Day 1070: Burntown

Cover for BurntownThe previous two books I’ve read by Jennifer McMahon were a weird combination of unusual but realistic life and the supernatural. Burntown features the supernatural less, but in some ways is more bizarre and in others verges on the precious.

When Miles Sandeski is a little boy, he sees a man wearing a chicken mask murder his mother. Despite his assurances to the police that the man was not his father, the police think his father did it. Later, his father takes his own life.

Miles’s father handed down an invention taken from Edison’s lab that allows people to talk to the dead. Miles uses it to talk to his mother and find out who killed her. Then he goes off to do something about it.

Years later, something dreadful happens at Miles’s house. His daughter Eve, now calling herself Necco, ends up living on the streets in their industrial home town of Ashford, Vermont. She doesn’t remember what happened, but her mother has told her that a flood washed away their home and killed her father. Her mother became a Fire Eater, ingesting a drug that brings visions of the future. But her mother has died, apparently jumping off a bridge.

Necco is camping out in a car with her boyfriend when her boyfriend is murdered. He has been looking into her past and promised to show her something the next day. The police think she murdered her boyfriend and are trying to find her. However, they don’t know who she is.

Theo is also running from someone. Her girlfriend Hannah talked her into selling drugs to the high school students. Theo did a big deal and then left her sachel at Necco’s place when some kids took her there to watch Necco breathe fire. The drug dealer is after her for his money, but in going back for her sachel, Theo may have seen the murderer.

link to NetgalleyAs Necco and Theo try to figure out what’s happening, they get help from unexpected places and make new friends. Although there is a certain amount of danger in this novel, it is far less eerie than the previous two novels. It depends more on strange characters and desolate urban settings than on its supernatural elements. I liked it well enough but felt it verged oddly toward being a feel-good novel full of eccentric characters at the conclusion.

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Day 1064: The Shadow Land

Cover for The Shadow LandBest Book of the Week!
Although I was a little disappointed by The Swan Thieves, I liked Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian so much that I was excited to get my hands on an early copy of The Shadow Land. It has a few minor problems, but overall, does not disappoint.

Alexandra has arrived in Sophia, Bulgaria, early for her teaching job so that she can have the summer to see the sights. However, a series of errors sets her on a different path. Instead of dropping her at her hostel, her taxi driver takes her to the Hotel Forest. There she helps an elderly couple and middle-aged man with their luggage as they get into a taxi. Only once she is in another taxi does she realize that one of their pieces of luggage got mixed up with hers. To her horror, she finds it contains an urn with someone’s ashes.

With her driver Bobby’s help, Alexandra begins trying to find the family. They had not been staying at the hotel they came out of. Alexandra feels she has no option but to go to the police. Once she has visited with them, though, and has been given an address based on the name on the urn, Stoyan Lazarov, she and Bobby begin to receive threats. Eventually on their search they find a potentially explosive manuscript about Lazarov’s experiences during the Communist regime.

Although the main intent of the novel is to tell about this dark time in Bulgaria’s history, this novel makes a great suspense story in the manner of Mary Stewart, with just a dash of romance. Like Stewart’s novels, it is evocative of its setting, as Alexandra and her friends travel from place to place in Bulgaria.

link to NetgalleyAlexandra’s adventures in Bulgaria are interrupted, first by the story of her brother Jack’s disappearance when she was younger and later by chapters from Stoyan Lazarov’s manuscript. These interruptions pose one of the slight problems with the novel. There doesn’t seem to be much reason for the first story—as a backstory for Alexandra it is important but could have been handled more economically. The second narrative serves both to finally provide the key to the plot and to prolong the suspense. But I found it to be a bit too prolonged, with too much detail about how Stoyan Lazarov keeps up his inner strength during his trials. The effect of both interruptions was to slow down the main narrative.

