The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

Couple-Next-Door.Final_-683x1024The Couple Next Door

by Shari Lapena

*I received a copy of this book from the author’s publicist with the request that I read it and write a review.  I received no compensation for this review with the exception of a free copy of the book.

Anne and Marco Conti are a young married couple living in Upstate New York.  It would appear that they have it all – a beautiful home in the right neighborhood, money to spare, good looks, and a new baby.  But of course, things aren’t always what they appear to be.

One fateful night, their babysitter cancels at the last minute.  Rather than cancel their plans to attend a dinner party right next door, they decide to leave their six-month old baby at home asleep in her crib.  They take the baby monitor with them next door, and diligently go home to check on little Cora every half hour.  Even so, when they finally leave their neighbors’ home and return to their own that night, they find their front door ajar, and the crib is empty.

It’s difficult to offer a summary of a psychological thriller like this without giving too much away, but I will say that this story is of the same caliber as Gone Girl and The Girl On the Train.  It’s an absolute page turner – totally fucked up, but in a good way. Every time I thought I understood what was really going on, another twist in the story revealed itself.

The premise of the story – parents leaving their child unattended – is timely in this age of hypervigilant parenting, and the current culture of judging and vilifying parents who don’t meet arbitrary standards that seem to grow higher and higher all the time.  Of course we all think it’s horrible that any parent would leave a baby alone at home – but how dangerous is it really to leave a baby right next door, taking reasonable precautions like the Contis did (and how many of us have done something at some point that put our children at risk, or at least that we know other parents would disapprove of)?  And yet, the worst happens to the Contis – the worst fear that every parent has – their baby is taken.

I admit that I was reluctant to read a story about an abducted baby; I don’t think I have the stomach for a story that features horrible things befalling a baby.  The baby in this story, however, plays a pretty minor role, so take heart.

Deliciously twisted.  And perfect for a book club discussion.

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith

51hy+GbenKL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Career of Evil

by Robert Galbraith

J.K. Rowling – er, I mean Robert Galbraith – is hitting her/his stride in the detective/crime novel.  Career of Evil is the third installment in the Cormoran Strike crime series, and I loved it.

A man is on the loose in London, murdering and hacking women to pieces.  Career of Evil opens as a woman’s severed leg is delivered to Strike’s office, addressed to his partner, Robin.  Whomever the killer is has Robin in his sights, and seems determined to ruin Strike’s business and reputation by attempting to direct suspicion at him for the grisly crimes.  What ensues is, similar to Galbraith’s previous two Cormoran Strike novels, Strike and Robin following obscure leads and hunches trying to catch the killer, while the police department bungles the official investigation.

Meanwhile, Robin becomes more and more conflicted about her upcoming nuptials to her handsome but jealous and condescending fiance, Matthew.  To complicate matters further, Robin’s and Strike’s working relationship continues to evolve, and there are now, not surprisingly, growing feelings of affection on the part of each of them.

Despite the grisly subject matter that actually gave me nightmares at least once while I was listening to the audio version (which is excellent, by the way; check it out on Audible), I thoroughly enjoyed this whodunnit.  I was pretty sure I had the identity of the killer nailed as soon as he was introduced, but it was still fun to watch the clues unfold.  As for Cormoran and Robin, it’s of course predictable that when there are a male and a female lead character, certain feelings will develop between the two.  However, Galbraith/Rowling is doing a superb job of demonstrating restraint in the evolution of that relationship, and not allowing it to overpower the story.

This is the best of the series thus far.  I’ve become pretty invested in the characters now, and felt that familiar twinge of sadness and disappointment common to bibliophiles when the last page of a much enjoyed book comes to an end.  I want more!  I hope we don’t have to wait too long for the next installment.

The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

61KaCYPW28L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ The Life We Bury

by Allen Eskens

The Life We Bury – which I kept thinking could have been subtitled “Confessions” for all of the various characters’ deep secrets that are slowly revealed – centers around college student Joe Talbert, who narrates, and Carl Iverson, a Vietnam vet and convicted murderer.

Joe, a complex character in his own right, is attempting to escape his bipolar, alcoholic, abusive mother, and to an extent, his autistic brother, Jeremy.  He is managing to attend college and pay for it by the skin of his teeth, determined not to become just another casualty of his family’s dysfunction.  Not surprisingly, though, Joe can’t seem to shake completely free; he continues to be reeled back, mostly by his loyalty to and feelings of responsibility for Jeremy.

