Tag Archives: thriller

Good Girl, Bad Girl: Mesmerizing Twisty Tale

good girl

Alert:  I’m a huge Michael Robotham fan. His standalone book Life or Death was up for the 2016 Best Novel Edgar.  It didn’t win, and I ranked it fourth, right behind the actual winner, Lori Roy’s Let Me Die in His Footsteps.

He has a very popular series featuring psychologist Joe O’Loughlin, nine books at last counting.   I met the good doctor in 2012 and blogged about him while on a cruise.  Joe often works with the good but morally ambiguous Detective Vincent Ruiz, is still in love with his estranged wife, Julianne, and has Parkinson’s disease which bothers him more as the series progresses.  It’s a good series, and two of the books won the Ned Kelly Award for Australia’s Best Crime novel.  Still, the time was ripe for a new protagonist, and Robotham doesn’t disappoint.

Good Girl, Bad Girl is the Edgar-nominated first book in a new series featuring Cyrus Haven.  Cyrus is also a psychologist, but has a more dramatic backstory; while tween Cyrus cruised past his crush’s house on his bike, his older brother was murdering their parents and twin sisters.  Adult Cyrus is tattooed, lifts weights and runs to burn off excess psychic energy, eschews a cell phone in favor of a pager, and maintains a loving relationship with Lenny Pavel, the female cop – now a Chief Inspector – who questioned and comforted him after he found his family’s bodies.

That enduring Lenny connection is what gets Cyrus pulled in when a dog walker finds the body of young figure skater Jodi Sheehan, bludgeoned and sexually assaulted.   Although the physical forensics of detection are critical, Cyrus specializes in the psychological underpinnings of crime.  Throughout Good Girl, Bad Girl, Cyrus picks at the threads of Jodi’s life until he sees beyond the perfect athlete, daughter and sister to see the flawed but loving human she truly was.  In doing so, Cyrus also wades through an abundance of murder suspects.  In lesser hands, the truths that Robotham has Cyrus uncover could be simply red herrings — in this book, they add to the richness of the narrative.  What really happened to Jodi is the result of a long-buried secret.

And it’s a connection of another kind – to the psychology community  – that gets Cyrus Haven pulled in to the sad and strange case of Evie Cormac.  Six years ago, Evie was discovered hiding in a rundown building with the rotting corpse of a tortured criminal and two surprisingly well-fed Alsatian dogs.  Skinny and silent, the child known in the media as Angel Face, was of indeterminate age.   Given a new name under a legal gag order, the child now known as Evie Cormac bounced through the foster care system, ending up in big trouble in residential care after attacking another resident with a brick.

Adam Guthrie, her psychologist there, knew that Evie was more than smart – he thought she had an unerring ability to tell when someone was lying.  And here’s where Cyrus comes in – he wrote his doctoral thesis on “truth wizards.”  Adam calls Cyrus in to consult, and we go on to the adventure of learning more about Evie as they interact.  When Evie seeks to be emancipated so she can leave the foster care system, Cyrus is the only person who supports her, ultimately offering to become her foster parent until she reaches the date set by the judge.   Little by little, we see the distrust that defines Evie begin to peel away with Cyrus… but set-backs are a given, and it’s during one of those set-backs that Evie learns some facts that ultimately help Cyrus solve Jodi Sheehan’s murder.

This book is mesmerizing.  The plot is twisty but well-supported throughout.  No cheating.  The characters are complex, and Robotham is a master at the slow reveal.  At the end of Good Girl, Bad Girl, the thoughtful reader realizes that there is no such thing.  Jodi is no more 100% good than Evie is 100% bad.  And vice versa.  The writing is assured and can be very funny (to wit, the group therapy scene where Cyrus is the only one who knows that all of Evie’s revelations are word-for-word dialogue from popular movies).  There’s a cliffhanger at the end, as we realize that the scenario of “child rescued from pedophile kidnapper” might be just one more fiction.  Thank heavens that July 2020 will bring us the new Cyrus/Evie book, When She Was Good.

But how does it compare to The River?  To quote your favorite British cozy writer, they’re like chalk and cheese.  Both good!   I see The River as a slender tale, a simpler story, although rewarding.  Robotham’s book is more complex, more layered, with a lot of character and heart.  But at the end of the day, I must go for Good Girl, Bad Girl for sheer enjoyment.

mwa_logoLiterary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel

  1. Good Girl, Bad Girl (Michael Robotham)
  2. The River (Peter Heller)


Summer Reading

wineSummer is supposed to be a time of long, lazy days on the beach, in a hammock, or, as we say in Michigan, “Up North.”   Lots of fresh tomatoes, rose wine, and trashy novels.

