BOOK REVIEW: Close to the Bone, a quick and breezy mystery/romance hybrid

Elliot, Kendra - Close to the Bone (5)Close to the Bone: Widow’s Island Novella Book 1
Kendra Elliot

Close to the Bone introduces a new series of novellas from Kendra Elliot and Melinda Leigh set on the remote Pacific Northwest Widow’s Island, a tight-knit community where the gossip mill is faster than text messages and newcomers are viewed with suspicion.

FBI Special Agent Cate Wilde, recently wounded in the course of duty, grew up on the island and has returned home to recover, but human bones, thought to be from an adolescent, are found on the even smaller private Ruby’s Island. Mechanical issues have closed the ferry to the mainland so Wilde’s boss instructed her to go to the scene. There, she met Widow’s Island’s new doctor, Henry Powers, who was surprised to learn his position also made him the island coroner.

Widow’s Island has had two missing adolescent girls–Becca Conan, the daughter of bestselling crime novelist who owns Ruby’s Island and who disappeared two years ago and Samantha Bishop who went missing twenty years ago and who had been the best friend of Cate and Tessa Black, now a deputy on the island.

The novella is told in chapters alternating between Cate and Henry’s point of view as they narrow in on the the identity of the skeleton and the murderer while a simmering attraction brews between them.

A quick and breezy read, Close to the Bone is a good choice if you want to have a mindless and easy distraction that combines mystery and romance.

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Book Review: PIECES OF HER, a daughter’s search for the truth of her mother’s secret past

slaughter, karin - pieces of herPieces of Her
Karen Slaughter

Andrea, an indecisive thirty-one-year-old who moved back to her hometown, is having a birthday lunch at the mall with her mother, middle-aged speech pathologist and breast cancer survivor, Laura Oliver. Warm and nurturing, Laura encourages Andrea to find her passion but promises she can live with her until she does.

In the brief moment Andrea slips away for a refill, a shooter comes into the mall diner and hits two women before going after Andrea who freezes. Laura, displaying skills Andrea has never seen, confronts the gunman. One of the diner patrons recorded the exchange and his video replayed incessantly on the news.

For all of Andrea’s life, Laura has diligently kept her past a secret, but now, she’s been exposed, and now she and Andrea are both at risk. Laura sends Andrea away, but Andrea is determined to learn the truth about her mother, even if it comes at the ultimate cost.

Pieces of Her is one of my least favorite Karin Slaughter books. Laura’s backstory is interesting but rather unbelievable, and some of the characters (e.g., Paula, Nick) are one-note and stereotypical. Although the book is in part how women find their voices, in the lead up, these women are malleable, inarticulate, and for the most part extremely annoying.

Even one of Slaughter’s lesser books has positive aspects, and Pieces of Her does offer an evil corporation, secret identities, and cult-like personalities. The book is a quick, compelling read for those looking for a “palate-cleansing” mystery.

BOOK REVIEW, The Suspect, a chilling mystery of two missing teenagers in Thailand

Barton, Fiona - The SuspectThe Suspect
by Fiona Barton

Alex O’Connor and Rosie Shaw went to Thailand for a trip of a lifetime to celebrate the end of secondary school. Unfortunately, after they arrived, Alex, who had originally planned the trip with her best friend Mags, learned that she and Rosie were not of the same mind when it came to organizing their activities. Still, Alex was determined not to tell anyone except her BFF Mags. On social media, she was still maintaining the fiction of an ideal getaway. But when Alex and Rosie miss their scheduled check-in with their parents in England and a week goes by without any contact, they report the eighteen-year-olds missing.

Kate Waters, the dogged reporter from The Widow and The Child sees the potential for a big story and pursues it for her paper, The Post. But she doesn’t count on the events being as personal as they are nor can she imagine the circumstances in Thailand that led to the girls’ tragedy. She must ask herself how far she will go to get to truth and how much she will sacrifice for the story.

The Suspect is structured much like Barton’s previous books. Here, the main point of view characters are the Mother, the Detective, and the Reporter. Only the Reporter chapters told from Kate’s point of view are in first person. The shifting perspectives allows Barton to provide different aspects of the story, but the Detective, DI Bob Sparkes, and the Mother, Lesley O’Connor, are flatter than I prefer in major characters.

One of the best things about the Kate Waters books is that the protagonist is a middle-aged woman defined by her accomplishments instead of her appearance. Though she is often one (or more) steps ahead of the police, she has a generally good relationship with Sparkes. Through their relationship, Barton explores the interdependence of the police and press.

In the novel, mothers play a much more significant role than fathers who range from well-meaning if ineffective to selfish and destructive. The mothers of the two missing girls bear the brunt of the trauma and handle it much differently. Motherhood is also represented by other characters including Kate, Mama, the proprietress of the Bangkok guesthouse where Alex and Rosie are staying, and a series of foster mothers of a character who appears in the novel. They all approach motherhood differently in ways that range from neglectful to supportive to unhealthy, and the mother-child relationships inform how the teenage characters in the novel behave and make decisions.

Social media and how people present personas highlights the theme that it is so difficult to know others when they are controlling their public selves–even when those others are one’s own children.

The narrative is not linear. The greatest effect of this is an impending sense of doom since we know the outcomes of some events before the characters those events effect. At times, though, this device becomes confusing such as when it is used within a chapter to enhance suspense. Instead of evoking a sense of mystery, these moments caused me to step out of the narrative to figure out what was happening.

Having the book set in part in Bangkok was an exciting choice, and I looked forward to seeing English characters in the Thai setting. This, however, was a missed opportunity because the capital city was presented as a den of iniquity that swallowed up westerners. There was only one Thai character of note, and she was a fairly one-dimensional villain. The Thai police were represented as a mixture of incompetent and corrupt and the people in general as untrustworthy. I found this depiction of Thai citizens problematic and wished that Barton had included a more positive Thai representative.

In the previous two Kate Waters books, Kate is generally seen as competent, confident, intelligent, and aggressive. While she still has these traits in The Suspect, she is challenged by the events of the book in a way that makes her to me more interesting. At the end of the book, she was talking about taking a buyout in the Post’s next round of redundancies. I hope that’s not the case. I’d like more of her! This book is not to be missed by Fiona Barton fans. Readers of literary mysteries will also enjoy The Suspect.

Thanks to NetGalley and Berkley Publishing Group for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: MIND OF WINTER, the relationship between a mother and her adopted teenage daughter falls apart during a Christmas blizzard

kasischke, laura - mind of winter (2)Mind of Winter
Laura Kasischke

On Christmas morning, Holly and Eric wake up late, surprised their fifteen-year-old daughter has allowed them to sleep. Eric quickly leaves for the airport to pick up his parents. Holly has the disorienting thought, “We brought something back from Russia.” Thirteen years ago, they’d traveled to a Siberian orphanage to meet Tatiana for the first time, and since they brought her home, a series of unexplained tragedies has befallen their family.

Expecting a full house for Christmas dinner, Holly strains to prepare the meal, and Tatiana is petulant and unhelpful. Meanwhile, Holly receives mysterious calls on her cellphone. The falling snow turns into a blizzard, and Holly’s friends, Thuy and Pearl, the only people invited that she actually wants to see, cancel. One by one, the other guests bow out, and it’s clear that only Holly and Tatiana will be in the house.

Holly frequently shifts between guilt about Tatiana’s past to anger about her behavior which is increasingly sarcastic and cruel as the day progresses, not to mention strange, changing clothes frequently and wearing a pair of boots one would likely see in Russia. Holly decompensates as Tatiana seems to gain control and unexpected things happen around the house–falls, breaking objects, spoiled food.

Mind of Winter had a great payoff in the final pages, but getting there was a bit of an effort. Holly’s vacillations between guilt and anger became tiresome and her arguments with Tatiana seemed repetitive. I found Holly an annoying character which made the book unpleasant to read at times. At the same time, the book had illuminating and horrifying depictions of Siberian orphanages and the international adoption process. I’m not sure that getting through the book, though, is worth that information and the interesting, and to me, surprising, conclusion.

BOOK REVIEW: The Perfect Liar, a psychological thriller with problematic protagonists

Green, Thomas Christopher - The Perfect LiarThe Perfect Liar
by Thomas Christopher Greene

Both Susannah and Max, the dual narrators of The Perfect Liar, overcame challenging childhoods. Susannah began having panic attacks in college then became sexually involved with her therapist. Max, who never knew his father, spent his impoverished childhood with a neglectful mother only to join a group of “crusty punks” and spend three years homeless migrating with the seasons. But they’ve put these struggles long behind them. Their fulfilling and intimate marriage only blossoms as Max achieves professional success as an artist and secures a prestigious appointment at a university in Burlington, Vermont.

However, when Susannah finds a note on their front door saying I KNOW WHO YOU ARE, the illusions she and Max have so carefully constructed crack under the weight of secrets and lies. After one of Max’s colleagues dies in a tragic fall when they were out trail running together, attention on their family only increases, and the ominous notes continue to arrive.

The Perfect Liar is an easy-to-read, fast-paced thriller with some surprising turns. It also plays with the idea that personalities and life stories are creations as much as a painting on a canvas. But there were aspects of the novel that diminished my enjoyment. In the first half of the book, characters unnecessarily insulted or mis-characterized the mentally ill, bald people, and vegans.

Throughout the book, certain details rang false. After a successful Ted talk, Max received a number of “luxurious” job offers from universities across the country. Usually, the academic job market is much more competitive than represented here, and I’ve never heard of high paying positions in an art department for a visiting professor. In the hospital, a nurse wrote on a clipboard, but it’s rare to find a medical facility that doesn’t have electronic records. And a description of search dogs made me think the author isn’t aware of how disciplined and well-trained these working dogs are.

I also had issues with the writing style. The transitions between changing character views were non-existent, though I hope this is an artifact of the reading copy I read and in the finished version, there will be spaces or a bullet/ornament on the page. Often, the author used “I am,” “I will,” and so on when contractions would have provided a more natural rhythm. At times, too, the prose exhibited a lack of polish.

The absolute worst part of the The Perfect Liar, though, was Susannah. She is a female character only a man could write, with a focus on her appearance and cooking skills. For her sex only seems to be about manipulating men or giving men a necessary release rather than any personal pleasure. When the family moved to Vermont, she became a stay-at-home housewife completely abandoning her career. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that decision, but it’s a difficult decision to make. Susannah demonstrates none of the conflict I would expect in a woman in her position. And this doesn’t even touch upon her seduction of her therapist. Max himself is a sexist prick, but somehow in a book like this, I’m not surprised.

Finally, while the notes were an interesting plot device and provided a sense of mystery, it is unclear what the sender ever hoped to gain from such a passive act.

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.