An Unexpected Roller Coaster in "The Wife Between Us", by Greer Hendricks - Book Review

“I thought marrying Richard would erase my concerns. But my old anxieties simply yielded to new ones.”

What may initially seem like salvation could become your prison.

The Wife Between Us is seemingly told from the perspectives of two women involved with the same man. But the twists and turns in this book will keep you off balance and when you’re convinced you know what’s what, you’re thrown for another loop.

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Techno Thriller: "The Last Hack", by Christopher Brookmyre - Book Review

A relatively new genre within thrillers is cybercrime. I recently reviewed David Ignatius’ Quantum Spy and have tackled another - Christopher Brookmyre’s The Last Hack.  While Ignatius’ work is decidedly unmemorable, Brookmyre’s novel may tempt me to read more of his Jack Parlabane series.

The Last Hack is a techno whodunit that teams unassuming 19-year Sam, whose mother is in prison and is caring for her special needs younger sister, with an experienced investigative journalist, Jack Parlabane. It’s light on a lot of technical details, which is good since it’s not incredibly realistic. Not a security expert myself, even I realize many of the tactics simply don’t jive, but it’s background noise. What is engaging are the characters, the suspense, and an unknown common enemy - all of which did make for a fun read.

Relayed from two perspectives of Sam and Jack, they first collide, then join to form a protective front. Sam is a “supervillain” in the underground hacking world. However, in the real world Sam is a fearful, easily intimidated teenage girl who has to drop out of university to get a job to support her little sister.  She’s an ace hacker in the dark web, breaking into corporate sites to expose the hypocrites and greedy. No one knows her true identity until one day she is found out and threatened to be exposed unless she fulfills a dangerous request. Because her little sister is all she has, she is forced to play this perilous game, but she enlists some help. 

Jack on the other hand has had a dodgy career. He’s known to successfully get to the bottom of the toughest stories, but gets himself and his publishers in trouble while doing so. After going off the grid for a while, he’s straightened himself out, some of the skepticism about him has died down, and he’s just started working with a hot new online journal. Just when he thought he was on the safe path, a previous underground source surfaces and traps him back into criminal behavior - he’s back to living on the edge.  This is where Jack and Sam intersect.

Sam’s primal need to care for her sister drives some bold moves, and Jack has desperate, conflicting desires to keep his name clean and chase the juicy story. Brookmyre does a great job of creating tension building up to the moment Jack and Sam feel they are ready to act on their plan, only to find it all falls apart. It is nail-biting and fun, and I stayed awake far later than was wise, but it was well worth the lost sleep.

Published:  2017
Publisher:  Atlantic Monthly Press

Vickie’s rating: 3 1/2 stars

Spies Chasing Computing's Next Frontier in "The Quantum Spy", by David Ignatius - Book Review

David Ignatius is quite an accomplished journalist and novelist. He focuses on spy thrillers, of which I’ve read two now - The Director about a newly appointed CIA Director in a time of crisis; and his latest, The Quantum Spy, also about the CIA, this time focusing on a technology race between China and the United States.  Ignatius knows where to find his material - as a 30 year veteran of The Washington Post, he covers politics and is well respected in the community, providing him access to some credible advisors.

The Quantum Spy focuses on the Central Intelligence Agency’s Deputy Director John Vandel and agent Harrison Chang. They want to protect U.S. scientific development of one of the most important technology advances in history - quantum computing, which can process data millions of times more quickly than existing computing capabilities - and thwart efforts of the Chinese spy agencies to intercept any growth in the technology’s progress.  

Quantum computing and its development is real, so the subject is certainly intriguing. Ignatius just scratches the surface of what it is and what the potential could mean to both the private and public sectors, and that’s just enough for this novel. It’s a race for sure and its implications astounding.  Governments around the world are striving for the early advantage.

The Quantum Spy: A Thriller
By David Ignatius

Harrison Chang is chosen by Vandel for this particular mission for two reasons: Chang is a former Army Ranger who saved Vandel’s life in Iraq, and he’s American of Chinese descent. Chang is quite proud of his very American accomplishments - high school football star, West Point graduate, Army veteran, and now a CIA agent - it’s the American dream. And he seems to be quite good at working over his targets; getting them to cave under pressure and give up valuable information. In doing so, he uncovers a “rukou” - a Chinese doorway into the heart of U.S. intelligence. In other words, there is a mole feeding the Chinese with information about highly classified quantum computing programs that have gone “dark” and are operating under one of the U.S. three letter agencies.

