Reviews by Cloggie Downunder

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Two Nights in Lisbon: A Novel
by Chris Pavone
definitely a page-turner (5/9/2022)
Two Nights In Lisbon is the fifth novel by best-selling American author, Chris Pavone. When Ariel Pryce wakes up alone in a Lisbon hotel on a July Monday morning, she expects to find her (ten years younger) husband of three months in the dining room having breakfast. She doesn’t. John Wright hasn’t been seen by the staff; everything but his phone is still there; the phone goes to voicemail.

When Ariel takes her concern to the local police, they are almost dismissive: he hasn’t been gone long enough for it to be a concern. But they do find her interesting enough to tail. From the smirks the smarmy fellow at the US Embassy gives her it’s clear he is equally indifferent, although he does take some intriguing information about the couple to the CIA Chief of Station down the corridor. An American journalist hanging around the embassy offers help, which Ariel politely declines. No sign of John at the hospitals she contacts.

The hotel’s CCTV shows him leaving early in the morning, not dressed for the client business meetings he has scheduled, and maybe getting into a car. The male cop is still sceptical: Ariel’s ignorance of her husband’s clients doesn’t help. But his female colleague is a little more willing to make an effort. What happens next changes the complexion of his absence, but much more can’t be said without spoilers.

The opening chapters are intriguing enough to draw the reader in, but it’s not until things hot up that Ariel’s steel is revealed. And how! With flashbacks to her recent past, and a bit of action with a tail, Ariel demonstrates just how self-sufficient she can be. And it’s those scenes where she is fending for herself that provide plenty of dark humour.

It’s soon clear that neither Ariel nor John is quite who they seem; nor do all those claiming to want to help find John have entirely benign intentions, but most of them definitely want to know what is behind Ariel’s apparent power over a certain influential figure.

The main narrative is carried by Ariel, but many of the minor characters contribute, and the narrative often switches between them, relying only on context to denote whose perspective is being given. Rather than adding confusion, this seems to give the story an immediacy that keeps the reader engrossed.

While there are hints at espionage and the influence of foreign powers, the apparent immunity to prosecution of privileged white males who indulges in sexual harassment of the worst kind (and who closely resembles a certain president), is central to the story.

Very little suspension of disbelief is required in this tightly plotted story which has plenty of red herrings and enough twists to possibly necessitate a chiropractic consult. Pavone’s latest is definitely a page-turner.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
French Braid: A novel
by Anne Tyler
Wonderful, as always! (4/23/2022)
“So this is how it works. This is what families do for each other - hide a few uncomfortable truths, allow a few self-deceptions. Little kindnesses. And little cruelties.”

French Braid is the twenty-fourth novel by best-selling, award-winning American author, Anne Tyler. The Garrett family, people would tell you, is fairly unremarkable. They’re living what they see as fairly unremarkable lives Baltimore. Yes, there are little quirks, minor grudges, small resentments, as in every family. But also love in its many manifestations.

To pique our initial interest, there’s Serena Drew, meeting her (newish) boyfriend’s Philadelphia parents. A chance encounter, on the journey home to Baltimore, with her cousin, draws attention to the fact that the Garretts don’t see each other very much, unlike the boyfriend’s sprawling family. To understand why, we need to go back to the late 1950s.

The Garret family on their one and only vacation, at Deep Creek Lake: Robin demonstrates his inexperience with relaxing; Mercy gets out her sketchbook and pencils and indulges in her art; seventeen-year-old Alice takes over the responsibility of feeding the family and watching over her siblings; at fifteen, Lily is quickly distracted from her sulk about leaving one boy behind by the attentions of another, older one, from whom she seems to expect a proposal; and David, to his father’s frustration, is uninterested in the water, or learning to swim.

It is always such a pleasure to read a book by Anne Tyler, and this one has you chickling all the way through, unless you are laughing out loud or saying “oh, dear” or “oh, my”, and once or twice, choking up or shedding a tear. Nothing terribly dramatic happens: readers wanting action and excitement need to look elsewhere; but Tyler’s special talent is making ordinary lives shine.

Tyler is wonderful at character description: “It always puzzled Alice, how boys would flock to Lily. Oh, she was pretty enough, in a round-faced, dimply sort of way, but that didn't explain why they grew so alert when she walked into a room. It seemed she gave off some kind of high-pitched signal that only male ears could detect. (Grown men as well as boys. Alice had noticed more than one friend's father sending Lily the same sharp arrows of awareness.)”

As always, many of her characters are a little eccentric, but their observations on life are insightful at the same time as being amusing. Serena illustrates “I can criticise my family, but you can’t”; Mercy tells her granddaughter “Sometimes people live first one life and then another life... First a family life and then later a whole other kind of life. That's what I'm doing” but she does it subtly to spare feelings from being hurt; Alice considers herself the sensible one, even if some see her as a killjoy.

Each of eight chapters is from the perspective of a different family member, giving their particular view of certain events or circumstances. If Lily’s husband sees the Garretts as narrow and unfriendly and judgemental, it’s not how they see themselves.

And Tyler’s prose is a joy: “The only sounds in the studio were the whiskery strokes of their two brushes. She'd grown used to hearing old-people music but evidently Mercy preferred to work in silence, and Candle saw her point. Silence made what she was doing seem more important, somehow - more purposeful, almost like praying.” Wonderful, as always!
The Unsinkable Greta James: A Novel
by Jennifer E. Smith
funny, moving, heart-warming and uplifting. (2/27/2022)
The Unsinkable Greta James is a novel by best-selling American author, Jennifer E. Smith. It is literally the last place Greta James wants to be: on a cruise ship off the coast of Alaska. Her mother had planned the week-long cruise as a celebration of forty years of marriage. But three months earlier, an aneurysm had put Helen James into an early grave. Now here she is with her father and two other couples of his vintage: Helen and Conrad’s best friends over the last several decades, having the vacation Helen can’t.

