BOOK REVIEW: Into the Night, murders in Melbourne

Bailey, Sarah - Into the NightInto the Night
by Sarah Bailey

Recently transferred to Melbourne from small town Smithson, Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock has a difficult relationship with her partner, Nick Fleet, and is unable to judge what her commanding officer, Chief Isaac, thinks of her. Nursing wounds from a break-up and separation from her son, Gemma’s personal life is a mess. Yet, Melbourne suits her, and she finds comfort in the crowds and the anonymity.

When a homeless man is found, stabbed dead in a tunnel, Gemma is first to arrive on the scene. Yet, Isaac assigned another detective to lead the investigation. But shortly after, Gemma and Nick are able to test their mettle when rising star Sterling Wade is stabbed and killed while filming a key action scene for a Hollywood zombie movie. Yet, everyone they encounter, from Wade’s director Riley Cartwright, to his brother, Paul Wade, seems to have a motive and lack an alibi.

Into the Night falls into the category of literary mystery and has a lot to recommend itself. The writing is solid and the characters multidimensional. In fact, when one very likeable character commits an unforgivable betrayal, it hurts. Gemma herself is complicated, and she has a challenging relationship to the identity of motherhood not often depicted. I enjoyed the backdrop of the zombie movie production and the Melbourne setting. Additionally, the novel shows how a detective squad often has to balance multiple investigations, sometimes privileging one over others due to time or notoriety.

Bailey raises themes relating to celebrity and who gets to claim grief when one dies, the media, and their symbiotic but sometimes antagonistic relationship to law enforcement, and the invisibility and anonymity of the city which can be comforting but also dangerous, all of which were interesting to consider.

My main criticism of the book is that the Bailey chose to write the story in present tense; it didn’t quite work for me, instead feeling a little jarring, unless that was the intent. Plus, at times I found Gemma irritating, rather overdramatic and self-pitying, though I suppose we can all be accused of that at times.

Not until I read the Author Biography at the end of the book did I realize Into the Night was the second novel in the Gemma Woodstock series. The first was The Dark Lake published last year (2017). I plan to circle back and read that at some point because despite the few issues I had with the book, I did enjoy it overall. It will definitely appeal to readers who enjoy literary mysteries by authors such as Tana French.

Thank you to Netgalley and Grand Central Publishing for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Liar’s Wife, two kidnappings and a murder

Hayes, Samantha - The Liar's Wife (2)The Liar’s Wife
Samantha Hayes

For the past ten years, since a tragic fire, Ella Sinclair has isolated herself. Fearful of questions that might reveal her role in the tragedy, Ella refuses to become close to anyone, finding solace in her work, home, sleep routine.

One night, she is biking home and a van hits her when it unsafely enters a roundabout. Days later, she wakes from a coma with a broken arm and leg. Her nurse assures her that her loving husband has been by her side. But Ella has never been married. Who could this stranger be? When she sees his face, she recoils in horror and wants to escape but “Jacob” was there the night of the fire and has a video tape implicating Ella in the events leading up to it.

She feels she has no choice but to let him take her home with him and pose as his wife. As he did a decade ago, Jacob beats Ella, forbids her from leaving the house, and watches her with video tapes installed throughout the dwelling. Having one leg in a cast and one arm broken makes escape even more elusive. Still, she has just moved from one prison, the one of isolation, to another, physical cell. Inquisitive and trying-to-be-helpful neighbors create a minefield Ella must navigate.

As the narrative barrels to the inevitable confrontation between Ella and Jacob, Samantha Hayes inserts a number of characters from Ella’s past that could be Jacob. Usually, I don’t figure out mysteries very quickly, but I guessed Jacob’s identity early on. Because Hayes has to keep all the options for these characters open, occasionally she has to do narrative acrobatics. Additionally, Liam, a co-worker of Ella’s, has a handful of point of view chapters, and he’s presented as a counterpoint to Jacob. Unfortunately, I found his character rather problematic as he constantly transgressed borders, even if it was out of concern for Ella.

Despite being held prisoner, having a difficult time with mobility, and being given an unexpected responsibility, Ella is determined to escape. Her perseverance in the face of pain reminded me of Uma Thurman’s Kill Bill character. Ella’s achievements are in private; she fears revealing her goals to Jacob in case he retaliates or limits her further. Perhaps the driving force around the narrative relates not to what will happen but how and if Ella can ever start developing relationships with others.

The Liar’s Wife was an enjoyable if not lasting thriller, and Ella’s broken leg and consequent immobility added a unusual dimension. The pace of the book, though, was a little off for me; it didn’t ever really grab me. Some of the peripheral characters, such as Ella’s college roommate, were to my mind stereotypical. And there was a plot strand that was unexpectedly resolved when in this case, it would have been better to leave as an open mystery.

Thanks to Netgalley and Bookouture for providing an advance reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

BOOK REVIEW: Night of Miracles

Berg, Elizabeth - Night of MiraclesNight of Miracles

Elizabeth Berg

In the first chapter of Night of Miracles, Lucille Howard characterizes her thinking as traditional, hopeful, whimsical, and characterized by magical thinking. This description could also describe the book as a whole. A stand-alone sequel to The Story of Arthur Truluv, Night of Miracles focuses on denizens of Mason, Missouri: Lucille, an octogenarian retired teacher who now gives baking classes; Tiny and Monica, star-crossed lovers; Abby, Jason, and son Lincoln who are ripped by a family tragedy; and sophisticated newcomer Iris who came to Mason fleeing her past.

Sweet and charming, the book contains short chapters written in vignette-style switch between the primary characters’ perspectives. At times, it’s hilarious. In one chapter, Iris interviews with Lucille to be her assistant. Lucille has prepared a short quiz for applicants, and their interaction as Lucille reviews Iris’ responses had me cackling.

Night of Miracles emphasizes the power of connection among community members who are stronger together than when facing challenges alone. It is in the vein of A Man Called Ove, the genre of grumpy old people turned soft genre, and while mostly light-hearted, it does pack an emotional punch at times. Still, it is not as complex as Fredrik Backman’s novel or as skillfully written as Olive Kitteridge.

I found some areas of the book problematic. More than one character is overweight and decides to diet. Though Tiny observes that women really diet for each other, not for men, the book perpetuates fat shaming by linking being overweight to being insecure. Additionally, I thought the book completely belittled veganism/vegetarianism. Though much of the criticism came from a particular character’s point of view, the actual vegetarians in the book started eating meat, as though being vegetarian or vegan was a burden to be shed.

Given the structure of the novel and the multiple points of view, the characters have less development than if the book focused on fewer of Mason’s citizens. I understand the choice to include a tapestry of voices and show their interconnectedness but the trade-off is a lack of depth in characterization.

Finally, although the book had a mystical tone, some elements were so unrealistic as to be jarring. For example, once character receives a call from a doctor on a Saturday who personally schedules her to come in the next day, a Sunday. Seems unlikely! The timeline of the book, which seems to run from October through December, seems too short for all the events that occur. I kept second-guessing myself and checking the contextual clues and holidays for confirmation.

Despite these issues, Night of Miracles is a quick and easy read–I finished it in one sitting–that was emotionally satisfying with sympathetic characters.

Thanks to Netgalley and Random House for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

BOOK REVIEW: A Bone to Pick

Liegh, Melina - A Bone to Pick

A Bone to Pick
by Melinda Leigh

A Bone to Pick is a quick, fun read, perfect when you need an easy, gripping mystery story for entertainment. Deputy Tessa Black responds to an evening call from Mrs. Driver who heard a blood curdling scream. With the other two deputies otherwise occupied, Tessa enlists the help of park ranger Logan Wild. Together, they find the body of artist and newcomer Dante Moreno harpooned against a warning sign on beach within the state park. Searching Dante’s house, they found $100,000 in cash–and a stash of portraits of nude women. With the limited resources of a small town and distracted by her mother’s Alzheimer’s and her caretaking responsibilities, Tessa must figure out who killed Dante before anyone else–including herself–is put at risk.

Set on Widow’s Island, an isolated community in the Pacific Northwest, the novella is populated with quirky characters like Jerry, the aging hippy and owner of the local head shop, and Herb Lawson who played the oboe at the local bar every Thursday night. One of my favorite aspects was the Widow’s Knitting and Activist group led by Logan’s grandmother, Jane Sutton. Not only did the group know everything happening on the island and manage to solve most problems, they were the driving force for good in the community.

The Pacific Northwest offers a beautiful setting, and the isolation of the island heightens the suspense. The possible role of the nude portraits as a motive for the killing was an unusual and interesting touch. Additionally, the book emphasized the necessity of interconnection among residents when living in a rather hostile environment.

While I liked the mystery element, I wasn’t thrilled when it ended by having Tessa wrap up the loose ends through a recap provided to her friend, FBI agent Cate Wild, Logan’s sister. The romance subplot also rang a little hollow. Although the second in a series of novellas, I had not read the first and had no trouble understanding the characters or plot. However, I enjoyed A Bone to Pick enough that I preordered Close to the Bone, the first novella in the series, and will probably read #3 and 4, too.

Thank you to Netgalley and Montlake Romance for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

BOOK REVIEW: Severance

Ma, Ling - SeveranceSeverance
by Ling Ma

Shen Fever, a fungal infection, spreads across the globe. Initial symptoms mirror the common cold, but as the infection worsens, infected lose themselves in familiar loops of activity. One of the “fevered” for example, appears to be reading, but her book is upside down, and she is regularly drinking moldy juice. Unable to break free of the loops, the fevered stop eating, drinking, bathing, or doing anything but acting out these rote activities. There is no cure, and the condition is fatal.

Candace Chen, who immigrated to the United States from China when she was six, works at Spectra, a company that helps publishers produce books like Bibles and coffee table books in Asia. Her specialization is Bibles, and she has nightmares about the thin papers used in Bibles getting stuck in the printing press. When Shen Fever hits New York City, her boss wants to keep the office open and selects Candace as part of the small team that will stay–in exchange for an exorbitant bonus.

But when New York City empties, she joins a group of survivors led by the controlling figure, Bob, who had worked in information technology before the fever hit. Bob leads the group to a mysterious Facility where they will be able to survive, though Candace fears that she may be in danger.

I became engrossed in Severance and really enjoyed reading it. However, there is so much going on in Severance, it is hard to condense, and, truly, I am still trying to work out all the implications of the narrative. In addition to the post-apocalyptic narrative, the book is an immigrant story about Candace’s parent’s painful adjustment to life in the United States. It is also a critique of capitalism and the inequities of global trade. Ma makes connections between the routines of employees and the loops of the fevered, and while there is comfort in the familiarity, there is also the risk of being subsumed. The narrative is peppered with phrases that cleverly recur and reinforce the theme of repetition.

In many ways, Severance is my favorite kind of novel: well-written and provocative. It has all the fun (to me at least) of apocalyptic fiction but is elevated by the well-drawn characters, interesting back stories, and thought-provoking themes.

Thank you to Netgalley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for providing an Advance Reading Copy in exchange for an honest review.