Book Review: Things in Jars by Jess Kidd @JessKiddHerself @AtriaBooks

Things In Jars
Jess Kidd
Atria Books, February 2020
ISBN: 978-1-9821-2128-0
Hardcover

When I first laid eyes on this novel I wasn’t going to read or review it. Not my kind of crime novel, I thought. But I read the first page. Then I read the entire thing, almost without stopping. This woman has a way with words and even more significantly, with story.

Here is London of the Victorian Age, but not the London of royalty and means. This is the London of disease, of violence and brutality, of starvation and lives too often begun and played out in darkness and misery, unseen, unremarked and unconsecrated. Here is London in myth and reality. More, here is a story that takes one to the edge of the sea and dares you to look deep, below the surface and just consider the possibilities.

Bridie Devine is an unusual anomaly in London. She’s a middle-aged single woman who supports herself as a private investigator. It’s the middle of the century and while prisons like Newgate are well-known, well-established protective police departments are not. The story chases Bridie back and forth from significant childhood among Irish contemporaries to recognition of her prodigious intellect at an early stage to considered analysis of facts and evidence.

Make no mistake, though this story deals prominently with other worldly manifestations, it is rooted in the mean and fraught world of the lower classes and with real human emotion and attitude. Here is a story that will grab you and not let go, even after the final page.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, February 2020.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
Traces, Grand Lac, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Review: This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger—and a Giveaway! @WmKentKrueger @AtriaBooks

This Tender Land
William Kent Krueger
Atria Books, September 2019
ISBN 978-1-4767-4929-7
Hardcover

Literature fills almost as many needs as there are readers. This novel, solemn, deliberate, moving, is not for the harried or the cynical. Or maybe it is, if the reader is at least willing to consider the mysterious and sometimes mystical forces that surround us. Faith, like awareness of the natural world, is largely a private matter. This novel ultimately raises and thoughtfully considers more questions than it answers. Or not. The book is eminently satisfactory as a fine piece of literature for whatever enjoyment and satisfaction any reader gains from the story, a journey of life and death and misdeeds and love and, perhaps, redemption. Certainly forgiveness.

The journey begins with the difficult abusive lives of three inmates of a hard-scrabble boarding school in rural Minnesota in the midst of the deep depression that engulfed the nation in the nineteen-thirties. Three young men, in their early teens, Albert, Odie and Moses, grow closer in their mutual efforts to resist being smashed under by the persistent and sadistic efforts of the school officials who do not shy away from meting out corporal punishment at the drop of a fork.

When the opportunity a huge storm presents, the three boys collect a girl they all know from a nearby farm and lately orphaned like them, then run away from the school and determine to somehow make their way to Saint Louis. So they have a definite goal, however ethereal.

The adventure and the travelers’ desperate need to stay out of the clutches of the law infuses the story with tension and excitement, and the carefully crafted descriptive passages only add to the forward drive. Here readers will find evangelists, storekeepers, the law, liars, good and bad people and a story that ultimate raises fundamental questions of relationships.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, August 2019.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

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To enter the drawing for a print
advance reading copy of
This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger,
leave a comment below. Two winning
names will be drawn on Sunday
evening, September 8th. This drawing is
open to residents of the US & Canada.

Book Review: Watching You by Lisa Jewell

Watching You
Lisa Jewell
Atria Books, January 2019
ISBN 978-1-5011-9007-0
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Melville Heights is one of the nicest neighborhoods in Bristol, England; home to doctors and lawyers and old-money academics. It’s not the sort of place where people are brutally murdered in their own kitchens. But it is the sort of place where everyone has a secret. And everyone is watching you.

As the headmaster credited with turning around the local school, Tom Fitzwilliam is beloved by one and all—including Joey Mullen, his new neighbor, who quickly develops an intense infatuation with this thoroughly charming yet unavailable man. Joey thinks her crush is a secret, but Tom’s teenaged son Freddie—a prodigy with aspirations of becoming a spy for MI5—excels in observing people and has witnessed Joey behaving strangely around his father.

One of Tom’s students, Jenna Tripp, also lives on the same street, and she’s not convinced her teacher is as squeaky clean as he seems. For one thing, he has taken a particular liking to her best friend and fellow classmate, and Jenna’s mother—whose mental health has admittedly been deteriorating in recent years—is convinced that Mr. Fitzwilliam is stalking her.

Meanwhile, twenty years earlier, a schoolgirl writes in her diary, charting her doomed obsession with a handsome young English teacher named Mr. Fitzwilliam…

In Lisa Jewell’s latest brilliant “bone-chilling suspense” (People) no one is who they seem—and everyone is hiding something. Who has been murdered—and who would have wanted one of their neighbors dead? As “Jewell teases out her twisty plot at just the right pace” (Booklist, starred review), you will be kept guessing until the startling revelation on the very last page.

By now, Lisa Jewell has firmly established herself in the crime fiction field as one of the best suspense/thriller writers today, especially those involving domestic and/or women’s issues. With Watching You, she certainly did not disappoint this reader and, in fact, takes things to another level of creepiness.

Secrets abound in this community and different residents of the neighborhood have varying opinions about their neighbors and even their own families but it’s Tom Fitzwilliam who seems to be at the center of everything. Why is this man, rightfully admired for his headmaster abilities and accomplishments, such a magnet for attention? Which of these neighbors is dangerously obsessed with him?

Ms. Jewell begins her story with a dead body and then backtracks to give the reader glimpses of the previous few weeks and the odd—and chilling—behavior of these people who spy on each other with the precision of a trained professional.  A reader will wonder why do they do so and, just when you think you have a handle on things, the author tosses everything you thought you knew into the ozone.

Pacing is almost frenetic, the characters are diverse in their personalities and in their likeability (or not) and you can’t help wondering if some of your own neighbors might be behaving oddly, perhaps dangerously. The web of lies and rumors that seemed to keep growing had me guessing from beginning to end…well done, Ms. Jewell!

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2019.

Book Review: Desolation Mountain by William Kent Krueger

Desolation Mountain
Cork O’Connor Mystery #17
William Kent Krueger
Atria Books, August 2018
ISBN 978-1-5011-4746-3
Hardcover

Stephen O‘Connor, Cork O’Connor’s young son, has always had visions presaging tragedies.  This novel is based on one in which he sees an eagle shot from the sky and a menace he can’t identify at his back.  And then a plane carrying a U.S. Senator and her family crashes on Desolation Mountain.  Cork and Stephen subsequently join others attempting to find survivors and clues.

Soon, some of the first responders go missing, and father and son begin to investigate.  Then Cork inadvertently meets Bo Thorson, a character from a long ago novel, then a secret service agent, now a private investigator.  They join forces, but soon Cork begins to doubt Bo’s role.  The area is overrun with representatives of various federal agencies and is cordoned off.

The plot centers on the meaning of the vision and solution of the cause of the crash.  This is the 18th novel in the series, and provides, for the first time, a deeper look into Cork and Stephen’s relationship.  As is a constant in the series, it is well-written, and the descriptions of the North Country graphic and excellent.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, August 2018.

Book Review: Sulfur Springs by William Kent Krueger

Sulfur Springs
Cork O’Connor Mystery Series #16
William Kent Krueger
Atria Books, August 2017
ISBN: 978-1-5011-4734-0
Hardcover

Krueger has become a spectacular writer. You can see his development if you read his entire output. His observational skills have always been first rate and his ability to refine and shape those skills to serve the story only get better. And unlike a few writers today, he hasn’t resorted to the use of formulaic plots and characters or settings, merely to meet another deadline.

Sulfur Springs also demonstrates the author’s willingness to explore new horizons for Corcoran O’Conner, ex-sheriff of Tamarack County in northern Minnesota. Now married to Native American Rainy Bisonette, and retired from regular law enforcement, Cork and Rainy’s life is upturned when Rainy’s son, Peter, leaves a garbled telephone message that provides only a sense of deep trouble in the hot Arizona desert.

Cork and Rainy travel immediately to southern Arizona where they discover Peter’s whereabouts are a mystery and the people of Sulfur Springs and surrounding towns are either lying or not talking at all. The story is complex and heavily peopled by many players, none of whom seem to be what they are on the surface. As they traverse the many layers of relationships, Cork is disturbed to learn there are parts of the life of his new wife of which he is completely ignorant. It disturbs him and part of the fabric of the story deals with his efforts and needs to resolve the questions arising in Rainy’s background.

As the couple persists in tracing her son, more and danger pivots to focus on them and the people around them. The novel works on several levels, as has become common in Krueger novels. The resolutions, legal, psychological and personal, while many and varied, are carefully handled. This is an eminently satisfying novel with a penetrating mystery at its heart.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, June 2018.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Review: Holding by Graham Norton and Trafficked by Peg Brantley

Holding
Graham Norton
Atria Books, August 2017
ISBN 978-1-5011-7326-4
Hardcover

From the publisher—

The remote Irish village of Duneen has known little drama; and yet its inhabitants are troubled. Sergeant PJ Collins hasn’t always been this overweight; mother of­ two Brid Riordan hasn’t always been an alcoholic; and elegant Evelyn Ross hasn’t always felt that her life was a total waste.

So when human remains are discovered on an old farm, suspected to be that of Tommy Burke – a former­ love of both Brid and Evelyn – the village’s dark past begins to unravel. As the frustrated PJ struggles to solve a genuine case for the first time in his life, he unearths a community’s worth of anger and resentments, secrets and regret.

Time didn’t pass in Duneen; it seeped away.

When it comes to meandering, laidback crime fiction, this one is it but that’s not entirely a bad thing. There’s not much in the way of excitement but I found myself quietly entertained and disappointed only because felt that individual characters could have been rounded out a bit more.

PJ is an odd duck, sort of drifting through life in his small Irish village, wishing for more but not motivated enough to do anything about it. When human remains are found, he thinks solving the case could lift him out of his dreary life a bit but he doesn’t actually have much to go on nor does he really know how to properly investigate. Still, he wants to try in his clumsy way if only he could manage to keep a step ahead of the big city police sent from Cork to investigate and he does have one advantage—he knows his village.

As in all small communities, everyone knows everyone else’s life history and speculation about these remains immediately calls to mind in the rumor mill the strange disappearance of a young man, Tommy Burke, nearly twenty years ago. The gossip starts up in fine fashion and, soon, PJ is looking into the long-ago story of a guy and two girls. Pretty soon, his habit of walking around the village to observe and get to know the people begins to pay off and he just might get the better of the very patronizing Detective Superintendent Linus Dunne.

Three lonely sisters are just a few of the characters who do get a lot of attention and their personal stories give a good deal of weight to this otherwise mildmannered mystery. In fact, in some ways, the mystery takes second place to the village itself and all of its inhabitants, especially PJ himself. This is a man I’d like to get to know better and I hope the author will give us a sequel.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2017.

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Trafficked
A Mex Anderson Novel #2
Peg Brantley
Bark Publishing, June 2017
ISBN 978-0-9853638-7-1
Trade Paperback

From the author—

Sex trafficking.

Not Thailand. Or the Philippines. Or Russia.

America.

Rich or poor, black or white, girls disappear across this country every day, pulled into the nightmarish world of prostitution and drugs.

Mex Anderson is back, tasked with finding three missing girls before it’s too late. Three girls. Three girls who could live in your town, your neighborhood, or in your own home.

Jayla Imani Thomas is fifteen. A smart kid from a poor part of town who has to fend for herself. Jayla is headed for college and a better life than her mother had.

Alexis Emily Halston is seventeen. Money provides everything she wants or needs except functional parents. Alexis has the world by the tail and she knows it.

Olivia Emma Campbell is twelve. She’s a middle child who dreams of being a veterinarian when she grows up. But right now “Livvy” just wants someone to notice her, maybe even to love her.

Caught up in a cruel system fueled by lust and money, all three young women must find the courage within themselves to survive. And Mex must come to terms with his own loss and face his demons head on—or he might not have the strength to save them.

Sex trafficking is one of those topics “nice” people don’t want to think or talk about; it’s more comfortable to pretend that sort of thing is so distant from our own lives that it has very little real meaning. Sure, it happens in third world countries or in really bad areas of countries like our own, but it doesn’t affect us, right? Yes, we know all about prostitution and how rampant that is, even close by sometimes , but that’s not really sex trafficking, right?

Wrong, so wrong.

The three girls depicted here could be your neighbor, your own child’s best friend, the daughter of the organist at your church. In other words, they’re completely normal girls who, for one reason or another, are at risk, and Jayla is on the verge of being dragged into the life when we first meet her. The betrayal by her friend might seem dramatic license but it happens a lot more than we want to think.

Mex and Cade have a story of their own and Mex, in particular, knows the pain of loss. The two of them have emotional ties and things they’re trying to work through but, with the help of Mex’s friend, Darius, they are intent on saving these three girls. Of course, the upshot of any saving they can do is that there are many, many more girls like them still trapped in a horrific existence.

Although this is certainly a bleak topic and there’s a lot of darkness in the story, there’s one thing that brings a light of hope and that’s the girls’ resilience, their determination that they will not lose their souls. I really think Trafficked should be on every middle and high school reading list so that these kids (and it’s not just girls) can have some sense of the dangers out there. Well done, Ms. Brantley!

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2017.

Book Review: I Found You by Lisa Jewell

I Found You
Lisa Jewell
Atria Books, April 2017
ISBN 978-1-5011-5459-1
Hardcover

Is there anything more evocative of a mystery than a stormy beach on the coast of the North Sea? Well, yes. Add in a man who huddles there wearing shirt and trousers for more than twenty-four hours while the rain beats down on his head. This is the scene that leads single mother Alice Lake, whose beach the man has selected to inhabit, out to give him a coat and ask him a question.

“Who are you?” she naturally asks. But he doesn’t know. He’s lost his memory. He’s lost himself.

In an act of kindness, Alice invites him into her chaotic home. Her three children, all from different fathers, and three dogs, all left behind for her to care for, greet the newcomer with varying degrees of welcome.

Since he lacks any other name, Alice’s youngest daughter bestows the name of “Frank”on the stranger. It serves as well as any as Alice and Frank try to discover just who he is and what he’s doing on Alice’s beach.

It’s quite a suspenseful journey.

Alice is a great character, complicated, compassionate, flawed, and ultimately, so worthy of love.

Her children, each very different from the other, are fleshed out real people. Each has a definite place in the story, when they so easily could’ve been thrown in simply for effect. And Alice’s friend Derry’s place is to help the story along.

The book is written in alternating points of view. There’s a present day young bride whose husband has gone missing, and a seventeen-year-old boy from twenty-two years ago whose sister was raped and murdered before him, her body carried out to sea and never found. And of course, both Frank’s and Alice’s.

Tension builds as Frank slowly recovers bits and pieces of his memory. The journey through his ordeal is mesmerizing.

Ms. Jewell’s storytelling and writing is wonderful. I’m already putting this one on my ‘best reads of 2017’ list, and I think anyone who picks it up will too.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, February 2017.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder and Four Furlongs.