Disappointed Expectations

You may have noticed that the book reviews on this website tend toward the positive. I decided a few months ago to post reviews here of only those books I could recommend. I’m choosy about what I read in the first place, but if a book doesn’t meet expectations, OK. What’s the point of giving a tepid review to a book that probably won’t ever come to the notice of most readers? Let those authors have their shot. Tastes differ.

Two books I’ve read lately are exceptions. Both are receiving a healthy dose of publicity—one because the author is popular and the other, a debut, because the publisher has put big bucks behind it. So these books may actually may attract your attention. Here’s what troubled me about them.

The Hollows

Mark Edwards is a popular British thriller writer. He set this story at a family camp in Maine—remote, wooded. A grisly double murder occurred there twenty years earlier, and the local teenager thought to have committed the crime disappears and isn’t seen again. When British journalist Tom and his teenage daughter arrive for a getaway, they learn right away about the killings and that many of the camp’s visitors are murder-porn tourists. Creepy events ensue. Is the place haunted, has the killer been living in the woods all this time, why are people warning them to leave? Of course, they don’t take any of this good advice (or there wouldn’t be a story), but Tom’s second-guessing and the predictable plot become tiresome.

Falling

TJ Newman’s debut thriller is an exciting read, so much so (especially for us formerly-frequent flyers) that it may distract you from the plot’s implausibility. But after you close the book, the head-scratching will begin. Newman is a former flight attendant and captures the technical aspects of commercial flight very persuasively and her flight attendant characters are nicely three-dimensional. In a nutshell, a transcontinental passenger airline is hijacked and the pilot is told he must crash the plane when it reaches New York. If he refuses, his kidnapped wife and children will be killed. But aside from the behavioral clichés in the story, the bad guys’ plot is way way more complicated than it needed to be. Ultimately, it makes no sense. (I won’t say why in case you decide to give it a go.) There’s a lot of feel-good stuff near the end that doesn’t hold up either. This book has already been optioned for film and has Hollywood fakery written all over it.

The Huntress

The Huntress, Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn’s 2019 thriller is a real page-turner—good thing too because there are a lot of pages. Soon after World War II, widowed Boston antiques dealer Daniel McBride meets Austrian refugee Annaliese Weber and falls for her. She has a four-year-old daughter and a bit of a murky past whose pieces don’t quite fit. Daniel is in love and oblivious, but his teenage daughter Jordan is not. In the chapters where she’s the center, you feel her love for her father, as she tries to reconcile her stepmother’s affectionate behavior and her doubts about the woman.

Over in Europe, two Nazi-hunters—a sophisticated Englishman and a Polish-Hungarian former GI—have teamed up to track down war criminals overlooked by the Nuremberg trials. Ian, the erudite Englishman, received a solid education, but it’s Tony, from polyglot Queens, who “could talk to anyone, usually in their native language.”

By 1950, they have a good track record, despite the shoestring nature of their operation. A woman they would really like to find is die Jägerin, The Huntress. She had been the mistress of a high-ranking SS officer, now dead. During the war, she murdered numerous people, including six refugee children, and one of her victims was Ian’s brother Sebastian.

Ian first heard about Seb’s death from a young woman, “all starved eyes and grief,” whom he encountered in a Polish hospital. Nina Borisovna Markova is the third leg of this sturdy triangle of point-of-view characters—Jordan, Ian, and Nina.

Nina grew up in a tiny village in Siberia—the youngest of several children, with no mother, siblings who fled, and a violent alcoholic father—dreaming of escape, but where and to what? The answer comes the day she sees her first airplane. She heads west to a city where she learns to fly, becoming a member of the first Soviet women’s flying squad, and active in bombing the German invaders. It’s a perfect life for her until her father’s drunken denunciations of Stalin reach the wrong ears. Unless she escapes the Soviet Union, she’s likely to be rounded up and imprisoned too. The Siberian legends and superstitions of Nina’s childhood are woven into all these experiences, and the result is a complex, prickly, utterly unique personality.

Quinn’s characters are passionate about their concerns, though Nina’s passions are at best only half-tamed. Because die Jägerin tried to kill Nina, she wants to find the woman just as much as Ian does. And, she knows what die Jägerin looks like. When Tony stumbles on a faint clue that leads them to Boston, they hope to pick up the murderer’s scent. They have no idea she’s living as a respectable housewife right under their noses.

