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?

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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It’s a Mystery : Not Here, by Genevieve Nocovo

Not Here (Dina Ostica Novel 1)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dina Ostica, a 23 year old woman trying not to let her emotional issues control her life, is not the sort of protagonist I would normally choose to read about. When author Genevieve Nocovo approached me about reading and reviewing Not Here, the first book in a planned series, after giving it some thought, I agreed. Dina at 23 couldn’t be more different than I was at that age, many moons ago. While I followed the traditional route of earning a college degree and starting a career, Dina seems to be floating about wondering how to support herself without doing much to at least secure an entry level position with a regular paycheck. Her desire to make a living as a podcaster without a day job is unrealistic, and while she tries to be fiercely independent, she is living alone, broke and somewhat desperate, which only exacerbates her emotional instability. Hence, she makes choices that only a very young, very inexperienced, and very immature person would make. This girl needs a mentor, since she seems disconnected from her parents and is stuck in a quagmire that spurs even more insecurity and desperation.

At any rate, Dina’s pursuit of a podcasting “scoop” that will attract major attention succeeds, but not in the way she had hoped. She tries to expose a conspiracy run by a major real estate firm, aimed at getting rid of tenants living in rent controlled apartments by offing them, so the newly vacant flats can be rented at today’s much higher rates. To make matters worse, when she goes to the police, they brush off her concerns. As a result she is kidnapped and forced to work with the conspirators, knowing that when her usefulness runs out she will be killed. It is at this point in the novel that the action quickens, the suspense builds, and the reader’s interest level shoots up. Watching how Dina copes with her plight, basically alone and relying on her own resources (fortunately she trains at a gym learning self defense techniques, and where she has made a couple of friends who can help.) Her plight is truly horrific, and your heart, while stuck in your throat, goes out to her.

Not Here is a competently written debut novel, and surely its sequel will be even better, as the author hones her skills and ups the sophistication of her prose and presentation.

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It’s a Mystery: The Girl Before, by J.P. Delaney

The Girl Before

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Recently, it’s become increasingly difficult to find new original novels, what with so many authors seeking to capitalize on the popularity of such bestsellers as Fifty Shades of Gray, Gone Girl, and Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and also the dystopian/YA/vampire market. Some book sources are inventing names for new genres. I don’t know about that, but it’s pretty easy to recognize piggy backing for popularity when you see it. Some of the writers doing that are Ruth Ware and B. A. Paris, both of whom I’ve read and enjoyed, and perhaps if their  books had been published first, they’d be the bestsellers. The same can be said of The Girl Before, by J. P. Delaney, but to give credit where it’s due, Delaney has added some twists of her own.

This book focuses upon two women who rented One Folgate Street, an avant-garde, architectural prize winning house in London going for a ridiculously reasonable rent. Emma is the first tenant, the “girl before”, whose occupancy ended with a fatal fall down the interior stone stairs. Her successor is Jane, who is struggling to find her equilibrium following a stillbirth. It’s a mystery why either of them would even consider moving to a place whose creepy, obsessive owner, architect Edward Monkford, presents them with a manual containing hundreds of  restrictions (just the two about no rugs and no books would have killed the deal for me) and has a computerized, visual monitoring system called “housekeeper” that controls the home’s every system and ensures the tenant’s compliance.  The book’s other mystery concerns Emma’s death; when Jane learns about she becomes determined to discover what happened and why. That task is complicated by the steamy affair she and the kinky Edward are conducting.

Though loaded with time-honored  tropes and other derivatives (that creepy “housekeeper”, an owner reputed to have caused the death of his own wife and child, the fact that both Emma and Jane are ringers for the dead wife), this book has its appeal. The atmosphere is decidedly eerie, and the  house, austere as it is, nevertheless provides some clues, as does Emma’s rejected former boyfriend.  Jane’s behavior is often foolhardy, but if you can accept that, the psychological implications of all that goes on are fascinating, as is the surprise that abruptly pops up at the very end. The characters are strange and Edward in particular is odious, but their story is weirdly compelling.