Tag Archives: Suspense

A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons by Kate Khavari

book cover

Dr. Henry glared at Blake and snatched the champagne glass from her hand. “I can pour my wife’s drink well enough, Blake.” He sloshed a dollop of liquid into her glass, refilling what he had just caused to splash out. He smiled obnoxiously at Mrs. Henry as she accepted the glass from him and took a drink.
With a cold smile to her husband, she said, “Thank you, darling.”
Then Mrs. Henry crumpled to the floor and lay quite still.

Saffron Everleigh is Dr Maxwell’s research assistant in London’s University College biology department, the only woman employed there and thus the subject of whispers. Science was making great strides in the post-war world, but 1923 was maybe not the best time to be a young woman trying to build a career in a heretofore male field. It helps that her father was a renowned biologist, but she must face serial sexism and some truly odious individuals in her quest to advance her studies and career. She finds herself facing a very different challenge, though.

…when I taught fifth grade American history, the story of how America developed felt like a story instead of a bunch of names and dates in a book. Writing about the ‘20’s feels the same- so many things were happening as a result of World War One that influenced everyday life. Technology and science were exploding with new discoveries, women were finding their new place in the world, millions were adjusting to horrible new realities of destroyed countries, bodies, and minds, and politics were ever-changing and charged with fear and hope. It’s a fascinating time to write about.

When we meet Saffron, she is enduring a department party at the grand home of a major donor, and meeting-cute the studly, witty, but mysterious Alexander Ashton, who will become her partner in this. Are those sparks igniting between the two of them or maybe just some spores floating in the air? Ashton is a biologist AND a microbiologist, a weird coincidence, as Khavali’s husband just happens to be a biologist AND a microbiologist too.

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Kate Khavari – image from her site

At the party we are introduced via observations and overheard conversations to a series of characters and potential conflicts. We are let on, for many, to just what we should think of them.

Harry Snyder, Dr. Henry’s assistant, was seated on her other side. With small brown eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses, and thin lips that emphasized his large, impeccable teeth, he looked rather like a rodent. His demeanor, skittish and reticent, matched his mousy appearance.

Probably not setting Snyder up for a heroic role. The excitement of the party turns out to be the sudden collapse, noted in the introductory quote at the top, of Mrs Henry, wife to Lawrence Henry, the man slated to lead an upcoming expedition to the Amazon. Was it an allergic reaction? Young George Bailey might have a good idea just what caused Mrs Henry’s sudden shift from the vertical.

Saffron becomes concerned that the doltish police are settling on her boss as a possible suspect, deciding that since the authorities can be relied on to get everything wrong, it is up to her to find out what really happened at the party. Thankfully, she has considerable knowledge of things biological so the game is afoot, focusing on a particularly poisonous (and fictional) South American plant that her boss had discovered decades ago.

Everleigh keeps pushing to learn more, gaining help from Ashton in her pursuit. There seems to be a connection between the two, but the sexual tension between them seems to blossom, then wilt, blossom then wilt. We are kept in the dark, and thus guessing, about his role in all this. A prospect or a suspect? Is he a reliable partner, or is he using his appeal like that of a carnivorous cobra plant, not as transparent as he appears? This romantic element crops up from time to time in fawning descriptions of the guy.

The tale is of the cozy mystery sort, not much blood and violence on screen, although there is some very definite peril. The investigation is done by rank amateurs. Usually, there is someone with police expertise to advise, but not so much here. The fun feature of this particular book and, I expect, the planned series, is the introduction of botany as the root of all Saffron’s investigations. The possibilities are vast. We are led to suspect first this one and then that one, while maintaining a short list of likely subjects.

Khavari has some fun with names, (I love this stuff) seeding her cast with a veritable garden of botanical references, some obvious, like Saffron, Inspector Green, and Doctor Aster. Alexander Ashton must certainly reference the tree. I am sure there are more. She also has some fun of a different sort with other character names. Does Doctor Berking’s character reflect the etymology of his name? How about Eris Ermine, a femme fatale sort?

She also brings into the tale a consideration much in the world of this era. The long-lasting, personal impact on those involved in the front lines of World War I.