Losing her mother plunged Greta into such deep grief that she had a meltdown on stage during her last live show, a week after Helen died. A meltdown that went viral. Despite pressure from the label, her manager and her publicist, Greta has withdrawn from public life since then. She knows if her career as an indie singer/songwriter/guitarist is to survive, she needs to come back controlled and confident, with a new song. A song that’s not coming…

On top of all that, she’s broken up with her boyfriend and just learned the man who’s been her fallback most of her life has gotten engaged.

So she’s on a ship full of mostly oldies who haven’t a clue about her, which is OK. The two other couples provide a buffer between her and Conrad, necessary because, although she’s here to keep an eye on him (at her brother’s insistence), they haven’t seen eye to eye since she entered her teens. Her mother may have been her greatest fan, but her father still thinks she should, at age thirty-six, have quit travelling, got a real job, and settled into a steady relationship, like her brother.

While she can relax in relative anonymity, an enthusiastic young teen of south Asian descent is thrilled to meet her idol, and Greta recalls her own teenaged obsession with making music. And among the activities to which she does accompany Conrad and his friends, a talk by Ben Wilder, a history professor at Columbia with a best-selling novel: an enigmatic figure who piques Greta’s interest. Somehow they connect, and see unexpected parallels in their lives.

It’s when she’s agreed to spend a whole day excursion with her father, meticulously pre-arranged by her mother, that things with Conrad come to a head. Can they salvage something from their decades-long estrangement?

In this novel, Smith offers a well-rounded protagonist and an appealing support cast, most of whom endear themselves to the reader despite, or perhaps because of, their very human flaws and foibles. Her portrayal of the various relationships is convincing and certain turns of the plot are likely to have the eyes filling with tears and a lump forming in the throat, although there is also plenty of humour, especially in the witty dialogue.

Smith’s depiction of the cruise, the activities and excursions, and life aboard a cruise ship perfectly captures the atmosphere and she so skilfully sets the scene of Greta’s performances, readers will wish they could be there. A tale that examines family dynamics and throws in a little romance, this one is funny, moving, heart-warming and uplifting.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Quercus Books
The Midnight Hour: Brighton Mysteries #6
by Elly Griffiths
This is addictive historical crime fiction. (1/22/2022)
The Midnight Hour is the sixth book in The Brighton Mysteries series by British author, Elly Griffiths. When elderly impresario Bert Billington’s youngest son, Aaron suggests to the Brighton Police that his mother, former variety dancer, Verity Malone poisoned her husband, she engages Holmes and Collins Detective Agency to investigate.

It’s a little awkward: the first time Emma Holmes is at odds with her husband, Superintendent Edgar Stephens, as his team tries to discover who fed Bert rat poison. Police and PIs question many of the same people for information, but sometimes their methods yield different results. What does come to light is that there are plenty of people with potential grudges against the old man, and that there was a mystery caller to the house in the hours before Bert died.

And then there is another murder: a different MO, but with certain common aspects, with the result that Emma and WDC Meg Connolly head to Liverpool to interview a couple with a historical bearing on the cases, and from there, unexpectedly to Whitby, where Bert and Verity’s middle son Seth and Max Mephisto are filming a Dracula movie.

Bert’s reputation as a philanderer swells the list of those with grievances to the families of used and discarded women, some of whose lives he ruined without qualm. Nor do all of his own family hold him in high esteem. But the second victim was a favourite with almost everyone: what could the motive be?

Griffiths certainly has the reader second-guessing themselves as they settle on a perpetrator, only to be pointed elsewhere as further facts come to light. There are a number of red herrings and plenty of misdirection, from both the characters and the author. At one stage Emma reminds herself that she is dealing with “Actors and acting. Costume and disguise.”

Once again, Griffiths uses multiple narrators to convey different parts of the story as well as to give different perspectives on events. The story plays out over about six weeks against a background of The Moors Murders. The mid-1960’s era ensures the absence of mobile phones, internet, DNA and even many personal vehicles; thus the detective work relies on heavily on legwork, and intelligent deduction.

Fans will be pleased to have another peek into the lives of this particular cast as the characters grow and develop and face the challenges of the changing world that was the nineteen-sixties. Despite the still-rampant sexual discrimination to which they are subject, Emma, Sam, Meg and Ruby are coming into their own, quietly taking charge of their lives and making their own decisions. This is addictive historical crime fiction.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Now You See Them: Magic Men Mysteries #5
by Elly Griffiths
Excellent historical crime fiction, once again. (1/16/2022)
Now You See Them is the fifth book in the Stephens and Mephisto Mystery series (now apparently titled The Brighton Mysteries) by British author, Elly Griffiths. It is set over ten years after the events of The Vanishing Box. DI Bob Willis and Superintendent Edgar Stephens are called out of a post-funeral gathering for one of the wartime Magic Men: a teenaged girl is missing from her exclusive boarding school, Roedean. Her father, local MP Sir Crispian Miles demands their immediate action.

Rhonda Miles left a note claiming she has gone to London, and her friends are convinced she’s there to see matinee idol Bobby Hambro: they are all manic fans. It happens that the star’s agent is trying to entice Max Mephisto to co-star in a proposed film with Bobby: Edgar enlists Max’s help to gain access to Bobby to request vigilance for Rhonda among his many fans.

Edgar’s wife Emma, formerly DS Holmes, is finding marriage and motherhood less than stimulating and jumps at the chance to be more involved when her friend, journalist Sam Collins brings news of two earlier, unreported, disappearances of young women who have left similar notes. The women hatch a scheme to draw out the kidnapper, much to Edgar’s disapproval.

Meanwhile DI Bob Willis sends WPC Meg Connolly to London undercover to mingle with the loyal Bobby Hambro fans massed outside his hotel, hoping to gain information about Rhonda’s whereabouts. She returns with something that links her disappearance to the previous two. And then a body is discovered along the undercliff walk at Rotterdean.

In this instalment, Griffiths uses four narrators, Max, Edgar, Emma and Meg, to convey different parts of the story as well as to give different perspectives on events. The story plays out over three weeks. The mid-1960’s era ensures the absence of mobile phones, internet, DNA and even many personal vehicles; thus the detective work relies on heavily on legwork, and intelligent deduction.

