Paper Ghosts, by Julia Heaberlin

32912154Grace has gone a lot farther to figure out what happened to her missing sister than anyone can imagine. She has trained in self-defense and to master her fears. She has scoured the dark web for information and false identities. She has cooked up lies to cover her tracks. She has done all of this to break a possible serial killer with dementia out of a halfway house to get the truth out of him somehow. Julia Heaberlin’s Paper Ghosts is a tense ride through Texas, following a trail that leads who knows where for a story Grace might not want to hear. The more I read, the more I enjoyed this book.

We don’t know much about either Grace or Carl Feldman at the very beginning of Paper Ghosts. In a few short chapters, we learn that Carl has dementia, he was a photographer, and that he might have killed Grace’s sister. We also learn that Grace is going to bust him out and take him on a trip to the sites where he took pictures and young women disappeared. Somehow it’s all going to work, in Grace’s head. It has to. She refuses to think that it won’t work. Carl, of course, is not talking about his past no matter how much she prods or tries to jog his memory. Instead, he makes demands for fast food; stops to pan for gold; and to pick up stray, wounded animals. He is not the kind of serial killer Grace expected, especially when he starts to save her life from mysterious pursuers.

The question of what Carl has and hasn’t done kept Grace (and me) guessing about what really happened to her sister and three other young women. Carl was on trial for one kidnapping and murder, but acquitted due to lack of evidence. There’s circumstantial evidence that puts him in the right time and place. There’s his cunning intelligence and charm that can be predatory or flattering by turns. He seems like he ought to be a serial killer. And yet, there’s a delicious ambiguity that runs through the entire book that is only finally resolved at the very end.

I wasn’t sure about Paper Ghosts when I first started it. There were a lot of short paragraphs to get the story moving that made me worry that there might be a lack of depth—characterization and backstory sacrificed for the sake of a fast plot. But Heaberlin is very skilled at embedding information in such a way that you learn more about what’s happening and why without loading readers down with exposition. She’s also great at building up an atmosphere and rich setting that made me feel like I was in the car with Grace and Carl, worried every minute for Grace’s safety and wondering what Carl would do next. This book is a fantastic thriller. It was so good that I want to go and read the rest of Heaberlin’s books.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 15 May 2018.

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Final Girls, by Riley Sager

32796253When true crime authors and buffs talk about the survivors of a killing spree, they rarely talk about the long aftermath—at least not in the way that Riley Sager does in Final Girls. This thriller is all about the aftermath: the long stays in the hospital, physical and psychological therapy, and fending off the media. This has been Quincey Carpenter’s life for the ten years since her friends were brutally murdered and she ran screaming out of the woods in a bloody dress. She’s holding it together. But just when she thinks she’s found a measure of balance in her life, events conspire to drag her back into the woods.

In her new life, Quincey is an amateur baker with a blog. She lives in an apartment in New York with her boyfriend, a public defender on his way up. Sure, she pops the occasional Xanax to keep her anxiety under control and still meets with the police officer who rescued her after her ordeal. She might have been able to keep going this way if she hadn’t learned that another final girl (a survivor of a set of killings that sounds a lot like what sent Richard Speck to prison for the rest of his life) has died, apparently of suicide. Perhaps she could have weathered that news, but then another final girl shows up on her doorstep asking for help. The news and the visitor throw her so far off her equilibrium that she starts to do and say things that have people seriously worried about her.

There are chapters in which we see what happened to Quincey that night at Pine Cottage, things that she didn’t remember in spite of all the police questioning. While we learn about her past, we follow Quincey while Samantha Boyd, her visitor, pushes her to patrol Central Park, looking for potential rapists and muggers. We also get to see Quincey as she starts to piece together what might have happened to the first final girl, Lisa, as well as the night she became a final girl herself. This book is packed with plot and some wonderful character development, but Sager cranks things up to 11 by deploying a series of twists that made me give up my theories completely and settle in for the show.

