“Need to Know” by Karen Cleveland

Need to KnowI received a free copy of Need to Know by Karen Cleveland in my CrimeFest book bag, and will admit that I was captivated by the clever design of the advance readers’ edition: if you bend the paperback in one direction, the page edges read HE’S YOUR HUSBAND; if you bend it the other way, the letters turn into HE’S A SPY. Cute gimmick, but would the book live up to the packaging?

Cleveland has crafted a twisty thriller about a CIA counterintelligence analyst named Vivian who learns very early on in the book that her husband of 10 years is a Russian spy. She confronts him immediately, and he confesses that instead of all-American Matt Miller, he’s actually Volgograd-born Alexander Lenkov. He courted and married her simply because he was following his Russian masters’ orders, but now, he swears that he really does love her—and their four young children, who complicate everything. Vivian realizes that turning in her husband would wreak havoc on her kids’ lives; her job is demanding and Matt does most of the child-rearing. Perhaps, she thinks, if she can unmask Matt’s handlers, he could escape their grasp, and they could return to a normal life. That is, if she can ever forgive him… or trust him.

Cleveland, a former CIA analyst herself, does a great job of getting into Vivian’s head and making readers experience her feelings of confusion, fear and fierce maternal love. The book is a quick read, and while I’m not a huge fan of spy thrillers, the domestic-suspense aspect was definitely in my wheelhouse. The ending may prove divisive—this would be a good book-club selection, since readers could debate whether they’d make the same decisions Vivian did in the same circumstances. And with all the talk of Russian interference into U.S. politics in the news, it’s certainly a timely novel.

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“Force of Nature” by Jane Harper

Force of Nature by Jane HarperMy friends Janet and Frank own a company that puts on  teambuilding events for corporate clients. These tend to include activities like sandcastle building and assembling kids’ toys to donate to charity. They certainly do not send small groups of people into the Australian bush to face a variety of horrors ranging from venomous snakes, torrential downpours, and a creepy cabin that may have been home to a notorious serial killer.

Jane Harper’s sequel to The Dry brings back Melbourne investigator Aaron Falk, who had been covertly working with Alice, one of the teambuilding participants, to get some inside information on financial malfeasance at her company. When Alice fails to return with the rest of the group, Aaron and his partner Carmen Cooper are called in.

The book alternates chapters told in flashback which show the reader just what happened on the hellish outing with ones describing the investigation. We learn that Alice’s group got lost in the bush, and as the women ran out of food and water, they gradually begin to turn on each other.  Harper’s writing is so vivid that reading about the teambuilding exercise almost becomes uncomfortable; I am someone who prizes comfortable shoes, so the descriptions of one participant hiking for miles in chafing, ill-fitting footwear practically had me rubbing my heels in sympathy. Of course, a few blisters are nothing compared to a snakebite. (Everything in Australia wants to kill you!)

Force of Nature isn’t quite as assured as The Dry, mainly because Harper overloads the book with complications: two of the women on the trip are identical twins with a fraught relationship; two other women, including Alice, have troubled teenage daughters; Falk’s partner Carmen is engaged to be married, but there’s some bubbling sexual tension between the two agents. Then there’s the long-dead (or is he?) serial killer. The Dry benefited from its focus on Falk and his backstory, while Force of Nature feels a little more scattered, as if Harper kept coming up with ideas and just decided to throw them all into the mix. Still, she does very well at building suspense, and Falk is a likable and sympathetic character. Chances are that anyone who reads Force of Nature will run the other way if their company ever tries to send them on an Outward Bound-type retreat.

“The Woman in the Window” by A.J. Finn

The Woman in the WindowThere’s a great Twitter account called CrimeFictionTrope which satirizes trends in mystery publishing. Sample Tweets: “I can’t believe, after that whirlwind weekend courtship, that my husband is not who I thought he was.” “I applied to be a cop. But was disqualified because I’m not divorced with a teenage daughter I adore but rarely see.” “In my new thriller, a sexy heiress with amnesia almost struggles to escape a serial killer with amnesia. The title: THE GIRL WHO AM I.”

The anonymous writer behind CrimeFictionTrope has Tweeted quite a few times about The Woman in the Window, which seems to tick all of the post-Gone Girl suspense thriller boxes: A damaged, unreliable, alcoholic narrator! Rich white people in New York City! A mysterious trauma that you don’t learn the details of until 3/4 of the way through the book!