Griffiths gives the reader a tale that set against a background of conflict erupting between mods and rockers, and includes smugglers tunnels, a prison escape, pop-star hysteria, racial discrimination and the emergence of a hitherto unknown group: teenagers. The kidnappings come very close to home for the main protagonists before a dramatic climax reveals who is responsible.

In different ways, Emma, Sam and Meg are subject to sexual discrimination, being relegated to menial tasks, denied the right to work, not permitted to drive a police car, denigrated by comments from colleagues, denied promotion and always expected to make the tea. But these women have plans!

Griffiths gives the reader characters that are real and flawed; some are immature but eager; others are distracted by their emotions. The plot is clever and original and even the most astute reader is unlikely to guess the perpetrator. The atmosphere of sixties Britain is skilfully evoked with description, dialogue and the attitudes common at the time. Excellent historical crime fiction, once again.
Cast Iron: An Enzo Macleod Investigation #6
by Peter May
Enjoyable crime fiction (11/19/2021)
Cast Iron is the sixth book in the Enzo Macleod Investigation series by Scottish journalist, screenwriter and author, Peter May. After refreshing himself on the details of Roger Raffin’s sixth cold case with him, Enzo heads in the direction of Bordeaux to meet the parents of Lucie Martin, whose unexplained disappearance in 1989 became a murder case when a nearby lake dried up during the drought of 2003, revealing her skeleton.

But not long after meeting the Martins, Enzo feels ambushed when he finds himself in the middle of a gathering of the families of six young women who are missing or dead, all of whom believe a certain killer of three prostitutes is to blame. While a letter from pimp Régis Blanc was found in Lucie’s bedroom, he has a cast iron alibi for when she disappeared.

Enzo talks to Lucie’s boyfriend, the ex-cop whom the families of the Bordeaux Six hired to investigate, Blanc’s wife and the women he pimped. He locates Lucie’s missing skull and makes a discovery that changes the whole complexion of the case. The more he hears, the less he is convinced that Blanc is Lucie’s killer.

When he meets Blanc in Lannemezan Prison, he becomes intrigued by the motive for the three murders for which this enigmatic man was incarcerated. But then he is distracted by his younger daughter. And in the crisis that follows, Enzo, true to form, has four women falling over themselves to assist in any way they can.

Sophie and her fiancé Bertrand discover first-hand just how dangerous being beloved of Enzo can be when his investigations displease certain people. Bertrand certainly gets a chance to prove his love, and Sophie shows herself to be resourceful and undefeated by challenging circumstances.

In what feels like the final book in the series, the action ranges from Paris to Cahors to Bordeaux to Biarritz. Some clever deduction and plenty of legwork is done, and there are plenty of twists and red herrings before the shocking reveal of just who is trying to kill Enzo, and why.

Both of Roger Raffin’s remaining cold cases are solved and loose ends are tied in a fairly neat bow, so fans of the series will doubtless be interested to know what May has planned for Enzo and crew in the seventh book of the series, The Night Gate. Enjoyable crime fiction.
The Blood Card: Magic Men Mysteries
by Elly Griffiths
excellent historical crime fiction (10/14/2021)
The Blood Card is the third book in the Stephens and Mephisto Mystery series by British author, Elly Griffiths. It’s May, 1953 and the former Magic Men are busy with their lives; DI Edgar Stephens is investigating the death of gypsy fortune-teller, Madame Zabini (Doreen Barton) in Brighton; magician Max Mephisto is performing at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.

They’re puzzled to be summoned to Whitehall by General Petre, even more so when he explains they are to look into the murder of their former CO, Colonel Peter Cartwright. Certain things about the murder scene have led Petre to call them in: a playing card left on the body; a newspaper cutting about an American mesmerist; and a 1939 Liverpool Empire playbill.

Petre stresses urgency: there is a threat to the imminent coronation of the new Queen. Max makes an international phone call which yields only a cryptic clue. Ed is sent to Albany, NY, arrives too late for his purpose, is almost the victim of a hit-and-run driver and has his motel room ransacked.

Back in Brighton, DS Emma Holmes is keeping a close eye on the Barton family when it transpires there may be a connection to Cartwright’s murder. Soon enough, Max and Ed conclude that all is not as it seems with the now-elusive General Petre, and the connection between the two deaths strengthens.

Griffiths gives the reader characters that are real and flawed; some are vain and selfish; others distracted by misdirection and convinced by illusion. Her plot is clever and original and has a few twists that even the most astute reader may fail to anticipate. The atmosphere of post-war Britain is skilfully evoked with description, dialogue and the attitudes common at the time.

The immediate post-war era ensures the absence of mobile phones, internet, DNA and even many personal vehicles; thus the detective work relies on heavily on legwork, personal visits and intelligent deduction.

Before the puzzles are solved and the murderers apprehended, there are communists, mafiosi and anarchists to investigate, there is arson, assault and attempted kidnapping, a bomb has to be defused on live TV and a knife thrower saves a young magician. Ed’s short stay in America is quite entertaining, and there are plenty of unresolved situations to draw the reader to the next book, The Vanishing Box. Excellent Historical crime fiction.
Last Girl Ghosted: A Novel
by Lisa Unger
A guaranteed page-turner. (10/10/2021)
“Once you ditch that phone, everything that you think tethers you to your life will fall away. Cash. A burner phone. A map—a real paper map!—marked where she should stop for gas, to spend the night. Places that took cash, that didn’t have cameras. It’s not forever, he told her. Think of it as a life reset.”

Last Girl Ghosted is the nineteenth novel by award-winning best-selling American author, Lisa Unger. After three intensely romantic months with Adam Harper, Wren Greenwood is suddenly, inexplicably, ghosted. What was a hook-up from the Torch app soon developed into more; it felt like the real thing, and Wren just can’t believe she got it so wrong. Her best friend Jax tells her to chalk it up to experience and move on, but Wren can’t let it go.

