“You Will Know Me” by Megan Abbott

You Will Know MeThe crime fiction genre known as “domestic suspense” has been described as playing on “the universal fear that we might not know those closest to us as well as we think” (Stephanie Merritt, The Guardian). When You Will Know Me opens, Katie Knox’s family presents a united front: they are all working toward a single goal, to help teenage daughter Devon achieve her dream of being a world-class gymnast. Then a suspicious death changes everything.

Katie’s husband, Eric, is Devon’s biggest cheerleader, willing to do whatever it takes to provide her with everything she needs, from the best coaching to the sparkliest uniforms. Devon herself is relentless, pressuring herself to get the best grades as well as the top scores at competitions. Little brother Drew is the family’s “little stalwart,” but recently, he’s been plagued by strange dreams that seem almost like visions, and Katie realizes, “There was so much going on in his head that she hadn’t known before.”

The hit-and-run death of a much-loved young man who was dating Devon’s coach’s niece roils the close-knit, sometimes fractious gymnastics community. (Abbott never tells us in which city or state her story is set—there were times when I would have preferred a little more sense of place, but there is something to be said for making it Any Suburb, U.S.A.) Katie begins to suspect that the people closest to her know more than they’re letting on. But everyone’s first priority, as ever, is to keep Devon from getting distracted. Not even a crime committed in their midst can be allowed to stop her from focusing on her rise to the top of her sport; the girl’s athletic achievements lift up the gym where she practices, as every parent hopes a little of her magic will rub off on their own children.

It’s hard not to read this book, which is written in the third person but primarily shows us the world through Katie’s eyes, without wondering what decisions you’d make if you were in Katie’s shoes. How far would you go, how much would you spend, what sacrifices would you make to give your loved one a shot at Olympic gold? After reading You Will Know Me, you’ll never look at those eerily self-possessed teenage athletes, from gymnasts to ice skaters to tennis players, in the same way again.

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“Poisonfeather” by Matthew FitzSimmons

PoisonfeatherIn the acknowledgments section of his second novel, Poisonfeather, Matthew FitzSimmons writes: “When you write your first book no one cares. Not cruelly but in the casual way that most people don’t care about other people’s hobbies. In retrospect, disinterest in my writing proved a godsend… if you’re lucky, as I have been, a publisher says, ‘That’s great, we’ll publish your book. Now do it all again.’ Suddenly, there are stakes, expectations, pressure. After writing your first book on your own time, writing the second on a deadline is akin to learning the steps to a familiar dance, only backward… and in heels.”

The acknowledgment comes at the end of the book, and I was not surprised to find that writing Poisonfeather had been a bit of a struggle. It’s a solid thriller, but pales a bit in comparison to FitzSimmons’ first book, The Short Drop, which was one of the very best books I read last year. Drop introduced the character of Gibson Vaughn, a onetime teenage computer hacker who was caught, tried, and then given a choice by the sentencing judge: go to prison or join the Marines. Vaughn chose the Marines. His stint in the military turned his life around, so when now-retired Judge Hammond Birk summons Vaughn, he feels he has no choice but to go.

It turns out that Judge Birk has started developing dementia, and he lives on a farm in a filthy single-wide trailer. Unfortunately, the judge invested all his money with a Bernie Madoff type named Charles Merrick, and talked several relatives into doing so as well. Now Judge Birk’s nephew and a friend of his want revenge. They suspect that Merrick, who is about to be released from prison, will be fleeing the country with a sizable nest egg. “Money’s electronic now. If he hid money, stands to reason there’s a digital trail,” says Birk’s nephew. “We need your computer expertise to take the money. Help us take back what belongs to us.”

The search for Merrick’s money takes Vaughn to the town of Niobe, WV, where the disgraced financier is serving his time. Niobe is so well-described that I figured it had to be real, and I Googled it hoping to see photos of the town’s dilapidated bridge and elegant but decaying historic hotel. (Turns out it’s fictional.) Vaughn is joined by Judge Birk’s nephew’s pal Swonger, and the pair meet and team up with a Niobe bartender who has her own complicated reasons for wanting revenge on Merrick.

