Picture Santa Claus sitting in front of a blazing fire in the long, dark evenings up at the North Pole and reading my 2021 book reviews. Well, he’s been diligent, and he has suggestions that may fit people on your gift list who are:
The standalone thriller begins in the summer of 1998, with the uneasy relationship between Callie and Buddy, which, for his part, seems to revolve solely around sex, rough sex, and keeping his ten-year-old son from knowing what he’s up to.
Then it’s spring 2021, and Callie’s sister Leigh is called on at the last minute to defend an especially brutal serial rapist. Leigh works for a prestigious Atlanta, Georgia, law firm and has only days before jury selection begins. The demeanor of the defendant, Andrew Tenant, puts her off, but she can’t say no without risking her job. Soon she realizes her creepy new client is the grown-up boy from long-ago, when she and Callie were his baby-sitters.
Something bad happened back in 1998, involving Callie and Leigh, and they’ve kept the secret ever since. To Leigh’s dismay, Andrew uses what he knows about it to manipulate her into mounting a vigorous and unethical defense. No matter that she’s convinced he’s guilty.
Leigh is afraid to sabotage the defense in any way, certain that Andrew would not hesitate to harm the people she loves, including Callie. Callie has long-standing substance abuse problems, and some of the most poignant parts of the story are her attempts to calibrate the drugs in her system so she can cope with the demands posed by Andrew’s threats.
There are both good characters and bad in this novel, and the good ones are treated with respect and compassion, despite their flaws. Oh, and wait until you meet Callie and Leigh’s mother! A library full of child-rearing advice wouldn’t have changed her behavior an iota!
The story is set in the midst of the pandemic, and though it’s not about covid, the characters’ everyday lives are affected by it—to mask (or not), the erratic court schedule. The disease is part of the realistic environment of the story. Slaughter, who lives in Atlanta, set the novel there, though it’s not a novel in which place plays a dominant role. Occasionally, the author breaks in and delivers a lecture on, for example, the way drug addiction affects the brain, which derails the story for a few paragraphs and feels unnecessary. Readers put off by cursing will have much to complain about.
I personally found Leigh too repetitive and tiresome with her guilt and self-doubt and her willingness to jump to (consistently wrong) conclusions about what other people are feeling. It felt cliché to make Andrew super-wealthy, and he was over-the-top slimy, but then a psychopath would be extreme, no? Those quibbles aside, the book held my interest and I found more to like than not.
By Judy Penz Sheluk –This is the second in Judy Penz Sheluk’s Marketville Mystery series, set in a small town outside Toronto, and the series establishes a cozy, warm-hearted atmosphere. As in her earlier book, Skeletons in the Attic, the first-person narrator is Calamity (Callie) Barnstable.
Along for the adventure are Callie’s friends Chantelle Marchand and Arabella Carpenter, owner of a nearby antiques shop (the protagonist in Sheluk’s other series, the Glass Dolphin Mysteries).
In this book, Callie and Chantelle team up in a new business called Past & Present Investigations, in which they hope to use Callie’s research acumen and Chantelle’s genealogical knowledge to help people find missing relatives. Arabella will help if someone brings in an old object related to the missing person, and Callie’s retired librarian friend will do the archive searches.
Callie vacillates between loving the business idea and fearing they will find nothing but dead ends, but Sheluk has written nicely three-dimensional characters that are game to try. Callie also faces an ongoing personal challenge. It seems she cannot escape the hostility of her grandfather. He has never forgiven her mother for marrying Callie’s father who was, her grandfather felt, many ladder-rungs beneath her.
Before long, Arabella sends Callie a potential client. Louisa Frankow’s German grandmother, Anneliese, immigrated from England in 1952 on the ship Canberra. A mystery surrounds her grandmother’s death only a few years after that voyage. Family papers and photos and other clues to the grandmother’s past are few, but Callie locates an ephemera dealer with relevant artifacts from voyages of that era—much more glamorous than modern-day trans-Atlantic air travel, that’s for sure!
Callie and Chantelle capitalize on the growing online availability of genealogical databases, newspaper archives, and the like. You may be familiar with these possibilities, if you’ve done some family research of your own, and Sheluk makes the search for Anneliese’s past full of the thrill of discovering how the pieces fit. They learn that Anneliese was murdered, and her husband convicted of manslaughter (on very flimsy evidence, in Callie’s view). He’d been in prison only a few months when he was stabbed to death in the showers. If he was not guilty, as Callie suspects, the real murderer is responsible for two deaths.
