Review: ‘Good Girls Lie’ by J. T. Ellison

Good Girls LieGood Girls Lie by J.T. Ellison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Good Girls Lie is deftly written with a plot to die for: yes, there are a few casualties. And, there’s more lying than the prestigious Goode Boarding School’s honor code allows. The dean’s mother, who previously ran the family-owned school in Virginia was fired when a student died on her watch. Now her daughter Ford Westhaven is in charge and the intrigues are spinning out of control, almost enough to damage the prep school’s reputation, heaven forbid.

This school is for the daughters of the rich and famous. Most of them do well and are subsequently accepted into the best universities. The protagonist, Ash Carlisle expects to follow the same route into the world of the elite after escaping an abusive father in the U. K. A stipulation in his will (yes, he and his wife seem to have died recently in a murder/suicide incident) says that Ash will inherit the money when she’s 25 if she has a college degree by then.

The author, who attended Randolph-Macon Woman’s College knows how boarding schools for women work; she uses her first-hand experience to bring reality into the sheltered world of the Goode School–how the students interact, the secret societies, the honor code, and daily life on the campus. She points out, however, that Goode is pure fiction and that the novel is not a dissertation about Randolph-Macon.

The plot is a delightful tangle of lies, strange relationships, bullying and hazing, student-teacher interaction, and everything else that makes a fantastic thriller and–for the characters–a rather dangerous education. By the end of the novel, readers might wonder if they can trust anybody; and they have cause worry. After all, things at Goode School can’t be all that good when the story begins with a dead girl hanging from the front gate.

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the recently released mystery, “Fate’s Arrows.”

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The Jane Hawk novels by Dean Koontz

Koontz is a careful and literate writer who knows how to create complex plots, maintain suspense, and decorate his scenes with weather and landscape imagery that synchronizes with the moods and plights of his characters.

The five-book series about a rogue FBI agent concluded with The Night Window, a book I’ve been looking forward to while patiently waiting for it to come out in paperback.

Hawk, who left the FBI after her husband’s death was ruled a suicide that she believed was murder, began a long trek to clear his name. Law enforcement is after her because they believe she’s operating off a “frontier justice model” and the people who killed her husband–a huge and secret group that’s slowly taking over the country–are after her. Everyone who’s after her is also after her child whom she has to keep hiding. By the time one gets to The Forbidden Door, it’s apparent that Hawk has nine lives and/or the skills of James Bond.

According to the Booklist starred review, “The spectacular finale to Jane’s story…will hit series fans with all the impact of a carefully calibrated hammer blow.”

Yes and no.

Had there not been so many co-opted law enforcement agencies, leaving nobody trustworthy to whom Hawk could turn over her evidence of the conspiracy, the book might have ended with a satisfying black-ops style gun battle after which the authorities take over and put the conspirators in jail. Hawk would then be interviewed on The View and other programs.

However, lacking that, the book–which still includes the nastiness of the bad guys in a tangled plot which look like lose-lose for Hawk–seems less explosive and interesting than the earlier books because there are few (if any) bad guy/Hawk confrontations. Hawk’s time is spent trying to ferret out who the conspirators are and how to expose them in a believable way.

The ending works because the how to tell the world about the conspiracy problem is aptly solved. Nonetheless, I felt a little let down because the focus became more about hacking into databases and less about kicking the shit out of the bad guys. And then, too, I kind of like Hawk and now she’s ridden off into the sunset forever.

Malcolm

Review: ‘Lie to Me’ by J. T. Ellison

Lie to MeLie to Me by J.T. Ellison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Suffice it to say, Sutton and Ethan aren’t enjoying a marriage made in Heaven. We learn as we read that they were not 100% truthful with each other wherever they said their vows and that, as time went by, the truth of the matter (any matter) became more blurred and got no better when Sutton disappeared and people started wondering if Ethan killed her. Or worse.

