“Never Let You Go” by Chevy Stevens and “The Marsh King’s Daughter” by Karen Dionne

Never Let You Go by Chevy StevensIf you’re an avid reader, it’s important to have someone whose opinions you really trust who can always be counted on to give you great recommendations. Even though I live far away from her store, Aunt Agatha’s in Ann Arbor, MI, I know I can always rely on owner Robin Agnew’s suggestions. We have remarkably similar tastes! Several of the books and authors I’ve reviewed on this site are ones I discovered via Robin.

Recently, she sent me a copy of Chevy Stevens’ Never Let You Go. I was a little skeptical at first, because from the description, it seemed like a standard “abusive ex-husband gets out of jail and seeks revenge” type of thriller. However, this is a 400-page book that earns its length through a lot of twists and turns. I felt pretty certain I knew where it was going—but I was dead wrong.

The book is told from the points of view of Lindsey Nash, the ex-wife of the alcoholic and abusive Andrew, and their daughter Sophie, now 17 years old. Sophie was just 6 when Lindsey managed to grab her and escape Andrew’s clutches. Infuriated, Andrew got behind the wheel when he was too impaired to drive, and wound up getting into an accident that killed another driver. After serving his sentence, Andrew desperately wants to reconnect with Sophie, and she’s intensely curious about the father she barely remembers. He claims he’s changed, but has he really? Some frightening incidents have Lindsey convinced that Andrew is simply using Sophie to get to her.

I picked up Never Let You Go at around 10 PM figuring I’d read a few chapters before turning in early (at this point, I was about halfway through the book). The next thing I knew, it was 12:30 AM and I was finishing the last page. Even if I didn’t find the characters’ actions plausible 100% of the time, there’s no denying that this is a very compelling read, perfect for that long summer airplane ride or weekend getaway.

The Marsh King's DaughterAnother one of Robin’s picks was Karen Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter. Aunt Agatha’s had hosted an event with the Michigan-based author, and Robin named her book one of the best of the year, so when I saw that Karen was going to be stopping in San Francisco, I trekked out to Bookshop West Portal for her signing. I found her to be such a warm and likable person that I hoped the book would live up to Robin’s praise—and whew, it did!

Dionne and her husband bought 10 acres of land in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the mid-1970s, and stayed for 30 years. So it’s no wonder that she nails the sense of place in this UP-set novel. The Marsh King of the title is Jacob, who kidnapped a young teenager and held her captive in a remote cabin in the wilderness. Their only child, Helena, grew up in these strange circumstances, her only knowledge of the outside world coming from a stack of National Geographic magazines in their cabin. Helena both feared and idolized her father; he taught her how to hunt and track, but he was also capable of astonishing acts of cruelty.

We learn early on that the adult Helena now lives a relatively “normal” life, married with two daughters. She’s still in the UP, but her mother is dead and her father is in jail. Her old life is so far behind her that even her husband doesn’t know about her past. Then one day, the Marsh King escapes from prison, killing two guards and vanishing into the wilderness. Only one person has the skills to find him—the daughter who knows him better than anyone, because he taught her everything he knew. Helena sends her girls away and goes after her dad.

Chapters sent in the present are interspersed with flashbacks to Helena’s past. Dionne writes with authority about life in this rough, rural country; for instance, have you ever wondered what it’s like to shoot a bear? “A wounded bear doesn’t bleed out the way a deer does… Bear bleed between their layer of fat and fur, and if the caliber is too small, the bear’s fat can plug the hole while their fur soaks up the blood like a sponge, so the bear won’t even leave a blood trail. An injured bear will run till it’s too weak to keep going, which can be as far as fifteen or twenty miles.” (If your survival depends on killing animals, you’re not going to be too sentimental about them, though Helena does eventually adopt a stray dog that finds its way to the cabin.)

Unlike Never Let You Go, I took my time with The Marsh King’s Daughter, reading it over the course of a week. It’s a tough, sometimes scary book, but one that truly transports the reader to its harsh yet beautiful world.