Sheluk includes a couple of features that require a bit of a leap of faith. She relies on a long-ago coincidence, which, granted, might have been more likely in the early 1950s when Toronto’s population was a third its current-day size. And, she’s helped by a psychic who interprets objects, and while Callie remains skeptical of the validity of psychic phenomena, the psychic’s revelations help confirm her hypotheses about the crime.
The murder in this book is many years old, but it has consequences for Louisa and Callie too, which makes it significant even without splattering fresh blood all over the pages. It’s fun to watch Callie and her friends in action, and the book ends with the promise of another interesting case to come.
It’s a quick and satisfying read for those who like cozy mysteries or are fascinated by the long tail of the past.
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By Linwood Barclay – A professor at a small Connecticut college, living with his second wife on the shore of Long Island Sound, Paul Davis has had a rather unremarkable life until late one October night when he recognizes the broken taillight of his colleague Kenneth’s car and follows it.
Kenneth is driving erratically, and Paul worries the older man might be tipsy. When Kenneth stops his car on a lonely road and pops the trunk, Paul stops too and is shocked to see the bodies of two women inside. Wielding a shovel, Kenneth bangs him on the head and would have murdered him, except for the timely appearance of the police, investigating that car with a broken taillight they noticed a few moments before.
Eight months later, Kenneth has pleaded guilty to the murders and is in prison, but Paul hasn’t fully recovered. The blow to the head has mostly resolved, but he suffers from post-traumatic stress, panic attacks. His wife Charlotte and his psychologist Anna encourage him, but he has headaches, he forgets things, he’s haunted by the murders. Paul knew the dead women slightly and it seems Kenneth was carrying on with both at once. Only his wife was unaware of his reputation for womanizing.
Much of the story takes place within the four walls of Paul’s house, making it another one of those claustrophobic, unreliable narrator domestic thrillers which there are a lot of lately. Unfortunately, for me at least, that took the freshness out of Barclay’s story, though he has a nice red herring woven in.
Paul is determined to regain a grip on his life and decides the best way to try to answer his many lingering questions about the murders would be to review everything about the case and the reasons people commit murder. Charlotte and Anna are initially dubious, but persuaded by his determination.
Charlotte even buys him an old-fashioned Underwood typewriter. It’s a talisman of the case, because in one of its more ghoulish aspects, Kenneth made his victims type a note on such a typewriter, apologizing for their “immoral, licentious, whore-like behavior.” When Paul repeatedly hears the typewriter in the middle of the night, he slips downstairs to see who is using it, but the house is empty. He half-believes the dead women are trying to communicate with him.
On a visit to Anna, he loses his keys and Charlotte has to pick him up. Now here, the author lost me, because if he drove to the office and after their session he doesn’t have his keys, why wasn’t a thorough search made before calling for a ride? Then when Paul believes there’s been an intruder at his home, why does it take many pages for the characters to recall the missing keys? Ultimately, they are “found” in one of the two chairs in Anna’s office, but that unlikely discovery is taken at face value, and no one wonders whether they were there all along.
Odd events continue, and to put the ghostly typewriter issue to rest, his friend Bill suggests that he put a piece of paper in it and see what the women want to say. It’s an absurd idea, except that messages begin to appear. Even if you are skeptical of the paranormal, it’s not easy to see how these tricks are being accomplished, and Paul, not fully of sound mind, is increasingly anxious.
Author Barclay keeps the tension and the possibilities going at a brisk clip, and though you may figure out the direction of the plot early on, he has surprises in store.
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Uh-oh. I have to lead a book group discussion today of Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You—which I read and reviewed three years ago, and I can’t find my copy of the book! And the library doesn’t have one. I feel so unprepared. But at least I have this:
In a perceptive Glimmer Train essay, summarized here, Celeste Ng talked about “comfortable ambiguity,” and how in Everything I Never Told You, she tried to give readers space to enter the world of the story and enough clues to come to their own conclusions about the fates of the characters. Since so many of her early readers had strong—and differing—opinions about what those fates were, her efforts were clearly successful. I’m hoping my book club members came to different conclusions too. A lively discussion should ensue!