Some authors build tension by using an unreliable narrator. So, we can stipulate that both Ethan and Sutton are unreliable in multiple ways and that Sutton’s friends can, quite possibly, be trusted as far as one can throw them. Ethan learns this in spades: rather than receiving the support he presumes is due a husband whose wife has disappeared, he faces hostility.

In “Lie to Me,” J. T. Ellison has–to use an old fashioned phrase–created a dandy thriller that keeps readers chasing leads along with the police. Since the first part of the novel is told from Ethan’s point of view, we know he didn’t kill her. At least, we think we know that. Everyone is a suspect, it seems, and that’s what makes this–as lame as it is to say it–a page-turner.

The gossip about what might have happened to poor Sutton gets thick and vicious, and quite probably some of those gossiping have an agenda or an axe to grind. The reader doesn’t quite know. The beauty of Ellison’s plot–and our building knowledge about Sutton and Ethan–is that everything is in limbo and, perhaps, always has been.

Then, of course, we have to consider their dead child. Sutton never really wanted a child. So, did it really die of SIDS or was it something else? Both husband and wife are grieving the child’s death, so one must consider that they simply needed time away from each other. Whatever happened, Ethan is the one in the hot seat and Ellison’s great success over time has brought her all the tools she needs to keep her readers guessing and her characters squirming.

This is a very satisfying mystery from a master of the genre.

Malcolm

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Review: ‘Trust Me’ by Hank Phillippi Ryan

Trust MeTrust Me by Hank Phillippi Ryan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Author Hank Ryan brings a resume of honors and awards for her work as a reporter and a novelist, and that alone promises that Trust Me will be a chilling mystery/thriller. And it is. The plot is complex, the characters are interesting (and occasionally flawed), and the story is compelling.

In a storyline reminiscent of the 2011 Casey Marie Anthony case in Florida and the 2017 Rachelle Bond case in Massachusetts, Ashlyn Bryant has been arrested for killing her young daughter, putting the body in a garbage bag, and dumping her in Boston Harbor. Journalist Mercer Hennessey, who is still grieving the recent deaths of her husband and daughter in a car accident, agrees with a colleague’s proposal to write a book about the trial partly as a way of getting herself on her feet again and partly because the public’s interest in the case might turn the book into a bestseller.

Like the majority of people following the case, Mercer believes Ashland is guilty but still thinks that through her research and her live TV feed from the courtroom, she can write an objective story. As she follows the story, Mercer is greatly conflicted about the death of her own daughter and any possibility Ashland could be found innocent.

The first major plot twist comes 180 pages into this 459-page novel when the verdict is announced, one that I won’t reveal here. Readers might wonder, what’s the author going to do with the rest of the book. The answer is somewhat malicious, in a well-written mystery/thriller kind of way. Through a rather unusual arrangement, Mercer is given access to Ashland so she can get more of the defendant’s personal story for the book.

Here is where the heavy psychological machinations begin. Mercer dispises Ashland and Ashland distrusts Mercer. Both have strong reasons for their feelings. By the time readers are nearing the end of the book, Mercer has grown to distrust everybody, including the colleague who got her the book contract, her late husband, another reporter on the case, and (of course) Ashland. She believes she’s being followed, that her life and Ashland’s lives are in danger, and that constructing a reasonable book is now the least of her problems. Trust Me is a very dark book, and the truth is flexible.

The second major plot twist occurs when Mercer decides the only way out of the deception and doubt is by turning the tables on one of those whom she thinks has been lying to her. Readers know she has something mind because she discusses the case with people she hasn’t talked with before and as that scene ends, she says “Here’s what I’m thinking.” But the reader isn’t a party to what that is. Two chapters later, the plot twist occurs. While it’s satisfactory, as is the novel’s conclusion, this plot twist involves an authorial trick.

