Monday, January 31, 2022

Shadows of Pecan Hollow

Shadows of Pecan Hollow by Caroline Frost
2/8/22; 416 pages

Shadows of Pecan Hollow by Caroline Frost is very highly recommended literary Southern fiction featuring a tough young woman and a grifter in Texas.

In 1970 thirteen-year-old Kit Walker is running away from her latest foster home in an attempt to find an aunt when she meets Manny Romero at a gas station. Manny takes the teen under his tutelage and she becomes his partner-in-crime. Manny and Kit work together in scamming and stealing until they work their way up to armed robbery. They become known as the Texaco Twosome. Manny robbed the gas stations while Kit drove the get away car. When Kit is nineteen, she is pregnant with Manny's child. He wants her to get rid of it, but she suddenly runs away from him (no spoilers).

In 1990 Kit is living in Pecan Hollow with her thirteen-year-old daughter, Charlie. Kit is a tough woman with few social skills, but she works hard and fiercely loves Charlie in her own way. She works for a veterinarian and does her best to get by and provide a home for Charlie despite the fact that she has no clue how to be a family. When Manny is released from prison and turns up in Pecan Hollow, Kit knows nothing good will come from this.

This is an incredible literary debut novel full of wonderful descriptions and expressive language that depicts the setting and characters and places them firmly during a place and time. Small town life is portrayed with the personalities and scuffles that naturally are present and can't really be avoided. The novel tells the story in the 1970's until Kit leaves Manny. The story in the 1990's introduces us to adult Kit and her struggles with Charlie, as well as her inability to truly get along with other people. When Manny shows up, readers will know that, although he claims he has changed, that his appearance means trouble.

The characters are unforgettable although not necessarily likable. Kit is tough, hard, and closed off from everyone, actions she has learned through her life experiences. Frost admirably captures Kit's life experiences and her issues, making her feelings of abandonment and unworthiness heartbreaking, but understandable. Manny is a narcissistic con artist who knows how to charm people and get what he wants. Charlie is a young teen girl and acts like it, attitude and all.

This is a memorable novel that marks Frost as a writer to watch. Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Friday, January 28, 2022

A Dark, Divided Self

A Dark, Divided Self by A.J. Cross
1/1/22; 240 pages
Severn House
Will Traynor #3

A Dark, Divided Self  by A.J. Cross is a recommended procedural and the third book in the Will Traynor series.

The decomposed remains of a young woman are found in a wooded area outside Birmingham. The victim is identified as 21-year-old Amy Peters. She disappeared three years ago and is one of five young women who have recently vanished from Manchester. Criminologist Will Traynor is called in by Detective Chief Inspector Bernard Watts to assist in the investigation. This is a killer who felt comfortable enough about his abilities to transport the victim on an eighty-mile journey from Manchester to Birmingham. Dr. Julian Devenish, a forensic psychologist, also joins the team.

This is procedural that sets a deliberate pace from the start which makes for a rather slow-moving plot. As a third novel in a series, this could be read as a standalone, but perhaps reading the first two would give you a greater investment in the series and this installment. There are several long discussions concerning profiling the kind of person who would commit these crimes that also slow down the pace. As a procedural, the novel does follow the investigation and clues closely, but it is light on character development. This is a well written procedural but it does have issues with the slow pacing and there is no real sense of suspense or tension as the investigation unfolds. I guessed the perpetrator early on.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Severn House via NetGalley.

Thursday, January 27, 2022


CRISPR'd by Judy Foreman
2/15/22; 264 pages


CRISPR'd by Judy Foreman is a so-so story of a journalist.

Opening with the start of a trial in January of 2020, we know the defendant, Boston geneticist Dr. Saul Kramer, tampered with the healthy embryos in three cases at an IVF clinic replacing a healthy gene with a deadly mutation. The babies born died horrible deaths at around a 1 to 1 1/2 years-old from a genetic disease called Niemann-Pick. The doctor at the clinic used the gene-editing technique called CRISPR, which stands for "Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats." Sammie Fuller is a journalist who originally broke the case and is following the trial.

The narrative jumps back in time to 2018 and 2019 following Sammie's actions and investigations into other stories, not just the CRISPR case. (Two chapters are in 2015-16.) Once they suspect Dr. Kramer and a genetic defect, Sammie's husband just happens to be a molecular biologist at MIT so he can assist with the investigation. Sammie's story lead to the murder charges and subsequent trial. The whole reason for this novel is the argument that the defense uses.

Starting with the trial set up the premise that this was going to be a tense medical thriller. Regrettably, the novel wander off track and became more interested in Sammie's career, reducing it to the tale of a journalist's career before the big case. We are supposed to like Sammie, but she's a one dimensional character with little depth. The chapters on Dr. Kramer's actions provided a motive, but stopped there. I stuck it out, hoping for some connections, twists, information that would make it a thriller and live up to the initial opening chapter.

The writing was adequate, nothing special. There were several times in the novel where Foreman could have saved the plot and made it an actual thriller and instead went the opposite direction.  I finished the novel very disappointed. In the end this became less a medical thriller than a treatise on correct thought.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Skyhorse.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

The Violence

The Violence by Delilah S. Dawson
2/1/22; 512 pages
Del Rey/Random House

The Violence by Delilah S. Dawson is a highly recommended novel about a near-future epidemic of violence.

Chelsea Martin has two daughters Ella (17) and Brooklyn (5), a beautiful home, and a physically and emotionally abusive husband. Chelsea must follow a carefully premeditated set of actions every night in order to hopefully avoid David's anger and punishment if everything doesn't go exactly as he wants it to. Even worse, David has also punished Ella and Brooke is having nightmares. Chelsea is isolated with no support system. Even her wealthy mother, Patricia, offers just judgment and no support. Chelsea needs to find a way to protect herself and her girls. That is when the Violence erupts and begins to disperse across the country.

The Violence is a condition that is spreading across the country, especially in warm, southern climates. There are videos showing when it takes over someone and they experience sudden, explosive, violent bursts of rage, called "storms" attacking and killing anyone in their path. It is said to spread through mosquito bites, so those who can are traveling to colder climates. There is also a vaccine out that only the wealthy can afford at $30,000 a dose. There are now hot lines to report anyone suspected of having the Violence and they will be removed and imprisoned. This gives Chelsea an idea of how she can escape.

This is an un-put-down-able apocalyptic near future science fiction horror novel that will keep you glued to the pages to see what will happen next. Obviously, a novel about a woman in an abusive marriage and a pandemic that causes people to erupt in random acts of violent rage is going to have some graphic violence so take note of that. Some of the scenes are very, very graphic. However, the plot is about so much more than the Violence. It melds the science fiction aspects with a novel about mothers and daughters escaping, bonding, finding safety, and their place in the world. The pages flew by while I was reading. This would truly be one of the best novels I've read this year (if only some editing were done, which is covered later).

Wonderful character development occurs as three generations of women experience hardship, growth, changes, and discover their innate worth and power. The characters you first meet in the narrative are transformed by the end and you follow along as this growth transpires. Chapters alternate between the point-of-view of Chelsea, Ella, and Patricia so we can intimately follow each of them as they struggle to survive, and hopefully thrive, in a very changed world.

This is a plea I have made to authors repeatedly in reviews. Please entertain your readers with a great story and leave your feelings about current political/social events out of a speculative science fiction novel. Don't let us know your views about current politics - which all have an expiration date - and give your novel some longevity. Certainly these problems in The Violence are due to the fact that the novel was written several months ago and numerous facts and events have occurred in the interim. It was fine to mention this pandemic, the Violence, followed several years after Covid (which is still going on), but not repeatedly, and leave dates out. Even more distracting/annoying was Dawson's almost verbatim insertion of the same current political sentiment over 5 times (after which I stopped counting) into the novel. Regrettably, these flaws require me to subtract a star on an otherwise engaging and compelling novel.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Random House.

Monday, January 24, 2022


Impact by Greg Brennecka
2/1/22; 304 pages


Impact: How Rocks from Space Led to Life, Culture, and Donkey Kong by Greg Brennecka is a highly recommended, humorous, approachable examination of how meteorites have influenced us from the formation of our planet to the development of human culture.

Brennecka, a cosmochemist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, shares stories and facts that will entertain and inform readers about the most important rocks on Earth. Starting with the formation of the universe, he presents how, by transforming the early atmosphere and potentially delivering the complex organic molecules needed for life, the constant assault by meteorites is what has made Earth the planet we all live on today. Of course this change also includes killing off the dinosaurs. Meteorites have influenced and terrified humanity while influencing culture since the start of civilization. Brennecka covers the numerous ways meteorites have become part of our culture.

The text is written in a very accessible, humorous style. Included are numerous cartoon illustrations of various scientific concepts and photographs of historical meteorites and artifacts. The writing style will make it suitable for popular science readers of all levels of expertise. There is an appendix with more technical information for advanced readers. It is safe to say that those with a greater scientific background will want to look elsewhere for a more complex and thorough scientific examination of meteorites, however this is a fine choice for those who are new to the study of meteorites and would enjoy the humorous presentation.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Nothing Left To Lose

Nothing Left To Lose by A.J. Wills
1/7/22; 391 pages
Cherry Tree Publishing

Nothing Left To Lose by A.J. Wills is a highly recommended psychological thriller.

