopper.

Working class life contrasts with the lifestyles of the rich, corrupt, and horny. We get a peek at some excusive locations hosting some very dodgy goings on. Matt fishes less for recreation than for a supply of protein, which mom cannot always provide. They live in a clapboard rental, for which Mom struggles to make rent, Matt sleeping in the garage. But we see great wealth on display as well. There is a part of town called Dodge City, for its casual relationship with the law, general run-down-ness and general hostility toward people toting badges. Get out of Dodge? Sure, ASAP. But up-slope and down-slope have plenty of criminal intent in common.

So what happened to Jazz? Is she still alive? As the days pass the odds seem worse and worse. Is Matt’s mom serious about stopping her drug use? He gathers help where he can, and pedals on, but we wonder if he might be wasting his time. Why does Mom want to move to Dodge City? Will his father ever show up to help? He keeps promising. And even if he does, would he be more hindrance than help? Is the Swami as nice and wise as he seems? Girls are becoming more a part of his life, and maybe even some activities that often accompany such associations. Will Matt’s permanent crush on Laurel ever go anywhere?

I am roughly the same age as Matt, so can relate to being a teen in that era. It never hurts to add that into the reading enjoyment mix. On the other hand, my east coast experience was quite different from his Cali life, including the degree of drug exposure. My older brother was in the army too, but not in Viet Nam. My father was around. My mom’s drugs of choice were Tareytons and tea. But still, we all go through adolescence, so there is the coming-of-age element to relate to. Sounds like Matt skipped the parts where your voice goes to hell, your face resembles a moonscape, and embarrassing body parts pop up for no discernible reason, for all to see. Whatever. It is impossible not to love Matt. There is one gripe I have about him, though. For someone who was so smart and intrepid about tracking down his sister, he is startlingly blind about some items, which I will not spoil here, that were jumping up and down and screaming from the pages. Yeah, he is just an unworldly teen, so could easily miss some things, but he seems pretty sharp about other stuff, so it rankled.

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Matt’s bike – image from TJP’s Twitter cache

Parker has been at this for a while. Steps is his 27th book. His first, Laguna Heat, was an instant success, and was brought to the screen by HBO. His work includes multiple series, and has earned him THREE EDGAR AWARDS! So, no slouch. He started his writing career as a cub reporter. In the Internet Writing Journal interview Parker was asked how his journalism background informed his writing.

The best thing about journalism is that it teaches a young person how the world works. It’s not the writing itself, because that is fairly straightforward and desirably formulaic. It’s the exposure that’s valuable. When I was 23 I was covering cultural events, movies, books, city hall, school board, fires, police — everything but sports and business. It was a crash course on civics, human nature, bureaucracy. It was also a crash course on how the press and the government and business all interact. Those relationships are at the core of what we are as a republic.

He knew he was not a journalistic long-timer, but being a reporter did hone his skills, and also allowed him a venues in which he could collect plenty of details to include in his fictional writing. His craft has grown as well. Keep an ear out for the soundscape Parker has incorporated. It enriches the reading experience.

I read this one at bedtime, 20-30 pps a night, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending. Every day I was reading this book I was eager, very eager to tuck my lower half under the covers, (also good for hiding the cloven hoofs) crank up the laptop for my notetaking, switch on the lights to make reading my hardcopy ARE possible, and reveled. You all know that feeling when you are truly enjoying a book, and look forward to getting back to it every day. Well, presuming that you do not just scarf down the entire thing in one ginormous gulp. I prefer to spread out that joy. So, a couple weeks, and it delivered every night.

Bottom line is that I totally enjoyed this book. Appreciated the portrait of a time and place well known to the author, loved the lead character, and had fun trying to figure out who had committed (was committing?) which crimes, how, and why. A few of those will quickly succumb to your investigative instincts, but the rest will keep you guessing. Mystery, suspense, thriller, coming-of-age? Use whatever adjective suits or mix and match. Doesn’t matter. Whatever you call it, A Thousand Steps will remain a pretty good read. You will not need any LSD or opiated anything to get off on or get into this book. Go ahead. Be a tourist in Laguna Beach for a bit. It’s a trip you won’t want to miss.

Review posted – January 7, 2022

Publication date – January 11, 2022

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads. Stop by and say Hi!

