The Fortune Teller, by Gwendolyn Womack

31450952Books like The Fortune Teller, by Gwendolyn Womack, makes me seriously wonder whether literary/historical thrillers have much of a future. There have been a lot of read-a-likes since The Da Vinci Code*, but none of the ones I’ve read have added anything new to the sub-genre. In The Fortune Teller, as in those other thrillers, an academic discovers a document full of secrets that could rewrite the history of something only to find themselves on the run from a lethal, shadowy organization. This thriller is enhanced with some family drama and precognition that I found mismanaged to the point that I wish I could go back and un-buy this book.

Our protagonist in The Fortune Teller is Semele Cavnow**, a rare book and manuscripts specialist working for a New York-based auction house. The Bossard collection is a magnificent library that Semele leaped at the chance to work with. While in Switzerland cataloging all of the books and documents, she comes across an ancient manuscript in Egyptian Greek that appears to be addressed…to her. From that point on, Semele’s story alternates with the story of a line of women who seem to have the power to accurately predict the future.

I was initially drawn to this book because the plot involves the Tarot, weird manuscripts, and mystery. Unfortunately, the plot is very slow until the last hundred or so pages of the book. When I got to the 70% mark (according to my kindle app), a twist happened that made me feel cheated even if it did kick things into high gear at last. I also had issues with the way that the historical elements of the book is handled. What kind of family history includes word-for-word dialogue, even if it’s written by a seer ancestress? I couldn’t help but think about how Agnes Nutter’s family history/predictions were handled in Good OmensThe Fortune Hunter is Womack’s second novel, which surprises me considering how poorly constructed I found it.

This book is entirely skippable.


* Which I only managed to read once. When I tried to re-read it, I found it so ludicrous I was little ashamed of myself for devouring it the first time around.
** I will give Womack points for interesting character names.

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The Stopping Place, by Helen Slavin

3390801Helen Slavin’s The Stopping Place is a horror novel, at least for women readers. It isn’t terrifying at first. The first part of the novel is unsettling, sure, especially as protagonist Ruby starts to become a vigilante for women who have problems with men who don’t listen to the word “no.” But when the second part, in which Ruby reveals where she came from and why she is so profoundly afraid of men, that The Stopping Place turns into a story so chilling that I had a hard time getting through it. Thankfully, the ending (not to say too much) delivers justice for Ruby and other women victimized by men.

When we meet Ruby, she is a library assistant in an unknown British city. (I only know this book is somewhere in the UK because of the vocabulary. Ruby is awfully fond of the word “claggy.”) She lives alone. She does not cultivate friendships. Instead, she watches people. In her role as voyeur, Ruby watches her coworker Martha’s relationship begin to turn violent. It’s clear she doesn’t want to engage, but Ruby masters her fear to fight back on the behalf of other women in her circumscribed world. Her successes, however, mean that her ex-husband tracks her down.

In the second part of the book, Ruby finally reveals her story. This part, I’ll say again, is very hard to read. Imagine trigger warning stickers all over the place for domestic violence, sexual violence, and emotional abuse. The second part probably goes on too long, if I’m honest. And yet, some of it is very necessary showing the emotional life of women involved with controlling, violent men. These abusive men are reasonable at first. They’re sexy, too. But, the longer the relationship goes, the reasonableness turns into a pot of emotional boiling water: little things are dismissed, larger things are explained away, and the biggest things must be coped with because the abused person has no way out.

The best part of The Stopping Place is the ending. During the first part, when Ruby-as-librarian digitizes and catalogs the papers of a Victorian photographer and searches for a missing laundress from the photographer’s estate, I didn’t see how any of it added to Ruby’s story. It was interesting, but it wasn’t until the end that I finally twigged to this subplot’s purpose. When it hit me, I saw how The Stopping Place is, over and over, a story of women pushed into uncomfortable or dangerous positions by powerful men (physically or otherwise) and hit their breaking point.

