Carsten Stroud’s Niceville Trilogy Stephen King-esque

nicevilleI’ve been spending every spare moment over the last week reading Carsten Stroud‘s Niceville trilogy.  That is, Niceville, The Homecoming, and The Reckoning.  If you loved Stephen King‘s The Stand, The Dead Zone, Salem’s Lot and Joyland, you’ll be a fan of Carsten Stroud.

Niceville seems to be a nice enough town, founded by just four families, who continue to have an oversized influence on the town today.  On the outskirts is Crater Sink, a natural attraction that is anything but attractive.  Over the years, it’s become apparent to some that Niceville has an abnormally high rate of stranger abductions – about two a year of unsolved, mysterious disappearances.  (And getting too close to the answer may make your own mysterious disappearance more likely!)

homecomingNiceville kicks off with one such disappearance, a boy named Rainey Teague, who seems to vaporize right off the street while looking into an old mirror in the window of the local pawn shop.  He turns up eventually, rescued months later from an undisturbed, well-buried grave by former Special Forces vet Nick Kavanaugh.  Nick’s married to a founding family descendant, family lawyer Kate Walker.  Where was Rainey in the intervening months?  Nobody knows.

Up till then, Niceville’s been pretty boring, in Nick’s estimation.  But the mystery surrounding Rainey Teague is just the tip of the iceberg.  By the end of the series, readers have been sucked into a world where death doesn’t always equal being dead, where the here-and-now and the long-past flow together, where good people die for bad reasons, and where criminal cops can cold-heartedly blow away innocent colleagues and still live up to a code of honor.

reckoningNot surprising for a three-book series, there’s a lot of plot.  It is large, and has many branches, but is not convoluted, so the reader is always well-grounded.  It helps that the books are populated with nicely drawn, well-differentiated and memorable characters.  Even the scary ones have good reasons for being scary, and there is only one who is truly evil.  (He gets his comeuppance, but I am sure I am not the only one who thinks that we have not seem the last of him.)  Stroud has a sure hand with suspense, frequently ending a chapter with a cliffhanger while he moves on to a different plot thread in the next chapter.

Also good, from my perspective:  he does not go over the top with the supernatural.  Sure, dead folks are walking around, interacting with the living like they’re not dead.  But Stroud handles it so naturally, that even before we know why this happens, readers accept it.  And sure enough, there are rules to this world of Niceville’s.  And the reader is rooting for the good guys.

All in all, big thumbs up for all three books.  Read them in order and enjoy.  Halloween is almost upon us, so ’tis the season!

Stuart Neville’s done it again

behindI’m a Stuart Neville fan.  I was introduced to his Belfast novels series this year, when The Final Silence was up for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best Novel.  (Click here for my glowing review of that book.)  Neville didn’t win, but the book was a winner despite that.  Of course, I soon read his backlist and enjoyed them greatly.

Without a doubt, his new book — Those We Left Behind — is up to his high standard.  It’s a world of grays, not black and white.  And if the villains are psychologically twisted, the good guys aren’t completely pure-hearted either.

Seven years ago, the Devine brothers, age 12 and 14, murdered their foster father.  Ciaran, the younger, confessed, saying that he killed the man because he had been sexually abusing his brother Thomas.  Thomas agreed and said he tried to stop Ciaran but it was too late.  DCI Serena Flanagan has the strong suspicion that Thomas was the killer and Ciaran was taking the fall for him.  She used every psychological trick in the book to gain the boy’s trust, a technique that backfired when Ciaran made a clumsy sexual advance.  Her reaction killed the rapport, he stuck to his story, and was off to prison.  Thomas, too, as an accessory.

Here’s the current situation:

  • Thomas has been out and managed to keep his head down for two years.
  • Ciaran’s being released on probation.  He’s a fearful young man, cowed by his brother, and compliant with his probation officer, Paula Cunningham.
  • Their foster mother is dead and their foster brother, Daniel, is determined to prove that Thomas killed his father, not Ciaran.  But he’s making a mess of his life in doing so.
  • Flanagan is pulled back in when Cunningham seeks her advice about Ciaran, and when Daniel is stabbed to death, Flanagan is convinced Thomas did it.

Who is guilty?  Everyone, of something.  Neville’s characterization is spot-on, fully developed, with no cardboard cut-outs to be found.  There’s a feeling of inevitability in the plot, that Ciaran’s prison term put all their fates on “pause,” and with his release, the pent-up pressure is released.  In just a few days, the brothers are locked once again into a dreadful spiral of violence.  The end is both shocking and unsurprising.  A side plot about the possible murder of a woman in Serena Flanagan’s cancer support group, is compelling.  Neville fans will rave, any fan of the genre will be enthusiastic, and I heartily recommend it!