To sum up this story in a single word, it would be “satisfying.” All Quinn’s characters and their concerns are compelling, and their rich experiences support the plot. There’s more than a touch of romance, and the good-humored banter provided by Tony is an effective counterpoint to the seriousness of the hunters’ quest. In short, I really enjoyed this book and recommend it highly.

The Mathematical Murder of Innocence

By Michael Carter — For every mystery/crime fiction lover, there are books that hit the sweet spot of their special interests. There are the cozies with the knitting patterns and recipes. There are election fraud novels for political junkies. There are the gritty, down and dirty books for people who don’t get enough of that in the daily news. Books featuring computer nerds, financial advisers, art appraisers, cat sitters, on and on.

The Mathematical Murder of Innocence, not the first book I’ve read about a math whiz, is an eye-opener. It was inspired by real-life cases in Britain, in which women were convicted of killing their infants based on a really faulty understanding of statistics. Most people—and that apparently includes lawyers and judges and juries—don’t have a good grasp of how statistics work. You might think calculating odds (except, perhaps in horse-racing) is a rather straightforward exercise. Yet, how you calculate them makes all the difference, and the results can fly in the face of “common sense.”

For example, if you toss a coin that comes up heads ten times in a row, you might be inclined to take the bet that you’ll get tails on the next toss. Don’t do it! Unless the coin is faulty, each toss is an independent event and the odds of heads or tails is 50-50 every time. Likewise, you might estimate you’d need a group of at least 100 or even 200 people to make it likely two of them would have the same birthday. You’d be wrong. You only need 23 people to have a 50-50 chance of matching birthdates.

Luckily for the fictional Sarah Richardson, the woman standing trial in Michael Carter’s novel, on her jury is engineer Martin Fielding. Richardson’s two infant sons have died of cot death (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in the US). Dr. Michael Goodwin, the prosecution’s expert witness, says that, given the relative rarity of cot death (one in every 8,500 births), the odds of losing two children that way are one in 72 million (8,500 x 8,500). “One death is a tragedy; two deaths are murder,” he says. But juror Fielding believes the correct number is more like one in 18 and sets out to prove it.

Set aside for a moment any skepticism that a juror would repeatedly burst out his objections to a witness’s testimony. Then set aside your doubts (perhaps they could be expressed as odds, like one in a thousand) that Fielding would be invited to take over the questioning of Dr. Goodwin. Once you accept those long odds—the outbursts, the cross-examination—the story becomes a delightful takedown of a pompous and dangerous man. A bit of a deep dive into statistics, but . . . it might save someone’s life.

The photo is from a 1990s British courtroom drama series, Kavanagh, QC, starring John Thaw. Excellent entertainment!

War Stories: Oddly Timely?

Can focusing on another low point in Western civilization sidetrack you from obsessing over the current news cycle? Does seeing how another generation coped with agonizing stress help? These engrossing World War II stories are like biting your lip as a distraction from a different pain. Click on the novel title for my Amazon affiliate link.

The Interpreter

AJ Sidransky’s political thriller has a fresh and appealing story line. The war in Europe is winding down when US Army Intelligence recruits Vienna-born GI Kurt Berlin to help in its interrogations of captured Germans—Nazis, Wehrmacht officers, and members of the SS and Gestapo.

When he reluctantly agrees, he finds himself face-to-face with the Nazi who had a terrible impact on his own family. He’s in the excruciating position of keeping his own emotions in check, but can he sustain it? Read my full review here.

Night of Shooting Stars, Ben Pastor

The Night of Shooting Stars

Latest in author Ben Pastor’s award-winning World War II-era political thrillers about colonel Baron Martin von Bora, late of German military intelligence. Because his former unit was believed to harbor anti-Nazi army officers, Bora must keep looking over his shoulder when he’s asked to investigate a strange murder. Is it a trap? What he keeps uncovering are dangerous hints about a plot threatening Adolf Hitler himself. Read my full review here.

The Winds of War
War and Remembrance

The audiobook of Herman Wouk’s 1971 saga, The Winds of War, is long (45 hours, 46 minutes) and engaging—perfect for my daily 40-minute walk. There are an awful lot of characters in this story of events leading up to World War II—American, English, German, Polish—many of them real-life politicians and military leaders. At the core of the story is a single family, fictional US Navy officer Victor “Pug” Henry, his wife, his three adult children, and their significant others. Pug is desperate to command a battleship, but naval intelligence duties in the capitals of Europe keep delaying that assignment. You get a well-rounded picture of the multinational political forces and military maneuvering in the late 1930s, packaged in a rich skein of interesting plot lines. The book ends shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

War and Remembrance, Herman Wouk

In its sequel, War and Remembrance (56 hours), Pug is still in the Navy, son Warren is a Navy flyer stationed on an aircraft carrier in Pearl Harbor, and son Byron is a submariner. Byron’s situation is complicated by his marriage to Natalie Jastrow, a Jew stuck in fascist Italy. With these three men in different branches of the Navy, Wouk thrillingly (for me) recreates many of the important battles and strategies of the war in the Pacific.

You may recall ABC’s 1980s miniseries of these books with Robert Mitchum as Pug Henry (Interestingly, all three children were played by different actors in the two productions.) Reportedly, a new adaptation, to be co-written by Seth MacFarlane is in the works.

The Winds of War was a best-seller, but the critics didn’t love either book. Too much emphasis on historical accuracy over character development, they thought. Exactly what made me enjoy it! It’s like an education about the war in an easy-to-digest package, with Wouk’s main point, the key word “remembrance.”

The audiobooks are narrated brilliantly by Kevin Pariseau, who kept me company all summer.

Autumn Thrills

Three exciting reads from 2020. The only thing they have in common is how good they are! Click on the title for my Amazon affiliate link.

The Wicked Sister

In this all-new story and cast of characters, Karen Dionne reprises elements of her first quite fabulous book, The Marsh King’s Daughter. Again, the setting is the sparsely populated, heavily wooded Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and, again, the natural world plays an important role, underlining themes and supporting the action.

The main character, 26-year-old Rachel, even talks to animals. Dionne’s light touch makes these interactions more revealing of Rachel than weird. Rachel is fragile. She’s just spent 15 years in a mental institution believing she murdered her parents. With chapters narrated by both her mother (“then”) and Rachel (“now”), you learn what really happened and pray for Rachel’s escape. My full review here.

How to Be Nowhere

Fasten your seatbelt for a breakneck, bumpy ride. Tim MacGabhann’s new thriller takes place in the murky regions of Central America

Investigative reporter Andrew and his friend Maya have connected with some pretty dangerous characters over the years, and that past comes roaring back.

The bad guys want the reporters’ help finding their leader’s daughter, a much more difficult and dangerous task than you might imagine. Plenty of dark humor. If Hollywood ever makes a movie of this story, they’ll need a hefty budget line-item for expendable vehicles.

My full review here.

Seven Lies

Elizabeth Kay’s new domestic thriller is an immersive journey into a twenty-year friendship. Jane and Marnie have been inseparable since age eleven, though narrator Jane doesn’t hesitate to explain the many ways they differ.

They work in London post-college, and Marnie meets successful, wealthy, charming Charles. Jane loathes him. When Marnie asks Jane, “You think we’re right for each other, don’t you?” Jane swallows hard and tells lie number one: “Yes, I do.”

Kay strings you along, inviting your complicity, as the box Jane has constructed for herself becomes smaller and smaller and her lies increasingly consequential. My full review here.

Stories of Suspense: Romantic and Otherwise

Reading

Fiction River: Summer Sizzles

In her introduction to Fiction River‘s issue of romantic suspense stories, editor and romance writer Kristine Grayson (pen name of series editor Kristine Kathryn Rusch) says, “I love romantic suspense when it’s done right. When it’s done wrong, it’s seriously mind-numbing.” That must be the type I’d read previously. This issue has made a bit of a convert out of me—I just have to keep finding the good stuff, like these examples:

In Katie Pressa’s story “Night Moves,” a man hospitalized for a head injury that robbed him of his memory kicks into high gear when he’s attacked again. Where did those skills come from? He doesn’t know, but the detective sent to sort out the second attack and prevent another one believes she has a hero on her hands and wants to find out more.