Abi is a criminal lawyer/barrister who just secured the convictions of two murders. Henry and Abi should be celebrating the conclusion of her big case, but Henry is frantic that she isn't home and her phone is off. When Abi finally returns after celebrating with colleagues, and says that someone was following her. Later Henry sees that someone did follow Abi home and now knows where they live. The next day he discovers her car was vandalized, and the couple  receives an anonymous letter with a death threat. Henry is worried that these threats are tied to her recent case and the crime family involved will extract revenge on their family. Abi is not as concerned, but ends up talking to the police about the incidents while Henry looks into a home security system.

Henry's concerns escalate and his paranoia increases with each new incident as he tires to figure out exactly who is targeting his family. Make no mistake, someone is out to get them and becoming increasingly threatening and bold in their contact and threats. Henry really has no idea who is behind this so his mind is skittering from one suspect to another. Henry's reactions are manic at times and almost over-the-top, which detracts from the seriousness, especially when he is not taking all the contact and threats he receives to the police. Document, document, document... 

Nothing Left To Lose will hold your attention to the end as the threats increase. Basically, all of the characters are unlikable so the strength to the narrative is in piecing together if the threats are real and who could be responsible for them. New suspects emerge as the information Henry thinks he has changes throughout the plot. The final denouement is very satisfying, but I'm going to have to admit I almost set this novel aside based on the sheer exasperation and irritation I felt toward the character of Henry.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Cherry Tree Publishing

Saturday, January 22, 2022

The Overnight Guest

The Overnight Guest by Heather Gudenkauf
1/25/22; 352 pages
Park Row Books

The Overnight Guest by Heather Gudenkauf is a very highly recommended chilling thriller.

Wylie Lark, a true crime writer, is writing her latest book about a murder in Burden, Iowa. She is staying at the farmhouse where two people were murdered and a little girl went missing in 2000. Now a major snowstorm with ice and snow has moved in, cutting her off from the world. When taking her dog out she is shocked to find a child outside laying on her driveway in the snow. She brings the bleeding child inside to warm up and to care for his injuries. The young boy won't speak and appears to have experienced some trauma and abuse. 

The storm has made contacting the sheriff impossible so Wylie braves the outdoors again, finding a truck in the ditch, and an injured woman. She leaves her coat with the woman, promising to return with a way to help her get back to the house. However, when she returns, the woman is gone and Wylie can only hope the woman makes her way to the house. In the meanwhile she needs to keep the fire going for warmth while trying to care for a child who refuses to talk. 

This masterfully written, well-plotted novel follows three different narrative threads. The main story line is in the present day with Wylie trying to care for the child in the raging blizzard. The second is the story of the murders that occurred in Burden, Iowa, in 2000. The third occurs during an unspecified time and is told through a young girl's point-of-view. The three story lines feature characters with distinctive voices and point-of-views. They are developed as distinctive individuals reflecting their different ages and circumstances.

All three narratives are equally compelling, suspenseful, and riveting. They eventually converge in an unpredictable denouement that I found extremely satisfying after all the tension and anxiety present throughout the novel. The enjoyment is found in the excellent, engrossing, and absolutely gripping journey to reach the ending. 4.5 rounded up

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Park Row Books.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Her Last Goodbye

Her Last Goodbye by Rick Mofina
1/25/22; 544 pages
MIRA Books

Her Last Goodbye by Rick Mofina is a very highly recommended mystery following the disappearance of a woman.

When Greg Griffin arrives home to a quiet house he knows his wife, Jennifer (Jenn), is at her book club and their son, Jake, is sleeping over at a friends. Book club nights sometimes went late, so Greg went to bed expecting Jenn to arrive later. When he woke up at 1:21 AM and Jenn still wasn't home, he searched the house, called a book club member, and then jumped in his truck to follow her route to the book club. There is not a sign of Jenn or her car. Greg calls the police to report his missing wife, and then calls his sister Kat and father, Vince, who both immediately come over to Greg's house.

For the investigators, Greg is an obvious suspect. He has no verifiable alibi, had all night to commit a crime, and he has scrapes on his knuckles. As the investigation begins, it is clear that Greg maybe keeping a secret, but Jenn may have secrets too.