I received an ARE of A Thousand Steps from Macmillan’s Reading Insiders Club program in return for a couple of hits of that sweet product. Righteous, man.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the Parker’s personal, FB, GR, and Twitter pages

What does the T. stand for?
Not a thing. No, really. Nada. Zip. Nothing. Jeff’s mom always explained it by saying she thought the T. would look good on the President’s door.
– from the Bookbrowse interview

Interviews
—–Mark Gottlieb Talks Books – Three-Time Edgar Award-winner and New York Times Bestselling Author T. Jefferson Parker
—–2007 – Bookpage – Only in California by Jay MacDonald
—–The VJ Books Podcast – T. Jefferson Parker – A Thousand Steps by Roger Nichols
—–2018- Bookbrowse – An interview with T Jefferson Parker
—–The Internet Writing Journal – A Conversation With T. Jefferson Parker by Claire E. White
—–2002 – Orange County Register – THE VIEW FROM ELSEWHERE by Amy Wilson

Songs/Music
—–The Rollingstones – Satisfaction
—–Cream – Tales of Great Ulysses
—–Cream – Sunshine of Your Love
—–Jimi Hendrix – Foxy Lady – Hendrix performs in front of an audience of the sitting dead in Miami
—–The Byrds – Mr. Tambourine Man

Items of Interest
—–The Brotherhood of Eternal Love – their site
—–Brotherhood of Eternal Love – Laguna Beach – Wet Side Story – a bit of Laguna Beach history
—–All That’s Interesting (ATI) – An interesting article about the BEL in the 1960s
—–Wiki on Timothy Leary
—–Wiki on the Pageant of the Masters, an annual event held in Laguna Beach, featuring tableaux vivants, i.e. classic paintings brought to life with people dressed up as characters in the works, and sets made to bring the paintings to life. A few characters in the novel are in it. Here is a nifty video promoting the event today.

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Thriller

Cleanup in Room 401! – The Maid by Nita Prose

book cover

The truth is, I often have trouble with social situations; it’s as though everyone is playing an elaborate game with complex rules they all know, but I’m always playing for the first time.

Today at work, I found a guest very dead in his bed. Mr. Black. The Mr. Black. Other than that, my work day was as normal as ever.

A totally charming lead, Molly the Maid, Molly Gray, is as dedicated a guest-services employee as any hotel could wish for. She is an obsessive cleaner, determined to live up to the hotel’s stated desire to return every room to perfection every day, and particularly after guests have checked out…well…in the usual meaning of the term. Molly has the misfortune of entering a room where a notorious guest, Mr. Black, a hotel regular, and wealthy wife-beater who has been giving his second, trophy wife, Giselle, a miserable time, has checked out in the other meaning of the phrase. Cleanup in Room 401!

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Nita Prose – image from her site

It is upsetting, of course, but so is the fact that his shoes are misaligned on the floor, and the room is in need of much more cleaning than usual. She calls down to the front desk, where she can be counted on to be ignored, then sees something so alarming that she faints straight away. Returned to consciousness, Molly phones down to the lobby again, this time demanding that the hotel manager, Mr. Snow, be notified. People soon arrive.

She has some challenges to overcome, both financial and social. When the police get involved in the hotel killing, her problems only multiply. Thankfully there are some who appreciate her, and are willing to help.

Over the course of the book we learn more and more about both the dodgy folks in and about the Royal Grand Hotel, and about Molly herself. It is clear to readers that Molly is on the spectrum, but has found work that she finds satisfying and well-attuned to her proclivities (neat-freak). It has the added element of honoring her beloved, recently-deceased grandmother, who had raised her, following in Gran’s career footsteps. Molly’s penchant for cleanliness stands out in stark contrast to the rather dirty goings on at the hotel. Her social cluelessness makes it tough for her to understand that there is something decidedly rotten about some people she believes to be good eggs. But, while not entirely morally pristine herself, Molly is a decidedly good egg, who values friendship, honesty, and loyalty. Her total recall makes it possible for some of the events of that terrible day to be played back, in detail. This makes it possible to unscramble the mess, at least some, but will anyone listen?

Nita Prose (pen name for Canadian editor Nita Pronovost) has a lot of fun with The Maid. In addition to an appealing, first-person narrator to lead us through the action, she decorates the scenery with nicely chosen colors, patterns, and motifs. Starting with colors, Molly is, of course, Gray. The hotel manager is Mister Snow. Molly’s unpleasant landlord is Mr Rosso (red). Her corrupt supervisor is Cheryl Green (notorious for poaching tips intended for other maids) . An unspeakable ex is Wilbur Brown. One of her co-workers is called Sunshine. Coloring applies to people, themselves. The deader sports red and purple pinpricks around his eyes. Giselle has green eyes. Molly has alabaster skin.