Final Girls is a terrific thriller, one of the best I’ve read in a long time. I loved its originality and the way it completely misdirected me so many times. Quincey is the kind of complicated character I relish, with plenty of backstory for me to psychoanalyze. How does a college girl who survived one of the worst things that can ever happen to someone become a baker-blogger? And then how does that baker-blogger end up beating up a homeless man in Central Park? And even after that, how does a vigilante end up facing her terror of her own past? All of those questions are bundled together with amazing plot twists into a thriller that I plan on recommending a lot.

Nothing is Forgotten, by Peter Golden

35297462If one’s parents are from Europe and emigrated to America in the late 1940s or early 1950s, it’s a given that those parents have horrors in their background that they don’t want to talk to their children about. Such is the case for Michael Daniels, the protagonist of Nothing is Forgotten, by Peter Golden. Michael is the children of Russians. He knows that they come from somewhere in Ukraine, that they came over in waves, and that he is not supposed to ask them questions about their past. All this goes out the window when Michael finds his beloved grandmother shot dead in the family’s candy and soda shop.

Michael is living the American dream at the opening of Nothing is Forgotten. His family is a success. He’s got little to worry about other than girls and his suddenly popular radio program. (Making fun of Nikita Khrushchev is a winner in the early 1960s.) But then his grandmother, Emma, is murdered and he is whisked away to Europe to reprise his radio show in Munich at a station with a similar mission to Radio Free Europe. His family’s past follows Michael to Europe and, before long, he just throws his job out the window and decides to figure out where his grandmother came from and who might have wanted to murder him.

Fortunately for this somewhat naive American, Michael has a partner in Yulianna Kosoy, who he meets through a smuggler who does jobs for the CIA, the KGB, Mossad, and probably a bunch of other intelligence agencies. (His bosses at Four Freedoms are well connected.) Once Michael and Yuli join forces, they start to follow the little things Michael remembers his grandmother said and the clues she left for him to follow through her old haunts. For a novel that starts with making fun of Russians and involves bookmakers in the backroom of the Daniels’ family shop, I was surprised at how deeply this book dove into the Holocaust and the hunt for war criminals who got away after the war. Michael’s hunch that her death was because of something that happened to her during the war turns out to be correct.

Nothing is Forgotten isn’t always plausible. People are weirdly helpful to Michael and Yuli throughout their travels. But I was moved at the horrors that Michael’s grandmother survived, and admired the love she shows to her grandson and the children who visit the family shop. I was right behind Michael and Yuli as they dug into Emma’s past and did their best to put right things that Emma was never able to. For all its sadness, this book provides a delicious dose of justice at the end that I really enjoyed.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 10 April 2018.

Macbeth, by Jo Nesbø

33952851If I’ve learned nothing else from listening to Last Podcast on the Lasts episodes about Jonestown, it’s that one should always head for the hills once the leader starts taking amphetamines. When I pair that with a lesson I learned from Shakespeare—that one should run from anyone with this particular name—I know that Jo Nesbø’s Macbeth is going to be a furious bloodbath with few survivors, directed by two people who are out of their heads with power and guilt.

In Nesbø’s version of Shakespeare’s play, another retelling in Hogarth’s series, the action plays out in an unnamed setting that I think is a version of Glasgow in the 1970s. Here, Macbeth is the head of the city’s SWAT team. Duff is an Inspector with Organized Crime. Duncan has just become chief commissioner. In the background, the head of a drug manufacturing and selling syndicate named Hecate starts to pull strings. Macbeth and Duff are visited after a raid (that Duff screwed up and Macbeth rescued) by three of Hecate’s minions, who tell the men that Macbeth will be promoted to Head of Organized Crime and, later, chief commissioner.