Those are minor criticisms, though. A little larger one is that the identity of the villain and his reason for pursuing our heroes are both fairly easy to guess. Still, I found this novel suspenseful and fun to read, with a chunk of Bulgaria’s dark history as a bonus.

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Day 1058: The Second Life of Nick Mason

Cover for The Second Life of Nick MasonI’ve read and enjoyed several of Steve Hamilton’s Alex McKnight detective series, so I thought I’d give his new series a try. A big part of the appeal for me of the Alex McKnight books is their setting in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, whereas Nick Mason is set in Chicago. Another big difference, though, is that Nick Mason is a criminal.

Nick has been released from a 20-year sentence in prison after making a deal with Cole, a lifer who still controls much of Chicago’s underworld. Nick gets a fancy place to live, a car, and a job on paper, and all he has to do is whatever he is told.

Nick’s main reason for wanting out is Arianna, his nine-year-old daughter, but his ex-wife doesn’t want him to see her.

Slowly, Nick finds out that Cole wants him for very dirty jobs. He also finds out that he and his friends were set up and betrayed by the guy who talked them into doing the job that Nick has been serving time for.

This novel is a straight action thriller, but unlike, for example, the Jack Reacher series, Nick’s morals are not so clear-cut. Even though Hamilton has Mason going after drug dealers and dirty cops, I don’t think I can overlook this characteristic of the series. Although Hamilton somehow manages to make Mason a sympathetic character, I’ll take Alex McKnight any day.

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Day 1054: Room

Cover for RoomReviews and even the book blurb have made no secret of a major plot point of Room, that it is about five-year-old Jack and his Ma, who has been kept captive in a small room for 10 years. Perhaps Donaghue meant this to be a surprise, simply presenting us at first with a strange situation that is difficult to understand, but there has been too much publicity about this novel to keep this plot point hidden.

Donaghue is clever to make the novel be from Jack’s point of view, because this is the only world he has known. His Ma has told him that the world presented in grainy black and white on their TV is all made up.

But an incident with Old Nick, their captor, makes Ma realize that they could be left locked in their shed to die. So, she begins making plans for their escape, plans that require Jack to leave Room by himself.

This novel is certainly compelling. I read it in one day last October despite spending a great deal of time preparing for our move. At times, though, I didn’t believe Jack’s voice. Yes, he is often childlishly naive, but sometimes Donaghue gives him insights that a five-year-old wouldn’t have. I’m not talking about his almost telepathic sense of what his Ma is feeling, but of other times when he has some rather sophisticated thoughts.

So, I think this novel has been a little over-rated, but it is still certainly worth reading.

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Day 1038: Truly Madly Guilty

Cover for Truly Madly GuiltyTruly Madly Guilty focuses around a suburban barbecue, during which something bad happens that literally everyone there blames themselves for. We don’t find out exactly what happened, though, until the end of the novel.

The novel follows two time streams. The first is a couple of months after the barbecue, when everyone is trying to process reactions to the event. Erika attends a talk that Clementine is giving about the event precisely because she has gaps in her memory. But she is unable to listen, because the whole thing upsets her too much.

Back on the day of the event, Erika and her husband Oliver have invited Clementine and her husband Sam over because they want to ask them something important, a favor. Erika and Clementine have been supposed best friends since school, but Erika is unaware how Clementine resents her. Years ago, Clementine only befriended Erika to please her mother, who felt sorry for Erika.

Erika and Oliver’s expansive neighbor Vid interferes with their plans. When he hears Clementine and Sam and their two little daughters are coming over, he invites everyone to his place for a barbecue.

Erika’s confusion results from her being so nervous that she takes an entire pill of a sedative that her doctor has told her to try half or a quarter of. Then she uncharacteristically drinks, causing problems with Oliver, whose parents are alcoholics.

This novel untangles the events of that evening while it explores the relationships between the two women and between them and their husbands. I don’t think it was the best or most suspenseful Moriarty I’ve read, but her novels are always eminently readable.

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Day 1032: Strangers in Company

Cover for Strangers in CompanyWhen I was in my teens, I loved reading Jane Aiken Hodge’s historical romantic suspense novels, so when a novel I hadn’t read became available on Netgalley, I thought I’d see if I still enjoyed her. Strangers in Company, unlike the Hodge novels I read when I was young, is set in the time it was written, the early 1970’s.

Marian Frenche married a famous rock star when she was very young, but he deserted her when he learned she was pregnant with twins. Now that the twins are 18, they have in turn deserted her to go live with their father. Mark Frenche has abruptly stopped paying support, so when a tour company contacts her with a job offer, she takes it. All she has to do is accompany Stella Marten on a tour of Greece. Her doctor thinks this is a good idea, because she has been feeling nervous lately, as if someone is watching her. She is warned that Stella may be difficult.

Stella certainly seems to have an uneven temper, but Marian finds they get along most of the time. But almost immediately, things begin to go wrong with the tour. The originally scheduled courier is injured, so they get a history teacher with no experience. On the first expedition, a Mrs. Hilton complains that someone was following her and a boulder nearly hits Marian.

Later, another member of the tour is almost run over by the tour bus, and Mrs. Hilton is killed in a fall. Two schoolteachers fall ill, and one is injured in a fall.

Stella is behaving oddly, too. When Marian finally gets her to confide in her, she is shocked at what she hears.

link to NetgalleyThe novel is set against the backdrop of a recent Greek revolution, during which the country apparently underwent a military coup. I was not really familiar with these events, but not very much was explained.

This novel is clearly an homage to some of the work of Mary Stewart. It has resemblances in its plot line to My Brother Michael, which Marian just happens to be reading. I still much prefer Stewart, but Strangers in Company made an enjoyable light read.

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Day 1029: The Fifth Petal

Cover for The Fifth PetalFans of Brunonia Barry will be happy to hear her novel is out. Like the others, this one is set in the vivid backdrop of Salem, Massachusetts, and features some familiar characters. It also harks back to the Salem Witch Trials. Although some of the characters appeared in her previous novels, it reads perfectly well as a stand-alone.

When Callie Cahill was five years old, her mother and two other young women were viciously murdered on Halloween. They had been performing a memorial ceremony for five of the women hanged during the Salem witch trials, to whom they were related. One woman who was supposed to attend the ceremony was missing.

Callie was present at the time, as was Rose Whelan, a noted historian who helped the young women research their ancestry and took them in. Rose saved Callie by hiding her, and when she was found the next morning, she had gripped her rosary so hard that she had a rose-shaped scar on her palm.

Callie was told by the nuns who raised her that Rose died, but when she learns Rose is alive, she returns to Salem. Rose has been mentally ill since the event, and she sometimes sleeps under the oak in Rafferty and Towner’s yard.

Rafferty was not in Salem at the time of the murders, but Rose has committed a crime, Salem thinks, and that awakens an interest in the old case. Rose was accosted by three boys, one of whom held a knife to her throat. Rose told the police after the original murders that they were committed by a banshee and she had taken the banshee inside herself. According to her, when the boy was threatening her, she let the banshee out. She shrieked, and the boy died.

Rafferty returns to the old murders to find clues, but evidence is missing. He thinks that finding the fourth woman related to the original witches will help him solve the case. Assuming that each woman, including Rose, makes a petal in the five-petal rose Rose was using as a symbol, he calls this woman the fifth petal. But she has vanished.

link to NetgalleyCallie’s memories of that night are returning, but they are patchy. And she has met an attractive man in Paul Whiting, the son of a wealthy family.

This Barry novel stands up well to the others, although The Lace Reader is still my favorite. Callie is an interesting heroine, and the mystery is a difficult one. It is nice to see more of Rafferty and Towner, as well as Zee, from The Map of True Places. The novel wrapped in the history of Salem quite nicely, and the town provides an atmospheric setting.

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