The gothic tale The Mist in the Mirror by Susan Hill, author of The Woman is Black, starts out promising but leaves the reader stranded. It is the tale of an Englishman, Sir James Monmouth, who has travelled the globe in the footsteps of his hero–an adventurer named Conrad Vane. The author trots out the usual satisfying tropes of the genre–the barren English countryside, the haunted boys’ school, the gilded manor house at Christmastide–which is richly described and a satisfying backdrop as Monmouth journeys to uncover the truth about Vane. Along the way, he encounters a ghostlike boy, crying in the night, disappearing doorways, a gypsy woman and misty images in the mirror–not to mention everyone he meets tells him to abandon his pursuit, but will not say why. After all the 200 plus pages of build-up, Sir James finally uncovers an aged relative living in the ancestral home, which has some connection with Vane. But despite all the warnings, the ghosts, the mysterious hallucinations, author Susan Hill just ends the story without much of an explanation for any of them (don’t want to spoil it for readers). Hill certainly has the voice down perfectly for this genre and ability to transport the reader back to another time, but the plot was weak and inconsistent.
The new novel by Julia Dahl, Invisible City, refers to the insular ultra-Orthodox Jewish community within New York. The story opens when Rebekah Roberts, stringer to the New York Tribune, is assigned to cover the story of a body found in a scrap heap by the river. Things get complicated when it is revealed that the body is a young mother of the Hasidic community, whose husband owns the scrap yard. Despite these damning coincidences, the body is quietly taken away by members of the Orthodox community’s private police force and buried without police involvement–neither the collection of evidence, autopsy, nor questioning of the woman’s husband and family– all pointing to a suspected NYPD cover-up for the sake of political ambitions and financial donations from the wealthy and powerful Jewish community. Roberts, refusing to let the truth behind the murder of this woman be buried with her, attempts to get answers from a silent Hasidic community, distrustful of outsiders. But Roberts, haunted by her own crippling past in which her Orthodox Jewish mother abandoned her, probes deeper into the murder in an attempt to get answers not just for the victim’s sake, but also for herself. The story is written in the first person and in present tense, lending a breathless immediacy to the action, which takes place over the course of only one week. The story is a well plotted page turner and the characters are well drawn. The author’s own experience as a reporter shines through in the authenticity of the character’s experiences. My only objection is the over-use of profanity and at one point an awkwardly phrased apology to the Orthodox community in the mouth of one of the characters. Overall, an interesting read.
Who doesn’t love a tale of secret identities, impersonators of kings or heiresses, or body-doubles. Mary Miley in her “First Crime Novel” award winning story, The Impersonator, gives us just that. It is the tale of a down-and-out vaudeville actress who is approached by an unscrupulous uncle to take on the identity of his niece, the heiress Jessie Carr, who mysteriously disappeared seven years ago. If actress Leah Randall can convince Jessie Carr’s family that it is she, Jessie, who has returned, she stands to inherit a fortune on her upcoming twenty-first birthday. Leah/Jessie wins over the family–all but cousin Henry–who is the one who knows Jessie’s true fate. The tale is told through Leah’s eyes as she likens the challenge to the greatest acting role of her life, but with life-and-death stakes if she fails. The backdrop of events is early 1920′s Oregon in a world of Prohibition, bootleggers, jazz age costumes, and larger than life stars of vaudeville. It’s a good tale despite seeing some of the twists and turns coming down the road beforehand, and will keep a reader engaged to the end in order to see if Leah/Jessie pulls it off. The narrative voice of Leah is fun, if somewhat unbelievable. The story sometimes drags a bit when the author puts all she’s learned about the era into the mouth of a character for a long exposition on a topic, but it is forgivable. Miley has done her homework on the vaudeville era of the early ’20′s (but I did catch a few phrases that were not likely used at that time.) The ending is very dramatic (no spoilers) and reads more like a romantic thriller perhaps, than a murder mystery. Miley has followed up with a second novel out this year which continues this character’s story called “Silent Murders,” focusing on the silent movie era.