We have been inside Mercer’s head for an entire book. We know what she worries about and that she plans to do next. Then, suddenly, a veil is thrown over her thoughts and in the pages leading up to the plot twist, she isn’t thinking about how to make it work, how to set it up, and how to keep it secret. In real life, Mercer would be fretting and pondering the details. As the book has been written up to this point, she would also be going over the details in her mind. But, we’re suddenly cut off from her thoughts in order for the surprise to be a surprise.

This is a point-of-view trick and it’s disappointing to see it used here when, quite likely, the plot twist would have been more harrowing if we’d known what it was and what Mercer was concerned about. While I knocked down the number of stars for this authorial trickery and for the repetitiveness of many of the conversations between Mercer and Ashland, I still see the book as an interesting read in spite of its flaws.

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Malcolm

Review: ‘The Store’ by Patterson and DiLallo

The StoreThe Store by James Patterson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The story idea is compelling and, what with people talking about privacy issues in an Internet world these days, the plot is also timely. Others here have already said they didn’t care for the writing. Definitely, not anywhere near the best of James Patterson branded novels.

The glaring trouble with the book is the ending. It’s a trick. The ending is based on the fact that certain things earlier in the novel aren’t what they seemed to be. The trouble is, when the ending occurs, the main character turns out to have known the whole time that those things weren’t what they seemed to be. The flaw here is that we are inside the main character’s head throughout the book and know what he’s thinking. There is no way a real person wouldn’t have thought about the on-going trickery at some point. The ending is only a surprise because the authors don’t allow the main character to think about something that he couldn’t help but think about. This is a very large point-of-view error.

In the Amazon/GoodReads review above, I don’t include a spoiler about what happened. In fairness to those who might enjoy this novel in spite of the trick, I’ll leave out the spoilers here as well.

Most publishers’ editors would have told the authors to fix the ending. Maybe they can’t say that to Patterson. However, it’s very jarring and unfair to the reader to conceal the main character’s thoughts about important matters from the readers unless the character is established as unreliable, suffering from amnesia, or hypnotized. None of these options were present in The Store.

The main character Jacob Brandeis participates throughout the story in a planned subterfuge but never once thinks about the fact that he–and others–are role playing. No real person would be capable of doing this. Outside of experimental fiction, no fictional character could help but think about what he’s doing while he’s doing it. With proper finesse and foreshadowing, an author might get around the problem of concealing the third person point-of-view character’s thoughts from the readers.

That was not done here, so we ended up feeling cheated–because we were.

Malcolm

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Review: Jane Harper’s ‘Force of Nature’

Force of Nature (Aaron Falk, #2)Force of Nature by Jane Harper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When the Bailey Tennants accounting firm takes two employee groups into a rugged Australian mountain forest for an annual weekend of “team building,” the men’s group returns ahead of schedule and the women’s group straggles back to civilization late, injured, scared, and in a fighting mood, indicating that its working together skills need more attention. The group is also missing the bossy, opinionated Alice who apparently wandered off and got lost; statements from Lauren, Beth, Bree and Jill about just how that happened are vague and contradictory.

Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk (who first appeared in Harper’s “The Dry” in 2017) and his partner Carmen are pulled into the investigation because Alice has been providing them with evidence of the company’s illegal activities. Aaron and Carmen can’t help but wonder who, if anyone, discovered there was a whistle blower in their midst. And then, too, a serial killer used to call those mountains home.

Harper deftly handles the storyline by alternating her chapters between the present day investigation and the prior day-to-day troubles of the women’s group on the trail. In the here-and-now-investigation chapters, Falk, the local police, and the rangers find a tangled web of possibilities about what might of happened to Alice. Is she still alive?

In the up-close-and-personal chapters showing a women’s group starting a normal hike into the wilderness and then trying to find its way out alive, readers see that tensions, tempers, and mistakes are worse than police suspect.

Everyone, including Falk, has a past that complicates their reactions to the majestic wilderness. Falk carries memories of his father’s lonely hikes in those isolated mountains and wishes the family’s past had played out differently. Each of the women not only has personal and professional issues with the others in the group, but is distracted by unsettling family problems that keep pulling their focus away from making sensible decisions in a setting where terrain and weather always have the upper hand. So much for creating a cohesive team.

Harper clearly knows how to tell an exciting story and keep her readers guessing about what really happened until the final pages of the aptly titled “Force of Nature.”

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy, paranormal, and magical realism short stories and novels.

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Review: ‘Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare’

If you’re taking a dance class and its members find out you’re a writer and ask you to write a murder mystery about the class, what will you do? I happen to know author Pat Bertram has been taking a dance class or two or three and that her friends thought such a novel would be a real hoot.

That said, I’m surprised that Pat’s publisher didn’t put a disclaimer at the beginning of the novel that claimed “No dance class members were killed during the writing of this book.” But, Pat and her publisher Indigo Sea Press threw caution to the winds, so one wonders where the fiction begins and the truth ends–and vice versa.

The result is a very readable hoot.

When the students at a small town’s studio class find out that one of them is an author, they think it would be fun for her to write a novel about their classes in which one is killed and everybody else is a suspect. A superstitious person would know such games lead to real trouble; so would anyone who suspects the fates have a dark sense of humor. But they don’t stop to think about consequences. One of them even volunteers to be the victim. The rest of them talk about motives and murder methods.

But then somebody dies and the book thing is no longer a game. Suffice it to say, the cops are not amused by the book idea and think the writer is the killer. In this dandy mystery, everyone has a secret, a reason for covering it up, and a possible motive. The characters are well developed, the introspective protagonist wonders if she inadvertently set the stage for a murder by agreeing to write a murder mystery based on the dance class, and the cops tell her that in real life, most amateur sleuths and up dead or worse.

Readers who love mysteries will enjoy this book. Writers who write mysteries will consider being more careful when pretending to kill off their friends in a novel. And those who’ve been thinking of taking a dance class will see the story as a cautionary tale.

Pat (More Deaths Than One, Daughter I Am) has, with Madame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, written another compelling story.

Malcolm

 

Review: ‘Murder on Edisto’ by C. Hope Clark

Murder on Edisto (The Edisto Island Mysteries, #1)Murder on Edisto by C. Hope Clark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This well-written and highly readable mystery/thriller is marred only by the fact that it begins with a formulaic set-up for novels of its genre: A tough-as nails woman, who went north for her career, experiences a devastating personal loss, escapes from continued threats to herself and her son, and runs home to her parents low country town in South Carolina for recuperation and solace only to find herself caught in the middle of a crime spree.

No sooner has she moved in to her family’s long-time Edisto Island beach house, than her next door neighbor–and old friend from her childhood–is murdered and an odd series of break-ins begins in the tightly knit community. Clark does a good job building the suspense. Almost everyone in the community appears to be a suspect–including the police.

Callie Morgan’s experience as a Boston detective sergeant gives her plenty of reasons to wonder whether or not the local police department is capable of solving such crimes. While the police acknowledge that her experience as an ex-cop might provide them with valuable help, her continued nightmares and jittery nerves make them wonder if she is, as one man says, “damaged goods” and too flighty to be taken seriously. Even her teenage son wonders if her head is on straight. On top of that, some residents suspect her of the break-ins since they began on the day she moved into the beach house.

While there are strong men in the book, ramping up multiple possibilities for romance, suspicion, arguments about police procedures, and “being rescued,” the author allows Callie to slowly find herself. And that makes for a very satisfying conclusion.

Malcolm 
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Review: ‘Parade of Horribles’ by Rhett DeVane

The people in Rhett DeVane’s new novel Parade of Horribles are the kind of folks, foibles and all, that most of us wish we knew, wish we could call kin, and when danger and hatred intrude into our lives, wish we had looking out for us. Chattahoochee is a real town in the Florida Panhandle and, as the book’s back cover description tells us, it really does have a “state mental institution on the main drag.”

Do Elvina Houston, Hattie Lewis and Jake Witherspoon really live there? Probably not. But they are so real in Parade of Horribles that–in telling their story–DeVane has seemingly conjured them out of the cosmos and placed them there, 37 miles west of Tallahassee as the crow flies, alongside the Apalachicola River. A notable feature in the town, the river is a figurative and literal feature in DeVane’s well-told story. It’s both a haunting reminder of old wounds and a restful escape from the 24/7 preparations for the upcoming harvest festivals and a growing number of signs there may be a dangerous serpent in this Garden of Eden.

DeVane hints at the danger early on the way Hitchcock would show a trace of something wrong near the beginning of his feature films. But the townspeople’s attention and the reader’s attention are drawn to the mix of daily life and harvest festival duties. The horribles, as Jake thinks of them, steep like tea half forgotten on a back burner and, as the story moves toward its unexpected ending, grows all the stronger and more foul tasting for the wait.

Parade of Horribles is the seventh book in the “Hooch Series.” As we saw in earlier novels such as Cathead Crazy and Mama’s Comfort Food, this very Southern author deftly captures the way people in her panhandle world think, talk, work, support each other–and, yes–gossip about what’s in plain sight and what’s not yet apparent to everyone else. Residents of the Florida Panhandle know that in many ways it’s a country unto itself, not like south Georgia and even further and farther removed from the snowbirds and tourist destinations of the peninsula.

Reading DeVane’s Hooch Series is an immersion into this country; Parade of Horribles is wonderful mystery/thriller and a highly recommended addition to a body of work that makes “the other Florida” and “Florida’s forgotten coast” altogether real and impossible to forget.

Malcolm

 

 

Review: ‘Causing Chaos’ by Deborah J. Ledford

Causing Chaos (Inola Walela/Steven Hawk Suspense Series Book 4), by Deborah J. Ledford, IOF Productions Ltd (March 31, 2015), 308 pp.

causingchaosDeborah J. Ledford follows Staccato (2009), Snare (2010) and Crescendo (2014) with another powerful mystery/thriller set in the western North Carolina world of the Smoky Mountains and the Eastern Band Cherokee trust lands of the Qualla Boundary.

The story begins in blood, “Red streaks on the lower cabinets, an overturned chair, the oven door. An arc of crimson, the entire height of one wall.”

While Cherokee artist Paven Nahar works in his studio, his wife Shellie argues with two art dealers in the couple’s house who insist on acquiring the sculpture in progress. When Paven returns to the house later, he finds a bloody kitchen, a shattered pottery urn and no sign of his wife.

Paven, who is soon on the run, quickly becomes the prime suspect in his wife’s disappearance and presumed murder. Inola “Hummingbird” Walela, the only Cherokee in the Bryson City police department is tasked with the capture of the man who was her closest childhood friend.

The story is also defined by blood, blood as represented by the often conflicting love and drama within a family, and blood as a force of heritage and loyalty for members of the Cherokee Nation. Walela’s case is potentially related to an unsolved series “Qualla Ghosts” cases of missing women on tribal lands. This increases the pressure on Walela while ramping up the suspense for readers.

While each novel in this very cohesive series has developed the characters of Walela and her boyfriend Steven Hawk, Causing Chaos belongs to Hummingbird in every possible way. While the novel is aptly categorized as a police procedural and thriller, it is also a deeply personal story for Walela as multiple layers of her past and her family/tribal relationships come to light. Among these is a childhood incident, a source of nightmares and latent fears, that may somehow be related to the fate of Paven and Shellie and to the puzzling Qualla Ghost cases.

Causing Chaos is a cop story with great depth and a heartbreaking psychological undertow.

On a personal note, I have been hiking and vacationing in western North Carolina since childhood and have a deep fondness for the Smoky Mountains, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the sacred waters of the Oconaluftee River. Ledford’s novels not only fit hand-in-glove within this setting, but enhance it for those of us who know it well.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy and magical realism fiction, including “Conjure Woman’s Cat.”