“Under a Dark Sky” by Lori Rader-Day

Under A Dark SkyIf you were to ask me to describe my ideal reading environment, I might picture a rainy Sunday afternoon, a mug of tea and a comfy couch. Or perhaps a deck chair next to a pool. Even a long flight, provided turbulence and screaming infants were kept to a minimum.

The opposite of those scenarios involves me spending all day trying fruitlessly to catch up on my never-ending workload, followed by a few hours moving and sorting boxes as I try to clear out a relative’s multiple storage units. At the end of the day, I collapse into bed, pick up a book, and feel my eyelids starting to droop almost immediately. That’s why it took me two weeks to finish Lori Rader-Day’s Under A Dark Sky, and the reason I suspect I can’t quite give this novel a fair shake. It’s almost 400 pages long, and it felt long, but is that just because I was reading it in such small increments, when I wasn’t at my best?

The book has a fascinating premise: Eden Wallace, a young widow from Chicago, arrives at a dark sky park (an area with no artificial lighting, allowing visitors to observe the night sky free from light pollution) in northern Michigan on what would have been her 10th anniversary. After her husband was killed in an accident, Eden developed a paralyzing fear of the dark. But she also came across some papers indicating that he’d been planning to take her to the park as an anniversary surprise. Sure, it seems like a terrible idea (sort of like someone who has an incapacitating tulip phobia deciding to visit Amsterdam in the spring), but she decides to go anyway, bringing along some high-wattage lightbulbs to help keep her room nice and bright.

She immediately discovers, to her dismay, that her husband had only rented one room in the park’s guest house, not the entire thing, so she’s going to be sharing the facilities with six annoying millennials who are having a reunion four years after they graduated from college. (Five, actually—the sixth woman is the new girlfriend of one of the alums.) Eden decides she has no interest in crashing their party, and plans to head home the next day. But when one of her fellow guests is murdered, she is forced to stick around until the culprit is found.

Rader-Day writes beautifully about grief and fear, but I feel like the novel could have been a little tighter and the killer’s motive a little clearer. Still, Under A Dark Sky did make me want to visit a dark sky preserve someday. The one in the book is based on the real-life Headlands Park in Mackinaw City, MI, and yes, it has a guest house, though anyone who reads this book will no doubt think twice before agreeing to share it with a group of strangers.

“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.

“The Suspect” by Fiona Barton

The Suspect by Fiona BartonIt’s every parent’s worst nightmare: their teenager is thousands of miles away, and unreachable. Her Facebook and Instagram are no longer being updated; she’s not answering her phone.

This is the terrifying situation faced by two mothers in The Suspect, Fiona Barton’s third novel featuring journalist Kate Waters. (I reviewed the first book in the series, The Widow, a couple of years ago.) Lesley O’Connor’s 18-year-old daughter Alexandra traveled to Bangkok, Thailand, with her friend Rosie Shaw, promising to phone home on the day her eagerly-awaited A-Level results came out. When the day passes with no word from Alex, Lesley reports her missing.

The disappearance soon becomes national news, which brings Kate into the story. Her son, Jake, is also in Thailand, living in Phuket. While he’s older than the girls, it’s concerning to Kate that he’s not been in more frequent touch: “There’ve been three e-mails, but our eldest son told us early on that he wouldn’t be contactable by phone. Said he was freeing himself of all the stress that constant calls would bring.”

Kate follows the story to Thailand, hoping to perhaps pick up some clues to exactly what Jake’s been up to while she’s investigating the girls’ disappearance. In a flashback, we learn early on in the book that level-headed Alexandra and free-spirited Rosie were at odds even before their plane touched down in Bangkok (“Rosie had had three glasses of wine with her hideous airline meal—’The chicken or the pasta?’—and Alex had warned her she’d get dehydrated. Her friend had rolled her eyes and made a big show of flirting with the man in the next seat before falling asleep and snoring gently.”). Alex had been hoping to see the sights, while Rosie’s main interests included partying and boys.

The Widow was fairly bleak, dealing with some pretty unsavory themes, and The Suspect isn’t exactly a feel-good novel either. (Any parent whose kid is angling for a gap year in Thailand will probably refuse to let them go near the place without a sober coach and an armed escort in tow after they’ve read this book.) Barton, a former journalist and editor at major U.K. newspapers, writes with authenticity about how Kate must insinuate herself into the mothers’ lives in order to scoop her rivals. The story is told from multiple points of view (including the police), but I always looked forward to returning to Kate’s first-person chapters, since her straightforward, authoritative yet compassionate voice is the best thing about this series.