Recommended Reading: Lee Child, Sara Paretsky

I recently plowed my way through a stack of books and am dismayed at the idea of posting a full review of each one… but they were all varying degrees of good, from pretty good to darn good to excellent.  So I’m just going to give you a mini-reviews and let you search further if you wish to do so.  (Who knows, that may be all you wanted in the first place!)

make meFirst up is Lee Child’s Make Me.  It’s classic Jack Reacherthe outsider rolls into town; encounters a plucky, pretty lady; uncovers a hornet’s nest of evil; vanquishes the foes, emerges victorious!  This time,  Reacher’s traveling cross country with no real deadline when he decides on a whim to get off the train at a rural crossroads called Mother’s Rest (the town!).  His goal: to figure out who the mother is and why she’s resting.  Little does he know that his big size and self-assured manner marks him.  He pairs up with a former FBI agent, now private detective, who’d come to Mother’s Rest to lend a hand to a colleague (the plucky, pretty lady!).  And in this outing, the evil-doers are truly unnervingly evil… and you won’t figure it out until Child wants you to, because there’s the first level of evil and then another level even more evil below it.  It’s no spoiler to let tell you that Reacher is, indeed, victorious.  Make Me‘s one of the best.

brush backAnd speaking of long-time favorites, Sara Paretsky is back with a new entry in her series about Chicago PI V.I. Warshawski – Brush Back.  I recently moved to Michigan after 20 years in the Chicago area, but Paretsky is a Chicago native who lives there still, and she writes about neighborhoods that I have never seen but accept wholeheartedly.  This time around, V.I. reluctantly agreed to help her high school boyfriend prove that his mother did not kill his sister – despite the fact that said mother served 25 years for the crime.  She’s out now and is just as unpleasant today as she was back then.  And worst of all, she’s blaming V.I.’s long-dead but beloved cousin and pro hockey player Boom-Boom Warshawski for her daughter’s death. Between neighborhood ties, the mob, and crooked politicians, V.I. is lucky to escape bloody, but unbroken and reveal the truth.

Three quick reviews: Stuart MacBride, Elizabeth Little, Rebecca Stead

The fines are piling up, so I’m going to do a quick review and cover three library books before they open the Burgess wing of the Okemos Public Library.  (Library fines = still cheaper than buying everything you want to read!

goodbyeFirst up:  A YA book titled Goodbye Stranger, by Rebecca Stead.  Bridget Barsamian, still on the wrong side of puberty but looking across the abyss, survived a deadly accident a few years ago.  Now she wonders, why?  Is there something special she is meant to do?  Bridge navigates the murky waters of middle school, where the cool kids seem unattainably cool, the teachers seem irrepressibly quirky, and long-time friends change before your eyes.  The good news is that guy you’ve always kinda been friends with is looking attractive to you in an unusual and hard-to-understand way.  Stead has a wonderful way of revealing character through plot and alternates the point of view throughout to excellent effect.  I’ve read lightly in the YA field but this is one that’s very worthwhile!

daughterCan you say unreliable narrator?  If you love a suspense novel with a main character who is not necessarily to be trusted, you’ll enjoy the second book:  Elizabeth Little’s Dear Daughter.    Janie Jenkins – former edgy teenage bad girl – is just out of prison, having done ten years for the murder of her mother, socialite  Marion Elsinger.  Now she’s on the run from the paparazzi and on the trail of her mother’s past.  Did she kill her mom?  If not, who did?  And if she didn’t do it, why did her mother write Jane’s name in blood on the floor, even as her life ebbed away?  A strong voice, solid characters, twisty plot that comes together believably in the end – all makes Dear Daughter a thumbs up.

missingLast but not least is Stuart MacBride’s The Missing and the Dead, featuring the ever-hilariously effective despite himself Scots detective Logan MacRae.  I’ve written about MacBride’s series before, here, and I was looking forward to the latest entry (book #9).  Almost 600 pages later, I closed the book and wished it were longer.  MacRae’s been transferred to divisional policing, and he’s on the job when a little girl’s body washes up outside town.  Getting an identification is going to be tough, and MacRae is soon playing nursemaid of a sorts to a lovely, sad woman named Helen, whose daughter is missing.  She both hopes and fears that the body is her daughter’s.   As usual, Logan MacRae bucks the wishes of his superiors to investigate a pedophile ring, and as usual, manages to pull it off with no permanent damage to his own career.  On hand is the irascible DI Steele (happily married lesbian, with two kids thanks to Logan) and an assortment of capable coppers, hapless citizens and various lowlifes.  It’s a terrifically engaging and humorous police procedural.

Suspenseful Black-Eyed Susans

susansSixteen-year-old Tessie Cartwright was found naked and almost dead in a field of wild flowers, along with the corpses of the killer’s other victims, in shock and missing the memory of some crucial hours.  Evidence pointed to Terrell Goodwin, but it was Tessie’s testimony about her experience that convinced the jury to convict.  Terrell spends almost 20 years on death row, while Tessie buries deep the nagging thought that the monster who abducted her is still out there, targeting her and her teenage daughter.  Because if Terrell’s the monster, then who is tormenting her by planting black-eyed Susans under her window?

That doubt – and her inability to remember the crucial hours – is what leads Tessa to cooperate with Bill Hastings, Terrell’s attorney.  He’s making a last-ditch effort to investigate the case and save his client’s life.  And Tessa is making a last-ditch effort to unravel the defining mystery of her life.  Because her memory is that not all the Susans (as the girls were called) were dead.  In fact, she distinctly remembers talking with them as they lay beneath the cold earth.  And she still hears their voices in her head.