Assigned to write the biography of an interesting person for his college English class, Joe, destitute of family members beyond his mother and brother, heads to a local nursing home, hoping to find a willing subject.  The staff grudgingly directs him to the home’s only resident who doesn’t have dementia or Alzheimer’s: Carl Iverson, a frail, sickly, solitary figure who sits in a wheelchair staring out a window.  Carl has served thirty years in prison for the rape and murder of a fourteen-year old girl, and has been released on medical parole because he is quickly dying of pancreatic cancer.  Carl agrees to be interviewed by Joe, and to be the subject of his writing assignment.  He calls this his “dying declaration”: an opportunity to clear his conscience and confess the truth before he dies.

As Joe interviews Carl over the course of several weeks, as well as talking to the one living friend Carl has and pouring over newspaper accounts of the thirty-year old brutal rape and murder of a beautiful young girl, the incongruities in Carl’s wartime valor and the heinous crime he was convicted of grow ever larger and more disturbing.  What really happened?  Joe aims to find out, with the help of Lila Nash, the neighbor with whom Joe finds himself falling in love.  Lila, by the way, has her own skeletons.

I love a novel that sucks me in and won’t let me go, and I find it even more satisfying when that novel is an author’s debut.  This story is so vividly imagined and well written – full of unexpected twists and complex characters who are both valiant and flawed in their humanity.  If some of the plot twists are somewhat unlikely, they can be forgiven for the sheer buttery smoothness with which the story is propelled towards a very satisfying end.

I will definitely be reading more by this author.

The Girl In the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz

girlinthespidersweb The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A Lisbeth Salander novel

by David Lagercrantz

Commissioned by the estate of Stieg Larsson, who died an untimely death before the publication of the wildly successful Millenium series, to write a fourth installment in the escapades of Lisbeth Salander, David Lagercrantz had his work cut out for him.  It would have been so easy to ruin the beloved characters in a beloved franchise.

However, Lagercrantz manages not only to stay true to the complicated, vengeful, remote, tough but curiously vulnerable Lisbeth – one of the most original and awesome female protagonists to ever come along – and the brilliant, charming, but weary Mikael Blumqvist, but he’s crafted a riveting, suspenseful story to boot.

I will confess that a lot of it went over my head; it’s full of computer hacking tech talk, espionage, corporate debauchery, and shadowy underworld criminals – a lot of it I couldn’t make heads or tails of, let alone keep track of who was after whom, and who was a good guy, who was a bad guy, and who might be some of both.  But even this element is familiar, and like with the first three books in the series, you have to just go along for the ride.

At the heart of the story is an eight-year old autistic boy, the son of a genius scientist who specializes in artificial intelligence, who is the only witness to the brutal murder of his father.  The bad guys who killed Frans Balder, the boy’s father, realize too late that although young August is non-verbal and appears to be severely intellectually disabled, he is actually a savant who is perfectly capable of identifying his father’s murderer.  And so the rest of the story centers around the bad guys’ efforts to do away with the boy, and Lisbeth Salander’s efforts to protect him.

On a side note, I have to comment on August Balder – or rather, the utilizing of a disabled character in fiction writing.  It’s become so commonplace that it almost feels cheap to me.  Here we have a disabled boy (who of course is actually brilliant, because a truly intellectually disabled character wouldn’t do – what possible value could such a character bring to a story except to elicit pity?), who, although he resides squarely at the center of the story, is nonetheless one-dimensional and stereotypical.  We never actually get to know August, nor are we given an opportunity to care about him beyond the fact that men are trying to kill him.  His character – and his disability – are merely convenient vehicles for a particular plotline.  I just wish that authors could do better.  Sadly, this is merely a reflection of society’s persistent views of people with disabilities: the disabled remain on the fringes.  Even when they occupy positions central to a novel, they are rarely fleshed-out, whole people in their own right.

Aside from that criticism, The Girl In the Spider’s Web definitely lives up to its predecessors.  It’s suspenseful and has plenty of interesting twists and turns.  I wish there had been more kicking ass and taking names by Lisbeth Salander, but how much kicking ass and taking names can one violent waif of a girl do in the span of just a few days?  It’s a very good book, and, I must say, it has a very satisfying ending.

I very much look forward to another installment.