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“Since We Fell” by Dennis Lehane

Since We Fell by Dennis LehaneA few years ago, an aspiring mystery author friend of mine was told by an agent that her book was fine, she just needed to move the murder way up so that it happened much earlier in the book. That advice is almost always echoed in articles aimed at wannabe crime authors, like this one by Elizabeth Spann Craig: “Usually the murder needs to occur fairly soon in a book. I know my editors like it that way… If we have a lot of chapters before the body’s discovery, they probably just function as set-up or backstory… which is never popular with editors.”

Now, rules are made to be broken, but I have to wonder if a writer less prominent than Dennis Lehane had turned in Since We Fell that his editor would have gone at it with a machete. A murder is teased in the first sentence of the book, but then the next 200 pages or so are all character development: the story of a young journalist named Rachel who was raised by a single mom who refused to tell her anything about her father. After her mother is killed in an accident, Rachel tries to discover her dad’s identity. She kinda-sorta solves the mystery. Then she travels to Haiti on assignment for the TV station she works for, where she has an on-air meltdown which basically destroys her career, as well as her marriage to an idealistic striver.

Then, about a third of the way through the book, she reconnects by chance with Brian, a private eye who had tried to help find her dad. She happens to run into him in a bar after six months of self-imposed isolation, as she’s heading home from her divorce hearing. They hit it off, and he helps her recover from her agoraphobia and panic attacks. Then, at just about the halfway point, the plot suddenly goes bananas and turns into a high-octane thriller. Apparently, Lehane sold the book to Hollywood a couple years before publication; my guess is that when it becomes a film, the first 50% will be dispensed with in 15 minutes. Heck, maybe even before the opening credits roll.

I don’t want to get into any details of what happens in part two because I usually consider anything that far into the book spoiler territory, but there was just something so disjointed about the way the two halves are fused together. Why include so much about the mysterious missing dad when that storyline had almost zero relevance to the plot that followed? Couldn’t Rachel and Brian have met some other way? (We find out fairly early on that his career as a private eye was short-lived, so his onetime occupation isn’t relevant, either.) Even for a thriller, the second half of Since We Fell requires too much suspension of disbelief. On the plus side, maybe this will turn into that rare book that works better as a film than on the printed page.

“Magpie Murders” by Anthony Horowitz

Magpie MurdersAfter finishing Magpie Murders, it may be a while before I want to read a straight-up whodunit. Anthony Horowitz’s novel puts a fiendishly clever postmodern spin on the traditional mystery format; as a theater fan, I was reminded of musicals like The Drowsy Chaperone and Urinetown, which play with well-worn tropes while also building on them.

The brief opening chapter of Magpie introduces us to Susan Ryeland, an editor at Cloverleaf Books, whose marquee author is the mega-best-selling crime writer Alan Conway. His latest Atticus Pünd mystery, Susan tells us, “changed my life… as I reached out and turned the first page of the typescript, I had no idea of the journey I was about to begin and, quite frankly, I wish I’d never allowed myself to get pulled on board.”

Then the reader is given a couple hundred pages of Magpie Murders, the book-within-a-book, which is a rather traditional English village mystery featuring Pünd in the Hercule Poirot role of genius detective. However, the last pages of the book are missing. Susan’s quest to find them requires her to solve a “real-life” murder mystery, but unfortunately, she doesn’t possess Pünd’s considerable deductive powers, so she has to muddle along the best she can.

Along the way, there are some hilariously pointed observations about whodunits, like this one: “It’s strange when you think about it,” Susan muses. “There are hundreds and hundreds of murders in books and television. It would be hard for narrative fiction to survive without them. And yet there are almost none in real life, unless you happen to live in the wrong area. Why is it that we have such a need for murder mystery and what is it that attracts us—the crime or the solution? Do we have some primal need of bloodshed because our own lives are so safe, so comfortable? I made a mental note to check out Alan’s sales figures in San Pedro Sula in Honduras (the murder capital of the world). It might be that they didn’t read him at all.”

