Tag Archives: 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

The Fields by Erin Young

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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

Beacon Hell – The Lighthouse Witches by C.J. Cooke

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He’s tall and rakish, with greasy black hair to his jaw, a tattoo of a panther on his neck, a missing front tooth. A grin.
“You’re Luna Stay?”
She frowns, confused by the shift to a smile. “Yes?”
He steps forward and eyes her coldly. “You’re supposed to be dead.”

2021 – Ok, so maybe not exactly a welcoming committee, with a sparkly, multi-colored sign at the local watering hole, all the residents in attendance, celebrating her return. But I guess it’ll have to do. It wasn’t Luna’s first time on the island of Lòn Haven. She had been there for a spell as a child, and, while her experience was memorable, it was relatively brief, and her exit had been fraught. Now, thirty years old, pregnant for the first time, she is not exactly eager to stick around. But she is there on a mission.

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C.J. (Carolyn Jess) Cooke – image from The University of Glasgow

1998 – Olivia Stay has just left her home in northern England, dragged her three daughters, Sapphire, Luna, and Clover, with her, and headed north on an hours-long drive to a remote island off the east coast of Scotland. She is an artist, with a commission to paint a mural on the inside of a 149-foot-tall lighthouse, which is in less-than-stellar condition. Her mysterious employer has left drawings for her of what he wants. She and the girls will be staying on the lighthouse property, in a small house, called a bothy. The lighthouse has an intriguing name.

“You’re staying at the Longing?” he said, raising an eyebrow. “Quite a history, that place.”
“I can see that,” I said, flicking through the leaflet, my eyes falling on an artist’s rendition of people being burned at the stake.
“Why’s it called the Longing?” Luna asked him.
“It’s named for the people who lost loved ones,” he said. “Sometimes they’d visit the site where the Longing was built and . . . pay their respects.”

…or something. The lost loved ones tended to be women murdered by the locals, accused of witchcraft and burned alive. The Longing was built directly over the place where the women had been kept and tortured, a broch, which is a circular castle-like structure, as much as two thousand years old. While there have been five major national bouts of witch-burnings in Scotland, the only witches likely to have been about were of the herbalist, rather than spell-casting sort. The ones with the matches provided the very human-sourced evil involved. The historical burning time of note here was 1662.

Olivia (Liv) is our first-person narrator for much of the book. Other chapters offer third-person POVs from Luna and Saffy. A second first-person account is historical. That one provides interceding chapters made up of passages from a book, left in the bothy, referred to as a grimoire. But it serves less as a source for studying the dark arts than it does as a memoir. Written by someone named Roberts, presumably an ancestor of Liv’s employer, it serves mostly as a fourth perspective, offering first-person exposition of historical events the book’s author lived through, events that inform the present.

We follow Liv as she is introduced to the island, and the local oddballs. (and wonder why she suddenly dropped everything and dragged her kids north several weeks ahead of the appointed time) But when she sees a small, almost feral-seeming white-haired child on the property, and the police do not seem to take her seriously, things get more interesting. Local lore has it that condemned witches, in league with the fae realm, created wildlings, copies of island children, who would appear out of nowhere, intent on wiping out family lines. Locals hold that any such beings must be killed ASAP. Then two of her daughters, Saffy and Clover, disappear.

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St Mary’s Lighthouse – the English lighthouse that provided inspiration for the Longing – image from Photographers Resource UK

In 2021, after twenty-two years of searching for her lost family, Luna is contacted. Her sister, Clover, has been found. But instead of being twenty-nine years old, Clover is still only seven. Is this child even her sister? Or could she be one of the wildlings Luna had heard about when she was a child on Lòn Haven? Her behavior certainly gives one cause for concern.

The story braids the four narratives, alternating Liv, Luna, Saffy, and the grimoire’s Mr Roberts, reporting of their experiences, and the times in which they are in the spotlight, offering nice chapter-ending cliff-hangers to sustain our interest from one strand to the next.

In an interview with The Nerd Daily, Cooke (who is married, with four children) was asked about her inspiration for the book.

