It’s a Mystery: A Slow Fire Burning, by Paula Hawkins

This latest novel from Paula Hawkins truly is a slow burn. A disturbed young man, Daniel  Sutherland,  is found brutally murdered in his decrepit longboat in Regents Canal. The prime suspect is an impoverished young woman, Laura,  who suffers fromTBI and who admits to having had a one night stand with Daniel shortly before his death. The police are finding it difficult to find hard evidence against her, and soon Daniel’s neighbors and  close relatives come into the picture, none of whom appear to have motives. Laura and Daniel himself are the most fully developed characters in this mystery, and throughout most of the book, are the most  sympathetic. 

Reading Slow Fire requires patience, and the ability to keep track of suspects and motives as it progresses is no simple task. I liked this book well enough to finish it, but had to reread certain sections to keep things straight, sometimes more than once. As a study of human emotions, however, it works quite well. Once I was able to pin a specific motive to a specific character, it was not that tricky to figure out which one was the culprit.

Domestic Suspense: Someone Knows, by Lisa Scottolini

Someone Knows



My rating: 3 of 5 stars




Taking a break from her taut crime series, Lisa Scottoline spins a melodramatic tale about six members of a high school clique, whose lives will be forever changed by their reckless behavior on one summer night. Their story is related by Allie Garvey, a shy, socially awkward girl reeling from the recent death of her beloved older sister. The opening sections of the book set the stage for the cataclysm that overtakes the group, which produces the ghastly secret that they swear to keep forever.

The long aftermath of the disaster continues to be narrated by the now thirty-something Allie, married and working as a child advocate. She has never been able to forgive herself for the disaster, which she cannot relate even to her husband or therapist. When the clique gathers once again at the funeral of one of the members, it becomes evident that they too have had to deal with significant emotional fallout. They begin to regard each other with deep suspicion, and other secrets come to light. Pressures build, and one of the members is determined to see to it that they all respect their oath of silence.

Scottolini’s writing is competent, as ever, but many of the scenes are histrionic. You’d expect that from the high schoolers, but meeting them twenty years later, it seems they haven’t matured much. Apparently the trauma experienced at age 15 stunted their psychological development. One of them comes across as a psychopath, others as completely self centered, but their representation as mid-teenagers was authentic. There was enough action in this book to keep me reading till the end, however, and it was worth it for the last minute surprise that I never saw coming.



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It’s a Mystery: Memory Man, by David Baldacci

Memory Man (Amos Decker, #1)

Memory Man by David Baldacci

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Giving this book 4 stars, even though I was not able to finish it. The concept of a man who cannot forget absolutely anything is very intriguing, but this poor main character was afflicted with this condition after discovering the bodies of his murdered family. The writing was competent, but this character’s life was so terribly miserable and depressing that I found myself unable to read to the end. Empaths beware. Otherwise, if you don’t mind this sort of thing, this could be a great story.



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Modern Lit: In Five Years, by Rebecca Serle



My rating: 4 of 5 stars



In Five Years, a novel by Rebecca Serle, is more than a story. Reading it is an experience, with genuine emotional highs and lows. Protagonist Danielle Kohan is a 30-something woman who is the very definition of the type A personality. A corporate attorney living in NYC, Dannie is about to land her dream job and become engaged to long term boyfriend David, and life is going exactly according to plan, thank you very much. In five years, they will be married, living in Gramercy Park, and living large. Returning home from their celebratory dinner and awash in champagne, Dannie falls asleep. In her dreams, she finds herself exactly five years in the future, in a loft apartment not her own, wearing a different engagement ring, in the company of Aaron, a movie star handsome man she’s never met before. The calendar on the wall tells her it’s exactly five years in the future. When she awakens back in her own time and place, Dannie is shaken to her core, unsure about whether she’s had a dream or a vision. What if what she experienced is real?

Up until this point, early in the plot, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to continue reading what seemed to be a rom-com, but now I was hooked. Dannie attempts to follow her carefully constructed life plan, but she isn’t very good and dealing with uncertainty, and soon there will be other changes that will submerge her into depths of hope and fear, anguish and despair, confusion and anger and depression. Serle is a very good writer, but the center of the novel contained too many emotional elements that I simply prefer not to deal with anymore when reading fiction. But that’s my preference; many other readers, judging from their reviews, don’t feel that way. At the final third of the novel, Dannie’s dream comes back into play in a very interesting way, so the plot was redeemed, and I was glad to discover how Dannie would fare, even though I came to not like her very much. I didn’t enjoy the subject matter, but I can appreciate the skill with which this author can put together a story.




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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.

Modern Lit: East Coast Girls, by Kerry Kletter

East Coast GirlsEast Coast Girls by Kerry Kletter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Four high school girls, intelligent, pretty, and vivacious, share a series of idyllic summers on the beaches of Long Island. All of them have less than ideal home lives, and their deep friendship helps to fill that void. Their final vacation together after graduating is bittersweet, separation looming as they prepare to set forth as individuals into life’s next phase. Driving home on their last day, they vow to remain close and visit often, when the unthinkable happens. East Coast Girls is the story of how each copes with a future quite different than what was confidently expected.  Now, at age 30, they meet at the beach one last time, but not without trepidation.

For the reader, what happened on that tragic night is a mystery, clarified slowly and haltingly, until the book ends. None of the women, for that matter, know the whole truth about what actually took place. This is what motivated me to keep reading, because much of the tale, related by each of characters in turn, seemed like a coming of age novel.  Having outgrown the support system they had created, and in the absence of any other, their confidence has dwindled in the face of the daunting difficulties that life pitches at them.

The summer reunion is beautifully developed. It is in this sequence that the characters are their most authentic. It reminded me of the movie The Breakfast Club, which in essence was a successful group therapy session. As in the film, these struggling, damaged women somehow find the nerve to speak painful truths to one another, and can come to understand and accept those truths because they are told by people they once trusted and can come to trust again. During this process, the reader ultimately learns about the traumatic experience that once had the power to divide them, and now has the power to unite.

Difficult material. Well done, Kerry Kletter!

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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 : 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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Historical Fiction: Green Darkness, by Anya Seton

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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I first read and enjoyed Green Darkness years ago while working my way through the novels of Anya Seton. Like most writers, she penned a single masterpiece, The Winthrop Woman, a brilliant piece of historical fiction. Having discovered my copy of Green Darkness at the back of a bookcase, I decided to give it another go, as it’s set in one of my favorite places and eras, late Tudor England.

Seton is skilled at recreating historical times in her books, and GD is no exception. That was the most impressive feature of this novel. With respect to characterization, it can’t hold a candle to The Winthrop Woman’s remarkable Elizabeth.

The protagonist here is Celia Marsden, the theme is thwarted love, and with religious zealotry and doctrine of reincarnation driving the plot, the experiences of 16th century Celia are replayed in the life of 20th century Celia. 16th century Celia is by far the most colorful of the two, and as she is unrelentingly headstrong and self absorbed, she is the creator of her own fate, about which we have a strong inkling from the opening chapters.The 20th century reincarnation of Celia is more mature and reasonable, but also less compelling. As important to the story is the physician, a wise, learned, and compassionate man who plays a large role in the fates of both women, and it is fun to figure out which other historical characters have counterparts in the future.

Though occasionally melodramatic, Green Darkness held my interest throughout, and while I enjoyed this “reincarnation” of the novel a bit less than the first time around, I’m glad, nevertheless to have revisited it.

 

Do you believe in reincarnation?