In spite of the difficulty in reading about physical and emotional abuse, I liked this book. I’m a big fan of a book about extrajudicial justice anyway, especially when the vigilante is a woman. I also enjoyed Ruby’s strange, new life and the way she gets little revenges on people who wrong her. The Stopping Place is a challenge, but I found it very much worthwhile.

I received a free copy of this book from the publishers via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 12 November 2017.

An Excess Male, by Maggie Shen King

33544902The Chinese government instituted a policy restricting couples to one child only in 1979. There are ways around it, but every decade since that year has seen a growing imbalance in the number of male and female children. In An Excess Male, by Maggie Shen King, we see this imbalance extrapolated into a future where forty million men cannot find wives. They feel doomed to live alone, lamenting the fact that they will not pass on their names. The novel follows Lee Wei-guo as he attempts to marry a woman who already has two husbands—and as he ends up in trouble far over his head as secrets come out into the open and conspiracies get lethal.

An Excess Male begins like a gender-flipped version of a polygamist arranged marriage. Lee Wei-guo’s fathers (they are his mother’s widows) are trying to organize a marriage for their son. They’ve already worked with a matchmaker for months by the time we meet them, but they’ve only had one nibble—from the first husband of a woman who already has two. The fathers are not happy. Wei-guo, however, is charmed. He would love to marry Wu May-ling, even if it means sharing her with two other men.

It isn’t long before we learn why May-ling and her husbands are looking for a third husband. The Wus have their own secrets that they’d love to hide from a government that is all too willing to “re-educate” or simply do away with gay men (called the Willfully Sterile) or men with autism (Lost Boys). May-ling’s reasons are more complicated, but the short version is that she wants a relationship with a man that’s not just emotional or contractual.

I enjoyed the complex courting arrangements and I think I would have preferred it if An Excess Male had continued as social commentary. About halfway through the book, it takes a turn to become more of a science fiction thriller as the Wus secrets start to come out and Wei-guo ends up way over his head in a weird government plot to reduce the male population. There is still emotional depth in the interactions between Wei-guo and May-ling’s family, but they get a bit lost in all the chases and rescue attempts.

On balance, I was very interested in the story that An Excess Male tries to tell. What might happen in a society where women are coveted? It’s curious to see what changes and what doesn’t in this version of a near-future China, which has had its society run topsy-turvy by all-encompassing government policies. The problem with these types of grand policies is they fail to take into account the realities of peoples’ lives, wants, and abilities. Wei-guo, May-ling, and her two husbands are simply caught in the ugly place between policy and reality.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 12 September 2017.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, by Hannah Tinti

30556459Parent are mysterious creatures, at least from the perspective of their children. I doubt any parent is as mysterious as Samuel Hawley. Though he is a devoted father to Loo, Hawley carries around a platoon’s worth of guns and ammunition, knows how to hot wire cars, and is always looking for an escape route. Loo doesn’t think this is strange, nor does she think it’s strange that her father has so many scars from bullet wounds. As Hannah Tinti’s novel, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, unspools, we start to learn the mysteries behind the scars and find a wonderfully criminal story of a mostly functional family.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley is told in two, intertwining halves. In the present, we have Loo as she finally settles down after years of roving in her deceased mother’s former hometown. In the other, we have a series of episodes in which Hawley received yet another bullet wound as he performs jobs for a violent, watch-collecting ex-boxer. Loo is a chip off the old block. When she first arrives in town, she’s more apt to settle things with her fists—or a rock in a sock. The town soon learns that father and daughter are best left alone.

Like all parents, Samuel Hawley had a very full life before he fell in love with Loo’s mother and became a father. But unlike most parents, Hawley’s past is starting to catch up with him almost eighteen years later. Meanwhile, Loo is starting to have serious questions about what happened to her mother and why she has memories of her grandmother’s house when she thought she had never been there before.