The Suspect will be published on Jan. 22, 2019. Thanks to Berkley Books for the advance copy (via NetGalley).

“An Anonymous Girl” by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

An Anonymous GirlWhen I was in my 20s, I would frequently make a little extra cash by participating in studies and focus groups. All you have to do is spend an hour or two answering a few questions, and you walk away with a nice wad of cash. I never thought twice about it—but I guarantee that anyone who reads An Anonymous Girl will never approach a psychological study quite so cavalierly.

Jessica Farris wasn’t even supposed to be participating in Dr. Shields’ research into “ethics and morality.” A freelance makeup artist living in Manhattan, and thus perpetually in need of extra cash, Jessica learns about the study from one of her clients, who states her intention to blow it off, not wanting to show up at 8 AM on a Sunday morning: “I’m not going to set an alarm to go to some dumb questionnaire.” Once she finds out that it pays $500, Jessica decides to go in her place. A bit ironic for a study of morality, perhaps, but she’s got rent to pay.

Before long, Jessica has become the mysterious Dr. Shields’ favorite subject, and the research takes a strange turn—but the amount she’s being paid increases as well, and with her father out of a job and her disabled sister in need of expensive care, she finds she’s caught up in a situation that is quickly spinning out of her control.

Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen wrote one of my favorite thrillers of 2018, the bonkers-but-entertaining The Wife Between Us, and I expected An Anonymous Girl would be another crazy thrill ride of twists upon twists. Much to their credit, the authors have produced a work of more straightforward psychological suspense that does have plenty of surprises, but their priority here is to tell a solid story, not just to keep tricking the reader with misdirection.

An Anonymous Girl will be published on Jan. 8, 2019. Thanks to St. Martin’s Press for the advance copy (via NetGalley).

“Give Me Your Hand” by Megan Abbott

Give Me Your HandI was about 100 pages into Give Me Your Hand when I read a column about thrillers by Mark Harris in the New York Times Book Review. This passage really resonated with me:

Split timelines—the bad past that explains the bad present—are a genre staple, and the emergence of something awful and long-suppressed is such a consistent motif that it has turned many novels into waiting games: “What exactly happened back then? Tell!” Readers speed ahead not because they’re gripped but because they’re impatient with so much calculated withholding.

That described Give Me Your Hand to a tee. Kit, the book’s narrator, learned her best friend Diane’s horrible secret when they were both high school seniors. That shared confidence “showed me what darkness was, and is, and how it works, and how it never goes away or ends.” The novel switches back and forth between “Now” and “Then,” as Kit, who hasn’t seen Diane in years, is suddenly reunited with her when she comes to work at the lab where Kit is employed as a research scientist. The flashbacks give us a look at their teenage years, when they were friends as well as competitors. Kit was the salutatorian to Diane’s valedictorian in their high school, and they competed for the same scholarship.

Kit’s lab is presided over by Dr. Lena Severin, a brilliant and driven biochemist who has recently received a large NIH grant to study premenstrual dysmorphic disorder. Only a couple of postdocs will be chosen for the research team, and Kit is the only female, at least until Diane comes along. They are rivals once more, with Diane’s secret looming between them and, of course, leading to chaos and murder.

With You Will Know Me, about a frighteningly ambitious gymnast, and now Give Me Your Hand, Abbott is becoming an expert at crafting disturbing tales of women who will let nothing stand in their way. I didn’t find Give Me Your Hand quite as compelling plot-wise as You Will Know Me, and it gets overly Grand Guignol at points (if you think the early mention of a menstruation study foreshadows that a lot of blood will be spilled later in the book, you’d be right). By the end, like Kit after her high school graduation, I was grateful that I didn’t have to spend any more time in Diane’s creepy company.

“Something in the Water” by Catherine Steadman

Something in the WaterA few days ago, I was sitting in a packed movie theater watching the domestic-suspense drama “A Simple Favor” when it became clear that the protagonist, played by Anna Kendrick, was about to do something rather ill-advised. As it became apparent what was going to happen, one woman in the crowd suddenly blurted out, “No!” It broke the tension, and a lot of people in the theater laughed. I couldn’t help but think back to that moment as I was reading Something in the Water, the debut thriller by British author and actress (she played Mabel Lane Fox on “Downton Abbey”) Catherine Steadman; I felt like shouting “No!” about a dozen different times.