I think it came from a range of places – I was thinking a lot (and still am) about how different it is to parent a teenager than it is to parent a baby, and yet the speed with which a baby seems to become a teenager feels like whiplash. So the story of Liv and her 15-year-old Sapphire in the book emerged from that thinking. When we moved to Scotland in 2019, I learned about the Scottish Witch Trials. I’m very interested in women’s lives, and this slice of history is very much concerned with what happened to women – and it also bears a huge relevance to the current moment. Gradually that thinking took shape. Lastly, I was invited to teach at the University of Iceland in 2019, and while I was there – and thinking a lot about the book and how I was going to incorporate all the various ideas I had – I came across 14th century spell books, which blew my mind. As I dug deeper into the history of magic and how it impacted women in particular, the story came out of the shadows.

The fraught relationship between 15yo Saffy and Liv will feel familiar, in tone, if not necessarily in the specific content of Saffy and Liv’s interaction. Cooke relied on her own teenage daughter for much of Saffy’s voice. Add to that the fact that Liv is a single mother, struggling to get by. Many of Liv’s struggles with parenting resonated, guilt versus responsibility versus coping with external limitations. Cooke offers, through the grimoire, a first-person look at the 1661/1662 witch-trial hysteria, providing a persuasive take on its causation, at least in this instance. The spell books notion gave Cooke the tool she needed for exploring the past.

I wanted everything for my children. But every single day I had to confront the glaring reality that I simply wasn’t able to provide the kind of life they deserved. And it crushed me.

There is a hint of prior, off-screen abuse in Liv’s background. This is likely a manifestation of Cooke’s experiences growing up in an abusive household in a council estate in Belfast during The Troubles. The up-front abuse here is in how power is used to protect those who have it from being held responsible for their actions, at the expense of the powerless, both past and present. And in how murderous impulses, combined with ignorance, under the mantle of religion, and official sanction, present a peril to any who do not conform, in any age.

There are elements of informational payload that help support the story. You will pick up a few bits of Scottish terminology, and even a bit of spice on magical symbology and local fairy lore. Cooke has some fun with triangles of various sorts. We get a you-are-there look at an actual historical time of madness. Cooke, in the interview from The Inside Flap, talks about how surprised she was when she moved to Scotland to find that there had been witch trials there, and that there were no memorials at all for the hundreds of people (not all were women) who had been killed.

There were parts of the book that gave me pause. I had trouble, for example, with the police releasing seven-year-old Clover to Luna, given that there was no way the two were the sisters they supposedly were in any normal time line. There seemed some contradiction in the overall take. Where does magic leave off and other factors enter into things? Could an evil-doer, for example, be stricken with an awful affliction at the hands of a spell-caster? And if so, then a scientific-ish explanation for later events seems undercut. What if that scientific-ish situation was created by magic? And round and round we go.

While not exactly a hair-raising read for me, (few are) I did find some scenes in the book pretty scary, less, maybe for the magical terror involved, but for the willingness of people to do terrible things in the name of insane beliefs, a terror we live with every day, and the fear any parent might feel when their child is in danger.

We can feel for Liv even as we might wonder at her judgment. She is clearly stressed beyond reason. And we can feel for Luna trying to solve this intricate puzzle, while taking on parental responsibility for her now-much-younger sib. The mysteries of the book will keep you turning the pages. In this fictional realm, are witches real? And if they are, did they really curse the island? And if they did, were fairy-generated wildlings a part of the plan? And if they were, was there an intent to end family lines? And what’s the deal with Clover showing up twenty-two years after vanishing?

One of life’s great joys is to begin reading a book expecting to be directed from Point A to Point Z with the familiar stops along the way, and then finding oneself in an entirely other alphabet. The Lighthouse Witches has the magic needed to make that trip possible. It is an enchanting read.

She turns her head from side to side, taking in the velvet expanse of the ocean on her left and the rocks and beach on her right. Ahead, surf furls into the bay. Something there catches her eye, and she wonders if it’s the basking shark, Basil, with his weird two fins. Something bobbing in the water. Seals, probably. Except it’s the wrong color. It’s pale.
She squints at the object. It’s about thirty feet away, moving on the waves. A cloud shifts from the moon and for a moment the light finds the object. It’s a face. A human face, its mouth open in a howl, someone in the water.

Review posted – October 8, 2021

Publication date – October 5, 2021

I received an eARC of The Lighthouse Witches from Berkley in return for casting one or two minor spells. Thanks to EK, and NetGalley for facilitating.

