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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

THE ROSES OF MAY

5 stars out of 5

Right up front, I will say this: Before you read this book - the second in the author's Collector Trilogy - read the first  (The Butterfly Garden). It's probably possible to read this one as a standalone, but I'm quite sure I would not have enjoyed it half as much without being privy to the background and characters from its predecessor.

And boy, did I ever enjoy it! While it's not quite as dark and grisly as the first, perhaps, it's not all that far off; the prologue, written years ago, hints that a serial killer has been born. Fast forward to about four months after an explosion that destroyed the above-mentioned Butterfly Garden, where many beautiful young women were held captive (in more ways than one). A few survived, but all are struggling to readjust to a normal life - if that's even possible given the horrors they experienced. Now, some of the FBI agents from Book I - Victor Hanoverian, Brandon Eddison and Mercedes Ramirez, to be specific - are tackling paperwork. Enter Priya Sravasti, whose sister was murdered several years ago. Someone, it seems, is tracking them wherever they go, leaving flowers at their doorstep. As a result, she and her uber-professional mother move frequently, each time hoping they won't be found. Problem is, the flowers appear to represent the flowers left on the young female victims of an apparent serial killer - a person presumed to have killed 16 girls including Priya's sister.

Now they've been found again; and as all this is happening, Priya gets a letter from Inara, one of the surviving Butterfly girls from the garden (the one who seems to have been the "leader" of the others). The two girls correspond and eventually meet, thus connecting the cases from the two books. They also connect with Eddison, whose sister Faith was kidnapped at age 8 about 20 years easier. She's never been found, a fact that continues to haunt him - and both he and Hanovarian feel a special, though somewhat strange, affinity with both girls. As the FBI team investigates with the hope of nailing the serial killer, they get with help from Priya, who just may be one of the killer's targets - perhaps even the most important one.

As with the first book, there's plenty of tension, even though I correctly guessed who the serial killer was fairly early on. Sections shift perspectives from characters - most notably the killer and Priya - but it's very easy to follow who's who. Especially noteworthy to me is the in-depth development of the main characters; although I'm not sure we'd ever be friends, I really felt I "knew" each of them quite well by the end. I suppose my favorite is Hanovarian, although I also enjoyed the heck out of Eddison (at one point, he's described as being "twitchier than a long-tailed cat on the front porch of a Cracker Barrel.")

How great is that?

The Roses of May by Dot Hutchison (Thomas & Mercer, May 2017); 302 pp.

THE CHILD

5 stars out of 5

Note to readers: I read this book some time ago; the review has been held until today at the request of the publisher.

If I weren't already a huge Fiona Barton fan after reading The Widow (also a 5-star-worthy novel, IMHO), I sure would be after reading this one. Given that I have at somewhat of a life other than reading, I expected it would take a few days to wade through. In fact, it was so engrossing that I polished it off over just two days (granted, on one the only TV show worth watching was "Big Bang Theory" and on the second, I was so close to the end that I lugged my Kindle to bed to finish - something that happens once in a blue moon. But you get the point.

More than anything else, this is the story of three women, starting with Kate, a print journalist who needs a great news story to revive a career that's increasingly giving up ground to the newspaper's online reporters. Then there's Emma, a home-based book editor who's dragging a boatload of emotional baggage, including semi-estrangement from a seemingly uncaring mother. And finally, there's Angela, who is unable to come to grips with the loss of an infant in the early years of her marriage despite having a couple of other children and a saint-worthy patient husband. Actually, I'll add a fourth woman; Emma's mother, Jude, plays a significant role here as well.

The story begins as a construction worker turns up the skeleton of a baby in the process of demolishing old buildings. Clearly, the infant was buried there years earlier, making identification a challenge. Ever the nosy reporter, Kate smells a big story, but the lack of available information means she'll have to do some digging of her own before she can get the major scoop she's hoping for. 

Somehow, she convinces her reluctant editors that finding the bones is just the tip of the iceberg, and she - together with a newbie reporter who she's been ordered to take under her wing (a totally forgettable character who adds almost nothing to the story, I must say) - sets off to investigate on her own. That connects her to Angela, whose newborn baby was taken from the maternity hospital shortly after birth and never found. Needless to say, Angela is convinced that the bones belong to Alice, her stolen baby girl.