I enjoyed Loo’s stubbornness and disinclination to conform with what her grandmother and the locals want her to be. But I loved Hawley’s devotion to his wife and to Loo. He’s far from perfect, but he is fiercely protective when real danger threatens his family. In a way, he reminded me of my own dad, a former Navy senior chief who isn’t always great with emotional stuff but who I always knew would fight like a bear for me if necessary. (Of course, Dad never taught me how to shoot or hot wire cars. An oversight, I think.)

Tales suburban families usually bore the life out of me—unless it turns out that at least some of the family members have particular skills they’ve acquired over a very long career. I sank into this book like a warm bath because it had so many of the things I love in a good book. The characterization is deep and off-beat. The structure is perfect. The plot is brilliant. I enjoyed the hell out of this book.

The King of Fools, by Frédéric Dard

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The King of Fools

Jean-Marie Valaise should have listened to another king at the outset of Frédéric Dard’s The King of Fools (translated by Louise Lalaurie). One year before this book was published in 1962 as La Pelouse, Elvis sang that “Wise men say only fools rush in.” Valaise certainly rushes in. His holiday on the Côte d’Azur turns, in a matter of days, into a nightmare of murder and accusations that might send him to the hangman’s noose. And it’s all because Valaise fell in love at first sight.

Valaise was having a mediocre stay in Juan-les-Pins, without his girlfriend, when he spots a woman sitting in his car. The woman, who turns out to be an Englishwoman named Marjorie Faulks, is embarrassed by her mistake, which she later compounds by leaving her bag in Valaise’s car. Their relationship carries more than a dash of awkwardness. Valaise tries to be suave, but frequently overreaches. Marjorie is married and very uncomfortable about everything. Valaise finds this endearing and he quickly adopts a protective role.

Marjorie has to leave the day after they meet, but they agree to exchange letters—though Marjorie insists on using a general post office address rather than her real one. A wiser man would start hearing alarm bells at this point. Valaise is not that wiser man. After one impassioned letter from Marjorie, he packs up and follows her to Edinburgh. The Scottish turns out to be the perfect gloomy setting for a journey that becomes more like film noir with every hour. Valaise gets rapidly in over his head, the dope, as he chases Marjorie around the city and tries to figure out what on earth is going on with her husband.

To say more at this point would ruin the rest of the book, so I will close this review by saying that The King of Fools is a perfect example of a page-turner. It’s so short and tense that I read it in one sitting. It’s is a perfect beach read—especially if one is lucky enough to be traveling to a French beach and have some Elvis on an iPod.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 5 September 2017.

Marathon Man, by William Goldman

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Marathon Man

William Goldman’s Marathon Man wasn’t half bad. Unfortunately, the other half was. I picked this book up because I remember enjoying the film version, which starred Dustin Hoffman and Sir Laurence Olivier. (Also, I’m a sucker for stories about tracking down Nazis who escaped Europe after the war.) I fell into the trap of expecting the book to be better than the movie because there would be more background and plot. The original novel did have more of both, but it didn’t make for a better tale.

I loathed the first half of Marathon Man. Set in 1973, the book is filled with edgy slang that has not aged well. The protagonist, T.B. Levy, has a motor mouth and is frequently obnoxious rather than amusing. Then there’s the casual racism. With the exception of Levy and one or two other characters, everyone says or thinks horrible things about African Americans and Jews. Instead of making the novel feel “gritty” and realistic, it just feels like paint-by-numbers characterization. It didn’t help that I was waiting for the novel to kick into gear for most of the first half. There’s some action in the prologue and in a side plot that didn’t make sense until Levy gets caught up in the conspiracy at the half-way point.

Once I got to that half-way point, however, my attitude completely changed and I raced through the book. The turning point is when Levy’s brother is murdered. The brother dies in Levy’s arms and Levy is told shortly after that his brother was a courier for Christian Szell, who was Josef Mengele’s (fictional) dental counterpart at Auschwitz. The highlight of the book is the same as the one in the film—which means that this is definitely not a book you want to read before you go to your next appointment with the dentist. The last half of the book is a thrilling, nail-biting race, literally and figuratively.