This is an excellent mystery. Mofina provides information, suspects, and clues while following the investigation and the discovery of additional facts. Periodically chapters are included that introduce other characters/suspects and follow additional information that may pertain to the case in some manner. The procedural part of the narrative integrates the investigation with the experiences of Greg and his family. As the plot unfolds readers are given good reason to become anxious and concerned. It makes Her Last Goodbye a compelling novel that held my rapt attention from beginning to end.

There is good character development as the investigation uncovers some of the secrets and backstory of the main characters. While we know, as much as possible, that Greg is surely innocent, the police don't and have to look at all clues and information. It can be frustrating to see all the focus on Greg when Jenn is missing and in danger, but this also helps keep the tension and interest high while reading. This is a great choice for book clubs or for reading on a cold winters night.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of MIRA Books.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Happy Family

The Happy Family by Jackie Kabler
6/4/21; 400 pages

The Happy Family by Jackie Kabler is a so-so novel of suspense.

Beth's mother disappeared, walking out on and leaving her husband and ten years-old daughter behind. It is a hurt that Beth has struggled to overcome her whole life. Now, thirty years later, Beth, a divorced mother of two, has a successful career, many friends, and is happy. So when her mother, Alice, shows up again at her front door, wanting to rebuild a relationship with Beth, what could be better.

This is a slow-moving unrealistic novel of suspense. It is not a thriller. It is also painfully predictable, so there is no mystery. I kept reading, hoping I was wrong, but I knew everything that was going to happen long before the 30% mark. I do not have the gift of clairvoyance. The bones of an interesting novel are present but the potential wasn't brought to fruition. All I can say to Beth is: Goodness, please have some common sense. First lesson in life: believe your own eyes and instincts. Second lesson: do not believe everything said by a stranger who comes to your door.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

Monday, January 17, 2022

The Accomplice

The Accomplice by Lisa Lutz
1/25/22; 368 pages
Random House/Ballantine Books

The Accomplice by Lisa Lutz is a highly recommended novel of suspense swirling around two best friends and two timelines.

Owen and Luna, Luna and Owen - these two very different individuals became fast friends after they first met in 2003 at Markham University. "Owen Mann is charming, privileged, and chronically dissatisfied. Luna Grey is secretive, cautious, and pragmatic." Their platonic friendship continues into adulthood and the two live with their spouses near each other. Their friendship also seems to involve being questioned by the police in homicide investigations. The first unexplained death they are persons of interest in happens when they are in college. The recent murder in 2019 is of Owen's wife, Irene. Luna is jogging in the cemetery and finds Irene's body, making them again persons of interest and putting their friendship into question. Underlying these mysteries is a hidden secret Luna is keeping from her past.

Chapters in the narrative alternate between events in their college days and the current murder investigation in 2019. Both timelines are equally interesting and compelling. As the investigations unfold, we are privy to all manner of information and background concerning Luna and Owen. Neither is a particularly likable person, but they are complicated and interesting characters. They also drink a lot, in college and as adults, so expect that. Their family histories are convoluted.

The plot moves at a steady pace in both timelines, focusing more on the history and interactions of the characters along with the investigations. The alternating timelines worked very well in the exploration of these characters from then and now. We are also introduced to other characters Luna and Owen have known for a long time. There are twists and surprises in store for readers, some unexpected humor, and secrets that are going to be revealed. You won't know quite who to trust in this one as the line is always shifting.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Random House/Ballantine Books.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

The Appeal

The Appeal by Janice Hallett
1/25/22; 432 pages
Atria Books

The Appeal by Janice Hallett is a highly recommended mystery presented in an epistolary novel. If you are confident in your ability to piece together clues and solve mysteries this novel will certainly appeal to your inner investigator.

Olufemi (Femi) Hassan and Charlotte Holroyd are two law students who are reviewing case documentation for Roderick Tanner QC ahead of an appeal to overturn a murder conviction. The documentation in question consists of emails, texts, messages, letters, newspaper clippings, and police reports. It is a monumental task and Femi and Charlotte have little guidance in the beginning while they read through all the missives in an attempt to piece together the truth.

The case involves The Fairway Players, a local theater group, and a community rallying around a sick child. Martin Hayward, the director, shares the heartbreaking news that his two-year-old granddaughter, Poppy, has been diagnosed with a rare brain tumor. There is a new experimental treatment developed in the USA that works on her cancer, but it is very expensive to bring it over to the UK and they must immediately raise $350,000 dollars. The theater group and friends band together to start fund raising efforts. There are some questions beginning to emerge about the treatment and how the money is being managed.