Kate then begins to explore the neighborhood where the bones were found, locating and interviewing some of the people who used to live there. It is then that she meets Emma, who grew up there - thus bringing the Kate-Angela-Emma triumvirate to full circle.

Anything that happened in that neighborhood from that point on will stay in that neighborhood as far as I'm concerned - divulging much else would be giving away too much. Little by little, the pieces come together as long-hidden secrets are revealed and the mystery of the bones is solved. Admittedly, the ending seems a little too pat (and with one exception, expected), but the whole thing was very entertaining and worthwhile nonetheless. Many thanks to the publisher (via NetGalley) for offering me an advance copy to read and review. Highly recommended!

The Child by Fiona Barton (Berkley, June 2017); 384 pp.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

NOT A SOUND

4 stars out of 5

If nothing else, I'll give the author points for putting a unique twist on the lead character: Former trauma nurse Amelia Winn is deaf, the result of a hit-and-run accident that killed one of her patients in a hospital parking lot. Being totally unable to hear gives her a different perspective - and at times increases the tension - and gives readers a look at arguably the real star of the book, Amelia's lovable service dog, Stitch.

Her deafness really doesn't make Amelia herself more lovable, though, at least in my eyes. She's another of those headstrong females who questions the words and actions of every other character in the book (occasionally, even the dog) and is incapable of keeping her nose out of places she's been warned not to go - up to and including actually breaking the law several times over. But needless to say, without her interference there wouldn't be much of a story; and on the plus side, it was great to watch her regain confidence after falling into an alcoholic stupor for a time following her accident two years earlier (she lost her husband David, an OB-GYN, and stepdaughter Nora as a result of her alcoholic histrionics).

They haven't yet divorced, and Amelia - who narrates the story - holds out some hope that they might get back together, or at minimum, he won't try to stop her from seeing Nora. In the interim, she's been banished from her former home by her estranged husband and is living in a (where else?) remote cabin in the Iowa woods. On one of her relaxing kayak voyages on the local river, a restless Stitch discovers a body that turns out to be her former nurse friend Gwen. After placing a 911 call, the authorities arrive and she bumps up against another of life's complications; childhood friend Jake, who's now a police detective. From then on, Amelia's emotions hop on a does he/doesn't he, should she/shouldn't she roller coaster with David on one end and Jake on the other. 

Gwen's murder leaves her devastated, though, in part because she lost Gwen and most of her friends when she was drinking heavily. Now, she wants to get to the bottom of things not only because of the guilt she feels for not staying in touch with Gwen, but also because she's afraid the murderer thinks she saw him. Still, she tries to forget it all and manages to land a job at a cancer clinic as a medical records clerk, in the hope it will lead to a return to her beloved career in nursing. Even though David is friends with the much-loved head of the clinic, though, he's not at all supportive. So what's up with that, she wonders?

As the story progresses, Amelia's snooping leads her from one suspect to another to another to another. She pleads her cases to Jake so often, in fact, that he pretty much tunes her out, and conversely, his pleas that she butt out and let the police do their jobs fall on deaf ears as well (pun intended). Along the way, she finds evidence that someone may be stalking her, at best to discredit her and at worst to, well, you know.

Will Amelia identify the killer before the killer kills her? Will her insistence on ignoring his warnings to stop nosing around kill any chance she may have for romance with Jake? Truth is, I didn't care all that much how she fared, but the whats, hows and whys kept the story moving along quickly and interestingly from beginning to end. Good job!

Not a Sound by Heather Gudenkauf (Park Row Books, June 2017); 352 pp.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

THE BUTTERFLY GARDEN

5 stars out of 5


Way back in 1965, I saw the movie "The Collector," based on John Fowles' book of the same name. That story has haunted me to this day, when out of the blue will come a flashback to one of the disturbing scenes. I have no doubt that mental images from this book, the first in a trilogy, will stick with me as well.

It's definitely not for everyone, though. If violence (particularly involving young women), profanity and exceptional gruesomeness bother you, stay away. The writing really isn't all that graphic, but trust me, the pictures will come through loud and clear. 