If you’ve read this book, you’ll recall that the story takes place in the 1970s and centers around a family living in a small town outside Cleveland (modeled on Ng’s home town of Shaker Heights): honey-blonde Marilyn, the mother, estranged from her own mother, her would-be career, and the future she thought she would have; James, her Chinese husband in an era and a place where being Asian made him—at least in his mind—the perpetual outsider; and their three black-haired children, the only Asian-Americans in their school. Hannah, the acutely observant youngest, Nathan, the oldest, on his way to Harvard, and in the middle, Lydia—serious, responsible Lydia—her parents’ favorite. Their hopes are pinned on her.
But something goes drastically wrong, as we learn in the book’s first irrevocable sentences: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” In the aftermath of her daughter’s disappearance, a desperate Marilyn finds the dozen diaries she’s given Lydia to see what clues they may hide. She jams the flimsy locks open. Every page is blank.
As the story’s point of view shifts among family members, and each tries to piece together what happened to Lydia and why, the secrets, the alienation, and the deceptions in their own lives emerge. Even in this crisis, little is shared among them. Each must come to an understanding of Lydia’s tragedy in a unique, highly personal, and for some, devastating way. In my experience the novel skillfully drew me into deeper and deeper waters until I realized the surface was far above. I will be interested to see whether the book group members are comfortable with its lack of a final clarifying answer.
Everything I Never Told You was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and named a “best book of the year” by many reviewers. Ng’s second book, the 2017 Little Fires Everywhere, also delves into family secrets when a custody battle erupts in a “progressive” Cleveland suburb (you-know-where) over the adoption of a Chinese-American baby. It’s an exploration of race, class, and unconscious privilege that also received extravagant praise and is being turned into an eight-episode television series. Less ambiguity in the story here, but also less comfort.
By Simon Booker (this is an Audible Original, narrated by Imogen Church with a strong cast portraying the characters). PTSD has left former police detective Joe Cassidy (played by Brendan Coyle—Bates on Downton Abbey) with debilitating panic attacks. To get away from the world, he’s set himself up in a remote cottage on Dungeness Beach in Kent, but the world comes to him when he’s contacted by an old friend. Adam Pennyfeather (Joseph Marcell) inherited a wild animal park, and once saved Cassidy’s life when he was almost trampled by an elephant. Adam’s daughter Bella has gone missing, and he wants Cassidy to help find her. As a friend. As someone who owes him.
Cassidy is also on hiatus from his marriage to Katie (Lia Williams), herself a police detective, who’s handling the investigation of Bella’s disappearance. When Bella’s body is found in the elephant house, strung up like a side of meat, Katie is handed her first murder investigation. This creates inevitable tension between the couple, acting in their official and unofficial capacities.
The fault lines in the Pennyfeather family gradually reveal themselves. Adam’s wife is Isabel (Victoria Hamilton), and his younger daughter is Saffron (Rebekah Hinds). She and her husband, pizza entrepreneur Liam O’Mara (Harry Lloyd), tell Cassidy about Isabel’s lifelong loathing of her younger brother Felix, now Adam’s lawyer, and how Isabel preferred her daughters to her son Gabriel. His birth led to serious post-partum psychosis for which she was hospitalized. Fearing for the boy’s safety, Adam put him up for adoption many years before, and has since learned that Gabriel died in a motorcycle accident.
Trying to worm her way into Cassidy’s orbit is a relentless local journalist, an Australian woman named Chrissy McBride. Brigid Lohrey makes this character so annoying that, along with Cassidy, you’ll probably think, “Oh, no, not her again!”
Cassidy believes his wife is seeing someone, was seeing someone while they were married, at least early on, and that their son Luke is the other man’s child. Three DNA samples sent to a Cambridge lab will tell the tale, but is that information he really wants? Booker builds a nice bit of tension around the receipt of these laboratory results, and with Coyle’s solid portrayal, you can appreciate how torn Cassidy is.
The production includes sound effects of the type a foley artist would deploy in a radio play to indicate a closing door, footsteps, and the like. Possibly this is a matter of personal taste, but the sound effects feel redundant and jar me out of the story.
Animal Instinct is a nicely played, complex story and billed as the first book in a series featuring Joe Cassidy. TV writer Booker will find his listeners looking forward to more.