Much has been written about soldiers experiencing shell-shock, so I wanted to explore a lesser known avenue of symptoms and recovery. Alexander’s recovery from the Great War is complex and isn’t straightforward—few cases are—nor it is over. I will just say that many hours of research and consideration went into developing his symptoms and coping strategies… – from The Book Delight interview

Saffron has to deal with MeToo miseries from the more aggressive, and personal and institutional chauvinism all around, even among some thought more advanced. The toxic nature of academia politics is noted. No antidote is prescribed.

This book is hardly a yuck-fest, but there is still considerable humor and the occasional LOL.

Khavari, who grew up in Wichita, Kansas, keeps her characters on the move, and thus holds our interest. Saffron is a decent sort, working hard in multiple ways to produce good results. She is mostly honest, although suffering a bit from a moral disorder that afflicts so many investigators, a willingness to engage in criminal behavior on the grounds of the-ends-justify-the-means.

Ultimately, though, A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons (which was called Saffron Everleigh and the Lightning Vine earlier in its life. I have no inside intel on why this title was not used, but suspect it was a bit too close for comfort to the Harry Potter book titles format.) is a delightful sapling in the The Saffron Everleigh Mysteries series. Who knows? Maybe you will learn a few tricks for preparing that special drink for that special someone. The second volume, A Botanists’s Guide to Flowers and Fatality is expected to sprout in June 2023. It is something to look forward to. Once you begin spending time with Saffron Everleigh, you will not want to leave.

Her eyes fell on the name of a plant from south-central Mexico, brought back decades ago by Dr. Maxwell. The vine was a sickly yellow color and zigzagged around trees as it grew, clinging tightly to its host. Maxwell had named it the xolotl vine, after the Aztec god of death and lightning, since the growth pattern resembled a fork of lightning and the toxin in its leaves struck as quickly. Saffron had the feeling that Maxwell enjoyed the notorious reputation of his plant, occasionally still telling secondhand stories of people dropping to the ground immediately upon consumption.

Review posted – June 10, 2022

Publication date – June 7, 2022

I received an ARE of A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons from Crooked Lane Books in return for a fair review, and the secret to my special tea. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

Interviews
—–The Book Delight – AUTHOR INTERVIEW: KATE AKHTAR-KHAVARI with Jean M. Roberts
—–Wichita Public Library – Read. Return. Repeat. S2E1: The Books are Back in Town – with Sara Dixon and Daniel Pewewardy – video lists as 43 minutes but the KK piece begins at 1:21 and goes to the 28 minute mark

Item of Interest
—–It’s a Wonderful Life – ”It’s poison, I tell ya, poison!”

Item of Interest from the author
—–In her site, Khavari provides A Botanical Index of all the plants referenced in the book

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Filed under Fiction, Mystery, Suspense

Carolina Moonset by Matt Goldman

book cover

My parents owned dozens of paintings by local artists, but the one in the foyer was the only one that depicted night. And it’s the only painting I remembered from my childhood. It showed the dark marsh in heavy brushstrokes. A sprawling oak in the foreground framed an expanse of reeds. A tidal creek snaked through the reeds. The tide was out, and the creek’s muddy bottom reflected the moonlight. A clump of more oaks in the distance lay dark under the full moon shining above them. And behind those oaks, the dark shadow of an immense home, no light in the windows except for one on the second floor. The marsh is beautiful during the day, changing colors with the angle of the sun. But it’s eerie at night. Too many secrets hiding in its vastness and in its crevices. The sea comes in and the sea goes out. Only it knows what’s hidden in the marsh.

The name of that painting is Carolina Moonset. It always gave him the creeps. Too bad the artist’s signature is smudged.

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Matt Goldman – image from Amazon

Forty-something Joe Green (not mean at all) is visiting Beaufort, South Carolina (lives and works in Chicago) to help mom, Carol, take care of his ailing father. Marshall Green, 75, is a good guy who had passed on having a lucrative medical career to open a free clinic on Chicago’s South Side. When he retired, he returned to his home town. Dad is suffering with Lewy Body Dementia, second most widespread form of dementia, after Alzheimer’s.

My mother sat down next to me and said, “It’s like when a person loses their sight, their hearing improves. Except with Dad, he’s lost his short-term memory, and his long-term memory has improved. He tells stories I’ve never heard before.”