When Erin and her husband Mark stumble upon a bag full of money and loose diamonds while on their honeymoon, it is pretty obvious that all sorts of horrible things are about to follow. Mark, an investment banker who had lost his job not long before the wedding, had been having trouble finding a new position; Erin, a documentary filmmaker, is in no position to single-handedly keep up the mortgage payments on their posh London home. So a large sum of money would prove very useful to keeping them in the lifestyle to which they’d become accustomed. They decide to keep the cash and the gemstones, leading to all sorts of craziness, like flying to Geneva to open a Swiss bank account and Erin’s approaching the imprisoned elderly gangster she’s been interviewing for her new film for advice on how to sell the diamonds.

Every step of the way, I felt like I had to read the pages of this book through my fingers, it made me so uncomfortable. I guess that meant it was effective, but did I enjoy it? Not one bit. I’m not quite sure why I decided to finish it; since the novel begins with Mark dead and Erin digging a grave in which to bury him, and the rest of the book is told in flashback, I suppose I was curious to find out how it all came to pass. Now that I know, I plan to move on to something less squick-inducing.

“Last Looks” by Howard Michael Gould and “Snap” by Belinda Bauer

Last LooksCharlie Waldo is an LAPD officer turned hermit who hasn’t spoken to anyone in a year when his ex-lover Lorena, a private eye, turns up at his remote property. She wants his help with a case—”the biggest thing since OJ”—but he’s committed to the simple life, having pared down his possessions to a mere 100 items, and has no interest in returning to L.A.

However, Lorena’s visit opens the floodgates, and before long, media reports are falsely stating that the onetime superstar of the force is on the case, working to prove that TV star Alastair Pinch did not kill his wife, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Waldo’s retreat is no longer a secluded haven, and he realizes that “the only way to restore the stillness that had made life bearable again was to go and reclaim it.” So he reluctantly heads back to the big city.

This is a Hollywood satire, and Gould, who has worked on numerous TV shows, writes with an insider’s knowledge of the business. Pinch, a hard-drinking Brit hamming it up as a Southern judge on a terrible courtroom drama, is kind of a bizarro-world version of Hugh Laurie. He swears he didn’t kill his wife, but since he was blackout drunk at the time, even he can’t be completely sure what happened on the night in question.

Gould’s first novel shows a lot of promise, while falling back on a few crime fiction tropes—for instance, Waldo gets seriously beat up about a half-dozen times, which made me think of, well, the Crime Fiction Trope Twitter account:

And of course there’s a lot of build-up until we finally find out why he abruptly quit the force and took up the life of a recluse.

Still, I enjoyed the book and would happily read another one of Waldo’s adventures. Somehow I doubt that Gould will be letting his hero return to his spartan, lonely existence anytime soon.

Snap by Belinda BauerReaders will be hard-pressed to find any well-worn crime novel clichés in Belinda Bauer’s Snap, which is almost startlingly original. I reviewed Bauer’s Rubbernecker last year and while the book started slowly, the sheer audaciousness of the plot (which intertwines the stories of a man with locked-in syndrome and a young medical student with Asperger’s) won me over. Snap is equally bold, and shows that Bauer (who lives in Wales) may be the closest thing we have today to an heir to Ruth Rendell.

Snap introduces us to 11-year-old Jack, the oldest of three young siblings. The book begins in 1998; they are in the car with their mother Eileen, driving down the M5 motorway, when the auto breaks down. (My guess is that Bauer set the book when she did because cell phones weren’t as ubiquitous back then.) Their mom leaves them in the car, making them promise to stay put, while she heads off to walk to the nearest emergency phone. She never comes back, and her body is found a few days later.

Eventually, the siblings’ father gets exhausted having to parent on his own, and when he leaves, they are left to their own devices. Jack, now a young teenager, has begun breaking into houses and stealing things, then selling them to a fence, in order to support his sisters. He is small and lithe and able to creep into the tiniest of windows, and meanwhile, the local police force are stumped as to who could be committing the crimes and how the burglar always seems to know when the houses he hits are vacant. Among the detectives is DCI John Marvel, exiled to “darkest Somerset” from London after “a single unfortunate incident that had resulted in the death of a suspect fleeing custody.” (Unlike Waldo, Marvel is unrepentant about his botched case.) Marvel has no interest in investigating a bunch of boring property crimes. He’s a homicide detective. And then he finds out about Eileen’s unsolved murder…

Bauer isn’t terribly well known in the U.S., but she’s a literary star in the U.K., where Snap was even longlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize (the judges described it as “an acute, stylish, intelligent novel about how we survive trauma”). Interestingly, according to a profile, she hadn’t even read any crime fiction before she wrote her first novel, and maybe that helps explain why her work feels so fresh.