Johann_Heinrich_Füssli_030

Lady Macbeth goes off the rails, by Johann Heinrich Füssli
(Image via Wikicommons)

This “prophecy” kicks of a series of murders, murders to cover up those murders, and yet more murders to cover up the cover-up murders. Readers of Nesbø and Shakespeare should find it all pretty familiar. My big problem with the book was that I didn’t buy some of the early leaps of logic made by Lady, Macbeth’s lover and partner. Once she learns about Hecate’s prophecy, she almost immediately goes off the rails. She plays on Macbeth’s insecurity about his lower class origins and past traumas to get him to kill Duncan. If he can take over, she tells him, he can make the city better for everyone. So he starts killing. And, as in Shakespeare’s play, everything starts to go to hell right rapidly.

I don’t know if enjoy is the right word for how I feel about this retelling of Macbeth. It’s faithful to the original plot. Lady and Macbeth are appropriately tortured. I rather liked how Duff’s character was developed. But since this book can be summed up as murder after murder until most of the characters are dead, I feel like it lacks some of the emotional depth of Shakespeare’s version. I knew that anything written by Nesbø would be gory; I’m not surprised by that. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the other books in the Hogarth series, which do take the opportunity to take on problems in the original Shakespeare or put a new spin on things. This Macbeth is more like the story was lifted and dropped into a different setting and with the great speeches trimmed away.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 5 April 2018.

School for Psychics, by K.C. Archer

35297405For someone who bills themselves as a human lie detector, Teddy Cannon sure struggles when it comes to deciding who to trust or not in K.C. Archer’s thrilling School for PsychicsShe first used her ability to figure out when people are bluffing to win loads of money playing poker in Las Vegas. But when that blows up in her face, she is recruited to the eponymous school, where psychics are trained to work for law enforcement. With every chapter, Teddy gets deeper and deeper into a decades-old conspiracy. There are double-crosses and betrayals, lies and deceptions, with Teddy caught right in the middle. If her lie detecting skills had been a little better, Teddy might have been able to avoid a lot of heartache (but then we would have had a much less entertaining book).

After her recruitment, Teddy finds herself at the Whitfield Institute among two distinct groups of students. On one side are the young men and women dubbed the Alphas. They are psychic but also very much straight arrows. They’re fit. They’re smart. They have their shit together…unlike the other group of students, who call themselves Misfits. Like Teddy, these students have struggled with their various abilities: death warnings, talking to animals, starting fires, etc. Teddy might be the most powerful among them. This might have helped her to get ahead at Whitfield if it weren’t for the fact that something sinister is clearly going on.

School for Psychics reminded me of the Harry Potter novels with a lot less whimsy. Teddy struggles with her powers and her course work while at the same time trying to figure out why her blood was stolen from the school lab and what really happened to her biological parents. Since Teddy and her classmates are legally adults, there is more drinking and sex, though. (Hilariously, Teddy and the pyrokinetic set off the smoke detectors when they spend the night together.) By the time graduation rolls around, Teddy and her ragtag band of friends are ready to take on the baddie.

It might sound dismissive to say that School for Psychics is like Harry Potter, but I don’t want to give the impression that this book is derivative or unoriginal. I was hugely entertained by this book. I could hardly put it down because it’s a great blend of science fiction and thriller. This characters are great and the constant question of who was telling the truth kept me guessing right along with Teddy until the end. This really was a fun read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 3 April 2018.

Bluff, by Michael Kardos

36452743They say there is honor among thieves, but that honor is thin on the ground in Michael Kardos’ Bluff. This is unfortunate because magician Natalie Webb could use all the help she gets after a trick goes wrong at one of her rare gigs. Her bright idea to make some money to pay her legal bills lands her in bigger trouble than she could ever have realized.

When Natalie does things wrong, she does them spectacularly wrong. At her corporate gig, she lets a jerk get under her skin and throws a card in anger, almost blinding the man. The jerk doesn’t end up blind, fortunately for Natalie, but the jerk sues her for more money than she can make even if her career weren’t on the skids. She comes up with the bright idea of profiling a professional cardsharp (basically a cheat) because there are a lot of similarities in how they handle cards. Everyone tries to dissuade her, but she dives headlong into the idea.

The first card cheat she finds is awful, but he accidentally introduces her to a woman with real skills. When that woman offers Natalie a one-time-only-big-pay-low-risk scam, Natalie tries to resist. She doesn’t see herself as a cheat. She’s a magician. But those bills aren’t getting any smaller, so she says yes. And then things get even worse.

Reading Bluff is like watching a car wreck. I couldn’t look away. I just kept hoping that something would go right for Natalie. Her problems are not really her fault. She just has poor impulse control. I don’t want to say what happens at the end of the book; that would ruin a fantastic heist plot. But I can say that at least the book delivers a big payoff for its readers. I had a blast reading this book.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 3 April 2018.

The Last Equation of Isaac Severy, by Nova Jacobs

35297219Being the child of a legendary genius is difficult, especially when one has no talent for mathematics like one’s grandfather. After Isaac Severy commits suicide, it seems like everyone’s weaknesses and insecurities come out into the open. This might have been enough for any adopted granddaughter to cope with. But in The Last Equation of Isaac Severy, by Nova Jacobs, Hazel Severy is sent on a quest for her famous grandfather’s work. She has to dodge mysterious pseudo-governmental organizations as well as grieving family members.

During the reception after her grandfather’s funeral, Hazel finds a letter from him, asking her to find and destroy his most recent work. She’s not supposed to tell anyone about it. But how is a failing bookstore owner ever to follow the clues laid out by a mathematical genius? Hazel’s not a blood relative. She doesn’t have the family spark. And yet, she seems to be the only person that Isaac Severy trusted with his secrets.

While we follow Hazel’s sometimes hapless attempts at solving Isaac’s puzzles, we also get to look into the lives of Philip, Isaac’s son, and Gregory, Hazel’s brother. Philip is a capable mathematician, but not brilliant like his father. It eats at him, as does his wife’s grief after their daughter dies in an accident shortly after Isaac’s death. He’s flailing. It’s not the best time for vaguely threatening government consultants to come sniffing around. They’re after his father’s work, but Philip is vulnerable to a bit of flattery. Meanwhile, Gregory is also falling apart. He’s been following his abusive former foster father (another of Isaac’s sons) and pining after his lover.

There’s a lot going on in The Last Equation of Isaac Severy. Every chapter reveals another layer to this complicated family. Most fascinating of all is what Isaac was working on before his death. I won’t reveal the secret here, but I can say that it brings up questions about free well and determinism. This book is full of chaos that the characters are desperate to make sense of. They want to find meaning in their recent tragedies and I can’t blame them. This book shows us how Hazel, Philip, and Gregory seek answers in very different ways that bring up even more questions to ponder after the last page.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 6 March 2018.

The Regional Office is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales

25938482There are still many mysteries about who is really responsible for the events of The Regional Office is Under Attack!, by Manuel Gonzales. It is probably the Operative and the Recruiter who were crossed in love. But it might also be the kidnapped Oracle. There are interstitial excerpts from a book about the attack that give us background on the Regional Office and the aftermath of the attack. The novel itself gives us a ground-eye view of what happened the day the Regional Office was decimated. We follow Sarah O’Hara, the woman with the mechanical arm and a hybrid role in the organization, and Rose, a trainee Operative, who has been given a leading part in the attack. The Regional Office is Under Attack! is full of gripping fight scenes, tense stand offs, and some very interesting questions about the ripple effects of revenge.

The novel is written in contrasting chapters about Sarah and Rose, with plenty of flashbacks to show us how Sarah and Rose came to be at the Regional Office on the day of the attack. The Regional Office, on the surface, is a travel agency for the ultra-wealthy. This is a cover for its real purpose: training young women with special abilities to fight the forces of darkness, following the sometimes cryptic guidance of a trio of Oracles. Throughout the book, there are hints about the exploits of previous Operatives—which makes me wish there were more books about the Regional Office that I could read.

Sarah is the second-in-command in the Office, the righthand woman to the director. She has worked for the Office ever since they helped her track down the people who killed her mother. On the other side, we watch Rose as she follows the orders she was given by her recruiter and, maybe, his lover; she has been told they they were betrayed by the Office. The interstitial sections reveal that neither Sarah or Rose has a full picture about what the Regional Office is and how it got started.