Well, that’s one element. Another is that he sometimes talks to people who are not there, which can be unnerving. One such is long-late friend Trip Patterson, who died very young, under dodgy circumstances. Joey is curious who this guy was and begins looking into some family history.

“Aw, Joey. You were always a good fisherman. Even when you were tiny you were fascinated by what you couldn’t see below the surface. That’s what fishing is all about. Curiosity and the patience to learn.”

Fishing of all sorts will be done. Soon after Joe’s arrival a local bigwig is shot dead in the street. Pops did not have a high opinion of the man or his family.

Those Hammonds are nasty sons a bitches. Every one of ’em. Stole that island from the blacks. When the Union Army came through, they gave black people their own land. Gave ’em a chance. And it worked, too. The people prospered. Until the goddamn Klan took over and redistributed the land.” My father had venom in his voice. “Redistributed the land with guns and knives and ropes and trees. I wouldn’t live on Hammond Island if you paid me a million dollars. Hope a hurricane wipes it off the face of the earth.”

Despite his considerable impairments, Marshall is considered a suspect. Particularly when the gun that did the dark deed sure looks like dad’s old revolver. And when Joey looks for his father’s gun, why is it not the usual place? Did Pop pop Thomas Hammond, whether he remembers doing it or not? Faces from the past re-emerge, whether in person or in memory alone. Questions remains, like what ever happened to Roy Hammond, Thomas’s brother, who vanished under mysterious circumstances? What’s the deal with Thomas’s much younger glam-wife, Gail?

As a forty-something, in town sans kids, Joe is prime matchmaking material for his parents’ set. It seems that their next-door neighbors just happen to have a forty-something divorced daughter, Leela, in town for a holiday visit. The senior circuit angles to get them together. And lo and behold, Joey and Leela hit it off remarkably fast.

I was single in my mid 40’s like Joey, and people in my parents’ generation, including my parents, would often mention single women they knew of. I think some people in that generation are less comfortable with a younger person being single, so they try to play matchmaker. I also wanted Joey to have a partner in his informal investigation—someone in whom he could confide—and adding a romantic element to that felt not only fun but true in that life presents beautiful magic and brutal reality at the same time. And finally, I recently experienced a Joey/Leela like courtship. I met my wife in February of 2018 and we married that same year in October. I wanted to show how a combination of chemistry and life-experience can lead to that kind of relationship in a grounded way. – DAB interview

Joe and Leela team up to see below the surface to what might be swimming in the deeper waters, as they try to land a killer. I found their relationship delightful. And can attest, from personal experience, to the possibility of a quick connection between mid-life divorced/single people. Leads are followed. Murder suspects make their way across the page, along with their theoretical motives. In a book with fishing as an element, there are, of course, red herrings. Bait is employed to good effect. The who and why-dunnit puzzles will keep you casting a line flipping the pages for more.

The story takes place in the present, but there are many references to mid 20th century, when some long-ago crimes are crying out to be solved. At the center of these, the Hammond and Green brothers were young men with diverse world views, and some serious personal conflicts.

In addition to the fun of the mysteries and the investigation, Goldman also offers a look at the racist, classist realities of South Carolina, both the actions that took place in the past and their ripples forward to the present.

GRIPES
The cops are portrayed as soulless dolts, which is common enough in mysteries, but remains a disappointing accession to default settings. There are several mentions of Joey’s sisters, but they manage to remain off screen and out of mind once noted. Why include them at all if they are to serve no role? There are several instances of what seemed trite wisdom being proferred. Here is a sample

as teenagers, girls grow more complicated and difficult and boys more stoic. That is a generalization. A stereotype. But having been a boy who fit the stereotype, I believe stoicism is a mischaracterization of our behavior. We are not more stoic than girls. We are more ashamed. Of our boy-thoughts and risky deeds, mostly revolving around or inspired by sex or at least the idea of sex. That seemingly unattainable nirvana ignited by blossoming bodies and invisible pheromones. That shame sends us underground. Quiets us. Our vortex of shame is so powerful all our thoughts and deeds get sucked into it, so we share nothing.

another

A friend once told me women have face-to-face relationships and men have shoulder-to-shoulder relationships. Men do things like watch football and go fishing.

Ok, it is starting to seem like the Gripes piece is getting large. I do not want to give the impression that I disliked this book at all. In fact, I quite enjoyed it. The gripes are merely what kept me from adding that final star.