As the cover discloses, there are fifteen suspects and one murder. It's really best, in my opinion, to start this novel with just the basics and follow along, meeting the characters, uncovering information, and gathering clues as you read. Interspersed in the many documents are chat messages between Femi and Charlotte discussing what they think at that point. Admittedly there are times while reading that you will feel like it is just an overwhelming information dump, but it will begin to sort itself out. Some characters are sending out and replying to emails, texts, etc. a lot while others are only mention in the written materials or only respond infrequently. All crime novel enthusiasts will know to pay attention to every clue.

Because of the format of the novel, character development is not straightforward at all for many of the characters although you will develop an impression of almost all of them. Some are very present in the written material, others not so much. One picture or interpretation will develop and then quickly be replaced by another theory as the characters provide more information. The list of characters and their connections to each other is presented several times in different contexts so you will have some assistance in keeping track of who is who and what has happened.

This is a complex, intricate puzzle of a novel that is full of suspects and motives. I did feel like it was a tad bit too long at times, but it is clever and does hold your attention.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Atria Books.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Chloe Cates Is Missing

Chloe Cates Is Missing by Mandy McHugh
2/15/22; 312 pages
Penzler Publishers/Scarlet

Chloe Cates Is Missing by Mandy McHugh is a very highly recommended domestic and psychological drama. This is a wildly entertaining and mesmerizing debut novel featuring a highly-dysfunctional family.

Thirteen-year-old Abigail Scarborough is known as Chloe Cates, a character created by her mother Jennifer for her blog CC and Me. Her mother began packaging, grooming, and filming Abby to be a media star when she was four-years-old. Now it is paying off financially with sponsors and commercial tie-ins. Jennifer controls and creates everything surrounding the image of Chloe. Everything is always full of glitter and everybody knows "CC Spectacular." No one knows Abby Scarborough, though. She's been forbidden to have any presence as herself on social media. Now Chloe is missing. She disappears from her bedroom over night, leaving the window open and her cellphone behind.

No one knows where CC/Abby  is or heard anything, and it looks like she may have ran away or may been kidnapped. The police are called in to investigate and Jennifer turns to social and news media. Detective Emilina Stone who is with the Children and Family Services Unit in Albany, N.Y., responds to the scene and realizes that she knew Jennifer when they were children. Emilina fails to disclose her connection to Jennifer. They share a dark secret but haven't spoken for twenty years.

In this very well-written, compelling novel, the plot develops through multiple points of view, mainly Jennifer, Emilina, and pages from Chloe’s diary. This is a highly-dysfunctional family and they are all brimming with secrets, tension, half-truths, anger, control issues, and more secrets. Once you start reading Chloe Cates Is Missing it will be impossible to stop. It is addictive. Sure, you will want to know what happened to Abby, but you will also be totally engrossed in the secrets and sordid information that is uncovered along the way.

Since many of the characters have secrets, most of them are not especially likable simple because you don't know who you can trust. It all shakes out in the end, but the journey reaching the denouement is full of all sorts of revealing information, suspense, and tension.

So, following the main search is irresistible, but there are a whole lot of subplots swirling around the investigation and search for Chloe/Abby. McHugh handles all of the revelations and twists with ease and the tension and drama keep rising. These people put the dys in dysfunctional. If you have a secret enjoyment of novels featuring dysfunctional families, this novel should be on your to-be-read list. It was a just-one-more-chapter novel and was impossible for me to put down.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the publisher/author via NetGalley.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Somebody's Home

Somebody's Home by Kaira Rouda
1/18/22; 300 pages
Thomas & Mercer

Somebody's Home by Kaira Rouda is a recommended novel of domestic suspense.

Julie (Cohen) Jones left her wealthy, controlling husband Roger and their large house to move into a house she has purchased on the other side of the tracks in Oceanside, Orange County, California. She has taken her seventeen-year-old daughter Jess with her, but Jess is not thrilled to leave her wealthy lifestyle behind. Jess is intrigued with the good looking young man living in the carriage house, Tom Dean. His father, Pastor Doug Dean was involved in a scandal and he and his second wife, Sandi, sold the main house to Julie. Now she has moved into the main house and Tom, who has no where to go, is supposed to move out of the carriage house in a couple days. But Tom is angry at his father and he has other plans.

At the opening of Somebody's Home we know that someone is in a woman's home who shouldn't be there. Then we go back in time a couple days and the actions that The narrative is told through the points of view of Julie, Roger, Jess, Tom, and Sandi. None of the characters are particularly likable and all the men are downright loathsome. Sandi is the only character who at least elicits some compassion and sympathy. All of them are depicted as caricatures of a type of person rather than realistic real people. It is a challenge to become invested in any of these characters.