Robert Galbraith’s (aka J. K. Rowlings) mystery novel The Cuckoo’s Calling opens with the apparent suicide of a troubled super-model who falls to her death from her posh apartment balcony. Only her half-brother believes it was not suicide and hires down-on-his luck private detective Cormoran Strike to investigate. Cormoran has no shortage of troubles of his own–just tossed out of his home by his fiancé, his business failing and in debt, and health in crisis, he takes on the case not quite believing it wasn’t indeed a suicide. He soon starts to have his doubts. Cormoran’s investigation is aided by a “temp agency” gal who shows up and stays long after her contract, drawn by the excitement of the detective work and maybe just a bit by Cormoran himself. The novel’s plot is very slow and consists mostly of the investigator interviewing various family members and friends in an attempt to piece together the model’s last day alive before her death. It is full of wonderful prose and vivid descriptions from the worlds of high-fashion to that of drug rehab programs. Galbraith has a talent for painting a vivid picture of these people (most of whom were quite unlikeable) and surroundings, for example, she described the mouth of a wrinkled, aged woman sucking on a cigarette to the anus of a cat. Try to forget that image. For what it lacks in compelling plot twists it makes up for in interesting heros. Cormoran Strike, the bastard son of an aging rock star, Iraq war veteran, amputee, and large hairy man comes to life as a sympathetic and believable character. His temp gal, Robin Ellacott, plays well off his character and we soon suspect that she is attracted to the big lug (even though she’s engaged), which lends the novel a bit of romantic tension. After all, who wouldn’t fall for a homeless, one-legged, big hairy failure of a private eye? Galbraith makes it work. All in all I would say that I finished the impressive 456 pages of the story not so much for the solution to the mystery, but just to see how Cormoran makes out.
The newest YA novel by E. Lockhart, We Were Liars, follows the narrative of a young girl, Cadence Sinclair Eastman, from a privileged family who spends every summer on a private island off of Massachusetts with her cousins and one very special boy. The summer of her fifteenth year something terrible happens which leaves her with memory loss, debilitating headaches, and the urge to give away all her possessions. Returning to the island for a brief stay two years later, she tries to uncover what happened. (None of the family members will talk about it.) Through her scattered and unreliable recollections, we piece together the image of a highly dysfunctional family torn apart by greed, prejudice, jealousy. The perfect veneer of the powerful Sinclair family is ripped away to reveal their true poverty of spirit, Cadence included. The horrible accident which occurred the fifteenth year is the culmination of Cadence’s attempt to right her perception of the wrongs. The author, Lockhart, does an interesting job using the voice of her main character in an almost poetic narrative prose to describe the people and events. She does an outstanding job giving us glimpses and hints as to the character of the adults in the book, whereas the portrayal of the teenaged friends/cousins is less subtle. Sometimes it works, sometimes it feels too forced and precocious for the voice of the young teen. Overall, the book was very readable, the story engaging (although I did figure out the twist miles before the big reveal), but I would say the ending is unsatisfactory. It goes out with a little puff after such emotional fireworks that precedes it.
Can’t. Finish. Book. Got through part one, but cannot force myself to delve on. Anyone else having this problem? This is a prize winning novel—a major prize–and I can’t stand it. Do I have to give up my claim to being literate? It is dull (even when describing a terrorist attack), the characters are not engaging, and I don’t really care what happens to them at this point. The novel is so highly regarded, I feel like a failure. I hear it gets better, but dear God, so many pages to slog through before hope of something interesting. Great prose, no quibble there (with some minor “too much of a good thing” exceptions) but I’m not getting a good feeling for where this story is going. Can you imagine if a debut novelist submitted this to an agent? Ripped to shreds. The most interesting thing about the novel is the fact that the painting described in it really exists.
Paul Doiron, author of The Poacher’s Son, has penned a series of books featuring Maine Game Warden Mike Bowditch. His strength as an author lies in his characterization of the people and landscape of Maine, imbuing his stories with a strong sense of place. I have always been a sucker for stories that do this well. Doiron has created a likable main character in the person of Bowditch–an honest man with a very troubled past. When he makes his bad decisions–which he often does–we as readers are right along with him for the ride. In this story, Mike is obsessed with the disappearance of a girl from the scene of an accident, only to turn up later as the victim of a grisly murder. Mike Bowditch blames himself for not pursuing the missing girl and while conducting his own non-official investigation, runs afoul of the police, public officials, and many others (including his live-in girlfriend). Author Doiron’s portrayal of the brutal poverty of Maine juxtaposed with the natural beauty of the landscape is what keeps me coming back to his stories. The plot in this one, however, lacked something and the big reveal of the murderer at the end felt motiveless and flat. That being said, still would pick up one of his novels for an entertaining read.
I’ve bowed to popular culture and picked up Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. I won’t say much because by this time everyone has probably already read it and formed their opinions. In the past, I’ve read and enjoyed Flynn’s other works of psychological suspense, and after all the ballyhoo over this newest one, was prepared for a real thrill ride. Unfortunately, I was greatly disappointed. I don’t like to write bad reviews (although I think Flynn’s success can ride out my few, negative comments) but there is not much positive I can say about this novel. It starts out strong: Amy Dunne, on her fifth wedding anniversary to husband Nick, has gone missing and all evidence suggested she was forcefully abducted. As the story unfolds, the author peels the onion and gives us a glimpse of a marriage on the verge of collapse. Suspicions shift and we are kept guessing whether husband, Nick, is perhaps a monster in disguise. That’s the good part. The bad part is that every single character in the story is intensely unlikeable. Nick and Amy are self-absorbed, narcissistic, irresponsible, childish, violent and weak. I found I didn’t care whether Amy was dead, whether Nick killed her, and at some point almost hoped he had. The story has some surprising twists, but after one or two the reader starts thinking, “Oh, come on now! I can’t buy this.” The plot, after a rather dull and sagging portion in the middle, becomes more absurd as it hurdles towards the conclusion. I, unlike others, didn’t mind how it ended. I was just glad it was over.
Author Laurie Halse Anderson took on a tough issue in her new YA novel The Impossible Knife of Memory. The story opens with the main character, Hayley Kincain, attending high school in her dad’s home town and feeling alienated from the other kids, who she terms “zombies.” This is the first time Hayley has settled down in one spot since her dad returned from the war in Iraq with severe PTSD. Her life up to this point has been on the road in his rig, lurching from job to job, town to town. He has resolved that his daughter needs to be in one place for a while, but he has not resolved to seek help for himself–which is the real problem. Hayley has been forced into the role of parent to her dad, who is sometimes violent, moody, often drunk or drugged, and is becoming increasingly unstable. She hides the severity of his disfunction from friends, school officials, and her ex-step mother–the one person who understood and was willing to step up and help. Laurie Halse Anderson, author of such prize-winning works as Speak, does a masterful job illustrating the tension in Hayley’s life as she tries to keep her dad safe from others as well as himself. What the author fails to do is write a believable love story between Hayley and an oddball student, Finn. The dialog between these two characters is awkward, out of character, and often breaks the mood of the rest of the novel. I liked Finn and wanted to believe in their romance, but for me it didn’t work. Hayley in the beginning of the novel is such an unlikeable, bitter, and arrogant character that I was bored with her and tempted to put the novel down, but pressing on and with the revelation of more of her background, she became more sympathetic and softer. A good story, but overly long.
I picked up Jeanne Kinkade’s novel “The Zero Line” based on two factors that intrigued me: one, at least part of the novel was set in Ellicott City, Maryland, and environs which is familiar to me and two, in her biography she is a self-confessed former intelligence agent who worked at the National Security Agency (NSA). She goes on to boast that she has worked closely with other three-letter agencies (CIA, FBI, etc.) and written think pieces on troublesome intelligence questions, such as the whereabouts of Usama bin Laden (before his capture.) So, when I read the plot synopsis featuring an exciting turn of events in Pakistan, I was on-board for a spy thrill ride. Sadly, her plot and characters did not live up to (my) expectations. The story opens with a married couple, Polly and Mitch McKenna, uncovering a mysterious hidden compartment in an old clock purchased in Ellicott City. A series of events leads them to believe the clock’s former owner was involved in double-agent activities during the Cold War. A second spy-themed plot line involves a Pakistani extremist planning to kidnap and kill a Marine and release sarin in a crowded city. All potentially very exciting but the story does not deliver. The author gives us some hints about our main characters–Polly and Mitch–but fails to fully develop them so that they come off as two-dimensional and I, as a reader, found that I did not care a whole lot about what happened to them. Polly is supposedly a former intelligence field officer, but her husband doesn’t know it. I found it a bit hard to believe because she comes across as a nitwit sometimes;– for example, a major storm is raging across her town and she waits until the transformer blows before locating a flashlight. The author also never follows up on this thread of her former employment. Mitch has his troubles as well. He is suffering crippling guilt over an unexplained incident which resulted in the deaths of fellow marines. This guilt is sabotaging his marriage, but neither the original incident nor how the couple overcomes it is sufficiently explored. Also, at the end of the book two former Marine friends facing life-threatening circumstances lapse into an unrealistic joking banter a la buddy action movies such as Die Hard. I can believe making a few wise cracks under pressure, but this felt out of step with the seriousness of the rest of the story. My other disappointment was that I was expecting much more insider intelligence descriptions and know-how…I wanted a lot more technical wiz-bang from a former NSAer. There was no real spycraft to speak of in the story. That being said, the author did a good job describing Pakistan–particularly the congested city of Peshawar and the desolate high mountain regions and FATA. The locale added a great deal to the story and I believe one of the strongest scenes in the book was one involving a reluctant extremist setting off a chemical weapon within a crowded cyber cafe, describing his conflicted emotions and regret. It looks like Kinkade has a sequel planned, and that may close some gaps. The first book was attractively produced with a nice cover, but had some editing problems including strange characters in the e-book version.