Jar of Hearts isn’t for the faint-hearted

jar of hearts

Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier (Minotaur Books, St. Martin’s Press, June 2018) is a cautionary tale about the consequences of lying. Lying to others, and lying to oneself. Sometimes lies will come back to haunt you. Sometimes they bite you in the butt when you least expect it.

Geo calls it Karma.

Georgina Shaw, Kaiser Brody, and Angela Wong are best friends. They’re normal sixteen-year-olds until they encounter Calvin James. Cal’s a 21-year-old bad boy who smokes cigarettes, chews cinnamon hearts, and hangs around local convenience store parking lots to sell drugs. Geo is naturally flattered when Cal pays her more attention than he pays Ang. There’s something about him that’s exciting and compelling.

And definitely dangerous.

She can’t help but fall in love with him. He knows exactly how and where to touch her to turn her on, and he never takes no for an answer. Suddenly, Calvin James is all she can think about.

Geo ignores her friends, ignores her schoolwork, even ignores cheerleading practice. Ang and Kai try to talk sense into her, but she can’t see the forest for he trees. She loves Calvin, and nothing else matters.

Fourteen years later, Kaiser Brody is the detective who arrests Calvin James, the Sweetbay Strangler. Kaiser also arrests Georgina Shaw as an accomplice to the murder and dismemberment of Angela Wong. Geo goes to prison for five years. Calvin goes to prison for life, but he escapes.

That’s just the backstory. The real story begins when Geo pleads guilty and goes to prison.

This story is about love and death and human relationships and compulsion and heartaches and heartbreaks and the mistakes we all make as we live and learn. It’s a hard-hitting look at the raw emotions that drive human behavior. It’s also about survival and what we all do to survive, not all of which is good or pretty. No one remains innocent nor guilt-free forever. Life quickly becomes complicated, and unintended consequences often develop when we’re not paying attention.

Jar of Hearts is a real eye-opener as well as a full-of-twists page-turner. Highly recommend for everyone but the faint of heart.

 

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Somebody’s Daughter is a Compelling Read

cover125277-mediumSomebody's Daughter david bell

 

Somebody’s Daughter by David Bell (Berkley Books, July 2018) is about a missing nine-year-old girl and the petty jealousies and doubts that get in the way of relationships.
Erica, Michael Frasier’s first wife, is a bit of a drama queen. They’d married right out of college, a starter marriage, that ended in divorce a year later. Michael left Erica when her flightiness and impulsivity—two personality traits that had attracted him to her in the first place—became unbearable.
Michael’s new wife Angela is more like he is, a detail-oriented and responsible workaholic, not a wild and crazy emotionally-high-strung attention-seeking risk taker like Erica is or Michael’s sister Robyn was. Or his other younger sister, Lynne, a musician, song-writer, and former rock star still is. Robyn died when she fell off a swing set as an infant, and Michael blames himself for not preventing the fall. Although only a child himself at the time, he was the older brother and should have been watching out for his kid sister.
When Erica rings the doorbell at Michael and Angela’s house to announce her nine-year-old daughter is missing and Michael is Felicity’s father, he doesn’t know what to believe. He and Erica have been divorced nearly ten years, and this is the first he’s heard he might be a father. Angela and he have tried to get pregnant without success. Does he already have a daughter?
Or is Erica lying to get Michael’s attention? Is she trying to break up his marriage to get revenge for his leaving her? Or does Erica hope to get Michael back to be a father to their daughter?
Erica shows Michael Felicity’s picture on her cell phone. She looks remarkably like Robyn did the day before she died.
Parts of this novel read like a typical Jerry Springer episode. Who is Felicity’s father? What will a paternity test prove? Was Erica unfaithful while married to Michael? Inquiring minds want to know.
So do the local police when Erica reports Felicity abducted. Did Michael abduct his daughter? Did Erica abduct Felicity from another mother after Erica had a miscarriage ten years ago? Did a pedophile snatch the little girl when Erica’s attention was averted? Or did Angela, jealous that Erica gave Michael a child, abduct and kill Felicity because she couldn’t have children herself?
The author tosses in a few additional complications and a handful of supporting characters to keep the reader guessing. With  every passing minute, the chances of finding Felicity alive become less and less. The timebomb is ticking. The sands in the hourglass are running out.
Somebody’s Daughter is a compelling read. Highly recommended.

Baby Teeth is a Must Read

cover127477-medium baby teeth

 

Baby Teeth: A Novel by Zoje Stage (St. Martin’s Press, July 17, 2018) is every parent’s worst nightmare come true. Although seven-year-old Hanna displays the full spectrum of autistic behaviors like not vocalizing and destructive temper tantrums, she’s Daddy Alex’s little angel and Mommy Suzette’s devil in disguise.

Not unlike Bradbury’s “The Small Assassin” and Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, this is more than a simple story about parental denial of their child’s murderous intent. It’s an extended metaphor of human fears, human limitations, and our failure to communicate with each other in a meaningful way.