The book’s denouement is over-the-top violent, with a massive body count. (I lost track of the times Vaughn came within a hair’s breadth of being killed.) The ending teases the reader by dropping the names of a couple beloved Short Drop characters who are MIA in Poisonfeather. Even though the new book doesn’t quite live up to the almost impossibly high standards set by FitzSimmons’ debut, I’m still firmly on board for volume three of Vaughn’s adventures.

“The Woman in Cabin 10” by Ruth Ware

The Woman in Cabin 10I’ve never wanted to take a cruise on one of those giant ocean liners—the odds of coming down with norovirus or another horrible infection seem entirely too high. But a fancy river cruise or a voyage on a luxury yacht? Yes please.

The Woman in Cabin 10, which could do for luxury cruising what “Psycho” did for showers, may have changed my mind. This is a stay-up-late, edge-of-your seat thriller about a young travel writer who sets off to cover the maiden voyage of a posh vessel and winds up overhearing a woman in the neighboring cabin being killed and thrown overboard. No one else on the ship will acknowledge that the alleged victim ever existed, or even that she was onboard at all. Since the protagonist, Lo, is another one of those popular modern constructions, the Unreliable Lady Narrator, not even the reader knows what to think. After all, Lo takes medication for her anxiety, she drinks too much, and she’s trying to get over a traumatic event (a home-invasion burglary right before she set sail) that has caused her to suffer epic bouts of insomnia.

In the grand tradition of village mysteries, Cabin 10 features a small cast of suspects (including Lo’s ex-boyfriend). Even the most luxurious of settings, like the ship’s high-end spa, take on a sinister cast.

If things get a little implausible toward the end, I didn’t mind; I was too busy turning the pages. After my dad mentioned that a lot of the reviewers on a popular online retailer’s website had posted negative opinions of Cabin 10, I figured I should take a look. Predictably, a lot of people are criticizing Lo as being too troubled, too drunk, not a nice person. Personally, I’m not bothered by any of that; I always suspect that many readers of both genders are harder on female protagonists (I almost used the word “antihero,” but I don’t think that really describes Lo). She’s an interesting person caught up in a terrible situation, and she turns out to be incredibly strong. And the plot surprised me at every turn. If you can handle a flawed narrator, and if you have a few hours of uninterrupted reading time (this would be an excellent airplane book), I highly recommend The Woman in Cabin 10.

“Act Like It” by Lucy Parker

Act Like It by Lucy ParkerI’ve been at this for 40 weeks now, which is plenty of time to give regular readers a solid impression of my favorite genre: mysteries & thrillers. They make up probably three-quarters of my reading diet, and have for most of my adult life. I rarely stray into other genres of fiction.

Romance, for example. I know there are a lot of very well-regarded contemporary romance novels being published today; I just have kind of a prejudice against them, figuring I already know what’s going to happen, so why bother? A man and a woman meet and fall in love, an obstacle tears them apart, but they get back together in the end and live happily ever after. At least with mysteries, there’s some suspense over the killer’s identity.

Well, you know what? I read a contemporary romance novel this week, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Linda Holmes, NPR’s pop culture critic, Tweeted out a link to Act Like It a few days ago, stating “I really loved this book” and noting that it was on sale for 99 cents. I really trust Linda’s taste (her recommendation got me hooked on “The Great British Bake-Off”!), and when I saw that it was set in the world of London theater, well, I couldn’t resist.

Lainie Graham is co-starring in a costume drama on London’s West End with her ex-boyfriend Will Farmer (he dumped her for another woman, but she still has to kiss him every night onstage) and the temperamental Richard Troy, whose bad behavior in public is bringing negative publicity to the play. Hoping to burnish Richard’s image, his PR team talks Lainie into embarking on a fauxmance with the actor. Each of them have something to gain: Lainie exerts a promise for a hefty donation to her charity (which, as we find, is very close to her heart), while Richard is angling for a position on the board of a stodgy national arts foundation. (Wait a second, the man is committed to increasing government funding for the performing arts? Definitely marriage material, if you ask me.)