(photo: Heinrich Klaffs, creative commons license)
By RG Belsky – Dick Belsky’s long association with New York City news media—newspapers, magazines, and television—stand him in good stead in his Manhattan-based crime novels. He makes the newsroom politics entertaining, and the city’s bustle and bravado leap off the page. They become places you want to be.
In this book, he offers a new protagonist, Clare Carlson, former superstar newspaper reporter whose employer (like so many) went out of business. Now she’s the news director for Channel 10 News, and while she likes some aspects of the job—“telling other people what to do,” she says—she clearly believes television “news” is a lesser form of journalism, well beneath her talents and skills. She’s probably right.
Yesterday’s News is a title with multiple meanings, referring to the newspaper business, Carlson herself, and the one big story from fifteen years earlier that made her reputation and earned her a Pulitzer Prize—the disappearance of eleven-year-old Lucy Devlin, plucked from her Gramercy Park neighborhood and never found.
The anniversary of Lucy’s disappearance is fast approaching when you feel the first twist of Belsky’s knife. When she was working on the story, Carlson befriended Lucy’s mother Anne, and now Anne is dying of cancer, desperate for closure. She has received an anonymous email claiming that, shortly after her disappearance, Lucy was seen at a motorcycle convention in rural New Hampshire, riding with someone named Elliott. She wants to talk to Carlson.
Like almost everyone else, Carlson assumes Lucy was dead long ago. Can she—should she?—rekindle her relationship with Anne? It’s a “good TV gimmick,” she thinks, though she has reasons to be reluctant.
This is a first-person narrative, and Belsky does a good job portraying Carlson’s mixed feelings about reinserting herself into this story. She thinks she knows it all, but he has surprises in store for her, and you may think you know everything she knows, but she can surprise as well. Plus, Carlson can be hilarious. She expertly plays the two female eye-candy news readers off each other, leaving political correctness in the dust.
Carlson does interview Anne and soon launches into full investigatory mode, rummaging around in people’s fifteen-year-old memories. These include the activities of a sketchy motorcycle gang and, specifically, the past of ex-biker and rising political star Elliott Grayson. Some of the dirt she encounters may not leave Carlson with clean hands either. The tension between Carlson and Grayson and the unexpected directions the investigation takes make for an engrossing, fun read—with a visit to Manhattan as a bonus.
Written by Julia Heaberlin – I just spent a week in Texas, including a family reunion in Waco, where Paper Ghosts begins, and am happy to report that trip was nothing like this story, a creepy and deliciously entertaining battle of wits.
Grace is twenty-four and obsessed with finding out what happened to her only sister Rachel, who disappeared when Grace was twelve. What ignited her search was finding a photograph of two ethereal girls taped to the bottom of their home’s attic stairs.
The photographer, Carl Feldman, was later tried and acquitted in another local woman’s disappearance, although suspicions about him never went away.
Heaberlin masterfully weaves this backstory through the narrative— enlightening, coloring, providing motivation. Diagnosed with dementia, the elderly Carl now lives in a halfway house run by Mrs. T. Grace poses as Carl’s daughter to persuade Mrs. T to let her take him on a “vacation.” In reality, she plans to revisit places where three young women disappeared, hoping to break through the tattered veil of confusion that Carl pulls over himself. He’s just lucid and insightful enough to know what Grace is up to, to go along with the deception, and to toy with her mercilessly.
Grace’s personal safety trainer has readied her to handle the tricks Carl might try. Most important, she’s worked on conquering fear. You see pages from her childhood “survival notebook,” which contained her strategies for conquering various fears, like spiders or ghosts. Charming, but more important, these entries show an organized determination that foreshadows the adult Grace will become.
Mrs. T gives her ten days, at which time she absolutely must return Carl to the halfway house. Ten days in a car with a possible serial killer, in motel rooms at night, in situations where he may say who knows what? Carl is infinitely unpredictable. And sneaky.
Around day four or five, you may wonder whether Heaberlin’s inventiveness will run out, whether the diaristic recitation of their doings will wear thin. It never does. Her writing style is rich with metaphors tied to Carl’s strong identity as a photographer. In his photos, his paper ghosts, much is revealed, and much is hidden.
This risky road trip through a nightmare Texas doesn’t deflect Grace from the fundamental question, what happened to Rachel? And does Carl even know? And if he doesn’t, or if he’s overtaken by dementia, will she ever find out? You keep turning pages to find out.
