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 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 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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Day 1026: Imperium

Cover for ImperiumBest Book of the Week!
One of the books on my Walter Scott prize list is the second in Robert Harris’s trilogy about Cicero, so I thought I’d start with this first book. The only other straightforward historical series about this period of Roman history that I’ve read is Colleen McCullough’s Master of Rome series about Julius Caesar. This series makes an interesting contrast.

The novel is narrated by Tiro, Cicero’s slave and amanuensis. Cicero is already in his 30’s when the novel begins with his decision to prosecute the corrupt governor of Sicily, Verres. Cicero is usually an advocate, but he sees in this case a way to further his ambitions to ultimately become consul.

Although corrupt governors are apparently not unusual, Verres has completely abused his authority, by even condemning to death without due process a Roman citizen or two, something that was unspeakable to the Romans. Still, as a policy the powerful aristocrats are behind him, including the renowned orator Hortensius, who is defending Verres. Cicero must take a trip to Sicily to collect evidence.

This novel is a really fine combination of a legal and political thriller. McCullough’s series was mostly positive on Julius Caesar and negative on Cicero, even faintly ridiculing him. Harris’s novel makes Cicero a complicated sympathetic character and Caesar a slippery conniver. If you are at all interested in this period, I highly recommend this novel. And for excellent plotting and writing, I recommend it if you are at all interested in historical fiction.

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Day 978: Eileen

Cover for EileenJust by coincidence, I read Eileen before it ended up on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. So, unusually for me, I have already read a book on the list and can publish a review shortly after they announced it. Since I have only read one book on the 2015 short list so far for my project, this is really getting ahead of the curve for me.

* * *

Eileen is an astounding combination of character study and thriller. What is more astounding is that very little happens until the end of the novel, which still draws you along and builds suspense.

Eileen is an unhappy young woman who lives with her alcoholic, verbally abusive father in a suburb of Boston. She is deep in self-hatred and combines an ignorance of the world with a fascination with grotesque and ugly things. She is outwardly prudish but secretly obsessed with sex and bodily functions. All-in-all, she is deeply unpleasant, but we still manage to have some sympathy for her and understand how she got that way.

Eileen works at a prison for boys, where she has a crush on one of the guards. She spends a lot of her free time stalking him.

link to NetgalleyBut then she meets Rachel and becomes completely infatuated. She does not realize that Rachel is not the person she seems. Eileen’s occasional comments from many years later indicate that she has only a few days more in her hometown, and the suspense builds as we wonder why she left. One thing we know is that it involves Rachel.

This novel is a masterful character study of a deeply troubled person. She is all too human and believable.

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Day 945: Literary Wives! How to Be a Good Wife

Cover for How to Be a Good WifeToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Ariel of One Little Library
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

My Review

Marta has stopped taking her medication. She has been on it for years, and the only other time she stopped, she suffered symptoms of severe depression. This time she keeps glimpsing a young blond girl. Although the girl doesn’t speak to her, she seems to be trying to tell her something.

Marta has been married to Hector for many years, and they have a grown son. Marta seems inordinately upset because their son has left home to go to college. Her marriage to Hector seems almost cartoonishly old-fashioned. Her mother-in-law gave her a book about being a good wife when she married Hector, a book that was out of date when she got it. But she has tried to follow it. Aside from behaving like a 50’s housewife, she has been set limits by Hector beyond which she is not allowed to drive. It is not safe, he claims.

The more we learn about Marta’s life, the more disturbing this novel seems. Are we to believe that Marta is descending into madness, or does it seem as if her memories of her past life are oddly murky and she’s finally remembering?

I’m not sure if we’re to believe that Marta is an unreliable narrator or not. Certainly, no one in the novel ultimately believes her, but I do. I found this novel chilling and completely compelling.

What does the book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

Caution: My answer to this question involves spoilers, so if you don’t want to know, stop reading now.

I don’t believe we can generalize at all from this novel, because Marta’s is a peculiar circumstance. If we believe her, then she was captured as a young girl and held captive by Hector for two years under the house. She eventually escaped, but he recaptured her, kept her drugged, and created false memories for her to convince her she was a different person. She has lived as a drugged captive, trying to please her husband and feeling love only for her son.

Again, this is a novel about power, and Hector holds all the power in this relationship. The only power Marta has is in subversive minor disobedience, like smoking and pretending to take her pills. Although Marta finally escapes, it is at a terrible cost, since no one believes her. Are we to believe there is really no record of her kidnapping or that they either didn’t look hard enough or she is delusional? I know what I believe, but you may not agree.

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Day 919: The Cellar

Cover for The CellarI have been reading and enjoying Minette Walters’ chilling thrillers and mysteries for years, ever since her spectacularly creepy novel, The Ice House. But The Cellar is something else again. Walters’ vision has become even darker with this short novel, about what happens when a person is abused for too long.

The Songolis are an African family living in England. One day their youngest son Abiola disappears, and it takes a while before the family notifies the police. This time is taken up with trying to hide evidence that 15-year-old Muna is a slave who sleeps in the cellar. The family presents Muna to the police as their daughter and tell them she has brain damage and cannot speak English.

Muna does speak English, though. She has learned it through watching television and listening to Abiola’s lessons with his English tutor. Her situation improves as the investigation goes on, because the Songolis are afraid to abuse her when a police officer may come to the door at any time. It is quite obvious that the police suspect the father, Ebuka, but for some time we do not learn what happened to Abiola.

We do slowly learn that Muna was removed from an orphanage in Africa under false pretences when she was eight. Yetunde Songoli arrived with forged papers showing that she was Muna’s aunt. Ever since then, Muna has worked and slaved for the family. Physically abused by Yetunde and Abiola and sexually abused by Ebuka, she suspects she will soon also be sexually abused by the older son Olubayo. But with this dischord of Abiola’s disappearance already in their midst, Muna finds ways to create uncertainty within the family and drive them apart.

This novel is a difficult one to read. I can’t say more without giving too much away, but I can’t imagine a novel being much darker. I actually have to recommend one of Walters’ earlier novels if you haven’t read her yet. The Ice House is an excellent start.

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