Book Reviews: So Close the Hand of Death by J.T. Ellison, So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman, When the Thrill Is Gone by Walter Mosley, and Come and Find Me by Hallie Ephron

So Close the Hand of Death
J.T. Ellison
MIRA Books, March 2011
ISBN: 978-0-7783-2943-5
Mass Market Paperback

This is the newest entry in the Taylor Jackson series, and picks up several threads of earlier books.  At the end of the prior book, The Immortals, Dr. John Baldwin, Supervisory Special Agent and Taylor’s fiancé, was about to attend a hearing into a case from his past, held at FBI headquarters at Quantico.   The aftermath of that hearing resulted in his [hopefully temporary] suspension.  But the tentacles of that prior case extend well beyond that, to threaten Taylor’s career and, indeed, her life and that of those nearest and dearest to her.  As the book opens, one of those is immediately apparent as Pete (“Fitz”) Fitzgerald, Taylor’s dear friend who has been nothing less than a father figure to her, has seen the love of his life, Sue, murdered, and now lies in a hospital bed, grievously wounded [something apparently called “enucleation,” but you’ll have to look that one up yourself].  Taylor, a six-foot tall Metro Homicide Lieutenant in Nashville, Tennessee, vows to prevent further fallout.

A serial killer, the self-styled “Pretender,” learned his deadly craft at the feet of another character from past books, the Snow White killer, is responsible for 26 known deaths as the tale begins, and has in turn amassed several acolytes of his own, who at his behest have now begun killing sprees across the US mimicking famous, or infamous, serial killers of years past: the Boston Strangler, the NY killer known as the Son of Sam, and the Zodiac Killer.  This is all part of a deadly cat-and-mouse game on his part, the ultimate prize being Taylor Jackson.  His identity, and the motive behind all this, is the biggest mystery, beyond the fact that it is very, very personal.

In this novel the reader discovers that Baldwin has unsuspected baggage that is about to complicate his and Taylor’s lives, but the emphasis is, of course, on identifying and stopping the serial killer who has targeted Taylor and those she loves, with the suspense increasing as the inevitable confrontation comes closer.  I felt that the book could have benefited from some judicious editing, but nonetheless found it a very enjoyable summer read.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, June 2011.

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So Much Pretty
Cara Hoffman
Simon & Schuster, March 2011
ISBN: 978-1-45161675-0
Hardcover

What at first blush appears to be a bucolic setting is soon discovered to be much less innocent than it first seems.  Gene and Claire Piper have moved from their lives in New York City to the small western NY town of Haeden, an isolated, hardscrabble place close to Appalachia whose residents have a median income of less than $14,000 a year. Young and idealistic doctors, they have both put in their time [at 70 hours a week] in a Free Clinic in Manhattan and had planned on seeking assignments from Doctors Without Borders.

This debut novel from Cara Hoffman is different from almost anything I’ve read recently.  It moves at almost a leisurely pace – until it doesn’t, of course – and in non-linear fashion.  [Even the last portion of the book, when all has been made clear, jumps a bit back and forth by a few or several days at a time.]  And until I looked back at the brief prologue, I hadn’t remembered that had I not lost track of that single page, it had provided a foreshadowing of what is to follow.  But no further hint of those events is found until many, many pages later.  In the meantime, character studies and backstory is provided, in wonderful prose.  But at a point when and shortly after Wendy’s fate becomes known, suddenly time seemed to stop as I kept reading and was then unable to –- keep reading, that is — and I nearly stopped breathing for a minute or two.

The major characters include Wendy White, a local 20-year-old woman, who disappeared one night over five months ago, the presumption being that she had simply run away from her boring life; Alice Piper [Gene and Claire’s daughter], a preternaturally bright and athletic high school student; and Stacy Flynn, a 29-year-old reporter for the local paper who had left a job working as a journalist in Cleveland, Ohio searching for a big, important story on environmental issues she hoped to find in Haeden.  As the old saw goes, ‘be careful what you wish for.’   What she finds are indeed those issues, as well as others dealing with the systemic and almost casual brutalization of women and the indifference of those who live in its midst.  The watchword here presented is, as I believe was said by George Orwell, that “the responsibility of every intelligent person is to pay attention to the obvious,” even, or especially, when doing so “becomes a horror.”  A powerful book, one that will stay with me, and one that is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, June 2011.

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When the Thrill is Gone
Walter Mosley
Riverhead, March  2011
ISBN: 978-1-59448-781-1
Hardcover

Leonid Trotter McGill is a 55-year-old African-American man, an amateur boxer trying to turn his life around working as a private detective after having committed many dishonest acts in the past for which he is trying to atone.  His marriage is troubled, with both he and his wife having been unfaithful, and his girlfriend has ended their relationship because she envisions him coming to a violent end and doesn’t want to have to endure that.  Prominent in the novel are memories of his radical father, who apparently “was killed in some South American revolution,” not longer after which his mother “died of a broken heart” when he was twelve.  His father’s Communist sympathies are evident in the fact that he called himself Tolstoy, and named his sons Leonid and Nikita; McGill in turn named his sons Twilliam and Dmitri.

The friends the author created for this troubled man in Known to Evil, the first book in the series, are back, and “LT,” as he is known to one and all, relies on them heavily:  “Bug,” a computer genius; “Hush,” an assassin who can be counted on in difficult situations; and most importantly Gordo, his trainer in the ring and his surrogate father, now fighting cancer and ensconced in LT’s home.

The writing is pure pleasure.  Each character is meticulously described in a very distinctive and inimitable style.  As well, the author [and his creation] have a philosophical bent, e.g., “The greatest natural disaster in the history of the world has been the human brain.  Get rid of us and Eden will return unaided,” and “Life is nothing without its challenges and only the dead are truly peaceful.”

There are two major story lines.  The first begins when a woman comes into LT’s office stating that the first two wives of her billionaire husband came to untimely ends, and she fears her life is in danger. [This becomes more complicated when McGill becomes convinced that most of what the woman has told him is a lie.]  But she pays him with a large amount of much-needed cash, and he agrees to take on the case.

The next investigation is at the behest of a man who was a close aide of his father, known as the Diplomat of Crime,  who asks LT to find a former associate, giving him almost no information other than the man’s name, telling him that he doesn’t expect to pay him for this job, but that he will be in his debt if he is successful.

This is not a book to be read quickly; one must take enough time to appreciate the journey en route to what at first seemed to be an abrupt ending, which I hasten to add an instant later felt absolutely right.  Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, July 2011.

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Come and Find Me
Hallie Ephron
William Morrow, March 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-185752-2
Hardcover

In her first foray into fiction since the wonderful Never Tell a Lie, Hallie Ephron has come up with another winner.

Diana Highsmith has become reclusive, if not actually agoraphobic, in the aftermath of the accident in the Swiss mountains in which her fiancé, Daniel, fell to his death over a year ago.  It was his recklessness that had intrigued her about him, but his loss has devastated her.  Her two anchors to the world outside, which she has been attempting to re-enter step by agonizing step, are her sister, Ashley, and Daniel’s best friend, Jake.  But her home in the Boston suburbs has become her shelter from the world after the panic attacks took over that world, and those two are nearly the only ones to be allowed in.

Diana, Jake and Daniel had created an Internet-based platform called OtherWorld, a virtual universe where their avatars live, as they also created a consultancy firm resolving security issues for health care clients [a far cry from the lives the three of them had led as hackers, just as successful in that endeavor as the new business has become now, outwitting those who did as they once had, “a trio of rehabilitated black hats”]. But Diana has recently become concerned that someone out there is specifically targeting their clients, that OtherWorld “has become infested with griefers” [a new-to-me term], and the clients are pulling back just as she and Jake start to get a lead on who is responsible, telling them that their job is done.  But when Ashley suddenly disappears, her focus narrows to that above all else.

Ashley could be difficult at times.  As Diana says: “My sister’s annoying.  But truly, she’s totally there for me.  Except when there’s a man in the picture or when she’s convinced that she’s deathly ill.” [She tends to be a hypochondriac.]  However, the bond between the sisters couldn’t be stronger, and Diana is obsessed with finding her. But she has no idea where that path will take her.  Neither does the reader, as the tale takes a completely unforeseen turn.

The details of hacking and then tracking down the hackers are fascinating, a whole other world, literally and figuratively.  But aside from that, Ms. Ephron has written another page-turning novel that is thoroughly enjoyable, and recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, July 2011.