It’s a Mystery: The Third Girl, by Nell Goddin

My rating: ⭐️⭐️ of five.

Forty-something, recently divorced Molly Sutton moves to a classic French village to begin a new life as the proprietor of a classic French gite (B&B). She falls in love with the ambiance and the villagers and already has some bookings. When a gifted English art student disappears, Those in town are especially worried, because two other young women disappeared a year or so earlier. Is there a serial killer living among them?

The gendarmerie begin investigating, but there is frustratingly little to go on. The narrative switches between the work of the three officers and Molly’s observations of the reactions of her new neighbors. There are a few moments of mild suspense, but basically The Third Girl fits snugly into the cozy genre. While there is plenty of conversation there isn’t much action. Surprisingly when the setting is in the south of France, the author frequently mentions the beauty and charm of the village without actually describing it. With the exception of Molly herself, the characters are rather bland, and Molly is prone to making iffy decisions based upon emotion. As for the mystery, there are no clues that could lead the reader to discover whodunnit.

Yawn.

It’s a Mystery: Confessions on the 7:45, by Lisa Unger

Confessions on the 7:45Confessions on the 7:45 by Lisa Unger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

There has been a rash of crime novels lately that involve train rides, and Confessions on the 7:45 is one of the better ones. This is a complex, two sided tale that takes place over a period of ten years. Selena is a happily married career woman who, little by little, discovers that her husband is quite different from the man she thought he was. Hers is the story with which the book opens. Pearl is an orphaned teenager adopted after her mother’s murder by one of her mother’s kind employees. After the introduction of Pearl, the twin threads alternate in a long series of episodes that build high drama and suspense. Their stories, merging only gradually, provide the author with the opportunity to explore the myriad delusions that people adopt as reality when the truth is too painful to face. How well do we ever know the people we love and trust? How do we know when we’re being manipulated? Why and how do we ignore our own instincts? What does it take to force us to recognize and let go of our illusions? How do we recover?

This thriller is the product of a skilled writer. The plot is multi-layered, the characters well drawn and relatable. How would we react, or perhaps more importantly, act, when placed in the situations facing Selena and Pearl? There is little behavior here that does not commonly play out, to some extent, in our own lives.

It’s a Mystery: The Body in the Dales, by J.R. Ellis

The Body in the Dales (Yorkshire Murder Mysteries, #1)
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Body in the Dales is the first entry in a mystery series by an author new to the scene, J.R. Ellis. Very much a police procedural, its setting, the cave riddled limestone hills and fields of the Yorkshire Dales makes for an intriguing crime scene. The experienced and cerebral CDI, Jim Oldroyd, a man both experienced and cerebral, is strong, well developed protagonist who relies upon hard facts and intuition to solve his cases, and expects his juniors to do the same. In this case, they don’t make the grade, and as characters, fall pretty flat. Most of the dialogue is stilted and sometimes incredibly simplistic. The novel’s other standout feature is the presentation of the cave system almost as a character itself. The author must have made a thorough study of this deep, dark, and dangerous underground world, and its hazards played a huge role in both the commission of the murder and in Oldroyd’s quest to find the killer. This aspect was unusual, hugely informative, and enjoyable, snagging and captivating my interest to the very end. It also prompted me do do some googling about the Dales and its limestone secrets, which resulted in pictures and information that enriched the story even further.

Off to check out the setting in the second book in this series.

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Books Within Books: The Library of Lost and Found, by Phaedra Patrick

The Library of Lost and Found 
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I dearly love reading books in which other books, some real and some not, play an active role. The Library of Lost and Found has the added advantage of being set within a library and narrated by a middle aged woman, Martha Storm, who volunteers there. As a child, Martha used to write stories, allegories, really, based upon her own experiences of growing up within a family tightly regulated by her domineering father. When her parents became elderly and required live-in assistance, Martha reluctantly gave up her own marriage plans and devoted fifteen long, stultifying years to their care. Now that they are gone, Martha is painfully introverted. She can barely remember a time when she had hopes, dreams, and a life of her own, and devotes her free time to doing chores for others. Then someone anonymously leaves a slim volume of fairy stories on her doorstep, and everything Martha thought she knew is about to change…

Make no mistake, this novel is not reliant upon “magical realism”. Rather it is a charmingly told, often painful, journey of self discovery. Martha’s backstory comes out in a series of flash backs, which ordinarily annoy me, but these serve a important purpose both for the reader and for Martha herself, when she is forced to recall in detail some of the forces that shaped her. In her quest to discover who wrote the book, and why it has been inscribed to her by her beloved but long deceased grandmother, she is supported by a cast of vibrant, small town characters who help her along the way.