Just as there’s a good mommy and a bad mommy inside Suzette, there’s an evil, conniving, manipulative Hanna and there’s also the reincarnation of Marie-Anne Dufossete, a girl who was burned at the stake five centuries ago for witchcraft, for casting spells and poisoning people. Is Hanna possessed? Is the murderous Marie-Anne real? Or is she merely the sign of a personality split in a deeply-disturbed highly-imaginative seven=year-old?

As Hanna is expelled from school after school for violent behavior, Suzette is forced to home school her daughter. Hanna’s idea of fun, however, is to hurt other people, especially mommy. She plots to get mommy out of the way so she can have daddy all to herself. Alex, of course, refuses to believe Suzette when she tells him Hanna acts psychotic and needs professional help. When Alex is around, Hanna behaves like the loving daughter he wants her to be.

Stage effectively alternates chapters between Hanna’s POV and Suzette’s, allowing readers access to their innermost doubts and fears. It’s a brilliant kind of she said-she said non-verbal teeter-tottering that builds suspense all the way to the end and beyond.

Alex, born in Sweden (he insists his last name be pronounced Yensen, not Jensen), celebrates traditional Swedish pagan festivals, like building a Walpurgis bonfire on the night of April 30. He uses Swedish terms of endearment for both his wife and his daughter. Suzette, born in America of a Jewish mother and a mongrel father and raised by her grieving mother after her father’s untimely death, appreciates living in a multi-cultural household and learns enough Swedish to reciprocate. Hanna, too, knows Swedish as well as English, but she refuses to talk. She keeps her thoughts bottled up inside herself until they explode in violent outbursts directed at Suzette.

And when she does talk to Suzette, she speaks the French of a long-dead witch that was burned at the stake.

Baby Teeth is a must read for anyone who loves psychological suspense at its finest.

 

The Suspense Could Kill You

the crooked staircase

 

The thrill is back as Dean Koontz returns once again to the fast-paced protagonist-on-the-run roots that made his early novels so exciting and appealing. The Jane Hawk novels seamlessly cross genres, effortlessly moving from science fiction territory into that of James Bond’s espionage and modern techno-thrillers, from noir into pure psychological horror.

None of the characters in The Crooked Staircase by Dean Koontz (Random House, May 8, 2018) learned to play nice as children, and they certainly make reprehensible adults. Jane’s piano virtuoso father killed her mother and made life hell for the young girl, Booth Hendrickson’s mother made life hell for Booth and his half-brother, and the crooked staircase leads Jane and Booth straight down into a real-life hell from which only one may emerge alive.

Alternating short chapters between Jane Hawk’s POV and other viewpoint characters, including those hunting her, Koontz paints a horrifying picture of the worst abuses of government authority imaginable. Carter Jergen and Dubose are NSA employees who also work for the FBI, CIA, DHS, and IRS. They’re covert agents of the Techno Arcadians, a secret cabal of government and business elite who seek to control the world. They’re already in control of many world leaders, politicians and businessmen, implanted with nanotechnology that turns them into mindless slaves like modern-day Manchurian Candidates.

Dean pays tribute to Robert A. Heinlein, one of his mentors and idols, throughout this novel. Characters become strangers in a strange land, mannequins controlled by puppet-masters, Waldoes manipulated by monsters. Another of his idols, Charles Dickens, receives honorable mentions. And, of course, there’s always a faithful canine companion or two in a Dean Koontz novel.

We first met Jane Hawk in The Silent Corner (Bantam, June 2017) and continued her exciting adventures in The Whispering Room (Bantam, November 2017). In this third novel, The Crooked Staircase, former FBI Special Agent Jane is on the run from the Techno Arcadians while seeking revenge against those who killed her husband Nick. With son Travis safely hidden, Jane pursues Booth Hendrickson even as Hendrickson pursues her.

But bad guys Jergen and Dubose, two of the nastiest villains you never want to meet in a dark alley, are hot on Travis’ trail.

Will Jane survive descending the crooked staircase? Will Jergen and Dubose capture or kill Travis? You need to read the latest installment of the never-ending Jane Hawk saga to learn what happens next.

Or the suspense could kill you.

The Perfect Spy Novel

Need to Know

 

 

Need to Know by Karen Cleveland (Ballantine Books, January 2018) is the perfect spy novel, told from the POV of Vivian Miller, an American CIA counter-intelligence analyst, who has just discovered her husband, the father of her four children, is an embedded Russian spy.

Has Matt been manipulating her since they met? Is their ten-year marriage a lie? When she confronts him, he admits being a spy but claims he truly loves her and the kids, has never passed anything she’s told him on to the Russians, and he urges her to turn him in.