The Bullet by Mary Louise Kelly

the-bullet-9781476769837_hr The Bullet

by Mary Louise Kelly

I really, really wanted to like this book.  It has a great premise: the protagonist, Caroline, discovers quite by accident when she is in her middle thirties that she has a bullet lodged in her neck.  No apparent scar to indicate an entrance route, absolutely no memories of how the bullet got there.  So, we’re set up for a good crime mystery.

And it is an interesting story: it turns out that Caroline was adopted at the tender age of three, shortly after her birth parents were murdered in cold blood.  Tiny Caroline was the only witness, and also a victim of the shooting – left for dead.  She survived, however, was adopted into a loving family, and never told about her terrible past, or even that she had been adopted.

Upon discovering all of this, the adult Caroline sets out to find out who killed her birth parents, as the murder has remained unsolved for thirty-four years.

Right away, though, I had trouble even liking Caroline.  From start to finish, the author makes way too much of Caroline’s looks – she’s so beautiful, she’s so attractive, she’s so sexy, blah blah blah.  And since the story is narrated by Caroline herself, she just comes off as rather narcissistic and overly vain.  Then there’s the matter of her adoptive family – a WASPy, homogenous, country-club set if there ever was one.  I don’t know – it just made them seem … cardboard and one-dimensional.  Caroline also has an almost unnaturally close relationship with her adoptive parents (whom, of course, she doesn’t know are her adoptive parents until now) – to the point of annoyance.  Everyone in the family, including her two older (adoptive) brothers, absolutely dotes on her.  Her brothers actually address her as “Sis.” (Nobody does that in real life, do they?)  The way she is babied by her family, and the way she basks in it, is so incongruous with the image of her as this mature, independent, brilliant, accomplished woman.

Oh yeah, and I can’t leave out her personal doctor who (of course) falls in love with her and who (of course) shows his love by stalking her, whose romantic advances are (of course) welcomed by our heroine (cough, cough) and who (of course) turns out to be married.  Blah.  Why must we be so hung up on the love-interest angle?  This story would have been much better without this element.

Then there is the matter of how the story unfolds once Caroline decides to take it upon herself to solve the murder of her birth parents.  In a word: implausible.

Eh.  A very middle of the road novel.  An easy, and even entertaining read, provided your expectations aren’t too high.

The Girl On the Train by Paula Hawkins

22557272 The Girl on the Train

by Paula Hawkins

Mystery/thrillers featuring dysfunctional women and broken marriages seem to have become the new “it” genre with the publication and instant success of Gone Girl a few years back.  And, indeed, The Girl On the Train has been compared to Gone Girl.

The Girl On the Train is Rachel, a lonely, unemployed, divorced alcoholic barely holding it together.  She still pines for Tom, the husband who left her for another woman and who is now living in her old house with his new wife and baby daughter.  Rachel rides the train to and from London every day, keeping up the charade of going to a job she no longer has thanks to her drinking problem in an attempt to keep the friend from whom she rents a room from discovering that she is jobless.  Her ride into London each day takes her right past her old house where some of the happiest, and then saddest times of her life were lived, and where her ex-husband lives with his new family.  Each morning, the train stops at a train signal, giving Rachel a clear view of the row of houses, and she begins to focus on a neighbor’s house where a young couple live.  She often sees the two of them out on their terrace together, and she creates a fantasy existence for them.  She becomes so invested in this fantasy of a perfect marriage that she is completely shaken when one day, she witnesses the young wife kissing a man who is not her husband.  Soon after Rachel witnesses this incident from her seat on the train, the young wife disappears, and Rachel is tormented by foggy, sinister scraps of memory that she can’t quite grab hold of.  She was drunk the night the woman, Megan, disappeared, and she has vague memories of being involved in a violent altercation, of coming to with blood on her hands.  She becomes sure that the man she saw Megan kissing before she disappeared must have something to do with Megan’s disappearance … and she’s also terrified that she was somehow involved in Megan’s disappearance.  Alcoholic blackouts are nothing new to her.  The more Rachel involves herself in the mystery of Megan’s disappearance, the more nothing turns out to be what it appears to be.

Alternately narrated by Rachel, Megan before her disappearance, and Anna, the woman whom Rachel’s husband Tom left her for, the reader is given each woman’s back story and perspective, constructing a multi-layered story.  As we see the traumas suffered (and inflicted), the emergence of addiction, self-destructive and self-defeating behavior begins to make sense.  Grief, misogyny, and domestic abuse are just a few all too common themes from real life that drive the plot of this mystery.