Vandel assembles a small team working covertly even within the CIA. Their mission is to not only ferret out the mole, but to wreck havoc within the Chinese intelligence community. He sends Chang as his frontman to stir the pot - and it works.  Chang darts across the country from Langley to San Francisco, to Vancouver and Mexico City. Meanwhile, the Chinese Minister of State Security has his own problems - the Ministry is falling apart due to corruption, the People’s Liberation Army Generals have competing interests, and he has to protect his most important asset and trump card, the “rukou”.

It’s a fun ride and an easy read. Like many journalists turned novelist though, Ignatius writes like a reporter. Clearly successful, it works for him. It’s a great subject though written for someone looking for lightweight fiction. My biggest issue was once again his treatment of a leading female character. Denise Ford is portrayed as a smart, smooth, and clever operative, though she makes some ridiculous mistakes. Ignatius did this in The Director as well. I just can’t reconcile the set up of these characters as strong and dominating, yet actions and dialogue so foolish. To be fair, the dialogue overall was not too imaginative.

If you like quick spy stories, this is a good one. Look elsewhere for literary mastery.

Published: 2017
Publisher: W. W. Norton

Vickie’s rating: 3 stars

Her Best Prose Yet in "The Lying Game", by Ruth Ware - Book Review

Ruth Ware’s third novel, The Lying Game, is likely proof that she’s here to stay. On the heels of A Dark Dark Wood and The Woman in Cabin 10, she’s etching her name on the list of top-tier modern day thriller writers.

To me, though, this book was a bit of a departure from the focused mystery of her first two books. In The Lying Game, she really hit her mark as a skilled prose writer. Her descriptions of people, places, and relationships were deep and lusty.

The story revolves around four women in their thirties who bonded in prep school. The creation of what they thought would be a harmless bit of fun, the “lying game,” brought them closer together in school and ultimately tied them together for life.

Inseparable as teenagers, almost every weekend while in school, the girls retreated to Kate’s childhood home, The Mill, which was within walking distance. Mysterious and alluring, access to The Mill required crossing The Reach, a fickle waterway that surges dangerously in and out daily with the tide. Ware soars in her descriptions of both places as they almost become characters in the book.

After abruptly leaving school half way through their senior year, all of the women moved out and on with their lives, except Kate, who stayed on at the Mill. But after she sends the other three an urgent text, they all converge on the Mill as adults where they are forced to revisit their cavalier game and foolish actions from the past; and to address very real threats in the present. The narrator, Isa, travels there with her infant, Freya, and here again, Ware, through her writing, captures the sweet and ferocious bond between mother and child.

While there is murder and some mayhem in this book, to me, the mystery wasn’t as compelling as in Ware’s first two novels. Further, there are some inexplicable gaps in the story such as why, after demonstrating her iron like bond with Freya, Isa stays on at the Mill when clearly it is not safe. But the strength of this book lies in the writing. Instead of turning pages as quickly as possible to get to the ‘ah ha’ at the end, I found myself savoring her words on the page.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press

Elizabeth's rating: 3 ½ stars

A Texas Thriller of Race and Murder: "Bluebird Bluebird", by Attica Locke - Book Review

Set in the backwoods of East Texas in the present day, this story feels historical. As a reader, I found myself getting shocked back into the present with modern day facts after feeling lulled into the past with the race relations as author Attica Locke lays them out.

The plot centers around two murders in Lark, TX:  that of a black male lawyer from Chicago and that of a young local white female. In a small Texas town with a heavy concentration of Aryan Brotherhood members, guess which murder gets priority?

Bluebird, Bluebird
By Attica Locke

Both bodies are found in the river that passes behind Geneva Sweet’s Sweets, run by none other than Geneva, of steely hair and character. Opening the shop years back to provide hot meals and respite to blacks when “whites only” signs were the norm, she currently serves all races with efficiency and diplomacy. Across the street from Sweet’s sits the home of Wallace Jefferson III. Geneva and Wally, as he’s known, have a complicated history tinged with a strange mutual respect despite Wally’s overt racism and singular desire to buy Geneva out of her property so he can develop it for profit. Their history ties the past to the present.

Murders aren’t new to Lark. Geneva’s own husband was murdered in her store during a random robbery years before. Or was it random? As Darren, the black Texas Ranger main character unravels the story of what happened with respect to the current murders, secrets of the past pop up like unwanted bad dreams.

Darren is a mass of complications himself. Temporarily suspended from the Rangers, his marriage is on the rocks, his drinking is nearing critical mass, and his feelings for the wife of the dead man reach beyond professional courtesy.

Locke tells a harsh story of racism, hate, and murder with a beautiful voice. Her command of language turns ugly into lovely. Describing the night sky in a scene fraught with tension, she writes it is “thick enough to touch, a velvet quilt of black stitched through with stars.”