Viv knows she should turn Matt in, send him to prison for life. But she also knows she needs him to help her take care of their children, needs his income to pay the bills; worries she’ll lose her security clearance if her boss learns she was married to a spy; and doesn’t want to live without the man she loves by her side.

The conflict is real, the tension palpable. The stakes continue to grow as Viv makes one bad decision, then another. She becomes a traitor to her country, deleting Matt’s picture from the computers at the CIA, and plays into Russian hands. They own her. If she doesn’t do what they ask, they will reveal what she has done and she’ll go to prison along with Matt.

When she refuses to insert a flash drive that will give Russia access to CIA computers, Russian spymaster Yury threatens Vivian’s children. Viv feels trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea, damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t.

Is there no way out of the hole she’s dug herself into?

Vivian and Matt are complex characters readers can identify with, juggling personal lives with professional responsibilities. Which is more important: allegiance to spouse and children or allegiance to one’s country? Which vows take precedence: the marriage vows or the vows to protect classified information?

Impossible to put down, Need to Know is masterfully written. I recommend it highly.

Fascinating First Novel

 

 

41n2K6oThw Vanishing Season

 

Abigail Ellery Hathaway is a survivor. She’s also a Woodbury, Massachusetts, police officer with secrets. In The Vanishing Season by Joanna Schaffhausen (Minotaur/St Martin’s Press, December 2017), everyone has secrets. But not everyone is a survivor.

This is the story that won the MWA First Novel competition, and it’s easy to see why. It doesn’t read like a first novel. The characters are fully developed, the plot twists are foreshadowed but practically invisible, and the only speed bump in this mile-a-minute thrill ride is a lovable dog named Speed Bump.

Reed Markham is the disgraced FBI profiler who once rescued 14-year-old Abigail from certain death at the hands of a serial killer. Although Markham literally wrote the book on child abduction by serial murderers, one of his secrets is his wife really helped him write that book. Now she’s divorcing him, he’s fighting a possible addiction to alcohol, the FBI suspended him for making a mistake that cost a girl her life, and he’s not the hero everyone thinks he is.

When Abby grew up, she moved from Chicago to Boston, changed her name to Ellery (a tip of the hat to Ellery Queen?), became a cop, and moved to Woodbury where she thinks no one knows her past. Although Abby/Ellie hides her scars from prying eyes, she’s sure someone stalks her who has somehow discovered her identity.

Every year for the past three, a Woodbury resident disappears on Abby’s birthday. Every year, for the past three, Ellie receives a mysterious birthday card. Is it a coincidence?

With her birthday nigh and  Ellie still can’t convince Chief Sam Parker or Detective Jimmy Tipton there’s a serial killer loose in Woodbury, she goes over their heads and asks Reed Markham for help.

Everyone becomes suspect as  body parts and secrets are revealed. Was Abby so traumatized as a child that she’s now a killer herself? Is philandering Chief Parker so infatuated with Ellie that he’s stalking her? Is bumbling detective Tipton covering up his own crimes? Inquiring minds want to know.

Well-written and riveting, The Vanishing Season is a fascinating first novel by a writer to watch.

 

The Best Frame Story I’ve Read

The New Neighbors review

 

 

The New Neighbors by Simon Lelic (Berkley, April 2018) isn’t a ghost story. It is a lot like a ghost story, though, because main characters are haunted by skeletons in their own closets.

And it’s like a haunted house tale, because there are strange things in their new house that go bump in the night. There’s also a dead cat in the attic, for example, and a child’s treasure box. There are stuffed owls and strange pictures on the walls allegedly left behind by the previous owner.

It’s really a story about relationships. That fact is brought home right from the beginning by framing alternating chapters with Jack’s confessional letters to Syd, and then Syd’s written reply to Jack, using he said/she said as a device  for story reveals. It’s the best frame story I’ve read in a long time. You know what I mean by frame story, don’t you? Of course, you do.

Jack and Syd are only a little suspicious when they acquire their new house for a song, because they’re unwilling to look a gift horse (or gift house) in the mouth. Why should they?

And when all that could possibly go wrong suddenly does, Jack and Syd naturally blame each other and not the house. Jack also blames Bart, his best friend and co-worker. And his nearest neighbor, Elsie’s father.

Syd, of course, blames Jack.

Elsie is the teen girl next door Syd befriends because, like Syd, her father physically and mentally abuses her. Elsie reminds Syd of Jessica, her younger sister, who committed suicide when Syd left home in her teens.

The New Neighbors is also a murder mystery, a whodunit, as well as a nearly-perfect frame story. Brits love a good mystery, don’t they? Almost as much as they enjoy a good ghost story or haunted house tale.

Both Jack and Syd have been insecure since childhood, and that leads them to withhold information and tell lies. And makes it easy for them to wind up in a hellish situation. Relationships are always complicated anyway, aren’t they? But being deprived of parental love while growing up only makes matters worse.

The New Neighbors is a bloody good read. Very highly recommended.