By Wendy Hornsby –Maggie MacGowen is an almost-forty-year-old American, dedicated to her documentary filmmaking career and engaged to delightful Frenchman Jean-Paul Bernard, about a decade her senior. Though he says his job is “in business,” she realizes it is something far more consequential and lets him keep his secrets.
She’s in Paris to rendezvous with him and look for some documentary film work there, as they plan to marry. She’ll stay at number 7, rue Jacob, in a flat inherited from her biological mother, a Frenchwoman she never really knew. After her mother died, she learned she has a half-brother, a grandmother, an uncle, and nephews in France, still practically strangers.
Her inheritance isn’t just the flat. Maggie and Jean-Paul now own all three buildings of a former convent, including a mysterious basement library. Many people want the library’s contents, including officials from the diocese, the Vatican, and the Louvre, whom Maggie’s mother believed should have the religious books. The library also contains a number of illuminated manuscripts created for 17th c. Russian regent Sofia Alekseyevna. These are of almost inestimable value, since most such treasures were destroyed during the Revolution.
Almost before Maggie can unpack, Jean-Paul sends an urgent summons and a request for her to meet him in Italy. She follows his ominous instructions—burner phones only, cash, no credit cards—to the letter. When she finds Jean-Paul, he’s been injured. A drone dropped a bomb in front of his vehicle. This is an exciting set-up for the cat-and-mouse game that takes the pair from Venice to Ravenna and across Italy.
Hornsby’s novel is a cautionary tale about how easily people’s location can be tracked these days. First, a simple tracking device was attached to Maggie’s coat. Then someone uses social media to broadcast a call to “find this couple!” Photos of them are posted by dozens of casual passersby, as if Maggie and Jean-Paul are targets in some terrifying Pokemon Go universe.
The instructions change from “find them” to “stop them” with a reward attached, and the risk goes through the roof. Anyone with a cell phone can potentially expose them. Whether all the technology can be used exactly as Hornsby uses it here, the story bears the stamp of “Oh yeah, I can believe some idiot would try that.”
But what do their pursuers want? Are they after Maggie, with her film exposé about unexploded landmines? Or is Jean-Paul the real target? Or is it 7 rue Jacob itself, and its hidden library of precious illuminated texts? My questions about the initial attacks on Jean-Paul weren’t ever satisfactorily answered, but in the thrill of the chase, I set them aside. Again, though, the motivation is weak.
From the streets of Paris to the canals of Venice, to the several other locales in this story takes, Hornsby establishes an alluring sense of place. She has a clear writing style and creates significant tension around the threat to Maggie and Jean-Paul, as well as a warm and sexy relationship between them. At the same time, she pays attention to the ties to Maggie’s new French family that complicate whatever she decides about her unexpected, many-strings-attached inheritance.
Walter Mosley—one of the illuminati of crime fiction—spoke yesterday in Princeton, providing good advice for authors invited to read from their work. He prefaced it by noting that, while he loves writing and cannot imagine doing anything else, it’s also his business. It’s how he earns a living. Participating in a lot of readings over the years, he’s developed this nugget: “the longer you read, the fewer people buy the book.”
He once attended a reading for a book that adopted an esoteric analysis of the life of Tolstoy. “Sounds interesting,” he thought. After the author went on to read from it for an hour, “I was never going to buy that book.”
Then he proceeded to read about seven pages from the beginning of his own new book, published last February, Down the River Unto the Sea, leaving us wanting more, enough to buy the book more. He told us in advance that his black ex-detective, a man named Joe King Oliver, becomes involved in the case of a black political activist sentenced to death for killing of a couple of on-duty policemen, with Oliver hired to help prove a wrongful conviction. It’s evident that though the early pages are full of Mosley’s sly wit, there is lots of pain to come.
Mosley has written 55 or 56 books, even he isn’t sure of the exact number, many of them his popular Los Angeles-based crime novels involving detective Easy Rawlins, and other kinds of books too—literature, science fiction, plays, and advice for writers. But he says, “Everyone wants me to write mysteries.” Those people will be happy with this new work, which Richard Lipez in The Washington Post called “as gorgeous a novel as anything he’s ever written.”
He’s received a wonderfully long list of awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and was brought to Princeton as part of a reading series organized by the Lewis Center on the Arts Creative Writing Program.