Get Your Pants Scared Off

Creep

By Jennifer Hillier

If you’ve been yearning to have a galvanic response to a thriller (and really, who isn’t?), get your hands on a copy of Jennifer Hillier’s first suspense novel. You’ll find it compelling from the first sentence to the last twist at the end.

It’s compelling for many reasons, not the least of which is that it proved an intelligent take on the serial killer genre, pitting social psychologist prof Sheila Tao against her own graduate teaching assistant Ethan Wolfe. Don’t fret; this is not a reveal, as you know from the beginning that Ethan is a control freak, and early on he seeks his revenge on his lover, Dr. Tao.

Nobody’s perfect, certainly not the good prof. She is a recovering sex addict, now engaged to an almost to-good-to-believe fellow, successful, wealthy banker Morris Gardener, himself a recovering alcoholic. But, obviously, she hasn’t fully recovered: case in point, her three-month affair with Ethan. Well, life isn’t perfect, is it?

When she finally breaks the affair off, he loses it, kidnapping her and holding her prisoner, with threats of death. She has much to fear, because a serial killer stalks the streets of Seattle, the novel’s setting, and she sees evidence that implicates Ethan.

Much of the novel, and the best part, is Tao’s psychological dueling with Ethan, to preserve her life and, hopefully, to escape her captivity.

While she tries to stay alive, fiancé Morris hires a private detective, a former cop, and the two suffer their own trials and tribulations as they frantically search for her.

Creep will keep you on the edge of her seat and turning pages until you finish, in spite of its need for a bit of editorial paring. w/c

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The Spaced Out Mommy Mystery

The Couple Next Door

By Shari Lapena

If plotting is your thing in mysteries and you can stand credulity stretched to its limits, and you enjoy being introduced to a new writer with potential, The Couple Next Door belongs on your reading list. Readers who may enjoy Shari Lapena’s first outing are fans of the likes of Fiona Barton, though Barton’s The Widow and The Child pack far greater emotional wallops. Lapena scores points on style (low key), psychology (particularly postpartum depression and dissociative disorder), and motivation (as convoluted as it is). Among her weaknesses include sense of place, playing loose with the law (she’s a lawyer in Canada), and most of all, dropping clues. Though on this last score, experienced whodunnit  readers will figure things out pretty quickly, even the surprise ending. On balance, however, Lapena produces a strong first effort.

Anne and Marco Conti are parents of a newborn out for an evening at their neighbor’s home, the duplex attached to theirs. Because their babysitter bailed at the last minute, they agreed to leave their baby, Cora, home alone and check in on her every half-hour. At the end of the evening, they discover her missing, kidnapped while they partied. Imagine the anguish, especially for Anne, who suffers from postpartum depression. The police arrive and Detective Rasbach sets about unriddling the mystery of tiny Cora’s disappearance. Naturally, the parents are his first and best suspects. However, as time passes and he and we readers get to know Anne, Marco, her wealthy parents, and her next-door neighbor’s situations in more detail, the truth begins to reveal itself. Lapena drops little bombshells on a regular basis, a couple of which might have you thinking she should have hinted at them a bit earlier.

Count The Couple Next Door as a quick, page turning diversion, and if this is what you are in the mood for, it’s the novel for you. w/c

One About the Brooklyn Mom Who Embezzles

The Misfortune of Marion Palm

By Emily Culliton

Few people really enjoy living in obscurity. This doesn’t mean that they desire citywide, nationwide, or worldwide visibility. It simply means they would like to be recognized for something, to standout in some way, even if that means being a little bad. And they certainly want their family and friends to see them, perhaps not to praise them but to at least acknowledge they contribute to the general weal. In many ways, Emily Culliton’s Brooklyn mom fits the bill, wallpaper in a family of four, well off but just not well enough, an uneducated misfit in an upper middle class of smarties, a misfit filled with cunning that feeds off a weak or missing moral core. She’s not likable but she’s enjoyable to watch. And that goes for the circle surrounding her: self -absorbed husband Nathan, rebellious daughter Ginny, lonely struggling daughter Jane, worried and infuriated fellow school workers and volunteers.