The palette extends to the surroundings, a black and white background against which some colors can glow. As I place a hand on the shining brass railing and walk up the scarlet steps that lead to the hotel’s majestic portico, I’m Dorothy entering Oz. (The Oz notion is picked up later, beyond the visuals, when Molly thinks of Giselle as bridging two worlds.) The hotel features an obsidian countertop on the front desk, marble floors that glow white, and emerald loveseats in the lobby. Molly’s uniform consists of black trousers and a white blouse. The receptionists, in black and white, look like penguins. A white bathrobe is found on the floor of room 401. Giselle stands out for having a yellow (yolk-colored?) purse. One character wears a wine-colored dress with a black fringe. Molly is sensitive to the colors of her world, and they stand out for her like a blood-red rose against a colorless background.

Prose also offers up invisibility as a theme throughout. Molly is invisible to most of the world due to her difficulty with social interactions, and welcomes this invisibility in her job. My uniform is my freedom. It is the ultimate invisibility cloak.; It’s easier than you’d ever think—existing in plain sight while remaining largely invisible; [Mr Black]…often did this—bowled me over or treated me like I was invisible; Discretion is my motto. Invisible customer service is my goal. Molly is always intensely grateful whenever someone makes her feel seen or appreciated. Some find Molly’s invisibility enviable. And she is not the only person at the Regency Grand to be afflicted with translucence.

Eggs offer a bit of focus, as Molly thinks of people as good or bad ones. And there is a very different sort of egg that impacts Molly’s life. Someone preparing eggs for someone else is a very clear symbol of affection.

As an editor, Pronovost is always thinking about how a manuscript fits into a specific genre or how a story might bend reader expectations in that genre. For her own novel, she imagined mixing a misfit-character trope – inspired by the titular protagonist of Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine – with a contemporary locked-room mystery inspired by the work of U.K. thriller writer Ruth Ware. Add in a touch of the film Knives Out and the board game Clue, and there is The Maid. – from the Quill & Quire interview

But these are not her only influences. Prose provides some hints to the sort of story we are reading, informing us that Molly enjoys reading Agatha Christie novels. Gran has so many of them, all of which I’ve read more than once. But she adds to that Molly and Gran’s fondness for another mystery entertainment. …we’d eat our meals side by side on the sofa as we watched reruns of Columbo. Expect amateurs to do some sleuthing. No hard-boiled detectives in this one. And you may or may not know who they should be investigating very early in the story.

Universal Pictures picked up the film rights to the book. Academy-Award-nominee Florence Pugh is slated to star as Molly. We all know that options are sold all the time, and most are never actually made. So believe it when you see it.

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Florence Pugh – image from Daily Actor

While reading, I was totally reminded of a TV series, Astrid et Raphaëlle, as it is known in France, and Astrid in its release on Prime in the USA. Sara Mortensen plays an autistic woman drawn into helping the police solve crimes with her unique talents. I kept picturing Mortensen’s Astrid while reading this book. The show is delightful.

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Sara Mortensen as Astrid – image from Amazon

Hopefully, you will not wait until all your rooms are in a pristine state to give The Maid a look. It is a charming, engaging, cozy mystery, with a wonderful lead, a colorful cast of supporting players, and an effervescent sense of style. Ideal for kicking back and just enjoying while you recover from the holidays. But be sure to put a coaster under that drink. Someone is going to have to clean that up.

Is now a good time for me to return your suite to a state of perfection?

Review posted – 11/26/2021

Publication date – 1/4/2022

I received an eARE of The Maid from Ballantine Books in return for making a few beds and doing a little vacuuming. Thanks also to NetGalley for calling this book to my attention in their newsletter, and facilitating the download.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads
=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Prose (Pronovost) is a vice president and editorial director with Simon & Schuster’s Canada division.

Items of Interest
—–A wonderful review of a personal-favorite TV show featuring an unusual crime-solving duo – Astrid – I pictured the Astrid of the title as Molly
—–Wiki on Columbo

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Filed under Fiction, Mystery, Reviews, Suspense, Thriller

The Maidens by Alex Michaelides

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It felt as if a kind of pestilence, a plague, were spreading through the college—like in a Greek myth, the sickness that destroyed Thebes; an invisible airborne poison drifting through the courtyards—and these ancient walls, once a refuge from the outside world, no longer offered any protection.

When Zoe calls her aunt from Cambridge to tell her that her best friend has gone missing, Mariana Andros, a group therapist in London, heads to her alma mater immediately. In no time she has ID’d a likely suspect and proceeds to find out everything she can, hoping, expecting to show that Professor Edward Fosca is a murderer.

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Alex Michaelides – image from The Irish Times – photo by Manuel Vazquez

He certainly seems a likely candidate. A gifted teacher of classics, Fosca (This name derives from the Latin “fuscus”, meaning “gloomy, dark, black, (voice) hoarse, hollow, cavernous, (of thoughts) dark, secret, occult” – uh, oh – from name-doctor.com) has a Svengali-ish charm. He has assembled around him a small cult, female students who dress alike, attend private instruction with him, and who knows what else? They are known as The Maidens. Zoe’s friend, Tara, had been a member. They, under the leadership of Fosca, are into an ancient cult that was particularly focused on the line between life and death.