A.J. Finn, the nom de plume of William Morrow vice president Dan Mallory, obviously succeeded in his attempt at writing a highly commercial book, since it’s #1 on the New York Times hardcover list this week. (“There is no doubt worth in the kind of writing that only 12 people will appreciate, but I don’t consider that the best use of my time,” he told The Guardian.) I keep telling myself that I’m going to stop reading so many twisty thrillers, which are the literary equivalent of M&Ms, but I was stuck in bed with a cold and I desperately needed a fun, easy read. Suffice it to say that I finished The Woman in the Window in a single afternoon, but I’ll admit that CrimeFictionTrope lurked in the back of my mind the entire time.

Our Unreliable Narrator is Dr. Anna Fox, a child psychologist who has lived like a recluse in her four-story Harlem townhouse (real estate porn alert!) for the past year, due to her PTSD from the event that is fully explained… eventually. She’s on all sorts of psychiatric drugs, but she also drinks Merlot by the gallon. Her hobbies are playing chess online, watching black & white movies, and spying on her neighbors. In a nod to “Rear Window,” she believes she witnesses a murder—but of course no one takes her seriously.

“I shy and shrink from the light, and a woman is stabbed across the park, and no one notices, no one knows. Except me—me, swollen with booze, parted from her family… A freak to the neighbors. A joke to the cops… A shut-in. No hero. No sleuth.”

So much alcohol is consumed in this book that I started feeling a little woozy myself, and I was drinking nothing harder than herbal tea. If you’re looking for the midwinter equivalent of a beach book, or something to keep you occupied on a long flight or a sick day, The Woman in the Window is here for you; the calories are as empty as those in a bottle of wine, but it does go down smooth.

“If I Die Tonight” by Alison Gaylin

If I Die Tonight by Alison GaylinSmall-town gossip has been a popular subject in books for decades now—see Peyton Place for one notorious example—but today, social media means that everyone in town has instant access to word-of-mouth whispers. Alison Gaylin’s If I Die Tonight, which deals with the death of a teenager and the swirl of rumor and innuendo that follows in the wake of that tragedy, feels very of-the-moment; she makes it clear that it’s not just the kids who are on Facebook. The parents are there, too.

Liam Miller, a high school football star in the Hudson Valley town of Havenkill, NY, died a hero, according to the local grapevine: he was killed while trying to prevent a carjacking. Of course, if a story has a hero, it also needs a villain, and that role is filled by troubled teen Wade Reed. He fits the (admittedly vague) description of the assailant, and other bits of circumstantial evidence ensure that many people in Havenkill are determined to blame him for Liam’s death.

Wade’s mom, Jackie, is struggling to raise him along with his younger brother Connor, despite the fact that the boys’ father is no longer in the picture—her attorney ex-husband pays child support but is otherwise not involved in his sons’ lives, choosing to spend time with his new family, including his younger second wife. Jackie is a real estate agent, a business which requires her to maintain a squeaky-clean reputation locally; the accusations being hurled at Wade endanger her ability to make a living.

If I Die Tonight also features several secondary characters, including a has-been ’80s pop star named Aimee En (the carjack victim) and Havenkill police officer Pearl Maze. I must admit that I rolled my eyes a bit as Gaylin rolled out the details of Pearl’s tragic past, which has caused her to fall into a life of one-night stands with guys she meets on hook-up apps. Jackie just felt like a more realistic, well-rounded character, and her up-and-down relationship with her two adolescent sons felt very true-to-life.

I’d classify this book as a thriller, but it’s not as over-the-top twisty as other books in the genre. The trial-by-social-media aspect of If I Die Tonight seemed scarily plausible, and will no doubt resonate with anyone struggling to parent teens in today’s brave new world.

If I Die Tonight will be published in the U.S. on March 6 (it was released in the U.K. in August of last year). Thanks to Janet Rudolph of Mystery Readers International for the advance copy.

“Origin” by Dan Brown

Origin by Dan BrownIt’s a little embarrassing to come out of the closet as a Dan Brown fan. Most of my bookish friends disdain his pedestrian prose, flagrant overuse of italics and cardboard characters. Even legendary Hollywood nice guy Tom Hanks, who has starred in no less than three films based on Brown’s books, threw shade at the author in a recent New York Times By the Book column:

Q: Which genres do you avoid?
A: Novels of murder and conspiracy.

Sick burn, dude!!

Considering that Inferno (the most recent Brown film adaptation) tanked at the box office, my guess is that Hanks will not be making a return appearance as Robert Langdon, so he can go ahead and talk smack about the best-selling series. But here is why I read Brown’s books:

1. The European settings. Brown is like a Rick Steves for literary thrill-seekers. I always have to read his books with my phone at hand so I can look up photos of all the places he references. In Origin, set in Spain (a country I have, unfortunately, never visited), they include the Sagrada Família, Guggenheim BilbaoValle de los Caídos, El Escorial’s Pantheon of the Kings and Casa Milà.

