Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Detective's Daughter

This is the first of the series by Lesley Thomson featuring Stella Darnell, who runs a successful cleaning company in London called Clean Slate. Stella's father, Terry Darnell was head of the Hammersmith branch of the police department and a good detective, to the detriment of his family life. His wife, Stella's mom, left when Stella was 7 years old and Stella did not see much of Terry after that. She has been estranged from him for decades and blames him for their lack of relationship. As we learn through flashbacks, Terry was in fact a devoted dad to Stella and cherished their time together. Terry suddenly dies at the age of 68 from a heart attack and in the process of clearing his house, Stella realizes that he was trying to solve a 30-year-old cold case, the murder of Kate Rokesmith in 1981. Terry was the lead investigator and he has finally figured out who the killer is--not the husband as the police assumed for years. Kate's 4-year old son, Jonathan, may have witnessed the murder but has been mute on the incident ever since.
Stella is a flawed but still engaging character, bothered by mess and clutter and living in a sparsely populated condominium building by herself with plastic covers still on the sofa. She decides she does not love the man she has been seeing for some time, Paul, and tries to break off the relationship but he begins stalking her. One of Stella's most demanding and somewhat demented clients, and a neighbor of Terry's, Mrs. Ramsay is the next to die; the police believe it to be an accident. Then Paul drowns while drunk, in the same place that Kate Rokesmith was murdered on the banks of the Thames River. Stella is joined in her informal investigation by Jack Harmon, who applies for a job with her cleaning company. He is a very good cleaner, but he also breaks into people's houses and lives in them secretly until he decides they are no longer of interest. Jack already has a job; he drives a subway train on the "dead late shift."  He sees patterns in numbers and messages in events around him, and, it turns out, he is Kate Rokesmith's grown son. Stella begins dating a dentist, Ivan Challoner, who she discovers is the half-brother of another neighbor of Terry's, sculptor Sarah Glyde. Sounds twisty and a bit contrived and it is. There are long sections of narrative in the early parts of the book that are not attributed to a named person, but it is clearly someone with ill intent. Stella is being stalked by someone besides Paul, although she doesn't realize it. Thomson is good at creating a pervasive sense of menace with this ploy as well as with small observations like the timer on the security lights at her condo being set incorrectly so they were on in the day and off at night.
A novel aspect of Lesley Thompson's website is the collection of photos she uses to imagine settings and characters. There is a "gallery" for each book.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Star of Istanbul

This 2nd installment in the "Kit Cobb" series by Robert Owen Butler continues the adventures of former war correspondent, now American spy, Christopher Marlowe Cobb. To get some background on his new career, see my blog on The Hot Country. Cobb has now been trained to be a spy but continues to work under his journalism credentials. Thus it is that he is sent to trail a German spy, Walter Brauer, from New York to Europe on The Lusitania. We already know how that ends. But Cobb, Brauer, and a movie star with whom Cobb has had a shipboard fling are all rescued and so the game continues. Cobb eventually allies himself with actress Selene Bourgani, who, he discovers, had been working with Brauer but has now killed him.  Kit learns that her ultimate destination is Istanbul where she is to seduce the ruling pasha, a big fan of her movies, and find out what his plans are regarding an alliance with Germany. But Selene has a secret agenda; for, she is Armenian, not Greek as the Hollywood press have made out, and she plans to kill the pasha in retaliation for the multiple massacres of her people.
Butler provides wonderful historical detail and atmosphere as well as engaging plots. I have tired pretty quickly of Cobb's penchant for serially falling in love with dangerous women, although he never fails to complete his larger mission or report the stories.
Reviews here from KirkusPublishers Weekly, and The Huntington News (includes a nice plot summary).

The Hot Country

It's 1914 and war correspondent Christopher ("Kit") Marlowe Cobb has found his way to Vera Cruz, Mexico just as Woodrow Wilson has launched an invasion of sorts as retaliation for Mexican President Huerta taking some American soldiers prisoner. Although Wilson goes no further than trying to clean up Vera Cruz, the Mexicans, already embroiled in a civil war, are definitely pissed at the Americans and Germany sees an opportunity to start a conflict between Mexico and the U.S. and thus keep America from interfering in their European plans.
Cobb enlists the help of a young local pickpocket, Diego, to keep an eye on a German munitions ship in the harbor and thus is able to identify Germany's emissary, Mensinger, and even intercept enough information to let him surmise their plans. He decides to follow Mensinger who is on his way to meet with Pancho Villa. Along the way, Villa's men rob the train Kit is on and he falls in with the bandits after he discovers that an old pal, a mercenary named Tallahassee Slim, is leading the raiding party and they are on their way back to Villa. Kit gets involved in a battle between Villa's men and another rebel group and kills a man to save Slim's life. When he arrives at Villa's camp, he meets and fights with Mensinger. He also reunites with a woman he met in Vera Cruz, ostensibly a laundress, who Kit thinks is also a sniper, and with whom he has nevertheless fallen in love. When all is said and done, Kit writes his story and heads home for Chicago, but the feds put a blanket over the information and it is never published. Instead, Kit is recruited to act as an agent of the U.S. government and take a counter-offer to Villa.
This is apparently the first adventure/ spy novel that Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler has written, although he is a prolific author of short stories, novels and non-fiction. It is also the first in a series featuring Kit Cobb, journalist turned spy. Butler does a wonderful job of capturing the atmosphere of Vera Cruz and supplying historic details that will engage fans of historical novels. Cobb is sort of a "man's man" with the accompanying attitudes towards women. It was definitely an engaging read and I went on to read the next one in the series, The Star of Istanbul. There is a great review of Hot Country by The Guardian.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Color of Water

I read this some time ago and did not realize I had not written a blog post about it. This was also a book group selection; it is a memoir and commemoration of James McBride's Polish, Jewish mother, Ruth. McBride's father was black and he had 11 brothers and sisters. After leaving the south, where she was raised by an abusive Rabbi father and a sickly and non-English speaking mother, Ruth made her way to Harlem. She married and was widowed from two black men. Nevertheless, she managed to send all of her children to college. It is a truly remarkable story of a woman who was disowned by her Jewish family when she married and never looked back. She adopted the black community and seemed fearless in being a part of it, even when her children feared for her. When one of her children asked her what color God was, she replied "the color of water."
McBride has worked as a professional journalist (Boston Globe, Washington Post) and musician (jazz and blues saxophone), and then he decided to write this book. He began interviewing his mother, who he admired and loved but felt he did not really know much about, and the entire process took 14 years. This book was on the New York Times best seller list for two years and there are numerous laudatory reviews: The New York Times, Kirkus, Publishers' Weekly
Highly recommended.

Fool Me Once

I like Harlan Coben's books and have blogged about several of them (The Woods, Long Lost, and Missing You) . He has written almost 2 dozen books, a series of sport-related ones featuring Myron Bolitar (good even if you aren't a sports fan), and his stand-alone thrillers.
Here we meet former Army Captain and special ops helicopter pilot Maya Stern Burkett, whose husband Joe has been recently murdered. She is left to care for their two-year old daughter, Lily, and is encouraged by a friend to get a nanny cam, even though the nanny she has hired is the daughter of Joe's former nanny. Joe Burkett comes from a wealthy family and this is the 2nd of their sons to die, although the younger son died several years ago. Maya is also reeling from the brutal torture and murder of her sister, Claire, just two years ago. Maya is beginning to feel like death follows her.
But she is determined to find her sister's killer--obsesssed, actually, about bringing him/ her to justice. Then the investigating detective tells Maya that the gun that killed her husband was the same one that killed her sister. One of her former Army buddies, Shane, helps her follow old leads but more deaths follow and someone is setting Maya up to look like the killer. When Maya comes home one day and reviews the nanny cam, she sees Joe walk into the room where Lily is playing. But of course that can't be, because Maya was there when Joe was shot in the park. This is a very twisty cat and mouse game and the ending is a real shocker.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy

This is a companion novel to Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which I read and enjoyed a couple of years ago.  Love Song was a recent choice for my book group, and I found it a worthwhile read. Harold's journey was to see former colleague and friend, Queenie Hennessy, who is in hospice in the north of England. This novel is her story and their story told from Queenie's perspective.
Harold sends post cards from his journey, asking Queenie to stay alive until he can arrive, and these cards become a sort of collective project for other patients in the hospice. In response, Queenie decides she will write a letter to Harold, which she plans to give him when he arrives; in it she will confess everything. Queenie's cancer prevents her from speaking but she scribbles notes and one of the volunteers is typing them out for her. 
Turns out Queenie was in love with Harold all the time and never told him, because he was married. Queenie also got to know Harold's adult son, David, and never told Harold that either. Queenie, like Harold, feels she somehow failed David and, therefore, Harold. After David's suicide, Queenie moves away to live a solitary life on the north coast of England. There she collects bits of detritus the waves leave behind and creates "sculptures" of people in her life and surrounds it with a garden. It becomes a local attraction, so people stop by and chat, but she remains essentially alone. When she is diagnosed with cancer and no longer able to care for herself, she goes into hospice and writes Harold to say she is dying.
Surprisingly, this is not a morbid book. We meet a wonderful cast of characters in the hospice--patients and staff. It is beautifully written, and there is a real surprise at the end. You may or may not like or admire Queenie, but you can't help but be intrigued by her.

There is a great interview with Rachel Joyce about writing Queenie's story in The Guardian.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Pretty Is

My friend Wendy Starkweather's niece, Maggie Mitchell, wrote this--her first novel. So  I approached it with both a bit of extra curiosity and apprehension. What if I didn't like it--what does one say? Fortunately, it was a really intriguing book, not exactly a thriller, but more a psychological exhumation.
Two 12-year old girls, whose paths would otherwise never have crossed, are both abducted by the same handsome charming man and kept for almost two months at a rundown lodge deep in the woods. Carly May, from a small town in Nebraska is exceptionally pretty and her step-mother seeks to get attention for herself by promoting Carly May to be in beauty pageants. Tiny attractive Lois is precociously smart and is kidnapped miles away in Connecticut. Each girl is notable in her own way but very different from each other. It's never entirely clear to the girls or the reader why they were chosen. But the fact that they were seems to exert a psychological hold over both girls and they never seriously try to escape. Two stories--then and now-- are told from each girl's/ woman's perspective in alternating chapters,  starting when both women are adults. Carly--now Chloe Savage--is a B-level actress in Los Angeles; while, former spelling bee champ Lois is teaching literature at a small college in upstate New York. Under a pseudonym, Lois has written a book, a fictionalized account of two girls who are kidnapped, that is popular enough to have been optioned for a movie. She has worked hard to separate herself from that past as has Carly/ Chloe. But a student in one of Lois' classes has ferreted out the connection and begins subtly blackmailing Lois to keep from revealing her identity. Predictably, Chloe is tapped to play a role in the movie and their lives once again collide. Coherent characters, well-crafted settings, and a slightly disturbing sense of mystery will keep you engrossed in this book.
Good reviews from The Guardian, Kirkus, and The New York Times.