It all comes down to revenge and lies, I think. Revenge never ends in The Regional Office is Under Attack! Whoever survives lives to go after the people they think wronged them. Then the friends or family of the killed go after the revenger. It never ends. A wiser person might advise these revengers to seek legal help or just let things go. But the potential revengers here are highly trained, super-powered women in a world of encroaching darkness working for a shadowy organization, who feel more than justified in taking out people who’ve wronged them.

The action-packed scenes in this book are a great vehicle to carry a larger story about the perils of revenge, with some great character development that had me worrying about people on both sides of the attack. I had a great time reading The Regional Office is Under Attack!

The Readymade Thief, by August Rose

33358209The Readymade Thief, by August Rose, is a rare book. I have only read a few other books that take actual history and spin it into a compelling conspiracy, with profound doses of science fiction and philosophy. The more I read, the more I enjoyed this tale of Lee’s perilous involvement with a sinister group of Marcel Duchamp enthusiasts who seem to be everywhere and are more than willing to kill what they want.

We meet Lee Cuddy in a brief prologue where she is walking around an abandoned aquarium. This is a place she escapes to for solitude and peace. Except, this time, she finds a note that orders her to return what she took. Then Lee takes us back to the beginning of her story to explain why she is so terrified to find that note and what she’s doing wandering around abandoned buildings.

Lee started to steal at a young age. Something about taking things makes her feel alive. Since her father is gone and her mother pays a lot more attention to her new boyfriend than Lee, the stealing is a way for her to make connections with other people and take care of herself. The Readymade Thief might have been a story about a girl who became a criminal, except that strange things start to happen very early in the novel. She gets an invitation to an exclusive rave hosted by the Société Anonyme (named for an artistic society Duchamp belonged to). Odd men in old-fashioned dress keep bumping into her. Her friends disappear under strange circumstances. There are drugs that turn rave-attendees into biddable zombies. Something bizarre is going on and Lee is inadvertently stuck in the middle of all of it.

After Lee is betrayed and ends up in a juvenile detention facility, then escapes, we start to learn a lot more about the Duchamp fanatics. It is marvelous the way The Readymade Thief weaves together Duchamp’s various artworks with physics and crime. I don’t want to say too much, because the slow revelation of secrets and conspiracies and betrayals made it impossible for me to put the book down. I plan on handing this book to other readers and just saying, “Read this.”

 

The Clarity, by Keith Thomas

35297412The Clarity, by Keith Thomas, is the kind of book that really wants to be a screenplay. The science fiction premise is only cursorily explored. The rampaging bad guy is described in almost loving detail. The chapters are short and packed with gun fights. I think this will be a great read for those who want a thrill. For those of us who wanted to know more about the possibility of reawakening ancestral memories, The Clarity is disappointing.

While the experiment known as Project Clarity has been going on for decades, Dr. Mathilda Deacon only gets involved when she is tipped off by a resident of a housing project in Chicago that there’s something wrong with a girl named Ashanique. Ashanique can remember the lives of dozens of people who died years or even centuries ago. She seems perfectly rational, apart from the memories. Because Mathilda works in memory and dementia, Ashanique is an irresistible patient. But before Mathilda can do much more than be convinced by Ashanique’s memories, the shooting starts.

We learn a bit more about Project Clarity and what’s going on with Ashanique, but most of the rest of The Clarity shows us a series of gun fights and chases all over Chicago. As soon as our protagonists find a safe spot, Rade, their terrifying pursuer (who works for the project) shows up and kills a bunch of people. Repeat. The more I read, the more I realized I would have enjoyed this more as a TV movie or something similar. This story is crying out to be filmed. It should be an easy task, since there’s not all that much detail that would need to be cut out to fit into a two hour movie. As a book, this book left me wanting so much that I was very disappointed by the little I was given.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 20 February 2018.