Well, except for the wine, I’m not getting much of that idyllic summer,  but I am getting in lots of reading.  Tons of new books – mysteries, thrillers, noir… they’re mine for the taking. I’m not going to review all of them, or there wouldn’t be time to read more.   I’ll just review a few of the books I have particularly enjoyed.

First up is a thriller, The Last One, by Alexandra Oliva.  This is Oliva’s debut novel, and a crackling good one it is.  The setting is very up-to-the-minute:  a Survivor-esque reality show called In the Dark.  But with this show, the only way to get off is to use the magic words (“ad tenebras dedi,” Latin for  “I surrender to the dark”)  and the only way to win is to be the last one left.  The prize is huge. As the contestants delve deeper into this alternate world, a plague strikes the real world … and they don’t know.

last oneOliva switches back and forth from a omniscient perspective to the POV of one of the contestants, a determined young woman.  The twelve characters are named according to their stereotype in the third person chapters.  Black Doctor is a male, African-American physician.  Rancher is a western type, Waitress is a hot mess, Cheerleader Boy is a relentless cheerful gay, Biology a lesbian who teaches seventh grade science, Air Force a compactly powerful military man, Engineer a Chinese-American man, Tracker a hunter type, Banker a business man.  The young man called Exorcist may be certifiably crazy.  Asian Chick morphs into Carpenter Chick when its discovered she has skills.  And then there’s Zoo – our protagonist, young, blonde, and female.  She works in a wildlife sanctuary.  The host of the show is a “B-list celebrity” who hopes to revive his career.  (I pictured Ryan Seacrest.)  We see the production, the manipulation, the editing that heightens the drama.  We also see the human side of the contestants that the camera doesn’t capture.

Zoo’s chapters are something else.  She’s stranded in the wilderness, following clues that she interprets according to the rules of the game, making her way back to civilization, scavenging for food, catching and cooking squirrels, and all the while convinced that secret cameras are recording her every move.  The reader knows what she doesn’t know and then can’t admit… that life as she knew it is over, there will be no million dollar prize, and in fact, she will be lucky to make it through her adventure alive.

The Last One is a great summer (or anytime!) read.  The plot is compelling and moves along at a breakneck pace.  The writing is crisp, dialogue true, and characters – especially Zoo – interesting.  There’s a heartbreaking side to her adventure which I won’t spoil for you, and also a possibility of hope.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see the book up for an Edgar for Best First Novel in 2017.

I’ll definitely be on the lookout for Alexandra Oliva’s next book!

Jane Whitefield back in A String of Beads


Thomas Perry at Men of Mystery

I discovered Thomas Perry in the mid 1990s, with Vanishing Act, the debut novel in his Jane Whitefield series.  The series was unusual for a number of reasons.  First, although the focus is on crime, it features neither a law enforcement professional nor a private detective.   Second, the purpose is generally not crime-solving and locking up bad guys.  And third, the main character’s not a white guy.

Jane Whitefield is a woman with an interesting past who uses her experience to help people in trouble disappear.  She’s like a one woman witness protection program, but without the bureaucracy.  Her clients tend to be ordinarily people – they may not be saints, but they’re in way over their heads.   She’s Native American – Seneca, to be precise – and her culture informs her every action.  Vanishing Act was followed rapidly by a series of additional Whitefield books, at which point Perry took a break from Jane.  She was back in Runner, followed by Poison Flower, and now a brand-new book,  A String of Beads.

beadsBeads is Jane’s most personal assignment.  The clan mothers of her tribe have given her a string of beads – purple and white – as a symbol of their assignment: to find her childhood friend, Jimmy Sanders, and bring him back to face murder charges.  (Yes, I know, kind of the opposite of hiding someone!)  Jane’s married now, and her husband, surgeon Cary MacKinnon, is not so understanding when she heads out, retracing the steps she and Jimmy took as fatherless 13-year-old so long ago.

But what about that murder?  Jimmy’s innocent, of course.  He punched a drunk in a bar a few weeks ago, but now that drunk – Nick Bauermeister- has been shot dead, right in front of his girlfriend’s eyes.  The cops would look at Jimmy no matter what, but he’s suspect #1 because someone has stepped forward to say “I sold Jimmy Sanders a rifle two weeks ago.”  Not just a mistake, it’s a frame-up.  And that changes everything.   To fulfill the mothers’ assignment, Jane can’t just bring Jimmy home.  She has to solve the crime.

That may take Jane a while, but the reader’s not too mystified, because we kn0w pretty quickly that Nick’s not just a drunken, controlling lout, but a criminal.  It’s his boss, the not-too-smooth-with-the-women Dan Crane, who killed him so he could steal his girlfriend, the beautiful and trusting Chelsea Schnell.