Mariana couldn’t help but feel a little skeptical—her background in group therapy told her, as a rule, to be suspicious of any group in love with a teacher; those situations rarely ended well.

But, Mariana may not be in the best frame of mind to take this all on. We would expect that a trained psychotherapist would be a good judge of people, but looking at the world from behind the veil of her grief, gives us cause to question her judgements. She is still mourning the loss of her beloved husband, Sebastian, who had drowned a year ago, while they were vacationing on the island of Nexos, a vacation she had pushed him to take. Guilt much?

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Tarquin and Lucretia – image from Wikimedia

Michaelides offers us a list of alternate suspects. Among them are a dodgy university porter, an obsessed patient of Mariana’s, the Maidens themselves, and a young man who seems particularly enamored of Mariana, persists in wooing her, and who claims an ability to foresee things.

Mariana picks up some collateral support, including a former mentor still at the university, and an erstwhile school chum, who is now consulting with the police. He offers her access to investigation intel, over the objections of his superior, DI Sangha, in the seemingly-mandatory dickish cop role.

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Tennyson – image from The Daily Mail

There are some of the elements of a cozy here, the amateur sleuth, with a friend on the force, the violence taking place off-screen, local sources that help one suss out the landscape, and quirky secondary characters. But this one is more a thriller, with sharper teeth. It features an undercurrent of dread well beyond the mystery of a simple whodunit. The violence, even though we get no front seat to it, is biting. No Miss Marple, Mariana is not merely an outside observer, but a participant in this drama. And a potential victim.

I thought a lot about the secretive nature of groups as I was writing – especially within Cambridge. There are groups within groups. I studied group therapy myself, that’s what I specialize in. It all goes back to the classic mysteries that I love, from authors like Agatha Christie: Everything is always set in an enclosed location, like an isolated house, a train, a private island. Cambridge is similar.

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Trinity College – image from The Maidenssociety.com

Tennyson comes in for multiple mentions. Greek mythology figures large and Mariana even finds herself succumbing to a bit of atavistic religiosity at times. The mythology that permeates the novel is a particularly fun element, offering an incentive to crank up the search engine of one’s choice and dig in a bit. You may or may not recall the ups and downs of Demeter and Persephone, but there are some other items from ancient Greek stories that I bet you never heard of. It is always fun to learn these things. Michaelides grew up on Cyprus where, he says, Greek mythology was in the air. The old stories were part of general cultural knowledge, with the old plays being regularly restaged, like how we generate new films of Spiderman or Jane Austen novels here.

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Return of Persephone, by Leighton – image from Holographical Archetypes

Additional spice is provided by seven chapters that offer a psycho-side view of the world, an ongoing battle-royale between the dark side and the fading light. Is this our killer? Michaelides has a background in psychology, specifically group therapy, so writes strongly about both psychopathology, and treatment.

He was a screenwriter for twenty years before his first novel, The Silent Patient, was published to huge success. The lessons he learned from that experience translate into a fast-paced read, strong on visual flair, with excellent atmospherics and tension-building. We can easily engage with our lead. Mariana seems a decent sort. She has suffered a terrible loss, which increases our sympathy for her. It is not hard to root for her to ferret out the killer, and to remain alive.

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Leda and the Swan, date unknown, by Franz Russ the Younger (1844-1906) – image from the site Mara, Marietta

There were a few things that bothered me in the book. How could Seb, who was fit and a good swimmer be drowned by a stormy sea? Surely, he knew his limits. Why would anyone go to dinner at the private rooms of a suspected murderer and not tell anyone where they were going? Most significantly there are two characters involved in a major plot twist at the end. While there were some breadcrumbs established for one of them, it seemed to me that the hints re the other were sorely lacking.

That said, the bottom line is that The Maidens is a fun read, a real page-turner that will get your blood pumping, and offer an opportunity to refresh, or learn for the first time, some fascinating Greek mythology.

Death was no stranger to Mariana; it had been her traveling companion since she was a child—keeping close behind her, hovering just over her shoulder. She sometimes felt she had been cursed as if by some malevolent goddess in a Greek myth, to lose everyone she ever loved.

Review posted – June 25, 2021

Publication date – June 15, 2021

I received an ARE of The Maidens from Celadon in return for an honest review and some small blood sacrifices. Really, there is no need to involve the police.

Thanks, too, to MC for encouraging the gods and goddesses of ARE distribution on my behalf.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s FB, Instagram, GR, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Good Morning America – video 3:24
—–Entertainment Weekly – Alex Michaelides on the most unsettling elements of The Maidens by Seija Rankin
—–The Irish Times – ‘I asked myself what Agatha Christie would do, and what she hadn’t already done’
—–Barnes and Noble – Agatha Christie, Sleight of Hand, and Psychological Complexity: An Interview with The Silent Patient Author Alex Michaelides – by Jeff Somers – Obviously mostly focused on Michaelides’ earlier book, but there is material in here that is relevant to this book as well

Items of Interest from the author
—–Criminal Element – The Five Best Plot Twists in Fiction
—–Criminal Element – The Five Best Movies Adapted from Thrillers

Items of Interest
—– Eleusinian Mysteries and Psychedelic Enlightenment
—–Wiki on Eleusinian Mysteries
—–Greeking.Me – Demeter, the Lady of Eleusis – there is a nice summary in here of Demeter and Persephone’s difficult situation
—–Greek Legends and Myths – Leda and Zeus in Greek Mythology
—–Tennyson’s poem – Mariana

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Filed under Fiction, Mystery, psycho killer, Reviews, Suspense, Thriller

The Perfect Daughter by D.J. Palmer

book cover

“When we arrested her, she was covered in blood—it was all over her body, in her hair—so when you come to the station, you should bring a change of clothes.…there are no visible wounds on Penny. But the victim was found deceased at the scene, and we believe it’s the victim’s blood on your daughter’s body.”
Grace got the impression the detective was holding something back.
“She’s calling herself Eve, but that’s not the name on her license.”
Again, a chill ran through Grace. Eve.
“She said she doesn’t remember anything that happened before we showed up. We think maybe she’s in shock, but we’re not sure,” Allio went on. “Is Eve a nickname?”
Grace paused, deciding how to answer. “It’s more complicated than that,” she offered.

It certainly is.

A bucket of ammonia, boats and water, a book with a blue cover. What do they all mean? The clues keep popping up, from different voices throughout the novel. Of course, the voices, however diverse they may be, all reside inside one body. Penny Francone is afflicted (or is it protected?) by a mental health condition now known as DID, or Dissociative Identity Disorder, what we used to call Multiple Personality Disorder. People with this are seen today as a single, splintered personality, rather than separate entire personalities vying for literal face time.

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D.J. Palmer, or Daniel Palmer or son of Michael Palmer – From Judith D. Collins Consulting

We are presented straight away with a particularly tough scenario. It was sixteen-year-old Penny’s birth mother, Rachel, a woman with a checkered past, who was brutally murdered. Penny had been found, unaccompanied, in a city park when she was four years old. Birth mother and daughter had recently reestablished contact, and Penny had gone to b-mom’s place to meet. Penny was found next to the body, covered in blood, holding the murder weapon. Did Penny kill her mother? Looks pretty open and shut. But perhaps it was one of her alters, Eve, maybe, or Ruby, or Chloe, or even some other, as yet undiscovered, alter. But the question remains. Is Penny a supremely gifted liar, fooling everyone, and truly guilty of slaughtering the woman who had cruelly abandoned her, or is there something else going on?

Grace Francone is terrified for her child. DID is not a fully recognized condition, and there is a strong likelihood that her teenager will spend the rest of her life in prison, for a crime she apparently cannot recall committing. She is currently being held in a less than cushy state institution, largely a grim custodial service for the criminally insane. Penny’s eighteen-year-old brother, Jack, serving the needs of exposition, is planning to make a documentary about his sister. We get his intermittent second-person commentary, as if he is telling Penny about his plans.

Your shrink at Edgewater was a guy named Dr. Dennis Palumbo, who we all despised. Well, maybe all but Ryan, because Palumbo thought the same thing he did: that you didn’t have DID. According to Palumbo, DID wasn’t even a real condition, and didn’t belong in the DSM…It’s thought that DID is just a variant of a borderline personality disorder, or in your case an antisocial personality disorder, and that the appearance of your alters is akin to fantasy play rather than a verifiable neurological state. In short, Palumbo thought you were an expert liar.

Thankfully, Palumbo (The name of this character, BTW, was sold at auction to raise money for The Evelyn Swierczynski Foundation. There is a real-world writer/psychologist named Dr. Dennis Palumbo out there.) is replaced with a different shrink, someone with a more open mind, Dr. Mitchell Hughes, a guy with issues of his own, (does there exist a shrink with none?) but an eagerness to learn the truth about his patient.