Then PI Baily Kirk turns up on her doorstep, looking for Adam Harper or Raife Mannes or the man who goes by any number of other names. His client’s daughter hooked-up with the man on Torch: now she and all her money have been missing for nine months. She’s one of at least three similar stories, all of whom have had some trauma in their early lives, all of whom have connected with this apparently charismatic, Rilke-quoting ghost.

Wren too, has had trauma in her youth, but she’s a survivor, a success: her popular advice column, Dear Birdie runs in the New York Chronicle, helping many; she owns a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights; she has friends and interests. But she wants to find Adam too. Do she and Bailey join forces? Does she actually believe the disturbing things that Bailey tells her about the man she had fallen in love with? And what happens if she finds him?

The story is told in a first-person narrative that is addressed to Adam, which sometimes makes for momentary confusion, but ultimately works well. While Wren is a protagonist with whom many readers can empathise, it’s disappointing that Unger inserts her into that overdone trope of naïve arrogance where she enters an almost-certainly dangerous situation alone, without any protection or means of summoning help, and without telling anyone what she is doing. Sure, it does later allow her to be kick-ass, but it’s getting a little tired.

However, she does give the reader a gripping thriller, the bones of which are easily believable: the potential dangers of online dating are well-documented. There’s plenty of enjoyable banter between friends, some good detective work, and a few action scenes in the lead-up to a nail-biting climax (or two). The support characters are an appealing bunch that Wren is lucky to have beside her. A guaranteed page-turner.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and HQ Fiction.
Oh William!: Amgash Series #3
by Elizabeth Strout
another powerful read (10/1/2021)
Oh William! is the third novel in the Amgash series by best-selling, Pulitzer Prize winning American author, Elizabeth Strout. Not long widowed and still very much grieving her second husband, David Abramson, Lucy Barton relates recent events in the life of her first husband, William Gerhardt.

Two life-changing things that occur in fairly short succession see her travelling with William to Maine to perhaps connect with a relative of whom William was, until recently, unaware. It’s a journey of many revelations, both about newly-discovered family, those already departed, each other and themselves.

Lucy’s narrative comes across as a little rambling, at first, but it soon becomes clear that all those casual asides, those frequently inserted anecdotes from earlier, are given to illustrate a certain point, a feeling, an opinion.

Musing on what she had with each husband, she tells the reader that even though “At times in our marriage I loathed him. I saw, with a kind of dull disc of dread in my chest, that with his pleasant distance, his mild expressions, he was unavailable”, William was her home, that she felt safe in his presence.

She does not talk much about David, noting what they had in common “It is hard to describe what it is like when one is raised in such isolation from the outside world. So we became each other’s home. But we— both of us felt this way—we felt that we were perched like birds on a telephone wire in New York City” and concluding that “David was a tremendous comfort to me.”

Strout gives her characters palpable emotions, wise words and insightful observations. When Lucy is unable to understand why William married her, a nothing, he tells her: “Lucy, I married you because you were filled with joy. You were just filled with joy. And when I finally realized what you came from—when we went to your house that day to meet your family and tell them we were getting married, Lucy, I almost died at what you came from. I had no idea that was what you came from. And I kept thinking, But how is she what she is? How could she come from this and have so much exuberance? …. There has never been anyone in the world like you. You steal people’s hearts, Lucy.”

Strout’s writing, both in style and subject matter, is reminiscent of Sebastian Barry with shades of Anne Tyler. Strout writes about ordinary people leading what they believe are ordinary lives (although there are definitely some quirky ones doing strange things amongst them) and does it with exquisite yet succinct prose. Another powerful read.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Penguin UK Viking.
These Toxic Things
by Rachel Howzell Hall
brilliant crime fiction (9/28/2021)
These Toxic Things is the seventh novel by American author, Rachel Howzell Hall. Twenty-four-year-old Michaela Lambert is a digital archaeologist for the Memory Bank, and her latest client is Nadia Denham. Nadia’s Memory Bank will be a digital collection of those things she holds most dear, together with their background stories.

Nadia owns Beautiful Things Curiosities Shoppe, located in a run-down little plaza next to a diner, a locksmith, a hair salon, a boarded-up bar and a carpark that harbours a collection of somewhat derelict RVs. Real-estate developer, Peter Weller is keen to get his hands on the plaza but, to his annoyance, the remaining four shop-owners are standing their ground, despite some underhand tactics.

At their first meeting, Mickie’s new client has arrayed her precious keepsakes on a table with notes for each item detailing when and where it was acquired, and from whom. But before they get together for a more thorough discussion, Nadia is found dead, an apparent suicide, something that sits completely at odds with Mickie’s impression of an enthusiastic woman eager to digitise her memories for her own future reference.

Mickie’s boss insists she go ahead with the project, for which he has been paid, but she has to endure the chagrin and disdain of the store manager, Riley. The items and their backstories are quite intriguing, although Mickie notes that they all seem to have come from desperate women, some of whom later met with nasty ends.

Meanwhile, Mickie’s personal life is in upheaval: creepy notes under her door; threatening texts ordering her to stop what she is doing; a car tailing her home; and a weirdo confronting her in a café. Luckily, she has a very supportive family with police connections, and some good friends. She’s a smart girl, shares whatever concerns her and listens to their sound advice and observations.

While her ex-boyfriend (inconveniently also her boss) is not quite off the scene, Nadia’s rather dishy son seems interested, and interesting. But Mickie is being careful: there’s some nutjob out there grabbing young women and killing them, and no way is she going to add to the list of victims.

Howzell Hall gives the reader a story that is cleverly plotted with several red herrings and a chilling twist. This is a tale that may have us considering where we perceive personal danger lies. Her characters are believable and Mickie’s family and friends are so appealing that many will envy her relationship with them.

It is certainly refreshing to have a protagonist who is fairly security conscious, one who doesn’t assume she’ll be OK but, instead, lets people where she’s going and when to expect her back, who doesn’t go and investigate a strange noise on her own but calls for help. The Magic 8 Ball predictions as section headings is a cute touch. Another brilliant crime fiction read that puts Howzell Hall firmly on the Must Read list.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Thomas and Mercer.
When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky
by Margaret Verble
Entertaining and thought-provoking historical fiction. (9/25/2021)
When Two Feathers Fell From The Sky is the third novel by American Pulitzer Prize finalist, Margaret Verble. It’s 1926 and Cherokee horse diver Two Feathers is performing at Glendale Park and Zoo near Nashville, Tennessee, regularly sending money home to her family at The Miller Brothers One Hundred and One Ranch in Oklahoma. She loves the animals of the zoo, especially the bison, and enjoys the company of three friends: Marty and Franny Montgomery, the Juggling Juggernauts, and Hank Crawford, the stable hand.

Two is used to propositions from male fans, but had her heart broken during the winter at home so she is wary of communications from a man who calls himself Strong-Red-Wolf, clearly a fake Indian name. Little Elk, on the other hand, is no fake, but she’s mostly unaware of his presence. It takes him a while to understand why he has, once more, been drawn from the afterlife into the in-between: “To kill the murderous night-going witch. To save the woman and animals.”

James Shackleford, owner of Glendale, consults with Two about establishing a box-turtle race as an attraction. Before this can get going, though, disaster strikes Two’s act and she ends up on crutches after being rescued from an underground cave-in by Clive Lovett, the Zoo’s general manager. Her enforced inactivity allows her to see certain things from a different perspective: the sick hippo, the romantic pursuit by the charming college anthropology graduate, and her performing future.

Verble populates her tale with a large cast, some of whom she allocates a vignette, while others receive much more than a potted history. And those characters are not exclusively human: buffalo, bear, monkey and hippopotamus also make a significant contribution.

Perhaps the most interesting are the zoo manager who, haunted by his wartime experience, becomes aware of spirits present in the park; Two Feathers, with her strong connection to the animals and her distrust of most whites; deep-thinking Hank whose genuine care for Two is unstinting; and Little Elk, whose naive perspective on a modern world occasionally provides humour.

Verble easily evokes the era with the customs of the day and the mindset of the community with regards the black population and the Indians, and the controversial Scopes trial and appeal. Her plot manages to include a scalping, theft from a tomb, electrocution, a spirit with a tobacco craving, several romances and, trigger warning, the death of three animals.

Verble states in her notes that many of the characters are based on the lives of real people, while certain activities and events have basis in fact. It is clear that her research on such topics as massacres omitted from teaching, and mass robbing of Indian graves, is thorough. Entertaining and thought-provoking historical fiction.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Blowback: Enzo Files Series
by Peter May
an enjoyable read (9/20/2021)
Blow Back is the fifth book in the Enzo Macleod Investigation series by Scottish journalist, screenwriter and author, Peter May. Having achieved more than the French police had managed to with four of Roger Raffin’s cold cases, Enzo Macleod heads to the auberge at Saint-Pierre that houses Chez Fraysse, a Michelin-three-starred restaurant.

Unlike the reception he received with earlier cases, he is made welcome by both the young Gendarme, Dominique Chazal, and the victim’s widow and older brother: all claim that their most fervent desire is for Enzo to solve the murder of celebrity chef, Marc Fraysse. On his customary afternoon run, seven and a half years earlier, Marc was shot dead in a buron on the ridge track, his mobile phone missing. But not everyone at Chez Fraysse seems happy with Enzo’s presence.

Elisabeth Fraysse maintains that Marc was loved by all, had no enemies except for the food critic who made public a rumour that Marc was about to lose a star. Dominique tells Enzo she was unimpressed with the detective high fliers who came to investigate. Finding Marc’s laptop still in his bureau, Enzo concludes she may be right. Incredibly, it seems that investigators, when they did not find a document stating in 36-point font “My killer is XX”, looked no further. Enzo does, with an interesting result.

Enzo has set up someone on staff to helpfully provide inside information, although that backfires in an unexpected manner. The gossip thus garnered does provide three possible suspects; perusal of the draft of Marc’s memoir yields further motives; and a certain compulsive vice of Marc’s points to yet more.

As usual, Enzo attracts a woman: this one conveniently owns the sniffer dog that comes in handy later. There’s an attempt on his life, a couple of trips to Paris, some welcome and some unwelcome news about his daughter, Kirsty, and a favour called in from a documents expert. Three young women press Enzo to demand access to the baby son he has not yet seen.

While it’s true the setting is a gourmet restaurant with a seventy-thousand bottle cellar, Enzo waxes lyrical about meals and wines so many times that it does get just a bit tedious. And it seems odd that Enzo only reads the earlier parts of Marc’s memoir (which, incidentally set him off on uncomfortable reminiscences of his own) when the most recent might have provided more relevant information.

Despite a few plot holes, this is still an enjoyable read: there are plenty of red herrings (not all of them convincing) in the lead up to a dramatic climax that involves guns, quite a bit of spilled wine and broken glass, and the twist is excellent. The next instalment, Cast Iron is eagerly anticipated.
False Witness
by Karin Slaughter
a brilliant read as always (9/10/2021)
False Witness is the fourth stand-alone novel by best-selling American author, Karin Slaughter. Leigh Collier has only worked for mega legal firm, Bradley, Canfield and Marks since COVID shut down her sole practice a year ago, so she’s surprised to get a call from partner Cole Bradley. Apparently, the client, Andrew Trevor Tenant is the scion of luxury car dealership chain, Tenant Automotive Group, and has insisted she represent him.

Andrew has been charged with a particularly violent rape and aggravated assault, has dismissed his lawyer two days earlier, and his trial starts in just over a week. Even as she is introduced, in the opulent partners’ conference room, to Andrew, his fiancée and his mother, Leigh is puzzled by their request.

It’s the smirk that she recognises from some twenty-three years earlier, and her unease quickly turns to dread as Andrew later hints at impossible knowledge of a crime committed by two teenaged sisters. The details of his own alleged crime, and possible earlier ones, unsettle her deeply. What does he know, and what does he want?