I would recommend skipping the first half of the book and jumping straight to Part II. Anything that was important from the first half gets referenced in the second and third acts of the book, with the bonus of skipping a lot of obnoxious dialogue and the aforementioned casual racism. Or you could just watch the movie and see Hoffman and Olivier make something interesting out of Marathon Man.

The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne

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The Marsh King’s Daughter

Helena has a secret that she’s hidden for fourteen years. But at the beginning of The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne, the secret escaped from prison and is coming for her. The prisoner is her father, the man who kidnapped her mother and held them as captives in his remote cabin until they managed to run away. Now that he’s free, Helena knows that he will come for her and drag her back to the marsh where she was born and raised.

While the immediate plot of The Marsh King’s Daughter plays out over two very tense days of dead cat-and-mouse tracking, Helena’s mind constantly wanders back to the years she spent in the marsh with her father. He taught her everything she knows, but he’s also the reason why she doesn’t really fit into the wider world. She knows how to snare, skin, and eat animals—but she wasn’t taught how to play with other kids, respect private property, or deal with people who aren’t sociopaths or their terrified victims.

The Marsh King’s Daughter is ultimately a book about how people shape each other, for good or ill, even though Helena’s father tries to be the ultimate backwoodsman. He wanted a family in his swampy kingdom, so he kidnapped Helena’s mother and raped her. Once Helena was born, he attempts to shape her into someone as competent at backwoods living as he is. Even though Helena is favored over her mother, it’s clear that no one is to cross the man. Helena knows now that her father is a monster, but she retains a bit of her fearful, awestruck love her father. He’s the one who made her who she is.

I’m glad that Dionne chose to center The Marsh King’s Daughter on Helena rather than her parents. While other similar stories chose to understand the Stockholm Syndrome of the captive or the inhumanity of the captor, I don’t think I’ve seen one that explores the dilemma of a child who grew up not knowing that her family was not normal. (Beth Lewis’ stunning The Wolf Road might come close, however.) Even years later, Helena is torn between her parents. It’s fascinating to watch someone struggle between two “rights”—social “rights” of justice and law versus filial “rights” of a family that outsiders can’t fully appreciate. Between the tracking and the ethical wrestling, I couldn’t put this book down.

The Amber Shadows, by Lucy Ribchester

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The Amber Shadows

By the time I finished reading Lucy Ribchester’s The Amber Shadows, I felt like I was neck deep in red herrings. Fitting considering that this novel centers on a young typist who works at Bletchley Park, is receiving mysterious packages of amber and being followed by a strange man. The cover led me to think this book would be cozier than it really was. There are parts of this book that are psychologically very dark. Above all, however, The Amber Shadows is about puzzles that are matters of life and death.

Honey Deschamps is a quiet woman, used to staying out of the way when her opera singer mother and ballet dancer brother get dramatic. But she finds herself in her very own leading role when someone starts sending her pieces of what appears to be amber from Leningrad which, in 1942, was under siege. Then Honey discovers that the amber has been carved with some kind of cipher. In the paranoid atmosphere of Bletchley Park, it’s not good to have secrets like these.

Since Honey is not a cryptanalyst—she just cleans up decrypted messages from the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe—she has to seek help from others at the Park. Working out who to trust ends up being just as tricky as working out the cipher. The more she leans on her friend, Moira, and the attractive man who keeps turning up wherever she is, the less she can trust them. She even has questions about how much she can trust the commander of the Park.

The Amber Shadows felt uneven to me. It’s a bit too long and has too many dead ends for a thriller. It’s also a bit too action-packed for a literary historical fiction. On the other hand, all the red herrings add verisimilitude to a story about an amateur detective and code-breaker who has to go from zero to 60 in less than a week after getting tangled up in a stranger’s plot. What bothered me more was the way to tone would shift from serious thriller to disturbing psychological revelations to comical character sketches. Perhaps a bit of judicious editing would have ironed out some of these problems. In the end, after all the red herrings, I just get the feeling that this book doesn’t know quite what it wants to be.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 8 August 2017.

Afterlife, by Marcus Sakey

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Afterlife

There are hundreds of novels (probably more) that speculate about what happens after death, but I doubt that few authors* have the gumption to reimagine eschatology the way Marcus Sakey has in Afterlife. In this fantastical thriller, protagonists Will Brody and Claire McCoy have to chase a mass murder across the boundary between life and death. For these two, an FBI badge doesn’t expire after they die.

Afterlife opens with a short, disturbing prologue about a murderous boy named Edmund and how he came to the New World before leaping ahead to present era Chicago. Brody and McCoy are trying to track down a serial killing sniper who leaves little evidence behind. After answering a call about suspicious activity at an abandoned church, Brody becomes the sniper’s eighteenth victim. (This in the first quarter of the book, so it’s not a spoiler. Brody wakes up after his death in a curiously abandoned Chicago and has to quickly learn the rules of the afterlife—including why three people wanted to kill him as soon as he turned up dead-side. When Claire is also killed by the sniper, she and Will reunite and team up to take down the sniper.

As I read, Afterlife’s thriller-plot-with-fantastical-elements become a fantasy-with-thriller elements. The afterlife, as imagined by Sakey, is a bleak hunting ground for creatures (like Edmund from the prologue) that have gained enough power to warp their reality. Brody and McCoy have obviously never tackled anything like the antagonist of this story, but their shared hero complex and their soul-deep love for each other keep them from hiding until the danger passes over their dead heads. They just wouldn’t be able to live(?) with themselves if they didn’t try to take down the baddie.

The thriller elements of Afterlife never entirely go away. Even though this is a good-sized novel at 300+ pages, I couldn’t put it down. So many chapters have twists and reversals that kept the plot racing along that I was done with the book before I realized it. If you don’t mind dark stories that get very weird, very quickly, this is a cracking read.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 18 July 2017.


* The hands-down weirdest book I’ve ever read that was set in the afterlife is Mick Farren’s Jim Morrison’s Adventures in the Afterlife. In fact, it might be the most batshit book I’ve ever read.

Since We Fell, by Dennis Lehane

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Since We Fell

Marriages are odd things when you start to really think about them, especially when the two people getting married have only known each other for a short time. Even when the couple has been together for a long time, how does anyone know that they will still love—or can even stand—the other person in ten, twenty-five, fifty years? I suppose that couples can comfort themselves with the thought that they, at least, will not have as dangerous time in their marriage as Rachel Childs does in Since We Fell, by Dennis Lehane.

Since We Fell opens with a confusing, violent scene, in which Rachel shoots her husband in the chest while he tells her he loves her. We then go back more than ten years, to when Rachel first met Brian. He was a private detective when they met and Rachel wanted him to track down the father who left her when she was just three years old. We also learn about Rachel’s on-air panic attack in Haiti before looping back to the weeks before the shooting.

We learn a lot about why Rachel is the way she is, but very little about Brian. Rachel thinks she knows her husband. After all, he’s been on the edges of her life until he stepped forward to rescue her (literally and psychologically). Rachel is content with her life until small details start to make her doubt. She sees a man who could be Brian’s double, even with the same clothes, when her husband is supposed to be in London. There’re the receipts with the wrong date format. There’s the old friend who hints that there’s something Rachel doesn’t know. A less curious women would have let it go. Rachel, however, is a former journalist and is used to people not turning out to be who they say they are.

Much of this background fills the first half of the book. I was honestly starting to wonder if Lehane had written a dud because the plot so slow at first. But then, just as I was starting to give up hope, things get very interesting. I can’t say much more without ruining the whole book. I can say that nothing is what Rachel (or I) thought it was. I was just as shocked as our protagonist was when I found out the truth. If you can get through the first third or so of the book, the last two third more than make up for the slowness of the beginning. And after reading it, I’m sure a lot of readers will be looking suspiciously at their spouses for a while.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 9 May 2017.