Book Review: THE WEDDING GUEST, a well-paced mystery from a reliable series

Kellerman, Jonathan - The Wedding Guest CoverThe Wedding Guest
Jonathan Kellerman

The invitation for the wedding reception at the former strip club Aura instructed guests to look hot for the Sinners-and-Saints themed party. And this guest fit the bill: a red Fendi dress, Manolo shoes, expensive haircut. But the red ring around her neck wasn’t a necklace: it was a nasty gash from someone strangling her to death with a wire, helped along with a fentanyl-heroin cocktail. None of the disgruntled and drunk guests claimed to recognize the woman. Lieutenant Milo Sturgis calls on his friend, psychologist Alex Delaware, to consult on the case.

The bride’s parents, who run a personnel agency hiring personal assistants for celebrities, have a checkered history that might point to a motive, but the groom’s father, a veterinarian, has access to fentanyl. And the history of the venue might shed light on the identity of the victim. Alex and Milo must identify the victim and uncover the layers of secrets before anyone else meets the same fate.

With over thirty books in the Alex Delaware series, Jonathan Kellerman has mastered the genre. Reading The Wedding Guest is like putting on a favorite sweater: familiar, cozy, and comfortable. Alex and Milo maintain a strong friendship with humorous banter, and Alex’s relationship with Robin grounds him in “normal” life. Alex’s (silent) sardonic commentary is witty and often insightful, giving the book weight.

While there isn’t a lot of action in the book–most of the forward momentum comes from interviews and research–the book is still gripping and well-placed. I had a hard time putting it down while I was reading it. When the action scenes did arrive, I found myself holding my breath!

Now that I’ve been away from the book for a bit, some plot holes and questions of motivation are niggling at me. Additionally, it seemed the attitude towards the Me Too movement was a little condescending and dismissive. However, I enjoyed reading The Wedding Guest and recommend it to mystery lovers.

Thank you to NetGalley and Random House Publishing Group / Ballantine for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

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Book Review: THE EARTHQUAKE BIRD, an atmospheric mystery set in Tokyo

Jones, Susanna - The Earthquake BirdThe Earthquake Bird
Susanna Jones

In The Earthquake Bird, police officers come to take translator Lucy Fly in for questioning in the disappearance and likely murder of Lily Bridges, a woman recently arrived from England. Lucy refuses to answer most of the officers’ questions, even if they might help her. While confined by the police, Lucy considers her past and how became a murder suspect.

Ten years ago, Lucy Fly left England for Tokyo, cutting off all ties with her family. The only girl out of eight children, always told she was strange, she had sought refuge in isolation and in fake languages. As an adult, it was natural she sought a country where she could escape.

Even in Tokyo, Lucy had few friends: just a co-worker, the other members of a string quartet in which she played cello, and occasionally other ex-pats that post often exasperated her. Yet when she met amateur photograph Matsuda Teiji by stepping into the frame of his picture, she became caught up in the relationship, though it was often a mystery to her and he seemed to set the terms of their contact.

Though Lucy was uninterested in seeing anyone else, her acquaintance Bob asked her to help a new arrival, Lily Bridges, who spoke no Japanese, find a place to live since Lily seemed overwhelmed and anxious. Lucy reluctantly agreed.

Lucy’s traumatic past, her relationship with Teiji, and her budding friendship with Lily layer and intersect, opening up childhood wounds that echo in the present. But, do they make her a murderer?

The Earthquake Bird is written in economical, elegant language and offers a lovely view of Tokyo from the perspective of an outsider. Its commentary on translation and in living in two languages is also interesting. To some extent, the book is a commentary on the tendency to rewrite and reinterpret memories and the past and the possible danger involved. I also liked the idea of Teiji experiencing the world so completely through photography and how that affects Lucy.

The mystery element of the story was less compelling. We know from the beginning that Lily is missing and likely dead. What happened to her is wrapped up in the final pages of the novel. Arguably, the mystery wasn’t the point, but it was positioned that way, so I was expecting a little more.

Furthermore, the author used some techniques, such as the similarity of Lucy and Lily on the page, that had no consequence in the narrative. Additionally, another frequently used device (which I won’t describe to avoid spoiling it for anyone who cares) seems like it will be very important but also has no resolution or explanation by the end of the novel.

People who are interested in a portrait of Tokyo or a unreliable narrator’s excavation of her past will likely enjoy The Earthquake Bird. Those who are looking for a more conventional mystery, though, will be disappointed.

Book Review: THE NIGHT OLIVIA FELL, tangled in the lies we tell

McDonald, Christina - The Night Olivia FellThe Night Olivia Fell
Christina McDonald

One October night, Abi Knight receives a call every parent dreads. Her daughter, Olivia, has been in an accident. She fell from a bridge and a passerby found her on the shore. Though brain dead, the hospital is forced to keep Olivia alive because she is pregnant, another shock to Abi.

Though Olivia has bruises on her wrists and there is evidence of cyberbullying on her computer, the police decline to investigate. Anthony Bryant, a victim’s advocate from nearby Seattle, joins Abi’s crusade to find the truth about what happened to Olivia the night she fell, though he may not be what he seems. And getting to the truth may be difficult when Abi has surrounded Olivia with lies her whole life…

The Night Olivia Fell is told in two timelines, the present, in which Abi is investigating Olivia’s fall, and about six months earlier, in which Olivia is trying to find out the truth about her past after she sees her doppelganger at a school event held at the University of Washington.

Although I found Olivia’s sections juvenile and slightly annoying (as might be expected as they are told from her point of view), they were also incredibly poignant given what we knew about her fate. As she was on her own quest for answers, Olivia pushed against her overprotective mother and started developing a voice of her own.