The sparks of romance might be flying between a female helicopter pilot and a laconic Delta Force operator, but their mission in Afghanistan is too dangerous for distractions, in “Flying above the Hindu Kush” by ML Buchman. Super-exciting!

Sabrina Chase’s lighthearted “Need to Know” made me smile. If only real life served up such delicious surprises!

“Totality” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch takes place on the Oregon coast during 2018’s total eclipse and turns it into a tale about a woman whose mentally ill sister is trying to kill herself and the man who may save them both. Nice portrayal of coping with irrationality.

And many more . . .

Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine

Much to like in the March-April 2020 issue! Especially to my taste were:  

The clever police procedural “The Eleventh Commandment” by Paul Charles. So nice to have villains who puts a little thought into their crimes.

Peter Lovesey’s “Lady Luck” is just downright malicious, staring with the ironic first line. Ha!

I’m a fan of John Lantigua’s stories set in Miami’s Little Havana. Like previous ones, “In the War Zone of the Heart” is not only a good story, he spices it up with local culture.

You can read Karr and Wehner’s Passport to Crime story “Here in Tremonia a Crime Fiction Slam . . .” as a long poem, one with a few murders along the way and a happy ending.

In John F. Dobbyn’s entertaining “A Little Help from my Friend,” finally, at last, a story protagonist comes to the aid of his author!

Dave Zeltzerman’s entertaining stories about his modern-day Nero Wolfe/Archie stand-ins Julius Katz and a rectangular bit of hi-grade AI are always fun, especially in “Like a Lightning Bolt,” written from a would-be con-man’s pov. He doesn’t stand a chance.

The polyglot protagonist of Edith Maxwell’s tale, “One Too Many,” discovers she’s just too clever for her own good!

Photo: Carlos Martinez, creative commons license

*****The Kennedy Moment

By Peter Adamson – In this political thriller by former UNICEF official Peter Adamson, the reunion of five college friends launches a do-good project that none of them could have anticipated, that has every potential of imminently and disastrously going off the rails, and that has almost incomparably high stakes.

In the early 1960s, a group of Oxford University students were best friends. As Stephen Walsh, a stubbornly Marxist professor writes to the others, “We’ve lost touch, the months drifting into years and the years into decades.” He proposes a reunion.

Michael Lowell, the only American, leads a World Health Organization team on childhood immunization; Seema Mir works on a biography of the African American Hemings family; Toby Jenks is the hard-drinking creative director of an advertising agency; and Canadian Hélène Hevré is a physician, exhausted from the demands of tending patients within the minimalist health care system of Côte d’Ivoire.

The relationships among these friends, especially the two almost-couples (Michael and Seema; Toby and Hélène), are believable and sometimes painful because the characters are so engaging.

At the reunion, Toby, with his flair for the outrageous, responds to the health professionals’ angst over vaccine-preventable illnesses saying, “Seems to me, possums, the obvious thing to do here is to get hold of a little test tube of cached smallpox virus and threaten to blow bubbles with it in Times Square unless the world gets off its butt and immunizes every last kiddie.”

A few months later, the friends reunite in New York. No one has forgotten Toby’s little joke, and before long they have a plan to use smallpox virus to blackmail the US government into fulfilling its immunization commitments. But it must be carried out in complete secrecy.

Predictably, the government focuses not on meeting these mysterious demands, but on finding out who is behind this little venture and stopping it. To them, it’s bioterrorism, and a nail-biting chase is on. Meanwhile, Toby crafts a powerful statement for the US President: “Twenty years ago, President John F. Kennedy committed the United States to the goal of putting a man on the moon within a decade. Today, the United States commits itself to another great goal: a goal for our times; a goal to be achieved here on earth; the goal of immunizing all of the world’s children against the major killer diseases of childhood.”

I loved this book and the daring team of characters that took on the crimes of neglect and half-measures. Hugely satisfying and out of the ordinary. Available here.

Photo: anjawbk for Pixabay.

Another Day, Another Film

popcorn

You could call it a “self-curated film festival” or you could just call me lucky to have two top-notch independent movie houses nearby. Whatever you call it, five movies in five days is a lot of popcorn-eating opportunity. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of these very different films if they sound like your thing. Two here, three next week.