This novel alternates between almost too many points-of-view while setting up the plot and developing the story, which results in a slow build up of tension. The action is very slow through most of the plot, but there is enough foreshadowing that bad things are going to happen soon to hold your attention until it actually is set into place. Once the action actually takes off, it escalates quickly, but the alternating narrators become a hindrance on the build up to the final ending. The ending is action packed, but it seems it could have been presented in a better manner. In the final analysis, Somebody's Home is entertaining, but the slow build up and cardboard caricatures were a drawback.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Thomas & Mercer.

Monday, January 10, 2022

The Night of the Party

The Night of the Party by Anna-Lou Weatherley
1/12/22; 318 pages

The Night of the Party by Anna-Lou Weatherley is a highly recommended mystery/psychological thriller.

Evie and Tom Drayton are having their best friends, Una and Jim Hemmings, over for a dinner party. Doting mother Evie begs seventeen-year-old Libby Drayon to play the piano for the group before going out for a couple hours with a friend. Tom's son, Brandon, shows up the night of the dinner too. It's just another normal, pleasant evening among friends at Millbank House, until Libby doesn't text her mom as promised and Evie begins to worry. Evie becomes frantic when Libby doesn't return home. The police are called and DI Daniel Riley and his team begin to investigate. When they retrace the path Libby would take through Windmill Woods, they find a body and the murder investigation begins.

In this well-written mystery/procedural/thriller, everyone is hiding some major secrets, perhaps with the exception of Evie. Libby is hiding the most secrets of all and is not the perfect, dutiful daughter she portrays to her mother. The narrative follows the current investigation and reactions of Evie, with other chapters covering Libby's past actions. All the characters are portrayed as unique individuals with flaws (many, many flaws) and are kept track of easily in the plot.

The suspects are plentiful and Weatherley provides multiple characters that could have a motive. Riley and his team begin to uncover all the secrets and in the process move from one suspect to another. The investigation follows a logical path and clues are provided for those of us who like to try to solve the case while we read. As the new revelations are disclosed, the information will keep you absorbed in the plot. There is plenty of secrets, deception, and scheming to hold your attention throughout.  I didn't guess whodunit until I suspect I was supposed to and the final denouement was very satisfying.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Bookouture.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

A Thousand Steps

A Thousand Steps by T. Jefferson Parker
1/11/22; 368 pages
Tor/Forge Books

A Thousand Steps by T. Jefferson Parker is a very highly recommended coming-of-age story wrapped around a mystery set in a very specific time and place. This is really a compelling, extraordinary, excellent novel!

In 1968 Laguna Beach, California, is attracting members of the developing counterculture - hippies, protests, sit-ins, drugs, and free love. Matt Anthony is a broke sixteen-year-old who is just trying to survive. He has a paper route that he needs to buy food. His mom is neglectful and an addict. Drugs are readily available and she is becoming part of the counterculture. His dad is gone and is only occasionally in contact. His brother is over in Vietnam and will hopefully be returning home soon.  But Matt is mostly worried about his sister, Jasmine (Jazz). She has just graduated from high school and hasn't returned home.

A girl they both knew has turned up dead on a beach, so Matt is worried about his missing sister and sets out trying to find Jazz. When there is still no sign of Jazz after 48 hours, Matt and his mom talk to the police about it. They assume she is a runaway and are much more concerned about the hippies and the drug problem over running the city. Matt takes it upon himself to search for Jazz as his mother is too stoned to do it. He tirelessly searches for Jazz while making sure he does his paper route.

The social and cultural divisions between characters is clear. In the pretense of helping Matt make money so he can eat, many of the adults are using him for their own nefarious purposes. They knew he was struggling and could have just gave him the money or bought him a meal.

Matt is a good kid. He is a sympathetic and thoughtful young man who is raising himself, which is heartbreaking and tragic. While his mother is off doing her own selfish thing, Matt is in a constant battle to obtain food or money for food, while looking for his sister. During this time, he has his first girlfriend, a girl he has had a crush on since fourth grade. He is also a talented artist and does sketches of the people he encounters. Matt is a memorable character involved in an overwhelming situation, both facets work together to make A Thousand Steps an unforgettable novel.

It is mostly a coming-of-age story, but it is also a mystery and a historical novel set in a very specific time and place. The time period adds insight into the actions of the characters and the atmosphere in Laguna Beach in 1968. This is when Timothy Leary was encouraging people to, "Turn on, tune in, drop out," use LSD, smoke hash, use opium.

