“Past Tense” by Lee Child

Past TenseAfter reading 2015’s truly disturbing Make Me, I kind of swore off Lee Child for a while, as it struck me as more horror than thriller. But then I saw Past Tense on the new-books shelf at the library, and decided to give it a whirl.

Like Make Me, Past Tense has Jack Reacher impulsively stopping in a small town, in this case Laconia, New Hampshire. “A name Reacher knew. He had seen it on all kinds of historic family paperwork, and he had heard it mentioned from time to time. It was his late father’s place of birth, and where he was raised, until he escaped at age seventeen to join the Marines… But he never went back.”

At this point, anyone who’s read a Jack Reacher novel (this is #24 in the series) knows that small towns in Lee Child novels are always places where bad, bad things are going on, and Reacher will wind up having to save the day, kicking lots of ass in the process. In Past Tense, we get a parallel story about a young Canadian couple on their way to New York with a mysterious suitcase. Their car breaks down near a motel a few miles outside of Laconia. But it’s not a Motel 6, and they’re not going to leave the light on for you.

It’s clear that the Reacher-in-Laconia storyline and one with the Canadians stuck at the creepiest lodging since the Bates Motel are eventually going to intersect. Pleasantly, the Canadians, especially the female, are resourceful, and not sitting ducks for whatever the sinister innkeepers have in store for them.

Getting a glimpse into Reacher’s past is always interesting, and the book subverts expectations a bit by not having him have a fling with the female cop in Laconia; the Canadian woman, Patty, fills the traditional “strong woman” role in this book. (One of the reasons Child has so many female fans is undoubtedly because women are portrayed as powerful in their own right, even if they don’t possess hands the size of Thanksgiving turkeys.) This is an enjoyable read that delivers everything Reacher fans have come to expect when they pick up a Lee Child novel, with just the right amount of suspense and action.

“Daisy Jones & The Six” by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Daisy Jones & The SixI was having a very bad week, so the publication date of Daisy Jones & The Six came along at precisely the right time. I needed an escape, and this book delivered. My only wish is that it could have gone on for another 50 or 100 pages.

Taylor Jenkins Reid is the author of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, one of my favorite books of 2017. In that novel, Reid constructed an alternate history of the movie business around her fictional characters; here, she does the same for the music industry of the 1970s. Daisy Jones is a charismatic Hollywood wild child who joins forces with a Pittsburgh rock band called The Six, not entirely dissimilar to the way Stevie Nicks became a member of Fleetwood Mac after they’d already released a few LPs. The powerhouse duo of Jones and The Six frontman Billy Dunne takes the band to new levels of superstardom; then, in 1979, they abruptly called it quits. This book—which takes the form of an oral history—tells the story of their rise to fame and why they broke up at the height of their success.

The oral history format is interesting and unusual (I don’t think I’ve ever read another novel that exclusively uses this type of conversational style), allowing us to get sometimes-differing perspectives of the same events. Sex, drugs, rock and roll—it’s all here, and depicted so convincingly that I had to remind myself that I couldn’t actually log into a music app and listen to Daisy & The Six’s hit album Aurora.

The only thing I didn’t entirely buy is that in the final pages, where we find out what everyone’s been up to since 1979, there’s no mention of any manager or promoter trying to reunite The Six. They were huge—surely somebody would have backed up a truck full of money to try to get the band back together one more time? A group that leaves the scene at the peak moment of fame and never tries to cash in on their glory days in the decades to come… well, I guess there’s a reason this book is a work of fiction.

“The Incomplete Book of Running” by Peter Sagal

The Incomplete Book of RunningI used to be a runner. I am very proud of the fact that I trained for and completed a half-marathon, along with a variety of shorter races, including San Francisco’s iconic Bay to Breakers (which attracts a mixture of serious runners and elderly nude men, people dressed in gorilla suits, and day drunks).

However, one day I just decided that I didn’t want to run anymore, and that was that. I still try to walk at least four miles per day, but I fully realize that’s not real exercise. (A big part of what I didn’t like about running was that I had to change clothes in order to do it, while even brisk walking seldom makes me break a sweat, especially in the chilly climes of the Bay Area.)

So I’m not exactly the target audience for a running memoir. As a longtime fan of NPR’s quiz show “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me,” however, I couldn’t resist picking up host Peter Sagal’s book, which is also a bittersweet meditation on aging and loss. His daily runs helped Sagal escape from his deteriorating marriage; at one point, he accepts an out-of-town speaking engagement, writing that “My absence was wished for so often and so vividly by my wife that the relief of giving in and leaving was greater than the satisfaction of defying her and staying… In the declining years of my marriage, as our fights became more constant, and more frustrating, my runs became the place where I could say the things I was either too weak or wisely cautious to say out loud, condemnations and defenses that were never contradicted or interrupted because I was saying them into the air.”