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

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

From About the Author in the book
C. J. Cooke is an award-winning poet and novelist published in twenty-three languages. She teaches creative writing at the University of Glasgow, where she also researches the impact of motherhood on women’s writing and creative-writing interventions for mental health. Her previous novel is The Nesting.

She has been writing stories since she was seven years old.

Interviews
—– The Inside Flap Ep. 140 The Witching Hour Is Upon Us with C.J. Cooke – podcast = 1:30:00 – from about 30:00
—– The Nerd Daily – Q&A: C.J. Cooke, Author of ‘The Lighthouse Witches’ by Elise Dumpleton
—–Slider –
Episode 2 – Interview with author CJ Cooke – audio – 25:23

Wiki-ons and Other Items of Interest
—–bothy
—–Borromean Ring
—–broch
—–The Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1661-1662
—–
grimoire
—–On Scottish faeries
—–St Mary’s Lighthouse
—–Cambridge University Press – The Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1661-1662 – a miuch more detailed look at this abomination – by Brian P. Levack

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Horror, Reviews, Scotland, 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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He Lied, She Lied – Rock Paper Scissors by Alice Feeney

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We’ve tried date nights, and marriage counseling, but spending more time together isn’t always the same as spending less time apart. You can’t get this close to a cliff edge without seeing the rocks at the bottom, and even if my husband doesn’t know the full story, he knows that this weekend is a last attempt to mend what got broken.
What he doesn’t know, is that if things don’t go according to plan, only one of us will be going home.

Nothing like having a positive attitude when you’re trying to salvage a troubled marriage.

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Alice Feeney – image from BBC

I reached a significant benchmark in my marriage while reading this book, a twentieth (china) wedding anniversary. It was the second time, for me. (I am nothing if not tenacious.) So, I appreciate the marital issues that arise in this wonderful thriller. (Sorry, no thriller material in either of my marriages, well, none that I will admit to in court. And no, my wife and I have no weekends planned for some remote snowy locale.) Adam and Amelia are trying to save theirs. (marriage, not thriller). A winter weekend away to a remote part of Scotland. Do or die. He is a successful screenwriter. She works at the Battersea Dogs Home. (Does that make Adam a rescue?)

We’re both pretty good at keeping up appearances and I find people see what they want to see. But behind closed doors, things have been wrong with Mr. and Mrs. Wright for a long time.

All right, this is getting way too close for comfort. (see first marriage noted above) The mutual discomfort in their marriage is clear, to the reader, anyway, but there are mitigating circumstances.

Adam has a neurological glitch called prosopagnosia, which means he cannot see distinguishing features on faces, including his own.

Face blindness makes it tough to deal in a very social world, if one cannot differentiate friend from foe, or lover from casual acquaintance. But, as is the case for many people with unusual qualities, he has learned to compensate. The sound of a voice, a personal scent, individual physical movements. Enough so that he found someone willing, eager even, to marry him.

Adam’s great personal screenplay is Rock Paper Scissors. It won him early acclaim (at 21) but never got made, despite repeated attempts. Now, he adapts novels by other writers, and is good at it, makes a nice living. The Rock Paper Scissors motif repeats from time to time. The notion of the story is incorporated into the structure of the novel. The game is played, sometimes with very serious stakes.

Blackwater Chapel is remote, in the Scottish Highlands (zero bars), quite beautiful landscape thereabouts, on Blackwater Loch. It is indeed a renovated place of worship. The power is not the most reliable, particularly in dire weather. Amelia had won the weekend away in a contest at work. It may not be the best of all possible times for such a visit, an eight-hour drive from London, Amelia doing ALL the driving in her Morris Minor. A tin-can antique on four wheels, is what Adam calls it. While they are there, a huge winter storm seals them in. Travel would be far too risky in the old car. They are quite effectively isolated.

Isolated, yes, but, well, maybe not entirely alone. A supposed housekeeper leaves a few notes for them. Maybe she is the person living in the only other structure within miles, a thatched cottage. There is a flock of local sheep to offer some light scares and barriers. And, of course there is Bob, their giant black lab. (Asked in an interview which of her characters she would choose if she was about to be stranded on a deserted island, Feeney did not hesitate. Bob, she said. Maybe that is because Bob, the author’s creation, so much resembles her real-life black lab, down to their mutual fear of feathers.) But is that it? There have been rumors of odd doings at the chapel, with unseen things calling the name of the more corporeal sorts who show up on the premises. And doors have an odd way of becoming locked or unlocked. There is plenty more of this sort. Mysterious sounds. Evocative scratches on walls. It is definitely a spooky joint. Enjoy!

