Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Missing Pieces by Heather Gudenkauf

Missing Pieces is the sixth novel by Heather Gudenkauf and the third Gudenkauf novel that I've read.  I previously read and reviewed her debut novel, The Weight of Silence, and her third novel, One Breath Away.  Gudenkauf has another novel on the way in May called Not a Sound.  Gudenkauf consistently delivers gripping, engrossing thrillers, so I'm looking forward to Not a Sound in May.  So I read Missing Pieces, and I had opinions (lots of opinions) before I was even through the second chapter.   But I'll get to those later.

When Jack Quinlan's beloved Aunt Julia takes a fall and ends up in the hospital, Jack and his wife Sarah fly back to the small town in Iowa where Jack grew up and that Jack has endeavored to leave behind forever.  As soon as they arrive Sarah can tell that something is off with the family.  There are strange family dynamics.  There's tension between Jack's cousin Dean (Julia's son) and Jack's sister, Amy, who found Julia at the bottom of the staircase from which she fell.  But Sarah hardly knows these people who are Jack's family and with whom he's grown up because Jack and Sarah have rarely come back to visit.  Subsequently it doesn't take Sarah long to suss out that nearly everything that Jack has told her about his family and his past have been lies: from his surname, to how his parents died, to who his former high school sweetheart ended up marrying.  And Jack continues to obfuscate and equivocate and resorts to gaslighting when Sarah confronts him about the secrets (read: LIES) that he's kept in order to avoid talking about them.

Luckily Sarah is a former investigative journalist turned advice columnist.   And in short order she grooms a source and ally within the sheriff's department and uncovers Jack's mother's still unsolved murder file in which first Jack and then his father were the top suspects.  However, his father disappeared shortly after his mother's murder, never to be seen nor heard from again, and thus is presumed to have beaten his wife to death and to be dead now himself someplace.  However, it seems history is repeating itself when Julia suddenly convulses and dies in her hospital bed as the family looks on horrified; the sheriff orders an autopsy to determine cause of death; the provenance of Julia's bruises (that the doctor believes inconsistent with those likely sustained in a fall down a flight of stairs) is questioned.  Moving quickly, the sheriff opens an investigation and executes a search warrant on Julia's house.  In addition, the sheriff as well as Dean have both settled on Amy as the top suspect and most likely culprit and these conclusions are bolstered by much of the evidence.  But is Amy guilty or has evidence been planted to make it look that way?

It's true that Amy has lived a much harder life as she seems to have struggled ever since her mother's death and her father's disappearance and then descended into substance abuse and an unstable existence.  However, Dean's aggressive behavior and adamant insistence on Amy's guilt is strange--and perhaps manipulated by the real culprit.  Sarah is determined to get to the bottom of both Jack's mother's murder and Julia's murder, even if it means that her husband turns out to be a murderer.  Mysterious, creepy, anonymous emails Sarah receives through her advice column (which Sarah writes anonymously) indicate both that someone knows 'Ask Astrid's' true identity and that the murders were premeditated.  But to what end?  Why is the Quinlan family being targeted and by whom?  Or does the threat originate from within the family?

Some rants and questions I had:

Though I had an inkling of who the real murderer was very early on, Gudenkauf still kept me guessing up until the end when all was revealed.  I chalk this up to the fact that I have read many mystery thrillers, that S. J. Bolton's debut, Sacrifice, continues to make me suspicious of EVERYONE in a thriller, and I have also watched a lot of cop shows.

Jack outright dismisses Sarah's questions and refuses to answer them.  Instead he repeatedly shuts down all her attempts to talk to him about his family and what went on in the aftermath of his mother's death which forces Sarah to get information from other sources.  That is wrong.  And frustrating.  And he only has himself to blame when things go south because maybe if he had opened up to Sarah and actually talked to her, they could have pieced this whole nefarious mystery together before anyone else ended up dead, mortally injured, or in jail for a crime they didn't commit.

Question 1: How does one stay married twenty years and only now realize that your spouse is hiding something about their family?

Question(s) 2 (& 3): How is your spouse's refusal to open up / "let you in" regarding their parents' deaths/life before their deaths not a big, fat, bright red flag?  It's been two decades (two decades!) and your spouse still hasn't opened up to you about his parents, and you barely know his surviving family.  How is this not questionable, especially absent evidence of an estrangement or justification for said estrangement?

Question(s) 4 (& 5 & 6):  What does Amy mean when she refers to their childhood home as a "house of horrors"?  What the hell is going on in this family?  And what went on in this family all those years ago?

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Frozen Charlotte by Alex Bell

Frozen Charlotte is the third novel written by Alex Bell who has seven books to her name, some of which belong to the horror genre.  Frozen Charlotte, a young adult novel, is a creepy, strange, mysterious ghost story.  It is a terrifying read for much of the novel especially once the reader intuits just what is actually afoot regarding one of the characters.

