Posts Tagged mystery/thriller

book review: The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone

RATING: ****/5*

Although I read this back in March, The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone makes the ideal summer read with its dreamy, cinematic imagery. It reminds me of Jane Campion’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. It’s part mystery and part coming-of-age story.

Raised by religious, strict parents, the three Apfel sisters disappear one summer in Australia in 1992—“We lost all three girls that summer. Let them slip away like the words of some half-remembered song, and when one came back, she wasn’t the one we were trying to recall to begin with.” Were they killed or did they run away? Tikka Malloy was 11 years old in 1992. She and her sister were best friends with the Van Apfel sisters. Tikka returns home because her sister has been diagnosed with cancer. The never-solved disappearance of Ruth, Hannah and Cordelia Van Apfel 20 years ago still haunts Tikka and her sister.

This area of Australia seems one in which children got easily get lost—“Back in those days the valley had only been developed in pockets. It was dissected by a cutting where a skinny, two-lane road wound down and around and across the river and then slithered out again, but the real excavation world had been done long ago by something much more primitive than us. The valley was deep and wide. Trees covered both walls. Spindly, stunted she-oaks spewed from the basin, swallowing the sunlight and smothering the tide with their needles. Higher up there were paperbacks, and tea trees with their camphorous lemon smell. Then hairpin banksias, river dogroses and gums of every kind—woolybutts, blackbutts, bogongs, blue mallets, swamp mallets and craven grey boxes, right up to the anemic angophoras that stood twisted and mangled all along the ridge line.”

Tikka recalls that summer and the sisters. The Van Apfel family has plenty of dark secrets. Maybe these memories of this friendship and growing up will mean something now to adult Tikka that she’d never recognized as a child. The father seems to have most difficulty controlling middle-sister Cordelia, the most beautiful of the sisters and the most independent. That summer, Cordelia falls out of a tree and breaks her arm. That summer, a new male teacher, named Mr. Avery, arrives at their school. He’s the only male teacher. When Cordelia sleepwalks one night, Mr. Avery brings her back home. She’s only wearing her swimming outfit. Cordelia often talks about getting away from her father. She has a plan to leave.

Then there’s Mr. Van Apfel and his suspicious behavior. He seemed to have the most problems with Cordelia. He cruelly killed her pet mice by pouring bleach on them. Another time, when Cordelia was bathing, Mr. Van Apfel held her head under water “to cast away all her sins. Swimming costume sins. Sleepwalking sins. (Cold-car-engines-in-red-hatchbacks sins.) He was careful to keep her cast arm dry, and it protruded like a plaster periscope. While the rest of her shameful body was submerged and washed clean. Baptism among the bath salts and bubbles.” There’s this particularly creepy memory. On the last day of school, Mr. Van Apfel tells Tikka that Cordelia and Ruth aren’t feeling well and won’t be going. She notices that the seats are folded down in the back of the car and she sees “three long black bags zipped securely to the top.” Chills.

Nuanced and more of a character study and a contemplation on memory and experience, it’s quite the page-turner.

–review by Amy Steele

 

I received this book for review from Algonquin.

 

 

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book review: Any Means Necessary

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Any Means Necessary by Jenny Rogneby. Other Press| February 2019| 442 pages | $16.99| ISBN: 978-1590518847

RATING: ****/5*

“I had my reasons for living like that. I had done it because I knew society doesn’t accept nonconformity. If you deviate from the cookie-cutter norm, you are left out in the cold. Worthless. From there on out, you’re on your own.”

When a terrorist survives a suicide bombing outside the Swedish Parliament building, he will only talk to police investigator Leona Lindberg. He’s insistent on it. She’s tasked to find out why the former member of the French Foreign Legion did it and if there will be other attacks throughout the city.

After work, Leona also gathers a bunch of criminals to teach them how to beat the system. She’s providing them with inside information on police tactics and the best tips to outwit them. To take minimal risks for maximum gains. She carefully selected them to participate in this program of sorts because she’s looking for a reliable crew to carry out a major theft.