2. Conspiracies and secret societies. Unlike Hanks, I love ’em. The designated bad guys in Origin are members of the Palmarian Church, a bizarre and apocalyptic offshoot of Catholicism with its own pope and saints. There are also hints of wrongdoing in the upper echelons of Spain’s royal family, headed by a dying king who is close to a very conservative bishop.

3. Puzzles. Langdon is a professor of symbology, and every book requires him to solve numerous brain-teasers in order to get to the bottom of whatever enormous conspiracy he’s delving into (always in the company, of course, of an insanely smart and gorgeous woman—in this case, Ambra Vidal, director of the Guggenheim Bilbao in Brown’s fictional world; the real-life director is this sixtysomething Spanish dude). Incidentally, I discovered a coded message in the jacket copy of Origin; fun!

4. Page-turning factor. I always race through these books, and one reason is that Brown knows how to hook you. One of his clever tricks: end a chapter with a huge cliffhanger, but then don’t resolve it until a few chapters down the road. You’ll keep reading because you’ve got to find out what happens!

Origin kicks off as Edmond Kirsch, a genius billionaire inventor/futurist who is depicted as a combination of Steve Jobs, Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, is about to make a presentation at the Guggenheim Bilbao that will change the world. Since he’s such a secretive and eccentric guy, no one in the room knows what he’s going to say—and his entire presentation is on a password-protected server. Naturally, he’s assassinated just as he’s about to type in the password. Langdon, Kirsch’s friend and former professor, puts his own life at risk in order to track the killer and access the presentation. Besides the beautiful Ambra, who also happens to be the fiancée of the crown prince of Spain, Langdon is assisted by Winston, an artificial intelligence bot invented by Kirsch. (Not surprisingly, Winston is perhaps the most intriguing and fully-realized character in the book.)

The problem with having a book revolve around a message that is so profound and significant that it will impact everybody on the planet is that eventually, you have to produce said message, and I’m not sure that Kirsch’s presentation would actually cause religious leaders to throw in the towel because “oh well, we’re irrelevant now.” Events of the last year or two have made an Age of Reason seem farther away than ever. Brown seems like something of a techno-utopian atheist, and the acknowledgments section of Origin gives thanks to a long list of scientists and thinkers. There are plenty of Big Ideas to grapple with in Origin, but mostly, it works as an entertaining travelogue-thriller.

“Emma in the Night” by Wendy Walker

Emma in the NightOver the past few years, I have had the misfortune of dealing with a couple of people who I’m pretty certain have narcissistic personality disorder, the subject of Wendy Walker’s new thriller Emma in the Night. These are truly toxic individuals who can ruin the lives of those close to them. For those of us further out in their orbits, the best thing to do is just disengage.

In the novel, Cassandra Tanner is the victim of her mother’s noxious parenting style, which frequently pitted her against her older sister Emma. After her parents’ divorce, 11-year-old Cass made the mistake of asking to live with her father, which sealed her fate: “Don’t ever call me Mother again! To you, I’m Mrs. Martin!” her mom raged. And so Cass “became the outsider… all [she] could do was watch from a distance.”

A few years later, both Emma and Cass disappeared. Until one day, Cass returned alone, recounting how she and Emma had been living on an isolated Maine island with a couple who essentially kept them prisoner. Then Cass drops the bombshell that Emma had been pregnant when they left home, and that she had given birth on the island. The childless couple began to raise the infant as their own, despite Emma’s protestations. Finally, after months of planning and scheming, Cass was able to escape, but unfortunately, she has no idea where the island was located or how to find it. The couple were using fake names. How can she figure out how to get back and save her sister and the child?

First-person chapters narrated by Cass alternate with third-person chapters told from the point of view of Abigail Winter, an FBI agent working on Cass’ case. As it turns out, Abby also grew up with a narcissistic mother, so she identifies deeply with the girl. There are strong hints, however, that Cass is that old thriller standby: the unreliable narrator. Abby needs to figure out which of her tales are true, and which are pure fiction, in order to solve the case and find Emma.

This book should appeal to the many thriller readers out there who love twists, but I found it somewhat hampered by pedestrian prose; Abby’s mind “was spinning… round and round like a dog chasing his tail,” or Cass “just raised the stakes in a game [her mother] didn’t even know she was playing.” Or, “Evil can dress up as love so convincingly that it blinds you to the truth.” That’s not bad writing, just not terribly fresh or insightful. Perhaps it’s more noticeable because a lot of readers (me included) will turn back to the beginning and reread portions of the book once all has been revealed, to see if Walker played fair. I believe she did; the clues are all there, if you look closely enough.

“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.