I enjoyed this fast-paced novel, although Rachel’s repeated alcoholic relapses were hard to read.  I wanted to root for her, and even to like her, but I never quite got there.  Also, I read somewhere that one of the best sex scenes ever written is in this book, and I kept looking for it and never did find it.

So what happened to Megan?  The ending may surprise you.

 

The Secret Place by Tana French

20821043 The Secret Place (Dublin Murder Squad)

by Tana French

After Tana French’s first three crime novels, which were all fabulous, she hasn’t quite managed to hit as high a note.

As French has done in the previous novels, she weaves the current story around a character who played a minor part in a previous story.  The Secret Place takes us back to the fictional Dublin Murder Squad, and front and center is Holly Mackey, daughter of Detective Frank Mackey who starred in Faithful Place (my personal favorite of her novels so far).  The novel opens with sixteen-year old Holly, who lives at a prestigious boarding school, bringing an anonymous card to one Detective Stephen Moran, who has been relegated to the Cold Cases division where her daddy works.  The card claims to know the identity of the person who murdered a boy from a neighboring boarding school a year before; Holly claims to have found the card pinned to a “confessions” bulletin board (known as “The Secret Place” – that is, the place for secrets) at school.  Detective Moran would love a shot at moving up the ladder to Murder, and this may be his shot.  Problem is, he’ll have to ingratiate himself to – and seriously impress – head of Murder, Antoinette Conway, who is one hard bitch.

Moran and Conway set off for St. Kilda’s school for girls to investigate the source of the anonymous card, hoping it will lead, finally, to a resolution of the murder of young Chris Harper.  At the heart of the day’s investigation are the two prominent girl cliques: Holly and her three closest friends (“They’re my family!”), and a rival group.  The two groups of girls hate each other.

I was taken in right away by French’s almost intoxicating gift of putting down dialogue and descriptions.  You can almost hear the Irish coming off the pages.  The mystery of who killed Chris Harper is intriguing, and I wanted to know who did it.  French also does a good job of conveying the mean girl stuff you hear about – whoowee, can teenage girls be horrible!  However, the story became somewhat tedious, as the entire book spans the course of one day with Detectives Moran and Conway interrogating students and searching dorms, with flashbacks of the previous year thrown in.  Also, an element of the supernatural was thrown in, with one group of girls for some reason being able to turn lights on and off with their minds, levitate stuff, and so forth.  I thought that was unnecessary to the story and diminished its credibility.  Finally, there are so many slurs against the intellectually disabled – it was a total turnoff.  “Saint Fucktardius” stands out, and so many “retarded”s, “idiot”s, and “moron”s that I lost count.

I wanted to like this book more than I did.  It was okay, but not stellar.

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

8582761 The Silkworm (A Cormoran Strike Novel)

by Robert Galbraith

This, the second book in J.K. Rowlings’s new series, again stars private detective Cormoran Strike.  Eight months after solving the Lula Landry murder case (and making asses out of the police), business is rolling in.  Strike no longer sleeps in his office but now has a real bed in an attic flat above his office.  Okay, still humble, but it suits the gruff bachelor just fine.  Most of his clients are suspicious boyfriends and divorcees looking to serve their own personal gain in some way.  One day, though, a mousy middle-aged woman with no money to speak of arrives unannounced in Strike’s office and asks him to find her missing husband.  Strike is moved by the purity of her request; she’s not after money or revenge, she just wants her husband to come home.  She believes him to just be in hiding, as the egotistical writer is sometimes wont to do.

And so begins an investigation the likes of which Strike has never seen, and when the missing writer is found dead, the victim of what appears to be an elaborately carried out, almost ceremonial murder, the stakes become much higher.  The police quickly settle on the writer’s widow as his murderer, and Strike’s determination to find the real killer is hampered by the police and the fact that he actually has no real standing to continue an investigation into a matter which the police has decided is closed.  Besides, the police are none too happy with Strike after he showed them up in the well-publicized Landry case – they’re not about to let that happen again.

Meanwhile, Strike’s assistant Robin is determined to become more than just Strike’s secretary.  Detective work is her calling, she feels – but the very fact that she works for Strike is causing a great deal of friction between her and her fiance, Matthew.  This friction is giving Robin pause about whether marrying Matthew is what she should do after all.  She laments the fact that Strike doesn’t appear to see her real potential.

