Book Review: This Story Is A Lie by Tom Pollock—and a Giveaway!

This Story Is A Lie
Tom Pollock
Soho Teen, August 2018
ISBN 978-1-61695-911-1
Hardcover

When a book begins with the protagonist having just dealt with a major panic attack by crushing a porcelain salt shaker with his teeth, you can expect what follows to be a bit strange. And what does ensue exceeds that description in spades. Peter Blankman, age seventeen, is a twin and a mad math genius. He’s also bullied unmercifully by three classmates at his English high school. His only protection is his older, by eight minutes, sister Bel who is no slouch in the brains department herself.

Peter has been dealing with irrational fears and panic attacks for as long as he can remember. His mother is a world famous scientist and his absent father a mystery. All Peter and Bel know is the tidbits their mother drops on occasion, but the overarching message has always been that Dad was utterly evil and the less they know, the better off they’ll be.

A few hours following his attack, he, Bel and Mom are off to the Natural History Museum where Mom’s to receive an award for her work. Peter does his best to hold it together, but as the moment approaches for things to start, he loses it and bolts, running recklessly down one corridor after another. When he runs out of gas, he tries to find his way back, only to stumble on a body leaking copious amounts of blood. It’s his mother and it’s all he can do to stay with her and try to stanch the bleeding.

In short order, Bel vanishes, Peter’s grabbed by Rita, who claims to be a friend of Mom and one of her co-workers. She rushes him out of the museum and into a strange car that follows the ambulance transporting Mom. Peter’s paranoia starts ramping up as the convoy heads away from the two closest hospitals. It spikes even more as he overhears snippets of code-like conversations and senses that something highly suspicious. Little does he know how right he is. He manages to escape, but with Bel missing, where can he go?

What follows is like going in and out of a series of Alice in Wonderland rabbit holes. Every time Peter thinks he has something figured out, reality, or what passes for it, pulls another rug out from him. He’s unsure who to trust, how much of what he’s learned about mathematics can be counted on, he’s unsure who’s real or telling the truth, and as pieces fall into place, he finds himself on ever more fragile ground. Many details are revealed in flashback chapters going back anywhere from five days to seven years prior to the current story line. By the end, Peter, Bel and the reader are all still trying to sort things out. That’s not to say the ending is bad or incomplete, just nicely twisted. If you like industrial strength creepy, this book is for you.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, February 2019.

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Book Reviews: Stagestruck by Peter Lovesey, Ringer by Brian Wiprud, Infernal Angels by Loren Estleman, No Mark Upon Her by Deborah Crombie, and The Most Dangerous Thing by Laura Lippman

Stagestruck
Peter Lovesey
Soho Crime, June 2011
ISBN: 978-1-56947-947-6
Hardcover

What a pleasure to find a book which includes two of my favorite things:  a crackling good mystery, filled with humor, and a tribute to the theater. As the title might imply, the author obviously has much respect for the theater, with both a lower case “t” and upper case as well [see below].  His protagonist, on the other hand, not so much. In the newest book featuring Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, head of Bath’s CID, the reader learns that Diamond has always suffered from a phobia, what the author terms a “deep unease’ and resulting in what can only be described as panic attacks where the theater is concerned.

Diamond is forced to confront his fear when he is called to the 200-year-old Theatre Royal, in Bath, which some refer to as “an itsy-bitsy provincial theatre” and others as “the prettiest theatre in the kingdom,” when on opening night, the celebrity pop star with the unlikely name of Clarion Calhoun who has been cast as the lead in a production of “I Am a Camera” is stricken, just after the curtain goes up.  She is apparently the victim of something which has caused third degree burns to her face and upper chest, precisely where her stage makeup had been applied some moments before, effectively destroying her career, not to mention her looks.  Things get even dicier when two days later a dead body is found in the theater.

The novel is thoroughly enjoyable, with the last twenty or so pages keeping the reader in great suspense as the culprit is unmasked.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, October 2011.

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Ringer
Brian Wiprud
Minotaur, July 2011
ISBN: 978-0-312-60189-8
Hardcover

Ringer is a sly tale revolving around an encounter between a 65-year-old billionaire and a Mexican man of less than savory background.  A caper novel with a plot arising out of a stew comprised of an ancient ring which may or may not be blessed and/or cursed, a spoiled and willful 19-year-old girl, a Greenwich Village palmist and her assorted relatives, and a smattering of several truisms purportedly from the mouth of Abraham Lincoln, among many other things, make up this consistently delightful concoction.

The protagonist is Morty Martinez, introduced to readers in the author’s Feelers, Brooklyn native and former house cleaner, who now considers himself as La Paz gentry now that he is living in Mexico again and he has a few million in the bank.  The aforementioned teenager is [ironically] named Purity Grant, who has a mutually hateful relationship with her stepfather, the billionaire.  Their toxic dynamic fuels thoughts of murder as the easiest way out of matters financial and emotional, by both parties, and somehow Morty becomes the designated hit man of each.  The mantra invoked from time to time, by each of the major players, is Earn Destiny, and they all go about trying to achieve that end in a manner which seems most logical to those involved, as opposed, perhaps, to anyone in the ‘normal’ world, such as, e.g., the reader.

Purity’s speech is regularly peppered with acronyms, as though her mind is permanently in text-speak.  [Being in the minority that is not thoroughly conversant with that particular mind-set, I have to admit to being unable to decipher them all.  Typing this, it only just dawned on me, e.g., that “ITWYT” means “if that’s what you think.” “NHNF” and “YGAGA m9” still elude me, as does in general the concept of people actually using these in everyday, that is to say verbal, speech.  Hopefully there is nothing profane in any of that.]  But that only contributes to the enjoyment of this zany tale, which had me smiling or laughing aloud throughout.  I have to admit I have not yet read Feelers, but will try to correct that without much further ado.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2011.

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Infernal Angels
Loren Estleman
Forge, July 2011
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1955-5
Hardcover

In the twenty-first novel in the wonderful Amos Walker series, Loren Estleman once again captures the spirit of Detroit, as much a character in the novel as it is the mise en scene.  As the author describes it, it is a city which “continued its slug’s crawl toward bleak oblivion.”   Although the tale begins innocuously enough, when Walker is hired to recover 25 stolen cable-TV converter boxes, it is soon apparent that there is more going on than meets the eye, when two people with whom Walker has spoken turn up dead, within hours of those meetings.

Walker is undaunted, and pursues the case with even greater zeal.  He is no longer invincible, he admits:  “In the pursuit of my profession I’d been shot, beaten, coldcocked, drugged, and threatened with death. . . It would be a good joke on a lot of bad people if it was a heart episode that took me.”  The title derives from the line, soon after the second body is discovered, that of a man Walker had known for years:  “Once you’d made the decision to live on the dark side of the moon, all your friends were infernal angels at best.”

His descriptions of several characters are exquisite portraits.  Of a detective:  “He’d lost flesh from age and the weight of the world, pasting skin to bone like shrink-wrap.  His boys were grown and married, one of them was still speaking to him, and his wife, who earned more money than he did working shorter hours, was often away on business.  Home for him was just a place to change horses between shifts;” of a colleague:  “His face was the same vintage as mine, but he ironed his more often and packed it in ice overnight;” a building caretaker “an ambulatory dandelion gone to seed.”  The prose is equal parts elegance and street.

There are perfect fleeting references on such eclectic topics as jazz musicians, politics and politicians past and present, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro, as well as little-known facts on historical figures as diverse as Black Bart and Marcus Garvey, and nostalgia for Tigers Stadium.

A fast-paced and consistently witty entry in this terrific series, it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2011.

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No Mark Upon Her
Deborah Crombie
William Morrow, February 2012
ISBN: 978-0-06-199061-8
Hardcover

In the opening pages of Deborah Crombie’s 14th novel, DCI Rebecca [“Becca”] Meredith, an Olympic contender and a senior officer in West London’s Major Crimes unit, is found dead in the waters of the Thames near her home in the town of Henley, 35 miles from London.  The events that follow take place, amazingly, over a period of about a week.  I say ’amazingly’ because so much happens, in a terrifically plotted novel.  The case falls to Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid, of Scotland Yard’s Murder Investigation Team, with some aspects of it falling to his bride, Gemma James, DI with the Notting Hill Police.

The book is filled with wonderfully drawn characters, including not only both the protagonists but also Kincaid’s partner, Sgt. Doug Cullen, about to become a first-time homeowner and nervous at the prospect; Gemma’s colleague, Melody Talbot; Becca’s ex-husband, Freddy; Kiernan Connolly and Tavie Larssen, members of the SAR [Search and Rescue], or K-9, team as well as its four-legged members, Finn, a Labrador retriever and Tosh, a German shepherd, every bit a part of the plot as are their human partners.

The common thread among several of the characters is a love of – in fact, a passion for – rowing or, to be more specific, sculling, a very specific skill employing the use of sleek racing shells, apparently a world of its own.  Just how much so is made very clear through the author’s use of quotes, preceding the start of most chapters, from various publications on the subject, as well as Ms. Crombie’s own prose in the early pages, describing the victim shortly before she is killed:  “she sat backwards on a sliver of carbon fiber narrower than her body, inches above the water, and that only her skill and determination kept her fragile craft from the river’s dark grasp.”

The James/Kincaid family dynamic of ‘his’ [Kit], ‘hers’ [Toby – – their respective 14-year-old sons], and ‘theirs’ [Charlotte, the mixed-race 3-year-old foster child they are planning to formally adopt], is a constantly active one that makes the protags’ personal lives every bit as engaging as their professional ones.

The author comments “Things were always so much more complicated than they appeared on the surface,” and employs mini-cliffhangers throughout, maximizing the suspense, as well as some shocking revelations, producing several OMG moments.  But I’ll leave those discoveries to the readers of this highly-recommended novel.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, December 2011.

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The Most Dangerous Thing
Laura Lippman
William Morrow, September 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-170651-6
Hardcover

The new standalone novel from Laura Lippman was, to this reader, unlike anything this wonderful author had written to this point. [Among her more recent ones, I’d Know You Anywhere and What the Dead Know still stand out in my memory and resonate with me.]  The present work is not really a mystery [although there is a death early on in the book] nor procedural, but instead a series of in-depth character studies which will be difficult to match.

The author takes her time recreating and juxtaposing scenes from the past with those of the present, from the time when “everything was perfect until the moment it wasn’t,” in the lives of five youngsters in their early teens, three brothers and two young girls.  Ultimately each of these, along with their parents and siblings and extended families, will have their own chapters, describing events which took place in 1980, in their native Baltimore, with p.o.v. changes from one character to another and from those early years to the present time, when most of them have grown children of their own, all of it shaped by one pivotal ‘incident’ [insert your own euphemism] which changes all of their lives forever.  The reality of the events of that night is different for each of them, children and parents alike.  And ultimately it is about secrets kept, or not.

One of the three brothers, Gordon (“Go-Go”) Halloran, nine years old in 1980 and always the most reckless of the three, although presently two years sober, leaves the bar at which he has just fallen off the wagon and does not make it home alive, crashing into a wall at about 100 mph. There is a question about whether it was a tragic accident, or something somehow worse.

I found this book [in which, btw, Tess Monaghan makes a cameo appearance] a departure for this author, and very thought-provoking. I suspect it too will stay in my memory for a long while. Parenthetically, I loved Ms. Lippman’s description of one perpetually angry character who, when counting to ten, started at nine.  But there are many memorable moments, and personalities, here.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, December 2011.