There is a lot in Carolina Moonset that is lovely, nice bits of craft that reinforced the steady forward movement of the plot with some meaningful imagery. Paintings, for example, stand out. Not just the strong image of the book-title work. Joe’s uncle David has a painting over his desk and there is a framed work in the Hammond residence that offers some food for thought. Even the word painting is used in other contexts to offer a perspective.

So fear not. Carolina Moonset is a fun mystery with an appealing dynamic duo of amateurs slogging through a marsh of information trying to figure out multiple crimes, one now, others back then, without much help, in fact with only interference from the po-po. The addition of historical/cultural payload makes it even richer. If you reel this one in, pretty soon you will be the one who’s been hooked.

From where I’m sitting, Thomas Hammond’s motto must have been Think Globally, Destroy Locally.

Review posted – June 3, 2022

Publication date – May 31, 2022

I received an EPUB of Carolina Moonset from Forge/Macmillan in return for a fair review, and a lovely mint julep. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

From About the Author
New York Times bestselling author MATT GOLDMAN is a playwright and Emmy Award-winning television writer for Seinfeld, Ellen, and other shows. Goldman has been nominated for the Shamus and Nero Wolfe Awards and is a Lariat Award Winner. He lives in Minnesota with his wife, two dogs, two cats, and whichever children happen to be around.

Interview
—–Donnell Ann Bell – Author Interview with Matt Goldman & Carolina Moonset

Items of Interest from the author
—–Macmillan – excerpt

Songs/Music
—–Fiddler on the Roof – Matchmaker
—– James Taylor – Carolina in My Mind

A personal aside – a tiny bit spoilerish, nut not enough to hide.
I understand that some might scoff at the speed at which Joey and Leela bond with each other. I can relate to the notion of finding the right person on the second-go-round fairly quickly. I was around the same age as Joey, first marriage done, when I encountered the woman who would become my second wife. It was not a matter of days, as with Joey and Leela, but it was quick as such things go. (I did suggest marriage after our second or third in-person date, if memory serves. But that might have had something to do with a good friend of hers having season tickets to the Mets.) When you reach a certain point in life, you have a sense, in fairly short order, of whether a relationship is likely to work out or not, or at least whether it might be possible. Turns out it was. We have now been married for twenty-one years. (as of 2022)`

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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 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

book cover

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

book cover

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

Sweet and Sour – Sweet Girl by Amanda Jayatissa

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It didn’t come easily to me. I had to work at it. But if I learned one thing from Mom, it’s that it was usually worth it being the sweet girl.

“When you die, can I have your skin?” she asked calmly, tracing a finger over my face, before getting up and walking out of the room, leaving me so afraid that I couldn’t move.

Paloma Evans is 30 years old, living in San Francisco. She had been adopted at age 12 out of a Sri Lankan orphanage, the Little Miracles Girls Home. Recently cut off from her parental funds, she engages in dodgy on-line behavior to make a buck, (One of her creepy clients appears to be stalking her) and had to take in a room-mate to help with the insane San Francisco rental costs. But the roomie, an Indian immigrant, learned her big secret, and is blackmailing her, which is bad enough. Arriving home after a few too many, she finds him dead in her kitchen. It gets worse. Chased out of her own apartment by the presumed killer, a seemingly spectral figure, she heads for the stairwell. But fingers close on her neck before she can escape. She wakes up hours later, in the stairway, a scolding neighbor barking at her, presuming she had passed out, drunk…again.

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Amanda Jayatissa – image from Artra Magazine

Before she can figure out how to deal, the cops arrive. She tells them what she had seen, but when they look through the apartment, the body is gone. The detective does not believe her, and his skepticism is understandable. Paloma is a blackout drunk, unable to recall events that took place, actions she undertook during her blacked-out hours. She really has no idea what happened to the guy, but does remember that she had fled her apartment, looking around after discovering the body, and was chased out of the place by a ghost from her past.

Paloma may be an adult, but, despite years of therapy, she has carried from childhood a powerful belief in an old-country ghostly being called Mohini, (think the freaky girl who emerges from The Ring in desperate need of a makeover, dressed in white). Seeing that terrifying presence in her apartment just after discovering her roommate’s body reinforces her belief. Losing hours after fleeing her apartment does not help. So what’s going on?

