Book Review: THIRTEEN, what happens when a killer hides on the jury

Thirteen
Eddie Flynn #4
Steve Cavanagh

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Up and coming movie star Robert “Bobby” Solomon has been accused of murder, and his lawyer, Rudy Carp, convinced Eddie Flynn that Bobby was innocent. Unable to walk away, Eddie joined the defense team. Unbeknownst to him, the real killer, Joshua Kane, was feet away in the jury box willing to do anything to make sure the jury convicted Bobby for his crimes. When Kane realizes what a keen adversary Flynn represents, the moralistic lawyer becomes another of his targets.

Thirteen, told in alternating points of view from Eddie Flynn and Kane, was one of those thrillers that I couldn’t put down. I liked that the action took place during the trial, and the true identity of the killer kept me guessing. A parallel plot about crooked police officers also hooked me. Also, precis of each juror in the form of reports by the juror consultant were interspersed throughout the book which entertained and intrigued me. By the end of the book, my expectations had been completely subverted.

I wish that some of the characters, such as Bobby, had been more developed, and that some, like Rudy, had acted more consistently. Also, the actions of the FBI and the extent of their cooperation with Flynn and his investigation team seemed far-fetched. Finally, I didn’t always like the writing style. I found some of the dialogue, especially between Flynn and his estranged wife, awkward, and Cavanagh tends to overuse short incomplete descriptive sentences for effect. Only after I was quite into the book did I realize this was part of a series. I don’t think it’s at all necessary to read the other books to appreciate Thirteen.

Fans of thrillers, courtroom dramas, and mysteries, though, will, I’m sure, like me, devour this book despite its minor flaws—and probably never think about juries the same way again!

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

Book Review: THE WOLF WANTS IN, a tragic mystery layered with the devastation of the opiod epidemic

The Wolf Wants In
Laura McHugh

Happy publication day to The Wolf Wants In by Laura McHugh.

In this book, the Keller family–the mother, a survivor of domestic abuse, and two sisters, Sadie and Becca–cannot believe their brother, Shane, died of a heart attack at only thirty-six. Besides a bad back from a lifetime of hard labor, Shane never exhibited any health problems. Sadie also thought Shane’s widow. Crystle, showed too little grief, grandstanding at the funeral while disposing of all of Shane’s possessions only days later. But Detective Lacey Kendrick of small Blackwater, Kansas, already disinclined to investigate a closed case, became overwhelmed when bones were found in the wood that might belong to Macey Calhoun, a child who went missing several months earlier, presumed kidnapped by her father.

Without police support, Sadie pursued her inquiry, finding out that Shane had a life he never shared with his family, one that might provide unwelcome answers. At the same time, Sadie reached out to Macey’s mother, Hannah, who had been an acquaintance when both of their daughters attended the same preschool years earlier.

Henley Pettit’s story begins four months before Shane’s death. Just graduated from high school, her paramount goal is leaving Blackwater. Henley, Crystle’s cousin, has long been oppressed by her family’s criminal legacy. With her last name and prominent Pettit features, everyone in town associates her with her uncle’s drug dealing. As Henley tries to escape, her ties to her family–to her uncles and their illegal activities, to her mother and her drug addiction, and to Jason Sullivan, scion of the wealthiest family in town–prevent her from making the break she is desperate for.

Sadie, unable to let go of her quest for truth, and Henley, unable to leave, both find themselves in life-threatening situations that they can survive by their wits and courage alone.

The Wolf Wants In offers an engrossing and well-written saga of the dark side of a small midwestern town, shows the impact of the opioid crisis on one community, and rolls back the facade of a wealthy family to show the disfunction underneath. Having two timelines heightened the tension which reached a crescendo as they converged, while the ending was satisfying.
I found the characters interesting for the most part, particularly Henley, who had to take over adult duties since her mother was incapable, but still had an underlying naivete that at times endangered her. A social worker, Sadie was compassionate and determined, but she sometimes made very poor decisions, such as going to a bar to talk to Hannah, an addict, about a very important development in her daughter’s case. Shane, though only appearing in flashbacks in Sadie’s timeline, was a sympathetic character who possibly engaged in dastardly deeds–I would have been happy to have seen more of him in the novel. Other characters were less developed, such as Sadie’s grieving mother, or more stereotypical, such as Henley’s big, tough, drug-dealing uncles.

Interestingly, the wolf is also a metaphor in McHugh’s previous book, The Weight of Blood. In that book, the wolf represented an external danger. In this novel, the wolf is already inside the gates, an internal threat that is even harder to detect.

Fans of literary thrillers will definitely want to put The Wolf Wants In on their to-read list. At times tragic, at times eye-opening, it’s a gripping mystery that offers more insight than a standard procedural.

Thanks to NetGalley and Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: THE ESCAPE ROOM, a psychological thriller set in the cutthroat world of finance

Goldin, Megan - The Escape Room 3The Escape Room
Megan Goldin

At the Wall Street firm Stanhope & Sons, employees are expected to be completely committed, working 100 hour weeks, missing family events, and forgoing any semblance of a life outside their job. Their orientation indoctrinates them into the ideology of the firm: make money. In return, they are handsomely rewarded with astronomical salaries and bonuses.

Still, the downturn has touched the firm, Vincent’s team in particular, and they’ve lost several key accounts in the past six months. He, Jules, Sam, and Sylvie fear that they may be soon terminated. So, when they receive an invitation to participate in a mandatory “escape room” activity on a Friday evening, they all arrive at the strange skyscraper that is still under construction even though none want to be there, just in case their performance might save their jobs.

Reluctantly, they filed into the elevator to rendezvous at the specified floor. Not too far into the journey, the elevator car stalled, the lights were cut, the heat blasted, and emergency services silenced.

Only Sam has ever participated in an escape room before–he and his buddies went to a warehouse for a bachelor party and after an introduction were put in a simulated Learjet with the goal to find a bomb. Although they found clues in the cabin, the “bomb” exploded, and an hour later, they were released by the staff. Right away, he realized something was different. No escape room staff had provided an introduction or given them an objective. And where in an elevator could clues be hidden?

Though the quartet had worked together for years, spending more time together than they did with their loved ones, they still harbored secrets. Yet, to escape the confines of their captivity, they needed to work together, something that the cutthroat Stanhope & Sons didn’t prepare them to do. They had all expected to emerge, perhaps with a career advantage, but as time passed, they wondered if they would leave the escape room at all as long-simmering resentments and buried secrets boiled to the surface.

The Escape Room has two points of view that alternate throughout the book: a third-person narrator relating the events in the elevator and an employee from the firm recounting the history of the team inside. While I don’t know how accurate Goldin’s depiction of a Wall Street firm’s culture is, if they are anything like Stanhope & Sons, they are even worse than I imagined: cynical, sexist, and opportunistic. How the different women handle the male-dominated working environment is an interesting aspect of the book.

While the suspense in the elevator begins immediately, the action taking place from the other point of view is a slow burn, at times too slow for my taste, and I didn’t always like moving from the psychological chess game and sometimes literal danger in the elevator to the more mundane activities represented by the employee narrator. However, at the end of the book, the activity picks ups in a surprising way, and though it strains credulity, it is also quite satisfying.

If you are looking for a psychological thriller that introduces some new tropes, The Escape Room is a fair bet. Set against the already high-stakes world of high finance and confining a group of less than moral people in a small space, the book takes a new approach. Definitely an entertaining read.

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

Book Review: TURBULENCE, a literary relay race around the globe

Turbulence: A Novel
by David Szalay

A woman in her seventies takes a plane ride from London home to Madrid after visiting her son who is being treated for prostate cancer. Normally reticent on flights, the woman, terrified of flying, drinks bloody marys and keeps to herself. However, after ten minutes of extreme turbulence, she and her row mate begin to talk. When she passes out, he quickly goes to the flight attendant who calls for a doctor’s help.

The unexpected turbulence that causes the woman and her row mate, Cheikh, to interact creates ripples that initiate what amounts to a literary relay race as readers follow a figurative baton around the world. Emphasizing the connectedness of today’s society, the book is structured around flights. Whereas the first chapter ended in Madrid, the second picks up there following a character that somehow had contact with whomever enjoyed the point of view of the previous chapter in a type of benign contagion. In some author’s hands, organizing around flights might be gimmicky, but here, it feels a natural reflection of how accessible travel has become.

Crossing the globe as it does, Turbulence contains a diversity of characters in different settings, socioeconomic conditions, and internal and external conflicts. Although characters come from a range of countries and within those countries live in different environments, to my mind, the prose rang authentic and often eye-opening.

Personally, I love books that have separate but slightly connected chapters so I was biased towards the book, but as with all books of this structure some characters are so interesting they seem short-changed and as if their story is incomplete and some characters aren’t as interesting or as well-developed as others.

While most of the characters are named, a few aren’t, and I’m not sure there is a significance to that if any, and what is says about these characters, both women, regardless. Also, throughout the book, the impact of privilege born of wealth weaves into each chapter. Although not all of the wealthy are white, all of the poor are people of color.

A quick but impactful read with an interesting structure, Turbulence should be on the reading list of any fan of literary fiction.

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

Book Review: DEEP RIVER, a well-researched book that gets buried in details

Marlantes, Karl - Deep River (4)Deep River
Karl Marlantes

Deep River follows the Koski siblings–Aino, Ilmari, and Matti–from childhood in Russian-occupied Finland to their settlement in the Pacific Northwest as they enter adulthood and begin families of their own. Ilmari, the first to arrive in the United States, homesteads on a large piece of land he received. Matti, the youngest, embraces capitalism as a way to protect himself from fears seated in childhood. Aino, however, the middle child and only girl, interested in communism from a young age, delves into the labor movement.

In the community that survives largely on fishing and logging, the Koski siblings encounter many fellow Finns as well as Swedes, some of whom they knew in their hometown. Their business dealings and activism–not to mention relationships–take them in and out of each other’s orbits, while Aino, a stubborn lightning rod, often attracts danger from powerful business and political interests. They also face obstacles from nature–sometimes dry spells, sometimes too much rain–from world events, and from the economy.

Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn is a tour de force, combining an engrossing setting with fully realized, unforgettable characters. In that novel, the details of being a soldier in Vietnam are so vividly drawn, it’s visceral, and the frustrations and injustice deeply felt.

In Deep River, Marlantes conveys the same comprehensive awareness of setting born of personal experience and extensive research. No matter the context–a socialist meeting, a fishing boat, a logging site, or a bootleggers’ shootout–Marlantes provides encyclopedic knowledge. On the one hand, this can be very interesting, and I definitely learned a lot. On the other, it can be almost overwhelming and at times distracts from the story, bogging it down in unnecessary details.

Because the book seemed to want to address every historical event in the time period over which it was set–some more tangential to the narrative–such as the Spanish Flu and the introduction of the automobile, the story is very long and bloated without a clear focus. Probably the most accurate answer to what the story is about would be that it charts Aino’s growth. Unfortunately, I found her a less than sympathetic character. This is surprising to me because she is a strong, independent woman before her time. Yet, she is clearly unable to read a crowd, and is so stubborn, she is selfish. Characters I was more interested in such as Vasutäti, a Native American elder, and Aino’s niece, Mielikki, had less of a role in the story. Overall, though, I think that the novel would have benefited from a ruthless editor who provided focus for the narrative while eliminating the unnecessary technical details of the logging and fishing crafts.

Also, I was uncomfortable with how Marlantes used gender and cultural stereotypes without problematizing them. Finally, I was most disappointed in the writing style which I found less than polished. The transitions were often awkward, and the sentence structure led to a choppy, discordant flow.

Dark River definitely includes interesting debates about socialism and unionization. During World War I, not just corporations and the state government, but also the military became involved in union busting. The skirmishes between the Industrial Workers of the Work (IWW), Ainoe’s union, and law enforcement, deputized citizens, and “patriots” were hard to imagine until you consider the types of conflicts in our streets today.

Despite the flaws, this book should appeal to die-hard historical fiction fans as well as those who are interested in the history of the Pacific Northwest, particularly the logging and fishing industries, or about unions in the early 1900s.

Thank you to NetGalley and Grove Atlantic / Atlantic Monthly Press for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.