Feeney offers us plenty of atmospherics.

Adam was right, there are no ghosts or gargoyles, but the place definitely feels spooky. Everything is made of ancient-looking stone—the walls, the ceiling, the floor—and it’s so cold down here that I can see my breath. I count three rusted metal rings embedded in the wall, and do my best not to think about what they were used for.

A basement crypt, reached via trapdoor, has been converted to a wine cellar. Is vino the only spirit down there?

The light from the old-fashioned candlestick holder he is carrying casts ghostly shadows around the bedroom, so that now I feel like I’m in a Charles Dickens novel.

Much of the inspiration for the book derived from a visit Feeney made in 2018, to a creepy renovated chapel in Scotland, a visit that featured a “Beast from the East” snowstorm, and a mysterious face in a window. Some other personal items made it into the book. Feeney does her writing in a garden shed, a characteristic she bestowed on Adam. There was a discomfiting wardrobe in Feeney’s real-world chapel. She imagined secret stairs from there, which became the basement wine-cellar/crypt, accessible only via a trap door.

The book is told from alternating POVs, Adam’s and Amelia’s. It is from these that we know their marriage is in trouble. But wait, there’s more! A third character (fourth if you count Bob) is introduced about a quarter the way in, Robin, residing near the chapel. She is up to something. It seems that there is certainly madness there, but is there a method to match? Finally, there are wifely letters written on the annual wedding anniversary, but never given to Adam. These let us follow the history of his marriage through his wife’s eyes. They are introduced by a “word of the year” that sets the tone for the chapters to come. They also note the category of gift that is considered traditional for each year. (A partial list is in EXTRA STUFF) In each of these entries the gift, at least the sort of gift, is significant in the ensuing narrative.

There is a layer-by-layer unveiling of secrets, from both of them, which gives us a better look at who they truly are. (More of a He-Lied-She-Lied than the more traditional His-v-Hers perspectives.) Well, from all three, if we add Robin. Lots of excellent, very hairpin turn stuff. (Keep both hands on the wheel at all times) Maybe not as dangerous as riding the Do-Dodonpa, but wearing a neck-brace might not be a bad idea while reading towards the end. You may hear yourself utter more than a few “wait, what?s” There are some twists at the finale that seem inter-dimensional in their impact.

So, who is out to get whom? Is anyone, really? Are they both there to salvage their marriage or torpedo it? And what is making all the strangeness at the chapel happen? Is it really haunted? Will they both make it out alive? Will anyone? Will Adam’s screenplay ever get produced?

I do not really have any gripes with the book. It maybe asks us to suspend a bit too much disbelief, no biggie. But I take serious issue with the marketing, which I believe to be dishonest. I will not say what it is about this that is not true, or is unfairly misleading, but after you read the book, I urge you to take a close look at this. You will see for yourself. Having an unreliable narrator is one thing, but this seems a step too far to me. The ff is from Macmillan’s page for the book.

Things have been wrong with Mr and Mrs Wright for a long time. When Adam and Amelia win a weekend away to Scotland, it might be just what their marriage needs. Self-confessed workaholic and screenwriter Adam Wright has lived with face blindness his whole life. He can’t recognize friends or family, or even his own wife. 

Every anniversary the couple exchange traditional gifts–paper, cotton, pottery, tin–and each year Adam’s wife writes him a letter that she never lets him read. Until now. They both know this weekend will make or break their marriage, but they didn’t randomly win this trip. One of them is lying, and someone doesn’t want them to live happily ever after.

Ten years of marriage. Ten years of secrets. And an anniversary they will never forget.

Rock Paper Scissors is a delight of a read. Feeney does an excellent job of inserting hooks at chapter ends to make sure it is a challenge for you to either get up and do things that need doing, or turn off the light and go to sleep.

It seems like it would be a good idea to dress warmly when you read this. The cold of the Feeney’s fictional world might give you a chill. A hot toddy might be an appropriate accompanying refreshment, or maybe some Scotch whiskey. And make sure that neck brace is firmly in place when you are entering your final chunk of reading time. You will need it.

The first match I strike goes out almost instantly—it’s an old box.
I use the second to try and get my bearings, but I still can’t see the steps, and I’m struggling to get enough air into my lungs.
The third match I strike briefly illuminates part of the wall, and I notice all the scratch marks on the surface. It looks like someone, or something, once tried to claw their way out of here.
I try to stay calm, remember to breathe, but then the flame burns the tips of my fingers and I drop the final match on the floor.
Everything is black.
And then I hear it again. My name being whispered. Right behind me.
Amelia. Amelia. Amelia.
My breaths are too shallow, but I can’t control them and I think I’m going to faint. No matter what direction I look in, all I can see is darkness. Then I hear the sound of scratching.

Review posted – September 3, 2021

Publication date – September 7, 2021

I received a free ARC of Rock, Paper, Scissors from Macmillan in an exchange for an honest review, and the keys to my country retreat for a few days.

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads. Stop by. There are many more where this one came from.

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

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

Feeney was a journalist with the BBC for fifteen years, where she worked as a reporter, news editor, arts and entertainment producer, stealing time where she could to get in some original writing. Rock Paper Scissors is her fourth novel. She has been wildly successful.

As per Variety, the producer of The Crown will be transforming Rock Paper Scissors into a Netflix mini-series.

Interviews
—–Washington Independent – Author Q&A – An Interview with Alice Feeney by Adriana Delgado – from 2018 – on her planning and unreliable narrators
—–Bookbrowse – An interview with Alice Feeney by Elyse Dinh-McCrillis – from 2017 – short but has some nice backgr0und and personal elements

I work in my garden shed now with my cowriter, a giant black Labrador who is scared of feathers.

—–Mystery and Thriller Mavens – 8/30/2021 – Bestselling Author Alice Feeney Hosted by Sara DiVello – Video – 41:06

Unrelated aside
A scene in an old tower made me think of Hitchcock’s Vertigo

Anniversary Gifts – list from Hallmark
• 1st Anniversary: Paper
• 2nd Anniversary: Cotton
• 3rd Anniversary: Leather
• 4th Anniversary: Fruit or Flowers
• 5th Anniversary: Wood
• 6th Anniversary: Candy or Iron
• 7th Anniversary: Wool or Copper
• 8th Anniversary: Pottery or Bronze
• 9th Anniversary: Willow or Pottery
• 10th Anniversary: Tin or Aluminum
• 11th Anniversary: Steel
• 12th Anniversary: Silk or Linen
• 13th Anniversary: Lace
• 14th Anniversary: Gold Jewelry
• 15th Anniversary: Crystal
• 16th Anniversary: Coffee or Tea
• 17th Anniversary: Wine or Spirits
• 18th Anniversary: Appliances
• 19th Anniversary: Jade
• 20th Anniversary: China

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Filed under Fiction, Reviews, Thriller

True-Crime Family – The Family Plot by Megan Collins

book cover

My parents named me Dahlia, after the Black Dahlia—that actress whose body was cleaved in half, left in grass as sharp as scalpels, a permanent smile sliced onto her face—and when I first learned her story at four years old I assumed a knife would one day carve me up.

I’m not looking for evil. I’m looking for answers.

You know straight away that this one will be told with tongue firmly attached to cheek. The four siblings are all named after famous murder victims. The Lighthouse family has seen quite a few lives dashed on the rocks, well, not personally, or well, maybe personally. That is the crux of the mystery. There is a never-caught serial murderer on the island, The Blackburn Killer, responsible, so people think, for the murders of seven women over two decades. The family is gathered on this wind-swept, rocky isle when father dies, mostly unlamented, a heart attack,

”Dad’s heart was a real bastard about it. took him out in two seconds flat. Pushed him face down in his venison stew…Mom had to wipe the meat off his cheeks before the paramedics came. It’s poetic really. Dad hunted so many deer in his lifetime, and in the end, he died on top of one. Seems almost…intentional, doesn’t it? Like his heart knew what he’d been up to and murdered him for it.”

summoning the now-grown children (well, three out of four, anyway, as the fourth had left a note ten years back announcing he was leaving for good) back from their definitely-NOT-on-this island homes for his funeral and burial. But when the caretaker of the considerable grounds digs up dad’s assigned plot, he is surprised to find that it is already occupied. The missing brother, Andy, gone ten years, has been found. Oh, dear.

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Megan Collins – image from Wheaton College

The whole thing stems from the title, which is not how I usually do my books at all. The title usually comes last, and I agonize over it. But I was working on something else, and I was trying to title that, and I asked my husband for some suggestions. And I said I want something that speaks to the family aspect of the book and he just threw out, “I don’t know, The Family Plot?” And I was like, no, that doesn’t work for this, but that is amazing as a title…that just rattled around in my head for a few days, until it was like a burst, that came to me, of a family that came together to bury one family member, only to find another member of the family in that grave. So then from there I thought well, what family would it be most interesting to see in that kind of story? It would be really interesting to see someone who, a family who was so interested in true crime that they built a library. And now they’re in the center of true crime story. – from the World of the Write interview

Interested understates it a bit, as the Lighthouse family, stemming from mom, is obsessed with true crime, so much so that the kids, who were home-schooled, studied famous murders. In place of the usual book reports they were charged with producing murder reports. There is a room in their large, creepy home, that is designated the Victim Room, as it holds the considerable collection of books and reports the family has amassed on the most notorious serial killers, and greatest murders, solved and unsolved, of all time. No wonder the locals refer to it as Murder Mansion.

Our docent in this odd place is Dahlia, 26, returned (Dead leaves skitter around my feet as if welcoming me home – Yikes!) from the mainland where she has been living since she moved out at age 19, obsessed with finding her lost twin, Andy (named for Lizzie Borden’s father).

The trust fund is how I manage the way I do—jobless, hunched over my laptop, scouring photos of any crowd on social media, looking for crinkly eyes, for the cowlick on the back of Andy’s head.

She has always felt that she and Andy had a special twins bond and that, if he were dead, she would know it. Her older sibs have been holed up in New York City since they fled the island, as soon as they could. Charlie (named for the Lindbergh baby) is an actor who appears in off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway, and nowhere-at-all-near-Broadway productions, when he can get cast, and when he is sober. Tate (named for Sharon Tate) has an on-line following of 57,000 for her site @Die-orama, on which she produces miniature reproductions of famous crimes. We all do what we’ve gotta do to cope with what came before in our lives. Am I wrong? Tate continues coping by making a diorama of the finding of her brother’s body. Charlie plans to turn the house into a temporary display, The Lighthouse Memorial Museum, to show the Blackburn island residents that the Lighthouses are actual people, not some homicidal, Addams family knockoff. Even Mom (Lorraine) Lighthouse deflects actual emotional dealing into consistently failed attempts to bake cookies, a running joke.

I just went and threw everything into it that I am obsessed with and that I love. I love true crime. Threw that in. I love secluded, dark little islands. Threw that in. I love mini things, so I had this diorama thing. I love these creepy mansions, so I had that. I went wild with all the things that excite me in the hope that if I am excited about them, hopefully it makes a good story, and other people will be into it. But yes, atmosphere, definitely tons of atmosphere… – from the World of the Write interview

There is a fun supporting cast. A mysterious local girl (Ruby Decker) used to spy on the Lighthouse manse at night when Andy was still around. The local detective on the case is Elijah Kraft, who just happens to be the son of the detective who was in charge of the Blackburn Killer investigation back in the day. He had always been convinced that Daniel Lighthouse (the recently deceased dad) was the killer and junior seems determined to pin Andy’s killing on him as well. At the very least, pin it on some member of the family. We see him mostly while sparring with Dahlia. Fitz, the lifelong caretaker, does not always make it to the ferry for his nightly trip back to the mainland. Why is that? Greta, a friend, runs a café below Dahlia’s apartment, and shares the Lighthouse obsession with true crime, if not the family history. She stands in for the more typically obsessed true-crime aficionados in the world.

I’ve never written plays, but it kinda felt like writing a play sometimes, thinking of like almost every scene in the book takes place in the house except for a few of them, so there is a kind of claustrophobic sense. And so the house really felt like a set to me that I was moving the characters around and now they’re the living room and what’s happening in there, and now they’re in the room that they call the victim room because it has all their books about true crime. – from the World of the Write interview

She also gives us a taste of backwater mentality, and eagerness to believe the worst of people who are different. And the separation from humanity of many true-crime enthusiasts, fixated on details of murders to the exclusion of pain and suffering, the human experience of those personally impacted.

