Book Review: The Elizas by Sara Shepard

The Elizas
Sara Shepard
Atria, April 2018
ISBN 978-1-5011-6277-0
Hardcover

From the publisher—

When debut novelist Eliza Fontaine is found at the bottom of a hotel pool, her family at first assumes that it’s just another failed suicide attempt. But Eliza swears she was pushed, and her rescuer is the only witness.

Desperate to find out who attacked her, Eliza takes it upon herself to investigate. But as the publication date for her novel draws closer, Eliza finds more questions than answers. Like why are her editor, agent, and family mixing up events from her novel with events from her life? Her novel is completely fictional, isn’t it?

The deeper Eliza goes into her investigation while struggling with memory loss, the closer her life starts to resemble her novel, until the line between reality and fiction starts to blur and she can no longer tell where her protagonist’s life ends and hers begins.

The Elizas is an interesting kind of crime fiction in that much of the story has the protagonist, Eliza, questioning her own mental faculties and the reader is just as baffled as she is. Eliza isn’t very likeable—some of her behavior, particularly in the past, can be called unpleasant at best—and most of us are not saintly enough to blithely overlook some aspects of mental issues so connecting with her takes patience and effort. After all, having someone in our lives who may or may not be psychologically damaged is just not easy but I did sympathize with Eliza as she struggled to understand what was real and what wasn’t.

There’s a scene near the end that I wondered about because it seemed so unlikely; a police detective tells Eliza something about the authorities not doing an autopsy and it struck me as a strange accommodation for the police to make. Perhaps the approach is different in Los Angeles and I was just unaware.

The impact this novel could have had on me was lessened somewhat by the use of first person present tense. I know many other readers feel otherwise but I just don’t understand why any crime fiction author does this. Instead of heightening the tension, it pulls me out of the story because (1) unless something supernatural is going to happen, I know the speaker is going to survive so I really don’t need to worry and (2) I can’t help wondering how the protagonist is telling the story as he runs down the street, gun blazing. But then that’s just me and I’m quite sure others will find this perfect for the reader who wants a thriller that is less intense than so many.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2018.

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Purchase Links:
Barnes & Noble // Kobo // iBooks
Google Play // Books-A-Million
Amazon // Indiebound // Simon & Schuster

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About the Author

credit Danielle Shields

Sara Shepard is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Pretty Little Liars series. She has also written other Young Adult series and novels, including The Lying Game, The Heiresses, and The Perfectionists. Sara now lives in Pittsburgh with her family.

Find Sara:

Website
Twitter
Instagram

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“A story blending Hitchcock,  S.J. Watson, and Ruth Ware.”
—Entertainment Weekly (EW.com)

 

“Shepard brings her knack for the tightly-wound thriller that
earned Pretty Little Liars its runaway success to a whole new
demographic… Clever and attention-grabbing, this is one book
you won’t be able to leave sitting on the nightstand for long.”
—Harper’s Bazaar, 10 New Books to Add to Your Reading List in 2018

 

“With a cast of dodgy characters and twists you won’t see coming,
the New York Times bestselling author of Pretty Little Liars
will keep you on your toes until the very last page.”
—Redbook, 14 Books You Won’t Want to Miss in 2018

Book Review: A Different Kind of Evil by Andrew Wilson

A Different Kind of Evil
Agatha Christie Series #2
Andrew Wilson
Atria, March 2018
ISBN 978-1-5011-4509-4
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Two months after the events of A Talent for Murder, during which Agatha Christie “disappeared,” the famed mystery writer’s remarkable talent for detection has captured the attention of British Special Agent Davison.

Now, at his behest, she is traveling to the beautiful Canary Islands to investigate the strange and gruesome death of Douglas Greene, an agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service. As she embarks on a glamorous cruise ship to her destination, she suddenly hears a scream. Rushing over to the stern of the liner, she witnesses a woman fling herself over the side of the ship to her death.

After this shocking experience, she makes it to the Grand Hotel in a lush valley on the islands. There, she meets a diverse and fascinating cast of characters, including two men who are suspected to be involved in the murder of Douglas Greene: an occultist similar to Aleister Crowley; and the secretary to a prominent scholar, who may also be a Communist spy. But Agatha soon realizes that nothing is what it seems here and she is surprised to learn that the apparent suicide of the young woman on the ocean liner is related to the murder of Douglas Greene. Now she has to unmask a different kind of evil in this sinister and thrilling mystery.

In a combination of derring do, political shenanigans and possible espionage, Agatha Christie sets out to do the bidding of John Davison, British Secret Intelligence Service, who needs her help discovering who killed one of his agents in Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands. With a plethora of suspects and motives, she has her work cut out for her but Agatha has the kind of puzzle-solving mind that’s well-suited for such a task.

The case begins before the cruise liner even gets to its destination when a woman throws herself overboard but, of course, Agatha has no way of knowing then that there might be a connection to the agent’s murder. On the island, she meets quite the diverse set of characters but is one of them her quarry? And why was the agent, Douglas Greene, murdered, not to mention a few other poor souls?

Bits and pieces of this story remind me of one of Christie’s own novels, A Caribbean Mystery featuring Miss Marple, and that gave me quite a lot of pleasure as it’s one of my favorites of her work. Granted, it’s really far-fetched to think the Secret Service would send a mystery author to solve an agent’s murder but this is one of those stories that requires a healthy suspension of disbelief and the result is a good deal of fun.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2018.

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Purchase Links:

Barnes & Noble // Kobo // Books-A-Million
iBooks // Google Play // Amazon // Indiebound

Agatha Christie makes a plausible amateur detective in Wilson’s
stellar sequel to 2017’s A Talent for Murder, a crafty whodunit
worthy of the queen of mystery herself…Wilson does a superior
job of balancing surprising plot developments with a sensitive
portrayal of his lead’s inner life.—Publishers Weekly

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About the Author

Andrew Wilson is the highly-acclaimed author of biographies of Patricia Highsmith, Sylvia Plath, Alexander McQueen, the novel A Talent for Murder, as well as Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived. His first novel, The Lying Tongue, was published by Atria in 2007. His journalism has appeared in The GuardianThe Daily TelegraphThe ObserverThe Sunday TimesThe Daily Mail and The Washington Post. 

Website // Twitter

Book Review: A Talent for Murder by Andrew Wilson

A Talent for Murder
Andrew Wilson
Atria, July 2017
ISBN 978-1-5011-4506-3
Hardcover

From the publisher—

“I wouldn’t scream if I were you. Unless you want the whole world to learn about your husband and his mistress.”

Agatha Christie, in London to visit her literary agent, is boarding a train, preoccupied with the devastating knowledge that her husband is having an affair. She feels a light touch on her back, causing her to lose her balance, then a sense of someone pulling her to safety from the rush of the incoming train. So begins a terrifying sequence of events—for her rescuer is no guardian angel, rather he is a blackmailer of the most insidious, manipulative kind.

“You, Mrs. Christie, are going to commit a murder. But, before then, you are going to disappear.”

Writing about murder is a far cry from committing a crime, and Agatha must use every ounce of her cleverness and resourcefulness to thwart an adversary determined to exploit her expertise and knowledge about the act of murder to kill on his behalf.

Real people have been featured as characters in works of fiction before now, pretty frequently, in fact. Having Agatha Christie be the central figure in a murder is taking things a step further considering who she was and her undoubted mind for crime and her well-known yet unexplained disappearance is the perfect backdrop to such a scenario. As a longtime Christie enthusiast, I couldn’t help wanting to see what Andrew Wilson would do with this idea and I was rewarded, with some reservations.

Solving the puzzle of where Dame Agatha was during those few days is one of the holy grails of the mystery world and, hey, this could have happened, right? If anybody was ever born to successfully commit murder, she’s the one, but I think I know too much about her persona and her life to fall completely for the plot. Still, I think Mr. Wilson showed restraint in not letting the premise go too far and become laughable, proving his true regard of this remarkable woman.

The style of this mystery is just right for the times and the then-existent quirks of society with a despicable villain, a wandering husband, a shameful mistress and a heroine who’s not exactly helpless. Think about it—who better to contemplate doing murder and then work to figure a way out than the Queen of Mystery?

Hesitations put aside for the nonce, I let myself go with the flow and found this to be a highly entertaining “what if”. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate this wonderful author, can you?

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, July 2017.

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Barnes & Noble // Kobo // Books-A-Million
Google Play // Amazon // Indiebound

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“In a stranger-than-fiction spin, crime novelist Agatha Christie
went missing for 11 days in 1926. Author Andrew Wilson uses
that real-life mystery as a starting point for a whodunit
as gripping as Christie’s own beloved writing.”
Coastal Living, 50 Best Books for the Beach This Summer

“It’s a real-life mystery that has never been explained: In 1926,
mystery writer Agatha Christie left her house, abandoned her
car and disappeared for 11 days. Christie, in her mid-30s at the
time, claimed that she had amnesia and couldn’t remember what
had happened or why. Now, nearly 100 years later, Andrew Wilson
has written a novel that imagines what might have happened to
her in that missing chunk of time – a story based partly
on research and partly on his imaginings.”
Houston Chronicle, Summer Reading List: 15 Anticipated
Books for the Long, Hot Days Ahead

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About the Author

Andrew Wilson is the highly-acclaimed author of biographies of Patricia Highsmith, Sylvia Plath, Alexander McQueen, as well as Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived. His first novel, The Lying Tongue, was published by Atria in 2007. His journalism has appeared in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Observer, The Sunday Times, The Daily Mail, and The Washington Post.

 

Website // Twitter

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Agatha Christie never spoke of her ten-day disappearance in the
winter of 1926, and it has remained one of the most intriguing
mysteries of modern times. She eventually turned up in a seaside
hotel, registered under the name of her husband’s mistress. 

The official statement released by the family was that Christie
suffered a sudden episode of amnesia as the result of a car crash.
She rarely talked about the experience, and omitted its
mention entirely from her autobiography.

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“Wilson (The Lying Tongue) effectively imagines a different
scenario in this twisty thriller… Wilson fully realizes
the potential of this ominous setup.”
Publishers Weekly 

“A most ingenious homage, solidly researched…
Christie would have applauded its intricacy.”
—Andrew Taylor, author of The Ashes of London

Book Reviews: Hidden Bodies by Caroline Kepnes and Surrounded by Witnesses by Jeff Foster

hidden-bodiesHidden Bodies
Caroline Kepnes
Emily Bestler Books/Atria, February 2016
ISBN: 978-1-4767-8562-2
Hardcover

Joe, narrator and protagonist of this turbulent novel is arrogant, smart, clever and well educated. He is also misogynistic, athletic, immoral, talented and a serial killer. As an adept seducer of women, he travels the nation, expounding on his distorted philosophy, scamming various people and murdering those who get in his way, often for the flimsiest of reasons. He is an extremely engaging modern character.

The story begins in a New York bookstore and ends in a California lockup. In between, Joe rambles both physically and intellectually about the human condition, about relationships and about what he should do next. And he pursues a distorted nihilistic philosophy of life that leads him into a morass of morally questionable actions that take place in often unusual and well-described locations. Yet he is a charmer and as pursued by his chronicler, author, Caroline Kepner, he is successful in persuading a great many people to buy at least some of his arguments and actions.

Of course, it is the skill and talent of the author that helps persuade us to continue to pay attention to this most reprehensible of characters and to give his oft-times hare-brained philosophizing serious consideration. A well-conceived, finely written effort that somehow seems peculiarly relevant in today’s world.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, September 2016.
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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surrounded-by-witnessesSurrounded By Witnesses
Jeff Foster
North Star Press, January 2007
ISBN: 978-0-87839-258-0
Trade Paperback

The novel has an interesting premise: a Muslim terrorist scout team is heading for the middle of the middle west in order to set up some kind of attack. They travel as a family and with typical short-view planning, come down from Canada into the Upper Midwest during the height of winter. This of course means blizzards, disruption of timing and attendant growing rage from the family’s controllers.

The novel centers on the family’s interaction with an intensely rural Minnesota family of taciturn Scandinavians. Swede and Heidi and their children are the epitome of type. Manifold difficulties rise to hamper the progress of the terrorist unit toward their intended target. The novel is replete with high tech maneuvering which at times gets in the way of human interaction and the pace of the novel.

I was bothered by the remote language of the narration, disconcerting shifts of points of view and a few clichéd characters. That said, the story line is interesting, but at 330 pages, this trade paper novel could have benefited from some judicious editing. At times the language including the dialogue is stilted and awkward. Those caveats aside, this is an enjoyable novel, worth a few hours of leisure.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, May 2016.
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: Accidents Happen by Louise Millar

Accidents HappenAccidents Happen
Louise Millar
Emily Bestler Books/Atria, June 2013
ISBN 978-1-4516-5670-1
Trade Paperback

Kate Parker is trying to recover from a series of traumas, and feels she’s not doing a very good job of it. A number of years previously, her parents were killed in a car accident while travelling to her wedding reception, and then more recently, Kate’s husband Hugo was brutally murdered. In an effort to cope, Kate has relocated from London, England to Oxford, in order to be nearer to her in-laws so they can assist with caring for her ten-year-old son, Jack. The family dynamics are difficult, however, and Kate is becoming less and less sure that this was a good idea, as Hugo’s parents and sister constantly seem to question her decisions and her parenting skills. As if all of that wasn’t enough, Kate’s semi-detached house has been broken into more than once, and various valuables have been stolen, leaving her even more insecure and panicky.

Not surprisingly, Kate is struggling to maintain any sense of normalcy and safety. She has become obsessive-compulsive, unable to tear herself away from studying all sorts of statistics, in an attempt to regain the feeling that she is in control. The result is that she is nearly paralyzed with fear from the mountains of information about accidents and deaths that she can’t tear herself away from. Kate can barely leave her house, take public transit, enter a store, or ride her bike. Even worse, she has become so overprotective of young Jack that their relationship is close to the breaking point.

When Kate meets a visiting professor, Jago, who has written a book on statistics and is interested in the field of OCD, she gets the first glimmer of hope she’s had in a long time. Jago offers to assist her by carrying out various experiments designed to challenge her into stepping outside the rigid boundaries she’s created for herself. The fact that Kate finds Jago physically attractive helps her decide to accept his assistance. Although Jago makes her nervous, Kate finds it more and more pleasurable to be around him.

Unfortunately, this was when the book stopped working for me, and I became unable to really believe in the way events were unfolding. Although the level of tragedy Kate had experienced caused me to feel very sorry for her, I couldn’t believe that she would go along with Jago’s odd suggestions, or that a professor would be carrying out such unethical experiments.

While Millar is skilled at creating a tense and ambiguous atmosphere, the novel veered into areas that began to seem unbelievable to me, particularly as Kate was described as being a competent, intelligent woman who had helped her husband build a highly successful renovation business. I thought Millar did a good job in her descriptions of the way Kate was experiencing the aftermath of trauma, but ultimately couldn’t go along with the plot that explained how Kate began to find her way back to health. Readers who particularly like taut psychological suspense might enjoy this book more than I did, however, as Millar consistently evokes a very paranoid, unsettling sensation. If you are reading to get creeped out, this book should do it for you – but if you are reading for authentic characters and plot, it probably won’t.

Reviewed by Andrea Thompson, February 2016.

Book Review: Empire by John Connolly and Jennifer Ridyard

EmpireEmpire
Book 2: The Chronicles of the Invaders Trilogy
John Connolly & Jennifer Ridyard
Emily Bestler Books/Atria, February 2015
ISBN: 978-1-4767-5715-5
Hardcover

The middle novel in a planned trilogy about earthling Paul Kerr and his beloved Syl Hellias, an alien female born on planet Earth, continues in separate adventures that keep them apart.  After Syl aided Paul and his brother in escaping from Edinburgh castle in Conquest, they were subsequently captured and given a choice to join the brigades, eventually assigned to investigate a distant planet.  Syl, on the other hand is given the option with her friend Ani of entering the sisterhood on a moon satellite of the Illyri planet and trained to become a member of the order.

Individually, Paul and Syl during their separate adventures discover an evil so horrible it could destroy the Earth and the rest of the known world.  As they struggle with their knowledge they must find ways to develop their abilities and make known the truth of what they have learned, much less to save everything before it is destroyed.

While the books were primarily intended for a teenage audience, an adult can also read and enjoy the novel, which is no less a sci-fi fantasy and what is loosely a love story.  The two novels, and the third yet to come, were written by John Connolly, the Irish novelist perhaps best known for the Charlie Parker mysteries, and his partner and mother of his two sons, Jennifer Ridyard.  This is not the first time Mr. Connolly has turned his attention from Charlie Parker to a different type of novel.  He also is the author of a trilogy for younger readers and even a modern fairy tale.  Now we have the completion of another trilogy to look forward to.  Empire, like Conquest, is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, October 2015.

Book Reviews: Perfect Sins by Jo Bannister and A Song of Shadows by John Connolly

Perfect SinsPerfect Sins
Gabriel Ash and Hazel Best #2
Jo Bannister
Minotaur Books, December 2014
ISBN 978-1-250-05420-3
Hardcover

In the first book of this new series by Jo Bannister, the highly recommended Deadly Virtues, the reader met Gabriel Ash, in his mid-20’s, “an intelligent, astute man who had once been highly regarded in national security circles,” a well-educated insurance investigator and later a Government analyst before the traumatic events of 4 years ago when his wife and two young boys had been taken by persons unknown, their present whereabouts a complete mystery.

The follow-up book takes place two months later, and reunites Gabriel with Hazel Best, a 26-year-old rookie cop, now on probation after the events which took place in that earlier novel, during which she had saved his life more than once.  As the book opens, Gabriel is accompanying Hazel to visit her father, the gatekeeper at Byrfield estate, the lord of the manor being Lord Pete (“Peregrine”) Byrfield.   Also present is David Sperrin, Hazel’s old friend and an archaeologist who lives with his mother on neighboring property, who shortly embarks on an excavation on Byrfield land resulting in the discovery of what is determined to be the body of a ten-year-old child in a makeshift grave, apparently dead for over 30 years.  DI Edwin Norris is the cop assigned to the ensuing investigation into the child’s murder, and the identity of the murderer.  In the process we learn a lot about British aristocracy, much of it fascinating.

Of course Gabriel’s family’s whereabouts, and the question of whether they are even alive, is always in the forefront of his mind.  Their disappearance during Gabriel’s investigation into African pirates’ hijacking of British arms shipments has him still continuing that investigation.

The writing is wonderful throughout, in particular the author’s descriptions:  “I don’t know what Guy would have grown up to be.  An entertainer, possibly.  Or a politician.  Something where the ability to tell barefaced lies is a major advantage.”  And a shopkeeper:  “an elderly woman with a froth of white hair and the apple cheeks of the terminally jovial.”  As in the earlier novel, all the characters are very well-drawn, especially Gabriel, Hazel, and DI Norris, and the relationship between Hazel and Gabriel seems to be evolving into something more intimate.  The suspense keeps building, right up until the very last page, which ends in a cliffhanger which makes me all the more anxious to read the next book in the series, Desperate Measures, due out in December, 2015 – can’t wait!

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, August 2015.

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A Song of ShadowsA Song of Shadows
A Charlie Parker Thriller #14
John Connolly
Emily Bestler Books/Atria, September 2015
ISBN: 978-1-5011-1828-9
Hardcover

This latest Charlie Parker novel has a more intriguing plot while combining many of the elements of earlier books in the series.  It begins with Charlie having survived a near fatal gunshot attack, leaving him extremely weak, renting a house on a small bay in Boreas, ME, in which to recuperate.  There is only one other home on the bay, occupied by a woman, Ruth Winter, and her daughter, Amanda.  In earlier decades, a large German population settled in the area, and after World War II an influx of supposed displaced persons arrived nearby.

When the body of a man washes ashore on the beach, questions are raised as to whether he is a suicide or the victim of foul play since he had traveled from Florida.  Then another fact emerges:  His friend and partner is found murdered in the Sunshine State, raising additional suspicion.  When Ruth Winter is murdered, there can be no question there is evil in the air, and Charlie, despite his debilitation, begins to act like a detective.

So much for the background.  The central theme is the post-war arrivals and their link to a Nazi concentration camp.  The description of the government’s investigations to identify and deport Nazi war criminals is affecting.  And Charlie’s efforts to unravel the mystery of the deaths, whether they are related, and if so to what, are, of course, aided by his usual cohorts, Louis and Angel and FBI agent Ross, along with Rabbi Epstein.  Naturally a Charlie Parker novel without the presence of the Collector or introduction of the occult would not be in keeping with the series, so, naturally, both are present and play a major role in the unraveling of the plot, along with the presence of Charlie’s daughters, the living Sam and the deceased Jennifer.  All in all, this is John Connolly at his best, with a most serious story, and it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, September 2015.