Day 1107: Conclave

Cover for ConclaveThe only book I’ve ever read featuring a papal conclave (except one of Maurice Druon’s Accursed Kings series books, which has one as a subplot) was Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons. That novel featured a series of bizarre murders. Robert Harris is skilled enough to generate the same level of suspense through secrets and activities that are much more likely.

As Dean of the College of Cardinals, it is Cardinal Lomeli’s job to conduct the conclave after the death of the Pope. Not only is Lomeli sincerely grieved at the Pope’s death, but he is also dedicated to doing his job well. He thinks the front-runners for the office will be Cardinal Tremblay, the Canadian Camerlengo; Cardinal Bellini, the Secretary of State; Adeyemi, the African Cardinal Major Penitentiary; and Cardinal Tedesco, the Patriarch of Venice.

Just before the cardinals are sequestered, a new cardinal appears, Vincent Benítez, newly appointed Archbishop of Baghdad. No one knows about the new appointment, but his credentials seem to be in order, and his appointment was kept secret because of the vulnerability of a Catholic cardinal in Iraq.

Another problem Archbishop Wozniak reports is that Cardinal Tremblay met with the late Pope just before the Pope died. Cardinal Wozniak tells Cardinal Lomeli the Pope confided to him that he had asked Cardinal Tremblay to resign from all his offices. Tremblay denies that this conversation took place and implies that the Pope was becoming unstable.

The suspense mounts as each vote fails to choose a candidate and secrets are revealed. Lomeli is dismayed to find himself becoming a viable candidate as others fall out of the running. He also finds indications that the late Pope was putting things in motion, months before his death, to affect the election.

Again, Harris has written a suspenseful and deeply interesting novel. The characters seem convincing—Cardinal Lomeli is extremely likable and all demonstrate human foibles without being caricatures. The ending is somewhat unbelievable, and although it is not really predictable, I was able to guess at something similar. That is a small caveat, though. All in all, Robert Harris is rapidly becoming one of my favorite genre writers.

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Day 1096: Lockdown

Cover for LockdownAlthough King is best known for her Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes mysteries, it is her stand-alone thrillers that have really appealed to me. I think her Folly is one of the best of its genre. However, if Lockdown hadn’t been written by Laurie R. King, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to read it. The subject, a violent incident at a middle school, wouldn’t normally appeal to me.

The staff and students of Guadalupe school are preparing for Career Day. They have had a tough year in which one student’s sister was murdered by a gang banger, another student is a witness against him, and another student, a young girl named Bee, disappeared without a trace.

Linda McDonald, the school principal, is most concerned about whether the day will come off. She is hoping to inspire some of her mostly impoverished students with career ambitions, and hope for the future.

Gordon Kendrick, Linda’s husband, has a past that may be coming back to haunt him after he is mentioned in the publicity for Career Day. Another adult who is hoping to stay under the radar is Tio, the school janitor.

link to NetgalleySeveral of the students are clearly troubled. But 8th grader Brendan Atchison, the son of a successful entrepreneur, is plotting something drastic that involves another person.

Although the novel employs a technique that I recently found irritating in Salt to the Sea, the rapid shifting of point of view between short sections, it works much better in Lockdown, building true suspense. At first, I was more interested in the story of what happened when Linda met Gordon in New Zealand than in the plot about the school, but I finally decided that this is another fine suspense novel by Laurie R. King.

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Day 1094: The Girls

Cover for The GirlsBest Book of the Week!
Sometimes a novel is imaginative in its approach or subject matter, but The Girls is an imaginative act of empathy. For Emma Cline has drawn a convincing portrait, in her main character Evie Boyd, of the kind of girl who could be attracted to a cult, inspired by the Manson Family.

In the summer of 1969, 14-year-old Evie is insecure and dying to fit in somewhere. Her parents are newly divorced, and she blames her mother for failing to hold her philandering father’s attention. She has just been abandoned by her childhood friend, Connie, as teenage girls will do.

She spots Suzanne at the park. She and her friends are different, dirty and sort of feral, but free. When Evie gets picked up by Suzanne and her friends after her bike breaks down, she goes with them to the ranch.

The ranch is centered around Russell, an older man whom his followers consider a genius. He uses various techniques to manipulate the girls surrounding him, and he befriends famous people in hopes of using them to become famous himself. He organizes the activities at the ranch around some half-baked philosophy.

Evie can actually see through some of this, but she willfully blinds herself to what is wrong at the ranch through a love for Suzanne. When things at home get worse, she ends up with only one place to go.

The novel is brilliantly written, and I was completely enthralled by the description of Evie’s journey. I found the story believable and watched in dread as Evie got pulled ever deeper into the dangerous group.

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Day 1088: The Trespasser

Cover for The TrespasserBest Book of the Week!
Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series just gets better and better. One thing that makes it stand out is that it doesn’t feature a specific detective. Instead, the main character in each novel was a more minor character in the previous novel.

This novel, like the previous one, features Steve Moran and Antoinette Conway, but The Trespasser is written from the point of view of Conway rather than Moran. She and Moran are in a difficult position on the squad. Moran is a rookie, and Conway thinks that everyone on the squad wants her off. She has been faced with blatant sexism, and some of her cases have been threatened because of missing evidence or messages that have purposefully not been passed on.

Just as she and Moran are getting off shift, the boss sends them on what appears to be a standard domestic violence case. A young woman, Aislinn Murray, has been found dead in her flat, apparently the victim of a beating. Conway and Moran are taken aback because their boss insists that Detective Breslin also be assigned to the case.

Smelling a rat, Conway and Moran begin trying to work the bulk of the case behind Breslin’s back. Although they have an immediate suspect in Rory Fallon, the man Aislinn had a date with that night, he claims Aislinn never opened the door when he arrived. Breslin seems awfully set on focusing on Rory, and Conway catches Breslin discussing her and the case with his partner McCann, in a way that makes her suspicious.

I haven’t always liked French’s recent novels as well as I did her earlier ones, but this one is right up to form. She has created two fascinating characters with the belligerent Conway and her easy-going partner, Moran. The dialogue is really well done, and the conundrum of Aislinn’s life is interesting. This is a gripping novel.

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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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