Of course, you know they’re going to fall in love eventually, but Lainie is such a strong, appealing heroine and the theatrical setting is so much fun that I couldn’t put the book down. And while the ultimate destination may not be a surprise, how they arrive there most definitely contains a bunch of twists and turns. I don’t know if I’ll add contemporary romance to my regular repertoire, but I definitely plan to snap up Lucy Parker’s next novel.

“Fair Game: The Incredible Untold Story of Scientology in Australia” by Steve Cannane

Fair Game by Steve CannaneWhen you are viewing a book on Amazon, a gallery of covers appears under the heading “Customers who bought this item also bought…” Looking at the titles underneath Fair Game, I realized I had read five of the eight shown. So, yes, I am literally the target audience for this book.

Steve Cannane is a London-based reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation who is known in his native country for his “interest in exposing unscrupulous behaviour,” according to Wikipedia. No wonder he wanted to write about Scientology, which has provided him with a veritable banquet of human rights violations, spying on former allies, and members forced to disconnect from “suppressive” loved ones.

Fair Game should provide a great introduction to Scientology-watching for Australians who are curious about the cult’s activities in their own backyard, but it has plenty to offer the non-Oz-based reader who has already read Going Clear, Blown for Good, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely, and a Hubbard biography or two. There was plenty of fascinating stuff in this book that was all new to me.

One of the most interesting chapters was “Deep Sleep,” which delves into Sydney’s Chelmsford Hospital scandal. In the 1970s, psychiatrist Harry Bailey used a controversial form of therapy to treat mental patients and addicts, which involved putting them into medically induced comas for long periods of time. Bailey was convinced this would shut down their brains and allow them “to be reprogrammed and cleared of mental disorders.” In reality, the therapy was blamed for the deaths of numerous patients, while others committed suicide within a year of their release. The virulently anti-psychiatry Church of Scientology “played a major role in exposing the atrocities… a rare instance where the Scientologists used their undercover operations as a force for public good.” (Unfortunately, the Scientologist nurse who helped expose the sinister therapy at great personal risk was abandoned by the church; unable to find employment in her field in the aftermath of the scandal, she was left penniless and homeless, finally dying in a nursing home following complications of a stroke that had left her unable to speak for several years.)

Other chapters deal with Scientology’s recruitment of star rugby players, Australian-born Julian Assange’s role in spreading the cult’s secret documents on the Internet in the early days of the World Wide Web, and the surprisingly large number of Australians who wound up holding positions of great power in Scientology, including former Office of Special Affairs director Mike Rinder and Celebrity Centre founder Yvonne Gillham.

The final chapter of the book looks at Rinder’s life after leaving Scientology, and will no doubt shock anyone who isn’t already familiar with the cult’s tactics. Rinder and his wife Christie, a former Sea Org member, have been spied upon, had their garbage intercepted (“Look, I feel really bad, but they are paying me money to give them your garbage,” a sanitation worker told Rinder), and, most bizarrely, were befriended by a young single mom who turned out to be a Scientology spy. Heather “offered to go shopping with Christie, invited her to board game nights and her place and asked if her son wanted to register to play T-Ball with her boy.” After the Rinders moved to a different town, Heather followed, “securing a place a few blocks away.” Christie decided to end the friendship, “but felt tinges of guilt… Had Scientology and its culture of surveillance polluted their minds and made them excessively paranoid?”

As it turns out, the answer was no—Heather was, of course, a spy (though she denied it when contacted by Cannane)—but imagine having to be suspicious of every person you meet, wondering if they’re being paid to report on you. How could you ever trust anyone again?

Fair Game has a happy ending, of sorts: “The 2011 census found that just 2,163 Australians called themselves Scientologists.” (The census also showed that “Australians who describe themselves as Jedis now number over 65,000, over 30 times higher than Scientology’s figures.”) Despite the fact that a 145,000-square-foot Scientology facility just opened last month in Sydney, Tony Ortega revealed that “the church admitted in an environmental impact report that the Advanced Org will serve only about 87 customers on a given day.” Thanks to intrepid reporters like Cannane, it’s unlikely that meager number will grow anytime soon.