“Your Perfect Year” by Charlotte Lucas

Your Perfect YearA couple of weeks ago, there was a Pearls Before Swine comic that joked about how easy it is to waste an hour browsing through the Netflix menu looking for just the right thing to watch. I sometimes have the same problem when I’m ready to start a new book. I usually have at least a couple of library books, plus my home TBR pile, and then whatever’s piled up on my Kindle…

A few days ago, after reading the first page of at least three or four different books, I finally settled on Your Perfect Year, which is one of those Kindle First titles you can download for free if you’re an Amazon Prime member. The book is set in Hamburg and was translated from the German; I got a kick out of the copious references to local landmarks and neighborhoods in a city I’ve never visited, plus the fact that the prose sometimes seemed just slightly off-kilter. For instance, when the protagonist encounters some dog poop on the sidewalk, “He wished he could get his hands on the dog-mess miscreants and their damned curs—he’d have a thing or two to say to them!”

Your Perfect Year opens with a stereotypical uptight protagonist, Jonathan, scion of the founder of a storied Hamburg publishing house, who lives a solitary and regimented life. His father, slipping into senility, now lives in a nursing home, and Jonathan doesn’t have much to do with the business—he leaves that to the company’s CEO. His wife left him for his best friend years ago, and he has avoided relationships ever since.

One New Year’s Day, he finds a tote bag containing a Filofax, with the words “Your Perfect Year” handwritten on the first page. Each date features some instructions, ranging from “eat cake until it makes us ill” (March 16) to “rent a camper and drive to the seaside” (August 25). Many of the directives include a mysterious “H” (“Have your breakfast in bed with H., followed by a walk by the Alster”).

Jonathan has no idea who “H” is, but he finds himself following the diary’s orders, and (of course) it disrupts his highly-disciplined life. In alternating chapters, we meet a young woman named Hannah, who is setting up a child-care business with her best friend and waiting for her boyfriend to pop the question. Obviously their lives will intersect at some point, but there are plenty of surprises along the way.

I embraced the oddness of Your Perfect Year, which I enjoyed a lot more than the somewhat similarly-themed French novel Your Second Life Begins When You Realize You Only Have One. It’s all too easy for a book about a cranky, set-in-his-ways middle-aged man finding happiness to become cloying, but since Your Perfect Year also deals with some very sobering topics (you don’t encounter many romantic comedies with plots including suicide, divorce, cancer, alcoholism, dementia and parental estrangement), it never feels trite or sentimental. Dieses Buch ist sehr gut.

“Good Girl, Bad Girl” by Michael Robotham

Good Girl, Bad GirlWhen you pick up a novel titled Good Girl, Bad Girl, you are probably going to assume that it’ll be about two young women: one a saint, the other a sinner. At first, it seems like murder victim Jodie Sheehan must have been the good girl; she was a pretty figure skating champion who lived with her family in a nice neighborhood. Evie Cormac, a troubled teenager confined (with the aid of an ankle monitor) to a high-security children’s home, is “a danger to herself and others,” according to a social worker.

A few years ago, Evie became a media sensation when she was discovered holed up in a hidden room of a house owned by a low-level gangster. The man had been tortured to death, and when Evie was found, she was a total mystery: despite DNA tests and public appeals, the authorities never figured out where she came from or who she was. At that point, she didn’t even have a name, so she was given a new one, and cycled in and out of foster homes before being placed in Langford Hall.

Her social worker recruits Cyrus Haven, a psychologist who works with the local police in Nottingham, England, to see if he can help Evie. Cyrus also comes from a violent background; his brother murdered their parents and sisters, and Cyrus was only spared because he was away at football practice.

As Cyrus investigates Jodie’s death and gets to know Evie, it becomes apparent that pigeonholing either girl as “good” or “bad” is overly simplistic; both of them have secrets and complicated histories. I assumed Good Girl, Bad Girl was a standalone, like Robotham’s last book, The Secrets She Keeps, so I expected that by the final page, everything about Evie’s past would have been revealed. But while Jodie’s killer is unmasked in the end, Evie remains, in many ways, an enigma.

A second novel featuring Cyrus and Evie, When She Was Good, will be published this summer. Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin series (also about a psychologist!) ran to eight volumes, so it’s likely that Evie’s backstory will be parceled out in dribs and drabs in future books. My guess is that there may also be more to Cyrus’s family tragedy than meets the eye. In any case, I found Good Girl, Bad Girl to be fast-paced and intriguing, so I’m definitely on board for the sequel.

“The Last Mrs. Parrish” by Liv Constantine

The Last Mrs. ParrishAfter linking to Reese Witherspoon’s online book club a couple of weeks back, I thought I’d scan through the list to see which of her choices I hadn’t read yet. One of them was The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Constantine (pen name of sisters Lynne and Valerie Constantine), which Reese described as a “fun and fast-paced story… filled with envy, deception, and power. It’s a great reading escape, and there is a thrilling twist at the end! Be warned—you will not be able to put this one down!”

That sounded like my kind of book, so I gave it a try, and Reese (we’re on a first-name basis, right?) was certainly right about the “can’t put it down” factor. I started it on a Saturday afternoon and finished it less than 24 hours later.

Maybe two minds are better than one when it comes to psychological suspense, since the Constantine sisters have written a novel that’s comparable to the work of Greer Hendricks & Sarah Pekkanen, whose three books I consider the peak of the post-Gone Girl twisty-thriller genre. The narrator of The Last Mrs. Parrish is Amber, a young woman who escaped her rough upbringing in Nebraska and moved to a posh town in Long Island with a plan to snag a rich husband and live a life of leisure. Not just any rich husband, though; Amber has her eye on Jackson Parrish, the fabulously wealthy owner of an international real-estate firm. There’s just one not-so-little roadblock: Jackson is already married, and his wife, Daphne, is herself gorgeous and intelligent, as well as the mother of their two daughters. That doesn’t stop Amber from insinuating herself into the couple’s lives in an effort to tank the Parrish marriage so she can step in.

This is, of course, the kind of thriller where everyone has secrets—lots and lots of them. Amber thinks Daphne is just another pampered rich lady whom she can easily outsmart, but Daphne’s not going to go down without a fight…

The ending is so perfect that I felt like applauding. The Last Mrs. Parrish delivered everything I wish for in a page-turner.

“The Glass Thief” by Gigi Pandian

The Glass ThiefThe first book I finished in 2019 was Gigi Pandian’s anthology The Cambodian Curse and Other Stories, so it seemed only fitting that I closed the year with her latest novel, The Glass Thief. This is the sixth novel in her Jaya Jones series, about the adventures of a globe-trotting San Francisco professor who is often called upon to find historical treasures.

The Glass Thief kicks off with a prologue about an eerie mystery: in 1950, the heir to a tea-company fortune died after falling down the stairs of his Paris mansion. Exactly one year later, his widow perished in the same fashion. Right before she died, she claimed that her assailant was a ghost. Years later, one of their descendants became the latest victim of the family curse, pushed by an “invisible hand.”

We soon find out that the prologue is actually the first chapter of a new book by the best-selling thriller writer Rick Coronado, one of Jaya’s favorite authors until he suddenly disappeared several years ago. Rick has sent it to Jaya, hoping she’ll help him make a comeback by working as an adviser on his new book. His series heroine, Gabriela Glass, has a lot in common with Jaya: they are both treasure-hunters. “I feel we’re kindred spirits, you and I,” Rick tells Jaya in a letter. “I’ve read all about you and your travels. You’re living the adventures I once wrote about.”

As she reads on, it soon becomes clear to Jaya that Rick doesn’t just want her to critique his manuscript—he also wants her to help him find a priceless statue that was hidden in the Paris mansion he described. It turns out the novel is a lightly fictionalized version of something that actually happened… and someone Jaya is close to may have been involved. She jets off to France and then Cambodia in search of answers.

Pandian’s books are always a lot of fun, especially for the armchair traveler (though I was so eager for the answers to the central mystery that a chapter in which Jaya goes sightseeing at Angkor Wat seemed a bit superfluous). I did appreciate that she included a couple of Easter eggs for fans of the late Elizabeth Peters, whose mysteries featuring art historian Vicky Bliss and Egyptologist Amelia Peabody were huge influences on Pandian’s work.

There’s a seemingly never-ending supply of new mysteries and thrillers hitting the market today, but Pandian’s books fill a pretty particular niche; if you’re a fan of Peters, Indiana Jones, cozies that aren’t overly precious, or you just like reading about a strong female heroine traveling around the world, this is a series worth checking out.