Following a frightening and bewildering incident with a ouija board cell phone app in a cafe, Sophie's best friend, Jay, drowns in a freak biking accident on the way home.  Dealing with her grief over Jay's death and determined to find out exactly what happened that night, Sophie travels to the Isle of Skye to stay with her uncle and cousins, Cameron, Piper, and Lilas, over vacation while her parents go on a long planned trip to California.  By the end of the novel this inciting mystery will be eclipsed by the story of the disturbing evil that is source of the nail biting horror.

Sophie fears she and Jay unleashed the ghost of her long dead (and possibly vengeful?) cousin, Rebecca, who froze to death one night at the bottom of a cliff near the family home.  However, Rebecca's death is shrouded in mystery and is far more terrifying, cruel, and cold hearted than it initially appears to be on the surface.  Rebecca's death was merely the beginning of a baffling run of unfortunate incidents for the family.  In short order their mother suffered a nervous breakdown from the grief over her then youngest child's demise and was committed to a psychiatric hospital; Cameron suffered a debilitating burn to his right hand in a strange accident that ended his promising music career even before it began.  Lilas suffers from a phobia of bones that nearly killed her when she tried to cut out her own collar bone; and uncle James paints strange portraits of Piper as a mermaid.  Strangely the only Craig child who hasn't suffered an injury is Piper.

Upon Sophie's arrival at the family's isolated boarding school turned family home on the bluffs of Skye, she finds them fanatical about keeping the gate locked lest another family member fall to their death from the cliffs.  Sophie is also puzzled by odd family dynamics.  There's inexplicable tension between Cameron and Piper.  Cameron appears determined to maintain an aloofness from Sophie, and he remains distant, difficult, and prickly even as he repeatedly warns Sophie away from the family and the house.  In hindsight the depiction of Cameron's behavior is obviously intended as a red herring especially when examined in comparison to Piper's bright, positive, seemingly innocent demeanor that is later revealed to hide a cruel streak a mile wide.  Meanwhile, both Piper and Cameron try to warn Sophie about the other sibling and yet the astute reader will be inclined to believe Cameron's warnings regarding Piper.  She's too perfect, clearly manipulative, and hides a coldly cruel streak aimed at those she's supposed to love.  And Piper paints Rebecca as cruel and unhinged even as it becomes clear that Piper lies, indulges in cruel acts for her own entertainment, and hides these transgressions so chillingly well.

It is clear the family is hiding something.  And the house with its phantom children and haunted, macabre, Victorian corpse dolls (you read that right) that scratch, whisper, and sing in the dead of night from the empty room adjacent to Sophie's harbors a chilling malevolent force.  All of which make for terrifying, sleepless nights for Sophie, not to mention her waking nightmares populated by the deceased best friend who's never far from her thoughts.  These elements combine for a foreboding feeling as the reader worries about Sophie's mental state--lack of sleep can play tricks on the mind and dull judgement especially when compounded by grief and guilt.  The story gathers momentum as it barrels towards a nerve-wracking and terrifying conclusion.  The truth is chilling, disturbing, and terrifying when it is finally revealed in this nail-biting, highly suspenseful novel.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

As Good As Anybody by Richard Michelson

As Good As Anybody: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel's Amazing March Toward Freedom is written by Richard Michelson and illustrated by Raul Colon.  I found this title on a list of books recommended to teach children about the civil rights movement.  The book was listed on Amazon's 2010 12 Best Children's Books of the Decade and has received the Sydney Taylor Award Gold Medal, Skipping Stones Multicultural Book Award, Museum of Tolerance Once Upon A World Silver Medal, and National Parenting Publications Awards Gold Medal as well as other honors.

As Good As Anybody tells the parallel stories of the discrimination, oppression, and hardship that King and Heschel endured growing up an African-American in the American South ruled by Jim Crowe and a Jew growing up in pre-World War II Poland respectively.  Michelson shows how both men's experiences as members of historically oppressed groups lead them to become men who worked together to march for peace and equality for all.  The story also depicts the commonalities between the oppression of the Jews in Nazi ruled Europe prior to and during the war and the struggle for civil rights in the U.S. two decades later.  Heschel, a white man who both experienced discrimination and lost family members in the Holocaust, was a man who stood up for those less fortunate and saw the righteousness of standing with King and marching for equal rights.

Michelson writes a thoughtful, thought provoking, and eye opening account of the friendship between Heschel and King.  It's a story that is perhaps not very well known, but that is a worthwhile  lesson for children in the value of standing beside those who are marginalized and oppressed even when one is not directly, adversely affected by that oppression.  This book is not available in county, so if you're interested in reading it, please ask your librarian to request it for you through ILL, which is how I obtained it to read.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry

Under the Harrow is Flynn Berry's debut novel.  It's a fairly gripping, fast read with chapters that fly by--due in part to their brevity as well as the engrossing story.  Set in England, the story takes place in a small English village about an hour's train ride from London.

When Nora arrives to visit her sister Rachel for her semi-regular weekend visit, Nora is shocked to find a brutal blood bath in her sister's home instead, and at its center, her sister's lifeless body, viciously stabbed nearly a dozen times.  Unmoored by her grief and with little faith in the police detectives' ability to find her sister's killer, Nora embarks upon her own investigation to find both her sister's murderer and the man who brutally assaulted Rachel and left her for dead when she was a teenager.  Is it possible her sister's attacker and murderer were the same man?

The police investigation reveals to Nora the secrets her sister kept even from her.  There was Rachel's dog, a German Shepherd (also killed during the commission of Rachel's murder) that was a trained guard dog, and the evidence that suggests her sister was readying for a move to Cornwall, five hours away--neither of which Nora was aware.  Most troubling is the revelation that Rachel never stopped looking for her attacker even though she told Nora she had let go of that obsession.

Now Nora returns to the sisters' old obsession with locating Rachel's attacker and utilizes their old methods in order to track down her sister's murderer.  She begins a potentially dangerous game of baiting the man she suspects responsible for Rachel's murder.  Flashbacks tell the story of Rachel's assault, happier times the two sisters shared as well as how the two women carried on their own investigation into Rachel's assault.  All of which leads to devastating revelations of Rachel's own actions that lead directly to her murder as well as a pulse pounding conclusion.

There are many questions throughout this novel.  Namely what was Rachel hiding?  What other secrets was she keeping?  How well did Nora really know her sister?  Despite the closeness between the two sisters, it is evident from the flashbacks as well as the lies Rachel told and the secrets she kept, that there were parts of herself that she held back even from Nora.  The reader has a distinct unsettling feeling throughout the novel that Nora's investigation, her fixation on a specific local man, and her naivete regarding the police investigation won't end well.  But will it end with Rachel's killer remaining free and her murder unsolved?  By the end of the novel most questions are answered except for the issue of what Rachel meant when she told Nora that there was 'something wrong with the town.'  I can't put my finger on it, but something about the story structure makes the story and/or timeline difficult to follow in some places.

This is a psychological thriller/mystery drenched in grief.  Even as Nora discovers the lies and the wrenching betrayal Rachel told and committed, she is determined to do right by her sister and bring her murderer to justice.  In the end I think Nora finds it a poor salve for her heart breaking loss.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Escape Clause by John Sandford

Escape Clause is the ninth Virgil Flowers novel by John Sandford.  I have previously reviewed the first eight installments of this series here on the blogs.  Here's a link to the last one: Deadline.  And you can click on the John Sandford tag or search John Sandford on the blog to find the others.  In this installment Flowers takes on a wild case that quickly escalates from thievery/catnapping to murder.

When two rare, endangered tigers are catnapped from the state zoo, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension puts their best investigator on the case that could become a public relations nightmare if the tigers turn up dead.  Unfortunately scant clues and even less evidence leads to few leads for Flowers to follow up.  So he does what he does best: he starts asking questions, gathering information, and learning the local players in the illegal animal poaching and traditional medicine communities.  Eventually he bumps up against a name, Winston Peck, M.D., a shady character in the traditional medicine community in Minnesota; however, little actually ties Peck to the theft of the tigers.  A stray print at the crime scene yields another name, Hamlet Simonian, a small time criminal with a long rap sheet.  After Simonian's name and photo are released to the press, Peck's carefully controlled operation begins its slow but steady spin out of his control.  To clean up loose ends, Peck kills Simonian as well as some of the other players in the tiger-napping ring.

Flowers' investigation, taking heat from the media when hours turn to days with no tigers in sight, is unexpectedly complicated when an RV full of Simonians turns up in Minnesota; its occupants determined to find out what's being done to bring Hamlet's killer to justice and to conduct their own clandestine investigation to exact vengeance in the form of a pound of flesh.  Little does Peck know that the cops are the least of his problems.  If the tiger doesn't eat him first, the Simonians will kill him and no doubt feed the corpse to the tiger unless Flowers can roll him up first.

Meanwhile Flowers' girlfriend, Frankie, gets beat up in a case of mistaken identity.  After her sister Sparkle turns up to research the shady employment of undocumented workers at a shady, local factory for her dissertation, both women become targets of the factory's hired goons.  This turns out to be more distraction than threat in terms of Flowers' investigation, and nothing really comes of Sparkle's research (yet).

This is a page turning, highly readable thriller shot through with the subtle humor for which the Flowers novels have become known.  Fans of Sandford and especially the Flowers novels will enjoy this installment.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie