John Hart came highly recommended as a great writer of mysteries with plot twists, angst filled characters, and plenty of page-turning thrills. I chose King of Lies–a tale that revolves around an unhappy lawyer, Jackson Workman Pickens–trapped in a miserable marriage who let the love of his life get away. His world becomes truly unglued, however, when his father–a hate-mongering, abusive, but very rich man–is found dead with two bullets in his head. When the will is revealed and Jackson has only a shaky alibi at best, he becomes a prime suspect. But he has even bigger worries and that is how to protect his troubled sister who he believes is the real murderer. Author John Hart gets full marks for creating the small world of the southern town which quickly turns on Jackson with only the slightest hint of suspicion to go on. He draw the complex relations between Jackson and his wife, his father, his sister, and his lover in rich detail and does put one in mind of Pat Conroy in that regard. Although I liked the story overall, I felt the first half was very slow as Hart draws the relationships and shows us Jackson’s obsession with protecting his sister who he believes with very little to go on that she had the motivation and means to kill their father. I thought that plot line was weak since there would be any number of other business partners or disgruntled clients who would have had means and opportunity to do the deed. The story takes off when the legal/court room scenes take center stage and Hart shows his mastery of legal loopholes and slight of hand. Once Jackson launches his own investigation to find the murder, it becomes much more of a who-done-it and less of a psychological family drama. Would I read another by this author–yes. Many of his main characters are deeply flawed and frankly not very likable at all, but he makes them fully real and human.
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Award winning mystery writer Ann Cleeves creates a picturesque tour of the north Shetland islands in her book Thin Air, providing much atmosphere to the story of a ghostly little girl and a woman who goes missing. The plot centers around a group of “southerners” from London who arrive to celebrate the recent marriage of one of their university friends to a local fellow. The group of old friends are vastly diverse, ranging from an outgoing film producer to a neurotic, insecure librarian. Their first night on the island, Eleanor, a bold and sensual woman who is suffering from the recent loss of a baby, disappears and is later found dead along the water’s edge. Her death is complicated by the fact that she was researching the similar death of a 10-year old girl in 1930 whose ghostly sightings either presage pregnancy (or death). Hometown detective Jimmy Perez is brought on to the case along with lead investigator, Willow Reeves. This is problematic for those of us who have not read Ann Cleeves’ previous works featuring these characters, because she devotes a lot of attention to Perez’s grief over losing his lover and caring for her child. She also alludes to a budding attraction between Willow and Jimmy that never really gets off the ground. I found it hard to care about any of these characters and their internal sufferings since I did not know them well and felt all this background just dragged down the pace of the story. On the positive side, I enjoyed Cleeves’ descriptions of the countryside and the people, and found myself looking up a lot of words from the local lingo (peerie, hamefarin, and names of numerous shore birds). I liked the premise of the story–part historical ghost story, part murder mystery–but the plot did not deliver for me. After the first body is found (yes, there is always a second murder) the pace of the investigation was slow and wandered off course into the lives and angst of too many characters: all of the university chums, their spouses, some local innkeepers, parents of the home town boy and on and on. Some of these characters became significant to the story and some were perhaps included as red herrings, but on the whole it had the feel of a first draft in need of more stringent editing. A lot of the investigation was talking to people while other matters, such as the autopsy results, were brought up and then dropped. The ending (no spoilers) felt rushed and was merely dropped in the reader’s lap in the form of a big confession, tying up all the threads quickly with various explanations. It was too convenient, after dangling all these enticing tidbits and clues in front of the reader for over 300 slow pages. I understand Cleeves has an enormous following and that this was perhaps not the best book to start with, so I will have to give her mysteries another chance.
I recently picked up a copy of Erika Robuck’s novel FALLEN BEAUTY, featuring a fictionalized account of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s encounter with a local seamstress, while she was writing her sonnets at Steepletop. Author Robuck’s earlier novels HEMINGWAY’S GIRL and CALL ME ZELDA clearly point to her love of strong and intriguing women of the ’20’s and ’30’s. Who can blame her? Although I have not read her other novels, BEAUTY has at least prompted my interest enough to delve more deeply into the works and biography of Millay and finally read the definitive biography on her, SAVAGE BEAUTY by Nancy Milford.
Robuck’s imagined Millay is at times repulsive and at others endearing and sympathetic. She captures the capricious nature of the poet along with her extremes of passion. The Millay character, based on what I assume is exhaustive research, plays against the character of a local seamstress, Laura Kelley, who has been left to raise her illegitimate daughter alone, abandoned by a cowardly lover in a small-minded town. The story alternates between the lives and view points of these two different women, until circumstances push them together as Laura secretly creates sumptuous costumes for Millay’s readings.
The book description tells us each woman is forced to confront what it means to be a fallen woman and what price she is willing to pay to live a full life. I see that in the character of Laura, but not so much with Millay. In fact, in the end, the Millay character rather falls off the stage of the novel for a while as Laura Kelley finds new love and confronts old enemies. Although I enjoyed the story, I felt that all of the women in it (Laura and her sister, Marie; Laura’s nemesis Agnes; Millay) were emotionally overwrought all of the time to the point that I found some scenes quite hard to believe and exhausting. The work also transformed from a fictionalized account and exploration of Millay to a sort of romance novel half way through and to the end.
Roebuck created a richly imagined small town populated with a variety of characters and a situation not dissimilar from The Scarlet Letter and then inserted the bohemian lifestyle of Millay as counterpoint. It is a worthy concept to explore, but I’m not sure it was fully developed.
I’m a fan of mystery writer Paul Doiron and feel as if I discovered him (after all, I was one of the first to read his Edgar Award finalist novel The Poacher’s Son and recommend it to my mystery loving friends.) His latest work, The Precipice, takes us to the Hundred Mile Wilderness area of the Appalachian Trail in Maine. Two young women have gone missing, so heroic game warden Mike Bowditch is called in to help with Search and Rescue, interrupting a romantic vacation planned with his new girlfriend, wildlife biologist, Stacey Stevens. During the search, Bowditch is teamed up with a legendary AT hiker “Nonstop” Nissen, who is fit but misantrhopic volunteer with a shady past. When the girls fail to turn up, it looks more and more doubtful they will be found alive. Meanwhile, those who encountered the girls along the trail are telling stories with varying degrees of relation to the truth. Tensions mount when their bodies are found at the bottom of a precipice, torn apart by wild coyotes. The townspeople and hikers spin out of control in a witch hunt to eradicate the coyotes, but meanwhile, Bowditch has his hunch it was human, not canine, that caused their deaths. The book comes to an exciting man hunt conclusion, rife with backwoods violence.
What I particularly enjoy in all of Doiron’s novels is the wild and terrible beauty of backwoods Maine. He paints a realistic scene of both the poverty, ignorance and squalor along with the natural landscape and breathtaking wilderness. The beauty of nature is often juxtaposed with the ugliness of life. In this story, his description of the life and culture of the Appalachian Trial day and thru-hikers is fascinating and a colorful backdrop. His treatment of the life of a game warden is handled well, especially when describing the frustration of working with FBI, local police and sheriff’s office during an investigation, illustrating the limitations of his powers. This story kept me guessing to the end (and not wanting to reveal any spoilers, I won’t elaborate.) I did not, however, feel as if the motivation for the perp was sufficiently explored. Also, Doiron has his fun with several misguided preachers in the story, casting them in a very poor light. Some of the tale hinges on the possible motive of a hate crime, when it is revealed that the “Bible student” girls were secretly lesbians. This part of the story feels a bit artificial and forced in order to play against the moral certitudes of these two-dimensional self righteous preachers. Another thing I felt was missing from the end of the story was the reaction of the parents. The girls both have powerful parents who fly into Maine to oversee the search efforts. We get a glimpse of them with the impression they will continue to cause problems for law enforcement, especially when it is revealed that the girls were a couple, but then they drop from the picture. Lastly, I did not enjoy the character of Stacey, Bowditch’s new love interest. I felt she was unnecessarily erratic, cold to the point of being cruel at times, and generally unloveable. It was hard to believe he would see anything in her.
Overall, as always, Doiron delivered a great story sprinkled through with beautiful descriptions of the Maine landscape.
P. D. James is the undisputed mistress of murder. She set the bar for the detective murder mystery genre, so why did I have such a hard time getting involved in the novel “A Mind to Murder”? It is a mystery featuring her enigmatic detective Adam Dalgliesh and is set in an exclusive psychological treatment hospital. Promising indeed. The victim is discovered early in the story–a much disliked administrative official–stabbed with a chisel in the basement records room. From there, the story sags as the detective interviews all the doctors and staff on the minute details of their movements prior to the murder. I admire James’ attention to detail, but as a reader this was a bit tedious because the same information was repeated and it was extremely difficult for me to keep track of a dozen new characters who were introduced all at once with little to distinguish them from each other. The mystery picked up when we are given a glimpse into the more private lives of these characters from a different POV, usually their own. The ending was satisfying with a little last minute twist at the end. As always, James is masterful in creating realistic people and describing them with just the right touches of detail. Dalgliesh is an intriguing detective and well-rounded creation full of his own insecurities and unexpected talents, like poetry writing. Once I became engaged with the characters I enjoyed the book and you can’t beat James for layered plots and unexpected turns.
Mary Rickert’s novel The Memory Garden is the story of a foundling, Bay Singer, who struggles with who she is and the powers she may possess as she comes of age. Bay’s mother, Nan, is a woman her grandmother’s age, who behaves in ways which embarrass young Bay and which have caused the neighborhood kids to dub her a witch. The story takes place over only a few days when Nan decides to invite her long-estranged girlhood chums to a weekend together at her magical home, but with the hidden agenda of finding someone who will agree to take care of Bay. The author hints at something that occurred in the past involving these old women which strained their friendship to breaking and has haunted each in a unique way. The story unfolds very slowly, but with lovely bits of magical realism and sensory descriptions of Nan’s enchanted garden. It is told in two alternating viewpoints: Bay and Nan. I must admit that at times I became impatient and felt as if I was trapped in an old woman’s confused thinking and wished for some clarity, but the teasing hints of what these women did as young women kept me reading to find out. If you are looking for a leisurely read with some magical elements, this is the book.
I’ve been neglecting my reading list and book reviews lately while I concentrated on finishing writing False Gods, a Young Adult novel which, at first glance, is about a girl shooting for the Washington International Horse Show against the odds. On a deeper level, the story is about the nature of desire and whether what you want in life twists and torments you or lifts you up and fills the void. For the months of December and January, all proceeds are going to a local church’s youth program. The book is now available on Amazon http://amzn.to/163iXsS in paperback and ebook versions. Please post a review on Amazon if you buy it! #YA #horses #FalseGods
Thanks Blog followers and I hope to be back with some book reviews soon.
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.
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.
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.