In order for Penny to avoid becoming a permanent resident of a penal institution, she will need support for her not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity plea with an official DID diagnosis. Doc Mitch is skeptical, but willing to look at the facts. He and Grace form a team trying to ferret out the truth, and give Penny at least a fighting chance. Most mysteries entail sleuthing in the concrete world, and there is plenty of that here, for sure, but this Doctor Holmes and Ms. Watson must do a lot of their work inside the world of Penny’s personalities. It is far from elementary.

This was a bit of a change for DJ Palmer.

This was the hardest book I’ve ever attempted. There were so many moving parts and for my first ever mystery (mostly I do crawl out from a hole thrillers, not murder mysteries with clues peppered throughout). – from the Judith D. Collins interview

And nicely done too. It is the author’s third novel under this name. Saving Meghan came out in 2019 and The New Husband was published in 2020. But DJ Palmer is an alter, of a sort, for Daniel Palmer. He is the son of physician and noted author of medical thrillers, Michael Palmer. Daniel even wrote some books that were published under Michael’s name (“with Daniel Palmer”) after his father died. His books as Daniel tended toward the technological thriller sort, building on his years working in the tech industry, while those written as DJ tend more towards the familial and medical. Saving Meghan, for example, is about Munchausen’s by Proxy.

When I switched from writing as Daniel Palmer to writing as DJ Palmer, my themes changed along with my name. The DJ books delve more into family drama and psychological suspense. – from The Nerd Daily interview

As such, DJ can step back from the ready-set-flee that permeates so many thrillers and look at the family dynamics at play. Loyalty, for example, comes in for some attention. Grace is fiercely loyal to and protective of Penny, and her brother, Jack, is on her side as well, but big brother Ryan is more hostile than helpful. A question is raised as to where Penny’s loyalties lie regarding her birth mother.

The story is presented through several non-DID points of view. We see most through Grace, as she girds for battle, and enters the fray. Jack offers some exposition in his once-removed take, as he addresses Penny, as if writing letters to her. Finally, there is Doctor Mitch, who offers us medical expertise, and the step-by-step of exploring a very strange terrain.

Palmer offers not just a medical take on DID, but shows how it impacts in personal, family, legal, and medical ways, and how easily it can be misdiagnosed. He does a great job of showing how DID affects not only how her family relates to Penny, but how the world does. There are serious legal implications for her if the people in a position to decide her future deny the existence of the DID diagnosis entirely. In that case, it is off to jail forever. Life over. In addition, Grace having to take on the out-of-pocket legal costs and spend her time working on the case instead of at the family business (a pizzeria based on Palmer’s experience with owning a small restaurant) has serious implications for the family’s financial welfare, and stress level. It certainly turns on its head the supposed legal presupposition of innocent until proven guilty and shows how families of the accused are punished along with those charged with a crime. A dismissive diagnosis can destroy a life, but also cause collateral damage to all those connected to it. One of Palmer’s aims in the book was to dispel myths about the DID condition. He certainly changed my perception.

The action continues apace, as clues are found, investigated and incorporated or dismissed. This is a very readable, engaging thriller-mystery. But every now and then there are passages that made me break out into smiles.

On that bleak afternoon, Lucky Dog looked anything but. The dark interior had the ambience of a power outage… Four of the nine stools at the dark varnished wood bar were occupied by beefy men, who put the dive in dive bar… Behind the bar stood stacks of bottles that looked sticky even from a distance. The air reeked of booze and cleaners, overlaid by a whiff of desperation.

Just gotta love that.

DJ Palmer has integrated multiple elements, of medical mystery, suspense, family drama, and high-tension-watch-your-back thriller, into an engaging, white-knuckle read. Polly-Eve-Chloe-Ruby Francone may not be the ideal progeny, but The Perfect Daughter is a perfectly fabulous read. Set aside as many hours as it takes. You owe it to your self.

“Dr. Cross, who gave us the DID diagnosis, said that we all start out with multiple personalities when we’re young. Is that something you believe?”
“I do,” said McHugh, nodding. “It’s like learning about life through committee. Those disparate voices in our young minds help us figure out the world and how different environments and stimuli affect us. Do we like things sweet or sour; what’s funny to us; what scares us? By age nine, our experiences tend to mold us into the person we become, and all those likes and dislikes, our moods and disposition, solidify into a single identity—this concept of self.”