I found Leona to be extremely compelling. She’s an outsider, she’s smart and she’s rogue. Leona’s in that gray zone. She’s a fairly good person doing bad things. She’s had it rough over the past few years. She lost custody of her daughter to her ex-husband. Rogneby definitely makes readers see both sides of the situation. Even if you don’t like Leona, you’ll empathize with her. Why is she doing what she’s doing? Will she be caught? How will it affect her career in the police department?

There’s definitely a slow burn with this novel. The Nordic setting makes it uber appealing. I don’t read a lot of thrillers but this one appealed to me because author Jenny Rogneby brings a unique perspective through her experience as an investigator with the Stockholm City Police Department.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Other Press.

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book review: Blood Highway

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Blood Highway by Gina Wohlsdorf. Algonquin| August 7, 2018| 320 pages | $16.95| ISBN: 978-1-61620-563-8

RATING: 3.5/5*

–review by Amy Steele

Scrappy teenager Rainy Cain knows how to fend for herself even though she’s still in high school. She manages to be independent and to present herself a certain way so that no one will ask too many questions. She’s been through an awful lot in her life and she’s yet to graduate from high school. She’s developed protective coping mechanisms that enable her survival. Her severely mentally ill mother neglected her long ago. They still live in the same house but don’t communicate with each other (sounds like me and my stepfather). After her mother commits suicide, Rainy’s felon father, recently released from prison, kidnaps her in hopes that she’ll lead him to money that he believes her mother hid when he was sent off to prison for a series of armed robberies. He’s a violent, ruthless man. Rainy wasn’t even aware he existed. Blaine, a seemingly good guy and police officer, with more in common with Rainy than one might suspect, pursues them. I love this sentence about Blaine: “His interior was this packed, cluttered museum of guilt and regret.” Author Gina Wohlsdorf spent a decade writing the novel. When she started she wasn’t that much older than her central character, strong-willed and determined feminist Rainy. As I dove into this thriller, which really skirts into horror, I didn’t know what was going on for quite a bit but the compelling writing kept me reading. There’s a cinematic edginess to the characters and this riveting and scary cross-country chase.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Algonquin.

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book review: Tangerine

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Tangerine by Christine Mangan. Ecco| March 20, 2018| 320 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-279213-6

RATING: ****/5*

–review by Amy Steele

“It is in these moments—when the air is thick and hot, threatening—that I can close my eyes and inhale, when I can smell Tangier again. It is the smell of a kiln, of something warm, but not burning, almost like marshmallows, but not as sweet. There is a touch of spice, something vaguely familiar, like cinnamon, cloves, cardamom even, and then something else entirely familiar.”

With another March snowstorm predicted for New England, most of us are more than ready to welcome spring and warm weather. Set in Morocco in 1956, Tangerine is the perfect antidote to winter restlessness. It’s super interesting for Americans to be in this North African country on the brink of its sovereignty. Alice moved to Tangiers with her new husband. She’s still acclimating when her former college friend Lucy makes a surprise visit.

During college something pushed the roommates apart, to such a degree that Alice isn’t happy to see her. They met at Bennington College which in itself provides lots of information for the novel’s characters. Alice is from a wealthy British family while Lucy is a scholarship student from a neighboring town in Vermont. Alice’s mother graduated from Bennington and then moved to England and married a Brit. Apparently the two immediately hit is off with Alice treating Lucy as she would her wealthy peers. Of their friendship, Lucy thinks: “The relationship that Alice and I had formed after only a few short weeks, the partiality that we felt for one another—it went beyond any rational description. Affinity, I decided, was a good enough start.” This sets up a perfect scenario for jealousy and competition and obsession. As open-minded as Alice might be, her circumstances provide her with a level of comfort which Lucy won’t have. It becomes increasingly clear that Lucy feels romantically attracted to Alice, that she’s become possessive of Alice and she becomes upset when Alice doesn’t feel the same.

They bond over their tragic childhoods and become inseparable friends until Alice’s new boyfriend pushes them apart. Lucy grows jealous that Alice spends more time with the boyfriend than she does with her. That boyfriend dies in a car accident. But was it really an accident or something more sinister? Lucy enjoys the perks of her friendship with Alice: “I had shaken my head then, had told myself no, I could not be made to go back, to return to my full little life, a life of obscurity, of mediocrity.

Generally overwhelmed by Tangier, Alice remains in her apartment most days. She warily ventures out once a week to the market. She doesn’t even know what her husband does for work. The couple met and married rather quickly. John seems to be the standard scoundrel, a good-looking manipulative man Of John: “John was bad at money, he had once told me with a grin, and at the time, I had smiled thinking he meant that he didn’t care about it, that it wasn’t a concern for him. What it really meant, I soon learned, was that his family’s fortune was nearly gone, just enough remained to keep him well dressed, so that he could play at pretending to still claim the wealth he once had, that he had been born into and still felt was rightfully his.” At one point, John admits to Lucy: “We need each other, Alice and I. Haven’t you already figured that out? I need her money—well maybe not need, perhaps appreciate would be the better word. And she needs me to keep her out of the looney bin.” Lucy manages to encourage Alice to venture out and explore the city, to drink mint tea at a cafe, to walk around and to even hear music and a nightclub. When John disappears, it forces Alice to delve into that dark incident in the past and question her friend’s motives. “It seemed to hang: thick and humid. Languid. That would be the right word to describe it, I decided.” This novel unfolds in a languid manner. Author Christine Mangan wrote her PhD thesis on gothic literature and her expertise translates to a smart, engrossing read.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Ecco.

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book review: Girl Ghosted

girl ghosted

Girl Ghosted by Lucy English. New Sun Press| August 15, 2017| 285 pages| ISBN: 9780692882238

RATING: ****/5*

Social worker Penny Wade connects with a guy she met online but then doesn’t hear from him. Has he ghosted Penny? Ghosting occurs when someone abruptly ceases all communication with a person they’ve dated. It’s the worst. In my experience men are terrible at communicating and it’s easier for them to just not communicate at all. Most women appreciate respect and honesty. Penny reflects: “It takes months, if not years, to get to know someone well enough to decide on a partnership. Maybe. Or maybe you can know kind of quickly.” My therapist has said that to me a few times after telling me I bail on guys I’m dating too early. I think that being in my 40s I know what I like and what I don’t like. While I’m open to letting a relationship develop as it will, I’m not going to invest a ton of time in an unworkable situation.

Relatable conversation between Penny and her roommate:

[Penny] “Is he hot?”
[Gloria] “Pretty hot.”
“Smart?”
“Very.”
“Thoughtful?”
“Yep. He makes suggestions about what we should do but lets me know he’s open to other ideas. I like it when guys take a little initiative instead of saying ‘what d’ya wanna do?’ you know?”
Yeah. I definitely know. And you learn some stuff from their ideas and also how they react if you suggest adjustments.”

Penny’s a friendly, determined, earnest 30something who works for Community Counseling Services which often assists the Department of Children and Families (DCF). Penny’s tasked with investigating a neglect case involving a young mother named Ashley and her two children, eight-year-old Olivia and six-year-old Noah. School administrators reported that the children were “dirty, hungry, and often missed school.”

Author Lucy English worked as a sociology professor and she provides extensive detail and an authenticity to this case and Penny’s work. This novel appealed to me with its focus on the germane subject of online dating as well as its Boston setting. English peppers the novel with plenty of Boston area locations such as Henrietta’s Table in Harvard Square, Mela in the South End, Kickstand Café in Arlington, Granary Tavern in the financial district, Trade on the waterfront, the New England Aquarium and Panificio Bakery on Charles Street. Penny visits some prime spots.