The writing is exceptional and I am surprised I have never read anything by T. Jefferson Parker before this. A Thousand Steps is hard to put down once you start reading this intriguing and riveting novel. The plot seems simple, a young man is searching for his sister, but there are so many other parts to the story that give it depth and interest. A Thousand Steps will certainly be one of the best novels of 2022.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Tor/Forge Books.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

A Flicker in the Dark

A Flicker in the Dark by Stacy Willingham
1/11/22; 368 pages
Minotaur Books

A Flicker in the Dark by Stacy Willingham is a highly recommended atmospheric thriller.

Chloe Davis is now a psychologist in Baton Rouge, but twenty years ago, when she was twelve, her father went to prison for the murder of six teenage girls in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. Her father confessed, plead guilty to the crimes, and is serving six consecutive life sentences. The actions of her father resulted in devastation for her family and repercussions still affect her, her brother Cooper, and her mother today. Chloe has tried to move on and now, with the date of her wedding to Daniel approaching soon, she is hopeful to lead a normal life. As the 20th anniversary of her father’s crimes approaches, New York Times reporter Aaron Jansen calls wanting to interview her and begins to break her fragile hold on happiness. When a local teen goes missing, Chloe begins to see parallels with her father's crimes and begins to worry that a copycat killer has chosen the upcoming 20th anniversary to mimic her father's crimes?

The narrative alternates between following Chloe's first-person account in the present and flashbacks to her childhood twenty years ago. Chloe's post-traumatic stress disorder, paranoia, and anxiety become increasingly obvious and the tension rises incrementally as the story unfolds. It is clear that Chloe has not really recovered from her childhood trauma as she continues to look with suspicions at those around her and relies on self-medicating to reduce her anxiety and fears. This also will make you question her reliability. The plot indicates that the guilty party could be one of several people around her.

Chloe is the only character who is portrayed realistically. As we are privy to her thoughts and actions, she is developed as a complicated character who is sympathetic, unpredictable and flawed. Clearly she is trying to overcome her childhood trauma, but it is still fresh in her mind.

This is a well written debut novel for Willingham that will hold your attention throughout. Some readers will know what is happening early in the novel as I did, but there are enough misleading clues and suspects to keep you engrossed in the plot developments and begin to doubt yourself. The setting in Louisiana provides an atmospheric backdrop to the plot.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Minotaur Books.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Find Me

Find Me by Alafair Burke
1/11/22; 304 pages

Find Me by Alafair Burke is a highly recommended mystery.

Hope Miller doesn't really know her real name. She experienced amnesia fifteen years ago after she was found unconscious by an overturned SUV and she never regained her memory. Hope Miller is the name she gave herself. The town of Hopewell, New Jersey, where she has lived, banded together and has taken care of her. Lindsay Kelly, Manhattan defense lawyer and Hope's best friend, has been supportive of her since she was found. Now Hope is excited because she has made a decision to try and live in East Hampton, Long Island, an unfamiliar town where she is not known and knows no one. Lindsay is supportive, but concerned, and her concerns were warranted when Hope disappears.

Some blood is found at her last known location, but it's not her blood. Local police officer, Carter Decker, but he is skeptical about Hope and thinks she is a scam artists. Carter's doubt increases when a local man is found dead and he may have a connection to Hope. Then, it is determined that the DNA sample has a connection to the case of a Wichita, Kansas serial killer twenty years earlier. In her search for the truth about where Hope went, Lindsay calls NYPD homicide detective Ellie Hatcher, who is well acquainted with the case in Kansas.

The characters, and there are several that you need to keep track of, are all interesting and appealing.  Although this novel has Ellie Hatcher as a character it is a standalone novel and not necessarily part of the Ellie Hatcher series. Lindsay and Hope are the central characters here, but Ellie has a lot of information and insight into the case. The characters all bring with them another mystery or a facet of one. 

Find Me is well written and the mystery is interesting. The narrative presents a tense, suspenseful, and compelling mystery that follows several twists while uncovering secrets and finding new information. There is a whole lot going on in this tangled case of a missing woman and you will become invested in finding Hope while uncovering what happened. The plot is engaging and most readers will quickly become involved and interested in the questions that arise.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Monday, January 3, 2022

Wolf Hollow

Wolf Hollow by Victoria Houston
1/11/22; 288 pages
Crooked Lane Books
Lew Ferris/Loon Lake Mystery Series

Wolf Hollow by Victoria Houston is a highly recommended mystery set in Wisconsin.