Review first posted – April 30, 2021

Publication dates
———-Hardcover – April 20, 2021
———-Trade paperback – April 5, 2022

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, other personal, Twitter, Instagram and FB pages

Interviews
—–The Nerd Daily – Q&A: D.J. Palmer, Author of ‘The New Husband’
—–Three Good Things – D.J. Palmer and Lisa Unger – chatty, offers a feel for the author, but is not particularly informative
—–The Poisoned Pen Bookstore – DJ Palmer in Conversation with Lee Child – This is a really good one
—–Judith D. Collins Consulting – Q & A with D. J. Palmer – there is a fair bit here

Items of Interest
—–The Perfect Daughter Discussion Guide
—–American Psychiatric Association – What Are Dissociative Disorders?
—– American Documentary – Busy Inside – the film is a documentary about people with Dissociative Identity Disorder – this link takes you to the film’s site, but not to the film itself

The following emerged from some inner rhymester

CLUES
Boats and water figure large,
a book with a blue cover,
A bucket of ammonia,
And meanings to discover

Ruby, Chloe, Eve, and Penny,
We’re not sure, in truth, how many,
Did an alter kill her mother
Or could it be it’s someone other?

Tough to question any one
So quickly are they here and gone.
But answers lie behind those screens
All is rarely what it seems.

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Mother May I by Joshilyn Jackson

book cover

I woke up to see a witch peering in my bedroom window. She was little more than a dark shape with a predator’s hungry eyes, razor-wire skinny but somehow female, staring in through the partly open drapes. Sunrise lit up the thin, silvery hair that straggled out from under her hat. I should have leaped up screaming. I should have run at her with any weapon I could find. Instead I thought, I hope she’s not standing on my basil plants, hazy and unworried. Even half asleep, I knew that there was no such thing as witches. I’d long forgotten the most important thing the theater had ever taught me—that the human body can hold two truths at once. Even truths that seem to rule each other out: There’s no such things as witches, true. And I was looking at one.

Once upon a time is a familiar beginning. The Brothers Grimm (Jake and Willy) collected a trove of European folklore notable for, among other things, its dark content. Jackson was raised with those stories, (I always reference fairy tales in my books. Ever since I was a young child, I have been an avid reader. I like fairy tales, so I just put them in the stories. – from the No Apologies interview) maybe a bit more than most of us. She lends this part of herself to her desperate lead, with some added brio.

I’d been raised on Grimms’ fairy tales by a mother who saw the world as something huge and wild—carnivorous. Her world was full of witches.

And sometimes the darkness of life matches the depths of grim imagination. Soon after her first witch sighting, there is a second, at her daughters’ school. And all it takes is a momentary lapse of attention and her infant son, Robert, is snatched away. No changeling is left in his place, but there is a message. Follow my instructions to the letter, or else.

All my books, in some way or another, look with varying degrees of hope and cynicism at how far we can walk into the black and still be saved. What are the tiny lights that turn us and call us home, and why do some people see those faint, glowing calls, while others walk straight off the edge of the world and are lost? Many of my dearest people from my lost years are dead, or went into the prison system or disappeared. And me? I have this lovely life, much like Amy’s, where I go to book club, make lasagna and walk the dog. – from the Book Reporter interview

That certainly makes one wonder about Jackson’s wastrel past. The task she is forced to undertake has unexpected and horrifying results that threaten Bree Cabbat’s beautiful life. She had been born poor, but got a scholarship to college and then married well, securing an upper-middle-class utopia with a successful studly lawyer husband, three beautiful kids (well, for now anyway) a lovely home in a well-to-do neighborhood, and a satisfying community life. But, one wrong move and it could all vanish. How fragile life can be, no?

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Joshilyn Jackson – image from the Atlanta Journal Constitution – photo by Bob Andres of AJC

Poverty, class origins, the randomness of opportunity, the fragility of a happy life, all figure large in Jackson’s novels. Her previous novel, for example, Never Have I Ever, let us know that her lead, Amy, had done things that her family’s means were able to keep under wraps. But her comfortable life is threatened by a blackmailer who knows her big secret. In this one, Bree is stuck having to deal without even knowing what her nemesis is tormenting her about. Jax makes the point that for those with money or damn good luck it is possible to screw up and get a second chance, or a third, fourth and so on, while for those on the lower economic fringe, one mistake and your future becomes a hopeless, eternal present.

I serve on the board of a small non-profit, Reforming Arts (reformingarts.org.). We teach college-level liberal arts classes to people incarcerated in Georgia’s women’s prisons. I try to teach one semester a year, and so far, all my classes have been in the maximum security facility.
Our students are diverse in terms of age and race and orientation. The one thing they almost universally have in common is that they were raised in grinding poverty, often by disordered or abusive families. We punish the poor more quickly and more severely; sometimes it feels as if being poor is itself a crime.
– from Book Reporter interview

A lot of the impetus for Jackson’s writing about mothers derives from her personal experience.