This is the third novel in the Penny Wade mystery series and the first I’ve read. It definitely reads as a stand-alone. There’s plenty of character development and description which allows readers to become invested in Penny, her work and her social life. Her supervisor Nathan gives Penny sage dating advice: “What if you started with evaluating a man’s ability to see and love you for who you are, to communicate well, to practice give-and-take. If he doesn’t get gold stars on those, you move on, no matter how good-looking or otherwise compelling he is.” Absolutely. It’s challenging but it’s the best thing to do. Wish I’d learned it in my 30s instead of my 20s. After reading Girl Ghosted I’d absolutely read another Penny Wade mystery.

–review by Amy Steele

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: Hallie Ephron

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“Vanessa looked back and forth between the photograph and the doll. The doll in Janey’s arms was the right size. It had on a similar long while dress and what was left of its blond hair was tied with a thin ribbon. But the resolution was nowhere near sharp enough to see whether the doll in the picture had a dimple like the one on the mantle, and the wig on the real doll was too threadbare to make a comparison.”

While playing in the yard forty years ago, Lissie’s younger sister Janey went missing. Lis feels guilty and responsible. They’ve never found out what happened to Janey that day. Every year on the anniversary of the sister’s disappearance, their mother, Miss Sorrel, places an ad in the local paper with a picture of the one-of-a-kind porcelain doll Janey had with her when she went missing in hopes that she’ll find answers. This year, the doll returns and it sets off new theories and a few leads into Janey’s disappearance. Someone must know what happened to Janey decades ago.

Set in a fictional South Carolina town, Hallie Ephron’s latest novel–You’ll Never Know, Dear— explores three generations of women and the aftermath of a devastating event. Miss Sorrel makes dolls which look like the little girls who own them. There’s a certain creepiness to porcelain dolls. Her daughter Lis moved home after getting divorced. Lis’s daughter, Vanessa, conducts research on dreams and PTSD in graduate school.

I spoke with Hallie Ephron last month by phone.

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Amy Steele: As the book’s set in the south, what kind of research did you do?

Hallie Ephron: I’d been in the south very little. In South Carolina you find a lot of wealthy northerners there for the warmth of the winter season. I‘d been to Beaufort– a beautiful riverfront southern town– it’s where they filmed Forrest Gump. It’s a very colorful and beautiful place. I wrote half of it coasting on my memories and then realized I needed to go down and spend a few days with my camera and tape recorder. I spent four days absorbing it. The way that the marsh grass is a matted surface on the water, pecan trees … all the details went into the book. I’d already created my characters and I added details. The big thing I learned is that Beaufort has its own storied past. I fictionalized it so I wouldn’t be tethered to the true history of the place.

Amy Steele: Your parents being screenwriters, how did that influence your writing?

Hallie Ephron: I spent a lot of time not writing. I have three writing sisters and I was going to be the one who wouldn’t write. It took a long time to cave and I don’t think I would have if I didn’t have the genes. It’s a hard slog getting good enough to be published. I think my books are fairly cinematic. That’s from a kid growing up in Hollywood in a house that was movie-oriented. I was afraid I wouldn’t be good enough and I had to be old enough not to care. It took me a lot of time to get confident. There is a story in being a sister and a mother, in the everyday.

Amy Steele: You wrote about three generations of women. What did you like about that?

Hallie Ephron: I like writing about family and generations. I think we’re each so formed by our generation but you’re also formed by your relationship to your family. I particularly like writing older women. I think they’re often caricatured. Especially women over 60 or 70. I take a special pleasure in writing them as human beings with weaknesses. I liked writing Miss Sorrell. She’s kind of a tart individual.

Amy Steele: What do you like about writing in the mystery/thriller genre?

Hallie Ephron: I like figuring it out. I like the click when I figure it out. I usually don’t know the ending when I begin.I just know the set-up. Then I write all the complications, setbacks and challenges and all the while I try to think what does it look like is going on and what do I think is going on. I think in this book the mystery isn’t so much whodunit. I think the reader will realize halfway through who the villain is. But what are the motivations? What are the secrets they’re hiding? That’s what I try to figure out as I work my way to the end.

Amy Steele: How do you organize the novel or your writing?

Hallie Ephron: I have multiple time lines. I think of each character as having a life before the book began and after the book ends. I make a table where each character has a column and the rows are years. I plot the characters in their slots– when they were born and where they went to school– and see where the characters are as their lives progress as well as as the novel progresses. This novel I think takes place over three or four weeks so I do a drilled down version so that I know where the characters are. Even if the reader doesn’t know, I know.

Amy Steele: Do you come up with the characters first or the plot idea?

Hallie Ephron: The first thing I knew is that there would be doll parts. What does that mean? If there were doll parts there would be a doll maker. And who would she be. The story and the character go back and forth as I go along.

Amy Steele: What was the greatest challenge in writing this novel?

Hallie Ephron: I started with two narrators: Lis and Vanessa. I knew I couldn’t be in Miss Sorrel’s head because she knows too much. That was the 20someting and the 40something. I started to ask myself who’s story is this, who’s the protagonist and the answer can’t be both of them. I realized it had to be Lis. She’s the one who lost her sister. She’s the one who had to find her. Lis is the hero. It worked.

Amy Steele: What kind of books do you read?

Hallie Ephron: I read lots of books. I’m reading The Mothers. I just finished Joe Finder’s book. I read lots of books on South Carolina. I powered my way through Pat Conroy’s books. I don’t like horror. I don’t like romance.

You can catch Hallie Ephron speaking about You’ll Never Know, Dear at these events [for more events see her website]:

July 9, 2017
Rockport Public Library
Rockport, Mass.

July 11, 2017
Ferguson Library
Annual Women’s Fiction Night
Stamford, Conn.

July 27, 2017
Maynard Public Library
Maynard, Mass.

August 22, 2017
Bacon Free Library
Natick, Mass.

 
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book review: Lady Cop Makes Trouble

lady copyLady Cop Makes Trouble by Amy Stewart. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt| September 2016| 320 pages | $26.00| ISBN: 978-0-544-40994-1

RATING: ***/5*

This was an overall fun and enjoyable read. I didn’t read the debut Kopp Sisters novel Girl Waits with Gun so maybe it wasn’t a good idea to read the second book. I do think that even in a series each book should be a stand-alone that anyone can pick up to read and figure out what’s going on. Despite not knowing the case from the first novel which did carry over to this novel–at least in consequences for Constance Kopp and her position as deputy sheriff—I could mostly piece together what I needed. The youngest sister Fleurette confused me at first and I didn’t know if she was a daughter or niece. I absolutely admire and appreciate that Amy Stewart found clips in which to base this case and that Constance Kopp was a real person. Stewart explained, “I’m lucky enough to have a huge treasure trove of newspaper clippings covering 1914 and 1915. Constance was in the paper all the time. This book covers one particular incident that made headlines nationwide: the pursuit of a convicted criminal.” This is a delightful description of Constance’s duties for the New Jersey sheriff’s department: “I wasn’t just a chaperone for wayward girls. I carried a gun and handcuffs. I could make an arrest, just like any deputy. I earned a man’s salary. People did find it shocking and I didn’t mind that one bit.” Constance stands as a strong, determined female working in the male-dominated field of law enforcement. She doesn’t seem deterred when men don’t know how to speak with her or how to react to her as she carries out her varied responsibilities. She lives with her sisters, Fleurette and Norma, in the countryside in New Jersey. Norma seems content to raise homing pigeons and not venture far from home. Fleurette dreams of the stage and for now acts in a local production. The sisters look out for one another and serve as sounding boards for each other. Not having sisters it seems a wonderful thing. This case didn’t quite enthrall me enough for a mystery/thriller, fortunately the strong female lead makes up for my lack of interest and sometimes confusion in the case. I rooted for Constance and her sisters to fight the system and to fight sexism.

–review by Amy Steele

 FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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