Sagal volunteers for an organization called Team With a Vision, which pairs sighted runners with blind ones, and travels to Boston in 2013 in order to run the marathon with a man named William Greer. Hoping to set a personal record, Greer instead finds himself beset by cramps a few miles from the finish line. He tells Sagal that he’s going to have to walk the last mile, but instead, he breaks into a sprint, and the two of them are only a hundred yards away from the finish line when they suddenly hear an explosion. If William Greer hadn’t managed to find his second wind, he and Sagal could well have been injured or killed in the Boston marathon bombing.

That dramatic account, plus the heartbreaking misery of his divorce and strained relationship with his children, may make you wonder if this is really the same Peter Sagal who brings laughter to public radio audiences every weekend. And indeed, I wouldn’t exactly call this book a laugh riot, though there are some poop jokes (ever since he was injured in a bike-riding accident, Sagal’s digestive system tends to act up when he’s running) and witty asides. But primarily, this book shows a different, more serious side of Sagal, one that his fans—runners and non-runners alike—will no doubt appreciate getting to know.

“My Sister, the Serial Killer” by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister, The Serial KillerFor some reason, I tend to feel a weird sense of responsibility to finish any book I start. I rarely abandon books even if I’m not enjoying them. But this week, I gave up on not one but two novels. (One of them was an Edgar Best Novel nominee; I hope that one doesn’t win.) Then I picked up My Sister, the Serial Killer, and I was hooked from the very first lines:

Ayoola summons me with these words—Korede, I killed him.

I had hoped I would never hear those words again.

Ayoola is the staggeringly beautiful younger sister of Korede, a nurse (a useful profession, as it means she’s unlikely to panic at the sight of blood). Bonded by traumatic events in their childhood, the two of them make an odd pair: gorgeous, flighty, flirty Ayoola, who has an unfortunate habit of stabbing to death any man who makes the mistake of falling in love with her; and clear-headed, homely, hard-working Korede, ready to tidy up any mess her sister may leave in her wake. (Be sure not to neglect any blood that may have “seeped in between the shower and the caulking. It’s an easy part to forget.”)

Why is Korede always there to help her sister, even in the most dire of circumstances? “I wondered what would happen if Ayoola were caught… I imagine her trying to blag her way out of it and being found guilty… I relish it for a moment, and then I force myself to set the fantasy aside. She is my sister. I don’t want her to rot in jail, and besides, Ayoola being Ayoola, she would probably convince the court that she was innocent. Her actions were the fault of her victims and she had acted as any reasonable, gorgeous person would under the circumstances.”

Then something finally comes between the sisters: a man. Specifically Tade, a doctor at Korede’s hospital, whom she’s had an unrequited crush on for ages. When Ayoola shows up one day to visit Korede at work, Tade spots her and is instantly besotted. It was one thing if Ayoola killed someone who was a stranger to Korede, but she simply can’t let Tade die at the hands of her sister. But how can she convince him that he needs to tread carefully around Ayoola without coming off as a jealous shrew?

Despite the grim subject matter, My Sister is not overly gory, and while Ayoola seems not to have a conscience, that’s definitely not true of Korede. Nigerian author Oyinkan Braithwaite skillfully balances humor, heartbreak and suspense in this audacious debut novel.

“Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens

Where the Crawdads SingI try to keep tabs on the latest hot crime fiction, but I’ll admit that Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing wasn’t on my radar at all until I noticed it had started climbing the New York Times bestseller list. Credit Reese Witherspoon’s book club for making it a hit. I do think Reese has good taste, and it’s wonderful that she’s using her celebrity to spotlight new fiction by a diverse range of mostly-female authors. I’ve reviewed several of her selections, including recent picks The Proposal and One Day in December.

Where the Crawdads Sing has likely continued to sell well because it has all the ingredients of a word-of-mouth hit. It’s a coming-of-age story, always a popular genre; it tells the tale of a poor, neglected young girl conquering difficult circumstances; and there’s a murder mystery, to boot.

I found the book extremely compelling, and whenever I had to put it down to go do something else, I felt its pull—returning to Owens’ lovingly-described North Carolina marshland felt like a reprieve from the hectic modern world. “The wind picked up, and thousands upon thousands of yellow sycamore leaves broke from their life support and streamed across the sky,” goes one lyrical passage. “Autumn leaves don’t fall; they fly. They take their time and wander on this, their only chance to soar.”

Owens, who spent decades living in isolation as a wildlife scientist in Africa, writes with authority about Kya, a young girl whose entire family abandons her, one by one, until she is left alone. Managing to avoid school except for one traumatic day when the kids in town made fun of her for being “marsh trash,” Kya eventually learns to read from a sympathetic young man who begins to pay visits to her remote cabin and slowly gains her trust. Chapters depicting Kya’s childhood and teen years alternate with ones taking place several years later, in the immediate aftermath of the suspicious death of the privileged Chase Andrews, who is everything that Kya is not: popular, well-off, with loving parents. Eventually, the two timelines intersect.

This is definitely not a conventional mystery novel, but it’s a lovely, sometimes heartbreaking work. And I hope the fans who have made this book a bestseller will go on to discover Karen Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter, which also features a young woman growing up in a wild, beautiful and lonely place.