Dahlia is an honest broker, well, mostly. She truly wants to find out who killed her beloved brother, and who the Blackburn Killer might be, even if it turns out to be family. There are twists aplenty, and swaths of atmospherics. Collins clearly had a lot of fun writing this book and it comes across.

I did have one gripe. Are we really expected to believe that a family would construct an entire home-schooling curriculum around murders? It was a bit much to swallow. But if you are willing to suspend belief, and, yes, your honor, I confess to doing just that, The Family Plot is a delicious bit of mystery fluff, a fun, roller-coaster ride of a yarn. If you pick up The Family Plot looking for a very entertaining Summer read, you will be dead on.

…the fact that their bodies were returned to our shore, spit onto sand instead of carried to another coast, is proof that the ocean wants us here, contained to Blackburn Island.

Review posted – August 20, 2021

Publication date – August 17, 2021

I received an ARE of The Family Plot in return for crucial intel on an unsolved case. Thanks to Maudee at Atria.

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

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

Interviews
—–World of the Write Review – – video – 30:09 – by Kerry Schafer – if you have to choose only interview to check out, it would be this one.
—–Player FM – A murderous chat with CT Author Megan Collins! – Renee DeNino – Audio – 16:30
—–Dead Darlings – Interview with Megan Collins, Author of Behind The Red Door by Susan Bernhard – 8/6/20 – this interview was done long before The Family Plot came along, but still has some interesting intel, such as

My instincts as a storyteller are to begin as close to the inciting incident as possible. By the end of the first chapter, I want some sort of bomb—big or small—to have been dropped on my characters, so that the reader has a sense of the stakes right away.

—–Megan Collins: Author of The Winter Sister – also done before Collins’ latest book, but of value nonetheless

Items of Interest from the author
—–Crime Reads – What Scares a Thriller Writer – 8/4/20
—–Collins’ site – links to 22 other pieces

The book site for The Family Plot lists gothic among its genres. It felt like it was close to that on reading, but not quite, so I resorted to this scorecard, which I used a bit more grandly in my review of While You Sleep. So, is it or isn’t it?

Gothic Novel Scorecard

Ticking off the gothic criteria
1 – setting – old mansion – check – secret passages – yep, and more
2 – atmosphere of mystery or suspense – you betcha
3 – ancient prophecy or legend – nothing supernatural here
4 – omens, portents, visions – well, portents maybe (no good tents, though)
5 – supernatural or otherwise inexplicable events – the deaths on the island – Andy’s demise
6 – high, overwrought emotion – for sure
7 – woman in distress – Dahlia – yep
8 – Women threatened by powerful, tyrannical male – murder vics, presumably – there is no living tyrannical male in this telling – and while The Blackburn Killer is assumed to be male, there is no certainty of the killer’s gender for most of the book.

Frequent Gothic Elements
Wind – always
Rain – don’t really recall, so if it was there, it was not particularly memorable
Doors on rusty hinges – I don’t think so, but maybe
Eerie sounds – not really
Character strapped in a room – no
Approaching footsteps – yep
Ruins of buildings – not really

It may not tick off ALL the boxes that define Gothic novels, but it marks enough of them to matter. It is clear that while Collins worked from her notions and was not trying to craft a classic gothic novel, The Family Plot is certainly gothic enough to count.

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The Maidens by Alex Michaelides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tarquin and Lucretia – image from Wikimedia

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

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

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Tennyson – image from The Daily Mail

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

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

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Trinity College – image from The Maidenssociety.com

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

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Return of Persephone, by Leighton – image from Holographical Archetypes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review posted – June 25, 2021

Publication date – June 15, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Perfect Daughter by D.J. Palmer

book cover

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

It certainly is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was a bit of a change for DJ Palmer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just gotta love that.

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

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

Review first posted – April 30, 2021

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

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

My review of Palmer’s 2022 novel, My Wife is Missing

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

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

The following emerged from some inner rhymester

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

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

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

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Mother May I by Joshilyn Jackson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review first posted – April 23, 2021

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

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller