Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips

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As he’s speaking, a sharp, loud sound carries through the woods. Two cracks, then several more. Pops, like balloons bursting. Or fireworks. She tries to imagine what anyone could be doing in a zoo that would sound like small explosions…

There is another bang. Another and another. It sounds too loud to be balloons, too infrequent to be a jackhammer.

The birds are silent, but the leaves keep skittering down.

The tension is real from the very first chapter. It is the kind of tension I key right into. What was that sound? What if I arrive at the gate too late, and the park is closed locking me within? Worse, what if something endangers my son?

The quiet man and the loud man are in the zoo,  hunting. People have fallen in various positions all around the entrance, and more are in hiding, particularly Joan and her four year old son, Lincoln.

She has her cell phone, from which she has informed her husband that  she is hiding with their son in the empty porcupine cage. She is behind a huge rock, telling her son to be quiet while she holds him tightly against herself, and the tension is palatable. I feel that I am her, hiding, hoping desperately that I will not be found.

I am her, holding my son, who when he was four asked the same kind of existential questions Lincoln asks. “What do strangers look like?” my son once asked me. “How can bad people be happy?” Lincoln asks his mother when he hears the men with guns laugh.

When Joan leaves her hiding place with her four year old, because he is hungry and she wants to find him something to eat, I want to scream, “Don’t leave! You have been safe where you are.” But they venture forth, finding a living colobus monkey standing over a fallen one, a dead elephant which at first appears to be an “ink-stain shape on the ground.”

This novel is mesmerizing and terrifying on several counts. For once, it’s not the gone girl, or the disappearing woman, or a girl on a train.  It’s a mother, in a situation which feels entirely possible in today’s world. It’s a mother and a son and evil, twisted men that are scarier than a clown holding some balloons could ever be.

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If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio (Most definitely not the next The Secret History)

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“…Dellecher was less an academic institution than a cult. When we first walked through those doors, we did so without knowing that we were now part of some fanatic religion where anything could be excused so long as it was offered at the altar of the Muses. Ritual madness, ecstasy, human sacrifice. Were we bewitched? brainwashed? Perhaps.

I’ve missed it, desperately.”

If the setting of a small college housing artistic students who vibrate with a barely hidden malice seems familiar, perhaps it is because you are thinking of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. But while Tartt’s characters were studying Greek, and Latin, and holding secret seances in a farmer’s field at night, M. L. Rio’s characters are quoting Shakespeare and swimming in a lake as the autumnal season deepens. Yet there is an aura of fear here, too, the knowledge that something has gone terribly wrong, for from the very first chapter one of the men is being released from prison. He has a story to tell.

Oliver’s story is compelling. He tells of his fellow theater students: Wren, Filippa, Meredith, James, Alexander and Richard. For reasons which were never fully explained, Richard is filled with wrath. It is a consuming wrath, exhibited in bullying: teasing, shouting, taunting and hitting. It is no wonder he is found floating in the lake one morning before dawn. His face has been bashed in, he is covered with blood, and it surely looks as if he is dead. But when he calls weakly for help, this group of students who call themselves friends, decide to do nothing. They decide to let him die, in the water, and tell the authorities that they all get along just fine.

It doesn’t ring true to me. From where does Richard’s rage stem? Why agree to tell the police that everyone has been getting along well when clearly they have been tormented? (Surely they must already suspect one another.)  There are blatant disconnects that not only irritate me, they keep this novel from approaching anything near the power of The Secret History.

So while I enjoyed the Shakespeare dramas, the lines from his plays cleverly interwoven into the narrative, and the collegiate setting in which a small band of friends unite; while I think the ending is fairly clever in a Tale Of Two Cities sort of way, this novel ended up being a disappointing read.

Which doesn’t bode well for my opinion of Emily St. John Mandel, author of Station Eleven, who said that it is “A rare and extraordinary novel.”

If only that were so.

Earthly Remains by Donna Leon

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I’m always surprised when the Naperville Public Library not only has something I want to read, but I’m not the 863d hold on one of three copies. And so it is that I have been able to settle down with an aching jaw, an ample supply of Motrin, a pot of tea, and Earthly Remains, Donna Leon’s latest mystery with Commissario Guido Brunetti.

What a pleasure it is to spend the evening with him, this old “friend” from previous novels. In the beginning of this book, he has just been diagnosed with the need for rest and relaxation from work and is preparing to leave his office for Sant’Erasmo in the south. How I long to accompany him and partake in his plans of rowing, or reading in bed with a fresh cup of coffee should it rain.

He is staying at a villa his wife’s aunt owns, and there he befriends Signor Davide Casati, a man whom Brunetti discovers once rowed with his own father. The skill with which this older man is able to guide the boat is compared to the old peasant in Anna Karenina with whom Levin scythes, barely able to keep up. Such a beautiful comparison, in my literary mind’s eye.

But after a terrible storm, neither Casati nor his boat are able to be found. Where could he be? Checking on his bees in their various hives all around Venice? Talking with his deceased wife at the cemetery? Brunetti calls in reinforcements to help investigate his friend’s disappearance, which, of course, is ultimately a death.

“While he waited, Brunetti went and looked out the window and allowed anomalous information to move around in his mind: a few dead bees in a plastic vial, the Aral Sea, two thousand Euros a week, dark mud in another vial. If they were pieces on a board, would he be able to move them round so that they formed a picture?”

Of course Commissario Brunetti carefully puts together the pieces, moving them around so that an answer emerges, and in the course of his detective work reminds us of the honor, and dishonor, within each of us. Although surely some, who have grown accustomed to luxurious comfort, are able to excuse their dishonorable side which can lead to murder.

While this novel is carefully executed, each piece of the mystery ringing true to current crises, my favorite part of Donna Leon’s writing is how she is able to make me dwell in Venice. Even if only for a night.

The Trespasser by Tana French

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It starts slowly, and continues that way, almost painfully so. But then, as only Tana French knows how to do, you are suddenly caught up into dialogue and characterization that is so compelling you must continue to the end.

Is beautiful, Barbie-like Aislinn killed by a random stalker? By her date, Rory, for whom she is preparing dinner? Or, by a detective from within the police force itself? What matters, perhaps, is not who committed the murder as much as how we get there.

I am caught up in the thought process of Antoinette Conway and Steve Moran, sweating it out in the interrogation room, feeling Antoinette’s isolation and insecurity not quite covered up by the bravado with which she likes to cloak herself.  I search my life for the likes of Steve, her trusted partner and dependable colleague, and find that I, too, am not entirely alone even when I feel that way acutely.

I like the power of Tana French’s novels; they are never contrived, or trite, but look beyond the mystery to the core of each character. Who seem so very real to me.

 

IQ by Joe Ide

I can’t be diminished by people talking no matter who they are…

This is one of my favorite kinds of books, one with a tightly woven plot, spot-on dialogue, and best of all, a character with character.

How I admire IQ, Isaiah Quintabe, a young man making up for his past sins with the strength of his intellect. A young man with the voice of his dead brother, beloved guardian, speaking in his ear to remind him of all he’s been given and all he owes.

If you like courageous men of character facing the hardships they have endured, while solving a case set in the gang-ridden neighborhoods of Los Angeles, this is for you.

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

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The praise for this one is incomparable. Endorsements from the likes of thriller writers Harlan Coban and Sue Grafton made me all the more eager to review The Couple Next Door.

Anne and Marco are young parents having a dinner party with their neighbors, Cynthia and Graham, while taking turns to check on their baby next door every half hour. When Anne feeds her daughter at 12:00 a.m. everything is fine; when Marco checks her at 12:30 a.m. everything is fine. But when they return home at 1:00 in the morning, to find their front door ajar about three inches, they also discover their baby, Cora, is gone.

Immediately, Anne castigates herself. They never should have left the baby alone when the sitter cancelled. Soon, it becomes apparent that a kidnapping has taken place. Or, is Anne implicated because she suffers from post-partum depression and is under the care of a psychiatrist? Each character’s motivations are closely examined in an intricate, well-wrought plot.

The story is a compelling one, the twists are not arbitrary or so sudden they seem artificial. The suspense is substantial as we take our suspicions from one character to the next. There is no doubt at the end, as there can be with translated literature, as to who committed the crime or why. All of these reasons make this a good read. It stops from being a great read, for me, because the sentences are jerky and flat, thrust at us like little jabs from some fencing dual. There are cliches we have heard all too often before.  But, if you want a suspenseful read, with a well drawn plot, this would be the book to pick up.

The Couple Next Door will be published August 23, 2016. Surely it is worth being compared to Gone Girl, and The Girl on The Train, except that I liked this one better than either of those.

Real Tigers by Mick Herron

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She’d heard once of a long-distance hiker, way before the days of e-readers, who’d carried a novel over the Alps, tearing out and discarding each page as he read it, to lighten his load. There was a lot to be said for that. For a baggage-free existence, each moment of your story jettisoned as soon as done; your future pristine, undiluted by all that’s gone before. You’d always be on the first page. Never have to turn back, relive your mistakes.

Slough House on Aldersgate Street is where all the screw ups have gone. The “slow horses” who are alcoholic, or hooked on coke, or in some way have made a mess of a case and been relegated to this building of shame.

Except they’re so likeable it’s hard to be scornful of their situation. Rather, one feels a certain amount of empathy, and a hope that the tight-assed superiors of Regent’s Park, such as Dame Ingrid Tearney, will get theirs.

I love the sparkling wit, so often comprised of sarcasm, which Herron bestows on his characters. Just as I have enjoyed Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels for the humor and beautifully developed characters, so I feel an affinity toward Mick Herron’s. What a pity it’s taken me his third book of the Slough House series, Real Tigers, to find them.

Thanks to SoHo Press for the introduction.

Three Truths And a Lie by Lisa Gardner

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I have never read anything  by Lisa Gardner before. But when my life feels hectic and overwrought, my favorite genre for escape is a thriller. And when time is short, there is little better than a short story.

Three Truths and A Lie is a story to be released in early January, and it is mesmerizing and stultifying and appropriately gory all at once. I came in from a long, twelve hour conference day, and read it that night.

“All right. Let’s begin.”

“So you know the game, three truths and a lie? Most of the details of what I’m going to tell you will be the truth. One will be a lie.”

And it is that line, of course, that compelled me to read this short story. Not that I wasn’t intrigued by the premise: a wealthy man is found dead in a seedy hotel room, with his amputated leg in a bathtub filled with dry ice. How come? Who did it?

It’s a detective story perfectly told, which makes me think I’ll read another novel by Lisa Gardner soon. Oh, that we were all as clever as her heroine addressing an audience of writers with this particular plot.

Paris in July: Murder on the Ile Sordou

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When I was a young bride living in Europe, I would often take the time offered to teachers in the summer to flit about my favorite countries. I would put on a shade of Chanel lipstick, which is no longer made, named Explosion; it was a brilliant fuschia which matched my maillot de bain perfectly, and somehow I felt quite comfortable on the beaches of the French Riviera wearing ridiculously bold colors. It was the 1980’s, after all.

Along the coast of the Riviera is a most beautiful city named Aix en Provence. which is about 30 km north of Marseille. It is here that the author of this mystery, M. L. Longworth, writes when she is not teaching in Paris. Her novel Murder on the Ile Sordou takes place on a fictitious island, but one that may resemble any of the islands off the coast of Marseille, and it is a novel with more ambiance than any mystery I have read.

While it may resemble the writing of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, or Donna Leon’s Venice, this mystery has a quality all of its own. M. L. Longworth brings France in general, and Provence in particular, to life with her dialogue, her setting, and her characters. Even the meals which they enjoyed after a two hour afternoon nap seemed indescribably delicious.

I’ve made a summer menu, so let’s just forget about the storm out there: we’ll begin with cucumber and melon gazpacho and then red snapper ceviche shooters, followed by vegetable spring rolls. Once we’re sitting we’ll eat roast bass with olive oil, mussels, and cherry tomatoes, and, finally, in honor of our meat-loving host, a rack of grilled lamb with stir-fried summer vegetables, wasabi puree, and a cilantro-mint vinaigrette.

A loud round of applause rang out. “And not to forget dessert,” Emile said, holding up his hand.” A chocolate cake served with fresh strawberries and vanilla bean ice cream, surrounded by a concoction I call ginger and lavender drizzle.”

Oh, the lavender in Provence! The seafood! The cresting waves of the sea on a summer evening…I was there in an instant, enjoying the remembered sensations even more than the mystery itself.

If I should tell you about the mystery, I would spoil the surprise. You must read it yourself to discover which of the guests who have arrived by boat will be murdered and why. But, while you are reading of the case to be solved, you will be immersed in the culture, and for me that was the most special aspect of this book.

 

The Secret Place by Tana French

The Secret Place

A Retir’d Friendship

 

Here let us sit and bless our Starres

Who did such happy quiet give,

As that remov’d from noise of warres.

In one another’s hearts we live.

 

Why should we entertain a feare?

Love cares not how the world is turn’d.

If crouds of dangers should appeare,

Yet friendship can be unconcern’d.

 

We weare about us such a charme,

No horrour can be our offence:

For mischief’s self can doe no harme

To friendship and to innocence.

 

~Katherine Philips

 

Could not put it down, this mystery by Tana French. It brought me back to girls’ mean ways, cliques and bonds, manipulations and trickery. But in this case, there is also evil of the worst kind; unspeakable actions disguised as loving intent. It’s a powerful mystery, one that had me absolutely riveted for the past two days. Rarely have I read dialogue so true, nor a plot more expertly woven.