Official Secrets

Gavin Hood’s film (based on a true story, whatever that means these days) centers on a woman (Keira Knightley) working for British intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war (trailer) . A memo comes through asking analysts to dig up information the Americans can use to pressure UN Security Council members to support the War. A Security Council endorsement would give the Bush Administration and the Blair government much-needed political cover.

But it’s wrong, and she leaks the memo, in violation of Britain’s strict Official Secrets laws. Matt Smith and Rhys Ifans are helpful and entertaining investigative reporters. She has a Muslim husband (Adam Bakri) a rights lawyer (Ralph Fiennes), and between them, they give fine and timely speeches about loyalty and treason. I was on the edge of my seat. Generally, I don’t like Knightley, but she’s great here.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 82%; audiences 89%.

Judy

Rupert Goold’s film, written by Tom Edge, about Judy Garland’s sad last days doesn’t contain plot surprises (trailer). It’s showstopping strength is Renée Zellweger’s amazing performance. You know Judy’s going to crash and burn, and you so, so, don’t want her to. It’s painful to watch.

She scrapes herself together at times, which gives you hope that she can fulfill her contract with a London theater for five weeks of sold-out performances. They’re bringing in the cash she desperately needs in order to reclaim her two younger children from husband #4, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell).

Zellweger doesn’t try to imitate Garland’s voice, but she’s got the mannerisms cold, and the way she belts out the songs, no wonder fans adore her. Flashbacks provide a cold appraisal of Hollywood’s exploitative star system, where her addictions began.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 83%; audiences 86%.

****Because You’re Mine

mountain path, woods, forest

By Rea Frey – In Rea Frey’s compassionate new psychological thriller, Lee is a single mom living near Nashville with a seven-year-old son who’s on the spectrum, and her life isn’t easy. She has a couple of things going for her. She has a circle of three good friends, especially her closest friend Grace who’s one of the few people her son Mason is fond of. Mason’s handsome, dedicated occupational therapist Noah is helping him with his small and large motor skills as well as channeling and challenging his amazing intellectual capacity. And, Lee works from home, with a hair styling studio in her garage, which means she’s always close at hand, just in case.

In the book’s prologue, you learn a woman took a nighttime mountain hike and that it ends tragically. No spoiler here: the first words of the book are “She is going to die.” But you aren’t sure which “she” took that fatal tumble. The first chapter rewinds the story to a week before the mountain outing and fills in the missing pieces.

One of the women friends suggests a getaway for the four of them in the North Carolina mountains, and Grace thinks the mountain mini-vacation will be the perfect time to tell Lee some important news, which she does. There’s considerable fallout from this revelation, and an even deeper exploration of how Lee and Grace became the adults they are. While Grace has been preoccupied with her secrets, those that Lee hides are much deeper and more dangerous. Maybe.

In the mountains, the secrets start tumbling out and she—the ambiguous she from the prologue—dies. But that’s not the end of the story, there are layers and layers yet to come, a past to be excavated.

Just when you think you understand this story and the roles of the players on the board, Frey produces another surprise from her characters’ pasts that suggest a totally different dynamic at play. Nor does she tie the ending up with a too-neat bow. An excellent read.

Photo: Cortez13 for Pixabay, creative commons license.

NETFLIX: Unbelievable

This Friday, September 13, Netflix begins its eight-episode mini-series Unbelievable based on a fascinating true crime story (trailer). Journalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on how different police departments handled the uncertainties and ambiguities that arise in rape cases. And, in the book, they go into the long, sorry history of why women are so readily disbelieved.

Created and executive produced by screenwriter Susannah Grant, with novelists Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, the series stars Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, and Kaitlyn Dever.

Miller and Armstrong found they still had more to say about the contrasting investigative approaches—one, involving a case that takes place near Seattle where a young woman’s story was disbelieved, and others, in the Denver suburbs, where police went to extraordinary lengths to tie together their investigations with those of other local departments. The authors report what they learned in the new book Unbelievable, an excellent, real-life police procedural.

Read my full review on CrimeFictionLover.com, see the mini-series, or read the book!