Magpie Murders is about 500 pages long, but thanks to its structure and Horowitz’s breezy writing style, it flies by. In the end, both mysteries are solved in a most satisfying manner, making this book doubly delightful.

“The Secrets She Keeps” by Michael Robotham

The Secrets She Keeps by Michael RobothamLast weekend, I was switching back and forth between three books: George Saunders’ meditation on grief and letting go, Lincoln in the Bardo; Victor Frankl’s classic Holocaust memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning; and Michael Robotham’s thriller The Secrets She Keeps, which was supposed to be the lighter alternative to those two heavy tomes. However, Secrets is pretty heavy in its own right, dealing with serious themes like motherhood and mental illness.

It’s difficult to summarize the plot without getting into spoiler territory; there are some big surprises in this book, though anyone who’s read enough domestic suspense will probably be able to guess at least some of what’s coming. The book is told from the alternating points of view of two pregnant London women: Agatha, who’s single (her ex-lover serves in the Royal Navy, and broke up with her before his current deployment), and Meg, a mommy blogger with a seemingly perfect marriage, home and family. Meg’s third child is an “oops baby,” and her TV sportscaster husband is pretty grumpy about the fact that she’s pregnant. Two kids were enough for him, thanks.

Meg patronizes the grocery store where Agatha works, and in Agatha’s mind, Meg has everything she’s ever wanted: a loving husband, a big family, a beautiful house (Agatha has discovered a vantage point where she can spy on the home). Not wanting to be a cash-strapped single mum, Agatha decides she needs to try to get her ex back. Eventually, the two protagonists’ lives become entwined, and Agatha discovers a shocking secret about Meg’s husband.

Prior to this book, the only Robotham novels I’d read were Bleed For Me and Watching You, which were part of his series featuring psychiatrist Joe O’Loughlin. Both of those books showed that Robotham was a master at writing strong and believable female characters, and the stand-alone Secrets takes that even farther, as the author writes about topics like pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood from a first-person perspective. I was pretty impressed, but the author bio at the end of the novel mentions that Robotham is married and the father of three daughters. My guess is that he has some help in making sure that there are no false notes in his depictions of women’s intimate lives.

Note: The Secrets She Keeps will be published on July 11, 2017. Thanks to Scribner and NetGalley for the review copy.

“Watch Me Disappear” by Janelle Brown

Watch Me DisappearJanelle Brown’s Watch Me Disappear is the sort of summer read that’s dishy enough to enjoy at the pool or beach, but is well-written enough that you won’t feel like you wasted your precious vacation time on yet another Gone Girl rehash. This is a thoughtful examination of family and identity, as well as a genuine page-turner.

Berkeley mom Billie Flanagan disappears while she’s on a solo hike, leaving her devastated husband Jonathan and teenage daughter Olive behind to deal with her loss. Despite extensive searching, Billie’s body was never found (some random detritus, like a boot and a phone, were recovered). Not having 100% solid proof that Billie is actually dead makes the situation even more fraught. Jonathan quit his highly demanding job in order to write a book and to be available to his daughter, but financial pressures—Billie’s life insurance policy requires a death certificate, which is difficult to procure without a body—are driving him to drink. Then Olive starts having visions in which her mother is still very much alive.

Both Jonathan and Olive make discoveries about Billie and her mysterious and complicated past, which she had never been particularly open about. Jonathan also has to decide how to handle Olive’s insistence that her mother is not dead and is, indeed, trying to communicate with her. He also falls into a relationship with Billie’s best friend, one of the few people who knew her before she became a wife and mom.

All of the revelations seem true to the characters instead of simply piled on for maximum shock effect, making Watch Me Disappear one of the most compelling thrillers I’ve read in a while.

Note: Watch Me Disappear will be published on July 11, 2017. Thanks to Spiegel & Grau and NetGalley for the review copy.