Mohini is my favorite ghost story. She is one of the most famous urban legends here in Sri Lanka, a stereotypical woman in white…It’s a story that is very special to me. It’s a story we grew up whispering to each other around the candle in the night. I have actually dressed up as Mohini…to scare my cousins…It was hilarious. I knew that I needed to include this ghost story element into the book…It was the story that defined a lot of the scary stories of my childhood. – from the Books and Boba interview

The tale takes place in two timelines, alternating chapters, today, presumably 2018, give or take, as Covid is not yet a thing, and 2000, also give or take, when Paloma was a 12yo orphan in Sri Lanka. We follow her story there, her friendships, her interests, her hopes. The home is not a bad place, those in charge are a relatively benign pair, but on occasion the girls are given a class with the terrible, the horrible, the most feared Sister Cynthia, a sadistic witch of a person, who delights in physically harming the girls and threatening them with eternal damnation. (zero stars in RateMyTeachers) She is, unfortunately, in charge of Saint Margaret’s Home for Girls, the place where those who are not adopted will be sent after they age out of Miracles, a terrifying prospect. The Evanses are a wealthy American couple, supporters of the orphanage, and many other charities. They are looking to buy adopt a child. The girls at the orphanage are all prepped for when potential adopting parents stop by for a look-see, orphanage management trying its best to make a good impression, get one of their girls adopted, and hopefully gain some extra financial support and good press from the adopters.

Paloma and Lihini are besties at Miracles. Physically similar, fair-skinned, similar in height, build and overall looks. They sleep together often, in the comforting child-like sense, not that other one. We see how their relationship evolves with each chapter back in Sri Lanka. As only one child will be selected, there is understandable tension between them.

Today, give or take, Paloma is frantic. She goes to stay at her parents’ suburban house, as they are away, and remaining at the scene of the crime seems unwise. Was she hallucinating? This is not entirely impossible as she had been warned by her therapist that drinking on top of her new meds could do really bad things to her. But did we mention that Paloma is a blackout drunk? Paloma goes all Miss Marple trying to figure out what happened to her roomie, and why. Then the mysteries start to breed. A neighbor of her parents vanishes mysteriously, and who is that strange woman who seems to be spying on her?

The story is plenty fun enough on its own merits. But there is more going on here. Racial elements permeate. Lihini and Paloma stand out a bit from the rest of the girls because of their relatively fair skin, seen as an advantage for those hoping to be taken in by a westerner. There is a wonderful scene in a restaurant bathroom in which Paloma is mistaken for another Asian women by a somewhat inebriated white woman, an experience Jayatissa has had, and which many people she knows have had. It is not the only moment in the book in which someone is unable to tell two people of color apart. Toss in discussions with other POCs about stereotypes applied to South Asians. Her shrink, Nina, whom she likes, is raucously white, dressing in white, her office decorated all in white, and it is shocking when Paloma sees her wearing anything with color.

She kept all her pristine white files inside a pristine white filing cabinet, in a corner of her pristine white office. When I say pristine, I mean surgical-level clean. When I say white, I mean eyeball-searing, detergent-commercial white. She even asked her clients to take their shoes off so they wouldn’t mess up the spotless shag carpet. And it always smelled like freshly laundered sheets. She probably had an air freshener tucked behind the couch or something, because there was never any laundry in sight.

Gender and madness permeates. The book opens with Paloma about to lose it, dealing with a bank employee who is not quite up to speed with the institution’s processes.

I was suffering from the worst case of writers’ block, and to say my mood was bleak would be an understatement. And then I had a really annoying experience with a customer service associate at my bank, where I found myself wanting to scream and shout and make a scene, but of course I didn’t. I kept it together, like most of us are trained to do, went into a coffee shop, where I pulled out a notebook and a piece of paper and really let that customer service associate have it. I guess you could say that’s how Paloma came about. – from The Big Thrill interview

Difficult women are often presumed to be nuts, and many have learned to couch their displeasure under a polite veneer. Paloma does that in the book. In fact, while one might think of her as foul-mouthed, the profanity in her internal monologue remains unspoken. This is not to say that Paloma is not abrasive and does not need considerable therapy. She certainly is and she certainly does. Orphanage girls must cope with potential. sexual predation, always knowing that they will be called liars or delusional if they report abuse. And there is the trauma of losing children that can drive women mad with grief. Also the danger of internalizing it when people keep telling her she is losing her mind.