…motherhood was transformative for me…I felt I became a more dangerous animal once my heart was living and breathing and toddling around on little fat legs outside of me, out in the dangerous world. – from the Book Reporter interview

Here we have two mothers at war. One is seeking revenge for a long-ago wrong. Bree is willing to do whatever it takes to protect her baby. Both are in full-on Mama Grizzly mode, and find a sort-of empathy with each other, despite the ongoing horror. Their links are not just through their common concern as mothers, but in their common class background. This bond between enemies is a technique Jackson carries over from her prior novel, Never Have I Ever, in which Amy Whey and her blackmailer, Roux, find themselves to be strangely sympatico, well able to understand each other, while those around them seem not to get them.

Never… represented a redirection of sorts for Jackson, away from romantic comedy-drama. But even in the books she wrote prior to that there were often underlying crimes that drove the action. So the shift to writing thrillers was not really all that big a change. It has been, however, a very effective one. Mother May I is a can’t-stop-reading-page-turning-keep-you-up-all-night domestic thriller. Every time you think you can see the road ahead, there is the squealing of brakes hitting a hairpin curve too fast, and, with a sudden acceleration, you are speeding off in another direction. (Re the books she loves to read, Jackson says, My favorite kind is the first reversal just 25% into the book, then stays windy from there – from the Inside Flap interview) This book has more twists than a box of rotini.

A strong piece of this novel is Jackson’s use of her theatrical background to support her character’s actions and capabilities. She was a theater major in college, has done some acting and even reads audio books professionally, not just her own. She gives Bree her theater training, the better to allow her to lie in public, with her words and her body. That’s what actors do, right? It helps Bree in dire circumstances, but also in lesser ones.

There are several elements that appear in some or all of Jackson’s novels. Deep secrets figure large, whether our lead is looking to penetrate one or defend against one of theirs being exposed. Class and family resources, or lack of same, are frequently core elements. That is very much the case here. There is a duel between antagonists. Check. Redemption turns up a lot. In fact, in the Library Love Fest interview, Jackson refers to herself as “a redemption-obsessed novelist.” Her characters, certainly her lead characters, seem to be in persistent need of cleansing from the wrongs they have done. That is less the case for Bree in this book, per se, but the need for redemption is still a strong element. Jackson has a gift for ending her chapters with hooks that generate many a late night ”goddammit!” as readers know that they will not be able to go to sleep until they can read just one more chapter, and then just one more chapter, and then just one more chapter, and so on. There are usually adolescents involved, although in this novel, they play a secondary role. Jackson is also fond of portraying constructed families. As with the teens, that is here, but in a very small way. She also includes fairy tale elements (check) and says that there is a Stephen King reference in all her books (not telling). Readers familiar with her work will be more than satisfied with Mother May I, holding to the familiar themes and story elements while adding some newer, harder-edged moving parts. Readers new to her work are in for a great treat.

In her Inside Flap interview, Jackson was asked, “Is it one of your goals, to have us think as we read?” She said, “My goal is to write a book that you can pour yourself a giant Marguerita, go down to the beach, have a great time and never think again if you don’t want to. But, if you want to, it’s there for you…there’s those layers. This is a book about class…how class plays into what justice looks like.” Either way, it works quite well.

No one’s personal history is lily-white. Some witches are real; the past never forgets and needs only a little prompting to come after you, teeth-bared; happily ever after is for fairy tales, and sometimes not even there.

Review first posted – April 23, 2021

Publication dates
———-Hardcover – April 6, 2021
———-Trade paperback – April 5, 2022

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

An aside. In the Book Reporter interview, Jackson said, “I’m working on a book called TWO TRUTHS AND A LIAR right now. The first line is: “The day my baby disappeared, I woke up to see a witch peering in my bedroom window.” I am not sure why the title changed, but I expect that opening line was thought to give away too much too soon. The baby is not swiped until chapter 2 in the final version.

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–The Inside Flap – Ep. 119 Method Writing With Joshilyn Jackson by Dave Medicus – audio – 1:26:04 – start at 29:30 to 51:00
—–No Apology Book Reviews – Interview with Joshilyn Jackson (Mother May I) by Danielle
—–Library Love Fest – Editors Unedited: Emily Krump in conversation with Joshilyn Jackson, author of MOTHER MAY I – audio – 34:27 – A convo between Jackson and her editor
—–BookReporter – Interview: July 31, 2019
—–Los Angeles Public Library – Interview With an Author: Joshilyn Jackson by Daryl M.
—–Owltail – How Story Works by Lani Diane Rich

Items of Interest from the author
—–Novel Suspects – excerpt
—–The Atlanta Journal Constitution – Paths Not Taken – definitely check this out – it explains a lot

My reviews of other books by Joshilyn Jackson
—–2019 – Never Have I Ever
—–2017 – The Almost Sisters
—–2016 – The Opposite of Everyone
—–2013 – Someone Else’s Love Story

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Filed under Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller