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 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: GOLDEN CHILD, a missing child and an impossible choice

Adam, Claire - Golden ChildGolden Child
Claire Adam

When twins Paul and Peter are thirteen-year-old, Paul wanders into the bush near the family’s house and doesn’t return. Since he was a baby and had a difficult delivery, Paul had caused Clyde consternation, especially in contrast to the extremely gifted Peter. Paul learns slowly, has difficulty in social situations, and relies heavily on Peter to navigate the world. When Paul doesn’t return, Clyde is convinced he’s up to mischief, but Peter and their mother, Joy, believe something else is going on. As Clyde learns the truth, he realizes he must make an impossible choice.

Golden Child is the first book I’ve read that was set in Trinidad and for that reason alone, I was excited. At first the dialect was a little awkward, but I quickly became acclimated to the style. The first half or so of the book is told from Clyde’s perspective, then there are sections told from Pauls’ and a teacher, Father Kavanagh’s perspective. Several times I felt sucker-punched (in a good way!).

To tell too much would be a disservice, but the book is extremely well-written and lyrical covering themes including the strengths and limits of parental love, the dangers of self-fulfilling prophecies, the bonds between twins, and the jealousies that fester among family members all set within the interesting context of Trinidadian society.

If anything, I wish there had been slightly more sociological context to the narrative. Also, the ending felt a little abrupt and manufactured. Still, I recommend reading this book. At times, it’s a difficult read, but it beautifully rendered with valuable insights.

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

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.