Although I enjoyed The Cuckoo’s Calling, I liked this book more.  I think Rowling is finding her voice as a murder mystery writer, and this story seemed a little more honed than the last.  She introduces the reader to a cast of suspects who each very well could be the killer, leaving the reader guessing.  As with The Cuckoo’s Calling, I did not expect the killer to be who the killer was.  Although the murdered, when revealed, suddenly seems a little like a ridiculous caricature, it still made for a satisfying surprise.  Strike and Robin have definitely grown on me – I enjoyed the developing dynamics of their relationship.

I’m looking forward to the next whodunnit Rowling has up her sleeve.

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

16160797 The Cuckoo’s Calling (A Cormoran Strike Novel)

by Robert Galbraith

Gah!  I have been having such a hard time finding time to read lately!

This book, written by J.K. Rowling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith (my understanding is that she wanted to see if she could write something that would sell without the benefit of her famous name; she could.  The book apparently sold very well before the cat was let out of the bag as to the real author) and published in 2013, is a classic private-eye/murder mystery novel.

Private detective Cormoran Strike, Afghanistan war hero and amputee, recently thrown out by his long-time girlfriend and living in his office, is in a bad place personally and professionally.  He can’t pay his bills and has no clients to speak of – until John Bristow arrives in his shabby office one day offering Strike a load of money to reinvestigate the death of his super model sister, the famous Lula Landry – “Cuckoo” to her friends – deemed a suicide by the police.  Strike is hesitant to take the case because it does appear so clearly to have been suicide, but the promise of sums that might dig him a long way out of the financial hole he’s in convinces him to accept Bristow’s offer.  What begins as mostly humoring the dead woman’s brother quickly turns into something else altogether.  What really happened that cold, snowy night when the ethereally beautiful and young Miss Landry fell to her death from a fourth story balcony?

As Strike works his way through interviews of relevant witnesses and interested parties, everybody begins to look like a possible suspect; everyone seems to have had a motive to end Lula’s life.  The story takes some interesting turns, and although I found the conclusion to be somewhat unlikely, I still found the story to be engaging and enjoyable.  There were some holes in the story, I thought, although I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone who hasn’t read it, so I’ll leave it at that.

Rowling/Galbraith does a wonderful job, as always, of creating vivid characters that come to live on the pages.  I love that Cormoran Strike is not strikingly handsome nor debonair, but flawed in his physicality and psyche; these qualities make him likeable and real.  His assistant, Robin, who literally stumbles into her job with Strike, is also an admirable and integral character.

I’m looking forward to the second installment in this series, The Silkworm.

This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

17349104 This Dark Road to Mercy: A Novel
by Wiley Cash

Easter and Ruby, two sisters aged 12 and 6, have only each other in the world.  Their mom has recently died from a drug overdose, and they are in foster care with their future a big unknown stretching before them.  Then one day Wade Chesterfield shows up.  Wade is their father, a washed up minor league baseball player who has a knack for getting himself mixed up in trouble, and who disappeared from the girls’  lives years ago.  But now he wants another chance to be a father to them.  The problem is that he signed away his parental rights to the girls, so he takes things into his own hands and steals them away in the night.

Hot on Wade’s heels is Pruitt, a man who is bent on revenge against Wade for an accident that happened during a ball game years ago, and which derailed both his and Wade’s careers.  Pruitt is now an ex-con, recently released from prison and working as a bouncer at a bar owned by a man who also wants to find Wade.

Easter and Ruby’s guardian ad litem is an ex-cop whose past is full of regrets.  When news of a local armored car heist breaks, Brady Weller begins connecting the dots and realizes that he must find the girls before something horrible happens.

Set in North Carolina against the backdrop of the home run record chase by Mark McGwire and  Sammy Sosa in 1998, this relatively thin volume packs a punch.  Narrated alternately by twelve-year old Easter, the shady Pruitt, and Brady Weller, it’s a gritty and dark, emotional and suspenseful, beautifully wrought story.  I kept turning the pages with my heart pounding, and in the end, cried my eyes out.  A story about greed, revenge, and redemption, ultimately it’s a story about being a father.

I am really looking forward to reading more by this author.

Another gem from TLC Book Tours.

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