Three Quick Reads to Start the Year

A short list of books to begin January, 2019:

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  1. Heads You Win 

Jeffrey Archer is back with another cliff hanger, examining what if the other road were taken.  After a harrowing escape from Russia, the life of the main character switches between Alex and his mother in New York City and Sasha (same character) in London.  The parallel lives of the same character follow a fast-paced thriller in alternating chapters, with a surprise ending.

     2. Night of Camp David

Fletcher Knebel’s 1965 novel about a deranged President has made a comeback, probably because fiction may not be far from the present truth.  The political thriller features “an unhinged American president who falls prey to his own paranoia and conspiratorial fantasies, as people around him struggle to rein in his worst impulses.”  Sound familiar?

     3. The Bookshop of Yesterdays

Amy Meyerson’s mystery adds a little romance and familiar literary references to Melinda’s surprise inheritance of a bookshop. Although I had solved the puzzle early in the story, I still enjoyed the read – and learned about a few icons I didn’t know were adopted, including Eleanor Roosevelt and John Lennon.

 

 

No Sleep Tonight with “Our House”

328     I should have known better, reading a thriller at night with unreliable narrators and creepy insinuations of how cold and calculating people can be, but I finished Louis Candlish’s Our House at midnight, precluding restful sleep last night.  This new version of Gone Girl includes distracting comments from a twitter-like audience.

Coming back from a long weekend early, Fi finds someone moving into her posh London house.  All her furniture and belongings are gone, the new couple have proof of purchase, and her husband is missing.  This compelling premise then reverts to a he-said/she-said tale of marital infidelity, identify theft, hit and run car crash, and murder with a Greek chorus chiming in periodically.  Although the story is a page turner, many of the twists are hard to swallow.  

Fi and her handsome philandering husband, Bram, separate after she finds him in bed with another woman.  They decide to keep the house for the sake of the children, as well as the increasing equity in the neighborhood.  She stays in the house all week, while he sleeps at a small apartment nearby; on weekends they switch.  To add to the drama, he has lost his driver’s license but drives anyway.  He gets caught in a road rage incident while he is driving drunk and without a license, causing the death of a ten year old girl.

But there is more – the plot twists when a vile witness who helped cause the accident, Mike, decides to blackmail Bram.  Candlish continues to add surprises as the plot develops, and the ending gives everyone their just punishment in an unexpected climax.

I now need a soothing book to cleanse my poor mind from the taste of horrible people.  I found an NPR review of Anne Youngson’s Meet Me at the Museum, and will be reading it tonight – hoping for a more peaceful sleep.

SNAP

71wtI34-tjL   A pregnant mother walks up a British highway to phone for help, leaving her three children in the broken down car; when the children follow her trail later they find a phone receiver dangling from the hook but their mother has disappeared.  With this opening Belinda Bauer’s SNAP slowly unravels into a compelling murder mystery with a thrilling twist.

As the eldest, eleven year old Jack is in charge of his two younger sisters; their father is too devastated to cope. When their father does not return one day from his run to the market to get milk, Jack turns to burglary to sustain the household and keep his younger siblings from being discovered and sent to foster homes.  Five year old Merry mows the front lawn to keep up appearances, while Joy hoards newspapers, clipping articles about her murdered mother.

Their lives are brave but pathetic. Known as the Goldilocks burglar because he naps in the rooms of children, Jack looks for books on vampires he can steal for Joy to read.  He delivers his stolen goods to the neighborhood fence, Louis, another unlikely criminal who proudly pushes his baby son around in a stroller.  With Louis’ connections, Jack can target only empty homes where the owners have gone on extended vacations, but one day he  enters a house where he finds not only a pregnant woman in her bed but also the knife he somehow knows killed his mother.

Bauer cleverly weaves her characters together, introducing each in a different context unlikely to arouse the reader’s suspicion, until they overlap.  Her red herrings become real clues to the murderer’s identity and motive, as Jack and police detectives Marvel and Reynolds make missteps as they close in on the suspect.  The subplots overlap and unravel quickly into a compelling tale filled with survival, manipulation, violence, and murder.

Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, SNAP has an unconventional but satisfying ending, and  Jack is now one of my favorite fictional characters. With so many possibilities for discussion,  I considered SNAP as a candidate for book club lists, but after some thought, I decided I would rather keep my own images of Jack, Marvel, and the Whiles in my head, without dissecting them.  Read it and let me know what you think..

Book Club Bait – A Novel and a Nonfiction Study by the Same Author of Where the Crawdads Sing

What an opportunity – same author, two books – a fiction and a nonfiction book.  Read both but read Where the Crawdads Sing first.

Where the Crawdads Sing

51ZnaGuoiiL._AC_US218_How could a child survive alone in a North Carolina coastal marsh?  Why did the local townsfolk ostracize the child instead of helping her? What survival lessons are to be learned from the natural world of plants, insects, and animals in the wild?  Who killed Chase Andrews? What is a crawdad, anyway?

These are only a few possible questions to discuss after reading Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdad Sings, an amazing coming of age story intertwined with science and observation of nature  – with a compelling unsolved murder mystery thrown in to keep the pages turning.   A respected scientist and winner of the John Burroughs Award for Nature Writing, Owens successfully inserts scientific observation within this compelling fictional tale of a young girl who effectively raises herself after she is abandoned in a ramshackle shack in the Southern marshland.

Five year old Kya’s mother walks away one day and never comes back.  One by one her four older brothers and sisters leave too; only her abusive alcoholic father is left, and eventually he is gone.  Although she tries attending school for one day, the taunting she receives is unbearable to this sensitive and shy child; she never goes back, and lives in solitude for most of her young life.  Her social interactions are limited to the seagulls and the fish.

A born naturalist and observer, Kya becomes an expert in the natural life of the marsh, taking samples and creating precise drawings to document her findings. Owens cleverly connects Kya’s observations to lessons and secrets she adapts for survival.

“Kya honed her skills of harvesting mussels by watching the crows; she learned about dishonest signals from the fireflies; she learned about loyalty and friends from the seagulls.”

As she grows into a wild beauty, she attracts two young men from the town – Tate, who shares her love of nature and teaches her to read, and the former high school football captain resting on his laurels, who lies to her with promises of marriage to get her to sleep with him.

The story alternates years from Kya’s young life as the “Marsh Girl” and her present day (1969) trial for murder.  The storyline is easy to follow, and the ending is satisfying, but the story offers so much more.  Owens is painlessly educating the reader while teasing out a possible murder mystery.

I really wanted a book in my hands, so I bought the hard cover, but I did check the audible version first (sadly I had no credits available) and the sample had endearing Southern accents in the dialogue.  Either way – a good book with an unlikely combination of being both informative and suspenseful.

51DPKT-EQEL._AC_US218_Cry of the Kalahari

Owens has co-authored three non fiction nature books with her husband, Mark Owens: Cry of the Kalahari, The Eye of the Elephant, and Secrets of the Savannah, all  based on their research in Africa.  Where The Crawdads Sing is her first foray into fiction.  I found Cry of the Kalahari in my library system, and am now reading through this nonfiction account of two American zoology graduate students who embarked on their own research study in the Kalahari Desert in the 1970’s.

“After selling virtually everything they owned to fund their daring trip, they flew to Africa with only $6000 in their pocket, determined to live in the wild and study animals that had never encountered humans before. This is the tale of their seven years spent in the desolate wilderness of Botswana, with only the animals for company… camping out in the Kalahari Desert with lions, jackals and hyenas regularly wandering into their camp.”

The book has a conversational style almost like reading their diary – but also includes scientific observations and over thirty amazing close-up pictures of them with lions sleeping nearby, jackals investigating their tents, and other wild animals looking at home in their camp.

The Banker’s Wife

51RKYsNg1yL._AC_US218_.jpgIt’s not often you can read a thriller with almost more dead bodies than pages, and still have a happy ending, but Cristina Alger’s The Banker’s Wife delivers with a fast-paced mystery thriller loaded with international espionage and financial deceit.

The obscenely wealthy hiding money in Swiss bank accounts seems trite, but this premise expands to politicians and shady Ponzi schemes in Alger’s story.  The chapters alternate between two women, Annabel who is the banker’s wife, and Martina, the dedicated journalist about to give up her investigative career to marry the son of a Presidential hopeful.  Although unknown to each other, both are highly reliable narrators (this is not a “Girl” book), and the two women are on track to disclose the same off-shore banking crime: ““A world of dirty money, hidden away in shadow accounts, and it belongs to some very powerful and dangerous people…”

Annabel’s husband Matthew, who works for the Swiss bank which handles lucrative but illegal funds, suddenly dies in a plane crash.  Martina’s mentor, Duncan, who has been working with an inside whistleblower, suddenly dies in his house.  Both women are literally left holding the bag, or in this case, the computers and USB’s containing the incriminating information.  Both are dodging bullets, literally and figuratively, as they try to find trustworthy men (there are not many in this story) who will get the information out via the international news corps, and stop the masterminds controlling the action from escaping justice.

Cited as a “financial thriller,” The Banker’s Wife has the timeliness of political and banking deceit in the news that has become all too familiar.  The story is a page-turner with new developments around the bend of every cliff-hanging narrow road in the Swiss countryside, and the ending takes a satisfying turn. What a great movie this would make.