Several classic novels are mentioned, among them Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Oliver Twist, and, most significantly, Wuthering Heights, all present in the orphanage library, the last being Paloma’s favorite. (Mrs. Evans was going to be my Catherine. She was going to save me.). Unsurprisingly, most have to do with orphans. (Wish she had found a way to fit in a reference to The Pirates of Penzance, as well) Thematically, there are concerns from those books that are reflected here. Sister Cynthia certainly represents a Dickensian nightmare of orphanage management. The girls in these are hassled in other ways by people at an orphanage or a placement. There are other elements of contemporary orphanage life that echo the perils of being parentless in the 19th century, including the timeless emotional pain of losing, or being left by, biological parents.

At first glance, My Sweet Girl offers us an unreliable narrator in the mold of The Girl on the Train’s Rachel Watson, another troubled soul with a drinking problem. Both generally fall into The Madman sort in the classification system to be found here. But Jayatissa takes the unreliable narrator a step further, so that there are times when you are not even certain who the narrator is, let alone the veracity of her reporting.

Unrelated Random thoughts
There is an Agatha Christie, Poirot-ish feel to the story when the facts are laid out near the end.

The preparation the school does with the orphans for the visit by the Evanses reminded me of young women in Austen novels gussying up for the arrival of potential suitors, or going to a meat-market ball.

In addition to the rage at the clerk scene that opens the book, there are other elements taken from the author’s life, some noted above. She named a character for her younger brother, Gavin.

GRIPES
We never get enough of a feel for Paloma’s actual life with the Evanses. She seems not particularly fond of them at age 30. How did that come to be? This could have used more. I had issues with how the POV was handled. It was a bit like one of those time travel stories in which it becomes impossible to keep track of who is where and when. The guilt Paloma experiences is way out of line with what she had actually done. That was a stretch for me.

SUMMARY
Nevertheless, My Sweet Girl is a fun, fast-paced thriller that will encourage you not to drink to excess and be more discriminating in selecting possible roommates. It may offer ideas for how to monetize some used clothing, and offer a perspective on how people perceive people who do not look like they do. It will maybe give you a few chills, and make your head spin like Reagan MacNeil (without the pea soup), with the twistiness of the finale. And you might be forgiven, if, when you get to the end, you feel an urge to hold up your bowl and say, “Please, sir, I want some more.”

…things that don’t feel real during the day have a way of sliding into bed with you at night.

Review posted – September 10, 2021

Publication date – September 14, 2021

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads

I received an e-ARC of this book from Elisha Katz of Berkley Books in return for an honest review. But then, I may have that wrong. I had imbibed a bit more than usual the day the offer came in, and I was quite distracted by finding that unexpected body in the basement, so…maybe it was her. I am beginning to wonder. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

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

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

Jayatissa was brought up in Sri Lanka, graduated from Mills College in California, moved to the UK, and now lives in Sri Lanka. She is a corporate trainer and an entrepreneur, with a chain of cookie stores. My Sweet Girl is her second novel. Her first was The Other One, released under the name Amanda Jay.

Interviews
—–Books & Boba – on Player FM – audio – #150 – Author Chat with Amanda Jayatissa by Reera Yoo and Marvin Yueh – audio – 51 minutes
The interviewers claim to have read the book but misidentify where half the book takes place. They also keep saying that it is a debut novel. It is not. Nevertheless, there is a lot of good information in here. Roll your eyes and give a listen.
—–The Big Thrill – When Nightmares Follow You Halfway Around the World by Neil Nyren
—–News line – Award winning author Amanda Jayatissa speaks of her experiences – video – 28:50 – this is from 2018 re her first novel, The Other One, with too much focus on her experience winning an award, but there is other intel in here that makes it worthwhile

Items of Interest from the author
—–Excerpt – From Penguin Random House
—–The Nerd Daily – another excerpt

Items of Interest
—–Amaya resorts and spas – Sri Lankan Folklore:Mohini
—–Gutenberg – Wuthering Heights full text
—–Gutenberg – Anne of Green Gables full text
—–Gutenberg – Oliver Twist full text

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