The story is intense and edgy, the prose poetic and lilting. The Lark murders resolve in a way that makes sense based on the past that Darren unearths. But Locke packs a blindsided punch at the end that is so hard on a peripheral storyline, I finished the final pages in muted shock. I had to go back and read them again to make sure I had gotten it right.

Will we ever cure the global race problem? No way to know; but Locke urges us through her writing to keep tackling it one-on-one. When you’re looking in someone’s face, she reminds us, you’re dealing with a person, not a color. Act accordingly.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Mulholland Books

Elizabeth's rating: 4.5 stars

Different Kind of Thriller in "Two Days Gone", by Randall Silvis - Book Review

A picture-perfect family is murdered. A man is on the run. The investigating police officer has a connection to the case and a deep, troubling past of his own.  Sound a bit hackneyed? Perhaps, but Randall Silvis’ Two Days Gone is refreshingly different.

Our protagonist, Ryan DeMarco, is a Pennsylvania State Police officer in charge of the case - death by knife of Claire Huston and her three children. Tom Huston, Claire’s husband and father of their three children, has walked into the woods and disappeared. A highly acclaimed author and the darling of the university where he teaches, it’s speculated that Huston has snapped. And DeMarco has to get to the bottom of it. Although Huston has a darkness to him, no one can imagine him murdering his beloved family. The first of several complexities begins when we learn DeMarco and Huston have a connection. Huston had based a character in one of his best-selling books on DeMarco, and DeMarco felt a kindred spirit in Huston. Many more intricacies in the case follow.

DeMarco has to chase down multiple leads, learning more about the top suspect’s complicated life as a devoted family man, best-selling author, and respected university professor. DeMarco must investigate Huston’s new manuscript (which is hidden, of course), his envious colleagues, and the subject of his new book.  To solve the case, DeMarco must also uncover the mystery of Huston’s subject matter. We get to know DeMarco’s history as well - dark and lonely; too much alcohol and too little sleep; personalizing the case.

Once every few books, I need to take on something a bit lighter and easier to read, so I chose Two Days Gone. But it certainly isn’t frivolous. It’s a well-written murder mystery. Silvis coherently develops his characters into a believable account when the crime itself seems too brutal to consider. There are certainly some holes, but the dialogue is quick and entertaining. You may be up late reading it through to the end.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

Vickie’s rating: 3 1/2 stars

Mini Book Reviews: Spring Break Edition

Spring break is upon us. Schedules are undone, and we're finding different pockets of time to sneak in some reading. Elizabeth's provided us with some great and fun suggestions to get us through the week.

The Woman in Cabin 10, by Ruth Ware – Lo Blacklock finally gets the break she’s been waiting for in her stagnant career as a low-level journalist. Because of her boss’ unavailability, she’s asked to be her magazine’s representative on the maiden voyage of a five-star luxury cruise boat. Closer in size to a yacht than a cruise ship, this trip brings a whole new meaning to the idea of intimate quarters. Just as she did with the house in A Dark, Dark Wood, Ruth Ware makes the location of the mystery, in this case the boat, a character in and of itself. You’re never really sure what is happening on board. Has there been foul play at sea, is the entire story a figment of Lo’s imagination, or does the truth fall somewhere in the middle? You’ll be turning pages quickly to find out.

 Published: 2016
                                              Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
                                              Elizabeth’s Rating: 4 stars

Under the Influence, by Joyce Maynard – Suffering the harshest of outcomes from a one-time drinking and driving incident, Helen finds herself desperately alone. Fortunately, or so she initially thinks, Ava and Swift Havilland come to her rescue. Believing them to be her saviors, she welcomes their generosity and credits them with the slow turnaround of her circumstances from bleak to hopeful. But as her life becomes more intimately intertwined with theirs, she starts to question their motives and their true characters. Are they trying to help her get back on her feet or are they using her to advance their own interests? When tragedy strikes, loyalties are laid out in unexpected ways.  

Published:  2016
Publisher:  William Morrow Paperbacks
Elizabeth’s Rating: 3 ½ stars

All the Missing Girls, by Megan Miranda – Nic ran away from her small home town Cooley Ridge, NC, after the disappearance of her best friend. A decade later, she returns on the heels of the disappearance of yet another girl with whom she’s connected. Having been the only one of her friends or family to leave town, she is walking back in time to her brother, her ailing dad, and her ex-boyfriend. The telling of the story begins after Nic has been back in town for two weeks. The author then backtracks through Nic’s previous fourteen days, one by one, to tell the entire story weaving in facts about Nic’s high school years and the first girl’s disappearance. While the literary device is novel, it’s confusing. At times, the reader has to sit back and recalculate where exactly the story is which breaks up otherwise effective tension. Disjointed story-telling, good mystery.

                                            Published:  2017
                                            Publisher:  Simon & Schuster
                                            Elizabeth’s Rating: 3 stars

The River at Night
By Erica Ferencik

The River at Night, by Erica Ferencik – This is Deliverance 2.0, 21st century style, with no rape (thankfully). Instead of four men on a camping trip in Georgia, this is four women on a white-water rafting trip in Maine. Instead of dueling banjos between strangers, the common denominator is sign language. A rollicking tale, the story keeps you riveted even though you don’t understand why Winifred, Sandra, and Rachel decided to go on this sketchy trip with their bossy, self-centered friend, Pia, in the first place. The trip should have never gotten off the ground but once you suspend reality to accept that it did, you won’t be able to put the book down until you know what happens. Ferencik also uses some beautiful language that almost seems out of place in this type of read. Good prose + good story telling = great ride. Pun intended.

                                            Published: 2017
                                            Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
                                            Elizabeth’s Rating: 4 stars

Mini Book Review: "Behind Closed Doors", by B.A. Paris

You realize early on there is something very wrong with Jack and Grace’s marriage. As the tale unfolds, the wrongness explodes.  

There are holes the size of doorways in the story but that didn’t stop me from finishing the book in under two days.

Chilling, maddening and majorly anxiety producing, Behind Closed Doors will have you turning pages as fast as you can until you reach the last page and satisfyingly slam it shut.

It’ll also be a good reminder to double down on your research before dating strangers.

Published: 2016
Publisher: St. Martins Press

Elizabeth's rating: 3 stars 

A Thrilling Character Study in "Before the Fall", by Noah Hawley - Book Review

Now THIS was the thriller that I searched for all summer and finally found in the fall.

Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall runs the gamut. He masterfully writes a solid mystery with in-depth character development and a fine-tuned examination into human weakness and capacity for survival. 

No spoiler alert: The plot all revolves around the crash of a private jet into the Atlantic Ocean, which happens in the first few pages. Shockingly, two survivors surface in the immediate aftermath. Their story alone might have been the sole focus of the book but, fifty pages in, that part of the story is mostly forgotten which just demonstrates the strength of the remainder of the book.  

Before the Fall
By Noah Hawley

Hawley uses the flashback technique with precision. He develops the character of each passenger on the plane through specifically designated chapters giving glimpses into their lives ‘before the fall’.

He also offers keen insight into the minds and lives of the elite wealthy. Not the kind of people who have two Mercedes and a beach house. The kind that own islands and skyscrapers. He exposes how that type of wealth can be shackling, albeit with gold, and can lead to incredibly flawed decision making.

Mental illness and obsession also play a role in the story. Specifically, how the harmful actions of someone with an unsound mind seem so insane to the outside world, yet completely justifiable in the mind of the one with the illness.

The thread tying everything together is finding the answer to one question: why did that plane fall out of the sky? Mechanical malfunction? Pilot error? Espionage? Terrorism? Revenge? Delving into the psyches of all the main players makes each of these a possibility but, obviously, in the end, there is only one answer. And it is shocking both in its unexpectedness and its simplicity.

This was my first read of Hawley’s but it will definitely not be my last.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Elizabeth's rating: 4 ½ stars

Falling Flat with "The Loney", by Andrew Michael Hurley - Book Review

About The Loney, Stephen King wrote, “It’s not just good, it’s great. An amazing piece of fiction.”

The judges who awarded it the Costa First Novel Award wrote, “We all agreed this is as close to the perfect first novel you can get.”

I seriously wonder how it is possible we all read the same book.

It is touted as a thriller. I was never thrilled. It is supposed to be haunting and suspenseful. I found it to be neither. One reviewer suggested any reader would suffer sleepless nights.

Any sleeplessness this book caused in me related to my inability to figure out how it was so highly regarded.

The Loney
By Andrew Michael Hurley

The story is set in a gloomy coastal hamlet somewhere in the British Isles. The main character, his family, and a priest, return there to carry out an annual ritual aimed at curing his brother of his muteness.

While on their pilgrimage this time, the boys find a gun. They keep it. Some creepy locals appear. They are strange and do strange things. The boys meet an odd couple with a very pregnant teenage daughter. Some arguably supernatural – or maybe just unnatural - things occur. I couldn’t say for sure.

Perhaps the value of this book is in a subtlety too refined for my logical mind. But I read a lot of books and I feel that if I missed the point, so will many others.

Either way, The Loney’s purported genius was lost on me. My two thoughts when I finished the book were, first, what did I just read? Second, why did I just read it?

Published: 2016
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Elizabeth's rating: 1 star