What follows is the always-compelling cat-and-mouse game that is common to Jane Whitefield novels, where Jane stays one step ahead of the bad guys and has to save her charge from certain death a couple of times.  This usually includes at least one time where the charge makes a stupid move, like calling his mom or giving his address to his girlfriend.  Perry is a pro at this kind of writing, Jane is amazing, and even if you’ve read it a dozen times before, it still keeps those pages turning.  (A bit like Lee Child’s Reacher books in that respect.)

I pounced when A String of Beads came out and consumed it with enthusiasm:  I love Jane.   That being said, this was not her best outing, with less suspense than usual and no real sense of danger, perhaps because all the bad guys are not particularly well-motivated.  At the end, Jimmy’s back home and the clan mothers are happy, but I had the nagging feeling that too many local people now know Jane’s secret.  It’s a worry.

If you’re already a fan, you’ll want to read A String of Beads.  If you’ve never read a Jane Whitfield novel, start with the earlier ones:  Dance for the Dead was particularly harrowing.

Harry Quebert says what?

Cover.Harry Quebert Affair.JPG657 pages.  That’s how long the The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is.  And on the Kindle – when you can’t see the page numbers but only see the progress towards 100% – those pages are interminable.  The book’s the story of Marcus Goldman, a young, highly acclaimed debut author who can’t summon the creative juices for book #2, but is suddenly offered the opportunity to deliver a roman a clef – or perhaps a juicy true crime book, it’s hard to tell – about his mentor, the famous Harry Quebert.  Harry is ALSO an amazingly successful writer, who penned a novel based on his doomed romance with 15-year-old Nola Kellergan.  Said romance occurring when Harry was 34.  Nola disappeared back in the day, and her body was just unearthed, 33 years later… in Harry’s back yard.  Who killed her?  And what the heck will protege Marcus do?  $3 million is a lot of dough.

Phteven 2Here’s what the book has:  over the top, breathless prose.  Characters who all sound exactly alike, except for the guy who got beaten to within an inch of his life, so he sounds like Phteven.  Labyrinthine jumps in time from today to the mid-70s and back.  And so many “whodunnit” twists that make The Killing look reasonable.  (My husband gave up on that show half-way through because it was like whack-a-mole: every character was under serious suspicion at one point or another.)  And a groan-out-loud ending.  On the good side, it does have a strong voice and kept me turning the pages (metaphorically speaking) just to get to the end.

But here’s the question:  Why the heck is this book getting so much hype and so many reviews?   The column inches devoted to book reviews in the press is low.  Very low.  Not many books get reviewed.

And yet, the New York Times gives Harry a lot of space and is generally positive, depending on how seriously you interpret the adjectives. The Independent (UK) says it’s seductive.   NPR calls it chilling, but cautions that the writing is not so good.   Both Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post basically say what I’m saying – some good stuff there but nothing to write home about.   And on Amazon, readers average out at 3 stars – as of today, 94 give it just 1 star and 123 are giving it 5 stars.

My recommendation: Unless you’re a speed reader, read something else.

God is a Bullet is a blast

godWhy is God is a Bullet set in 1995?  Historical fiction?  Perhaps author Boston Teran wanted to avoid the Internet or omnipresent cell phones.  I might not have noticed the year, but Teran makes a point of telling us the make, model, and year of various cars being driven by various characters, so either they were all driving really old cars, or the action takes place in the past.  But no.  After the utterly satisfying conclusion of God is a Bullet, I finally looked at the copyright date.  Dang it, 1999.  Now it all made sense.  Charming husband had passed the book on to me with a strong recommendation, and I had simply assumed it was a new release.

The good news:  The book is a thrill ride, the characters are iconic, and Boston Teran’s written several books since God is a Bullet.  Hooray!

Here’s the premise:  A 14-year-old girl is kidnapped and her mother and stepfather murdered by a hired killer who’s much more than a hit man, he’s a charismatic, sociopathic father figure to a cult of young people.  The girl’s father, Bob Hightower, is a cop.  He begins investigating, desperate to find her, when a young woman comes forward.  Fresh out of rehab, Case Hardin has recognized the m.o.  Cop and former junkie team up.

The road they take is twisty and full of danger.  Clean-cut Bob gets tattooed and goes undercover with Case, each step bringing them closer to the girl.  It’s harsh in its realism – the daughter has become an addict against her will and is being raped daily, other characters are tortured or killed – but not ugly.  Case is smart but not Lisbeth Salander-smart, and the two make mistakes.  One mistake Teran doesn’t make is to force an obligatory romance between Hightower and Case.  Close as they become, no sparks fly.

Especially rewarding:  Ultimately, it’s folks that Bob Hightower has known and trusted for many years that are to blame for his daughter’s plight.   You might say that people are complicated.  But as my Dad sometimes jokes, “People are no damn good.”   Luckily for Bob and his daughter, Case Hardin’s the exception that proves the rule.

Norwegian by Night an extraordinary debut

NorwegianDerek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night is an amazing debut novel.   It features 82-year old Sheldon (Donny) Horowitz, an American Jew, widower and former Marine, full of regrets and descending into dementia… but slowly.  He’s in Oslo, Norway, having been lured there by his grand-daughter, Rhea, and her Norwegian husband, Lars.  Rhea is the posthumous daughter of Sheldon’s son, Saul.

Sheldon blames himself for Saul’s death.  Saul enlisted during the Viet Nam war to live up to Sheldon’s patriotism, came home after his first tour of duty, hoping to talk to his father about his experience – something that was beyond Sheldon’s capabilities.  Rebuffed, he had a one-night-stand with an unsuitable girl and re-enlisted, only to be killed a short time later.  Unsuitable girl became reluctant mother, Sheldon and his wife became parents again to baby Rhea, but Sheldon never forgave himself.

A complicated man, a man of honor and of action, a man who feels he was responsible for many deaths, not just his son’s, Horowitz steps up to save a small boy from his violent father.  They hide together in a closet, forced to listen silently as the father – a Balkan war criminal – murders the boy’s mother.  In seizing that moment, Horowitz’s journey to redemption has begun.

The two go on the run together, the boy and the old man, each unable to speak the other’s language.   Sheldon’s goal: to take Paul to the family’s cabin in the woods and keep him safe.  His fear:  that the authorities will turn the boy over to his father.  He leaves a nonsensical note for his daughter.

Sheldon proves himself to be remarkably capable and canny, despite his advanced years and his tendency to see and hear people who aren’t really there.  He calls the boy Paul, and dresses him as a Viking Jew, complete with Viking helmet, tunic, and a sword that strongly resembles a wooden kitchen spoon.   The trip to the cabin is event-filled, the final scenes are nail-biters, and the ending is completely satisfying.

Norwegian by Night is beautifully written, filled with suspense, and surprisingly action-packed.  I’d call it a literary thriller, except I’m afraid that people who buy “literature with a capital L” would dismiss it and people who love thrillers will expect it to be too highbrow.  Instead, it’s the best of both.  Norwegian by Night is not to be missed, and I’m looking forward to more from Derek B. Miller.

Back from the Caribbean with a new author!

Darling husband and I are back from our trip to Puerto Rico, Saint Thomas, St. Martin, and St. Kitts via the Celebrity Eclipse.   Besides the rain forest hike and the free-lattes-at-any-time extravaganza, a highlight of the trip was the amazing amount of free time to read.   I brought a few paperbacks and a dozen books on my iPad.  One new-to-me author that I highly recommend, cruise or not, is Michael Robotham.

I started my read-fest with Robotham’s most recent book, Say You’re Sorry.  It features a wonderfully insightful but thoroughly flawed protagonist, clinical psychologist Joe O’Loughlin.   Joe has a complicated life, a stressed marriage to a beautiful woman, a shakier-than-he’d-like relationship with his teenage daughter, and an uncanny ability to size people up.  He also has Parkinson’s disease.

O’Loughlin is pulled into a confusing crime scene by a police detective who is looking for one more nail to put into the supposed-prepetrator’s coffin: a married couple has been brutally murdered and a mentally challenged handyman is accused.  But O’Loughlin sees what the police don’t:  there was someone else there – someone who is now missing – and the scene points to a very twisted, and highly intelligent, murderer.

Complicating the plot is a second protagonist: Piper Hadley.  Teenage Piper and her best friend, Natasha McBain, were kidnapped and held captive by a man they call George, who systematically strips away the girls’ defenses and sexually abuses the more attractive, more feminine Tash.   Piper tells her own story, and Robotham’s evocation of this singular character is simply amazing.

It’s not surprising that the two stories come together and – no spoiler alert here – that the handyman is not the bad guy.  Say You’re Sorry is a complete page-turner – awesome plotting and pacing – coupled with compelling characters.  It left me wanting more.  So I used a few of my preciously guarded wi-fi minutes to download more Michael Robotham.

It was all good.  Suspect.  Lost.  Shatter.  Bleed for Me and a couple more, yet unread.  In Suspect,  Joe O’Loughlin is introduced when homicide detective Victor Ruiz suspects him of murder.  In Lost, Ruiz is fished out of the Thames – short-term memory loss means he has to piece together the last few weeks of his life (with the help of O’Loughlin, of course).   Shatter features a worthy adversary – just as capable as O’Loughlin of seeing hidden truths, but much more capable when it comes to manipulating others.  For evil, of course.

I’m continuing to work my way through Michael Robotham’s books.   Love psychological suspense?  Thrillers with a twist?  You’ll go for Robotham.