Author Julia Heaberlin‘s novel is her third, and it is assured, well-written, and packed with suspense. The perspective switches between Tessie, age 16, and present-day Tessa.  As Bill and his forensic expert colleague seek clues as to the real identity of the dead girls, Tessa tries with all her might to unpack her memories of the critical hours.  The solution, when revealed, is shocking.  Heaberlin packs just enough red herrings into the plot to keep the astute reader guessing till the end.

Less successful:  The last-minute arrival of character X to reveal all – and that character’s reasons for doing so – seems forced.  The concept behind the big reveal is excellent; I’d love to say more but don’t want to have to go all “spoiler alert” on you.   The execution, however, particularly the choice to suddenly give the reader several chapters from character X’s point of view, could be smoother.  And there’s a pretty big plot hole which is apparent on reflection.

I’m sure some readers will find my complaint  about the ending just so much nit-pickery, and overall, Black-Eyed Susans is definitely worth reading.  It kept me turning the pages.  The ultimate accolade?   I plan to read her first two books, Playing Dead and Lie Still.

Girl in the Spider’s Web: Can anyone live up to Stieg?

girlI read the new Lisbeth Salander/Mikael Blomqvist novel by David Lagercrantz over the Labor Day holiday, and just a few hours before that I read Lee Child’s review of the book in the Sunday New York Times. This was not necessarily an intuitive matchup, but I liked Child’s take on the book, which boiled down to this:  readers want to engage with Lisbeth, to relive the excitement and energy and connectedness of discovery of her as a character… and Lagercrantz does a good job, but doesn’t quite come up to the original.

At the time I read the review, I wondered… how much of Child’s perspective is because of Lagercrantz’s efforts, and how much of it is just the idea that no one could recapture that magic?  

The answer:  It’s Lagercrantz.  Or perhaps his translator, although for all I know, the publisher got the same translator.

Don’t get me wrong, the book is totally worth reading, and I enjoyed it.  But both the plot and the characters were missing that feeling of desperate urgency that Larsson’s books had.  In Spiders Web, Blomkvist and Salander are at arms length, but work together to solve the murder of Frans Balder, an oddball scientist who was working to develop a superior form of artificial intelligence.

In many ways, the most compelling character in the book is Balder’s nine-year-old son, August.  August is autistic, but also a savant in math and art. He’s a witness to his father’s murder, and the goal is to keep August alive and vanquish the villains while exploring the potential impact of AI that is even more intelligent than the human brain.

Of course, there’s also a subplot about corporate skulduggery at Millennium, the magazine Blomkvist founded, and a lot of admiration for him as a journalist even as the people around him are conspiring to oust him.

All in all, I did not find the stakes in Spider’s Web high enough to live up to my expectations for the Stieg Larsson series.  But it is a well-written book, with familiar and enjoyable characters, some terrific bad guys, a heart-wrenching death of an innocent, and the potential for many books to come, so I say: read it!

Looking for beta readers!

IMG_1131So, you think you’re done writing a book and then, you realize you’re not.  (I am speaking now of my first mystery novel, Character-Driven, featuring lapsed actress and amateur sleuth Paula Berger.)  My friend and writing buddy Addy Whitehouse had a good experience with Chris Roerden, the author and freelance editor.  Addy mentioned that before taking on a new client, Roerden insists that the client self-edit his/her manuscript according to the principles spelled out in her book, Don’t Murder Your Mystery.  Challenge accepted!

Oh, the agony.  My opening is good.  There’s tension all over the place.  Characters all want something.  I already took out almost all the numerous references to coffee, as a result of a previous reader commenting “There’s an awful lot of coffee-drinking in this book.”  I was SORT-OF guilty of introducing a character and immediately describing him/her physically, but not egregiously so.  References to sex are few and tasteful.  (Or I think so, anyway.)  I used vocal mannerisms appropriately to differentiate my characters, particularly after I went through and took out all the italics for Ned Hinshaw, having decided that “gay-speak” was offensive.  (Sorry for the phrase “gay-speak,” actually.  It’s offensive, too.)

But when it comes to reusing favorite words, I am clearly a word abuser.  Roerden says only one “suddenly” per book.  I had at least 20.  “Definitely” came up at least as often as “suddenly.”  And “really?”  “Really” definitely came up really often.  I’m telling you, 100 “reallies.”  It took me a few hours to investigate Character-Driven from the perspective of clues #1-23.  #24?  All afternoon.

The book is truly a godsend (note, please, how I avoided the word “really”).  Tons of examples, from authors I’ve read and books I’ve enjoyed.  Highly recommended to anyone who has written a mystery or who intends to write one.

And now I am ready. Prior to querying, though, I’d like to get one or two volunteers to read the manuscript and give me feedback.  My parents and husband don’t count, they already worship the ground I walk on.  And writing colleagues have already read multiple iterations, so probably can’t bring fresh eyes.  If you are willing to read Character-Driven and give me your thoughts, please email me at!