Abi, backtracking the last months of Olivia’s life, had to face her overprotectiveness of her daughter and her tendency to live vicariously through her.

The Night Olivia Fell questions the validity of lies we tell to protect others, the role of trust in relationships, and the bonds of love even beyond death. Although heartbreaking, the novel is a compelling read with a satisfying conclusion.

Thank you to NetGalley and Gallery Books for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: THE HIDING PLACE, a supernatural thriller

Tudor, CJ - The Hiding PlaceThe Hiding Place
CJ Tudor

English teacher Joe Thorne has returned to his hometown, Arnhill, a village built around a now-closed mine, which he’d vowed to leave forever. He’s used unsavory methods to attain his position; at the same time, few were clamoring to take it as the previous English teacher, Julia Morton, killed her son, Ben, and then herself scandalizing the small town.

Joe learned that young Ben had disappeared shortly before his murder, but he returned changed, acting strangely, smelling foul, and hardly speaking. The same thing happened to Joe’s younger sister when he was fifteen. His return may have something to do with history repeating itself–or with the 30,000 pounds he owes the Fatman for gambling debts. Joe’s old gang, Stephen Hurst, Marie Gibson, and Nick Fletcher certainly aren’t pleased to find he’s returned. Beth Scattergood, the new art teacher, is Joe’s only ally, but she has her own secret reasons for moving to Arnhill.

The Hiding Place alternates between the present day and 1992, when Joe was in high school, to suspensefully unravel the mysteries Joe and his friends are hiding as Joe tries to make good on his debt to the Fatman who has made it clear he is out of chances. Joe himself is a frustrating main character. He is sardonic and thinks himself witty, knowing he is making bad choices as he makes them which is maddening. Beth was my favorite character and I wish the story had more of her! Some of the secondary characters were surprising–a vicious female enforcer, a manipulative cancer patient with a master plan, invisible observers who provide Joe information, and a bully who sacrificed for love.

I don’t want to say to much about the plot, but The Hiding Place obviously draws from classics in the genre in what I believe is a homage rather than a cheap copy and takes a supernatural turn I wasn’t expecting. This part of the novel wasn’t as interesting to me and led to some inconsistencies. More interesting were the relationships among the characters although unfortunately these were secondary to the plot. Many of the characters are bullied, and these scenes are difficult to take, and while no one should have to endure such treatment, the bullied characters are resilient and complex.

Although I didn’t like this as well as CJ Tudor’s previous book The Chalk Man, I did get sucked into it and found it a quick and easy read that I quickly devoured despite its shortcomings.

Thank you to NetGalley and Crown Publishing for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: CULT X, a disturbing and strange book about dueling cults in Tokyo

Nakamura , Fuminori - Cult XCult X
Fuminori Nakamura

In Cult X, Shotaro Matsuo leads a benign group of followers in a revisionist Buddhism that incorporates psychics and neurology. Sawatari, who had studied with him under the teacher Suzuki, was the leader of the mysterious Cult X. Sawatari gains devotion by selecting followers who hate themselves because they are alienated from society and in turn hate society. The cult’s rituals include a celebration of sex which have women given some agency, but it’s only the agency I think a man imagines a woman would want to have. Sawatari had a more private ritual involving new women to the cult in which he rapes them (completely disturbing) and they come to enjoy it (completely unlikely).

While Matsuo, who himself sexually harasses women, seems to see Cult X as an irritant similar to a fly in a room, Cult X is secretive, with members living in an apartment house, and they send spies and scouts into Tokyo. They do have an enemy in Tokyo authorities, but the Public Safety Bureau and the police are distrustful of each other and are working at cross purposes. Cult X also has an enemy within who threatens to destabilize their entire organization.

Cult X is one of the strangest books I’ve read and not really in a good way. I don’t mind explicit sex scenes in books, but I do mind sexual violence which was not only present in this book but gratuitously so. The action of women was solely in response to men, and their jealous fighting over the men they desired reflected male fantasies more than reality.

Several of Mastuo’s “lectures” are transcribed in the novel, and he has wackadoodle theories about Buddha anticipating such advances as string theory. He spoke about the unity of people and the planet through the exchange of atoms, and promoted peace. I’m not sure I understood even some of his discourse but it was interesting.

Also intriguing was the comparison between cults and the government and how the government fosters a cult-like belief in itself through nationalism using at one point the example of the near worship of the Yasukuni Shrine and the promise that Japanese soldiers falling in war are decreed heroes. In Cult X, a conservative government manipulates the belief to consolidate power which sounds very familiar to an American audience.

Although I’ve read about some American cults, particularly the People’s Temple and the Manson Family, after reading this book, I realize I haven’t read about cults in general, so I don’t know how accurate the book is in representing the pull of cults and the way leaders manipulate vulnerable believers. That question, of course, is incredibly interesting, but in Cult X, it seemed to be treated somewhat superficially with everyone joining Cult X having a difficult past that caused them to become estranged from society and so looking for a place to belong. It only gave cursory attention to what would cause them to take the extreme step of pledging their lives to the leader, and in some instances, suggesting that the appeal of sex was enough.

Both Matsuo and Sawatari talked in detail about World War II or the Pacific War as they called it, and I wasn’t sure of the significance of this in the context of the novel. I wondered if there were cultural touchstones that I was just missing being a Westerner reading the book.

Though there are some interesting themes in Cult X, many key characters are jealous, petty, and cruel. Getting through Matsuo’s lectures requires patience, and reading about Sawatari and his Cult X necessitates a strong stomach. I think it will appeal to a very narrow swath of readers.