The Library of Lost and Found is an intelligent, heartwarming tale about finding the courage to step outside one’s comfort zone and face some facts and truths that for many reasons may long have been buried.

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Modern Lit: The Child Finder, by Rene Denfeld

The Child Finder (Naomi Cottle, #1)
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Naomi Cottle is a civilian investigator specializing in finding children who are missing and presumed by police to have been abducted. Like many PIs in this genre, she is dedicated to her work to the point of obsession, driven by her own personal demons. Naomi’s unique set of experience, insight, and motivation stems from her own childhood, when she made an escape from the clutches of a pedophile. Her current case centers on Madison, a little girl who disappeared 3 years ago into the wilds of Oregon when her family ventured out to find the perfect Christmas tree.
While most mysteries focus on procedural details, The Child Finder is quite different. Readers do follow Naomi’s search, but her reactions and thought processes are the focus. Interestingly, those of Madison and her abductor are also revealed in chapters describing how she tries to adapt to her strange, frightening new life. Her abductor is a trapper, a loner who has learned how to live under the radar, his point of view is also presented.
Though very dark, this is a novel about the resilience of the human spirit and its ability to survive terrible, incomprehensible circumstances. The writing is intelligent, controlled, and frequently luminous. As Naomi begins to recall more of her own horrific past, as the abductor recalls his own fearful childhood, and as Madison finds creative ways to sustain herself through her own fear, it becomes possible for the reader to develop a glimmer of understanding about how and why crimes such as this occur.
Not an easy read, but a worthwhile one.

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It’s a Mystery: Pieces of Her, by Karin Slaughter

Pieces of Her
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Andrea Cooper has never wondered much about her mom, Laura, a respected speech pathologist living in a cottage by the shore. Like most of us, from time to time she’d question her about her past, in a general sort of way, always pretty sure about the woman Laura was. Then came the day when their mother-daughter birthday lunch was interrupted by gunshots which take down two customers. Understandably terrified, Andrea cowers helplessly behind Laura, and is stunned to witness her mom coolly take charge of the scene by killing the shooter before he can murder anyone else. As the media frenzy and the police investigation ramp up, Laura forces her daughter to go on the run, providing her with a detailed plan, a burner phone, and a handgun. Don’t, she warns Andrea, even think about returning to the state until she calls her with the all clear.

Thus begins a saga in which a hapless, badly frightened, and insecure young woman embarks on a harrowing mission to discover who her mother really is, and, in the painful process, discovers herself. This enthralling tale bounces between two separate narratives, one gradually revealing the shocking details of Laura’s past, and the other chronicling Andrea’s own coming of age in the present. There are countless heart stopping, heart breaking moments for each as they grapple with and dodge the deadly fallout from events that occurred thirty two years ago, shortly before Andrea’s own birth.

In an era in which strong female protagonists are valued in novels, Karin Slaughter comes in with two. While Pieces has a complicated plot, the complexities of their personalities are just as engrossing, as are the positive changes that we witness evolving within them. What fills the novel with topical relevance is that the themes over which the decades-old conflict of the plot was waged are still threatening ordinary citizens in the present day. It’s always heartening when a best selling thriller author    writes cogently about things that really matter, in addition to providing good  entertainment.

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It’s a Mystery: Bring Me Back, by B.A. Paris

 

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My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For twelve years, Finn has endured widespread suspicions that he murdered his girlfriend Layla, who disappeared without a trace while the were vacationing in France. In the dearth of evidence about how and why that happened, no charges were ever brought, and Finn eventually managed to adapt, sadly moving on with his life, his regrets over her loss never far from his mind. In a twist of fate, he is now engaged to Layla’s sister Ellen, whom he’d met a while back at a memorial service. Finn is contented with this relationship, until one day, Ellen finds a tiny Russian doll on the wall outside their house. What a coincidence, seeing that both Layla and her sister both played with such dolls in childhood. When more figurines keep showing up – through the mail, at the pub, on the sidewalk – Finn becomes hopeful that Layla may still be alive, and perhaps has come back. A series of mysterious emails convince him that she has, and now his happiness is shattered.