Callie and Harleigh emerged from a dysfunctional childhood and adolescence, Callie’s cheerleading injuries producing a junkie, Harleigh’s hard work and determination yielding a lawyer. Neither would claim to be a saint, both have spent time in juvie, but if Andrew knows about this incident from their past, then exposure will demolish the lives they are living now.

Faced with the dilemma that pits justice, her reputation as a lawyer, and her job against the safety and sanity of her husband, her sixteen-year-old daughter and her sister, can Leigh do her job, act within the law in defending this psychopath and still somehow remove his power to harm? Or does she submit to his control? And for how long?

Her sister Callie, a graduate with honours of the school of hard knocks, plays by a very different rulebook, and the implied threat to her niece has made her very angry indeed. To what lengths will she go to neutralise the menace he poses?

What a talented author is Karin Slaughter! She manages to take some very gritty subjects (the poor management of drug addiction, the grooming of children by paedophiles, discrimination in sexual assault cases, to name a few) and build a story that addresses these convincingly, if quite graphically. The narrative is filled with tension, relieved occasionally by traces of black humour, and a dash of romance. There are red herrings and twists, some of which will have the reader gasping.

Slaughter is skilled at creating both characters to care for (and get choked up about in certain emotional moments) and characters to thoroughly despise (several of those are offered here), and has the reader cheering on these two strong women, for all their very human flaws, as they face a test of wits and guts. Two men who provide solid support also deserve admiration.

Slaughter does not shy away from the existence of the COVID pandemic, does not set her novel in an alternative present that knows no virus, but rather, realistically includes it in her story with the mention of Zoom, masks, distancing, hand sanitising, and with protagonists who are survivors of it, giving her novel authenticity without overwhelming it. A brilliant read, as always.
The Man Who Died Twice: Thursday Murder Club Mysteries #2
by Richard Osman
Hugely entertaining (9/9/2021)
The Man Who Died Twice is the second book in the Thursday Murder Club series by British TV presenter, producer, director, and novelist, Richard Osman. After the excitement of all the recent murders, things have calmed down at Coopers Chase retirement village, but Joyce Meadowcroft notices that, at the most recent meeting of the Thursday Murder Club, her good friend Elizabeth is a bit distracted.

Turns out, one of the units at Coopers Chase has temporarily become a safe house for an ageing, politically incorrect spy and Elizabeth is roped into baby-sitting a man she knows too well: her former life has come calling. This man makes an unwelcome declaration of love and a confession which concerns the reason for his concealment.

While DCI Chris Hudson and PC Donna De Freitas (ineptly) practice their covert surveillance skills on Fairhaven’s newest drug baroness, Ibrahim Arif has cause to regret his decision to make a solo outing into town when he is mugged by a teenaged trio. His friends are certainly not going to let that go unanswered…

Ostensibly a builder, Bogdan Jankovski is actually a man of many talents, be they playing chess with a demented husband, acquiring ten thousand pounds worth of cocaine (a disappointingly small parcel), or assisting Elizabeth “I’ll also need you to drive me to meet an international money launderer today, if you’re free?”

International money launderer, Martin Lomax has a bit on his mind: competing are thoughts of the Ukrainian who has just agreed to buy some decommissioned Saudi anti-aircraft missiles for twelve million dollars for which he plans to kidnap a racehorse as down payment, the Open Garden Day Martin is hosting, and the missing twenty million pounds worth of diamonds that the New York mafia are going to want back soon.

Ron Ritchie may be in his seventies, but he, too, is a versatile fellow, hosting his clever and inquisitive eight-year-old grandson as well as convincingly posing as both a plumber (overalls are so comfy!) and a London drug dealer.

Joyce’s (badly-)knitted, sequinned friendship bracelets are gently foisted upon almost everyone she meets. These, along with a cheap locket, a crisp packet, a left luggage locker key and the employment of some old spy tricks, play a significant role in the location of Martin Lomax’s missing diamonds, and the discovery of the identity of the murderer.

Whether describing outings like the Eurostar to Antwerp in her chatty journal entries, or signing up for Instagram with an innocently-chosen but unfortunate handle, or hiding diamonds, Joyce is an utter delight: she may often seem preoccupied by something mundane, but should never be underestimated, because she catches every detail. She is terribly pleased to learn she is on MI5’s radar, then thrilled to be blindfolded and interrogated by them, a session that is laugh-out-loud funny.

Once again, a perfect mix of cosy crime fiction and British humour that should probably not be read in the Quiet Carriage of public transport as it is likely to have readers chuckling, snickering and even guffawing. Hugely entertaining.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Penguin UK
The Thursday Murder Club
by Richard Osman
a perfect mix of cosy crime fiction and British humour (9/4/2021)
The Thursday Murder Club is the first book in the series of the same title by British TV presenter, producer, director, and novelist, Richard Osman. When builder, property developer and drug dealer, Tony Curran is bludgeoned to death in his kitchen, the members of the Thursday Murder Club are inordinately delighted. They are accustomed to discussing cold cases from police files; a real live case is much more exciting!

The Thursday Murder Club meets weekly in the Jigsaw Room at Coopers Chase retirement village, of which they are all residents. Their leader, Elizabeth, is circumspect about her former life but it possibly involved espionage; Ibrahim Arif is a former psychiatrist; Joyce Meadowcroft, who strikes most people as quiet and sensible, was a nurse; Ron Ritchie, an infamous trade-union leader; and their now non-verbal, but never excluded member, Penny Gray was a Detective Inspector with Kent Police. PC Donna De Freitas, ex-London Met, has recently become an unofficial member.

The members, two of whom saw the pair arguing, are fairly certain that the owner of Coopers Chase, Ian Ventham murdered Tony Curran: he had motive, means and opportunity. Donna would love to be involved with the Murder Squad, solving this crime, but is relegated to school visits and home security talks. Until, that is, Elizabeth wields her mysterious influence, and she becomes DCI Chris Hudson’s shadow. After all, the Thursday Murder Club needs a reliable information source.

Elizabeth and Joyce manage to track down some interesting facts that point to motive. Before they progress very far with the case, however, there is another murder, during a blockade of the adjoining cemetery, and present are residents, neighbours, members of the TMC, and their two tame cops: a not-inconsiderable suspect pool.

Meanwhile, a set of bones is located where they shouldn’t be, and one of the suspects dies, all keeping the police and the TMC busy investigating and second-guessing the conclusions they reach.

Before they manage to solve two (or three?) murders, a trip to a Cypriot prison, a skating rink and a Folkestone florist are made, some evening spadework at a gravesite is done, a disused chapel confessional is brought into play, chess is played and much tea, alcohol and cake are consumed.

The story is told through a narrative from multiple perspectives interspersed with Joy Meadowcroft’s chatty journal entries. With its hugely entertaining dialogue, this is a perfect mix of cosy crime fiction and British humour that should probably not be read in the Quiet Carriage of public transport as it is likely to have readers chuckling, snickering and laughing out loud. The follow-up, The Man Who Died Twice, is eagerly anticipated.
Apples Never Fall
by Liane Moriarty
A perfect mix of humour, heartache and drama, (9/3/2021)
Apples Never Fall is the ninth novel by best-selling Australian author, Liane Moriarty. When sixty-nine-year-old Joy Delaney goes missing on Valentine’s Day after a garbled text message to her four children, they are understandably concerned, especially as certain things (an argument that morning, scratches on his cheek, a professional car clean) sort of make their father, well-known tennis coach, Stan Delaney look guilty.

Joy’s disappearance and her subsequent lack of communication is completely out of character so, of course, the Delaney siblings report their mother missing. Stan is strangely reticent when questioned by the police, and his adult children are being quite selective with what they reveal about their family.

Detective Senior Constable Christina Khoury is finding it difficult to get a handle on this family. “On the surface they seemed loving and cheerful but she could sense dysfunction bubbling ominously beneath their sporty, matter-of-fact demeanours.”

While the siblings are all very different, they do seem to agree that a potentially precipitating incident occurred during the previous September, when a mysterious young woman named Savannah was staying with the Delaney parents, and when tennis star (and their father’s former protégé) Harry Haddad announced a comeback.

Only much later is it admitted that this was when some sensitive revelations were made, criticisms voiced and long-standing resentments aired.

As well as split-time narratives from multiple character perspectives, the story is told by conversations overheard or gossip shared by the waitress, the beauty therapist, the physio patient, the Uber driver, the journalist, the neighbour, the receptionist, the hairdresser, and others.

Some readers may find this too much of a slow-burn as Moriarty lays down the detail of the lives of each member of the Delaney family, but patience and persistence is rewarded as the story develops, with each new twist, turn and wrinkle adding another layer of intrigue before the dramatic reveal.

Moriarty gives the reader a level of intimacy with these characters that may cause a lump in the throat on several occasions in the final chapters. A perfect mix of humour, heartache and drama, Moriarty’s latest does not disappoint.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Pan Macmillan Australia.
Anything Is Possible: Amgash Series #2
by Elizabeth Strout
another powerful read (8/19/2021)
Anything Is Possible is the second novel in the Amgash series by best-selling American author, Elizabeth Strout. There was, in Lucy Barton’s memoir, mention of a number of people whose lives intersected with her own when she lived in Amgash. Their recollections of the Barton family, and their encounters with the members of that family, and each other, provide different perspectives of the life she described, expanding on what she shared and providing a background to those lives.

As Tommy Guptill, former janitor at the high school, drives past the Barton farm into town, he recalls his concern for young Lucy; the book store has made a display of her memoir; on his return he calls in to check on Pete Barton’s welfare and hears a disturbing confession.

High School Counsellor, Patty Nicely loses her cool during an unpleasant encounter with Lucy’s niece, Lila Lane; conversations with her sister and her increasingly-demented mother recall incidents with the Barton family; reading Lucy’s memoir is a positive experience that inspires a good deed.

Patty’s older sister, Linda Peterson-Cornell and her wealthy husband host a photographer exhibiting at the Summer Festival. Yvonne Tuttle feels uncomfortable, apparently with good reason. What happens next has her assessing why she is so loyal to her perverted husband.

Vietnam vet and PTSD sufferer, Charlie Macauley gives the woman he loves a gift not his to give, then waits for the inevitable fallout in Dottie Blaine’s B&B.

Having decamped to Italy with her lover four years earlier at the age of seventy-four, Mary Mumford finally gets a visit from her dearest daughter, Angelina. Misunderstandings are cleared up, marriages discussed and Amgash gossip shared.

Pete Barton prepares for a visit from the sister who has not returned to their Amgash house in seventeen years. They are surprised by their sister Vicky’s arrival, and Lucy’s reaction to unearthed childhood memories baffles them both.

In her B&B, Dottie Blaine, second cousin to the Barton siblings, sees a passing parade of guests, some of whom share confidences she would rather not be burdened with; others, like Charlie Macauley, for whom she will always feel empathy.

When actress Annie Appleby returns to the family’s potato farm, her father’s long-held secret is revealed.

Abel Blaine, the second cousin who took Lucy Barton dumpster diving when they were dirt-poor and hungry, muses on his acquired wealth with a poorly-reviewed theatre actor.

These vignettes of peoples’ lives occur over a year or more, and illustrate that premise of six or less degrees of separation. Revisiting those characters from Lucy’s memoir, and learning more of their lives, is quite a pleasurable experience.

Strout gives many of them wise words and insightful observations: “This was the skin that protected you from the world – this loving of another person you shared your life with” and “They had grown up on shame; it was the nutrient of their soil” are examples.

Strout’s writing, both in style and subject matter, is reminiscent of Sebastian Barry with shades of Anne Tyler. Strout writes about ordinary people leading what they believe are ordinary lives (although there are definitely some quirky ones doing strange things amongst them) and does it with exquisite yet succinct prose. Another powerful read.
My Name Is Lucy Barton: Amgash Series #1
by Elizabeth Strout
Powerful and ultimately uplifting. (7/25/2021)
“It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.”

My Name Is Lucy Barton is the first novel in the Amgash series by best-selling American author, Elizabeth Strout. As Lucy Barton lies in her New York hospital room with its superb view of the Chrysler Building, trying to fight an infection after an appendectomy, she chats to her mother while waiting for the doctor, a kind, kind man, to visit.

Her ever-wakeful mother, whom she has not seen for many years, is there at the request of Lucy’s husband, William. Over the five days of her visit, they share stories and observations of people they both knew when Lucy was growing up in Amgash, Illinois.

Her mother’s stories stir other memories for Lucy, much less pleasant to recall, of a hard childhood in an unhealthy family with parents who love their children “imperfectly”, doling out both cruelty and kindness. Does her mother not remember these? Or has she repressed them?

The real love and care that stands out in Lucy’s memory came from those unrelated by blood: the school janitor, teachers and counsellors, a cashier in a cake shop. And later, neighbours, a writer, that kind doctor. Her husband, frustrated that Lucy doesn’t understand she “could be loved, was lovable.”

Strout’s writing, both in style and subject matter, is reminiscent of Sebastian Barry with shades of Anne Tyler. Strout writes about ordinary people leading what they believe are ordinary lives, at least until they learn differently. Lucy says about her childhood: “that huge pieces of knowledge about the world were missing that can never be replaced” but she managed to learn how to act, to imitate others.

Strout’s prose is often exquisite “…I see now that he recognised what I did not: that in spite of my plenitude, I was lonely. Lonely was the first flavour I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me” and she gives her characters many insightful observations “.. she said that her job as a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do.” Powerful and ultimately uplifting.
Freeze Frame: The Fourth of the Enzo Files
by Peter May
addictive crime fiction (7/7/2021)
Freeze Frame is the fourth book in the Enzo Macleod Investigation series by Scottish journalist, screenwriter and author, Peter May. When Enzo arrives on Ile de Grois to investigate a fourth cold case from Roger Raffin’s book, he is dismayed to see that, due to a local press headline, the whole town is watching him. Thibaud Verjean, the man who was tried, and acquitted, of the murder of English tropical medicine professor, Adam Killian almost two decades earlier, accosts Enzo as he steps off the ferry, taunting him to try to prove his guilt where others have failed.

The gendarme in charge, Richard Gueguen warns Enzo that officially he isn’t permitted to offer any assistance, but is just as eager as anyone else to see the case solved: he was a trainee in Grois at the time it happened. The only genuine welcome is from Jane Killian, who hopes he can resolve the matter. On Adam’s instruction, given moments before her father-in-law was shot dead, she has ensured that nothing has been moved or removed from his study.

Adam’s intention was for his son, Peter to interpret the instruction he left behind and complete the task he had begun, but Jane’s husband died in Africa mere days later. As a forensic expert, this sort of case is right up his alley, but when Enzo examines the scene, what he finds is a diary entry, post-it notes, an inverted poem and a shopping list, all too cryptic to understand. Clearly, he needs to think like Peter. Puzzling, too, is why anyone would want to murder a dying man: Adam would soon have been dead of lung cancer.

At a loss with Killian’s study, Enzo checks out significant spots on the island, talks to witnesses at Verjean’s trial and Killian’s physician. Apart from several nasty encounters with Verjean, though, he learns little. His scientific expertise is not helping, he is at a loss. Meanwhile, he is plagued by a black cat, freezing cold weather and a nightly strip-tease trying to tempt him.

When he (finally!) more closely examines the clues Killian left, he has a minor breakthrough that sends him off to Paris and Morocco. Before he manages to solve the case he is, however, distracted by what his erstwhile lover Charlotte Roux reveals. His paranoia sees him rolling in icy wet grass; poor judgement gets him beaten up, almost killed and his tires slashed.

Without doubt, this is the best of the Enzo books thus far. May lays a trail of clues for the astute reader to follow; some are very subtle, some quite blatant; enough that the reader will fix on the likely killer well before the reveal, only to find they are quite wrong. Addictive crime fiction.
Blacklight Blue: The Third Enzo Files
by Peter May
dramatic climax (6/17/2021)
Blacklight Blue is the third book in the Enzo Macleod Investigation series by Scottish journalist, screenwriter and author, Peter May. It all happens very quickly: a nasty prognosis from his oncologist, an attempt on his daughter Kirsty’s life, then he and Kirsty are mugged, and their credit cards stop working. The gym of his daughter Sophie’s boyfriend is burnt down, and then Enzo is arrested for murder.

Of course, Enzo has not murdered anyone, but there is trace evidence and his alibi falls apart. Whoever is trying to frame him, though, hasn’t counted on the loyalty of his family, close friends and his star student, Nicole. And when he learns how the victim was killed, he understands that the murderer is the perpetrator of another of the unsolved cases from Roger Raffin’s book.

To keep those he loves (and their attachments) safe, Enzo moves the whole group to a vacant alpine house in Miramont owned by a woman who picked him up in a bar. From there, Nicole uses her tech skills to learn more while Enzo connects with the retired police commissaire and gets to examine seventeen-year-old evidence. Using modern technology, a voice recording, a bottle of pills and human secretions on a sweater provide information previously unavailable.

What follows for Enzo is quite a lot of travel, to Paris, London, Spain and southern France, as he traces a 1992 assassination to a 1986 identity theft to a 1970 kidnapping before a dramatic climax at a cable car station in a deserted ski resort. As well as demonstrating the title technique, May gives the reader a peek into the workings of the French Foreign Legion, and shows how expertise in spoken language can pinpoint the speaker’s origins.

While he is no doubt feeling a little sorry for himself at the time, Enzo does allow himself to be rather easily led by his male appendage, and even though he finds the murderer, if not the motive, in a third case from Raffin’s book, it seems there are now two parties with Enzo Macleod in their sights, so there’s plenty of scope for further books in the series; fans will be looking forward to #4, Freeze Frame.

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