“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.

“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.

“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.

“The Lying Game” by Ruth Ware

The Lying GameAfter last year’s blockbuster The Woman in Cabin 10, British author Ruth Ware is back with her third thriller, The Lying Game. The online reviewers who blasted Cabin 10‘s protagonist, Lo, for not being sufficiently likable should be happier with new heroine Isa, a young mum whose main priority is her baby Freya:

“She is mine and my responsibility. Anything could happen—she could choke in her sleep, the house could burn down, a fox could slink into the open bathroom window and maul her. And so I sleep with one ear cocked, ready to leap up, heart pounding, at the least sign that something is wrong.”

As the book begins, Isa is summoned to the village of Salten by her old boarding-school friend Kate. Two other former classmates, Fatima and Thea, are also called. The four women have wound up in very different circumstances in the two decades since they were at school together. Fatima is a married doctor with two children, and she’s also become a practicing Muslim; Thea is a mess, anorexic and alcoholic; Isa is a civil servant living with her partner (and Freya’s dad) Owen. They are all Londoners, while Kate has remained in Salten, where her father once served on the faculty of the school. She is either unwilling or unable to move on with her life.

The book builds slowly, since the reader doesn’t know exactly what’s going on until almost halfway through. We know that Kate’s summons is a very big deal, important enough to make her three former besties drop everything and come running. Something big happened at the school to cause the quartet to get expelled. In the present day, we learn that a human bone recently turned up on Salten’s beach; that is presumably the reason for Kate wanting to get the gang back together, but it takes a while to learn whose bone it is and how and why it may affect the women.

The title of the book implies that no one can truly be trusted—it refers to a game the girls played in school, where they would try to lie convincingly and win points if outsiders fell for it. (They vowed never to lie to each other, though eventually the reader may suspect that perhaps Freya is the only character with nothing to hide.) Unlike Cabin 10, which kept me up late into the night furiously turning the pages, The Lying Game moves at a more leisurely pace; its biggest assets are its diverse, well-rounded quartet of main characters, and Ware’s vivid descriptions of the joys and terrors of motherhood.

Note: The Lying Game will be published on July 25, 2017. Thanks to Gallery Books/Scout Press and NetGalley for the review copy.

“Before the Fall” by Noah Hawley

Before the Fall by Noah HawleyMy book group read Before the Fall a few months ago, but I was unable to attend that meeting—and when I saw that the book was about a plane crash, I decided to give it a miss. I can sometimes be a nervous flyer, and it didn’t seem like a good idea to read a novel on the subject shortly before I was due to embark on a 10-hour transatlantic flight.

When the book won this year’s Edgar Award for best novel, however, I figured I should check it out. Unlike every other mystery award, the Edgar is peer-reviewed, and the people on the committee read tons of books. As a result, the winning entry has to be interesting and different enough to captivate a group of readers who are accomplished writers themselves.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about Before the Fall is how incredibly timely it feels, despite the fact that it was published a year ago and written well before that. The story deals with  the intersection of a couple of very wealthy families and a Fox News-type network, which is drumming up ratings by exploiting a family tragedy (shades of the Seth Rich story). I was half-expecting a politician with small hands and bad hair to show up.

The mysterious crash of the luxury private jet, which was flying from Martha’s Vineyard to New York City, killed nine people and left two survivors: four-year-old JJ Bateman and painter Scott Burroughs, who had been invited aboard the flight by JJ’s mom Maggie. The wife of David Bateman, head of the Fox-like network ALC News, Maggie had taken an interest in Scott’s art and impulsively asked if he’d like to join them when she found out he was heading to the city for some meetings.

Not quite a starving artist, but not a terribly successful one either, Scott was trying to turn his life around after recovering from alcoholism. He had painted a series of large-scale works depicting disasters—an oncoming tornado, a house on fire, and even a plane crash—before stepping aboard the doomed aircraft. Scott’s unlikely survival, and the motif of his paintings, make him an object of suspicion to ALC News’ O’Reilly-like news anchor, Bill Cunningham (“the angry white man people invited into their living rooms to call bullshit at the world”). Ironically, before he died, David Bateman had made moves to push Bill off the air, because he’d been caught tapping the phone of a rival broadcaster. Before he could get rid of him, David died, and Bill immediately turned his old boss into a martyr, promising every night that he would not rest until he got to the bottom of what had really happened to that flight.

Before the Fall is a dense 400-page novel, and it probably could have been cut by 50 pages if Hawley, writer and showrunner for FX’s acclaimed series “Fargo,” hadn’t spent quite so much time waxing philosophical. A random example: “We believe we have invented our machine world to benefit ourselves, but how do we know we aren’t here to serve it? A camera must be aimed to be a camera. To service a microphone, a question must be asked. Twenty-four hours a day, frame after frame, we feed the hungry beast, locked in perpetual motion as we race to film it all. Does television exist for us to watch, in other words, or do we exist to watch television?”

Because I read a lot of thrillers that are only trying to deliver the purest adrenaline rush possible, I actually appreciated a lot of Hawley’s flowery musings, but after a certain point, I just wanted to find out what had happened to the plane. But I’m guessing that willingness to grapple with The Big Questions is what made the committee select After the Fall for the award. Many years from now, this is the sort of book people will turn to in order to find out what life was like in this peculiar era.

“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.