Bring Me Back is one of the many psychological thrillers spawned by Gone Girl several years ago. The characters of Finn and Layla take turns narrating both the present and the backstory, and it gradually becomes apparent that each of them carry significant emotional baggage. Although the going is slow, the suspense builds inexorably, leaving Finn and the reader in a delicious quandary regarding the truth about Layla, and that’s why the ending comes as such a gigantic, wtf letdown. Both the resolution and its aftermath stretch credulity way past the breaking point, spoiling beyond repair what had been an intriguing plot. I suspect that a second reading could reveal a few hints regarding what was to come, but I’m not interested in finding out and will leave it at that.

 

It’s a Mystery : The Perfect Wife, by Blake Pierce

The Perfect Wife (Jessie Hunt #1)The perfect  dupe

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

For a criminal profiler in training, Jesse Hunt is amazingly clueless . Less than halfway through this book, it was glaringly obvious that there was something rotten in Westport Beach, but Jesse’s incapable of adding 2 and 2. Her perfect husband is behaving suspiciously and erratically. Her practicum supervisors are breaking all the ironclad rules for her , and the infamous serial killer she’s interviewing knows all about Jesse’s life, past and present. She’s witnessing neighbors running around naked. This plot is so transparent and derivative, the writing so juvenile, the protagonist so gullible and hapless, that I couldn’t bring myself to finish The Perfect Wife.

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It’s a Mystery: Dark Crimes, by Michael Hambling

Dark Crimes (DCI Sophie Allen, #1)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Michael Hambling is a newish author on the venerable English Mystery scene, having first been published in 2016. Dark Crimes is the first in a series featuring DCI Sophie Allen, a brilliant Oxford graduate who has devoted her career to serving the public good through law enforcement. She is also devoted to her husband and their two adolescent daughters. Though billed as a thriller, this novel is presented more in the tradition of the classic police procedural, with subplots involving the personal lives of the investigative team. This opening salvo in the series, which is set in Dorset, focuses on the murder of a young woman in a small town, a crime that is quickly followed by the deaths of other women. After a false start, Sophie’s team soon theorizes that all of them have been committed by a single man, perhaps a psychotically violent one. The cat and mouse game that follows is only resolved as Sophie, who has a Master’s degree in psychology, develops insights into the whys and hows of this man’s functioning.

Readers looking for unending suspense and graphic violence will not find them here. What can be found is a strong, talented, and determined female protagonist who is the driving force behind the plot. Other characters, including investigators, perpetrators, and those who are affected by these murders are also well developed. A plus is following the investigation into the cities and byways of
Dorset, which like all English counties, has a personality of its own. This is a thinking reader’s mystery that ultimately reaches a deeply satisfying solution.

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Modern Lit: The Wife Between Us, by Greer Hendricks & Sarah Pekkanen

The Wife Between Us

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Blurbs. You gotta love ‘em. Or not. In the case of The Wife Between Us, most of its blurbs appear to have been dashed off by other writers based upon limited knowledge of what’s actually going on in this book. Famous novelists are constantly hit up for this sort of thing; must be a pain. Anyhow, The Wife Between Us is a generic novel piggy-backing on the success of the original blockbuster, Gone Girl. Perhaps had I read Wife before Gone, I’d have experienced it differently. Probably not, though, because while the publicity promises “fiendish” thrills, twists, and chills,the narrative generates very little suspense. Curiosity, yes, confusion, yes, twists, yes, but suspense, nada.

On the positive side, the prose is competent and the plot, though not original, and is repetitive in many places, is cohesive. The female characters are relatable, and Richard’s behavior as a narcissist and a bully with a serious personality disorder is spot on, though Vanessa’s friends, and indeed, the reader notice that he has some serious issues long before either his ex or his fiancée. Emma shows more backbone than Vanessa/Nellie does, until the very end, but I didn’t really care for either of them, weak and manipulative as they are in their own right. The Vanessa/Nellie meme fails as a literary device; many reviewers, even some pros, think the fiancée’s name is Nellie, not Emma. (Richard calls Vanessa his “sweet Nellie”, a nickname she abhors yet never asks him to stop.)

All in all, The Wife Between Us cogently depicts a mental illness, a marriage in ruins, and a wife nearly destroyed by it, but it’s no thriller. I’d like to read Hendricks and Pekkanen in some other, less overworked genre.

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