Police Chief Lewellyn (Lew) Ferris fights crime, teaches fly fishing classes, and enjoys the company of Doc Osborne in the northwoods town of Loon Lake, Wisconsin. When a group of 12 year-old preteens set a trap and try to instigate a citizen's arrest on a sexual predator, the man involved turns out to be Noah McDonough, the 24-year-old son of wealthy Grace McDonough, a local landowner. Lew makes the arrest and discovers this wasn't the first time Noah did this. She also uncovers the information that Grace is in the process of negotiating with a company for mining rights on her land. This would devastate the environment and the fishing in the area.

When Lew's brother Pete is discovered dead out by a nest of loons he has been observing, suspicions begin to rise since Pete, an environmentalist, was also involved with an organization planning to file a lawsuit to prevent the drilling on McDonough's land. The mystery deepens when Grace and Noah don't show up in court for his arraignment and can't be found. Then another body is found and it becomes clear that more investigation is needed to uncover the conspiracy that seems to be underway.

Wolf Hollow is an excellent choice for those who would enjoy a cozy-like mystery set in small town Wisconsin and love fly fishing. It is also perfectly easy to enjoy the novel even if you aren't a huge fan of fishing. All the characters you are supposed to trust are likable, and Lew has a group of trusted friends and colleagues to help solve the murder mysteries. The antagonists are very obvious. It is clear who you can trust so the enjoyment is found in the discovery of clues and information while putting all the pieces together to solve the crimes. There are not a lot of gory scenes and details, which is what makes the novel take on the feeling of a cozy mystery (with the exception of some language) but is also a procedural.

This is the first Lew Ferris novel in the continuing Loon Lake mystery series set in Wisconsin. There are many descriptions of fly fishing, as well as other fishing, which didn't bother me but may be a negative for some readers. It is easy to skim over the fishing scenes. They do add a natural element to the plot since the northwoods are an important part of the book and establishing the setting and culture of the area. The novel is well written. Although the mystery itself is not extremely complicated, it logically follows the clues and discoveries which is a plus in any procedural.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Crooked Lane Books.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Girl in Ice

Girl in Ice by Erica Ferencik
3/1/22; 304 pages
Gallery/Scout Press

Girl in Ice by Erica Ferencik is a very highly recommended science fiction mystery set in the near future.

Valerie “Val” Chesterfield is a linguist who specializes in dead Nordic languages. She also suffers from life long anxiety issues, panic disorder, and has recently started drinking more after the death of her twin brother, Andy. She and her father were told that Andy committed suicide by going outside unprotected into 50 degree below zero weather at the Arctic research station located on a remote island off Greenland’s coast where he worked. They both doubt this is the truth. When Val is contacted by Wyatt Speeks, Andy's fellow researcher in Greenland, Val hesitates to open the email. When she does, her first reaction is total disbelief.

Wyatt claims that a young girl, 8 or 9 years-old, who was frozen in the ice has been thawed out alive. She is speaking a language no one understands and he sends Val a recording of the girl talking. Wyatt wants Val to travel to the research station to meet this girl and try to figure out what she is saying. None of this is in Val's comfort zone, but she ventures to the Arctic to attempt to decipher what the girl is saying, while also trying to uncover more information about Andy's death.

Val is a vulnerable, sympathetic main character and the fear and panic she has to overcome is palpable. All of the small cast of characters are depicted as realistic and believable with compelling backstories. Sigrid, the name given to the girl, is a unique characters and following the burgeoning relationship between her and Val as they try to communicate is fascinating. Raj and Nora are researchers who arrived at the station with Val and provide a counterpoint to Wyatt and Jeanne. Jeanne is the mechanic, cook, and assistant. Wyatt is an enigma, sometimes menacing, who is clearly hiding something and most certainly has a ulterior motive.

Greenland and the unforgiving, harsh environment is a place, but also takes on the importance of another character. I quite enjoyed placing this group of people in this context. Having these characters in such an isolated setting  is akin to having a small group of explorers anywhere, including a future space mission. That isolation and the harsh environment coupled with Sigrid and the mystery behind her all work to give Girl in Ice the feeling of a science fiction novel that contains several mysteries that need to be solved.

The writing is excellent and the plot is engrossing. Girl in Ice had me captivated from beginning to end. The action does move slowly at the start, but it serves to is build up the atmosphere, tension, and deepen the mysteries while simultaneously providing important character development. The linguistic portions of the novel are fascinating. For me, this was an un-put-downable and unforgettable novel with a unique plot and characters. I need to look into Ferencik's other novels.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Gallery/Scout Press.