The plot is simple enough. Marion, married to once promising poet Nathan Palm, realizes that his small family inheritance is smaller than she thought when she married him. After spending sprees, children, and expensive private school education for the children, she decides to take advantage of her part time job as sort of comptroller at her daughters’ school and embezzle funds. She has a background, is skillful, and possesses an interest in the criminal practice and women who resort to it. She ups and leaves her family without even a goodbye after she gets wind the schools suspects her. But while good at stealing, she’s not quite as accomplished at navigating herself out of Brooklyn. So, she hides in plain sight and becomes, of all things, a cleaning woman to rich Russians visiting their apartment in Manhattan.

Left in the lurch, her family has to learn to adapt, which also means communicating with each other and coping with thoughts of why she left them. They don’t know about her extracurriculars. Prepare for loads of angst, for some growth, and some psychological scarring. Her other family, the school board and coworkers, collectively lose their minds.

The story offers up some plot twists, including a decidedly unrealistic and comical one at the end. Culliton tells it with present-tense, declarative sentences, often with character thought bubbles that are non sequiturs revealing aspects of their feelings and preoccupations and provide comedy. It’s an interesting style, but makes for a choppy journey. And, honestly, many will wonder where all this comedy reviewers cite is hiding. All in all, a good debut but not quite as stunning as reviews might lead you to conclude. w/c

Woman at the Crossroads

Chemistry

By Weike Wang

Weike Wang’s anonymous character in her debut novel finds herself at a crossroads, three crossroads, if you’re counting.

The first concerns her pursuit of a Ph.D in Chemistry. All her life, at the beckoning of her driven and goal focused Chinese parents, both immigrants, she has been educated and pushed rather blatantly into a life in the sciences. Her mother was a pharmacist back in China. She had supported her husband in his pursuit of a Ph.D. When they emigrated to the U.S., the mother was left without her independence, and her relationship with her husband became strained. She made his success possible, and he seems unable to acknowledge this. However, they agree wholeheartedly on a shared objective for their daughter, the narrator: a Ph.D in Chemistry. The daughter follows their wishes, though unhappy, it seems, with every step of the journey, from child to adult. She reaches a crossroads when she realizes she doesn’t possess the essential element of success: she’s not an original thinker, she’s simply an extremely accomplished technician, not enough to make the jump to Ph.D status. She decides in frustration to abandon her quest four years into her doctoral program. But she can’t being herself to tell her parents.

Also, she has a boyfriend, also a chemistry Ph.D student. Unlike her, he is driven by his own confidence and desire to obtain his degree, which he does. They share a very quirky relationship and readers can see that they really care for each other. On the verge of achieving his degree, he asks her to marry him, the opening of the novel, yet another crossroads in her life. Her response is to put off answering, to push it into the distance so often that he finally departs without her to pursue his dream of teaching in a small college. They leave the door open.

These two relationships and her academic endeavor place stressful demands on her. Please her parents. Fulfill a commitment to her parents. Make a commitment to her boyfriend. She eventually takes up tutoring, which brings her satisfaction. She commiserates with her friend, who is a doctor. She enters therapy. And she and her boyfriend get a dog. It’s with the dog that she has a most interesting and rewarding relationship, because the dog places no demands on her. She’s not forced to make any decisions by the dog, and she’s able to slow down life to wax philosophical on what she herself might want for herself.

In little more than two hundred pages, in short sentences and slim paragraphs, with scientific principles interspersed impelling thoughts about her life, her parents’ lives, her relationship with the boyfriend, her contrasting of her upbringing (difficult) with the boyfriend’s (idyllic), she tries to wrangle her indecisiveness into a decision, and reaches something resembling one in the end.

For many who have been where the author finds herself, this novel will ring with much truth. For everybody else, they’ll find lots of insight, perhaps into their friends with loads of ability but little direction, as well a delightful and charming humor. w/c

The Dangerous Life of an Art History Major

Unbecoming

By Rebecca Scherm

Rebecca Scherm has written an intricately plotted thriller that compels readers forward with curiosity about how Grace ended up exiling herself to Paris, and how she transformed herself from a Tennessee girl who wanted to please the boy and his family that she loved into a young woman who betrayed them as she turned into a pretty good, though neurotic, art thief, specifically of jewelry. It’s as much plot-driven as it is a very good psychological character study (with interesting insight into jewelry and the counterfeiting of it), both admirably accomplished and polished for a first novel.

Grace and Riley grow up together in the small town of Garland, where his family has some prominence and her family leaves her wanting. In her young teen life, she sets herself to beguiling Riley into loving her as much as she loves him and all that comes with him. She’s so successful that she even gets her own room in his house, where she is treated nearly as a daughter, particularly by his mother. More, Riley falls deeply and inseparably in love with her, seemingly what she wants.

Riley fashions himself into a painter, but of limited horizons, satisfied to chronicle the buildings of Garland, not as commentary on small-town life, but purely representational. An art student herself, his ambitions, or lack of them, disappoint Grace. While her romantic attraction to him remains solid, her passion strays.

Riley has two best buddies, Alls and Greg. Eventually, Riley, the buds, and Grace room together in a shared house. Student poor, with Riley and Grace conversant in art, and an old, artifact-filled estate, the Wynne House, practically next door, they hatch a plot to rob the place. Grace subtly takes over as the ringleader, based on the knowledge she picked up while employed in New York City, and from this springs the ever-growing tentacles of duplicity that reach to Prague and Paris.

Paris is where we find Grace at the opening of the novel, working in a jewelry restoration shop, using the name Julie. Naturally, in a world with a foundation of lies and deception, the shop is more a den of thieves. Grace, as Julie, has fled there after romantic and robbery fiascos in Garland, and an even harsher incident in Prague, seeking distance and anonymity for fear the boys will find her after they finish their prison terms. How all this transpired, how Grace changed from a girl who wanted love to a femme-fatale nervous all the time, and how she forges a life of crime, well, that’s the fun of the novel. w/c

Coming of Age in Crisis

The Girl Who Slept with God

By Val Brelinski

In Val Brelinski’s well done and often moving debut novel, readers see the world through the eyes of a girl (Jory) just reaching puberty (13 turning 14), raised with two sisters (little Frances and older Grace), in rural Idaho, as a member of a small evangelical church, by parents who eschew the modern world of the 1970s. As she comes of age, she has to deal with 17-year-old Grace’s return from a mission in Mexico pregnant and claiming it to be the work of God, with parents (Oren and Esther) in turmoil and at odds, and with an older man (Grip, in his 20s), of dubious background, who befriends her, a relationship not a few may find creepy (though Grip reveals himself to be a noble character).

You’ll find the strengths of the novel in Brelinski’s gently melodic tone, upon which you’ll find yourself drifting, as if on the Enya’s “Orinoco Flow” (Pure Moods, Vol. I), and the change in Jory, both in her maturation, her personal strength, and the world beyond her church and insular religious school. In other words, this is a novel not so much about the mystical, which you might expect from the title, but one grounded firmly in the experiences of families dealing with crises and young women grappling with their new roles as young, social women. Read with this in mind and you’ll find it an impressive first effort. w/c

When a Novel Fails …

Gold Fame Citrus

By Claire Vaye Watkins

Sometimes—maybe for you, too often—a novel comes highly recommended with descriptors such as “beautiful debut,” “scorching vision,” “imagining a terrifying future,” and similar. Then you buy it and wonder what the reviewers were talking about, what did you miss, perhaps you are a dunce? No, probably you rely more than you should on reviewers opinions, says us who review books regularly. Case in point: a 2015 debut by short story writer Claire Vaye Watkins, a literary novel with a dystopian disposition. Why do we think it fails?

Well, for starters, let the title be a warning to literary fiction fans who like their writers to make a dollop of sense and to dystopian novel fans who cherish sharp conflict and galvanic plotting: if the title makes little sense, don’t expect the avalanche of words following to clarify things.

Doubtless, Watkins can write evocative descriptions. Unfortunately, in her novel, these become the centerpiece of the entire literary venture. The plot boils down to no more than wandering aimlessly in a desert (yes, it worked in the Bible, but not here), the desert an unwanted gift of from humankind’s reckless disregard of natural resources. Her characters, the wanders, mull much over, but instead of intriguing you and stimulating your own thoughts, they commit a cardinal sin of literature, for which, you will feel them justly condemned to the desert: they bore you to distraction.

And this is a shame, for there lurks within these pages a potentially interesting novel. Less time getting out of L.A., less time baking under the sun, less time waxing on and on about what things look and feel like, more time expanding upon the chaos caused by the drought, perhaps expansion of the mining section and a rant on authoritarianism, a more coherent crystallization of the mad prophet of the desert, and the addition of more consciousness to the desert, an anthropomorphism often hinted at but never realized, perhaps these might have made this a better novel, or at least a more enjoyable one.

As this draft stands, a peek at potential, but a disappointment as published. But, hey, who are we. See for yourself, if you have a library nearby. w/c