Book Review: Best Day Ever by Kaira Rouda

Best Day Ever
Kaira Rouda
Graydon House, September 2017
ISBN 978-1-5258-1140-1
Hardcover

From the publisher:   Paul Strom has the perfect life:  a glittering career as an advertising executive, a beautiful wife, two healthy boys and a big house in a wealthy suburb.  And he’s the perfect husband:  breadwinner, protector, provider.  That’s why he’s planned a romantic weekend for his wife, Mia, at their lake house, just the two of them.  And he’s promised today will be the best day ever.  But as Paul and Mia drive out of the city and toward the countryside, a spike of tension begins to wedge itself between them and doubts start to arise.  How much do they trust each other?  And how perfect is their marriage, or any marriage, really?  Forcing us to ask ourselves just how well we know those who are closest to us, “Best Day Ever” crackles with dark energy, spinning over tighter towards its shocking conclusion . . . . a gripping, tautly suspenseful tale of deception and betrayal dark enough to destroy a marriage . . . or a life.”

 

The novel begins at 9 AM on its fateful day, continues at intervals ranging from half an hour to an hour and a half, on that same day, with the penultimate chapter taking place at 4:45 AM the next morning, and the final chapter one year later, with Mia saying, a few pages before its end, “This day would forever be the start of the rest of my life.  The best day ever, in fact, just not the one Paul envisioned.”

An understatement, to say the least.

Paul and Mia have been together for nearly ten years, their youngest boy now six, and have what Paul deems to be a “traditional suburban household.,” with Paul as the breadwinner and Mia raising the boys and taking care of the house.  They have left their beautiful home in Columbus, Ohio for a somewhat earlier visit to their lakeside home in a town called Lakeside, located on a peninsula, halfway between Toledo and Cleveland, at the edge of Lake Erie, the shallowest Great Lake in the US, we are told, “in a place where nothing bad ever happens.”  And just the two of them, with the boys in the care of their sitter.  Perfection, it seems, until Mia tells Paul she is seriously considering accepting a job she has been offered, something totally unacceptable to Paul on so many levels.  Slowly things begin to disintegrate, and Paul finds himself undertaking “Operation Make Mia Love Me Completely Again Tonight,” something he never anticipated.  At dinner, he makes a toast:  “Happy best day ever.”  But things go downhill from there, including a couple of things the reader never could have guessed.

The book has been called “a riveting psychological thriller about the perfect marriage.”  The writing is gripping and suspenseful, with an ending you won’t see coming.  This is a well-written, fascinating novel, and it is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, December 2017.

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Book Review: The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

The Wife Between Us
Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen
St. Martin’s Press, January 2018
ISBN 978-1-250-13092-1
Hardcover

From the publisher—

When you read this book, you will make many assumptions.
You will assume you are reading about a jealous ex-wife.
You will assume she is obsessed with her replacement – a beautiful, younger woman who is about to marry the man they both love.
You will assume you know the anatomy of this tangled love triangle.
Assume nothing.

Twisted and deliciously chilling, Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen’s The Wife Between Us exposes the secret complexities of an enviable marriage – and the dangerous truths we ignore in the name of love.

Read between the lies.

Take a good look at that cover. Don’t those two women look an awful lot alike? When I first saw it and read the description, I couldn’t help wondering if this was going to be like one of those serial killer things where the guy has an obsession for women who resemble each other and someone who was once very important to him (yes, I’m being sexist; it’s simpler and it’s almost always men killing women). So, was I right? I’m not telling because that would ruin the enormous surprise at the end 😉

Without a doubt, The Wife Between Us is one of the most intense and page-turning books I’ve read and it turned my expectations completely on end. Most of all, I was impressed by how often I was surprised, perhaps because I trusted too much, like at least one of the three people in this tale of treachery and love. Then again, are any of them really on the up-and-up? Vanessa, Richard, Nellie—are any of them real?

I’m in awe of any author who can create a story and characters as compelling as in this book but I’m purely amazed that two authors could collaborate so extremely well. I suspect their ability to do this has at least something to do with one being an already accomplished author and the other being her editor; they had a certain connection, if you will, and it really shows in the quality of their writing. I really hope this is the beginning of a long-running partnership that will bring us many more books to keep me up at night.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2018.

Book Reviews: Dying for Justice by L.J. Sellers, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin, The Informant by Thomas Perry, The Ridge by Michael Koryta, and One Was a Soldier by Julia Spencer-Fleming

Dying for JusticeDying for Justice
L.J. Sellers
Spellbinder Books, May 2011
ISBN: 978-0-9832138-3-3
Trade Paperback

Detective Wade Jackson, with the violent crimes unit of the Eugene, Oregon Police Department, an investigator with the best track record of closing cases, has never worked a cold case before.  In the fifth and newest entry in this terrific series, he is faced with two of them, one in particular of a very personal nature:  the murder of his parents, ten years earlier.  Convinced that the man who has been imprisoned for the crime, now terminally ill with cancer, is innocent, he is determined to find justice for them, and peace for himself.

The second case has to do with Gina Stahl, now 46 years old, who has been in a coma for two years, believed to be the result of a suicide attempt.  When she awakens for the first time, she quite lucidly tells the authorities that she had been attacked by a man wearing a ski mask but who she believes was her ex-husband.  That investigation is complicated by the fact that her ex is a police officer.

Jackson ultimately works both cases, assisted by 32-year-old detective-in-training Lara Evans, the chapters for the most part alternating p.o.v. between the two.   The tale, as much as anything, is one of dysfunctional families in general, and siblings in particular.  The author’s expertise in creating deeply human characters is again much in evidence, together with a plot that keeps picking up speed as it hurtles to an ending that, quite literally, sent chills up and down my back and arms, and just as that was settling down, the ending had me again in goosebumps.  Ms. Sellers’ books just keep getting better and better, and accordingly this is her best one yet.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, September 2011.

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Crooked Letter, Crooked LetterCrooked Letter, Crooked Letter
Tom Franklin
Harper Perennial, May 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-059467-1
Trade Paperback

Whether this novel is a mystery, or a story about two men, or a tale about the Deep South, it is a riveting look into the characters, their development and their environment.  Larry and Silas, one white and the other black, were boyhood friends for a short time in rural Mississippi more than a quarter of a century before (where children were taught to spell the name of the State and river: M, I crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I humpback, humpback, I,).  They are tied together by more than just an apparent crime that changes both their lives.

Larry is a shunned outcast in the town as the result of the disappearance, and presumed murder, of a girl with whom he supposedly had a date as a teenager.  Silas moved to Chicago with his mother, but returns to the small rural town, eventually serving as its only constable.  Now their lives intertwine again as Larry falls under suspicion when the daughter of the town’s leading citizen disappears. The situation makes Silas face the past, something he’d rather avoid.

As a mystery, the novel is intriguing.  As a description of life in a small Southern town, it is vivid.  As a tale of racial conflict, it is mesmerizing.   The complex analyses of the characters, their motivations and actions are profound, and it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, October 2011.

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The InformantThe Informant
Thomas Perry
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 2011
ISBN: 978-0-547-56933-8
Hardcover

As in his earlier novels [and I’m thinking particularly of the wonderful Jane Whitefield series], the devil is in the details, and this author excels in conveying the meticulously planned and executed steps taken by his protagonist, so that credibility is never an issue. In this standalone – actually, a follow-up to Mr. Perry’s very first novel, The Butcher’s Boy [for which he won an Edgar award] – that eponymous character returns, twenty years older.  Although he goes by any number of other names, that soubriquet is the name by which he is known, both to the authorities and to the mafia members who variously employed him, betrayed him, and then became his victims.  The Butcher’s Boy kills without compunction.  It is, after all, what he does best, taught since childhood, simply as a job, or a way to stay alive, or to seek revenge for the aforementioned betrayal.  Rarely is it personal.  Although somewhat more so of late.

Well-trained from the age of 10 by an actual butcher, whose “side job” is in “the killing trade,” beyond the necessary skills he is also taught “Everybody dies.  It’s just a question of timing, and whether the one who gets paid for it is you or a bunch of doctors.  It might as well be you.”

While working as a hit man, his philosophy was simple:  He had “resisted the camaraderie that some of the capos who had hired him
tried to foster.  He had kept his distance, done his job, collected his pay, and left town before buyer’s remorse set in.  He made it clear that he was a free agent and that he was nobody’s friend.”  He has been out of the US for over twenty years, now over 50 years old, and afraid he had gone soft.  But his skills are not diminished.  He leaves no witnesses.  The ones who aren’t dead never notice him entering or leaving a crime scene:  “He was a master at being the one the eye passed over in a crowd.”  And the authorities – –  with one notable exception – –  haven’t a clue.  That exception is Elizabeth Waring, of the Organized Crime & Racketeering Division of the Department of Justice.  She connects the dots and has no doubt that he has come out of retirement and is the one now murdering Mafiosi at an alarming rate, and sees in him, potentially, “the most promising informant in forty years.”  Of course, to fulfill that possibility she must get him to agree and, even more difficult, keep him alive, as “he wasn’t worth anything dead.”  They embark on an ambivalent, and somewhat fluid, relationship, equal parts grudging respect and fear of
the danger the other represents, somehow both earning sympathy.  The author’s trademark suspense as the end of the novel draws near had this reader literally holding her breath.  I loved this book, and it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, October 2011.

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The RidgeThe Ridge
Michael Koryta
Little, Brown and Company, June 2011
ISBN: 978-0-316-05366-2
Hardcover

Mixing mystery with the supernatural, Michael Koryta has developed works that are eerie and fascinating, and The Ridge is no less than captivating.  The plot is somewhat complicated, and it takes a while to follow the thread.  And, of course, it requires suspension of disbelief.  But it does hold the reader from start to finish.

The story involves a particular area in Kentucky where over a century or more, a series of accidents and deaths occur.  In the midst of a forest, a drunkard has built a lighthouse.  For what purpose?  Then the man who built it is found dead by his own hand, oddly enough leaving a note asking chief deputy Kevin Kimble to investigate it. Meanwhile, a big-cat sanctuary has opened across the road, and the lions and tigers are uneasy in their new surroundings.  What does it mean?  Are there sinister forces at work?

Written with a keen eye, the novel moves rapidly from scene to scene. The characters are well-drawn and the surroundings described vividly, and the novel is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, October 2011.

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One Was a SoldierOne Was a Soldier
Julia Spencer-Fleming
Minotaur Books, April 2011
ISBN: 978-0-312-33489-5
Hardcover

In the tiny Adirondack town of Millers Kill, in upstate New York, a group of seven recently returning veterans are attending therapy sessions, PTSD the common factor among them, affecting each differently.  There is also a 25-year-old woman, ex-Army.  Each is finding the transition back to civilian life a difficult one.  They are a rather disparate group, variously described as “the doctor, the cop, the Marine and the priest” or, less kindly, “a cripple, a drunk, a washed-up cop . . . , ”  any or all of whom might be at risk for suicide.

Against all odds, Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne are, finally, going to get married, and fans of this wonderful series can breathe a sigh of relief.  Clare, an Army Major and an Episcopal priest originally from southern Virginia, has just returned after serving eighteen months in a combat zone.  Russ, the police chief from Millers Kills, in upstate New York, is now widowed [after 25 years of marriage], and they no longer have to hide their love.  But believing that he has never gotten over his wife’s death and that he is starting to have second thoughts, she starts having second thoughts of her own. For his part, Russ thinks “What did she want out of marriage? Specifically, marriage to a guy fourteen years older, who thought God was a myth and whose job could get him killed.”

The chapters of this newest book from Julia Spencer-Fleming, her seventh and her strongest yet [high praise indeed], alternate between these two major plot points, until they merge when one member of the therapy group is found dead and Russ is the lead investigator.  Clare is convinced, all evidence to the contrary, that it was murder.  In denial, perhaps, because that might threaten her own sense of safety, fighting, as she is, her own demons.  Russ, too, is ex-Army, had served in Vietnam, and is mindful of the problems faced by returning vets.

There are several plot twists, including wholly unexpected ones near the end, and the precision of the way they are woven into the tale completely satisfying.  In addition, the book makes the reader aware that aside from the obvious politics involved, one tends to forget the toll on lives lost and ruined by wars now lasting over a decade.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, October 2011.