In effect, the story begins at the end. Some kind of secret garden in which, apparently, kidnapped young women had been held captive was uncovered following a disaster that included an explosion and fire. A few survived, including one young woman who appears to be a sort of group leader; none of the others will say a word without her approval. FBI agents Victor Hanoverian and Brandon Eddison are charged with interviewing the reluctant witness - who at first won't even reveal her name - to try and piece together what turn out to be almost unthinkable circumstances under which the women lived and died.

Interview scenes are interspersed with recollections of the witness, who finally reveals her name as Maya. Slowly, other details emerge; young girls about the age of 16 have been kidnapped for years by a man they know only as the Gardener. He brings them to live in his beautiful, self-contained (and escape-proof) garden; but first, he tattoos intricate butterfly designs on their backs. Thereafter, they're fed, watered and expected to comply with his every whim, no matter how kinky. Add a couple of grown sons to the mix, and Maya's stories become a no-longer-secret recipe for unspeakable horror. But is she telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

For the record, I've got the second book in the trilogy, The Roses of May, and my first instinct was to move it to the top of my reading list. Now that the dust has settled for a day on this one, though, I'm rethinking; it might be better to tackle something a bit lighter and give my creeped-out brain a rest. Whew!

The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchison (Thomas & Mercer, June 2016); 288 pp.

Monday, June 19, 2017

REPORTED MISSING

4 stars out of 5

Without a doubt, this debut novel is going to hit the right notes for a ton of readers. For me, however, it fell a little bit flat. 

For sure, it's a solid plot and the writing is very good; and overall, I enjoyed reading it and give it 4 stars without hesitation. For the most part, what colored my experience, I think, is that I've read too many of late with a similar theme: A spouse/lover/child suddenly goes missing (or is accused of a crime, or both), and the remaining spouse/lover/parent desperately tries to figure out what happened while refusing to believe what others insist is true. Whether the chapters reflect the perspective of a single person (as is the case here) or alternates points of view among several characters, each one adds "clues" that crescendo to an ending that's intended to knock readers' socks off.

All that happens here as well, to a woman named Rebecca Pendle. In the midst of a seemingly happy married life, her husband Chris Harding suddenly disappears without a trace from Shawmouth, the small English town to which they'd recently moved from the hustle and bustle of London. That same day, 14-year-old Kayleigh Jackson went missing as well, leading authorities to suspect the two disappearances might be connected. In short order, many of the townspeople turn against Rebecca - as do some of her former friends and neighbors, who now taunt and shun her because she was close to a person they believe to be a pedophile or worse.

Rebecca, of course, still loves Chris and doesn't believe for a second that he's played any role in the young girl's disappearance. To escape, she relocates to a rather seedy "caravan" park; but even here, she can't get away from the rumors and things that go bump in the night. And little by little, clues crop up that make her begin to doubt how much she really knew her husband - for instance, the fact that he never told her he'd been fired from his job two weeks before he disappeared.

Rebecca narrates her attempts to ferret out the truth, which often take her to places she knows she shouldn't go and to people she knows don't want to see or hear her. The clues she picks up here and there, though, only add to her self-doubt, angst and paranoia. And here is where I really got bogged down. Admittedly, I come from a sturdy stock of female role models, but never in a million years would I allow myself to be victimized by other people's words or actions. Certainly, I can understand the emotional toll of not knowing, say, whether a missing loved one is alive or dead and the need to get answers; but only up to a point. Rebecca reaches that level early on and then drags it to an all-new high. By the halfway mark, I had a single nerve left - a frazzled one at that - and she was standing square on the middle of it. From then on, I remained interested in learning who did what, but I really didn't care a whit how, or even if, Rebecca herself survived.

But that, folks, is just me. As I said at the beginning, this is a solid effort that I expect - and hope - will do well. Many thanks to the publisher, via NetGalley, for allowing me to read and review it.

Reported Missing by Sarah Wray (Bookouture, July 2017); 356 pp.

Friday, June 16, 2017

CRIME SCENE

4 stars out of 5

If the name Kellerman is on it, it's a pretty sure bet I'll like it. Over many years, I've devoured just about every book by Jonathan, his wife Faye, and their son Jesse. I've also learned, though, that collaborations don't always live up to their hype, and sometimes the first book in a series falls flat. But neither am I one to look a gift horse in the mouth: Pass up an opportunity to read an advance copy of anything written by favorite authors in exchange for an honest review? Just ain't gonna happen.

And honestly? I enjoyed it thoroughly. Perhaps most importantly, I really love the new character, Clay Edison, a deputy in the Coroner's Bureau (a bit of a twist on the standard-issue police detective). He comes with a few flaws - his brother is in jail, a serious knee injury put the kibosh on a possible superstar career in basketball, and he's got a shaky relationship with his parents. There's also no main squeeze, thus paving the way for him to be at the mercy of any gorgeous female character he meets. On the other side, while his degree in psychology doesn't put him anywhere near the big leagues, it does give him a leg up when it comes to reading people, whether they be co-workers (like his hypochondriac partner Zaragoza), victims or perpetrators.

As this one begins, reclusive former psychology professor Walter Rennert  is found dead by his daughter Tatiana (cue in that gorgeous female character). It appears that daddy simply fell down the stairs, but Tatiana insists her father was murdered. She continues to believe that even after the evidence reveals that his history of drinking and a bad heart are to blame. Clay, of course, is intrigued with Tatiana and agrees to take a closer look, to the dismay of his superiors who want the case closed.

As he digs deeper, he learns that Rennert resigned in disgrace when a coed was murdered by a mentally unstable participant in one of the professor's experiments. A few other clues throw more suspicion on the circumstances surrounding Rennert's death; and the deeper Clay digs, the more he wants to know about that experiment and precisely what went wrong. That, in turn, means Clay must call on one of Kellerman Senior's best-known characters, Dr. Alex Delaware, for help. The psychologist and LAPD consultant, it seems, had offered expert testimony at the trial of the young man who confessed to the coed's murder, who has since been released from jail. 

As an aside, Dr. Delaware has long been on my Top 10 list of favorite male characters, so I was happy to see him show up here. But I must say I thought he came across a bit snarky during his meeting with Clay, even allowing for the constraints of doctor-patient privilege. Then again, maybe it was just me; as I was reading that part, I realized I'd been so engrossed that I'd kept reading more than an hour past my usual dinnertime. 

In the end, as I said at the beginning, this is a very well written book with interesting, well-developed characters (especially Clay). Already, I'm looking forward to his next appearance.

Crime Scene by Jonathan Kellerman and Jesse Kellerman (Ballantine Books, August 2017); 400 pp.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

GWENDY'S BUTTON BOX

4 stars out of 5

Castle Rock, Maine, is the setting for this easy-to-read novella, an exclusive from Cemetery Dance Publications (more on that later). The story begins as 12-year-old Gwendy Peterson, in an effort to shed a few pounds in preparation for middle school, climbs to the top of Suicide Stairs. She does this often; but this time, the odd little man wearing a black hat she's seen for several days beckons to her. She finds him a bit off-putting (and maybe a little scary), but curiosity wins out.

Sitting together on a bench, the man shows her what he calls a button box, explaining the rather bizarre functions of each button. Then, he drops the real bombshell: The box, he says, is hers to keep. Once again, she's skeptical, but in the end she takes him up on the offer and heads for home, box in hand.

And her life will never be the same again.

So it is that I end my review, claiming that it's impossible to say more about such a short story without revealing too much. What I did find quite interesting, though, is the above-mentioned Cemetery Dance Publications (I've never heard of it before, and Gwendy isn't the only one with a curiosity gene). According to the website (cemeterydance.com), it was founded by co-author Richard Chizmar in 1988. In 1992, book publishing was added, with special focus on horror and dark suspense works (yeah, this novella is a perfect fit). At the site, I even found a just-published book by two of the many affiliated authors that's being offered for $2.99 for a limited time (The Halloween Children by Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss). Intrigued by the description (and unbeatable price), I headed to Amazon and snapped up the deal.

Gwendy's Button Box by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar (Cemetery Dance Publications, May 2017); 180 pp.